Michael Abbate is a landscape architect who has recently been led to devote more of his time and talents towards being a good steward of God’s creation. I’ve had a chance to read his new book, Gardening Eden, and was finished with it before Michael was even able to get back to me with responses. I can vouch that it is a great read: simple enough for anyone to understand, yet still written with a clear knowledge of environmental issues and how the Christian community needs to meet them. You can find it in our bookstore, here.
CCFP: Many Christians who would consider themselves to be conservatives politically are often anxious when we begin discussing the environment. What do you have to say that could assuage their fears?
Conservatives are people who think that it is wise to be careful how we expend resources, whether financial or environmental. They tend to want to be careful, to ensure that there are enough resources for future needs. Therefore, conservation of our planet with its remarkable resources and wildlife is a wise and conservative way to live. Michael Abbate is a landscape architect who has recently been led to devote more of his time and talents towards being a good steward of God’s creation. I’ve had a chance to read his new book, Gardening Eden, and was finished with it before Michael was even able to get back to me with responses. I can vouch that it is a great read: simple enough for anyone to understand, yet still written with a clear knowledge of environmental issues and how the Christian community needs to meet them. You can find it in our bookstore, here.
In fact, in 1989 the United Nations Brundtland Commission came up with this definition of “sustainability”, which has continued to this day:
“The ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”
Doesn’t that sound like an idea rooted in the concept of conservation?
Here’s a common refrain I have heard: “Mike, I don’t know WHO to believe or WHAT to do.” Many people are “eco-curious”, that is, they have a vague feeling that they should care about the environment, but they don’t know how to make the first step. They also wonder if they have to buy in to a political agenda to live green.
Sometimes, we have allowed politics to blind us to the commonalities between us. If I can label an idea or person as right-wing or left wing, it allows me to dismiss their ideas without giving them any real intellectual consideration. Many believers have done this with the issue of environmental stewardship. But environmental conservation is not fundamentally a political issue, it’s a spiritual one. At what point did conservation cease being a conservative issue? And isn’t living conservatively a good thing, a sustainable thing, an admirable thing?
Gardening Eden helps people to sort out the fact from opinion, theology from scientific theory, and provides some very practical ways we can all live to be called “good and faithful stewards.”
CCFP: Do you have a favorite scripture passage, or a few, that you feel exemplify God’s call to care for creation?
Well, this is a tough question, because there are so many. But a good place to start is the beginning.
In Genesis 2:8,15, we find humankind’s first job description; “Then the Lord planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he placed the man he created. The Lord placed man in the Garden of Eden to tend it and care for it. ” Here’s the start of it all. Long before the snake, the apple, and the banishment from the Garden, God had a plan to give us all a fulfilling life in close harmony with the Creator-God. Gardening Eden was not Adam’s punishment; it was his purpose.
Other favorite passages include the phenomenal 104th Psalm, which I call “the Ecology Psalm”. Read it and you will see God’s genius even more profoundly. God’s post-flood covenant with all of creation in Genesis 9 is a remarkable demonstration of the Creator’s love for all of creation. Psalm 24: 1-2, Hosea 4:3, Romans 1:20 and John 3:16 also jump off the page for me.
CCFP: This seems to be an explosive initiative within the church. Movements are springing up everywhere. What’s changing?
I believe that people under 30 are leading the way on this issue. I have talked with dozens of people who are no longer willing to look at conservation in this left vs. right, polarized way. They are activists wanting to DO things rather than just debate them. These folks see the inherent mandate for the faith community to protect the planet, and are frustrated that older generations have failed to act decisively. They read Shane Claiborne’s book Irresistible Revolution, and decide they too want to move to the inner city to help rebuild a sense of compassionate community. They hang on to Francis of Assisi’s words: “Preach the gospel at all times – if necessary, use words.” I think it is a very exciting time to watch how the faith community builds on the activist traditions of the past and transforms itself as doers as well as speakers.
CCFP: I’d like to get involved, but I can’t stop environmental decline…can I? What small steps could I take to make a difference in my home?
Great question. In light of daily headlines of ecological degradation, it is easy to feel helpless. This is not much differently than most of us feel during the current economic collapse. And yet, we understand that we are called to be faithful stewards nonetheless. So we set out to act wisely and conscientiously with our finances.
In a similar way, we should enter into a prayerful examination of our lifestyle and determine changes we can make to honor the Creator. The second half of Gardening Eden is filled with simple tips that we can consider in four main areas of our lives: Food, Energy, Transportation and our Homes. Whether it is buying local produce from a farmer’s market , changing to compact fluorescent light bulbs, or moving to a place where we can walk to our jobs and most services, everyone’s circumstance is different. I include 50 ideas for the believing reader’s consideration.
CCFP: My home is practically built with recycled paper and I’m ready to take the next step.
How can I influence change in my congregation or in my town?
Get involved in the civic life of your community and your place of worship. On the community side, how easy is your city to walk around in? Are there provisions made to encourage pedestrians and bicyclists? Does your City Council or Mayor have any goals about becoming a Green Community? Do they buy renewable energy? Perhaps you can be the person to help lead your leaders to a more responsible position on Creation Care issues. Volunteer for your city’s Planning Commission, Neighborhood Association, or other group of community influencers.
In your faith community, see if you can put together a group of like-minded people who will help the church leadership understand practical things that they can do to demonstrate this stewardship ethic. Then, get to work! I have generated the following Top Ten list of things to green your church or synagogue:
10. Form a church “Green Team”
9. Conduct a Creation Care Audit of facilities, operations
8. Develop a Prayer Garden (with the help of landscape
———-architects and contractors)
7. Use locally grown food at events
6. Create a community garden
5. Stop using disposables
4. Become a model of recycling
3. Bike or walk to church
2. Do a local restoration project together as a congregation
1. Teach and model the biblical basis for Creation Care
CCFP: Do you think that by embracing these concepts, the church at large can become a more faithful witness to the Gospel? How?
Not only do I believe it is possible, but I think it is likely. As people grasp the spiritual implications of environmental stewardship, a new personal motivation will come into play. Spiritual faith has a profound ability to inspire people to do right, to deny oneself, and to make sacrifices for others. When this is practiced in the nation’s churches, cathedrals, synagogues, mosques, and other faith communities, tremendous environmental successes will be inevitable. More important than that, I believe the Creator of all will be pleased.
When the secular world sees faith communities doing the right things for reasons of conscience, we become more attractive and authentic, matching our doing with our saying. They hang on to Francis of Assisi’s words: “Preach the gospel at all times – if necessary, use words.” I think it is a very exciting time to watch how the faith community builds on the activist traditions of the past and transforms itself as doers as well as speakers.
CCFP: Is there anything else you feel evangelical leaders around the country should hear?
The Church universal needs them to lead on this issue. If they do, they will find that their congregations will enthusiastically support them, for the most part. A few members who have become so deeply politicized that they cannot see God’s truth outside of their narrow political agenda may leave. But God calls his spokespersons to be men and women of truth and love. This will require courage, but all of us in the faith community need them to step forward and lead.
If a leader is in doubt about if the risk is worth it, talk to pastors like Tri Robinson of Boise Vineyard, Bill Hybels of Willow Creek in Chicago and Joel Hunter of Northland Church in Orlando, among others, who have been incredibly effective and courageous Christian leaders in the movement.
Also, organizations have sprouted to help carry the message across the pews: Flourish, is a national network that inspires and equips churches to better love God by reviving human lives and the landscapes on which they depend (www.Flourishonline.org). Your group, Creation Care for Pastors, is an organization committed to “serving pastors who are interested in a growing emphasis within the Christian community called Creation Care.” (creationcareforpastors.com). One of the first and foremost organizations is the Evangelical Environmental Network, led by Rev. Jim Ball (www.creationcare.org).
Finally, I would encourage pastors and church leaders as well as the laity to contact me and enter into a dialogue on these issues. I thoroughly enjoy discussing these issues with people both inside and outside faith communities. I have been honored to speak for audiences in many parts of the country and I very much hope to continue doing this, along with media interviews of various types.
People can now follow me through my GardeningEden Twitter feed, Gardening Eden blog (www.gardeningeden.wordpress.com), or my website www.michaelabbate.com. I am inspired by hearing stories about how others have made decisions to better the environmental condition of the planet. I also love to dialogue back and forth on questions of both faith and creation care. I believe that our efforts will make the planet a better place, to be sure, but even more importantly, we will be drawn into a closer relationship of the God who created it all.