In 1998 F. Dean Lueking was teaching at the Lutheran seminary in Bratislava, Slovakia.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 7, 1997 p. 447, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Now that Pentecost has come, the primal divine command to have dominion over creation requires the church to get on with good stewardship of the earth. We do so not to the neglect of the gospel, but because we believe it and act upon it.
. . . the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now . . . but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words . . .
In Romans 8, St. Paul’s witness leads into the mysterious depths of the Paraclete’s ceaseless intercession for the church and all creation. Like a woman in labor, both church and creation long for the new life to arrive. How do we begin to understand a truth of this scope?
Recently I was on an island in Lake Michigan. In a house nestled in dense woods, my reverie on the vast sweep of Romans 8 was interrupted by a bat zooming around the room. Instinctively I reached for a tennis racket to zap this black-winged thing commonly regarded as rabid, a blood sucker and a hair nester. I missed with the tennis racket but secured it with a waste basket and delivered it out the door into the nighttime sky
Here was an unexpected moment of exegesis. This tiny creature, part of the whole creation in travail, was guided away from my lethal swats by its sonar. Much of our scientific mastery of echolocation is learned from bats. Their astounding capacity to delay ovulation from fall until spring holds clues about human fertility. Their arteries remain cholesterol-free even though they eat their weight in fatty insects. We humans are the problem for bats and for the rest of creation as it awaits liberation for which the Spirit intercedes, works and groans with sighs too deep for words.
Here is potent Pentecost truth for the church. As Christians, our motive for earth care is the Holy Spirit’s prayer and restorative work on behalf of the earth that supports us, the air we breathe, the water essential for life. Grace embraces nature, as Joseph Sittler kept teaching us. Human sin -- our sin, my sin and the tennis-racket solution for bats -- all spill over to the massive despoiling of nature.
The pleading of the Spirit intensifies as leaky tankers spew millions of gallons of oil into ocean waters. The Spirit’s groaning must be heard above the clang of 2.5 million cans and bottles tossed out every hour, each aluminum can taking 500 years to decompose. In the U.S. alone, we produce enough garbage every day to fill the New Orleans Superdome to the roof twice -- and half of it is recyclable. A cigarette flicked out of a car window sets a forest ablaze and thousands of acres of precious timber go up in smoke. On and on it goes. By a measure and at a pace that would have stunned St. Paul, the whole creation groans and travails.
It is the will of God to put his mighty arm under the fractured, threatened creation -- not just to preserve it from rapacious humans, but to set it free and us with it. This is the saving plan of God already at work in the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. Foolish as it may seem, the risen Lord, through the Spirit, sustains those who are weary, indeed a whole creation that is weary.
The scope of the Spirit’s work is as wide as the universe, yet not so cosmic that it cannot find a home in every heart where the gospel word opens the way. The miracle of Pentecost, with its testimony to the Spirit’s calling, gathering, enlightening and sanctifying people, creates a partnership between church and creation. Now that Pentecost has come, the primal divine command to have dominion over creation requires the church to get on with good stewardship of the earth. We do so not to the neglect of the gospel, but because we believe it and act upon it.
As those baptized into the new creation, we can reclaim St. Francis of Assisi’s vocabulary in speaking of brother earth and sister fire. Psalm 65 sings of fields, meadows, sky, mountains and the fecundity of God’s good earth, teaching us to rejoice over it and praise God for it. Ironically, the Puritans who came to the New World saw the land as a howling wilderuess; it was from those they called "pagan primitives" that they learned to husband its resources. Too often since, the vast richness of our land has been the target of unconscionable greed rather than God’s gift for which we are accountable.
Our calling is to join the Spirit in caring for the creation and praying for faithfulness in a world that both serves and threatens creation with technology. Our view of Spirit-filled people must include Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, and the 1,300 congregations who join the Spirit’s pleading for decent housing for the impoverished urban poor. Charismatics include not only those gifted with tongues, prophecy and healing, but Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, whose teaching of viable methods of food production in the Third World has spared many from starvation. Arthur Simon, founder of Bread for the World, is another partner with the Spirit. This network of Christians continues to plead, advocate and lobby Congress for butter instead of guns.
The ranks of those who respond to the Spirit’s sighs are never overcrowded, but because it is God the Holy Spirit who silently, ceaselessly works, there is hope. Gerard Manley Hopkins speaks of that hope in his poem "God’s Grandeur":
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness, deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over thebent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.