This month marked the 40th annual Earth Day, first scheduled in April, 1970. On that first Earth Day, my wife and I had just celebrated the birth of our son, Bradley. The Earth Day emphasis that year challenged me as a young father to consider ways to keep the beautiful “blue jewel in space” from slipping into an inhospitable future; and instead, provide a planet on which our son and his generation could thrive. On the 40th Earth Day, I was privileged to participate in planting a tree in memory of a friend.
As the annual Earth Day has come and gone each year since 1970, efforts toward “Earthkeeping” or creation care have been increasingly bolstered by a better developed science of ecology and a better developed theology of Christian environmental stewardship. Evangelical Christians, for over a decade following the first Earth Day, were suspicious of those who called for the church to take the lead in caring for the Earth. Indeed, many such as Lynn White, Jr. went so far as to blame the Judeo-Christian teachings and practice for the environmental crisis.
Today, increasing numbers of evangelical Christians are learning to integrate their worship with their daily walk with acts of love, care, and benevolence toward their neighbor and on behalf of God’s creation in accordance with the dominion stewardship responsibility. To illustrate this concept, let’s return to my earlier mention of planting tree in memory of a friend on Earth Day.
For approximately 15 years until his death in 2009, it was my privilege to know Dr. Michael Horton, a beloved veterinarian and conservationist in Fairborn, OH. His passion was to restore and enrich landscapes for the benefit of soil, water, and creature conservation. To accomplish this goal, Dr. Horton motivated many volunteers over the years, including student groups from Cedarville University, other local universities, and various citizen organizations. to plant trees suited for landscapes needing restoration – wetlands, hillsides, disturbed areas, an such like. This Spring, Fairborn and surrounding communities enjoy the budding and blooming of thousands of trees due to his efforts.
And so, on this Earth Day, we gathered on the Cedarville campus with his wife, Marcia, her brother, several dear friends, and students of the Pro Terra Forma creation care organization to plant a lovely, 20-foot red oak in honor of Dr. Horton. After a brief dedication, and the shared act of shoveling soil around the tree, we gathered in a circle around the tree to offer a prayer of dedication. At that moment, I realized that we had expressed our faith at once in multiple dimensions.
First, we had connected the tree roots to a specific “place” in the soil of Earth from which water, nutrients, and anchorage would be provided so that this tree could grow mightily with its limbs lifted like arms and hands in praise toward heaven. Second, our planting effort was an act of faith in the Providence of God Who alone can cause growth of the tree through His provision of the essential components from soil and atmosphere.
The human action of planting and nurturing the tree, combined with God’s Providential supply of sunlight and water from above, makes possible a divine-human cooperative that may enable this red oak to grow into a massive specimen over the next century or more. Meanwhile, it brings joy and gladness to those who will gather beneath its branches.
Finally, as this tree grows and shades the plaque placed in memory of Michael Horton, we will be reminded not only of a dear friend, but we will recognize our smallness and finiteness. Trees remind us to “number our days” because they may live for centuries after our lives on Earth have ended. Thus, tree planting can be an unselfish act when completed with the intention of serving future generations. Furthermore, trees serve the rest of creation through absorption of carbon dioxide, pollutants, dust, damaging winds, and unwanted sounds.
Acts of creation care take on eternal significance and become acts of worship and faith when combined with a servant spirit toward our friends, neighbors, and the Earth. And with the psalmist, we can exclaim:
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
Let the sea roar, and all it contains;
Let the field exult, and all that is in it.
Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy
Before the LORD, for He is coming,
For He is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
And the peoples in His faithfulness. – Psalm 96:11-13