Saturday, March 31, 2012

Stewardship of “God’s Economy” – Reverent Discernment of His Word and World

The Greatest Teacher often pointed to His creation to illustrate important principles or to reveal God’s nature and purposes.  To his anxious followers, Jesus said, “look at the birds” and “consider the beautifully arrayed flowers” (Matthew 6: 26, 28).  He pointed to the vine (John 15: 5) and the fig tree to teach fruitfulness (Matthew 21: 19-20).

Today, there are plenty of reasons to be anxious and pout about our circumstances, or point fingers at Washington or our parents or spouses or pastors rather than take individual responsibility.  But we often face a second challenge – stewarding the Earth at a time when we seem to have limitless power and ability to alter creation from the ocean depths to the atmosphere above.  We use technology’s tools to mine the treasures of God’s creation in search of a satisfaction that material pursuits alone cannot deliver.  Instead, God is calling His stewards to “mine” His creation and His special revelation in the Scriptures with a disposition of reverent discernment that we might learn and exercise our individual responsibility toward Him, toward our neighbor, and toward His creation.

Won’t you join me in an exercise of “mining” creation-- thoughtfully considering it as Christ, the Creator, commanded?    Respectful contemplation of creation is warranted because creation belongs to God and is meant to reveal His wisdom and glory. 
Let’s get acquainted with three creatures and consider what lessons they might teach us about real stewardship, or oikonomia (hence, our word, “economy.”)  Stewardship in this context is management of a human economy within God’s created order, or Economy (Berry, 1987) with due respect for the laws that govern this Economy for the good of all and the glory of God.  Our panel of three creatures includes Spring Draba, Skunk Cabbage, and Black Bear.  Later, we will meet “Mr. Hourly Wage Earner” who resides in many different cultures.   

Spring Draba is an early-blooming spring wildflower which the 18th century botanist, Linnaeus, named Draba verna.  In March in SW Ohio, the alert observer can usually find Draba growing in the hard soil of paths or trails, or in the bear spots that interrupt an otherwise smooth, green lawn.  Best if we get on our knees to look carefully-- a good posture for reverent discernment of God’s Economy.  There, you may see Draba, barely the height of the toe of your shoe.  Even then, she reaches this height only when her delicate, white flowers are hoisted on slender, leafless stalks to attract pollinators.   Until flowering time, Draba is only a lowly rosette of tiny leaves covering the otherwise bare soil. 

Spring Draba, Draba verna, with fruits (Fr) developing from the flowers.
Usually by mid-April, tiny Draba has already completed her annual life cycle.  Seeds from the previous year have sprouted and the ground-hugging, leafy rosettes have captured sunlight necessary for growth, flowering, fruiting, and production of new seeds that will be shed to lie dormant until the next Spring.  How does such a tiny flowering plant survive, being relegated to the hard-packed soil and expected to bloom on cold, windswept, March days?

Pretending to understand more than we actually do, botanists claim that Draba is “adapted to its niche,” or “occupation,” through natural selection.  However, some of us would credit a Divine Designer for originating the genetic blueprint which then has passed down through succeeding generations with minor changes through natural selection to become what we call Draba verna

Although Draba’s origin is debated, there is no debating the “do or die” situation that Draba faces each year.  Survival depends upon germination of tiny seeds in bare soil each Spring.   The tiny leaves unfold at ground level, the warmest place on blustery March days, to soak up the sunshine necessary for photosynthesis of food to support growth, flowering,  and seed production for the following year.  While still on our knees, we can consider how Draba teaches us individual responsibility to live in harsh places.  But Draba is not the earliest-blooming plant in the Midwest.

In February, long before Draba blooms, I make my annual pilgrimage to a nearby fen (alkaline wetland), often while it is still blanketed with snow.  Careful examination will reveal the pointy, purplish mottled spathes of Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, poking through the snow.   Each spathe is like a sheltering shroud that protects a fleshy, thumb-sized spike of tiny flowers within what amounts to a “warm room” in which pollination can occur. 

Skunk Cabbage:  Spikes of tiny flowers are surrounded by a hood-like "spathe"
What you won’t see on a cold, February day is the massive Skunk Cabbage taproot anchored deep within the wetland soil beneath each pointy spathe.  Here, soil temperatures average 55o F year-around.  Within the taproot are rich stores of “heating fuel” in the form of carbohydrates stored there during the year before.  When Skunk Cabbage flowers are ready to display mature pollen to insects for pollination, the flower hikes up its “thermostat” and burns stored “carbs” that flow up to the spike from the taproot.  Environmental physiology students and I have measured temperatures as much as 15o F warmer within the flower spikes than temperatures in the surrounding winter air!   Result?   Apparently, insect pollinators are attracted by the warmth and by the odor that is dispersed by the heat into the surrounding air.  By April, new cabbage-like leaves have emerged and their photosynthesis enables the production of many large seeds and the replenishment of taproot “fuel” for the following year.

Whereas, the Draba’s economy depends upon year-to-year production and germination of tiny seeds, the Skunk Cabbage economy is based on long-term savings and investment in underground energy reserves.   From these reserves it generates heat to accomplish pollination in the winter when there is little competition from other plant species for insect pollinators.   No matter to Skunk Cabbage if a bad year occurs; its taproot will have sufficient energy assets to “hold its ground” until a better year comes.

The Skunk Cabbage reminds me of another creaturely example, the Black Bear, Ursus americanus, common in western North America.  Like Skunk Cabbage, the economy of the Black Bear is based on large energy reserves formed during the summer by a diet that includes storage roots and tubers of plants, nuts, plant shoots and buds, large and small mammals, insects, honey, and salmon.  [Humm!  Would a Black Bear feed on a Skunk Cabbage taproot?] 

Like Skunk Cabbage which overwinters underground with its stored energy in a huge taproot, Black Bears also “go underground” in a den for the winter.   As days become shorter, bears prepare for winter’s food scarcity and cold by extensive foraging which leads to the addition of hundreds of pounds in body fat.  Pregnant female black bears have the additional challenge to their economy.   They must nurture two or more baby bears within their uteri which are then birthed in late winter.  To conserve energy, the Black Bear enters a suitable den to reduce body heat loss; and then, sharply reduces its metabolism to lower body temperature.   Denning and lowering metabolism conserve energy reserves for the bear just like a human family in a well insulated home that lowers its thermostat to save on their energy bill.

Black Bear, Ursus americanus
We have seen how one species, Draba, with relatively small energy reserves, and two larger species, Skunk Cabbage and Black Bear which depend upon huge energy reserves, each take responsibility to prepare for and survive harsh winters and rugged environments.  The energy economy of humans is not all that different from other creatures.  Each must have suitable nutrition, shelter, and social relationships necessary for procreation and nurture of offspring.  However, biblically speaking, humans have been created with vastly superior intellect and ability to enter into more complex social and political relationships that revolve around a monetary economy.

Let’s consider the laborer who earns an income based on an hourly wage or who is paid by contract when a particular task or job is completed.  The survival of many of the world’s workers and their families depends upon hourly or otherwise regular wage-for-work.  The plight of many laborers may be illustrated by the story once told by Ralph and Lucy, our family friends who once served as missionaries in Bangladesh.   Ralph had come upon a heated argument between several laborers, or coolies, along a riverbank.  It seems that at least one coolie was objecting to a request from his superior to unload bags of rice from a truck and onto a boat docked at the riverbank.  Why would a healthy, adult Bengali male refuse this opportunity for employment?

Upon inquiry, Ralph learned that the payment being offered to the coolie in rice grain for food in return for his labor was unacceptable to the man because it offered insufficient caloric value for his service rendered.  Amazingly, this man’s economy had taken into account the calories required to unload the rice from the truck, a task he was willing to do.  But, he refused to move the rice onto the boat in what would have been a smoother, more efficient operation.  Reason?   His payment in calories and nutrition would not have provided sufficient compensation for his bodily work plus extra calories and nutrition needed to feed his family.

This account illustrates the large cultural and economic gap that exists between Asian coolies and most people who read this blog.  The Bengali breadwinner’s economy required literally a day-by-day “balancing of the books” for him and his family to survive.  Few of us can even comprehend such an economy.  Like Draba with her “do-or-die economy” in the harsh soil and cold days of early Spring, many wage-earners must take day-to-day responsibility to support themselves and their loved ones.

We now return to our opening question:  If we agree that God calls us as His stewards to consider  His creation with a disposition of reverent discernment of our individual responsibility toward Him, toward our neighbor, and toward His creation; then, what can we learn from creatures so diverse as Draba, Skunk Cabbage, Black Bear, and a human laborer?   First, we learn the principle of God’s provision.  God provides for His creatures through the Economy of His creation.  All creatures must have a continual supply of energy and nutrition for sustenance.  Draba and Skunk Cabbage rely on sunlight to power their growth and reproduction from inorganic building blocks in the soil and atmosphere.  On the other hand, Black Bear and the human worker consume plants and sometimes meat as food.

Though they are diverse, the Creator has equipped each creature to obtain necessary sustenance according to their niche in the Economy of creation.  No creature can create and sustain life out of inorganic constituents.  Test tube experiments to produce even one living cell have failed, let alone efforts to create and sustain the economy of a whole ecosystem as attempted in the Biosphere 2 project in the Arizona desert in the 1980’s.

God’s special revelation in the book of Job underscores the necessity of His provision for His creation:
            But now ask the beasts, and let them teach you;
              And the birds of the heavens, and let them tell you.
              Or speak to the earth, and let it teach you;
              And let the fish of the sea declare to you.
             Who among all these does not know
             That the hand of the LORD has done this,
             In whose hand is the life of every living thing,
And the breath of all mankind?  -- Job 12: 7-10 (NASB)

The second principle we learn from the natural revelation through these four kinds of creatures is the principle of individual responsibility for survival and reproduction.   Within the larger Economy of creation, in order to survive, each creature must operate within physical and biological limits that govern its own economy.  Thus, we see Draba being and doing what Draba is designed to be and do; namely, facing the rigors of cold, March days on hard soil to grow and produce seeds for the next year.  

Likewise, the Bengali worker must complete his task for a payment of food that is sufficient for his bodily sustenance with enough extra to feed his family.  On the other hand, the economy of Skunk Cabbage, Black Bear, and many of us includes a means of storing energy or monetary assets that provide a “cushion” against immediate life or death.  However, the principle of individual responsibility still applies in that all creatures must acquire energy and nutrients during the season of opportunity and save extra for an unfavorable season lest they die.

A third principle revealed in Scripture and in creation is the principle of reverent discernment in conservation and restoration.   Successful conservation of the diverse forms of life on Earth must respect the unique requirements and context upon which each species depends for its existence.   Our panel of four creatures can each testify that even well meaning attempts to promote their welfare often represent a violation of natural laws that govern their well being.  For example, let’s help Draba by tilling the soil in those hard-packed, bare-soil spots and then add some nitrogen fertilizer.  Result?   Many of her tiny seeds will be buried too deeply to germinate; and, the increased soil fertility will enable other plant species including lawn grass to invade and occupy the bare spots and make it inhospitable for Draba.  The harsh environment that Draba is designed and adapted to face is the very key to her survival.

Like Draba, both Skunk Cabbage and Black Bear naturally benefit from simply being left alone by well meaning caretakers.  There is a reason that the two plant species have been called “wildflowers” and that Black Bear is considered a “wild animal.”   Attempts to “domesticate” or otherwise alter their natural context have violated the very nature of what they were created to be.

Well meaning attempts in the late 1800’s to conserve the Black Bear in Yellowstone National Park while providing closer access for tourists to observe and feed them led to a conversion of this grand , wild creature from bear to beggar.  As Angela Reese reported in her masters thesis (2007) 

Yellowstone condoned the regulated feeding of bears at these “lunch counters,” and tacitly gave patrons permission to feed bears themselves. Later she adds: Roadside feeding transformed passive spectators into active participants and allowed the park visitor an opportunity for interaction with park wildlife. These visitors became shapers of bears’ lives and behavior (Biel, 2006).

The same well meaning efforts, sometimes in the name of “social justice”, without reverent discernment can be as demeaning and degrading to humankind as it is with wild creatures. Before developing this notion further we must remember both the uniqueness of humankind and the great cultural diversity within Homo sapiens.

The average American has more economic security than many lower-income workers around the world.  Like the Skunk Cabbage and Black Bear, many of us have reserves in our household economies.  Nevertheless, all humans have an individual stewardship responsibility to utilize time, abilities, and opportunities to care for themselves, family, and neighbor.  Responsibility to work is grounded in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures which reveal a Creator Who works and rests.  It follows that God has given mankind a weekly cycle of work (six days) and rest (a Sabbath day) (e.g. Exodus 20: 9-11).   The Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Thessalonians, Chapter 3, that Christians should not lead “an undisciplined life” (verse 6).  Paul’s own economy as a tentmaker underscored his teaching (verses 7-9) as well as his command that “if anyone will not work, neither let him eat” (verses 10-12). 

There is no contradiction in God’s Word between “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:19) and “if anyone will not work, neither let him eat.”  We are called to help the helpless; but with a correct definition of helping, one that respects human dignity.  Marvin Olasky (WORLD, 2009) quotes Josephine Lowell, a 19th century New York City charity leader, who wrote: 

the problem before those who would be charitable, is not how to deal with a given number of poor; it is how to help those who are poor, without adding to their numbers and constantly increasing the evils they seek to cure.  

Olasky further quotes an article in Charities Review, in 1900, in which Edward T. Devine called for charities whose goal was 

not "that poor families should suffer, but that charity should accomplish its purpose." Thoughtless generosity was akin to selfishness if it made charity misfire. Generosity plus discernment was key. 

Throughout history, there have always been people in need of help.  Good stewards are to use reverent discernment to rightly identify God-given abilities and opportunities both for meaningful work and to rightly discern the right ways to help our neighbor when he or she is in need (see Ephesians 4: 28).  Nowhere does the Bible teach that it is the responsibility of government to help of the poor and needy.  The 19th century charity leader, Amos G. Warner, understood this principle and saw governmental welfare as necessarily more impersonal and mechanical than private charity or individual action (Olasky, 2009).

Today’s news is filled with reports of well meaning efforts by Washington to help the needy while challenging the more fortunate to “pay their fair share.”  Yet Washington’s distance from the diversity of American families, businesses, and local economies, and its “one-size-fits-all approach is like fertilizing Draba or providing food “dumps” for Black Bears.  Result?  A violation of the natural order in which human dignity is often lost and an ever larger percentage of Americans become dependent upon government.

In summary, we can discern from God’s created order that all creatures are dependent upon His Economy.  Second, God has equipped each species to respond by using its genetic and behavioral equipment to “be fruitful and multiply.” Fruitfulness depends upon both individual responsibility and the state of the environment and biotic community within which a given species lives.

Third, any human effort to “help” another species or a neighbor must be guided by reverent discernment of God’s natural and special revelations.  Our father Adam’s first lesson in stewardship was to become acquainted with the other creatures with such detail that he came to understand that his niche was totally different from any other creature (Genesis 2: 15-25).  Likewise, humble discernment is necessary for effective conservation and restoration human communities and local economies.   Conservation of wildlife such as the Black Bear requires more than provision of feeding “dumps” that convert them to beggars.  Likewise, restoration of human dignity and purpose among the needy depends upon short-term assistance that includes assistance and incentives to find meaningful work.  

Conservation and restoration of both mankind and fellow creatures requires knowledge of and attentiveness to the uniqueness of each biotic community and neighborhood; gaining a “sense of place” as described in Oikonomia, Sept. 31, 2011 .   These are the tasks best taken up by responsible members of family and church spheres of authority in cooperation with appropriate local community groups.  

Your comments are always welcome.  My sources and some additional references are listed below.

Berry, Wendell.  1987.  Home Economics.   North Point Press, San Francisco.
Biel, Alice Wondrak. 2006. Do (not) feed the bears: The fitful history of wildlife and tourists in Yellowstone. University Press of Kansas. 186 pgs.
Olasky, Marvin.  2009.   Giving That Worked.   WORLD Magazine, March 14, 2009).
Reese, Angela.   2007.   Addressing Food Conditioning of Cascade Red Foxes in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.   Masters Thesis, Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA.