Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving in a Watching World

It’s Thanksgiving Day and I have much for which to be thankful to the ultimate Giver …of every good and perfect gift that comes down from above… (James 1: 17).  This past year, God has taught me more about Himself--and, about myself.  How rich His grace and mercy are toward me; and, how prone I am to wander from His ways.  God continues to work in our marriage again this year, using trials and His Word to refine us individually and help us surrender to His love, the ultimate source of our love for each other.  We have seen God work in the lives of our family and within their homes.  Finally, we have grieved with several dear friends and family members, and we are asking God to comfort them from the sting of loss. 

In both the blessings and trials this year, I have become more aware of the spiritual warfare evidenced in my own life and in world events.  Multiple scandals, mismanagement of tax dollars, and deception by leadership in Washington are daily news.  I pray that our president and all of our leaders will submit to biblical authority and that moral clarity and ethics would guide them.  But, I also ask God’s Spirit to reprove and correct me through His Word when the kingdom within my own mind becomes inflamed with pride and rebellion.  

I ask why our elected officials cannot restore authority and integrity to the function of our nation’s borders.  But I must remember to guard the borders of my own life as the Spirit bids me not to …love the things of this world [system of thought]…for all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. (1 John 2: 16).  While I pray for justice, calmness, and respect for the rule of law among rioters and looters in Ferguson and other cities, I must ask God to keep me in perfect peace and my mind fixed on Him (Isaiah 26: 3).  When I am frustrated by a lack of moral clarity in our leadership and the actions that undermine the foundation of marriage, diminish the value of human life, disregard family values, and derail our educational system, I must ask what I can do personally to uphold these institutions and values.

I am concerned about the advance of power hungry tyrants and terrorists who grow increasingly bold where America has withdrawn from providing strong leadership.  And, I am even more concerned that many Americans view our nation as the aggressor rather than an agency that has defended freedom at great cost against numerous attempts by tyrants to dominate whole continents.  Rather than join the angry voices on either side of a deeply divided America today, may I reexamine why I think and believe as I do in the light of God’s truth.  For history records that the Puritans valued so much the freedom to follow God’s truth and to worship Him freely that they placed their lives in His care as they set out to cross the ocean and established communities governed by God’s principles.

John Winthrop, Puritan Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote his sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” aboard the Arbella, in 1620.  According to an introduction to the sermon by John Beardsley, charter member of the Winthrop Society, Winthrop’s intent was to prepare the people for planting a new society in a perilous environment, but his practical wisdom is timeless.  Beardsley adds, In an age not long past, when the Puritan founders were still respected by the educational establishment, this was required reading in many courses of American history and literature

Consider how the following excerpt from Winthrop’s sermon would challenge his Puritan community to unity of purpose and love for one another:

For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities for the supply of others' necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as His own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness, and truth then formerly we have been acquainted with.

Winthrop’s vision for the Puritan community under his governorship reflects his practical wisdom which is timeless in its warning to “Post-Christian America:”

For we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world, we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all professors for Gods sake; we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into Curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whether we are going…

Prayer:  Father God, on this Thanksgiving, revive within me a thankful heart for all You have done.  Help me to remember that I was once an alien to whom You granted citizenship within the “new nation” that you are building.  A nation whose citizens trust in the death and resurrection of Your Son, Jesus; a nation that You want to be like a ‘shining city on a hill.’  Through Your indwelling Spirit, help me to read and heed Your Word with willing joy.  Then, may Your love move me to live daily in such a way as not to dim the welcoming light of Your Truth that is desperately needed by all men and women.  Particularly, help me not to offend others unnecessarily when we disagree on issues of our day—issues that, while deserving a voice of moral clarity, must also be seen as tremors from the emergence of the Eternal Kingdom for which You are even now preparing the present world.   Yes, Thy kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven.  Amen.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Fundamentals of Conservation, Part 3 "Serving with Our Neighbor"

Thanksgiving is a special holiday to me because it has been generally less commercialized than nearby Halloween and Christmas.   Thanksgiving invites us to remember the only true Object of genuine thankfulness— God Who is the ultimate Provider of all things.  Indeed, thankfulness without an object to receive our thanks is narrow and incomplete.

In our recent blog entries on “Fundamentals of Conservation,” we have emphasized that conservation, or “con-service” means to serve with.  Thus, both “thanks-giving” and “con-service” suggest the need for an object.  Conservation has two objects of “service”—with God, and with creation.  Furthermore, both “con-service” and “thanks-giving” imply that a certain quality of character be expressed toward the object in question; namely, a submissive spirit and a thankful spirit.  But how do these character qualities come about?

Biblically speaking, conservation is a practice of individuals who have acknowledged that rebellion and sin, not submission and service, are “in their DNA” inherited from Adam and Eve (Genesis 3).  As a result, they recognize their utter inability to exercise true dominion (submissive stewardship; Genesis 1: 16-28; 2: 15) without first humbly confessing and seeking God’s forgiveness through the atoning blood of Christ.  The true conservationist is submissive and thankful that God has redeemed him and enlisted him to serve on a planet that groans under the wages of sin (Romans 8: 19-23).

For the spiritually reborn child of God, biblical conservation grows out of an intimate relationship of serving with God.  Serving in this partnership with the Creator, we can learn the origin, true value, and significance of creation (Part 1, Article #1 April).  The quality of our stewardship is further enhanced as we learn more about the workings of creation (See Part 1, Article #2 May) and what is pleasing to our Creator (2 Corinthians 5: 9 and See Part 1, Article #3 June) as we serve Him by serving with creation.  Serving with creation in turn requires that we become students of both the historical influences on the land (See Part 2, Article #1 September) and the current processes at work in the landscape (See Part 2, Article #2 October).

This month’s “Fundamentals of Conservation”, Part 3, emphasizes that biblical conservation (or stewardship) of creation is practiced not only by serving with God and serving with Creation, but in serving with our neighbor.  This notion is based on the fact that God in the three Persons of the Trinity is a relational God.  It is this relational God Who created humans to exist in relationship with Him and with one another as His image bearers.  It follows that conservation blossoms in its fullest sense as we realize its relational nature as expressed when the conservationist serves with all three agents in right relationship—with God, creation, and neighbor.

I will now illustrate how conservation rests upon all three agents noted above, like the three legs of a stool in proper proportion.   I am thankful that God sought me out and redeemed me as His own son, then gave me a great love for His creation, and has blessed me with many good “neighbors” with whom to work.  Allow me to share first a few of the “neighbors” who have been partners, teachers, and mentors.

My dearest prairie partner in early 1980's
with Prairie Dock ("cut-leafed variety)
First, God has blessed me with my wife Alvadell (“Abby”), my nearest and dearest “neighbor” who has been “one with me” since 1969.  She has been beside me as wife, mother of our children, and companion in church, community, forest, and field.  Some of our most cherished communion with each other and with God has been as we’ve enjoyed the beauty and wonder of His creation.

In 1979, God led us as a family to Cedarville College where we grew spiritually in the light and warmth of pastors, friends, and colleagues for over three decades while I taught in the Science-Math Department.  Abby and I had discovered Cedarville ten years earlier while students at Malone College.  At Malone, it was Professor Charles C. King who had ignited my interest in botany and ecology.  Later Dr. King, as director of the Ohio Biological Survey, was responsible for identifying some of the remnant forest and prairie communities, including the railroad prairie remnants mentioned in this blog series.

Jack McDowell (center) and Charles C. King (right)
During my years at Cedarville, I became closely acquainted with two other prairie enthusiasts.  One was Jack McDowell who was so instrumental in conservation efforts through Columbus metroparks.  Jack explained to me how he and Charlie King had become fast friends after they had “chanced to meet” in, of all places, a prairie remnant community in central Ohio.  The other prairie enthusiast is Lynn Holtzman, a wildlife biologist with the Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources.  Lynn’s commitment to land stewardship based on his pursuit of God and a scholarly understanding of biblical environmental ethics was instrumental in the development of my own conservation ethic.
Lynn Holtzman (Photo taken at Milford Ctr. Prairie, Union Co.)
In fact, Lynn’s master’s thesis was entitled “Nature as Neighbor: Aldo Leopold’s Extension of Ethics to the Land.”  God has allowed Lynn and I to be “good neighbors” in several land stewardship projects in SW Ohio.  Of course conservation efforts require the neighborly cooperation of local land managers as the following paragraphs should illustrate.

When the last freight train passed through Cedarville in the mid-1980’s, remnant prairie communities along the railway from Xenia to Columbus, Ohio became of greater interest, particularly because of the plan to convert the rails to bicycle trails.  Rather suddenly, the abandoned railways--long, narrow swaths of land with lots of “surface area” adjoining land owned by many “neighbors” per mile were about to undergo a change in land use. 

Native Royal Catchfly, Silene regia, in the narrow railway
corridor (now Prairie Grass Trail) surrounded by agriculture
Having gained some botanical knowledge of the flora along the abandoned railway, several park districts enlisted me in 2001 and 2002 to inventory and map the native plant species along the abandoned railway in Greene, Clark, and Madison counties.  In an effort to create interest in prairie plants of the abandoned railway among local residents, I created a webpage featuring color photos of remnant prairie flora.

As the bikeway was being completed, my students and I developed and conducted an opinion survey of landowners adjacent to the bikeway.  We had three goals the first of which was to determine how “bikeway neighbors” viewed the new bikeway.
Royal Catchfly and Culver's Root
growing in the narrow railway corridor surrounded by cropland

Second, we wanted to use the survey as an opportunity to locate individuals who would provide historical information about the prairie remnant communities.  Finally, we hoped that face-to-face encounters with landowners might spawn cooperative efforts leading to the development of buffer zones adjacent to the otherwise long, narrow configuration of the remnant prairie communities surrounded by agricultural cropland.

As a result of our “boots on the ground” presence, the students and I were able to meet several interested “bikeway neighbors” and we soon learned the necessity of neighborliness in our land conservation effort.  We were also welcomed by the Friends of Madison County Parks and Trails (FMCPT) capably led by Wayne Roberts.  As a result of our landowner survey and cooperation with Julia Cumming, Madison Soil and Water Conservation District, we were able to secure cooperation with Jim Mitchell, whom we had met through our opinion survey and who was interested in devoting some land adjacent to the bikeway to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).  

Transplants of native prairie plants into Mitchell field along
bikeway (upper R). Jim Mitchell & son (L), J. Zehring and I
The Mitchell land was sown in prairie grasses.  Jim allowed us to add prairie forbs to the field and used his skid-steer loader with forestry attachment to cut and remove trees and shrubs encroaching on the prairie adjacent to the bikeway.  We hope that the partnership with Jim Mitchell can be a prototype for more partnerships between the park district/bikeway program and “bikeway neighbors.”

The FMCPT has been very effective in promoting the “Prairie Grass Trail” bikeway in cooperation with the Soil Conservation District and other organizations.  We are using a strategic management plan in an attempt to conserve prairie remnant plant species using a combination of approaches including mechanical removal, controlled burning, and herbicidal applications to simulate the environmental conditions that preserved these historic prairie remnants.

Jerry Miller, FMCPT volunteer with Royal Catchfly and
Prairie Coneflower (dry seed heads) in the Mitchell field
Yes, conservation is “con-service”—serving with Creator, creation, and neighbors.  The relationship goes both ways; as we serve God and His creation, God keeps us by providing both spiritual and physical “bread.”  Likewise, land under proper care will yield its fruitfulness back to us in the form of food, fiber, medicinal compounds, aesthetic enjoyment, etc.  Thus, conservation is made complete when neighbors work together for the cause of serving both God and creation.  Don’t forget the three supporting legs of a stool.   These truths were illustrated this past summer during the Prairie Appreciation Bike Ride sponsored by the Friends of Madison Co. Parks and Trails.  Some of the riders on this July Saturday had been volunteer “bikeway neighbors” who had, during the late winter months, toiled together to cut and burn encroaching shrubs and trees to allow space and light for the prairie plants to grow.  Many had not seen the worksites since winter, and they responded with glee at their first sight of colorful native prairie wildflowers flourishing in places that had been overgrown with woody species.  This satisfaction and joy was the blessed result of their willingness to serve creation and share with neighbors in valuing the purposes of our conservation plan.

Prairie Appreciation Bike Riders
learn more about remnant prairie history and conservation.
The same commitment to land stewardship, or conservation, is expressed through the older and more comprehensive Town of Dunn Land Use Plan under the leadership of Calvin DeWitt.  (In Part 1, Article #1 of this series I had referenced Dr. Calvin DeWitt as the author of the book Earthwise (3rd. ed., 2011, Faith Alive Christian Resources) in which he develops the notion of con-servation.)  DeWitt reflects on the Town of Dunn conservation effort in his recent book, Song of a Scientist: The Harmony of a God-Soaked Creation (2012, Square Inch. Grand Rapids, MI).  I conclude with an excerpt from this book which illustrates the ingredients and outcomes of conservation—a relational process in which willing people in community serve with Creator, creation, and neighbor:

The members of our community made the decision to get to know our place well and to act on that knowledge for the benefit of the land and its life.  Many were motivated simply by love of the land and their community, others by their Norwegian Lutheran upbringing or their Irish Catholic heritage.  Together, by all of our mutual efforts, a land ethic was instilled in the heart of our community, and we have dedicated our lives to its defense.  Our land ethic is published on our town website.  But it is published best in our community: in the lives of citizens and in the remarkable landscape of our town, which proclaims the stewardship we practice in this place.  With our land ethic we join the glorious chorus of those around the world who proclaim God’s sustaining provisions in creation.