As we approach the season of Lent (beginning with Ash Wednesday February 26) and also celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day later this spring, we invited Leah Schade, author of the new nature-themed Lenten devotional For the Beauty of the Earth, to share some insights as to why Creation care is such an important issue for the church right now. She also offers suggestions for how to use the devotional as a congregation resource and shares a few meaningful spiritual practices we can engage in during Lent.
Why is creation care such an urgent issue for the church?The climate emergency and environmental crises we face directly impact the people of God. Farmers in our congregations deal with increased flooding and droughts. Children in our churches suffer from asthma due to air pollution. Churches in areas hit by catastrophic storms fueled by global warming minister to people in the aftermath of the devastation. And as we watch the extinction of so many of God’s creatures, we are called to advocate for “the least of these” within our Earth community. Once we dare to reckon with the potential collapse of the web of life and the possibility of a world that is difficult for humans to inhabit, where do we turn for meaning, purpose, and hope? People are looking to their faith leaders and houses of worship for a way forward. Christians look to the church for an authentic word of hope and guidance for how to face the future with courage. And we worship a God who promises resurrection, even after all hope has been crucified. So the emergency in which we find ourselves can serve as a catalyst for spiritual and societal transformation. The church and other houses of worship can help to midwife whatever new life will be born out of this cataclysmic time.
How can the church get more involved in Creation care on a day to day basis?
One angle for the church to use in approaching Creation care is to emphasize the link between environmental health and human health. Health and healing are common themes in nearly all religious traditions. Helping parishioners make the connection between God’s desire for healing in their own bodies as well as healing for Earth’s body can be a good framework for raising awareness about the need to address climate change and other environmental issues.
So, for example, a pastor could preach a sermon on how the Bible teaches us that God created the Earth, formed human beings, and calls us to cultivate and guard the land (Genesis Chapters 1 and 2). Or the preacher could do a sermon on 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 which talks about the body being a temple of the Holy Spirit and that we are responsible for glorifying God through our bodies. Naturally, then, we have a responsibility to protect our health and the health of others. Safeguarding the water, air, and land is one way we can protect human health. This is to the glory of God.
Why did you decide to combine your passion for creation care and a Lent devotional together?
When I was a pastor in my first congregation, someone asked me a question in a Bible study: "How often does Jesus make references to nature in his teaching?" I knew Jesus had made several references to aspects of Creation, but when I began reading through the Gospels I was surprised just how many times nature is referenced either by Jesus himself (over 50), or in the accounts about him and his birth, ministry, death and resurrection (over 55). That question prompted me to compile a list of all these passages to share with the group. I’ve held onto that list for nearly twenty years, knowing I wanted to create some kind of devotional in the future.
Then over the past two years, I worked with researchers at the University of Kentucky on a program called Healthy Trees, Healthy People which trains participants to become “citizen scientists” to observe tree health, report invasive pests, enhance their health, and appreciate trees in the city parks of Lexington where I live. I suggested they expand their program to train folks who attend church because they would have a natural inclination to care about God’s Creation, build community, and take steps for healthier living. We did just that, and I developed some devotionals about trees for participants to use on their walks.
As I was thinking about the 50th anniversary in 2020, I took the nature passages about Jesus and the tree devotionals and developed this Lenten devotional. It’s based on one of my favorite hymns, “For the Beauty of the Earth,” and the verses guide the themes for each week.
As an eco-preacher and the author of several books on creation care, how has your faith impacted your response to the climate crisis?
I am committed to helping people and congregations learn how to do their part to care for God’s Creation and support eco-justice issues. We need to put in place the strongest protections possible to defend public health, the fragile atmosphere of our planet, and the communities that will bear the costs and suffering from our addiction to fossil fuels and greenhouse gases.
As a homilitician, I realize that preaching “good news” in the face of environmental devastation can be overwhelming for pastors and congregations alike. So much of my teaching and writing has been about helping clergy to preach sermons that address environmental issues with forthrightness and imagination. I’m interested in discovering how to interweave both a prophetic and a pastoral voice on behalf of the ecological crises of our time while proclaiming God’s activity of redeeming, restoring, and resurrecting the Earth community.
At the same time, I am committed to living into the public theology of the church to be a moral and ethical voice at the table of community discernment. In my advocacy and activism, I believe that the climate crisis will bring us together across lines of religion, culture, race, gender, politics, age, and economic levels. When we creatively discern the vision of hope together and follow through with the work that needs to be done, there is great potential for healing and new life.
You include spiritual practices as part of the daily devotionals in For the Beauty of the Earth. How do spiritual practices deepen our faith lives, and what is one we might consider for Lent?For the Beauty of the Earth one spiritual practice I suggest is taking a walk in your neighborhood, or your favorite park, or in a natural setting, and carrying a bag with you. Pick up every piece of trash you find. With each piece you place in the bag, offer a prayer for the person who dropped it. Pray for their eyes to be opened, their hearts to be changed, and their habits to reflect an attitude of peace with Earth. This spiritual practice is one I suggest for the second Thursday of Week Two and can be done alone or with a group. For example, a church youth group could do this spiritual practice beginning and ending with one of the devotionals in the book. Spiritual practices like this can help us to stay grounded and to cultivate a peaceful heart.
You include a list of 50 Practices for Caring for the Earth as a bonus section in the devotional. Can you share a few of your favorite practices with us, and some that might have the greatest impact?Each week during the 50 days after Easter, I include a ritual of settling into a circle of nature for a few minutes of observation, contemplation, and appreciation. Maybe your yard, or a green space during your lunch break at work, or just a crack in the sidewalk where weeds and grass have pushed through. Cultivate the habit of noticing. What lives here? What passes through? A practice like this helps us connect with the world God has made. It nurtures a deep appreciation, even awe, at the processes of life that go on all around us but that we may not notice. A spiritual practice like this can move us to advocate for Creation because we have a relationship with just this one circle of life within the larger sphere of our community.
I also include a spiritual practice of advocacy for each week, such as calling your local legislators and asking their position on climate change. As you talk, tell them you are a Christian who votes on climate issues and ask them to support climate legislation. Elected leaders need to know who we are and why we care about God’s Creation. When we tell them that our position is informed by our faith, they pay attention to this. They know that people who are called by their faith are connected to their fellow congregants who share their commitment to protecting this Earth. Churches have untapped power to make an impact in the public realm. When we advocate for legislation that protects air, water, land, and public health, we are living out Jesus mandate to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
How can For the Beauty of the Earth be used as a congregational resource this Lent?
For the Beauty of the Earth can be used by individuals for private Lenten devotionals and for small group studies. It could work for a Sunday School group, an adult forum, youth group devotionals, and family devotionals in the home. The hymn upon which the booklet is based mentions many aspects of existence that evoke gratitude, including the earth and skies, trees and flowers, human love and the "best gift divine" – Christ Jesus himself. The hymn’s lyrics are included in the booklet so people can sing a different verse each day before they read the devotional.
Each devotional suggests a Bible passage which participants can read with an eye toward how the scripture supports an ethic of caring for Creation and each other. Then after reading and discussing the short reflection for each passage, there are either questions to ponder or a spiritual practice to try. Again, this can be done alone or with a group.
Another way the devotional can be used is for mid-week Lenten services. The services can address the theme for each week, the Bible passage can be read aloud, and the worship leader can read the reflection, or invite others to take turns reading. If a pastor leads the worship service, she or he can develop a sermon around the theme of the week or on a topic for one particular day. The sermons can focus on the need to focus on justice and equity among vulnerable populations. Holy scriptures from many different traditions emphasize the need to care for “the least of these,” to use Jesus’s words. Christians have a moral obligation to be ambitious advocates for those who are suffering and will suffer the most from climate disruption – impoverished individuals, people of color, the elderly, children, and those living in areas where drought, wildfires, hurricanes, typhoons, and floods destroy lives and communities. When we lift up God’s Creation, we lift up everyone with hope, resilience, justice, and the promise of new life in Christ.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky. An ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America since 2000, Leah has served congregations in rural, urban, and suburban settings. Leah has served as an anti-fracking and climate activist, community organizer, and advocate for numerous environmental and social justice issues.
She is the author of Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit and another book co-edited with Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, featuring essays from a cross-section of faith leaders and activists offering their spiritual wisdom for facing the difficult days ahead. She is also the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide and is the “EcoPreacher” blogger at Patheos.