The Episcopal Church’s 76th General Convention is beginning this week. The Convention will address several important topics, including the environment. Resolutions concerning the environment are listed and summarized on the Episcopal Ecological Network (EpEN). These resolutions range from calls for better environmental stewardship to the development of a liturgical Pentecost Season Creation Cycle to establishment of an Environmental Commission.
Apart from a growing awareness among Americans in general of the practical necessity of taking better care of our environment, there are reasons for Christians in particular to pay more attention to the care of creation. Some of these reasons have to do with the way environmental issues fit into our traditions of being intentional about stewardship of God’s gifts to us and of advocating for policies that help people living in poverty, who are the people most affected by pollution and climate change; other reasons have to do with the way being in touch with the natural world helps to ground and enrich us spiritually. The variety of environmental resolutions for General Convention reflect this range of reasons for us to be more aware of our relationship with the environment. Uniting them all is this: our understanding of God is Incarnational; there is no great divide between body and spirit.
However, we do tend to create dichotomies when we use various categories to try to understand something complex. In this case, we might group the resolutions about environmental stewardship and justice under the category of compassionate action, and group the ones about spirituality under the category of contemplation. Many religious thinkers have explored the supposed dichotomy between action and contemplation; the Letter of James explores a similar dichotomy between works and faith.
This dichotomy came to mind this week as my travels took me to two very different garden projects in two parishes in very different settings. The first was the new flower garden at St. Mary’s in Bassett. I was in Bassett last Monday evening for their Celebration of New Ministry, and stayed overnight at the hotel across the street from the church. Early Tuesday morning, I spent some time sitting on a bench looking at the garden. It was a lovely place to sit, meditate, and feed my spirit at the beginning of the day: a contemplative garden.
The second parish garden I saw was this Sunday at St. Paul’s in Akron, Ohio, where I was confirmed and where my mother is still a parishioner. While St. Paul’s has some beautiful flower gardens, there was a new garden that surprised and delighted me -- a very well-tended vegetable garden. The purpose of this garden is to produce fresh vegetables to share with people who need food for their bodies: an action garden.
While the flowers at St. Mary’s and the vegetables at St. Paul’s seem like two entirely different projects, they have a lot in common. Both give the people who tend them an opportunity to be outdoors and get grounded in the truest sense of the word, by working with the ground. Both suggest good alternatives to grassy areas that need to be mowed and are often maintained with lots of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Both remind us that something important in the life of a parish can occur on the outer side of the church walls, that our lives as Christians aren’t contained within the indoor worship space. Both give people walking by a reminder of God’s gifts to us, and especially of the gift of new growth and fruition.
In my own garden at home in Nebraska, I tend to mix vegetables and flowers, partly because of lack of space, partly because of my personal taste in landscape aesthetics, but also because I have learned that planting flowers among vegetables – companion planting -- can help keep the vegetable plants freer of pests. Companion planting might be a good metaphor for good Christian discipleship, combining spiritual groundedness with compassionate action.
As I understand the General Convention theme of Ubuntu, it involves the idea of the interconnectedness among all of humankind and all of Creation. Sometimes things that seem very different are really interconnected or even intertwined. James says that faith without works is dead, yet we also know that works or action are more fruitful and lasting when they are grounded in a solid spiritual foundation. In the end, they are not really different things, but just two sides of faithful Christian discipleship.