Happy Belated Earth Day! (In Praise of Decay)

photo: Steve Bell

Sooo… yesterday’s global celebration of Earth Day somehow slipped my attention until it was too late in the day to post something celebratory. I’m hoping that late is better than not at all.

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The world is such a mystery because it is not simply inert matter, but a display of the inexhaustible beauty of its creator. The ecological crisis is a spiritual, not merely material, crisis. It will only be solved by a sacramental view of the world, in which the presence of a loving God is found radiant in all things.

     —William T. Cavanaugh, Fragile World: Ecology and the Church.

“Become Indigenous”

I once asked an Indigenous friend of mine, Rev. Dr. Ray Aldred, what it would take for me to become an authentic ally of Indigenous peoples. His response surprised me: “You must become indigenous yourself,” he said.

I won’t pretend I fully understand what Ray meant by those words, but he was quick to point out that he did not mean that I should suddenly take on sacred and cultural traditions of a people group I didn’t belong to. He meant that it was vital that I come to know myself as a person of the earth. And the keyword here is “of.”

Being “of the earth” is not a hippie-dippie sentiment. For Christians, our own creation story gives the name “Adam,” to the first human. Adam means, of the earth. Of course, we now know our earthiness to be a literal truth as well as a sacred, symbolic truth.

For example, the waters of creation flow through every cell in our bodies. You and I are, among other things, 60% water. And that’s not a stagnant reality. It is a dynamic, ever-replenishing reality.

So too the solid aspects of our physical being. Apparently, throughout our lives, most of the cells in our body get replaced every eight years or so. The earth’s solid material passes through us like a slow-moving river every bit as much as her waters do. It is astonishing to think that the material body I currently inhabit is a significantly different one that I inhabited only a few years ago, and yet I remain uniquely me.

So too our breath. The earth’s atmosphere flows through us as vitally as her waters and her solid materials. Each breath is a life-giving miracle that animates our bodies on a moment-by-moment basis.

God “So Loves” the Cosmos

My Christian faith teaches me that you and I, and the earth are beloved of God. A cherished bible verse from my Evangelical upbringing, which every self-respecting Evangelical has memorized, begins with the words “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16). The Greek word translated in our modern bibles as “the world” is ton kosmon, meaning, the wholeness of creation. In a piety profoundly corrupted by modern individualism, I was encouraged as a youngster to interpret the verse to more narrowly mean that God so loves me, not ton kosmon. It didn’t really matter what happened to the earth as long as it was me that God loved. However, that’s not what the bible actually says, or implies.

Increasingly it’s becoming evident that when humans become detached from their place in creation; when we come to see ourselves as over a creation that has no meaning other than to serve our comforts and whims, the damage can be catastrophic. We become toxic and cancerous within the very cosmos which God created and loves. Indeed, both scientists and theologians tell us that we have now entered a new geological age called the Anthropocene, which denotes an age where every earth system is dominated by human activity.

In Praise of Decay

The English poet, Malcolm Guite, wrote a blog and a poem called “In Praise of Decay (and against plastic).” He wrote it after discovering a plastic bag among moldering leaves while on a forest walk with his dog. He was struck by the wisdom of God who creates things that molder and decay in service of ever-replenishing life in contrast to the things we moderns create—”those dreadful things that last”—often without wisdom or care beyond our short-term convenience and aspirations. Malcolm’s blog and poem inspired the song below.

A Note About the Above Photo: The image at the top of the page is a photo I took near my home. I often walk down to the river to sit quietly in “the peace of the wild things.” When first I saw that someone had overturned a shopping cart, of all things, into the river, I was repulsed by the grim symbol of human callousness to the very creation we are dependent on for our being. But as I sat and plotted what I might do to retrieve the cart out of the river, I noticed how the reflection of the cart on the water’s dimpled surface turned the crime into a thing of playful whimsy, as if to say, in a tone both lighthearted and foreboding, “I am not without agency.”

IN PRAISE OF DECAY
Music by Steve Bell
Lyrics by Malcolm Guite and Steve Bell
from the 2020 album: Wouldn’t You Love to Know

There are older ways of living
Much wiser than the ways we know
Kinder and forgiving
Of the limits we’re inclined to loathe
Native to this land that God has given us to grow
The seeds of love, the shoot of faith,
The tree of hope

In the spiral of our sinning
In the manufactured grim disgrace
Of betraying our beginnings
With viral acts of greed and waste
Planted in the midst of these bewildering displays
Lies a garden tended by a lover’s grace

Perhaps it’s not so bad that things decay
That ocean breakers ebb and flow away
That light ascends then settles at the ending of the day
That beating hearts can stop and start again.

There’s a reverence unfolding
From the secrets of the lowly, least
And the arts of better knowing
Of letting go and planting seeds
Blessed are the ones who harrow wisdom of the past
To save us from the dreadful things that last

Perhaps it’s not so bad that things decay
That ocean breakers ebb and flow away
That light ascends then settles at the ending of the day
That beating hearts can stop and start again.

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