hero default image

Anchored by Ross Reddick

As I boarded the plane that would take me from Cincinnati to Atlanta, I was feeling sick. It was not a disease of the body, but a dis-ease of the heart. There I was, on a plane that was dumping about 200 pounds of carbon dioxide directly into the atmosphere, to attend a “Just Creation” conference. The irony was not lost on me.

Dr. Jerusha Neal’s sermon plucked me out of the air and dunked me in the water; her words helped my fellow conference-goers and I wade through turbulent waters like the weaponization of agriculture, the exploitation of labor (both ancient and modern), the all-too-real grief and fury of climate change, and the human hubris that allows us to pretend climate catastrophes can yet be avoided.  The water was already up to my neck when Dr. Neal uttered the phrase, “materially consequential repentance,” her prophetic call to action along with a commitment to prayer, lament, and a sober recognition that we are limited beings. Materially consequential repentance: those three words caused my soul to aspirate. Then came the truth that fully submerged me: “We have a God to whom we will answer.”

Earlier in the day, before Dr. Neal’s sermon, I remember being proud of myself. In an attempt to “offset” my flight, I’d found my way to a used sporting goods store. My noble plan was to purchase a used bicycle to get around all week and then donate it to Mission Haven before catching MARTA to the airport for my return flight (that’s another 200 pounds of CO2 for those counting). I remember standing tall when other conferees would see me ride up to Decatur Presbyterian or to the Broyles Leadership Center on that bicycle. It was a quiet, almost subconscious boastfulness that I’d conjured; a distraction from the razor-sharp questions posed in Neal’s sermon: What good is Ezekiel’s vision when the world is being laid to waste? What’s the point of attending a climate conference? Who cares about a future hope and restoration when our present world is coming undone?  If my biking around Decatur was some impoverished attempt at repentance for that 900-mile flight, it was surely, materially, inconsequential.

As a pastor, part of my role is to develop thoughtful disciples of Jesus Christ; people who can navigate the complexities of life on this planet from a healthy framework of Christian faith and understanding. This involves a careful reading and teaching of scripture in community, preaching God’s word, and providing counsel as people bring their actions and words into alignment with their faith. Over the last few years, ecological stewardship has become an area of deepening interest for me. In direct and indirect ways, I believe that fallacious Christian theology is uniquely culpable for the anthropocentric apathy toward the health of our planet. In particular, bad theology around creation and eschatology have been (and still are) used to justify the careless exploitation of the earth’s resources. It follows, then, that Christians have a responsibility to help mend that which we’ve torn.

I’ve been learning more, reading more, and doing more to align my own life with ecologically sustainable practices. I started composting our kitchen scraps; a small way to begin contributing to the health of the soil in my backyard. Instead of bagging yard debris for curb pickup, all the clippings and leaves go into the “geo-bin” nestled near a back fence for entropy to do her work. I discovered that it takes about a year and half of our food scraps, leaves, and grass clippings to fill an 8ft by 4ft raised bed (mostly). I found someone giving away rain barrels on Facebook, so that I can gravity feed the plants I grow.  Along the way, I’ve worked these experiences into sermons, conversations, and teachings hoping to help connect the dots between these home-scale sustainability practices and creation care.

While these endeavors are new for me, they are not new or groundbreaking. Some of you have been composting, gardening, cataloguing seeds, growing food, canning, and catching rain for decades. These are our past and they will be our future, but for someone like me, this is new territory. I grew up in upper middle-class suburbia, and the last seed I planted in my life (prior to last January) was 35 years ago — a lima bean wrapped in a wet paper towel and taped to a plastic baggie on the window of my kindergarten classroom. In fact, I felt so woefully unprepared and inexperienced, I decided that education was a good first step. As I was researching options, I discovered something called permaculture.

In short, permaculture is an ethical process for designing systems to meet human needs modeled off of the regenerative, resilient, and sustainable properties of nature.  This process can be applied to agriculture, landscape design, architecture, community planning, energy theory, transportation, and more. The term was coined by Australian ecologist Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren in 1976 as a combination of the phrases “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture”. I disappeared for a day or two, reading all I could about permaculture, its origins, and the subsequent movement catalyzed by its originators.

To give a brief example, I’ll describe a mature permaculture garden. In this garden, a diverse array of plants and animals coexist harmoniously, mimicking natural ecosystems. Fruit trees provide shade and sustenance, while their leaf litter decomposes to enrich the soil. Chickens roam around, free to peck at insects and weeds as they add pest control and fertilization to the system. In the garden, there is almost no need for irrigation, because rainwater can infiltrate the healthy soil. There’s little runoff (and little erosion) because extra water is stored in swales, supporting the garden’s self-sufficiency. The fruit and other crops are gathered to consume and share with neighbors; extra yield is donated to a local food pantry. All in all, the garden functions like a closed-loop system, meaning almost no human input is required for the garden to sustain itself. This permaculture garden shares imagery with Ezekiel’s vision in chapters 40 through 48: land, water, creatures (including humans), and God’s providence “woven together,” using Neal’s language.

Enthralled by this new world of permaculture, I signed on for a year-long course in permaculture design. This connected me to practitioners, educators, organic farmers, homesteaders, urban food forest planners, soil experts, master gardeners, and others who seem to share this love of land, water, and people that transcends politics, social location, and religion. Thus far, the ecological disciplines I’m learning have been quite separate from the church I serve. But I look to many strong examples across the nation where ecology and ecclesiology are aligning: earth care congregations, rooftop solar installations on church buildings, geothermally heated and cooled seminary dormitories, and church-led community gardens. Will these prevent the present and coming climate catastrophes? No. But rather than being overwhelmed by the deluge of challenges facing our earthly home, these practices do give me a foothold, anchoring me to the ground still there below the rising waters.  For now, these are my best responses to the prophetic word delivered by sages ancient and modern, who ask, “What does love require?”