Down the River

By the Rev. Steve Keplinger

Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap,
they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.” 

I have had my soul formed in the heart of America’s red rock wilderness.  And that is why I was not a bit surprised when on day five down the river, a raven, the same raven Jesus speaks of in the Gospel of Luke, spoke to me.  I answered back, asking him about his day.  He responded with a soft caw, “Well, what do you think?  I am here in this exquisite canyon with everything I could possibly need.  What could be better than this?”  

But then he laughed out loud.  Unmistakable.  That bird was laughing at me.  When I arrived back to my camp, I got the joke.  I had hung a rain slicker in a tamarisk bush (damn invasive tamarisk) to dry after its hard day in the rapids.  It was gone.  I walked in concentric circles until…there, in the top of a willow, was the raven’s mangled collection of gear, gear my laughing raven had stolen from river runners for years.  On the very top of the pile was my slicker.  

Ravens are exceptionally smart creatures who obviously have a wicked sense of humor.  They are the central figure of respect in the oral traditions of many indigenous people and they have been for thousands of years.  It is no surprise therefore, that Jesus, an indigenous guy from the tribe of Israel, chooses the raven as his example of the relationship between the Creator and the natural world.  

As all of you know, our faith tradition’s sacred text is permeated with these intimate links between God and nature.  God is found in bushes, trees, mountains, thunder, the sea, and on and on throughout the Hebrew Bible.  And in the Christian scripture, this is stated explicitly multiple times as in Acts, “IN GOD we live and move and have our being,” and in Colossians,  “Christ is everything and he is IN everything.”  Not to mention the fact that the basis of Christianity, incarnation, is all about a God who becomes a member of the earth community.  

But something happened.  When Christianity first confronted the nature cults, the missionaries were appalled to find a people worshipping trees.  Pantheism was seen as such a direct threat to Christianity, that all of those references to God’s presence in creation were suppressed in favor of the accounts of God’s transcendence.  Despite Christianity’s indigenous roots and its own understanding that God is in nature itself, they threw it all out as heresy.

That rejection of a major component of our tradition separated us from the natural world.  It remained so prevalent in the church over the centuries that when people like me expressed their personal experience of God’s presence in the wilderness, we were called heretics.  It led to a theology that placed humans above nature, creating the disconnection that has allowed us to destroy the most beautiful places on earth. 

I am sorry to say it this bluntly, but our church did this.  Our religious tradition sanctioned the murdering of our planet.  And I am not just talking about “those other” Christians.  I am speaking of us, our Episcopal tradition.  Two quick examples.  Eucharistic Prayer C, the prayer that was specifically written to be our connection to creation.  What do we say in that prayer?  “From the primal elements you brought forth the human race, and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill.  You made us the RULERS of creation.”  That is the theology that has created the greatest crisis of our time.  Humanity is not above nature.  We are one part of God’s creation, the part called to be caretakers of God’s world, not the rulers of it.  One more.  Form IV, Prayers of the People.  “Give us all a reverence for the earth as your own creation…that we may USE ITS RESOURCES rightly….”

If we are going to reverse the effects of climate change, it is not going to be enough for us to use economic, moral, logical, legal, and political arguments to win the day.  We’ve been doing that for 50 years.  What is going to convince the world that we must preserve this land is the voice of the church, the theological realization that the earth is not a resource, it is part of God.  

And here is the good news.  The church is changing.  That is one of the central reasons I am an Episcopalian.  We can change things in years not centuries.  We now have a Season of Creation in our Book of Occasional Services.  We made care of Creation one of our three central priorities at our last General Convention.  

This is the evangelism of our time.  We can save the earth and save each other by simply recovering this ancient teaching in the Judeo/Christian tradition.   All of us feel God whenever we are in wilderness for a good reason.  God is there, in the red rock, in the raven.  Nothing could be more important than doing everything we can to preserve the place where we discover God.  Let us finally make this happen.  We don’t have a minute to spare.  Let us save God’s creation beginning right now. 

Steve Keplinger is the Rector of Grace St. Paul’s in Tucson and a member of the diocesan Creation Care Council.  He has been designing and leading a Season of Creation for the last 20 years.  He served on the Season of Creation sub-committee of General Convention that produced the Creation prayers in the most recent Book of Occasional Services.