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In The Wilderness

Overlook I don't watch much football these days. My two boys are all about baseball. But there are two memories that stand out from those many days of football in my younger years. The first is sitting in the end zone at Tulane Stadium with my father, mother, and two sisters and watching John Gilliam take the opening kickoff in the New Orleans Saints inaugural game right up the middle of the field for a touchdown. The second is that guy with the big afro painted blue, orange, and pink who always managed to get a seat right in the middle of the goal post for nationally televised games. He'd stand up during field goals and extra points and hold a sign that said "John 3:16".

I used to laugh at him. But these days I appreciate his ministry. Because John 3:16 is indeed a central verse in the Bible and it is particularly relevant to why Christians should be concerned about wilderness preservation.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

Most folks tend to look at that and think about the cross and what it means for people. That's important. But if we stop there we miss the full import of the verse and the full significance of the Christian faith for our life on this planet. It doesn't say 'for God so loved people'. It says, "For God so loved the world". It tells us that our salvation, individually and collectively, is bound up with the salvation of the world. We, meaning humans and the rest of creation, are bound together in God's saving action in history. So if we are to be part of bringing God's Kingdom on earth, then one of the things we must be about is saving the planet.

When you look through the scripture one of the things that is most striking is the vast extent to which it is concerned with creation. In scripture creation is a revelation of God's character and a place where we can go to gain direct experience of God and to feel the presense of the Spirit in our soul.

Just to cite a few examples: John the Baptist is a voice crying in the wilderness "clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey" (Mark 1:2-6). Jesus goes to the wilderness to prepare himself for his ministry (Mark 1:12). Moses receives his call in the wilderness (Exodus 3:1-2). The book of Numbers, its name in the Hebrew Bible was "In The Wilderness", begins with the verse "The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai" and goes on to relate the story of how a mass of Hebrew slaves became a nation as a result of their encounters with God during their sojourn in the wilderness. Elijah received his climactic call from God when he fled for refuge to this very same wilderness.

Of the many examples, however, I am going to focus on the second creation story in the book of Genesis:

...then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil...

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die. Then the Lord God said, "It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner." So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air...

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God made. He said to the woman, "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'? The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'" But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So when the woman saw that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate...

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him... "Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?"...

"Because you... have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it', cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

(selections from Genesis 2:7 - 3:19)

There are four lessons to be drawn from this story.

The first is that our existence is dependent -- dependent on God and also dependent on creation. The second is the intimacy within creation -- the animals and the birds are our partners; we come from dust and return to dust. The third lesson is the profound impact of human actions. This is, afterall, the story of "The Fall". Whatever one thinks of the doctrine of 'original sin' there is no denying that this story is telling us that human actions on one day can have a deep impact on the lives of future humans and on the creation in which we live. Think for a minute about the central place this story has held in the Judeo-Christian tradition and about the profound nature of that lesson.

Lastly I want to highlite the three commands from God in this story. The first two are commonly discussed. God commands humans to till the earth: like all other life in creation we are to take from it what we need to sustain our lives. God also commands us to keep the earth -- to take care of it. Our dominion on this planet is to be characterized by compassion towards all the aspects of God's creation. But there is a third command, one not generally acknowledged. It has to do with the tree that was in the middle of the garden and at the center of the story. This is a portion of creation that we are told to leave alone, to exist in its own right. It is to have no impact from humans -- we are not to touch it. The failure to leave alone a portion of creation leads not only to the decline and "fall" of the human species, but to damage to the rest of creation as well.

There is a general lesson here for America's actions regarding the enviornment and for conservation. There is a very specific lesson here for the concept of wilderness. "An area", as defined by the Wilderness Act, "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." The lesson here is that failure to leave alone a sufficient part of creation is a sin -- indeed, it may be the original sin. The lesson here is that wilderness is a particularly Christian concept and that by working to protect wilderness we are participating in bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth, we are doing the work of the body of Christ, we are affirming that "God so loved the world". Our struggles on behalf of wilderness are a part of the cross that we as Christians are called to bear. The wilderness that we save is an offering that we give to the glory of God and a means by which we love our neighbor as ourself. "As you did it to the least of these, you also did it to me." (Matthew 25:40)

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