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This Good Earth

Brian D. McLaren

I grew up going to church, and frankly, as a boy I didn’t like it. I didn’t like getting dressed up as we had to do back in those days. I didn’t like my clip-on tie (remember those?), my stiff white shirt, the shiny black shoes that I couldn’t get dirty. I didn’t like having to sit still or be quiet or not run or listen to long sermons that almost never held my attention for even one squirmy minute. Later, in spite of my distaste for church, I did come to love God, which may be a miracle of sorts considering what young boys are put through in the name of piety.

But I do have one memory of something close to joy from my childhood in church. Two memories, actually, and they are closely related. One was singing the hymn “Fairest Lord Jesus,” and especially the lines, “Fair are the meadows, fairer still the woodlands, robed in the blooming garb of spring. Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer, who makes the woeful heart to sing.” I wasn’t sure what a woeful heart was, although it didn’t sound good, but I was sure about meadows and woodlands because I had, from my earliest childhood, a love for the outdoors and all living things that could be found there.

The other memory is connected to another hymn, “How Great Thou Art”: “When through the woods and forest glades I wander, and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, when I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, and hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze….” Again, woods, forests, birds, mountains, brooks, and breezes spoke a language my boy’s heart understood, and I so remember taking a deep breath to belt out the chorus that followed this verse: Then sings my soul, my Savior, God, to Thee: How great thou art, how great thou art!”

Many of us, I think, feel that a forest is the original sanctuary, that wading in a stream is the primal baptism, that climbing a mountain is the best pilgrimage, that picking wild blackberries and drinking from a natural spring are a trans-denominational form of communion, and that listening to the song of a wood thrush or the approach of a thunderstorm is the kind of natural preaching without which no human preaching has any traction.

Years later, when to my surprise I became a pastor, I tried to bring this love of God’s wild places and living creatures more deeply into public worship. Sadly, there were too few resources available. So over the years I began writing some, including the following litany, a spoken word with a simple sung response:

We thank you Lord, for this good earth. In the beginning, you created the heavens and the earth, and you said that all creation was filled with goodness, beginning with the goodness of light. We thank you, Lord, for sun and moon and stars, for sunrises and clear days and bright, moonlit nights. We also thank you, Lord, for the gift of night – for time to rest, to sleep, to dream. And so we sing …

We thank you Lord, for this good earth.

We thank you, Lord, for continents in their slow journeys, for mountains that rise and rains that erode them grain by grain to the sea. For prairies and rolling hills, for beaches and deserts, for woodlands and glaciers, for rainforests and tundra, we thank you, for all are filled with goodness. And we thank you, Lord, for springs and streams, for marshes and estuaries, for rivers and bays, for seas and the great oceans. For the precious gifts of soil and water and air, without which we could not live, we thank you, Lord. And so we sing …

We thank you Lord, for this good earth.

We thank you for the wonder of life, Lord, for the grandeur hidden in a single living cell, for the marvel of DNA, for the amazing processes of respiration, digestion, reproduction, growth, and adaptation. How amazing are your creatures, Lord – the field mouse that hides in tall grasses, the gray whale that rises in the ocean, the swallows that soar and dive above the surface of a still pond, the tiny red eft that lives so quietly in the forest, the salmon that fight currents to return to the stream of its origin, the gorillas and elephants and giraffes, the butterflies and dragonflies and ants, for beloved dogs and cats and other creatures who become part of our lives. We thank you for these companions, and so we sing …
We thank you Lord, for this good earth.

But Lord, we cannot only thank you. We must also confess to you our sin in failing to honor and care for your beautiful and good creation. How many precious and irreplaceable species have gone extinct because of our greedy rush to make money, our ignorant slowness to understand the intricate balance of your works, our prideful and careless desire to act, not as stewards of your world, but as its heartless slavemasters and selfish tyrants. Air, soil, and water show ugly symptoms of our own inner pollution; they suffer because of the greed, arrogance, lust, ignorance, and hate that pollute our hearts and cultures. We are sorry, Creator, for our offenses to your creation, and we wish to stop polluting, defacing, and destroying your world; instead, we wish to care for, protect, love, preserve, and appreciate your beautiful and manifold works, and so we sing …
We thank you Lord, for this good earth.

We thank you, God, for speaking to our world through Jesus. He told us that just as you care for every sparrow, you care for us. He reminded us that you give the wildflowers their natural beauty, and you wish to clothe us with beauty in a similar way. He taught us that wisdom is hidden in the growth of the smallest seed, in the turning of seasons, in every corner of your amazing creation. He taught us to see every creature as beloved by you, God our Father, and he called us to live with your love pulsing in our hearts. So let us learn to see and love this good earth as Jesus did, and to care for it, and enjoy it, and rejoice in it, so the earth may indeed be full of the glory of the Lord as the water covers the sea. And so we sing …
We thank you Lord, for this good earth.
And we sing again …
We thank you Lord, for this good earth.
And we sing again.
We thank you Lord, for this good earth.

During my twenty-four years as a pastor, I must confess, I grew to love being in church. I loved what happened when people gathered and slowed down together, opening their hearts to who and what matter most. I loved the hush of the eucharist, the mystery of prayer, the celebration of gratitude, the transparency of the confession of sin, the daring hope of the creeds, the momentous possibility of the benediction. Given the choice, I would hate to have to choose between a gathered community of people with sincere faith and a quiet walk “through the woods and forest glades.” In the end, I think each enriches the other. And at best, walking through the “fair meadows” and “fairer still woodlands” is an experience of prayer, just as gathering with the community of faith involves recalling and celebrating the beauty of God’s world. I’m glad we don’t have to choose either, but can joyfully receive both.