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Good News for the Land

autumn olive berries
    What does cutting down the invasive shrub autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) on a cold Saturday in January have to do with the Gospel?  Quite a bit, it turns out.
     My family has been trying to figure out a way to incorporate community service (a bland phrase, if ever there was one) into our monthly schedule.  So, for our first attempt I took my wife and children to Island Lake State Park in SE Michigan to help restore (in a very small way) an oak savanna.  An oak savanna (or as the old timers called it "oak barrens") was one of a few landscape types found in lower Michigan prior to European/American settlement.  Essentially, it's a prairie with some oaks scattered here and there.  The Indians maintained prairies by setting the land afire occasionally to keep them relatively treeless.  Thus providing habitat for the largest food source available--the American bison.  The Western way of farming (which has fed all of us) destroyed prairies and, of course, drove out the bison.  The last wild one, incidentally, was shot in 1865 near what is now Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
     Aside from agriculture, and logging as well, invasive, exotic plants have been slowly and steadily changing the landscape from what it should be (providing food and shelter to insects, reptiles and amphibians, birds and mammals) to a more or less desolate landscape.  To the ignorant eye, things might appear all right.  One probably catches glimpses of skittering insects, fluttering birds, and occasionally scampering mammals among budding trees, shrubs, and grass, but they're either non-native birds or the number of insects, birds, and mammals is lower than what a healthy slice of this biome should be.
     So what does this have to do with the Gospel?  A few things.  Jesus, in Matthew's account tells his followers about visiting prisoners and the sick, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, slaking the thirsty, and welcoming the stranger.  Human-to-human service is how this is put into practice.  Rightly so, for it is written straightforwardly.  But what if we cast our Gospel net a bit wider to include care and service of non-human creatures and the Earth itself?  What about doing all that we do "as unto the Lord"?  What if, when Paul writes to the church at Colossae (in what is now western Turkey) that Christ is supreme and was sent to "reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven,"included the natural world?  What if by stewarding the land and all its inhabitants (don't forget about air and water) that we are proclaiming the Good News.  We would be creating outposts to greet the return of the King.
     Stewarding land isn't the whole Gospel, but neither is teaching Sunday School, protesting abortion, or cleaning up after the mentally ill.  The Good News, wholly embraced, includes trudging through snow and snipping the thin, shaggy-skinned twigs of invasive honeysuckle and cutting the thicker, thorny branches of autumn olive.
     My children learned that not only are we Jesus' hands and feet, but that we are his loppers, saws, and at times his herbicide.  We are called to be healers and restorers and it can begin in a state park.


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