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‘We are tearing down the Creation God has given to us’

On the eve of Monday’s dire UN climate report, the Stated Clerk offers Presbyterians for Earth Care words that challenge all of us to do better

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Landon Parenteau via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — On the eve of a United Nations report released Monday that predicts dire and nearly immediate consequences to human health and safety due to global warming, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II told the Presbyterians for Earth Care conference Sunday that it’s high time we started treating the Earth in a way that’s more respectful of the God of life, “who tapped us on the shoulder this morning and breathed another breath of life on us.”

The Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) used the occasion of the impending release of Monday’s 3,000 page report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which assesses the science related to climate change for the United Nations, to hammer home his message. As the planet warms, the IPCC report says, places will get hit more not just by extreme weather but by multiple climate disasters that occur simultaneously, such as what’s going on now in the Western United States, where heat waves, drought and wildfires are compounding the damage.

“The challenges we face have a lot to do with our own sense of discipline, how we go about attempting to live the life Jesus has called us to live,” Nelson said during an online worship service attended by more than 135 people. “We are tearing down the Creation God has given to us. We think it’s ours to do what we want to.”

But Psalm 24, Nelson’s text for the day, tells a very different story from its opening verses: “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it …”

“It’s not because there is not enough,” Nelson said, touching on the gulf between the world’s rich and poor growing wider. “It’s because of the greed in our own lives” made worse by “those who believe the world does not belong to God anymore” but rather “it belongs to us to exploit, to take and pillage.”

“Jesus came to remind us that what we have in this world we have to give back,” Nelson said. “It doesn’t belong to us, including our own lives.”

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), spoke last summer during a vigil for justice for Breonna Taylor. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Nelson said it’s likely many people will read the IPCC report, maybe shake their heads and say, “mmm, mmm, mmm.” Then they’ll “move on and begin the next day the process of taking, taking, taking,” he said. “There is enough for all of us, but the exploitation of what God has given us has to stop.”

Nelson said he was a youngster when he learned from his mother that “the Lord allows us to use what the Lord gave us for the betterment of humanity.” She’d deliver messages like this one to her young son: “Don’t take too much, so there’s enough for everyone.”

“This really is our father’s world. It’s a reminder to us that it doesn’t belong to us,” Nelson said. “We can destroy it if we will, but the redemptive love of God will restore it — although maybe not with us.”

Nelson acknowledged he was “preaching to the choir today.” Many of his listeners are longtime members of Presbyterians for Earth Care. Most are enthusiastic members of Earth Care congregations.

Reminding his listeners he led the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness on Capitol Hill for six years before being elected Stated Clerk in 2016, Nelson lamented that we’re currently saddled with a Congress “unable to find a place of righteousness,” especially when it comes to enacting legislation to protect the environment.

“They look for the easy sweet spots to go home and talk about the one or two things they have done,” Nelson said. “Their minds are on re-election” and they have no intention of turning off the spigot of cash that funds their re-election campaigns.

“We are the church of Jesus Christ. We ought to be able to get our leaders into our churches to listen to the concerns of our local congregations the same way they ask for our votes,” Nelson said. Rather than constantly campaigning, “they should take the opportunity to really speak to us, and we should demand that that happens.”

Don’t think for a moment that our current condition is the fault exclusively of our political leaders, Nelson said.

“This didn’t just happen because we have bad congressional leaders,” he said. “We don’t put enough pressure on them to do what needs to be done. They come in on a Sunday when they’re running for re-election. They ought to come on a Sunday when it’s time to talk about climate change … We shouldn’t have to wait from one administration to the next. This is about life and death. It’s what climate conversations are all about.”

“God took time and interest to put Creation in place,” Nelson said, “so we might be able to eat and have enough.”

Nelson offered up three action steps Presbyterians everywhere can take:

  • Address the issue in your local community. “Set up a time your congressional leaders can talk to you, and know their voting records,” Nelson said. “The money mill that pays for their campaigns has a hand in what they vote for no matter what they say.”
  • Take responsibility “in whatever way we can,” including installing solar panels atop churches and homes where that’s feasible. “Whatever we can do, let’s do that,” Nelson said.
  • “Continue to pray for the mercy of the love of God to be with us,” Nelson said. We’re currently in a “danger zone that can have major repercussions on our lives and in the lives who follow us if we don’t learn to turn this thing around now.” It is the work of the church “to ensure that we do the best we can to make life better for the next generation.”

“I love this world I live in. I pray that I can live in it for a long time,” Nelson said. “But I know every day we violate the principles of God’s goodness is a day we fail to put ourselves into a position where long-term solutions can help.”

“Read the report. It’s not a hoax,” Nelson said. “God is still on the throne, and God gives us second, third and fourth chances. It’s up to us whether the clock runs out.”

“If we continue as we are,” he said, “the only words that we’ll be able to speak will be, ‘Lord, have mercy on our souls.’ This is real. We can do it together, but it’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of focus, a lot of time,” as well as staying faithful to learning to “love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind, and our neighbors, who are created in the image of God, as we love ourselves.”

Speaker, author and musician David LaMotte offered an online concert to conference-goers. (Screenshot)

Presbyterian speaker, writer and musician David LaMotte presented a concert as part of the PEC conference. Attendees also participated in one of four workshops that were offered simultaneously.

PEC’s “Creation Care Buffet: Come to the Table” conference concludes Sunday. Dr. Neddy Astudillo of GreenFaith will lead worship. Learn more here.

The Presbyterian Hunger Program prepared this response to help Presbyterians to act following Monday’s release of the IPCC report.

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