When you hear about stewardship in church, you probably think of your checkbook. Stewardship is the term we use to talk about financially supporting our churches and organizations. But another holy use of the word involves being stewards of creation.
When I hear the word stewardship, I feel the crunch of snow and branches under my feet. I see the trees and paths of the woods owned by my parents’ best friends, where I spent much of my childhood hiking, hunting, skiing, picking apples, and feeding chickadees out of the palm of my hand. It’s one of the places where I gradually heard my calling to work for the care of creation. And the word stewardship transports me to a specific day in my childhood, walking in the woods with my dad’s best friend, Leo, when he pointed to a tree and said he would have to take it down.
How could he kill a tree? I hassled him; I got indignant. I said that nature should be left alone to do her thing. But Leo explained that I was wrong — he managed the land. It wouldn’t be just fine on its own; rather, it needed his careful eye to manage the trails, cut down sick trees, and hunt deer.
The importance of deer hunting was a concept I had learned early on; I grew up helping my dad set up his tree stand and even had my own miniature, kid-sized bow and quiver of arrows. I knew that if we didn’t hunt the overpopulated deer, many of them would starve in the winter and eat through too much vegetation in the process.
Hunting was a method of stewardship. I might not have called it that — I just saw it as part of keeping the balance of the land (plus, venison is delicious). Carefully choosing which trees to take down was no different, even if it wasn’t as obvious to me as a kid.
The concept of stewardship appears early in the Bible. We’re told that God put Adam and Eve in the garden to till it and keep it (Genesis 2:15), not just to enjoy it and let it do its thing, or to use it up and move on to the next garden. Anyone who’s ever owned a garden or a plot of land understands that it needs a careful and constant hand. This is what makes a faithful approach to God’s creation different from my naïve interpretation as a kid.
I thought that to love nature, I had to leave it alone and let it mysteriously all work out on its own. But the truth is, humans and nature aren’t in neatly separated boxes. We are connected — and interdependent — although our modern lives are often designed to make us forget that. True, some ecosystems do just fine without our interference, but there’s really no such thing as wilderness for its own sake, untouched by human tread. That might be what environmentalism looks like to some people, but we need the land and it needs us.
We use the world’s resources, but the trick is to use them wisely, and with a careful, conservative sense of balance. That’s the difficulty of stewardship. When we use up resources — the resources God gave us — with abandon and without care, the results aren’t pretty. We can never really grow it back. That’s the thing about nature; we can manage it well, but we can’t create it from scratch. Only God can do that.
Stewardship is the balanced middle way — it’s not “use it up and move on to the next,” but it’s also not untouched nature for nature’s sake. Because human hands, while capable of a great sin like mountaintop removal mining, are also capable of great beauty. Human hands have nurtured beautiful new species of flowers, drought resistant food crops, and rooftop solar panels. We can do so much sacred work with our God-made human hands. It may not fit with our modern notion of “drill, baby, drill,” but I think we would do better to follow the example of our God, who gave us the model for stewardship and entrusted us with that task.
Because being in and working with the creation is much more fulfilling than using it up or keeping it at a distance. God calls us into the creation: into the woods, into the worm-filled, muddy soil of our flowerpots. God calls us into our walking shoes, rather than behind the windshield of our cars. While I’m still learning from mentors like Leo what stewardship looks like, and while there’s still the temptation to use resources with abandon (like the smartphone that I bury my nose in rather than looking around me at the scenery), there’s a sacred satisfaction in the balance. Whenever I find it, I find that stewardship brings me closer to my Creator.
Liz Schmitt is the Creation Care Campaign Associate at Sojourners.
Photo: Rudolf Vlcek /Shutterstock