Asking Plants to Forgive?

By Mark A. Kellner
Posted September 30, 2019

In September, students at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, which advertises itself as the place “where faith and scholarship meet to reimagine the work of justice,” sent out a twitter message that grabbed national attention: “Today in chapel, we confessed to plants. Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt, and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor. What do you confess to the plants in your life?”

One student said during the ritual, “I confess that so many trees held me in their branches as I grew, but I have not held you in return.”

Organizer Cláudio Carvalhaes, an associate professor of worship at the New York school, said the goal was not to merely appreciate plants for what they give us, but to recognize a symbiotic relationship between man and growing things.

“The whole idea of it was to understand our relation with the world around us,” Carvalhaes said. “There’s a relational perspective. It’s not like, ‘Oh this plant is there for beauty, or for my needs, or because I am hungry,’ but it’s more than that. It’s trying to listen to their voices, as we understand the voice of God.”

“Heal the Brokenness All Around Us”

Speaking with syndicated religion news columnist Terry Mattingly, Carvalhaes harkened back to Catholic historical figure Francis of Assisi—from whom Pope Francis took his name—for justification of the confessing-to-plants service.

“I would say that we are trying to relate to this earth in a way similar to that of St. Francis,” he told Mattingly. “When we confess, we are trying to heal that brokenness that we see all around us in this world, the brokenness that makes it hard for us to see God's fullness in the plants, God's fullness in the animals. … We need to see God in a more expansive way.”

In his video, Carvalhaes argues that the description of nature praising God found in Psalm 148 is a forerunner of the kind of confessional and prayers Union Seminary hosted (although he mistakenly cites Psalm 149 in the video). But the psalmist’s metaphors do not include any sort of repentance before the “Fire and hail, snow and clouds; stormy wind … mountains and all hills; fruitful trees and all cedars” described in verses 8 and 9.

When Jesus, in Luke 19:40, affirmed “the stones would immediately cry out” were His disciples to remain silent, the Savior didn’t consider the stones as conscious beings. Rather, He was saying that the evidence of His Messiahship was so obvious it could not be silenced.

Reaction to the ceremony was, as you might imagine, sharply critical from some quarters. Mattingly quoted the Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who said in a podcast: “If you do not worship the Creator, you will inevitably worship the creation, in one way or another. That is the primal form of idolatry."

Among the so-called “mainline” Christian denominations—a group that includes Carvalhaes’ Presbyterian Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Episcopal Church among others—worship that reflects the earth is nothing new. Mattingly, a veteran religion reporter, recalled an October 1993 service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, an Episcopal congregation, where Paul Winter’s “Missa Gaia,” or “Earth Mass” was performed. He wrote, “Liturgical dances with wolves is, literally, one way to describe this green high mass.”


But “Plants Cannot Forgive” Us

Carl Trueman, a noted writer on Christian topics and professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, noted in First Things magazine’s website that “a sin confessed merely to a plant is a sin which cannot be forgiven, for the simple reason that plants cannot forgive any more than they can be offended.”

Noting that Union Seminary “once boasted luminaries of the intellectual stature of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich,” Trueman wrote that the school is taking a rather different turn in educating the next generation of pastors and preachers.

“Our churches will be empty in fifty years, and the reason is before our very eyes,” Trueman asserted. “The generation of seminarians being trained today will become ministers and pastors who have nothing to say—and most people have more important things to do on a Sunday than listen to those who have nothing to say but who want to be paid for saying it.”

Paul, writing to the young body of believers at Rome, was even more stinging in his rebuke of those who take their eye off of God and His nature: “Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:22, 23).

But just because some people who claim the Christian label are “confessing” to plants doesn’t mean that we are absolved of caring for the world God created.

Pastor Doug Batchelor, in a Bible study lesson, said, “No question, this world is coming to an end it will not last forever. And yes, Jesus is coming soon. All that’s true, but nothing in these truths gives us the right, or the mandate, to defile the earth. If anything, as Christians, we should seek to take care of the world that our God has created for us.”

You can find that lesson, “Creation Care,” online, free to view at any time. This informative study will put the question of environmental issues in the proper, biblical perspective, and give you tools you can use today to help make the world a better place.


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