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No Easy Answers

By Grace Hackney

One phrase returned to me again and again at the “Holy and Beautiful: Greening Sacred Spaces” conference at Duke in February. In 24 hours, the phrase became mantra-like: “It’s a no-brainer…it’s a no-brainer ….

Of course, we should consider the environment when building churches; of course, we have a theological mandate to be good stewards of the earth’s resources; of course, the church should be leading the way in the area of environmental responsibility…it’s a no-brainer.

Yet, we know it isn’t that easy. Good theology also informs decisions such as the type of car we drive, how we raise our children, how we talk to our neighbors, what we eat and how we care for our bodies. These are all “nobrainers,” yet the church continues to pride itself on gluttonous covered-dish suppers, our parking lots are full of gas-guzzling vehicles, and we continue to whisk the children out of worship for “children’s church” because they are a “distraction.”

Of course, our belief requires action. Of course, it matters what we do with our money, our bodies, and our little plot of earth. The question is not "how do we move from belief to action," but rather, how are we formed in a belief in the triune God that compels us to action? When we begin to understand who God is and who we are as his creatures, then it matters what kind of car we drive, what we eat, what kind of church buildings we build . . . if, indeed, we need to build at all.

I am convinced that our greatest barrier is a deficit of imagination. For too long, the church’s imagination has been shaped not only by the popular culture, but by a poor understanding of who God is, and what God calls the church to be. Ellen Davis reminded us that as slaves in Egypt the Israelites built storehouses for the Pharaoh’s excessive wealth. For too long, Christians have been in the business of building storehouses for our souls— places to sit comfortably in padded pews waiting for Christ to return and whisk us off to heaven. Why build green? Jesus is coming soon.

When we see the church as a sign of God’s Kingdom on earth and ourselves as a resurrection people, we realize we were freed long ago from the slavish work of building storehouses. Rather, we have been given the good work of building training grounds—holy and beautiful spaces that are not only a reflection of the triune God, but whose form also contributes to our formation as God’s beautiful people.

Ellen Davis reminded us that we are called to reflect the ecological virtues of wisdom and restraint: Wisdom to use science and technology as sacred vehicles; restraint to operate within an economy of sufficiency—resulting in simple, but beautiful, spaces for worship. Building green churches—and houses and barns—becomes a “no-brainer” because of who God is.

As I write this column, we are about to move into a new church building. One thing I have learned is this: Building provides the opportunity to sharpen theology and to learn together what it means to be the church. While our new building does not meet the stringent requirements for a “certified” green-space, we choose to use local construction materials and labor whenever possible. We bought a used commercial kitchen at the fraction of the cost of a new one. Dormers were added in the sanctuary to bring in additional natural light.

At a recent United Methodist Women gathering, someone commented that we needed to stop using Styrofoam at church dinners. During our Wednesday night Lenten suppers, individuals brought their own cup, bowl and spoon. Plans are underway for “Free Food Fridays” where we will distribute excess garden produce this summer in the church parking lot.

The mindset is beginning to change. Our imaginations are expanding. But there is still work to be done. Come Sunday morning, God’s people will gather to worship in the “beauty of holiness,” seeking to be built into a holy and beautiful people, a sign of God’s Kingdom in the here and now.

Grace Hackney D’03 is the pastor of Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, near Hillsborough, N.C. She inherited plans to rebuild the historic church building, which was destroyed by fire during Advent 2000. The Service of Consecration and Thanksgiving for the new building will take place June 5, 2005.


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