06/19/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Making Earth Day a Church Day

Earth Day is forty years old. For most of these forty years, the followers of Jesus have in large part been obstructionist or at best apathetic to the care of the planet that all humanity depends upon in the pursuit of life and liberty.

But things are changing. In the past, I was asked, "Isn't Earth Day just for treehuggers -- and nature-worshippers?" Today, I am more likely to encounter Christians who realize that we have come late to the table and want to help. It is no longer if Christians should celebrate Earth Day, but how.

I like to pause on birthdays that end in zeros and contemplate their meaning. Milestones allow us to reflect on past accomplishments, lament opportunities lost, and plan for the journey ahead.

The first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970. The event's gestation was announced the previous year when the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire and burned. Although the Cuyahoga had burned a dozen times before, the 1969 blaze caught the common person's attention. One doesn't need an advanced degree in chemistry to understand that water isn't supposed to catch fire.

On the way to Earth Day's fortieth, there have been unexpected heroes and unlikely partnerships. Richard Nixon championed the EPA, and camouflaged hunters crouching in the predawn light became the advocates of wetlands.

Once the answer was simply to stop: stop hunting, cutting, damming, and mining. But the threats and solutions to today's environmental problems are not as obvious. It was easier for Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir to see millions of buffalo disappear than it is to see tiny lead shot pellets destroying a wetland. Who knows what flora have been displaced by the invasive Japanese Honeysuckle, which seems to be taking over the state in which I live?

Serious environmental preservation and conservation takes the work of multiple disciplines, but when environmental triumphs of the past are studied, moral leadership has been the thing that carried the day. Our current problems are not unique, but they are sorely lacking the input of biblical history available to the 80-plus percent of Americans who claim Christianity.

On previous Earth Day anniversaries, some religious leaders said that dominion gives us license to use up whatever we want, without restraint. Nothing could be less in keeping with the overarching spirit of scripture. Dominion implies tremendous responsibility -- just ask any parent or teacher who has "dominion" over a young child.

In recent years, such talk has mostly gone away -- because the Bible doesn't support trashing the planet. It is easy to spout off dust-jacket deep theology, but a more thorough reading gives a rather "green" theology.

The Bible omits many details that we expect in modern writing. We do not know if Abraham was tall or dark, but we do know what species of tree he found shade under when greeting strangers, and that he planted an oak to mark his wife's passing. We know that the first aesthetic God assigns is to trees (Genesis 2:9), and that Deborah held court under a palm. We know that the Lord retains claim on the earth (Psalm 24:1) and will someday punish those who "destroyed the earth" (Rev 11:1).

As we mark the fortieth Earth Day, the words in Ezekiel come to mind. "When you drink the clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?" (Ezek 34:18 NRSV). This excerpt from the Clean Water Act of 571 B.C. refers not just to the purity of water, but to the needs of those living literally and metaphorically downstream. By definition we are the temporal guardians of all those who will drink the water in a hundred years.

Four decades ago, the rivers of this nation literally blazed with pollution. Earth Day was a reaction and a celebration. Many of us relate to this world through the Bible and our faith in God. The work of cleaning up our world and protecting its treasures is larger than any one group on the planet can do alone. I look forward to the myriad ways in which people of faith, science, and government will mark this important date.

On April 21, the eve of Earth Day, Christians from around the world are gathering for a night of prayer, worship, and celebration. I invite those who see Earth Day 2010 through the lens of their faith to join with thousands of churches, universities, and individuals who will be taking part in a worldwide conversation of profound importance. No agenda. No politics. Anyone, anywhere can participate. We hope you will join us.

Earth Day offers Christians a chance to put our faith into action. By 2020, I pray that we will be known by what we are for: clean air, clean water, and healthy soil to sustain all our global neighbors.

Sign up for the Hope for Creation simulcast at