Mary Kay Henson

Book Review

Moore, Mary Elizabeth. Ministering with the Earth.
St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1998.

Mary Elizabeth Moore write a book with heart—a book that reflects her passion for the earth and all its inhabitants. She laments in the prologue that “words cannot contain the wholeness and the relatedness of the universe” (ix) and then proceeds to delineate her intention to provide a picture through stories, images, and metaphors in order that the reader might be edified, inspired, and challenged in such a way that he or she might be moved to action. She says that “[t]o minister with the earth is to serve God is such a way that we care for the earth, receive from the earth, and join with the earth in praise of our Maker and in healing our planet. This is a ministry of covenantal living with God and the human community and the earth” (3). This necessarily requires action, and Moore forthrightly reveals her hope that these actions will become a part of the reader’s own story—a story of a love affair with God’s created world; a story that will invite the reader to dance, sing, wrestle, and wonder at the intricacy of creation and the role of humanity within it.

Moore clearly states her intent for each chapter and she uses the image of quilt making as a foundation for tying her story together. This impresses even further upon the reader the work of art that is God’s creation and its total dependency upon all parts of it self for completeness.

Chapter One is devoted to gathering “sacred hopes for ministering with the earth (3). These hopes represent the fabrics that are gathered for creating a quilt. They are the raw materials out of which “ministering with the earth can be made a reality” (20). Moore uses her personal story of camping as a child to describe her conversion into a lover of the earth, and then incorporates stories of the Cosmos as well as ecological stories to delineate the magnitude of the crisis the earth faces. All the while, she sets the stage for inviting the reader into their own “conversion experience” in which the reader might hear the call to work alongside God in repairing the world—embodying the Hebrew concept of tikkun olam, striving for the world to be transformed and grounded in social, political and religious justice and righteousness (4).

Moore identifies lessons from the earth itself to make her point and the quilt of transformation in subsequent chapters. She effectively uses stories from the Bible, historical traditions, and peoples around the world to lead the reader more deeply into “relationship with God and the earth” (14). Moore forms her book around “themes of sacredness” (20), clearly identifying ministering with the earth as grounded in the Spirit of God. In sharing sacred hopes and setting the stage for transformation through the Spirit and action, Moore identifies her own presuppositions—she calls them affirmations. These are what she says “jolted” her into caring about ministering with the earth, and I believe the illustrate the depth of her connection with the earth and her commitment to its restoration.

  1. God is revealed to human communities as they live closely with the earth. (14)
  2. Human life is broken, and relating deeply with creation contributes to human healing. (15)
  3. Healing is urgently needed for the whole cosmos. (16)
  4. Small actions can carry great significance in ministering with the earth. (16)
  5. Concerns for the well being of the earth are inextricably bound with economic and political justice in human communities. (17)
  6. Transformed communities can contribute to transformation of the world. (18)
  7. Human beings are called to receive from, and participate with, the earth in the redemptive work of God. (19)
  8. Outdoor ministries are a primary avenue for ministering with the earth and a paradigm for ministry in all of its many forms. (19)

The purpose of chapter two is “to seek God’s presence and imagine God’s design for a new creation” (23). Moore likens this process to the process of imagining the design for the quilt and encourages an attitude of creativity and openness while clearly delineating the challenges that we encounter if we refuse to acknowledge our interdependency with God’s sacred creation. Moore invites the reader to see the wonder and beauty in all that is created and to re-imagine God’s intentions in creating. She invites readers to open themselves to interaction with that creation—an interaction that requires a heart-response—a movement to act with the earth as part and parcel of it. We care for ourselves and all things/beings created when we minister with the earth. Moore identifies four dilemmas we face because we have failed to honor the sacredness of creation and offers stories for transformation of our minds and hearts on the journey toward renewal. First, creation has been thought of as something to use, play with, or master for human benefit (31). Ms. Moore points out that unless we change this mindset, we have little hope of reversing any of the damages our carelessness has caused. The second dilemma involves our tendency to think that we can create islands of sacred ground for ourselves while we continue to desecrate land and air with our daily living choices (32). She sets the stage for a more just way of living that involves attention to how our everyday choices affect the entire created world and its inhabitants. Dilemma three addresses our desires to accumulate possessions which drain the resources of our own lands as well as those of many others (35). She is not shy in pointing out that many of our consumer-centered cultures are fueled by “Christians.” If we are to live out Christian values, we must find ways to combat the cultural lure to acquire things at the expense of others. The final dilemma addresses our segmented ways of interacting with the world around us and is manifested in the ways that we perceive the universe as if it were autonomous pieces that can be separated from one another without serious ecological disruption (36). Our illusion that we can master our environment one segment at a time without consequences puts all creation at risk. Clearly, raising our awareness of the sacredness of God’s creation and our deeply imbedded part in the world community is necessary in order for there to be hope for sustaining and sustainable change.

Chapters Three and Four expand upon the themes of interdependence and relationship by calling for awareness of the sacredness of meeting and confronting. Moore points out the responsibility to pay attention to the relationality of human beings with all of creation (52) as well as the relationality across time—generation to generation (53). She likens these actions to that of cutting of the patches for quilt making—care must be taken in dealing with the raw materials and preparing the pieces to be woven together, or the quilt simply will not take proper shape. Moore stresses the call to covenantal relationship and our responsibility to listen to one another, to learn from one another, and to pay attention how what we say and do affects the entirety of creation. This involves more than simply walking alongside another. It requires making decisions that provide justice for all of creation.

When dealing with the great diversity of peoples, needs, perspectives and traditions, confrontation is inevitable. In Chapter Four, Moore beautifully calls for the living out of Christian values through emptying one’s self of personal desires and living out the covenantal relationships that she identifies in Chapter Three. She refers to three biblical stories that do not give clear answers to illustrate that there are not easily identifiable moral rules for response. Instead, these stories offer “diverse convictions of diverse people and the challenge of many questions and ideas” (93). The reader is challenged by his or her own responses to being confronted by interruptions, children, personal critique, and the suggestion to give away all of what one owns. What we learn best from these stories is that God is present in the midst of the messiness of our lives. God’s presence is challenge, a call to struggle, and an unswerving constant who perseveres with us as we strive to act with God and the earth in ways that honor all of creation and help to move it toward wholeness. Ms. Moore suggests that we may find that in striving to hold confrontation as sacred, we are called to act or think in radically different ways than we have in the past. In the quilt analogy, we find ourselves stitching the carefully placed pieces together.

Ms. Moore’s purpose in Chapter Five is “to explore diverse forms of sacred journey and their potential for earthbound ministry drawing implications for future ministry.” (96). She equates this to basting on a backing to our pieced quilt. As the backing holds the many pieces stitched together in place, a “journey is “a practice and image that holds many parts together” (96). She contends that people are transformed as they make their journeys, even though there are many different kinds of journeys. She delineates four kinds of journeys: wondering, wandering, retreating, and deciding and explores them through the biblical, historical, and experiential lenses of several different social and ethnic perspectives as is appropriate to each type of journey. She sums up the journey challenge for earthbound ministry in this way: “to wonder at each beautiful, painful, or tragic reality as we journey through the cosmos; to wander through history with courage and hope; to retreat to sacred places, seeking renewal and transformation; and to make prophetic decisions, however risky” (118).

Chapter Six stresses the imperative to listen to the suppressed voices and ministering to the forgotten peoples. It is impossible to “stitch the designs for God’s new creation” (120) without all the partners in creation. While we might grasp the call to minister with the animals, plants, waters, and soil of the earth, we often forget to seek the contribution of those in the less visible or less powerful parts of the world. In the quilt metaphor, our finished product not only becomes beautiful in the creation and action of stitching the design, but it is strengthened by this work done well together. Moore lifts up people of color, women, laborers, the youngest and the oldest, indigenous peoples and their cultural wisdom, victims of violence and abuse, animals and creatures who do not have human voice for the gifts that they bring. She chastises the powers that be for forming “selective partnerships” which exclude and disenfranchise those who are other than our chosen “preference” as happens with lesbians and gays. She touts true partnerships that embrace all voices and points of view as the only way to usher in a truly just and lasting transformation. She calls particularly on grassroots groups, congregations, institutions, and leadership groups to use their power and influence to deliberately make space for those who are often left out or silenced. She specifically calls on churches to practice a politics of partnership that has a clear purpose of reform and transformation. It is to be rooted in systems thinking and so must be in conversation that uses many forms of communication (not simply words). The “dialogue” should include the past as well as the present, multiple cultures, and the very planet itself. Churches must be passionate—“to seek ways for tension to inform and motivate the church rather than to destroy or debilitate it (142). Finally, the churches are to be prophetic—to acknowledge that the decisions and the actions they take “shape the future of the community….Discernment and courage are urgent” (142).

The final chapter describes four particular actions for earthbound ministry as faithful responses to God’s call to the sacred vocation of ministering with the earth: keeping Sabbath, tending cycles, engaging in transformative politics, and practicing stewardship with creation. This is where the quilt is finally ready for practical use. She suggests that what is needed to begin a new ministry with the earth is “hope that God is active in the world and we can participate in God’s new creation; presence to God, one another, and the wonders and pains of the world; action that points towards God’s new creation; and humility, both in relation to God and in relation to other people and beings of the earth” (145). The responses must be grounded in “compassion, or feeling with God and creation; reflection on God and the world and the relationship between them; and active participation in reshaping community, social, and environmental life” (145). Moore describes at length how the politics of active participation may be approached so that creation, justice, and peace will be clearly supported rather than denied—tying together all the previous chapters into one grand challenge, quoting Thomas Merton: “Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, and our own destiny.” She says further that “[o] ur unique purpose will be formed …as we pray and seek and give of ourselves, living with and for God” (168).

Ms. Moore completes her book with an appendix that contains a practical outline for presenting the ideas in her book in a retreat format.

I found this book to be very engaging. As a hand crafter myself, the image of creating a quilt through the stories and images in each chapter was more than engaging. It helped me to comprehend that she was piecing together ideas, one upon the other, that were leading to a practical outcome.

Her use of personal and biblical stories made this a book about life and faith and re-imagining a way to be in the world that would indeed lead to greater fulfillment in life for me as an individual and for the whole of God’s creation. This is not a book designed to scare one into action to overcome the abuses that have put our world on the brink of disaster, although there is clear indication that Ms. Moore believes humanity has a responsibility to pay attention to the abuse that it has inflicted upon all of creation. Her approach, however, is from the point of view of strong invitation to realize—either a new or for the first time—our part in God’s big picture. She clearly lays out the image of humanity’s place WITHIN creation and its call to work WITH it and WITH God is preserving that which means life and fullness for all of that was created by God’s hand. She crafts a call to creativity and interdependency as she crafts the image of the quilt. I was impressed by both my responsibility to respond as well as the freedom I found within the call to CREATE—to think outside the box as it has been drawn before.

Moore gives careful instruction about what to attend to on this transformative journey. She does not miss the opportunity to call for a new kind of community partnership that is inclusive not only of the land, sea, sky and animal creatures, but she calls for specific attention to the voiceless in the current cultural system. There is an urgency in her message that is not overwhelming to the reader. There is clearly a message of hope in that God is with us always—and that whatever comes, God will persevere with us. Her faith that God is big enough to overcome the challenges of the situation that our neglect has put us in also breathes a needed message of hope into what otherwise might be considered a near-to lost cause.

If I were a writer, I would aspire to writing a book like this one. Ms. Moore passionately expresses her love of creation and her understanding of our need to make significant changes in a way that is not only doable, but inspiring. We are called to re-imagine ourselves as part of a much larger system of creation, and we are called to respond in new ways as created beings and as the beloved of God. Particularly for those who do not respond well to statements of “gloom and doom,” I would recommend Ms. Moore’s book and her challenge to minister with the earth.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, (New York: New Directions Book, 1972, 1961), 29.