“Bible study! Bible study!?” My friend’s saliva sputtered across my desk and graced my hands, which were now clenched and starting to sweat. His reaction was just what I had been fearing.

“Hey guys,” Carl bellowed down the hall, “did you hear that? Mel won’t go get a beer with me cause she’s got BIBLE study tonight!”

I still cringe at the memory. For months, I’d been trying to figure out how to tell my agnostic/atheist coworkers at the Sierra Club that I had – gasp – become a Christian. I’d known Carl a dozen years, and he was a good friend, often flying from California to D.C. to help me lobby his congressional delegation. This trip, he had mentioned that he’d recently discovered Zen Buddhism and been on a retreat. Since he’d confided something of his spiritual journey to me, I thought he might be a safe person to tell about my decision to join a church community and tag along after Jesus. Wrong.

The Unholy

I didn’t blame my fellow environmental lobbyists for distrusting Christianity. Ultra right-wing politicians had formed an unholy alliance with the conservative Christian Coalition and several polluting industries to deny climate change and promote a false jobs-versus-the-environment message. (But we can’t afford to protect air and water, it will hurt poor people!)

More fundamentally, environmentalists and even many Christians misinterpret the ancient Judeo-Christian concept of “stewardship” as meaning dominion over nature, or license to exploit – even responsibility to exploit. (God put those trees there for us to use, so we must cut them down even if they are a thousand years old.)

Some Christians just figure Jesus is coming to get them any day, so why worry about the planet?

I was a different kind of Christian and a different kind of environmentalist. Could I ever put the two halves of myself together?

The Holy

For me, love of nature and reverence for God are integrally connected and biblically sound. One of Jesus’s early followers, Paul, wrote in the Bible, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

If you believe God is the Creator, then God is revealed in the created world and we should honor it. Duh. But what seemed like a no-brainer for me wasn’t as obvious to either my environmental or my Christian friends.

The Rift Widens

The day after the offending Bible study, I was at a Christian leaders’ retreat focused on identifying and using spiritual gifts. I had determined that my deep love of nature and my passion to care for it were both gifts from God; I was starting to hope that perhaps my spiritual life and my career could become integrated after all, grounded in my new faith.

During an afternoon break, I leaned against a rickety ping-pong table and surveyed what I now recognized as common church-basement fare: store-bought cookies (Oreos) and paper (non-recyclable) cups of juice.

I was chatting with the first missionary I had ever met. He asked what I did for a living and I told him, with perhaps more pride in my voice than God would have liked. In the cavernous pause that followed, I could feel the rift between my two selves widen.

He said, in precisely the same cringe-inducing tone that Carl had used the night before, “Sierra Club! Sierra Club? I wouldn’t think someone from Sierra Club would even be in a church, let alone at a leaders’ retreat.” Apparently he bought into the political rhetoric that all environmentalists are misanthropic atheists who care more about trees and spotted owls than people.

I had no allies in either camp, unless they were in hiding.

Becoming Myself

Today, millions of Christians recognize the responsibility to care for creation as part of their faith tradition, although many older ones still distrust what they mockingly call “tree huggers.”

Unabashed Tree Hugger

Unabashed Tree Hugger

But twenty years ago when my “identity split” took place, the false dichotomy nearly broke me in half as my two selves battled for balance and acceptance. I didn’t feel at home with my old hard-partying, competitive friends in progressive politics anymore, yet I didn’t quite fit with my new faith community either.

During this period, I had the opportunity to meet former President Jimmy Carter. I asked him how he managed his dual life, immersed in cut-throat politics but also reflecting the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control that the Bible says are gifts of the Holy Spirit.

He gave me one of his penetrating icy blue stares that I imagine unsettled many a foreign leader and said, “Contrary to popular opinion, God lives in Washington, D.C., too.”

We laughed, but the deeper meaning of his words took root: God is always at work and inviting me to join in wherever I am. It’s my job to pay attention and respond. Best of all, I’m not in charge of what anyone else thinks of me.

Over time, my commitment to spiritual growth – which includes connecting with God through the natural world – has given me the confidence to become the unique person I was created to be; other people’s opinions be damned.

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I’ve written this post in response to the Weekly Writing Challenge, which points to our many personas and asks us to “tell about a time when two or more “yous” ran into each other.” You have a persona story to share?

 

 

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