We read in the early part of the Bible, “Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15)
God set man the task to make the garden productive. “Keep it” would hint also at keeping the garden looking good. This may be a stretch, but it is a short stretch. After all, the God who is the source of all beauty, could reasonably be expected to want the beautiful garden to keep on being beautiful. Perhaps made even more beautiful.
I think it is still our job to cultivate the earth and keep it, make it productive and beautiful. But let’s back up a bit! When we walk into the garden and the garden is a mess of discarded junk, instinct tells us that we need to get rid of the junk first, then after that get to work cultivating.
It reminds me of something my beloved Uncle Ed said. He said when you get up in the morning after a wild drunken party, it doesn’t really matter which end of the house you start cleaning up. The point is to start somewhere, to clean the mess away bit by bit. That makes a lot of sense to me.
Well, the American Christian church has awakened in a U.S. which has had a wild drunken party. We need to cultivate the garden, yes, but first of all we need to clear the debris.
This can be understood metaphorically. We have awakened to a morally drunken mess: baby murder, transgenderism, homosexuality, the welfare/warfare state, and on and on. But I want to back up even more. I want to suggest that one thing we Christians could be doing when we see the mess around us, is to clean up the mess around us. I mean the physical mess around us. I mean, simply pick up the trash which is destroying the beauty of our country.
Yes, I mean: pick up litter from the side of the road.
It seems a small task morally, and a big task in practical terms. But I think in reality it is a big task morally, and a small task in practical terms. I’ll try to explain what I mean.
I think it is a big task morally, because it is something we think is a task beneath our abilities and our excellent moral standing. What, pick up trash which millions of pagans have thrown out their car windows? (I’m guessing not all Christians are innocent of such throwing, but just for the sake of argument let’s assume most of the littering is done by non-Christians.)
Yes. We Christians are saved totally by the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We are not smart enough or good enough to choose salvation. If we have been saved by grace, it behooves us to be willing to show grace to others. That includes of course something big like being willing to help non-Christians find salvation by pointing them to Jesus Christ. But can it not also include something small like picking up trash? We model grace by picking up trash. Also, we obey God by keeping the garden in better shape than it was before we picked up the trash. We have a more attractive world to look at–and we are helping our neighbor have a more beautiful world also. As we have been shown grace, we show grace to others.
So picking up trash is a big task morally.
But it turns out that to our surprise, picking up all the trash in the U.S. is a small task in practical terms. That may seem incorrect at first sight. The U.S. is big, litter is everywhere and is added to daily.
True. But one person can pick up a lot of litter in a very short time. My town is about 3,000 people. From my experience in seeing how slowly litter is generated, I am willing to estimate that a very small handful of people–call it five–could keep this small town almost spotless of litter.
And I don’t mean they could do this by all of them working a 40-hour week, month after month. No, I mean by the five picking up trash less than an hour each, every week.
You doubt me? Try it yourself. Pick up the trash in your neighborhood for just one hour. Wait a week and go out again. You will find that very little new litter has been generated. Some has, yes, but not much.
The wonderful truth is, litter is much less powerful than elbow grease. If we used elbow grease, we could clean up the U.S. with very little trouble. We are not overwhelmed by litter. We are overwhelmed by our own unwillingness to use elbow grease.
Is the job of making the U.S. litter-free worth doing? It is, in my opinion, but apparently it is not a job worth doing for most people. Because the points I am making here are not esoteric reasoning open only to a tiny intellectual elite. Any person, any Christian, who thought about the issue for twenty minutes, can understand that the U.S. could be spotless within a month, with very little collective effort. But apparently other people disagree with me that this is a job worth doing, because as a people, Christian or non-Christian, we make no real effort to get the job done. And it is a job we could do standing on our heads with one hand tied behind our backs, and blindfolded. Very quickly. So apparently the job is not worth doing, in the minds of most people.
Keeping the garden involves a whole lot more than picking up litter, of course. We need to make the garden more beautiful in countless ways. But let’s crawl before we walk. Let’s clean up the drunken mess on our streets, then beautify our homes and gardens after the litter is gone.
It would vastly encourage us if we cleaned up the mess. As a people, we tend toward depression and discouragement. If we won a small victory such as having clean streets, it might encourage us to consider that maybe we could have other victories. Maybe the lack of elbow grease is what is holding us back in a dozen categories, not just in the category of keeping the streets clean. Maybe we could actually, over the long haul, clean up the drunken mess of our morality, if we used elbow grease. It’s a theory.
I’ll let you in on a secret. If you say I told you this, I’ll deny it. Here’s the secret: in actual fact, picking up trash is fun. Yes, I know there must be something wrong with me. To say picking up trash is fun, is probably a cry for help. Help which has arrived too late. But think about it.
When I remove litter from the side of the road, I get instant gratification. The world looks better, and it looks better because I personally did something which made a difference in the right direction. It was a small something, and probably few people even notice that there is less trash, but I notice and I feel rewarded. So when I say that picking up trash is fun, I have some sort of twisted logic on my side.
I apologize to the teeming millions who have read Chapter 6 of my book The Way to Do a Thing Is to Do It: Essays (2017) in which I discuss “Picking Up Trash and the Power of Minorities.” You’ve heard all this before. It is a topic which, heaven help me, I consider fun, so I couldn’t resist writing about it again.
I’ll close with the epigraph to that chapter, borrowed from the gifted English writer Theodore Dalrymple. Dr. Dalrymple has gone so far as to write a very good book on litter: Litter: How Other People’s Rubbish Shapes Our Lives (2011). But this quote is from another of his books, Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses (2005). Dr. Dalrymple reminds us of a truth worth pondering.
“Of course, civilization is not only an attachment to the highest peaks of human achievement. It relies for its maintenance upon an infinitely complex and delicate tissue of relations and activities, some humble and others grand. The man who sweeps the streets plays his part as surely as the great artist or thinker.” (p. 157)
Do we want to give Christian civilization a shot in the arm? One way, humble rather than grand, is to pick up the litter off our streets. Which may lead eventually to our cultivating and keeping the garden, a job assigned to us long ago.