A Green Mama on Learning to Live Wisely and Well

March 8, 2010


By Tracey Bianchi

Flourish Magazine, Winter 2010

Oh! Teach us to live well!
Teach us to live wisely and well!
- Psalm 90:12 MSG

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need,
but not every man’s greed.
- Gandhi

Craning my neck, I looked out the back window of my car and zipped down our driveway. We were off again for another morning preschool loop. My toddler whined for his pacifier, my infant daughter had already tossed her rattle to the floor, and my preschooler wanted gum.

As we merged into morning traffic, my then four-year-old gazed out the window and asked, “What does important mean?”

Always hyper about an educational opportunity, I threw the question back at him. “Well, honey, what do you think it means?”

He grunted, not impressed by my savvy parenting, and explained that he did not know, which was why he asked in the first place. So I started rattling off a list of important things: family, friends, God. After a few tries, he got into the game, and we bantered back and forth: his brother, his bed, his blankie.

As we pulled up to a stoplight my son’s eyes must have been drawn to the park on the corner, ringed by enormous trees.

“Mommy, do you know what else is important? Trees are important,” he said.

My morning caffeine jolted me into a giddy chatter. “Yes, yes, yes,” I cheered from the driver’s seat. Indeed, trees are important. After years of coaching and cajoling it seemed my son was destined to start Greenpeace for Preschoolers.

I am a self-proclaimed tree hugger. I recycle like a mad woman. I think camping is God’s gift to the overcivilized. I honk at people who whip fast-food wrappers from car windows. Plastic makes me panic. Trees are important! This was the sort of statement I’d waited four years to hear.

“So, honey, why do you think trees are important?” My waiting eyes darted to the rearview mirror.

My darling son paused, and then said thoughtfully, “So they can catch on fire and we can chop them down.”

My heart slid to the floor mat as he droned on about firefighters and logging trucks, the things dear to his manly little heart. Apparently impressing the value of God’s creation on my children would require more than a few bedtime stories and wishful thinking.

The Green Life
Living a “green” life (one that emphasizes caring for the earth’s people and resources) is all the rage. Flip on HGTV, and you will find people building and remodeling houses with green products. Chances are your local newspaper offered several articles on green issues this year. In my community a group of realtors now bicycle together on home tours. And Googling the words organic cotton will leave you inundated with catchy T-shirts and baby onesies that proclaim to the world your witty commitment to all things earthy.

This stewardship (care taking) of the earth, both ecologically and socially, is an issue that lies deep in the very heart of Jesus. Phrases like “climate change” and “sustainable resources” did not exist two thousand years ago. Jesus’ disciples never supported organizations called the World Wildlife Fund or the Sierra Club. Fancy blue recycling bins did not adorn the streets of Rome.

Yet long before Al Gore, Cameron Diaz, and a cadre of other celebrities made their mark on environmental and social issues, Jesus shared the passion God has for this world: passion for the poor, the defenseless, and the needy, passion for the wild places, the rivers, and the mountains he created. God starts out with this story actually. It’s the first thing we read when we crack the Bible open—God’s amazing act of creation in Genesis 1. God was the first environmentalist, Jesus the original humanitarian.

And this planet is a way for us to know something about God. In the book of Romans, we read that “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” (1:20). Which means that our majestic mountains and ice blue lakes, our acres of forest and even our dandelions are a display of God’s power. Who are we to dare to trash that?

For those who follow Jesus, sustainable living is particularly gripping because it reminds us that all of humanity is called to compassion, wisdom, and stewardship of all forms (see Luke 16:1 – 13; Gen. 1:26). I am passionate about following Jesus, so this invitation to stewardship pulls me out of my overabundant life and into a different reality. It reminds me that crashing through the giant super-mart and flinging everything from diapers to deodorant into my cart, without thinking about who made them and what happens to them once I’m finished, does not honor what I know to be true about God. Genesis tells us about the creation of the world, culminating with the creation of man and woman, and then this amazing mission for them: “Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28). If God created this world and then invited the last of his creation—human beings—to help look after it, then I have a responsibility to lavish on this earth more green wisdom than I currently do.

Lawson Younger, an Old Testament professor I once had, said that what the Bible does not say can be as important as what it does say. When it comes to the way Jesus lived, the Bible never says that he owned a four bedroom colonial or did his best to grow his financial portfolio. He was not seen wasting resources or trashing the landscape where he walked and lived. He was a minimalist, only taking what he needed for his journey through this life. He encouraged those who followed him then to do this, to live simply, and he invites us to do the same today.

Sustainable living is absolutely doable. It is possible, even for overworked, often frantic families like mine. If labeling your family “green” feels somewhat new and ambiguous, just dip into your past. You might find this lifestyle crops up in a few unexpected places. My husband and I were not raised by organic farmers or ex-hippies, but our parents exposed each of us to the splendor of God’s creation as young children.

I spent my share of summer vacations on the lumpy floor of a canvas tent in Montana and on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. My newborn bottom was diapered in cloth; it was the only option available for my mother.

My grandmother was a product of the Great Depression, and with a deeply ingrained fear of hunger and scarcity she reused everything. She had piles of old rubber bands, plastic bags, and straws all over her house. She kept paper napkins, reused disposable doilies, and even took leftover butter pads home from restaurants. To this day, I’ve never met another person with an ability to preserve and reuse everyday items the way she did. She never labeled it eco-friendly living, just common sense.

In my own life, I remember the special moments when my mom handed my sister and me our very own ice-cold glass bottle of Coca-Cola, complete with the crown cap. It’s the sort of idyllic, all-American memory that feels like some commercial. My sister and I would smile, gulp down a bubbly swig, and then, indeed, we wanted to buy the whole world a Coke. I also remember taking all eight of these glass bottles back to the grocery store and turning them in to be reused. Not recycled but actually reused. Cleaned and refilled by the Coca-Cola Bottling Company.

The current American obsession with disposable everything was unheard of just fifty years ago. Church picnics never generated the piles of paper plates that they do today. Grocery aisles devoted solely to throwaway food containers did not exist.

Even our national fascination with bottled water is a recent fad. It began in 1989 when water companies began bottling with plastic. This landfill legacy is now an $11 billion-a-year industry, but is a trend barely twenty years old. So if we look back to the way our grandparents and even our parents raised us, we will find many tips and tricks for green living that we already know.

An eco-friendly life does not demand that we overhaul every aspect of our family’s life. For many of us, the wisdom to live wisely is already rooted in our family tree.

A Sustainable Life Is Within Your Reach
Green is the color du jour, and we are surrounded by people, whether they practice a faith in God or not, pursuing God’s plan for this planet. The number of green programs, resources, and organic

products is larger than at any time in recent history. And if you cannot grab greener ideas for living from your local market or library, the internet is pulsing with green tips and strategies for reclaiming wasted items, gardening, recycling, repurposing, and rethinking how we live. Maybe for the first time ever, wise moms like you have easy options to save the planet with and for your children.

I know this whole green life can come off as a bit overwhelming and even snobbish at moments. Rest assured, I am not an eco-snob. I am an overtired, hyper-caffeinated, stressed-out mom. I have a busy life, and green options need to work smoothly for my family, or there will be anarchy. Sure, I have visions of grandeur wherein I drive my car on vegetable oil and pull my family off the power grid, but these are just dreams for now. My dear husband still rolls his eyes at more than half my ideas. And, like almost all my greening mommy friends, I have been known to forget those reusable bags at home!

I’m a woman in the throes of parenting three young children, and each day the intricacies of raising them fills me with tremendous joy and grates on my nerves. Yet despite the chaos, each day I still manage to take a few green steps. You can too.

You do not have to compost every banana peel, ditch your microwave, or convert to organic gardening to make a difference (although these definitely do help). You do not need dreadlocks or a hemp handbag.

Instead, let’s look at the simple solutions that make the biggest differences. Like this one: Americans toss 60 million of those plastic water and beverage bottles into our landfills every day. There is a cheap, family-friendly, and even money-saving solution for this plastic problem: Drink from a reusable bottle.

You can do this.

You can repurpose your summer play dates by giving kids clean, empty, squeezable ketchup bottles for water wars (and they work much better than many squirt guns). You can turn your car off instead of idling outside the school while waiting to pick up your children (research suggests that if you are going to idle more than thirty seconds you will save emissions if you shut it off). You can wash your clothes in cold water and save 1,600 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions in just one year. These are tiny tweaks to your way of life that can add up big for your kids, the planet, and even your wallet.

You can do this.

I’ve heard it said that there are different shades of green. Families come in every color. You may find yourself dark green in a solar-powered home or pale green with a couple of recycling bins. Green living is not a contest to see which family can compost the most. Every effort no matter the size or shade makes a difference.

What Matters Is That You Do Something
The weight of saving the world does not rely solely upon you. God can save the planet himself. Actually, he already has, which is tough for me to swallow because I like to think God needs me. Ultimately, God is interested in your heart and movement toward wise living and responsible stewardship, not how many gallons of water you saved this month. He created this world and then invited us to partner with him in caring for it. He wants us involved in the process, just like I want my children involved in the projects I design for them. Of course I can make the chocolate-chip cookies myself (and, honestly, it would be so much easier that way), but I want my kids to learn how to measure and count, and then I want them to practice patience as they stare at cookies through the oven window. Their hearts and minds are transformed in the process. We learn magnificent truths about our Creator when we care for God’s creation. This is what God wants for your family when it comes to taking care of the earth. The trees and the mountains are bursting forth with God’s goodness (see Isa. 55:12). This is good for our souls.

The prophet Moses prayed to God, “Teach us to live well! Teach us to live wisely and well!” (Ps. 90:12 MSG). I think this is a brilliant prayer. My deepest hopes do not concern my children growing up happy or content but growing up wise.

Living wisely and well means that our children learn to make God-honoring decisions with their resources. It means they discover how to see through marketing hype and the slick packaging of our culture so they can make solid, planet-friendly choices regarding how they live and move through this world.

This is wise living.

Chasing fireflies, walking to the park, everyday conversations, prayers, and trips to the grocery store can be opportunities to teach your children the importance of God’s planet. You have the privilege of nudging your children toward wise living when you help them fall in love with the beauty of this world from the Amazonian rain forest to the anteaters at the zoo.

After my son finished waxing eloquent about setting trees on fire, I realized again how hilarious and unexpected this road of parenting can be. My car that day carried a modest canvas school bag, reusable grocery bags, reusable stainless steel sippy cups, and a reusable travel mug. And one pint-sized lover of the logging industry. No amount of reusable material could convince my son that trees in the parks were for keeping. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, the lesson does not stick.

Your kids will not go green by staring at their reflection in your coffee mug. Just like with karate or guitar, they learn best by doing. They watch you, learn a few tips from you, and then set off on their own. If your home is filled with earth-friendly choices, chemical-free food, and the chance to get outside and play, your children will grow up healthier and will be more likely to seek out a similar lifestyle for their own families. Wisdom is a gift to pass down through the generations. So dig out that travel mug hiding in the back of your kitchen cabinet; turns out it makes a difference.

What Does God Have in Store for You Today?
Each day as I wade through the disaster that my house has already become by 8:00 a.m., I sip my coffee and wonder what God might have in store for us that day. Every morning in the fog of mothering it takes a conscious decision to make wise choices for my family. Will it be another afternoon of errands, the mall, whining, wanting, and clamoring for more out of this life? Or will there be a moment when we purposefully live with wisdom and notice the peace of God glimmering in a puddle, streaming through the trees, or dancing on the grass? Will we be part of the problem or creative advocates for change? What does it take to raise children with a heart for others and eyes for God’s creation?

When the conservation movement started, most followers of Jesus shrugged it off. Rather than embracing organizations aimed at preserving God’s majesty and beauty, many churches have ignored these issues or sloughed them off as the obsession of mountain town liberals. Conservation efforts and Christianity often did not play well together. But we’ve reached a point in human history where we are running out of resources, and, as with everything else, paying lip service to the ideas of Jesus without acting on them gets us nowhere. It’s not a liberal or conservative agenda. Giving our children a healthy future should be every parent’s agenda.

As a mom I’ve used the cliché that I want to give my kids the world. This has meant that I want access to winning sports teams, snappy uniforms, good schools, college scholarships, and a wide

assortment of friends, youth pastors, coaches, and teachers to dote on them every step of the way. It did not really mean that I wanted to give them the world.

But it should.

If you can help them learn to save the world, then you can truly help give them the world. I want my kids to have the heart of Jesus for this planet. I want to give them God’s vision for this earth. I want them to live wisely and well. I want them to know that the trees are indeed important. My hunch is that you and I have at least this much in common.

Green Steps
These green living options can help all our families walk farther down the green path. Pick just one idea at a time from the green steps section to implement for your family’s life. Start small. It’s a big world; don’t exhaust yourself.

1. Explore the eco-examen.
For centuries thoughtful people have discovered God’s guidance for their lives through a series of simple questions called the examen (known as the “examination of consciousness”). The examen is a way of tapping into our daily experiences to find the “God moments” that helped shape that day. Several families I know do the examen on a regular basis. It has many different names, “ups and downs” or “highs and lows.” Simply put, the examen is a way of asking “for what moment today am I most grateful? For what moment today am I least grateful?”

Before bed, or at a good stopping point in our day, I ask my oldest son, “What was the best part of your day?” and “What made you sad/angry today?” It is a fascinating window into your child’s world the way he experiences it. Quite often what I assume are highlights were not even on his radar screen. In the regular asking of these two questions, I have discovered everything from his favorite flavor gum to the real reason he cries at gymnastics.

An Eco-Examen is asking these simple questions with an eye for the natural world. You can make these creation-oriented adaptations part of a daily examen or something special you do on vacation or after a trip to the park or zoo. Your questions might include:

  • What was the best thing you saw outside today? What was one thing you did not like?
  • What makes you happiest about winter (or spring, summer, fall)? What do you like the least about this season?
  • Where in nature did you feel connected to God today? Where did you feel disconnected?
  • Where did you see beauty outside? Where did you see damage or destruction?

2. Learn.
Check out the green scene in your community. Many libraries and community colleges offer guest lectures or ongoing courses on green living. Joining a classroom full of other eager learners will help you download tons of green wisdom in a short amount of time. One-time green classes often crop up around Earth Day in April. Keep an eye out for them.

Your local museums can be another source of green information. Many offer exhibits on green living, and local botanical gardens and children’s museums usually offer kid-friendly gardening and local ecology courses.

Finally, thoughtful retailers and grocers may offer newsletters that educate consumers on everything from wind energy to organic strawberries. If you have a local green grocer or mountaineering shop in your community, start there. National chains like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and REI also offer green living tips through newsletters as well as an occasional class. If these are not available near you, consider checking the library for a few resources, such as:

  • Earth in the Balance by Al Gore (New York: Plume, 1993)
  • Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte (New York: Back Bay, 2005)
  • Serve God, Save the Planet by J. Matthew Sleeth (White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green, 2006)

3. Read chapter 1 of Genesis.
As we start our journey toward a greener life, it helps to remind ourselves of how this whole adventure started. The book of Genesis in The Message reads like a story and will help settle your soul into God’s design for our planet. Find a quiet moment or pull your kids aside before a hike or a nature vacation. Read this text and take a break every few sentences to look around. Sometimes we separate ourselves from Scripture and miss the fact that the very trees swaying in our backyard are filled with the leaves that dance in God’s creation story. Take a moment to let it sink in that God’s thumbprint is alive and moving all around you.

4. Take the first step.

Finally, try these easy-to-do paper-saving opportunities as a way to get started:

  • Stop unwanted junk mail and catalogues from coming to your door (http://www.dmachoice.org).
  • Stop phone books from arriving, and agree to get your information online (http://www.yellowpagesgoesgreen.org).
  • Cancel your newspaper and magazine subscriptions and read them online, or share copies with a friend who also subscribes.
  • Avoid printing out emails.
  • Recycle or reuse the paper that you do use.

Tracey Bianchi currently serves as the Pastor for Women at Christ Church of Oak Brook, just outside of Chicago. She’s a mother of three young children who is trying to eek out a more sustainable life from the suburbs. This article is excerpted from her first book, Green Mama: The Guilt Free Guide to Helping You and Your Kids Save the Planet, released in February of 2010. When she’s not chasing children, Tracey also writes and speaks for a variety of national organizations. She also earned an MDIV from Denver Seminary along the way. You can find her musings at http://traceybianchi.com

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Briana March 10, 2010 at 12:31 am

I love it! I’m not a mom (I’m 19) but I do babysit my cousin and I think these are great tips. I’m trying to continue to build my relationship with God so this definitely put my quest for a sustainable lifestyle in focus. Thanks!

Tracey March 17, 2010 at 9:33 pm

Thanks Briana! Good to hear from you and good to know the ideas resonate with you. Kudos to you on giving love and support to your cousin and I hope that you both can find some good time to soak up the sunshine and enjoy Creation this Spring.

Patti March 26, 2010 at 10:26 pm

Great article! Thanks for the good reminder that each of us really can do something and, even better, the encouraging words and tips for things that can make a difference. This article was like a story, a slice of your life, so engaging and flowing so naturally from thought to thought that I didn’t realize how far from my own suburban busyness my thoughts had gotten until I finished reading. I think I need to dig out the contact info for my local food cooperative.
PS: I really like your writing!

lynn stafford March 28, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Love your perspective! I have been a green Mom and a tree hugger since the 70′s……and have been made much fun of for years by fellow Christians. I’ve had my own grocery bags for years, and had to deal with baggers looking at me like I was crazy when I handed them cloth bags to put my groceries in. It is so refreshing to see what is going on in this area…..this is something that I have been praying for years to see happen!
Thank you so much for seeing God’s word in what I call a “whole grain” approach…..(too many Christians have only read what they like, and are not getting all that God intended for us to learn from his word, AND his creation!)

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