By Dottie Yunger*
Around Ash Wednesday, a pastor’s thoughts naturally turn to spotted turtles. Wait. What?
As I prepared for Lent this year, those preparations included ashes for worship and an incubator for turtle eggs. Working part-time as pastor of Solomons UMC and aquarist assistant at the Calvert Marine Museum, this marine biologist minister often has an eclectic To Do List any given week. The beginning of Lent this year was no exception. The spotted turtles at the museum had been mating, and we came in one day to find two elliptical eggs in the tank. The female had laid them in the water, which is not typical; females dig a nest on land with their hind legs. Without knowing if the eggs were even fertilized, let alone still viable after being submerged, we decided to put them in an incubator we had on hand.
I researched the incubation period for spotted turtles, which is the amount of time the eggs remain and develop in the nest. For spotted
Lent came and went, and Holy Week brought its usual worship, reflection
And it was. The lid of the incubator was lifted back when I got there, with an empty turtle shell inside. One of the turtles had hatched, and the other was just beginning to. At about an inch long and with bright yellow spots, the hatchling was surveying her new world around her. The life that had been developing and growing and persevering in the dark burst forth into the light. And everyone there who saw it, regardless of his or her faith or lack thereof, proclaimed the same thing – “It’s an Easter miracle!”
I never imagined a tiny turtle would be such a powerful evangelist. But that’s what Dash – that’s what we named her – was that day. By the next
In his article, “Consider the Turtles of the Field,” Brian McLaren describes emerging theological values that we all might embrace, not just marine biologist ministers like me. They are:
- Increased concern for the poor leads to increased concern for all creation. The same forces that hurt the widow and the orphan, the elderly, children, and minorities, hurt turtles, trees, soil, water, air. These are forces such as greed, impatience, selfishness, arrogance, hurry, anger, competition, irreverence. When those forces are exposed and rejected by God’s people, God’s people and all of creation are then re-valued,
re-deemed, and made sacred again. This includes the redemption of a tiny spotted turtle and her hatchlings. They are seen as the priceless creatures of God for which they are, not deemed worthless by a society who values a road through their wetland habitat more.
- What Brian McLaren describes as an “eschatology of abandonment” is replaced by a gospel of the kingdom. This understanding of end times focuses almost entirely on God bringing us to heaven, beyond time, beyond matter, beyond this creation entirely. All of creation, therefore, is wrapped up like an empty candy wrapper and thrown in the trashcan. Creation is seen as the “cosmic backdrop” for human salvation; there’s no continuity between this creation and the new heavenly creation. This “candy wrapper creation” is ultimately discardable, because, “Why get sentimental about a cheap container destined for the cosmic dumpster of nothingness?” This view causes as much harm as an
actualdiscarded candy wrapper does, as plastic whose manufacture, incineration, and accumulation without ever biodegrading pollutes and poisons the land, water, air – and the communities who live connected to them. The gospel of the kingdom values creation here and now, and in and of itself. McLaren persuasively states: “In this kingdom, Jesus said, sparrows matter. Lilies of the field matter. Yes, people matter even more, but it’s not a matter of either/or; it’s a matter of degree in a world where everything that is good matters — where everything God made matters.”
- Finally, and maybe the most difficult to practice in our American
culture,is the concept of private ownership replaced with an ethic of biblical stewardship. A capitalist economy is replaced with a stewardship economy. This economy of God’s kingdom has very clear values, and those values have correlationwith the ecological principles. That correlation is how I understand myself as a scientist and a person of faith, and the relationship I see between science and religion. When I realized the reasons I cared about turtles in my science world were connected to the reasons I was a person of faith and vice versa, I realized I could accept a call to ordained ministry.
Those values, and the correlation to ecological
- Community – seeing beyond the individual to the communal. This theological value is reflected in the scientific concept of an ecosystem, a community of organisms interacting with each other and their physical environment. A spotted turtle is an individual species, and it is also one species interacting with other turtles, raccoons and muskrats, and the habitat including the stream, mud, leaf litter, etc.
- Fellowship – sharing and holding in common with the community. The scientific concepts of coevolution and symbiosis reflect in some ways this fellowship. As two or more species change over time, they affect each other’s evolution, such as the way flowering plants and insects have. Scientists classify some of these interactions as symbiotic – relationships between two or more organisms that live closely together. Some of these relationships are mutualistic; both organisms benefit in ways they could not if they lived separately.
- Mission – participation in God’s kingdom for God’s purposes. Scientists use the term “niche” to describe an organism’s role in an ecosystem. When we alter or destroy the habitat of spotted turtles, we alter or destroy the purpose for which God created spotted turtles. And we act like we know better than God how spotted turtles should be spotted turtles.
After Dash hatched, I gently picked her up and placed her in the palm of my hand. Spotted turtles are semi-aquatic, and it was time to introduce her to water. I poured a small amount
*The Rev. Dottie Yunger is pastor of Solomons UMC in Solomons.