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Evangelical environmentalist uplifts wonder, whimsy

On a four-month, 1,000-mile trek in the Cascades with two pack llamas, an evangelical minister and outdoors advocate decided to shift his life’s focus to promoting stewardship of the environment.

Peter Illyn
Peter Illyn of Restoring Eden

Peter Illyn, director of Restoring Eden: Christians for Environmental Stewardship in La Center, Wash., spoke at a recent event to launch the Interfaith Council’s Faith and Environment Network.

 “That I am a Christian—especially a white man with a Bible—makes some people nervous,” he observes in his environmental advocacy.  “In the last five years, however, I have seen a shift in awareness and an acceptance that if we love our Creator, we need to take care of creation.”

Peter, who grew up Russian Orthodox in South Carolina, said he supports conservative values.  After all, he noted, President Richard Nixon was the one to sign the Endangered Species Act.

After earning credentials as an evangelical minister at Rhema Bible College, he served nine years as a pastor of Foursquare churches in Portland and Yakima. 

Peter went on the Cascades trek as a sabbatical after earning a bachelor’s degree in marketing.  Then, before starting Restoring Eden in 2001, he was with the Evangelical Environmental Network and Target Earth.

He professes to be pro-life—pro the web of life of humanity in the midst of creation—and feels comfortable labeling himself a “creationist”—yet avoiding the old-earth vs. young-earth debate.

For him, it is a disconnect to be a creationist and not be concerned with the state of creation. As an environmental evangelist, he warns people that “their souls are in danger if they don’t see sacred miracle of life around them and if they destroy what is precious. 

“I love nature.  I’m awed by the complexity of life.  We can be both tree-huggers and Bible-thumpers,” he said. “Some like nature loving, but not belief in the Bible.  Some are the opposite.

Peter Illyn
Peter Illyn

“I confound stereotypes.  I hunt and fish.  I have a chainsaw, wood stove and pickup truck.  I realize I’m part of the problem I talk about, and I’m also in danger of losing my soul,” Peter said, aware of Jesus’ warning in Luke for people to “beware of greed” and warning in the parable of the sower not to be like seed falling among thorns “choked by life’s pleasures and desires.”

“Our lives are not measured by our possessions,” he said, pointing out how materialism and consumerism are sweeping the planet.

Peter told of someone watching the Berlin Wall come down, seeing through a hole someone with his fist raised in defiant victory, clutching a walkman and saying: “We won.  Consumers won.” 

“For that person, it was about materialism, not freedom,” Peter said.  “The East wanted the goodies of capitalism.  Now Chinese and Indian people want the goodies, too.  Can the planet support such short-sighted materialism?”

He finds hope, however, that  people are awakening and thousands of youth and young adults celebrate the earth as “a community not a commodity,” gathering for Christian rock festivals and joining environmental clubs at 40 Christian colleges.

Three years ago, he lost an eye to ocular melanoma, a rare, aggressive cancer.  Last summer, doctors thought the cancer had returned in his liver.

While he hoped for the best, he prepared for the worst by building a porch large enough to hold a hospital bed.  Fall scans showed his liver was okay, but he still enjoys the porch.  In the summer, he watched some songbirds fly in, build a nest in a geranium pot and lay eggs.  He greeted them every day as they sat on the nest.  When the eggs hatched, he watched the birds bring worms and bugs.  He was there when the baby birds fluttered to the ground.

“I would go out every morning to write, contemplating how short life is.   I was scared of dying, because I was enjoying living.  I did not want to leave the miracle of the earth,” Peter said. 

“We send probes to Mars to find rocks and dust, but miss the miracles of earth, where plants breathe out the oxygen we breathe in, and we breathe out the carbon dioxide they absorb—one of the miracles of life,” he said.

Transitioning with the word “life,” he commented on how magazine names have shifted from Life to People to Us to Self  to Stuff.

“In 40 years, we have gone from life to stuff, making everything a commodity to buy or sell.  Where is the intrinsic value, the celebration of beauty and the awe of nature?” he asked.

He relishes speaking with children visiting the Portland Zoo about endangered species. A seven-year-old boy enthralled with seeing seals and penguins in tanks reminded him that “we are made in God’s image, and creation is good. We need to be childlike in our appreciation of life.

“It’s an awesome world,” he said, calling Christians to move from a utilitarian view of the world to one of seeing intrinsic value, delighting in the wonder, wisdom and whimsy of life. 

“We can lose our souls by not seeing things as sacred.  I grew up with my family’s Orthodox understanding of sacred as something set aside by God for God,” he explained.

“There is life at ocean depths and mountain peaks.  To have dominion over creation means to protect it, to be faithful, wise and prudent, as servants caring for God’s household, assured that God provides food through nature as God’s part of the covenant.”

Peter told about the moment on the Pacific Crest Trail when he became an environmentalist.

After setting up his tent and looking through mist to the moon one night, he fell asleep.  In the night, he awoke to something walking around his tent.  He thought the llamas were loose, but suddenly heard a scream 30 feet from the tent.  He took out his pistol, fearing a cougar or bear. 

He saw a herd of elk.  The sound was the bull elk rutting.  Steam billowed out of his mouth, Peter said.  “I realized God created wild animals and saw it was good.”

Coming upon a large clearcut two days later, he was disturbed: “I’m not against logging or mining, but I am opposed to taking too much, too fast, too often.  It’s okay to take the fruit of creation, but not to destroy its fruitfulness.”

Peter sat on a stump, opened his Bible to Proverbs 31:8 and decided he would “speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves”—elk, birds, salmon and the forest. 

“God gave the responsibility of stewardship.  It starts with loving God, loving neighbors and loving nature.  If a neighbor in creation needs protection, we need to speak for policies to protect nature,” he said, noting that every Christian denomination has a statement on environmental stewardship.

Recently, he said, the National Association of Evangelicals unanimously adopted a document that makes environmental stewardship a core value. 

“How do we develop active caring?” Peter asked.  “How do we make it safe theologically to be like seven-year-olds filled with wonder at the zoo?  Can we find common ground among the different faiths to celebrate what it means to be human beings living in creation?”

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By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - © January 2006