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Issue 06

What's Your Motivation?

Andy Littleton

Andy Littleton lives in Tucson, Arizona, USA, where he pastors the Mission Church and co-owns a small home goods store. Visit and for more about Andy and for more information on “Terra Beata” and additional resources. Photographs by the author.

I, a minister in a post-Christian American city, found myself on a Zoom call presenting our upcoming green stormwater infrastructure project with about a dozen community leaders. On screen with me were representatives from an agency that connects and serves local businesses, a housing developer, a representative from a company that prints materials for the Phoenix Suns basketball franchise, a leader in one of our most diverse and liberal business districts and others. Midway through my presentation, I alluded to a tune they might recognize from Ken Burns’s National Parks documentary. The tune is “Terra Beata” (Blessed Earth) and it floats behind many a memorable scene. I shared a poem now associated with the tune, penned in 1901 by Maltbie Babcock, a minister who loved his walks through the lush countryside of Upstate New York. 

     This is my Father’s world,

     And to my listening ears 

     All nature sings, and round me rings 

     The music of the spheres.

The poem goes on, then ends with:

     The Lord is King: let the heavens ring! God reigns; let earth be glad!

“There has always been a strong coalition in our faith tradition, even if it may not feel like it in our current cultural moment, who see the earth as a gift to be loved and stewarded,” I shared. “Therefore one of our greatest callings as people is to ‘make the earth be glad’ because joy is one of the most powerful motives of the heart. Joy motivates us far more than shame or guilt that says ‘you’re going to mess everything up.’ Joy enlivens the heart. We see this project as an implication of our faith, a way to make the earth glad, to love our neighbour, and to display the image of God and live out our vocation; to display the character of God who is good, pursues justice, and is especially concerned for the lives of the poor.”

After this I shared some of our next steps in the project and concluded my time. The moderator asked if anyone had any questions. One woman on the call shot me a direct message. “Thank you for sharing your motivation. That was really inspiring to me.” As it is with Zoom, we all went back to mute and the moderator cued up the next set of slides. Next was the housing developer, discussing a large project that included a number of sustainable practices. I have no doubt it will be a gift to our city.

When I prepared for this presentation I was in a hurry. The agency had created slide templates for us, and I assumed I’d plug in data and little else. I thought that until I came to the slide labelled “Your Motivation.” I had plenty of simple options before me. I do want to love our neighbours and care for the next generation. I’m sure the trees we put in will contribute to those causes, but I knew there was more to it. I have encouraged my church to care about the environment because it’s part of our mission. It is our mandate from creation: fill the earth and subdue it. Coupled with worship, to subdue must mean to value and steward well. I teach that caring for creation is also an excellent opportunity to build bridges with our neighbours who don’t acknowledge God as creator. Most of all, I teach what I fight to believe, that God changes our hearts by giving us grace and promising more. “Let earth be glad” is a statement of impending grace on earth. My entire ministry I’ve hoped that our community would live and speak of a gracious God in view of our neighbours and friends. Now, those very people were asking me, “What’s your motivation?”

I was down to my last ten minutes before presentation time. Months back I had watched the Ken Burns documentary and noticed that every time John Muir was the subject, Burns had the score of “Terra Beata” in the background. Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist and “Father of the National Parks,” was Christ-haunted, and so, therefore, was much of the documentary. The narrator had described Muir’s sense of nature as a “cathedral” through his writings. These things all came flooding to my mind. I googled the writer of “This is My Father’s World” and I threw in a picture of Yosemite National Park. I had to save quickly and email the presentation so the host could pre-load the slides. I sat in my desk chair absorbing the fact that I was about to present our motivation to a secular audience. I sensed that God was with me.

So how did we get to this place? How did this opportunity to share our motivation come to us? 

When we first moved our church into the Arroyo Chico neighbourhood in Tucson, Arizona, we wanted to connect with the neighbours. Following the principles of Christian Community Development, we sought to learn what was most important to them. We had a big, tan, empty wall, so we offered it as a canvas for a mural (the story of the neighbourhood) and invited neighbours to come and tell us their stories. As we heard their stories, we looked for themes. The overwhelming, and surprising, theme was plants. Older neighbours reminisced on the days when the arroyo (a little dry river bed) had native spinach in it and when the kids would slice and eat their own nopales (pads of the prickly pear cactus) after school. Younger residents wished there was more shade and a community garden. We took a lot of notes. Over one hundred people showed up for mural painting day and gave us more feedback.

Fast forward a few years; a leader in local sustainability reached out to ask if we had interest in being a part of some projects. They had heard about us from someone else. As they scanned available grants to present to us, they came upon one that funded projects that utilize stormwater to create green space. Our neighbourhood is a heat island. We also knew our neighbours wanted to see more plant life in the neighbourhood, so we knew it was time to jump at the opportunity. We pulled together eight community organizations to endorse the project. Then a programme that helps “scale up” sustainability projects was offered to us at no cost. That programme asked for our motivation, and the investment that the programme added took our presentation from good to great. The city approved the funding.

The story isn’t over. Months later a large conference on water conservation heard about our story, and invited me and a co-organizer to speak in person. A city agency that operates a housing complex nearby expressed interest in collaborating. We are now in the process of attempting to fund a second phase of the project with the support of all of the agencies we connected with the first time. We have learned, people really do love to collaborate around the care of our blessed earth (terra beata), and sometimes they even give you the opportunity to share your motivation.