Dis-placed and de-natured

Why God’s people must always pay attention to the wild world around them and seek right relation with creation

October 21, 2015 | Feature | Volume 19 Issue 21
Todd Wynward | For Meetinghouse

Why should I care for the environment? A lot of Christians today are asking that question. I mean, we know it’s probably the right thing to do, but what’s a Christ-centred perspective on the matter?

Sometimes modern Christians, in our excitement about Jesus, think the incarnation of God first happened two thousand years ago in Bethlehem, but when we Christians get our theology right, we affirm that God has been inhabiting creation since time began about 14.5 billion years ago, when this amazing universe was created, through an action we now call “the Big Bang.”

A God-infused world should be enough justification for God-followers to treat creation as holy and realize we walk on sacred ground. But a lot of Christians today ask why they should care for the environment because they’re not seeing a bunch of Bible passages telling them to honour the earth. I get it. After all, that’s what we’re trained to do as Christians: look to the Bible to guide our behaviour. But there are other primary texts we should be reading, too. Like Jesus did, we should always be reading nature, and reading the signs of the times. 

Reading nature: The earliest Bible

So please don’t wait until Scripture convinces you to care for God’s precious gift of creation. Don’t wait for another Bible study or a worsening headline. God has been calling our culture to earth-honouring repentance for a long time now. And we’re the ones to do it. We just need to remember to pay attention to what is sacred.

Many Christians feel God’s presence in nature, sometimes more often than in church. Many of us feel unconditional love when touched by a sunrise, and see resurrection hope when plants emerge in the spring. In Romans 1:20, Paul shares this same awareness: “What can be known about God is perfectly plain,” for God has made it plain to see in creation.

Think about how many times Jesus uses natural objects to illustrate his teachings: salt, light, mustard bushes, yeast, fish, foxholes, figs, grapes, lilies, sheep, goats, cedars, palm trees, olives, mountains, rivers, sparrows, sand, stone, sea, wheat, watering holes, ditches, donkeys, camels, and more. He was educating people about God and Spirit through nature. Jesus was following in the footsteps of his tradition, a people who always found God revealed in untamed spaces.

Camping as communion

As a wilderness trip leader, I’ve spent more than a thousand nights outside, and there I have often felt God’s presence. Most of my life, however, I’ve lived indoors, like most modern people in industrial society. Dwelling in our insulated houses with weather-clad windows, we need to remember that the ancient Israelites chose to be a tenting people. They did not have to be; they did so because they knew God was easier to connect with in the wild. It was no accident that Moses found God in a burning bush on the far side of the desert, in uncolonized space. 

God, it turns out, is a big tent camper. God’s vision of ideal human society, from ancient times, has been camping communion with his people on this blessed earth. “I will pitch my tent among you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Leviticus 26:11-12). This ancient vision in the Torah is later invoked in Revelation, written centuries later, when the author paints a future picture of creation redeemed. The writer is describing a band of God’s people who have suffered and journeyed, and he says God “will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst.” The Lord will be their shepherd, their trip leader, and bring them to springs of fresh living water (Revelation 7:15-16).

Today’s Christians are the spiritual descendants of these wilderness-dwelling people. But we modern folks, in our race to upgrade our lives, have lost our wild, vital connection to the natural world.

In my view, the more we progressed in written literacy, the more we lost in eco-literacy. These days, we rarely know where our food originates, what native species dwell where in our places, what original people once lived there, where our water comes from or where our waste goes. By becoming so dis-placed and de-natured, we lose our participation within God’s miraculous world, and instead turn “nature” into the other, an external commodity to manipulate that is inert, non-enchanted, marketable and far from holy. This, bluntly, is not the way of God’s people. God’s people always pay attention to the wild world around them and seek right relation with creation.

Nature gets down

Clearly it was a good year. Lush fields, good grain, great harvest. About 2,500 years ago, the author of Psalm 65 was loving his watershed, and he decided to write about it. “You have crowned the year with your bounty,” he proclaims. The grasslands are providing rich pasture; the fields are so amazing that they “drip with fatness.” The author extols the bounty around him, and in response gives bounteous thanks to God.

If someone from our current culture was the author, the Psalm might continue: “The Lord is good. Let the cash roll in! This is going to feed my family and make us a tonne of profit. We can store and hoard this bounteous harvest for years, and be more secure than all of our neighbours. Hallelujah!”

The real Psalm, however, is very different. Instead of choosing to commodify nature, the author chooses to personify it. Responding to the bounty laid out before him, the author proclaims “the hills wrap themselves with joy” and the valleys “shout for joy, yes, they sing!”

He’s saying the earth itself is happy.

This is not the only time a Scripture writer portrays the earth having feelings. Rather, personifying nature is a deep part of the cultural consciousness. In Isaiah, the mountains and forests burst into happy song in one chapter; later, the mountains are joyfully singing again, but also the author envisions all the trees clapping their hands. In another place in the Psalms, we find it’s the rivers that are clapping their hands and the mountains are singing together for joy because God is coming to make things right for the earth.

In short: creation is psyched and showing it. It’s undeniable: our sacred Scripture says nature has feelings, and the earth is happy under certain conditions.

Let the gravity of this sink in: the earth is happy under certain conditions. If this is true, then—as partners in a covenanted bond—wouldn’t we as God’s people want to do our part and be in right relationship, just like we would with anyone we love?

The ancient Hebrew word for this is hesed, best translated as covenanted loving-kindness. Millions of Christians today are waking up to realize the modern dream of success—ensuring personal privilege by raiding the commonwealth of the planet—is not nearly as satisfying or significant as God’s dream of hesed.

Making a break

Fifteen years ago, my wife and I acted on that question. We moved from Albuquerque, N.M., into a little adobe house, heated by a wood-burning stove, high up in the Sangre de Cristo mountains near Taos. There we raised our son, ran a summer camp, and started an innovative public school that uses the surrounding farm and wilderness as its classroom. It was an amazing life, full of close friendships, meaningful labour, inspiring breakthroughs and incredible natural settings.

It was also exhausting. For those 10 years we worked extremely hard with little time for anything else, which meant we were fully engaged in the American Way, purchasing, consuming and throwing away far more stuff than any generation before us.

Five years ago, we made a significant shift. We decided to engage deeper with our watershed in our search for a better practice of the good life. We reduced our work demands a bit and relocated into a yurt (a circular tent on a collapsible framework) we built in our backyard. With some like-minded friends we milk goats, shear sheep, plant trees, catch water and try to grow a lot of our food in the high desert. We also use a composting toilet and carry water by hand in buckets, like millions of people across the world.

If you’re daunted by our example, don’t be. We’re pretenders. Each family member has a laptop, cell phones and a voracious appetite for Netflix. We daily take our son to soccer practice in a Prius and monthly drive 160 kilometres to shop at the nearest Trader Joe’s. Although we dabble with homesteading in the high desert, we’re still enmeshed in the economy of empire, deeply conforming to the system.

Lucky for us, lucky for you, lucky for this incredible Earth that is our home, we follow a God of mercy who ever invites us to take another step deeper into the Way, even if we have failed before, even if our actions are far from earth-honouring. We are already forgiven by Jesus, already blessed to start anew today in seeking right relation with God’s creation.

As the 13th-century poet Rumi invites: “Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.” 

Todd Wynward is a public school founder, wilderness educator and Mennonite organizer for watershed discipleship who lives with his family in Taos, N.M. His new book, Rewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God, was published this fall by Herald Press. More of his writings and doings can be found at leavenrising.com. For a companion article on this topic, visit “Watershed discipleship.” 

Meetinghouse is an affiliation of Mennonite and Brethren publications in Canada and the U.S.

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