Quite some time ago now I was in India, facilitating a class on holiness. One of our sessions was called ‘holiness and ecology’ and the students - all pastors and leaders – were bemused. Holiness, they thought (and, in fairness, had been taught) was about a personal righteous relationship with God – and so, if a person was right with Jesus, then that was it. After readings were dissected, rich interpretations of Scripture wrestled with, conversations about creation and Godself, we left one another, going our separate ways for a whole year.
The next year, in a different class, but with the same group of leaders, one of them said that they wanted to tell a story. He’d been so angry, then moved by the class, so provoked, then challenged, that he’d returned home with different eyes. He saw his church building, its land, his people differently. From an incredibly impoverished community, with deep needs, a history of devastating deforestation, mudslides and floods, he suddenly saw that the spiritual welfare of his congregation was also caught up in their shalom, their wholeness. Inspired by his new vision, by the challenge of God’s love for the world meaning a sweeping cosmic, planetary, as well as personal love, he took action. He bartered for some seeds, he got a grant from an NGO for some mature trees – and he planted an orchard and a garden. To hear him tell the story, not only did that result in a green, beautiful, lush space, and not only did that have an impact on the waterway and divert floods, BUT it also meant that the people of the village were intrigued. This Christian (remember, it’s illegal to proselytise) cared for the whole village and its wellbeing. This Christian had brought beauty back. This Christian shared the harvest. Suddenly, in the act of creation care, the pastor had demonstrated that he cared for the multi-dimensional realities of the lives of his village people. In that moment, his church came alive. Years later, when I encountered him again, his church was thriving, so too his orchard, his gardens, they’d expanded and were now a social enterprise… all from the deepening of understanding that holiness and ecology are interwoven.
I wonder what strikes you about that story? I have had years now to process it and I guess the things that stand out to me are the tragedy of theological heresy and the absoluteness of hope.
I hope heresy isn’t too strong a word, but as we approach the celebration of the incarnation, the enfleshment of the Holy, the coming to the world to dwell-with-us of the Godself, the tragedy that a holiness church has so detached itself from flesh and its dwelling places, and so emphasized a personal relationship alone, is almost unbearable. When we make salvation detach itself from earth-boundness, when we make faith about only our worship-in-song-on-a-Sunday, when we deny that we are bound-up with each other, then we are short-changing God. We have done with our faith what heretical people did over centuries: bifurcated it, split it into body/soul, and acted as if all that mattered was the salvation of a soul. For shame. The God-who-comes-amongst-us, the Emmanuel, born with mucus in nostrils, spilling out in pain from a bloody birth, smacked into breath, mewling, crying, pooing, reliant on colostrum and protection, surrounded by communities of diversity from his earliest cries, is utterly earthed. The God-who-is-Jesus who treads on the earth, plucking and eating, making mud pies, doing miracles with nature’s grapes, is all about the interweaving of humankind and the earth we dwell in. God’s flesh amongst us, was because God so loved all flesh. Animals. Plants. Humans. The land. The sea. The sky. The sun. The moon. They are Good. They are beloved. They are part of God’s beloved world, and, they make it into God’s restoration-of-all-things plan.
When we hear the sweep of Scripture read newly, and then re-read it with our own eyes, we see that in our true-attempts to be faithful (God DOES want persons to be in relationship with Godself through Jesus, empowered by the Spirit) we have missed out some of the story: that God’s holy people are a light to the nations, a display, a foretaste of total restoration and goodness. And so, in God’s shaping of a people, the poor are fed, because there’s enough, some is left over for others to have the dignity of gleaning for themselves, the economies of justice are brought to live, the oppressed are set free, debts are discharged, the aching land is allowed to breathe, the ox don’t bear loads too heavy, the Leviathan sings praise in the deep. When we shed our heresy, we realize that God’s love is upon us – and our earthly existence, which also means our earth is bound up in God’s love: shalom.
Then, there’s absoluteness of hope. Is it too late for us to turn around? To tend and care for creation? Is it too late for us to repent, about-face, till, sow and reap? Is it too late for us to cooperate with God’s plans – so that God’s people would be a mini-community of the King; A beloved community where heaven’s breaking in? Is it too late?
No way, Never. The joy here is that there’s an absoluteness of hope. Plant a tree. And another one. Cherish a flower. Delight in a coral reef. Tend to an orchard. Grow herbs. Buy ugly veggies and enjoy the shapes you can see. Offset your travel. Invest in ecotricity. Use less water. Get a stainless-steel straw. Is it too late to make our buildings beautiful, or renew them for ecological friendliness? Is it too late to take little redemptive steps that would care for creation? Drive less, share more. Buy less, mend more. Heat less, save more. Is it too late to worship that infant-in-a-barn with the whole of our being, our souls, mind, strength, body- in the midst of a community? No! Thank God. It’s NEVER too late to join in what God is doing, it’s never too late to participate as an agent of reconciliation, an ambassador of good news, sharing in God’s ultimate mission of redeeming the world, caring for creation in harmony with God – whose love extends to the tiniest bit of creation itself.
- Deirdre Brower Latz is the Principal of Nazarene Theological College. She is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene with farming roots, she's immersed in urban living. She's passionate about creation care as part of God's love for the world and God's longing for the utter peace and Shalom of creation.