The Earth is the Lord’s – Dave Bookless

The Earth is the Lord’s – Dave Bookless

Churches often prioritise evangelism and
church planting in mission and think that Creation Care maybe
is slightly to the sidelines. Well, what we’ve found in our
work in A Rocha is that when Christians take the earth seriously,
people take the gospel seriously. My name is Dave and my call in
action is helping the church to recover the call to care for God’s
creation. I was born in India where my parents were CMS mission partners so CMS
has been part of my life all my life – and I grew up in a country which has
beautiful wildlife, fantastic forests and bird life and so on and then I came to
the UK and I discovered that there’s actually pretty good wildlife here and I
discovered mountains and islands but I never linked the environment to my faith
until I had a kind of conversion moment when I was in my 20s training for
ordination and was on a beautiful small island and discovered that there was
nowhere to throw away my rubbish and in the act of throwing my rubbish over a
cliff to join the island rubbish tip I really sensed God challenging me, saying
“How do you think I feel about what you’re doing to my world?” and for me that
was the beginning of a long journey of learning to care for God’s creation. When God first challenged me about caring for creation it was a bit like toppling over
one of those dominoes which then keeps them going and for the last 20 to 30
years I feel my life has been discovering new dominoes every day and
for my wife and I when this all began we were just about the point of starting a
family and nappies was probably the first practical issue that we got
involved in – were we gonna go for disposable nappies that take hundreds of
years to biodegrade and absolutely ruin the planet or were we going to
pay out a lot more money and buy washable shaped nappies knowing that it
was going to be a lot of hard work as well, getting them washed – but we decided
to do that. It was a big investment of time and money but we never
regretted it and that was the first of what have been almost a
daily catalogue of challenges, whether it’s looking at plastics, looking at
energy, looking at travel, looking at just how we see this planet that God has
entrusted to our care. We moved to Southall in 1991 and initially I was a curate in an Anglican church there and very quickly I became aware of how living in
such a dense urban environment, very overpopulated, with very little green
space, was having a negative impact on people’s relationship with themselves
and with who they felt they were and discovering a large piece of
land belonging to the local council that was neglected and full of rubbish just
gave me the beginnings of an idea: what would happen if this piece of land could
be renewed? It could be cleaned up, could be turned into a place that was good for
people but also good for other species too – and what if CMS and A Rocha could be
involved in that project and it could really point people to the kind of God
that we believe in? So eventually I moved from being a vicar to helping launch A
Rocha UK with the support of CMS and left running a church to helping
supervise what was initially a team of volunteers in doing a survey of a large
piece of land belonging to the local council that was full of rubbish but had
huge environmental potential and that took several years working with the council
working with lots and lots of other community organisations to create a
local vision for this site to be cleaned up and to become a new Country
Park and Nature Reserve and amazingly that’s what actually happened it became
Minet Country Park still, run by the local council, Hillingdon Council, but A
Rocha UK work closely with them in managing that site for wildlife, in
studying what’s there and in doing lots of environmental education and community
events across that piece of land. Creation care really flows through the
whole of the Bible: obviously Genesis 1 & 2 tell us the
story of how God made this extraordinary world and Genesis 1 finishes with God
delighting in it and saying it is all very good
everything from mountains to mosquitoes are very good in this world that God has
made and we’re part of that and the Bible finishes with God’s new creation
which doesn’t mean he chucks away the old one – the Bible talks about God making
all things new. So it’s a remaking, it’s a renewal, it’s a repair job, it’s a
recycling of this current creation. So in a sense the whole scripture
is bracketed by God’s care for the whole creation. Sometimes when I
visit churches to talk about Creation Care I can sense a kind of “Well, surely
this is a distraction from our central purpose as a church, which has got to be
all about Jesus” and my answer to that is well actually Creation Care is all about
Jesus – if we say that Jesus is Lord, we need to recognise that according to the
Bible, according to Colossians 1 for instance, Jesus is the one by whom and
for whom all things were made, in whom all things hold together and through
whose death and resurrection all things will eventually be reconciled to God. So
if we claim to follow Jesus and to say Jesus is Lord, we must care for God’s creation to the glory of God because that’s what Jesus
wants us to do. So that’s right at the heart of it. One of the things I love
about CMS is that CMS believes in the five marks of mission that the Anglican
Communion has supported, which are basically evangelism, disciple-making,
compassion, justice and creation care. And sometimes we think of creation care as
kind of tagging on at the end, the kind of optional extra but actually these
five are a bit like the fruit of the Spirit in the New Testament they’re all
aspects of one thing and that one thing is the missio dei – it’s God’s mission in
God’s world that we participate in. So all the marks of mission are part of
being God’s people in God’s world and fulfilling God’s mission and I would say
any healthy Christian, any healthy church needs to be involved in all five of the
marks of mission, otherwise we are not fully showing the
mission of God. One of my great privileges and joys working
for A Rocha International is that I get to visit some of the places around the
world where Christians have really rediscovered what it means to care for
God’s creation. Recently I was in South Africa where A
Rocha is working alongside a group called Green Anglicans out in South
Africa and doing lots of things and one of the great things that they’re doing
there at the moment is a big campaign on plastic bags and trying to reduce the
number of plastic bags that find their ways into waterways and eventually into
the oceans. So that’s one example. Elsewhere in Africa, in places like Ghana
and Kenya and Uganda, A Rocha has been involved in something called Farming
God’s Way, which is something that’s come out of Africa as a way of
rediscovering what the Bible says about the land, about our relationship with the
land and the soil, and about how we should be farming not in a way that just
sees this as an inanimate object that we want to extract things from, but actually
sees the land as part of God’s creation and respects it and looks after it. But I
could tell so many stories about how A Rocha is involved in India in trying to
prevent human–elephant conflict on the edge of Bangalore, a huge city there, or
in New Zealand where A Rocha’s involved in helping a sea bird called
the oi – that’s its wonderful New Zealand name – the oi, which used to nest on this
mountain but then rats were introduced and they killed all the chicks and so A
Rocha is now involved in trying to get rid of the rats from that mountain so
that the sea bird returns. There are so many stories from around the world as
Christians are really rediscovering how we should be caring for God’s creation.
One of the things that I’ve realised increasingly as I travel is how
impoverished our theology and practice here in Europe have become and one of
the reasons for that is that we have separated the spiritual from the
material creation that God has made, and in many other parts of the
world that separation has never happened and people recognise that if you drop
litter on the ground it actually affects your relationship with God, that if you
pollute the soil or pollute the air, it affects your relationship with God – that
the material and the spiritual are deeply connected and we need to
rediscover that here in the West. Another thing that I’ve been hugely struck by
particularly visiting countries in the developing world is how you can have a
huge joy without having lots of possessions and rediscovering the
importance of a simplicity of life, not saying that material things don’t matter
but saying having too many of them actually clutters up your life, gets in
the way of your relationship with other people and your relationship with God
and wrecks the planet and to have fewer things but better quality things is
actually a far better way of living and that’s something that I really find
almost every time I visit another country. I think one of the biggest
challenges that we have here living in the West is that we see our lives as
normal and if you look at the rest of the world and actually if you look back
even to our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, our lives are anything but
normal – in the speed at which we live them and in the way they’re so cluttered
up with stuff and the more I’ve gone on the more I’ve come to recognise how that
stuff harms us in so many ways: we begin to put our faith in it, rather than in
God and it literally pollutes the environment but it also pollutes our
relationships in so, so many ways and so we need to rediscover something of
simplicity here in the West and that’s a huge challenge because we are surrounded
by cultures and a value system that just say “You are a consumer; you are what you
consume.” One of the most shocking statistics I came across was that the
world’s wealthiest 20 per cent, which statistically includes everyone in the UK, consumes 16 times as much resources per
person per year as the world’s poorest 20 per cent who mainly live in
sub-saharan Africa and that’s a shocking statistic: in terms of our impact on the
planet and its resources, it means that we’re creating most of the world’s waste
and it means that we’re taking resources that somebody else can’t use because the
world has a finite amount of resources it also means that one child born here
in Britain will have the impact of 16 children born in sub-saharan Africa
so our consumption is a much more dangerous – has a much more dangerous
impact on the planet than growing populations in the poor world.
So we really need to do something urgently about our consumption levels.
When when I speak to churches and to other groups about caring for creation
it’s very tempting and it’s very easy to terrify people with all the horrific
statistics about what’s happening to the planet and what’s going to be happening
according to the experts over the next decades – and there is a place for knowing
our impact, as long as it leads not to despair but to lament for us as
Christians: to repentance and lament to actually saying “I’m part of this problem,
Lord, change me.” But in the end of fear on its own is a really bad way of
motivating people to change. It’s much better to think about joy and
about hope and for me the greatest motivating factor in caring for creation
is actually just the joy and the beauty of creation. So watching David
Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 series has probably done more for creation care
than endless documentaries about the evils of climate change because people
see something beautiful, they see something that they’re touched by and
they’re moved by and they want to do something to protect it. So for me that’s
that’s far more important… and then I think also hope: because sometimes
Christians get into the kind of thinking that “Well, isn’t this world order going to get worse and worse and worse before Jesus
returns?” But actually what the Bible promises is a message of hope: that yes,
there will be judgment, yes, there will be destruction but finally God’s plans for
the whole created order are plans of redemption and plans of renewal and so
we can have hope for creation because of who God is because of what Jesus has
done and that hope helps me hugely when I hear the depressing news when I hear
the latest statistics on climate change or pollution or waste to actually say:
“Well, however bad it is, because of Jesus we can have hope for this creation” – that
keeps me going on my bad days. I was really challenged last year by talking
to a friend quite a bit younger than me but somebody passionate about caring for
God’s creation and she was admitting that she’d been involved in this journey for
five or 10 years and she’d come close to giving up because she just found it
such a struggle and despite all that she’s doing, it didn’t seem other people
were changing and it certainly seems as if the planet is getting worse. So how do
we keep ourselves going for the long term? One, I think, remember what the Bible
promises on these things – so our hope based on the Bible – but two, is surround
yourself by people, have a community of people who actually are on the same
journey as you because if you’ve got people who share the same values and who
can encourage each other and share their joys but also share their failures
that’s actually going to keep you going. I would, you know, my passion, my dream
would be that in every local church, in every home group, Bible study group,
discipleship group, we are not just learning scriptures and talking to each
other about what’s happened in our lives but we’re also encouraging each other to
care for God’s creation more effectively. It’s at that small group level and in
those relationships that I think it’s going to really keep us going. There is a
danger in caring for creation that it becomes a kind of salvation by works,
that you start thinking I’m a better Christian because I recycle more than
the other people in my church, that I’m a better Christian because I cycle to
work and I don’t drive, that I’m a better Christian because I never
use a polystyrene cup or so on… and there’s a danger there that we become a
kind of Eco Pharisee and we think that our relationship with God and how good
we are, depends on doing all this stuff and that’s dangerous. What we need to do
is kind of turn that on its head and say: we do this stuff not to earn kind of
brownie points with God but we do this stuff because we love Jesus.
In the end it’s got to be about a relationship with God. How does Jesus
feel if I just chuck my rubbish and don’t sort my recycling?How does Jesus
feel if I just wander around the supermarket and buy whatever’s cheapest
and don’t think about packaging and food miles and the ethics of how animals have
been treated? Because Jesus cares about all those things because it’s his world
and that’s got to be our motivating factor not kind of thinking that we’re better
somehow because of what we do. I often find myself speaking in churches and
afterwards there’s tea or coffee offered and sometimes there’s plastic or
polystyrene cups and my heart always sinks when I see that but I try not to
kind of jump down the throats of the church because it may be they’re just at
the beginning of a journey here and if they have, from what I’ve shared, begun to
catch a vision that this is God’s world and we need to care for it differently,
then the practical implications of that need to kind of take root in in their
souls, a bit like a seed in soil, and the fruit of that will be seen maybe six
months maybe two years down the line in them thinking about things. If I just say
“You must not use plastic cups” they will resent it and they will maybe feel
challenged about it, they may even change their behaviour but it will be for the
wrong reasons. If their thinking, their theology, their attitudes have changed
then they’ll begin to come to conclusions for themselves and in my
experience that’s a far better way round. Often we think the gospel is just
about people but if I was to give a message to the church it’s to recognise
that actually God cared for the whole of creation by making it, he cares for it by
sustaining it and he’s going to care for it by transforming it and renewing it. So our gospel, our mission, our work as a
church has to include the whole of God’s creation and not just people and that’s
at the heart of what I’m passionate about about creation care. When we think
about the biggest environmental issues the one that tends to come up first is
always climate change and that’s huge: it’s urgent and it is global and it’s
affecting people now and going to affect all of us much more in the future.
But actually I don’t think that’s the biggest issue: the biggest issue actually
is how human beings see themselves on planet Earth. If we see ourselves as
separate from nature, then we’re going to continue causing climate change,
polluting, damaging the earth, over- exploiting its resources. Once we see
ourselves as part of nature, part of God’s creation and yet entrusted with
its care, that’s going to change everything. So for me the biggest issue is
actually how we see ourselves as human beings on God’s earth. When I
think about what gives me hope I’d say it’s two things: one is what the
Bible promises, God’s promises give me hope. The other is every year when I see
birds returning from migration to Africa having found their way across thousands
of miles back to the same tiny little bit of English countryside that they
came from last year and I think what a miraculous God, what an astonishing creation and that gives me hope – nature’s resilience
and the way that God has put into this world such an
astonishing set of principles and wisdom that we are only just beginning to
discover – that gives me real hope that with God’s help, actually God’s creation
is going to be okay. By caring for God’s creation we’re actually demonstrating a
God who cares about everything, who cares about the issues that really matter to
people, who cares about their lives their homes, their community, their neighbourhood but also this whole planet
and everything that’s going on here. In a sense it gives people a bigger
vision and picture of the kind of God who we talk about — and to combine that
kind of big vision of God as the God of creation with the God who is yet so
personal that he cares for each one of us and that he notices when a single
sparrow falls to the ground – that is so powerful in evangelism and that leads on
to actually transforming what we think our churches should be about. So creation
care and evangelism to me absolutely fit hand in glove when we’re thinking about mission. Mission is everything that God
calls us to do in God’s world. So mission includes counting migrating birds, mission includes picking up plastic
waste and not dropping it in the first place, mission includes choosing to give
up meat several days a week, choosing to use my bicycle instead of my car. Mission
is everything that God calls us to do that cares for this beautiful and fragile world.

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