I was supposed to be on sabbatical till the end of this month. But the restrictions on travel as well as the pastoral and missional demands of the COVID-19 lockdown has meant it rightly needed to be delayed. No, I’m not asking for sympathy. As God reminded me a few days ago, waiting can be a part of his plan. My last sabbatical was delayed for two years! And it proved to shape my life and ministry over the past seven years in a way that probably wouldn’t have been the case if it had happened according to schedule.
This previous sabbatical was rather full but wonderfully refreshing! Ending with a journey to Peru with BMS World Mission with Carolyn to visit Laura Lee-Lovering who works in Nauta on the banks of the Amazon in environmental mission. Beginning with another journey, a 100 mile walk along St Oswald’s Way. Down the Northumbria coast from Lindisfarne, via the Northumbria Community, to Heavensfield on Hadrian’s Wall.
On that walk I was accompanied by Eugene Peterson. Well not literally. But each day I read and journaled a chapter in his book “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction”. A series of reflections on the Psalms of Ascent. Beginning with the line “I call upon the Lord in my distress and he answers me” (Psalm 120v1). Ending with the last verse of Psalm 134; “May the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion”. Songs sung by pilgrims approaching Jerusalem for the Passover festival, remembering God’s act of redemption of freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. A suitable companion to accompany my pilgrimage.
A suitable companion for these days too? These last months of the COVID-19 lockdown might be described as a “Long Obedience in the Same Direction”. We have all needed to endure in restricting our movements and social contacts among other things as we have played our part in bringing the infection rate down. Many things have been delayed. The launch of BUEN – the Baptist Union Environmental Network – but be assured it is still coming! And delay in life while painful and uncertain has brought benefits. As I mentioned before there has been improvement in the natural world around us, which the beautiful weather has brought even more to our notice.
But if we are to continue to enjoy this. If we are to join with sharing in the mission of God who is the “the maker of heaven and earth”, we will need “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” to be the DNA of our discipleship and church life. Our concern for the environment and the impacts of climate change upon people’s lives cannot be for a season. It must be embedded into our individual, corporate and national life as followers of Jesus.
You see, we tend to have short memories. While we may have enjoyed creation over the past months, how much of what we have experienced will stay with us in the longer term? How much will be lost when life returns to normal? Last Saturday night, I watched a film on Netflix – “Like Father”. I won’t spoil the plot, too much. Essentially a father and daughter find healing, redemption, perhaps even forgiveness on an accidental cruise they share together. But in the end, as they prepare to leave, the daughter backtracks on her promise to come and visit. “This is vacation, you know, and I have to get back to real life?”.
“A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” is not just for lockdown. Nor just for a long sabbatical walk. It’s for life. All the years of our life. Every area of our lives. Didn’t Paul say run the race “in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Cor 9v24)? And “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me … straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal” (Phil 3v12-14, part). Caring for creation will require a marathon, not a sprint. And strangely if you are going to win in this race, you need to keep going back to the starting line.
The tenth step towards freedom is that we “continue to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it”. And that takes us back to the fourth step last December when we were challenged to “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” I said then that was a hard call to dig deep. Now we need to keep on digging. But this return to the starting line is not a sign of our failure. No, it arises from a desire for more of God’s life. Of wanting more to keep in step with God’s mission to sustain and redeem creation. We need to engage in the spiritual practice of Examen – Environmental Examen.
Examen is a moment at the end of a day to pause, turn and look back with God. Recognising where you have been aware of the presence of God; and where you may have missed it. Where you have walked in step with God; or been out of step. A moment to recognise blessings and be thankful. Also, to recognise where we have been less than God calls us to be in Jesus.
In our lives we need to build regular moments of environmental examen if we are to sustain “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction”. Back in 2019, the Baptist Union encouraged us to take part in “Living Lent – Creating a Climate of Change”. In our household, we tried to minimise the use of non-recyclable plastic and reduce the red meat in our diet. They repeated the challenge in 2020. In our desire for the new thing, maybe you think that is somewhat unimaginative. But that misses the point. After journeying for a year, we needed a moment of examen. We found it helpful to revisit the challenges, particularly to move further towards a meat-free diet. Regular examen increases our awareness so that when you think about shopping, travelling and energy use you become more aware of the environmental costs of the choices that you make.
In church life too, we need moments of environmental examen. As I write I am aware that it is Environment Sunday. A moment to focus upon joining our Lord “the maker of heaven and earth” in caring for creation. And coming up in September there is Climate Sunday. From the 6th of September, churches are encouraged to hold a service focusing on Climate Change at any time over the coming year leading towards the re-scheduled UN Climate meeting in the UK in the autumn of 2021.
Hold a service, great! But beyond a moment, think about how the environment is reflected in your on-going church life. Maybe you have already started on the Eco Church journey. If so, then build in regular reviews at least once a year or perhaps to the major festivals through the church year. How might the environment connect with Advent and Christmas, when we celebrate the God who affirms creation by coming to be a part of it. And at Easter, do you recognise that Christ died to reconcile to God “all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven by making peace through his blood shed, on the cross” (Col 1v20)? More regularly, what about communion? And baptism, a sign of resurrection life; what about the hope of new creation. Think about the songs you sing in worship – do you include some with a focus upon care of creation?
All these might be moment of environmental examen through our church year. Alongside theme moments, regularly include environmental concerns in your Sunday prayers, bulletins and social media feeds. Encourage people to talk about it in your small groups and ministries, in your leadership teams and church meetings. Your youth and children’s groups. Perhaps, with their seeming greater awareness of these issues, you can ask your children and young people to hold you accountable. After all, it’s their future that we are gambling with when it comes to how our lives today are affecting the climate and environment.
“A Long Obedience in the Same Direction”. If we are going to respond to climate change this is what we need. Beyond a moment in our lives, individually or shared together. Embracing all moments in our lives. Regularly examined, corrected and re-energised. Embedded into our discipleship DNA. With the opening line of Psalm 120, calling out to God in our distress over a distressed creation. Listening for his voice, that we may walk well with the “maker of heaven and earth” for the wellbeing of creation. And hoping as the final line of Psalm 135 for the blessing and wellbeing of God for ourselves, for the planet and future generations.
Rev Dr Dave Gregory is Ministry Team Leader at Croxley Green Church, a former President of the Baptist Union, and co-ordinator of Messy Church Does Science. He is The Chair of JRI. This article was first published on Seventy-Two and it is reprinted with their permission. This blog is part of a series. To see previous blogs in the series, please click here.
Image: Belle Grève Bay, Guernsey, Dr Martin J. Hodson