I’ve always found the Bible a bit odd. I mean, the beginning and the end. No, not the kind of questions it raises when placed aside the story of the cosmos told by science. I always found it odd in that it starts with a story of a garden. And ends with a story of a city. From the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem. I mean, when we are thinking about caring for creation, wouldn’t it have been better to end up the image of a garden as a symbol of a new heaven and new earth?
I guess that it captures the flow of human culture through the ages. From scattered groups living off their surroundings, through the discovery of agriculture and the beginnings of urbanisation. Through to today when over half of the world’s eight billion people – expected to rise to nearly 70% by 2050 – live in sprawling, often chaotic cities leaving a huge imprint on the environment and climate of the planet. Not quite New Jerusalem.
Yet while the garden and city seem polar opposites, look again and you will see similarities. In the twentieth century there was a trend towards green cities. The “Garden City” project before the Second World War. While the post-war new city of Milton Keynes, renowned for its roundabouts and grid-roads has one million trees planted within its bounds. Looking down on the city from the north, one can hardly see any buildings. Looking to the future, we are going to have to green our cities, attempting to tackle local and global environmental issues as well as making then good places to live in.
New Jerusalem is a garden city. Like Eden, there is a river flowing from it – “a river of the water of life as clear as crystal flowing … down the middle of the great street of the city” (Rev 22v1). On each bank stands “the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit” (Rev 22v2). And in both Eden and New Jerusalem there is no church or temple. Yet, the presence of God is within them. In Eden, God is described as “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Gen 3v8). While in New Jerusalem, “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev 21v22). However, you look at these images, whether through the lens of rational literalism or metaphorical imagination, they both speak of the presence of God seeking encounter.
While we know that the church is not the buildings, buildings often shape our community. They are the places where we gather, know one another, worship together, celebrate significant moments. Places where however utilitarian they look, are the places where God is sought and encountered. With COVID-19 this has paused in the expression of our faith. And with the need to keep them COVID secure, looking ahead when we do begin to gather, numbers will be limited, and worship will have a hugely different feel. Perhaps it is time to discover and respond to the presence of God in new ways.
The penultimate step of “Twelve Steps Towards Freedom” is again not about our actions. It is about becoming more aware of the presence of God in our lives. That we seek “through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God … praying only for the knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.” This bears a striking similarity to Paul’s prayer in his letters to the young churches of the New Testament era, for example that in Ephesians.
“I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you” (Eph 1v17,18)
For if we are to make a difference to the environmental issues that our world and its people face, it will take more than an awareness of the issues and of carbon budgets or recycling. We need a change of heart that comes from an encounter with God. The God who makes, sustains, and cares for creation. If our relationship with God is to develop a focus upon our relationship with creation, then perhaps it is time we left our buildings behind and took time to seek the presence of God within the world of creation.
So, with our buildings closed for the most part, and our activities suspended through much of the summer, why not take some time to see God – the God of creation – within creation. In your garden, on a walk, in the park. Whether your setting is rural or urban, God is there and be found through what he has created. Of course, this thought is not new is it? Celtic and Franciscan spiritual insights draw greatly from creation. Seven hundred years ago, in the thirteenth century, the Franciscan Bonaventure encouraged people to glimpse within nature signs of God’s presence and action. God’s power in the sheer fact that things exist. God’s desire for relationship with creation in the exuberant creativity of its wide-ranging diversity. And God’s love in seeing how things relate to one another, working together for God’s good purpose.
So, while we are still not yet fully returned to our buildings, take some time outside this summer seeking the presence of God. And there, look at whatever vista is before you. Take in the whole scene. What does it say about God’s power? How does this sense of God at work in creation before you, empower you to share in caring for creation? Don’t rush this. Take your time. If you feel powerless before the immensity of it all, then ask him to empower your imagination over what might be possible. Not necessarily something big. Remember the mustard seed of Jesus parable. “Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Matt 13v31)
Now, focus on one particular thing that you see. Perhaps, the one thing that especially stands out to you. Take time to look at it. And then look again. Look through God’s eyes. What does he value in what you see? What does he rejoice over in it? Let God’s rejoicing feed your appreciation of all that God has made. Let that rejoicing feed your own desire to share with the creator in his pleasure over creation.
Next, take time to notice how the thing you have fixed your attention on is connected to other things around it. Insects to flowers. Trees to air and soil through leaves and roots. The shaped of hill to rain and the power of flowing water. The waves on the sea, driven by the streams of air. How do such things express God’s love and care for creation? What do they say about his care for you? About his gift to life to you? “See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these” (Matt 7v28,29). Draw upon this gift. Allow it to cement your desire to share in God’s care of creation.
And discovering new connection with God. Having a new appreciation of God’s will, ask for God’s power to live that out. That ahead, whether in garden or building, you grow in being a missional disciple sharing with God his mission to care for creation.
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: Japanese Friendship Gardens, Phoenix, Arizona (Dr Martin J. Hodson)