There is a man who picks up litter in a park near my house.
The city is supposed to do it, and they do, on a set schedule. But this man drops by on the in-between days of his own volition with nothing more than a pair of gloves and a trash bag, and he sets to work picking up the stray used tissue or candy-bar wrapper.
I thanked him, once, when I saw him. He beamed at me. “God made this! His children got to keep it nice, don’t they?” And away he went, whistling as he picked up litter.
God made this.
Indeed, God did make this earth, and for a good long part of my life I never gave much thought to that or what it meant to me in the present day. I spent my childhood years playing periodically in the backyard and my high school years marching across short-cropped grass on football fields (yeah, I was a band nerd) and that was about it. The Christian retreats I went on and the events I attended often took place in nature, but other than using it for fun we never thought about it much.
I wonder if that’s because, at least in some Christian circles, there’s a deep-seated skepticism toward those who like nature too much – as though we’re all one tree-hugging experience away from doffing our clothes and embracing paganism and the concept of Mother Earth. I know a lot of believers – good and kind people all – who will hurry to assure you that they like nature but they’re not, you know, some kind of crazy hippie tree-hugger. Or worse, an environmentalist.
And I know this because my attitude was pretty similar to theirs.
But I’ve been out in nature a lot more over the past five or so years, hiking and praying, and I find that my attitude has changed. God’s creation is where I go most often when I need to still my mind. It is a very literal way of retreating from distraction and the busyness of life. It is good for my health and my focus. And some of the times I’ve felt closest to God in recent years have been either outside in the area where I live, or outside in Ireland. The details of flowers and wildlife and animals and the sea have started to matter to me not just because they are pleasant, but because I can see God’s hand in them.
It was Philip Yancey who pointed out in a recent blog post that, amidst all God’s instructions for war-making in Deuteronomy 20:20, He also spares a moment for the fruit trees:
When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them; for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?
Remarkable that God should focus on this – and yet He does. Creation exists to nourish and to be enjoyed by man, but man must not be needlessly reckless or destructive with it. We are caretakers and stewards. Surely it’s not coincidental that the degradation of the natural creation accompanies the suffering and struggling of God’s children; when the water grows foul, people suffer. When the air is so filthy as to cause respiratory diseases, people suffer. The ruin of creation is another symptom and symbol of the sin and rot that infects humanity at the core.
Nor should we forget that God’s creation itself perpetually points back to God. The beauty of a sunset, the sound of the sea, a marvel like the Northern lights: these things can inspire believers to reach out to God and to worship, and they can play a role in guiding non-believers to an understanding of who God is. The natural world speaks most eloquently, in any number of ways, about the identity of its Master.
And that’s why it can be valuable to minister with God’s creation in mind. For the man in the park near my house, being one of God’s children means keeping God’s creation clean – and probably, as an act of service, sparing a child or two from picking up something dirty or dangerous and even allowing walkers like me to enjoy a pleasurable walk with lovely views. I can assure you that if you’re at a campsite, hiking trail, or outdoors place with other hikers or campers, one of the best ways you can minister to them is to pick up after yourself, to follow rules guiding the use of natural resources, to abide by instruction. After all, why create a stumbling block for a non-believer to whom those things might also be important?
Many Christian ministries, too, have hit on the importance of creation caretaking as a means of service. Restoring water, supplementing farming communities, teaching techniques for sustainable growth: Christians are out there trying to reclaim creation in small but meaningful ways that will gift others and show them the goodness of God.
No, Christians shouldn’t deify nature – we worship the God who made it. But there is a world of difference between deifying something and neglecting it, and countless opportunities, ministries, and moments between the two. Taking care of God’s creation, even if it’s just in the local area where you live, can be more of a work of love than you can imagine – and it impacts more people than you might think.
**Header photo property of Samaritan’s Song. Do not use or reproduce in any form without my express permission.