As we come to the end of the first story of creation, so too we approach the end of our Lenten travels, turning our eyes now to the empty tomb and the resurrection of Jesus.
We have witnessed a beautiful symmetry in the narrative we have been reading, with its creation of spaces first and then the creatures to inhabit them, and this verse rounds off that narrative, bringing creation to its completion. God now stops and rests. In Exodus 31.17 we are given a different version: ‘he rested and was refreshed’; literally, ‘he rested and took breath’. There is a sense of enormous fulfilment, of having completed something wonderfully good and breathing a sigh of satisfaction.
We are reminded of the rhythm of day and night and sacred times that we saw on Day Four, as the seventh day is made holy and the Sabbath is confirmed. Seven-day patterns were not unique to the Israelites and appear also in Assyrian and Babylonian writings, but in the Genesis text, that pattern is rooted firmly in the God who has created the heavens and the earth as his temple, and now takes up residence through his people.
On Day Seven, there is no longer the formula that has accompanied each day – ‘and there was evening, and there was morning . . .’ – and there is the implication that Day Seven does not finish but continues on. And yet we know we do not live fully in Sabbath rest. Tragically, in the very next chapter of Genesis, we see humanity fall from our intended state of shalom to a place of discord and enmity on all levels: with God, with one another, and with the wider created order. Remembering the word play around ’ādām that we saw in Chapter Six, in Genesis 3.17 we read that the ’ădāmâ (‘the ground’) is cursed because of the ’ādām. The rest of the Bible is the story of how God works to bring restoration: to put back to rights what has gone wrong and bring about the Sabbath rest that has been promised.
As we come out of Lent and into Easter Sunday, we proclaim again our belief that Christ has died and Christ has risen – and that he will come again. As Amy Plantinga Pauw says, ‘Easter is God’s seal that the last word on creaturely life will be peace and praise, and the joy of that hope is already seeping into the present’.
As followers of the risen Messiah, we live in the ‘overlapping of the ages’. We have the first fruits of the Spirit, like a seal or deposit that guarantees our future inheritance (Rom. 8.23; Eph. 1.13–14), but we are still awaiting that final time. For all its beauty and wonder, we know we inhabit a world of terrible sadness and suffering and we will not escape that while we live in what Ecuadorian theologian, René Padilla, has called ‘between the times’. This is a world of wounds and it can be all too easy to bury our heads in the sand, focus on our own lives and refuse to engage in the issues we have touched on in this book, particularly where they require us to make changes, personally and in our churches and broader society.
There is a tension between where we are now and where we look forward to being, described beautifully by British Catholic theologian, Peter Hocken: ‘The Spirit has been given both as the first fruits and the hope of full liberation, and we are stretched between the two.’ I feel that stretch and it can be painful and difficult. But we know that, as followers of the risen Jesus, we are called to navigate that tension and live lives that speak of his hope for creation. We do that symbolically as we meet each week to pray, worship and break bread together – the Sabbath now not held on the last day of the week, but on the first day of the new week, the resurrection day. And we do that by refusing to give up, remembering that no act of ours is in vain even if we can feel overwhelmed by the tragedies around us.
In Tchirozérine in the Republic of the Niger, Pastor Koupra has been helping his church, Coopération Évangélique du Niger (CEN), to consider through a series of Bible studies what it means to care for creation in their local area, and how they can take action as a community. Situated in a desert with little vegetation, the congregation decided that planting trees was a priority and set about digging in hundreds of Neem trees around the community’s schools, homes and the church. At the same time, the political crisis was unfolding in neighbouring Libya, resulting in an influx of predominantly Muslim Libyan migrants to the community, who had fled with nothing and had no means of supporting themselves in a new country. CEN made a plan to combine helping the migrants with the work they had been doing to look after the natural world around them. In exchange for food supplies, the migrants supported the tree-planting initiative, as well as helping clear the plastic rubbish in the area, which they used to turn into bricks for building projects. The scheme now supports 650 families in Tchirozérine and nearby Agadez, and has made a visible difference to the natural environment of both cities.
For many years I have carried in my mind an image of the Church as being like a sleeping giant with regards to caring for the whole community of creation. That is not to disregard those who have understood the creation-wide implications of the gospel (we could cite, for example, Clement of Rome, Basil the Great, Hildegard of Bingen and Martin Luther, plus others). But on the whole, and particularly in later centuries, the Church has been guilty of moving away from a sacramental and connected relationship with nature to one where nature is simply seen as a resource to be exploited.
We are the largest group of people on the planet – around a third of the global population adheres to the Christian faith. Think what a difference we would make if the sleeping giant awoke and became active!
The good news is that I notice that starting to happen. I see the giant beginning to wake and get out of bed, as all around the world churches are responding to the call to look after the planet entrusted to us. In Thailand, Huay Mai Duei Church is now involved in garbage collection because waste had become a huge problem in the area, and Kha Mu Church has planted a vegetable garden for the local community. In Australia, Tuggeranong Uniting runs a charity shop (known as an ‘op shop’) to encourage reusing and recycling and they have activists who belong to climate change groups. In the US, Trinity Christian Reformed Church in Michigan promotes caring for the whole creation as an integral part of its preaching and has adopted a stretch of creek that runs near the church to look after. In Argentina, the Church of God in Mendoza has won an award for its litter-picking scheme in the central park, and the Anglican Diocese of Northern Argentina has been monitoring deforestation for the last decade, providing information to the provincial government. In the UK, Portsmouth Cathedral has become the first cathedral to publish its carbon footprint and is actively reducing its emissions, and the Gate Church in Dundee has a whole project dedicated to carbon saving, aiming to become the ‘greenest church in Scotland’.
For many churches, prayers and sermons on caring for creation have become a natural part of their church action. Churches have become places where food waste is collected and toddler groups use recycled material that would otherwise have been binned. There are churches going on climate strikes and holding an event with their MP, doing community lunches with plant-based food, and organizing litter picks. There are churches involved in sustainable building projects, zero waste cafés, environmental teaching series, tree planting alongside church planting, toilet twinning, switching to renewable energy and eco-friendly cleaning products, forest schools, using Fairtrade refreshments, installing beehives, moving away from disposable crockery, installing solar panels, holding eco fairs and putting eco-tips in church magazines . . .
This list could go on, though we still have a long way to go and many of us will be in churches that have not yet begun embracing these things and feel discouraged and overwhelmed. Yet, whatever context you are in, I hope these examples will inspire you in your church – whether big or small, urban or rural, of whatever denomination or network – that there are things you can do. How will your church take action to wake the giant?
As we wake the sleeping giant of the Church, so we must wake the sleeper inside ourselves too. We now know, biblically, that we are called to look after our common home. And yet, somehow we fail to take serious action in our own lives. When we know the terrible conditions in which the majority of farmed animals are kept, why do we keep buying meat that supports those systems? When we know the immense destruction being done by climate breakdown, why do we refuse to change our flying and travel habits or make a simple decision to eat less meat and dairy? When we know that plastic is causing so much damage to both people and the wider environment, why do we not take easy and obvious steps to use less? When we know our governments and businesses need us to push them to make large-scale changes, why do we stay silent rather than joining our voices with others?
At Tearfund we talk about Pray, Act, Give.
Pray is where we start and what undergirds everything we do. We pray because we believe prayer works and because it changes things – ourselves included. As I write in L is for Lifestyle, prayer connects us with the people and situations around the world for whom and for which we are praying. It reminds us of our motivation, which is to see the kingdom of God manifest in our world. It reminds us that there is a strong spiritual dimension to all we do. Above all, prayer reminds us that we cannot do everything by ourselves or in our own strength. Ultimately, we depend on God to bring his redeeming power to bear in the situations we pray for.
As part of our prayer, we must then Act. We have considered in the course of this book many difficult, heartbreaking and challenging topics, as well as glimpsing the wonder and diversity of God’s creation. If what you have read has made for interesting Lent discussions and nothing else, then it has failed. We are facing a climate crisis, species loss and plastic pollution, and they interweave with a host of other issues, causing conflict, poverty and suffering. We must act. We must make bold changes in the way we live – consuming less and consuming better – and take action by pushing our governments and businesses to make bold changes too, including moving to an economic model that enables all people to have what they need, within a flourishing natural environment.6 As you finish this book and move out of Lent into Easter, go to and look again at the wealth of information that is there. We cannot do everything. But God will break your heart over particular issues, and that is where he is calling you to get involved. What resurrection practices will you take on in your life?
Finally, one very tangible resurrection practice is to Give. Giving connects us with people and places around the world as we use our money to bring relief and help change situations. It challenges our own attitude to money and material goods, and causes us to delight in being generous to others rather than focusing on buying more things for ourselves. Of course, we cannot support each and every issue. But, ask yourself today, am I being as generous as I could be? Has God stirred my heart about particular issues in Saying Yes to Life that I could start supporting financially?
As we pray, act and give, Day Seven reminds us that we do so as part of a Sabbath rhythm. Yes, the problems are immense and there is much to be done, but our actions must be held within patterns of rest, stillness amid activity.
Writing for the New York Times on the moral crisis of climate breakdown and the charge to the Church to respond, Archbishop Justin said, ‘As people of faith, we don’t just state our beliefs — we live them out. One belief is that we find purpose and joy in loving our neighbours. Another is that we are charged by our creator with taking good care of his creation.’
Resurrection churches, resurrection lives. This is the calling that is on us as we look at all that God has made and say yes to life.