God Camps With His People

Why Christians should care about the Earth

By Todd Wynward

Why should I care for the environment? We know it’s probably the right thing to do, but what’s a Christ-centred perspective?
Sometimes modern Christians, in our excitement about Jesus, think the incarnation of God first happened 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem. Actually, we affirm that God has been inhabiting creation since time began. We monotheists believe that one good God created everything, and God’s blessing fills everything around us.

Our current planetary situation is grave. Our life systems are being permanently degraded every day by our personal actions and by industrial society globally. You might not sense it yet, because your water is still drinkable and your air still smells good and your grocery store still sparkles and your trash disappears and your neighbourhood is not submerged under rising sea levels. But millions of other citizens of our earth home—both human and not—are feeling it every day.

Reading Nature: The Earliest Bible

Many Christians feel God’s presence in nature, sometimes more often than in church. Many of us feel unconditional love when touched by a sunrise, and see resurrection hope when plants emerge in spring. In Romans, Paul shares this same awareness: “God’s invisible qualities…have been clearly seen,” in creation (1:20). The natural world is the first and primary Bible. Creation is our first and final cathedral.

Think about how many times Jesus uses natural objects to illustrate his teachings: salt, light, mustard bushes, yeast, fish, foxholes, figs, grapes, lilies, sheep, goats, cedars, palm trees, olives, mountains, rivers, sparrows, sand, stone, sea, wheat, watering holes, ditches, donkeys, camels and more. He was educating people about God and Spirit through nature. Jesus was following in the footsteps of his tradition, a people who always found God revealed in untamed spaces.

Camping as Communion

As a wilderness trip leader, I’ve spent more than a thousand nights outside, and there I have often felt God’s presence. Most of my life, however, I’ve lived indoors, like most modern people in industrial society. Dwelling in our insulated houses with weather-clad windows, we need to remember that the ancient Israelites were a tenting people.

The ancient Israelites took camping seriously. Tenting was such a pervasive part of daily living and sacred ceremony in biblical times that the word “tent” (or “tabernacle”) shows up 333 times in Scripture. Camping was both covenant and communion. Camp itself was sacred space, holy ground, “for the Lord your God moves about in your camp” (Deuteronomy 23:14).

God’s vision of ideal human society, from ancient times, has been camping communion with his people on this blessed earth. “I will put my dwelling place [tabernacle] among you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Leviticus 26:11–12).

This ancient vision in the Torah is later invoked at the opposite end of the Bible in Revelation, written centuries later, when the author paints a future picture of creation redeemed. God “will spread his tabernacle over them. They will no longer hunger nor thirst” (Revelation 7:15–16).

Today’s Christians are the spiritual descendants of these wilderness-dwelling people. But, in our race to upgrade our lives, we have lost our wild, vital connection to the natural world. We rarely know where our food originates, what native species dwell where in our places, what original people once lived there, where our water comes from or where our waste goes. By becoming so dis-placed and de-natured, we lose our participation within God’s miraculous world and instead turn nature into the other, an external commodity to manipulate that is inert, non-enchanted, marketable and far from holy. This is not the way of God’s people. God’s people pay attention to the wild world around them and seek right relation with creation.

Nature Gets Down

Clearly it was a good year. Lush fields, good grain, great harvest. About 2,500 years ago, the author of Psalm 65 was loving his watershed, and he decided to write about it. “You crown the year with your bounty,” he proclaims (v. 11). In response to the bounty around him, the author gives bounteous thanks to God.
If someone from our current culture was the author, the Psalm might continue: “The Lord is good. Let the cash roll in! This is going to feed my family and make us a tonne of profit. Hallelujah!”

The real Psalm, however, is very different. Instead of choosing to commodify nature, the author chooses to personify nature. Responding to the bounty laid out before him, the author proclaims “the hills are clothed with gladness” and the valleys “shout for joy and sing!” (v. 12, 13). He’s saying the earth itself is happy.

This is not the only time a Scripture writer portrays the earth having feelings. Rather, personifying nature is a deep part of the cultural consciousness. In Isaiah the mountains and forests burst into happy song in one chapter; later, the mountains are joyfully singing again, but also the author envisions all the trees clapping their hands. In another place in the Psalms, we find it’s the rivers that are clapping their hands and the mountains are singing together for joy because God is coming to make things right for the earth.

Right relationship—with God, with people, and with the earth. The ancient Hebrew word for this is hesed, best translated as covenanted loving-kindness. This is what the ancient Israelites were striving for, and it’s what authentic followers of Jesus strive for today.

Millions of Christians today are waking up to realize the modern dream of success—ensuring personal privilege by raiding the commonwealth of the planet—is not nearly as satisfying or significant as God’s dream of covenanted loving-kindness. We’re beginning to ask: what kind of a better “good life” can we embody in today’s times—one that is better for us and our world?

Making a Break

Fifteen years ago, my wife and I acted on that question. We moved from Albuquerque, New Mexico, into a little adobe house, heated by a wood-burning stove, high up in the Sangre de Cristo mountains near Taos, New Mexico.

There we raised our son, ran a summer camp, and started an innovative public school that uses the surrounding farm and wilderness as its classroom. We dove headlong into transformative work with youth and the task of reinventing public education. It was an amazing life, but also exhausting. We worked extremely hard with little time for anything else, which meant we were still purchasing and consuming and throwing away far more stuff than any generation before us.

Five years ago, we made a significant shift. We decided to engage deeper with our watershed in our search for a better practice of the good life. We reduced our work demands a bit and relocated into a yurt we built in our backyard. With some like-minded friends we milk goats, shear sheep, plant trees, catch water, and try to grow a lot of our food in the high desert.

More than once we have been called “feral.” Once a citified visitor from Philadelphia giggled in awe when she entered our thirty-foot diameter yurt, and she immediately started snapping photos. She simply couldn’t believe we use a composting toilet and carry water by hand in buckets, like millions of people across the world.

If you’re daunted by our example, don’t be. We’re pretenders. Yes, we’ve cultivated a slightly parallel existence, but don’t be fooled: we’re still solidly embedded in and addicted to North American consumer culture. My family has a laptop per person, too many cars, a cappuccino maker, cell phones and a voracious appetite for Netflix. We daily take our son to soccer practice in a Prius and monthly drive a hundred miles to shop at the nearest Trader Joe’s. Though we dabble with homesteading in the high desert, we’re still enmeshed in the economy of empire, deeply conforming to the system.

Lucky for us, lucky for you, lucky for this incredible Earth that is our home, we follow a God of mercy who ever invites us to take another step deeper into the Way, even if we have failed before, even if lifeways are far from earth-honoring. We are already forgiven by Jesus, already blessed to start anew today in seeking right relation with God’s creation.

As the 13th-century poet Rumi invites: “Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.”

Todd Wynward is a public school founder, wilderness educator and Mennonite organizer for watershed discipleship who lives with his family in Taos, New Mexico. His book, Rewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God, was published in Fall 2015 by Herald Press.

Leave a Reply