The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. Genesis 2:15
There was a news item in today’s paper about a man who was up in court charged with… guess what? Killing a butterfly.
Does that strike you as strange? Probably so. It did me. But on reflection I couldn’t help feeling glad. The butterfly in question wasn’t just any old butterfly (though some might feel that even killing any old butterfly would be just as bad). No, it was a very rare butterfly – part of an endangered species. And Britain is a nation where there are laws about these things. To me, that is a sign of a nation that hasn’t become completely uncivilised.
I am no gardener. I just don’t enjoy it, and my biggest claim is that, so far at least, I have managed to keep the garden out of the house (though sometimes it’s been a bit touch-and-go).
I feel a little guilty about this, especially when I read a Bible verse like the one above: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” I excuse myself by the fact that I grew up in a second-floor council flat in London where we simply had no garden and therefore no incentive to take an interest in gardening.
But it’s not much of an excuse, is it? The world of plants and flowers and birds and trees and insects – not to mention butterflies – is wonderfully beautiful, and my relative blindness to it all does me little credit.
Where is this taking us? It is simply a reminder that we human beings have been charged by God our creator with the task of looking after the planet on which he has placed us. Earlier in Genesis we read that God made the human race and said: “Be fruitful and increase in number. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (1:28).
That word “rule” doesn’t mean “dominate” or “exploit” or “destroy”: it means that, under God, we were made to exercise a wise and loving stewardship of our wonderful planet.
Today’s paper had another item. Apparently the Great Barrier Reef off the east coast of Australia is, slowly but surely, being ruined. All 1,600 miles of it. It’s made of coral, which is extremely beautiful, but also fragile and susceptible especially to changes in water temperature. Shouldn’t this sadden us? The fact is that as a race we are guilty of poisoning the atmosphere and polluting the sea and the land.
This is a tricky thing to get your head round. God has gifted us with scientific and technological skills which enable us to invent amazing things, things which help to keep us alive, as in medicines, and things which make life infinitely more comfortable, interesting and enjoyable (for those of us, at least, who are fortunate enough to benefit from them).
But these great advances come at a cost: they require power stations belching smoke, and fuel-guzzling planes flying across the skies, and massive machines burrowing into the earth to extract materials.
Read your Dickens novels and see the angry protest against what we now call “industrialisation”. Read (or watch the films) about Tolkien’s Middle Earth – that glorious, idyllic, peaceful world threatened by the ugly encroachments of the land of Mordor. You can’t help admiring people like these great novelists. And yet this is the price we unthinkingly pay for “the march of progress”.
Jesus and the apostles never spoke about “environmentalism”; it simply wasn’t an issue in their day as it is in ours. But Jesus did speak about the beauty of nature: he told us to notice and admire “the birds of the air” and “the flowers of the field”. The Bible has many references to the stars and the majesty of the night-sky.
The essence of the Christian faith is the love of God for every man and woman. It is about making God’s love – the love shown in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – known to everyone we can, with the prayer and hope that they will come to trust and love him.
But that doesn’t mean we should be indifferent to other matters. Here’s a question I put to myself, and I invite you to do the same: “Could I – should I – be doing more to care for God’s beautiful creation?” And, being purely practical, what in particular might ordinary people like most of us do? I’d love to receive your ideas…
Creator God, thank you for the wonderful world in which you have placed us. As we await the promised “new heaven and new earth”, help me to take seriously my own responsibility for the environment. Amen.