Twelve Steps Towards Freedom: Restore

Rev Dr Dave Gregory

I spent some of my daily exercise out in the bluebell woods near my home a week or so back.  A wonderful carpet of blue, a heavy scent filling the air.  What a wonder – life being restored as the exceptionally warm April brings new life once more.  A wonderful surprise on a colder Saturday a few weeks back too.  With my wife, I was out on my bike delivering CDs of the Sunday service to those who cannot watch on the internet.  I approached one door, there was rustling in the bush next to me.  Out stepped a small Muntjac deer, rather bedraggled after the heavy overnight rain.   With the slowdown in traffic and less people on the streets, like other animals, they are encroaching the urban environment.

Perhaps like me, you have had your own similar experience.  Or you have seen stories of goats wandering around the streets of Llandudno.  Deer wandering along the roads northeast London boarding Epping Forest.  Nature abhors a vacuum they say.  A sign of the ability of nature to restore itself as human activity is scaled back.  Out on my walk today, speaking at a suitable distance from my neighbour he told me of the oak trees by the main road.  The leaves fresh and green, while in past years they curl up brown due to traffic pollution.  A reminder of the impact of humanity upon the natural world.  Signs of hope that we need to hang onto, that it is not too late to restore the damage we have done to the Earth.

Bluebell Wood, Fawley, Berkshire, UK

The COVID-19 lockdown has had a large impact on our way of life and livelihoods.  It has reminded us of the fragility of our lives and society.  The fragility yet robustness of creation also.  There is something positive in this moment.  A sense of wellbeing as I see these changes.  A renewed sense of joy at the wonder of creation that is God’s gift to us.  And sighing, not of longing over something lost, but in appreciation of what is gained.  A sabbath?

Of course, it may be short-lived – there are growing calls that we need to get back to some form of normality for the sake of our personal and national wellbeing.  But it’s a reminder of the direction that we need to go in the years and decades ahead if we are to seek the wellbeing of society and the Earth itself in broader terms than just thinking about money on our pockets.  A stimulus not only to awareness but also action.

That is where the next of our twelve steps leads.  As we face our own COVID-19 emergency, the last step challenged us to become aware of the people who face the immediacy of the climate emergency today.  The next step moves us from awareness to action.  A vital step for allowing God’s spirit to transform our lives inwardly and outwardly.  For as James reminds us, one is not complete without the other.

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2v14-17)

Beyond awareness, the next step takes deeper into discipleship.  Into practical action.  With regard to the people we have harmed through the damage we have brought to the Earth, “Make direct amends to such people wherever possible”.

A few weeks ago, we lost a remarkable voice who has championed the cause of and inspired climate action over many decades.  A voice that shaped research and scientific knowledge, impacting government policy nationally and globally, as well the thinking of Christians and the church.  Professor Sir John Houghton, a Baptist Christian, well respected for his scientific insight, integrity, and compassion, sadly died.  He led the Met Office when I first joined in the mid-1980s and then one of the United Nations Climate Panels for many years.  He founded the John Ray Initiative, an environmental education charity that continues to encourage Christians to grow in awareness and action of the environmental crisis, and which I have the privilege of being involved with.

Although I did not know him well, I am grateful for the stimulus he brought to my own thinking about science and faith and seeding my own Christian thinking about climate change.  I still have one of the slides (see below) that he used in his talks, which I adapted into my own presentations over many years.  A simple slide with a chilling message that I have found has brought home to children, young people, and adults the shocking imbalance and injustice of the climate emergency.

Frankly, the lives we have been living before COVID-19 have been the opposite of the Robin Hood story.  We have been robbing the poor to feed the lives of the rich.  A small minority of the world’s population is the most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and their impact upon the natural world and environment.  If you want to talk about climate footprints, then the rich have the biggest boot, and the poor get the biggest kick.  While we might enjoy the restoration of nature that we have seen these past months, we need to repair the injustice that our lives and climate change are causing.

Restoration is part of redemption.  In the Old Testament, if someone stole from a neighbour, they were to “return what had been stolen … make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it to the owner”  (Leviticus 6v4,5).  This was on top of the guilt offering they needed to offer to God, which was costly too – a ram that was top of the range.  And Jesus’ encounters with people say that we need to go further than follow the letter of the law if we do work with God’s redeeming, restoring Spirit.  Think about how Zacchaeus, a cheating tax collector, in with the powers of his day, whose middle name was “injustice” responded when Jesus turned up in his neighbourhood.

‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’  (Luke 19v8)

That’s not a fifth of what he had cheated people out of – twenty percent.  A whopping twenty times more – four hundred percent.  And not just the best ram from the flock, half his wealth as well.  And how did Jesus respond? ‘Today salvation has come to this house’.

The Paris Climate Accord has mechanisms in place that provide a transfer of funds from rich nations to the poorer nations who are getting the biggest kick.  But like much of that agreement, promises given to grab headlines are struggling to be put into practice.  The Green Fund aims to mobilise 80 billion pounds a year to help developing nations adapt and mitigate against climate change.  So far, by this year, only 8 billion pounds had been raised.  Compare that to the cost of the COVID crisis is the UK where the government has provided 100 billion pounds in grants and loans to businesses over a couple of months.

Today, many Christians are campaigning for a fairer climate deal for those for whom the climate emergency is a present reality, including Christian Aid whose national campaign to raise awareness this month has had to be curtailed because of the lockdown.  Why not find out what they are doing on their website.  How might you and your church contribute this year, especially if you are unable to do your usual street collection?  Baptists too play their part.  BMS World Mission offsets staff travel to fund the  “Eco Challenge Fund”, supporting mission projects with an emphasis on creation stewardship.  The installation of solar power systems for hospitals in Chad; sustainable agroforestry training in the Peruvian Amazon.

The world may be in lockdown for a moment, allowing us to see creation being restored.  But while it won’t be forever, the climate emergency will go for many people.  As we move beyond survival mode of the present time, as we seek the wellbeing of those traumatised by the COVID-19 emergency, don’t forget the underlying trauma of climate change for people and the planet.  In reshaping your church vision and missional agenda, put the issue of climate justice before leadership and church meeting.  How might your church raise its voice and play its part in restoring the Earth?

What will it mean for you as later in the year you look ahead towards 2021?  As you begin to set your priorities and budgets?  I know that may be tough for many churches.  But in the year our country hosts the postponed global climate summit?  In the year that we look to rebuild the world economy, hopefully in a more environmentally responsible and just way.  What voice will we bring to the table? What we will say to Jesus as he sits with us in our house?  And will he say back “Today salvation has come to this house’?

This is the ninth blog in a 12 part series from Dave Gregory. To read the first post ‘Addicted’, please click on this link

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 a JRI Director.

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This article was first published on Seventy-Two and it is reprinted with their permission.

Image: Bluebell Wood, Fawley, Berkshire, UK by Dr Martin Hodson