Dave is an Ordained Minister in the Church of England and Director of Theology for A Rocha International, a network of Christian organisations working in nature conservation across the world. A Rocha International have recently joined the Renew Our World community and played a key role in crafting the Wildlife Statement that calls for a rethink in our relationship with nature.
Online Content Author, Sarah Parkinson, spoke to Dave about God’s heart for nature and our fellow creatures. If you haven’t read Part 1 of the interview, you can find it here.
Now, find yourself a comfy spot and settle in for Part 2 as Dave shares what we can all do to care for God’s good creation.
Sarah Parkinson (SP): What are your hopes for this Renew Our World movement?
Dave Bookless (DB): I feel that movements like this are kind of chipping away at a Christian mindset, a mindset in our churches that has been too focused on the spiritual in isolation from the whole of life. And sometimes being too focused on us as human beings rather than on the biggest scope of God’s purposes for the whole of creation; the whole earth will be filled with the glory of God.
We’re encouraging Christians to see the big picture of what God’s up to in God’s world. Each of us needs to work out our own priorities at the much more local level, but things like this help Christians and churches to recognise that it’s not all about us, that this is part of that big picture, that God’s at work on a macro scale.
SP: What is the vision in terms of Christians and churches taking action towards protecting biodiversity?
DB: I think we’ve seen some encouraging clues during this lockdown time, particularly in our big urban complexes where we’ve seen people reconnect with nature and recognise that actually it’s good for their physical and mental well-being. That we actually feel better if we hear birdsong and if we see things grow. That we can’t be just shut in our houses 24 hours a day; we need to get outdoors, we need to connect with each other. That economic well-being should serve rather than be served by human beings and nature. That in terms of the order of things, we need to have a natural world that’s functioning. Within that we need to have a human society that’s flourishing. And within that, we need to have an economic system that serves those, rather human beings and nature as slaves to the economy.
So we’ve got to kind of reverse those priorities. We need to have political and economic systems that serve human flourishing and nature’s flourishing.
Now, what that looks like in practice at the local church level – I think it means that our focus probably needs to be both more local and more global.
Even though we’ve all been shut in our homes and had to have online worship, I think people have drawn closer to each other through this time – certainly with our local church, we’ve seen that. But people also need to actually recognise that the place where God has planted us matters and our local places matter. So local churches can ask, “How could we care for our local place? How can we clean it up? How can we reduce pollution at the local level? How can we source our food more locally? How can we source our energy more locally? How can we actually work as a church in partnership with people who want to see a different kind of world, a better world, who want to “build back better”? How can we as Christians actually partner with others? And how can that be part of our witness and our mission? How can we as churches become communities that incarnate, that live out a vision that is truly sustainable, where our relationships are better, where our quality of life is better, where our relationship with the rest of God’s creation is better? How can we do that locally but in a way that’s globally interconnected, listening to our sisters and brothers in India and in Uganda and in Brazil and everywhere else?”
That’s my vision, and I think we’ve got a long way to go, but I’m seeing some exciting signs of new growth and signs of a desire and a hunger for that, even during this time.
SP: You mentioned before that we each need to work out our priorities in our local context and work out what to focus on. Given that each of us has a finite amount of energy to expend in contributing to our world, what would you say to those people who may have focused their actions more on enabling human flourishing to encourage them to broaden their actions to enable biodiversity to flourish, too?
DB: That’s a great question. To some extent, I don’t want to be too prescriptive because the last thing we want is to create a new kind of legalism. I’ve often jokingly said in talks, “The worst kind of Pharisee is an eco-Pharisee.” You know, the kind of person who makes you feel guilty and think, “I certainly don’t want them to come into my house because they’ll see we have plastics! They’ll see that not everything is fair trade and that we haven’t managed to change all our light bulbs yet!” So it shouldn’t be about a kind of legalism.
What I would encourage everyone to [do] is simply pray for the Holy Spirit to show you where you should start. The answer will therefore be different for different people. For one person, it might be a pair of binoculars and being intentional about noticing the wildlife in your neighbourhood. For another person, depending on your stage of life, it might be changing from using disposable nappies or diapers to getting washable cloth ones. For another person it might be using your cycle or walking rather than driving everywhere. It’ll depend on your stage in life and it will depend on all kinds of practical things as to what the steps are.
I think one thing that almost all of us can do is take our prayer and Bible study outdoors sometimes. For many of us, that might be a good place to start. You know, God has written two books – I’m not the first person to say that! Scripture and Nature, God’s two books. Particularly for those of us raised in an evangelical tradition where it’s all about “heads down inside the Bible, close your eyes, pray”, get outside and open your eyes and let God’s creation speak to you, as well as Scripture. Pray when you’re outdoors. Take a walk and ask God, “What do you want to say to me through what I’m seeing and hearing?” Take your quiet time outdoors; take a sandwich, take your Bible, go and sit under a tree somewhere and just be still and let God speak to you from what’s around you.
And, you know, for some people, that might sound a little bit wacky and kind of eco-spiritual and maybe even a bit New Age, but it’s profoundly biblical. I mean, what did Jesus say? He said, “Look at the birds of the air. Look at the flowers of the field.” They are both imperatives – they’re not just a visual aid for your sermon. They’re about earnestly studying the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, because we learn lessons about God’s character and we learn lessons for how we should live by studying nature.
SP: Super practical and super powerful.
So a broader question for you: What do you think God might be trying to teach us through this COVID-19 season?
DB: There have been some Christians saying that God has sent this virus to do this or to do that. I’m not one of those and I think it’s very important to say that I don’t see this as God’s judgment in a direct sense. I believe this is part of the way nature works in the world that God has designed. However, I think we certainly can ask the question, “What is God saying to us through this?” I think that’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask. And I think God is saying several things, one of which I touched on right early on, which is: this is a sign of things to come. This isn’t just a one off.
A second thing that I think God is saying to us is: we have to change the way we live, particularly in terms of our relationship with nature.
A third thing that I think God has said really powerfully through this is: stop.
We’ve all had to stop. For some it’s been really painful because of mental health. For some it’s been really difficult because of illness and bereavement. But I think for most of us, it’s actually been an unexpected blessing.
In our high speed, Western, urban worlds, we’d almost forgotten what a real Sabbath is like, what a real time of Jubilee is like. This has been a Sabbath for nature, a Sabbath for the land. It’s been a time of Jubilee, a kind of resetting in terms of how we use time, in terms of our priorities. So it’s been an enforced Sabbath and time of Jubilee that I think is really important.
SP: We’ve talked about your hopes, challenges and learnings. What about your prayers, for this time and for the future?
DB: My biggest prayer of all: Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit, use this opportunity to change your church and to change our global priorities. Come, Holy Spirit, change the kind of world we move into post lockdown.
It seems some of our most powerful world leaders [are] almost deaf to clear messages. I just pray that God breaks their hearts and breaks through to them during this time. That’s the big prayer, the really hard prayer, to challenge governments that we can’t just use this time to bail out all the airlines and fossil fuel and polluting industries. Yes, we need to get jobs back, but we need to reconstruct the world in a way that recognises that we can’t carry on messing up nature. We’re going to pay for it and pay for it and pay for it again and again and again. This is a warning sign. I pray that our top faith leaders give a really strong, clear, moral message that is heard by those in power about the kind of world we need to move back to. Or forward to, perhaps I should say.
SP: Final question: In light of all that is going on, what would you like to share in particular to young Christians?
DB: You know, people of my generation, in a sense, we’ve missed this completely. And some of us are catching up on it late. Young people know it and they get it; you do not have to tell young people that the environment is the global issue of our time and that we’re not moving as fast as we need to and that our governments and our society needs to change drastically. They totally get it.
What I think has often been missing is how passionate God is about this, how deeply this is in the heart of God, and that you can be fully, authentically sold out for Jesus and sold out for climate justice or caring for creation. You can be vegan and Christian! You can be a climate nut and a Jesus nut! Absolutely, these things fit together.
I just want to encourage young people [in saying that although] the church may have been so slow on this, don’t lose touch with your roots in Jesus and the Bible, because you’ll find all you need to resource your journey and be passionate about this world, passionate about the environment, passionate about poverty and justice and integrating all of that. Your Christian faith has all the resources you need for this. Just dig deep in your faith and get out there and change the world.
What an inspiring note to finish on.
Want more inspiration? Check out the brand new Renew Our World podcast featuring industry leaders, theologians and campaigners sharing their knowledge and passion for creation care.
You can also check out our campaign on conserving the Atewa Forest.