The Environment

what do you think I should read this year?

I’m developing a shortlist of books to try to read this year. And I need your help.

It’s worth you knowing something up-front though. Typically, the list of books I’ve read at the end of the year looks quite different from the reading list I set myself at the start.

That’s largely down to the pressure I’ve felt in pastoral ministry to pick up a big chunk of my reading reactively (in response to the questions people are asking) as well as on a project basis.

In fact, I’ve already got a bit of an agenda along these lines, travelling mainly in the orbit of the New Atheism, leadership, and missional engagement/faithful presence.

But I’m keen work towards developing a more balanced diet of (modest) proactive reading — my own personal R & D programme if you like.

So I’m setting myself to read two or three books in each of the following categories (culled from N. T. Wright, New Testament And The People of God, p 123):

  1. Identity
  2. Environment
  3. Evil
  4. Eschatology

Can you help me compile a shortlist?

I’d love for you to tell me what you think I should read — please share your pick for the top book (or two) on each topic. Let the comments begin!

now here’s a troubling thought…

This one struck me as Natalie and I were chatting yesterday.

What if future generations judge us as morally indistinguishable from 18th century American slave holders?

Why would they judge us that way? Because of the way we exploit the planet’s resources to fuel our decadent lifestyle.

Think of the energy required to fly our favourite cafe’s boutique coffee beans direct from Guatemala (or wherever).

Or to get a parcel of bargain books from the UK at what appears to be the click of a button (safely tucking away from view the entire massive material reality between order and delivery).

Or to have cheap, fresh produce — whatever the season — at our local green grocer.

I already cared about this stuff at a theoretical level. But I don’t think I’ve ever felt this uncomfortable about more or less all of my daily habits and activities.

‘and they will bear you up’

It’s time to wrap up this series on the responsibility of stewardship — specifically creation stewardship. Just to review the ground we’ve covered as we’ve dwelt on the invitation God extends in Jesus: namely, to enter into our full humanity and privilege as children of the Father:

  1. ‘if you are the Son of God…’ — I justified my use of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as an anchor,
  2. ‘not by bread alone’ — I highlighted the challenge of trusting God at the heart of stewardship,
  3. ‘do not put the Lord to the test’ — I sketching the shape of stewardship: thankfully receiving, frugally enjoying and generously sharing God’s good gifts, and
  4. ‘serve him only’ — I considered the goal of stewardship: drawing out the potential of creation to glorify God (and not ourselves).

I have just one question to ask in conclusion: Have you noticed the odd the way the temptation scene ends — with angels attending Jesus?

Now, I know there’s really not much made of this in the texts. It’s merely registered before the scene shifts and the narrative whisks us forward. But isn’t this the very thing the devil has already suggested Jesus lay claim to as the Son, God’s Messiah? Isn’t angelic ministration something he was urged to cling to as an entitlement? And wasn’t it something Jesus rejected — along with that whole way of trying to be the Son of God?

Well … yes. But at this point in the story Jesus isn’t selfishly claiming anything. There’s no sense of him standing on his rights or putting God to the test. He’s not making demands. Rather, God is graciously bestowing the unlooked-for gift of satisfaction upon his obedient Son. And this is nothing short of the Messiah’s vindication.

Because Jesus is God’s Son, you see. His refusal of the devil’s earlier suggestion to throw himself down expecting that angels will bear him up was no denial of his Sonship or Messianic title. It was a refusal of the devil’s timing — and his arrogant attempt to make God operate by our timetable.

For us who share by grace in the status Jesus naturally and eternally enjoyed, I think this means:

We are most satisfied in serving God when he is most glorified through what we do (to up-end a famous saying).

So, when it comes to our care for God’s world, we can probably expect it to be uncomfortable and inconvenient at times. Obedience often is in the world that sin has invaded and wrapped its destructive tendrils around. But we can also expect that obedient stewardship — in which we live out our trust in God, seeking his glory by thankfully receiving, frugally enjoying and generously sharing the resources his makes available — will prove deeply satisfying, in all sorts of surprising, God-given ways.

‘serve only him’

The third and final temptation the devil reaches for, and — more importantly — Jesus’ response to it, helps us see the goal of stewardship:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’. Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” ‘.

Subtle, right? (Although, the devil may be playing on a less blatant misunderstanding of what it will mean for Jesus to be the Son — something akin to Peter’s foot-in-mouth incident following on from his startling recognition of Jesus as the Christ, and possibly something that’d even be able to claim support from passages like Psalm 72.)

Drawing yet once more on Scripture, Jesus meets the devil’s outrageous suggestion with his deep understanding of the aim of the responsible stewardship he’s to exercise as God’s true Son — Israel’s Messiah and humanity’s representative. The way he’s to handle himself, and God’s good gifts (including the creation), must be oriented towards worshipping and serving God alone.

For Jesus, this meant rejecting the temptation to pursue his own ambition and imperialistically make the world his servants — since ‘the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’ (Matt 20.28).

From this I derive the following litmus test for creation stewardship. Of any use of (or action towards) the creation, ask: ‘Does it serve God, drawing out creation’s potential to glorify him, or does it serve me, twisting and distorting it into my servant?’

Sound easy? Well, in some situations it may be readily discerned. But most of the time it’ll be much more difficult to work out which way your actions are tending. Imperial ambition rarely announces itself as Satanic at the outset. It kind of creeps up on you. And thus requires you to continually scrutinise yourself (and, as an aside, probably learn a thing or two from the postmodern ‘masters of suspicion’ about probing your own motives and the consequences of your actions).

This is probably too complex to do justice to in one (already over-long) post. But one point is worth mentioning. It’s a point Leslie Newbigin makes in his important essay, ‘The Congregation as Hermeneutic of the Gospel’ — namely, keep it as a ‘church’-thing and you’ve got a good chance of keeping it as a God-glorifying thing; farm it out and you’ll probably run into trouble.

Yet another reason to see Christians at the forefront of creation stewardship. Not because it’s the gospel. But because if we’re not doing it, it’ll become someone else’s gospel.

‘do not put the Lord to the test’

In the face of the next Satanic temptation, Jesus stands firm — again quoting Scripture:

It is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’.

Just as with the first temptation — to turn stones into bread — the devil’s suggestion that Jesus claim the promise of divine protection by hurling himself off the temple plays on the question of his identity.

On the surface, it looks like an invitation to commit himself into the hands of the sovereign God, throwing himself upon the promise of deliverance — a promise, in context, about the Messiah’s vindication (more on that later). However, the devil is really trying to provoke Jesus to act with high-handed self-sufficiency. To claim the privileges of sonship — without walking the path of obedience it entails.

He’s effectively saying: ‘Go on, Jesus. Prove you’re the Son of God. God has promised to protect his Son, wrapping him in angelic cotton wool so that he won’t bruise his foot against a stone. If you’re the real deal, show us!’ And so, once again, it’s an issue of trust. It’s about whether or not Jesus will trust his Father’s vision of what it means to be the true Son (and true human being).

Consequently, Deuteronomy is the natural place for Jesus to turn. For the charter it contains for Israel’s national life insists on the point that God’s people are not self-sufficient. This, I suspect is why the Sabbath regulation is so prominent in Deuteronomy’s version of the Ten Commandments (and why it’s reworked in light of the Exodus and the prospect of life in the land).

And Deuteronomy 8, from which Jesus draws the quotation with which he wards off the devil, is a tour de force of this point. It underlines the non-self-sufficiency of God’s son, Israel. And outlines the shape of responsible stewardship, the main features of which are:

  • Receiving God’s provision thankfully,
  • Enjoying it simply, and
  • Sharing it generously.

Now, obviously there are tensions here. For example, enjoying ‘simply’ (or frugally) what God has provided is easier said than done. In our contemporary context of globalised poverty (in which we comfortable westerners are necessarily implicated), it can be challenging to work out the right relationship between enjoyment and frugality/simplicity. Distinguishing between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ might be a start. But what about when my children ‘need’ a laptop to flourish at school?

While we cannot be spared the trouble of reflecting and taking stock (and probably shouldn’t seek to be), I suggest these three aspects of stewardship work best in concert. So, rather than trying to draw lines to excuse our greed and materialism, imagine what our lives could look like if we asked of the resources and goods God entrusts to us: How can I receive these thankfully? How can I share them generously? And (consequently) how can my enjoyment not terminate on itself — or reflect a presumption of self-sufficiency — but speak of genuine contentment in God’s provision?

‘not by bread alone’

One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Jesus’ response to the devil’s first temptation takes us to the heart of stewardship, which I’m suggesting is the key to our response to climate change. At root, stewardship is about trust. About taking God at his word. Relying on him to provide — in the way he (perfectly) sees is best.

In the face of Satan’s suggestion to satisfy himself (which is not purely external — as a human being, Jesus was undoubtedly hungry and thus vulnerable to such a suggestion), Jesus affirms his trust in God.

He does this by quoting Scripture. Obviously — and apparently easily — enough. But there’s something deeper going on here. Or rather, what it means for Jesus to quote Scripture in this context runs very deep. It runs to the essence of his identity and vocation. Ultimately, it’s about how Jesus is going to be the Son of God:

  • Will he choose to be the Son of God in the way Satan suggests? Will he look out for himself? Ensure his own comfort? And, in doing so, turn aside from the path of suffering that leads to the cross?
  • Or will he be the Son of God in the way that he implicitly took upon himself in his baptism? Accepting solidarity with his people — even in their rebellion and sin (John’s baptism was a sign of repentance remember)?

In their own way, each of the temptations with which the devil attempts to snare Jesus poses this question of identity and vocation. Thus, they throw up the issue of trust. Will Jesus trust God enough to walk the difficult path of obedience? Will he follow the trajectory that God has ordained and ratified in the announcement that this Son whom he loves is also the (suffering) servant in whom he delights?

For Jesus (at least) trusting God’s good provision and plan is not as obvious or easy as it might first seem. And it’s the same for us — we who share by grace in the sonship Jesus has eternally. Trust — which is the heart of stewardship — is easier said than done.

But it only takes a little imagination to begin to get a sense of what it will look like when it comes to our response to climate change. Doesn’t it? If we’re going to exercise trusting, Christ-like stewardship in God’s world, then on this issue (as on so many others) we must reject both paralysing fear and obsessive, proud, self-making survivalism.

In particular, I want to suggest, that we must refuse to play the ‘Let’s Endlessly Debate Who (If Anyone) Is Responsible So We Can Work Out Who To Blame’ game. Not that we won’t honestly acknowledge the various contributions made by different parties at different levels. But that we do so in order to determine how we can best move forward.

Wouldn’t it be beautiful if the churches led the charge on this?

‘if you are the Son of God…’

It’s (finally) time to kick off my series on responding to climate change. I’m taking my bearings from what the Bible says about stewardship — by which God invites us to share in his care for and rule over his creation, drawing out its potential to glorify him.

My intention is to move in a more practical direction while remaining theologically disciplined. Something I hope to achieve by dwelling on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in which he begins to confront (and overcome) the devil.

Before we get stuck in, let me explain why I think this incident sheds so much light on stewardship. Two reasons:

Theologically, God’s achievement in Jesus — climaxing in the cross and resurrection, but beginning when he took on flesh (as Calvin and the early fathers saw) — must determine our thinking about providence.

Of course, we mustn’t collapse God’s reconciling of the world in Christ into providence — as if there wasn’t anything particularly special or decisive about the life and work of Jesus. But the gospel does unveil the goal and purpose of all God’s interactions with his world and human life.

The encounter with the devil in the wilderness with which Jesus begins his public ministry, therefore, illuminates how God deals with us, providing for us in a way that neither undermines our freedom nor leaves us with nothing to do. Rather, we see here that God hands us the challenge of responsible sonship — hence the question with which the devil keeps hammering: ‘If you are the Son of God…’

Exegetically, this incident follows on from Jesus’ baptism, in which he freely identifies himself with his people as their representative. (Luke, of course, disturbs this sequence by inserting Jesus’ genealogy between these two ‘moments’. But this only serves to sharpen the presentation of Jesus as representative, emphasising his connection with Adam — ‘the son of God’.)

The cash value of this is found in the correspondence between Jesus’ forty days and Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. Just as for God’s people in the past, their representative must learn to trust God’s provision — that he has our best interests at heart. The fact that Matthew suggests a link not only to Israel’s wilderness experience but also to Moses — who stood in the breach for forty days and forty nights, desperately pleading with God to turn aside his anger against his people — reinforces this. Jesus, Matthew implies, will succeed where Israel failed. Where Israel doubted God’s provision and care, Jesus will show us what it looks like to be the true son called out of Egypt by God.

a Christian response to climate change — 2.0

I’m aware that my previous post (about providence and climate change) was a bit of a tangled mess. Let me try to tease it apart a little and lay out the direction in which I’d love to see the conversation move.

What I’m proposing to do is:

  • Take another look at the question of how Christians should respond to climate change. In particular, I’d like to focus on some of the urgent, practical questions — about how to balance competing priorities, etc — that I never really got around to dealing with in my earlier reflections (such as THISTHIS or THIS).
  • Yet in turning to application I don’t want to turn my back on theology. I’ll continue to try to gather my thoughts around the topics of God’s providence — his gracious, sovereign and purposeful interaction with the world he has made — and human stewardship, taking Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as a touchstone.

Here (in a little more detail) is how I’m proposing to tackle it:

  1. ‘If you are the Son of God…’ — God’s provision and human stewardship
  2. ‘Not by bread alone’ — the heart of human stewardship
  3. ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’ — the shape of human stewardship
  4. ‘Serve him only’ — the goal of human stewardship
  5. ‘They will bear you up’ — the un-looked-for satisfaction of stewardship

I expect to add further sub-points as I elaborate on each of these ‘theme-statements’, fleshing out what they might mean for our responsibility to care for God’s good creation (although, of course, they have wider application — and indeed, the fact that creation care isn’t the only game in town is something with which we’ll no doubt wrestle as we move forward).

providence and climate change: redux

Climate change seems to be making a comeback from post-Copenhagen obscurity (although someone really needs to tell the sceptics to stop flogging the dead horse of the University of East Anglia ‘cover up’).

Since I wrote did some work on it last year, I’ve been doing a bunch more thinking. Back then, I kept banging on about the fact that in the face of widespread anxiety and cynicism, God’s providence means that Christians are invited to participate in his care for and rule over the world he’s perfecting through Jesus by the Spirit.

Far from writing a permission slip for a laissez faire attitude (because ‘It’s all going to burn anyway’ perhaps?), this means that a Christian response to climate change will be marked by confidence and humility.

  • Confidence without humility quickly becomes an excuse for arrogant meddling — whether along the lines of greedy exploitation or hardline conservationism that seeks to wind back the clock. Creation remains God’s. He bears primary responsibility for it and we are ‘junior partners’, seeking his glory rather than our own comfort and selfish ends.
  • On the flip-side, humility without confidence in the risen Lord quickly descends into panic, despair or (perversely) frantic activism. Under God, we bear genuine responsibility, which we shirk to our shame. But we do it with hope and iron-clad trust that God’s ultimate purposes will not be thwarted. Life not death will triumph.

That being said, I’m keen to push things further in terms of practice. I’ll post a plan for my reflections next week.

Before I begin, I want to indicate something about how I’m going to tackle it: My reflections will be anchored in Jesus’ confrontation with the devil in the wilderness. Why? For the one thing, it’s a climatic moment in God’s interaction with his world. More, it has stacks to say about God’s providence and what it means for us to live truly human lives, liberated from the devil’s distorting influence.

By sticking with this one passage I can keep things both theologically informed and focussed on the practical implications. That’s the hope anyway!

Stay tuned…

a suggestion for a pre-arrival education program

There is a small but significant proportion of European tourists who desperately need to be educated about how to go bushwalking in Australia if you want any chance of seeing wildlife. QUIETLY. I recommend a state-run pre-arrival education program, from which said noisy European tourists must graduate by successfully walking through a portion of forest without talking loudly or stomping around, before they are allowed access to our national parks.

(Come to think of it, maybe they’re desperately trying to frighten away snakes… it’s just that they’re also frightening away everything else.)

This was the best photo I got of a Cassowary we were lucky to see before we were set upon by a bunch of European noise-makers.

A very bad photo of a real cassowary

A very bad photo of a real cassowary

Perhaps I’m being unfair to Europeans in particular, maybe everyone should have to get certification as a ‘quite walker’ before being allowed to go bushwalking in national parks…