Editor’s Note: In honor of Earth Day 2024, we are sharing the following reflection from Helle Liht, which appeared in the March/April issue of Nurturing Faith Journal. It is an adaptation of a presentation she gave to the 2010 Baptist World Congress in Hawaii.

My story: How I was hugging the fish
I grew up in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. With only 450,000 inhabitants, it is a small town compared to other capitals around the world. Tallinn was marked by numerous Soviet-built concrete blockhouses towering over a few trees.

In secondary school, I had biology classes where I learned about the general principles of nature and a little about the local biodiversity. Estonia has numerous forests, the sea borders half the country and the population of bears is one of the highest in Europe. But as far as I remember, our learning experience was restricted to listening to the teacher and reading the textbooks with black-and-white schematic illustrations. 

We never left the classroom to smell the forest, identify and compare different plant species or trace the tracks of foxes and deer. Believe me, it was difficult to get excited about nature!

Why so? Maybe because the purpose of nature-related education during Soviet times was to learn how to master, domesticate and conquer nature, not how to live in harmony with or to understand it. 

As theologian Alister McGrath has shown, under Marxist ideology, nature was viewed in opposition to human society; it was an “anti-socialist force” that had to be tamed and conquered so it could “serve the needs of the Soviet people.” This idea was adopted by many, beginning with school children.

Although today’s understanding has changed, two generations in the Soviet Union were brought up with Marxist ideology. The results were visible in everyday life. For example, during that time, it was normal to find a leaking oil tank in the forest left by military personnel, and no one wondered why or what had happened. In the area where my grandmother lived, very close to a prominent Soviet military base, the wells were burning for several years because the oil had reached the groundwater, leaving people with no fresh water.

Around 90% of my generation’s Estonian grandparents were farmers who measured their days according to the sun and cared for their fields and animals. Today, more than two-thirds of our population lives in cities with their children who have lost touch with nature, similar to my childhood growing up in a stone city. Urbanization has happened for several reasons, but the result is the same – a disconnection from nature.

Many years ago, I found my passion for nature when I began working for the Ministry of Environment in Estonia. There, I worked as an administrator for European Union nature conservation projects. Our job was to help Estonia align its legislative and application measures with EU requirements. In this role, I traveled with conservation experts to different natural habitats to measure, assess and observe numerous species and environmental conditions. 

Once, we went to mark fish in a river to observe their breeding habits and monitor their migration trajectory to ensure their protection. My task during this expedition was to hold the fish while we were standing in a shaky boat, as the experts placed tags through the fish’s fins. Some fish were about 60-70 cm long and very slippery! I will never forget the experience of hugging the fish and using all my skills while holding them close to my heart. I am not so sure they enjoyed this. 

A discovery: All relationships matter
During this time, something in my life changed. I had known that life is about relationships, but I began to understand that the circle of our essential relationships is more expansive than I had considered. I learned that, in addition to our relationship with God and other people, our relationship with nature–the ability to observe, listen and interpret–can be life-giving and open up new understandings of our existence, God and the world around us.

I also discovered our relationship with nature can be ignored and life-killing. This period was the first time I opened my ears to the stories of the damage done to nature in different parts of the world and its impact on human communities. Why was I just now beginning to hear this? 

Being raised in a Baptist church, our faith and life focused on our relationship with God, brothers and sisters in Christ and saving souls from eternal death. There were good reasons for this focus. But my ears, eyes and heart were closed to the groaning of Creation. Paying attention to nature was not part of my faith tradition or secular education. I had not been taught to see, listen to and care for nature. 

I saw no connection between my life as a Christian and caring for Creation. I needed to hug the fish, have a meaningful experience with nature, and grasp the relationship between God, myself, and the natural world.

A story from Hawaii: Surrounded by plastic rubbish
This ignorant and life-killing relationship with nature is why there is so much news about the environmental crisis, even about fish.

Kathy Marks has written about the “plastic soup” of waste floating in the Pacific Ocean near the Hawaiian Islands, where I first shared these thoughts at a conference celebrating Baptist life. Some scientists say the rubbish area is twice as large as the continental United States. 

According to Marks, this “plastic soup” is held together by spinning underwater currents and “stretches about 500 nautical miles off the California coast, across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii and almost as far as Japan. … About one-fifth of the junk – which includes everything from footballs and kayaks to Lego blocks and carrier bags – is thrown off ships or oil platforms. The rest comes from land.”

A sailor shared his experience of being surrounded by rubbish daily for thousands of miles as he traveled home from a yacht race: “Every time I came on deck, there was trash floating by. How could we have fouled such a huge area? How could this go on for a week?” The same sailor became an environmental activist and started campaigning against the growing use of plastic.

However, the problem is much bigger than simply an aesthetic outlook of the sea. It has a great impact on marine ecosystems. Seabirds and marine mammals mistake floating plastic bags, cigarette lighters and toothbrushes for food and eat them. In most cases, it causes their death. According to the UN Environment Programme, every year, plastic rubbish causes the death of more than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals. 

Modern plastic manufactured in the past 50 years is so durable that when it ends up in the sea, it will stay there for a very long period, exposing a constant threat to marine life.

Humans are not safe either, especially in areas where the primary source of income is fishing. Marcus Eriksen describes the process of chemical pollution that begins with the plastic rubbish in the sea and says: “What goes into the ocean goes into these animals and onto your dinner plate. It’s that simple.”

A Question: Is it important to become involved in caring for Creation?
For several years now, when the media covers subjects such as climate change, industrial and consumer pollution, deforestation, overfishing, drought and other environmental disaster stories, the Evangelical wing of Christianity in several places around the world has responded. In some countries, churches have developed so-called “good stewardship” programs. These programs offer worship ideas, Bible studies, and practical exercises that focus on creation care. 

But are these environmental initiatives only for those who are interested? Or for some enthusiastic people who have time to take a bike instead of a car, recycle or volunteer to clean the sea coasts from rubbish and leaked oil? Or those who are wealthy enough to buy recycled and fair-trade items instead of much cheaper “regular” goods? 

We often believe that getting involved in Creation care is an optional program for those with time, money and interest. But is this the case?

Baptist theologian Paul S. Fiddes writes about the “Covenant-making God” and draws our attention to the Old Testament story of the flood and subsequent renewal of relationships. He says that three relational dimensions characterize God’s covenant. Two of these are widely acknowledged and linked to humankind– relationship with God and relationship with fellow believers. 

The third dimension, however, is often overlooked by contemporary Christians. Fiddes says that “according to the Old Testament, God makes covenant not only with human beings but with “every living creature – the birds, the cattle, the beasts of the earth” (Gen. 9:8). God relates to all creatures in their own way, and not only humans but the world of nature sings praises.

The Old Testament depicts the heavens, telling the glory of God and proclaiming his handiwork– ants teaching humans and springs giving fresh water to every wild animal. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul tells how the whole creation is groaning and waiting to be set free to share the “freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). Fiddes argues that although “these are poetic images, … they surely bear testimony to some kind of response which the natural world can make or fail to make to the purposes of God, a response which in some way is connected to the human response.”

The story of the plastic rubbish in the Pacific Ocean is only one example of the natural world failing to respond to God’s purposes because of human mismanagement.

Douglas J. Hall builds on this “threefold relatedness” between God, human beings and the natural world and argues that the whole of the Judeo-Christian tradition must be understood as “being-with.” The ultimate meaning of “being-with” is drawn from God’s nature of love, which, in its completeness, is expressed by “God-with-us” (Emmanuel). 

In this “threefold relatedness,” the faith community is beckoned into relationships that embody God’s bonds with the whole creation. Even if “being-with” takes various forms when entering into different relationships with fellow human beings and the natural world, the very purpose of those relations is to express God’s love.

James Wm. McClendon shows that the opposite of “being-with” is avoidance or alienation. There is no middle way. In humanity’s fundamental “threefold relatedness,” there is no possibility of “not-being-with,” not without a negative impact on life and relationships. “Not-being-with” creates alienation, hostility and death. It ultimately separates from God. 

Or as Douglas J. Hall puts it, “It is, therefore, impossible for us to be in a relationship with God without…being turned toward the others called neighboursand toward the inarticulate creation.”

Being God’s people requires us to see and acknowledge God’s love for his creation and his promise to sustain and redeem it. Being God’s people, we must also recognize our responsibility to act as his stewards, applying the same principles of love and care as he does, bringing the whole of creation to fullness.

An encouragement and a reminder: Participation in the Lord’s Table
The relational character of our life and faith, which is only one argument for Creation Care, is embodied, expressed and encouraged in the Lord’s Supper, a central practice in Christ’s church. As his people, we gather at the Lord’s Table and share the wine and the bread. 

In addition to being a sign of Christ’s death and resurrection–the source of salvation for his people–the Lord’s Supper carries other signs of God’s Kingdom of which we are reminded when we participate. It draws on the rich heritage of Israel’s journey with God and the life and work of Jesus.

The Lord’s Supper is about sharing. When we come together as Christ’s church and share the wine and the bread, all are invited to participate, all are included and all receive equally. Everyone is treated equally, irrespective of social status, academic degree or wealth. 

When we gather around the Lord’s Table, Christ himself is sharing his life with us through the bread and the wine, and he wants to continue sharing his life through his people in the suffering world. When we share the bread and the wine, we are called to share our lives and resources with each other and those suffering because of injustice, environmental pollution and the carelessness of fellow humans.

The Lord’s Supper brings together the gifts of the earth and the work of human hands for God’s purpose. According to Lukas Fischer, the bread and the wine–the basic food for Israel–remind us of God’s care for us through the fertility of the land. It also reminds us of our fundamental dependence on God’s grace.

God’s grace and care become visible and tangible through the natural world. Yet environmental pollution cuts so many off from God’s grace and care, like the families in the fishing village who have lost their daily bread and source of life because of sea pollution. As God’s disciples, the impact of our daily life and the work of our hands need to enable the gifts of the earth to come forth, flourish and bear fruit for the glory of God and the blessing of people.

The Lord’s Supper points us toward the New Creation. Christ’s suffering and death open the door to new life. The Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples was not his last meal with them. He renewed his relationship with his disciples as a risen Lord when he had a meal with them in Emmaus (Luke 24:28-31) and Galilee, where he blessed their harvest (another different kind of story about the fish!) and shared bread and fish with them (John 21:1-14). 

Fischer reminds us that those meals celebrated the coming of God’s Kingdom, the new life in the middle of current suffering. As we share the bread and the wine as a contemporary Christian community, we are called to participate in God’s renewal of life within the entire created order, as he did and is doing continuously. 

Maximus the Confessor (580-662) said: “He gives goodness and wisdom in order that what He is by essence the creature might become by participation.” As a church, we are invited to participate in his redemptive work in the world. Our everyday life is a witness to what we, as individuals and faith communities, do and say around the Lord’s Table. 

What kind of disciples are we? What kind of witness do we bear?

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