Sacred Space is an alternative worship service which happens once a month on a Sunday evening at St John's.
We took the theme of Care for Creation. We began by throwing an inflatable planet earth across the circle of those present naming things we love about creation (not easy with a baby balanced on one hip). The focus of the service were prayer stations around the church inviting thsoe present to contemplate issues of concern. These were introduced with the following talk:
One of the things I love about our home here in Reading is the presence of jays – the jays who planted these oak trees. An acorn that falls to the ground beneath its parent will never receive enough light to grow. An acorn buried by a squirrel will first have been nibbled to prevent it germinating. Only the acorns planted by the jays will become new oak trees. The oak supports a wider variety of wildlife than any other English tree and for thousands of years its spread has been dependent upon the fabulously colourful, chattering jay.
Just over 2,000 years ago Jesus ben Sirach, in Ecclesiasticus, declared
Each creature is preserved to meet a particular need,
All things come in pairs, one opposite to the other, and God has made nothing incomplete.
Each supplements the virtues of the other. Who could ever tire of seeing God’s glory?
Now, more than at any time in our history, we know how intricately and fundamentally we are all connected to and dependent upon the web of God’s creation. We know that it is a web that has always been shifting, threads breaking and reforming as tectonic plates have moved, as ice ages have reshaped the landscape, as species have evolved, died out, migrated. Animals and humans have destroyed habitats and brought to birth beautiful new landscapes. Every change reverberates through the web in so many ways.
It is easy to imagine these as amendments to God’s original Creation, after all, the second chapter of Genesis asserts
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished and all their multitude.
But elsewhere in the Old Testament descriptions of God as Creator indicate his constant and close involvement in this changing world. One of the most powerful of these appears in YHWH’s response to Job’s complaint about his own sufferings, here are a few verses:
Then YHWH answered Job out of the whirlwind . . . ‘I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? . . .
Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail? . . .
Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass?
Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? From whose womb did the ice come forth and who has given birth to the hoar-frost of heaven? . . .
Can you hunt the prey for the lion . . . ?
Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the deer? . . .
Is the wild ox willing to serve you? Will it spend the night at your crib?
This process of Creation is awesomely powerful, but a lot harder work than just saying ‘let there be light’. If giving birth to the hoar-frost of heaven feels anything like giving birth the way I’ve experienced it, it is both astoundingly painful and unutterably beautiful. More importantly, it is about intimate relationship, as is watching over the birth of goats and deer, or providing rain for lands regardless of human need. And it is an ongoing relationship. This is a God constantly involved with and delighting in Creation.
Yet throughout the history of Christianity there have been those who have wanted to see the Divine as something utterly other and separate from the dirty, messy, contradictory, vulnerable matter of this world. The stunning opening of John’s gospel emphatically rejects such a dichotomy:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being . . .
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory,
The Incarnation of God as Jesus Christ is the ultimate sign that created matter is good. God was not just clothed in flesh: Jesus was fully human and fully God. Nor was Jesus concerned only with the spiritual welfare of the people he met – time and again he healed their physical ills and he fed them. Our God is not interested only in the spiritual but in the physical too.
Moreover, Jesus came not just to save humankind but for the sake of all Creation. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion describe the earth’s response. Matthew’s is the most detailed:
He tells us that, ‘From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.’ And that as Jesus breathed his last ‘the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom, the earth shook, and the rocks were split’
More explicitly, St Paul told the Romans
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves . . . groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
And he told the Colossians,
In [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to God’s self all things.
It is clear that in the earliest Christian thinking all of Creation has an intimate, interactive relationship with God.
So what has happened?
Climate change is wiping out glaciers and coral reefs, rendering once-fertile lands uninhabitable, threatening to displace millions and millions of the poorest people on earth. The gloriously complex eco-systems that are the rainforests, lungs for the planet, are being decimated – very often to grow chicken feed. Our local councils are running out of land in which to bury our waste, and we are told that after the oil wars there will be water wars, although rising sea levels will also be covering Bangladesh, and London.
It is a very scary picture. And much of what needs to be done to halt these changes depends on the actions of governments and businesses, or on people who understand the technologies required.
So where does Christianity come into this?
First, it is a question of the integrity of our relationship with the Creator God who delights in this earthly world – even if climate change could not be halted, that alone is reason enough not to be wanton in our attitude to the planet.
But more than that, Christians have a unique perspective to offer. A perspective that shifts the process of caring for creation from being a burden to being a joy.
Jesus taught a radical destabilising love for the poor and the oppressed. Feasting among outcasts who are the first in his kingdom. Like oppressed human beings our broken planet is a victim of greed, selfishness and domination – of the perception that its value lies only in what it can do for us. It too deserves love for its own sake.
If we try to ‘save the planet’ out of a sense of guilt we will be miserable and bitter and we will probably fail. If our efforts to be green simply leave us feeling inadequate at the task before us, we will crumble. But if we can start from loving Creation as our neighbour it becomes an entirely different process. A process of being surprised by the joy of its presence, of seeking out new ways of giving back. If this sounds like hippy nonsense, try shopping at the Farmer’s Market and getting to know the stallholders there, or at the organic True Food Co-op where we are trusted to weigh out our own food into minimal packaging and have a cup of tea while we’re at it. This feels like right relationship with the planet and it is so much more pleasurable than Tesco’s. Yes it is only a drop in the ocean, but I believe it is the right perspective to start from. Moreover, only when we approach Creation in this more positive way will we find a way to live permanently in a balance that will sustain all God’s people.
The threat of climate change is terrifying, but the need to respond not as individuals but in community and the need to learn to love creation has the potential for some very beautiful developments in that web.
This service invites us to rethink our relationship with the created world, to delight in the earth. As Christians we need to cast off that ancient Greek ideology that privileges the spiritual over the physical. Above all we need to recognise the importance in our tradition of God’s love for creation, for the material – that God so loved the world that he embraced it and became one with it.
The Prayer Stations
a pile of (clean!) rubbish in the refectory which they were invited to redeem by turning into sculptures
items of clothing with strings attached to labels were placed on a table with information about the environmental and human costs of clothing manufacture
Water of life
seats were positioned around bowls of warm water and people were invited to soak their feet while contemplating the importance of water and their appreciation of it
When did you last go paddling? And what did it feel like?
Do you have a favourite waterfall, river, lake or loch? What do you do there?
What do you most like to do with water?
Are there things that you would like to do with water but haven’t yet?
Do any of the Bible’s water stories have a special meaning for you?
How do we travel?
A bicycle was brought in and around it were placed various pieces of information about the consequences of our transport habits and a cyclist's prayer celebrating the joys of cycling
Taste and see
a variety of apples - some organic, some fairtrade, some local, some not - were laid out with the following notice beside them:
Please cut off a piece of one apple and read where it comes from
Eat it contemplatively, slowly savouring its taste, its texture, and conscious of its story
Then try another apple . . .
In 2003 The Guardian bought a basket of fresh food containing 20 items, including pears from Argentina, peas from South Africa and lettuce from Spain. The cumulative distance travelled by the contents of the basket was 100,943 miles – just under half the distance to the moon.
In 2001 the University of North Carolina conducted a study of over 700 women living near crops sprayed with certain pesticides and found they faced a 40-120 per cent increased risk of miscarriage and birth defects
Only 38 per cent of apples sold in our supermarkets were grown in the UK. Friends of the Earth found 14 British varieties of apple in supermarkets but 28 on market stalls.
British apples are available from late July until the following April.