There is a fairly common expression of Christian relationships that speaks of three dimensions – Up to God, In to the church community, and Out to the unbelieving world. Different churches will express this slightly differently in the language used and the emphasis given, common words include worship and prayer (Up), fellowship and discipleship (In), and mission or evangelism (Out). I’ve come across vision statements and even diagrams that portray the priorities a Christian community should have to ensure balanced relationships.
I think this a reasonably helpful model and I have used it myself. It helps pastors and members of congregations to remember there is more to church than getting lost in a holy huddle always gazing upwards for a warm fuzzy feeling that corporate worship may offer. It can help to point away from an insulated, self preening community that fears the world beyond its four walls and risks becoming cultish. Whilst such a model also has its limitations and imperfections I still think it provides a useful summary of Christian community which I hope to unpack in future posts; but I have come to realise at least one axis is missing.
For all that the year 2019 may be remembered for I suspect civil unrest and disobedience of Extinction Rebellion, the prophtic voice of the teenage Greta Thunberg, and the reawakening of global interest in climate change alongside the recognition of the sheer scale of plastic pollution and move to reduce single use plastic could well be high on the list. There are some segments of the church that have spoken up and been engaged with environmental action but on the whole it seems the church is fairly uninterested and disengaged. It happens that over the past 18-24 months I’ve spent more time studying the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and I’ve been struck by how much the relationship between God and the people of God is linked to the land.
In the beginning God created (Genesis 1:1-25). God then gifted creation to humankind (Genesis 1:26-30). Humankind was separated from God and the best of creation (Genesis 3:23-24). When humans follow God’s guidance in how they live and work together, welcome the strangers and worship God the land is a blessing – when they disobey God the land becomes a curse (e.g. 2 Chronicles 7:12-22 & Psalm 37:21-22). Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament there are links between humankind, God and the natural world. Jesus teaches on hillsides (e.g. Matthew 5:1) and from lakes (e.g. Matthew 13:1-9), he retreats to secluded natural places (e.g. Matthew 14:23 & Luke 5:16) and frequently uses the natural world within his teaching (e.g. Matthew 13:1-9, 13:31-32 & Luke 15:1-8). Much of the western church, just has much of western society, has lost its connection with the natural world and therefore our relationships with God, one another, and with strangers are missing a significant component. We benefit from relationships in four dimensions – Up to God, In to ourselves, Out to our neighbours, and Down into the natural world – earth, water, wind and fire.