June 7, 2017 / Praxis
Jason Byassee finds religion reemerging in Vancouver, British Columbia.
July 8, 2009
The last three mornings I’ve watched a rose bush alongside my driveway as dozens of buds have swelled and peeled and burst into a cluster of glorious red. I’m grateful for a wet spring in Atlanta and for God’s gift of the intricate, unfolding, brilliant rose. But sometimes it takes years to gain an appreciation for beauty.
Last spring we planned a family trip to the Grand Canyon. I had been to the Canyon once before and had slept under the vivid starry skies of the northern Arizona high desert so I could see the rising sun begin lacing early ribbons of light on the canyon walls. But the rest of the family hadn’t yet seen one of the world’s natural wonders.
My son Michael, twelve at the time and absorbed in the active worlds of ice hockey and skateboarding, rued the day that he would have to go on this family outing. While I envisioned the Grand Canyon as one of the places that you should, if you can, see before you die, Michael thought he would die on the trip from sheer boredom.
He wasn’t about to ooh and aah as we walked the south rim, but I knew that he was indeed human when at one point he looked out over a vista and exclaimed, “This is awesome!”
Certainly, we take the creative work of God for granted far beyond our youth. But if we allow ourselves opportunities not only to see the world’s great wonders, but to wonder at the greatness of God and the complexity and grandeur of his world, we can in those moments exclaim with Michael, “This is awesome!”
One would think that none could better appreciate the beauty and sheer glory of a mountain range or a lush meadow than a people deeply devoted to the God who formed the world out of nothing, the God who crafted beauty out of chaos and called it good. Thus, it troubles me to observe that it is the very followers of the Christ “by whom all things were created: things in heaven and on earth” (Col. 1:16) who have eschewed opportunities to confront great threats to the beauty of this world God has created and is sustaining and redeeming.
A New Ministry: Flourish
And so, after thirty-one years of working in the evangelical community with some of the finest ministries and leaders in the world, I have begun with my friend and co-laborer on recent environmental issues, Rusty Pritchard, a new movement called Flourish (www.flourishonline.org). It is our desire that through this ministry we may help inspire and equip the church to revive human lives and the landscapes on which they depend.
The primary mission of Flourish is to call for all of us as Christians to first seek Christ and his righteousness and to be open to exploring beauty in our own lives, in the experiences of our families, in the redemptive ministries of our churches, and in the natural world that is our home.
Although environmental stewardship is often presented as necessary drudgery or less charitably as a distraction from vital priorities, we believe that caring for God’s creation presents an important opportunity for the church to enrich its ministry and to expand its witness. But how do we inspire a passion for creation care? I believe it requires restoring an appreciation for beauty in the modern church.
This will not happen if we call on Christians to become political activists, although political activism may result from conviction. It will not happen if we call on Christians to recycle, to turn out the lights, or to drive more efficient cars, although all of those actions may indeed become priorities. No, appreciation for beauty comes when we slow the pace, open our eyes to see the masterworks of creation, give honor to the craftsman, and pledge ourselves as the protectors of creation.
I have observed through my involvement in the Christian environmental movement that many of our activists and leaders point to beauty but lack spiritual elegance. And as the movement has labored over the past decade to be a relevant voice among environmentalists, we appear to have missed opportunities to achieve this elegance; we have trapped ourselves in servitude to an environmental hegemony that is often limited by a bleak worldview, political illusion, and its own fundamentalism.
As a result, the Christian environmental movement has, for the most part, been unable or unwilling to articulate either the power of the gospel to transform lives or what this transforming power should mean with respect to creating elegant culture. Put another way, the movement has failed to expound a robust view of beauty crafted by God’s hand.
We all have our own internal lists of what we call beautiful. My list would include my captivating wife, the bright eyes of my newborn daughter, the layered contours of a mountain range, the pulse and drama of a rocky shoreline, the power of a pounding waterfall, the bounty of a vegetable garden, the autumn explosion of a brilliant tree-lined lane, and even the sculpted, balanced architecture of a well-planned cityscape. And I could go on.
Would our world be a better place if we protected all that I see as beautiful, or all of the things and places and experiences that you see as beautiful? Yes, I think it would, but it would not be a complete place, a completed picture. If the world and its people are to flourish, there must be a blossoming of God’s redemptive plan for all creation. The unique mission of Christians involved in creation care is to infuse environmentalism with this spiritual elegance.
We are guided in our work at Flourish by four truths of God’s interaction with the world.
First, God created a beautiful world: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Most of us have looked out over a roadside scenic outlook and called a particularly breathtaking scene “awesome,” as my son did at the Grand Canyon. I can imagine God taking a look from his heavenly workshop at his created world and doing the same. God’s first instruction to people was to work and care for his good and beautiful earth, and that remains a part of our calling today.
Second, the purpose of beauty is to bring honor to God: “He has made everything beautiful in its time [. . .] God does it so that men will revere him” (Eccl. 3:11, 14). As Christians, said Peter Illyn of Restoring Eden at the Flourish conference in May, we are “not to worship creation but to worship with creation.”
Third, the world is beautiful when its people experience shalom. We see spiritual elegance when communities are harmonious; when people act in concord with God, each other, and the natural world; when “righteousness and shalom have kissed each other” (Ps. 85:10). The interdependence of people, land, and their God is clearly evident when these relationships are thriving and even more evident when they are out of balance. When we abuse creation, we all suffer—and the poor and most vulnerable suffer the most.
Finally, fourth, God’s redemption is a wonder of great beauty. The scripture celebrates the good news of salvation and lauds those who deliver it: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (Is. 52:7; Rom. 10:15). A complete environmental ethic must celebrate the redemption of lives and all creation.
At Flourish, as individuals and as an organization, we seek to advance spiritual elegance and to integrate environmental care into the habits and ministry of the church. We believe that the church’s active embrace of the things God sees as beautiful will result not only in better care for his creation, but also the flourishing of lives and ministry.
Please visit www.flourishonline.org for more details about the work of Flourish.
Jim Jewell is the chief executive officer and co-founder of Flourish.