Beyond the “Green” Commandments

By Dave Timmer

Flourish magazine, Winter 2011

Recently I watched a news clip of a woman plugging her new book on “green” living from a faith perspective. Like so many others, her book gives ideas for living a “green” lifestyle and, of course, doing it affordably. We’ve all seen this a hundred times: buy the reusable tote bag that doubles as a wine holder, buy clothes second hand, change light bulbs, make good organic choices at the grocery store. We definitely need to be aware of what we buy, but this particular author lost me when she held up the avocado.

Apparently, avocados are OK to buy non-organic because their tough skins keep out the chemicals. So you’re safe. Watermelons fit in the same category. I guess as long as my wife and kids are safe when they eat avocados, I don’t have to worry about the skin of the farm worker who picked them.

Don’t hear me wrong, this “living green” mentality is good, but this plug is feeling more and more shallow and legalistic. Buy this, buy that—just make sure it aligns with the “green” commandments and is affordable.

But attempting to live up to a certain “green” standard is a setup for failure. Is it is even possible to truly live “green,” especially here in the United States? Furthermore, not seeing past the avocado’s protective skin to the hands of the farm worker is missing the point. What is needed is a movement beyond the “green commandments” and toward something more redemptive.

Environmental legalism is still legalism
Jesus understood the complexity of turning the world he lived in on its head. He knew his followers couldn’t truly grasp what he was doing. That is why he used parables.

His followers, though, were just like us. They wanted to know exactly what they should do to live the right life. Give me a list. Something I can work on. Amidst his day’s legalism, Jesus was asked this very question: What must I do to be saved? Jesus didn’t answer with a parable; he simply said, follow the commandments. Done. Well then, Jesus responded, give everything you have to the poor and follow me. Jesus wasn’t worried if his questioner could afford it. The rich man who asked the question lowered his head, turned, and walked away.

The disciples recognized this difficult request and asked Jesus, how can anyone be saved? Jesus simply said that with God all things were possible.

The reality of Jesus means that a good revolution has begun. His entrance into creation was one more step in God’s redemptive plan. Our place in the creation is to also be part of that plan and to join in this revolution that trumps legalism with something much more life giving.

Creation care is so much more than taking the reusable tote to the grocery store, changing light bulbs, or eating organic produce. It is so much more than even giving everything we own to the poor. It is following Jesus. Creation care is reaching to grasp what God is doing in the places where we live. Grasping it, joining that revolution, might take us to the trailer park across town, to a dump in Guatemala, to an old growth forest, or to a dinner table with friends. It will absolutely take us away from our empires. It might even take them down…all things are possible.

Digging into your place
The place where I live is Lynden, Washington. In the continental United States, Lynden is about as far northwest as you can get. We’re about three miles from Canada and eight miles from the Puget Sound. Lynden is a small town with a strong agricultural connection, many churches, and historical ties to Dutch immigrants of the early 1900s. These ties are still seen throughout town in two faux windmills, downtown building façades meant to mimic a Dutch village, and a complex network of drainage ditches historically designed to create farmland.

In this place I work for A Rocha, a Christian conservation organization. We strive to find the good revolution in our town. The certainty of Jesus’ promise, “Seek and you will find,” means that opportunities for assisting in his redemptive work will present themselves when we open our hearts to his kingdom. We work with the hope of final redemption, but until that time we seek out glimpses of shalom. We work on righting relationships between God and us, between each other, and between us and the rest of creation. The times when those relationships line up as God intended is when we glimpse shalom.

In this community, there are times when God showers us with blessings and opportunities to such an extent that our biggest trouble is focusing and honing in on just one. Other times we get off track and run into dead ends. We’re a constant work in progress, and we have no step-by-step formula for stewardship. But based on our experience in Lynden, let me share three ideas for opening your hearts to God’s redemptive plan and digging into your place.

Frame yourself within a watershed
Using a watershed, a focused geographical unit, as a measuring stick helps put conservation into perspective. Everyone lives in a watershed. Your water comes from one and your waste goes into one. There are problems in all of them. It might not be the removal of entire watersheds to find coal, or the blanketing of one with millions of gallons of oil, but if you look, you will find challenges to address in yours. God is already there. More than likely someone is already doing something.

I am lucky in that my watershed has salmon. In the Northwest, people tend to know about salmon. Salmon are big, charismatic, and visible. People here know about salmon’s life cycle and they know salmon face countless environmental challenges. People here also know that salmon taste really good.

Every fall in my watershed, hundreds of salmon come to our nearby streams to spawn and die. They come past countless nets, through a maze of culverts, up drainage ditches, past parking lots, along people’s backyards, and, finally, to the few remaining gravel beds where they lay their eggs and start again their incredible life cycle. They are a keystone species (they have a tremendous impact on their ecological community), one that people tend to rally around. They are also the source of much controversy, but it would be hard to find someone here who would want them to go extinct. In other words, people want salmon around.

To support the flourishing of the salmon we have adopted two local watersheds, Fishtrap and Bertrand Creeks, and it is here that we focus. We plant trees along the streams, in new wetlands, and under towering cedars. We teach kids about the importance of wetlands, about the salmon’s incredible journey, and about the history of this place. We count the salmon that come back every year, the birds that nest here, and the food that is produced here. We revel in the beauty of the volcano that looms in the distance and in the mystery of the area’s last remaining old-growth forest. And of course we celebrate the rain, even when it never seems to end.

Focus on food from within your watershed
Good, healthy food—and access to it—is a human necessity. It is also the most direct connection to God’s providence and a place where we can glimpse shalom. This is because it is through a meal shared in community that all of God’s intended relationships can line up. A meal with God’s blessing and with our awareness of his providence lines us up with God. A meal shared in loving community lines us up with each other. Finally, a healthy, sustainable meal lines us up with God’s creation. God-humanity-creation can be in proper order at the dinner table. In this instance the power of the garden metaphor, the good creation, becomes evident.

A focus on food will also force you to become involved with the poor in your community. The necessity of food and the injustice of its distribution become all too apparent when you begin to educate yourself more about where food begins and where it ends up. A focus on food—the sustainable production of it and the just distribution of it—brings conservation and creation care directly into the lives of the poor. Again, God is already there. And more than likely, someone in your watershed is already dealing with food issues.

Five Loaves Farm is our community garden project. Through this project we have organized plot-style gardens around town where 50 families are now growing some of their own food. On other properties (mostly church-owned) we produce thousands of pounds of fresh, healthy food for local food banks, low-wage workers, and volunteers. In addition, we are continually gathering intensive productivity data. This data is helping us show the viability of locally grown, sustainable food production and preparing us for a future of sustainable agriculture that doesn’t rely on petrochemicals inputs.

Study your local creation
Finally, continually strive to learn more about God’s creation. He is revealed through it. The complexity, diversity, and beauty of creation tell us so much of God. They also help us locate our place in creation and appreciate the value it has in and of itself; not only because God created it, but also because he delights in it. If he didn’t, we wouldn’t be continually baffled by its workings.

In Lynden, we are studying American kestrels and European starlings. Kestrels are small falcons that will take up residence in constructed nest boxes. They are also very territorial of their nesting sites. European starlings are an invasive bird that was introduced to the eastern U.S. in the late 1800s. They have since become extremely abundant and are a major agricultural pest, particularly of blueberries. Exploiting the territorial characteristics of kestrels, we can lure them to nest in boxes around the blueberry fields so that they will chase starlings from the fields. If it works, it’s a win-win situation: we are attempting to increase the population of a native falcon to assist local farmers in reducing the damage done by a major agricultural pest. In the process, we are learning a lot about a few of God’s amazing creatures.

A small start to something big
Legalistic appeals to creation care are bound to fail and will ultimately turn people away. Yes, we need to be aware of our individual consumption and our negative impact on the world, but most of all we need to show a different world, a world where God is active and his plan still unfolds.

It is easy to become cynical and overwhelmed by this mission. The reasons are all too easy to list: negotiations for international climate treaties fall short of their goals, the Amazon forests continue to fall, the farmland outside of town is soon to be a Wal-Mart, the oil spot on my driveway is washing down the storm sewer, the local recycling center doesn’t accept plastic number four.

But the good revolution that Christ began continues. His redemptive activities go on, and we can find them in the place where we live and join in. We need to take satisfaction in the realization that we can take part in God’s redemptive process, and that with him anything really is possible.

Head shot of Dave Timmer from A RochaDave Timmer is stewardship director for A Rocha USA in northwest Washington. He lives in Lynden, Wash. with his wife, three boys, and four chickens. When he is not following salmon, he enjoys hiking in the Cascades, brewing beer, listening to the Detroit Tigers on the radio, and fulfilling the role of deacon at his church.

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February 7, 2011 at 11:50 am

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karen February 7, 2011 at 7:51 am

Made me think in new ways!

Joanna February 8, 2011 at 6:59 am

Thanks for this beautiful article, you put the big picture and the small details together very effectively. Love the sound of the kestrel project! I’m inspired by your words. I so agree about the organic message – it’s not about personal health but public health and justice.

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