The Little Things That Run the World: A Perspective on Earth Day 2021
By RICK HAMMER
Here we are at Earth Day 2021 after one of the most tragic and heartbreaking years in over a century. Over the past year the world has been through much sickness and death as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic caused by a highly infective virus. A virus, mind you that is a part of God’s good creation.
I understand that such a statement treads on thin ice for some and might even seem sacrilegious and antithetical to belief in God and his purposes for his people. The words of Genesis declare that God considered his creative handiwork to be “good.” Fall or no fall (I will avoid theological entanglements here) God’s declaration of goodness upon his creation has not changed. As I will explain, Christ’s resurrection is the reaffirmation of the goodness of his creation.
All is not well on God’s earth. Human civilization has brought much damage and destruction to the non-human world since the days of creation. Examples of the degradation and destruction of the earth’s biodiversity are recounted almost daily in the news and in our social media streams. Whether it is the latest news about the destruction of the earth’s rainforests or the loss of habitat that threatens many animal species such as the red wolf or Monarch butterfly, most of us who are concerned are aware of the plight of God’s creation.
This was foretold long before our present time of scientific understanding and accounting for the state of the earth’s biodiversity. Paraphrasing the apostle Paul in Romans 8:19-23, we know that the entire creation is groaning together and going through labor pains together. And we, who have the first fruits of the spirit’s life, are groaning within ourselves as we eagerly await our adoption and the redemption of our bodies. There is much hope here. God made this world and he made it good. He is coming to sort out all of the problems of this world. Christ’s resurrection is both the reaffirmation of the goodness of creation and the beginning of God’s new creation.
I will say at the outset that I am a firm believer in the new heaven and new earth view of scripture from Revelation 20-21. For me, Easter is the beginning of the new creation and Christ’s redemptive, kingdom building work. It is also the beginning of our work of repairing and restoring of the earth too. This means that the work we do in the present on this earth, whether spreading the Gospel of Jesus, feeding the hungry, working for social justice, or taking actions to heal and restore the created earth, will not be in vain.
In Colossians 1:15-16, Paul writes about Christ’s work of redemption and reconciliation. Christ is “the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created…all things have been created through him and for him.” And most important to the scope of Christ’s redemptive work, Paul writes that, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” These are powerful words for not just humanity, past and future, but for all the non-human inhabitants of the planet.
Further—and this is what motivates me daily—is that we are called to participate and be a part of this reconciliation process. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians that, “…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” These are my daily marching orders to be an active part of Christ’s ongoing work of redemption that began on that resurrection Easter morning.
We, as faithful followers of Jesus Christ, have our mandate and marching orders. We are called to be agents of the ongoing restorative work of God’s good earth. This means in a way that every day is Earth Day.
Given the extent of the damage to many parts of the created world we might wonder if we can really do much at all to restore and repair what has been lost. Once a rainforest is cut down it is gone forever. We can plant trees again, but it will take thousands of years for nature to restore all of the complex and intricate ecological relationships that were part of the virgin forest. But we are not alone. Christ is with us in this work.
I like to think about this in the context of the Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes described in the gospels. John’s version of this story reports that Jesus’ disciples could only find 5 loaves and 2 fish, which they received from a little boy, to feed the multitude of 5,000 hungry people that had been following Jesus. This small offering was not much food to work with, but it was enough.
John (6:1-16) writes that Jesus took the boy’s offerings and, “…then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.” There was more than enough to feed the hungry multitude. Christ took the small boy’s offerings of 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish and multiplied them many times over to feed the large crowd. I believe that in the same way Christ will take our small offerings and acts of restoration and multiply them to do a much greater good on a scale far beyond what any of us alone can yet imagine. Our small offerings will be enhanced and magnified in God’s new world.
Before I close with a short list of suggestions and recommendations for being a part of Christ’s restorative work, I wanted to briefly revisit the topic of viruses and show how they are an integral and essential element of God’s creation. As a professional biologist I feel compelled to do this.
Viruses are a part of what the renowned Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson referred to as the little things that run the earth. He was thinking mostly of the insect world, but the microbial world of viruses and bacteria apply equally to this description. Ultimately, from an ecological understanding, viruses and bacteria do run the world.
Viruses are a natural an essential part of the planet’s machinery and have been a part of each of our daily lives long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Viruses just do what they are programmed to do. Viruses are so abundant in our living world—and here I mean the soils, lakes, oceans, on our skin surfaces, and inside of our tissues—that the number of viruses is greater than the number of stars in the universe. In fact, some estimates indicate that there are enough viruses on the planet to assign one to every star in the universe 100 million times over.
How do all of these viruses fit into God’s creation and why are they so important to the continued functioning of the planet? The majority of viruses are the type that infect bacteria and other single-celled organisms and help to keep their populations in check. Bacteria have many positive roles in the environment such as harvesting inorganic compounds in nature and making them into organic compounds that help to power the planet’s ecosystems. Viruses are there to help keep this system in balance. So, viruses are part of the very foundation of life.
So, how can we participate in Christ’s work of reconciliation and restoration of the earth? I thought I would close with a few suggestions and ideas for getting involved.
First, consider the apocalyptic vision of a new heaven and new earth described in Revelation 20-21. The “new” here refers to what is new in quality as compared to the old. God is not giving up on this world and is working to redeem it. Don’t be a transient-minded Christian here on Earth. We are not merely passing through. Instead, be a new heaven and new earth resident. Jesus taught his followers that God’s kingdom would come “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Be a part of Christ’s ongoing reconciliation and restoration towards this renewed earth. Our works will not be in vain.
Second, find your creation care niche. Go on a birding hike with the local Audubon club to experience the great diversity of birds. This will increase your capacity for loving God’s creation. Reconnecting to God’s creation in this way and sharing your knowledge and love with others is an act of Christ-like reconciliation. Volunteer at a local or state park. If you are able, volunteer to help remove invasive plants or other needed projects. Get your hands dirty in a restoration project. This work is sacred work offered to Christ. Think five loaves and two fish.
Third, learn the names of some of your fellow creatures. Knowing the names of some plants and animals will help you to be a better steward of nonhuman creation. When we begin by learning names, we activate a deeper knowledge that prepares us to receive the gifts of delight, caring, and suffering. Learning names might then be the first step in creation care, reconciliation, and restoration. This is a major ministry calling and focus for me and much of it is carried out with daily natural history posts on the Lake Kirby Park Facebook and Instagram pages. I think of this seemingly small effort as a five loaves and two fish offering.
I will end with a quote from an essay by the Reverend N. T. Wright in acknowledging the resurrection of Jesus as the reaffirmation of the goodness of creation and our call to be agents in Christ’s restorative work:
“What are we waiting for? Jesus is coming. Let’s go and plant those trees.”
Rick Hammer is a writer, photographer, speaker, and naturalist living in Abilene. He earned a doctorate on botany at Texas A&M University and is president of the West Texas Science Center. Rick and his family worship at First Baptist Church in Abilene where he serves as a deacon. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his Kirby Park posts on Facebook: @lakekirbynaturepark