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Finding God in Nature Inspires Conservation Work

For me, nature is where I find God most personally. I have known and recognized this since I was a boy.
My grandpa’s farm near Bristol, Tenn., was a place my family visited frequently. My grandfather was one of those vanishing breeds who had fidelity and love for the land.

He was dependent on the land for his food and a few cash crops for income, was intimately tied to the rhythms of the seasons, and looked at his work as a partnership with the Lord.

He taught me how to care for the land and helped me learn skills that made me appreciate this way of life.

Through these early experiences, I became fascinated with an essential question: What makes nature tick? I also developed an interest in the spiritual relationship between God and His creation. And so the journey began.

I studied biology at Virginia Tech focusing on stream ecology, and then worked as a field biologist surveying rivers throughout the southeast. Eventually, I did graduate work in forest ecology in the Shenandoah National Park.

My faith in the biblical account of creation was challenged by professors who taught evolution as the mode of creation of living things. The words in the textbooks and the words of Genesis took on new meaning.

Did they contradict each other? Could all forms of life really evolve by chance? Weren’t we created in God’s image?

For several years, I wrestled with these questions as an intellectual exercise. I began to make progress only when I started answering with my heart along with my head, aided by the power of prayer.

Looking back, this search made my faith real as it taught me that I don’t need to have all the answers – that is where faith comes in.

I know that God created the heavens and the earth and manages and sustains His creation even today.

How God created is still a mystery that science, by its methods, tries to discover and cannot fully explain, and one that the Bible is mostly silent on.

To me, there should be no contradiction between science and the Bible. In the beginning, God was there and science cannot speak to that. It is by faith that I know God created the world.

The precision and beauty of natural order have always focused me on the Creator, just as Paul states in Romans that all creation bears witness to God.

The more I study nature and natural sciences, the more it drives me back to God who made all things.

In time, I was hired by The Nature Conservancy in Richmond as the ecologist and director of a new biological inventory for Virginia. Then another faith question came.

Why did the Church not speak to the Christian practice of stewardship as it relates to creation? Why did many in my profession worship the creation and not the Creator?

During this period, I stumbled upon the work of Wendell Berry, who has since become one of my favorite authors.

In a short essay he wrote in 1988 titled “God and Country,” he said we must deal with the true meaning of Genesis 1:28 where God told Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it.”

Berry noted that many people use the words “dominion” and “subdue” as “unconditional permission to use the world as they please.” I came to realize, like many, that such an interpretation is contradicted by the rest of the Bible.

The ecological teaching of the Bible is clear. God made the world and it pleased Him. It is His and He loves it. He has never given up title to it. He wants us to take excellent care of it.

Biblical ecology is a moral understanding of what God expects of us in relation to the natural world and to the other people with whom we share it. It means careful management, not destruction and abuse.

This kind of stewardship has only been recently talked about in the church.

It is infinitely practical because a healthy planet is in our best interest (we depend on its fruitfulness, after all).

Biblical stewardship is also an act of loving our neighbors as ourselves by leaving our descendants a decent place to live, a thought well stated in Robert Parham’s book, “Loving Neighbors Across Time.”

Psalm 8 lays out a mystery that, with the rest of Scripture in mind, invites a response in action as well as praise: “When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars you have ordained, what is man that you are mindful of him?”

After more than 20 years with The Nature Conservancy in Richmond, my wife, Elizabeth, and I have made a home with our three daughters and have a church home, as well – all places in which we can respond to caring for God’s creation.

And though my answering the call to use my talents and time in each of those realms branches in many directions, it is always rooted in my awe of God, who created and sustains the universe and seeks a relationship with us.

It is a call I live out in my vocation of protecting and restoring the lands and waters in Virginia, and a call our family lives out in our garden, in our frequent excursions in the outdoors, our worship of the Lord in church and at home.

Michael Lipford is Virginia Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy and is a member of First Baptist Church of Richmond, Va. A version of this column first appeared in First Things First, the newsletter of FBC Richmond, as well as on The BioLogos Forum, and is used with permission.