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The Liturgical Nature of Acts of Creation Care

Friday, 3 March 2023  | Claire Harvey

In seeking to eschew unhelpful and often dualistic notions that view Christian disciples as primarily ‘thinkers’ or ‘believers’, James K. A. Smith instead proposes that human beings are profoundly shaped and identified by what they actually love (You are What you Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, 2016). He suggests that our cultural practices ‘are not just “things we do”; they are habit forming, identity-shaping, love-directing rituals that capture our imagination and hence our desire’ (Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, 2009, 125). There are many influential practices embedded within secular culture that shape our desires in the direction of lesser gods, or idols. Smith provides the example of shopping-associated rituals embedded within our pervasive consumer culture. I believe there are also practices that have growing traction within popular culture that actually work to shape our desires in line with seeking shalom; rituals that point to the marvellous restoration of creation that we anticipate at the eschaton, when all things will be made new. From my observations and in my experience, small acts of earth care fall into this category, presenting significant opportunities for community-building, discipleship and mission.

The urgency of Creation Care in our current context

It’s an unfortunate reality that the church has not, by and large, been at the forefront of initiatives in support of creation care. Centuries of dualistic thinking, combined with an increasingly secular and materialistic approach to human life and the pursuit of profit at nearly all costs, has led to the unbridled exploitation and degradation of our beautiful world. Genesis Chapter 1 echoes again and again that this world was made good. While the call for urgent action to address various forms of environmental degradation has grown louder in recent decades, in the developed Western world many evangelical Christians have continued to uphold ideas of the planet being burned up by God (popularised and reinforced by Tim LaHaye’s rapture-focused series Left Behind). Additionally, a deep appreciation for nature has often been resisted out of deep suspicion regarding hidden pagan or New Age agendas. As a result, in the Australian context, it has predominantly been non-religious folk who have gotten on with the hard work of creation care. This is all despite the fact that it was Adam and Eve who were tasked with this important role in the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:15).

Scientists are now sounding multiple alarms regarding air and water pollution, biodiversity loss, species extinction, climate change and food insecurity, among other concerns. Not only have we largely ignored the intrinsic but fragile beauty of the natural world (worthy of protection and care in its own right), but as Jane Gleeson-White articulates, in her book The Six Capitals: the revolution capitalism has to have - or can accountants save the planet (2014), we have completely underestimated the natural world’s inestimable value to us for survival and human flourishing.

Acts of Creation Care

Acts of creation care can include small, personal actions through to bold, collaborative acts of protest. Many of us are familiar with incremental practices such as tree planting, weed removal, vegetable growing, recycling, composting, minimising plastic packaging, opting for green power, choosing a vegetarian diet or using alternative forms of transport. Multiplied across time and people, these choices can lead to noticeable reductions to our environmental impact. Meanwhile, lobbying politicians and corporations, divesting from fossil fuels and using our vote for change represent structural ways of pursuing positive change. While all could be considered as liturgies, here I want to highlight the activities of the 3199 Beach Patrol community group.

The 3199 Beach Patrol is one of more than 28 groups working in the suburbs of Melbourne located around the Port Phillip Bay, harnessing people-power and community spirit for more than a decade, with the purpose of keeping our local beaches - and oceans - clean. Collectively they have invested more than 23,000 volunteer hours and gathered 60 tonnes of rubbish! The Frankston group attracts volunteers of all ages on the third Wednesday and Saturday of each month: we disperse with gloves and bags to collect whatever rubbish we can find, then gather to sort, count, weigh and bag what we have found.

Last summer I learned about ‘nurdles’ – small plastic pellets that are a by-product of industrial plastic manufacturing processes. When one looks closely, it is quickly apparent that they are everywhere, and their bright colours make them an obvious target for fish or birds, who confuse them for food. Once ingested these plastics become a part of our food chain. One day, while raking quietly, repentantly and prayerfully through the sand - searching for nurdles - I was reminded of the Zen meditation practice of ‘sand raking’. Nurdle-hunting seems a better option: I am quieting my mind and stilling my soul by attending to a simple and repetitive task, yet with each nurdle gathered I am simultaneously participating in a tiny act of creation restoration. Along with countless nurdles and micro-plastics, other common items of rubbish include cigarette butts, straws, glass and plastic bottles, fishing line and fragments of polystyrene.

Acts of Creation Care as habit-forming, identity-shaping, love-directing liturgical acts

Walking, looking, stooping, gathering up: these are all embodied actions that connect us with our very real world. As Smith affirms, ‘... habits are inscribed in our hearts through bodily practices and rituals that train the heart, as it were, to desire certain ends’ (Desiring the Kingdom, 58). He goes on to write of our hearts being closely ‘tethered’ to our bodies, such that ‘Different kinds of material practices infuse non cognitive dispositions and skills in us through ritual and repetition…’.

In a noisy world full of conflicting images and ideas, concrete actions toward a specific end can provide a clarity, coherence and purpose that is otherwise often quite elusive. As Ched Myers pointed out in a podcast interview with Rob Bell, such local involvement reinforces the very ‘thisness’ that characterises the Kingdom. Can we learn to love this beach, and these fish, and these birds, in this suburb?

There are many ways in which this simple practice of collecting rubbish can form us in helpful, kingdom-oriented ways. We grow in our love for creation; we learn from others and nature; we practice a form of attentive mindfulness; we build community connections. Meanwhile, we also cultivate a deep yearning for the ugly brokenness of the world to be fixed; for everything to be put right. These habit-forming practices include the following effects:

  • Training our attention: teaching us the art of patient seeking, being reminded that not everything in our world occurs in response to human will, the click of a button or a swipe of a screen.
  • Learning selfless love: as much as we reap a small benefit ourselves, this act of service is for others who will benefit from a cleaner beach, and God’s marine life and birds who will be protected from various harms.
  • Realising our place in the world: that we are interdependent creatures, reliant upon one another and impacted by the actions (or inaction) of others placed upstream from us in time and space.
  • Growing in awareness of the depth and breadth of our ecological crisis: as much as single, small acts all help, the relentless nature of this work forces us to also recognise the urgent need for structural and regulatory change.
  • Facing the painful reality of our broken world: picking through the world’s irresponsibly dumped trash cuts through any fantasy that ‘she’ll be right mate’, prompting consideration of human sin, failure, greed and laziness.
  • Generating curiosity about ecological problems and their causes: for some this activity may spark a longer-term vocational interest, including areas of pollution control, marine biology, environmental policy and product design.
  • Nurturing an aesthetic of beauty in an increasingly ugly world: our souls crave beauty just as they crave meaning and coherence, and these simple actions toward restoration and beautification may spill over into other areas of life.
  • Acting in defiance of a spirit of despair: concrete acts of hope are a powerful antidote to the depression-inducing angst that accompanies having eyes that are open to the world’s desperate brokenness.
  • Humbly acknowledging that ‘believing in’ Jesus is not a prerequisite for good deeds: regular collaboration with members of one’s local community can act as an antidote to self-righteous pride.
  • Mindfully meditating on life and our place in it: the quiet and often solitary work of wandering off down the beach, up the dune, over the rocks in search of rubbish provides space for thinking and reflection that is rare for many in our frantic, consumer culture.

Acts of Creation Care for Community, Discipleship and Mission

In line with my own vision of the good life, where all is well with us and our surroundings, I am inspired by the idea that more people - Christians and non-Christians alike - might catch on to this growing trend of cleaning up our world. We are social beings, made for community, and groups like this help people to feel connected, cared for and meaningfully engaged in life. Whether they are consciously aware of it or not, I believe that most will find the process deeply transformative over time, slowly shaping a view of the world that affirms the beauty of creation without ignoring the ugly stain of human sin, underpinned by a deep longing for a better life. While there is nothing explicit in these practices that points to the powerful work of Jesus Christ, I am reminded of a colleague who testifies to having met creation before meeting the Creator: these small seeds can play an important part of the journey toward fruitful discipleship.

Such groups also present wonderful opportunities for Christians to embed themselves within their broader community, forming positive relationships that are characterised by genuine reciprocity: learning and teaching; receiving and giving. And all the while we have opportunity to be salt and light in this very real world (Matt 5:13-16); signposts pointing toward the glorious fullness of life that we anticipate in the coming Kingdom (John 10:10; and see John Dickson, ‘God’s signposts: The Christian worldview’, in Simon Smart (ed.), A Spectator’s Guide to Worldviews, 2007).


Claire Harvey currently works as Project Officer at ISCAST, publisher of The Forest Underground: Hope for Planet in Crisis. She serves on the Ethos board, and is also the new Uniting Church Vic/Tas Synod Rep for CoPower, an innovative and climate-change focused cooperative energy retailer. Claire is also involved on her local Council in Frankston, where she loves talking about all things rubbish (and the circular economy, and environmentally sustainable design, and active transport, and urban forests, and affordable housing).


Image credits

Nurdles and other microplastics: locally sourced, hand-picked (Frankston Foreshore, Vic) by Claire Harvey.

Glass Bottle at the Seashore by Scott Van Hoy at Unsplash.


This piece is adapted from an essay written in the summer of 2018/2019 as a part of her studies with the National Institute for Christian Education.


Further reading

M.W. Goheen and C.G. Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008).

B.J. Walsh and S.C. Keesmaat, ‘Regimes of truth and the word of truth’, in Colossians remixed (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 96–114.

B.K. Walsh and J.R. Middleton, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1984).

N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began (New York, NY: HarperColllins, 2016).

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