A version of Lipford's essay originally appeared in First Things First, the newsletter of First Baptist Church of Richmond.
Along the side of our patio in front of our family garden, I grow grapes. I was inspired to grow them from the tradition of my mother's homeland in Cyprus, where grapes, olives, figs and lemons adorn the patios of each house. I was challenged to grow them well by the words of Jesus in John 15: "I am the vine, you are the branches, I will prune you to produce much fruit." Pruning is the secret to successful grapes, but that's another story.
The point is that in tending that grape arbor and our family garden, and exploring the beautiful landscapes we are blessed with in Virginia, my wife Elizabeth and I, along with our three daughters, are in communion with the Creator and Sustainer of heaven and earth. That may sound like a lofty statement, but for me, nature, His created order, is where I find Him most personally. I have known and recognized this since I was a boy.
Though born in Richmond, I was raised in Portsmouth, Virginia, where my father and I would fish along the Elizabeth River and the Chesapeake Bay. With my friends, I hunted in the Great Dismal Swamp. My father grew up on my Grandpa's farm in Tennessee near Bristol and he took our family back there often. My grandfather was one of those vanishing breeds of men who had fidelity and love for the land. He was dependent on the land for his food and a few cash crops for income. He was intimately tied to the rhythms of the seasons and his work in the fields.
My grandfather and my aunts and uncles looked at this work as a partnership with the Lord. They taught me how to care for the land, as well as the names of plants that grew in the forests and along the streams that surrounded their farms. They also taught me skills that made me appreciate their 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 took up the study of biology at Virginia Tech focusing on stream ecology, and then worked as a field biologist surveying rivers throughout the Southeast. Eventually, I returned to graduate school to study 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.
This challenge I brushed aside until I began teaching biology at a community college in Clifton Forge. 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 His image? My students questioned me about this conflict and I started a search for the answers.
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 that other gift received from my parents, trust in the power of prayer. Looking back, this doubt and questioning, this need to have all the answers, made my faith real exactly as it taught me that I don't need to have all the answers: that is where faith comes in.
I do know with certainty that God created the heavens and the earth, and manages and sustains His creation even today. I cannot know with certainty how He did it with such precision and beauty. 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 that God created the world not by chance, but for his purposes and glory. The precision of natural order and its beauty 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?
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 entitled 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." He was right. 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. In Genesis we see it in His instructions to Adam and Eve in the Garden; in Leviticus 20, we see it in the Sabbath year and the Jubilee—laws governing land use, land rest and God's ownership of the land; in Psalm 24 David affirms "the earth is the Lord's and everything in it"; Jesus, in Matthew 6, tells us not to worry, for if God cares for the birds and plants, he'll also care for you; and in Romans 8:19, Paul says the creation eagerly awaits freedom when right relationships will be restored.
Biblical ecology is really a moral understanding of what God expects of us in relation to the natural world, but also in relation to the other people with whom we share it. This kind of stewardship has only been recently talked about in the Church. It means careful management, not destruction and abuse. It is infinitely practical because a healthy planet is in our best interest (we depend on its fruitfulness, after all), but biblical stewardship is also an act of loving our neighbors as ourselves, of loving even our children and grandchildren, by leaving them a decent place to live.
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, Elizabeth and I have made a home for our family and have a church home, as well—all places in which we can respond to that mystery by bearing fruit. 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, and, yes, even in growing grapes.
Michael Lipford is Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Virginia, a position he has held since 1991. Michael graduated from Virginia Tech with a BS in biology and immediately began work as a field biologist, surveying streams throughout the southeast. Michael also received an MS in biology from James Madison University, where his studies focused on river and forest ecology. Before joining TNC, he was Instructor of Biology at Dabney Lancaster Community College in Clifton Forge, VA, where he also taught forestry and wildlife management. Michael directed and served as the ecologist for the Virginia Division of Natural Heritage, started by TNC and transferred to the VA Department of Conservation. In 2003, he received TNC’s highest staff honor, the One Conservancy Award. In 2010, he received the Virginia Environmental Leadership Award, voted on by his peers.
Michael is a native of Portsmouth, VA. He is active in his church and enjoys hunting, fishing, hiking, drawing, beekeeping and gardening. He and his wife Elizabeth have restored a historic home in Richmond where they live with their three daughters.