Litter: why small actions count.

I hate litter, for what it does and for what it represents.

This time yesterday some passing sociopath opened their car door just outside our house to deposit all the detritus from their takeaway from MJ of Formby, some eight miles away, leaving me to bin it.

Here I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Joanna Lumley when she says “I hate the hand that comes out of a car and just drops litter in the street. I hate that!

“For some reason, it just fills me with fury! It’s just utter laziness, lack of interest in other people, lack of interest in the planet, in the hedgehog who might eat the plastic bag  It’s a lack of concern.”

Some years ago I was speaking with a church leader working in a deprived housing estate in south London. His church wanted to know how they could best serve their local community – and they took the surprising step of asking them.  Radical.

So they distributed a questionnaire asking the local residents what caused them most concern.  They responded with a long list, the usual stuff: petty crime, drugs, gang warfare with the occasional murder, binge drinking, pimping, boy racers,  and so on.  However, at the very top of the list (to his surprise) was – you guessed it – litter.

He was surprised because his parish was so run-down, often derelict, you would have thought an abundance of litter would have made little difference.  But clearly to those who lived there, it did.

So his congregation embarked on a ministry of picking up litter.  In fact, litter picks are becoming increasingly common as local authority funding is steadily squeezed.  Over the years we have organised several from Christ Church, while I take personal responsibility for that stretch of Long Lane between the church and the vicarage.

For to toss a can or bottle out of your car is an act of total selfishness.  Such litter represents a total disregard for other people in how we live together.  Others count for nothing in this me-centred world.

Okay – some people are just badly brought up or their lives are in such a mess inside that any mess outside makes no difference.  And there are cultures where litter is tolerated.  Even so, why tip your uneaten food outside my front door?

A small act, of course: but it represents sin as its most repulsive. For often it is our smallest actions which give us away. No wonder Ms Lumley is filled with fury.

And God too.  For this is the God, who in the words of Jesus, by whom “the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”  (Luke 12:7)  We cannot call insignificance as a defence.  Motive is everything when we stand before God.

But deliberate litter not only disregards, it disfigures and shows a disdain for our environment.

The Bible opens with Adam and Eve.  “God took the Man and set him down in the Garden of Eden to work the ground and keep it in order.” (Genesis 2:15, the Message)

Notice – a garden.  Not a field but a well-watered garden, a delight to the senses.  A place of beauty, the deliberate outcome of God and man working together in partnership.

For God has made us for beauty, to appreciate his wonderful creation, to enjoy our environment; and more, to join with him to create this beauty, a delight to the eye, joy to our senses.   But litter despoils and degrades.  It shows that we as a people do not really care for God’s good earth.

Certainly this was the case for the prophet Jeremiah as he speaks against his people, exposing their wilful disobedience and complete indifference to their covenant with God.  You can actually see their sin in their fields.

So he rails “Foreign, scavenging shepherds will loot and trample my fields, Turn my beautiful, well-cared-for fields into vacant lots of tin cans and thistles. They leave them littered with junk—a ruined land, a land in lament.” (Jeremiah 12:11)

And he concludes with a heavy heart:  “The whole countryside is a wasteland, and no one will really care.”

That’s it, that’s what litter does – to turn whole countryside into wasteland, to show that no one really cares.  Except some of us do.

Jacqui will tell you: I can be quite obsessive when it comes to litter – I am always picking it up.  I put this down as a gift of the Holy Spirit rather than an eccentricity.  For in the Kingdom of God small things matter.

We may be confident promise that “nothing you do for (Jesus) is a waste of time or effort.”  (1 Corinthians 15:58).

A prayer from the founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth:
Lord, help us become so familiar with your word and with your presence that thoughts of you consume our waking moments and holy fear of you brings us to worship. Then even our smallest actions will speak of you. Amen.