“WHY CARE FOR THE EARTH IF IT’S ALL GOING TO BURN UP ANYWAY?”

If you close your eyes and picture heaven, what do see? Do you see rivers and trees, or shopping malls and parking lots? Is the air clean and rivers clear, or are they filled with smog and trash? Do you hear leaves rustling in the breeze, or horns honking in traffic jams?

Jesus taught his disciples to pray for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” The implication is that we should make earth more like heaven. But what does heaven look like? Is it lush and green, or is it blacktopped and eroded?

For the Christian, the question is not moot or academic. We are either in God’s will or we are not. We are either making earth look more heavenly or we are making it more hellish.

At the beginning of this century, if you had asked me what heaven looked like I would have said, “That’s an interesting question” and then backed away from you. I didn’t believe in heaven. I didn’t believe in God.

All that changed when I found a Bible and read it for the first time. It was as if the Lord literally reached into my brain and connected it with my heart and soul. From that point onward, the Bible has been my source of truth. Over the next two years, my entire family came to know and love Jesus. We had no idea where God was leading us. In the coming years, I would quit my job as a doctor, my Jewish wife would become a Christian, my daughter would become a pastor’s wife, and my son would become a missionary doctor serving in Africa.

But now I take the question about what heaven looks like seriously. Does heaven have trees? Are birds allowed near God? Over the past decade and a half, I’ve come across Christians who think that everything on earth eventually will be burned up, so nothing here really matters. They are right—partly. Paul tells us that our old corruptible bodies will be changed into new bodies (1 Corinthians 15:51-55). I believe this. In the same way, we are told that the earth will be renewed (2 Peter 3:13).

Does this mean that nothing in the here-and-now matters? Does this mean that you don’t have to brush your teeth before you go to bed, or that we can bulldoze every forest without repercussions? Not if we want to keep our teeth or have clean water to drink.

God asks us to be faithful in little things. Later, we will be given bigger things. Modern scientists are forever pointing out how small and insignificant the earth is compared to the universe. They say that my life is a small and accidental, too. But Christianity affirms that these little things matter to God. We have the kind of God that groans when a single sparrow falls. The earth and everything on it is the Lord’s! (Psalm 24)

Our bodies are a temple of the Lord, a living, breathing church. Although non-believers are not bound by the same constraints, a Christian’s treatment of their body reflects the respect we have for its ultimate owner—God.

When I became a Christian, I had to grapple with the fact that my body, time, talent, and treasures were notmine to do with as I pleased. They belong to God. He asks me to steward these gifts in order to further the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

At the time I first met Christ, I wasn’t taking very good care of my body. Rather than take responsibility, I used the conveniently self-serving “let it all burn” theology. My Amen to this theology was, “Hello chip and dip!”

Then, while studying a quite different subject, the Lord led me to read a book written by John Wesley in 1747. When Henry the Eighth expelled the Church of Rome from Britain, he closed all the church hospitals. The Church of England came to believe that it had no responsibility to care for sick people. It was concerned with people’s souls—not their physical health. Wesley tackled this situation with his best seller, Primitive Physick. It is a treatise of practical home health care.

Although I can’t recommend Wesley’s medical treatments (his cure for baldness doesn’t work!), Wesley’s theology is spot on. Gluttony and sloth were the underpinnings of my “let it all burn and give me my new body” theology. That was ten years and forty pounds ago. It turns out that I can serve God more effectively when I maintain a healthy body weight and exercise regularly than I could as an out of shape, out of breath man. Like a 12-year-old who leaves their new bike outside and expects their parent to buy them a new one when the old one rusts or is stolen, I’d been treating my body like a spoiled child would—thinking of God as an overly indulgent parent.

Likewise, the underpinnings of a “Just give us a new earth, and let’s blast this one to Hades” theology are equally self-serving, slothful, and gluttonous. When someone says that we can do anything that strikes our fancy and God will mitigate the effects, I want to ask for an explanation of the rest of their theology. New Age theology, not Christianity, believes that there is no ultimate right or wrong, that man is the master and measure of all things, and that we are the center of the universe. Christianity teaches that man reaps what he sows. That is not to say that we should in any way worship the creation—God forbid! The creation, however, is a living and indisputable argument for the existence of God (Romans 1:20). As such, it cannot be dismissed as trivial.

God gave mankind the awesome responsibility of caring for the planet and the power of dominion to do the job. How will we account for the missing elms on Elm Street, the chestnuts on Chestnut Lane, the caribou in Caribou, Maine, or the buffalo in Buffalo, New York? What did we do with the blue pike—once the most abundant fish in the Great Lakes—and the passenger pigeon—the most numerous bird species in North America?

God put Adam and Eve in the garden. We were naked and unashamed. Our instructions were “to dress it and keep it” (Gen 2:15 KJV). All of creation was ours; we only had to refrain from eating from one tree.

You know the story. We have been naked, ashamed, and ripping leaves off trees ever since. We have been at enmity with God and nature.

Christ died on a tree so that we might have access to the Tree of Life—not the mall, not the stadium, not entertainment. Our hope isn’t in our ability to flatten every forest on earth. Our hope is in an empty tomb and the man Mary mistook for a gardener. That was not a mistake. Christ is the new Adam. He does not strip the forest for vanity—or to hide from God—like the old Adam (Romans 8:22-25).

When I close my eyes and picture heaven, I see birds near God’s holy throne (Psalm 84:3), taste water as clear as crystal, and hear all creation praising the Lord (Revelation 4:6-7).  The trees shout for joy. God has come to judge the earth,His forest always knew how the verdict would go! (1Chronicles 16:33)

In heaven, God’s throne faces a tree that stretches from one edge of the river of life to the other. The water that feeds The Tree of Life is unpolluted (Revelation 22:1-5). A lamb is there! Its blood was once spread on wooden doorposts to seal out death (Exodus 12:7). Now its blood is spread on a wooden cross that opens the door to our true home (1 Corinthians 5:7). I see a desert blooming! I see acacia, myrtle, and olive trees. I see cypress and pines (Isaiah 41:18-20). I see a city of God—perfect harmony.  I hear quiet (Revelation 8:1).

When you close your eyes and think of heaven, what do you see? On earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew Sleeth, MD, is the author of Serve God, Save the Planet and 24/6.  A former chief of staff and emergency room director, Dr. Sleeth left his practice to teach, preach, and write about biblical stewardship. A highly sought after speaker, Dr. Sleeth has spoken at more than 1,000 churches, campuses, and events, including serving as the monthly guest preacher at The Washington National Cathedral.  Recognized by Newsweek as one of the nation’s most influential evangelical leaders, Dr. Sleeth is the executive director of Blessed Earth and founder of the Seminary Stewardship Alliance.  

 

*The article originally appeared on greenjesus.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introducing the Matthew Sleeth Seminary Stewardship Alliance Award

Matthew Sleeth just got back from the annual gathering of the Seminary Stewardship Alliance (SSA), which was held this year in Portland, OR.  While there, he was given a surprise by the leadership of the SSA: they inaugurated an annual prize in his honor!  Each year, the Matthew Sleeth Seminary Stewardship Alliance Award will be given to the school that has made the greatest impact in creation care theology and practice.

“I was pleased for Matthew,” said Nancy Sleeth. “He had put five years of hard work into launching the SSA.  But I was even more pleased for the SSA, a project of Blessed Earth that has now become an independent nonprofit.”

In just a few years, the SSA has grown from twelve founding institutions to nearly fifty schools. Last week, about seventy representatives from member schools participated in our annual gathering. These schools are now training thousands of pastors around the world to teach, preach, model, and hold each other accountable for good stewardship practices.

Why is this important? Today, the Church is so often seen as part of the problem.  The SSA reminds us how we can become part of the solution. From Genesis to Revelation, there is no greener book than the Bible.

Instead of being known for what we are against, the SSA shows what we are for: caring for God’s beautiful gift of creation until the return of Jesus, when leaves from the Tree of Life, watered by an unpolluted river, will heal all the nations.

Nancy Sleeth praised the work of the SSA saying, “The SSA gives me hope–hope for the planet God created. Hope that the good work God has given Blessed Earth to do will continue to flourish far beyond our personal reach. Hope that the Church can make a positive impact. Hope that Jesus, our Savior, can use each and every one of us to help heal an ailing world!”

Serving God and Saving the Planet one bottle at a time

More than a decade ago, when Matthew and I first moved to Wilmore, Kentucky, we prayed that God would give us an opportunity to make a difference in our new hometown.  The very next day a neighbor, Andy Bathje, knocked on our door.  Andy told us about Ichthus, one of the largest Christian music festivals in the country, which was happening in Wilmore the following week.  Knowing our passion for creation care, he mentioned that none of the waste had ever been recycled during the event, which drew 15,000-20,000 attendees each year. Would we be interested in partnering with him to change that?
“Yes! We’d love to help!”  We purchased 50 durable bins, recruited local youth volunteers, and went to work. Those were some of the loudest, hottest, most gratifying three days I’ve ever experienced!  We recycled 50,000 bottles and cans in that first year alone.
With Andy’s help, Blessed Earth continued to increase the recycling at Ichthus.  We distributed free water to attendees who wanted to use reusable water bottles, encouraged recycling with prize drawings, and educated interested attendees about recycling and creation care.  More and more people came to volunteer; some band members even pitched in!

When Andy became the executive director of AdventureServe Ministries, he incorporated recycling into his mission experience for youth.  We gave the recycling bins to AdventureServe so they could continue the work we’d begun together.

recycleSeveral years ago, AdventureServe hosted the youth of Shepherd of the Prairie Lutheran Church from Huntley, Illinois, who participated in the recycling efforts at Ichthus as part of their learning about creation care.  They were so inspired that they contacted another festival closer to home, Lifest.  The organizers had no objection to free help reducing their trash! They have now been recycling at Lifest for three years.
After a decade of use, the recycling bins we purchased were still going strong, but the lids needed to be replaced. Blessed Earth donated new bin lids and an eye-catching cage for Lifest 2016 attendees to deposit bottles in; participants wrote their names and phone numbers on their bottles, which served as “entries” into prize drawings.
This year, AdventureServe staff members joined 35 volunteers from Shepherd of the Prairie to manage the recycling campaign at Lifest. Over the 3-day event, they filled two 20-foot long dumpsters with plastic bottles and collected fifty pounds of aluminum. According to the local Solid Waste Department, the youth have collected 4.92 tons of recyclables over the last three summers. This is equal to saving 10,000 pounds of oil!
A decade ago, Matthew and I never would have guessed that a prayer to help our community would turn into an opportunity to help recycle bottles and cans at events throughout the country. We are especially grateful for people like Andy who model how our faith is connected with everything we do–including the fate of a pop bottle!
sea of recycle

Faith Radio Interviewed Matthew on the Topic of Caring for God’s Creation

Recently, Faith Radio interviewed Matthew about caring for God’s creation. You can listen to the entire interview at myfaithradio.com.

Faith Radio offers the following summary of the interview:

Dr. Matthew Sleeth provides biblical examples and helpful insight from his book Serving God, Saving the Planet.

God’s initial call for humans to care for His creation can be found in the book of Genesis.

“And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.” – Genesis 2:15

Dr. Sleeth elaborates on the reality of our sinful human nature,

“As Adam and Eve sinned, the first thing they were going to do was to go and undress the garden, tear a leaf off and cover their shame.”

Scripture tells us very clearly what not to do while stewarding God’s resources, but it’s up to us to honor His instruction. Dr. Sleeth provides a few examples from Leviticus 23:22 and Deuteronomy 24:20.

“The scripture has many, many things that tell us not to cut to the edge of the field. Meaning don’t try to get every ounce that you can out of a field, leave some for poor people, leave some poor animals.”

“It tells us not to beat the olive tree twice. It tells us not to muddy the water with our cattle.”

We are instructed to care for the earth, but in the end it is Christ who will save the world from sin, decay and destruction. Dr. Sleeth elaborates,

“Ultimately it’s not you or I that save this planet, it is Christ. Christ has come back as the new Adam and unlike the first Adam, he actually is able to tend, to keep and dress the garden.”

Dr. Sleeth encourages us all to plant a tree with a young child and help them care for it. Similar to the growth of a tree from childhood, we learn about the importance of spiritual growth throughout our lives.

“There’s two things that you want to be bigger when that child comes back later and that’s the tree. The other thing that’s supposed to grow like a tree is our faith. We’re told that in the first Psalm God uses that metaphor and analogy of the tree of the same thing; that our faith should always be growing.”

Caring for the planet and for our soul is our responsibility as Christians. It will help us grow closer to God’s heart and gives us a glimpse into His eternal plans.

“The centerpiece of Heaven in front of God’s throne is the tree of life. So we’re going for a pretty green eternity from what the bible says if we believe in the Lord.”

 

 

 

Matthew Receives an Honorary Doctorate

It was like a scene out of a movie:  A few Saturdays ago, I was washing my hands in the ladies’ room when I overheard a woman exclaim to a gaggle of her friends, “Oh my, that doctor speaker!  Usually I hate sitting through graduation ceremonies, but…”
My ears perked up. I held my breath to hear what she would say next.  “…that was the best speech I’ve ever heard!”

“Thank you!” I said. “That was my husband!” I could not have been more proud.  Matthew had just given the commencement address at Hood Seminary, an African Methodist Episcopal Zion school based in Salisbury, North Carolina. During Hood’s graduation ceremonies, Matthew was also honored with a doctorate degree.

We first met the president of Hood Seminary several years ago through Blessed Earth’s Seminary Stewardship Alliance(SSA), a network of seminaries committed to teaching, preaching, and model biblical stewardship of God’s creation.  Since its launch at the Washington National Cathedral four years ago, the SSA has grown to nearly 50 partner schools. Last year, the SSA spun off from Blessed Earth as an independent 501c3.
At Hood Seminary’s commencement, Matthew compared the lessons he learned as an emergency room physician with the challenges that these graduating church leaders will face in the coming years.  His simple, Gospel-driven advice applies to all of us:

#1 Keep the faith.
When you’re having a tough week, think of Jesus in the exam room before beginning his ministry: he really was tested by the devil.  And the the reaction to his first week of ministry? They took him to the cliff and tried to throw him off! Beginnings and transition are almost always difficult, but Christ helps us persevere.

#2 Be generous.
God loves a cheerful giver.  Buy the pizza, leave change in the soda machine, maybe even send a gift to the alma mater (“other mother”) that helped raise you.

#3 Invest in friends.
Friends are like trees:  the best time to plant is fifty years ago; the next best time to plant one is today.  In an increasingly “connected” world, true friendship is becoming rarer and rarer.

#4 Let the Bible teach you.
So many of us want to instruct God instead of letting Him teach us.  God left us a book to believe in: believe in it!

#5 Be thankful.
Keep a gratitude journal and list all the things that make your day better: dental floss, hugs, shoes, literacy, sunshine. These seem like little things, but writing them down helps us appreciate bigger things, like God’s love for us, friendship, the Bible, and the forgiveness of sins.
#6 Remember the Sabbath.
Sabbath-keeping is not a condition of getting into heaven; it just happens to be the condition of heaven when you get in. Taking our hands off the steering wheel one day a week reminds us that God is ultimately in control.
#7 Pray
When we work, we work; when we pray, God works.  Pray unceasingly for Thy will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Finding Paradise in Paradise

HIM Conference 2016Matthew wearing a traditional Hawaiian leis during his plenary talk for the Hawaiian Islands Ministries’ GREATER Conference

I love Maine. We raised our children there. I practiced medicine there. I found Jesus there. I’d love to go back and live there, but not in the winter. During the long shifts in the ER when the snow drifted and the sun set before four, I’d console myself by looking at a picture on the office wall of Hawaii.  I dreamed of one day going to those tropical islands. But Hawaii is a long way from Maine. The trip wasn’t practical with young kids.

When we entered ministry, a trip to Hawaii was out of our economic reach. But as a new Christian, I noticed a pattern.  People often ended up serving in the one place they prayed not to go. It’s biblical. Jonah wanted to go to Joppa, but God and the whale sent him to Nineveh. When a pastor friend of mine entered ministry, he prayed for God to send him anywhere other than a Spanish-speaking community; he’s now the head of a seminary in Venezuela and he’s fluent in Spanish.  Another friend began his career telling God that he wanted to serve anywhere but Africa. He told me this at the end of thirty years in Nigeria. So, I prayed (tongue-in-cheek): Lord, send me anywhere but Hawaii. Guess what? The pattern actually holds! I just got back from Oahu and preaching at the Hawaiian Island Ministries (HIM) conference. Don’t feel sorry for me. It wasn’t all work. Before the conference started, Nancy and I took several days to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary on the less populated northern end of the island.   We took some great hikes, including a little-used trail to a stunning lookout over Sunset Beach.

But it wasn’t until we returned to Honolulu and were in the presence a few thousand brothers and sisters in Christ that we truly experienced paradise. The hospitality at the HIM conference was extraordinary: People we had never met asked us out to breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  A girl gave me a drawing inspired by one of my talks.  And everywhere there was a palpable, deep hunger to hear God’s Word.

We all need to thank God for putting us in ministry wherever we are. So regardless of where you are reading this, ask yourself, How is my ministry going? Use these questions to assess and reflect:

  • Have you asked someone new home to dinner in the last month?
  • Have you given a Bible away yet this year?
  • Are you praying regularly for someone at your workplace?
  • Have you used what you gave up this Lent as an opportunity to witness about what Jesus sacrificed for our salvation?

It’s nice to go places and meet new brothers and sisters, but God is everywhere. Jesus told us to go out in the world and spread the Gospel.  Wherever you are, you’re out in the world. Spread the Good News!  I’ll be praying for you.

“Mahalo!” to our new friends in the Pacific Ocean.

The Blessing of Visiting College Campuses

If you have been watching too much news and are anxious about the future, I have a suggestion: visit some young Christians at college. Fall is when we here at Blessed Earth spend our time visiting colleges, schools, and seminaries. This past fall semester we spent time at Southeastern Baptist Seminary, Wheaton College, Indiana Wesleyan University (with Ron Blue), Emory University, Lindsay Wilson College, North Carolina Wesleyan College, and Asbury Seminary.

I could especially feel the Lord at work as I stood in front of thousands of young people at Wheaton College. I appreciated the kind notes I received from students after these campus visits.

One of the countercultural aspects of Christianity is its intergenerational nature. This is modeled in the relationship between Elijah and Elisha and the passing of the mantle from the elder to the younger.

We see it modeled again in the New Testament. Paul encourages the younger Timothy, and Timothy’s growth in the faith is an encouragement to Paul. Paul recounts the intergenerational faith passed from Timothy’s grandmother, Lois; to Timothy’s mother, Eunice; and down to Timothy.

The book of 2 Timothy was perhaps Paul’s last letter. How tired he must have felt. Paul had been thrown from boats, beaten, stoned, and chained in prison for months on end. Yet we never hear him saying, “Young people today aren’t as tough as I was.” Instead he encourages Timothy to preach the word of the Lord “in season and out”. In other words, don’t focus on the problems of the world but on the solutions of God.

We at Blessed Earth thank the Lord for the work He has given us: to inspire faithful stewardship of all creation. As I enter my sixth decade of life, I am grateful beyond measure that I am able to work with young people just beginning their adventures. I hope someday to say as Paul did that “I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”

Blessed Earth Tennessee Plants Literal and Spiritual Trees in Haiti

As many of you know, Matthew is writing a book that shares the Gospel by following the trail of trees through the Bible. So when Ryan Bennett, our Blessed Earth Tennessee director, took a group to Haiti in December, we were thrilled to learn that they would be planting trees.
Ryan took a team of eleven to Gressier, Haiti, about 20 miles west of Port au Prince.  In the 2010 earthquake, ninety percent of structures in Gressier were leveled and most trees were either uprooted or snapped off.
The team focused on three primary jobs.  In the mornings, they worked on constructing a kitchen, guesthouse, and maintenance building on the church grounds.  In the afternoons, they spent time with the school children, playing games and sharing gifts while explaining the gift of hope we have in Jesus.
Evenings were reserved for tree planting. At dusk, the team visited neighborhoods surrounding the church, bringing Bibles and fruit trees: mango, breadfruit, citrus, cherry, and apricot.  They knocked on doors and asked if they could plant a tree in the homeowner’s yard. If the villager said yes, they discussed the importance of finding a place where the soil was rich, where sunlight hit it, and where it could receive water.  These conditions would help the tree grow big and strong and produce fruit.
While preparing the site, Ryan explained how our lives are like trees.  If we want to produce fruit, we need to make sure our soil is fertile, we have good exposure to the sun/Son, and that we are nourished with living water.  The team offered the homeowners a Bible, since the Word is to our souls what water is to the trees.  Many times, Ryan was asked into the house to pray with the family and share the gospel.
Development experts believe that the cycle of poverty in Haiti–the poorest country in the western hemisphere–will not be broken until the land is reforested.  Without trees, topsoil erodes, crops fail, and children die from hunger and disease.  Trees, literally, give life.
Similarly, the cycle of impoverished spirits–in Haiti and our own neighborhoods–will not be broken until our hearts are watered with the living Word of God. It is no accident that the Bible begins with the Tree of Life in Eden and ends with the Tree of Life in heaven, which bears fruit in every season and has leaves that heal the nations. At the center of our faith is Jesus, the new Adam, who died on a tree to give us life.
Ryan’s team planted about 100 fruit trees in Haiti–and many more seeds of faith. This spring, we hope you will join us in planting trees of hope (physical as well as spiritual), wherever God has placed you!

Ten Schools in the Pacific Northwest Joining the Seminary Stewardship Alliance

Since becoming Blessed Earth’s Northwest Director of Operations in the summer of 2015, Dr. A.J. Swoboda has been meeting with Christian colleges and seminaries throughout the northwest region. In the last few months, ten schools have joined or are in the process of joining the Seminary Stewardship Alliance (SSA), a consortium of schools committed to reconnecting Christians with the biblical call to care for God’s creation.

Four years ago, George Fox Evangelical Seminary became the first Northwest school to make this public, institutional commitment. In the last four months, every school that Dr. Swoboda visited has responded positively to joining the SSA. The ground has proven fertile as Christians across denominations work alongside one another for a common goal, namely, the care of creation.

This movement amongst Christian educational institutions is also opening doors to non-religious neighbors all across the Northwest. Environmental stewardship is part of faithful witness in the twenty-first century. As environmental stewardship becomes a central tenet at the institutional level, it becomes more than an area of study, but an integral part of Christian life and witness. Students are being filled with the desire, and equipped with the ability, to nurture the earth. In turn, doors are opened to witness to people in our communities who already care about creation, but who do not yet know the God who created it all.

An encouraging outcome can be seen at the most recent school to join, New Hope Christian College in Eugene, Oregon. New Hope has started a campus garden where students can grow food and learn to care for the land together.

The SSA was started as a project of Blessed Earth, with a signing ceremony of twelve flagship schools at the Washington National Cathedral in April 2012. In 2015, the SSA spun off as an independent nonprofit, where Matthew and Nancy Sleeth continue to provide leadership as members of the SSA board. The SSA now has grown to nearly fifty schools. For more information, visit seminaryalliance.org.