A Sabbath From the Headlines

On July 31, I made a decision: For the coming month, I would Sabbath from checking the news.

About a year ago, when the elections were heating up, I fell into the habit of checking three news sources each morning. One of the sources was on the conservative end of the spectrum, one liberal, and one moderate. It was interesting to me to see how the same event could be interpreted through such vastly different lenses.

As the race grew closer and closer, I began checking the headlines twice each day. Every time I thought the news was as crazy as it could get, it grew even more absurd. I told myself–and my husband–that this relatively new obsession was not affecting my emotional or spiritual life, but of course it was. How could such an influx of pessimism and hostility not darken my soul?

When I found myself checking the headlines not once, not twice, but three times a day, I knew I had crossed a line. Enough was enough! I asked for God’s help. Then I embarked on an August experiment.

Even without the angst of 24/7 news, August is usually a hard month for me. Twenty-two years ago, my brother drowned on August 19 in front of our kids. Nearly two decades later, my mom also died on August 19. August is also the month my daughter and mother shared the same birthday, so the entire month is filled with bittersweet memories.

For more than a decade, my family and I have abstained from news on our Sabbaths. It’s one of the many ways our Sabbath is made kadosh (holy), literally set apart. This weekly oasis from headlines always has a calming effect. Imagine what a month without getting swept up in the whirlwind of news could do for my soul?

It turns out, the experiment proved easier than I expected. And better. I assumed I would be tempted to take a peek. Who, besides God and Google, would know?

But I didn’t look (though occasionally I would ask Matthew if the world was still there….) The rewards were tangible and immediate. I have slept better, felt more rested, and worried less about things I have no control over this month than I have in a year.

On September 1, my news sabbatical officially ends. What have I learned? Sufficient unto today are today’s worries. Or, to paraphrase Matthew 6:34, don’t angst about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own trouble.

My sabbatical from daily news reminded me that the only lens that really matters is the Gospel. Jesus gave us the answer to today’s headlines and the angst they stir up in Matthew 6:33: Seek FIRST the King of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.

God ‘Making All Things New’ Doesn’t Mean Christians Can Ignore the Environment

It was a perfect Saturday afternoon: cloudless sky, 72 degrees, and a clean breeze blowing across the mountaintop where my husband Matthew and I sat on a bench, enjoying the view.  

A few yards away from us, a family was picnicking—three children with their parents. In between ripples of good-natured teasing and laughter, the son, about 8 years old, leaned comfortably against his dad while being quizzed on Bible verses. The kid knew his stuff, and his father was clearly proud of him.

My husband made a friendly comment and began to chat with the dad. After the initial introductions, the conversation quickly turned to scripture and matters of faith. Matthew always welcomes an engaging theological discussion and was delighted to have crossed paths with such an intelligent and devoted believer.

When asked what had brought us to this mountaintop retreat center, Matthew briefly told him about our creation care ministry, Blessed Earth.  The conversation stalled for a minute.  Then, in a well-meaning tone, the father posed an all-too-familiar question: If Revelation says it’s all going to burn up in the end, why should Christians care?

FINDING COMMON GROUND

While traveling the country, we’ve encountered many variations of this “it’s all going to burn anyway” question. Does God’s making all things new mean Christians can ignore the environment? If we’re ultimately made for heaven, why worry about the earth?  Aren’t there more important things to do, like bringing people to Christ? 

Such questions can easily become divisive. A radio host recently opened his interview with my husband as follows: “When I think of environmentalists, I picture long-haired, Birkenstock wearing hippies who rant about recycling and global warming. What do you have to say about this, Dr. Sleeth?” 

A lot, actually, but not what the interviewer may have been expecting. 

Instead of taking the bait, we focus on the biblical call to be wise stewards of God’s gifts—a value we share. Rather than getting polarized by politics, we look for common ground.

The man at the retreat center went on to say that he owns hundreds of books on the end times. Between our home and office libraries, we probably have about as many books on creation care. As believers in Christ, however, we have much that we can agree upon:  love, sacrifice, compassion, hope, joy, grace, redemption, reconciliation, and renewal are values that bind us together. 

Below are some responses that we have found helpful when engaging in conversations with our bothers and sisters in Christ, who—often because of what they have heard on radio or in political arenas—initially may be skeptical about the call to care for the environment:

Revelation tells us it’s all going to burn up in the end, so why bother taking care of nature?

The answer to this seemingly logical question is actually quite simple—because the earth belongs to God and he told us to protect it. 

First, consider the issue of ownership. Scripture unequivocally states that God owns all of creation. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,” says Psalm 24:1.  In Job 41:11 God declares, “Everything under heaven belongs to me.” The Apostle Paul tells us that everything was created through Christ and for him (Colossians 1:15-16). The earth does not belong to us, but to God—a principle that permeates all of scripture, from Genesis to Revelation.

Since we reside on earth without claim to ownership, we are therefore tenants on God’s land. As tenants, we do not have the right to act toward the earth in whatever manner we wish. Rather, we have an obligation to treat the land with the proper amount of respect due to its owner.

Why bother taking care of nature? Because it belongs to God.

Second, not only does the earth belong to God, but he also has given us the responsibility of taking care of it. In fact, one of the first jobs he gives humanity is to tend and protect the earth (Genesis 2:15).  This is a command, not a suggestion; it has no expiration date and is still in full effect.

But the story does not end in Genesis. Before entering the Promised Land, the Israelites are told that they are to provide for the “redemption of the land” (Leviticus 25:23-24), thus demonstrating the inherent value God places on the natural world. Likewise, Jesus himself warns his listeners to be faithful with what has been entrusted to them (Luke 16) and states that God cares when even a single sparrow falls to the ground (Matthew 10:29). Our role toward God’s creation is that of caretakers. 

Why bother taking care of nature?  Because God tells us to. 

Didn’t God give us dominion over the earth?

Yes, God gave us dominion, but dominion should not be confused with license.  Dominion implies great responsibility. We give teachers dominion over our children when we send them to school, but we would not be pleased if at the end of the day our children came home ignorant, battered, and bruised. The same principle applies to dominion over the earth; when God gave us dominion over the earth, he did not intend for us to destroy his creation. As God’s appointed stewards, we can use natural resources, but not abuse them.

Suppose you borrowed a car from God. Would you want to return it with cigarette butts in the ashtray, dents in the bumper, and an empty gas tank? Like the car, the earth is on loan to us. We are to pass it on to future generations in as good or better shape than we received it.

Moreover, God created the physical earth to sustain all life, not just humans.  On the renewed earth, God specifically promises to sustain all creatures, great and small: “In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the creatures that move along the ground” (Hosea 2:18).

Yes, we were created in God’s image, and yes, we were given special responsibilities.  However, dominion should not be synonymous with domination. Domination leads to reckless consumption; dominion leads to wise leadership.

If we already know the earth is going to burn, why not hasten the end?

No one knows exactly when the end times will come, not even Jesus. (Matthew 24:35-37). Until then, we are all called to do God’s work. And an important part of God’s work is abat and shamar, tending and protecting the earth he placed in our care.

 The prophet Amos explicitly warns us:
Woe to all of you who want God’s Judgment Day!
Why would you want to see God, want Him to come?
When God comes, it will be bad news before it’s good news,
The worst of times, not the best of times.
(Amos 5-18-19, The Message)

The misguided desire to hasten the end times surfaced one afternoon when a new friend invited Matthew and me to lunch. Our host, a devoted father, loved his teenaged daughter but deeply regretted that she did not have a relationship with Jesus. Yet, several times the man also stated that he prayed Christ would return tomorrow.   

Matthew and I were both puzzled by this mixed message: As parents, wouldn’t we want more time, not less, for Christ to open our child’s heart? Shouldn’t we pray that, in God’s infinite mercy and grace, the end times are delayed until those we love know Jesus? And shouldn’t we want to extend, not end, opportunities for people around the world to meet their Savior?

In the 16th century, Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, once gave a moving sermon about the end times. His congregation was so affected that they all went home and fed the sick, clothed the poor, and opened their tables to the homeless. When the congregants came back to report what they had done, they were astounded to find Martin Luther planting a tree.

“Why are you bothering to plant a tree when you know the end times are coming?” they asked.

“I am doing exactly what I want my Father to find me doing,” Martin Luther replied.

Like Martin Luther, all of us should be building the Kingdom, not destroying it, up until the very last moment of our personal and collective end times. Live like Judgment Day is coming tomorrow, but pray that we are given as much time as possible to share Jesus with the world.

Regardless of when the end times come, no human has the right to needlessly destroy or mar anything that God has created. In fact, the author of Revelation declares that God will destroy those who destroy the earth (Revelation 11:18). Only God knows the day and the hour of his return.  Only God knows the manner in which he intends to create the new earth.  It is not our place to hasten these events through destruction, but to give life (Matthew 24:14). We are to lovingly and faithfully care for what He has made until He decides to give us a new role in the new earth—His permanent, perfected creation.

As Christians, shouldn’t we be concerned with spiritual, not physical, matters?

This question quickly leads to a false dichotomy. Physical and spiritual matters are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are interdependent.

For example, God gave each of us a physical body. That body is a temple that must be treated with respect. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

On a very practical level, proper care for our bodies requires us to also care for the earth. God gave us clean water, clean air, and healthy soil. If we want to be good stewards of our bodies, we will also have to be good stewards of the physical elements that sustain life. 

Won’t everything be renewed after the rapture anyway?

Absolutely! Revelation 21:1 and Acts 3:21 state that God intends to renew all things. This message is reinforced in Colossians 1:20, when we are told that God intends to reconcile himself to all things. Paul says in Romans 8:20-21, “For the creation was subjected to frustration…in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

Everything—including mountains, seas, flowers, bees, you, and me—will be renewed. This is good news, indeed!

In Revelation 21:5, God declares, “I am making all things new!” This disclosure reveals an important reality about the new earth.  God intends to make all things new; he does not plan to make all new things. Revelation 21:5 also provides direction on how to interact with the natural world prior to God’s renewal. Because God is making all things new, we get the honor of participating in this renewal process by protecting his earth now. We are not passive spectators to God’s cosmic design of a renewed Eden. On the contrary, we play a crucial role in God’s plan. This pattern reflects one of the most common narratives throughout scripture—that of God using humans to be his hands and feet in accomplishing his purposes in this world.

Not only will everything eventually be renewed, but the Bible makes clear that even now God is actively sustaining all things. “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3).  Likewise, Paul tells us, “[Jesus] is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). If God is even now sustaining his creation, then undoubtedly the earth holds inherent value and is worthy of protection. God currently sustains the earth, ultimately plans to renew it, and longs to use us in the process. 

Aren’t we supposed to be worried about saving souls, not saving whales? 

There is no greater cause for rejoicing than when a lost soul comes to Christ. The Great Commission’s call to share the gospel with all nations is absolutely central to the Christian faith and should be a part of the life of every believer. Evangelism, however, is not the only calling of Christians; the chief end of humanity—and all of creation—is to glorify God.

Scripture is clear that God’s creation brings him glory. Psalm 96:11-13 says, “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad, let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the Lord.” This resounding chorus of praise comes not from human voices but from the natural world and is indicative of a world alive with God’s glory.  Elsewhere in scripture, we see worship coming from the sun, moon, stars, rocks, water, fish, lightning, hail, snow, clouds, storms, mountains, hills, cattle, animals, fields, and more. Like humans, they were created by God to bring him glory.  And while it is true that humans alone are created in the image of God, this does not diminish the worship that God’s other creations bring to him. “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). 

Protecting God’s creation also preserves a significant way to learn about God’s character.  Paul declares in Romans 1:20 that “ever since the creation of the world, [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse.” Here Paul is making the case that God’s creation serves as an avenue for people to discover God.

The book of Job explicitly tells us to “ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?” (Job 12:7-10). Countering our human tendency toward hubris, this passage proclaims that the natural world can offer us spiritual insight. If nature holds spiritual value in God’s eye, we should be actively protecting these sources of spiritual instruction. 

Unfortunately, the world is very clear on what Christians are against, but fuzzy on what we are for. The perception that Christians don’t care about pollution, species extinction, and the social and human health consequences of land degradation can ultimately drive people away from Christ. For example, we have heard people say they do not understand how Christians can say they love the Creator but not show respect for his creation. Thus, our failure to take a leadership role in protecting the earth has become, for some, a stumbling block to knowing God. This problem is exacerbated when political pundits rather than scripture becomes our source of wisdom.

In practice, creation care opens new doors for sharing Christ’s love. My husband and I have been invited to talk about Jesus in unexpected places, including National Public Radio programs, college auditoriums, and environmental conferences. Whenever possible, we give away free Bibles to those who don’t own one, enabling seekers to learn more about the scriptural call to care for the earth.

In fact, we find that it’s counterproductive to turn this into an either/or equation. We can and should be concerned with telling others about Christ while also caring for his creation.  Both callings are based on the same motivation: loving God and loving our global neighbors, including future generations.

Shouldn’t we be worried about saving souls? Absolutely! But we should also work to protect God’s creation, or we may lose the opportunity to save any souls. 

Now, our question for you

Once we respond to queries like those above, we often like to ask a question of our own, which my husband first posed to a skeptical audience: If you believe in an all-powerful God, as we do, and the only purpose of life is to get into heaven, then why didn’t God just have us born in heaven?  Why were we born on earth?

The answer, of course, is that life on earth matters.  What we do on earth matters.  God created the earth and cares for it.  He called it “good” and gave us the responsibility to care for it.  When we care for the earth, we are participating in the work of God.

Life is not merely preparation for heaven; it is also an opportunity for us to put heavenly principles into practice here on earth. God loves to redeem, restore, and renew, and he longs to involve us in the process. God created us on earth because this is a place where we can actively participate in his work of redemption.

A centerpiece of our faith is the resurrection of Christ. Jesus lives, here and now, and we are already participating in the first fruits of the new creation. 

Back on the mountaintop

Back at the retreat center, the sun was getting hotter and the kids were beginning to get restless, so my husband and his new friend wrapped up their conversation with warm wishes on both sides. As the children gathered up the picnic utensils, their father asked where Matthew was preaching the next day—a sure sign that the discussion had remained not only civil but gratifying on both sides. Though our starting points may have seemed quite different on the surface, our shared belief in Jesus and the primary role of scripture in our daily lives allowed each to listen, to learn, and—ultimately—to love one another.

“Until we meet again, brother,” Matthew said in parting.

The man extended his hand. “Yes, we shall meet again.”

Matthew and I headed back to our cabin. Before we settled in for a delicious afternoon nap, my last waking thought was “on earth as it is in heaven.” One day, God will use fire to purify the earth, and all the nations will be healed in the shade of the Tree of Life, watered by an unpolluted river. And it will be very, very good

 

Nancy Sleeth

As co-founder and Managing Director of Blessed Earth, Nancy Sleeth travels throughout the U.S. speaking and writing about faith and the environment. Prior to heeding this spiritual and environmental calling, Sleeth served as communications director for a Fortune 500 company and as an educator and administrator, most recently at Asbury University. Nancy is a graduate of Georgetown University and holds a masters degree in journalism. She is the author of Almost Amish: One Woman’s Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life. She also authored Go Green, Save Green, the first-ever practical guide for going green from a faith perspective. Nancy and Matthew Sleeth have been married for more than 30 years. They live in Lexington, KY, near their grown children, Clark (a physician preparing for medical missions) and Emma (creation care speaker/author for teens and young adults).

 

*This article was originally published at relevantmagazine.com.

 

 

 

 

What’s Your Excuse for not Planting Trees?

I came across an inspiring story the other day. It’s an article about two men in the Sunzhuang Township in Northern China planting trees. “So?” you say. “What’s the big deal about planting trees?”  The big deal is that both of them are disabled. One is completely blind, and the other is missing both of his arms. Think about that for a minute. No arms to hold on with and no eyes to see and yet they are making a positive difference in the world. Over the past decade, they have planted 10,000 trees.
Why? I’ve included a link to the story, and you can read what they say. The article doesn’t tell us their faith. Are they Christians, Buddhists, or just men trying to help? We don’t know. We do know that both of them need a purpose in life.  So they are planting trees. Tree planting is really something we do for the next generation. It’s something we do for our children…and our great, great grandchildren.
A week ago, we had a missionary family of five over for Friday night dinner. They were visiting us from their home in China, a city south of where these trees are being planted. Their city is similar in size (area-wise) to where we live–Lexington, Kentucky–but instead of 300,000 residents they have 30 million.  When we said grace, I asked everyone at the table to add what they are thankful for. Truth be told, I was shamelessly trying to learn what was on the children’s hearts. Their guileless gratitude gave me a little more understanding why Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is populated by children.
Later in the evening, their daughter sang a song for us (in Chinese), and we adults talked about life in their city. One of the big challenges of living in China today is trees–or the lack thereof. China has air that you can see before you breathe it. The air quality index this minute in Lexington is 46. In my old hometown in Maine it is 9, and in their city in China it is 172. To put that in context, 0-50 air quality index is considered good; 50-100 is moderate; and everything over 100 is designated unhealthy. In many Chinese cities, it frequently goes over 250 (very unhealthy/hazardous). Masks must routinely be worn when going out of doors. The cause of the polluted air in China is too much human industry, and too few trees.
This situation is not unique to China. All over the globe, the lack of trees and the overabundance of human industry is resulting in changes to the air we breathe. Which is the reason that a blind man and a man without arms planting trees is news. They are part of the solution.
The origin of the word “inspiring” is “to breathe into.” May the Lord bless these men, and may He inspire us to plant trees and to seed the earth with the Gospel. If a man without arms and his friend who is blind can work to make the world better, what’s your excuse?

“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.