Playing Hooky Can Be a Good Thing

by Nancy Sleeth, Managing Director of Blessed Earth

For a long time, a visit to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest has been near the top of Matthew’s bucket list. Named after the WWI veteran who wrote the beloved poem “Trees,” it is one of the largest contiguous tracts of old growth forest in the Eastern United States. It encompasses trees that are over 400 years old and 20 feet in circumference standing 100 feet tall.

So, when I saw that we had a free afternoon during a three-day trip last month, I asked some friends if they’d like to join us for a hike. The forest was about 90 minutes from where we were staying. From the moment we got on the Foothills Parkway, every vista was an affirmation of God’s goodness–mountain overlooks, leaves just beginning to acknowledge the coming change in seasons, and streams interrupted by lively waterfalls.

It was midafternoon by the time we arrived. The four of us chatted while navigating the first half of the hike, pointing out especially large tree specimens to each other and marveling over the girth of the trees. It felt like we were exploring an outdoor cathedral. Walking in the presence of God’s oldest creatures made us feel both small and large at the same time–our lifespan fleeting, our responsibilities as God’s appointed caretakers great.

As soon as we ascended the second half of the figure-eight trail, other hikers became far fewer. We spotted two fallen trees and decided to rest. Our friend suggested that we begin in prayer and then sit in silence for five minutes. As we closed our eyes and listened, the wind picked up. For the first time in my life, I heard a wind approaching. Stronger and stronger, it gathered over the valley and ascended the mountainside. The leaves began ringing, almost like wind chimes. Our five minutes of silent contemplation stretched into ten, then fifteen. No one wanted it to end. The wind died down, and we opened our eyes. We had a long drive back, and a dinner meeting scheduled, so we headed back to the car, our ears still ringing with echoes of our sacred silence.

Over the course of the three-day conference, our friend Boyd Bailey, head of the National Christian Foundation in Georgia, led the morning devotions. Providentially, the topic he chose was silence. Boyd believes that silence is the language of God, and God expects us to be fluent in His language. While no one pats us on the back for being skilled in silence, learning to sit with the Lord in quiet grows our inner strength, sensitivity to the Spirit, and Kingdom perspective invaluably.

After Jesus fed the 5,000, he dismissed all but the twelve and then went to be silent with his Father. As many of us have learned the hard way, BUSY stands for Being Under Satan’s Yoke. Either we manage to have quiet in our lives, or the noise will manage us.

Our fifteen minutes of quiet in the Joyce Kilmer Forest reminds me of Psalm 1. God wants us to be like a tree, with deep roots that reach out for water and hold us firm. No matter what hurricanes or wildfires or floods come our way, we will stand fast in the Lord.

How the British Get it Right

by Emma Sleeth Davis

I’ve spent years dreaming about going to England. I took several classes in British history in college, I’ve read almost everything Dickens ever wrote, and, of course, I share a name with a certain Jane Austin heroine. So when my husband and I had the chance to visit northern England for three weeks last month, I thought I knew what to expect: reverse car lanes, pounds and pence, and lots and lots of tea. The little stone villages were, indeed, as picturesque as I’d thought, and people did, actually, eat kippers for breakfast. But what I hadn’t fully anticipated was how much more environmentally conscious English culture is. A few of my favorites ways the Brits take care of the planet:

1. They love, love, love their gardens. I saw way more beautiful riots of color in front yards than chemically-treated grass lawns, and we were shown around flower beds and vegetable patches at almost every place we stayed.

2. Public transportation is abundant. Buses are everywhere, and the passenger train system is still a vital part of the infrastructure.

3. They pay for plastic bags. Many more people bring reusable bags when they shop, since most stores charge five pence (about seven cents) per plastic bag. Since the charge was imposed in 2016, plastic bag usage has decreased by over three quarters and hundreds of millions of pounds have been raised for charity.

4. Outdoor recreation is highly valued. Many of the British tourists we met, especially in the Lake District, planned their long weekends around hiking trails, cycling routes, or sailing.

5. They build to last. We saw tons of homes that were built centuries ago and are still being used today; quality craftmanship, rather than square footage or modern luxuries, seemed to be a priority in every house and B&B where we stayed.

6. Bigger isn’t better. Cars, washing machines, trashcans–they’re all, on average, smaller than in the US, causing less fuel consumption and encouraging less waste.

7. Food is local. Grocery stores often label the farm where their produce was grown; “chippies” take pride in serving locally caught fish; and even fast food chains advertise 100% British meat.

8. Temperature is less controlled. Iced drinks are less common, eggs aren’t refrigerated (don’t try this one at home, unless you buy your eggs from a neighbor or raise them yourself: it’s only a safe practice as long as they haven’t previously been stored at low temperatures), AC is virtually non-existent, and the general consensus is that it’s more sensible to put on another layer than turn up the heat.

9. Clothes dryers are rare. Several of our hosts told us that they either didn’t have a dryer or hardly ever used it; they’d dry their laundry on a line in the garden on sunny days and hang clothes up to dry near the woodstove on a “Lancaster air dryer,” a wooden rack with parallel bars suspended by a pulley from the ceiling.

This short list of sustainable practices I witnessed was only from several weeks spent in one region of England. Have you noticed other ways foreign cultures practice stewardship in your travels abroad? Send us your observations and we’ll compile a list to publish on blessedearth.org!

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.

What’s Your Excuse for not Planting Trees?

by Dr. Matthew Sleeth
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.

 

 

 

 

 

Goodbye to a Friend

 

IMG_0603This past Thursday, Dr. Ellsworth Kalas went to be with the Lord he loved and served for over ninety-two years. He was a faithful supporter of our ministry, and served on the Blessed Earth board for the past five years.

Many people knew Ellsworth as a homiletics teacher and the President of Asbury Seminary. Many more had the privilege of having him as their pastor during his four decades as a minister. Others knew him through his published works; he was the author of three dozen books and recorded the Bible on tape. David and Taddy knew him as a proud father. Janet knew him as a loving and supportive spouse. To me, he was a close and cherished friend.

I visited with Ellsworth on Sunday before his passing, and I felt as if we didn’t get enough time together. I cancelled work on Monday to go and see him again, as Nancy and I were leaving for the Asbury Seminary Board meeting the next day and would be working and traveling in Florida for a week. I’m glad that I made the change. We spent a beautiful time together. We held hands and prayed.  I read the Bible aloud, and Ellsworth sang a hymn.  We both thanked God for the special friendship that we have shared for years. Oddly, neither of us could ever remember how our friendship really began, but seven years ago we started meeting for a two-hour lunch every month. He presided at my daughter and son-in-law’s wedding.  Over the last two years, we saw a great deal of each other. He told me that he thought the gift of such friendship as ours was a taste of the fellowship between the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. We were not ashamed to say “I love you” when we parted.

Ellsworth was an example of the first Psalm:  a tree planted by God, who put down his roots in the Word of the God. He avoided silliness and scorners and sought the company of others who loved the Lord. He taught us what it was to live as a Christian and to die as one. I will miss him until I see him again.

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.
And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.
Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.

Thank you, God, for giving us John Ellsworth Kalas.

J. Matthew Sleeth

 

Announcement from Matthew About New Book

IMG_4140My son-in-law, Zach, gave me my Father’s Day present a little early this year. Before we moved into our townhouse, a large tree had died along the fence line dividing us from the neighboring apartment building. We got permission from our homeowner’s association to replant a tree. There was only one problem: a humongous stump–about three feet in diameter–was in the way.

That’s when it comes in handy to have a son-in-law. Zach went to a tree farm and picked out a beautiful sugar maple. Before heading out of town on a work trip, I suggested that Zach plant the maple beside the old stump, even though it was a less desirable position. But Zach wanted to do it right. He dug and dug and dug. Several neighbors came by to watch and encourage. It took all morning and half the afternoon to fully remove the remains of the old tree.

When planting time finally arrived, Zach backed up the pickup truck as close to the hole as possible. The root ball must have weighed a couple hundred pounds. Zach recruited Nancy to position the trunk while he backfilled. One of our neighbors gave us a water gaiter so we could keep the roots moist throughout summer. Zach returned later with a load of mulch to reduce evaporation and competition from weeds.

Every time I walk by that tree, I marvel. And every evening when I admire the tree from our bedroom window, I thank God for sharing His love of trees with me (and giving me a son-in-law with a strong back).

Last year, I read through the Bible underlining everything that scripture says about trees. From the Tree of Life in Genesis to the Tree of Life in Revelation, I discovered a forest with deep roots in faith. The first psalm says that a righteous person is like a tree. Abraham welcomes the angels under the oaks of Mamre; Deborah holds court under the palms; Zacchaeus shinnies up a sycamore-fig to see the Savior.

Most importantly, Jesus, the new Adam, plants a tree–the cross–on Calvary and waters it with his blood, sweat, and tears. The Apostle Paul tells us that in heaven the leaves of the Tree of Life will heal the nations and bear fruit in every season.

This summer, I have begun writing a book about trees and faith. Writing does not come easily for me. I rely on the Holy Spirit and the prayers of friends like you to help me.

It’s been a wet summer so far, and Zach’s tree is flourishing. I hope that in days to come, my writing will help the faith of others flourish as well.

–Matthew Sleeth

Sleeths Commission One Hundred Stewardship Advocates

3bfc63e9-f2d2-4180-a60a-207f2aad8d8aToday we hear so much in the news about what’s wrong with today’s young people: they’re selfish, apathetic, and easily distracted. They spend all their time on their phones, and little of it in nature.

Recently, Matthew and I had the privilege of spending a few days in Colorado with several hundred college and seminary students who give the coming generation a good name. These students are part of A Christian Ministry in the National Parks (ACMNP). This summer, they will be leading worship services on Sundays in national parks, serving as chaplains to visitors and staff while also working for the park concessioners.

Blessed Earth’s partnership with ACMNP began seven years ago when our friend, Spencer Lundgaard, became their executive director. A Christian Ministry in the National Parks is a grassroots, student-led ministry that started in Yellowstone National Park in 1951 with the dream of providing Christian community for the people working in, living in, and visiting the first national park in the world.

Today, ACMNP lives its mission by sending 200 ministry team members into 75 locations in 25 national parks from Alaska to the Virgin Islands. Over 30,000 people worship together in ACMNP services every year, experiencing the glory of God by seeing it firsthand.

Several years ago, Spencer invited us to meet with his trustees and advisors. Specifically, Spencer wanted us to help cast a vision for intentionally integrating creation care with their ministry. Our hope was to help ACMNP share a Christian interpretation of the awe and grandeur of God’s creation.

In April, Matthew and I had the honor of formally commissioning nearly 100 first-ever stewardship advocates. These young people are tasked with connecting the Creator with his creation as a foundation of all they do. It was a moving ceremony, full of the Holy Spirit’s presence, as well as a clear affirmation of Blessed Earth’s capacity to multiply through synergistic partnerships.

If you visit a National Park this summer, I hope you will make it a point to attend the Sunday worship service and encourage these young ACMNP volunteers. They are the future of our church. And from everything we experienced in Colorado, that future looks bright!

–Nancy Sleeth

Blessed Earth Launches First State Chapter

Ryan and Heather of Blessed Earth TN speaking at Belmont University
Ryan and Heather of Blessed Earth TN speaking at Belmont University

Many years ago, when we were just beginning our ministry, Nancy and I were invited to speak at a clergy luncheon at Asbury Seminary. When I asked one of the attendees to tell me why he was there, the pastor was very honest. His wife had read my first book, Serve God, Save the Planet, and had been nagging him for months to read it, too.

Rev. Ryan Bennett thought that attending the luncheon would make his wife happy and get him off the hook for reading the book. He confessed that he didn’t really see the connection between his faith and creation care, so I sent this skeptical pastor home with a case of books to share with his congregation.

From Genesis to Revelation, what Ryan discovered was a biblical call to care for God’s creation. He asked me to come speak to his church and meet his wife, Heather. That was nearly ten years ago.

Since then, Ryan has been a member of our Blessed Earth board and advisory team, and Heather has written articles for our website. They have started creation care teams in two churches and worked to share a Christian voice in earth stewardship throughout their state. Along the way, the Bennetts and their son, Tyler, have become dear family friends and loyal ministry partners. We have stayed many times in each other’s homes, broken bread at each other’s tables, and shared both the hardships and celebrations of ministry together.

In 2014, Ryan and Heather approached us about starting Blessed Earth Tennessee as a pilot program. Heather had recently completed a master’s degree in sustainability at Lipscomb University, and they wanted to help Blessed Earth discern if a state chapter program was viable.

With their official launch just last month, Blessed Earth Tennessee is already exceeding our wildest dreams. In March, Heather and Ryan spoke at Martin Methodist College and in April led chapel for Earth Week at Belmont University. Blessed Earth Tennessee has already developed a partnership with a Middle Tennessee organization to do a year-long creation care focus in 2016 that will be announced soon. In addition, the UMC’s conference camping program has offered to host quarterly creation care retreats. Heather and Ryan also have been asked to meet with a Christian university’s leadership team to share the biblical foundation for creation care as well as to help develop a minor in sustainability at another Christian college in Tennessee.

Nancy and I are excited about this opportunity for Blessed Earth Tennessee to inspire and equip people of faith to be better stewards of the earth. If you are interested in learning more, please check out their website.

A decade ago, we never would have guessed that a creation care skeptic and his wife would be launching our first state affiliate. But God’s plans are often bigger than our dreams. Those of you who have expressed an interest in starting a Blessed Earth affiliate in your state, stay tuned: Blessed Earth Tennessee is off to a great start, and we will learn much together in the coming months!

–Nancy Sleeth

Dr. Sleeth Gives Keynote at Kentucky Governor’s Prayer Breakfast

Dr. Sleeth giving the keynote at the 2015 Kentucky Governor's Prayer Breakfast

Frankfort, KY, March 17, 2015

Dr. Sleeth recently gave the keynote address to a packed Frankfort Convention Center at the 2015 Governor’s Prayer Breakfast. The theme of his talk was “Be Still,” and Dr. Sleeth shared his personal story while connecting it with a call to keep the Sabbath to those in attendance. A variety of other prominent speakers also shared, such as Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, former UK basketball player Jarrod Polston, Nancy Sleeth of Blessed Earth, and crowd-raising singing by Grammy award-winner Larnelle Harris.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matthew visits with Students in Chapel Hill, NC

Matthew with Chapel Hill college students Feb 2015One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is, “How many days a year are you on the road?” I don’t really know the answer. When I ask those responsible for my schedule, I get evasive answers such as, “Quite a lot,” or, “You don’t want to know.”

My guess is that I’m away from home somewhere between one hundred and fifty and two hundred days in any given year. “That must be hard,” people often remark. Well, sometimes it is; being stuck in O’Hare Airport overnight, for example, is not one of my favorite things in the world. Ninety-nine percent of the time, however, my travels are wonderful. My wife, Nancy, often travels with me, and we get to interact with the nicest people in the world.

A couple of weeks ago, I was traveling in North Carolina. After leading a pastors’ retreat at the shore, we swung by Chapel Hill to preach Sunday services. We led a day-long Sabbath workshop on Monday and met with a student group on Tuesday evening. Nothing recharges my batteries like getting to spend time with students who are seeking the Lord’s will in their lives.

Media and reality TV would have us believe that the world is fueled by narcissism, greed, and lust. While these characteristics exist in abundance, many of the young people I encounter are guided by a very different paradigm.

The students were intelligent, polite and engaged. They asked great questions:

How does one spread the Gospel without appearing judgmental?
How does one honor a Sabbath in a family where the parents are nonbelievers?
How do you reconcile the Bible and science?

These are the kind of questions that keep me alert and focused. In a world that sometimes seems to run on relativism and situational truth, Blessed Earth’s message is simple: Christ comes first. He is the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to God except through Him.

I’m grateful for these University of North Carolina students who spent a couple of hours talking and fellowshipping with me. We are part of a cloud of witnesses stretching backwards for generations. Thank God it goes forward as well.

–Matthew Sleeth