Dr. Matthew Sleeth loves trees. Not just because they are beautiful, but because he believes they can teach us a lot about God’s nature.
In his new book Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us, he unpacks the significance of one of the Bible’s most prevalent symbols.
We recently spoke with Dr. Sleeth about the book, the spiritual lessons we can learn from trees and the importance of protecting creation.
What drew you to these parallels between nature and deeper spiritual lessons?
It really began when I volunteered to plant trees around my church, and the pastor said I have the theology of a tree hugger. He didn’t mean it as a compliment.
I thought maybe my theology was wrong, so I went to scripture and read from Genesis to Revelation, and what I found astounded me. Trees are the most-mentioned living thing in scripture other than God and people.
There’s a tree on the first page of the Bible. We’re told to be a tree in the first Psalm. There’s a tree on the first page of the New Testament and on the last page of scripture. Every major event in scripture has a tree marking the spot. So what I found in scripture was different than what I was seeing and hearing in the church.
I’d like to start at the beginning, then. What can you tell me about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil mentioned in Genesis?
Well, the garden is filled with trees. If you highlighted every sentence that has a tree in it in the first three chapters of the Bible, you’ll highlight a third of scripture.
We’re told trees are beautiful in God’s sight. We’re told our place is among the trees. We are told our work was to dress and keep them or protect and tend them, and that’s where we started.
There are two particularly important trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and we’re told not to eat from [the latter] and that’s God assigning human agency to us. We are allowed to choose right from wrong, and of course, we made the wrong choice.
When everything goes upside down and Adam and Eve realize they are naked, they go undress the tree and tear fig leaves off a fig tree. When they hear God’s voice, they run and they hide behind trees, so trees are absolutely pivotal to understanding why the world is as messed up as it is today.
Another reference is the time Jesus cursed the fig tree. It’s a hard parable to understand. Is that something you were able to wrestle with when writing the book?
I think there’s a couple things going on there. First of all, the ficus family of trees is the only tree Jesus ever says by name. A fig is the first mentioned tree in scripture that we can identify, and it is the symbol of the separation between us and God. We were in communion with the Lord, but after the first sin we tried to hide ourselves with the fig leaves, and so the fig becomes a symbol of that separation.
That story [of Jesus cursing the fig tree] has two meanings: One is that a tree should not only have leaves, but bear fruit. We’re told that with our lives, we’re to not just exist but be fruitful. [Secondly] in the story in which Jesus calls Nathaniel as His disciple, Jesus knows exactly who Nathaniel is because He saw him under the fig tree. That’s Jesus’ way of saying there’s no more hiding from the Lord behind fig trees. I’m here. I see you.
What’s the significance of the tree as it relates to the cross?
God wrote this Bible and the story of redemption using trees. The only thing that can kill Jesus is a tree. To really unpack that you have to look at how many times people tried to kill Jesus. They tried to stab him as an infant, that didn’t work; they tried to stone him; they tried to throw him off a cliff. The only way you can kill Jesus is with a tree and Jesus knows that.
He’s telling His disciples, ‘I must be raised up on a tree.’ As we look back in the book of Deuteronomy, we find this curious line that ‘He who hangs on a tree is cursed,’ and Jesus has to take the curse on Himself that you and I rightfully deserve. Trees are essential to telling the gospel.
What was one thing that surprised you most while you were researching and writing this book?
I think it was just the sheer number of trees and their use [in the Bible] from one end to the other. The Bible refers to itself as a tree. The only thing Jesus ever harms is a tree, and the only thing that can harm Jesus is a tree.
Great Christian writers like Tolkien and Lewis and George D. MacDonald always cast the good guys as those who would take care of the trees and the bad guys as those who would [cut them down].
I think the big surprise for me is how far from the Bible the Church is today, [to the point where it’s] subtracting trees from the text. Some words I counted up in the Bible—tree, seed, leaf, branch, root and fruit—occurred 967 times in the King James Bible, but in the ESB they’ve been subtracted 230 times and in the NIV translation, 267. Our bible translators have literally taken these words out of scripture.
I’ll give you an example: We just went by Palm Sunday, and if you look at Mark 11:8 it says in modern translations that people went and cut branches in the fields. That’s ridiculous, you go and cut branches off trees, and that’s what it says in the Greek. Our theologians and translators have literally subtracted trees from scripture.
There seems to be such hostility toward ideas like climate change or other environmental initiatives. What would you suggest more Christians advocate for?
We have to recognize, first of all, in the United States we have the oldest, biggest trees. Not every country has been blessed like we are and some countries have not been as kind to their forests as we may have been.
There is a link between poverty and trees. If you take the most deforested country in the Western hemisphere—Haiti—it also happens to be the poorest. If you take the second-most deforested country in the Western hemisphere—Honduras—it happens to be the second poorest. I think we need to help those around the world who cannot afford to plant trees, and we need to take care of our own trees.
When you write this much about the way God puts an emphasis on nature and trees, does it influence your own perspective on conservation?
I believe the world is facing a number of environmental challenges in my part of the country. I live in Kentucky; the ash trees are virtually all going to die here. The lodge pole pines in the west are under a lot of stress at the moment, too. All over the world trees need our advocacy.
The first thing God put us on the planet to do was take care of the trees, and I hope that one of the outcomes of this book is that we’ll ask how we do that in a responsible manner that glorifies God.
What is your favorite tree and what meaning does it hold to you?
Sugar maple, hands down. It’s as if God got together with a committee of kids and they designed the perfect tree. I’ve seen them in their best latitude—northern New England—and they grow to massive size. They give syrup, the leaves are perfect…there’s just nothing I don’t like about a sugar maple.
Jesse Carey is an editor at RELEVANT and a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.
This article originally appeared in Relevant Online.
About Reforesting Faith
The Bible talks about trees more than any living creation other than people. Perhaps you’ve missed the forest…and the trees.
In this groundbreaking walk through Scripture, former physician and carpenter Dr. Matthew Sleeth makes the convincing case why trees are essential to every Christian’s understanding of God.
Yet we’ve mostly missed how God has chosen to tell His story–and ours–through the lens of trees. There’s a tree on the first page of Genesis and the last page of Revelation. The Bible refers to its wisdom as a Tree of Life (Proverbs 3:18). Every major Biblical character has a tree associated with them. Jesus himself says he is the true vine (John 15:1). A tree was used to kill Jesus–and a tree is the only thing the Messiah ever harmed.
This is no accident. When we subtract trees from Scripture, we miss lessons of faith necessary for our growth.
This is the rare book that connects those who love the Creator with creation, and those who love creation with the Creator. It offers inspirational yet practical ways to express our love for God–and our neighbors–by planting spiritual trees and physical trees in the world.
Join Dr. Sleeth as he navigates the Bible’s trail of trees to explore the wonders of life, death, and rebirth. You’ll be amazed at how science is just beginning to catch up to the truths described in Scripture thousands of years ago. Once you discover the hidden language of trees, your walk through the woods–and through Scripture–will never be the same.
by Heather Bennett
Our natural world is an expression of creative genius. We have a responsibility to take care of the creative expression around us. And, I think, in doing so we’ll learn quite a bit more about the creator and ourselves.
When I was four years old, my mother’s car broke down about a mile from our home. She went inside a convenience store to call my dad (pre-cell phones) and returned with a brown bag (pre-plastic). While walking home, we picked up trash along the road. As we collected trash, I was so confused: Why was there trash in the beautiful trees? How did it get there?
As a child, I spent a lot of time outdoors. I climbed trees, ate honeysuckle, stomped through creeks and hid while yelling at the neighbor boys for shooting at birds. I knew from a very early age that land, water, plants and creatures were special. More than knowing it, I felt it. There was something magical about the creation around me.
Growing up in church and learning about God’s word was enjoyable, but also confusing at times. In church I learned that God made everything. So THAT’S why being outside felt so wonderful! But I still felt puzzled. We talked about loving creation, yet there was little being done to actually take care of God’s creation. My questions regarding that during Sunday school were not very popular, so I stopped asking.
Twenty years later I read a book called Serving God Saving the Planet by Dr. Matthew Sleeth. I almost cried reading it. One, I was so relieved. I’ve always loved the outdoors; I’ve always felt God while outside and would go outdoors to sort through problems and pray.
Second, I wanted to cry because for so many years I’d counted on the adults in my life to know more than me, but somehow they had forgotten God’s call to care for creation. So I began looking for answers myself in scripture.
Read the full article at Rethink Church.
Heather Bennett is the Executive Director of Blessed Earth Tennessee. Their mission is to inspire and equip Christians to become better stewards of the earth. Heather received her M.S. in Sustainability from Lipscomb University in 2014. She is married to Rev. Ryan Bennett, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Lebanon, TN, and they have an eight-year-old son.
This article originally appeared at rethinkchurch.org.
by Matthew Sleeth
We live in a culture of fear. In fact, fear is a hot commodity. It sells.
The folks who have the most to gain from fear just happen to be the ones who market it. This may be individuals, but often it’s the media.
Nancy and I don’t have television at home, but I have no control over TVs in public places. There is no escaping them. Whether I want to or not, I’m forced to watch the news in airports and restaurants. And of course there’s plenty of news online. The threat level is always orange or red. Every hour of every day we hear up-to-the-minute news of mass shootings, scandal, stolen identities, impending nuclear threats, and a world in turmoil.
Fear is not all bad. It keeps us from going too near the edge of the cliff. It can lead to an appropriate amount of caution. It lets us know when to act and when to flee.
But living in constant fear is crippling to the human spirit. Fear feeds on itself, and it’s always hungry for more. Fear makes us uncomfortable, and for the most part, people like to avoid uncomfortable stimuli.
For many, escape is the answer. We run to diversions, including entertainment, food, drugs, and alcohol. We escape our lives by living someone else’s in the popular world of reality TV.
There is also an economic link between escape and fear. Many of the entities that market fear are in the entertainment business. This is known as creating your own market and demand. Politicians market fear as well. Mussolini, Hitler, and tyrants throughout history have banked on fear for their own benefit. They create a climate of fear and then present the means of escape: themselves.
You don’t have to read far into the Bible to come across a society based on fear. The book of Exodus documents a Pharaoh’s paranoid imaginings about an uprising of slaves, a war that might happen, and a reaction that could occur. I’m sure that the media back then endlessly hashed and rehashed the possibilities. Coifed, attractive journalists interviewed the former commander of the Pharaoh’s chariots while maps overlaid with possible invading armies flashed on the screen.
The problem with a culture of fear is that people grow used to the fear; as a result, those who are in the fear business must continually up the ante. As the scripture says, “And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel.” (Ex 1:12 ESV)
So the Pharaoh upped the ante and said, “let’s kill the most helpless of all–the newborn babies.” Then one of the most beautiful things in the Bible takes place. Two courageous women dealt with fear in the way God wants all of us to. Their names were Beautiful and Splendid, or Shiprah and Puah in Hebrew.
How did these midwives act when confronted with a culture of fear? They lied to the Pharaoh to protect the babies. And you probably remember that “the Lord dealt well” with these two women. But what we may forget is how these women escaped the culture of fear. “But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.” (Ex. 1:17 ESV).
The key: they feared God. Satan wants us to fear everything on earth–except God.
In Matthew 10 we find a record of Jesus sending his disciples out on their first mission. They had been with the Master up until that point, and it must have felt overwhelming for them to step out on their own. Jesus instructed these followers to find a worthy house, give greetings, and let their peace descend on the home (Matthew 10:13).
The implication is that disciples should have a peace that others do not. How? We must fear God, and nothing else.
Jesus warned them–and us–that life will not be easy. There will be persecutions and accusations. There will be wars and rumors of wars. We cannot expect a stress-free life when we follow Jesus.
Our Lord went on to explain that we should not fear men. Others can destroy our body, but ultimately only God has the power of granting eternal life or death (Matthew 10:28). Our souls rest in God’s hands alone. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). When we fear the Lord, all other fears shrink in size and become much more manageable.
Fear God alone, and you’ll find yourself with the courage to take down giants. I promise. But more importantly, God promises. This is God’s Word. And we believe it.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
This 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
When was the last time you got paid $1,000 for doing the right thing?
This week, our son, Clark, and daughter-in-law, Valerie, learned that they will receive a $1,000 check from their local utility company. You heard me right: their electricity provider is paying them one grand for participating in an energy audit program and completing ten simple projects that will continue to save them money and energy for years to come.
Last August, I wrote about the baseline energy audit of Clark and Val’s 1920’s bungalow. For a token investment of $25 ($600-$700 value), they received an attic-to-basement energy inspection of their home, including a blower test with an infrared camera to identify places where the house was leaking air.
A few weeks after the audit, Clark and Val received a report with the auditor’s recommendations for energy savings. If they completed the recommended savings within three years, Clark and Val would qualify for up to $1,000 in incentives from the utility company. The auditor suggested that they start at the top (the attic) and work their way down. He estimated that all of the recommended fixes could be completed for two thousand dollars–or half of that if they did the work themselves.
Even though Clark is a medical resident (who can “only” work 80 hours per week!) and Val was starting her first year as a physician assistant, they did the work themselves and still finished in a year. Some of the projects took just a minute or two–like screwing in a low flow showerhead or plugging in the smart strip outlet that the auditor provided. Other projects were spread out over several months–like sealing the identified air leaks. The least pleasant job was installing plastic in the dirt crawl space under the front part of their house; the most expensive improvement was adding insulation to the attic ($700). All together, the projects cost $1,000 and took about 40 hours to complete.
Insulate water pipes
This week, Clark and Val scheduled a follow-up infrared air blower test, which revealed a whopping 30 percent reduction in air leaks. The auditor verified completion of the ten recommended improvements and awarded the highest rebate: $1,000.
Overall, Clark and Val reduced their electricity usage by one third–which is especially impressive, since their energy bills were significantly below average to start. Their electricity costs are now lower than ninety percent of similar homes in our area. Bonus: Statistics show that for every $1 reduction in their utility bill, the resale value of their home will increase $20. More importantly, these projects have given our children tangible opportunities to love Jesus and their neighbors by becoming better stewards of God’s creation.
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!
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.
One 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.
There is nothing as lovely as a road trip with someone you love. Just before Christmas, I went on a road trip with my son-in-law, Zach. We headed east to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley. Joel recently asked me to write the foreword to his upcoming book, and I wanted to see his farming methods first-hand.
Also, I was taking a young farmer just starting out to see another farmer who has become the world’s best-known spokesperson for sustainable agriculture. Smart is when you learn from your own mistakes; wise is when you learn from others. I was hoping to help Zach gain wisdom.
For those unfamiliar with where your food comes from, I highly recommend a fieldtrip to a farm. Many of us have a vision of farms gained from children’s board books and singing Old MacDonald. We envision a farmer tending a few pigs, chicken, cows, and sheep, with an oink, oink here and a cluck, cluck there. But what the typical farm has is soybeans here–period, or Black Angus there–period. Diversity is not the hallmark of the modern agricultural system: monoculture is.
The first thing that strikes the visitor to Joel’s farm is the diversity of the operation. There are cattle, sheep, chickens, rabbits, pigs, and people. Four generation of Salatins work and play along with numerous young people doing internships. Which brings me to the first rule of agriculture: a farm should be a place where people are welcome. It should be a place of community.
The Christmas story we recently celebrated reinforces this lesson. There may not have been room for Jesus upstairs in the crowded tourist town of Bethlehem, but the manger was a place of safety and warmth. In the typical Jewish house of the first century, the barn was the first floor of the home. It was a place of community. Which brings me to the second rule of agriculture: a well-run farm should not stink.
Joel took Zach and me all over Polyface. He walked with us through the fields and hoop houses. He took us to where hundreds of cattle were munching contentedly under cover, standing on thick beds of fodder. Nowhere did it smell. Animal stench is a sign of waste mismanagement and, too often, inhumane living conditions for the animals.
In my first creation care book, I wrote about being in a chicken house with 15,000 hens. I couldn’t wait to get out of it mainly because of the stench. More recently, I visited a feeding lot in the Midwest that could be smelled from a mile away. These confined feeding operations bear no resemblance to the barn in which I learned to milk cows as a youth, nor do they resemble Joel’s operation. They are inexcusable. Joel and other farmers like him have demonstrated that farming can be scaled up without becoming an olfactory–and, for the animals, living–hell.
Which brings me to the third rule of agriculture: don’t eat food that has ingredients with names you can’t pronounce. Because of the attention to hygiene at Joel’s farm, neither human nor livestock must be pumped full of antibiotics and chemicals.
The kind of farming my son-in-law and Joel do isn’t as cheap as factory farming. The food costs more than mass-produced agriculture. But I wonder what the real cost of our mass-produced food would be if we included the cost of treating the diseases correlated with chemical-laden diets?
If you need an incentive to spend a little more on food now and a lot less on medical treatments later, go on a road trip to two farms–one industrial and one like Joel’s. Then spend the money to support the one you’d want your Savior to have spent his first night in–the kind of farm where you would be proud to see your own son or daughter work.
Use this Lenten season as a time to grow closer to God and simplify your life. Try a new suggestion from this list each day and experience the stronger relationships and calmer pace of an (almost) Amish lifestyle!
1. Start a giveaway box and add at least three items of clothes you have not worn in the last year.
2. Is there a form of technology that is ruling you like a master rather than serving you like a tool? Unplug for 24 hours and rediscover the peace that passes all understanding.
3. Spend 5 minutes in nature where you can only see things that are God-made, not man-made.
4. Do you say grace when you consume energy (food) at the table? Next time you fill up your car with gas, say a prayer for Gods sustaining hand.
5. Go out of your way to support a local business.
6. Purchase seeds for a vegetable garden, patio garden, or indoor herb garden.
7. Go through your inbox and unsubscribe from group email lists. Youll have a lot less to sort through each day.
8. One day in seven, take a 24-hour day of holy rest.
9. Invite someone new into your home to share a homemade meal.
10. Bake a loaf of bread. Use a bread maker for the first rising, or simply allow artisan bread to rise slowly while you are at work.
11. Set aside ten percent for the Lord before you pay the other bills. Already tithing? Up it by one percent.
12. Before you make a major purchase, wait a month to see if you still need it.
13. Add unused sports equipment to your giveaway box.
14. Turn table scraps into nutrient-rich soil by starting a compost pile. Live in the city? Investigate a worm composter or solar cone.
16. Sign off from your Facebook and Twitter for the day. If you want to know what your friends are doing, call them and have a real conversation.
17. Avoid eating out at restaurants; donate the money you save to the local food bank.
18. Use your money to back up your beliefs. Talk to your financial advisor about socially responsible investments.
19. Pack a picnic and invite a family member or friend to dine outside with you so you can appreciate Gods creation together.
20. Take a walk and clean up trash along the way. Take someone with you so one of you can collect recyclables.
21. Plant a tree. Trees clean the air, provide shade, and beautify the landscape.
22. Visit your local farmers market and start buying your vegetables there. Youll support your local economy and reduces the number of miles your food travels from farm to plate.
23. Make an effort to reach out to a neighbor today. Wave, say hello, or invite your neighbor for a visit on the porch.
24. Brainstorm about friends in your life that might want to begin meeting and studying the Bible together.
25. Just like the Amish help each other build barns, help a neighbor weed their yard, sweep their stoop, or cut their grass. Or, visit a local non-profit to learn about volunteer opportunities there.
26. Switch out a few bulbs to super energy saving LEDs (now available in warm tone and dimmable).
27. Set up croquet or badminton in your yard. Walk to the park and swing. Invite your children to play a board game.
28. Start a book group or take your children to the library for story time.
29. Invite a child or teenager over and teach them how to bake, sew, or craft.
30. Hang your clothes on the line to dry. Youll save on electricity costs and your clothes will last longer.
31. Bring your own mug to your office or the coffee shop.
32. Organize your junk drawer or a kitchen cupboard.
33. Set your home office equipment to energy-saving modes.
34. Drink tap instead of bottled water.
35. Bike when running local errands.
36. Invite neighborhood children to color on the sidewalks with sidewalk chalk.
37. Write encouraging notes to family members and friends.
38. Think about how you can better support and connect with your spouse, child, or colleague. Brainstorm something small that you can do to make their day.
39. Bring your (overflowing) giveaway box to the Salvation Army, Goodwill, or local refugee ministry.
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40. Give thanks for the beauty of Gods creation and the gift of his Son.
Recent studies of the gospels have invited us to read the Nativity stories again. They challenge us to discover the real narrative enclosed in traditional wrapping. In the story, the holy couple were not actually in haste and rejected. Rather than bouncing around from “no vacancy” to “no vacancy”, they were warmly welcomed into a two-room home whose guest room (katalyma in Greek, the same word that is used for a room where the last supper took place) was already taken. In New Testament days, peasant houses had two rooms: one reserved for guests and the other that served as the shared family room, kitchen, dining room, and a sleeping quarter. At night time, in order to keep well-behaved livestock warm and safe, they brought them into a lowered corner of the main room (the phate). We can see this type of living situation reflected in 1 Kings 17.19, for example, where the traveling prophet Elijah stays in a designated guest room. What makes this point even stronger is that no honorable shepherd would ever have departed the manger scene rejoicing if a neonatal infant and his parents had just been cast out into a barn.
The nativity story is one of those instances where tradition conceals the sharp edge of the actual story. We love the theological idea that the residents of Bethlehem rejected a descendent of David and left them alone for their labor. But if we read the story afresh, one of the main points, hidden in plain view, comes into focus. The Savior of the world was born among animals and announced to those who had welcomed Jesus into their simple lives. Those who had found the ultimate favor of God dwelled in common modesty and sheltered a few of their animals in their katalyma every night. The Gospel, though intended for people from every class, and the precepts of the kingdom, though naming Jesus as the heir to David’s throne, are founded upon commoners, a simple lifestyle and the animals.
The Psalmist would have resonated with the sacredness of this lifestyle:
Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths, lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding, you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds, kings of the earth and all nations, you princes and all rulers on earth, young men and women, old men and children. Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his splendor is above the earth and the heavens (Ps. 148.7-13).
So during Christmas, as we rejoice in this manger-born Christ child, let us welcome the relevant beauty of God’s story afresh. God is coming. He sent his son to kick-start his oncoming rule. Though our lives are filled with temptations, sickness, and death, the heavenly power of divine love warms the cold places of our world. It began with his tender loving creation of heaven and earth and all who live in it. It continues with his delight in us, in the death-destined life of his son and in his ongoing work. He is forming the stony hearts of his people into soft and beating organs of his love on earth. Long ago, some peasants from the city of David showed great hospitality that night to God’s favored. The heavenly army of angels sent God’s birth announcement to the rough, disfigured, and stigmatized shepherds. By making room in their homes and schedules for this child and their parents, heaven broke in to their simple lives. What can we do this Christmas to simplify and welcome the Christ-child into our hearts and homes?
Keith Jagger first met the Sleeths when they were neighbors in Wilmore, Kentucky, and were brought together by their shared passion for creation care. After completing his studies at Asbury Seminary, Keith moved to Scotland to study with N.T. Wright. As Blessed Earth’s “Anglo Correspondent.” Keith writes both from the perspective a PhD student studying creation care and a husband/father/follower of Jesus struggling to incorporate creation care principles in his daily life. You can read more of his writing at keithjagger.com or urban-abbey.com.
Read part 1 of 7 (introduction) here. Read part 2 of 7 (A Lesson from the Earth) here. Read part 3 of 7 (We are so Connected) here. Read part 4 of 7 (The Cosmic Christ) here. Read part 5 of 7 (Jesus, Animals, and Isaiah) here.
Imagine the burning fires of the Terminator or the trash piles of Disneys Wall-E. Is this with the Bible has in mind? Like in the previous posts, I will highlight one verses real contribution as well as expose ways that the Bible has been misunderstood or over-used for godly green living. The last post made one point crucial for us if we are to understand the book of Revelation: Revelation is the end of the Jewish story. This means that when we read this final Chapter of the Christian Bible, we can expect from it a vision of the renewal of creation. Still, this doesnt mean that John, the author of Revelation, couldnt have said something new in his vision. After all, he claimed to have written down exactly what he saw in his apocalyptic vision. God was revealing something about the end that was never before heard and would carry lessons to us for godly living. In Revelation, we get some insight into godly green living. Even though apocalyptic books use crazy symbolism, like Jesus riding on a horse with a sword coming from his mouth, its point is essentially about how Christians should live in their day. The symbols are thick. We cant simply apply them to whatever problems we are encountering in our day. Gog and Magog are not Russia and China. They symbols should leave us with more questions than answers. The book brings up so many questions, such as: does it have a positive view towards the earth, and what are the implications? If it teaches us that we can hasten the end, does it suggest that we do so by saving one person from each unreached nation, or worse by helping along the future destruction of the world by increasing our exploitation of it today? If there is a new city Jerusalem, what about animals who live in the wild? Will they get to have their own domain outside the city walls? If night is destroyed, what will happen to nocturnal creatures like bats? Will they simply have to forfeit their portion of the day? What does Revelation mean for us who are beginning to realize that care for the earth is part of godly living? Among all the questions, we can focus our interest in green theology on the process of the getting to the end. Does Revelation have the renewal, replacement, transformation, or destruction of the world in mind? The answer will show us that Revelation has, what one scholar has called, eco-topia in mind rather than u-topia. That is, the new creation will be a living-place, rather than no-where. Moreover, we can hasten the day with godly living. The bulk of this comes from the end of the book of Revelation, and because it is so rich and full of detail, I have paraphrased a part of Revelation 21-22 for us: And I saw a new heaven and new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth went away, and the sea was there no longer. I saw the new holy city Jerusalem, coming down from heaven, from God. It was prepared as a bride, adorned for her Man. Then I started hearing a booming voice from the throne: Behold, it was saying, the dwelling of God is with humans. He dwells with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear away from their eyes. There will no longer be any death or mourning or crying or toiling, because the former things went away. Then the one sitting on the throne said, Behold, I am making all things new. He said: Write that these words are faithful and true. Then he spoke these words to me: I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To those who thirst, I will give freely from the spring of the water of life. The one who is victorious will inherit these things. I will be God to them. The men will be my sons, the women my daughters. However, for those who are cowardly, unfaithful and have been loathsome, who still have murder and immorality in their hearts, to sorcerers and idolaters, people who used the former earth for prideful things and who will try to use the new for the same, and to all who demand to remain liars. They will go to that lake enkindled by fire and sulfur, which is the second death. Then one of the seven angels came to me, one of those who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues. He spoke with me saying, I will show you the bride, the wife of the lamb. Then he carried me off in the spirit to the great and high mountain, and he showed me the holy city of Jerusalem, the one coming down from heaven from God. Are ready for what I saw? It has the glory of God about it. Its star is like a precious stone. It has a great high wall. It has twelve gates with twelve angels stationed by them, and the names of the twelve tribes of Israel are carved on them. There were three gates facing east. Three North. Three South, and three on the side where the sun sets. The wall of the city had twelve foundations and upon them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the lamb . Also, the city had neither need of the sun nor the moon to shine on it. The glory of God gave it light. Her guide-lamp was the lamb, and the gentiles walked around throughout the light. The kings of the earth brought their glory into it, and its gates were never shut by day for there is no night there. The glory and honor of the gentiles were brought into it, and nothing evil from the old will come into it. Neither will the one who made desolation and falseness. If they were not written in the book of the life of the lamb, they didnt come into the city. Then he showed me the river of the water of life; it was illustrious as ice. It flowed out from the throne of God and the lamb. It gushed through the middle of the street. On the rivers edgeson both sidesthe tree of life produced twelve fruits. It gave over its fruit, one kind for each month, and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the gentiles. There were no cursed things there. The throne of God and of the lamb will be among them, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. They will not have need of the light of lamps or the light of the sun. God will shine on them, and they will reign throughout eternity. Revelation 21.1-22.5. Three points keep us focused on this grandiose image: (1) How things will turn from where we are now to what is described as the New Jerusalem, (2) the nature of the city, and (3) the theme of interconnection. After I talk about these points, I will draw out some implications for godly living. According to Revelation, how do we get from here to the New Jerusalem? How will the new order come about? Will it be by renewal, replacement, transformation, or destruction of the world? Revelation talks about our heaven and earth passing away with the sea. Scholars do not all agree about what this means. Some stress the metaphorical nature of it all. They consider it imagery for the drastic change in political and social reality. Others admit that what we envision in the new is so unlike what we experience today that we might as well talk about a do-over, like in the great flood. One-author talks about transposition into eternity, while another talks about the earth being recycled. Transposition is a gentle process of changing keys but keeping the same melody. Recycling is a destruction of a current shape but using the same raw material to make a new shape. Another author points out that even if it is a transposition or a gentle change more like our current world today, it is something that can only be done by God in his power and his timing. We cant deny that Revelation talks about the earth and skies passing away. However, no matter if this present order is completely turned into ashes, Revelation implies that from them God will arise and purify the shapes of the old. This is why Revelation talks about the the glory of the gentiles coming in. What can we imagine to be the glory of the gentiles? We have our own top 7 wonders of the world and more: pyramids, standing stones, Rushmores, mathematics, literature, and musicjust to scratch the surface. Imagine these things being strangely preserved and purified. Yes, the Bible talks about the earth being destroyed and remade, but the psalmist knew what we should know now, Gods ways are not our ways, and even if we know that the house is going to be demolished tomorrow, the Bible still wants us to paint the bedroom today if it needs it. Because in some strange way that paint will matter tomorrow. This is the renewal that we expect the Jewish story to suggest, and renewal gives us a challenge for today. So also does the description of the New Jerusalem. This is a vision that doesnt answer all of our questions, but it is a vision of Genesis remade and a divine response to the evils of Babylon, the evils of Rome, and the evils of our empires today. It is a highly charged but beautiful symbol. The New Jerusalem is a wife and a city at the same time. It is an image of the people of God and yet a strangely concrete urban plan. In some sense it is a return to Eden, with the tree, the river, and the promise of no pain or death. It is earthy like Eden, but the sea and night are gone, and it is after all not just a gorgeous wood; it is a city where God dwells with his creatures. Immoral people and dogs are not allowed in, but the gates are open (Rev.21.25). Some scholars suggest that this means that there may be a wood beyond the gates, rather than a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Those who were cast into the lake of sulfur are living in another dimension, and the open gates suggest that the wild animals will have their own wild domain outside the New Jerusalem. Its hard to say. One thing is clear; the evils of Babylon are expelled. If we want to hasten this day, it will be through godly living. The sea is symbolic for Romes oppressive shipping operation, and night is that time before dawn where sin, destruction, and violence thrive. These things are taken away with fire. So what does Revelation imagine of fire? Fire frees the waters of oppressive systems. Fire purifies the night of violence. Furthermore, the New Jerusalem is made from the bounty of the earth (Rev. 21.15-21_ verse reference?). It is the joined unity of rural and urban life. There is no question that John takes great pleasure that the peoples of the wide earth now recognize YHWH as the living God who will heal them. The New Jerusalem is an earthy place that expels evil, leaves the gate open to the wild beyond, represents a huge green urban scene, and is somehow strangely representative of a people at the same time. What holds it all together? Interconnected relationship founded in God. This is the marriage of heaven and earth. This is a web of life remade from the materials of old in such a way that the glory of the old comes into the new. This is why godly living matters today. So what are the implications for green living today? The glories of the nations are brought in, and this means that however it is possible, the fires of the apocalypse wont destroy what can be purified. Our attempts for creation care may not be enough to construct the New Jerusalem. Our policies will often tempt us rather to build the tower of Babel. But what we do today matters and will endure. When we give away our love for something that matters to God, he transfers it into eternal currency. The creative building of godly culture and godly living matter. Who we are today and what we do matters in the end. Deep down, we inherently know that to get rid of this theology of the New Creation is to throw ourselves away. Our lives have been full of pain and strife. If we think that God will just destroy the old creation, then maybe our bad memories will get destroyed with it. We dont like the idea of restoration and renewal, because we dont want to have to remember our former pain. But John is clear: there will be leaves on the tree of life meant for healing. What else would need healing in the new creation other than our memories? If God would just destroy this place, I wont have to deal with my painful memories tomorrow. Revelation offers us a vision of renewal, and this means that we will have some healing to do when we get there. So plant a tree or save a human person. It matters. God wants us to do both, because both will be part of the new creation whether the New Jerusalem is a symbol or not. In conclusion, before I write the introduction to an imaginary novel about godly green living, two authors highlight the present but not yet reality of the New Creation most clearly. Harry O. Maier emphasizes that what we do today matters: Revelation tells us there is indeed a new world coming whenever there are those courageous enough to live and express the giveaway of the tree and water of life. And Richard Bauckham concludes so eloquently about the interconnected end that Revelation offers. We would do well to listen carefully, for it should guide the way we act today: The New Jerusalem is a garden city of a kind to which humans have often aspired, a place where human culture does not replace nature but lives in harmony and reciprocity with it. It represents the final reconciliation of culture and nature, of the human world and the other creatures of the earth. It lives from the vitality of the natural world without plundering and exhausting its resources. Resource Bundle: Horrell, David. Future Visions of Creation and Peace and Apocalyptic Visions of Cosmic Catastrophe. Chapters 8 & 9 in The Bible and the Environment: Towards a Critical Ecological Biblical Theology. London: Equinox, 2010. Maier, Harry O. Theres a New World Coming! Reading the Apocalypse in the Shadow of the Canadian Rockies. in ed. Norman Habel and Vicky Balabanski, The Earth Story in the New Testament. Vol. 5. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.
Keith Jagger first met the Sleeths when they were neighbors in Wilmore, Kentucky, and were brought together by their shared passion for creation care. After completing his studies at Asbury Seminary, Keith moved to Scotland to study with N.T. Wright. As Blessed Earth’s “Anglo Correspondent.” Keith writes both from the perspective a PhD student studying creation care and a husband/father/follower of Jesus struggling to incorporate creation care principles in his daily life. You can read more of his writing at keithjagger.com or urban-abbey.com.