His Good Work is Everywhere!

“There came to St. Anthony in the desert one of the educated men of that time and he said, “Father, how can you endure to live here, deprived as you are of all consolation from books?” Anthony answered, “My book, philosopher, is the nature of created things, and whenever I wish, I can read in it the works of God.”

It has been such a beautiful Spring! A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to photograph at one of the most beautiful farms in Bourbon County, located in central KY. I was permitted to get out in the pasture with some mares and foals. I just sat down in the middle of the field. There was one particular foal who was only two weeks old. Even though he was a little afraid of me, curiosity got overrode all of that and he could not stay away, allowing me to touch his soft nose.

Shortly after this brief encounter, Steve, the owner of the farm came out to visit them too.  I love the tenderness and care that he exhibited over this little guy.  It kind of reminded me of a scene where Adam named the animals.  Later, we talked about how this farm owner sees and appreciates God, the Creator, at work each day, while at work on the farm. The next time you are having a hard time sensing or connecting with God, just look around you. His good work is everywhere!

Jeff Rogers – With twenty years of nature photography experience as well as a lay pastor background, Jeff brings an appreciation for God’s creation as well as spiritual guidance. His wife, Melissa, an emergency room physician, shares his passion for serving God and preserving the beauty of nature.

And What Does God Require?

And what does God require regarding the domestic animal? Once again, the law codes of ancient Israel are full of instruction. God says in Deuteronomy: But the seventh day is a sabbath belonging to Yahweh your God; you shall not do any work, not you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your domesticated beasts … And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that Yahweh your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm, Therefore, Yahweh your God has commanded you to keep the day of the sabbath. (Deut 5:14-15) So right here in the ten commandments, because God has saved his people, his people are commanded to honor Him by allowing their livestock to rest. As is true today livestock were maintained in Israel exclusively to facilitate the well-being of humanity. In Israel sheep, goats, cattle, oxen, and donkeys served the populace with wool, milk, meat, and sweat respectively. And of course, a 24-7 work week for those animals would have seemed the most advantageous economically from a human perspective. But in contrast to that assumed reality, these creatures are allotted a place in the sabbath ordinance of God. An Israelite was forbidden to consume the life and energy of his beast without compassion and care. Deut 25:4 is another law which addresses this topic. Here the Israelite is commanded not to muzzle his ox while he drags the threshing sledge for his master. In the smallholder farms of the Central Hill Country, the cereal crop was absolutely crucial to the survival of the community. And the Iron Age farmer relied heavily upon the labor of his beast for the long and arduous task of threshing (extracting the precious grain from the stalks in which it grew). Once cleaned and stored, this grain would serve as the primary food staple for man and beast. And in this subsistence economy, every kilo counted. Baruch Rosen, an Israeli archaeologist of notable reputation, has done an arresting calculation of exactly how many calories were necessary to sustain the average Israelite village of 100 souls. Operating off of data culled from the known Iron I villages, Rosen estimates that the typical village would experience an annual shortfall of 15,000,000 calories a year.[1] Anticipating that the average family included five souls, this would mean an annual shortfall of sixty days of food for the family. Why is this significant? Because it means that the three to four kilos (5-7 lbs) of grain that an ox might consume over the course of a day of threshing made a difference. Yet God commands Israel to allow the beast who served them the opportunity to enjoy its life and work and to benefit from the fruit of its labors. In other words, even the ox was allowed to feast on harvest day. Note that in Israel’s case, allowing their beasts the opportunity to enjoy the benefit and joy of their own labor would necessarily cut into the farmer’s profits, and in many cases even their essential food supply. So now we are forced to ask, how might these deuteronomic laws reflect on current practices in America—specifically the billions of animals who serve us in America’s factory farms? Factory farming is the practice of raising middle school boarding schools North CarolinaJake Housecomes to Citizen middle school boarding schools with a proven track record in both the private sector and education. href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farm_animals”>livestock in confinement at high-stocking density, where the farm operates essentially as a factory whose end product is protein units. Confined animals burn fewer calories, their excrement is mass-managed (or mismanaged as many argue), and their fertility and gestation fully controlled. As regards America’s most lucrative agricultural product, pigs, confinement has been distilled into an exact science: twenty 230 lb animals per 7.5 foot-square pen, housed upon metal-grated flooring, in climate controlled conditions, who are never actually exposed to the light of day. These animals are sustained in such crowded and filthy conditions that movement is difficult, natural behaviors impossible, and antibiotics are essential to the control of infection. Sows (typically a 500 lb creature) are separately housed, living out their lives in 7-foot by 22-inch metal gestation crates from which they are never released, even in the process of giving birth. They are artificially inseminated to deliver an average of eight litters, litters inflated beyond their natural carrying capacity by fertility drugs. A staple of their diet is the rendered remains of their deceased pen-mates. Surely if God is offended by boiling a kid in its mother’s milk (Deut 14:21), we should be concerned that dead sows are routinely ground up and fed to their offspring.[2] Reading of the standard treatment that these animals endure, one cannot help but think of Ezekiel’s outcry against the shepherds of Israel in Ezek 34:3-4: “You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, those with fractures you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them.” But as the “New Agriculture” reports, all of these innovations make these production units (i.e. animate creatures) easier to manage, maintain, medicate and slaughter. And the rapidly escalating market for meat for human consumption, in the third world in particular, is voiced as the rationale for mass-confinement animal husbandry. As Matthew Scully painfully illustrates in his 2002 exposé of the industry, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy,in our country, the abuses to which domesticated animals are routinely subjected are nearly too horrific to report. This forces my heart to ask, is this what Yahweh intended for the creatures he entrusted to humanity’s care?

[1] Images of factory farming for beef, pork, and poultry may be found at http://www.farmsanctuary.org/

[2] “Subsistence Economy,” 348-49; cf. Rosen’s more detailed presentation of the same data in ; “Subsistence Economy of Stratum II,” Izbet S?artah: An Early Iron Age Site near Rosh Ha’ayin, 156-85); David C. Hopkins, “Life on the Land.”

Sandra Richter is Professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary and Affiliate Professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Harvard University’s Near Eastern Language and Civilizations department. She is a popular speaker and has published on an array of topics. Her most recent book is The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament (InterVarsity Press, 2008).


Blessing the Animals as They Bless Us

Living in central Texas these days means heat, drought, and wildfires. The last month was particularly devastating as fires ravaged areas around Austin where we have lived years. As a person deeply involved in dog rescue, considering the plight of pets in homes threatened by wildfires is agonizing. Sometimes the fires come so quickly there is no opportunity to get back home; roads are blocked before you can make it back to save your pets from what could end up being an inferno. Images of cats with singed ears and whiskers, of dogs with burned paws and tails, and of wildlife running or flying or crawling as quickly as they could to escape the coming flames are embedded in my mind – and they covered the media reports. The wildfires reminded me yet again that animals share with us the joys and the tragedies of life and death. As the book of Genesis states clearly, animals are filled with the breath of life and God proclaims that they are indeed good! Throughout the Bible, God declares joy in relationship with animals; I think particularly of passages in Job where God praises the strength of the horse and tends to animals in labor. Yet, too often these powerful relationships with other animals are dismissed or marginalized. Still, I am hopeful that we humans are reconsidering other animals now and including them more directly in our circles of compassion and love. Why? What’s going on? First, in times of disaster animals are taken into account. Following the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, a plan must be in place for companion animals to evacuate during a natural disaster in the U.S. Now shelters open with a place for pets to find safety until they can return home. Second, serious studies indicate how significant it is to human well-being to have animals in our midst. From dogs who work with children in amazingly successful literacy programs to horses who partner in physical therapy for individuals with challenges to cats who offer companionship to Alzheimer’s patients, the myriad ways companion animals enrich the lives of humans are countless. In October, congregations have an opportunity to bless animals. The Feast of St. Francis, the patron saint of ecology, is October 4. This day has been adopted by many Christian communities as the time to ask for God’s blessing on animals – from pets to farm animals to wildlife. It can be a celebration of the many ways they enrich our lives. But I suggest such a blessing should also be a confession of sin and a request for forgiveness. Humans have so often ignored (at best) and horribly abused (at worst) the other creatures in our midst. Blessing, confession, and forgiveness must lead to transformation of relationships–to embracing the others in our midst. This is as true for animals as it is for other humans. So in communal and individual ways, reach out and bless those life-giving and life-affirming animals who bring such joy to our lives. You will receive countless blessings in return.

Laura Hobgood-Oster is Professor of Religion and Environmental Studies and holds the Paden Chair in Religion at Southwestern University. Featured in the documentary Eating Mercifully, produced by the Humane Society of the United States, and frequently interviewed by national print and broadcast media, she is the author of The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals and Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition and executive editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. She lives in Georgetown, Texas.

What does God require? Part 4: Creatures of the land

How does God view the survival and prosperity of the wild creature? Throughout the Bible, we read that even in a fallen world, God rejoices in the beauty and balance of his creation. We also read that God has designed the created order so that his wild creatures will have the food, water, and habitat they need to survive and prosper. It is Yahweh who “sent out the wild donkey free” and “gave to him the wilderness for a home” (Job 39:5-6). It is by his command that the eagle nests in the high country (Job 39:26-27). In the flood narrative, although God judges the world because of its corruption, he rescues animal kind along with humankind, and his recreational covenant is with “every living creature … the birds, the domestic animals, and every wild creature of the earth” (Gen 9:10-11). In the elegant verse of Psalm 104 the beauty and dignity of the wild animal and its habitat is celebrated.

He is the one who sends forth the springs into the ravines; between the mountains they flow; giving drink to each of his wild creatures. (Ps 104:10-11)

In the Whirlwind Speeches of the Book of Job the Creator queries: Do you know the time the mountain goats give birth? Have you watched the calving of the deer? As any environmentalist would say, the single greatest cause of the extinction of animal species is the reckless destruction of their habitat—and in America we are presently devouring nearly 2 million acres a year for the noble quest of urban sprawl, and experiencing a related species extinction rate of as much as 1,000 times the historical loss ratio—the fact that the wild animals’ habitat was designed and given to them by God should give us pause. In the law code of Deuteronomy, God offers specific commands to Israel regarding the care of the wild creature. I find this quite interesting as we can safely assume that in the early stages of Israel’s urbanization (i.e. the era of Deuteronomy), the impact of human development did not present a serious threat to the Levantine ecosystem. Yet in the political foundations of Israel, Yahweh promulgates law that requires the long-term protection of the creatures who share the Promised Land with his people. Regarding wild animals, Deut 22:6-7 offers us the following: If you happen upon a bird’s nest in front of you in the road, or in a tree, or upon the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother sitting upon the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother (who is sitting) upon the young. Rather, you will surely shoo the mother away, and the young you may take for yourself, in order that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days. Here we find the utilization of a pars pro toto and analogia: a vehicle of Wisdom literature that formulates a more abstract point by way of a practical example. The abstract point is very similar to that of Deut 20:19-20—the sparing of the fruit trees during siege warfare that we discussed last month. The common idea between these texts? The preservation of the means of life. In other words, to take both tree and fruit, mother and offspring, would result in the extermination of a particular species in a particular place. Of special interest is the fact that the phrase “mother with her children” often appears in warfare contexts as an expression for wanton killing. Hence, several have hypothesized that the language here in Deut 22:607 is intended to communicate the same within the arena of hunting and gathering—the ruthless, total and cruel extermination of creature life. My research has also indicated that seizing the mother bird with her young may have been an aspect of the iconography of royal prowess in Assyria (the Borg-like empire responsible for decimating orchards and vineyards as we discussed last month). In one of the famous stone wall reliefs of Assyrian king, Aššur-bani-pal, in which the king’s return from the hunt is celebrated, this practice of seizing a bird with her eggs is depicted alongside the notorious royal slaughter of wild lions (see our cover image). [1] But in Deuteronomy Israel is commanded to be different. In contrast to practice of their neighbors, Israel is instructed in the wisdom of preserving the creatures with whom they share the promised land. Moreover, as this command is part of Israel’s foundational political documents, and is issued as coming from God himself, we learn here that the wild creature is indeed privileged with protection under God’s government. As I’ve stated previously, there is a critical ideological principal here: God has offered the wild creature (indeed all of the created order) to humanity to be utilized for human need, but not to be exploited for human greed. Scripture attests that God does indeed value his wild creatures as well as their habitats. It also clearly communicates that humanity will be held responsible as God’s steward of the same. Indeed, Deuteronomy states that if Israel were to kill off the wild creatures without a thought as to the creatures’ ability to replenish their populations, it would not “be well” with Israel in the land. I believe the same would apply to us.

[1] Here men are pictured carrying back dead lions, a hare, a bird and bird’s nests. This panel is part of the larger Lion Hunt Relief exhibit at the British Museum in which dozens of royal hunt scenes are depicted. These reliefs are well known for their graphic celebration of the slaughter of wild creatures as an illustration of royal prowess (Photograph of the original relief displayed in Gallery 10 of the British Museum [BM 124889]. Photo © Lawson G. Stone, used by permission; cf. C. J. Gadd, The Assyrian Sculptures [The British Museum; London: Harrison & Sons, 1934], pp. 72-73).

Sandra Richter is Professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary and Affiliate Professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Harvard University’s Near Eastern Language and Civilizations department. She is a popular speaker and has published on an array of topics. Her most recent book is The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament (InterVarsity Press, 2008).

Chickens and Discipleship

Next door to our home, the urban farm is alive with bees hovering, fruit trees growing strong, blackberries creeping up fence-posts, and watermelons expanding like balloons among the bright marigolds. While these are all beautiful to behold, we have new favorite subjects inhabiting this tenth of an acre lot. Two weeks ago nine 12-week-old chickens were delivered: four bold Barred Rocks and five regal Araucanas. These delightful birds are quickly making themselves at home in their new coop, and we eagerly anticipate them providing us with some hyper-local eggs in due course. While we are excited about enjoying the edible bounty of our urban farm (honey, fruit, vegetables, and eggs), we are also mindful that caring for the land and its creatures works to form us into certain kinds of people. The true fruit arrives as our lives are transformed. We become students of these marvelous birds-–their likes and dislikes, their rest and their play–and in turn we become better disciples of our Creator God. The writer of Proverbs esteems wisdom as the highest goal for humans and in this regard, draws our attention to creation (creature!) care: “The wise know the needs of their animals” (Proverbs 12:10). Job points out that animals direct our attention to the Creator. He argues against the apparent wisdom of his friends and for the genius of the “animals, plants, and fish” who, “teach, tell, and declare” the truth about God’s ways (Job 12:7-10). Last, but certainly not least, Jesus likens his own love and self-sacrifice to that of a mother hen (Luke 13:34). As we steward these chickens and other creatures in our care we discover an ironic truth. We can only reach our full, God-defined humanity as we humbly give our concern and attention to the other creatures God has made. All the theory in the world will not make us Christ like. If we are to truly be sons and daughters of the most-high God, we will need to get our hands dirty and become humble stewards of God’s loving handiwork. So, we watch our new neighbors in the chicken run. We watch carefully for the brave ones, the skittish ones, and the ones that are first to race toward a fresh bucket of kitchen scraps. We watch with the expectation that we will discover more about the character and love of our Creator God and that we will be transformed into the true humanity Jesus modeled for us.

Geoff Maddock makes his home with his wife, Sherry and 8-year-old son, Isaac in downtown Lexington, KY. He is a missionary in his neighborhood and serves on the board of Seedleaf (www.seedleaf.org ) while also working part-time for Blessed Earth.

Hospitality: God, Humans and Animals

I recently read an excellent book by Professor Laura Hobgood-Oster called The Friends We Keep, in which she challenges believers to examine our relationship with animals through a deliberately Christian lens. By addressing such issues as their role as food, pets, endangered species, and in sport, she reminds us of the many varied ways that animals are tied into our human experience. However, more than simply recalling our interconnected relationship she provides ample support for a Christian ethic of compassion and care for all God’s creatures. This call to compassion delves into scripture, Christian tradition, and contemporary issues to support Hobgood-Oster’s claim that Christianity is not only good news for humans, but for animals too.

I was particularly impacted by her discussion of Christian hospitality and it’s possible implications for human-animal interactions. Remarking that Christianity is essentially a “religion of hospitality,” Hobgood-Oster approaches the topic by first addressing the issue of ownership.

I suspect most of us will immediately think of ourselves as the hosts rather than the guests; the host is the one in control of the situation. Yet the earth does not belong to human beings. It is not a home that we own. Even the most traditional of Christian interpretations of life acknowledges that the creation belongs to the Creator, not to humans. It is God who offers hospitality, even to humans. (114-115)

This humbling reminder of God’s ownership compels us to reconsider our role in the host/guest relationship. Since the earth actually belongs to God (Psalm 24:1), since He created the animals and called them good (Gen 1:20-25), and since we are actually the guests here (1 Peter 1:17), we have no choice but to honor the Owner by mirroring his hospitality toward all other guests—be they human or otherwise.

Biblical hospitality, unlike our modern (or rather, “western”) conception of the term, focuses on providing for the needs “of the least of these.” As Hobgood-Oster notes, while hospitality was horoscope taurus today you’ll agree with such statement, that Alaska Airlines can truly be called one of the largest carriers of the west coast of the United States, used to serve 12 millions passengers per year. always central to ancient Mediterranean society, Jesus radically expanded the traditional notion of hospitality by eliminating the expectation of reciprocity (119). Biblical hospitality is selfless, generous, proactive, and does not expect anything in return.

While the main thrust of Christian hospitality ought, quite naturally, be directed toward humans, there is good Biblical support for the case that hospitality can, and perhaps should, be directed toward animals as well (see Gen 24:15-20, Psalm 104 and Matt. 6:26). If the practice of Christian virtue is spiritually beneficial and inherently God-honoring, then why shouldn’t we practice hospitality in every way possible, including toward animals?

The Friends We Keep is filled with examples of such hospitality. From adopting abandoned pets, to informing ourselves about what and how we eat, to standing up for endangered wildlife, there are many ways that we can begin acting out our faith by showing hospitality toward God’s creatures.

In his classic work, Pollution and Death of Man, Francis Schaeffer notes that while we are different from animals in that we alone were created in the image of God, we are also the same as animals in that we were likewise created. Showing hospitality toward animals reflects God’s image in us because (despite being FAR above us) He first demonstrated hospitality through his love toward us. We have the opportunity to mirror this love (on a much smaller scale, to be sure) by demonstrating compassion toward our fellow created beings.

Brian serves as the Director of Communications for Blessed Earth and is passionate about helping people connect their faith with God”s call to care for his creation. He lives with his wife, Becky, and daughters, Acadia (“Cadie”) and Galilee (“Lilee”, in western New York where he also serves as the Director of Intercultural Student Programs at Houghton College.