ACU Summit speaker stresses importance of environmental stewardship

By Brian Bethel, The Abilene Reporter News

When he worked as an emergency medical doctor, J. Matthew Sleeth, executive director of Blessed Earth, wasn’t much of a

believer in matters spiritual or environmental.

Sleeth was at the height of his career living on the coast of Maine, “head of an ER, having a really great life doing work I loved and was really good at.”

But during a Christmastime vacation to an island in the Gulf of Mexico, his wife asked

him what he thought the biggest problem was in the world.

Out of hatred, terrorism, starvation, greed and economic ups and downs, he chose a single answer: “The world is dying.”

“Getting your head around the whole world dying is almost a God-sized problem,” said Sleeth during an afternoon special lecture at Abilene Christian University’s Summit, a Bible-based meeting that attracts participants from around the world.

Not an environmental scientist, he based his answer on simple observation, he said, from no caribou in Caribou, Maine, to no pike in the Great Lakes.

“If the world keeps growing, expanding and using things up at the rate it is, no one can suppose in 100 years it’s going to turn out OK — no one, no matter what your beliefs or politics or anything thinks it’s going to turn out OK if we just keep on like we’re doing right now,” he said.

His wife asked what he planned to do to change that. He said he didn’t know.

Sleeth began to wrestle with the concept of evil, he said, and at least from his perspective, it seemed evil came calling.

A mentally ill patient began to stalk him with the intent to kill him. His wife’s mother drowned in front of his

children. Other ills manifested, including things he saw in his daily work.

“Nothing in my humanist worldview gave me anything to deal with this, either personal evil or the kind of evil that lets the world die,” he said. “So I began to explore, looking for answers, and I read through a number of the sacred texts of the world.”

It wasn’t until he literally stole a Gideon Bible left in a patient lounge that his life began to change, radically.

He found a new faith, becoming a follower of Jesus. And he decided that his family needed to reduce its environmental footprint to become better stewards of creation.

Sleeth explained his new faith to his family, including his plans to “quit my job and work for free,” he said.

“We began to try to live a little more humbly,” he said.

Downsizing just about everything they could, including moving into a home the size of their old garage, the family also started going to church.

This was where Sleeth was first called a “tree-hugger.”

But trees feature prominently throughout the Bible, he said.

“Every Christian should be a tree-hugger,” he said.

In fact, the Bible mentions trees more than any other living thing, other than humans, Sleeth said.

Even after Christ’s resurrection, Mary Magdelene mistakes him for a gardener.

“That’s our job,” he said. “It never runs out.”

But “we forgot about this 100 years ago and started buying stuff,” he said.

Using the parable of the good Samaritan, Sleeth said it’s important for each of us to take the initiative to help save the environment, even if it’s inconvenient.

“The first thing we’re going to have to do if we’re going to be this Samaritan is get off our ass,” he said, making a joke in referring to the animal the Samaritan in the story was riding when he came across another man in need.

From turning lights off to choosing to shop with reusable bags to putting money that would have been spent on Christmas presents into environmental or activist work instead, there are many ways an individual can help, he said during a question-and-answer session.

Little things add up in both directions. The foil from every Hershey’s Kiss candy eaten in a single day, for example, would cover more than 133 square miles.

Although God gave man dominion over the earth, that doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t take care of it, Sleeth said.

“God makes nature to glorify him and to sustain him, and he made man to take care of nature,” he said.