Archives For September 2014

Six mornings out of seven I wake up early to read the Bible, pray, meditate, and write. A friend recommended the Zondervan Today’s New International Version Study Bible, and I’ve been pleased with its abundance of resources that help me understand the context and meaning of books, chapters, and verses. It even has headings for each chapter and subheadings within chapters for quick orientation.

Recently I came upon a heading that made me do a double take.

It was the chapter heading for Genesis 9. It reads “God’s Covenant with Noah.” It was undoubtedly written by a scholar with far more theological education than I and was then reviewed by other scholars as well. Nevertheless, that heading misrepresents the clear articulation in the chapter of whom the covenant is with.

In the actual covenant section of the chapter (verses 8 to 17), we read as follows:

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you–the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”

As a parent of three children that sounds to me like a parent doing what it takes to make sure a child gets something really important. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

What’s clearly important in this part of the story are two things: (1) the promise not to destroy all life by water again and (2) that those bound together by the covenant are God, Noah (and his descendants), and all of life on earth.

The Entry of the Animals into Noah's Ark

The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark (Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1613) 
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Yet, the heading reads “God’s covenant with Noah.”

The heading’s incompleteness is a painfully perfect illustration of the blind spot Christians have had as they’ve read the Bible for centuries. We’ve consistently overlooked and ignored clear references to God’s concern for all of life.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is no ambiguity in the Bible about how God’s earth is portrayed or, for that matter, about a number of other subjects. Nevertheless, I believe we see a relationship between God and all of life in the Bible that is compelling and real.

In the Genesis story, God sees all that he has made (including humans) and says it is all very good.

In Psalms 50:11 we read, “I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine.” How intimate that connection is.

In Job, God points to the living world as a testament to his majesty, ineffable mystery, and power.

In Romans 8:22 we read that all of Creation is groaning.

In Revelations we read that “every creature in heaven and earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them” are singing and praising God and the Lamb.

I struggle here with whether I should dwell with anger and frustration on how Christians have ignored the thread of the significance to God of all Creation or whether I should dwell on how right and energizing it is to me that that there is this thread. Do I see the glass half full or half empty?

I’m going to take a different glass.

The reality is that, yes, Christians have missed the boat on many of the core messages of the Bible that stare us right in the face. We’ve had many holes in our gospel. Our faiths and lives have been lacking wholeness throughout history. We are all fallen beings and that has impacted the faiths and lives of Christians for over two millennia.

We’ve hated our enemies. We’ve hated our neighbors. We’ve hated other Christians because they believed different things. Christian nation has warred against Christian nation with utter ferocity. We’ve discriminated. We’ve allowed our countries and our economies to be our masters when God’s will contradicts what those masters call us to do. We’ve read verses in the Bible that are very clear and ignored them.

Yet, that doesn’t change what God’s wishes and intentions are. And over time, in sometimes halting ways, there has been progress around the world in some areas towards a more just and righteous world. The end of slavery and segregation are examples.

It’s time for this to happen much more fully with all of God’s life on this earth. It’s time to remember the complete covenant relationship marked by the rainbow.

This will not be easy. One of the reasons we’ve ignored Creation is that we must use it to survive, and for most of human history, survival has been a hard thing to do. It’s a radically challenging idea to think that how we interact with Creation (which we do continuously) must be given ethical scrutiny, that God’s earth is part of our ethical universe. And we find it so easy to be drunk on our own power and creativity as we shape God’s earth for our purposes.

In fact, in the glory of our astounding capacity today to reshape the world to our purposes, we are tempted to make ourselves the measure of all things. We want to be gods. We love being gods.

Having a faith that is truly centered on God and has concern for all of Creation would compel us to rethink much of our lives and our economies. It would cause us to be radically humble and accepting of limits on what we do for the good of all life on earth.

We don’t want to go there.

We need to go there with God’s help and grace.

Mourning Elephants

Nathan Aaberg —  September 20, 2014 — Leave a comment

I hope you have heard the story of the mourning elephants. In brief, two different herds of elephants traveled many hours across the Zululand brush in South Africa to stand vigil outside the home of Lawrence Anthony who had passed away on March 2, 2012.

Anthony had saved many of these elephants. He had accepted many of them as his charges at the Thula Thula game reserve he had created when other reserves no longer wanted them and were ready to shoot them because of their rogue behavior.  He had helped, through love and patience and the offering of a place of sanctuary, to restore their spirits to the point he had become known as the “elephant whisperer.” (There is a book of the same name by Anthony that is well worth reading. You can also read his obituary in the New York Times and a post at

Reports say that both herds appeared at the family compound not long after Anthony passed away. Dylan, Anthony’s son, said of the elephants, “They had not visited the house for a year and a half and it must have taken them about 12 hours to make the journey. The first herd arrived on Sunday and the second herd, a day later. They hung around for about two days before making their way back into the bush.”

Elephant herd traveling to Anthony family’s compound after Lawrence Anthony died (photo credit: Anthony Family)

In a short post, I cannot do justice to the full story of Anthony’s life and his work with the elephants.   In addition to his work with the elephants, for example, he also helped rescue and protect animals in the Baghdad zoo in 2003 at great personal risk. There is one storyline from The Elephant Whisperer book, however, that stands out.

The first herd of elephants he accepted from another reserve was led by its matriarch Nana. She was enraged and determined to leave Thula Thula and take her herd with her as she had been repeatedly doing at the previous reserve. At one point, Nan and her herd actually did break out after destroying the generator that electrified the enclosure fence with 8,000 volts. Anthony was able to round the herd up and return the elephants to safety in Thula Thula just before locals and wildlife authorities arrived with rifles to kill them.

Anthony saw that, despite the experience, Nana was ready to escape again no matter what the consequences. This was when Anthony did another remarkable thing. As his book describes it:

“Then, in a flash, came the answer. I would live with the herd. To save their lives, I would stay with them, feed them, talk to them. But, most importantly, be with them day and night. We all had to get to know each other.”

It didn’t always go easily. There are frightening encounters. At one point, in the dark of an early morning when the herd seemed ready to break out, Anthony stood between Nana and the fence, placing himself in grave danger to appeal to Nana to not leave when it was entirely in her power to do so. He was ready to sacrifice his life to make the attempt to save her and the herd. He implored Nana not to go, saying: “You will all die if you go. Stay here. I will be here with you and it’s a good place.”

Anthony described what happened then:

“Then something happened between Nana and me, some tiny spark of recognition, flaring for the briefest of moments. Then it was gone. Nana turned and melted into the bush. The rest of the herd followed.”

Things got better. Other places began to send their rogue elephants to Anthony as well.

At the end of Anthony’s life, those elephants and their families returned to the compound without the benefit of reading an obituary or receiving an email. They somehow knew. They mourned him as they are known to mourn their own.

There is much to ponder about this story.

It reminds us of what Christians and people of many other faiths know – this world is not simply a world of material things interacting on a material level. There is a spiritual dimension to this world.

Even more fundamentally, this story reminds us that humans are not unique in our capacity to love, suffer, and share in some way the spiritual dimension of the world.

We spend far too much time looking for ways to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the life of God’s earth. We live in a universe that is somehow sustained by God and that sings to God and that has its own direct relationship with God. It is, in short, a universe that is loved by God. Let us glory in being part of that universe.

We should be grateful, too, for Lawrence Anthony’s example of the special role we are called to play in the world with our unique capacities.

For far too long, Christians have used the idea of “dominion” to justify a cruel and violent rule over God’s earth. What we have not realized is that the self-centered dominion seen in human history is not God’s idea of the role.  The dominion we should model ourselves after is the dominion God has over us. This is seen in its purest essence in Jesus.

Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11 NIV).

Jesus exemplifies what God meant by dominion. Before humans disgraced what dominion meant, it meant a loving authority and concern for one’s charges to the point of self-sacrifice. Like that of a loving parent. Like that of a loving shepherd.

So remember the elephants. Remember that elephants mourn. Remember that the daunting yet rewarding work of caring for God’s earth is part of the abundant life that God offers us.

©2010 Gospel Gifs

©2010 Gospel Gifs

It began with a breakfast with one of the pastors of a church that I’m considering having our family attend.

It was a warm, wide-ranging, honest conversation. There was much that he said about his church and how he said it that appealed to me. I eventually mentioned my convictions related to Christianity and God’s world. To my relief, the pastor didn’t disagree with me but said several interesting things.   One was that his wife had long desired for her faith life to include God’s earth and that she had had profound spiritual experiences with youth and other believers in the outdoors.

This sounds even more promising, I thought.

The next was not so promising. There had been a person at the church who had been very focused on the same things I am. Because he had been zealous and militant about them, however, the congregation had been turned off by him and by his message. Out of zeal and intolerance, he shut down any effort by the congregation’s members to enter into an open conversation about the topic and to explore all of its implications. Even the pastor’s wife, who would otherwise been energized by the idea of adding this dimensions to the church’s life, ended up being scarred and turned off by the experience.

By this story I believe the pastor was being as open and honest as he could be about what the congregation’s posture was toward the whole range of topics related to how we live in God’s world. I should not, in other words, expect great excitement or interest. Instead I should tread carefully on the topic as it would have some painful memories and emotions associated with it.

I must say that, to his credit, he did not dissuade me from my convictions nor did he suggest that the church would reject any dialog on the topic.

And this is where writing this piece becomes more difficult.

The obvious conclusion is that this is a cautionary tale about the damage to a church family by a believer who comes on too strong and with too much judgmental fervor on any particular topic. A person shouldn’t join a church in order to change it. The church’s traditions and approach to the faith should be honored and respected. And one’s sensitivity to one element of the Christian faith and Christian community life should not be expected to become the primary focus of a church one joins.

Zealotry is antithetical to being a contributing member of a faith community.

But where does a strong commitment to a whole conception of God and the life God wants us to live end and zealotry begin? What are we to do when we are convinced that the integrity and witness of the faith are compromised by how the church is treating (or ignoring) a particular issue?

Let’s consider an extreme example. If you were looking for a church to join in the South in the early 1800s, would you only be looking for a church with the right beliefs and with a warm, friendly congregation? Or would you also be considering what was believed at that church about the compatibility of slavery with God’s purposes? Would you pay attention to whether the church did or did not warmly welcome African Americans to participate as well?

The fruit that a church bears out of its beliefs and convictions says a great deal about those beliefs and convictions.

In the end, I realize that I’m torn between the desire to find a church home for my family and my desire to find a church where a consideration of God’s world is part of its spiritual and cultural fiber.

So does that conviction make me a zealot?

Zealots tend to be oblivious to how intense and disruptive their narrowly focused convictions are. They are not forgiving. They are not practical. They don’t see the whole set of values that need to be brought to bear on any situation.

And Jesus clearly did not make concern for Creation a litmus test on whether a person was worth loving and being with. Jesus did not even explicitly preach that concern for Creation was a fundamental element of following Him. You’d be hard pressed to find many churches throughout history that have given concern for God’s creation much standing.

In the end, however, I don’t think I’m a zealot. I do question myself. I respect the fact that there are many virtues and priorities that guide the Christian life and that we, as individuals and churches, must try to find paths that get everything as right as possible which is a difficult task. I don’t expect any church, all of which are composed of imperfect people like me, to get everything just right for my tastes or even to be in full accord with all that God expects. I am open to discussions about my convictions.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that a whole Christian faith includes concern and consideration for God’s world.

So what do I practically do in terms of finding a church? Here are the choices I see:

1.  Keep looking until I find a church where there is a consideration of Creation and where key elements of the faith are also taught.

2.  Look for a good, welcoming church that fits our family and focuses on other key elements of the Christian faith.  If it is considerate of Creation in even small ways, that’s a bonus.  If it doesn’t, I should just accept the community as it is while being ready to encourage the church (to the degree it’s willing), to gradually integrate its faith life with compassion for God’s earth over time.

3.  Team with others to start a new church or ministry which believes, among many core things, that its members should bear good fruit in their lives from their faith and that the good fruit should include kindness and mercy toward God’s world.

The first option, I fear, would essentially mean that my family would not be going to church or would have to travel very far each Sunday. I’ve visited the websites for many of the churches in the area over the past five years and it’s nearly impossible to find a church where Creation is even on the radar screen in terms of how the church defines its beliefs and what matters.

The second option is probably the most realistic in terms of finding a church fairly soon and in fairly close proximity to home. I’m sensitive to the fact that if everyone expected to find a church that was perfect and that lined up exactly with each person’s finest nuance of beliefs and principles we’d end up with millions of one-person churches. Some effort must be made to focus on the essentials of what a Christian church should be. One of those essential points is worshipping God with joy and awe and gratitude for God’s grace through Jesus Christ.

The reality is that all of the weight of centuries of unconcern for Creation expresses itself in the theology and messages and culture of today’s churches. And what’s more, the culture of our civilization exerts a strong gravitational pull upon our churches. That culture assumes that nature is strictly there for our purposes and must essentially accommodate itself to us. That dominant culture deems it subversive that people (much less communities and governments) would voluntarily moderate their desires and their convenience to allow God’s earth to flourish. In light of those factors, the odds of finding a church with a whole faith are very, very small.

The best that can be hoped for is to help move a church incrementally towards a concern for Creation in ways that make sense to the church community. The zealot can, as the pastor’s story revealed, do more damage than good to the church and to the righteousness that she wants to inspire others to pursue.

The problem I have with the second option is this: after more than a decade of meditation and learning and prayer I cannot escape my conviction that a whole faith inspires a conversion of our spirit into compassion and hunger for what is right in every aspect of our lives.  Not showing compassion and not trying to doing what is right and just for God’s Creation actually impairs and taints the rest of all that we try to do.

Life is short. Time is short. Time is against the natural systems of God’s earth in the face of what humanity is doing. People are being harmed by what is done to God’s earth. Living creatures are being cruelly harmed and destroyed on an epic scale by what is being done to God’s earth. We are dishonoring God by failing to be the shepherd-like stewards of what God has entrusted to us.

So that leads me, reluctantly, to look hard at the third option.

A radical option. It also sounds challenging on a multitude of levels. Could a church or ministry like that be created without losing other essentials of the faith along the way? And what would my children’s experience be? Would I be in any way competent to do so? Could I handle the criticism that would come our way? Would anyone actually show up???

I need to wrestle more with this. I feel untethered, unrooted, and hungry for community with other followers of God. But I see the world in a different way and am unwilling to go along to get along. Perhaps this is how the prophets felt? On the other hand, perhaps there are more nuanced options and opportunities I haven’t considered?

I know I must decide and move forward. I’ll share the journey here with you and welcome your wisdom.


For at least 15 years and probably longer, I have been trying to reconcile the loving heart a Christian faith calls us to have with the violent treatment of God’s world by our civilization and with the complicity or unconcern of many Christians. I have become convinced that the Christianity we often see and experience is neither a whole Christian faith nor the whole Christian life God desires.

And I can’t be quiet about that any more. I can’t accept that any more. So I begin this blog.

So what does a whole Christian faith look like?

The movie Amazing Grace, which dramatizes William Wilberforce’s work to abolish the slave trade in England, begins with an incident based on a true event in Wilberforce’s life. In the opening scene, Wilberforce and a friend are traveling in a carriage in a driving rain. Wilberforce is exhausted and sick from years of efforts in British Parliament that had been fruitless to that point. They hear terrible sounds outside. A horse is being whipped mercilessly by two men. The horse struggles¸ suffers. The men whip harder. Despite his friend’s entreaties and despite his ill health, Wilberforce gets out of the carriage and stops the abuse.

Would you and I?

We should.


William Wilberforce

Like Wilberforce, we should feel compelled by our Christian faith to open the doors of our carriages and do our part to stop that violence and move our world towards the Biblical vision of the peaceful kingdom. Like Wilberforce, our whole Christian faith and life should include compassion and mercy for the whole world and an active commitment to stop cruelty and violence to the whole world.

My hope, desire, and prayer are that more Christians will come to a whole faith that includes a concern for the world around us. My hope, desire, and prayer are that this concern and compassion will translate into ways of living that bring life and goodness to the world rather than violence and diminishment.

And as I write this first blog, I could think of no better way to highlight some of the themes that you’ll see in posts to come than to meditate on the lessons we can learn from Wilberforce’s life:

Christian faith changes everything: His conversion in 1785 and the counsel of a Christian friend led him to devote his life to loving his neighbor by wrestling with his country’s practices towards African men and women from 1787 to 1825. It was a thankless, draining quest that exposed him to derision. He ultimately died before the fruits of his labors were completed in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, but his role in passing the Foreign Slave Trade Act of 1807 (which outlawed the involvement of British ships in transporting slaves) laid the groundwork for abolition. Wilberforce gave his life to God, and his heart was transformed. He received a calling. Although he was not perfect by any means, he answered that calling with all of his life out of love for God and his fellow man.

One’s heart is either full of compassion or it isn’t: Interestingly enough, Wilberforce also helped found the first anti-cruelty society in Western civilization and spoke in support of anticruelty legislation that passed in 1822 after two decades of struggle. Wilberforce couldn’t ignore cruelty and violence to African slaves while ignoring cruelty and violence towards animals.

Narrow Bible readings vs. hearts open to God’s Spirit and Kingdom: You would be hard pressed to find a verse in the Bible that specifically calls upon believers to jettison the institution of slavery. There are slaves throughout the Bible. Neither Jesus nor Paul or anyone else in the Bible directly challenges that institution. Yet, there is no question in my mind that the evolving moral awareness of the world, driven by God’s Spirit, made it a godly thing to eliminate slavery. Thankfully, many Christians became convinced of that.

However, there have been churches and Christians that have justified slavery and many other hideous things their country or civilization have done by selectively using Bible verses to reinforce their self-serving preferences rather than being open to the guiding, challenging Spirit of our loving God. Too often churches and Christians have fallen into the same stance toward the non-human world. They use a narrow theology and a narrow reading of Bible verses to justify a dominion that is antithetical to the loving, humble, patient, and self-controlled character the Spirit of God offers and is ready to fill us with. And if they don’t explicitly justify cruelty and violence, churches and Christians will suggest the question of how we treat God’s world is a minor one. Or they will assert that caring for God’s world is a dangerous path that could lead to paganism or worse.

Overlooked threads in the Bible: The whipping of the horse in the movie brings to mind the complex story of Balaam’s ass in the Hebrew Testament book of Numbers. This story tells of the pagan prophet Balaam who beats his donkey three times when the donkey disregards Balaam’s directions on where to go in order to save him from an angel sent to kill Balaam (it is a complicated story). In Numbers 22:28, the Bible says God opened the donkey’s mouth, and the donkey speaks, asking Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” Curiously, it is the donkey that can see the angel at first and not Balaam. Have you heard of that story? I hadn’t until I began reading the Bible closely. And what I’ve found is a profound presence of God’s Creation in the Bible. It’s a seam that runs through it that the dominant theologies we hear from pulpits largely ignore. The thread is sometimes ambiguous, but on the whole the Bible leaves no doubt that all of nature is part of God’s redeeming purpose.

Justice is more than just individual choices: Wilberforce’s conversion didn’t lead him to be convicted that he personally needed to be nicer to the African slaves he met and that would be enough. His conversion led him to address a systematic, abusive, violent, hateful institution that was completely incompatible with God’s love in a systematic way with countrywide implications. It’s time Christians acted in the world at a wide enough scope to change the institutions of the world that are abusive and violent towards nature.

Community is needed: Wilberforce worked together with other people to abolish slavery and had close friends who he turned to for support and encouragement. He also formed the anti-cruelty society in partnership with others. I have often felt alone in having the convictions I am trying to articulate in this blog within the Christian world. I hope this blog will be a way for you and I to learn of other Christians and churches that are already living out a whole faith. I hope, too, that this blog can connect Christians who share these convictions with each other.

For too long, we have not had a whole faith. We have had a faith that has so emphasized salvation as a blessed escape from this world that we’ve forgotten that God loves this world. We’ve not seen that the incarnation of Jesus into human form is a powerful theological statement of the sacredness and value of this world. We’ve been blissfully unaware or unconcerned about how this world is treated. And we’ve been deeply suspicious of anyone who does show concern or asks us to be humble and compassionate towards the living things we share this world with.

This needs to change.

In many ways, humanity’s dominion of the world is more perverse and counter to God’s desire for a peaceable kingdom than ever before. Yet, at the very same time, the seeds and stirrings are there in the world today for a transformation as revolutionary as the abolition of slavery. This transformation has the potential to change humanity’s dominion of the world from being defined by selfishness and greed to one of generosity, selflessness, creativity, and love.

In short, it has the potential to move closer the world closer to what God showed humanity it could be and should be in Jesus. Our Christian faith should naturally inspire us to be part of this transformation. In fact, if we are truly to be the salt of the earth, Christians should be proactive leaders in this transformation and play the same kind of role Wilberforce did in the movement to abolish slavery.

I hope you’ll join me in exploring what that looks like. I hope you’ll join other Christians who are working to preserve this world for people and for the other living things with which we share this world.

I hope you’ll seek a whole faith.