Archives For Nathan Aaberg

It’s easy to write about what good stewardship of God’s earth looks like in the abstract. It’s another thing to live it out.

And it’s another thing altogether when you are trying to make a living off of the land, and your particular neighborhood happens to have grizzly bears.

That’s why it was inspiring to read this article by Kristine Johnson of the Food and Environmental Reporting Network. The article describes how ranchers in the Tom Miner Basin in Montana are raising cattle in ways that prevent predation on their cattle without killing the predators.

You’re probably inundated with information, articles, and books. Nevertheless, I urge you to take the time to read this article and ponder it. And if you can, do so before continuing below.

In the Tom Miner Basin in Montana ranchers are trying to live with grizzlies. (Photo used with kind permission of photographer Louise Johns – www.louisejohns.org)

Here are the traits of good stewardship of God’s earth that this story brings to the fore.

“They deserve to be here, too:” Fundamentally, this story of ranchers in Montana is about people who are living by the conviction that grizzlies are part of the fabric of that country. From their ethical perspective, it’s up to them to figure out how to make a living ranching while allowing the whole fabric to continue to thrive. And that means figuring out how to live with predators.

This parallels what we see in the Bible. In Psalm 50:11 we read: “I know every bird on the mountains, and all the animals of the field are mine.” Without doubt, predators are included in “all the animals.”

In Job 38:39-41 we read:

Do you hunt the prey for the lioness
And satisfy the hunger of the lions
When they crouch in their dens
or lie in wait in a thicket?
Who provides food for the raven
When its young cry out to God
And wander about for lack of food?

In Exodus 23:10-11, we read of the Sabbath concept of giving a parcel of farmland a rest every seventh year which enabled the poor and wildlife to be able to gather food from that land.

And we tend to forget that God made a covenant with both humanity and the rest of life. Wolves and grizzles were included in that covenant as well.

Acting within Creation’s framework: I was struck by the words in article of Whit Hibbard. A rancher and the editor of The Stockmanship Journal, Hibbard is an advocate for low-stress livestock handling. These are techniques that more peacefully and subtly direct the cattle to do what is needed. Knowing how to get your goals accomplished without being a tyrant is the most obvious sign of a good steward. For ranchers that can mean how you handle your cattle and how you interact with your predator neighbors. For all of us, no matter where we are, that means paying attention to how the ecosystems and the animals and plants around you interact and naturally behave and then trying to fit your place, your activities in those patterns.

Apply our creativity: Genesis tells us we are made in God’s image. I’m convinced that one of the primary elements of that image is creativity. We worship a Creator God, a God who is amazingly imaginative and who has endowed Creation with its own creativity. And we are, similarly, inventive beings. Using God’s earth for our needs while purposefully enabling God’s earth to thrive and even regenerate is one of the most important and most challenging puzzles we face as a species and as communities and individuals. This puzzle should bring out in us our best, most thoughtful,and wisest innovations.

It takes a little extra: Doing the right thing is rarely the easy thing. In comparison to the long-time ranching approach of letting the cattle out on the range for weeks on end with little human presence, having someone riding the range every day takes more time, energy, and money. Seeking out specific breeds of cattle that are better able to fight off predators also requires an investment of energy and research. In page three of the latest newsletter of People and Carnivores, you can read of ranchers learning how to put up special fences with fluttering flags attached (a practice called “fladry”) to scare off wolves without harming them. This is another example of thoughtfulness translated into action.

It reminds me of the parable of the good shepherd. In that parable, Jesus reminds us that an attentive shepherd puts his heart into his task and will search out one lost sheep. That’s neither the easy or simple thing. It might not make pure economic sense. Creation is God’s flock. Are we willing to be the kind of shepherds God wants us to be?

You and I cannot be judgmental spectators of the challenges ranchers face. We should be going to the extra effort of supporting farmers and ranchers like these by buying their products, even if it costs a little more. We should also be good stewards of our own land, even if that is just 20′ x 30′ backyard.

Living with loss: I don’t know how I would react to the killing and consumption of an animal of mine by a wolf or grizzly bear. I know it would be wrenching. This is what makes the stewardship ethic of the ranchers profiled in this article so powerful. They are moving forward even as they know there is danger of loss. Somehow, we must be able to be vulnerable enough to accept some level of hurt as we work to be good stewards.

Boundaries and solemn necessities: Any close relationship will have some friction and reasonable boundaries are needed. Some culling of the most aggressive individuals of predator species is a solemn necessity in places where people and nature live side by side, which is increasingly the future of conservation. Conversely, there must also be abundant preserves, reserves, and national parks where predators and other wildlife can thrive without pressure from humanity.

Right stewardship comes from the right heart: It is not stated directly in the article, but it’s clear from the words and actions of the ranchers that are profiled that everything starts from their hearts. Their actions are the fruits of what is in their hearts. Of course, I don’t know if many ranchers would feel comfortable using the language of “fruits of the hearts” to describe their motivations. Nevertheless, consider the qualities in Galatians 5:22-23 that describe the person in whom the Spirit of God has transformed:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”

I believe these ranchers and their families, regardless of their faith convictions, are showing us what the fruits of the spirit look like when applied to how we live practically on God’s earth.

Experiences of the world in synch: I became very interested in learning more about what values and family cultures compelled these ranchers to adjust their way of life and to put their ranches’ future on the line in the way the article describes. So I made some inquiries and was eventually able to speak with Andrew Anderson. Andrew grew up on a ranch in Montana and works on the J Bar L Ranch, which uses many of the predator-protecting practices mentioned in the article. He said something very interesting towards the end of conversation:

“When I’m on a horse, working with cattle, knowing that predators are on the land around me, it feels great to feel that I’m part of this natural system and not working against it. I love horses. I love working with animals in nonstressful ways. I love being connected with the landscape. And I don’t have to choose. I can have it all. That’s where the real satisfaction comes from.”

This might be one of the better descriptions of shalom, the peace that the Bible speaks about, the peace that is not just the absence of conflict but is all the elements of the world and life in synch.

Committing ourselves to creative Creation stewardship doesn’t mean our hearts will always be in a state of bliss and harmony. Far from it. This is a challenging, difficult world.

Yet, when we respond to God’s call to tend God’s earth, we will have the kinds of moments that Andrew Anderson does.

As 2017 draws to a close, I want to thank each of you for the openness of your heart to God’s abiding concern for all of Creation. I pray that you will be moved to do what you can in your personal life and in your public life to protect and restore God’s earth. May you do so as part of your whole commitment to being a disciple of Jesus.

I pray, too, that you know your gifts and the meaning your life has in your particular circumstances. Tap those gifts! Pursue your meaning and your mission. I would welcome hearing from you what your meaning and mission are and how you are using your gifts.

And how does your personal meaning and mission intersect with God’s earth? Remember – the good news that God offers through Jesus is good news for the whole earth.

Finally, I hope the photo below brings a smile. Earlier this year, which has been a challenging one, our family adopted two kittens – Gus and Maui – from a local shelter. These siblings had been rescued from the house of a hoarder where they were neglected. As a result, they’ve had some ongoing intestinal issues. I’m happy to say, however, that thanks to my wife’s attentive care, they seem to be getting better. (Who knew that pumpkin puree was so healthy for animals and that they would enjoy eating it?)

Both cats have revealed a talent for climbing. Maui in particular has had a habit of climbing up our Christmas tree through the interior. She has then played with ornaments or just observed life in the house. In this photo you see Maui enjoying a nativity moment. Perhaps she hears heaven and nature singing?

I pray that you will both be blessed and be a blessing in 2018.

Black cat perched in Christmas tree with nativity scene ornament in the foreground.

In two previous blogs (here and here), I’ve dived into the subtleties of John 3:16. This iconic verse, often used to convey the Gospel, has more nuance to it than is normally recognized. The words “believe” and “eternal life” and even “have” are translations that typically do not capture the full meaning. This epitomizes how easy it is simplify the Christian faith and lose its wholeness. And one of the ways Christians have been tempted to do so is by making Christianity only about individual people and their individual destinies beyond death.

It is with this in mind that I tackle one key word in John 3:16 – “world.” The argument I make is not conventionaI. But while I certainly don’t claim to be a theologian, I do believe we all should wrestle with what we read in the Bible and work to understand how it fits together as a whole. I encourage you to be the judge whether my reasoning is compelling or not.

What do most Christians understand to be the meaning of the word “world,” which is a translation of the Greek word “kosmos,”in John 3:16?

I’ve looked to answer that with an admittedly unscientific search online. And I’ve encountered what one often finds with Christian doctrine and key verses – a wide range of opinions with sometime fierce denunciations of others’ opinions.

Some of the dominant opinions one finds for answers to that question are

1. All of humanity

2. All of fallen humanity

Here’s John Piper’s take on the second understanding, which is representative of many other theologians I’ve come across:

That is the way John is using world here. It is the great mass of fallen humanity that needs salvation. It’s the countless number of perishing people from whom the “whoevers” come in the second part of the verse: “. . . that whoever believes in him should not perish.” The world is the great ocean of perishing sinners from whom the whoever comes.

3. The elect of God (of which there are a number of interpretations).

What I could not find was anyone asserting that world in this case actually meant the whole world of people, ants, trees, salmon, soil microbes, coyotes, and dung beetles.

Here are some reasons why I believe it makes sense to read “kosmos” as the whole earth:

The Gospel of John begins with the whole world: All too often we atomize the Bible, pulling together a set of verses plucked out of different books of the Bible to prove our case on a particular issue. In the process it is very easy to do violence to the wholeness of each book and to the complex wholeness of the Bible. When you begin at the beginning of the Gospel of John, you find John stating that Jesus was the Word and the Word was with God from the Beginning. And in John 1:3, John asserts that “Through him all things were made…” Would Jesus desire the spoiling and destruction of all the things made through Him?

The Bible itself begins with the whole world: In the beginning we see God creating earth mysteriously and through an orchestration of the creative capacities of the forces of nature. All of what God creates is good. When humanity is added in God’s image, the whole of Creation is judged to be very good. This is the context of the rest of the Bible.

The Bible ends with all of Creation: Gregory Stevenson, professor of New Testament at Rochester College, writes in this article:

Revelation presents God as the Creator for whom creation is a fundamental component of his identity and activity. He is both the divine benefactor who bestows creation upon us as a gift and the sovereign Lord who rules over that creation faithfully. As God will not abandon his people, he also will not abandon his creation. Furthermore, God’s vision for his creation is all-encompassing (from the alpha to the omega) and leading towards a predetermined goal – a goal which itself is all about creation.

Humanity is given a special and weighty responsibility: In the first chapter of Genesis, humanity is told to fill the earth and to subdue and rule over the living things of the world. How do we choose to read this? Christians have, unfortunately and tragically, tended to read Genesis 1: 26 in isolation and as license to kill, exploit, and tyrannize. This question needs more attention but consider these factors: (a) God has just said that all that God created is good, (b) look carefully at the original meanings of the Jewish words of subdue and rule in this blog, (c) in the very next verse humanity’s diet is defined to be plants, so what kind of rule is it when you are not given permission to eat animals?, (d) in Genesis 2, Adam is called on to keep and tend the Garden, (e) other verses and stories in the Bible make clear that all of Creation is of value to God, and (f) our model for ruling should be God’s rule over us which we see most fully realized in Jesus who showed anger at the misuse of power and who came and died out of sacrificial love.

“Kosmos” can legitimately mean “earth”: Here is what the commentary in the Today’s New International Version of the Zondervan Bible says about this Greek word: “Another common word in John’s writings, the Greek noun for “world” is found 78 times in this Gospel and 24 times in his letters (only 47 times in all of Paul’s writings). It can mean the universe, the earth, the people on earth, most people, people opposed to God or the human system opposed to God’s purposes. John emphasizes the word by repetition and moves without explanation from one meaning to another.”

The context of the bronze snake: In John 3:14, Jesus creates a parallel between the necessity for him to be raised up on the cross and Moses raising up the bronze snake while the people of Israel were in the wilderness. This comes from Numbers 21 where we read of God using poisonous snakes to punish the people of Israel for murmuring against Moses, which is essentially the doubting and questioning of God. In agony and fear, the people ask for the snakes to be taken away. Instead, God has Moses make a bronze snake and hold it up high. People who looked on the snake would not die.

This creates an interesting context for John 3:16. Here are several elements of this context we should allow to seep into our hearts. First, God used snakes for his purposes, and they obeyed, unlike the people of Israel. Second, God did not send the snakes away (much less destroy them) as God had been asked to do, Third, God used an image of a snake as a method of saving the bitten people who looked on it. Fourth,in the context of how the Bible tells the story of how sin entered the world, perhaps God is making a point of redeeming the conception of snakes in the bronze snake. Perhaps the challenge, in part, for the Israelites to decide to look on the bronze snake with faith was that it was a snake. In short, the reference to the bronze snake is steeped in sinful people, in sinful behavior, consequences for sin, Creation as part of the story, Creation serving God, and an unexpected symbol requiring faith and confession that will then lead to saved life in this world which will inevitably lead to changed behavior in this world.

Moses and the Brazen Serpent – John Augustus 1898

The challenging logic of the structure of the verse: However one chooses to read John 3:16, there is an interesting question that one must answer when reading it. How does the first part of the verse relate to the second part of the verse? Specifically, the first part begins with God’s love for the world. Whether “world” refers to the whole earth or just to fallen humanity, why does the verse end with individual human beings having the opportunity to have eternal life? How can God care about the whole set encompassed by “world” and offer a solution that is seemingly only effectatious for a subset of individual human beings?

In other words, how does it make sense for God to love this larger entity if the benefit of those who believe is only for their individual souls beyond death?

It doesn’t.

As we’ve seen already, John is using the present continuous tense when referring to “have eternal life.” The proper way to read this is actually this – “go on having eternal life.” And what does go on having eternal life look like? I’d suggest that it looks like Jesus’ life, a life in deep synchronicity with God’s purposes right now and forever, before and after death.

When you and I go on believing and completely trusting in Jesus which leads us to go on having eternal life, we will begin to become the humans we were all meant to be. That will impact our relationship with God and with fellow human beings. We will share God’s love and the message of God’s love in Jesus. We will fight against the abuse of power.

It will also shape how we live out our mandate to be God’s image on this earth. When we become what we as humanity were intended to be, then Creation will also flourish as any subjects of a good king would flourish. This will bring God’s love for all of life to the earth.

So the puzzle of the structure of this verse is at least partly solved by the unspoken assumption it contains – an eternal, faith-filled life will be full of outward-focused love that prospers other people and God’s earth.

True eternal life leads to a rippling outward of God’s love to all that God has made.

Through us, God’s love is meant to go viral.

I first became aware of James Amadon when friends alerted me to an essay he had written in the magazine of the Evangelical Covenan Church entitled “HIs Eye is on the Salmon.” I was struck by the conviction, compassion, and intelligence with which he communicated his faith. I knew I had to talk with him. So over the past few years we’ve exchanged phone calls and emails. Without fail these connections have relit my own convictions and challenged me to do more. I knew at some point I would want him to be able to share his insights here.

Now seemed the right time. He recently made the hard decision to leave the church he had been pastoring to help launch a new initiative to advance a more integrated Christian faith in the 21st century. If there are to be communities that live out a whole Christian faith, then there will need to be brave people who step outside of their comfort zones to build them. 

James Amadon stands on Rattlesnake Ledge with a small mountain range in the distance and a forested valley floor just behind him.

James Amadon hiking Rattlesnake Ledge near North Bend, Washington.

Nathan: Can you trace your journey from growing up in New Hampshire to becoming the executive director of Circlewood?

James: I grew up in a rural area of New Hampshire in a small town called Lancaster. Church was a huge part of our lives. We lived in town. We went to the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church just around the corner. My dad’s been the organist for over 30 years. My mom helps lead worship. We were just always there. In addition to that, because it was a small church, I went to a friend’s youth group at the local Assemblies of God congregation. These two different church perspectives – one high church that leaned liberal, the other a charismatic congregation that leaned conservative – influenced me going forward.

In addition to that, living in what we call the Great North Woods, where a ten-minute walk took me from my front door into the woods and down to a beautiful beaver pond, well, all that made its way inside me.

As a teenager, I received a call to ministry as an evangelist. While I resonated with this call, I didn’t know what it meant. I admired evangelists like Billy Graham, but I didn’t feel like that was for me. So I left my vocational direction open and began a search for what it meant for me to be an evangelist. What was the good news? What does it mean to share it?

I went to a Christian liberal arts college and studied the Bible, theology, and philosophy. I knew intuitively there was a personal dynamic to faith but I also knew there was more to it than that. When I graduated I was still not sure of my vocational direction. I knew I wanted to go seminary. I ended up at North Park Seminary in Chicago and threw myself into the social dimensions of the gospel. I read everything I could find. I started a Bread for the World chapter which focused on lobbying political leaders on behalf of poor and hungry people. I advocated for the homeless in the city. I had some opportunities to work in these areas but I still had questions – there was still something about the Good News that was missing.

After seminary, I entered pastoral ministry, which was has been wonderful, and started reading agrarian writers like Wendell Berry. This gave me the last piece of the puzzle and helped me to see our faith from the perspective of a connected, interdependent Creation. From there it has been a journey on how to bring the personal, the social, and the ecological aspects of the Gospel together.

Over the last decade I’ve been thinking a lot about that and began looking for churches or places that practiced that sort of integrated version of the faith. I couldn’t find many churches or parachurch ministries that were doing that. There are certainly people and places doing incredible work in one area, maybe two areas, but very few that offered that full integrated vision. That’s when it began to occur to me that maybe this was what I was supposed to do, maybe this is the fulfillment of that initial vocational call – to help people see the Good News in all its fullness, to see how we can integrate the personal, social, and ecological dimensions of the gospel. This is what led me to my current position as the executive director of Circlewood.

Nathan: Please tell me about that transition from the church you were the pastor of to becoming the executive director of Circlewood. How did that transition sharpen your insight into your call?

James: I served as Senior Pastor at Highland Covenant Church in Bellevue, Washington for the last ten years. Stepping down was very, very hard. I loved the people, the work, and the wider community. I would not have left if I had not felt compelled to follow this emerging call.

Thinking about it now, I can see that my denomination – the Evangelical Covenant Church – prepared me in some ways for this, because we read Scripture holistically and we are a very mission-driven denomination. One of our core affirmations is that we are committed to the whole mission of the Church. Now for the denomination that has meant expanding our work in areas of mercy and justice. It has been a little slower for us to the see the ecological aspects of the gospel, but the theological framework is there.

Nathan: This has been a big transition. Your family must also support your call.

James: Yes. They have been incredible. They loved our church. My kids loved that I was the pastor of the church. They were very much loved. In those ways, this has been a real loss for them. As I pursue something different, they have been very courageous, very supportive of me. My wife Emily has been incredible. She understands why I feel compelled to take on this new call. Honestly, I could not do it without their support.

Nathan: Please tell me more about Circlewood and what you are working on and what your goals are in that endeavor.

James: While it is still a work in progress, the emerging vision for Circlewood is “An ecologically-centered church passionately pursuing mission with its people, the poor, and the earth.” We want everyone to understand this integrated vision of faith and life that we have. We want people to love that vision, see the beauty and truth of it, and to commit their lives to following it as best they can. I think if you’re able to lead people into a new vision of Scripture and show them alternative ways of living and believing in the world that this kind of transformation is possible. Out of this vision comes our specific mission: “To transform Christian thought and practice through integrative, ecologically-centered ministry.

Nathan: Is your vision that Circlewood will change people’s vision of the Christian faith and that those people would then bring forth fruit in their home congregations? Or is it for them to plant new congregations?

James: Although at this point we are still developing the specific programming, we know that we want people to see this alternative perspective and be able to translate that into their homes, communities, churches, and workplaces.

Nathan: How would you explain why so much of Christian tradition has overlooked the ecological in the walk of faith?

James: I think there are a couple of reasons. Number one – I think we have incomplete readings of Scripture. I don’t want to call them wrong, but I think they’re incomplete. We’re missing the place of the entire Creation, the whole cosmos, in God’s purposes and work in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.

The second reason is that within our working theology of the Church, particularly in evangelical churches, we have a really incomplete eschatology, our understanding where God is leading everything. We have a vision of heaven that’s very distinct and different from the earth we live on. The biblical vision is of heaven and earth coming together in a way that brings the physical and spiritual together in a seamless unity.

And I think overlaying all of that is a cultural captivity to materialism that sees the world as raw material. As Christians, we’re often more committed to the American dream as material prosperity rooted in unfettered use of resources rather than the Scriptural vision of receiving the life-giving gifts of Creation and responding with humility, reverence, and care. All of these together are keeping the Church from seeing the complete picture.

Nathan: Is it possible for an established mainstream church to change and begin to have a more complete understanding of the Christian life? My sense is that a lot of Christians who care about what happens to God’s earth are typically in the outer orbit of their church, which itself does not consider Creation a core concern. Can there be effective reformation within existing churches or are new churches needed?

James: I think it’s a combination of all of those things. We definitely need some reformation to be happening. I think that church theologians and historians would say that the Church should always be reforming itself. This is a period in which we have the opportunity to see this. I think there are streams of this happening. There is a growing community of people who want to move the Church in this direction.

It is a mistake to cast aside existing institutions and relegating them to the dust heap and either disengaging or believing we can create something from scratch. In between those paths we need people and places that have a connection to the historic Church and its institutions as they exist but also are focused on a new direction and are working hard to reform those institutions. In addition, we need people and places creating new institutional life that can replace some institutions or completely transform them.

I do think we’re in this stage of upheaval where we’re not quite sure what’s going to be carried forward and what’s going to be left behind.

Nathan: Have you seen any alternative visions of church that have a foot in a more integrated vision of Christianity?

James: Yes. It’s important to remember that this is not a new vision of Christianity but a recovery. When mainstream Christianity has lost sight of this, individuals or communities have felt called to practice a more holistic faith and have stepped forward to create alternatives – from the early church to the various monastic movements to the Reformation to some Anabaptist groups to movements like the New Monasticism, which is a Protestant recapturing of monastic wisdom and practice. There are historic figures and communities that we can learn from that have been doing this for a long time.

In terms of today, it is important to look for people who are making connections between the personal, social, and ecological. They may not be perfect, but what they are doing is important. This is the genesis of renewal. Where are people are saying, “I’m tired of living a fragmented, siloed life. I’m tired of my faith not being able to speak to all aspects of who I am as I live in the world.”

There are communities, people and institutions trying hard to bring together what we’ve torn asunder. I take great hope in that. And I hope that Circlewood can help people in that process of renewal.

Nathan: As we pursue this integrated version of the Gospel, where does the church building fit in? A great deal of church resources typically go towards maintaining the church building. There are a lot of positives to that in terms of having a place to gather and in terms of having an expression of your faith that is clear and tangible in your community. On the other hand, if we’re living in an ecological age, would it make sense to have less resources invested in buildings and more resources invested in the land itself?

James: Ideally, the church is a particular people gathered together at a particular time to help take care of a particular place. The church body needs to ask, “How well are we doing those things? How are we caring for our place, which includes people as all the non-human aspects?” For existing churches that could means assessing use of physical resources. Are we taking care of them? Are our physical resources ecologically sustainable? Are our people living more sustainable lives? Are we seeking to do that together in this particular place?

I think there will be different answers because every people, every time, and every place is particular and unique. But there are churches that are doing several things with their existing properties, things like putting solar panels on the roof or initiating recycling, little small steps that can be taken that can raise that level of holistic care a little bit more

Nathan: Has there been one particular experience or book that has crystallized the convictions that you have in terms of the whole integrated understanding of what God offers us?

James: I think the one book that really set me on this journey was a collection of essays entitled The Unsettling of America. Wendell Berry in general has been a very important writer for me. He is someone who is thinking and writing and living through an integrated perspective. Some of the biblical and theological writers who have helped me develop my thinking and dreaming have been N.T. Wright, Norman Wirzba, and Ellen Davis.

Nathan: Does living out your faith ecologically have benefits for your faith?

James: Absolutely. When I am conscious about my place and role in the wider creation I feel closer to God, closer to our fellow humans, and closer to the incredible world God has created. I begin to experience, if only in flashes, the comprehensive oneness that Jesus speaks about in the Gospel of John. I am given a taste of the shalom that so many of the prophets point to in their scriptural poetry. I begin to feel a deeper sense of personal peace that is set into the fabric of Creation, this deep connection between beings, between God and what God has made.

It’s interesting to me that when I ask people questions like, “What have been the most profound moments of your life or of your faith?” most of them respond with experiences of being in nature. I think that speaks to a deep-seated sense that we are connected and that we need that connection.

Nathan: You said that your early call was for evangelism and that led to the pastoral ministry. What are the implications for evangelism from the perspective of a more integrated Christianity?

James: I think it means that we need an evangelism that’s more holistic and creative, that is looking to draw upon the truth that every human is designed to be connected to God, to each other, and to the rest of Creation. I think this can inspire ways of life that are naturally evangelistic, that draw people to Christ by pursuing this vision of wholeness within themselves, their churches, and their communities. Inviting people into this way of life must also include inviting them to join in lament and repentance for the way we fail to live up to God’s vision for us, and this, of course, is at the heart of evangelism as well.

This is exciting to me; it can draw in lots of different people – people who have rejected the Church, people who are drawn to Creation but not perhaps to established ways of the Church, and people who are interested in community or social justice but haven’t necessarily found a faith community that’s making connections to God from these perspectives.

Having that holistic perspective offers entry points for people to come and explore the Gospel.

Nathan: Well, that’s the first time I’ve gotten excited about evangelism. (Laughter) So much of evangelism as I’ve seen it has been individualistic, self-oriented, consumeristic, and otherworldly. And that hasn’t resonated.

James: Take these categories of personal, social, and ecological. There are many Christians who are able to articulate a personal experience of faith but lack a substantive social or ecological vision. There are other people who have no faith but who are actively serving the poor or know a lot about ecology and are living very responsible and intentional lives. Bringing those people together is like cross-evangelization. Christians have a lot to learn from others. We don’t have to see them as the opposition, or objects to be converted, but as people with whom to engage with about the important questions. What is the good life? What is a whole life?

In that way, evangelism becomes much more about building community and relationships than taking an oppositional approach where I have a message that you need and you have a lack that I can fill for you. I think it can be much more mutual.

Nathan: I would build on that and say that you are offering people life, a life that’s really rich and abundant, rather than having to start from a point of condemnation and offering them a life preserver to get them out of that condemnation. Can you give me an example of what gives you hope for what’s possible for this integrated Christianity?

James: I continue to meet people, particularly young people, who intuitively understand a holistic approach to life and are looking for a church and a faith that can support them and offer them a place contribute. One young woman I know spent a college semester in New Zealand learning about ecological systems from a faith perspective. She is now doing graduate work in hydrology. Another young woman joined the protests at Standing Rock as a way to connect her strong personal faith to the social and the ecological problems of the world. Neither of these women grew up in a church that emphasized caring for the non-human world, but they arrived there anyway. That gives me hope.

Circlewood is in the process of developing its website. If you are interested in learning more about Circlewood or connecting with James, he would welcome your contact by email at jamadon316@gmail.com.

Painting by Julius Hubner of Martin Luther posting the 95 theses.

 

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation has been on my mind for weeks now. It was a turning point in Christian history and in the history of Western Europe. What should we make of it?

It is a legacy of growing up Lutheran that I continue to admire Luther’s willingness to stand up on principle. He was willing to challenge a massive institution and religious empire – the Roman Catholic Church – on points of principle about God. He was a rebel with a cause.

But was the Reformation’s legacy all good?

What I have struggled with is the battleground on which Luther largely fought the Reformation – theology.

My sense is that the zealous pursuit of a science-like, all-encompassing theology of God and Jesus has been given too much weight in Christian history. It is deeply ironic and shameful, for example, that Luther and other Protestant leaders went from being persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church to advocating for the persecution of others, like the Anabaptists.

When people are so consumed by a zeal for theological correctness that they lose the ability to love one’s neighbor as oneself, something has gone very wrong.

This is not to say that theology is not an important and valuable tool. It is. We are called to love God with our minds. Theology is one way to do that. And the diversity of the 66 books of the Bible calls out for some unifying ideas and ethics that will translate into how we live and think.

But speaking and reading theology about God can replace actual experience of God. It can, in its very form, make the Christian life too abstract and too left-brained.

I have had one profoundly spiritual experience in my life. It was an experience without words. I cannot describe it with any degree of accuracy using words. All of the theology and preaching I heard from the pulpit throughout my life did not prepare me for that experience. In fact, all of the theology and preaching I had heard had lulled me into believing I knew God through the words about God I had been taught.

We casually use words like grace, faith, forgiveness, resurrection, and salvation like they are distinct and quantifiable elements from a periodic table. They are, in fact, ineffable phenomena.

Interestingly enough, the humility with which we should approach words and names for the actions and essence of God is exemplified in the name of God that appears in the Hebrew Scriptures. As this well-written article by Rabbi Louis Jacob explains, we actually don’t know how to correctly pronounce the four-letter Hebrew name for God. It appears in the Hebrew Scriptures 6,823 times. But Jewish tradition long discouraged the actual speaking of the name and instead substituted “Adonai”, the Hebrew word for Lord.

In extreme theologizing we have too often lost the fear and awe of God and all that God is. We make God safe through theology. In some ways, theological constructs can even become an assertion of human power over God.

So how do we know if theologies and even church practices are on the right track?

Here is one of my suggestions – we should pay attention to their fruit. Jesus spoke often about good fruit being a natural product of a living faith in Him and of a good heart. Theologies and church practices can best be judged by their fruit. How do their believers and followers live out their faith in the following four areas?

 

ATTITUDE AND RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD

Do you sense God’s love for you even as you are in awe of God and aware of God’s unwillingness to accept what is wrong in this world?

Is Jesus at the center of your faith and heart?

Do you seek out knowledge and experience of God like a person in a desert seeks out water?

When you pray do you not only seek out help from God open your heart to what God desires of you?

Do you approach God and Jesus with humility and mystery?

 

ATTITUDE AND RELATIONSHIP WITH PEOPLE

Are you forgiving and full of loving kindness for others?

Do you make the effort with the help of God’s Spirit to see and perceive other people the way God sees them?

Do you love your neighbor as you love yourself?

Do you have strong integrity, honesty, and a clear sense of what is right and wrong?

Do you struggle against evil and people consumed with evil without losing yourself to hate and blind anger?

Do you care about justice for the poor and vulnerable around you, individually and collectively?

 

ATTITUDE AND RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD’S EARTH

Do you see the earth as God’s and act appropriately respectful and compassionate towards it?

Do you and your community of faith balance the use of God’s earth with enabling it to thrive and prosper even when this requires sacrifices that others around you are not wiling to make?

Do you and your church pay attention to Creation?

Is being thoughtful stewards of God’s earth part of the fabric of your faith and life, including your civic life?

In your faith and life, do pigs, oak trees, and mussels matter?

 

ONE’S OWN LIFE

Do you love yourself at the same time you love others?

Are you honest about and aware of your failings and seek not only forgiveness but also seek to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit every day?

Do you seek to have your heart and your will reformed on a regular basis so that how you live is an eloquent statement about your faith?

Do you listen for God’s calling for your life? Do you do hard and challenging things when you sense that is God’s call?

Do you know your talents, enjoy using them, and use them creatively and energetically for God’s Kingdom?

 

If these are the widespread fruits of the theology and practices of your faith community, then God is a whole and living presence there.

Of course, all of us, individually and collectively, will fall short of what God offers us and wants from us. This is why God’s forgiveness is always needed.

This is why we will always need reformation that goes beyond words.