Archives For Good News

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.

If you are a Christian and you’re attentive to God’s earth, it’s likely that you’ve sometimes felt on the fringe of your church. In fact, you can feel downright alone. This is one of the reasons I thought it important to write this piece based on my visit to the Au Sable Institute last month. I thought it important, too, to describe the organization and its people in some detail. I hope you’ll persevere through the odyssey of reading this long piece. For decades an organization of committed Christian scientists has been equipping other Christians for ecological research and for science-based stewardship. 

They were as surprised as I was.

On Friday, August 4th I made the long drive from northeastern Illinois to Mancelona in northern Michigan to take part in the Au Sable Institute’s Reunion. “Reunion,” of course, suggests an event for people who have had some sort of previous and direct relationship with the institution. Almost every attendee I met courteously asked when I had attended as a student or had taught as a professor. They were astonished to hear that this was my first visit.

In the case of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, my only previous interaction had been several donations my wife and I had made in the past after a friend had encouraged me to check out the organization. The Institute’s mission – to inspire and educate people to serve, protect, and restore God’s earth – resonated with us.

A picture of the sign for the Au Sable Institute just outside the Institute in Mancelona, Michigan.

I decided to visit because I wanted to learn more about Au Sable, and I wanted to be with other Christians who care deeply for the fate of Creation.

Of course, I must be honest that there was a little voice in me wondering if I was going to be in a very awkward situation. I nervously joked with other attendees that I was relieved to hear that there were no secret initiation rites.

One of the things that had tipped the balance toward me attending was a conversation I had had with Fred Van Dyke earlier in the summer. Au Sable’s executive director and co-author of Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship, Fred was kind enough to speak with me on the phone and shared the Institute’s mission with sincerity and passion.

Fred Van Dyke, executive director of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, speaks during a tour.

From Fred and from the activities of the weekend, I learned that the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies pursues its mission by offering environmental science programs for students and adults of all ages. In addition to its main campus in northern Michigan, the Institute has locations in India, the Pacific Northwest, and Costa Rica that carry out similar activities.

The heart of Au Sable’s education mission has long been university-level courses in environmental studies and environmental science that are primarily taught in the field. These courses are accepted for credit by 60 Christian colleges. College students take the classes on Au Sable’s campuses.

The Institute, I’m happy to say, has also been expanding into field-based research around practical topics related to conservation, ecology, and restoration. One example – researchers at Au Sable have been testing different planting practices for restoring abandoned oil pads back to forest in northern Michigan.

If my memory serves from a conversation I had there, there are approximately 50,000 of these sites where forest was cleared for oil pumping. Oddly, forests have not reclaimed these sites many years after the machines and other vestiges of human activity had been removed.

“The Blogger” Feels At Home

The first event that Friday evening was a dinner in the rec center. I didn’t know anyone. With flashbacks to my freshman year of high school running through my head, I set my things down at an empty table.

When I returned with my food, I found I had a number of table companions, including Dr. Calvin DeWitt, the long-time director of Au Sable. From that point on and through the rest of the weekend, I found myself in fellowship with other Christians who talked passionately about beavers and the cloud forests of Guatemala, who prayed humbly, and who were ready to sing the doxology at the drop of the hat. And, I’m happy to say, the food was very healthy. Careful attention was paid to recycling and composting of waste.

Common meals during the reunion were held in the Rec Center. The sliding doors opened wide so we could take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the North Woods just outside. When the campus was being designed, there had been a proposal by a planner to create a typical campus by clearing much of the woods around the buildings. Thankfully, that idea was rejected. The campus is nested in the forest.

What a delight to fully feel at home and in one spirit with other believers!

There was consistently warm hospitality throughout my time there. I wasn’t known by anyone, and yet people came up to me on a regular basis to introduce themselves and learn more about me. I suspect this is what early Christians experienced as they traveled throughout the Roman Empire and visited local churches.

When Cal DeWitt used some of his introductory remarks that first Friday evening to ask for newcomers to introduce themselves, he made a point to ask me to share the name of my blog for everyone to hear. I later learned that from that moment other attendees began to refer to me as “the blogger.” This was done with a mixture of curiosity, intrigue, and perhaps a bit of anxiety.

Calvin DeWitt

A considerable amount of the reunion was spent honoring Calvin DeWitt and for good reason.

Under the lealdership of Dr. Howard Snyder, the Au Sable Institute began as a science camp and field station. It was Cal, as the founding Executive Director from 1979 to 2004, who led Au Sable’s transition to its current identity and wide impact. He did so while serving as Professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His curriculum vitae runs over 30 pages, dense with listings of papers and presentations.

He was one of the early articulate voices advocating for Christians to be good stewards of Creation. Through his books and lectures over the past decades, he led the way in articulating the theological underpinnings of why Christians should care and act for God’s earth.

Here’s how an article in Grist summarizes his impact and leadership:

A respected scientist with advanced degrees in biology and zoology, DeWitt spent over 25 years as director of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, where he worked to help college students learn the principles of Christian environmental stewardship alongside hard science. He’s been one of the prime movers behind almost every significant collaboration between evangelicals, scientists, and politicians, including the much-discussed Evangelical Climate Initiative, a statement from high-profile evangelicals calling for concerted action to battle global warming.

Interestingly enough, he was appointed to his professorship at the University of Wisconsin in 1972 without being placed in a department. His mission was to integrate learning across disciplines.

That focus on integration is one of his most distinctive qualities. He is a dynamic person who delights in bringing together various fields of academic study, especially the sciences, even as he delights in the understanding of the Bible and theology. He loves the pursuit of knowledge and sharing that knowledge with students through teaching.

His breadth of knowledge and the extent of his leadership impact on Au Sable were clear during a tour he led of portions of the campus.

When the tour started at Earth Hall, Cal highlighted the many thoughtful features of its environmentally-minded design that he and the architect worked out together. He rattled off scientific names for most of the living things we saw when the tour then made its way into the woods and along the pond. He stopped to described the construction techniques of a log cabin built for lumberjacks. At a lecture hours earlier, he had lucidly explained the root meanings of Greek words in the New Testament.

He is full of enthusiasm, erudite knowledge, contagious energy, playfulness, and skilled storytelling. What a difference God has made through him.

Cal and Ruth Dewitt were kind enough to share this photo of themselves with me for this post. The background, by the way, is not northern Michigan but northern China. You can see portions of the Great Wall in the background.

It would not do to mention Cal without mentioning his wife Ruth. They share a close bond. She spoke proudly to me at the first dinner of the details of the Agricultural Conservancy Zoning that are part of the Land Use Plan of the Town of Dunn. Cal played a leading role in developing this plan which has kept their home town in Wisconsin from being overwhelmed by unplanned development.

When the weekend’s activities closed and Cal and Ruth were walking together towards their car, I noticed they were holding hands.

From Nearly Changing Majors to Restoring Lake Sturgeon

Au Sable changed the life of Marty Holtgren.

Marty was studying biology at Bethel College in 1991 when Dave Mahan, the director of the Au Sable Institute at that time, came to introduce students there to Au Sable’s educational offerings. This intrigued Marty. Many of his fellow biology majors were headed towards nursing careers, but he wasn’t sure biology was for him. What’s more, Bethel’s small size meant that it had few specialty courses in biology or ecology.

In the winter of 1991, Marty attended a summer term at Au Sable. While there, Marty took a limnology course as well as a fisheries course taught by Fred “Fritz” Erickson. This experience led Marty to stay in biology.

“The passion that Fred brought towards fish and other aquatic creatures,” says Marty, “made it hard not to get incredibly fired up. It was contagious. That contagiousness is something that I’ve really tried to emulate throughout my life and career.”

After graduating from Bethel in 1992, Marty worked at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for about five or six years. During that time, Marty returned to Au Sable to attend a three-week intensive stream ecology classe. Desiring greater challenges and the opportunity to grow professionally, Marty decided to enter graduate school at Michigan Tech University. There he earned a master’s degree while studying lake sturgeon.

Marty Holtgreen and another person hold a lake sturgeon fish while standing in the Big Manistee River.

Marty Holtgren, on the right, helps hold a lake sturgeon along the Big Manistee River. For ten years, Marty helped the Little River Band of the Ottawa Tribe, restore the population of this fish species in the river.

This was the springboard for him to then begin working for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Manistee along the eastern Lake Michigan coast. Marty served as their fisheries biologist. In that role, Marty assisted the Little River Band in carrying out a restoration project for lake sturgeon in the Big Manistee River.

“It’s a fish that looks like a dinosaur,” says Marty, “and lives to be 50 years old and can get to be a hundred pounds. They were almost extirpated at the turn of the century. They were also a key cultural species for the Native Americans across the Great Lakes.”

The Little River Band had one of the few populations of lake sturgeon left.

But they didn’t know how many.

“Because it’s not a sport fish, the sturgeon has gone unnoticed and hasn’t been researched much,” says Marty. “So when I started there, I was charged with helping to understand this population and to also labor to restore it.”

The Little River Band and Marty worked for ten years on the restoration efforts. If you were to reduce the restoration to a simple recipe it would be this:

Step One: Capture the young lake sturgeon fry that had just hatched and were heading out to Lake Michigan. They’ll be about an inch long and vulnerable to being consumed by other fish.

Step Two:  Raise them through the summer in a portable stream-side facility that you’ve designed, rather than moving them to a hatchery somewhere else in the state. (The Little River Band wanted to keep them in their own watershed where they belonged.)

Step Three: Release them back into the river when the fish are now larger and better able to fend for themselves.

What was even more notable is that the release was turned into an annual community event. The tribal community and their non-tribal neighbors would gather together along the river in solidarity for the fish and the restoration. Then many of the attendees were able to release the lake sturgeon into the river by hand.

“It was a very significant and spiritual moment for me,” says Marty. “You had come full circle with this little fish that you had held in your hand in May. Now you’re releasing that fish four months later and it’s eight or nine inches long.”

“It also healed that community. There was a lot of mistrust in tribal and non-tribal people. You saw healing in those communities. It was a beautiful moment.”

This experience prompted Marty to return to Michigan Tech for a PhD that integrated fisheries management with the social sciences. This integrated approach was valuable because fisheries issues are community issues.

Marty became a tribal liaison for the state of Michigan around natural resource issues. Three months ago, he launching his own ecological restoration consulting firm – Encompass Socio-Ecological Consulting, LLC.

“The main projects I’m working on now are reconnecting people to their watersheds,” Marty says. “On two of the projects I help with large scale dam removals, making sure the public needs are incorporated into those designs.”

“After leaving the Au Sable Institute,” Marty says, “I really had a passion for environmental work and that human connection with environmental work, too. I looked at Creation more holistically and saw that as we’re good stewards we’re also helping the human condition. Au Sable really changed my trajectory.”

The Au Sable Instiute in the Anthropocene

How could I not feel complete delight spending time in the quiet, beautiful woods of northern Michigan with faithful, friendly, thoughtful, stewardship-minded Christians?

Leave it to a blogger with some Norwegian lineage raised in a Missouri Synod Lutheran home whose father frequently reminded his sons not to praise the day until the evening.

Leave it to someone who listened to The Sixth Extinction on the way to the event.

In that book, Elizabeth Kolbert highlights the breadth and astonishing, accelerating pace of species extinction in our world today. She tells the story of how Nobel Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen was the first to christen our current geological epoch as the Anthropocene. That designation communicates that we are in a new period of life on earth. It is a period defined by massive, geological-scale, human-caused changes. These changes have been largely tragic for the living systems and living beings of God’s earth.

With those kinds of thoughts running through my mind, I couldn’t help but notice that throughout the time I spent at Au Sable I hardly heard a note of outrage or collective sorrow about all that is happening around us. All I remember hearing was the phrase “poor earth” in a prayer.

When I shared this reaction with Fred, he had a thoughtful response I want to share with you:

…I thought you were a little hard on the Institute for a perceived lack of expression of outrage over what humans have done to the Earth and what Christians have done. Some of our symposium speakers did express some of these ideas on Thursday at the symposium, and I have expressed this at times in my own writings. However, at the institutional level, we at Au Sable have found little good to come of outrage over a problem once the damage is done. Hence, our response is more intentionally solution oriented, particularly in our research.

One can express outrage over oil-related deforestation, but that won’t bring back any trees. Instead, we are now determining (and at some levels, already have determined) the best treatments on these oil pads and the best species to plant to restore them to becoming again a living part of the forest community. Similarly, we feel deep sorrow that a beautiful fish, the Arctic grayling, was extirpated from Michigan waters by habitat degradation inspired by greed in Michigan’s logging era. Our response now is to work with Michigan Technological Institute (Michigan Tech) in creating a habitat suitability model that will help identify the best sites for grayling reintroduction.

Likewise we have been saddened by the near extirpation of the Kirtland’s warbler through the loss of young jack pine stands, but encouraged by its recovery which will likely soon lead to its delisting. Our contribution here, which is future oriented, is to determine the warbler’s success in red pine habitat (which it also uses) and, if reproductive outputs are similar (initial data show that they are), create plans attractive to the forest products industry to manage red pine (a more economically valuable tree than jack pine) for warblers, filling a void of support that will occur when the delisted Kirtland’s warbler loses federal protection and federal funding for its habitat management, and making the activity of logging, which once contributed to the warbler’s decline, now an agent of its recovery and restoration.

…I do believe it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness, and better to solve a problem than complain about the harm and hurt the problem caused.

There is no question in my mind that the Au Sable Institute is indeed a uniquely valuable candle.

As I’ve pondered Fred’s words, however, it occurs to me that the culture of science tends to be largely left-brained. It is a culture of rationality, analysis, and calm logic. Those qualities are certainly powerful.

Yet, the words of Aldo Leopold also ring true to me: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds.”

Leopold was a man of science and a man of action. But in these words you also hear that he was a man, a man of feelings.

Reading the Bible one is struck by the emotional intensity of the people called by God across many centuries. Jesus himself embarked on a path destined to offer a saving way to humanity and ultimate redemption of all Creation. On that path, Jesus taught the “science” of God’s kingdom but also expressed a variety of emotions as he lived out his mission. In fact, his emotions, many of which were not the happy and calm ones, were part and parcel of his compelling nature.

In the Anthropocene, I believe being fully effective in addressing the wounds humanity has inflicted on God’s earth will require an integrated response that is both left-brained and right-brained.

Without question, we must have the left-brained understanding of how the world works and how to restore it. But right-brained responses are needed as well. We must be creative, emotionally open, and ready to engage in culture and art. The tragedy we face is in large part a product of polluted, closed, and misguided hearts. The unfolding tragedy is also taking its toll on people’s hearts. We must be able to understand, restore, inspire, and connect with people as living souls. We need science knowledge and heart knowledge.

Along these lines I was happy to hear from Fred that the Au Sable Institute is developing programs to train students in leadership. I am hopeful that these programs will begin to help Christians attending the Institute to inspire and lead within human communities, human organizations, and human systems.

Preparing to Leave

When the official activities came to a close on Saturday evening, I parked in the Au Sable Institute’s ball field near a few other attendees who had set up their tents. I slept less than well in my van. On Sunday morning, after a light breakfast the Institute provided, tents began to be broken down, and the campers prepared to go their separate ways.

Voices rose and people gathered when one of the campers, an alumnus of the Institute, spotted a large spider. It was crawling on the fabric of her tent that was lying on the ground and about to be packed away.

This striking orbweaver spider appeared on the tent of one the other attendees on Sunday morning. 

We gathered round, children and adults, to take a closer look. There was common curiosity and fascination. When we were done, the orbweaver spider was allowed to go safely along on its way. Once in the dew-flecked grass, it was almost impossible to see.

Fellow attendees check out the orbweaver.

A simple yet profound Sabbath moment at the Au Sable Institute. An example of the culture I’d love to see be the norm in Christian communities.

We warmly wished each other well, and I departed.

I was glad I had come.

There once was a king and a queen who ruled a small kingdom in a beautiful country.

They took great pleasure in their castle and in the art they had made which filled the castle’s rooms. They delighted in the gardens they had planted and the large trees around which they had built the castle. The ravens they had rescued from a nearby mountain when the ravens were young were now tame and flew about the castle and its grounds.

River Scene with Castle (by Gilbert Munger)

The king took special pride in his master servants. He had chosen them from many walks of life, and he trained them carefully to manage the activities of the castle and the kingdom. He patiently educated them, taught them, and encouraged their creativity.

“I cherish all that I have, my dear servants, but you are my greatest joy,” he told them.

One day he gathered his servants together. He told them that he and the queen needed to leave them for some time. While he was gone, they were to be in charge of his castle.

“I trust you to rule as you have seen us rule,” he told them.

Several years later, when the servants had begun to doubt whether the king and queen would ever return, they were awakened on a bright cold blue morning by trumpets and soldiers they recognized to be of the king and queen’s personal guard.

“You are to appear immediately at the front gate,” the soldiers said.

The servants hurried to an assembly of nobles and guards surrounding the king and queen who sat on thrones the servants had not seem before. The servants noticed the king and queen did not seem to have aged and in some ways looked even more vigourous and wise than ever. The servants also noticed that the muscles of the king’s jaw were tight and his expression stern. Tears ran down the cheeks of the queen.

“What have you done while we were gone?” the king demanded.

“We have built new mansions for ourselves,” they said, “and created new tools that make our lives easier and new toys that give us pleasure.”

“And what about our castle?”

The servants looked around and saw what they had done. To make their own mansions and machines, they had neglected the castle. In fact, they had dismantled much of it and used the salvaged materials for their own mansions. What remained of it was turning to rubble. The trees of the grounds had been felled for lumber. The gardens uprooted. The servants had sold off the art they could get good prices for and used other pieces of art for sport. At least one piece, they had noticed, had gone missing early on.

The servants were silent in shame and fear.

Except for one.

He met the lord’s gaze directly as he spoke.

“We knew you would come again, great king, and make everything new. So we used the power you gave us for our pleasure. We are, you said, what you are most proud of. You can fix all this, can you not?”

The king did not acknowledge this statement but asked the assertive servant, “And where are our ravens? I do not hear their cries. They did not come to us when we called for them.”

“They were very messy, very noisy, and had minds of their own,” the servant said. “Nor were they good to eat. Keeping them alive and happy  was too much for us. We used our time and the resources we had for more important things. Instead, we have made mechanical pets that are much more orderly and much more useful. Would you like to see –“

“NO!”

The king roared in pain and fury. He ordered for his soldiers to take the servants to the borders of the kingdom and to never let the servants return.

The servants, with the exception of the proud and assertive one, were shocked and dismayed. They pleaded with the king to be allowed to stay. They promised to do better. They promised to fix everything.

The king said, “The castle was ours and yet you destroyed it for your own satisfaction. The art was ours, and it is no more. We treasured the beauty of the garden and the food that was harvested from it. The ravens were birds we took great pleasure in, and they will not give us company again. It is clear that your hearts have not not been shaped by what I taught you and showed you. You will never be happy with me nor will I be happy with you. What is best for you and the queen and I is for you to be gone forever.”

The assertive servant stepped forward with his head held high and did not bow. He looked his king in the eye

“My king,” he started, and it seemed to some that he put particular emphasis on the first of those two words. “You gave us your kingdom and told us we were your greatest pride and joy. You chose us and gave us power. You created. We have created. You cannot do this to us. If what we did was wrong, it was your fault.”

The king’s eyes narrowed. He stood, and the fearful power in him seemed to fill the air.

“Your words and your actions have shown who you really are,” said the king. “You knew in your heart the pleasure we took in everything in the castle. It was ours. You were our servants. Yet you diminished and destroyed it. Did you not see that we took pleasure in seeing the castle, the people, and the kingdom prosper? Did you not see how we ruled?”

“And you are the worst of all,” the king said to the assertive servant. “With intelligence enslaved by your twisted heart, you have twisted my words and my intentions. A child would know in an instant that what you have done is wrong.”

The king commanded that the assertive servant be led off in chains to the prison.

At that moment a large black bird suddenly flew toward the thrones and came to perch on the queen’s shoulder.

“Night!” the queen exclaimed in surprise and delight.

“Where did our raven come from?” demanded the king.

A guard pointed to a poor man standing on the outer circle of the assembly next to a battered cart.

“Come forward,” the king commanded.

The poor man came into the king’s presence and knelt deeply before him. He brought the large cart with him.

“Where did you get my raven?”

“Your highness, I heard what your servants were doing so I snuck into the castle to try to save your ravens. I was only able to save this one. He was nearly dead. I am sorry I could not save more. But I did save one other thing.”

He pulled away old blankets and hides that covered something large in his cart. It was their favorite piece of art. It was a painting they had made that depicted their kingdom and all of its life and its beautiful country.

The king and queen arose quickly from their thrones and went to examine the painting and talked excitedly again of the days when they had painted it together and of their favorite parts of their kingdom. They laughed and tears again ran down the queen’s cheeks.

“How were you able to save this?” asked the king.

“My friends and I snuck in again one night, and when I heard of your art being sold. I knew that this was your favorite. After that I was unable to save more. Please forgive me, my lord. Your…your castle had been so beautiful.”

It was the poor man’s turn to shed tears.

To the great surprise of the assembly, the king and queen embraced the poor man.

When the king and queen could finally speak, the queen asked, “How can we thank you? What can we give you? You have done so much for us.”

“Let me have a simple room with simple meals. Let me help rebuild your castle and the country of your kingdom. I do not know very much. I am no longer as strong as I once was. But I love your goodness and what you have done for us. Nothing would gladden my heart more than to see your castle restored.”

“That is all?” the queen asked.

The poor man hesitated and then spoke, “Your highness, if my friends could sometimes join me for good food and tasty ale, my heart might have a bit more gladness.”

The king, the queen, and the assembly laughed.

“Your wish is granted.”

The king, the queen, and the poor man spent many good years together restoring the castle and its grounds. New art was made. Young trees were planted to take the place of those that had been felled. In time, the restored garden again produced fruit, herbs, and vegetables. The poor man and his friends and family lived in one of the mansions built by the servants.

Of the king and the queen and the poor man It was hard to tell who was happier. It was hard to tell, too, what gave all of them the most pleasure – renewing the castle and the country or being together while doing so.

For a long time I’ve been struck by the parallels between a whole grain of wheat and a whole Christian faith-life. Rather than wait until I had perfectly worked out the parallels (which might not ever happen), I’ve decided to share my imperfect thinking at this point.

Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health – Harvard University

Consider these three features of a whole grain:

A whole grain of wheat is a complex, multifaceted thing with three different and indispensable elements – the bran, the germ, and the endosperm.

The Christian faith-life is also complex, multifaceted, and made up of different elements.

It is about a fervent trust in Jesus that opens us to the Holy Spirit and a relationship with God as we live out our lives. It is about loving God with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength and all our mind. It is about gathering together with others to be part of the Church. It is built in large part on 66 books of the Bible and the diverse wisdom and insights they contain. It is a way of thinking and perceiving the world that is somehow consistent with books as diverse as Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Jeremiah, Ecclesiastes, John, Romans, and Revelation. It is submitting ourselves to God and living lives of creative action.

It is about God, people, and the rest of Creation.

The total package of a whole grain of wheat is incredibly good for us.

There are over 100 vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients as well as fiber in a whole grain of wheat. And this total package is quite good for us. Phytonutrients, which include antioxidants, are particularly unsung heroes. They are the suite of natural chemicals that plants make as a flexible defense system to fend off germs, fungi, bugs, and other threats. They help the human body as well, providing protection against cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type-2 diabetes. Interestingly, bran and germ typically represent only 15-17% of a grain’s total weight but hold 75% of all of a grain’s total phytonutrients. Bran and germ also hold 100% of a grain’s fiber, which is essential for good health.

The total package of the whole Christian faith-life is also incredibly life transforming and enriching: I hope you’ve had contact with Christians, in person or through books and movies, who were different people because of their faith that expressed itself naturally in the lives they led. William Wilberforce is a great example. As are Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Brand, George Washington Carver, J.R.R. Tolkien, and many others.

The challenges involved in using the whole grain at a large scale and the sweetness of the endosperm have long tempted people to engineer simpler and more selective ways of using elements of the whole grain. 

The complexity of whole grain wheat make it hard to use in an automated, simplified way. As soon as the bran is broken, it releases fat which causes spoilage to happen quickly. It also takes considerable art to make a tasty bread out of whole wheat. What’s more, human cultures have tended to desire the pure whiteness of refined grains as well for aesthetic reasons.

So humanity has long tried to simplify the use of whole grains by using only one part – the endosperm. With the advent of the rolling mill, we had a way to do this more perfectly then ever before. The pinnacle of this development was white bread. It didn’t spoil and tasted light and sweet.

But the simplifcation deprived bread of the most important nutritional benefits (check out this useful graphic that shows what is lost). What’s more, foods using refined grains (with the bran and germ removed) tend to raise blood sugar levels far more quickly and at higher levels than whole grains. All kinds of health problems emerged as a result. Ironically, we now add nutrition back into bread that was lost in the milling process, but the net result is still not the same.

Too often we’ve reshaped the Christian faith into the religious equivalent of white bread.

We’ve refined out the complexity and mystery and life-changing purpose to which God calls us. The sweet kernel we’ve tended to hold onto is the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross which promises us access to life after death. Salvation, when simplified, becomes the stamping of our after-life passport for guaranteed entry into the good country of heaven rather than the bad country of hell.

We remove mystery. Nor do we expect to have our lives nor the lives of our fellow believers to be transformed over time in this life. We don’t dive deep into the Bible and its wisdom and its challenges. We ignore God’s earth and make the faith just about people and God.

In the end, I wonder if a white bread faith may be what we think we want. Maybe we don’t want our lives transformed by being a disciple of Jesus if that will cause us discomfort or awaken us to how broken the world really is and the mending we are called to engage in. Maybe we don’t want to question the assumptions of the culture and economy around us.

And maybe this lack of wholeness, mystery, and challenge is what makes efforts to share God with others unsuccessful.

I started out writing this blog with a focus on how Christian faith and life has largely ignored Creation in its theology, church culture, and ethics. I believe this has dishonored God and harmed our neighbors.

I now see things even more more broadly.

The lack of attention to how we treat God’s earth is not a single thing that Christians  have somehow generally forgot about over the centuries. It is a symptom of a larger tendency to artifically simplify, sweeten, and hollow out what the Christian faith is all about.

God offers us a whole grain faith-life. Will we seek it out and live it?

 

Note: This Scientific American article about the problems with food labeled as containing whole wheat is a good read that will make you think about what exactly “whole wheat” claims mean in processed foods.

 

 

 

 

In a previous post, I began to look more closely at John 3:16 as a way to wrestle with this question: how are you and I to think about how the Gospel in the New Testament relates to how we relate to God’s earth? This iconic verse that is everywhere is, I’ve found, rarely understood in its full meaning. In this post, we continue to look closely at John 3:16.

We’re so quick to jump to conclusions, aren’t we?

When we come to John 3:16, we rush through its rhythm and ideas, knowing that it ends happily with eternal life. And we rush, too, to the automatic assumption that “eternal life” is talking about life after death.

The grammar of the verse tells us otherwise. And I’ve never appreciated grammar more than when I first understood from David Pawson’s uneven book Is John 3:16 the Gospel? (and confirmed by other sources) that traditional translations of the verse typically get the verse subtly wrong because they don’t convey the subtleties of the grammar.

Pawson explains that the Greek language has more nuance in its tenses than in English. A crucial distinction is whether a verb indicates continuous action or action that occurs and is then over at a single point in time.

The “believe” in “everyone who believes in him” is actually in the present continuous tense. So that portion of the verse literally means “everyone who goes on believing in him.”

The “have” in “have eternal life” is also in the present continuous tense.

So the real translation of this portion of the verse would be… “everyone who goes on believing in him will go on having eternal life.”

Later in John 10:10 we come again to this idea of eternal, abundant life which we will go on having.  Of the many ways there are to translate it, I like the New Century Version best. It reads: “A thief comes to steal and kill and destroy, but I came to give life — life in all its fullness.”

This idea of God offering a full and good life also hearkens back to Psalm 16:11: “You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.”

Things get even more interesting when you look at “eternal.” Pawson notes that scholars are debating exactly what “eternal” means in this context. Some believe it relates to quantity – in other words something infinite without end. But others believe it relates to quality – “..life of a quality that makes every moment worthwhile.” Pawson writes, “I think the answer is both quantity and quality of life.”

The implications from understanding these elements of the verse more fully are profound:

First, we need to go on believing in Jesus and through Jesus in the God who Jesus reveals and the framework for what Jesus is all about from the Bible. As we highlighted in the last blog on this topic, this believing in is not about an intellectual assent to an idea but it’s putting the full weight of how we live our lives and what commit our heart to. It’s not a once-and-done situation. It’s entirely possible for us to stop believing.

Second, when we go on believing, we will go on having eternal life. Eternal life does not begin when we die. It begins now and continues through and past our death.

Third, eternal life is not an escape from this world but a radical engagement with it and a radical enlivening of ourselves that begins to give us the true life we were meant to have.

What does that eternal life, the eternal that we can go on having now and forever by continuing to believe in Jesus, look like? Here is my take on that from what I’ve read, seen, and experienced:

Beginning to know the majesty and mystery of God.

Knowing each of us matter and that we are loved by God.

Knowing how much God hates evil in all its forms.

Knowing that our past sins are forgiven, that death and evil are not to be feared, and that God can give us the power to overcome our ongoing habits of sin.

Seeing the God-given value of people and all of Creation.

Finding purpose in using our unique talents and creativity to share God, mend the woundedness of people and Creation, fight evil, and create joy.

Sharing and giving.

Finding peace and strength.

Being filled with the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Becoming part of a larger whole – God’s kingdom and the Church – and knowing that the good we do is part of a large movement.

Being called to forgive and being able to do so.

Knowing what matters and what doesn’t.

Jesus came not just to avoid sinning and be the perfect sacrifice for our sin but to also model for us what this eternal life in God looks like and is to be lived. This is why we are called to make disciples of all people.

I can’t help but mention, and this may reveal my Norwegian-American Lutheran background, that there is little sense in the Bible that following God’s ways will automatically translate into perpetual happiness, at least not in the light and fluffy sense of the word. There will be suffering. We will be called to do hard things. Rosa Parks and Willliam Wilberforce are just two examples of people whose Christian faiths called them to difficult paths that did not translate into casual happiness.

In fact, if our lives are easy and comfortable all the time and we fit in perfectly with the general culture around us, then we’re probably not living a complete Christian life. We’re probably following a Gospel that doesn’t reflect the present continuous tense.

We see the whole context of what experiencing true and ongoing eternal life is all about at the beginning of Genesis and at the end of Revelation – God, people, and Creation together in the relationship they were meant to have.

In this sense, life in all its fullness that we begin to grow into through ongoing faith in Jesus cannot help but lead to a different relationship with God, people, and God’s earth.