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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Nathan believes that a whole Christian faith includes not only a concern for God’s earth but also an imperative for us, individually and collectively, to daily show this living world mercy and compassion. A lifelong Christian, his faith has been a source of strength and challenge. During the last 14 years, he has worked for non-profit conservation groups that restore rivers, wetlands, prairies, woodlands, and the relationship people have with nature. Nathan lives in Grayslake, Illinois, with his wife and three children in the Prairie Crossing conservation community. To learn more about Nathan, click here.