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Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to speak at length on the phone with a Christian I had met at a gathering of conservationists and other community members in central Illinois. He and his wife are active members of their church. They also happen to care deeply for God’s earth.

This wasn’t always the case.

The turning point came in 2005 when he had back surgery while living in Ohio and couldn’t walk for some time. When he began to recover, he made it a goal to walk all 16 Metro parks in Columbus. The experience renewed his love of nature. Later, when he retired and returned with his wife to Illinois, he completed a Master Naturalist program. This, in turn, led him to get further involved with conservation through a local non-profit organization that preserves and restores natural areas. As part of their desire to live as simply as they could, they bought a seven-acre property, built a passive solar home, and have been restoring the land to native natural habitat.

Yet, he has found that not everyone at their church sees the connection between the Christian faith and the his and wife’s attentiveness to Creation.

He vividly remembers being asked by a fellow church member, “Why do you waste your time with that?”

In Our Father’s World: Mobilizing the Church to Care for CreationEdward Brown recounts a similar experience. He was having a conversation over coffee with a friend he deeply respected who had been the principal of a missionary school that both Brown and his wife had attended early in their lives. When Brown describes the mission organization he had founded (Care of Creation) and his personal commitment to environmental missions, he could tell this friend was distressed by all that he was saying. Here’s how Brown recounts his friends’ words to him: “He finally put down his cup of coffee, looked me in the eye and said, “Ed, what in the world does this have to with the Great Commission?””Our Fathers World #3484 IVP FINALOur Fathers World #3484 IVP Version

If you’re Christian and you’ve expressed a concern for God’s earth, you’ve probably faced something like this moment yourself. So how do you answer those questions?

The following excerpt from Our Father’s World, published by InterVarsity Press, will be helpful for you to read. You’ll see that Brown places a commitment to preserving God’s earth within the context of a whole Christian life.

He also pushes back. He highlights the negative consequences that unfold when Christian missions don’t present a complete faith that includes a commitment to shepherding God’s living world.

Here is the excerpt:

If you’ve stayed with me this long, you have a pretty good idea of why I believe caring for God’s creation has everything to do with that final command that Jesus gave his disciples: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). I’ve made a case for full, creation-restoring redemption. But my friend’s question is a serious one. He has seen the primary message of the gospel of Jesus Christ diluted by various kinds of “social gospel,” and he believes he has some reasons to be nervous. Is this just one effort to make a timeless gospel relevant, focusing on human needs but cutting out the essential heart of redemption and forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross? The history of Christian ministry is littered with the carcasses of organizations that attempted to adapt to the needs of the moment and in the process lost the spiritual power that made them unique.

So how is caring for creation different? The first part of the answer requires a review of the foundation laid in the first part of this book. Christian missions is the effort of the whole church to extend Christ’s ministry of reconciliation (see 2 Corinthians 5:11-21) to all nations and all peoples, making disciples and “teaching them to observe” all of Jesus’ teachings and commandments (Matthew 28:20), in effect teaching them to live in ways that will reverse the curse of sin throughout all of God’s creation.

We’ve seen that this process involves a restoration of each of the relationships broken at the time of Adam and Eve’s sin: our relationship with God is restored in salvation; our relationship with ourselves in sanctification; our relationship with each other in koinonia, the restored community of the church; and our relationship with nonhuman creation in learning to live in harmony with it again, a process reflected in the ancient Hebrew word shalom….. If, then, the purpose of Christian missions or ministry is the accomplishment of this kind of full redemption, including creation care is not a distraction from the main goal. It is the goal.

Countries like Kenya have experienced more than one hundred years of missionary presence, but their current state shows no improvement. Depending on what you want to measure, Kenya is possibly a great deal worse off than before the gospel arrived. Is there a correlation between this and the truncated view of the Christian missions we’ve promoted for the last century? If the biblical goal is shalom, but we thought we were finished when we delivered a simple message of salvation, it’s no wonder things haven’t worked out quite as well as we might have expected. Bad theology – or at least incomplete theology – will always give bad results.

Jesus warned his disciples of the dangers of casting out a demon and leaving the “house” swept, cleaned but unguarded. That demon returns with seven others more powerful than itself (see Luke 11:24-25). We have driven out the demons of paganism with a lightweight gospel of personal salvation. Today the churches in these countries are reaping the harvest. If we’re honest, the results of this are evident not just in the daughter churches of missionary-receiving countries, but also in many of the mother churches that sent missionaries out in the first place. Bringing creation care and missions together will restore the theological integrity of the missionary enterprise.

If you want to read a challenging and inspiring book, pick up The Hole in the Gospel by Richard Stearns.

In the book, Stearns shares how he was enjoying a successful corporate career when a number of things happened that led him to believe that God was calling him to step out of his comfort zone to become the president of World Vision, the Christian humanitarian aid organization.

And he wasn’t sure he wanted to answer that call.

This brought to a head two pressing questions in his life. What was the Christian faith all about? And was he willing to accept a call from God that would require him to accept God’s will and purpose even if they differed from his own?

The “hole” in the Gospel that the book’s title refers to is the tendency among Christians to make Jesus’ message all about getting our bus ticket punched for the right destination in the next life and to ignore God’s desire to advance his kingdom in this world.

hole-in-gospel book cover image

This is well worth reading.

Here’s how Stearns puts it:

“In our evangelistic efforts to make the good news accessible and simple to understand, we seem to have boiled it down to a kind of “fire insurance” that one can buy. Then, once the policy is in place, the sinner can go back to whatever life he was living – of wealth and success, or of poverty and suffering. As long as the policy is in the drawer, the other things don’t matter much. We’ve got our “ticket” to the next life.”

A few lines later, Stearns talks more of the whole gospel.

“The kingdom of God, which Christ said is “within you” (Luke 17:21 NKJV), was intended to change and challenge everything in our fallen world in the here and now. It was not meant to be a way to leave the world but rather the means to actually redeem it. Yes, it first requires that we repent of our own sinfulness and totally surrender our individual lives to follow Christ, but then we are also commanded to go into the world – to bear fruit by lifting up the poor and marginalized, challenging injustice wherever we find it, rejecting the worldly values found within every culture, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.”

And he ultimately did accept what he perceived to be the call of God to pursue the redemption of the world by becoming the President of World Vision. He did this despite the fact that he was enjoying a stable, satisfying, well-compensated professional life as the CEO of Lenox and despite the fact that he felt unqualified. He took a leap of faith.

I call attention to Stearns and his story because his articulation of the Gospel is powerful and connects with the ideas of a whole faith that this blog is exploring. The Gospel is a dynamic, life-changing force that begins our eternal and blessed life right now and in this world.

I also call attention to Stearns because I’m convinced that we need to create an international Christian organization as broad and large as World Vision dedicated to preserving and mending God’s earth which we have stood by and alllowed to be defaced and destroyed for too long.

You might know World Vision through its child sponsorship system, which allows people to sponsor children in poor communities around the world. That sponsorship funding then helps World Vision serve the communities in which those children live.

It serves communities in a wide variety of ways – from offering medical services and emergency aid to helping train community members in agriculture and protecting children from child trafficking, abuse, and neglect.

The scale of World Vision International is astonishing. World Vision International serves nearly 100 countries. It has 45,000 staff. Its revenues in 2013 reached $2.67 billion.

By contrast, the largest Christian international organization that I know of is A Rocha, which carries out education, research, and conservation projects. Its income in 2013 was $5.4 million.

How can we as Christians not be responding to problems of global environmental degradation at the scale of those problems?

World Vision is an inspiration. It brings together the resources and energies of thousands of churches and millions of Christians into one organization that can tackle poverty at a wide scale while working collaboratively at the local community level.

It’s time for a Christian organization to do the same thing for God’s earth. We need to bring our resources to bear on the forces depleting and disrupting God’s world at the scale of those forces.

And in light of the scale and moral urgency of the calamity unfolding in front of us, that organization needs to be as large as World Vision. Maybe larger.

This leads me to the painful conviction that right now the best use of the majority of our energies and resources is not in efforts to awaken local churches to a whole faith.

I suspect I’ve not been alone in long assuming a bottom-up approach was the way to go. I’ve dreamed that if enough churches came to care about God’s earth as part of a whole faith that this would lead eventually to changes in the lives and actions of individuals Christians. This, in turn, would them to bring about changes in their local communities. And this would eventually, gradually lead to changes to the culture and policies of their nations.

But the reality of the situation has come home to me. Even if that sequence would be assured of happening, it won’t happen fast enough nor at the right scale nor with the urgency and effectiveness that is needed.

Certainly, churches should preach and teach a whole faith that includes God’s Creation. I long to see a whole faith flourish at the local church level. I want to help that happen.

What I have seen, however, is that a whole faith typically faces considerable resistance, polite disinterest, or downright apathy. And that’s in the churches where the accepted doctrine would even allow you to have a conversation about the intrinsic value of the earth to God.

Those who do care tend to find themselves in Creation Care committees that do praiseworthy activities but have a hard time inspiring the whole congregation to act in concerted, coordinated ways and to create new habits of living. There are gatekeepers. There is cultural resistance. It’s perceived to be too radical and too costly.

And even if some churches began to move in those directions, individual churches just aren’t be able to deal systematically with the systematic ways God’s Creation is being violently diminished.

Rivers and coral reefs are dying. Creatures are going extinct. Too often the way we raise food mines the wealth of God’s world and doesn’t regenerate it. The world’s climate is changing. People, our neighbors in God’s eyes, are suffering and losing much because of these trends.  It will only get worse if these trends continue unabated.

Aralship2  photo

A ship left high and dry in the former Aral Sea (near Aral, Kazakhstan) that used to be the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world. Read about its slow death and see striking aerial images of the shrinkage since 2000 here.

Patient work at the level of local church is just not enough. Being content with recycling and using more energy-efficient light bulbs (all good things, of course) is like having a satisfied feeling in your heart after throwing a glass of cool water on a roaring fire that is engulfing a neighbor’s house.

And the limited number of Christians who care about God’s earth need to be strategic in where they use their limited time and resources.

It’s time for Christians to push themselves to be leaders in preserving and mending God’s world for God’s sake, for our neighbors’ sake, and for the sake of the diversity of life around us.

It’s time for Christians to bring all of their dynamism, compassion, innovation, and willingness to sacrifice for what is good to bear.

It’s time for the Church as a unified body of Spirit-filled communities to pool its resources in a new organizational arm that focuses on one thing – protecting and mending God’s earth – and to do so with all of the urgency, creativity, and prophetic passion God’s spirit can provide.

What exactly would this international organization do? What would make it uniquely Christian and uniquely valuable? And where would the money come from?

With fear and trembling, I’ll give my best answers to those questions in my next post.

Mourning Elephants

Nathan Aaberg —  September 20, 2014 — Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anthony described what happened then:

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

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

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

There is much to ponder about this story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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