How should Christians think about regulations and limits?

it’s a topic that needs addressing more than ever on this Earth Day, especially when President Trump plans slash environmental regulations and gut the Environmental Protection Agency. But if we’re candid, we must admit that Christians have long had blind spots the size of Texas when it comes to thinking about limits and regulations on our treatment of Creation and protecting the vulnerable in general. Too often Christians have come close to worshipping freedom more than we worship God, except when we’ve called for severe resrictions on a few highly emotional and very tangible matters like abortion and homosexuality.

I’ll start this brief (by my standards!) meditation by calling your attention to the story of Adam and Eve.

In Genesis 2:15 we read the story of God telling Adam and Eve that they are free to eat the fruit of any tree in the garden with the exception of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

This was an environmental regulation. This was a limit on the use of Creation, It was a limit to protect Adam and Eve, and, because of their charge to rule God’s world, the limit also served as protection for Creation.

As you read on, we find in Genesis 3:6 that Eve was particularly tempted by the fruit’s appearance that promised culinary pleasure and by the wisdom that she would gain by consuming it. There, in a nutshell, are the two factors that drove the Fall as Christians understand it and what continue to tempt people today.

Our appetites. Our desire for power.

Today’s technologically-amped, Internet-saturated, self-gratification-focused, sacrifice-allergic, corporate-dominated world provides more options to act more impulsively on our appetites and desire for power than has ever been seen history.

This, in turn, makes the question of freedom for individuals and institutions an ever more challenging one.

If we’re honest, we’ll admit that we are as tempted by our appetites and desire for power as Adam and Eve were. Limits are needed to prevent all of us, in our worst moments, from ignoring what is good for ourselves, our neighbors, and God’s earth.

Efforts to remove all limitations and permit everything ignore what the Christians call the Fall and Original Sin. Ironically, the design of the United States constitution is based in large part on an awareness that people will be drawn towards selfishness and acting on their worst passions. Its designers wanted to do two things – provide some idea of where the dividing lines between state powers and the federal government’s powers were (orderliness includes limits) and to frustrate the ability of majorities of people to easily use the tools of government to harm the interests of people outside of the majority. Checks and balances exist to contain and frustrate sinful people from doing the worst that they can do.

Balancing freedom with limits on the use of power is a very Christian approach.

That balance is seen, for example, in regulations God gives to the people of Israel for how they will live in the Promised Land. Consider Exodus 23:10-11. It reads, “For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.”

This forced fallowing would have limited the freedom of a landowner to maximize profit from a piece of land but it would have benefited the poor and local wildlife while also allowing the soil itself to renew itself.

Notice, too, how in a way similar to the description of the Fall the interests of God, people, and Creation are interlinked. This is common throughout the Bible. You cannot love God nor your neighbor if you trash God’s earth.

So pay attention to the words leaders use when they speak of rules and regulations and limits. Ask these questions:

What values do advocates for reducing or eliminating regulations directly or indirectly appeal to in their rhetoric? Is it love for God and love for our neighbors? Or is it freedom for the powerful to pursue their appetites and power in ways harmful to the the vulnerable and the commonwealth?  

Do the advocates for eliminating regulations accept one of the fundamental elements of the Bible – the Fall and our continued tendency to do wrong, individually and collectively? If they don’t, you have an approach to life and policy that is not Christian in its fundamentals.

Is the push for reduced regulations driven by corporations or people representing the interests of corporations? What complicates matters in thinking about limits and regulations today is the increasing complexity of our world and the dominating role that corporations play. Because corporations are increasingly seen as the vehicles for meeting our personal appetites and desires for power, we are tempted more than ever to give them as much power and freedom as possible.

And, like bacteria that adjust their environment to make conditions more conducive for their existence and less conducive for others, corporations strive to manipulate the regulatory environment to allow them to prosper as much as possible. The more powerful corporations get the more they either seek complete freedom or, perhaps worse, shape our legal frameworks in ways that work for their benefit.

Are those advocating and supporting the elimination of limits in the economic realm equally open to the elimination of limits in other areas of life?

The poster child for someone who called a spade a spade and then was slapped down is Tomi Lahren. This young conservative social media sensation said earlier this month:

“I am someone that’s for limited government. And so I can’t sit here and be a hypocrite and say I’m for limited government but I think that the government should decide what women do with their bodies. I can sit here and say that, as a Republican, and I can say, you know what, I’m for limited government, so stay out of my guns, and you can stay out of my body as well.”

The blowback from conservatives was fierce, and she was fired from Glen Beck’s Blaze TV network. They accused her of being shallow in her conservatism. But, in fact, she was only saying aloud what a radical devotion to freedom in other areas of life would naturally lead you to conclude about abortion – limits on it restrict one’s freedom and do so in an area most intimate to a woman’s life.

It is fundamentally hypocritical for Christians to advocate for strict limits on the application of power against vulnerable life in one area and to go along with the wholesale elimination of limits on the use of power against vulnerable life in other areas.

For example, this article highlights that testing in 2005 and 2006 found that the average baby just out of the womb had an average of 200 industrial chemicals in its blood. Scientists at one point had thought the placenta shielded developing babies in the womb but this is now clearly not the case. And a young, developing infant is more vulnerable to harm from these chemicals than an adult. Where are the Christians fighting to protect the unborn from a chemical onslaught? Did you know that only a small minority of the industrial chemicals being used today have been tested for their safety because of the laxness of the Toxic Substances Control Act? Logic would dictate that Christians calling for limits on abortion should also seek out limits on what the unborn (and the rest of Creation) are exposed to.

Are the regulations and limits in question overdone and crushing goodness and creativity? Fallen people running governments are also tempted, sometimes even out of good motivations, to extend the power of government too far and too oppressively. Business influence can also shape the framework of laws and limits so that they favor the interests of large-scale industry.

It’s time for Christians to be coherent in what we believe so that how we act in society is also coherent. All of life is filled with meaning by God. God is on the side of the vulnerable even as our creativity also comes from God. We need to recognize how strongly our appetites and our desire for power tempt us. We should not only accept balances between limits and freedom where they are needed to protect all that God values, especially the vulnerable, but also advocate for that balance.

We should, like the Psalmist in Psalm 119:97, recognize our fallenness and welcome limits that guide our energies in right ways:

“Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.”

Ole Hallesby’s book Prayer, first published in 1931, is full of wisdom and insights. It also contains a thought that may stop you in your tracks.

In the chapter of the Norwegian theologian’s book entitled “Problems of Prayer,” Hallesby asks, “Are our intercessions necessary as far as God is concerned and the work He would have accomplished in this world?”

In other words, why pray for God to do things in the world that God was going to do anyway?

Here is Hallesby’s answer:

“We can answer by saying, in the first place, that it is impossible for God to bring the world forward to its goal without humankind.

The attitude which we take is the vital factor in determining whether the world shall attain its goal or not. God has voluntarily bound Himself to us in HIs government of the world. From the very beginning of the history of revelation we see that God has established His kingdom only where He could find people who would voluntarily permit themselves to be used by Him.

It thus becomes evident that God has voluntarily made HImself dependent also upon our prayer. For, after all, prayer is the deciding factor in the life of all who surrender themselves to God to be used by Him.

What we do in God’s kingdom is entirely dependent on what we are. And what we are depends again upon what we receive. And what we receive, depends again upon prayer. This applies not only to the work of God in us, but also to the work of God through us.”

If you’re like me, you’ll read these words of a conservative theologian and then need to read them again. They challenge our conceptions of God’s relationship with the world and with us. This set of ideas actually makes how we live and what we live for even more significant.

Attentive and focused prayer should, consequently, be something we fervently do. It should be a habit. It will shape us and, in mysterious ways, impact the world.

I would, however, take things one step beyond Hollesby. I would urge you to make God’s earth a regular focus of your prayers.

This doesn’t happen at your typical church.

But it should.

Just as human failings and fallenness have led to unimaginable suffering throughout the centuries in people, human failings and sin have corrupted and caused unimaginable violence to the creatures and systems of God’s earth.

You and I should pray and pray hard for God’s earth and its renewal.

I recently read, for example, that surveys are finding that approximately 50 per cent of the corals at the Great Barrier reef off of the coast of Austraila have died due to rising sea temperatures, more acidic conditions in the ocean, and other factors. Because coral reefs are foundational habitat for so much marine life, the dying off of corals at the Great Barrier Reef and other places around the globe is a crisis for ocean life and ultimately for human life as well.

It’s also one more profound and tragic symptom of our spiritual dysfunction.

We should pray, too, for those whose calling in life is to use God’s earth, to steward it, to study it, and to protect it even when doing so puts their lives at risk.

The whole faith church I want to see emerge would make this kind of prayer a regular and serious part of the church community’s life.

Is prayer all we should do?

Absolutely not.

We should act.

In our everyday habits. In being part of larger changes in our community and in how our economy and government work.

And, ironically, our actions are also built on prayer.

You can see that logic in the words of Hallesby I shared earlier in this post. Elsewhere in his book, Hallesby also writes this, “Everyday Christianity cannot be practiced unless we incessantly receive into our lives that supply of spiritual power which is necessary in order to preserve within us that spirit which is willing to deny self, to serve others, to endure wrong and to let others have the last word.”

I would add that God’s Spirit can also give us boldness, tenacity, and intensity to combine with the fruits of the spirit. Does that sound paradoxical? Does that sound unlike your “ideal” Christian?  Then take another look at the life of Jesus. He prayed. He asked his disciples to pray with him.  And during his three years of mission, he led a dynamic, disruptive life that challenged everyone he came in contact with. He knew, too, that what he was doing was putting him on a path to the ultimate sacrifice.

Prayer is a way to be filled with God’s Spirit which will give us the power to act in the world the way God wants us to act.

Being beings of matter in a world that matters because it matters to God means that we, if we listen carefully, are called to sustain God’s earth in the way we act.

Pray today.

 

P.S. Do you pray for God’s earth? If so, please let me know that you do. And if you have a specific prayer that you’d like to share, please pass it along to me at wholefaithlivingearth@gmail.com.

 

You’ll find that Christians who make the case that being committed stewards of God’s earth is part and parcel of what it means to being a Christ follower rarely use verses from the Gospels for support of their conviction.

This is primarily because the Gospels have little directly to say about our responsibilities to and our relationship with God’s earth.

I won’t deny that at times that can feel like a problem.

Neverthless, if you read the Gospels with a wider and more whole vision of what is being communicated and if you seek to understand the Christian faith within the context of the whole Bible and the threads and frameworks you find in it, then I believe there is solid enough ground for our convictions.

Interestingly, the lack of explicit statements on almost any social issues by Jesus can be frustrating for anyone looking for clear guidance on those issues. For centuries, Chrisitan thinkers have had to extrapolate and conjecture, often with great creativity, about war, economic systems, slavery, democracy, abortion, and the other hot-button topics of any particular time.

So how are you and I to think about how the Good News and Jesus relate to how we relate to God’s earth?

In this and future posts to come, I’m going to tackle that question by diving into John 3:16. In the course of those posts I will tease out some threads that do relate to what a whole Christian faith is and do relate, at least indirectly, to what the Christian faith means for our relationship with God’s earth.

It’s an iconic verse that people know by heart and which appears at sporting events and many other venues, even under Tim Tebow’s eyes. There’s the assumption, in fact, that this single verse captures the very essence of the Gospel.

Max Lucado’s book of this title affirms the idea that John 3:16 presents the heart of the gospel.

When I actually began studying it a few weeks ago, however, things became more complicated. There is much more depth and nuance to the verse than is usually assumed. In fact, there’s a fair amount of disagreement about the meaning of the verse within some Christian circles. This all makes thinking about how the verse relates to our relationship with the rest of Creation challenging and intriguing.

I will begin the John 3:16 odyssey by calling your attention to the imperative at the center of the verse – “believe in.”

David Pawson has a different take than Lucado on what John 3:16 actually communicates.

David Pawson’s book, Is John 3:16 the Gospel?, has some insights that are very useful and other assertions which I would heartily disagree with. One of his useful insights is about these two critical words.

Too often the Christian faith is assumed to be about assenting to certain creeds and dctrines in an intellectual way. Pawson asserts this would be the right thing to think if we were called to “believe that.” “Believe that” conveys the acceptance of some sort of fact in an abstract, analytical way.

But what the verse asserts makes the difference between perishing and having life is whether you believe in Jesus. Here’s what Pawson says what that really entails:

“And believing in someone means two things: that you trust them and that you are willing to obey them.”

So I would assert that the essential calling of the Christian faith is to trust in the Jesus we find in the Gospels – his words, his actions, his death, his resurrection, and how that all fits within the context of the rest of the Bible – and to obey Jesus in how we live.

That means putting the whole weight of our convictions and the decisions we make and what we value on the God we experience and understand through Jesus with the guidance of what Christians call the Holy Spirit.

I don’t hear faith explained this way very often.

Nor do I hear enough churches helping their members in very tangible ways to translate trust in Jesus into obedience in the daily habits of their lives.

In The Divine Conspirancy, Dallas Willard articulates the state of affairs like this:

“Whatever the ultimate explanation of it, the most telling thing about the contemporary Christian is that he or she simply has no compelling sense that understanding of and conformity with the clear teachings of Christ is of any vital importance to his or her life, and certainly not that it is in any way essential.”

When the Christian faith is reduced to a static, dogmatic, theological affirmation that is seen primarily as the price of admission to the life we will enjoy AFTER our deaths, then it is easy to understand why Christians have been able to do crazy, cruel, violent things to people and to God’s earth throughout history.

When the Christian faith is understood as the dynamic foundation for the lives we live every moment beginning here and now on this earth, then the way Christians will relate with people and other living things around them can’t help but be very different.

John 3:16, I believe, is calling us to this second understanding.

Christians will not consistently reveal the abundant life God offers nor act as if God’s Creation mattered unless churches weave a whole faith into their worship, theology, and culture. I’m exploring what that would look like in what I call the “whole faith church.” This is another post in that series.

Few things communicate as much about a church body’s faith and how that faith defines our relationship with God’s earth as the manner in which a church buries its loved ones who have passed away.

This is a defining moment in a church’s common life. It is a defining moment in the culture of one’s faith. And culture, of course, is typically something that is invisible to us. We do things within a culture just because that’s the way they are done.

So in the comforting rituals of our visitations, funerals, and internments it is easy to miss elements that are not in synch with a whole Christian faith. The elements that revolve around how the body is treated and how we treat the land in which the body is buried are particularly out of synch.

For that reason, the whole faith church will handle funerals and burials in some ways that are different from mainstream practices.

These ways, I believe, are actually more consistent with key messages of the Bible. These ways would also contribute to a church culture that more fully commits itself to stewarding the physical elements of God’s earth (including our bodies) with respect and honor.

These would be the key burial practice principles of a whole faith church:

Unless there are unusual circumstances, the loved one’s body will not be embalmed.

The loved one’s body will be buried in such a way that the return of the body to dust will not be hindered. Coffins, if necessary, will be biodegradable and vaults will not be used.

The land in which loved ones are buried will be stewarded in ways that make it possible for as much natural life to prosper as possible and will, simultaneously, have creative human design and art that set those places apart for special meaning.

The whole faith church will minimally gather once a year as a community at that place to remember the dead, to celebrate their eventual resurrection, and to tend to the landscape there.

What will these practices affirm?

That indeed we are made of dust and to dust we will return.

That the death of a loved one is a momentous event for which the rest of our lives should stop.

That we come into this world with nothing and leave it with nothing.

That we are all equal before God.

That we are both made in the image of God and also part of Creation.

That it is right to treat every place on God’s earth, especially those with deep spiritual meaning, with deep respect and with the intention of promoting the life of God’s earth as much as possible.

That we as a community are committed to remembering our dead and the land in which they have been buried actively and incarnationally with times of togetherness, remembrance, and hands-on work.

That the resurrection will be miraculous beyond all measure.

For some readers this will all sound whacked-out radical and completely impractical.

Ironically, this approach to funerals and burial is actually far more the norm historically. And it’s being done in increasing numbers of places today.

It is called green burial.

Green burial has its own certification organization – the Green Burial Council – that defines what counts as green burial (and there are a spectrum of types) and what doesn’t. There are also examples of green burial grounds that demonstrate how green burial can be done in combination with the ongoing stewardship of a beautiful natural area. Here are a few examples: Honey Creek Woodlands in Georgia, Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, Green Meadow in Pennsylvania, and at Kokosing Nature Preserve at Kenyon College in Ohio.

My favorite story about this kind of burial comes from Dr. Billy Campbell, the founder of Memorial Ecosystems which launched the green burial movement here in the United States by opening Ramsey Creek Preserve.

Some of the rural neighbors of the property that became Ramsey Creek Preserve weren’t initially thrilled about having this “new” approach to burial close by. And one of the most vociferous opponents was a cantankerous older man known for his red suspenders. But as the years went by, he saw how Ramsey Creek Preserve’s approach to burial preserved the woods he loved and was a deeply meaningful way for people to bury their dead. He was won over.

A number of years later when his health was declining, he dictated that he wanted to be buried at the Ramsey Creek Preserve. And he was, wearing his signature red suspenders.

I’ll be writing more about this in posts to come. If you’re looking for one book to read to better understand how embalming works and to introduce you to diverse green burial options being practiced, then check out Grave Matters by Mark Harris. He also has a good website of the same name that includes this excerpt from the book describing a burial at the Ramsey Creek Preserve.

Abimilech’s Appeal

Nathan Aaberg —  February 15, 2017 — Leave a comment

You will find encouragement for believing that God’s earth is part of the arc of the whole Bible story in surprising places.

Genesis 21 is known best for its story of Abraham and Sarah being given their long-awaited child at a very old age. Their son Isaac, whose name has such a rich and ironic meaning (“he laughs” or “laughter”), is a great miracle, Our attention tends to stop right there. Or it might stop after we read next of Abraham being forced to drive Hagar and Ishmael out of the family.

But look closely at the story that takes place at the end of the chapter. In it, the abimilech of that time (“abimilech” was a title for Philistine kings, like “pharaoh” was for Egyptian rulers) visits Abraham to make a peace pact wth him. The fact that Abilimilech visited Abraham, rather than the other way around, is an implicit indication of respect. Clearly, Abimilech has been observing Abraham closely. He believes Abraham will be in the land there for some time and has Divine support.

In Genesis 21: 22-23 Abimilech makes his appeal:

“Now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my descendants or with my posterity, but as I have dealt kindly with you, so you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned.” (English Standard Version)

As this helpful blog post and this one as well remind us, the appeal to Abraham to not deal falsely brings up a painful memory from their relationship. Earlier, Abraham, out of fear the Abimilech might kill him if he admitted he was Sarah’s husband, had claimed that Sarah was his sister as he had also done when they were in Egypt. Before Abilimilech could unknowlingly act badly with Sarah, God had appeared to Abimilech and revealed the truth of the situation. Abimilech, horrified, had rebuked Abraham.

The reader comes away with two strong impressions. The first is that Abraham, despite God’s promises and support, does not always live out a strong faith in his life. In fact, fear seems to wrestle with his faith and sometimes wins. (And this seems to have been imprinted upon Isaac as well as he does a similar thing in Genesis 26).

The second impression is that this abimilech in some ways has a more noble heart than Abraham.

In Genesis 21:22-23 Abimilech reveals his heart’s quality again. And there are three words in his appeal that can slip right by our consciousness.

“With the land.”

Abimilech’s concern extend to both his family’s descendants and to the land.

How is one kind to the land? What kind of heart does one have to have to consider the land as needing kindness? What kind of heart does a person or a nation have to have to be kind to the land over years and decades and centuries?

It all starts with paying attention. If you love your spouse or your child, you pay attention to them. Close attention. You know what they like and don’t like. You know what is troubling them and what they hope for. You know intuitively whether they are doing well physically and in their hearts. This same sort of relationship is essential for our relationship with the land as well. Abraham and Abimilech would have known how to pay attention to the land far better than we do today. Their lives and livelihoods depended on it.

The video below is an example of an Australian rancher paying attention to a piece of land’s poor condition when he and his wife first acquire it. With help and perseverence, they begin to turn into a healthier and yet productive place. I believe it illustrates the kind of attentiveness and responsibility that Abimilech was calling for Abraham to have.

In our efforts to live the life God wants for us, we can learn from Abimilech’s appeal. His appeal speaks of a vulnerable affection not only for his family but for the land in which they have dwelled. It also is an appeal that focuses on what Abraham’s actions will be.

In a similar way, we as Christians are called to love our neighbors and to keep and tend this world. It is a calling to be fully and wholly human. It is a calling that must be expressed in actions.