Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tending to Eden: This Reader's Review

Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God’s People
by Scott C. Sabin (Judson Press, 2010)

While our attention is still drawn to the ravages caused by the January, 2010 earthquake in Haiti, it is very timely that a book has just been released by Judson Press, entitled Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God’s People, by Scott Sabin. Although the earthquake has caused untold suffering and death, it is only the latest episode in a longer and larger story of the injustice, poverty, and the spiritual and physical hunger that is a subject of this new release.

Haiti is simply the most obvious example of what Scott Sabin describes as the result of broken relationships that need healing. These relationships are the human relationship to God, to neighbor, to ourselves, and to God’s creation. Tending to Eden is a very personal account of Scott Sabin’s growth in grace and knowledge of God’s calling to invest his life on behalf of the hungry, supported by his understanding of the theology of environmental stewardship, and capped by practical suggestions for readers and their churches who want to add a living demonstration of the gospel to their proclamation of it.

Since acquiring Tending to Eden earlier this week, it has become more than just another addition to my small library of books on Christian environmental stewardship. Although I have not met Mr. Sabin in person, it’s as if I’ve already met “Scott” through his transparent communication– demonstrating not only a passion for God, for His creation, and for God’s people, but also a challenge to awaken to God’s call to love Him and their neighbor through participation with the Spirit in bringing forth “the justice, hope, and peace of Christ to the world.”

My acquaintance with Scott began in Chapter 1 when he introduced himself as a “typical evangelical from the U.S. suburbs, [who] had grown up in the church and accepted Jesus at summer camp.” Then, during a short-term mission trip to Guatemala, Scott realized that his faith was “personal but not particularly relevant to the problems of the world.” Like many of us whose hearts have been stirred by a short-term missions trip, he came home with a passion to make a difference.

Scott recounts his first action, “volunteering for Plant With Purpose, simply because it was the Christian anti-poverty organization closest to my home. Mine was a humble beginning: stuffing response cards into envelopes and calling donors.”

Today, Mr. Sabin is executive director of Plant With Purpose, “a nonprofit Christian environmental organization with operations in seven countries.” In Scott’s words, the aim of Plant With Purpose is “to restore our world so that it looks a lot more like Eden and feels a lot less like hell.” Under his leadership, the organization’s projects focus on planting trees to address deforestation, a root cause of poverty.

By now, you may be asking, as I did, “What does tree planting on earth have to do with the Great Commission to which we are called to present the gospel to those who will otherwise miss heaven and be lost for eternity?” Scott’s faith and approach is based on Old Testament teachings such as that of Isaiah whose message was read centuries later by Jesus Christ when He came to set His people free through His incarnation, sacrificial death, and resurrection:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to
preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom
for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set
the oppressed free. (Luke 4:18)

“God’s Word is clear on what we must do for our light to shine in the darkness. The good news must be shared by demonstration as well as proclamation (italics added). Isaiah 58:10 sums it up (Sabin, page 7):

If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”

But doesn’t this sound like “social gospel” or “social justice” repackaged into the “green movement?” Sabin explains how this concern has a long history (pp. 8-9):

“...the call to justice has always been problematic. The Israelites to whom Isaiah spoke missed it. At the time of Christ, the most religiously observant missed it. The early church missed it. We too are prone to miss it. There is a pitfall on the opposite extreme as well: forsaking the proclamation of the gospel even as we get the demonstration of it right. The “social gospel” movement of a century ago emphasized justice at the expense of evangelism. In reaction, many evangelicals shrank from mercy ministries and are only now beginning to recover from that rejection.

Demonstration and proclamation must be as one, or we rob Christ’s message of its vitality...Some have called these the two hands of the gospel, but...Gustavo Crocker, former director of Nazarene Compassionate Ministries, compared them more accurately to two wings that must work together in order to be effective (p. 8-9).”

In outlining his application of the “two-wings metaphor”, Sabin insightfully states (p. 67):

“We want to give the poor bread and water. But as life-giving as agricultural produce and clean water are, this is not the best we have to give. It would be a shame if we gave only the manna that
is gone after a day, when it is in our power to offer the true bread of Jesus. By the same token, making disciples is not the principle reason behind the development work we do. Once our efforts become a means to an end, even an end as good as this, they become disingenuous. I do not feed, clothe, and educate my children so I can share the gospel with them. I feed them, clothe them, educate them, and share the gospel with them because I love them.”

Other readers may question why they should support “environmental restoration” projects when there are more pressing needs such as illegal border crossing, urban squalor, and human trafficking. Sabin addresses this question by emphasizing the need for what he calls “upstream thinking” (p. 96):

“Unless we practice upstream thinking—looking at root causes rather than merely symptoms—it can be easy to miss the connections between tropical deforestation and migration, illegal immigration, and human slavery. We have to work through several steps to see how one seemingly minor problem—deforestation—can contribute to an injustice as ugly as sex trafficking. Yet we must.”

Thank you, Scott, for sharing your personal testimony and the ministry of Plant With Purpose; then, giving your readers a theological basis for environmental stewardship, practical illustrations, resources for small-group Bible study, and practical applications that demonstrate how the gospel can be and is being proclaimed through proclamation and demonstration.


tammy said...

Haiti's horrific earthquake has drawn the attention of many Americans to the systemic poverty of that benighted country. As an environmental science teacher I explain to my students how Haiti's deforestation has impoverished it in unimaginable ways.

My son traveled there on a summer missions trip in 2008, and my daughter is preparing to go this summer. I pray that they, like Sabin, will have their eyes opened to the fact that the ravages afflicting Haiti, and many countries like it, are the results of broken relationships, and that Jesus love will compel them to peach the whole gospel as a result.

Sending people on trips is great, but we need to mobilize the returning participants to understand this amazing concept of "upstream thinking," so that they can clearly see the connections of the problems to their root causes. Any "fixes" we hope to do must mean that we add a living demonstration of our faith along with our our proclamation of it. I'm afraid our over-reaction to the "social gospel" makes us run the dangerous risk of seeing our gospel proclamation efforts diluted, robbed of their power, and marginalized because we fail to link them to to "setting the oppressed free." Though this thought is unpopular in many Christian circles today, it is undeniably scripturally true. Doing less leads to a lop-sided faith which fails to fly on two necessary wings.

Working through the difficult steps would most likely be ugly, and would certainly invade our comfort zones. It would probably touch every American because we are guilty of driving so much comsumption, but the alternative is to continue blissfully strolling along in blinders while oppression goes unanswered. Unacceptable.

I welcome Sabin's book because I need this kind of solid reasoning based in sound theology to make the argument for Christian environmental stewardship for both my students and f

Tieg Laskowske said...

It is really good to hear these things. Hearing about Sabin's work gladdens my heart. And hearing his clear articulation of the need for both true demonstration and proclamation of the gospel really resonates with me, as does his call for "upstream thinking". I think the Church wants and needs to hear what Sabin is saying.