Friday, December 23, 2011

Holiday Greetings and Reflections on 2011

We hope you are enjoying the Christmas Season with an attitude of celebration over God’s Greatest Gift, Jesus Christ.  As we remember the events of 2011, we hope you agree that we all have much to be thankful for in the midst of a year of unusual weather, political unrest, economic uncertainty, and trials faced by family and friends.  But in spite of these, we can rest in the faithfulness of Jesus Who is our Reason for hope as we look toward the New Year; for He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5).
Steve, Mindy, John, Della, Alvadell ("Abby"), Brad, Raquel
Just one year ago, we decided that John would retire after 32 years as a biology professor at Cedarville University.  Careful thought and prayer had helped us to identify several priorities that led us to say “good-bye” to an era of blessed opportunity to serve with the best colleagues and students in the world.  Our new priorities are as follows:

Partners – allowing more time for each other while our health is still good

Parents with health needs;Abby’s mom in Carroll Co. and Mom Silvius in Tuscarawas Co.  We plan to move to Wooster, Ohio when our Cedarville home sells.

Progeny -- more time with our son, daughter, their spouses, and grandchildren; and time to keep in touch with colleagues and students who have become our friends.

Professing our faith through serving in our local church; working on land restoration (caring for creation with “earth-keepers” whose souls may not be restored); working toward an integrated theology of "creationism" as relates to “origins” and “creation care”

Having set these priorities, we are now learning the truth of 1 Thessalonians 5:24, Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.  For example, only 16 days after the beginning of John’s retirement, or better, redirection, in August, one of our parents, Abby’s mother Marietta Moser, suffered a stroke that left her unable to use her left side.  Since then, we have been working as partners committed to assisting Abby’s six sisters in a rotation that has allowed us to be with "Mom Moser" in her recovery 24/7, first at Mercy Medical Center in Canton, then at Carroll Health Center in Carrollton, and now at her home in Kilgore.  Though it is challenging, we count it a privilege to serve “mom” and to encourage her in her faith at this time of need.

Kiara, Alvadell (Abby), Della, John, and Caleb
We have also enjoyed special times at the homes of our progeny this year.  Our son Brad is thankful for another year as Branch Manager with John Adams Mortgage Co. in Michigan. His Little Leaders DVD’s for children, available online, continue to provide a biblical, educational medium for young children.  His wife Raquel attained US citizenship this year and enjoys her creative work as Administrative Specialist at the University of Michigan.   Steve is finishing his eighth year as pastor at Northpoint Nazarene in Toledo.  The church is blessed to have the teaching and caring ministry of both Steve and Mindy in their midst.  Mindy has many full days as a pastor’s wife, mother of three, and nurse supervisor at Flower Hospital.  Our grandson Caleb (13, has found a good network of friends at church and at Stateline Christian School where he plays soccer and basketball.  His sister Kiara (9) is in the fourth grade at Mason Elementary, and is also athletic and enjoys her sister, Della Rose (3), who is learning how not to be the center of attention in the family.

We do not intend to retire from our profession of faith and practice which we hope will fit in well with our other priorities.  For example, while our redirection has allowed more time to encourage our progeny, their spouses and the grandchildren, it has also allowed us to expand our caring ministry to long-time friends and those in need at our church, Grace Baptist. 

East Liberty Street in downtown Wooster
Recently, after being with "Mom Moser" for nine days, we spent some time in Wooster and were encouraged when God allowed us to meet Ron and Ethel in a Wendy’s restaurant.   Ron is a long-time bluebird enthusiast, and has enjoyed exercising his faith among folks interested in land conservation in ways that John envisions for his future.  We were both encouraged that one of our first acquaintances in Wooster shares an interest in “creation stewardship.”

Thank you for reading this account of our transition to a new chapter of life under God’s gracious provision.  We apologize for not sending cards this year.  To those of you who have sent cards, we are looking forward to reading them now that we are home again.  We hope the message of God’s grace (unearned favor) and truth this Christmas will encourage you in the midst of uncertain times.   Like the Pawpaw tree given to John by his students last spring, which we have kept potted and ready to move, we are waiting to be "transplanted" by the divine Gardener to the location He has for us.

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.  – Isaiah 9:6

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Christmas Victories over Death

Christmas for many is a time of hope, joy, peace, and love in celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace.  It is a time when Christians affirm their faith by considering again the humble advent of Jesus Christ whose virgin birth and sinless life enabled Him to become the perfect sacrifice for sin by taking the sinners’ place on Calvary’s cross. 

Christmas is also a time when many of us seek personal enjoyment on a “holiday” (holy day) through festivities and traditions.  But, sometimes we inadvertently leave no room for the lowly Jesus.  Still others may celebrate heartily while deliberately dismissing both the message and the gift of Eternal Life through the babe who came to restore fellowship between mankind and God (John 3:16).

Many who have experienced the joy of Christmas and the gift of Life have also encountered some of the most disturbing and depressing experiences during in the Christmas season.  What could be more disturbing and saddening at Christmas than the death of a beloved friend, spouse, child, or parent?   This is certainly not the kind of Christmas we anticipate.   But nevertheless, death can rear its ugly head.  Instead of excitedly counting the days until Christmas, the clock stops and we are frozen in silent awe while questions flood our minds. Has this really happened to us?   Why did he or she have to die?   What should we do?  To whom can we turn?  Who will understand and help us?   Does God even see our plight?   Does He even care?

Perhaps some of these questions have occurred to our friends, Gary and Julie Olin, in recent days.  As a former teacher, and then, a software specialist at Cedarville University, Gary’s life has influenced many over the years including the lives of my wife, Abby, and I.  In his “retirement” Gary was training to become a nurse.  But Gary has also been battling cancer in the past couple of years.  Only God knows all the ways in which he has reacted emotionally and spiritually to this great trial, but his testimony toward us has been a great encouragement.  He has faced the up’s and down’s of chemotherapy, a period of remission, and then the return of the cancer this summer with optimism, courage, and a vibrant testimony of faith and hope in God.  Gary and Julie have also been a loving and godly example for their children and grandchildren.  As brother and sister in Christ, they have embodied the Holy Spirit’s calling to believers to not merely look out for your own personal interests but also the interests of others (Philippians 2: 4).
On December 2, Gary Olin (1947-2011) went to be with the Lord; and today, his body was laid to rest.  Our thoughts and prayers have now turned to Julie, to their son Nathan and his family; and to their daughter Erika and her family.  The death of Gary has bought separation from a husband, father, and grandfather; and the sting of death that will cloud their Christmas.  We pray that the God of all comfort will comfort each of them. 

Thankfully, God can be our comfort in death for the very reason that Christ came at Christmas.  It is  because of His coming, birth, and death on the cross that we can have “Christmas comfort.”  The Messiah came to confront and defeat sin and death, the great enemies of mankind since the first temptation and Fall in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3).  In fact, sin and death surrounded the conception and birth of Jesus as if to defeat and destroy the Deliverer. Recall the disbelief that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit before she married Joseph.  Her assumed fornication would have led to her death and that of the unborn Jesus by stoning were it not for God’s protection through faithful Joseph.  In addition, Herod’s soldiers would have brought death to the infant Jesus soon after his birth were it not for the angel’s warning to Joseph who led his family to safety in Egypt.   The Gospel of Matthew records that Jesus, …remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON" (Matt. 2:15).
Although the first Christmas was clouded in darkness and death, the Apostle John writes in John 1, 

The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it (v. 5).  He [Jesus] came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.  But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name… (v. 11-12).

As children of God by faith in the resurrection victory of Christ over sin and death, we need not fear death or how and when we will die…for we walk by faith, not by sight--we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:7-8).
Therefore, when death rears its head, even in the Christmas season, we have reason to stand firm in our faith.  There is a time for being alone; time to pour out our grief to our Heavenly Father.  But there is also a time for being with family and friends as the Olin’s have done.  The gathering which we call a “viewing” and a subsequent memorial service allows us to face the reality of death and then to literally look into the faces of the grieving and their comforters with eyes of faith, faces of hope, and words of encouragement.  Thus, we do not forsake our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:25).

Perhaps it could be said that death is like a wind blowing against glowing embers remaining from a fire; it can extinguish the weak, but will kindle the strong.  The life that has been fed (“fueled”) by the disciplines of Scripture reading, study, memorization, and application with the aim of running the race with our eyes upon Jesus (Hebrews 12: 1-3) can be ready to face the sting of death.   Not that we sail through the trial untouched by the deep sadness…but we draw upon the deep assurance of God’s love through an ongoing, disciplined walk with Him.

We grieve when death takes our loved ones, but not as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).  Indeed, we are looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus…(Titus 2:13).   As C.S. Lewis so eloquently writes,

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.                          From:  “The Weight of Glory”, p. 43 (Harper, San Francisco).
All of this because God sent His Son, born of a humble Jewish girl in a lowly stable in the shadow of death on that first Christmas.   Because of His supernatural conception, sinless life, and resurrection from the dead, believers can exclaim, 

Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory? 
O death, where is your sting?   (1 Corinthians 15:54b-55)

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving and Black Friday: Invitations to Develop Contentment

Thanksgiving is a unique holiday—one that invites us to reflect on the blessings we have received during the past year.  Christians have the special blessing of knowing personally the One True God from Whom all blessings flow.  An intimate relationship with God is made possible by faith in Jesus Christ, and nurtured properly through the spiritual disciplines of prayer, regular nourishment from the Word of God, and fellowship with the people of God. 

A healthy relationship with God produces, among other virtues, the virtue of contentment (Hebrews 13:5).  Contentment is an attitude that flows out of a thankful heart.  Our Thanksgiving holiday can be an occasion to enjoy the blessings of family, friends, and food; but, it is also a time to nurture a heart of thankfulness and contentment by reflecting on the Person and provision of God.  

As a Christian, at times I have experienced the joy of contentment; but I have also experienced periods of discontentment.   For me, and perhaps for many, discontentment is a “default attitude.”  Contentment must be forged and refreshed daily in the midst of a culture that promotes discontentment through media and social pressures.   Under the guise of maintaining social status, improving efficiency, staying current, or “treating ourselves to what we deserve”, we are urged to buy the newest editions, models, or styles “while they last.”  

How does a person find contentment?  The Apostle Paul states, If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content (1 Timothy 6:8).  Paul indicates that in Roman culture, like our contemporary culture, contentment was not a default condition.   He testifies, Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am  (Philippians 4:11).   Paul “learned contentment” by practicing submission to spiritual disciplines such as we have noted above.  This is not a contentment, as some have chosen to pursue, through an acetic lifestyle of abstinence from ‘pleasures’ that are seen as hindrances to reaching spiritual goals. 

So, how can we apply a Christian perspective to the holiday season? Traditionally, Thanksgiving holiday has been squeezed on either side by two commercialized holidays, Halloween and Christmas; but, at least the two adjacent holidays have been separated in time from Thanksgiving by a month or more.  However, with each passing year, increasing numbers of retail stores are opening earlier on “Black Friday” or in the late evening hours of Thanksgiving Day itself.   

Some are reacting to Black Friday by observing “Buy Nothing Day.”  Not a bad idea.  But, I wonder what the observers of “Buy Nothing” choose to do instead.   Maybe Maggi Dawn’s blog entry , “Black Friday: Buy Nothing Day points us in the right direction.   She writes:

Last Friday, just before we began Reading Week at the [Yale] Divinity School, my team and I organized a Cafe Eucharist, the theme of which was Thanksgiving and Giving Thanks. One of the threads in the service was the disconnect between gratitude (thanks for what we have) and consumerism (the goal to get more, more, more). It feels somewhat urgent to me this week to resist the temptation to go shopping over the next few days. Half price practically everything is really tempting, especially just before Christmas. But I feel I would be paying with my soul, not just my dollars. We are going shopping today for the food we need, and firewood, and a tank of petrol/gas. No more. Then we are going to spend four days playing, watching movies, walking up some hills, visiting friends, eating enough but not to excess, reading by the fire, and enjoying the luxury of sleeping late in the mornings. And giving thanks.  Anyone want to join us?
How about you?  How have you spent Thanksgiving, and then Black Friday this year?  I have enjoyed being with our daughter and family, and precious time with our grandson, Caleb, and granddaughters, Kiara and Della.   Of course, they were gracious to allow me to finish this blog entry while watching the West Virginia Mountaineers defeat the Pitt Panthers in the “Backyard Brawl” 21-20. 

In our October entry, “Our Stewardship Is about God, Not Us,” we emphasized that godly stewardship is grounded in an awareness that The reverent and worshipful fear of the Lord is the beginning and the principal and choice part of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7, Amplified Bible).   Celebrating Thanksgiving affords us the opportunity to apply the important ingredient of “giving thanks” to the a life of “reverent and worshipful fear of the Lord…”   May God help us to use both Thanksgiving and Black Friday to develop lives that honor God in a consumer culture every day of the year.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Our Stewardship Is about God, Not Us

Stewardship is an increasingly common word that pops up in a variety of contexts. In church settings, of course, “stewardship” is often associated with a sermon to challenge the local body to fulfill its responsibility to give generously in support of the ministries of the church. Meanwhile, conservationists are now using expressions such as “land stewardship,” “water stewardship, and “Earth stewardship.” It seems that “stewardship” is one of those topics like “mother and apple pie.” Who can be opposed to it?

Yet, many who are familiar with the word "stewardship" may have only a vague understanding of its deeper meaning and significance. The Judeo-Christian Scriptures provide the only true basis for stewardship because they are based on objective revelation of God Who is Creator and Owner of creation and has appointed mankind to be stewards of creation (Genesis 1: 26-28; 2:15). The Bible also is rich with examples of godly stewards whose role it was to oversee the possessions and affairs of an owner. Joseph’s life in Egypt is recounted in Genesis 37-50, and Daniel’s life in Babylon and Persia is recorded in the book of Daniel.

The Apostle Paul states that “it is required of stewards (Greek: oikonomos) that one be found trustworthy.” The good steward is bound by duty to manage that which doesn’t belong to him or her, and does so out of a virtuous disposition characterized by trustworthiness, faithfulness, industriousness, and so on. The Apostle Paul, in Colossians 3, expands the concept of stewardship much beyond simply the act of placing money into the offering plate. He states in verse 3, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men...”

How then does a person become a faithful steward? From a biblical perspective, what are the elements of good stewardship in each sphere of our lives—at home, at church, at work, and in the local and global community (See Oikonomia, September 30, 2011)? Each of these spheres operates as a definable “system” of inter-working parts, like a household, or (in Greek) oikos. Along this line of thinking, it is necessary that we learn from spiritual instruction to understand our place and role as submissive stewards toward Almighty God as we serve within the household of His creation. Our stewardship of the physical world around us, is further informed through study of the natural science of ecology (oikos + logos: “the study of the workings of the oikos, house). In addition, the social science of economics (Greek, oikos + nomos) emphasizes the management and distribution of goods and services that are developed out of the rich stores of energy and matter of creation?

Recently, while pondering the elements of good stewardship, I was enlightened by a radio message by Chuck Bentley of Crown Financial Services. In his October 17, 2011 podcast of My MoneyLife, Mr Bentley, states that “stewardship is about God, not you. And specifically, it’s about fulfilling God’s purposes for your life.” In other words, the good steward has a God-centered perspective, not a self-centered one. Back in the 1970's, this God-centered concept was nicely illustrated by Bill Bright, now with the Lord, in his widely used “Four Spiritual Laws” tracts as part of the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.

To me, the Scriptural teaching that lays a good foundation for faithful stewardship is found in Romans 1. In verse 16, the Apostle Paul holds up the Gospel, the good news that Christ died for sinners (rebellious, self-centered stewards) and has the power to bring all who will acknowledge their sin and alienation back to God. Verse 17 states that the Gospel reveals the righteousness which is from God, and explains that we are made righteous not by works but by faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross. Verse 18-19 lament the denial and refusal of many to respond to the truth of the Gospel, being without excuse because of God’s clear revelation in creation. Finally, verse 20 points at the very element necessary for anyone to please God--i.e. be reconciled to Him and exercise faithful, God-centered stewardship. This verse states that,

Although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks... – Romans 1:20a

As Bill Bright and Chuck Bentley emphasized, stewardship is not based on a self-centered perspective, but upon a God-centered perspective. The God-centered perspective begins as verse 20 states, with giving “honor to Him as God” out of a thankful heart. Honor begins in a daily prayer and walking relationship with God that is guided by our study and meditation in the Word of God under the teaching of the Spirit of God Who intercedes for us (Romans 8: 26). God’s Spirit helps us to apply the truths of Scripture [which] is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (II Timothy 3: 16).”

So, we can see that godly stewardship requires that we honor Him as God; or, as Proverbs 1:7 states, The reverent and worshipful fear of the Lord is the beginning and the principal and choice part of knowledge (Amplified Bible). God will help us to develop a God-centered relationship which provides for further knowledge, wisdom, and obedience to His Word. To this foundation for stewardship there must be added additional elements necessary for the steward to live in obedience within the spheres of life noted above. One of these is the need to understand the context within which our stewardship must be exercised. This context includes both the authority structure ordained by God and God’s created order which we are called to study and understand (i.e. oikos + logos, or ecology) and to manage with honesty and integrity (oikos + nomos, or economics). We will discuss these aspects further in future blog entries.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Environmental Stewards Are ‘Grown’ within a Moral Community

The understanding that humans are morally and ethically responsible to exercise dominion and stewardship of the Earth is rooted in Genesis 1 and 2, and affirmed throughout the Scriptures. We understand from Scriptural revelation that humans are unique among creatures as God’s image-bearers who are morally nurtured by a social framework based upon heterosexual marriage, family, corporate worship, and government (Genesis 2; Romans). Stewardship of creation is fundamental to these social obligations according to Scriptural teachings on the observance of Sabbaths for the land and for humans; tithes and offerings; love for neighbor; and responsible treatment of animals.

Today, there appears to be a lack of moral consensus in matters related to love of God and neighbor, and it is linked to a similar confusion regarding our responsibility as stewards of the Earth. Therefore, those of us who emphasize the importance of stewardship of the creation (i.e. conservation of land, resources, and biodiversity) increasingly face audiences that do not recognize their moral responsibility toward their Creator or His creation. Environmental stewardship and evangelism are not separate options; but instead, are intricately linked within the sphere of our moral responsibility toward God, neighbor, and community (See “Christians and Climate Change)

Consider David Brooks’ September 13 column in the New York Times entitled “If It Feels Right….” In it, Brooks reviews a 2008 survey by Christian Smith, a Notre Dame sociologist, and his colleagues. The survey is based on interviews of 230 young Americans, ages 18-23, to examine the emergence of their awareness of and basis for making moral choices. As reported in their book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, young Americans no longer forge their understanding and commitment to moral choices in the context of community. Instead, according to Brooks, “Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism—of relativism and non-judgmentalism.”

For example, one interviewee explained why she didn’t cheat to improve her grades: “I don’t know, I guess I want to be proud of my achievements and proud of what happened, and I want to feel like I had full control of the outcome, I think.” For her, and a growing number of “emerging adults” according to survey results, moral choices are viewed as a matter of individual taste. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

To provide context to their assessment of “emerging adulthood” in America, Smith et al describe six “microsocial changes” that have combined to forge the development of a “new phase in the American life course.” The changes include the expansion of higher education and resultant delay in establishment of a stable career beginning in the post WW II era. This delay in turn was associated with a delay in marriage, thus allowing almost a decade between high school graduation and marriage for youth to explore “life’s many options in unprecedented freedom.” More recently, changes in the global and American economy have replaced the prospects of “stable, lifelong careers” with uncertainties that encourage emerging adults to experiment with career options while avoiding commitments.

Smith et al conclude:

Studies agree that the transition to adulthood today is more complex, disjointed, and confusing than it was I past decades. The steps through schooling, a first real job, marriage, and parenthood are simply less well organized and coherent today than they were in the past. At the same time, these years are marked by a historically unparalleled freedom to roam, experiment, learn, move on, and try again.” The authors describe the stage of “emerging adulthood” as one of “intense identity exploration; instability; a focus on self; feelings of being in limbo, in transition, in between; and a sense of possibilities, opportunities, and unparalleled hope… [but also of]…confusion, anxiety, self-obsession, melodrama, conflict, disappointment, and sometimes emotional devastation.

In concluding his review of Smith and colleagues’ Lost in Transition, David Brooks offers his readers the hope that “emerging adults” will take on more mature “moral horizons” as they enter the work force, marriage, and the influence of social institutions. However, Brooks also cites writers such as Charles Taylor who claims that “morals have become separated from moral sources. People are less likely to feel embedded on a moral landscape that transcends self.” Instead of “the group” serving as the “essential moral unit,” Brooks notes, “…people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.”

The moral decline in general and a related rise in materialism and abuse of creation are, according to Michael Northcott (The Environment and Christian Ethics, Cambridge, 1996), the result of “the loss of spiritual, moral, and cosmological awareness of our place in the natural order…” However, Christians have the means of acquiring moral grounding and accountability through the divine plan of God revealed in Scripture. The victorious Son of God calls us individually to look by faith to His cross to receive cleansing from sin, atonement with God, and adoption as sons into the body of Christ. Then, as members of the universal and local church, the individual believer has opportunities to grow within a community of believers through the spiritual disciplines outlined in Scripture. Marriage and family are biblical institutions that also function as important parts of God’s plan to provide spiritual nurturing and accountability necessary for moral development. The church made up of strong families provides a source of stability and direction for local communities in which “emerging adults” can practice their steps toward morally and ethically responsible adulthood through roles in marriage, government, commerce, recreation, environmental education, and cultural arts.

Moral transformation within a community restores within the individual what Northcott calls an awareness of his or her “situatedness” within God’s love and moral authority, within the joy of loving one’s self and one’s neighbor, and within a growing sense of the “place” in which his or her community resides with its natural resources, history, and aesthetic beauty deserving of appreciation, respect, and conservation.

According to Dr. Ryan Messmore, founder of the Trinity Forum Academy, “Christians should do a better job preparing the emerging generation for courtship, marriage, and sex. We should be able to talk about these things ¬candidly in the body of Christ. Sadly, in many churches today the larger culture exercises more influence in shaping sexual and familial norms among young people (WORLD, June 18, 2011, Vol. 26, No. 12). Messmore elaborates on the role of local communities of authentic believers in establishing moral authority as follows:

Local congregations can address a wide range of emotional, spiritual, social, material, and financial needs. Beyond providing just money or food, they can offer accountability, discipline, modeling, and a sense of belonging in a supportive community. Similar to families, religious communities and ministries can also address problems at the level of the human heart, the level at which change is often needed to overcome the broken relationships and patterns of behavior that trap individuals in poverty. By pointing people to a source of meaning and purpose in life, these faith-based institutions can foster hope, strength, and perseverance in the face of difficulties.

Timothy Dalrymple, who manages the Evangelical Portal of explains how “intentional communities of believers” are addressing the social fragmentation of families and communities. He states in WORLD (December 04, 2010, Vol. 25, No. 24):

…some American evangelicals are reinterpreting vocation today by emphasizing a call to follow Christ and redeem the world together (all italics mine): Vocation is less a profession than a purpose pursued through our careers but also through the common life we share. Thus in urban centers such as Boston, New York, and Chicago, many evangelicals live in intentional communities. They share homes, buildings, or neighborhoods. They try to form enduring relationships and a healing presence within a community.

Shouldn’t our churches be “intentional communities” of believers regardless of geographic location? Communities that nurture morally healthy individuals, families, and government? Communities which become aware of their “sense of place” as expressed in a commitment to wise use of material resources, management of “waste”, and respect for the land and creatures? If you are aware of one or more “intentional communities” and ways that they apply moral values, I’d love to hear from you.

We have outlined factors that have contributed to the current moral climate and considered the essential role of church and community in reversing the decline in moral development. Finally, because stewardship of the environment is a moral and ethical issue, we can see that an environmental stewardship ethic within individuals can only be instilled in the context of a morally vibrant community that is aware of its “place” and purpose in the divine plan. I hope to pursue these ideas further with the intention of being salt and light in the physical and moral community to which God leads my wife and I during the next chapter of lives.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Land and Water Conservation: Value in the Unseen

Since 1999, I have been blessed to conduct research in land stewardship on the campus of Cedarville University with numerous biology and environmental science students. Beginning in 2006, we cooperated with staff of our Administration and of the Grounds Department in an effort to develop the functionality and aesthetic appeal of what we call “Cedar Creek and Wetland.”

By way of background, much of the precipitation that descends on our campus buildings, parking lots, and lawns becomes runoff water that flows in the storm drainage system to Cedar Lake and its outlet, Cedar Creek. Although we need buildings, roads, and parking lots, no one wishes to see the Earth paved in concrete or asphalt. Yet, our supply of fresh usable water can only be maintained if precipitation water is allowed to soak into the soil to recharge ground water. For this entry and percolation to happen we must exercise good stewardship of the soil and the plants we grow or allow to grow in that soil. Let’s consider the importance of biotic communities with saturated and sometimes submerged soil along streams and rivers. These communities are known as wetlands and they promote water retention and purification.

The quantity and quality of water leaving our campus on its way to the Gulf of Mexico via Cedar Creek, to Massies Creek, the Little Miami River, the Ohio River, and the Mississippi River depends on the little noticed and unseen work of soil microbes and plant roots that reside in the wetlands along small “headwater” tributaries like Cedar Creek and Massies Creek. It is here that water can percolate slowly and be cleansed of toxic pesticides, heavy metals, and dissolved fertilizer being carried in the water from lawns, fields, and industrial discharges. Given their role in storm water retention and water purification, wetland communities that flank streams, rivers, and lakes, function like kidneys. Hence, the water quality and biological health of large rivers are dependent upon the little noticed or unseen activity of headwater streams and wetlands far upstream. But, if these “headwater wetland kidneys” are to do their work, we must maintain them as healthy biotic communities with good plant and animal biodiversity which in turn creates a good soil environment.

Our research effort on campus is being conducted in conjunction with the construction of a new Health Science Building (HSB). Thanks to the Cedarville University Administration and the Grounds Department, we were able to participate in the discussion and planning of the landscaping and drainage necessary for the HSB. Students and I wrote the following mission statement to convey to the architects and university personnel our rationale and purpose:

The Cedar Creek and Wetland Project aims to apply ecological and biblical stewardship principles to manage runoff water on the Cedarville University campus, particularly adjacent to the Stevens Student Center (SSC) and the Health Science Building (HSB). This aim will be accomplished through construction of a "basin wetland" surrounded by an upward-sloping landscape to be populated with suitably adapted plant and animal species. In so doing, we aim to enhance stream water quality, plant and animal biodiversity, and aesthetic beauty while involving students in meaningful research experiences and conveying to the university community and visitors our intent to provide a landscape that models Cedarville University's commitment to the biblical mandate to exercise stewardship and care of creation.

The result of our discussions of building landscaping and drainage was the development of what we call a “basin wetland.” The basin collects storm water from roofs, sidewalks, and parking lots, and retains some of it to protect the stream during storms. Then, the water drains within hours from the basin, leaving an ongoing wetland area with slightly submerged or saturated soil. The sloping sides of the basin have soils that are more well drained and will support upland plant species. We are currently sowing and transplanting wetland-adapted plants into the basin and native prairie species in the surrounding upland areas.

As we introduced native plant seed and transplanted seedlings grown during the winter in our Plant Growth Lab, we also observed the preparation of the Health Science Building foundation and erection of its structural steel. Working to establish wetland and prairie communities in the shadow of this magnificent building reminded us of the similarities between construction of a building and ‘construction’ of a riparian wetland. For both projects, it is the little noticed or unseen activities that determine the outcome.

First, both a building and a wetland require the proper soil or earthen foundation. The foundation is not designed for visitors to admire, but without it, a building will be unstable. Likewise, a wetland community depends upon plants deeply rooted in good, “hydric” soils where the unseen benefits of a wetland can occur.

Second, both a building and a wetland community require regulation of the water table, or location of water-saturated soil relative to the surface. Without proper drainage to deepen the water table, no foundation can support a massive structure built upon it; and, without provision for water retention and limited drainage, a wetland will not be able to retain a high water table necessary to support hydrophytic (“water loving”) plants and associated soil microbes.

Third, building construction and wetland community construction both require patience over a lengthy period. Complex blueprints are developed to assure that each steel joint, bolt, conduit, and wire are properly installed and in the proper order. Wetland community construction involves a similar complexity in which adapted plant species must be selected and introduced based on the genetic blueprint of each species. The genetic code contained within each seed somehow guides the development of root, stem, and leaf of unusual plants such as Bullrushes and Sedges that can live in flooded or submerged wetland soil; others such as Switchgrass and Compass Plant are adapted to well drained, upland soils. Just as the functionality of a building depends on the proper development of systems that are hidden behind the drywall, so wetland and prairie plant species devote much time and energy to develop extensive root systems which are unseen beneath the soil.

Finally, the successful planning and construction of a building on a university campus that aspires to equip students through an education marked by excellence and grounded in biblical truth should go beyond simply providing for a firm foundation and proper assembly of necessary building systems. Building construction should also apply biblical principles that teach the importance of allowing the landscape, water, and creatures to flourish in association with the humans who use the building. We believe it is fitting that a “Health Science Building” designed to improve human health through the ministry of many well trained graduates should reside in a landscape that also enhances human health in a wider context through increased environmental quality and aesthetic beauty.

Today, both the building and the wetland community are “under construction.” It is our hope that the maturation of each will converge to contribute a sense of wholeness or “shalom” among humans and creatures evident to all who visit the Cedarville University campus. A “health science” for humans depends on stewardship of all creation so that all creatures can flourish as God intends.

What can you do? First, why not pray for construction workers’ safety as they work on the Health Science Building; and, pray that the seeds we have sown and plants transplanted will take root and prosper; and, that God may be honored by the results of both projects.

Second, if you are a “land steward”, you may wish to know how you can manage your soil and water to enhance the qualities described above. Farmers generally have access to soil conservation agents and programs through government agencies accessible online. However, if you are an urban resident, you may wish to explore “rain gardens.” See the Rain Garden Network as one of several websites with helpful information on how you can retain and conserve water, improve its quality, and enjoy gardening with attractive plantings :

Friday, June 10, 2011

Stewardship of Creation and “Natural Law”

Humanly speaking, 2011 has revealed a more violent and destructive side of the ‘natural world.’ In the aftermath of the late December earthquake and tsunami in Japan, snowstorms in January and February paralyzed the Eastern U.S. In the Spring, while tornadoes ravaged the southeastern U.S. and Joplin, Missouri, drought and wildfires consumed parts of western U.S., and the lower Mississippi Valley was inundated with flood waters.

God has called you and I to exercise stewardship over an often violent and unpredictable world. Yet in the face of a violent world, what does it mean to exercise stewardship or “creation care?” According to Matthew 7:24, the wise builder is one who builds on a firm foundation; yet even the firmest foundation is no match for a powerful earthquake. The land steward plants trees to stabilize steep slopes and to provide habitat and food for wildlife. Though it takes years to develop, the forest can be destroyed within minutes by a tornado.

What then is the point of caring for creation–caring for a world that seems to be more chaos than cosmos (order, arrangement)? According to Romans 8: 16-25, “the Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God...” but we, along with “the whole creation, groan and suffer...waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.”

Is it still possible for fallen humans to exercise God-honoring stewardship of a creation “subjected to futility?” The answer is “yes.” According to Colossians 1:13, He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son...the Creator (v. 16), Sustainer (v. 17), and the One Who [came] to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.

As members of the body of Christ, our conduct toward our temporary home, the Earth, is part of our calling to bring glory to this One Who died to redeem us and the whole cosmos (Col. 1:20). Although we and all of creation experience unpredictable violent events such as storms and earthquakes, our call to stewardship extends out of God’s original command to Adam. Adam was invited by God to study the created order, and to learn his place and purpose in that order (Gen. 2: 19-20). His study of the creation taught him that humankind was distinctly different from any other kind of creature and that there was as yet no suitable mate for him. Hence, Adam’s ensuing joy at the creation of Eve from his own flesh (Genesis 2: 21-25). Likewise, Adam and his descendants were expected to till and keep (serve and preserve; Gen. 2:15) the land– to study the soil, the water, the seeds and plants, and to understand the seasons for planting and harvesting.

Natural law ethics is consistent with what we learn in Genesis when it claims that there is order and purpose in the natural world, and that mankind is both capable and responsible for discerning this order and purpose. Thus, while we observe the eagle flying gracefully from her nest high in a conifer tree, we are supposed to learn from an early age that we are not made to jump out of trees. Likewise, we learn from our early years to establish a daily cycle of activity and rest. And, the farmer plants in the proper season and prepares to harvest in another season.

Application of natural law ethics can transform our stewardship through transformation of our character. The steward who views creation as having order and purpose will strive to learn more about his or her surroundings and how his or her actions will influence that order. The intent of the science of ecology should be to provide a theory of understanding of the natural order. Aldo Leopold combined aspects of natural law ethics and ecological holism to develop his “land ethic.” Thus, according to Leopold, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Even though communities will continue to face devastating storms, earthquakes, and tsunamis, the extent of the effects of calamities can be minimized by wise decision making. For example, according to the Associated Press, the village of Aneyoshi in Japan escaped the damage from the March tsunami because it respected the ancient stone markers representing the elevation below which building construction was known to be hazardous.

"Everybody here knows about the markers. We studied them in school," said Yuto Kimura, 12.” Here, we have living proof of the true purpose of education, not only in science where we should learn about the natural order, but in ethics and in Scripture where we should learn what is “good” and “right,” and what we “ought to do.”

Case in point: The lower Mississippi River flooding in recent weeks. Not to point an uncaring and judgmental finger at the communities now suffering along the Mississippi, but rather to ask “what can we learn from flooding incidents along many of our rivers and tributaries?” Should we place markers along the flood plains of major rivers to restrict building in hazardous elevations? What are the boundaries of rivers? Certainly not the river banks which themselves have moved back and forth by processes of erosional cutting and sediment deposition. Can a river water or coastal tides be contained by dikes? We should know the answers from experience. Rather, we must focus on the cause of the flood waters.

Although we can have little influence on the volume of precipitation falling from the sky, our stewardship of the land does influence the fate of the rain and snow in a given land area, or watershed. Rivers overflow their banks when rainfall is unable to infiltrate into the soil and instead flows quickly into drainage ditches, creeks, and rivers. When we ignore “ancient boundaries” of rivers and proceed to drain wetlands and deforest or plow steep hillsides, we hurry the water into runoff that leads to flooding.

Certainly, creation often reveals a violent and destructive side. However, our lack of understanding of the natural order, or disregard for “boundaries”, and our resultant poor stewardship of the land multiplies the extent of destruction that can result.

Thanks for reading. Let me invite you to share other examples in which ignorance and/or disregard for the natural order cause multiplication of a calamity. Maybe you can also add a positive solution that has resulted from the lesson(s) learned. Meanwhile, may we heed the words of Scripture, Do not move the ancient boundary which your fathers have set (Proverbs 22:28), as it applies to every area of our lives– reverence and love for God, love for our neighbor, honoring parents, assisting the poor, and other fundamental moral responsibilities.