Serve God, Save the World
By Dr. J. Matthew Sleeth
January 13, 2010
One February break, at the turn of the millennium, our family left the gray winter of northern New England and headed to an island off the coast of Florida for vacation. On the second day, our children, Clark and Emma, wore themselves out playing in the surf, building sand castles and catching chameleons. The kids went to bed early, and my wife Nancy and I found ourselves alone.
We sat on the porch, watching the sun set and the stars rise. In that relaxed moment, Nancy asked me a question that would change my life forever.“What,” she queried, “is the biggest problem facing the world?” Despite, or because of, the peaceful surroundings, I considered her question in earnest.
The contenders for mankind’s greatest problem are many—war, terrorism, poverty, disease, starvation and, at the root of everything, selfishness. I considered the choices and said, “The world is dying.”
My answer did not come from abstract sources. Many changes had already taken place in my life and are now readily apparent to anyone with eyes to see. The last stand of majestic chestnut trees near my childhood home are extinct. There are no chestnuts on Chestnut Lane, no elms on Elm Street, no caribou in Caribou, Maine, and no buffalo in Buffalo, N.Y. Multiple states have had to change their official tree, animal or flower because of extinctions.
These changes in the health of the planet are mirrored in humans. There’s currently a pandemic of cancers, and the most dramatic increases have been in young people. Similarly, there have been increases in asthma, autoimmune diseases, autism and other maladies, which many believe have direct environmental links. No one can suppose that these trends in nature and in us can continue unchanged—and everything will turn out alright.
“What will you do about it?” Nancy wanted to know, that night in Florida. I had no answer.
When we returned home, my journey began. On the surface, our life looked good. I had a job as an emergency room physician, and was chief of the medical staff at a picturesque hospital. We had the traditional nuclear family, complete with son and daughter. I drove a fast car with a teak dashboard, and when I got home, I pushed a button and one of the two garage doors opened automatically.
Yet we had no spiritual anchor, no particular religious worldview. Nancy and I grew up in different faith backgrounds. She had been raised in a conservative Jewish home. I had been raised in a Protestant home, but it “hadn’t taken.” Other than to see someone wed or dead, I hadn’t been inside a church in 25 years. I believed that good science and reasoning could resolve all of life’s problems.
My search for environmental answers paralleled a new faith journey. It became apparent to me there was something more. So much of what makes up the human experience cannot be measured by micrometer. How does one quantify justice, love, peace or beauty? How does one explain evil?
One day, sitting in the waiting room of the hospital, I picked up a copy of the Bible. When I began reading the Book of Matthew, it changed everything. I found answers.
When I read the Gospels and thought about the world’s environmental problems, I found answers. Matthew 7:1-2 struck me as particularly compelling: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (TNIV).
How often, in all walks of life, do we judge others by a different standard than we measure our own shortcoming?
When I applied these words of Christ to myself, I did not like what I found. I was concerned about pollution and the death of the world, but what about our family’s part in it?
So we took an accounting. Our family added up all the energy we used, and the trash and pollution we made. This exercise is called “ecologic footprinting.” We found our family was average for the United States. Although this was better than most doctors or people in our neighborhood, it was a poor showing compared to the rest of the world. On average, U.S. consumption is double that of our British counterparts, and multiple times more than our African, Chinese or Indian brothers and sisters.
After telling us not to judge others, Christ instructs us to clean up our own act. He understands that the surest excuse for us not to do the right thing is our innate ability to spot flaws in others. We are instructed to get the two-by-four out of our own eyes before we worry about the speck of sawdust in our neighbor’s eye.
After we measured our energy usage, our family took Christ at His word and set about changing. First my job, paycheck and oversized house went. As I told the hospital board when I resigned as chief of staff, I felt called to “serve God, and save the planet”—an unpaid, undefined job, and a financial leap of faith. We moved to a home the exact height, width and depth of our old garage. Don’t feel sorry for us, though—we had a doctor’s-sized garage. We found that one set of couches served us fine; two of our other sofas helped young couples starting out. Without multiple televisions, stereos, alarm clocks, garage openers, a clothes dryer and incandescent bulbs, we were able to cut our electric bill to one-tenth the national average.
Our family also began to distinguish between our wants and our needs. We stopped defining ourselves by what we did and began to concentrate on what we were becoming. First myself, then Clark, then Nancy and finally Emma became followers of Christ.
We began attending a church and small faith group, which helped us learn to give of ourselves, our time and our resources. Through the positive examples of our mentors, we learned an essential law of any faith life: Complacency is the greatest obstacle to spiritual growth.
Being “born again” had changed my worldview. I felt a deep conviction to care for the environment—yet I knew no one at church who shared my views. I was aware of the standard biblical proof texts supporting creation care but, as Shakespeare once wrote, “the devil can cite Scripture for his own purpose.” Much harm has been done in the past by taking one or two lines from the Bible and building an entire theology on them. Was the call to care for creation one of those instances? Was my church right in remaining silent on creation care?
The good news is that the Christian faith is not based upon trends, but is instead founded on a book—the Bible. We turn to it when a child is born, a couple marries and a loved one dies; I turned to it to answer my question. I began reading the Bible from cover to cover, underlining verses every time they told of care for creation, God revealed through nature or God interacting with creation.
A study of Scripture reveals a cohesive singularity of thought regarding believers’ responsibility. We are to follow God’s first instruction to humanity. We are to protect and serve the Earth (Genesis 2:15). Reading through the Bible with creation care in mind revealed that my spiritual and environmental journeys were not disparate or mutually exclusive; they were one and mutually supportive.
In the past several years, I’ve been blessed by opportunities to preach and teach about creation care all across America, and I’ve heard every kind of objection and rationalization for not protecting our earthly ark of life. Mostly the arguments boil down to selfishness. I’ve met those who would bet the futures of their grandchildren on wishful thinking that the Earth will end tomorrow; however, I’ve met none willing to bet their 401k on such end times thinking.
Years of practice in emergency medicine taught me the truth of Christ’s words: Death can come swiftly and when we least expect it. We should all be living as if we know with 100 percent certainty that this is our last year on Earth. The followers of Christ are to concern themselves with others. Further, we are to look out for those who cannot care for themselves. By definition, our responsibility includes the next generation.
The future will not be saved by our good intentions. It will be made better, or worse, only by our actions.
My journey from that island in Florida has taught me a life changing lesson: Each and every one of us must be the change that Christ wishes to see in the world.