What Trees Teach Us about Life, Death, and Resurrection

What Trees Teach Us about Life, Death, and Resurrection

Image: Veeterzy / Unsplash

I’ve always loved trees. I love their look, their shade, the sound of wind in their leaves, and the taste of every fruit they produce. As a grade-schooler, I first planted trees with my father and grandfather. I’ve been planting them ever since. Once, as I was training to become a doctor, my wife and I tree-lined the whole street where we lived. But a dozen years ago, when I offered to plant trees at our church, one of the pastors told me I had the theology of a tree-hugger. This was not meant as a compliment.

The church was a conservative one. It believed that Scripture is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. That’s why we went there. As one member explained to me, “Once you get onto that slippery slope of liberalism, who knows where you’ll end up.”

My first reaction to the pastor’s comment was, “Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe God doesn’t care about trees.”

Back then, our whole family was new to Christianity. My daughter hadn’t yet married a pastor. My son wasn’t a missionary pediatrician in Africa, and I’d yet to write books on applied theology or preach at more than a thousand colleges and churches around the world. What did I know about the theology of trees?

But ever since I encountered the gospel for the first time in my 40s, the Bible has been my compass. So when I was called a tree-hugger, I turned to Scripture to get my bearings.

God Loves Trees

Other than people and God, trees are the most mentioned living thing in the Bible. There are trees in the first chapter of Genesis (v. 11–12), in the first psalm (Ps. 1:3), and on the last page of Revelation (22:2). As if to underscore all these trees, the Bible refers to wisdom as a tree (Prov. 3:18).

Image: Jeff Rogers

Every major character and every major theological event in the Bible has an associated tree. The only exception to this pattern is Joseph, and in Joseph’s case the Bible pays him its highest compliment: Joseph is a tree (Gen. 49:22). In fact, Jeremiah urges all believers to be like a tree (17:7–8).

The only physical description of Jesus in the Bible occurs in Isaiah. “Want to recognize the Messiah when he arrives?” Isaiah asks. “Look for the man who resembles a little tree growing out of barren ground” (53:2, paraphrase mine).

Do you think trees are beautiful? You’re in good company. God loves trees, too. By highlighting every sentence containing a tree in the first three chapters of Genesis, one can get a pretty good sense of what God thinks about trees. Nearly a third of the sentences contain a tree.

Genesis 2:9 declares that trees are “pleasing to the eye.” This aesthetic standard does not waver throughout the Bible. Whether God is instructing his people on how to make candlesticks (Ex. 25:31–40), decorate the corbels of the temple (1 Kings 6), or hem the high priest’s robe (Ex. 28:34), the standard of beauty is a tree (and its fruits). If we were to examine the most comfortable seat in a home today, odds are that it faces a television. In heaven, God’s throne faces a tree (Rev. 22:2–3).

In Genesis 2, God makes two things with his own hands. First, he forms Adam and blows the breath of life into his nostrils (v. 7). Then, before Adam can exhale, God pivots and plants a garden (v. 8). It is here, under the trees, that God lovingly places Adam, giving him the job of “dress[ing] and keep[ing]” them (v. 15, KJV). The trees have their only divinely established tasks to accomplish. God charges them with keeping humans alive (Gen. 1:29), giving them a place to live (Gen. 2:8), and providing food to sustain them (v. 16).

Strangely enough, Scripture continuously portrays trees as things that communicate. They clap their hands (Isa. 55:12), shout for joy (1 Chron. 16:33), and even argue (Judges 9:7–15). What makes this pattern especially odd is that creatures that obviously docommunicate—such as fish or birds—are virtually mute in the Bible. Over the thousands of years people have been reading the Bible, this has been passed off as mere poetry. But in the last two decades, tree scientists have discovered something fascinating about trees: They really do communicate. They count, share resources, and talk with each other using a system dubbed the “Wood Wide Web.”

Image: Magnus Lindvall / Unsplash

The Disappearing Forest

Despite the veritable forest of trees in Scripture, most people today have never heard a sermon on trees. This was not always the case. Glance at a few of Charles Spurgeon’s sermon titles and you’ll see an indication of what people were hearing from the pulpit during the mid- to late 1800s: “Christ, the Tree of Life,” “The Tree in God’s Court,” “The Cedars of Lebanon,” “The Apple Tree in the Woods,” “The Beauty of the Olive Tree,” “The Sound in the Mulberry Trees,” “The Leafless Tree,” and so on. Spurgeon, the “prince of preachers,” had no difficulty seeing both the forest and the trees in Scripture.

Image: Jeff Rogers
Not only have trees gone missing from our sermons, they are disappearing from Bibles as well. On my shelf sits a King James Study Bible, published in Spurgeon’s day, that contains over 20 pages on the subject of trees and plants, including multiple full-plate illustrations of trees. In 2013, the same publisher released an updated printing that leaves out all these pages of commentary. In the index, it lists just three references under “tree”; the index of another, even more recent study Bible on my shelf contains no tree entries at all.

If trees were once commonplace in sermons and study Bibles, they were also fixtures in Christian literature. If we reach back over a thousand years to one of the oldest pieces of English literature, The Dream of the Rood, we will hear the story of the Passion told from a tree’s point of view.

Even in more recent times, Christian fiction writers like George MacDonald, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis have infused their work with biblically rooted tree theology. Whether it is MacDonald’s picture of heaven in At the Back of the North Wind, Tolkien’s tree haven Lothlórien in Middle Earth, or how trees respond when Aslan is on the move in Lewis’s Narnia, each author paints a picture of shalom among the trees. The good guys live under, in, and around trees. They value, protect, and even talk to trees. In contrast, evil characters like Tash and Sauron are clear cutters of trees—even talking trees!

What explains the increasing absence of trees from the modern Christian imagination? The reasons are many and complex, but it most likely centers on the resurgence of the first-century heresy of dualism: God’s created world is bad, and only spiritual things reflect the glory of God. One of the chief flaws with this philosophy is that it disparages all the things God called “good” in creation. As Paul said to the Romans, you’re without excuse for believing in God if you’ve been for a walk in the woods. Through nature, we are confronted with unmistakable evidence of God’s power and glory (see Rom. 1:19-20). If trees and the rest of God’s world are inherently corrupt, Paul’s assertion is erroneous.

Getting Back to the Tree of Life

The problem with subtracting trees from our theology is that God put them in the Bible for a reason. There were two trees at the center of the Garden of Eden. One (the Tree of Life) represented humanity’s connection to the divine and the eternal. The other (the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) represented human agency—and possible rebellion. When Adam and Eve ate from the wrong tree, they tried to cover up their crime by undressing the very trees they were charged with “dressing” (Gen. 2:15; 3:7). Their next move was to run and hide behind them (Gen. 3:8). Chapter three of Genesis concludes with Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden. What is the Bible, then, if not a story of God meeting humanity’s need for a Savior to reunite us to the Tree of Life?

Image: Georg Nietsch / Unsplash

Without trees in the Bible, the waters of Marah would have forever remained bitter (Ex. 15:25), the Giant of Gath would not have been thrown off his game (1 Sam. 17:43), and David would have missed his call to battle (1 Chron. 14:15). Deborah would have been without a place to judge Israel (Judges 4:5), and God wouldn’t have called his people to be oaks of righteousness (Isa. 61:3). There would have been no almond grove (Luz, renamed Bethel, means almond tree) for Jacob to fall asleep in and dream of a wooden ladder that spans the gulf between heaven and earth (Gen. 28:10–19), and Job wouldn’t have uttered his famous line about trees and resurrection (Job 14:7). Most importantly, without trees it is impossible to understand the Fall or Jesus’ atoning death.

Isaiah predicted that God’s people would fail to notice the “tender shoot” he had planted for their salvation (Isa. 53:2), a prediction fulfilled in the first chapter of John’s gospel. This is the scene where Philip went to Nathaniel, saying, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45). Nathaniel famously responded, “Nazareth, can any good thing come from there?” “Come and see,” Philip urged (v. 46). As Jesus saw Nathaniel approach, he said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile” (v. 47, KJV). Jesus could have just as easily said, Behold, an Israel (one who has struggled with God and persevered) in whom no Jacob (trickster) is left. Nathaniel certainly got the compliment.

Earlier, Jesus had seen Nathaniel under a fig tree (John 1:48). The Bible doesn’t record what Nathaniel was praying at the time Jesus saw him, but the mere mention of the occasion let Nathaniel know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus was the Messiah. Perhaps Nathaniel had pleaded with the Lord to see the Messiah in his lifetime. He might have even gone so far as to remind God of his study of the prophets in an effort to recognize the Messiah.

But Nathaniel had forgotten the words of the prophet Isaiah: “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (53:2). As Isaiah predicted, something great would indeed come out of a town named after a little tree: Nazareth!

Jesus went on to tell Nathaniel that he would see the ladder Jacob dreamed of long ago: “You will see ‘heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending’ on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). A rescue plan involving trees had been unfolding in time, whether or not Nathaniel recognized it.

So it is no surprise that Jesus talked of trees being uprooted and thrown into the sea by faith (Luke 17:6). Nor is it any surprise that he spoke of his disciples bearing fruit (John 15:8) or instructed them to dwell in him, as fruit-bearing branches in a life-giving vine (15:4–6). As Paul put it, believers are like a branch or scion grafted onto a tree (Rom. 11:17–18).

Jesus is one tough carpenter—the kind that can heft two three-quarter-inch sheets of plywood on his own. He is hard to kill. From the moment he was born, his enemies set about trying to kill him. They tried to kill him as a baby (Matt. 2:16–18), stone him (John 10:31–39), and throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:29), but it didn’t work. Jesus could go 40 days without food, climb into the ring with the toughest opponent on the planet, and walk away a winner after three rounds (Matt. 4:1–11). There was no point in trying to drown him—he’d walk away from that too (Matt. 14:22–33).

No, the only thing that could harm the carpenter from Nazareth was a tree. Why? Because he who is hanged on a tree is cursed (Deut. 21:23, Gal. 3:13), not he who is stabbed, stoned, or burned. (Note that in Hebrew, the word for gallows and tree is one and the same.) Without trees, there is no resurrection, no Good News on Easter morning. The cross is really a tree of life chainsawed down by man’s sin. Yet Jesus’ blood caused a dead tree used as a Roman torture instrument to grow into the symbol of life everlasting—the Tree of Life. Jesus is the Tree of Life, and one day his followers will eat from the leaves of this tree and be healed (Rev. 22:2, 14).

A New Kind of Door

I started life as a carpenter. I’ve never really stopped. Over the last several years, I’ve completely re-trimmed the house I live in—doors, floors, and all.

One part of carpentry that separates the weekend warrior from the journeyman is hanging solid doors from scratch. Doors throughout time and across cultures are remarkably similar. They hang from hinges and close on a jamb. A door is topped by a header—or, as the Bible puts it, a door has two side posts and is topped by a lintel (Ex. 12:22). When the Passover Lamb’s blood was applied to these three boards at the time of the Exodus, the door locked, and the angel of death could not enter.

At a Passover celebration 2,000 years ago, Jesus made a new and very strange kind of door. To be sure, it is a narrow door. Unlike all other doorways that require three boards, it uses only two: a vertical piece and a horizontal one. When Jesus’ blood is applied to these two crossed pieces of wood, the doorway to heaven opens. There is no other way to unlock it.

Image: Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash

I believe the Bible has a forest of trees because trees teach us about the nature of God. Just like a tree, God is constantly giving. Trees have been giving life long before human beings had a clue oxygen existed. Trees give life, beauty, food, and shade. The desk I’m writing on is made of dead maple trees. No wonder God uses trees to instruct us about life, death, and resurrection. Trees, like God, give life even after death.

You’d think that Jesus might have held it against trees after he was crucified. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. On Easter morning, when Mary went down to put flowers on the tomb, her eyes were raw from crying. She looked up and saw Jesus. She did not mistake him for a soldier, bureaucrat, or merchant. She mistook him for a gardener (John 20:15). This was no mistake. He is the new Adam, back on the job where the old Adam failed—dressing and keeping the garden. His invitation to us in the Bible’s last chapter is to keep his commandments, so that we can meet him at a tree—the Tree in Life before God’s throne, with branches that bear fruit in every season and leaves that heal the nations.

An Investment in Humanity’s Future

Those who plant or protect trees because of their faith are in good company. In fact, the church where I was once suspected of tree-hugger tendencies eventually planted trees on its grounds. Moreover, the church’s logo now sports a stylized Tree of Life. I believe that this response is emblematic of what will happen when Christians rediscover the trees that God planted in Scripture and reforest their faith.

Abraham was the first person in the Bible to plant trees. At the time, Abraham owned not a square foot of land. Scripturally, tree planting started as an unselfish act of faith. “And Abraham planted a grove in Beersheba, and called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God” (Gen. 21:33, KJV). By virtue of the way that trees work, Abraham’s act made the world a better place.

Today, we understand a tree’s role in the global oxygen, carbon, and water cycles. But all that was unknown to Abraham. Nonetheless, Abraham’s grove is a blessing to all the families of the world (see Gen. 12:3). Abraham planted for the next generation, and the one after that.

The Old Testament ends with an admonition to think long-term and to give thanks for those before us. The hearts of one generation are to turn toward the hearts of the next, and vice versa (see Mal. 4:6). Only the Lord knows the mind of a man, but in Abraham’s case, the planting and protection of trees were tangible evidence of what was in his heart. Long-term thinking is godly. Short-term thinking is not. Perhaps this is another reason why the first psalm says that the righteous man resembles a tree.

Indeed, the writer of the first psalm offers one of the clearest insights into God’s thinking on trees. King David danced and shouted for joy when the ark containing the Bible, a jar of manna, and an almond branch was moved to the tabernacle he had prepared. He wrote a song of thanksgiving to celebrate the occasion. The song looks forward to the second coming of the Messiah. Even the trees join in the celebration: “Let the trees of the forest sing, let them sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth” (1 Chron. 16:33). The Bible says that many people will hide under rocks to avoid judgment in the Second Coming—but not the trees. They finally get their day in court, and they know exactly what the verdict will be.

I believe that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead, as the Bible says. But what about those who argue that the Lord’s return relieves us from any concern about trees? “All resources,” they say, “should be put toward evangelism.”

If someone believes this and acts accordingly, I say, “Amen!” But too often this sentiment is expressed with all the sincerity of Judas Iscariot advocating for the poor as Mary anointed Jesus with fine perfume (see John 12: 1–8).

Trees are God’s investment in humanity’s future. They are the only living thing to which God gives a ring on each birthday. Only he knows the exact timing of Christ’s return. I hope it is tomorrow morning. But, in the meantime, I’ll plant trees that will take a century to grow, and I’ll try to spread the gospel like there’s no tomorrow.

 

This article originally appeared on Christianity Today.

Matthew Sleeth, MD, is a speaker, author, and executive director of Blessed Earth, an organization promoting stewardship of creation. His next book, Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us (WaterBrook), releases in April 2019.

Sabbath Box: What if You Could Get a Rest?

Pastoral ministry is hard work. How would you like a resource that could lighten your workload and help teach your church the importance of Sabbath. Well, look no further than the Sabbath Box. Imagine having one week out of every month, where much of the work of ministry planning has already been done for you. On the first Sunday of every month, each new issue of Sabbath Box presents you with sermon, music, and Bible study content, ready for you to use with your church or ministry! Sign up now, and try a free month, risk-free! Sign up by clicking the logo!

Keeping the Sabbath Saved My Marriage, My Ministry, and Probably My Life

by A.J. Swoboda (Blessed Earth Pacific Northwest Director)

Nearly 10 years ago, as a college pastor at the University of Oregon, I toiled nearly 80 hours a week doing the “work of the Lord.” No boundaries. No rhythms. No intention. No rest. Every crisis was my crisis. Every complaint was my problem. Everything and everyone came to me. The long and short of it. I began to burn out. And I knew there was a problem when I started hoping I would burn out. Burnout offered a way out of all the insanity. Though I had never thought it possible, I was, in Paul’s words, beginning to “weary in doing good” (Gal. 6:9). The cost was high. I constantly got sick, my marriage was struggling, and my ministry became misery as I went frantically from crisis to crisis.

Flannery O’Connor has this little throwaway line where she speaks of a priest who is “unimaginative and overworked.” That was me. There was only one problem: The ministry was thriving. People were getting baptized. Students were repenting. The group was growing. It all came to a head one Saturday morning. After an 80-hour workweek, I scheduled an appointment with a student in our college ministry for 10:00 a.m. that Saturday morning. Having not slept well for over a month, I missed my appointment, not even hearing the sound of my alarm. I woke up to a voicemail on my phone: “How could you miss this appointment? Pastors shouldn’t miss appointments. You have failed me.”

I had become, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas, a “quivering mass of availability.” A need-filler. A gofer. A Christian handyman, available to everyone and everything but the Lord my God. Standing there, I nearly broke my flip phone over my knee and threw it against the wall. I had been working tirelessly only to let one more person down. I could not go on like I had been. By the sovereign grace of God, I had been reading a book by pastor and theologian Eugene Peterson. Through reading the book, I discovered something I had completely ignored in 10 years of Bible reading—this thing called the Sabbath. Peterson eloquently discussed how one day a week he would say no to ministry demands and go on hikes, eat good food, read poetry, and meet with God. I was intrigued. Was this not a waste of time? Was he not wasting his time on selfish endeavors? Then it clicked.

Up until this time, I had thought Sabbath-keeping was selfish. And I thought that if I did rest, it was a sign of weakness. Then I had the epiphany of a lifetime: I had been trying to be selfless. In helping everyone else, I had forgotten myself. I had become the preacher of the gospel who needed the gospel himself. Or, worse yet, I subconsciously thought God wanted me to forget about myself so I could serve others. But that is not the gospel. Jesus loves me too. I could love others only to the extent that I could recognize God’s love for me. I could see to the needs of my community only to the extent that I admitted my own needs. I could care for God’s people only to the extent that I would allow him to care for me. In forgetting all this, I had neglected to care for the body God had given me, the spirit he breathed into me, this soul that he molded with his own hand.

 A Commandment, Not a Suggestion

Wisdom prevailed. I admitted my own limits and embraced my finitude. It was one of the first “not goods” in my life where I recognized I had a deep, human, God-created need. In living for everyone else, I had been trying to be omnipotent and omnipresent; God had never intended me to be either. As I read the Gospels, it became clearer and clearer to me that Jesus himself was not selfless. Jesus went into the mountains and prayed to the point that even his disciples could not find him. Jesus ate. Jesus drank. Jesus slept. He took care of himself. And never once was Jesus hurried from place to place, controlled by a busy schedule. Jesus lived a rhythm completely different from anyone around him. The rhythm of his life was, in itself, a prophetic act against the rhythms of the world.

Sabbath rhythms are not meant for paper; they are meant to be practiced. “Holy days, rituals, liturgies—all are like musical notations which, in themselves,” one Jewish scholar writes, “cannot convey the nuances and textures of live performance.” We are not to know about the Sabbath. We are to know the Sabbath. In the years since starting to practice the Sabbath, my family and I have become avid, albeit imperfect, amateur Sabbath-keepers. One day a week, my family turns all the screens off, lights some candles, prays, and invites the God of the Sabbath to bring us rest. This practice, which, again, we do far from perfectly, has saved my marriage, my ministry, my faith, and, I might even say, my life. However, we have come to find that Sabbath never just happens. In our 24/7 world, I have never once seen someone accidentally keep a Sabbath. Sabbath is an action of great purpose, one that demands feisty intentionality. It requires us to live in a rhythm that squarely opposes the dangerous pulse and habits of our world. Sabbath-keeping is not just a small vignette in the Bible. Page after page, story after story, book after book, Sabbath comes to us. This is not a minor motif in the story of the Bible—it is one of the greatest themes of the Bible. Sabbath is not extra credit. It is a commandment, not a suggestion.

 Sabbath is God’s eternal way of helping us worship our good God and not worship the good work he has given us to do.

The Sabbath, Jacques Ellul contends, “shows that work is not after all so excellent or desirable a thing as people often tell us.” In other words, Sabbath provides work with a healthy framework within which good work can be done. The fourth commandment, we must remember, only prohibits us from work on Sabbath. Nothing else is prohibited. This simple act of not working revolutionizes our lives by re-centering our identity on being with God rather than on what we do for the world. Workaholism, in the end, is the result of our sense of self not fully coming into the light of Christ. Workaholism is very different from alcoholism—for the alcoholic, there is no slowly reintegrating alcohol after into your life after getting clean. Workaholism is different. For a workaholic, the issue becomes learning to live rightly in relationship to work. A workaholic will most likely have to get back to work.

The Idol of Exhaustion

As for my work, studies continue to reveal that pastoral burnout is connected to the pastor’s sense of being and worthiness. I became a workaholic chiefly because I had not allowed the grace of Jesus to reside in the depths of the caverns of my soul. I even used to think the Sabbath was a break from ministry. Now I see the Sabbath as ministry. It frees people. It helps others in the church. It establishes boundaries. And, above all, it proclaims the Good News of Jesus. As I read Peterson, one question came back to me over and over again: How can I preach salvation by grace when my life is built on an altar of workaholism?

In our culture, in place of a meaningful relationship with Jesus where we are defined by the Father’s love, we will continue to relish our overstuffed, busy lives. Busyness will be our trophy. More often than not, the only way we can truly feel good about our lives is if we are burning out doing it. We want scars to brag about. We have, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “made an idol of exhaustion. The only time we know we have done enough is when we’re running on empty and when the ones we love most are the ones we see least.” It seems this cultural mantra has been treated like a command from God, but God never asked us to work to the point of burnout.

We were not created just to work.

Work is not our Ultimate.

 

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today online.

New Resource: The Subversive Sabbath by A.J. Swoboda

I have the pleasure of announcing a new book by my friend and colleague, Dr. A.J. Swoboda.  A. J. directs our Blessed Earth operations in the Pacific Northwest. His book is called Subversive Sabbath.   For those of you have read my last book, 24/6, (and for those who haven’t), I highly recommend that you get ahold of A.J.’s book as soon as possible.  The timing of its launch could not be better, as it makes a great read leading up to Easter.
I was honored when A.J. asked me to author the foreword for Subversive Sabbath.  Here’s what I wrote:
As a physician, I’ve listened to thousands of hearts. During prenatal exams, I’ve heard the rapid swish-swishing of babies still in the womb.  Often, moms and dads burst into tears when they hear their child’s heart for the first time. I’ve smiled at the strange murmur those same thumb-sized hearts make when they are born into the great big world, fetal shunts closing of their own accord as the baby breathes independently for the first time. I’ve listened to the chests of three-year-old children as they inhale deeply–and then wonder if the man in the white coat can hear their thoughts through those tubes attached to his ears.
 
I’ve listened to athletes’ strong, slow hearts. I’ve heard asthmatic hearts pounding away in fear, and the muffled sounds of failing hearts. I’ve listened to the hearts of saints and murderers. I’m in the first generation of physicians to ever listen to the heart of one person after it has been transplanted into another.
 
Doctors and nurses listen to patients’ hearts using a stethoscope. Although this is convenient, it’s not necessary. In fact, the stethoscope wasn’t invented until a generation after our country became a nation. For thousands of years, physicians listened to heart sounds without the aid of a stethoscope. They simply laid their ear on the chest of their patients. Now, it is only children who lay their heads on the chest of their parents and listen to beating hearts.
 
My daughter used to love curling up in the big green chair by our fireplace in winter and falling asleep listening to my heartbeat. These days my children are grown. I’m still close to them and hug them every time I see them, but it is only my little granddaughter who’s falling asleep on my chest now…or so I thought. Recently, my son dropped by our house after a long shift at the hospital. He flopped on the couch next to me, and within a few minutes he was asleep, his head was resting on me. He was no longer a pediatrician at the university hospital; he was just my little boy, resting in his father’s arms.
 
I had just finished reading Subversive Sabbath, and I got to thinking about our exhausted world, laying our heads down, and hearing heart sounds. These thoughts led me to the thirteenth chapter of John’s Gospel–the setting of the Last Supper. The chapter begins with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Later, Judas dashes off to betray Christ. The chapter ends with Jesus giving a new commandment to love one another.
 
But midway through, an extraordinary detail is recorded.  Here we see the portrait of a commercial fisherman with sunburned skin and callused hands. His name is John, and he’s a man’s man. Jesus calls him a “son of thunder.” Normally, John conveys an image of courage and strength, but at this moment he appears like a little child: “Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples whom Jesus loved.”
 
There in the middle of the most extraordinary events in human history is a man listening to the heart of God. Don’t you wish you could lay your head down on the Maker of the universe and just listen to his heart? Don’t you wish that you could lay all your problems down for just a moment and rest on Jesus?
 
The heart of A.J. Swoboda’s book is that you can: starting next Sabbath, for twenty-four hours, you can lay your head on the chest of someone who loves you enough to die for you. Subversive Sabbath is an invitation to rest in the Lord.

The Sabbath commandment begins with an odd word; it tells us to “remember.”  Don’t forget how good it is to rest in the Lord, to be loved by the Lord, to hear His heart beat. A.J. Swoboda’s narrative is both a reminder to those who have forgotten and an instruction for those who have never known the peace of Sabbath rest. “Once you start,” Swoboda warns, “you cannot stop. It is profoundly life giving.”
 
Ultimately, however, reading about Sabbath is like looking at a picture of food. It will not fill you. It can only whet your appetite. You must finish the book, put it down, and actually do the Sabbath. You must get your life quiet enough one day out of the week to hear God’s heart.  Only then will you experience the counter-cultural joy of Shabbat shalom, Sabbath peace.
 
I have been blessed by years of friendship with A.J., and his latest book is the outflowing of a heart that loves the Lord.  I hope you, too, take the time to get to know him–and God–more through Subversive Sabbath (and don’t forget to leave a review on Amazon!).
by Matthew J. Sleeth

Do the headlines scare you? They shouldn’t, and here’s why.

by Matthew Sleeth

We live in a culture of fear. In fact, fear is a hot commodity. It sells.

The folks who have the most to gain from fear just happen to be the ones who market it. This may be individuals, but often it’s the media.

Nancy and I don’t have television at home, but I have no control over TVs in public places. There is no escaping them. Whether I want to or not, I’m forced to watch the news in airports and restaurants. And of course there’s plenty of news online. The threat level is always orange or red. Every hour of every day we hear up-to-the-minute news of mass shootings, scandal, stolen identities, impending nuclear threats, and a world in turmoil.

Fear is not all bad. It keeps us from going too near the edge of the cliff. It can lead to an appropriate amount of caution. It lets us know when to act and when to flee.

But living in constant fear is crippling to the human spirit. Fear feeds on itself, and it’s always hungry for more. Fear makes us uncomfortable, and for the most part, people like to avoid uncomfortable stimuli.

For many, escape is the answer. We run to diversions, including entertainment, food, drugs, and alcohol. We escape our lives by living someone else’s in the popular world of reality TV.

There is also an economic link between escape and fear. Many of the entities that market fear are in the entertainment business. This is known as creating your own market and demand. Politicians market fear as well. Mussolini, Hitler, and tyrants throughout history have banked on fear for their own benefit. They create a climate of fear and then present the means of escape: themselves.

You don’t have to read far into the Bible to come across a society based on fear. The book of Exodus documents a Pharaoh’s paranoid imaginings about an uprising of slaves, a war that might happen, and a reaction that could occur. I’m sure that the media back then endlessly hashed and rehashed the possibilities. Coifed, attractive journalists interviewed the former commander of the Pharaoh’s chariots while maps overlaid with possible invading armies flashed on the screen.

The problem with a culture of fear is that people grow used to the fear; as a result, those who are in the fear business must continually up the ante. As the scripture says, “And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel.” (Ex 1:12 ESV)

So the Pharaoh upped the ante and said, “let’s kill the most helpless of all–the newborn babies.” Then one of the most beautiful things in the Bible takes place. Two courageous women dealt with fear in the way God wants all of us to. Their names were Beautiful and Splendid, or Shiprah and Puah in Hebrew.

How did these midwives act when confronted with a culture of fear? They lied to the Pharaoh to protect the babies. And you probably remember that “the Lord dealt well” with these two women. But what we may forget is how these women escaped the culture of fear. “But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.” (Gen 1:17 ESV).

The key: they feared God. Satan wants us to fear everything on earth–except God.

In Matthew 10 we find a record of Jesus sending his disciples out on their first mission. They had been with the Master up until that point, and it must have felt overwhelming for them to step out on their own. Jesus instructed these followers to find a worthy house, give greetings, and let their peace descend on the home (Matthew 10:13).

The implication is that disciples should have a peace that others do not. How? We must fear God, and nothing else.

Jesus warned them–and us–that life will not be easy. There will be persecutions and accusations. There will be wars and rumors of wars. We cannot expect a stress-free life when we follow Jesus.

Our Lord went on to explain that we should not fear men. Others can destroy our body, but ultimately only God has the power of granting eternal life or death (Matthew 10:28). Our souls rest in God’s hands alone. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). When we fear the Lord, all other fears shrink in size and become much more manageable.

Fear God alone, and you’ll find yourself with the courage to take down giants. I promise. But more importantly, God promises. This is God’s Word. And we believe it.

 

 

 

 

Playing Hooky Can Be a Good Thing

by Nancy Sleeth, Managing Director of Blessed Earth

For a long time, a visit to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest has been near the top of Matthew’s bucket list. Named after the WWI veteran who wrote the beloved poem “Trees,” it is one of the largest contiguous tracts of old growth forest in the Eastern United States. It encompasses trees that are over 400 years old and 20 feet in circumference standing 100 feet tall.

So, when I saw that we had a free afternoon during a three-day trip last month, I asked some friends if they’d like to join us for a hike. The forest was about 90 minutes from where we were staying. From the moment we got on the Foothills Parkway, every vista was an affirmation of God’s goodness–mountain overlooks, leaves just beginning to acknowledge the coming change in seasons, and streams interrupted by lively waterfalls.

It was midafternoon by the time we arrived. The four of us chatted while navigating the first half of the hike, pointing out especially large tree specimens to each other and marveling over the girth of the trees. It felt like we were exploring an outdoor cathedral. Walking in the presence of God’s oldest creatures made us feel both small and large at the same time–our lifespan fleeting, our responsibilities as God’s appointed caretakers great.

As soon as we ascended the second half of the figure-eight trail, other hikers became far fewer. We spotted two fallen trees and decided to rest. Our friend suggested that we begin in prayer and then sit in silence for five minutes. As we closed our eyes and listened, the wind picked up. For the first time in my life, I heard a wind approaching. Stronger and stronger, it gathered over the valley and ascended the mountainside. The leaves began ringing, almost like wind chimes. Our five minutes of silent contemplation stretched into ten, then fifteen. No one wanted it to end. The wind died down, and we opened our eyes. We had a long drive back, and a dinner meeting scheduled, so we headed back to the car, our ears still ringing with echoes of our sacred silence.

Over the course of the three-day conference, our friend Boyd Bailey, head of the National Christian Foundation in Georgia, led the morning devotions. Providentially, the topic he chose was silence. Boyd believes that silence is the language of God, and God expects us to be fluent in His language. While no one pats us on the back for being skilled in silence, learning to sit with the Lord in quiet grows our inner strength, sensitivity to the Spirit, and Kingdom perspective invaluably.

After Jesus fed the 5,000, he dismissed all but the twelve and then went to be silent with his Father. As many of us have learned the hard way, BUSY stands for Being Under Satan’s Yoke. Either we manage to have quiet in our lives, or the noise will manage us.

Our fifteen minutes of quiet in the Joyce Kilmer Forest reminds me of Psalm 1. God wants us to be like a tree, with deep roots that reach out for water and hold us firm. No matter what hurricanes or wildfires or floods come our way, we will stand fast in the Lord.

A Sabbath From the Headlines

On July 31, I made a decision: For the coming month, I would Sabbath from checking the news.

About a year ago, when the elections were heating up, I fell into the habit of checking three news sources each morning. One of the sources was on the conservative end of the spectrum, one liberal, and one moderate. It was interesting to me to see how the same event could be interpreted through such vastly different lenses.

As the race grew closer and closer, I began checking the headlines twice each day. Every time I thought the news was as crazy as it could get, it grew even more absurd. I told myself–and my husband–that this relatively new obsession was not affecting my emotional or spiritual life, but of course it was. How could such an influx of pessimism and hostility not darken my soul?

When I found myself checking the headlines not once, not twice, but three times a day, I knew I had crossed a line. Enough was enough! I asked for God’s help. Then I embarked on an August experiment.

Even without the angst of 24/7 news, August is usually a hard month for me. Twenty-two years ago, my brother drowned on August 19 in front of our kids. Nearly two decades later, my mom also died on August 19. August is also the month my daughter and mother shared the same birthday, so the entire month is filled with bittersweet memories.

For more than a decade, my family and I have abstained from news on our Sabbaths. It’s one of the many ways our Sabbath is made kadosh (holy), literally set apart. This weekly oasis from headlines always has a calming effect. Imagine what a month without getting swept up in the whirlwind of news could do for my soul?

It turns out, the experiment proved easier than I expected. And better. I assumed I would be tempted to take a peek. Who, besides God and Google, would know?

But I didn’t look (though occasionally I would ask Matthew if the world was still there….) The rewards were tangible and immediate. I have slept better, felt more rested, and worried less about things I have no control over this month than I have in a year.

On September 1, my news sabbatical officially ends. What have I learned? Sufficient unto today are today’s worries. Or, to paraphrase Matthew 6:34, don’t angst about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own trouble.

My sabbatical from daily news reminded me that the only lens that really matters is the Gospel. Jesus gave us the answer to today’s headlines and the angst they stir up in Matthew 6:33: Seek FIRST the King of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.

When Sabbath Came to Church

Dr. Guy Brewer, Director, North Carolina Sabbath Living Initiative

(Guy offers this reflection on the Sabbath Living retreat held on Memorial Day weekend for pastors and clergy of AME Zion Beaufort District and UMC Sound District in North Carolina.)

“Everybody in church was your momma. It didn’t matter where you sat or who you were with. Those church ladies were all in cahoots! They had their eye on you and they would bless you out at the drop of a hat. If need be, they could give you that secret pew pinch, too, if you know what I mean. Dear Lord, I grew up with so many mommas!”

 That is how an AME Zion pastor described her memories of Sabbath from childhood. This recollection illustrates what it means to be a Sabbath community. In a Sabbath community, everybody is your momma; people take the term “church family” seriously. In such a community, folks’ lives are closely bound together. They love each other deeply, know each other well, and look out for each other as a mother cares for her own children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our experience at the Sabbath Living retreat over Memorial Day weekend was filled with deep love. The retreat began on Friday night with the celebration of a “love feast” in which community members served each other the bread of life and living water with the words, “God loves you and so do I.” What a moving scene. Old persons serving young persons. White folks serving black folks. Tough men with tears in their eyes hugging one another.

Across our three days together, we reflected on how we might live at the pace of grace, how we might make a space for grace in our lives, and how we might find our place of grace in the Body of Christ. As our time drew to a close, folks had the opportunity to come to the altar for anointing with oil. Every person in attendance—fifty-five people—came forward. It was a Holy Spirit moment, a time of healing, reconciliation, and empowerment.

It was hard to leave that place. In three days together, we had come to love one another. How could we say farewell? We joined hands, each person turned to the other, looked in their eyes and said, “God loves you and so do I.”