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Psalm 139 says our bodies are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” The birth of our daughter a month ago bore witness to that truth with worship-inspiring beauty. Now the experience of being a new parent is making me realize the responsibility I have to steward my body well: I have to be healthy to keep her healthy, alert to watch over her, rested enough to be patient with her. I need to steward my body, not only to care for her, but to set an example for her of how to pursue health wisely.

Valerie Hess and Lane Arnold have written a new book about such stewardship of our bodies. It’s called The Life of the Body: Physical Well-Being and Spiritual Formation. The reasons to care for our bodies in the book range from responsibility to others to the spiritual, physical, and emotional benefits of pursuing whole-body health. But the most important reason is God-centered: As Hess and Arnold write, “With our physical bodies, we bear a message of what we believe about God, the world and ourselves” (p. 16).   

The book’s consideration of our human relationship with food provides a good example of how our treatment of our bodies bears witness to God. Food is not morally neutral. Every choice we make regarding food makes an impact not just upon our bodies, but upon the earth and the bodies of others. Accordingly, every bite we eat proclaims whether we believe the environmental beauty of God’s creation is worth caring for, whether the workers who harvested our food deserve a just wage, and whether or not our own lives are worth sustaining. The book’s insights here range from practical tips to pursuing health to convicting observations about the emotional impulses behind our eating. I was personally convicted about my relationship with peanut butter after reading this: “In reality, excessive comfort foods point to the fact that I am letting something (food) comfort me, rather than allowing Christ to be my source of true comfort” (p. 36).

Where the book brings conviction, it also brings gentle guidance and hope. Hess and Arnold wisely point out that we can start making better food choices simply by distinguishing between what is actually food and what is merely edible, or by asking ourselves if an item “would have been considered a food item one hundred years ago” ( p. 124). Similarly gentle guidance is given concerning exercise, care for the environment, and critiquing the messages which our media sends us about body-image. For those who want to go into more scientific or practical depth in any of these topics, a very good selection of books is listed in an appendix of references.

I’m thankful that this book has been written because so many of us need to hear the message that our bodies are worth caring for in appropriate ways. As the authors say, “Some Christ-followers have been raised to think that caring for themselves is bad or selfish” but “Self-love is not the same as self-indulgence. . . . Self-love comes from wanting to care for the body that God has given you. This is not sinful but rather a sign of wise stewardship” (p. 60). This gives me encouragement as I think back over my own story of struggling to pursue holy physical health, and as I think about my roles as husband, father, and pastor. There are people I know who I want to read this book because they need to understand that they have a responsibility before Christ to care for the body He redeemed.

That’s a starting point, but it’s not the whole story. Helpful as The Life of the Body is, I do have to say that it would be enriched by a deeper knowledge of and interaction with the monastic literature of the early Church. There is a common presumption that the desert fathers and mothers held a Platonic view of the body which denigrated the body’s importance (a view which Hess and Arnold agree with on pages 15 and 94). On the contrary, the desert fathers and mothers had a much deeper knowledge of the intricate relationship between our bodies and our spiritual lives than modern writers appreciate. For just one example, they were keenly aware that over-eating made one vulnerable to both sexual temptation and anger. They fasted not out of failure to appreciate the value of their bodies, but because they took serious the original context of Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 6 that the body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit,” namely that this is why one should flee sexual immorality. Medieval saints and ascetics weren’t the only ones to believe that the body should be “subdued and beaten into submission to the ‘higher’ realities of spirit and soul” (p. 94). The Apostle Paul believed the same thing: “I beat my body and make it my slave” (1 Corinthians 9:27 NIV). If you asked Paul how his body bore witness to Christ, he would have pointed to the suffering he endured: “I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17). 

Taking that into consideration, Christian care for the body is ultimately not just about the pursuit of health, it’s about the pursuit of holiness.  Hess and Arnold observe in the book that “Discipline in one area of life can carry over into other areas of life in significant ways, easily crossing between that which impacts the body and that which impacts the soul” (p. 15).  Amen. That point is absolutely true. But the depth of its meaning isn’t fully expressed here. The insights in this book are the first steps for putting that truth into practice. I believe that those who are ready to take the next steps in their spiritual formation would seriously profit from reading the ascetics of the early Church and asking what messages their bodies proclaimed about the crucified and risen Christ.

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St. Ephrem the Syrian wrote in his “Hymns on Virginity and The Symbols of the Lord” about the “three harps of God.” The first is the Old Testament, the second is the New Testament, and the third is the natural world of creation. For Ephrem, nature held within it images and types which point to Christ, similar to how the images and types in the Old Testament reveal Christ. The Church, he wrote, plays these the harps together to the praise of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I have a post up over at the Conversations Journal Blog which shares about an experience I had in North Carolina recently that made me think of Ephrem and his vision of paradise.  Go here to read it. I pray the Lord will use it to inspire you both to see his beauty in creation and to pursue the high calling we’ve received in Christ.

Today is Blog Action Day (see Blog Action Day), and writers all around the world are writing on the theme of clean water. I’m no expert about it, but World Vision says that at least 20 percent of the world does not have safe drinking water, and lack of access to safe water is the number one cause of preventable death. So what can we do about it?

It’s seven months away (exactly) but on May 15, 2011, several friends and I will be running in the Pittsburgh Marathon for Team World Vision to raise money for drilling clean water wells in Kenya and Ethiopia. One well costs upwards of $13,000, and we have a small team, so our goal is only a portion of that amount, but any giving will help go a long way to provide clean water for those who need it most. Again, I’m no expert, but this is something tangible we can do to transform lives. So, please support us. For more on what we’re doing with Team World Vision, go to my Team World Vision page.

In the season of celebrating resurrection, what could be more appropriate than joining in God’s work of bringing new life to creation?  And where better to start than at home?  Eileen and I have entered into the long but exciting process of buying a house.  The closing’s set for the end of May, so we won’t be moving for a while, but we’re already thinking about all the things we could do with it. Like caring for the house in an environmentally responsible way. So we’ve been eagerly following our friend John’s blog:

John Creasy is blogging a series on Urban Homesteading.  So far it’s included discussions of passive solar heating (one reason why I’m glad our new house faces south), chicken tractors (the most productive lawn-mowing system I can imagine), and cold-frames (passive-solar heated mini-greenhouses). John’s remarkably knowledgable about these things – he’s a founder of Garfield Community Farm – so there’s much to learn in the series.  You can follow it at johncreasy.blogspot.com.

Along the same lines, a book which Eileen and I have been educated and amused by is The Urban Homestead.  We won’t put all of these ideas into practice – chickens are a long way off for amateurs like us –  but we’re dreaming.  But a rain barrel and a compost bin are likely candidates for early home-improvement projects.  And Eileen couldn’t put down a book on organic gardening she picked up the other night.

In case it wasn’t clear from Part 1 in this short series, I think we should be careful how we interpret apocalyptic texts.  I do believe Christ will come again.  I do believe in the resurrection of the dead.  These are the things all Christians believe, at least according to the Nicene Creed.  When it comes to specifics, though, I’m hesitant to speculate.  So, in this post, I’m attempting to draw together the best picture I can of the new life we will have in new creation once the Kingdom of God has come in its fullness.  So that we don’t get bogged down in debating either literalistic or purely metaphorical interpretations of apocalyptic texts, I just want to survey the “pictures” they give, and draw out the general themes these suggest for life in the new creation.

First, the biblical portrait of what happens to our human bodies at the end of time is resurrection (Daniel 12:1-3; 1 Corinthians 15).  See this post for more on resurrection.  Ultimately, God brings new embodied life to that which was dead, displayed most vividly in the resurrection of Jesus as the first-fruits from the dead. 

Second, consider the picture which Revelation 21 draws:   Jesus calls out “Behold, I am making all things new.” Evil is judged and put away forever – death is put to death.  Then the world continues to exist, and the New Jerusalem is seen coming down from heaven to earth as a city illumined by Jesus and in which the nations of the world will walk.  Chapter 22 goes on to picture “a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street.  On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit in every month, and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”  The picture given in Revelation 21 and 22 is one of restored creation: clear streams, abundant fruit, healing plants.  Now consider the fact that Revelation 21 draws upon the imagery of the new heavens and earth in Isaiah 65:17-25, which pictures a very tangible, embodied life in the new creation.  There people build homes, labor, have families, and yet it is a peaceful existence where even “the wolf and the lamb shall graze together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox; and . . . they will do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain” (v.25 NASB) . This is what it looks like when God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.  We pray for this every day in the Lord’s Prayer, but often miss the order of the words: Heaven comes to us.  And what does heaven come on earth look like?  Startlingly similar to our daily life on earth now, with the exception of all evil and death.

Third, we might now ask, “What does that mean for the created world – for the earth, the plants, the animals?”  Romans 8:19-23 gives us a picture:  “. . . the creation itself will be set free form its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (vv. 21-23 NRSV).   The imagery is of the created world in labor pains, awaiting new birth, which is then likened in verse 23 to resurrection.  Just as followers of Christ are “born again” and “raised to new life” in Jesus, both spiritually in this lifetime and in resurrection to come, so also the creation is raised to a new existence.  It’s resurrection.  As Eusebius put it in the fourth-century, “Like a cloak, every body grows old with time.  But although it grows old, it will be renewed again by your divine will, O Lord.  The heavens will not be destroyed, but rather they will be changed into something better.  In the same way our bodies are not destroyed in order to disappear altogether but in order to be renewed in an indestructible state” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture vol XI p. 159)

So, given these pictures of God’s ultimate desires for the created world, what should our response be to ecological crises, to excessive consumption of natural resources?  I believe that as disciples of the Resurrected One, our call is to constantly choose that which leads to life over death – not just for our own human flourishing, but for all of creationWhen we do this, we become living answers to the prayer for God’s “kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”

As said in the previous post, contemporary apocalypticism is more a product of American consumer culture than of sound biblical or theological thought.  Yet this doesn’t mean that scripture hasn’t been twisted to support the view that God created the earth for planned obsolescence.  As a case study, let’s look at one passage that has been used to support such a view, 2 Peter 3:10: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up” (NASB).  It seems like a pretty straightforward prooftext for the idea that the earth turns into flaming garbage at the end of time. 

But the interpretative problem here comes on two levels.  First, when we read the word “elements” from our modern scientifically-informed perspective, we think of elements like we find on the periodic table.  The Greek word behind this, though, is broader.  It’s stoicheion. In some parts of ancient Greek, the word refers to the four elements, “earth, air, fire, and water”.  In the seventh-century Bede apparently accepted this meaning, but explained it away: “There are four elements, earth, air, fire and water, all of which will be swept away by a great fire.  Yet that fire will not devour them all but only two of them (fire and water), for there will be a new heaven and a new earth after this destruction has passed” (Ibid.)   Elsewhere, the word means stars, which here would be supported by verse 12.  Still elsewhere, it has the connotation spirits, or supernatural beings (i.e. demonic or angelic powers).  The last meaning is most likely that intended by Paul in Colossians 2:8 and 20, and is possibly present also in Galatians 4:3 and 9.   But scholars are divided about what it means in 2 Peter 3:10.  Some lean towards stars (Charles Bigg, ICC; also the translators of the ESV).  Others toward the supernatural powers.  Others note that stars were often associated with supernatural spirits, angelic powers presiding over nature (Bauckham, Word).  This would imply that both the stars and the spirits associated with them are destroyed.  The text of 2 Peter itself may be inconclusive, but in light of verses like Revelation 20:10 and 21:23, I certainly lean toward the latter option, reading it as a reference to the end of celestial bodies and the spirits associated with them.

Second, the NASB’s use of “burned up” at the end of the verse is based on a mistake in the Greek text.  When scribes copied the text of the NT throughout history, they sometimes made mistakes or “corrections”, some as simple as transposing a letter or two, some as big as intentional replacements of words.  This verse is an example of the latter.  At some point, a scribe inserted the word katakaesetai here, which means “will be burned.”  [Excursus on Text Criticism: Skip this part if you don’t care about it. One method scholars use to decide which text is closer to the original involves comparing the variants and thinking about which would logically arise through simple scribal mistakes.  For example, if I write “The dog chased the cat” and someone later slips and changes it to “the dog chased the cut”, we can tell which is more likely the original.  Here, katakaesetai isn’t even similar to the other variants.  It would be like having “The dog chased the cat”, “The dog chased the cut”, and “The dog chased the rock”, and trying to choose the original.  In this case, there are at least eight other versions of this verse, but none would logically derive from katakaesetai.]

Scholars now think that eurethesetai is the version most likely to be the original.  And what does that mean?  It’s from the same root that gave us the word “Eureka!”  It means made to be “found” or “discovered”.  Hence the NRSV’s translation, “the earth and everything done on it will be disclosed”, or the ESV’s, “the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.”

So add this up, and 2 Peter 3:10 gives a picture not of the earth being burned up, but of the “heavenly bodies” and “elemental spirits” being destroyed and the earth and the works of humanity being discovered, or revealed – ready for God’s reign to come.  2 Peter 3:11-13 continue a description of the end of the world, but these verses are consistent with the above interpretation.  Verse 12 says the “heavens (ouranoi) will be set on fire” and repeats that the stoicheia will be burned.  Then, verse 13 finally gets to the point: “we wait for a new heavens and a new earth where righteousness is at home” (NRSV).  The end result is new, tangible creation. 

Beautifully, this ties back to the theme of resurrection, now applied to all of creation, not just human bodies.  As  the seventh-century monk Andreas said, “It is not just we, says Peter, but the whole creation around us also, which will be changed for the better.  For the creation will share in our glory just as it has been subjected to destruction and corruption because of us.  Either way it shares our fate” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, vol XI, p. 160).

God recycles.  The Christian experience can be characterized as renewal in Christ, healing that comes from God taking us and makes us into something new, healed of our wounds and freed to serve God.  Why then, when we’re so eager to talk about how God “recycles” our lives, do many Christians assume that God doesn’t want to recycle the created world?  Yes, recycling is a crude metaphor, but what if the creation is to be born-again just as we are? 

I remember reading the Left Behind series in high school.   Naive as I was, I actually believed then that (as the books suggest) the rapture would come during my lifetime, the world would be incinerated, and Jesus would return (though to what I’m not sure).  About six books into the series, though, I started to question its theology.  For some reason the depiction of the “Trib Force” – the faithful Christian heroes of the books – running around with machine guns battling the antichrist’s forces just didn’t seem very . . . well . .  . Jesus-like.   Thankfully, I came to my senses, and now (almost a decade, much reading, and a seminary degree later) I have a much different view of the the end-of-the-world.  Yet books like these, for many in contemporary Christian culture, are still promoting an eschatology that denigrates creation. (Eschatology = fancy word for theology of the end of the world.)

But where do books like that come from?  I think that the Left Behind series is much more a product of American consumer culture than it is of any sound or biblical theology.  Its sixteen volumes, numerous spin-offs, and endless merchandising are indicative of the greed and consumerism that are rampant in American society, religious or non-religious.  But more importantly, its eschatology is reflective of our own consumeristic assumption that once something is used-up, it gets thrown-out. 

For a fun and educational take on American consumerism, please watch this video: The Story of Stuff.  As one portion of the video explains, we’re caught in a cycle of consumption where, held captive to advertising which leaves us working to buy more meaningless junk we don’t need.  Most of that meaningless junk really is junk because it’s designed to wear out in six months.  This is called planned obsolescence.  As a result, we produce on average 4.5 lbs of trash per person per day. No wonder we make God in our own image and assume he’ll throw this used-up piece of dirt into a garbage can at the end of time.  Ironically, that assumption actually speeds the day when the earth will be nothing more than a used up piece of dirt.  In my last year as a Religious Studies major at the University of Colorado, I took a class about apocalyptic thought and its portrayal in contemporary culture.  The most thought-provoking (for me) video we watched in the class talked in all seriousness about the apocalypse being brought on through advertising.  (It’s available here, or in snipits on YouTube – just search for “Advertising and the end of the world”.) 

But the truth is, despite what advertisements tell us, that God did not create the earth with a model of “planned obsolescence”.  Rather, numerous portions of the Bible suggest that the world will be “remade” or “made new” at an end that isn’t so much an end as a new beginning.  Parts 2 and 3, to be posted in the next couple days, will explain more.