The Bible was central in Rooted and Grounded conference on land and discipleship

Published: September 26, 2014

Mary E. Klassen

Three keynote speakers and 53 workshops and paper presentations brought Old Testament, New Testament, theological, historical and personal perspectives to the Rooted and Grounded conference, Sept. 18 to 20, at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

With the subtheme, “A conference on land and Christian discipleship,” the event provided opportunities for pastors, theologians, farmers and other creation care advocates and practitioners to work and talk together. More than 170 people participated, with about half of those coming from Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. Others represented a variety of mainline and evangelical faith groups from across North America.

The first of the keynote speakers was S. Roy Kaufman, retired Mennonite pastor and author of Healing God’s Earth: Rural Community in the Context of Urban Civilization (Wipf and Stock, 2013). Ellen Davis, a professor at Duke Divinity School, Durham, N.C., and Barbara Rossing, a professor at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, were the other keynote speakers.

Listen to keynote presentations on iTunes U.

One goal of the conference planners was to have a clear focus on the Bible in the conversations about land and creation care. “Caring for creation is deeply important, but it’s important because it’s in the biblical text,” Ryan Harker, AMBS student and co-chair of the planning committee, said. “The conference felt like one big Bible study.”

In his address, Kaufman drew not only on the Bible, but also from his 38 years of experience pastoring rural congregations in South Dakota, Saskatchewan, Iowa and Illinois. In contrast to our dominant culture that focuses on consumption, Kaufman pointed out, “We have many models of traditional agrarian cultures that through long experience of living together on the land have learned to live sustainably and productively on the earth. Our Native American brothers and sisters are the primarily examples of that. These agrarian cultures and traditional peoples, including the Israelites and Christian communities of rural America today, hold the best promise of being able to shape a sustainable future for the human family and to bring healing to this earth of God’s creation.”

Davis, who is Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School and author of Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2008), gave participants lenses through which to view our place in relation to God and the land.

Referring to the story in John 6 of Jesus feeding the crowd, David said, “We have lost confidence that we can have enough without overproducing, without hoarding, without laying waste to our land. This story speaks of the daily generosity of God working through the created order.”

Davis’ final lens was Leviticus 26:42, a verse which emphasizes the importance of the land. “The Bible envisions a covenantal relationship … amongst God, people and land. All three of those partners are essential to God’s design for the managing of the world.” Davis also pointed out that this text, like the Genesis creation story, says that “the land is the first ancestor, and therefore the land is worthy of honor.”

Rossing, professor of New Testament and author of The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Basic Books, 2004), focused on the Revelation 22 vision of the tree of life. “We are ill. Our world is ill,” she said. “The church has an amazing moment right now to speak to this issue for mission—to claim this moment for healing, for revitalizing local communities, for rediscovering abundant life.”

The counter-cultural communities of the New Testament, Rossing said, “created village communities right in the midst of the city, right in the midst of the Roman empire—joyful communities that lived differently.”

Rossing called on Christians to follow this example and the example of Jesus, who never turned anyone away. “We are called to live according to that compelling, joy-filled, counter-imperial vision as communities deeply grounded and rooted in the love of Jesus—a vision of abundant life gathered around that tree of life with its leaves for the healing of the nations.”

Presenters in small-group sessions covered topics of biblical, theological and ethical perspectives on the land and nature; the gospel of peace in relation to care for the land; climate change; the watershed discipleship movement; human relationships with non-human animals; intersections of spirituality and creation care; and land use. One session explored hymns related to creation care; one focused on prayerful response to a situation of environmental destruction, and several sessions explored the theological and ethical perspectives of Wendell Berry, writer and environmental activist.

On Friday afternoon, eight immersion experiences gave participants opportunities to learn from and join in local sustainable activities. One group visited Benton (Ind.) Mennonite Church and the farm of the pastor and her family, Brenda and Rich Hostetler Meyer, to learn about the impact of settlers on Native Americans and about the farm’s sustainable practices. Another group visited the Elkhart County landfill to learn about their practices to protect soil and groundwater and an organization in Goshen that turns tree and yard waste into mulch. Others visited a Community Supported Agriculture farm and picked popcorn, while another group canoed on the Elkhart River.

In the final session, participants shared briefly about what next steps they want to take or what they found encouraging. Several commented on the importance of continuing to discover and strengthen the biblical message in creation care work. A pastor shared that she is considering how to translate the conference content into good news for the farmers in her congregation. A young adult said she sees opportunities to weave creation care emphases into evangelism.

AMBS plans several publishing efforts to continue the work of the conference. Planning committee co-chairs, Janeen Bertsche Johnson, AMBS campus pastor, and Harker will select papers for publishing in a forthcoming book or online.

Johnson and Harker began envisioning this conference a year ago on their return from a gathering of the Seminary Stewardship Alliance, which AMBS was invited to join. When they created an action plan for AMBS, Johnson and Harker initiated this event as one of many creation care efforts AMBS is doing. SSA became a conference cosponsor, along with the Institute for Ecological Regeneration of Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College.

Local supporters included Clay Bottom Farm, Grass is Greener Meats, and Das Dutchman Essenhaus who supplied food as a donation or at cost. Honey from the seminary’s hive, maple syrup from campus trees and preserves from campus crab apple trees also became part of the food for conference participants.

Browse an album of photos from the conference on AMBS’s Facebook page.

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