Sunday, 19 October 2014

Between a rock and a hard place: exploring Exodus 33

This week's Rural Reverend blog is brought to you courtesy of the male half of the rural reverend duo.

It is said that the eyes are a window to the soul. If you look a person in the eyes, and look carefully into their eyes, you will see deeply into their soul.

Look into the eyes of the young, newly-engaged couple, and you will see them sparkling, dancing with the excitement of unchartered waters and the promise of fulfilment yet to come.

Look into the eyes of the parent with a growing family and increasing work responsibilities, with a mortgage to meet and with hopes drifting away, and you will see weariness, anxiety about the present, perhaps even fear about the future.

Look into the eyes of the grieving partner, mourning the loss of the one who had been the soulmate, the lifelong partner, and you will see the satisfaction of a shared life, overlaid with the grief of the separation, tinged with a yearning for just a little more time together.

Look into the eyes of the calm, contented elder, eyes surrounded by wrinkles that chart the years of experience, eyes that exude a wisdom crafted through the decades and the perception shaped by a lifetime of experiences.

For the eyes are a window to the soul. If you look a person in the eyes, and look carefully into their eyes, you will see deeply into their soul.

In the ancient world, there was a flip-side to this belief, expressed through the notion of the “evil eye”. The evil eye, it was believed, was the capacity to cause misfortune, or even inflict harm, simply by looking at another person. It was not everyone who possessed this ability; rather, it was something that magicians, holy men and women, were able to exercise.

In some Mediterranean cultures, where the vast majority of eyes were dark in colour, those people who had green eyes, or blue eyes (like me), were regarded as the possessors of the “evil eye” capacity.
In this custom, the mere act of looking, through the eye, was believed able to convey some force, some power, which would affect the person who was being observed.

So the power of the eye is embedded into our human consciousness. The eyes can convey a force for the worse. Or the eyes can open a window into the soul. If you look a person in the eyes, and look carefully into their eyes, you will see deeply into their soul.

It is no wonder, then, that we learn that Moses, honed by the experiences of the years, has made this request of God. “Show me your glory”, he says – a very Hebraic way of asking, “let us go face-to-face ... let me look you in the face ... let me see into your eyes.”

And why not, we might think? Did not Moses have every right to request this most direct, most honest, way of relating to God?

For central to the religion of the people of Israel, was the recollection that it was Moses who was the one who had climbed to the top of the mountain, where God had entrusted him with the Law, to guide the lives of the people of Israel. The tablets of stone, on which God had written the ten great words, were God’s gift, mediated through the prophet Moses, to guide and shape the life of the people.

And it was also Moses, as the story goes, who was the supreme general of his people. Over generations, the story had been told and retold about Moses, about how he had led the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt, escaping the pursuing army, and leading his people through the wilderness as they moved towards the promised land.

And as time went on, the story of Moses had been expanded and developed even further, to include the miraculous origins of the baby Moses– in the manner of all ancient stories, the birth of this child was a moment of divine intervention into the pattern of human affairs, as the basket containing the baby who would grow up as Moses, was miraculously hidden, discovered, and treasured.

So it is clear, throughout the book of Exodus, that Moses was no ordinary person; as leader, general, prophet, and miracle-baby, he has every right to front up to God, and place his request. “Show me your glory”, he says to the Lord God.

And this request, in chapter 33 of the book of Exodus, comes after all of these earlier events have been recounted. The request from Moses stands at the climactic moment, as the pinnacle of the life experience of Moses.

Now, at the end of his lengthy and profound encounter with God on the top of the mountain, Moses has returned to his people. He has found them engaged in the sinful act of worship an idol which they had made. He has called them to account, and they have repented, removed the offending ornaments, destroyed the idol, and returned to honour and worship the Lord.

Now they are able to venture forth, into the land that has been held out to them. Now they will enter the promised land.

So Moses stands before the Lord, advocating for his repentant and contrite people, pleading with God to forgive them and to equip them for their future. And he asks God to give him the assurance that God will support and sustain the people; that God will forgive the people and go with the people.

And as he asks, he pleads with God to give him the deep-down assurance of God’s ongoing presence. Because he wants this to work – and he needs to know that God will ensure it is going to work. “Show me your glory”, says Moses, to the Lord God. “Don’t muck around with me”, we might paraphrase it. “Be fair dinkum; tell it to me like it is.”

When Moses asks God to “show his glory”, to look him fair-and-square in the eyes, Moses asks what so many human beings desire: to look into the window that takes us into the very heart of God. Despite his superior qualities, Moses stands and speaks on our behalf – asking to look into the eyes of God, yearning to see into the depths of the very soul of God.

Is not this what we would all desire? To know God, to really know God, to be confident that we have access, direct and unmediated, into the very being of God? Here, in this ancient story, Moses functions as a spokesperson on our behalf, making the very request of God that we, each one of us, would dearly love to have come true.

“Show me your glory” ... “help me to really know you, my God”.

So the reply that God offers to Moses comes as something of a surprise: “I will make all my goodness pass before you ... I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy ... but you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”

This most heartfelt, and understandable, request, from Moses, is dismissed by God; the nature of God is such that it is just not possible for a human being to look directly, face-to-face, into the eyes of God.
We should note that this response from God is quite curious, because of what is said earlier in this chapter. The verses in question recounts what took place when Moses goes into “the tent of meeting”, pitched outside the camp. This was the place, when he was meeting with God, where Moses received the guidance and support that he needed, in order to be an effective leader of the people. In that tent, he met with God, and he spoke with God.

And in those same verses, we also read the clear declaration, that while they were together in the tent of the meeting, “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend”! How curious, that in the tent, Moses looks without any hindrance, directly into the face of God; and yet, outside of the tent, Moses has to hide his face from God, for as God declares, “no one shall see me and live.”
And the divine voice goes on, we are told, to offer these instructions: “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

It seems that God is looking for a way to make it happen, despite all that he has said about not being able to look directly at him and live. So God offers Moses a plan. Yet it is going to require commitment, determination, and patience, from Moses.

“I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by”, says God. What do we make of these words? God is seeking to find a way for Moses to encounter him, after all.
These words point to a simple truth, that is, at the same time, both discomforting, and yet quite comforting. The discomfort, of course, is powerfully conveyed in the imagery of the words: Moses is placed in the cleft of the rocks; or, we might say, Moses is between a rock and a hard place. It is there, that he will have some form of encounter with God.

But that, of course, is a most uncomfortable place to be; that is the place where our familiar comforts, the things that we most often appreciate and enjoy, are not to be found. Perhaps that is a powerful image for the walk of Christian discipleship, that all too often is the experience of faithful human beings.
In the cleft of the rock, between the rock and the hard place, is where faithful, trusting followers of Jesus, will often find themselves – taking a risk, stepping out in faith, trying something new and different. That is what faith calls us to undertake.

In the cleft of the rock, between the rock and the hard place, is where discomfort reigns supreme, where we are always on edge. It is where we find ourselves in unfamiliar circumstances, where we are called to undertake unsettling and disturbing actions, where we encounter people who are troubled or distressed, where our Christian discipleship is put to the test in many and varied ways.

When do we find ourselves in such situations? You may recall that I spoke, some weeks ago, of the three congregations that meet most weeks in the Wauchope Uniting Church building. I think it would be fair to say that the Sunday morning worship congregation is not, in the normal run of things, the place where we people of faith find ourselves in unfamiliar circumstances, pressed by discomfort or distress. After all, this is where we come because of the familiarity and comfort, of the place, the people, and the experience of worship.

Perhaps more often, the possibility could present itself, in the Friday lunchtime community meals congregation, for an encounter which makes us feel uncertain, uncomfortable, out of our familiar surroundings, immersed in a different and unsettling world? The people who come to this weekly meal can be people who present us with challenges; the possibility of discomfort, for us, is real in this gathering.
Certainly, I know that for myself, and perhaps for others who attend the Friday night youth club congregation, there are occasions each week, when I have the feeling of being “in the cleft of the rock”, between a rock and a hard place, uncomfortable and unsettled. Yet, it is very clear that such a situation is precisely where I am called, and others are called to be, as we seek to share the grace and mercy of God with others.

The unfamiliar and the uncomfortable are situations that we may not encounter each and every day; but if we risk our faith to follow the way of Jesus, it is certain that on a regular basis, we will encounter this very unease, this discomfort, this disturbance. Any one of us could find ourselves in such a situation on any day of the week. Indeed, if we follow our call to faithful living, we should expect to find ourselves in such situations!

So the story contains sharp edges of discomfort. Yet the imagery that is used also conveys a sense of comfort from the story: it is, quite literally, in the very hardships and struggles of life that the grace and mercy of God is best known to us.

Indeed, the end result of the story is an assurance that, right in the very midst of faithful, committed discipleship, the very qualities of God that we most desire to know, are with us. Right at those very times when what we are doing seems so difficult, when what we are yearning for seems so unattainable, God is with us. We are called to seek out such uncomfortable places, precisely because of the faith we hold.

And when we find ourselves in the cleft of the rock, between a rock and a hard place, we will not be looking directly into the eyes of God, staring into the very soul of God. And yet, as we stand between a rock and a hard place, we will have the assurance of God’s presence, and the knowledge of God’s goodness, to sustain us in our walk of faith.

And that is surely a powerful, and comforting, message for us to take from this story that we have heard today.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Transforming the heart: stardust in thin and wild places

Around 15 September I wrote about an epiphanic experience involving the land of my ancestors. For me, the experience of becoming deeply rooted to land and family was unexpected and transformational. It surely involved something of soul or spirit, as nothing tangible was discernible, and certainly not to any observer. So for me, part of this journey was to try and connect this experience with my own faith tradition and spirituality.

The bible, the sacred text of the Christian tradition, is full of stories and laws about special feast days, holy people and sacred places. These sacred places almost invariably happen outside of ordered society, in what the Hebrew language calls ‘in between’ places – that is, places in between civilisation (towns). It is in such wild places that the divine is encountered most often. These places are also ‘in between’ places as they allow the earthly to glimpse the heavenly. Like Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:10ff), such places mediate between the divine and the mundane. And no character in the biblical stories ever emerged from such encounters unchanged. Often, the change was formally recognised by a change of name; for example, “Jacob” became “Israel’ after encountering the divine in one of these sacred places.

It is interesting that most of the encounters with the divine are in wild, untamed places, when the bible itself is very keen on ordering chaos and structuring it. God forms the world from its chaotic elements into a world of order and symmetry. As well as Genesis, this fact is mentioned many times in psalms. It is clear that order is good, chaos is bad.

Yet transformation always happens in the biblical story through moments of chaos. When the floods ravage the earth in the story of Noah, it is because the waters of chaos are unleashed by God. In the story of Job, God appears in a whirlwind to disrupt Job’s ordered view of the universe, informing Job that his black and white view of a just universe is wrong; in fact it is a universe of moral ambiguity and random elements. Even the day of judgement itself is structured around chaos involving earthquakes, wars, famines and heavenly portents. It is a dangerous thing to encounter the living God of the Judeo-Christian scriptures.

The Celtic mystics talked of such wild places as ‘thin places’, a place where the veil between heaven and earth was momentarily lifted and the divine glimpsed. Such glimpses were always transformative for the subject.

In a blog entitled of life, laughter and liturgy, a contemporary poet Sharlande Sledge is quoted with this description:

“Thin places,” the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.

It is a fascinating concept, and has gained some currency in mainstream scholarship. The New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, writes about "thin places". He describes them as "anywhere our hearts are opened." Thin places can be actual places, or an activity, such as worship or meditation.

Sometimes one just walks into a thin place. They can’t always be planned.

Part of the transformative experience for me in this encounter was its unexpectedness. Firstly, the place chose me. Secondly, part of the experience was a mystic one – an experience that was profoundly sacred and revelatory, a transcendent moment that connected me with not only place and family, but with the divine. It was chaotic, not ordered. There in the wild place of the northern Pennines, the veil between heaven and earth unexpectedly and inexplicably lifted and my heart was opened. Lastly, I realised that I was part of a vast array of humanity, an extended family all connected to the earth and each other.

Our communities, whether they be city, suburban or rural, need ‘thin places’, places where spiritual connectedness with earth and community can be felt.
Such places hold a future promise of blessing for the whole of humanity.

By providing us with a conduit to the divine, such places connect us with the breath or spirit of God, the ruach, the divine spark of life that permeates all life.

Many of the psalms speak of this. The most famous is Psalm 104, where in verse 30 the psalmist writes of all creatures:

When you give them your breath, life is created,
and you renew the face of the earth.

The idea that we all contain a spark of the breath or spirit of God is very appealing to me. In Genesis 2:7, God places ‘the breath of life’ into the man.

During the story of the flood in Genesis (see 7:21-22, 7:15 and 7:22, for example), the narrative describes all the creatures of the earth as also having ‘the breath of life’, and in each of these examples the breath is equated with having life itself, and that it comes directly from God. The word ruach in Hebrew means both breath and spirit, and is not just about being alive, but having a spark of the divine within. Elihu, in the book of Job, responds to Job’s challenges to God by informing him that “the Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty has given me life” (Job 33:4 NRSV).

In Isaiah 42:5, The Lord God is described as the one who “gives breath to the people upon [the earth], and spirit to those that walk on it.”

Perhaps it is this divine and creative power, the breath of God, which is the spark that we share in common with all life on our beautiful and complex planet. After all, scientists who study the origins of our universe speak of all life as having atoms of stardust from the time of the Big Bang present in their physical being.

Our physical and spiritual reality is that we all belong to an intricate web of life, and that the well being of humanity is dependent on understanding and appreciating our place in that web of life. By appreciating that all life contains that spark of the divine should more deeply connect us as part of, not apart from, the natural world.

Our relationship with the earth and our natural environment needs to be understood, and nurtured, and felt by us all. For it is only when we recognise that we are in such a web of life, that hope for humanity and the living plants and creatures of the earth will blossom and bear fruit.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Navigating the neighborhood – an exercise in natural humility


One of the challenges in my current course in Ecopsychology is to examine and develope what I see as the connection between me and the rest of the world. Do I see myself as part of nature? And how does that relationship work and can it be developed?

In many ways I like to think that I understand that I am part of nature, that I interconnect with other living things, and have a relationship with them. I know I cannot exist outside of an ecosystem that produces food and clean water through all its intricate relationships. With the evidence I have available, I try to consider the impact of my decisions on other humans, animals, fish, plants, ecosystems and even some micro organisms (gotta love compost) before eating and buying things. In some ways I would call it mindfulness, as I try and be mindful of how my actions impact other people and creatures. I did think this, until I tried an exercise in one of the texts I am using.

I one of my last blogs, I talked of Brian Swimme’s book on cosmology. Brian, apparently, is having none of this guff about really living as a part of nature, as he made the seemingly simple suggestion that I ask a friend to come to my place from another place around 20 miles away. I was to give directions on how to get here. There was a catch, though. I could not use any object that was constructed by human beings. My directions had to use only the natural topography.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even give directions from a few kilometres away. I realised my knowledge of natural formations, other than whopping great mountains, exposed bluffs on the cliff sides or overly large and unusually shaped trees, was painfully absent. I didn’t even know where to begin. This made me understand that I actually have very little knowledge at all when it comes to my natural surroundings. Heavens, most of us can’t even use human-made topography now, relying on Google maps and satellite navigation to get us from point A to B.

This sort of exercise really does mess with my head. I think all of us who have the will can use various meditative techniques or connection with place to feel “tuned in” to our natural environment and to feel a connection with other living things. But how much a part of nature am I, and how aware am I really of the natural environment if I can’t even describe what it consists of outside of the confines of my backyard?
Humanity has irrevocably changed the landscape in urban and even in many rural areas. I now doubt that there are even any truly wild, pristine areas left on our planet. This exercise forced me to confront the fact that I am completely dependent on a myriad of human-made things to go about my daily life, and it is doubtful if I could exist without them. I can’t ‘read’ the landscape around me, and I certainly can’t describe it well enough to get someone from point A to B. I felt like an alien in an artificially constructed world. When he read the challenge, my husband also reported feeling completely inadequate, expressing the opinion that in urban areas we have basically obliterated the natural phenomena.

Of course I am part of the great web of life that is the living system we refer to as planet Earth. Everything is. But I am really feeling just how estranged I am from the great natural cycles and interactions of life on earth. No matter how carefully and mindfully I think I might be living as an aware Western person, the truth is my life is sustained by incremental destruction of living things and living systems, and by entrenched in justice to the poor.

I am very good at feeling terribly guilty about things I have done or haven’t done. This is has also made me guilty and despairing all at once. By an accident of time and geography, I have been born into an epoch that is seeing humanity change the climate of the planet and causing large scale environmental destruction in order that civilised, mainly Western people can have a lifestyle that is comfortable, and distanced off from nature as much as possible. And most of us do not even know that is what we are doing.
Ecopsychology proposes that our health, our identity, and even our sanity, is intimately linked to the health of the planet. A number of its proponents actively suggest that this must include sustainable and mutually beneficial relationships between humans and the rest of the living world. It seeks to encourage a new understanding of the human-nature relationship. It believes if we can resolve the guilt, renew the links between us and other life in mindful ways, it will lead to us living in more sustainable ways.

I am just not sure what I think of this right now after failing to even describe where I live. I feel more helpless in many ways, despite trying to make a difference in the way I live. While it may be true that healing ourselves and adopting practices to get us back in touch with our natural sides will lead to better treatment of the environment, the chances of entire populations adopting such practices seems remote right now.

So where to from here?

One of my textbooks takes on this challenge head-on. Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone talk of Active Hope in their book of the same name. Active Hope is presented as one way of addressing over-consumerism of our lifestyles and the environmental problems facing the planet. They believe that by building on our strengths, interests and skills, we can generate “our finest response to the multifaceted crisis of sustainability” (2012, p.4) and develop a spiritual connectedness with all life. They believe that we all have the capacity to emerge as Shambhala warriors, harbingers of an emerging kingdom of the mind where people of courage will enter the halls of power to dismantle the destructive weapons used to lay waste to the world. The two things that characterise these warriors are their compassion, and their insight into the interdependence of all things.

Perhaps that is what we are seeing with the various sit-ins and protests that have been generated by the common people or the 99%. Perhaps as the consequences of climate change become devastating enough that even sceptics can’t ignore them, the tide will turn.

Throughout history, powerful vested interests have been successfully challenged by people of courage and compassion, such as William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King and Ghandi. Is it still possible to dare to believe in a vision where we radically change our lifestyles, stop burning coal, develop renewable energy and really begin to nurture and cherish our Earth?

If we want to survive as a species, and preserve much of the life that supports us, we do need to challenge the business as usual model of governments and corporations and economists. We do need to be more mindful of what we are doing, and of our privileged lifestyles that require so many resources to support them. As well as living more simply, perhaps we also need to start some simple conversations around the issues of climate change, environmental degradation, and the threat we are posing to ourselves by eradicating species and habitat. It occurs to me that my own mind is just as likely to hold me back as political parties or the power of coal barons are. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. I suspect he is right. The barriers to action in my mind are as great as those that guard the people in power in our corporations and parliaments.

If I was freed from fear and doubt, what difference would it make? Johnstone and Macy suggest we start with our own personal contexts and lifestyle, then move to the context of those around us, then to our societies and culture, and finally, the context of our connectedness with all life.

I may not be able to navigate via natural phenomena, but I can do something about my own lifestyle. And that is the challenge I am grappling with at the moment.



Thursday, 2 October 2014

Hygenically sealed in plastic for your protection: lunching at the Synod

Recently the NSW/ACT Synod of the Uniting Church held its 18 monthly meeting in Sydney. At these meetings members from Uniting churches from across the state and territory get together to worship, consider issues and generally network.

At the Synod before this, we agreed by consensus to divest from fossil fuel investments. We also agreed to oppose the mining of coal seam gas in our state. I was really proud of the Uniting Church for taking this stand on fossil fuels.

At this synod we also revisited and reaffirmed a motion from 2008 about climate change, where it was noted that:
(a) All the boards, agencies and schools
• establish current carbon emission levels
• establish targets for carbon emissions levels in light of relevant legislative,
regulatory guidelines and targets (noting particularly the 2°c target)
• identify the cost of achieving the determined targets and ensure that these costs
are included in individual budgets
• acknowledge that the desired target for the Synod of New South Wales and the
ACT is a reduction of 40% by 2020
• boards, agencies and schools report to each Synod on achievements towards these targets
(b) Uniting Resources to coordinate simple and cost effective procurement options for congregations to take up energy efficient and green electricity
(c) Uniting Resources, Uniting Care Social Justice and Communications Unit to develop an information programme and evaluation template to be provided to all congregations so that they might consider how they can reduce their carbon footprint and integrate ‘creation care’ into all aspects of their worship, witness and service, and all Presbyteries to support them in this journey
(d) Uniting Resources to revise standards for buildings to achieve a minimum four Green Star rating for all your buildings
2. continues to implement the 2008 resolutions
3. in order to assess its progress, carry out a full review on the actions of the Boards, agencies and schools as set out in the 2008 Climate Change Resolution.

I am unclear how much of this has been done by the various synod bodies named between 2008 and 2014. Many churches have certainly taken up solar panels, some innovatingly placing them in the sign of a cross on their roofs. I also recall an audit form that went out a few years ago in regard to church energy consumption.

I have to say I haven’t noticed a lot of ‘creation care’ going on in congregations. And I have noticed an enormous amount of waste generated by church events, in complete contradiction to what we say we want to achieve, a reduction in emissions.

Which leads me to the lunch of the 2014 Synod. As a member of synod, one could order lunches for each of the four days. The lunch was pretty much the same each day. It came in a disposable plastic shopping bag (did you know Australians use 10 million plastic bags a day? That's 3.9 billion plastic bags a year), and contained a plastic bottle of water, a fruit juice in a tetra pack, a sandwich in a plastic case or a roll wrapped in gladwrap, a giant biscuit or muffin also wrapped in 'soft' plastic, and a packet of chips, which of course is also a plastic bag. The one redeeming feature was a piece of unwrapped fruit.


Do people really not know the issues with this amount of plastic and how enormous the carbon footprint of such a lunch is?

Let us start with the tetra pack. It is made of foil, plastic and cardboard. This makes it very difficult to recycle, though it is possible with the right equipment. When in landfill, the cardboard breaks down to produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas with a global warming capacity 21 times greater powerful than carbon dioxide. I assume most of these drinks at the Synod ended in landfill.

Around 1 in 5 cartons get recycled at the moment in Australia, most councils around the country now collect these products for recycling. The wood and the plastic in them are new, so the production of these consumes valuable resources. The tetra pack also contains a single-use plastic straw.

Plastic straws are one of the great scourges of our wildlife. There are an estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in each square mile of our oceans Throughout the world, around one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed every year by plastics, either entangled and strangled by it or having choked or starved ingesting it. The 2013 Clean Up Australia Report showed plastic straws accounted for a total of 40 per cent of rubbish, up from just three per cent last year. Bottle caps and lids accounted for 10 per cent of rubbish picked up by volunteers, followed by fast food packaging (seven per cent).


Almost 90% of the marine debris found on Sydney’s beaches is plastic, mostly bottles, caps and straws – all items found in our Synod lunch pack.

Which leads me to bottled water. We were all given a glass drinking bottle in our goodie bag at the beginning of Synod. Despite this, a commercial bottle of water was in every lunch bag. Bottled water generates an enormous amount of waste that mostly ends up in landfill. Most bottled water is packaged in PET plastic bottles which are derived from crude oil, an increasingly scarce resource and one whose use creates carbon emissions. This simply doesn’t make sense at any level in terms of waste and climate change and careful use of a precious resource, water. Further, bottled water requires transportation, and refrigeration, which also means more fossil fuels are burned. The whole process of producing plastic bottles has an impact on the environment, and whether they go into landfill, escape from the tip, or are recycled, they cost the earth. Literally. One use, ‘throw away’ plastic is not logical in a world where resources are becoming scarcer. Also, we need to remember there is no “away” when we bin something. It has to go somewhere. The bottles that end up in land fill break down to create toxic waste.

Here are some fast facts about plastic bottles:
• Over 400,000 barrels of oil is used per year in Australia to manufacture the plastic used to make the bottles
• Only 30% of plastic bottles are recycled
• It takes up to seven litres of water to make a one litre water bottle

Lastly, we have the ‘soft’ plastics, such as bags, sandwich and biscuit containers, chip packets and cling wrap.
According to various websites, in Australia we use around 6.9 billion single-use plastic bags per year, of which 3.6 million are shopping bags. Australians also dump around 36,700 tonnes of plastic bags into landfill each year. That is around 4,000 bags a minute. Plastic bags are also deadly to wildlife, choking animals or causing death from ingestion. Apparently the one human-produced article most seen by sailors is the plastic bag. Even when disposed of in landfill, they blow off tips and into bushland and waterways, where they can wreak havoc for years. While they can be recycled in limited ways, it is very costly.

Most plastic is not biodegradable and will persist in the environment for hundreds of years.

I am not clever enough to calculate the resources used to produce the Synod lunch wrappings and water, but I can definitively say that it would be a lot. And that most of the waste from it is heading for landfill, where it will break down into tiny pieces over the next 500 years, entering our food chain, waterways and literally, our wildlife.

We are not saving emissions or resources or our planet by such unnecessary waste. Isn’t it time we actually took the words of our own resolutions about ‘creation care’ seriously, put the planet before our own convenience, and did the right thing?

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Finding the heart of the cosmos


I have just finished reading a book that is a couple of decades old, but which I found compelling reading. Entitled “The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos”, it is by Brian Swimme, a scientist and cosmologist. I find this an interesting academic combination, as generally cosmologists are found in religious departments, not studying astrophysics. Swimme argues that science based solely on empirical evidence is science that has lost its mystery and its soul. He maintains that scientific empirical data may prove things, but on its own gives no real inspiration to the psyche. He contends that it has a greater tendency to cut people off from the natural world and universe, rather than connect them into it in any meaningful way. This ends up being a problem, because if we are disconnected from the mystery of our universe and the natural ecosystems that support us, we are far less inclined to protect them, or live in a sustainable and harmonious way as part of them.

He sums it up as: "(W)e would say that science aims at an understanding of the Earth's rotational and revolutionary movements around the Sun, while cosmology aims at embedding a human being in the numinous dynamics of our solar system" (pg. 31).

Christianity has been given quite a bad rap for being the cause of much of the exploitation of nature. The account in Genesis states that the human creature is given ‘dominion’ over the earth and is told to ‘subdue’ it, with all other living things being subservient to humankind. This has been held up as the cause of much of our environmental degradation, where presumably Christian CEOs and politicians have made the decision to extract what they can out of the planet to enrich themselves and damn the environmental consequences.

While this may be true of some Christians, on the whole it seems like a false trail. For a start, it ignores the destruction to the environment that totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union and China, both atheistic, secular governments have caused. It also assumes that Christian theology demands that those Christians who find themselves at the head of large mining, forestry or farming corporations are carrying out their activities motivated by Genesis rather than by acquisitiveness. I find this completely implausible. My observation has always been such companies are motivated mainly by profit, something Genesis fails to mention. They do not care if they trash the environment in pursuit of the mineral or oil or gas or resource that enriches them. Some will follow the environmental standards imposed on them when working in the first world, but many do not when working in the developing world.

Instead, it seems to me that Swimme is right. The modern tendency to reduce science to facts and figures, with emphasis on empirical provable visible data, has taken out the mystery and the spirituality and the interconnectedness we might once have felt about our cosmos and our place in it. Now instead of reverencing trees, we see them as a money spinner and cut them down. We have become dependent on the black gold of fossil fuels and will rip, shred, pollute and annihilate the natural surroundings to get at it. In the first world, what was once seen as luxuries have become unalienable rights, such as driving a big car, using air conditioning and travelling by plane. We see nature as separate from ourselves, a commodity to be used for profit, a profit that never calculates the worth of the degradation it has caused.

Far more than any religion, I mostly blame the Enlightenment, which in its reductionist view of nature and its obsession with scientific fact and empirical data, reduced the mystery of our place in the cosmos and our being part of a living ecosystem down to quantifiable data and figures. It valued reason and individualism over spirituality, community and tradition. It ignored the fact that we are beings that value, nay, require, the forces of imagination, mystery, and emotion. Instead of being part of nature, human beings decided to classify quantify, categorise and put everything into boxes and categories, proving the natural dominance of the human intellect over everything else.

Before you all rush to tell me, I know this is something of a caricature and lots of good also came from the Enlightenment. But the belief that nature was somehow different and separate from us, and was there to be colonised, mined, used and exploited, has persisted in many powerful people who continue to do just that. Does anyone really believe that Clive or Gina or the Koch brothers wake up and say, “Oh goody. Today, once more, I get to enact the words of Genesis and subdue the earth in a true calling to my faith. Bring on the trucks and extractors”. I fancy instead they are thinking something like, “How can I make more money and kill a climate change activist today?”

We have removed the enchantment from our universe and view it as running like a machine. We make the mathematical explanations of why it is so more important than the phenomena we are actually studying. No longer do we gather as community to marvel at the wonders of the cosmos, and to consider the profound questions of what our place might be in it.

Swimme laments the apparent inability of religion to evolve its cosmology beyond the centuries old views found in scripture to include the scientific knowledge we now have. I am not sure I agree with this entirely. More liberal branches of Christianity would certainly accept modern scientific understandings of an expanding universe and of evolution. But it is certainly true that many of the new atheists see ‘science’ being completely at odds with ‘religion’, and that all religious people must be fundamentalists. This last understanding has led me to have some very interesting conversations on Twitter. I regularly surprise people by my lack of fundamentalism and lack of adherence to a literalist reading of the bible.

As a species we are currently trashing our planet. This must be at least due in part to many of the human race being completely disconnected from the web of life that surrounds, supports and connects to them. Instead of being part of the natural system, somehow we have got to a place where we see ourselves as separate from it, and maybe even above it. The loss of a sense of awe and wonder, and the reduction of the environment to the status of a commodity has led us to our current critical situation, and to a place where we may well be singing our own requiem.

And far from being godless, modern society has found new gods in relentless consumerism and a sense of entitlement. What sort of society have we created when many children can recognise and sing ad jingles but are unable to identify bird calls? When they recognise the logos of fast food outlets but not the names of trees? Where they recognise brand names on clothing but are unaware of where much of their food comes from? Swimme challenges this current world view and invites us to once again feel ourselves as part of a magnificent creation. We are, as he reminds us, beings made of the atoms of stardust, and sit at the centre of the omnicentric universe alive with the promise of creation. We are created and creating, and bubbling over with the originating activity of the universe.

Surely it is time to recapture the mystery, and follows Swimme’s call for an age of integration. Swimme believes that despite the planetary crisis that we find ourselves in, humanity’s rediscovery of our spiritual and physical genesis in the cosmos will mean that earth and humanity once more can work together as harmonious parts of a greater system.

If we can recognise ourselves as a creature that not only is part of the planetary natural system, but also the creature who can do something about its problems, then surely it is time to shake off our narrow focus and look at the big picture. It is time to get excited and inspired by the improbability of being at the heart and centre of the universe. We need to retune our consciousnesses towards the stars and study their story in order to live our own story. We need to feel the mystery and the pulse of the cosmos and the environment that sustains us. And we need to transform ourselves from our narrow focus on data and explanations, and the belief we are above the natural world, to beings that again hear the song of the spheres and live as an integral part of the web of life.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Transforming the present through the past: spirituality and the place of place


As for mortals, their days are like grass;
They flourish like a flower of the field;
For the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
And its place knows it no more.
(Psalm 103:15-16, NRSV)

One of my passions is the pursuit of family history. Not just who beget who, but the stories of their lives, where they lived, where they went, and who they were. I have this idea that this knowledge is somehow embedded in us and informs who we are, and waits to be discovered in us all. This blog is about an experience I had many years ago, and am only now really able to write about it.
How many of us as children have asked that profound question—“Where do I come from?” While this question does not presumably refer to one’s ancestors when it is asked, nevertheless it is a good question. Where do we come from? Who are the people of our genetic past that make us who we are today?

Should the ancestors of many hundreds of years ago be important to us? For the greater part, they disappeared, their lives forgotten by the generations that come after them. Are we really like the flowers of the field, living briefly on this earth then vanishing without trace? This is certainly not a comforting thought for those of us alive today, who would like to think we have contributed something positive to our families, our communities, and to the world that we inhabit. Surely those of many generations ago also believed they had something more permanent to contribute to their descendants and to their communities.

I wasn’t thinking of ancestors when we set out to spend a weekend in the Lake District when we lived in County Durham, in the UK, many years ago. Having spent some time devouring tourist pamphlets, it was clear the Lakes was somewhere that tourists should go. I had also read a pamphlet on where waterfalls were to be found, being something of a waterfall aficionado.

Along the way we came to a little village called Stanhope, and there to the left was a sign to High Force. ‘Force’ is local dialect for waterfall, and I had read of High Force, the largest waterfall in Britain, so we turned off to visit it.

Soon we found ourselves climbing a very steep slope and our little hired Fiat was chugging along in second gear. High Force was going to be one spectacular cataract falling from this height, I was thinking.

Without warning, we reached the top. The Pennine Mountains, in all their craggy, austere beauty, were suddenly stretched out before us. It was an unexpected and wonderful vista.

The next thing that happened was also unexpected, particularly for me. I felt overcome by emotion. It seemed that my legs had shot into the ground and I was putting roots out, deep root down into the soil. I burst into tears. My spouse enquired as to what was wrong. I told him I felt like I had come home, home to a country I was intrinsically and inexplicably rooted to, even though I didn’t understand it at all. He didn’t understand it either, so we drove on to High Force, a spectacular mahogany-coloured waterfall that crashed down in twin flows into the River Tees. The feeling persisted of my being in my native country, but I had no explanation for this feeling. Like an epiphany, it had illuminated me, left me deeply disturbed, and departed. One legacy that I received at the time was a sudden understanding of what land meant to indigenous peoples. For the first time, I really got that.

A year later, when I was safely back in Sydney, an explanation finally came. I had frequently returned to the Pennines in my dreams, ranging around places like Romaldkirk, High and Low Force, Stanhope and Cow Green Pasture. I would wake homesick, tears on my face. Those feelings of belong to the land, of being connected to something greater than myself, had persisted.

I had been researching my family history, and ended up having to pay an English researcher to track down documents concerning the Raines. All I initially had to give her was a marriage certificate of my great great grandfather James Raine, who married Mary Ann Robinson in Easington, a coastal area in County Durham. I had also found an IGA record of a James Raine born to a Dinah Raine that looked promising. Her research confirmed this was his mother, and that he was illegitimate.
James Raine, my great great grandfather

Unknown to me, she had been caught by the story of my family and had persisted in her search for connections in her spare time, looking at many documents until a breakthrough came. The Raines – my direct line of Raines – were born and bred in the Pennine mountains, around those very places where I felt myself become part of the land. I had indeed ‘come home’ when my epiphany occurred. And I had ‘discovered’ a whole cast of characters who made up my ancestral family, living in that ‘home’ land.

How was it that my ancestors somehow communicated this to me, their descendant? Why was it that the land there not only welcomed me, but embraced me, gathering me to itself and welcoming me home?

What was the genetic heritage that I was indebted to, an inheritance that my ancestors had bequeathed to me? I wondered: in the split second moment of conception, is genetic information from our parents handed on from the generations of thousands of years to make us the people we are today? Was I unconsciously carrying a flotilla of inherited traits, intuitions and collective wisdom from the past, a gift that allowed me to feel and understand the love of land held by my ancestors?

I had found a country, and I had found a family, ‘a cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1), and a sense of belonging to and a consciousness of deep roots that stretched back into the many generations that went before me. Do most of us carry this ancestral memory unconsciously, I wonder? Does it only appear in full force when we find ourselves in places of special family significance, even if we don’t know the place is of significance?

Such places have been studied by scholars in the discipline of spirituality of place and there is no doubt that such places exert a powerful force and evoke feelings of connection and belonging. This phenomenon, which has no rational basis, has been reported by many people who have visited places special in some way to their ancestors. Perhaps it represents the many layers of human experience that, far from being transient or lost in time, have been preserved somehow through our genes and collective family memory. Perhaps it is a ‘thin place’, a place that the Celts believed a veil was momentarily lifted, and the divine revealed to the mundane, and the ancestors connected once more with living.

Far from being transient as the flowers, my ancestors have given me a gift that is enduring, not only in my genetic makeup, but in my connection to place, to earth, to a community. I see places differently now, I feel connection to the environment around me differently. I value tradition more, and seek out community more, for it is privileged individualism that has in many ways got us into the environmental and social mess we are now facing. I recognise, I feel, I am part of a living planetary system with complex and sometimes mysterious spatial and temporal elements and networks. It seems more important than ever to bequeath the land that sustains and nurtures us on to our descendants in good condition, and to work to ensure that we – and the many other species that now live or perish at our hands – do not become as transient as the flowers, leaving a place that knows us no more.


One of the ancestral farms, high in the Pennine Mountains.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Planet at risk - sorry for the inconvenience

We are now one week into our low carbon lifestyle experiment. I have decided the hardest thing to give up is convenience.

In our previous life of ignorant bliss, lowering carbon emissions and saving the planet was not the same consoideration as it is now. I was not racked with guilt by disposable paper napkins, plastic cutlery or clothes made in China. Moving from one destination to another was as simple as getting in the car. I used the little shampoos in motels and plastic straws.

But those days are now past, as I have become increasingly aware of the damage they do. My convenience was not as important as the planet's welfare. Or so I had determined.

Living low carbon and ethically is not as easy as it sounds on paper. Forgotten the milk? This is now a walk in the rain or ride on the bike - and oh look. The tyres are flat. Travelling (using hypermiling of course) for work and feel peckish or like coffee? More questions than food is likely to present. Excuse me, is that coffee fairtrade? Is it served in a reusable cup? And that muffin - where was it made and is it made from local ingredients? And look over there, what a nice cap. Ah, made in China. Can you tell me if this cap was produced in a sweatshop or in fair and safe conditions? And on it goes.

Living in the Western world is complex. There are many things we take for granted. Our way of life is contingent on what is essentially a very unfair world, where people are layered in a hierarchy of have nothing, have something, have a lot, have a whole lot, and filthy rich. Our food is flown or trucked for miles, our clothes are mostly made in sweatshops, and the oil that powers our cars and produces the dispoable plastic goods loved by a society besotted with minimising labour and convenience pollutes the environment and destroys the viability and self-sufficiency of indigenous people.

No wonder Al Gore called his climate change movie "An Inconvenient Truth".

To be truly serious about reducing one's carbon footprint, and to ensure one's clothes aren't made by six year old's in Thailand's sweatshops, does mean serious inconvenience. Banish the idea of spontaneity, it takes planning and work. In fact, I find it exhausting.

I have spent time cancelling the various publications we get and transferring them to digital copies. No plastic wrapping, no energy wasted in producing paper. I have been walking more, and it hurts. I have bad arthritis, and the car would be much easier, but much more carbon-emitting.

No purchasing new goods, and reusing, recycling, repairing and shopping locally has been relatively straightforward, but that only works if you want no new clothes and are happy to cook from scratch. One of the things we have to help us is our tiny urban farm, otherwise known as the backyard. An edible organic garden designed on permaculture principles, it has fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, native bees and hens. Even using family cloth (Google it)and reusable but euphemistically named 'feminine hygiene product' has been relatively easy.

But give up car travel and use public transport? Much harder. Not eating cafe food, avoiding convenience and disposable products, planning to take your own food, serviettes, refillable coffee cup and stainless water bottle and glass starw? Much harder. And trying to continue to work in paid employment whilst finding the extra time to do the above, is anxiety-producing.

So why bother, I hear you cry. Good question, and I am glad you asked it.

Because it gives me hope. It reconnects me with the true complexity of life, the seasons, real food that nourishes,simple cooking, the satisfaction of cooking something youself.

It gives me a purpose in that it helps me feel what I am doing will not deplete the planetary resources any faster than I can help it. I refuse to believe humanity's situation is hopeless, and this is one way of trying to ensure this. And I want to prove it can be done, and that inconvenience can be gotten over and replaced with the sort of care and consideration that noursihes both me and the planet.

Our choices all have ethical and environmental dimensions. Modern-day farming methods, highly processed 'foods', the rise of large monolithic and monopolising corporations that use resources and control supplies, and the miniing of resources that inevitably degrade environments and foul water surely demand that we consider alternatives that use fairer, more sustainable and better systems of food and energy and goods production.

If you want to read more about the rules we have set ourselves, and how we are attempting our low carbon lifestyles, you can read the blog at http://elementcityblog.com/