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

Monday, 14 July 2014

New sustainability blog or how I am going (or living on) nuts for 6 months

Hello to everyone who reads this blog. In the next six months, I am taking part in a Universty experiment for my Masters degree in Social Ecology. This ex0periment involves mysekf and my husband living a very low carbon impact life, an actively developing sustainable practice. This will involve exciting things such as himiling, family cloth, the 100 mile food rule, no new purchases, no plastic and us on our bicycles for the first time in 30 years. Eek! You can follow us for this journey on Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Being misquoted 72% of the time, or damn those reporters who can't spin

It has been a long time since I have blogged on my good friend, Mr 72%. He has been Very Busy as the Deputy Premier, especially during the times he needs to be the Acting Premier (and I am heroically resisting commenting on this notion of him acting), which makes him Extremely Busy and also Very Important. At the recent centenary celebration of one of our churches, he was choppered in and out of the town, which both proved the above claim and produced a reverent awe in the National Party voters of the area.

But today he has intruded himself again on my notice by a series of rather reckless quotes made at the National Party conference, dutifully tweeted by the deputy editor of The Land newspaper.

The Land is the newsprint bible of the rural sector in Australia. It is reasonably conservative, and describes itself as “breaking agricultural industry, political and general news for people and businesses in rural New South Wales, regional and corporate Australia” They currently do not like comedian Dave Hughes for standing up for animal welfare, they would like Jamie Oliver to intervene on farmers’ behalf with Woolworths, and they have a blogger who wants to suggest not all National Party members think free trade is a good idea.
It has also been dutifully reporting that farmers in Northern NSW have been protesting the mining of CSG in their area. The company Santos' coal seam operations in north-western NSW have been accused of contaminating two water bores near exploration wells, and that one of their wastewater ponds is leaking.

But the big news in the Northern Rivers area has been the blockade at Bentley, where company Metgasco had exploration wells. Literally thousands of protesters have been engaged in protesting the mining activity of Metgasco.

The Bentley area has ‘tight sands’ gas, a form of unconventional gas similar to coal seam gas where lots of wells are required to produce a commercial flow. It apparently needs to be fracked out, a risky procedure. Metgasco planned to commence activity around April this year.

The Land ( reports that since January, anti-CSG protesters have been camped on a farm near the Rosella site, with numbers growing to around 3000 people at times. The Bentley Blockade website notes that “the local community and the Northern Rivers community in general is overwhelmingly opposed to gasfield industrialisation at Bentley. In a community-run survey, 84.5% of Bentley locals voted to have their lands and roads Gasfield Free. In a council poll in 2012, 87% of Lismore residents voted “NO’ to CSG (

It is important to note that this protest was initiated locally. In an article in The Northern Star newspaper (10th Feb 2014), Mr Ted Hoddinott, a Bentley local, predicted that the last planned protest would be the “mother of all dust-ups”. He went on to say that the local Knitting Nannas (they staged a four-hour sit-in outside Parliament House as well) had offered counselling support for those who got arrested, and a Lismore hairdresser had offered free haircuts for anyone who appeared in court. He also said locals felt "abandoned" by politicians and the prospect that CSG was "polarising" the community.

Also involved was the alliance Lock the Gate, which is a national coalition of community groups from across Australia who have united to protect their land, water and their future from coal and gas mining. Across NSW, CSG exploration and mining, and proposed expansion of existing coal mines has galvanised farmers, environmentalists and ordinary people who think farmers should have a choice about their land, to come together and protest against the bully-boy tactics of large mining companies. That they were odd bedfellows was remarked on, but traditionally National voting farmers felt let down by the party meant to represent them.

In May this year, Metgasco had its drilling licence suspended by NSW Resources and Energy Minister Anthony Roberts. The company was referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) due to inadequate community consultation. They have since apparently given up and decided to pull out and cut their losses.

Ecstatic residents and protesters celebrated. In an article on May 15 2014, the SMH (, interviewed various people who had camped there to help stop the drilling. It included local councillors, scientists, youth workers, business owners and farmers, united in the common cause of preserving the environment, and arable land clean water for everyone’s use.

None of the articles I read (and there were a lot) mentioned protesters were particularly nasty or violent.

Enter the National Party Conference and Mr 72%. On June 12, the deputy editor of The Land dutifully sat and tweeted various quotes from the conference, including the comments of our very own National Party leader, the Very Important Mr 72%.

Apparently his heart was broken by seeing that all those professional bludgers appearing to have a win. He flexed his muscles and stated “we were prepared to go head to head with that protest group” and he alleged stated that “they” (who are this ‘they’?) were bullied and harassed by some protestors.
This Twitter image was placed on Facebook by a friend of mine whose family had been involved in the Bentley protest. Having an established connection with Mr 72%, I promptly tweeted him and asked why he felt farmers had no right to protest. He replied promptly, claiming he was taken out of context.
Elizabeth Raine@shenstone121
@AndrewStoner Surely farmers have the right to protest about coal & CSG ruining water & land near their properties #BentleyBlockade - 17 Jun

Andrew Stoner@AndrewStoner
@shenstone121 yes they do, I was quoted completely out of context

I queried this context.

Elizabeth Raine@shenstone121
@AndrewStoner I would be interested in what contxt these remarks were made. You were tweetd as calling protesters bullies & bludgers. - 17 Jun

Andrew Stoner@AndrewStoner
@shenstone121 I said the farmer had been bullied, that there were some good people amongst the protestors but a small core of extremists

Mmmmmmm. Not sure I can reconcile the explanation with the tweets. I imagine Ms Cairney may be in some trouble now.

The National Party are meant to be the party of farmers, and of the rural areas of Australia. That is, until those pesky farmers objected to having their farms overrun with CSG wells and their water contaminated or drained away by large mining companies who were looking to make large profits. Far from representing said farmers in their electorates, the National Party backed the mining companies.

Only a couple of weeks ago, I was given a scolding by Warren Truss, the Federal leader of the Nationals, for wanting to ruin Australia by abolishing mining subsidies. (We were picketing at a local function that he was attending ... he stopped to talk with us before he went inside.) In vain did I plead we could invest in renewable energy and viable farm land instead. Mining, I was told, keeps Australia afloat. You heard it here, farmers of Australia. Mining will trump you and your farms every time. The god of the economy is more important than your arable lands and clean water. Eat coal, and be grateful for it.

Google ‘farmers protest National Party’ and you will get around 457,000 hits where farmers feel let down and aggrieved. No wonder they have found support in the strange bedfellows of the Greens and environmentalists and activists.

It is hard to know whether these community coalitions will ultimately be successful in the campaigns. But politicians – especially the National Party – would do well to take note that the anti-CSG movement has created a new and much more diverse and vocal community of campaigners that just may expose them for the anti-agrarian, pro-industrialists they really are.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Honouring the Gospel and God: the radical nature of the beatitudes of Matthew

The beatitudes are perhaps among one of the most well-known and loved pieces of scripture. Jesus’ setting out who is ‘blessed’ can be understood as an invitation to a modern reader to place themselves among the meek, the mourners, the righteous and the peacemakers. But the question must be raised about whether we are really understanding this passage. It seems to me that Matthew’s Jesus would not have set out categories that were easy for most people to slot into. Jesus was much more subversive than that. The way of the cross as outlined in Matthew’s gospel was much more difficult than being ‘meek’ or ‘peacemakers’ as we might understand these things. So what did Jesus mean?

Perhaps the easiest way of exploring this is through a dialogue between two first century people, a husband and wife, who are debating what was really meant by Matthew’s beatitudes. They will perhaps bring a first century perspective to this problem.

The ideas for this dialogue came from the online websites of Sarah Dylan Brewer, Jerome Neyrey, and John van de Laar. I thank each of them for their ideas, words and inspiration.

BOAZ: Deborah! It is time we had a serious talk about this so-called preacher you have been following. I have heard some disturbing reports. Deeply disturbing. I can’t have my wife seen to be hanging out with such a person. Your visits to hear him speak must stop.

Deborah: Must stop, dear Boaz? Instead of ordering me about, why don’t you just calm down and tell me what has made you so agitated.

BOAZ: My dear Deborah, I am the man of the house. If I say you must stop going to these talk fests, then that is all there is to it.

Deborah: I think not, Boaz. Unless you plan on chaining me up, and then I will scream loudly and cause you much dishonour among the neighbours. And I am sure you wouldn’t want to risk your reputation, now would you?

BOAZ: Well, um, yes, honour is important. In fact, it is honour that I wish to speak with you about. This preacher is talking about honouring the riff raff, the marginalised, the outcast, I am told. Honouring them. This is not acceptable in a decent society.

Deborah: I have no idea to what you are referring.

BOAZ: I am referring to that wandering preacher you persist in listening to, Jeshua. I am told he sat on a mountain yesterday, preaching away about who is honoured by God and who isn’t. Who does he think he is, Moses?

Deborah: Well, some have certainly drawn those parallels, you know. There are lots of similarities between Jeshua and Moses. They are both great prophets, just for starters.

BOAZ: What nonsense you are talking. As if a wandering pauper could be a great prophet. No wonder he includes riff raff like himself in his preaching. “Honoured are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Well, he would say, that wouldn’t he? He is as poor as a desert mouse. He is just seeking to bless himself. And everybody knows that ‘meek’ is code for those who refuse to engage in contests to defend the honour of their family. Such men are not men, they are mice! They should defend their honour when challenged. It is their duty.

Deborah: Really? Then you will be defending me when the neighbours criticise me, for following Jeshua.

BOAZ: Now let us not be hasty. These things must be discussed and clearly thought through.

Deborah: I fail to see what is wrong with saying “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Or “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

BOAZ: Let us first begin with a better understanding of the Greek word that Jeshua is using in his teaching. I understand the word he uses is makarios, and it does not just mean “blessed”, and certainly not “happy”; I think it is better understood as “honoured”. I am sure your gloomy preacher is not a pop psychologist, telling people how to be blessed or happy; he is ascribing honour to those who are rightfully pushed out to the margins of our culture.

Deborah: Well then, “honoured are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Honoured are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”. What is wrong with this?

BOAZ: My dear Deborah, let me explain. In our world, the honour you command is in large part a function of how important your connections are. Your family members, your patrons, and your clients all define who you are. If you are a part of a very important family, then you are very important. If your family is less important, you are less important. If you aren’t connected to others, you are nobody. And nobody wants to do business with a nobody. So you see honour is important. Being honoured means you are acceptable, you are part of a network. Having no honour among friends and family means being left with nothing. We would be poor, dishonoured, contemptible in this position.

Deborah: So you prefer a collection of pious platitudes then, about how you go about your business? Where we make excuses for all sorts of unethical behaviour so we can make money from those who can least afford it and gain honour? Where we treat the poor and lowly with contempt? Is that really what God asks us to do? What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God?

BOAZ: Now don’t you go quoting those minor prophets to me. They are not part of Torah, as you well know. The do not uphold the laws that our society is built upon. Indeed, they are subversive, I say.

Deborah: What about the idea we are honoured when we are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, then? Isn’t doing what God wants the honourable thing? “Honoured are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Do you want the reward of God or of human beings?

BOAZ: My dear Deborah, I am a pragmatist. Consider the hardships that such a situation would bring about. The people Jeshua is honouring, those pushed out by their families because of him, could end up destitute. I am sure for them the hunger and thirst that Jeshua talks about is very real hunger and thirst. What price such extreme righteousness as Jeshua redefines it? No wonder he also honours those who mourn. There would be much mourning in the lifestyle and cultural values he is advocating.

Deborah: I don’t understand why you think the families of Jeshua’s followers would push them out. Surely he is advocating good things, like mercy and peace, and honouring God.

BOAZ: What an innocent you are about business matters. Don’t you see how scandalous the behaviour of Jeshua’s followers is? They apparently left their families to fend for themselves. They did not follow social convention in our culture. They would leave their families with little choice. Just think. I hear there is free social intercourse between men and women, that respectable folk eat with sinners, that holy rituals are not always followed. Such behaviour is shocking to many, and people who behave like this will pay a steep price.

Deborah: Well, I don’t get it. Why should the followers of Jeshua get into such trouble? They are being urged to be “merciful” and “peacemakers”, and to seek reconciliation rather than revenge with those who have wronged them. They are the “pure in heart” because of this, surely.

BOAZ: And they break bread with anyone, and without washing, which renders them impure in everyone else’s eyes. But perhaps even more shocking is the way Jeshua tells his followers to treat their fathers. I have heard it said that he advocates abandoning one’s aging parents, leaving them alone to go off and follow him, rather than caring for them until they died, and giving them an honourable burial. What is he thinking? Such wilful disobedience would shame the whole family, and threaten everyone’s welfare in the process.

Deborah: Perhaps these people are not as honourable and self-satisfied as you and your friends, then. Jeshua is gathering in all sorts of people, the ones that the respectable have despised, and the ones who already have no honour in our culture’s eyes. It seems to me that Jeshua gives them two wonderful gifts which more than compensate for the sort of losses you are describing.

BOAZ: Like what?

Deborah: Jeshua gives them honour. In front of all those crowds, Jeshua is saying that there is honour for the poor, the lepers, the lame, the oppressed and the scorned. Jeshua declared that these people are the very people whom God himself honours. Their human families may have disowned them, but they are the true children of God, to whom all honour belongs.

BOAZ: That sounds very fine, but how will they live without family? Without friends? Without the means to do business?

Deborah: Well, you could argue that some of them never had the means of which you speak. But that brings me to my second point. Jeshua makes them family, don’t you see? He says they are the children of God, who is their Father in heaven, and that makes them brothers and sisters. They will never be at a loss for a community that functions as a family, and that cares for each of its members in ways that show that they take this relationship very seriously indeed.

BOAZ: (sarcastically) And what a family it would be! Honoured by all! Unclean, uneducated, untutored in the ways of doing business, oh, I can see it has a great future.

Deborah: How about you think seriously about what it would mean if we honoured those whom God honours? What would happen if you men stopped playing all of your silly cultural games where you vie for status and power and privilege? What would it cost us if we lived more deeply in the ways of justice, and mercy, and humility? And more importantly, what blessings and honour might await if we took the plunge and risked the way of God? Maybe then we will be the ones Jeshua talks of when he says, “Honoured are you who strive after righteousness, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.”

What does God require of us? Not sacrifices of blood, not impressive buildings, not a four hymn sandwich in Sunday worship; not achievement or respectability: simply, justice, mercy, and humility. Sounds simple, but living this out in our culture comes at a cost.

The idea of obeying a few laws, and keeping ourselves ‘pure’, and ‘righteous’ until we get to our reward in heaven, is very attractive, and a popular idea in our churches today. Such a belief demands little from us in the way of sacrifice, discomfort or even simple change. We tend to go along with the status quo, we seek respectability, and we fit in with the corrupt business and political systems of our world because it is safer and easier to do so.

In a theology such as this, it makes sense to keep using up the planet, with little care for the impact of our consumption of its resources. In a theology such as this, the poor, the sick, the oppressed, and the marginalised are seen as ‘unclean’. We can even blame them for their plight, and believe they are deserving of their disadvantaged lot in life, because they are not pure or righteous or separate from sin, and because they clearly have not worked or tried hard enough.

Such a theology is not the ‘gospel’, the good news or the message of Jesus’ Gospel. If our world is to become more whole, and if the injustice and inequity in our world is to be addressed, we desperately need to revisit the Bible’s teaching about what God requires and take seriously what Jesus actually taught. Otherwise, we contribute more to the problems of our world and our individual piety detracts from the work God requires us to do.

In our bibles, we discover that God is found working always for justice, in caring for the least and in the opposing forces of violence, destruction, materialism, greed, and power. Jesus invites us to revisit the cross, and embrace again its call upon us. As Paul puts it, we are called to be “foolish” in the name of Christ, to confound the accepted wisdom of the world, and to bring justice and compassion whenever we find the opportunity to do so.

The challenge to us is whether we have really have the courage to commit to both a real and transforming relationship with God, and to a life of loving sacrifice in the service of God’s kingdom and the poor for which it should be the good news.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Rubbish to the left of me, and rubbish to the right....

I am sitting here, with a week’s worth of rubbish. I am in the process of tallying it, to see what we really are accumulating, particularly in regards to plastic rubbish, plastic being more of a problem and more insidious in our environment, not to mention more disposable.

In terms of average household rubbish I am guessing it is a fairly small pile. We have a plastic shopping bag sized bin behind the sink cupboard door, and we haven’t filled it. It mostly consists of packaging, from food wrapping such as bread and crackers, the small gladwrap squares we cover the pet mince with, and plastic wrapping from mail, especially magazines. We have also realised with some horror our favourite locally-made chocolates are all in individually wrapped in cellophane. We have:

2 bread wrappers, pectin packet, recycled paper towel wrapper, 6 plastic cake mix bags, cling wrap on purchased melon, feta cheese packet, chocolate wrapper, 5 medication cards (Panadol and prescription drugs), 7 bits of gladwrap on the pet mince portions, four cellephane chocolate wrappers, 4 wires from underwire bras, plastic from a tissue box, 2 underwear packets, plastic bag on free local paper, meat pie wrapper.

The recycling is mainly junk mail catalogues (time to get one of those No Junk Mail signs), the local newspapers, cardboard and paper packaging from crackers and beer and cider six packs; glass bottles, bottle tops, aluminium cat food tins and discarded mail and envelopes. We have three small boxes full – there is a lot more than the rubbish. We have:

17 bottles and their aluminium caps
Cardboard medication packets, three gluten free cake mix packets, recycled paper packaging off recycled toilet paper, 3 cardboard milk cartons, a huge wad of junk mail, envelopes and discarded mail weighing 1.6 kilos
Plastic face product bottle, calcium bottle, empty plastic wool wash bottle
14 aluminium pet food tins and their pull tops, aluminium foil used in cooking and from choclate wrapping

Why are you bothering, I hear you ask?

I am bothering for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is useful to see just how much rubbish we accumulate. Whilst our rubbish-holding plastic shopping bag that is two thirds full of what is mainly plastic packaging may not seem much, times it by 52 and it becomes a small mountain over the course of a year. That’s a lot of non-biodegradable stuff heading for landfill. It is sobering to contemplate it. It is even more sobering to think of the resources that went into making this plastic. If you are wondering what this means, have a look at Hungry Beast’s life cycle of a plastic bottle at

Secondly, looking at it and counting it reminds me we live in a disposable society. I am amazed at how commercially produced food portions are getting smaller and smaller and more and more packaged. There seem to be far more individually wrapped processed food products on the shelves of the super markets now, things like single breakfast bars, chocolates, biscuits and even single-serve cereals. Cheese, yoghurt, rice pudding, soup, tuna and baked beans all come in single serves, to name but a few. Apparently we have lost the will to drink tap water, needing instead plastic bottles of water and gaudily coloured products for allegedly increasing stamina. Buying in bulk is getting harder and buying in cardboard, paper and glass is becoming more of a challenge.

Thirdly, it appears almost impossible to send a magazine through the mail without a protective plastic bag. Why? It is not like plastic is the only protective covering. In our household, only The New Internationalist arrives in a recycled paper envelope. The Open Road, our Diggers’ Garden catalogue, the local free newspaper and a few other catalogues that have followed me to Wauchope all come plastic wrapped.

Lastly, I realised how much we rely on it to keep food fresh. Gladwrap (or its equivalent) has insinuated itself into our lives to such an extent that we depend on it to keep food fresh in the fridge, wrap our sandwiches, cover our cut fruit and in our case, package cats’ pet mince for freezing. It is also a useful thing to cover food being cooked in the microwave oven.

And this is just the waste. Looking at my cupboards, I have plastic storage, plastic crockery, plastic furniture, plastic bowls and plastic utensils. My cleaning products, medications, and my bathroom products all come in plastic. There are plastic bits and pieces in our garden equipment. And the list goes on. How on earth did my great grandmothers manage without the stuff? It is everywhere.

Over the last year I have become more and more aware of the damage that plastic does to our environment. Millions of tonnes of plastic enter our environment every year. This plastic pollution finds its way into our water ways and then into our oceans. It then hitchhikes on the ocean’s currents until it ends up either in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or is eaten by marine life. It lasts longer than nuclear waste, taking up to a thousand years to break down in the environment, turning into smaller and smaller pieces that don’t disappear. Unlike cardboard, paper or glass, plastic just doesn’t go away. It is stubborn stuff, and it is lethal stuff.

According to Clean Up Australia, every piece of disposable plastic that I have ever used is still hanging around somewhere today. Their statistics are sobering:

• Almost 90% of the marine debris found on Sydney’s beaches is plastic, mostly bottles, caps and straws.
• Australians buy 600 million litres of bottled water a year.
• We use 10 million plastic bags a day (that's 3.9 billion plastic bags a year)

Planet Ark makes the point that the time we use a plastic grocery bag can be counted in minutes - however long it takes to get from the shops to our homes. But only an estimated 3% of Australia's plastic bags are currently being recycled, despite recycling facilities being available at major supermarkets. Why? Are we lazy, or do we find many new uses for these bags – such as collecting household rubbish? And while this is commendable to reuse these bags, what happens once I dump them into the red bin and they trundle off to the Council tip?

Having asked this question, I needed to answer it. I discovered that we are not off the hook by disposing of our plastic bags in garbage bins. Approximately 30 to 50 million plastic bags enter the environment as litter in Australia annually. Of that litter, 47% is wind borne plastic litter escaping from the landfills where our garbage ends up.

Once windborne, it ends up in our oceans and in our environment. In the marine environment plastic bag litter is deadly, and kills many sea birds, whales, seals and turtles every year. And due to its longevity, when an unfortunate beast is killed by plastic it decomposes much faster than the offending plastic, which is then released back into the environment where it can be ingested and kill again.

One example Planet Ark gives in regard to the deadly nature of plastic as litter was a Bryde's whale which died on a Cairns beach after ingesting 6 square metres of plastic - including plastic bags. This is potentially making my mind implode. Six metres? How did it find six metres of the stuff so readily?

And it isn’t just the ocean. Planet Ark also reports the story of a calf on a farm near Mudgee NSW, which died unexpectedly. The farmer carried out an autopsy and found 8 plastic bags in its stomach. The loss of this calf cost the farmer around $500. One has to ask how 8 plastic bags found their way onto the calf’s pasture.

The worst thing for me though was Hungry Beast’s clip on albatross chicks. I was searching for something on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and I came across this little documentary on Chris Jordan, who is a Seattle based photographer. He photographed the most heart breaking pictures of dead baby
albatrosses on the Midway Atoll ( All of them had died from being fed plastic litter by their parents, who are unable to tell the difference between pieces of plastic and small fish. I sobbed the first time I saw it. It still makes me cry. The death of all these small chicks just tipped me from knowing that plastic was a problem to doing something about it.

The 15 to 1000 years that plastic takes to break down in the environment seems a high price to pay for my convenience. Recycling is not enough, and rescue is not enough anymore. Time to actually change our habits and banish the demon plastic from our shopping as much as possible.

Planet Save has a helpful infographic at and a good factsheet on bottled water at

Plastic pollution is a global problem, but it can have a local solution. That local solution is me. In the coming weeks, we need to consistently and doggedly work at turning our plastic addiction around here at Shenstone, our sustainable house and garden. Today’s garbage tally makes it clear that this will not be easy, and some things, like our medications, can’t be replaced. The plan is to keep recycling those we can, and thoughtfully disposing of those we can’t. I will be following up with our local Council to find out what happens to such recyclables, and enquiring how I make sure my litter doesn’t fly off and kill a nearby calf or whale. But widespread plastic use surely can’t be sustained in a world where oil (the basic ingredient for plastic) is growing scarcer, and where climate change is threat enough to our birds, fish, animals and creeping things. The bottom line is that it is unsustainable for all sorts of reasons. Time to really change habits and not just tinker around the edges. Less convenience, and more mindfulness of exactly what the consequences of our throwaway plastic society are is called for. My great grandmothers would be proud.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Setting sail on the SS Low Impact

Recently we watched a documentary called “No Impact Man”, based on a year where writer Colin Beavan and his family tried to live a carbon neutral life (you can see it here at I found it interesting enough to buy the book: No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process.

Quite a title. For me, it was both compelling and damning reading. Because, I suspect, most of us just tinker around the edges of changing our lifestyles. We recycle, we visit a farmers’ market maybe, we buy fair-trade coffee, tea and chocolate. All of these things are good, but aren’t going to change the way the world works or our individual carbon footprints.

Prior to No Impact Man, we liked to think we live a lifestyle that has less impact than the average Westerner. On examination, our lifestyle was not a patch on Colin Beavan’s year of near carbon neutrality. Not even close. It raised quite starkly the possibility that one can always find a way of living more sustainably. So with fear and trepidation, we thought we would have a go at living more simply and with a reduced carbon footprint. And to keep the whole thing honest, blog about it so reneging is much harder.

Why bother, I hear you ask? Well, for a number of reasons. Firstly, we belong to a climate change group, and we talk a lot about how important it is to do something about climate change. So our little group gives out information, holds events, it ran a candidates election forum, it has a Facebook page where the latest research and articles on the subject are placed, and it releases press articles on various topics like the IPCC report. We all think something should be done. Whilst a number of us think it should be governments that do something, there are also those in the group who think that each one of us has a personal responsibility.

I think that is right. One needs to put one’s money where one’s climate strategy mouth is.

Secondly, as the title of this blog suggests, we are both ministers in the Uniting Church. Around two years ago, I prepared a number of bible studies that were meant to encourage people of faith to re-examine that faith in the light of environmental concerns. The studies had two central tenets – ‘love your neighbour’ (and this meant all people, even the ones you can’t see overseas and by ‘love’ we mean do them no harm); and secondly, respect and treat well the creation that God saw as integrated and ‘good’.

These studies were run with mixed results. Those who took part agreed in principle to what their scripture was telling them. Yet despite the dire consequences that the biblical book of Deuteronomy promises for disobedience (see Deuteronomy 28:15-68 if you are really interested whether you risk being struck with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, or with blight and mildew, that will plague you until you perish), many saw it as ‘too hard’ or ‘too inconvenient for my lifestyle’ to actually adopt habits that would in effect, not support child labour, sweatshops, over-consumerism, environmental degradation, climate change and unethical food practices. Others attempted to make small changes in their eating and consumer habits.

The Uniting Church in Australia is committed to acting in ways that will build a just and compassionate society. It is dedicated to working for the common good of all humanity. It seeks to transform unjust social structures, and to protect and renew all of creation. The 1977 Statement to the Nation clearly says that “We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth's resources for their use and enjoyment.”

In other words, this church is a political church. It is not afraid to tackle thorny issues as they arise on the political landscape. It lobbies governments, it has helped to create policy (and occasionally history as with the Safe Injecting Room), it pushes issues of justice in the media and it urges its congregations, councils and members to actually live out the faith of a disciple of Jesus. In recent times, this has included more and more environmental issues.

Living out the teachings of Jesus are particularly challenging to the Western world. Congregations don’t especially warm to his teachings on personal wealth (give it to the poor) or his teaching that disciples should do something about the unjust structures of society (don’t extort money, free the oppressed and liberate the captives). His statement "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions" (Luke 12:15) runs counter to western consumerism. And we also have the Hebrew Bible, which forms two thirds of the Christian canon of Scripture, that has quite a lot to say about the protection of our environment and its belonging to a creator God who declared it to be ‘good’.

On 1 November 2006, the Uniting Church Assembly voted to adopt the statement "For the Sake of the Planet and all its People: A Uniting Church in Australia Statement on Climate Change" (

This document encouraged Uniting Church members, congregations, groups, agencies and councils to:
‘model ways of living and working that minimise the production of greenhouse gas emissions; and advocate for government to implement policies that significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and increase our use of non-nuclear renewable energy sources.’

So in the light of this and No Impact Man, we decided to commit to modelling sustainable ways of living in line with our church’s statements; and we have decided to take up the challenge of becoming, if not No Impact People, at least Low Impact People. So stay tuned for the next instalment as Low Impact Life comes to the Mid North Coast.