Monday, 27 June 2011

The winds of climate change and the catching of carp

A refreshing change blew through Port Macquarie last Sunday. A climate change, to be more specific. Prof. Ross Garnaut took his life in his hands and ventured up here into the National Party heartland, in order to bring a rational element into the local climate change debate.

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of rational people up here, and many of them turned out to hear Prof. Garnaut speak. There is also a very vocal anti-carbon tax, anti-climate change group up here that hold various rallies and get their 15 minutes of fame by making the front page of the Port Paper. They also write short but highly defamatory letters to the local papers, demanding that not only should climate change be exposed as a large Fascist plot, but also the White Australia policy should be returned and that Jesus did not die on Friday. And no, I am not making these letters up – you can find them in the online versions of the Wauchope Gazette or the Port News.

Climate change has become an emotionally fraught, and politically fought over issue during the last year or so. Often factual information about the science and proposed measures to combat it have been sadly lacking in public debate. Up here in National Party heartland, one could be forgiven for thinking that the flat earth society was in charge of the much of the information – or misinformation - that has found its way into the public arena.

A chance to rectify this situation was offered to the residents of the Hastings Valley last Sunday afternoon, with the opportunity to hear Professor Ross Garnaut, the independent expert adviser appointed by the Federal Government to advise them on Climate change policy. More specifically, his report has gone to the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee, of which our Federal Member, Rob Oakeshott, is a member of.

A surprising number (over 150) of people gathered together in a cold school hall on what was a lovely sunny Sunday to hear Professor Ross Garnaut speak on the related topics of climate change and carbon pricing.

The best part of this Forum for me was meeting Rob Oakeshott in the flesh. Boldly poking my nose between him and Peter Besseling (who must be 10 feet tall), I ventured to introduce myself. To my surprise, he not only remembered my name, but also our letters. I was delighted, and only Rafael Nadal could have produced a bigger impression on this self-confessed Oakeshott (and Nadal) fan. And I got to be introduced to Prof. Garnaut.

Most of Prof. Garnaut’s initial information wasn’t particularly new to John and I, as we have been reading myriads of learned books on climate science. He confirmed the conclusion that has been reached by climate scientists in countries all around the world: that the earth is warming; that evidence shows that human activity is largely responsible, and that if allowed to continue, the expected consequences will be dire and deeply disrupt life as we know it.

Towards the end of the forum we did get one big surprise. Someone began a question that proved to be as long-winded as Barnaby Joyce, and who proceeded to cite dubious data, non-existent scientists and a belief that earth was cooling and that wind turbines were inefficient. John and I both felt something was fishy. It sounded strangely familiar. Surely it had to be our old friend Mr. Carp (see previous blogs Carping On 1 and 2), expresser of ridiculous opinions and fishy journalism in the scurrilous rag known as the Port Paper in the equally scurrilous column known as Carp’s Corner. Either this was the Carp himself, or someone who idolized his columns. I believe we have finally reeled him in, hook, line and sinker. His fame and notoriety have now been cemented, and he will be remembered by those attending the forum as the person most likely to avoid travel in case he falls off the end of the earth.

Lastly, let me say that this forum impressed on us just how serious the problem of climate change really is, and urgently we need to take action. I am sick of the political point scoring going on over this. Time for bipartisan support and to stop making this a political football.

Pricing carbon is not a tax. A carbon trading scheme has been shown to be an effective measure in many countries around the world. Introducing it here will actually cost less than the GST. We all coped with that – and will cope with this as well. The money raised through this carbon price will compensate households who need it, big polluters will have incentive to reduce their emissions, and cleaner technologies can be explored, developed and invested in. Carbon pricing means the polluters pay. Giving big polluters the money to clean up their industry means the tax payer pays. As a tax payer, I prefer the first option, thanks.

Julia Gillard, stop backing down on issues and being so poll conscious. Just bring carbon pricing in and be done with it. Stop using asylum seekers as a way of regaining votes. It ain’t going to work. And bring in that mining tax – the owners don’t need to be multi mutli billionaires.

Tony Abbott, this issue is more important than you forming government. I resent the fact you do not treat this problem with the careful attention it needs and deserves and must have. It infuriates me when you tacitly increase climate change skepticism by mislabeling the carbon price as a tax and by refusing to work with the government and minor parties and independents on this issue. It gets up my nose when you think we should waste money on plebiscites. Time to stop the misinformation campaign, stop your 12 month long dummy spit about not being Prime Minister and remember that if things don’t change, neither the meek – or anybody else – will be inheriting the earth.

Friday, 24 June 2011

I'm still knitting saucepans but this time under solar lights

Up here in National Party heartland, things are rolling along. To our delight, the feed in tariff in the Solar Bonus scheme has been retained, so we are not losing out. Since the new NSW Government proposed the changes, the Mid North Coast has been a hotbed of unrest. The solar industry here has now breathed a collective sigh of relief, along with their present and former customers, and solar panels continue to appear on rooftops.

Those of you regularly reading this blog would recall that we had been in correspondence with our local state member Deputy Premier and leader of the State National party, Mr “72%” Andrew Stoner. Mr Stoner saw fit to reply to our correspondence about the feed-in tariff by addressing John only and wiping me off the correspondence record. I expressed my feelings about this in a blog that referred to kitchens, knitting and saucepans.

I took the time to again write to Mr 72% and strongly expressed my outrage at being ignored in his letter. Many predicted that Mr Stoner would ignore this letter, especially my views on the National party and their relationship to the mores of the 19th century.

Surprisingly, he has responded. BUT (and it is a big BUT but not surprising) my objections to being obliterated from any correspondence between this household and his office was utterly ignored.

This most recent letter was addressed to me. Probably because I, and not John, had written it so there was no ignoring me this time. He even read my comments with interest, apparently. I confess I find this very amusing. Interest seems an unlikely word to use when one has just been upbraided for being a Victorian (the era, not the state) sexist. I sure he did read my comments with great interest – and probably with more than a few unuttered expletives.

If you are now reading with bated breath in the hope I will now reveal that he apologised for ignoring me, forget it. There was no mention of this. He did however, thoughtfully point out to me that the government in its generosity would continue the solar bonus scheme, despite being bankrupted by the former government incumbents. The NSW government is apparently even committed to achieving a sustainable future for the solar industry.

Mmmm. This last sounds faintly hypocritical from a government that a few weeks earlier had announced they were abandoning the solar scheme – and the industry with it. Now we have a new, no doubt deeply felt, commitment on the part of the State government to solar power. It is my breath that is now bated as I wait to see exactly what form this commitment to a sustainable solar future will take.

After bagging the former Labor Government for blowing out costs, Mr Stoner went on to tell me that the current government costing for the scheme (newly reviewed) is $1.44 billion, compared to the former government’s costing of $355 million which then was increased to 1.9 billion. It is, says Mr Stoner, to Labor’s eternal shame that they let costs get out of control.

Let us be clear about these costings. The reason that the original figure was $355 million is because the Labor government greatly underestimated the enthusiasm with which people would sign up to the Solar Bonus Scheme. They sold the concept so well that many people across the state, including apparently half the Mid North Coast, signed up to get panels on their roofs. Let me also make it clear that the feed in tariff rebate is not making anyone rich. Nobody would outlay the amount that the panels cost, even with the Federal government rebate, on the basis that they will get a cheque between $60 and $200 a quarter. People signed up because they genuinely wanted to help the environment, a fact that apparently escapes the current government.

The reason that their next figure was $1.9 billion is because they realistically took into account the enthusiasm for the scheme, and people’s desire to do their bit for renewable energy.

So I say it is to the current Coalition government’s eternal shame that they have refused to extend the scheme, thus bringing the costing back down. It does not augur well for that commitment to achieving a sustainable solar industry that the letter to me talks about.

Time to put your money where your solar mouth is, Mr Stoner. Support your local electorate and the terrific solar industry that is doing so well here on the sunny Mid North Coast.

In the meantime, I’ll just get on with knitting those saucepans, preferably under lights powered by some solar panels.

The sacrifice of sense: exploring the story of Isaac and others

Every year, the lectionary takes us through some of the great narratives of the Hebrew Bible. This year, it is the turn of the Pentateuch, beginning with the latter part of Genesis (I am not counting Trinity Sunday’s Genesis 1reading as part of this). Next Sunday we begin this journey with a profound and disturbing story that takes us into the very heart of religious violence.

The text is a well-known text. I would also venture to suggest that it is a profoundly misused text. It is powerful and evocative. It is generally misunderstand, as it is too far removed from the ancient culture that produced it. It is nearly always read one-sidedly, a point of view that deliberately focuses on the main protagonist of Abraham, and ignores the potential thoughts and feelings of other characters in the story. It is a story that demands our full attention, and should be examined from many points of view.

Part of why it is disturbing is that even today, people carry out acts of violence against children and claim they have heard God directly authorising such violence. In our modern culture, we call such people criminally insane and lock them up.

Despite this, many today will listen to this story, and praise Abraham for his great faith. I am sure that many of you have heard sermons that have this the central message. Despite the fact that Abraham is prepared to plunge a knife in his hapless son’s throat, no one much (at least no one outside of scholarly articles and the various brands of feminist theology) suggests that Abraham should be locked up. Is it because we just accept that God was always going to save Isaac? Is it because it is so far removed from our time and life that it is a little like hearing a fairy story?

Whatever our reason, this is not a text that should be taken lightly or examined superficially. It is also a text that has a flip side, as there are other characters in the story – and the Old Testament – that we pay little attention to, but represent other aspects to stories of the sacrifice of one’s child.

It is true that this story in its own context takes on a different meaning. In Abraham’s day, human sacrifice – killing and then burning the remains of human beings of all ages – would not have been understood as madness, violence, or abuse, but as something that demonstrated devotion to the greater good – and the greater god. It was a terrible and costly price to pay, but seen by many in the cultures of the Ancient Near East as necessary from time to time, to placate angry gods, to ensure a good harvest, etc.

In fact, some biblical scholars believe that the Isaac story was written to counter such practices, and later when the Law was written down, any sort of human sacrifice was expressly prohibited. That this law was deemed necessary suggests that such sacrifices had indeed taken place.

And though they are not widely known, there are two other such stories in the bible – one in the book of Judges, where the army commander Jephthah sacrifices his daughter to fulfill an oath he made to God, and one in the book of 1 Samuel, when King Saul opts to execute his son who had unwittingly consumed honey on a day that Saul had declared to be one of fasting.

In order to explore the story in a way that might be easier for us all to understand, John and I have written a dialogue between two people who might have lived around the time of Jesus. We have made them Gentile believers in one of the churches of Paul, and we ask that you imagine that at least one of them has heard this story of Isaac and Abraham for the first time.


Lucius: Did you hear the story that was read from the Hebrew writings today? The story relates that God decided to test one of the great founders of the religion, who was called Abraham (Genesis 22:1-14). He told Abraham to take his only son Isaac, and offer him up as a sacrifice on a mountain. I tell you, it was a great and inspiring story.

Themisto: No, I wasn’t at my house church this morning. I am not sure about this reference to a sacrifice. Tell me the story and I will judge it for myself once I have heard it.

Lucius: The story goes that God decided to test one of the great founders of the religion, who was called Abraham. He told Abraham to take his only son Isaac, and offer him up as a sacrifice on a mountain.

Themisto: Surely the father must have objected. What sort of test asks you to kill your own child in cold blood?

Lucius: Don’t interrupt! I haven’t finished the story yet. Abraham gets up in the morning, and sets off with the boy. On the third day of his journey, he arrives at the designated place. Abraham then takes the wood he collected earlier, and gives it to his son Isaac, while he carries the fire and the knife. Isaac then asks, “the fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a sacrifice?” Abraham, who is clearly a man of great faith, replies that “God himself will provide a lamb for the sacrifice.”

Themisto: So Abraham, the great man of faith, is also Abraham, the great deceiver.

Lucius: You are missing the point here. Let me finish. So Abraham builds an altar and lays the wood on it. He ties up Isaac, and lays him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he takes the knife to kill his son. But then an angel calls to him from heaven, and says “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Abraham then looks up and sees a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. So he sacrifices it instead. And God rewards him greatly for his faith by blessing his descendants.

Themisto: The only point I see here is a foolish father who is prepared to listen to strange voices alleging to be from a god that tell him to kill his son. And what of the boy? How did he feel when bound by his own father to a sacrificial bier? What did he think when he saw the knife about to plunge into his throat? How could he ever trust his father again? What sort of a God demands such a terrible test of faith? I am afraid I would have failed it miserably.

Lucius: That is because you women are too caught up in your emotions. You are not properly concerned about obedience to the gods and the fact of divine punishment. You would do well to heed the moral of this tale.

Themisto: What moral? How many of you men would be prepared to do the same? You all talk about faith, but is this the faith you mean?

Lucius: Weellll, the tale is not meant to be taken literally – it is a metaphor, I am sure.

Themisto: Mmmmm, a metaphor, eh? Now that you mention it, at my women’s group the other night we too heard a tale from the Hebrew writings. It has some similarities, but I am very disturbed by it and I am keen to hear your interpretation of it. Nobody referred to it as a metaphor.

Lucius: Speak, then.

Themisto: In the book of the Judges, there was a man called Jephthah, and it says that “the spirit of the LORD came upon him”, and he then made a vow to his God (Judges 11:29-40). This vow to his god stated that if the god would allow him to conquer the enemy, a people called the Ammonites, then Jephthah would sacrifice the first living thing to come out of the doors of his house to meet him, when he returned victorious. It would seem that the god accepted his oath, because he was successful in defeating the enemy.

Off he goes home, and there before him was his daughter, his only daughter, coming out to meet him with music and dancing, to celebrate his victory. And what does he do? When he sees her, he tears his clothes, and says, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow.”

Lucius: Yes, and rightly so.

Themisto: Now you are interrupting me! The point is: what does the daughter of Jephthah do? Rather than blaming himself and his silly vow, the father blames the daughter for coming to greet him. But she agrees that he cannot take back his vow, and she is willing to be sacrificed. And sacrificed she is, after she mourns her fate for two months. What tragedy!!

Tell me: where was the all-powerful Hebrew god when this child was being sacrificed for a father who was faithfully carrying out his oath? Why did no angel call out, why was no ram found in the thicket for her? I will tell you why. It is because women and girls are not valued by this society. Only the young women of Israel still lament this nameless, brave daughter of Jephthah. She could have run away, but accepted her fate. Why is this child of faith not celebrated?

Lucius: Hmmmm. I see your point, though my dear Themisto, you must confess to the tiniest bias as you yourself are female. I have always believed that slaves and women should keep to their natural place in society.

Themisto: Our house church emphasizes community, and mutual trust. It is such communal relationship that leads to a satisfying life. How can you have true community if you exclude women, children and slaves?

Lucius: We should all know our place in society. Faith is about accepting your place, and acknowledging that pain and suffering are part of faithfulness. We are called to be obedient servants. Children cannot learn this too soon. Your nameless daughter of the story is an excellent illustration of this principle. She stands as a great contrast to weaker, disobedient people.

Themisto: I cannot agree. But I have another story to tell you. It is about the first king of Israel, Saul.

Lucius: But he was cursed by God!

Themisto: I agree he was later, but he wasn’t at this point. Now listen up. In the book of Samuel it says that Saul wanted to beat the Philistines, and he “committed a very rash act on that day. He had laid an oath on the troops, saying, ‘Cursed be anyone who eats food before it is evening and I have been avenged on my enemies.’ So none of the troops tasted food.”

Lucius: Mmmmm – a very poor battle tactic, I would think.

Themisto: Maybe so, but that is not the point I want to make. The story goes on to say that Jonathon, who had not heard his father’s oath, ate some honey. God doesn’t answer Saul when he seeks direction. So Saul looks for the guilty person to sacrifice him. Apparently Jonathon is shown to be the guilty one. So Saul proposes he should die.

Lucius: And is he then sacrificed?

Themisto: No, for the people object. The story goes that they said: “Shall Jonathan die, who has accomplished this great victory in Israel? Far from it! As the LORD lives, not one hair of his head shall fall to the ground; for he has worked with God today.” So the people ransomed Jonathan, and he did not die. (1 Sam. 14:43-45).

So you see my point – Isaac is saved by divine intervention; Jonathon is saved by human intervention, and the daughter of Jephthah is saved by no one. Why do we continue to retell only one of these stories in our churches? Why do we laud one father as having great faith and great wisdom and not the other two fathers in the scripture who are called ‘rash’ or ‘reckless’? Just what is the difference between them?


As we return to the 21st century, I want to take Themisto’s questions more seriously than we are wont to do. I have great difficulty with a scriptural passage that can be used to sanction religious violence under the guise of obedience to God.

If we are honest, we can find parallels in our own time and our own world. They are plenty of culturally endorsed callings to commit violence and endanger one’s life or the lives of our children in our world today. Some cultures still practice today what is euphemistically called “female circumcision”. Some religions and cultures tolerate violence against women and children, and cite biblical texts as good reason for doing so. Others incite violence against different religions and ethnic groups by claiming this is the will of God.

Our own Christian tradition has consistently interpreted as faithful obedience what would be considered religious infanticide or lunacy in any other setting in history. We are quick to label Jephthah and Saul as nutters or cursed by God or whatever name we happen to fancy, but Abraham is the father of faith. Why?

It is worthy of note that while the two males, Jonathon and Isaac are given names in their stories, not so the daughter of Jephthah. She is unnamed, and criticized by her foolish father for bringing this fate on herself.

How often do we criticise the victims of violence for somehow bringing it on themselves? Do we dehumanize them by not giving them names? In Australia, we refer to ‘boat people’ and during the time of the Howard government, at least some of us were willing to believe that these nameless ‘boat people’ would sacrifice their children by throwing them into the sea. We give the name SIEV X to the hapless group of humanity that perished off our coastline in 2001.

Perhaps one laudable difference in these stories is that all of the proposed victims are asking questions, or speaking into the situation. Too often in our world today, the stories of the victims are hidden, silent, covered over by euphemisms such as “ethnic cleansing” or are deliberately kept impersonal.

Where are the Isaacs, Jonathons and daughters of Jephthah today? Are they dehumanised, listed as statistics, silenced and hidden? What happens to them if they speak? Shouldn’t we be speaking on their behalf, as the people of Israel spoke out for Jonathon? Or do we sit back, and perhaps half-heartedly hope for a miracle, only to find Jephthah’s daughter lies broken and bleeding on our doorstep?

Perhaps it is time we gave a lot more thought as to how we should respond as Christians to such stories today.

How would you answer the questions posed by Themisto?

And what message do these biblical texts send to our unchurched society today?

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Happy birthday, dear Uniting Church…Happy birthday to you!

The Uniting Church in Australia celebrates its birthday each year on 22 June. This is one of the things that makes the Uniting Church distinctive: we have our own birthday, and it was not very long ago (relatively) that this denomination came into existence – in 1977, a mere 34 years ago. Other denominations trace their origins back centuries, to the activity of one of the Reformers, or to a decision of a particular monarch, or to a particular split between churches. Some look back millennia, for their origins in journeys which apostles were claimed to have made soon after the time of Christ. The Roman Catholic Church understands its origins to be with Jesus himself and the leader of his disciples, Peter. So the UCA is a mere babe-in-arms amongst such company!

We are also different from other denominations in that we came in to being as a result of a democratic vote amongst members. It wasn’t a battle with another church, or a rejection of the customs that were valued by another group of believers, but it was a desire to do things together, to be authentically Australian, and to set our own direction that was relevant to our own society, that motivated the formation of the Uniting Church. To be sure, as a church, we have always held a strong commitment to talk with and work alongside the other Christian denominations in our society. It was our ecumenical commitment to the unity in faith and mission of the church that led to the forming of the Uniting Church in the first place.

Yet in the three and a half decades since then, the Uniting Church has grown to become different from other denominations in Australia. Often what is most noticed about the UCA is that it offers a distinctive Christian voice within our society. Even as we share beliefs and commitments with people across all Christian denominations, the UCA does take a stand on issues and strive to put into practice a form of faith which is relevant and contemporary, and shows a commitment to compassion and justice in all that we do. It is a good thing that we have people in Synod and Assembly positions who devote their time to researching and writing communications on such issues – justice for refugees, fair treatment of indigenous people, care for the environment, lobbying for policies that uphold the rights of the marginalised, a commitment to ethical living. And it is a good thing to belong to a church like this! It is also a challenge to find ways of doing this at a local level, within our own immediate community. That is the particular challenge that we are thinking about in our ministry on the mid north coast.

The Uniting Church was founded by people coming together and agreeing on a document, known as the Basis of Union, which provided a – well, a basis for the union that took place! In this document, the orientation is resolutely forward-looking. Whilst the past is noted, and accepted, it is the future which generates the energy and passion for being the church. One of the most inspiring sentences in the Basis is the phrase which declares that the Uniting Church is always ready to confess its Lord in fresh words and deeds. I think it is important to note that this was written nearly four decades before the ‘fresh expressions’ movement got going – we were already committed to fresh words and deeds way back in 1977. This was no dogmatic commitment to doing something the same way we had always done it. Instead, this demonstrated an open-minded attitude towards future possibilities. This is also expressed, in paragraph 1, as being willing to remain open to constant reform under [God’s] Word. The UCA is, and continues to be, a reforming, reformed church. Our present time is to be marked by being open to constant reform.

The Basis of Union uses other inspiring phrases to indicate the key characteristics of our shared faith. It was a long way ahead of its time in making explicit reference to how we need to live out of faith in ways that make sense within our particular geographic location – in Asia and the Pacific. Our faith is to be exercised in ways that are contextual – relating to the world as we currently know it. The most important need in the contemporary world is for faith to be expressed and lived in ways that are relevant. That means taking seriously the forms and practices of the society of which we are a part.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Uniting Church has lost touch with its origins – in the Reformation, in the church universal, in the movement which was started by Jesus of Nazareth. The Basis of Union declares that our faith is to be informed by tradition, and makes clear and direct reference to the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, as well as later reformation statements. In paragraph 9, it describes these creeds as authoritative statements of the Catholic Faith, framed in the language of their day, and it explicitly commits its ministers and instructors to careful study of these creeds and to the discipline of interpreting their teaching in a later age.

However, this process of interpretation is further elaborated in paragraph 11, which refers directly to the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries and to contemporary thought. Indeed, it is this paragraph which ends with the prayer that the UCA may be ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds. So we are to be guided by the creeds and understandings of the past, although in no ways limited or constrained by those understandings. And the discoveries and insights of the present are just as important, and need to be equally valued, as we seek to be faithful in our daily lives.

So the Basis of Union insists that our faith is to be open to innovation and new insights – informed by the discoveries of science, developments in philosophy and literature, and through contact with people of other cultures and faiths. This leads us to foster an open, enquiring, critical, engagement with faith. From the start of the Uniting Church, we have affirmed the importance of strong and constructive relationships with people of Christian faith who belong to other denominations. The church as a whole belongs to ecumenical bodies and always seeks to work with other denominations where possible.

In recent years, we have come to realise how important it is to do this with people of faith who do not have the same central commitment to Jesus Christ. There are many ‘people of faith’ in our society, and it is both important for us and important for them, that we engage in discussion and exploration about issues of faith. So interfaith dialogue is at the heart of who we are as a Uniting Church. In such dialogue, we can find our own faith deepened as we share on faith issues with people of other faiths. And they often report the same experience, for them, in relation to their own faith. This is a very significant way in which we are opening ourselves to new insights and fresh expressions of faith.

So, where do the ‘fundamentals’ of our faith fit in all of this? What do we believe about God, Jesus, the Spirit, and the Church? When we go back to paragraph 3 of the Basis of Union, we find this statement: God made in Jesus a representative beginning of a new order of righteousness and love. This understands Jesus to be, not the one who scrutinises us and judges as to what is right and what is wrong in our lives, in order to punish us; but the one who offers hope and inspires us in our life. The hope that Jesus portrays for us, is that a new order will come about, in God’s time, in God’s way. That’s what we believe will come to be, in the future, as God’s will is implemented in our lives.

Paragraph 3 of the Basis of Union also has a similar way of talking about the Holy Spirit. It describes the Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of [the] coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Spirit isn’t a understood in a narrow sense, as gift for particular individuals or parties, chosen and set aside from the larger group, to be special. Instead, the Spirit has a role in relation to all of society – in fact, all of creation! And the orientation to the future is clear: the Spirit is not described in terms of deeds past – the day of Pentecost, for instance, or the 19th century holiness movement – but in terms of the future: that time of reconciliation and renewal which characterises the goal of our living. The Spirit is the resource which enables us to live with this future orientation, looking forward to renewal and reconciliation. That’s the vision for society that we have!

Another element in this paragraph also reaches into the unknown of the future, and offers a further statement of hope and anticipation. Along with Jesus, and the Spirit, we find that the Church is described, not solely in terms of the past, but resolutely in terms of the future. The Basis of Union places Jesus in relation to the Church in this way: The Church lives between the time of Christ's death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring; and a little later, the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal. That’s an important feature of how we see ourselves as a church: not as the ultimate, the be-all and end-all, the best of what God is doing. No, rather as a step along the way, towards what God promises. So that puts all our church planning and politics and pettiness into perspective! The Church exists and functions for the sake of the whole of creation. That’s why sustainable living, fair trade, justice for refugees, and compassion for those oppressed or ill or distressed, are integral to our lifestyle as Christians within our contemporary society.

There is one final part of this reflection on what marks the Uniting Church as distinctive in today’s Australian society. The Basis of Union starts with a brief history of “the way into union” in its first paragraph. Here, the very first thing that is said of the denominations that came together to form the Uniting Church, was that they were seeking to bear witness to that unity, which is both Christ’s gift and his will for the Church. We have already noted the importance of unity. Alongside that, the description of the Church as bearing witness to the way that God wants us to be, needs some attention. The Uniting Church has taken very seriously the call to bear witness to the Gospel, in situations of oppression, despair, fear, as well as in the ordinary things of daily life. And it is the task of bearing witness that is the particular challenge for living faithfully in our immediate context.

One of the striking things about the Wauchope Uniting Church is that this community of faithful people has developed a series of connections with the wider community, which places the church in a quite distinctive position within the local community. There are a number of places in the town where the classic formulations of evangelical Christianity are declared. They certainly have their place in our society. But from our participation in the Wauchope Ministers Association thus far, it has become clear to us that this Uniting Church congregation offers something different, and something perhaps more attuned to “where people are at” in their daily lives. Through programmes such as the Friday Lunches, the Community Markets, the weekly KUCA club, and the regular worship and fellowship events for Bundaleer residents, we have strong points of connection with people beyond the group of people who gather each week for worship.

So the challenge to all of us is: How do we bear witness to what God wants for all humanity, within these relationships and connections? How do we build a society that values faith, that lives ethically, that ensures compassionate justice for all its members? For this is surely how God wants us all to be. That is something that the Uniting Church is committed to grapple with, day after day. And that is something that we seek to keep as a focus in the ministry of God’s people in Wauchope and the surrounding areas.

So happy birthday, Uniting Church! It is good that you are here and contributing to the common life of our society in these ways.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

And God saw that it was good

Up here on the mid north coast, we have been inundated with rain, rain and more rain. Today is the first really fine day for quite some time. Though the water is receding, a number of areas are still flooded in, such as parts of Kempsey (which resembles an inland sea) and Crescent Head, where we were due to preach tomorrow.

And though the water is coming down, many folk are facing a number of issues. There is stock out there, trapped on small islands, that need feeding. There is a rather large big clean-up that will need to be done in both town areas and farmland. Structures such as bridges will need to be checked, and some road surfaces have been left looking like a thousand dead men lie beneath the surface.

Even here in Wauchope, the main road out to Port and the highway was cut. Beechwood people had to take a long and circuitous route to leave the village. It was water, water, everywhere. Power was cut at times, in some places like Woolgoolga; a mini tornado ripped off roofs and created a trail of destruction.

All of this water about, plus the enforced stay at home, made me think quite a bit about the flood story in Genesis. We all know it – the human race was so abominably wicked that the whole earth needed purging to cleanse it. I have always felt that this story was rather harsh. After all, the flora and fauna that abounded on the planet and that presumably was as innocent as the day it was created was also wiped out. Never mind that in the story, two animals are saved from each species. It you weren’t one of the lucky critters, you perished. And I never quite believed as a child that everyone was wicked. What about the children? Surely they couldn’t all be wicked.

Thinking of this catastrophe, watching the wild weather outside, made me think of the current catastrophe that our planet is facing – climate change. This time, God cannot be held responsible, as he was in the flood story. No, this story is a human one, brought about by the wealthy and industrialised nations. And like in the flood story, the innocent are probably going to suffer along with the guilty, and suffer first.

The island of Tuvalu, for example, is highly unlikely to have contributed very much at all to the greenhouse gas that is accumulating in our atmosphere and causing climate change. Yet it will be one of the first places to go under a rising sea. Likewise Bangladesh. The devastating floods in Queensland, the foul and rainy weather here, the tornado up at Red Rock, are all part of the changing weather patterns caused by the warming of the planet. And if we look around the world, such extreme weather events are becoming more catastrophic.

I have spent quite a bit of time with my nose in various climate science books. While I find them difficult to understand in parts, it seems to me that the scientific community has no doubt that the earth is languishing under the burden of climate change which is caused by human emissions.

It is also clear that Europe, the United Kingdom, the Scandinavian countries and various others around the world have invested money in clean technology, a carbon emissions cap and trading scheme, and some, like the UK who have lots of coastline, are fortifying it against inevitable rises in rivers and sea level. Even China and India are nutting out plans, such as emissions trading.

And what are we doing here in Australia at government level in the face of the potentially catastrophic future? We are arguing. We are calling names. We are bickering and some of us are spreading nonsense. We are making excuses – we don’t emit that much CO2. Oh no. It is those nasty newly industrialised countries like India and China.

In fact, we have one of the highest emission percentages per capita in the world, at around 26.2 tonnes per person – higher even than the USA who emit 24 tonnes per person. Our emissions have increased 25.9% since 1990. Our target for our emissions in 2012 is +8% since Kyoto. Yes, you read it right. Plus 8%. We are contributing, both through our emissions and through some peoples’ studied policy in ignorance.

If you compare our emissions with the UK you will find they emit 11 tonnes per person. Their Kyoto target for 2012 is -12.5%. In Germany it is 12.3 tonnes per person, with a decrease of -17.5% since 1990. Their Kyoto target for 2012 is -21%.

All I can say in the words of a once famous radio talkback jock is shame, Australia, shame. What are we thinking?

On the website “The Conversation” this week a letter appeared called “Climate Change is real – an open letter from the scientific community” ( you can read it at ) It is signed by many in the scientific community who study climate science.

The letter states that “The overwhelming scientific evidence tells us that human greenhouse gas emissions are resulting in climate changes that cannot be explained by natural causes.”

The scientists also believe that humanity is “facing a problem that is unparalleled in its scale and complexity.”

Isn’t it therefore time we all took this seriously and did something about it?

If the majority opinion of our scientific community is that we need to do something, then I do not understand why we are allowing irrational fear to be generated by radio shock-jocks and ill-informed and economically compromised people who have vested interests in the status quo continuing. We have even seen death threats against the scientists who are researching climate change.

The Australian media have fuelled much of such populist rage by insisting that equal time be given to those who are climate sceptics. Why? We don’t give equal time to those in the tobacco industry who still claim it is safe to smoke, or to those who belong to the Flat Earth Society.

Further, the alleged “carbon tax”, which our erstwhile Opposition Leader is predicting will ruin us all, isn’t even a tax. It is widely misunderstood by the Australian public who think they will be paying hundreds of dollars extra a year as a result of this ‘tax’. Carbon pricing and trading is an economic system that allows bigger polluters to trade carbon credits with lesser polluters. It gives incentive to big polluters to clean up their act. It generates income for people like farmers and landowners, who sequester carbon in their fields and trees. A carbon emissions and trading scheme has been running in Europe and the UK for years, and prices have not gone up, jobs have not been lost and no one is paying extra tax as a result. Money raised by the scheme can be used to compensate any low income earners who may be disadvantaged, and be ploughed back into green technology.

Because the media likes a good stoush and some controversy, and because the Opposition Leader can only see a future no further ahead than him as Prime Minister, we are being exposed to a false and spurious debate that refuses to truly examine the real facts about climate change – and the real consequences of ignoring them.

And even if people don’t want to accept climate change is real, just what is wrong with reducing pollution and using cleaner – and ultimately cheaper – technology to fuel our power needs? We aren’t going to lose a thing by going down this path, and gee, if I am wrong about climate change, then the only thing we have lost is a polluted atmosphere.

The Uniting Church has an official statement on climate change, which among other things says that Uniting church members should be encouraged a) to “advocate for government to implement policies that significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and increase our use of non-nuclear renewable energy sources”and b) to “engage in dialogues, shared learning and action with non-government environment action groups.”

The statement also encourages us to “seriously and regularly include matters of environment and lifestyle change in prayer and worship, study, and communal decision making”

The natural environment is part of the creation that God described as ‘good’. The Uniting Church’s concern for the poor and vulnerable means we need to do something about those who will suffer most from our wilful ignoring of this immense problem.

As a result of the above statement entitled “For the Sake of the Planet and all its People”, we have joined our church to a climate alliance here in Port Macquarie, which includes the ACF, various unions up here, representatives of NCOSS, as well as various people in the eco and solar business. We plan to give out accurate information, lobby politicians, and release statements and conduct surveys. John and I also plan to begin a bible study which looks at ethical living, good stewardship of God’s good creation, which will lead to further examination of what it means to be the church and on mission in our local community. The church council are terrified, but they have agreed to give it a go.

Climate change is a social justice issue. Climate change is an environmental issue. Climate change is a community issue and yes, a Christian issue. If we don’t want to see God’s good creation again catastrophised by weather calamities which could well have consequences as vast as Noah’s flood, then it is time we stood up and counted ourselves among the active and the concerned in our communities. Before it is too late.