Thursday, September 29, 2011

Buying Beauty

Many, if not most, woman long to be beautiful. That may seem like a very politically incorrect statement. After all, we're strong, independent women. We don't need to be beautiful. But just because we don't need to be beautiful doesn't mean we don't long to be beautiful.

I know I do. I'm definitely not the kind of woman that spends a lot of time on my looks. And I'm much rather be thought intelligent than beautiful. And yet I long to be beautiful.

I think partly that has to do with the fact that so many of the magazines, adverts and television programs tell women we should be beautiful. And yet it's those same magazines, adverts and television programs that stop so many women from feeling like they are beautiful.

For they all combine to make women feel completely inadequate about the way they look. It is this feeling of inadequacy that makes them go out and buy products that will help them feel better about their appearance. Or at least, they might feel better until the next ad comes along telling them to do something about their grey hair, cellulite, pimples, wrinkles, stained teeth, rough hands, et cetera. Because the ads don't actually want anyone to feel beautiful. When a woman already feels beautiful she doesn't need to buy anything to make her feel that way.

Now I don't think there is anything wrong in women buying certain things to improve their appearance. Women have been trying using various substances and items for thousands of years in order to try and look more beautiful. I don't think they are going to stop now. A new dress, a bit of make-up, a wrinkle cream, a new pair of shoes - none of these are necessarily bad.

Where I do see a problem though is the expectation that women will be addressing all the many issues they see on the advertisements. So if a woman has grey hair, it's seen as something wrong with her. Here's news. We're meant to have grey hair when we get older. And again, if people want to try and cover up their grey hair, that's fine. But there shouldn't be the expectation that all women will try and 'remove the grey' - or get rid of wrinkles or buy this season's fashions or wear heaps of make-up.

I've heard more than one Christian say women should wear make-up for their husbands. And it annoys me each time I hear it. Women should feel beautiful the way God made them. And that's the message they read in Christian books. And yet the other message they're hearing (particularly in books or shows on marriage) is that the way God made them is not good enough for their husbands. Why else would they need to wear make-up? If God's pleased with how he made a woman, then their husbands should be too.

And this idea that women must be doing and buying all these various products just to be beautiful 'enough' leads to other problems. Firstly, it's a drain on the environment. If all women stopped buying beauty or fashion products for a year, what difference would that make to this planet? Think about the resources we pull from the earth to make those products, the transport that's needed, the carbon emissions released into the atmosphere, not to mention the various chemicals that we are dumping on the earth and placing on our bodies.

Today's beauty expectations are not good for the earth. In trying to create a beauty that is 'better' than what God has made, are we destroying the very beautiful earth that he has made?

Another problem I see with current beauty ideas is that it leaves women who are struggling financially like they will have enough money to be beautiful. If the adverts tell you that you need this product and that product and the latest fashions just to be acceptable in the looks department, how do you feel when you don't have the money to spend on this product and that product and the latest fashions? You feel like beauty, like no many other things, is something that is completely beyond your grasp.

And I don't think it's just a matter of women feeling like they can't be beautiful. I think society's expectation is that a woman will spend a lot of money on their looks. Beauty is expensive. Many women spend a great deal of money on their looks. And, in a lot of cases, the money spent does help them look fantastic. But where does it leave those people who can't spend the same money? Looking and feeling like everyone around them is much closer to the 'magazine beauty ideal' than they are.

And speaking of the 'magazine beauty ideal', have you ever noticed how so many of them are white? Yes, you do get the odd woman who's Asian or coloured. But mostly, it's white, white, white, white, white. I am white, so I have no idea how it feels to have the ideal beautiful woman always presented in skin of a different colour. But I imagine that for some women, particularly young women, it would feed into the idea that they can never reach that standard of beauty.

I remember very clearly my Asian friend in high school telling me one day that all the white girls were pretty. I was shocked, mostly because I didn't think all the white girls were pretty at all. And of course, white girls aren't any prettier than Asian girls. But I guess, for her, being confronted with these images of beautiful white woman all the time, she had linked pretty to white in her mind.

I think it's fine that women want to be beautiful - and even that they do things to improve their looks. But I really wish we could get rid of this false, artificial, magazine-created idea of beauty. I wish we could stop telling women that they need to get rid of their grey hair or their wrinkles or their daggy clothes before they can even think of being beautiful. When we continually tell women that certain products and items will make them beautiful, we are just reinforcing the message that they're not okay the way they are. And we're holding out an ideal that some women can't even hope to attain.

And I really wish that we could learn to appreciate true beauty in women, beauty the way God made it, beauty that doesn't need to be fixed up, covered up or dressed up to be acceptable. And I also wish that women could learn to see that beauty in themselves.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Special attachments to nature

Today I read an article that told me that the koala is highly vulnerable to climate change. This is according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Today and places it in a list of only 10 species in the world.

Koalas, people and climate change: not a good mix by Christine Adams-Hosking

I visit a lot of environmental sites and read a lot of environmental newsletters. So I'm used to hearing bad news. But this article hit me in a way few other articles have.

My son loves koalas. He has about 10 stuffed toy koalas, along with a variety of other koala-related items. We pray for koalas quite often in our bed-time prayers. When he hears about koalas that are hurt or injured, he gets upset. He even once wrote a letter to Peter Garrett asking him to protect koalas. If you've ever wondered why there's a koala on this page, it's not just because it's an Australian animal. It's because my son loves koalas. In fact, he chose the picture.

I've always liked koalas. They're cute. They look cuddly. They're Australian. What's not to love? But I care about them a lot more now than I used to. My love for my son means I care about what he cares about. I consider koalas valuable because my son places value on them. He calls koalas good and I agree.

Just as I love my son, I also love God. And just as I value those things that are my son cares about, I should also value those things that God cares about. God wasn't just looking at koalas when he saw that they were good. He was looking at the whole of Creation. My care for nature must not stop with the koalas that my son calls good, but must extend to every part of the Creation that God calls good.

In saying that, though, we are finite creatures and cannot care for the whole of Creation in the way that God does. I'm afraid I'm never going to be able to look at a rat the same way I look at a koala. And my dog has far more worth in my eyes than any fleas or ticks that might attack him.

Therefore, I think having a special attachment to a something in nature (whether that be an animal, a plant, a pet or a place) is a good thing. We can never come close to the love God has for all Creation. But in developing a special attachment to one part of nature, we may feel a tiny part of what God feels for all of nature. We may care about all nature, we may even love many parts of nature. But that special attachment to one part of nature takes that care and love to a new level - a level that cannot be sustained on a worldwide level. The picture on the TV screen of one individual hurting animal often impacts us in a way that statistics about the entire species cannot. When we have a special attachment for that specific animal, we are impacted even more.

I suspect that there are a few Australians who may not care at all about the polar bears, but who will care about the koalas. It's part of human nature to care most about those things that are closest to us. While we must not limit our care for nature to only those things that are close to us, I don't think caring more for specific parts of nature is necessarily a bad thing. It is through caring deeply about something specific that we often learn to extend that care out towards all of nature.

None of us loves every person in the world the same way God does. While we try to love all human beings and believe that all human beings have value, we naturally care more about the people that are closest to us. I love my sons, my family and my friends more than I love the person I pass on the street and just say hello to. And I care for that person more than I care for someone living in France who I've never met. And yet loving these people that I do know helps me to feel love and empathy for those that I don't know.

If someone told me that they loved all human beings, but had no one human being that they particularly loved, I would wonder how well they really loved human beings. And yet often I think we talk about care of nature in very general terms, without delving deeper into the specific relationships people have with parts of nature. And I would say that our highly mobile society means we are less likely to form those attachments to nature in terms of place. It is when we become familiar with a particular place, that we often develop an attachment for the birds, the animals and the plants that belong to that place.

Yes, God calls all of Creation good. And yes, God cares for it all. And as we seek to follow God, we must recognise the intrinsic value of all of nature, as opposed to only seeing the value of things that provide benefits to humans. However, I don't believe this means we need to try and care for each part of nature exactly the same way. Nor does it mean that we should avoid cultivating a special attachment to certain parts of nature. It is through those attachments, that our love for nature may most closely mirror God's own.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Healing the Division on Climate Change

The recent Four Corners episode about the carbon tax showed just how divisive this issue has become in Australia. They interviewed people who both supported and were against the carbon price. What they didn't show were many people in the middle. Partly, this is because you don't make a good documentary by interviewing lots of people who don't care either way. But I suspect that most people who have an opinion on the carbon price are firmly on one side or the other of the debate. It seems to have become one of those polarising issues that everyone needs to answer yes or no to. 

Now who's to blame for this polarisation probably depends on which side you're coming from. Those who support a carbon price tend to blame Tony Abbott and possibly the media. Those who are against probably blame Julia Gillard for bringing in a carbon tax that people don't want. But whoever's to blame, the fact is that polarisation is there. And polarisation is never good.

People often try to prove their point by telling the other side how wrong they are. However, rarely does this actually convince anyone. Instead, it often leads to antagonism and people getting more firmly entrenched in their views. The divide between the two sides grows larger and the accusations and criticisms grow louder.

Because this is an issue that people care deeply about, the focus is probably more on resolving the issue the way we want it resolved, rather than healing that divide. If we think about the divisiveness at all, it's probably hoped that resolving it our way will fix the problem. Those who are against the carbon tax are hoping that if an election is forced, the carbon tax will go away, never to rear it's head again. Those who support the carbon price are hoping that, once it goes through, everyone will realise what a fantastic idea it is and will learn to accept it.

I honestly don't see any of those things happening. The carbon price is not going to go away - and nor is the antagonism towards it. We are so firmly entrenched in our views now that, whatever happens, we're going to keep pushing for the outcome we want. I myself do firmly support a carbon price. If there was an election and Tony Abbott got rid of the carbon price, I'd keep pushing for there to be one. But I know that there are those on the other side who would keep fighting against one too.

I care deeply about doing something about climate change. I believe the God of compassion demands it. We need do something about climate change, because, if we don't, then this world, the people in it, particularly those who are poor, will suffer. However, I know that other Christians who also believe in a God of compassion believe the carbon tax will hurt Australians and families. We both claim to follow a God of compassion and to base our decisions on that. What we need to do is realise that we (whoever our side might be) is not the only side with compassion. And secondly, we need to extend our compassion not just to those who will suffer either because of climate change or because of a carbon price, but to those people who have a different opinion to us. 

Our God is not just a God of compassion, but reconciliation. Anyone who claims to follow Christ must not only care about "winning the debate" but healing the relationships that have been damaged because of it.

It's very easy to tell the other side that they're wrong. But what we must do is try to understand why the other side believe that they are right. And we must recognise that both sides believe they have valid reasons for either supporting or not supporting a carbon price. We need to stop arguing and start listening. We need to validate people's fears and concerns, instead of just brushing them aside as 'not based on facts'.  We need less antagonism and more understanding, less anger and more love.

A couple of months ago, I prayed about the carbon tax in a bible study. As someone who supports the carbon price, I was definitely in a minority. Most people there don't like it at all. But we can still pray together, not for a certain outcome, but for God's will to be done. And I think that's a start. When we pray with people who we disagree with, we are forced to come to God in humility, realising that His will may not be our will. We are forced to leave our own agenda aside, at least for a few minutes. We also stand together, before God, both imperfect, both sinful, yet both in need of God's grace, mercy and love.    

Saturday, September 17, 2011

How is that working for you? Creation and Human meet Dr Phil

I'm not a big Dr Phil fan. I think I watched five minutes of him on Oprah once. So forgive me if I get some of this wrong. But even though I don't watch much Dr Phil, I do know there's a saying he's very fond of. 'How is that working for you?' As he's the 'relationship guru', I'm fairly sure he uses it to discuss people's behaviours in terms of the relationships in their lives. So you yell at your kid every time he does the wrong thing. How is that working for you? You ignore your wife every time she cries. How is that working for you? Something like that, I suppose.

I don't like Dr Phil too much, but I like the line. It's a good way to show people that what they are doing just isn't working. And once you realise it's not working, you're open to the possibility of doing something new.  

Well, this isn't about relationships. But it's also a good line to use about the things we do to try and feel fulfilled, happy and important.

So you buy a new dress every time you want to feel special. How is that working for you? So you're working long hours to pay off a mortgage for a house you see only at night. How is that working for you? So you go shopping to take your mind off your depression. How is that working for you? So you're spending less time with your children, but buying them heaps of presents to compensate for it. How is that working for you? So you feel unattractive, but you're spending a fortune on wrinkle creams, make-up and exercise machines. How is that working for you?

The truth is it's not working for us. We've been told that buying products will make us happier and solve our problems. But it just doesn't work. No matter what we buy or what we own, we're still left wanting more. Trying to find fulfilment in consumer products is like searching for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. No matter how far you travel, you still have further to go.

That's because there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow - or the end of a clearance sale queue.

I believe there is a yearning deep in the heart of all of us. And I believe that that yearning is often used to sell more products. Advertisements play on our fears, our insecurities, our sense of powerless and meaningless - and that yearning for something. Often we don't know what that something is. So we see an advertisement and we think, maybe, if I just bought that one thing, that yearning would disappear. But it never does. Because that yearning was never meant to be satisfied through stuff.

In my opinion, that yearning is for God. And I also believe that that yearning never completely disappears. No matter what we have, no matter what we do, we live with the yearning. Like Creation, we are groaning as we wait for our redemption. Only we have twisted our eager expectation for God into an eager expectation for the next new product on the market. We are trying to stop our groaning by buying so many things that we hurt the Creation that is groaning with us.

            Humans and Creation are in a relationship, whether we like it or not. It's a pity Human and Creation can't go and see the relationship guru, Dr Phil, together. They would tell Dr Phil all their problems, about how they're both groaning, waiting in eager anticipation for liberation and redemption.
            Creation would then complain about Human, saying, 'I'm groaning too, but I also have to suffer because he takes his groaning out on me.'
            Dr Phil would turn to Human and say, 'Is this true?'
            Human would say, 'Well I need to do something to try and stop this feeling inside me. The only way I know how to cope with this is to buy lots of stuff.'
            And then Dr Phil says, 'And how is that working for you?'
            And if Human answers honestly, he would be forced to say, 'Not very well at all.'

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Good News

When the Gospel was first proclaimed, it was Good News. But I think that Good News message tends to get lost over time. Part of that is because of the familiarity with it. For example, knowing our salvation is dependent on God's grace is commonplace now. It doesn't strike us in the same way as it would for those who first heard it. Furthermore, those who aren't Christians have some familiarity with the basic Christian doctrines. If they think about whether they'll get into Heaven at all, they presume they will because they're basically a good person. And that's if they want to get into Heaven at all. The depiction of heaven as angels playing harps, fluffy clouds, white outfits and Philadelphia Cheese (actually, I'm hoping there is Philadelphia Cheese in Heaven!) doesn't really appeal to people (even with the Philadelphia Cheese).

The idea that, if you become a Christian, you get to go to Heaven (which they equate with that Heaven portrayed in popular culture) doesn't sound like good news. Especially when you combine it with, and if you don't became a Christian, you go to Hell. Many people who aren't Christians don't believe in Hell. And those that do often think it's reserved for people like Hitler. Or alternatively they think it's a place where you drink alcohol, play lots of pool and listen to all the good music. When you add the fact that many Christians are more vocal on issues like abortion and homosexuality than anything else, is it any wonder that the Gospel is no longer seen as good news?

  18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
   because he has anointed me
   to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
   and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
   19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
            (Luke 4:18-19)

Now that is good news. It was good news in Jesus' time and it is good news for today. Christians should be focusing more on this good news that the bad news that often gets the most coverage in televangelist shows.

And it is particularly good news for today, concerning our ecological crisis. Jesus comes to proclaim good news to the poor. The poor today are the ones most likely to suffer from ecological damage. The poor today are the ones who are starving because they do not have enough food. The poor today are the ones whose livelihoods are in jeopardy because of either ecological damage or practices by multinational corporations. The poor countries today are the ones who pay the price of our high western consumerism. And even in the western world, the poor today are the ones who believe they have little value or worth because they have little money - and therefore little power and little ability to buy the things that, according to the story they've been hearing all their lives, will make them feel fulfilled.

When Jesus says he proclaims freedom for the prisoners, he's not just talking about people who are in jail. He's also talking about those who are imprisoned by ways of thinking and he is talking about those imprisoned in societal systems and structures. He's talking about the person who keeps getting into debt to afford the things consumer society has told them they "need". He's talking about the teenage girl who feels terrible about herself because she doesn't fit the image she sees of models in magazines. He's talking about the workaholic, who spends too much time at the office and not enough time at home, but can't see how he can change this because he needs his income to pay off the mortgage and provide for the family. We are all prisoners. We've been taken captive by a system that tells us that we need to buy things to feel worthwhile, and no matter how much we earn or buy, it will never be enough.

And who are the blind in our society? We all are. We all fail to see the shortcomings of the way we live. We see things in terms of dollars and fail to see their real value. We're wearing green-coloured glasses, looking at envy with those who have more money and more material possessions that we have. We see an advertisement on the TV for a product and think it's a need, when in reality it's not what we need at all.

And the oppressed? All of us in one form or another. But the way we have structured our society contributes to the oppression of others. What about those who work for very little wages in sweatshops so that we can buy clothes at a reasonable price? What about those who have no power because they have no money? What about those who are treated as less valuable because they belong to a low socio-economic group? What about the fact that a small percentage of our population has a huge proportion of the wealth?

The way our society is structured contributes to people being poor, imprisoned, blind and oppressed. And quite often Christians are the ones most in favour of the structures that do this. Where's the good news? Good news is not just about getting to Heaven when we die. It's about what happens here and now. We are a world that desperately needs the good news of Jesus. But it's not going to be found in telling people how to get to Heaven or the evils of homosexuality or abortion. It's going to be found in Christians standing up and saying, we don't want you to be poor, blind, imprisoned or oppressed any longer.

Environmentalism has been compared by people to religion. If it is religion, it's often the fundamentalist, legalistic type. It's the type that tells people they must do certain things and, if they don't, they'll be living in a type of hell. The ecological crisis is not a good news message. But if we only speak of it as a bad news message, environmentalists will soon be treated the same way many Christian evangelists are. People often don't listen to messages they don't want to hear.

But the environmentalist message can also be a good news message. We don't need to base our worth on how much we earn or what we buy. We can focus on those things which truly add value to our lives, rather than those things the magazines tell us will make us fulfilled. We don't need to try and look like people on our TV screens. We can earn less money, spend more time with the family and actually end up happier.

If buying things really made us happy, we in the western world must be the happiest people that have ever lived. I'm sure it's no surprise to anyone to discover that we're not. And I think, deep down, most people realise that there is something wrong with the way we're living. They're doing all the things that are meant to make them happy and fulfilled, but they're left feeling empty, stressed and miserable.

The ecological crisis may not be a good news message. But living in an environmentally sustainable way can be good news for many people, especially if we all took that message onboard. It can be good news for those who have been made poor by western consumerism or who feel poor because they don't have as much money or material possessions as their neighbour. It can be good news who feel imprisoned in a system that makes them work long hours just to pay off debt and continue their lifestyles. It can be good news for those who are oppressed or powerless because they don't have the money to change anything. It can be good news for those who see everything in terms of its monetary value and fail to appreciate the true worth of what they already have.

Jesus came to proclaim good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind and to set the oppressed free. As Christians, we must be asking ourselves where the poor, the imprisoned, the blind and the oppressed are today. And we must be asking ourselves how we can bring good news to those people.