Friday, October 28, 2011

Halloween as a Christian who cares about the environment - or why I'm still trick or treating despite the good reasons not to

As a Christian who cares about the environment, I have very good reasons for not participating in any Halloween activities.

From a Christian perspective, Halloween is not exactly a godly festival. Many people have suggested that Christians should have nothing to do with it. While I don't think we need to be legalistic about these things, I can understand the warnings. Furthermore, I find it quite sad that the religious day of All Saints Day (or All Hallows) has been reduced to an emphasis on Halloween (Hallow E'en or the day before All Hallows Day). So many of our religious days have been commercialised, losing the original religious purpose of them.

Halloween also isn't good from an environmentalist perspective. Even if we ignore the problem of so much non fair trade chocolate being given out, the high packaging of much Halloween goodies is terrible. Yet while the environmentalist in me shudders at bags of goodies that seem to have more plastic than sweets, the mother in me realises the practicality of having individual packaged goods, especially when children might be receiving sweets from people they don't know. And then there's all the various Halloween paraphernalia, most of it made from cheap plastic that is designed to be used just once and then thrown away. Halloween is not an environmentally-friendly time.

However, despite these very good reasons for not having anything to do with Halloween, my boys will be trick or treating and I will be handing out sweets to the kids that knock on my door. And the reason basically boils down to connecting with the neighbours. And there's very good reasons, from both a Christian perspective and an environmentalist perspective, for investing in neighbourly relationships.

From a Christian perspective, we are to love our neighbours. Now while I do believe Jesus expanded our concept of neighbour to be much broader than just the people living next door to us, it starts with the people who live around us. How am I to love my neighbours if I don't know them? How am I to show care and concern for them if I never speak to them?

From an environmentalist perspective, there's also good reasons for getting along well with the neighbours. When you know your neighbours, you have more opportunities for using less of the world's resources. You can borrow garden tools and other items, instead of going out and buying your own. You can share trips to the shops or carpool to work. You can ask for an egg, instead of driving down to the shops and buying a whole carton for the cake you have already started making.

In today's western society, we seem to be less and less connected to our neighbours. I am lucky that I do know my neighbours. (Living in the same place for 15 years and walking everywhere helps.) But still, I tend to see them when I run into them, rather than actually making the effort. And part of me wonders whether it will always be this way. Some of my neighbours have lived here for 50 years. Eventually, they will either move or die, maybe to be replaced with people who have no neighbourly sentiments at all.

Trick or treating provides my children with the opportunity (and the motivation) to talk to these neighbours while they still can. They can knock on their door, walk around the neighbourhood. For some of my neighbours, it's the only time when my children will actually speak to them. It also gives me the opportunity to show my generosity to the other kids in the neighbourhood who knock on my door.

And some of you may have already realised that I don't need Halloween to talk to the neighbours. I could take around Christmas goodies. I could go door-knocking for a charity. Or I could just make more of the effort to knock on their door and say 'Hi'.

But you know what? Halloween is fun. I love seeing all the children dressed up. I love looking at the street and seeing all the children talking together and comparing goodies. I love the fact that my boys are having fun without a Playstation. And I love seeing their excitement when they come back and tell me what they've received (and often the conversations they've had).

And sometimes we need to have fun. I think a view that people often hold about both Christians and environmentalists is that they're the people with a lot of rules. And rules are good. They help remind us of what's important. But sometimes I think we need to relax those rules. And sometimes those rules stop us doing things that are equally as important.

So my kids will go trick or treating and I'll hand lollies out - and I'll probably feel a little bit guilty, both as a Christian and an environmentalist. But I'll do it anway and I'll remind myself that neighbours are important too.

Happy Halloween (whether you agree with it or not).

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Praying for mountains even when we seem to lack the kind of faith that moves mountains

            One question I often ask myself, and I'm sure many Christians ask themselves the same thing (even if they don't admit it) is 'Is there any point to prayer?'
            I know many people who seem to have the kind of faith that can move mountains. They pray and they believe that God will answer their prayers. I can't pray like that. Maybe I just need more faith. However, it's hard to believe in prayers that move mountains when I've seen so many mountains unmoved.
            I have friends who are believing God for things and who constantly pray for those things with faith - and yet those things haven't eventuated. Recently, the whole church was praying for someone's healing. Sadly she died. And no matter how many times people tell me that she's gone to a better place, I still find myself asking 'Why?' 'Why didn't God answer our prayers?' And then 'Why bother praying at all?' While I do have friends who have strong faith that their prayers will be answered, I've also seen the opposite where people completely lose faith in God when he doesn't answer their prayers. To be honest, I've sometimes come close to that myself.
            I believe there is a point to prayer. There must be. Jesus told us to do it. So while I don't always believe in the efficacy of prayer, I never doubt its necessity. Therefore, I pray. Even when the situation seems hopeless, even when I don't understand exactly what prayer is meant to do, even when I think prayer is pointless - I still pray. And I believe that any situation in which we want God to work demands our prayer.

            One of the things we must be praying for at the moment is the environment. Not only are we in the midst of an ecological crisis, but we are continuing on with the practices and lifestyles that are destroying our planet. Furthermore, issues relating to the environment, such as climate change and, in Australia, the carbon tax are not just causing anxiety, but division and even hostility. As Christians we must also be aware (and therefore pray for) the plight of all the many people who are and who will be adversely affected by climate change and environmental destruction.
            So I strongly believe this is something we need to pray about. However, my doubts and questions about prayer in general often stop me praying with faith even as small as a mustard seed. While Jesus told us that faith can move mountains, the environment is so much more than one mountain - literally and figuratively. The situation seems hopeless. If prayers don't seem to change little things, how on earth are they meant to have any influence over this very big thing? And so yet again, I am faced with the question of 'Is there any point to praying at all?'
            One thing I do believe prayer does is change the people who are praying. Often our actions and our attitudes help prevent the thing we are praying for. And when it comes to the environment, we all have actions and attitudes that need changing. Praying gives God permission to work in our lives. It also empowers us to do what we can to achieve what we are praying for. Christians are God's hands, feets and voices in this world. If change is going to occur, then people need to be involved. We can't just pray that we avoid ecological crisis and that people are saved from the negative effects of climate change. We need to do all we can to ensure that happens. And I believe prayer empowers us to do that.
            And yet prayer has to do more than this. Because some problems are too big for the people who are praying to solve alone. If everyone praying for the environment was changed and empowered to take action, it still would not be enough. If any kind of real change is to happen in our treatment of the environment, prayers have to do more than simply change the people who are praying.  
            But I don't know what and I don't know how. Maybe I'm not meant to know. Jesus didn't tell us to figure out how prayer works. He just told us to pray. And when you start trying to 'figure out' prayer it becomes a method of getting what you want, rather than a relationship and a way of participating in the work God is already doing.
            While there's lots of things in this world that I can 'figure out', prayer isn't one of them. I can't pull it apart and see how it all connects together. There are hundreds of books I can read on prayer, but none of them will give the kind of account of prayer that you might find in a say a manual on a car. I send my prayers up to heaven, unsure if they're heard or whether they accomplish anything. Ultimately, prayer means doing something that I don't understand. It's about having enough faith to pray anyway.
            Furthermore, when we try to work out how to get our prayers answered, the focus is on getting God to do what we want. Then when God doesn't do what we want, we think our prayers haven't been answered. But maybe prayer should rather be about letting God into the situation. God is God. He knows the best thing to do, far more than we do. Maybe the best thing is to simply invite him in and let God take over. And when it comes to the environment, I don't really see we have any other choice. For I certainly can't work out what God should do. I can see lots of problems but very few solutions. If I'm praying for particular things to happen, I may well be limiting God. He has a much bigger picture of what can be done than I do.
            It's not our job to give God a detailed action plan of the steps we think he should take. And it's not our job to work out exactly what prayer does and how we can get our prayers answered. Our job is to simply pray.
            I don't know if I have the kind of faith that can move mountains. But I will keep praying for mountains - and trees and seas and animals and plants and all the many wonderful things that make up God's creation. And I have enough faith to believe that God will take my doubt-filled prayers and do something with them. Maybe that's the type of faith that's as small as a mustard seed. But God can do marvellous things with mountains when all you have is mustard-seed-sized faith.

If you are interested in praying for the environment, you might want to take a look at Hope for Creation. On 6 November, Christians all around the world will be praying for climate change. For more information about Hope for Creation in Australia, go to

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Keeping the Sabbath: allowing ourselves and the earth to just 'be'

Once upon a time, in a land far different to where we live today, people didn't go shopping on Sundays. None of the shops were open. They didn't go on the internet. The internet didn't exist. Instead they ate dinner or lunch around something called a dining room table and participated in the strange custom of enjoying each other's company. And this didn't involve Facebook or Twitter or text messages or Skype. Instead, they enjoyed each other's company face-to-face.

While we may laugh at these strange customs of people long ago and far different to ourselves, they actually had a reason for this Sunday behaviour. They found that reason in the bible, more specifically in the Ten Commandments. They actually took the fourth commandment, to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, seriously.

Of course we realise now how silly that was. Because who wants to obey one of God's commandments when you can shop?

But would our lives really be any worse if we got back to the fourth commandment? I suggest they would be much better. The Ten Commandments aren't there just because God felt like making a few rules up. They are for our own good. And that includes the fourth commandment, arguably the most neglected commandment of the lot.

Our lives are filled with so much 'doing'. The Sabbath gives us permission to simply 'be', to enjoy each moment as it comes instead of racing off to check the next item off the to-do list. You are more present for the people around you, rather than seeing them as a distraction or an obstacle. You are also more present to what's around you. You are free to enjoy the trees and the birds and the sun and the flowers when they're more than just scenery on the way to your next appointment. These moments of just 'being' are important for our souls.

Keeping a Sabbath day also gives us time to reconnect with the family and those that are important to us. Today more than ever, many of us spend most of our time away from other members of the household. We work in different places. We fill up our leisure time with various activities. A family needs more than just blood ties and a common roof. It needs time of connection and communication. It needs time to just 'be' in each other's presence.

Furthermore, ignoring the Sabbath is bad for the earth. One more day where we can shop is one more day where we're likely to buy things that we don't need. Is there anything that important that it can't wait until Monday before we purchase it? Is the world really going to fall apart if there's one day when we can't shop? I would love to see all shops close again on Sundays. It seems ridiculous, when we know the ecological damage our lifestyles cause, to stick to this idea of having the shops open as long and as often as possible. If we went back to no Sunday trading, not only would it enable a lot of people to spend time at home with their family instead of at work, but it would cut down 'boredom-spending'. I'm sure that most of the things that are bought on Sundays are only purchased because people want something to 'do'. They've lost the ability to simply 'be'.

It's interesting that the fourth commandment tells us not only to rest ourselves on the Sabbath, but that all of our family, all of our workers, the stranger within our gates and even the cattle are to rest. The commandment is not just for us. It's for everyone - including the animals. I would suggest that the Sabbath is also for the earth.

The earth needs a chance to just 'be' as well. And when we let the earth just 'be' and let ourselves just 'be' in the earth, we gain something that can never be gained by 'doing' things and by 'using' the earth.

The bible is full of verses that tell us that the earth shows us something of God. Just one instance of this is Romans 1:20, where Paul tells us that men have no excuse for not knowing God, for he can be seen in the things he has made. And yet I think we miss out on a lot of that. Creation may be telling us about God. But we're not hearing it because we're too busy to pay attention. Just 'being' in nature gives us the space and the opportunity to really listen to what it has to say.

We make such huge demands on the earth's resources all the time. Imagine if we used the Sabbath to actually give the earth a break. Switch off the mobile phone and the computer. Use as least electricity as possible. Don't drive and don't shop. If everybody did this for just one day a week, it would reduce our impact on the earth.

And it would actually improve our lives in the process. Without technology and the malls demanding our attention, we would be free to give our attention to what really matters - our God, our family, our earth and our souls.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Consumerism doesn't just harm the environment

The damage that western lifestyles are doing to the environment is only part of the problem. If some technological fix does appear, meaning that western consumerism can carry on as usual, then those other problems will still be there. While we are at a crisis point at the moment, it is often in time of crises that new solutions and ways of living can be found. Instead of just looking at one particular result of western consumerism and trying to fix that, we need to look at all the ways that our lifestyles are causing harm. They all need to be addressed together. Now is the time that we need to be searching for new ways of doing things, new ways of living and new values and belief systems that are beneficial rather than detrimental, to the world and ALL the people that live in it.

Most people realise that our western lifestyles are causing the environment harm. Many of us also realise that those lifestyles are having a negative effect on people in developing countries. There is also a realisation that the way wealth and resources are distributed is unjust and must be changed. Then there is the issue of many people being paid slave wages so that western consumers can buy their goods more cheaply. A technological environmental fix is not going to resolve these issues - and they need to be resolved.

Another issue is the way people in western countries are negatively affected by consumerism. To be constantly bombarded by messages telling us we need to buy something or that we have certain problems that need to be fixed or that our lives will somehow be meaningless if we don't have a certain item - none of this is good for us. I believe it harms our self-esteem, our sense of self-worth. We try to find meaning and fulfilment and in products - and then wonder why we are left feeling like our lives are still meaningless and unfulfilled. It makes us think our worth is somehow based in what we earn or what we own. A technological environmental fix isn't going to fix any of these problems either - and again, they need to be resolved.

A third way that consumerism harms people is by making some people in western countries feel excluded. In Hard Work, Polly Toynbee gives an account of her attempt to live as the working poor in the UK. One of the saddest passages in the book comes near the end, when she is reflecting on her experiences:

'Wherever I walked, everything I passed was out of bounds, things belonging to other people but not to me. No Starbucks sofas beckoned anymore, no Borders bookshop, no restaurants, not even the most humble café. This is what 'exclusion' means, if you ever wondered at this modern wider definition of poverty. It is a large No Entry sign on every ordinary pleasure. No entry to the consumer society where the rest of us live. It is a harsh apartheid. Exclusion makes the urban landscape a forbidding place where every bright lit shop doorway designed to welcome you in to buy, buy, buy is slammed shut to one-third of the population. Shopping for the meanest food staples under rigorous cost-control is no fun, and it becomes less so every time.' (1)

Toynbee is not criticising consumerism as such. She freely admits that she likes to shop. Her main point is that living wages needs to be increased. But this passage, to me, is a sad reflection on how consumerism excludes people. While people in the western world may like to go shopping and buy lots of consumer goods, it will always create people who can't afford those goods. And while I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing to be excluded from Starbucks or other stores, in a world where are told constantly that shopping brings fulfilment and improves their lives, it does leave people with a sense that they are somehow missing out on something important. Furthermore, it is consumerism that often ensures that many people are working for low wages. If we demand certain clothes, food or services at reasonably low prices, what happens to the wages of the people who help to provide those clothes, food or services - especially when the people employing them are trying to make as much profit as possible?

A technological environmental fix is not going to change anything for the working poor. In fact, in some cases it may end up leaving them worse off than before. For instance, solar panels reduce people's use of electricity. But the working poor cannot afford solar panels. If we use technology to reduce our use of electricity, is this technology going to be denied to people who can't afford it? Or will they have to purchase it anyway, leaving them even less money for the goods (and luxuries) that are considered such a normal part of daily life in a western country?

While I believe the damage we are doing to the environment is extremely important, it cannot be considered in isolation. We need to look at all the ways our lifestyles and structures are causing harm. And they all need to be addressed.

However, I am, at heart, an optimist. And I do believe that this time gives us an opportunity to critically look at our lifestyles and make changes that improve things for everybody. If consumer lifestyles cause so much harm - to the environment, to developing countries, to the working poor and to everyone living in western countries - then changing those lifestyles or reassessing them can also bring benefits to everyone as well.  At this point of ecological crisis, we have the motivation to look for other alternatives - not just alternative energy supplies, but alternatives ways of living. It is now that we are most likely to change. And while change is often scary, it often brings rewards that we never imagined.  

1. Toynbee, P. Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

'Us' and 'them' - becoming the one 'we'

When people write a book, they write for an intended audience. That becomes the 'we'. When they speak about 'we do this' and 'we do that' or 'we can do this', it is their intended audience that supposedly does or can do those things. For books that discuss the environment, the 'we' is sometimes American, usually from a western country and usually relatively wealthy And to a certain extent, this understandable. If authors tried to include everyone who might possible read their books, they may end up being able to say nothing about all.

But the 'we' or 'us' also has a 'them'. The 'us' is rich people in the western world. The 'them' is people living in developing and third world countries. And that is a very real 'us' and 'them'. The way we (you see, it's impossible to avoid it) live in the western world is vastly different to the way 'they' live in developing countries. That needs to be discussed and the differences need to be highlighted.

However, there are also problems with having an 'us' and 'them' division. The first is that the 'us' they describe is not just westerners, but wealthy westerners. I know myself that I am very definitely part of the 'us' group. And yet the 'us' they talk about seems to have lifestyles very different from my own. And I think the 'us' and 'them' idea can lead to the idea that all people living in the western world are wealthy, have enough to eat, a variety of clothes to wear and live in spacious homes with thermostats.

And yet that's not the case at all. Many people living in western countries, even (gasp) America, are struggling financially. Read Nickel and Dimed, for an example of the difficult situation many Americans find themselves in. And the problem is not just limited to America. There are people struggling in Australia too.  When we talk about 'us' and 'them' we must not fall into the trap of believing that everyone included in that 'us' is doing fine and it's only the 'them' that have problems. The 'us' includes some people who find it hard to afford food, clothing and shelter. They must not be forgotten somewhere between the 'us' and the 'them'.

Another problem with the 'us' and 'them' is that it creates a divide. The problems faced by those living in developing countries can be seen as 'their' problem, not ours. Yes, we may change our lifestyle, donate money and do a variety of other things to help them. But there is often the sense that we are helping 'them', not helping 'us' as a human race. It is seen as 'generosity' not 'responsibility'.  We lose sight of the fact that we are all human beings together. That 'us' and 'them' make up the same 'we'.

And imagine if we broadened the 'us' out even further. Humans often tend to think of a division in the world we live in. There is the 'us' of human beings and then there is the 'they' of all non-human elements of this earth. But imagine if we got rid of the 'us' and 'them' and started thinking mainly in terms of 'we'. The tree outside my house belong to the same 'we' that I belong to, for we are all part of the earth community. It is not 'other' but 'us'.

We live in a very individualistic society. And again, who is the we I am speaking of here? Obviously human. Presumably westerners. And even then, western countries encompass a wide range of different cultural groups. Are they all individualistic? I suspect not.

Let's just say that I have a very individualistic worldview. Forget about the 'us', I tend mainly to think in terms of 'me'. It's very hard to lose sight of that 'me' and concentrate on any 'us'. To remove the focus from myself and place it on the greater whole sometimes makes me feel like my head is about to explode.

Sometimes, but not always. For instance, my family is an 'us'. When people ask me how my family is doing, I don't try to separate each person out. I may talk about problems or joys that the whole family has had together. Or I might speak about problems or joys that belong to one particular person in the family. But it is still an 'us'. When my son is going through something, in a way, the whole family is going through that same something. We all share in it together.  

Another time when I forget about the 'me' is when I am out in nature. Being out in nature often makes me forget about myself. The 'me' disappears. Instead, I become part of the 'we' of everything I see around me. I think one reason why spending time in nature is so relaxing is because it does change our focus from the 'me' to the 'us'. And losing sight of the 'me' is good for our souls.      

But if we are to embrace the 'us', then it must include everyone. That's not just the people you like or the people you have compassion for. It includes climate change deniers, wealthy capitalists and polluters.

One of my favourite parts of the bible is when Jesus tells Zacchaeus that he intends to visit his house. As a tax-collector, Zacchaeus was like the person who today pays his employees slave wages and dumps all his pollutants into the river. You can just imagine the disciples thinking, no, Jesus, you've got it wrong. He's not one of 'us', he's one of 'them'.

But Jesus doesn't let there be a 'them'. There is only 'us' with Jesus. Yes, we have our differences. It is not only the tree outside my house or the climate change sceptic that is different to me, it is only my son who has inherited many of my (good and not so good) characteristics. But we have been focused on those differences for so long that we have forgotten we are all part of the greater whole. We need to stop thinking about 'me' or even a narrowly defined 'us' and think of a 'us' that encompasses everyone.

It is this 'us' that needs to live together. It is the good of this greater 'us' that we should be aiming for. And it is this 'us' that Jesus came to save.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Feeding of the multitude: where everyone eats the same, regardless of status, wealth or location

For I was hungry and you gave me food. -- Matthew 25:35

They all ate and were satisfied -- Matthew 14:20

I've heard the miracle of Jesus feeding the multitude discounted by saying it was not a multiplication of food as such. Rather, as Jesus took out food and began to feed people, others felt guilty and took out their own food to share.

Now I do believe in miracles and I do believe there was an actual multiplication of food. But I also think that seeing the feeding of the crowds as a miracle kind of lets us off the hook.

The traditional way of reading this story sees Jesus as the person who gives us what we need. Our role is simply to sit there, hands out, waiting for him to feed us. While everyone is connected to Jesus and He cares about everyone's needs, we see little connection between the different people he is feeding. Jesus is the sole provider.

When Jesus is seen as the sole provider, it can encourage an attitude where we don't feel responsibility for our neighbour. If our role is simply to get fed and Jesus is ensuring that those next to us get fed, then it's not our responsibility to make sure they have enough food. If someone isn't being provided for, we may presume that they failed to ask Jesus for what they needed. That is if we even notice. With Jesus in charge, we don't even need to pretend to care.

The de-miracalised version of the feeding of the multitude tells a different story, though, one that doesn't let us off the hook so easily. If people felt guilty and began sharing their food, then surely we too should share our food with those around us. Jesus begins the feeding, but it is our job to continue it. And if we fail to do our bit, those around us go without. We can't just wait for Jesus to feed people. We need to do our part.

Whether we see the feeding of the multitude as a true multiplication of food or not, it is still a miracle - one that we very rarely see today. A world in which not only everybody gets to eat, but everyone eats their fill is truly miraculous.

Even in church, we rarely get this. We're coming up to Christmas season and it's time for the Christmas parties to start. But does anyone think about ensuring that everybody can afford to go? Does anybody wonder whether the price put on the Christmas parties means some people are left out? Or what about going somewhere after church for a meal? Do they realise that there are people who can't go because they can't afford it? Or that there are people who have to eat something cheap, while those around them eat food they could never afford? Jesus told us to invite people to dinner who could not pay us back. And yet I wonder how many people miss out on ever getting invited to dinner (or get invited only the once) because they can't afford to have people over their house for dinner in return.

Yes, churches sometimes do a good job of providing "poor" people with free food. They can turn up at church, say they need food, fill out a form, answer some embarrassing personal questions and get some bags of nearly out-of-date food to take away with them. But that's not the kind of feeding that Jesus does. Jesus feeds everyone. He doesn't ask if they need the food or whether they can afford to buy their own. He doesn't make them admit to their poverty. He just feeds them. Everyone is fed the same. Everyone gets their fill.

And when it comes to the world stage, it's even worse. Instead of Jesus feeding the crowds, we have a small percentage of the crowds eating more than their fill and throwing away huge amounts of food, while others in the crowd are dying of starvation. It's almost like baskets are handed to each end of long lines of people for them to eat and then pass on. But instead of eating and passing on, they're taking half for themselves and throwing the rest on the ground. Doesn't seem at all like the kind of picture we are given in the Gospels.

Perhaps the closest we get to everyone being fed the same, regardless of status or wealth or geographical location, is a wedding. You go to a wedding and you eat the same food as everyone else. Nobody needs to know that this is actually the best food you've eaten for five years. Nobody needs to be left out because they can't afford it. Everyone eats. Maybe that's why Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to a wedding banquet.

But the Kingdom of God is coming and is now here. And Christians are meant to be working towards the Kingdom of God. It's not good enough to simply sit there, hands out, waiting for Jesus to feed us. We are God's hands in the world. We need to be feeding other people. And while the idea of everyone having the same access to food and everyone eating their fill may sound like something you could only get it heaven, we still need to be doing all that we can to ensure that it's as much like that now as it can be.

When we pray for God's kingdom to come to earth, do we really mean it? Do we see it as something that God just does for us or something we are meant to be doing for others? And is it something we are just praying for, or something we are working towards? For if we do seriously want God's kingdom to come on earth, we need to be thinking about whether there is justice in terms of the food we eat. And if there isn't, we need to be doing all we can to change this.