Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter - a celebration of life

Easter is ultimately a celebration of life.

It is the day we remember Christ's resurrection from the dead. But it is also a day to remember that that resurrection gave new life to us all - and by all I don't mean a narrow group of Christians who have accepted Christ as their Lord and Saviour, but the whole of Creation.

The symbols of Easter remind us of this new life. We don't eat chocolate bunnies just because they look cute. They are a reminder of new life. We don't eat chocolate eggs just because they're a good shape and can be wrapped in foil. They are also a symbol of new life. And while we may miss it in Australia, even the time of Easter is a symbol of new life. Spring is a time when nature is coming to life again - the flowers are blooming, animal babies are being born. Spring is a time of renewal.

So Easter should be a time to celebrate life - by recognising the beauty and wonder of the life we see around us. It should also be a time to reflect that this world we see is not just the loving Creation of the God we remember on Easter, but the world he came to save - the world he loves and cares for and the world he will renew. Easter is not just about humans.

Yet how can we celebrate life today when we fail to protect that life at other times? How can we worship a God who brings new life on Easter and yet turn our backs to the destruction of life throughout the rest of the year?

I've heard critical comments from Christians about Christmas and Easter Christians, those people who go to church only on Christmas and Easter. Yet if we embrace the message of new life on Easter and ignore that message for the rest of the year, aren't we also, in some way, Easter Christians? We give life a nodding acknowledgement as we go to church or open our chocolate bunnies and eggs and fail to really think about what a celebration of new life should mean or reflect it in our daily lives.

Life is the diversity of species on this planet. Life is a healthy atmosphere. Life is the conditions that exist on earth to help all life on earth flourish. Life is the wondrous places that exist on this earth.

Life is the animals in our factories, the species that are going extinct, the climate that we are altering.

Life is every single person who lives on this planet - all the people who are struggling, the people who are starving and the people who will lose their homes or their livelihood to climate change. Life is all the people yet to be born - and the world we're leaving them to live in.

If we truly want to celebrate life, then we need to recognise that life is more than just an empty tomb, life after death or salvation for those who call themselves Christians. We need that life is all around us - and it is that life we see all around us that God cares about.

And we need to commit ourselves to the protection of that life. How can we celebrate something if we are complicit in its destruction? To truly celebrate something is to recognise its value and do all that we can to protect it and see it flourish.

So let us celebrate new life this Easter - not just with chocolate bunnies and eggs, but with a recognition of the value of all life - and a commitment to look after it.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The importance of the Sabbath


What I'd like to talk to you about today is the Crown of Creation. Typically, the Crown of Creation has been thought of as human beings. Not only were we created last but we were created in the image of God. Therefore, everything that comes before the creation of human beings was seen as something of a lead-up to that event.

So, if we think of the Creation story as a movie, the typical way of looking at it was that the creation of human beings was the final scene. All the other days of creation were just scenes leading up to that climax. And in our anthropocentric view of the Creation story, sometimes these earlier scenes were thought meaningless by themselves. Their only purpose was to provide an environment in which the grand climax, the Creation of humans, could occur.

Of course, the Creation story has seven days in it, not six, the seventh day being the day that God rested. The Message Bible says:

By the seventh day 
      God had finished his work. 
   On the seventh day 
      he rested from all his work. 
   God blessed the seventh day. 
      He made it a Holy Day 
   Because on that day he rested from his work, 
      all the creating God had done. 

But if we thought about that rest at all, it was a bit like the credits at the end of the movie. Sure, it was part of the movie. We could pay attention to it if we wanted to. But it didn't add anything to the story. If we walked out of the movie theatre at that point, we didn't really miss much.

Jurgen Moltmann, who has a completely different view of the Sabbath and whose work I'll be drawing from a lot in this talk, puts it like this:

The seventh day of the Sabbath was often overlooked. Consequently, God was presented throughout merely as the creative God. The resting God, the celebrating God, the God who rejoices over his creation receded into the background. [1]

Of course, seeing humans as the Crown of Creation, rather than the Sabbath, gives us a completely different view of ourselves, of nature, and of how humans can treat nature. It's led to the kind of thinking where we believe the earth was created solely for humans. It's also led to us treating the earth as though its only purpose was to benefit humankind. While it may not be explicitly stated this way, we have seen and treated the earth as though it belonged to us, not God.   

When we ignored the Sabbath rest at the end of the Creation story, we were focused on a God that was doing something. To be in God's image then therefore meant doing something too. It meant that we saw purpose and meaning in activity, and anything that wasn't useful wasn't seen as all that important. While people may not relate it back to how they view the Creation story, this is still the predominant view today. We tend now to see busyness as important and rest as meaningless. We must be doing something, achieving goals, striving for something.

We must also always be plugged in. I saw an article the other day about a patent by Nokia for a tattoo that vibrates when a person's phone is ringing. Now I'm not sure who this kind of tattoo would appeal to, but the fact that Nokia think there are people who are so scared of missing a call that they want their body to vibrate when it rings, says something about our priorities and our idea of what's important. Not only are there people who don't want to tune out of all the communication technology we now have, but they're almost afraid to. A body that vibrates when a phone rings is not embracing the Sabbath rest that God wants for us.

So if we return to Moltmann again, this is how he views the Sabbath:

It is the Sabbath which manifests the world's identity as Creation, sanctifies it and blesses it.[2]

So the Sabbath isn't the unimportant bit at the end of Creation. The Sabbath is the most important part of Creation. Moltmann says the whole work of Creation (including the Creation of human beings) was performed for the sake of the Sabbath. This is the time when God delights in his Creation. Furthermore, it's the time when Creation simply exists in God's presence and God completes his Creation by being present within it.

While Jesus did say that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, this was in the context of the Pharisees complaining about Jesus and his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. What he was addressing was the way the Pharisees turned the Sabbath into a whole heap of rules that had to be obeyed, regardless of whether they were beneficial or not. Sabbath observance had become more important than human beings. While the Sabbath is meant to benefit the whole of Creation, Sabbath observance must never result in putting rules before the very people, and the Creation, it is meant to benefit. 

But the Sabbath, according to Moltmann, is also a foretaste of what's to come. It's celebrated in anticipation. It points towards a future when Creation and God's revelation will be one. It points towards the redemption of Creation.   

To return to our movie analogy, instead of the Sabbath being the credits at the end of the movie, it's the bit where the good guy triumphs, the bad guy gets stopped and everyone that was in danger gets saved.

Moltmann says the Sabbath commandment was the longest of the ten commandments and therefore the most important. I'll just read the Sabbath commandment now as it is in the Message Bible.

Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Work six days and do everything you need to do. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God, your God. Don't do any work—not you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your servant, nor your maid, nor your animals, not even the foreign guest visiting in your town. For in six days God made Heaven, Earth, and sea, and everything in them; he rested on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the Sabbath day; he set it apart as a holy day.

One of the interesting things about this commandment is that even the animals have to rest. In Exodus 23:12, it says:

Work for six days and rest the seventh so your ox and donkey may rest and your servant and migrant workers may have time to get their needed rest.

And just before that, in verses 10-11, God says:

Sow your land for six years and gather in its crops, but in the seventh year leave it alone and give it a rest so that your poor may eat from it. What they leave, let the wildlife have. Do the same with your vineyards and olive groves.

So we see then that the Sabbath is not just for humans. Not only the slaves and the foreigners are required to rest, but even the animals get a break. And on the Sabbath year, the land itself rests. The food that it produces goes to the poor and the wildlife. Can you see any of the big corporate farms doing that nowadays? Imagine trying to explain that to their shareholders. To celebrate the Sabbath is not a good way to maximise profit.

The Sabbath then is a time of rest that all Creation enjoys. It is also a time for all of Creation to rejoice in Creation and in God. It is a time to simply be.

So what might it mean for us today if we recovered the importance of the Sabbath?

Firstly, it would mean that we take the time to appreciate nature and God's presence in nature. That we stop seeing nature as something to be used, and start seeing it as having intrinsic value in its own right. That we recognise the beauty of nature, and not just its utilitarian value. And that we take the time to enjoy nature, to simply be in nature, rather than doing something in or to nature.

Because we live in a very busy society, we tend to always be doing something. It's hard to just do nothing. But when we spend time in nature, it seems easier to just stop or slow down. There is a type of peace that we find in nature that can't be found elsewhere. Our focus moves from the 'us' of individuals to the 'we' of every part of Creation. The worries and stresses of a busy life seem to fade away or at least grow less important for a while.  Nature almost seems to be telling us to stop doing and just be.

There is a poem by Wendell Berry that really captures that feeling of the peace that comes when we spend time in nature. Let me read it to you:

The Peace of Wild Things

BY wendell berry 
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I would love to make it compulsory for everyone to spend time in nature at least once a month. I think it's that beneficial. Turn your phone off. Or even better leave it at home. That way, even if you have vibrating tattoo on your body, you won't be interrupted.

Secondly, if we are to recover the importance of the Sabbath we need to ask questions about whether we are letting all of Creation rest and what steps we might take to give Creation more of a rest than we are currently giving it.

Once upon a time, not actually all that long ago, most things were closed on Sundays. Nowadays, most things are open. This first of all has implications for the opportunities humans have to rest. Not only does there need to be people working on Sundays, but it's harder for those of us who aren't working to rest too. When everything is open, it's too easy to go and do something. Shopping has become our Sunday leisure activity. But shopping is the complete opposite of what the Sabbath rest is meant to be. Shopping is not a time to simply be, and let Creation be. Shopping is not a time to rest in God's presence. Shopping is a definitely doing activity.

And this Sunday shopping also makes further demands on Creation. Every purchase we make is a drain on the earth's resources. Even buying locally grown vegetables uses up the earth's resources in some way. And using the earth's resources is not necessarily bad. We need to eat. We need to clothe ourselves. All of these involve using the earth's resources. But the purchases we make often make huge demands on the earth's resources - demands on the earth's resources that are not sustainable. And we never give the earth a break.

Perhaps Sunday ought to be a time when we try to avoid stores and purchases. And sometimes that's easier to say than do. Even though I would love to see stores start closing on Sundays again, because it's good for the earth and good for people, I also know that, in the past, I've sat in front of a bookstore at 9:30 on a Sunday morning, feeling hard done by because it wasn't opening until 10. Yes, I think stores should close on Sundays - except for when I want a book!

Another area we can look at is electricity. Now most of us won't be prepared (and in some cases can't) go a day without using electricity. But what if we just tried to limit it for a day? What if we recognised that the land needs a rest too and made a concerted effort to give it more rest than usual? Could we perhaps make Sundays a day of no TV, no mobile phones and no computers? And honestly this is another area I find difficult No matter how many times I tell myself I am leaving my computer off this Sunday, I usually find a good reason to switch it on. Or a not so good reason - like changing my Facebook status.

I've talked about Sundays here, because that's the traditional day of rest for Christians. But it doesn't have to be a Sunday. And it doesn't have to involve any of the activities I've listed here either. To recover the importance of the Sabbath, we don't need a whole heap of rules. What we do need is a recognition that the Sabbath is important, that it is a time for us to rest with Creation, enjoying God's presence. It is a time for us to rest ourselves and it is a time for us to think about resting the land in some way. The Sabbath is when we switch from doing to simply being. The Sabbath is when we, along with all of Creation, rest in God's presence, sharing God's delight with his Creation.

Now all of this may seem a little boring. And I can imagine saying this to my children and them replying with, 'Right, so Sunday is the day that we can't have any fun.' But the Sabbath is certainly not meant to be about not having fun. We don't just appreciate nature and rest in God's presence, we delight in God's presence and celebrate nature. After seven cycles of the Sabbath years, so after every 49 years - which kind of makes it the Sabbath of the Sabbaths - there was the Year of Jubilee. That doesn't sound too boring to me. That sounds like a party.

And rejoicing in God's creation should be a party. It is a time for celebrating. A time for feeling fantastic just to be alive. A time for saying, 'Woohoo, I'm so glad I'm here in this wonderful world that God has created.' It's not just a colon, end brackets. It's the biggest smiley face you can find.

My kids might think it's boring to go without TV or computers. But maybe it's only when we force ourselves to take a break from these things that we really learn how un-boring life can be. We delight in a sunset, smell the flowers, walk barefoot through the grass, stand in the rain, feel the waves against our legs as we walk along the beach, climb a tree, and jump in puddles. There's no agenda. No purpose. We are free to simply be. And I think we've forgotten just how fun that can be. Maybe we need to recover it again.

And maybe sometimes it doesn't seem like this earth has much to celebrate. Climate change, melting ice caps, mountaintop removal, islands of plastic in our oceans, extinction of species, dwindling water resources, destruction of rainforests. It can be all to easy to look at the earth and think we have reason to mourn, not rejoice.

But while these are all serious problems that need to be addressed, the Sabbath reminds us that we also have reason to hope. We celebrate not just what is happening, but what will happen. God's presence in the world reveals to us the time when God's presence will be completely manifest in the world. Moltmann says the God's creation and his revelation will be one.

To return to our movie analogy, not only is the Sabbath the climax of the movie, but it's the bit where we realise that there's going to be a sequel. And unlike most movie sequels, the sequel of the Sabbath won't be a pale imitation of the first movie. It's going to be much, much better. 

So if it's a celebration, it's a bit like an engagement party. Yes, we have reason to celebrate now. And we should celebrate and rejoice. But this celebration points towards a future celebration. The wedding feast is still to come.

Moltmann, J. (1985). God in Creation; The Gifford Lectures, 1984-1985, an ecological doctrine of creation: SCM Press Limited.

[1] (Moltmann, 1985)
[2] (Moltmann, 1985)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A life without germs is not much of a life

Last week in Australia came the news that the government had created stricter hygiene and sanitary regulations for childcare centres. These new standards included children not being allowed to blow out candles on a communal birthday cake and having to use hand-sanitiser before and after playing in the sandpit.

Later on came the news that a study by Stanford University revealed that actually exposing children to some germs may be good for them, as it builds up their immune system. Out of all the mothers I have spoken to about it, not one was shocked by this news.

So why do we have such stringent requirements when it comes to sanitation and hygiene? And what is that doing to us?

The emphasis on germs really began in the post-war period. This was a period when women were forced back into the home after doing work during the war. It was also a period when a new wave of household appliances supposedly freed up house-wives' time. It was also a time when consumerism really took off.

Having more stricter cleanliness requirements not only meant that women were kept busier, but that there was a ready market for more products particularly aimed at house-wives.

Things have changed a bit since that time, but I can't kept thinking that at least some of our ideas about cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation come from the very companies that are trying to sell us products.

We've all seen the ads where a women cleans the bathroom, but (shock, horror) doesn't get all the germs. No, if she wants the germs, she has to buy this particular brand of product that is guaranteed to pick up germs that the other products leave behind.

I remember when I was a new mother, receiving a free magazine and pack. The pack contained lots of samples of things I might need for my new baby. The magazine was filled with ads for more products. And looking back, I would say that many of those ads really capitalise on the fears that a new mother has. Many a new mother would have looked at those ads and thought they immediately needed to go out and buy a million and one things just to keep their baby safe, healthy and free from germs.

And this is probably a good time to say that an emphasis on hygiene and safety can be a good thing. The discovery that it was important to wash hands in hospital actually saved lives. And I for one am pleased that someone created products to keep cupboards locked so that little fingers (and mouths) could not get into them.

But have we gone too far?

The rules about birthday cakes are only for childcare centres. Parents can still choose to have a communal birthday cake at their own party if they wish. And I'm sure that many parents will. But will some parents see these new laws and suddenly worry that their child should not eat any cake where another child has blowed out the candles. I can all too easily imagine a scenario where little Tommy has a birthday party and little Jane's mother says Jane can't have any birthday cake if Tommy blows out the candles - spoiling the moment for both Tommy and Jane.

Birthdays are special, magical, joyful times for children. And one of the best things about birthdays (besides the presents, of course) is blowing out the candles. Children have been doing it for years. And I don't think we've suffered too much for it. And if any of us did catch someone else's cold, it's a small price to pay for sharing this moment together.

And that's one thing about strict sanitary regulations. It keeps people apart. Yes, when we share things, we may share germs. But we also share special moments. We are together as a family, a group or a community. The occasional cold is a small price to pay for that.

Some churches have now stopped allowing parishioners to share from the same cup during communion. Again, this is an attempt to stop the spreading of germs. And while I can see times when this might be a good practice (for example, when deadly viruses are widespread), it kind of ruins the meaning of sharing communion. In communion, we all come together. We partake in the one bread and the one wine. We share in the one faith. That's symbolic and it's special. And yes, we can still have that drinking from separate communion glasses. But something is lost if we do.  

At some point we need to ask ourselves if the price we're paying to keep ourselves free from germs is actually worth what we are losing. And part of what we are losing is our sense of belonging to the one community. We focus on the individual rather than the shared sense of being together.

We are not only isolating ourselves from each other. We are isolating ourselves from nature. The hand-sanitising before and after sandpit use is an example of how we wish to protect ourselves from dirt (and often nature).

Nature can make us dirty. Nature can expose us to germs. Nature can make us cold and wet and lower our immune system. Nature can bite and sting and hurt us.

So what do we do in our super-safe, super-sanitised (and super-comfortable) world we have created? It's telling that many eco-holidays are now held in very clean, very comfortable and very safe resort type settings. People get to experience nature without being exposed to any of the risk. But it kind of seems that that super-safe, super-sanitised and super-comfortable experience of nature is missing at least some of what nature has to offer.

And what about the backyard? Or the park? Or general everyday places where kids get to experience nature? Do we keep our kids far from any of that because they might get hurt or they might catch germs? I personally think that a childhood where we don't experience nature is far worse than a childhood where we might get sick or get stung now and then.

My son got stung by a bee just recently. I asked him whether he thought it would have been better to not play outside, because therefore he wouldn't have got stung by a bee. His answer was no. When asked why he said, 'Because then I wouldn't get any exercise or any sun and I wouldn't have fun.' When I said, 'What if you knew you would get stung by a bee again if you played outside, would you still play outside?' His answer, 'yes' and he didn't really need to think about it too much.

There's one way to keep children safe. Keep them isolated in sterilised rooms, with nothing dangerous and no contact with anyone or barely anything. But that's not living.

We're not meant to live highly sterilised, highly safe, highly comfortable lives. Whether we like it or not, we are connected to each other and we are connected to nature. And that involves some risk. But the risk is worth it. Because a life that's connected to other people and connected to nature also contains much joy. And anyone who has experience that joy would say that it was worth the risk to get it.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Nature, Food and God

Once upon a time, in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve wanted something to eat, they picked it off the nearest tree. Nowadays, we pick it off a supermarket shelf. There’s something wrong with this picture.

I think that God designed us to interact with nature. When we do so, there is a spiritual dimension to that interaction. These sound like religious sounding words, but I don’t want to suggest that only people of faith have this spiritual dimension to nature. It can also apply to people without faith – sometimes more so.

One of the ways we can choose to live more natural lifestyles is through the food we eat. Many people in the western world don’t eat nearly enough food that could be considered at all natural. It has been processed, modified and added to. Even fresh fruit and vegetables that we buy from our supermarkets may not be as natural as we think it is.

But it’s not just a matter of what we eat. It’s also how the food that we eat comes to us. When we buy food from the grocery store, we are pretty much removed from the whole food process. However, when we grow food ourselves, we are part of that process. There is something a lot more natural, rewarding and spiritual about getting our food in this way. Stuff that just can’t be bought in a jar.

One of the other aspects of food that we often forget is the cost. No, I don’t mean the total price when you go through the checkout. But the complete costs to the world and to the environment is buying processed, packaged food from supermarkets. There are the costs of transport, processing and packaging (in terms of environmental costs, using up of resources such as oil, carbon emissions). When you pick up a product off the shelves, it is worth asking yourself how much is this costing the world?

Christians are taught to be good stewards. I don’t believe this just applies to how we use our money and whether we use it wisely. Although this is important. It also applies to how we take care of the world around us. We must make the best choices with what we have. We should also be good stewards of our body. When we eat natural foods, we are taking care of our body in the best possible way. As well as this, I think Christians should be people who try to give more and take less. We should think about this in everything we do – and this includes the food we eat.

Growing a vegetable garden or fruit trees is one way that we can interact with nature, eat more natural food and decrease the cost to the world in terms of our consumption. Food grown by yourself doesn’t have far to go before it is eaten. There is far less cost in terms of transport and processing. You also know that the food you are eating has not been modified or added to in any way.

Not everyone can grow their own vegetable garden. However, there are other options. Many communities have community gardens, where people can come and work in the gardens. It’s worth seeing if there’s one near you. Or if not, why not get one started? Farmers markets are also a better place to buy fruit and vegetables than the supermarket. When you buy from a farmers markets, the people selling their products are local. That means the food has not traveled as far. Also, because they were themselves involved in the growing of the food, you can ask them about how it was grown. Try doing that to the checkout operator at the supermarket.

We’re not in the Garden of Eden anymore. And let’s face it, no matter how hard we try, very few of us are going to succeed in leading completely natural lifestyles. But the closer we get to this, the better we will feel – both physically and spiritually. I think it’s worth creating our own little Garden of Edens whenever we can. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Moments of Beauty

A young boy trips over and skins his knee. He takes a big breath, fuelling himself for a very long cry, gives his mother a quick glance to make sure she’s watching – and then spots a butterfly. He stares at in wonder, as his pain is forgotten and the opportunity to get attention is missed. He is having a moment of beauty. The mother has her own moment of beauty. On her way to comfort her child, she stops and simply enjoys the look upon her son’s face.

Moments of beauty are like that. You are so caught up in something beautiful that you forget your own worries, your own fears and your own desires. All the thoughts that were fighting with each other inside your head simply disappear. You forget about ‘me’ for a while. You forget about everything. You simply enjoy the beauty.

The best example of a moment of beauty is the mother who looks into her newborn baby’s eyes. Regardless of how many moments of beauty I have in my life, nothing will ever compare to that experience. In fact, I doubt very much whether anyone is ever captivated quite so much as a woman who first looks into her child’s eyes. The pain of labour is completely forgotten. The worries and fears about how she will actually raise her child no longer seem that important. To say you lose yourself is a cliché, but sometimes a cliché best expresses the truth. The new mother really does lose herself. When a mother looks at her newborn, she doesn’t think of who she is or what she wants. There are no thoughts at all, well not in words. Just an overwhelming feeling of love and wonder.

Moments of beauty don’t have to be centred around some amazing experience, like giving birth to a child. They happen all the time. They can be big or small. Sitting on the beach watching the sunset. A flock of birds flying overhead. Looking at a waterfall. Attending a school assembly and hearing children sing. Listening to the solo of a classically trained singer. A moment of silence at the end of a hectic day. Walking into an old church and feeling the impact of awe, magnificence and wonder.

The other day, I was standing outside the shopping centre, when a young couple walked past. I can’t remember what I was thinking about at that moment, but I’m sure I considered it terribly important at the time. But as soon as I saw them, I stopped thinking. Now they were attractive, but I wouldn’t say they were stunning. But there was something about their faces and their body languages that really moved me. There seemed to be an ease there that you very rarely find. They looked at each other as if they really understood the value of the other person. Not stunning, no. But definitely beautiful, even if it’s not the kind of beauty that can be captured in photographs.

I have been calling them moments of beauty, but I most often think of them as moments that touch the soul. Because that’s what I think they are. When something captivates you with its beauty, I believe it’s felt more with the soul, than with the body. They are the times when our spirit finally gets our flesh to shut up for a moment. And it’s when our flesh is quiet, that I think God is mostly likely to tap us on the shoulder and remind us that he’s still there.

There is a passage in the bible that always makes me think of moments of beauty. It is found in 1 King 19:11-12.

Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.

I’m not quite sure why it makes me think of beauty, because there is certainly nothing in there that is beautiful. I think it’s that still small voice at the end. When we do have a moment of beauty, or a moment that touches the soul, we can sometimes hear that still small voice. It’s like God’s gently whispering in our ear. But we have to pay attention or we miss it. And most of the time, we’re not paying attention.

Whether we’re paying attention or not, I think moments of beauty are God’s way of reminding us that this life and this flesh are not all that matters. When we ignore our flesh, we can begin to pay attention to our spirit. When we lose ourselves, we may just end up finding God.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The importance of the Sabbath

            Most people would agree that at least some of the Ten Commandments have value. Do not murder. Do not steal. They make sense - whether you belong to the Judeo-Christian tradition or not. But then there are others that apparently seem worthless. And at the top of that list might be keeping the Sabbath. Even Christians often don't do a good job of following that one. And many people would barely give it a thought.
            But there are good reasons why we should start taking this commandment seriously again. I'm not talking here from a religious perspective. Like do not murder and do not steal, it makes sense - whether you're a Jew, Christian, Sikh, Agnostic or Atheist. Keeping the Sabbath contributes to the wellbeing of ourselves, our communities and the earth.
            But in order to understand why we should take this commandment seriously, we need to really understand what the Sabbath was for. Yes, it was for worshipping God. And from a Judeo-Christian perspective, that's important. But as I'm suggesting it's beneficial for everyone, regardless of religious affiliation, there has to be more to it than that. In fact, I think one of the reasons why this is the most neglected commandment is that we have narrowed it down to just worshipping God, which is even narrowed down further to 'going to church'. Christians believe they're obeying the commandment if they go to church on Sundays. People who don't accept the Judeo-Christian God figure they don't go to church and therefore it doesn't apply. But the Sabbath is meant for so much more than that.
            The next thing we can say about the Sabbath is it is a day when we do not work. For some, this meant a whole heap of rules about what could and couldn't be done on the Sabbath. For others, it simply meant not doing paid work. In my opinion, both miss the point. And neither approach actually considers what the Sabbath is for.
            So what is the purpose of the Sabbath? Besides worshipping God, we might also say its purpose is to rest. And this rest is not just something we should do ourselves, but something we must let others do. Exodus 23:12 says that on the Sabbath it is not just we ourselves who must rest, but also oxen, donkeys, servants and migrant workers. And just before that it says that after every seven years, the land itself must rest. The Sabbath is not just about us. It's about letting everyone rest. It's about letting the earth itself rest.
            But what might this mean in a 21st century context, where most of us don't have oxen or donkeys or servants or migrant workers? Well the point is not really about the oxen or the donkeys or the servants or the migrant workers. It's that everyone and everything (including animals and the earth) needs a chance to rest. And if we do want to think about it in a 21st century context, we need to ask what drain we are making on other people and the land? Could we perhaps replace servants and migrant workers for the people we expect to be working in stores on Sundays? Could we replace oxen and donkey for the electricity we are constantly using? Does everything always have to be in production mode for us or are we willing to give things a break?
            Thinking about the Sabbath in this way, rather than just as something we ourselves personally must do, makes us realise that rest is not just the cessation of work. Keeping the Sabbath should benefit everything and everyone. The commandment to keep the Sabbath then is not just a prohibition to work, but a commandment to participate in the benefits that Sabbath-keeping brings.
            To rest on the Sabbath may mean 'not doing certain things', but it also means to do others. We take a break from the type of things that produce goods, make money and drain the earth's resources and instead we participate in other types of activities - the kind of activities that refresh and renew us and that do not put unnecessary burdens on others.
            The inclusion of everything in the Sabbath rest also shows us that everything must have a chance to simply be. In fact, if we go back to the original day that God rested in the creation story, we can see that for seven days God created things and then he rested. This does not just mean that God stopped working. It also means that Creation, which was changing, becoming, progressing, doing, also got a chance to simply be. It no longer had to become something or do something.
            To say what constitutes rest and work is difficult because what is hard work for someone may mean rest and recreation for someone else. But if we are to truly keep the purpose of the Sabbath, we do need a break from anything that stresses us and frustrates us, and we need to choose instead those things that renew and refresh us. We also need to realise that we don't need to be constantly doing something. We just can stop, breathe and appreciate.
            The Sabbath then becomes a time when we stopping putting unnecessary demands on the earth. It becomes a time when we stop expecting so much from other people and simply enjoy their presence. It also becomes a time when we give ourselves permission to take a break from our to-do lists, to relax and laugh and appreciate the world around us.
            Perhaps the reason why the commandment to keep the Sabbath is so neglected is that we don't like simply being. We like to be achieving things, doing things, going somewhere or making progress. And we judge things (and people) on how useful or productive they are. The Sabbath not only gives us a break from this type of mentality, but it shows that people, animals and the earth have value in and of themselves. They don't need to be doing something to be important. And nor do we. Just to be is enough.
            The importance of the Sabbath commandment may not be as evident as do not murder or do not steal, but it is important nonetheless. When we stop making demands on the land, on others and on ourselves, when we value everything and everyone for what they are not what they do, we and the whole earth community flourishes.
            Keeping the Sabbath wasn't just a commandment designed to get people worshipping God. Like many of the other commandments, it would benefit the community and the individuals within it. While we may have different opinions on the importance of the Sabbath, many of us can agree that the wellbeing of ourselves, our communities and our planet is important. Keeping the Sabbath helps us do this - whether we believe in God or not.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Accepting Limitations

We all have limitations or things in our life that we don't like. The general tendency is to try and change these things. Sometimes that's a good approach for some things need to be changed. But often this change is aided by consumer products and services. And consumerism itself fuels our dissatisfaction with our lives. And it is that dissatisfaction that also prevents us from accepting the limitations of the earth.

While listening to a prison chaplain talk about his experiences the other day, the phrase 'life sentence' jumped out at me. The thought of someone who can never get what he wants (freedom), and needs to accept his situation will last for his entire life, seemed quite terrible to me. How would he find joy, peace and hope? The only way he could find any degree of contentment would be if he learned to accept his situation. Fighting against it and wanting to be free would only make him miserable.

Christians often use prison cells as a metaphor for breaking free of certain things in our life. And it can be quite a good metaphor. There are some things we need to break free from. However, if we see everything as a prison cell that we do need to break free from, then maybe we lose our ability to find peace, joy and hope where we are. Maybe we are too busy fighting our cells that we miss the opportunity to appreciate what we do have and work within our limitations.

Nowhere is the dissatisfaction with our lives more apparent than in the area of appearance. Got brown hair and want blonde? Dye it. Got brown eyes and want blue? There's coloured contacts for that. Don't like your boobs or your nose or your face? Get plastic surgery. I could go on but you get the picture.

Consumerism fuels this dissatisfaction with the way we look. The more dissatisfied people are with their appearance, the more consumer products and services they buy. But it also makes us unwilling to accept any aspect of our appearance we don't like - even the ones we can't change. I admit, I've sometimes felt hard done by because God didn't make me tall, blonde, slim and beautiful. When I do that, I not only end up frustrated and discontent, but I ignore all the very good qualities God has given me. I'm too busy looking at what I don't have and what I want to see changed.

Let's look at something completely different - comfort. If we're unwilling to accept anything we don't like, then we must be comfortable all of the time. When we exercise, we prefer to be in air-conditioned, enclosed gyms rather than out in the outdoors. We like outings where all the unpleasantness has been taken away. Our houses must be perfectly comfortable. We don't like to be too hot or too cold. We're no longer willing to accept the limitations of the weather or the seasons. So we crank up our air-conditioner to achieve the desired temperature. All of this uses energy.

And speaking of energy, we are also not willing to accept the limitations of the planet. Our desire to change our life and situation - through the consumer products we buy and the energy we use - often has a detrimental effect on the earth. But rather than limiting our impact, we demand that the earth continue to give us what we want to make our lives as "perfect" or as "easy" as possible. And we pretend that it will always do so.

It won't. The earth is a prison cell. Oh yes, it's a beautiful prison cells. It has wonders and delights and can give us everything we need if we take care of it. And it's not the kind of prison cell I want to break free from. But it's a prison cell in the sense that there's nowhere else to go. Humanity doesn't get to escape from earth. We are stuck here.

And we can pretend that the limitations of this earth don't exist. We can refuse to accept them or fight against them. But none of this will do any good. Those limitations will still be there.

Or we can learn to live within those limitations. We can appreciate what we do have, but realise there are limits to it. And when we do learn to live within those limitations, we are more likely to find joy, peace and contentment. We are also more likely to appreciate what we do have and want to take care of it.

Acceptance is not a popular trait in our society. But for the sake of the earth and our own wellbeing, we must cultivate it. Yes, there will be things in our life that we don't like. Yes, there will be limitations imposed upon us that we want to break free from. But life should be about accepting those limitations, rather than believing we must get everything we want.

I have linked our refusal to accept limitations to consumerism. But while I certainly think consumerism has made this human inclination worse, it is not limited to consumerism. The bible tells us that Adam and Eve were given access to every tree and plant in the Garden of Eden except one. Rather than accepting that limitation, they ate the forbidden fruit.

How many of us have thought, if I was in the Garden of Eden, I'd be happy with what I had? Really? We don't seem so happy with what we have at the moment. We're always wanting more, always wanting to change things, always refusing to accept the limitations placed on us.

And to say we don't live in the Garden of Eden is not an excuse. Yes, the Garden of Eden was filled with good things. But so are our lives now. The world is amazing place. Our lives are filled with so many gifts from God. We have nature and relationships and bodies that are just incredible. We have joy and delight and wonder. There is so much to be thankful for.

Let's not ruin what we do have. Let's appreciate it and take care of it. Let us work within the limitations of the earth. And let us cultivate those traits of acceptance and gratitude. There may be things in our lives and our world that we don't like. But if we learn to accept what we do have, we will also learn that there is much in our lives and our world that we love. There is much in our lives and our world that we should appreciate and preserve.