‘The time that He has granted us’

June 26, 2016

These words brought me up short when I heard them, and caused me to stop in my tracks and think.

I was at Hilfield Friary earlier this week, assessing them for an Eco Church award, and I joined in their Mid Day Prayer service. During the Intercessions, one of the friars prayed that we would do something, ‘with the time that He has granted us’. I can’t actually remember what he prayed we would do, but that phrase jumped out at me.

It has made me reflect on how I view life.

Sometimes, if I’m brutally honest, life feels like something that has to be gotten through and endured as best I can. There is so much pain in people’s lives; so many things that people are living with.

But no! This little phrase opens a different window to look through. Life is a gift. A gift from God. How incredible it is to be granted some years to live on this earth; yes, not ignoring the pain, but also relishing the beauty and love that is such an amazing feature of our humanity.

Each one of us might not have existed: but we do! We have been given the privilege of existence… of life.

And so I want to make the most of this time that has been granted me; not frittering it away selfishly, but living it to the best of my ability, making the most of the opportunities I’m given to serve God and make a difference, however small that might be.

What about you – will you join me?


Stand and Stare

June 5, 2016

These flowers stopped me in my tracks today as I walked along the road. They were just in the bushes by the pavement and are nothing rare or special (they’re the very common guelder rose). But, their beauty caught my eye and made me stop and look at them more closely.

They are perfect. They look like confectionary flowers you might find on a cake. Perfect little white five-leaved flowers. Wow.

This month the Wildlife Trusts are encouraging us to do something wild every day for thirty days. That might mean taking the time to go out and do something big and whacky, but often it’s simply about noticing what is there around us and making room for nature in our lives.

It’s about stopping and being aware.

Go on, do something today. Sign up to 30 Days Wild with all their ideas, or just simply have a moment when you stand and stare at something beautiful.

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,

Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,

Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,

And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can

Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

(W.H. Davies)

PS If you’d like to tell me what you do, I’d love to hear.

Green living

Beauty with a Conscience

April 3, 2016

I have an inner-princess who wants to be gorgeous and beautiful. I’m guessing you probably do too and, hey, I’m sure you guys have an inner-prince as well!

So, this post isn’t about me telling you that it doesn’t matter how you look, or advocating that we go around unkempt, unwashed and smelly. Or that make-up and hair-dye is evil.

What I do want us to think about though is the nature of the products we use in this area. I’m not going to go into a long diatribe here about the problems with conventional beauty products (there are plenty of details elsewhere on the internet), but I simply want to highlight that those problems exist:

  • Packaging. This is so obvious I hardly need say more: (nearly) everything we use comes in a plastic bottle and we are using and producing vast amounts. It’s not good enough to say, ‘well we can recycle them’, because the process of recycling itself is energy-intensive. Far better not to produce that plastic in the first place.
  • Chemicals. Conventional beauty products use a dizzying array of chemicals, a number of which are known to be bad for us. Again, you can find more details elsewhere, and maybe you’re happy putting lots of chemicals into your body (skin absorbs remember), but I know I’m not, and I don’t want my kids to do so either. Even if I was, I wouldn’t be happy knowing that those chemicals were being washed away down the sink and entering the natural world in various ways.
  • Palm oil. Palm oil is a massive problem because of the deforestation that has taken place and is still occurring in Asia and Africa to make room for its vast plantations. The abuse of indigenous people’s land rights, huge forest fires (and I mean huge: I remember being in Singapore for a week some years ago and I didn’t see the sun once because of the haze from the fires in Indonesia), and declining species (including of course the orang utan) are all part of the palm oil issue. Palm oil is in pretty much every conventional beauty product and so it can be very hard to avoid for those of us who care about these issues.
  • Animal testing. Huge progress has been made on this and a complete ban on beauty products that have been tested on animals is now in place for the whole of the EU, New Zealand, Israel and India (and also the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo). However, if you are reading this from any other country then this is still an issue for you.
  • Cultural expectations. I find this bit really hard, because who am I to tell you what you should or shouldn’t want to look like? All I know is that the beauty industry itself spends an awful lot of money telling us how we should look, and we spend an awful lot of money trying to conform to what they tell us.

So What Do We Do?

The good news is that there are all sorts of alternatives and it is pretty easy to substitute our conventional beauty products for ones that help us avoid the issues above. And, unless we’ve been buying real cheapo products, they really don’t have to be more expensive (although sometimes they are).

For the high street, I don’t think you can beat Lush. They are ethical superstars and really minimise their packaging. I also like Neals Yard Remedies and use their facial products a lot, but a quick trip around the internet will show you many other companies you can use too.

My latest discovery is a fantastic business and social enterprise called Carishea, which works with communities in Ghana where women harvest sustainable shea nuts to produce butter. This is then hand-crafted into luxurious products by workers from disadvantaged communities in Scotland. I’ve been trying out some of their products recently (as you can see in the picture) and they’re really nice!

Some of us might want to go a step further and try making our own things or avoiding some types of products altogether. As a result of reading around for this post, for example, I’m currently experimenting with not using conventional shampoo or conditioner at all. Maybe in a later post I’ll let you know how I get on…

The point of it all though is to live in ways that do as little damage as possible to this world and all its inhabitants, both human and other-than-human, and that might even do a bit of good. This applies to what we do to our inner-princess as much as to anything else, so go on, treat her to some ethical loveliness!

Bible/Theology, Environment

Father God, Mother Earth and a Birthday Newt

March 13, 2016

A pretty little newt came to say hello to me on my birthday. Okay, I’m not sure it was deliberate on her part. Greg was digging out the pond and uncovered her, resting in the mud. It’s the first newt we’ve seen in our garden so he called us out to take a look.

What he didn’t realise is that newts hold a special place in my heart. When I was a child, a pond in a neighbour’s garden was full of them, and I used to spend hours on my own, sitting by that pond, watching them float up to the surface, catching, holding, and generally communing with them in my own particular way.

So it felt quite wonderful that this little newt (whom Mali named Tiny… let me know when you get it…) appeared on my birthday morning, and it seemed to me that Mother Earth had given me her own birthday present, one that she knew would be particularly dear to my heart.

In my happiness, I tweeted and posted up the picture at the top of this article, with a note saying thank you to Mother Earth for my birthday present. I was then slightly bemused when someone gently reprimanded me for what I said, asking if I wasn’t maybe overbalancing into paganism, and why didn’t I thank Father God instead?

The comment got me pondering: is it wrong to attribute any sort of personality or agency to the inanimate world? Is it wrong to think that I might talk to the earth in any way? Does this lead me inevitably into paganism?

We are, of course, used to attributing sentience, personality and agency to the creaturely world, in stark contrast to Descartes who believed animals to be nothing more than machines. When my sister’s dog brings us a stick we say thank you to her and give her a friendly stroke, and when Mali eats a banana in the evening, our rabbit wants some and hops over and pesters her until he gets a chunk. But what about the inanimate aspects of the natural world?

Interestingly, even if we don’t always notice it, the Bible seems to have no hesitation in seeing the inanimate world as having a sense of agency. The trees, mountains and hills rejoice when the people of Israel do what is right and listen to God (Isaiah 55), and the Psalms depict all manner of aspects of the natural world – both animate and inanimate – praising God (Psalm 148 being the most obvious example). This doesn’t stop with individual things either: the land is described as mourning because of people’s wrongdoing (Jer. 12:4, Hos. 4:1-3) and the whole creation groans in pain, like labour pains. Is this merely poetic language? Maybe…. I’m not so sure.

And then I was intrigued to sing the hymn, All Creatures of Our God and King, in Birmingham Cathedral this week, where I was speaking. I’m sure you know the hymn: it’s a firm favourite and definitely not considered unorthodox in any way. And there, right at the top of Verse 2, were the words, ‘Dear mother earth, who day by day unfoldest blessings on our way’. There it was – we were singing to mother earth, as if she was an entity who could act of her own volition, and no one batted an eyelid!

The hymn is based on St Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures (itself based on Ps 148) and he had no problem addressing different elements of the natural world – again both inanimate as well as animate – seeing them as his brothers and sisters.

It is in this tradition that our present Pope stands and this was a notable feature of his Encyclical, Laudato si’ (‘Praise be to you’). Indeed, he begins the whole thing by quoting St Francis’ Canticle: ‘Praise be to you, my Lord, though our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs’.

Standing on the shoulders of these giants, many of us as Christians are re-discovering our kindred relationship with the rest of God’s creation and finding it both a humbling and inspiring journey to be on.

Pope Francis goes on to say, ‘We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.’ Is it too much to go from this to thinking that we might receive other presents from her too, such as the appearance of a newt on my birthday?

This is not paganism. This sort of thinking is firmly rooted in a belief in a creating, sustaining, redeeming and saving God. What it is, is a deeper understanding of where we stand within the whole community of creation (to use Richard Bauckham’s lovely phrase) and a deeper appreciation of the need for us to live care-fully within this, our common home.

Environment, Green living

Just Living Launch Event

March 10, 2016

So at long last I have it in my hands. Just Living: Faith and community in an age of consumerism comes out soon and I would love you to join me, at the very cool Kahaila Cafe in London, for the launch event on March 17th.

The event is being hosted by a great organisation called Capital Mass, which helps churches in the London area tackle poverty and inequality. I’m thrilled to be teaming up with them for this event because we are definitely singing the same song.

Tickets are going, so click on the link here, get your places booked, and come along.

PS You don’t have to wait till the launch to buy the book – it’s already available here!