Abundant gifts, abundant life: a lifestyle to sustain the earth

  • Barbara Wood and Claudine McCreadie

Barbara and Claudine

Barbara and Claudine

The following reflection was given at the Christians Aware 30th anniversary conference 11-13 January 2019 in Derbyshire. The conference theme was: Future Earth? Sustainability for the environment, for farming and for healthy food?

Barbara: Claudine and I have been friends and prayer partners for over 30 years. We are very different and come from different Christian traditions - Claudine is a lifelong Anglican and I came into the Catholic Church via the Congregational Church. We often have different perspectives on things and I for one am frequently challenged by Claudine's energy and practical engagement. Neither of us are farmers, ecologists or environmental scientists. But both of us are mothers and grandmothers and this gives us a special interest in the future of our planet. We firmly believe, as the saying goes, that the problems we face are too important to be left to experts!

Claudine: I met Barbara first in 1985. She had just published a biography of her father, the well-known economist and thinker, Fritz Schumacher, the author of 'Small is Beautiful', and was working on an Advent Book for the Bible Reading Fellowship on the theme of the environment called Our World, God's World - a book that was much ahead of its time. What I remember about my earliest encounters with Barbara was the importance she gave to prayer.

Barbara: We are both very much motivated by our responsibility to future generations. We have seen extraordinary changes in the world over our lifetimes - in the pace of life, in scientific and technological achievements, in globalisation. We don't always agree on the pros and cons of these changes but we do agree that the human race is extraordinarily gifted - in the sense that we have been bestowed with extraordinary abilities, but also that we have been given this amazing world which provides us with everything we need for a full and abundant life. They have been given to us in trust, out of love. Yet again and again we take them for granted. The challenge for us is to cultivate a deep attitude of gratitude.

Take, for example, the gift of the soil which sustains all life. We have to learn again what our ancestors knew, that the substance we call dirt is the foundation of our health, of our very life, and needs to be treasured and nurtured with wonder and gratitude. Gratitude and wonder at God's generosity and love is the basis of discipleship. This is what makes us want to respond and live the kind of lives God wants.

Claudine: In 2015 Pope Francis wrote his encyclical 'Laudato Si' on the environment. One of the attractive features of 'Laudato Si' is the Pope's commitment to being informed. Clearly, many people were consulted in the preparation of the encyclical. I have discovered the value of the process - you STUDY, you PRAY and then you ACT. Many years ago, when I had enthusiastically led a bible study about St John's gospel, my hostess closed our evening with the prayer, 'Lord, help us not to be too intellectual'. That sort of prayer would put me off being a Christian! I see study as absolutely important in trying to work out how our Christian faith is relevant to the world we are living in NOW in 2019. And that for me has been one of the great contributions of Christians Aware: encouraging and helping us to become aware and informed about the world we are living in, not just our little home corner.

I want to recommend warmly this very recent publication Just Food?, edited by Barbara Butler. It provides a most valuable support to this conference. Its subtitle is 'Food and Farming for a sustainable future' and it is a series of contributions from all over the world on the theme, quite a number by farmers and covering a huge range of issues. These are complicated questions without simple answers.
The book has some Good News which includes: The recognition and promotion of small scale farming world wide; The Fair Trade movement; The number of Good People and Hopeful Initiatives; and, the rural church in the Anglican Diocese of Leeds. The two key messages that I took away from this book were, as Barbara's father said, small is beautiful, and that there is a lot going on that we can join in and support.

Barbara: Since Claudine has mentioned 'Small is beautiful', I would add that the subtitle of the book is 'A Study of Economics as if people mattered'. What 'Small is Beautiful' showed was that whether our particular focus is sustainable farming or climate change, the depletion of resources or pollution, or concerned with justice and combatting poverty, these are all different aspects of an interrelated interconnected whole.

When we try to unravel the cause of these problems it is tempting to find something to blame - science or technology or economics or politics. All these disciplines have a part to play, both in the problems they have created and in the solutions needed to overcome the problems. However, as Christians we have to look more deeply at the fundamental issues.

Laudato Si' is very helpful. The Pope reflects on what he considers to be the real cause of the threat to our survival on Earth. He says it is a spiritual and moral sickness. He suggests a number of basic factors that point to this.

The first is the speed of life today. We are all so busy that we don't have time to stop and stare and wonder at the gifts of creation. My father used to say that "the amount of time we have is in inverse proportion to the amount of labour-saving equipment we have." We don't have time to reflect and pray yet we have all those machines that do the chores that used to take up so much time. This lack of time prevents us from facing the challenges and taking appropriate action. Why is this a spiritual issue? Because time is a precious God-given gift. Because if we don't make time for God we quickly lose touch with reality and chase after things that are ephemeral. When we say we don't have enough time it is worth remembering that God gives us enough of everything we need, including time. As with everything else, if we do not use time first and foremost to serve God we waste it. Jesus is clear that only if we seek the kingdom first, everything else will follow.

We have become proud and see ourselves as gods. We have developed an irrational confidence in "progress" and human abilities and we seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something we have created ourselves. This is not an anti-science sentiment but a call to humility. The meek and humble shall inherit the Earth, not the proud.

There is an increasingly insular mentality. When people are preoccupied with themselves their awareness of others becomes blunted, and their sense of responsibility for their neighbours, particularly those they cannot see, now and in the future, is diminished. There is an almost wilfully blind to how our mundane everyday decisions affect the lives of others.

We have developed a mentality that says "unlimited growth is good" without distinguishing between healthy growth and destructive and harmful growth. It has been said that the pursuit of unlimited growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. We all know where that leads.
The interrelated nature of the whole of creation and life is no longer recognised. The Bible tells us clearly that sin has consequences beyond the effect on the individual sinner - on our relationship with God, with others and with Earth. Today we can understand the meaning of the words "The sins of the fathers shall be visited on the third and fourth generation" and why the prophets connected the fate of the Earth with the sins of the people. Those prophets knew a thing or two about the interconnectedness of all life.

We have failed to value what we have. A throwaway culture is careless and ungrateful. It is wasteful and destructive. It begins with regarding the gifts of creation as disposable and ends with regarding human life as disposable. Or, to put it more positively, as Pope Francis says, "We have to realise that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor."

We blame others - the poor, multinationals, banks, politicians - rather than taking responsibility ourselves for those things we can change in our own lives. When we blame others we stop acting ourselves. We rather wait for those we blame to act.

Lastly, our failure to cherish the gifts of creation given in love is a failure of love - for the giver of the gifts as well as for our fellow human beings and for all living beings and our common home. Pope Francis says, "a sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings."

Barbara: If the Pope is correct and the crisis in our material world is actually a crisis in our spiritual life then we cannot neglect a spiritual approach to our practical and material response. As part of our prayer together Claudine and I have been writing out the gospels by hand. We copy out some verses and then we write down our personal response. This is not an exercise in biblical scholarship but an exercise in listening to what God is saying to us in the gospel. We then meet and share our thoughts together. As we write we notice all sorts of things we never noticed before and this has brought the gospels alive in a completely new way.

We have found Matthew particularly challenging, and also relevant to the many issues that beset the modern world. One little sentence right in the centre of the Sermon on the Mount was particularly challenging on how to respond to the ecological and environmental crisis. In Matthew 6:24 we read: "No-one can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon."

You may have heard the story of the priest whose church was in deepest stockbroker Surrey. The gospel that Sunday was that particular passage and he decided that he had to be brave and speak to the words: You cannot serve God and money - or mammon as other translations have it. He gave a very strong sermon and after the service stood nervously at the door of the church expecting a frosty response from his congregation. An imposing woman came towards him, clad in furs, hand outstretched. She shook him warmly by the hand and said "You are so right, Father, so right. We cannot serve God and mammon. But we must try. We must try!"

We laugh but it is a telling story. Yes, we know must do something to combat the problems we face but at the same time we want to carry on living as we did before. We cannot imagine living differently. We hope that science and technology will find a way to allow us to live in the same way but more sustainably. Given the phenomenal achievements of science and technology this is an understandable hope and there is no doubt that the contribution of science and technology is essential. However, as Pope Francis points out, science and technology deal with symptoms of the malaise not with the underlying cause which is spiritual and moral. And they are not infallible.

Some supposed solutions can produce problems of their own. Science and technology has an essential part to play, as do governments and many other experts. But each of us, whatever our profession or expertise, as ordinary men and women, have to play our part.

When Jesus says that we cannot serve God and mammon we have to ask ourselves whether in fact we are trying to do both. This can be a difficult question to answer. We can only discover the gods we worship if we stop and take time - that precious gift that needs to be treasured and used with care - to reflect on the way we live. Such reflection on our values and priorities reveals the true objects of our worship: what we believe to be important, what and who we really care about, what we are prepared to make sacrifices for. All religions demand sacrifices and the gods we seem to be worshipping are no different - the sacrifices they demand are the lives of others, of all living creatures and ultimately the earth itself that sustains all life.

Such reflection demands that we ask first: How do I spend my time?

Such reflection is not easy and requires time and honesty. It is hard to acknowledge that we ourselves are responsible for destroying the God's creation, and are robbing most of the world's population of their fair share of God's gifts. It is easier to close our eyes to the realities of the effect of our daily choices on others who live far away in sweat shops making our cheap clothes, or on the livelihood of indigenous peoples whose land is taken away by multinational companies whose products we want, or on the countless forms of life whose habitat is destroyed by our insatiable demands for beef or palm oil or biofuel.

Claudine: The first and most important thing is to begin with thanks and gratitude - not always easy I know - we all have to work at it, and perhaps for those who are advantaged, it can, paradoxically, be more difficult.

There ARE many things we can do and we should never be deterred if they seem small and insignificant. Remember the mustard seed. Turning to the Franciscan tradition, Hilfield Friary in Dorset has been working hard to live a sustainable life style. The community have adopted the LOAF principles in relation to the food they eat: L for Local, O for Organic, A for Animal Friendly and F for Fairly Traded. Interestingly, looking back at the 20th anniversary book from Christians Aware, I found an article from Christian Ecology Link in 2007, they are now Green Christian, setting out these LOAF principles. But if we apply these, they do prompt thinking about the sources of our food AND, very importantly, in thinking about our disadvantaged neighbour, whose food budget may make it very difficult to adopt this approach.

In relation to our church as community, it seems to me that this should be part of our essential witness as Christians. There is another excellent article in Just Food? about the Church of the Nativity in Leicester, who are an Eco-congregation. You will probably all know about this scheme which has been pioneered particularly by the charity A Rocha. To be an Eco-church you have a long list of items, ranging from worship to the kind of coffee, tea and biscuits you have, as well as considering all number of issues relating to church buildings and church yards. Our church architect was very enthusiastic but our vicar was a bit uneasy about what he felt was a very prescriptive list for members of the congregation! So, we haven't applied to be an Eco-church but we have drawn up a statement of intent in relation to climate change and made a list of all the things we need to consider. The equivalent in the Catholic Church in England and Wales is the Livesimply parish.

Barbara: When we take time to examine the impact of the way we live and our little daily decisions and try to discern how and what we must change there is a temptation to make a new religion - a prescriptive green religion with its own commandments and sins. This tends towards a 'one size fits all' approach. This is not a Christian response. As Christians we are each of us called by God to our own particular vocation and God gives us the gifts of the earth to fulfil that vocation. We think of vocations as occupations such as priesthood, teaching, or medicine. But ordinary lives bringing up a family, working in an office, looking out for neighbours, labouring, running a business can all be vocations. How we serve God in those vocations determines how we use the gifts of creation and our own gifts and talents. While we know that the car causes all sorts of problems it does not follow that every use of the car is sinful. We can be grateful for the ingenuity that invented the car when it enables us to fulfil our particular vocation more faithfully. While the bicycle might be better all round, if you are a priest serving umpteen rural parishes a car is a gift. If your vocation is transporting elderly people to hospital or the local day centre you should not have to wheel them round on the back of your bike! The problems arise when we all think we are permitted to use anything for our personal convenience or comfort.

St Matthew's gospel, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, gives us some very helpful directions without being prescriptive in the detail. Among these are the three pillars of discipleship: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Generally, these three pillars of Christian living are focussed on in Lent but they are really part of a disciple's everyday living.

Prayer is the foundation of our response. Not the kind of prayer where we just give God a list of our wants and desires - as Jesus says, God knows what we need. There are many different ways of praying and we can experiment and find the way that suits us. We have found different ways are more appropriate at different times. Perhaps the most fruitful have been the different ways of praying with scripture.

The Lord's Prayer can also be a model. It guides us to praise and wonder, to gratitude for God's gifts, to commit ourselves to do God's will and reminds us - when we ask for daily bread - that enough is sufficient. We do not need to ask for more than enough.

When we reflect prayerfully, God will guide us to those things in our lives that we need to change and give us the courage to take the necessary action so that we become more loving and gentle custodians of the earth and more caring and compassionate to all who suffer and are in need.

Claudine: Words I find helpful by the Canadian theologian Professor E Petersen in this context are: "The Christian life consists in what God does for us, not what we do for God … the Christian life consists in what God says to us, not what we say about God. We also, of course, do things and say things, but if we do not return to Square One each time we act, each time we speak, beginning from God and God's word, we will soon be fond of practising a spirituality that has little to do or nothing to do with God." Prayer is always about getting back to Square One.

Barbara: The second pillar is fasting. We generally think of Fasting as going without Food, particularly in Lent and sometimes, for some people, on Fridays. But fasting is much broader than just food. We can fast in so many different ways. There is no one size fits all and prayer helps us to discern how and where we ourselves should fast. We can fast by living more simply, by fasting from buying more than we need, by not filling our lives with noise and rush, by reducing waste, by using the car less, by not spending time on things that distract us from serving God.

Claudine: Many of you I am sure will know about Carbon Fasting which is increasingly being adopted in Lent by churches all over the world. It began in England so far as I know in the Anglican Dioceses of the South West part of the country - so Exeter, Salisbury, Truro, Wells. You either have a paper sheet, or you receive a text message or email, making a suggestion for the day which involves some reduction in your carbon footprint. We tried it in our church last year and may repeat it this year. Fasting items that relate to food include: simple cooking, buying fairtrade, thinking about air freighted food and packaging, giving up meat and only buying sustainable fish.

Barbara: The third pillar of discipleship is almsgiving. This is closely related to fasting as fasting frees us and our resources to give more generously to others. By consuming less we allow others to have what they need for a decent life, by consuming less we damage the earth less and create less waste, by fasting from filling our time with unnecessary things we have more time to love and serve our neighbour. Giving alms is more than giving money to charity. It is about giving yourself, your time, your talents, your energy.

Claudine: We have just finished a three-year project at my church - St Anne's in Kew, West London - to try and make social justice more central to the practice of our faith. We held four meetings a year for three years each lasting two hours. We used the model I referred to earlier of Study, Pray, Act. Our first six meetings were about refugees and asylum seekers and our second six about climate justice. Like so many parish initiatives, it depended heavily on two of us being very active and we decided deliberately at the beginning to run a time-limited project. In one way, it was very small, very modest. In another, prayers were said, people came together, things happened, such as the Carbon Fast. Just Food? gives us a truly inspiring list of these kinds of initiative, some of which, like our venture, are very small but we never know what God will make of them.

So we want to end on a very strong note of Hope. In his final book, 'Cry of Wonder', Gerry Hughes, the Jesuit priest, says that we must never interpret 'a passing experience of darkness' as the ultimate meaning. We must present our plight to God in prayer. God is ALWAYS there for us. Again and again, in our exploration of the Gospels, Barbara and I have thought the disciples were so hopeless in so many ways - and YET … and because we can identify with them and their misunderstandings and confusion and capitulation to sleep, we can take great hope from their faith after the Resurrection.

Barbara: Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get to heaven. We may feel like the disciples who respond in disbelief and say "Who then can be saved?" Jesus's reply is, "For mortals it is impossible, but for God everything is possible".

The same words were told to Mary by the angel Gabriel when Mary wondered how it was possible that she would be the mother of Jesus. WITH God everything is possible. Like Mary, we must simply say YES and offer ourselves to God to play our part.

When the news engulfs us in fear that the problems are now so great that we may not be able to save ourselves our source of hope is that "WITH God nothing is impossible". And with our Saviour God everything is possible when each one of us, in the various contexts in which we live out our life, put God first, trust God's saving justice, and then reflect that commitment in our daily life and daily choices.


Let us close with a Prayer from Laudato Si':

All powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures. You embrace with your tenderness all that exists. Pour out upon us the power of your love, that we may protect life and beauty. Fill us with peace, that we may live as brothers and sisters, harming no one. O God of the poor, help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth, so precious in your eyes. Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction. Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain at the expense of the poor and the earth. Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, to recognise that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey toward your infinite light. We thank you for being with us each day. Help us to prepare for a better future, for the coming of your Kingdom of justice, peace, love and beauty. Praise be to you! Amen


Tags: Christians Aware, Barbara Wood, Claudine McCreadie

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