Thursday, September 27, 2012

Discovering God (in nature)


When people talk about becoming a Christian, the term sometimes used is 'finding Jesus' as though Jesus were hiding somewhere and one only has to look in the right place to find him. In fact, a number of cartoons have illustrated this possibility, with Jesus hiding somewhere behind a curtain or a couch.

Putting the emphasis on Jesus indicates that the only way to 'find' God is by 'finding' Jesus. You may feel spiritual, you may seek to know God, but until you 'find Jesus' it is actually you who is lost.

The other thing this term does is make 'finding Jesus' a one-off event. When you find something, you've found it. No further looking is required. Of course, you may lose it again and then have to find it for a second time. But there are times when you have 'found' something and times when you haven't, with no middle ground. You can't half find something and once you've found it you don't keep looking. It's either found or not.

Despite the claims of many born-again Christians, I don't believe that 'finding God' can be so neatly differentiated into a before and after stage. Rather than a game of hide'n'seek, it is an ongoing journey. We are continually seeking and continually finding. The word 'discovering' therefore seems more appropriate to me than 'find'.

Furthermore, God is not just discovered by Christians, but people who aren't Christians are continually discovering him too. This includes not just people of other religions - but also agnostics and even atheists - although they may not recognise what they have discovered is God.

In The Mind of God, Paul Davies[1] says: 'even hard-nosed atheists frequently have what has been called a sense of reverence for nature, a fascination and respect for its depth and beauty and subtlety, that is akin to religious awe.’ That to me sounds very much like the process of discovering God.

And while I believe God can be discovered in many different places - in religion, in relationship, in receiving kindness from others, in feeling solidarity with others, in feeling compassion for all living creatures, in seeking to correct injustice - it is in nature that I believe many people do find God.

Nature is incredibly beautiful and incredibly complex. That in itself often causes people to think about the reason behind it all. While not everybody will come to the conclusion that that 'reason' is God, many will - even if they reject religion. And even those who do not believe that God had anything to do with it, the very act of thinking about that 'reason' is part of discovering God.

If I stand in front of the Mona Lisa, and I think about the one who painted it, I am at least partly discovering Leonardo Da Vinci - even if I come to the conclusion that the painting occurred by someone accidentally throwing paint onto a canvas which just happened to land in such a way that the Mona Lisa face appeared.

Secondly, the beauty of nature often is so breathtaking that all we can do is stand in awe. To stand in awe of what God has made is to discover God. To feel wonder and delight and joy while looking at God's Creation is to feel part of the same wonder and joy and delight that God feels. Although, as finite beings, we will only feel that wonder and joy and delight on a limited scale, when we are truly captivated by nature I believe we sense for just a moment a tiny portion of what God feels. It seems we are raised just a little bit above our finitude and humanness.

Something else we often sense in nature in peace. Partly, this is because nature is soothing. There is a reason why when people want to relax, they listen to CDs of bird calls rather than CDs of bulldozers. Discovering that peace is part of discovering God.

So too is the recognition that we are not just individuals but part of the community of Creation. Nature often brings peace because it helps us forget about ourselves. We are lost in the moment and our own concerns are either forgotten or become less significant.

It is hard to discover God when we are solely focused on ourselves. Being in nature often turns our focus outward. The 'I' as an individual is enveloped in the 'we' of Creation. We are then able to see not just that we are part of a larger picture, but how we might act in ways to help that larger picture. Discovering God is not just about saying, 'Yes, I've found Jesus' and now I can put him on the mantelpiece along with my rock collection to stare at. It is about discovering his will, not just in our lives, but in the whole of Creation, and helping to see God's will be done.

I don't think God can ever be 'found'. Human beings will never be able to completely understand him or completely know him. We can't put him in a box, label him and store him somewhere safe so we can't lose him again. But we can catch glimpses. We can come close. We can have moments when we seem to rise briefly above our human nature. And we can keep looking and discovering, knowing the journey will never end, that there will always be new things to find and new things to search for - and that's what makes the faith journey so exciting.

Davies, Paul. The Mind of God; Science and the Search for Ultimate Meaning. Maryborough, Victoria: Penguin Books, 2008.

[1] Paul Davies, The Mind of God; Science and the Search for Ultimate Meaning (Maryborough, Victoria: Penguin Books, 2008).

Monday, September 17, 2012

Social Justice and Consumerism

One of the problems with consumerism is we often don't see the stories behind the products that we buy. And with more and more of our products made and sold by multi-national corporations, with much of their manufacturing taking place offshore, those behind-the-scenes stories are becoming less and less visible.

Yet those stories are important. And this year's Social Justice Sunday, taking place on 30 September with the theme Peace in the Marketplace, reminds us that consumerism often contributes to injustices, inequities and suffering.

We need to be reminded of the harsh and unfair conditions that people in Third World countries work under in order to produce our goods. We need to consider the impact that our purchases are having on the environment. And we need to reflect on what consumerism is doing to ourselves, not just in terms of employment practices that maximise profit and leave employees worse off, but also in terms of seeing life through a framework that values individuals over relationships and community, that leaves people feel worthless because they do not earn enough money or own the right things and that leaves almost all of us in a constant state of dissatisfaction because the advertisers keep persuading us there is something else we need to be happy.

Social Justice Sunday also reminds us that, while many people in our society see economic growth and consumerism as desirable, that is not the only possible view. Considering the negative impacts economic growth has on the environment, on people and on communities, maybe it is time we looked for a new over-arching framework, a new way of living in and seeing the world.

The Church must be a prophetic voice in this consumeristic, growth-driven culture. It must be prepared to show how our economic structures are damaging the earth and hurting people. It must be prepared to say there are more important things than profit, growth, money and purchases. It must be prepared to challenge the power of corporations and the way they conduct business. And it must show the world a different way, a way that values relationships, communities, peace and wellbeing, a way that puts people before profits, the earth before purchases.

The bible shows us that God cares about unfair economic structures. Therefore, Christians should care about them too. It is not an excuse to say we didn't know. We must make it our business to know. And if we really do care about seeing God's will done on earth, then once we know, we must do something about it.

The National Council of Churches in Australia has a pamphlet and worship resources on its website ( for Peace in the Marketplace, Social Justice Sunday, 30 September. This wonderful prayer, based on the Beatitudes, comes from those resources.

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
      for yours is the kingdom of God.’

God of the poor,
We hear your voice calling us to the reality of life in our land, in the country and in our cities.
The goodness of your creation has been twisted out of shape by the greed of people.
The land lifts up its voice in mourning, and the poor of the land cry out for justice.
Help us live out your just kingdom here in this part of the earth.

‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
     for you will be filled.’

God of the hungry,
Our indigenous brothers and sisters still struggle with worse health
and lower life expectancy than the rest of our population;
asylum seekers still wait months and years for settlement in safety;
the elderly, ill and unemployed struggle to live on pensions.
Help us know how to share our resources wisely and generously
so that all may be filled.

‘Blessed are you who weep now,
      for you will laugh.’

God of the desolate,
Young girls are exploited to sell fashion clothes,
while women slave in sweat shops for minimum wages.
Men work long hours at dangerous jobs
and young people turn to drugs and alcohol to cover their hopelessness.
We in the developed world enjoy our luxuries
at the expense of those who struggle to make a living growing them.
Help us protect the humanity of those who produce the goods we use.

‘Blessed are you when people hate you,
     and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you.’

God of the marginal,
Governments appear to favour those with economic power,
instead of investing in education;
megastores drive small businesses to the wall;
people deafened by the strident call to consume
fail to hear the whispers of the homeless and hungry.
Help us to speak fearlessly for those with no voices,
and to remember that your grace is abundant enough for all to share.

‘Rejoice in that day and leap for joy,
     for surely your reward is great in heaven.’

God of joy,
We pray that we who follow the way of Christ might live by your grace,
modelling care and integrity in our business transactions,
courage and hope in our politics,
and love and reconciliation in our relationships.

May our lives be evidenced by generosity,
daring to live in hope,
that our life together might point beyond ourselves
to the One in whose image we are made.
In the name of Jesus Christ, who showed us how to live. 

Acknowledgement: These worship resources have been compiled by Rev Dr Meryl Blair for use with the Social Justice Sunday 2012 resource Peace in the Marketplace.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Abandonment and same-sex marriage

Julia Gillard has today announced she will not be giving the keynote speech at the Australian Christian Lobby next month after ACL Managing Director, Jim Wallace, compared same-sex marriage to smoking.

After Julia Gillard's withdrawal from the conference, Wallace said that he thought this would be seen as an abandonment of the Christian constituency.
I'm a Christian. And I do feel abandoned. Not by Julia Gillard, though, but by Jim Wallace. But then, I've felt abandoned by Jim Wallace and the ACL for quite some time.
When a group has a name like the Australian Christian Lobby, I would think it should reflect the values of all Christians. Instead, it often seems to be very narrowly focused on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage - issues that not all Christians are even agreed upon. It also fails to seriously deal with issues that many people do believe are extremely important because of their Christian values - such as social justice, the environment, asylum seekers.
Not only does the ACL fail to reflect the issues that a lot of Christians care about, but its strong media profile gives the wider society the impression that most Christians care about the things the ACL cares about. When the ACL spends more time talking about same-sex marriage and abortion, rather than social justice, poverty and ecology, then it should not surprise us if many people believe all Christians care more about the former than the latter. And that's simply not the case.
I don't only feel abandoned by Jim Wallace and the ACL, but I feel they are misrepresenting me as a Christian.
If Jim Wallace wants to speak against same-sex marriage, that's fine. And I can understand why his Christian values would lead him to believe that same-sex marriage is not okay. And I also do believe that he has a right to state his views about same-sex marriage, which are informed by his Christian beliefs. 
But Mr Wallace needs to remember that he is acting as a spokesperson for the Christian community (even if not a truly representative one). When he compares smoking to same-sex marriage and suggests that homosexuality is bad for someone's health, his words reflect badly on all Christians. And what he says also has consequences.
I would have liked to hear what Julia Gillard had to say to the ACL. It would have been interesting to hear how her policies address the issues that Christians care about - and I suspect she would have a much broader idea of the issues Christians care about than Jim Wallace.
But I also understand why she pulled out. And quite honestly, I think she made the right choice. Jim Wallace's comments were offensive. And I really don't think she had a choice.
But now we have lost that opportunity to hear the Prime Minister speak to Christians. Mr Wallace has also probably made it more difficult for Christian voices to be heard on any political issue.
I believe Christians should be allowed to speak for or against same-sex marriage. And I think we need to hear voices on both sides of the debate. Unfortunately, these latest comments by Wallace have not contributed to that debate. They were so offensive that rather than promoting dialogue, they've shut down communication.
While I don't agree with Christians who are against same-sex marriage, I also don't want Christian views to be completely sidelined. Our ideas about marriage are informed by our religious and/or ideological views. We all get our ideas about marriage (and a number of other political and societal issues) from somewhere. Everybody has beliefs. And they always influence how we see things. We therefore can't say that opinions aren't valid simply because someone has religious beliefs. And I want those religious beliefs (and other beliefs) to be part of the conversation.
But in order to be part of the conversation, we have to treat others with respect. This involves respecting not just other beliefs, or other interpretations of Christian beliefs, but the people behind those beliefs. We must always treat people with love and compassion, whether they agree with us or not.
We also need to recognise that Christianity is not the authoritative or only important voice in the discussion. It is just one voice. Not everybody is going to agree with it. And not all Christians are going to speak with the one voice either. We no longer get to say, 'The bible says this' and think that means everybody should agree with it.
If we want people to listen to the Christian voice, then we have to listen to what people with different views have to say and we have to respect different ways of seeing things. And we also need to realise when we offend people, they're not going to be that interested in talking to us anymore. What we need in the same-sex debate is not preaching, but dialogue. It's a multi-way conversation. And that always relies on mutual respect. We need to respect others and their points of view if we want them to respect our point of view.
And if it is a conversation, then the LGBT community need to be at the centre of that conversation. They are the ones who are most affected by this. For many of us, it's a moral or ethical issue. For them, it's about their loves and their lives. They need to be listened to.
As I started with abandonment, let me finish with it. God said he would never leave us nor forsake us. I believe that should be the motto of the Church. The Church should never abandon anyone. Yet unfortunately, I think quite often the Church has abandoned the LGBT community. We've pushed them to the side and pointed fingers at them rather than embracing them as part of the Church. We've quite often acted as though we don't care about them. They've become a political issue, not a group of people who deserve our love and compassion. And Jim Wallace's latest comments probably only serve to increase those feelings of abandonment.
Whatever our feelings about same-sex marriage, we must never leave nor forsake homosexual people. But in order to do that, we need to talk to them, we need to listen to their concerns, we need to understand their hopes and dreams and we need to treat them with respect. Everybody deserves that. And everybody deserves to be embraced and welcomed. And that's how the conversation starts.

If you are interested in more details on what Jim Wallace said:

In a debate with Christine Milne over same-sex marriage, Jim Wallace said:

"I think we're going to owe smokers a big apology when the homosexual community's own statistics for its health - which it presents when it wants more money for health - are that is has higher rates of drug-taking, of suicide, it has the life of a male reduced by up to 20 years."
"The life of smokers is reduced by something like seven to 10 years and yet we tell all our kids at school they shouldn't smoke.
"But what I'm saying is we need to be aware that the homosexual lifestyle carries these problems and ... normalising the lifestyle by the attribution of marriage, for instance, has to be considered in what it does encouraging people into it." (from:
Today, Jim Wallace issued a media release, where he said he was not comparing homosexuality to smoking, but again repeated his belief that homosexuality carries health risks.
His media release stated that:
“If we warn against smoking because it carries health dangers, we should also be warning young people in particular about activity which clearly carries health risks.”
 “As I said yesterday, I am deeply saddened by the human suffering that is behind the poor health data of the gay community.
“This can only be addressed by looking at the real issues that cause it, not by changing the definition of marriage and certainly not by vilifying those with a different view to the activists." (from:


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