Reimagining—the spirit of our times

The city where I live, Canberra, has a regular annual festival. Each year, a large section of a central park is planted out with bulbs, around this time of the year. Lots of tourists come in September, joining with many of the residents of Canberra, to enjoy the festival known as Floriade.

The bulbs that have been planted grow, silently and stealthily, throughout winter, so that when spring arrives, they are fully grown plants, ready to burst into a display of spectacular colours—in time for hundreds of thousands of people to walk through, enjoying the display.

507,550 people saw the display in 2019 (see https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6456817/floriade-breaks-attendance-record/)

That’s not going to happen this year. The ACT Government wisely decided that it would not be sensible to plan for a large, crowded event in September—with the uncertainty that crowds of people would be able to gather, even in the outdoors.

So they have implemented Floriade Reimagined. Bulbs have been offered to community groups, to be planted at dispersed locations right around Canberra. Those bulbs are to be planted in locations that are visible from the road. Now, in September, people are able to drive around Canberra and enjoy the displays of flowers in many community locations. (See https://floriadeaustralia.com)

Alongside this, in the southern part of Canberra, there has been an annual festival in Tuggeranong, called, quite appropriately, SouthFest. This has been based around the Tuggeranong Town Centre in past years, with many stall lining the streets, and a festive atmosphere pervading the day.

But this year, again because of COVID-19, it has not been possible to plan for and hold the usual festivities. (See https://the-riotact.com/southfest-organisers-make-early-call-to-cancel-2020-festival/379080)

But SouthFest, alongside Floriade, has also been reimagined. And that’s where the Tuggeranong Uniting Church comes into the picture. They took their annual Spring Fair, and in 2019, gave it a strong sustainability focus. This year, they once again reimagined that that spring fair would look like. And so, SpringFest was born.

Tuggeranong, where Elizabeth is serving as Minister, submitted an expression of interest for Floriade Reimagined, and was awarded a set of bulbs. A crew of volunteers has worked hard to dig garden beds, build up the soil, and plant the bulbs. (See the picture, and https://www.insights.uca.org.au/tuggeranong-to-provide-a-symbol-of-hope-during-floriade/)

Now, in September, the Tuggeranong Uniting Church is surrounded with colour, as the bulbs burst into flower.

And this church, along with the Yarralumla Uniting Church (pictured below), is on the visiting list for Floriade Reimagined.

And Tuggeranong Uniting Church, under the enthusiastic and energetic leadership of Elizabeth, along with a fine team of dedicated volunteers, has partnered with SEE-Change to have a modified, downscale (but still very much appreciated) SouthFest happening, in the grounds at Erindale. The sustainability focus of 2019 was kept and expanded in SpringFest 2020.

SEE-Change, a local sustainability group, ran a series of workshops, in the community garden and the community hall, on topics relating to sustainability: composting, worm farms, bee keeping, and reducing plastic.

Meanwhile, in and around the church auditorium, the Red Dove Pre-Loved Op Shop was selling second hand clothes, the church was offering Devonshire teas and BBQ sandwiches, the Girls Brigade were selling delicious cakes, reuseable bags to replace single use plastic bags were on sale, as was a wide range of potted plants, and there was a Beeswax stall and assorted other goods for sale.

Why, the COVID Fairy was even in attendance (ensuring that all COVID Safe precautions were being adhered to). And she brought Senator Katy Gallagher along, to open the proceedings!

Floriade has reimagined itself. SouthFest has reimagined itself. COVID-19 has been the impetus. Tuggeranong Church has reimagined how it can partner with community groups to provide an enjoyable and inviting community event.

Can the church as a whole, similarly, reinvent itself? Can we take the stimulus of the present time to move out into the future with renewed creativity, imagination, and community engagement? Can we demonstrate that we are capable of the spirit of the times—reimagination?

Reflecting on faith amidst the firestorms

We have been surrounded by images of fire, for some weeks now. The last few weeks have been challenging, confronting us with terrible images of devastated landscapes, burnt native animals and birds, destroyed homes, and the bodies of farm stock unable to escape the fire, alongside of pictures and videos of the still-raging flames of fire, leaping high into air, travelling rapidly across the landscape.

We have watched aghast as our screens take us right into the heart of the firestorm, standing with firefighters in the face of unbeatable odds. And we have breathed the air that is saturated with smoke from the fires, smoke that causes us to gasp, cough, and wheeze. It has been a challenging time. And fire has been the constant theme.

In this context, there is one short verse in the Psalm caught my attention, this week, as I read the lectionary passages and pondered what I would take as a focus for today. I wonder if you noticed the verse that jumped out to me, when we said the psalm together, earlier? “The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire” (Ps 29:7).

These fires that rage, these flames that burn … are they really a message from God, to us, a message of punishment? That is how such events have been seen by some—the bushfires now raging, the floods that swamped North Queensland last year, the five severe cyclones that hit Pacific Islands a few years back, the massive tsunami that ravaged Asian countries over a decade ago—each of these have been explained by some zealous preacher or another, as a sign of God’s punishment.

It was not too long ago that a prominent sports star gained publicity by suggesting that the fires early in the season were sent by God to punish us—punishing us for the many sins committed by people in Australia. Others have made claims that God is punishing us for the decisions made by our church in recent times.

And just a few days ago, a breakaway Baptist pastor in Arizona made the audacious claim that the fires are actually punishment from God because he was denied a visa to visit Australia. He said on Facebook that “maybe if Australia wasn’t banning and deporting preachers of the Gospel, they wouldn’t be under the judgement of God”. And, as you can see, he clearly linked this with the bushfires, using the map of blazes and a picture of one of the fires.

We must, of course, distance ourselves from this kind of simplistic and arrogant claim. Simplistic, because this preacher has been banned from over 20 other countries—and they are not ringed with fire at this time. So a simple cause and effect connection is far too simplistic.

And simplistic, also, because making an interpretation of a naturally-occurring event, and attributing that to the intentions of the deity, is far too easy to do. Our scientific knowledge helps us to have insights as to how events in nature—like fires, storms, cyclones, droughts, and so on—how these actually form and manifest within the natural order of things. Our scientific knowledge also helps us to appreciate how the way that human beings live makes a contribution—however small or significant you believe it may be—to these events of nature.

And such a claim is breathtakingly arrogant in its nature. How can any one of us human beings dare to claim that we know, absolutely and definitively, the intentions of God at any one point in time? And that we can unambiguously declare those intentions?—usually, it must be said, in the voice of an angry prophet, making a negative judgement on the morality of the people.

So I don’t want to go down this track. “The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire” (Ps 29:7) can’t be taken at face value, as a literal, simple explanation of the fires as expressions of divine punishment. Whilst ancient understandings may have made this kind of immediate connection between an event in nature and the intentions of God, we cannot make such a simple link. We need to reflect more deeply.

….

How do we make sense of these fires, when we gather, today, as people of faith? We have seen so many images of the fires. Some of us have been close to the fire front. We have all breathed the smoke generated by those fires. What do they mean?

Some of us have seen this kind of destruction at close quarters. Some have memories of the 2003 Canberra fires brought back to prominent attention. Some have been recently in areas that are now devastated, or have been caught in the early stages of the recent forefront activity.

Some have family members or good friends who have had to evacuate in the face of the fire. Some of us know people whose properties, animals, and houses have been impacted by the intensity of the blazes. We are all caught into a sense of anxiety and grief as the fires continue.

In the evacuation centres, chaplains from a number of different denominations have been present, offering comfort and support to people who have been forced to leave their homes in the face of the fires. A number of my colleagues have been there, for days on end, over recent times, in the midst of people in turmoil, helping them to go gently in the midst of the upheaval and anxiety.

(See https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/09/pastoral-letter-from-canberra-region-presbytery/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/06/what-are-the-churches-doing-during-the-bushfire-crisis/)

For us, at some distance from the fires, we too need to be gentle with each other. We need to hold each other in the comfort of friendship, offer supportive words, provide practical assistance, and sit with each other in the uncomfortable spaces of waiting, wondering, worrying. We need to make sure that we don’t expose ourselves, unnecessarily, to risks to our own health. These fires call us to care, deeply, lovingly.

And yet, there is a question that recurs in situations like I have just described—situations of need, of loss, of intense grief and despair. That is this simple question: where is God? The simple answer—God sent this to you, God is punishing you—does not satisfy. We need another take.

The Adelaide theologian, Dr Norman Habel, wrote a hymn reflecting on just this question, in the context of bushfires that occurred on Black Saturday in 2009. (It goes to the familiar tune of Amazing Grace.) It begins like this:

Amazing flames that scorch the sky, like hurricanes of fire,

Alive with eucalyptus oil are roaring higher and higher.

These swirling balls of oil ablaze that leap o’er trees at will,

Descend on fields and flock and homes, explode and burn and kill.

And then, he asks the question:

Where’s God in all this swirling ash? Where’s God in all this pain?

Awaiting somewhere in the sky to one day send some rain?

The answer comes in striking imagery, in confronting declaration:

The face of God is burnt and black; the hands of God are red!

The God we know in Jesus Christ is bleeding with the dead.

The answer which Norman Habel offers is this: God is here. God is right in the middle of all this mess. God is not remote. God is not the one pulling the strings, away up in heaven, ready to send rain when enough prayers have been sent up to him.

No: God is here, in our midst, incarnate, one with us, suffering alongside us. God is crying as the house burns, weeping as the birds and animals flee, sobbing as the stock die, grieving as the firefighters are overwhelmed and their truck is overturned. God is here, with us. Jesus Christ is bleeding with the dead, grieving with us, mourning with creation.

The last verse of the hymn, then, is this:

Christ, show us now your hands and feet, the burns across your side,

and how you suffer with the Earth, by fires crucified!

And this reminds me of the poem that I shared with you some months back, about how we encounter God, and where we encounter God. The poem by Lisa Jacobson expresses the clear notion that God is not up there in the heavens, as the priest might claim, but down here in the land, as the black fella would say. To find God, we need to look for God; but not look up, to the heavens; rather, look down, look at your feet, look past your feet, to the stones—hear them singing? and the rivers—feel them vibrating? And sense how the earth is yearning, groaning.

Stones singing and rivers vibrating; that twofold expression of the inner life of the earth is also the key that unlocks a different understanding of God—as a being not remote and removed from humans on earth, but as a being beside us, around us, underneath us, in the earth, in the stones, in the rivers, in our very being.

And this, of course, is rightly acknowledged in this poem, as the insight of black fellas—the centre of spirituality for the First Peoples of this ancient continent, the heart of life and spirit for the Ngunnawal people, the people who have cared for the land in this general region from time beyond what we can measure, and for the Ngambri and Ngarigo people more locally, and for the Wiradjuri to our west, and for the first peoples of every city and region across this continent. God is in the land, God is in amongst us.

This understanding of where we find God, how we enter the depths of spirituality, is set forth very clearly in a clause of the Revised Preamble to the Constitution of the Uniting Church, which clearly affirms:

So we have adopted an affirmation that when we hear the stones sing, when we feel the rivers vibrating, we are connecting in a new way, with God, who is here, and has long been here, in this land, the land which God created at the first.

This claim arises from a different way of thinking about God, pondering the claims of scripture and engaging us on a journey of reflection and prayer, exploration and discovery, at the edges of our faith. Both the Australian poem and indigenous Australian spirituality have taken hold of this insight, that God is in our midst, amongst us, within us.

That is the same claim that the Gospel writer makes, when he writes that the angel told Joseph that he was to name his child Emanuel—God with us (Matt 1). That is what that child, grown to be an adult, taught about the reign of God—that it was here, in our midst—the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17).

That is what the ancient Hebrew psalmist affirmed, about the whole of creation—humans, animals, insects, birds, mountains and valleys, trees and forests—that when God created this whole creation, it was the spirit of God that was breathed into every living creature (Ps 104:30).

And the psalm we have read today affirms that God is active and at work in the creation. He is not an absentee, uninterested, disconnected God. God is active, over the oceans, in the desert, through the forests, in thunder and flames. God is here, with us.

And this, after all, is the story that we tell, and retell, each year, each Sunday: the story of God, come to us in the human being Jesus, friend of sinners and advocate for the outcast, Jesus arrested and condemned as a criminal, Jesus, despised, crucified, hanging on the cross. That is where God was to be found, most profoundly, most assuredly—in the very midst of our life.

And as Jesus suffers and dies, so God suffers, and feels the sharpness of the moment we call death. For that is where God is. Here, in our midst, amongst us.

Just as God is with us, in the midst of our lives, in the midst of this creation, present in the animals and humans, the ecosystems and great forests, so also God suffers with the earth, as part of the earth. So, for me, the psalm does, indeed, speak a truth—a confronting, challenging, disturbing truth.

For the fires we are experiencing now are the result of the way that human beings, collectively, have been living, not just this year, or for a few years, but for many years—for centuries. The clear observations of science are, that as we have industrialised our societies and pumped more CO2 into the atmosphere, we have developed an environment that is drier, and hotter; more vulnerable to firestorms and more liable to flooding; for the creation is groaning, it is out of order.

And in the processes of nature that are at work, that we have intensified and exacerbated, we see tragic results in the multiple fire fronts that have surged in recent weeks—just as the same instability in the earth’s system has generated more intense and more frequent cyclones, warmed the oceans and melted the edges of the polar caps, and other observable events around the world.

And in the midst of those cyclones, and meltings, and bleachings of coral, and eruptions of fire storms, God is communicating with us: the world cannot go on like this, the planet can not sustain our incessant disregard for its natural ways. So, yes, I think that the psalmist does speak truth. The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.

God has not singled out a nation, or a people, or particular individuals for punishment. God, indeed, is not manipulating what occurs, intervening whenever and however God wills. God is in the systems, in the processes of our natural environment, and as the fires rage, God is indeed speaking to us through those flames of fire. The challenge, for us, is to pause … to listen … to understand … and to act in response.

Thanks to Dr Byron Smith for this prayer in response: https://www.commongrace.org.au/prayer_for_bushfires, to Dr Sarah Agnew for this lament: http://sarahtellsstories.blogspot.com/2020/01/choking.html, and to the Rev. Jennie Gordon for this blessing: https://greaterfarthantongueorpen.wordpress.com/about/

For my other blogs on the environment, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/25/873/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/05/to-care-for-honour-and-respect-the-creation-we-need-to-stopadani-k/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-4/

My wife Elizabeth Raine has written some helpful reflections on environmental theology at

And God saw it was good…

and

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2012/06/musing-on-ecological-economy-why.html

and a series of blogs on living a life with low environmental impact, at

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/setting-sail-on-ss-low-impact.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/rubbish-to-left-of-me-and-rubbish-to.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/07/planet-at-risk-sorry-for-inconvenience.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/10/hygenically-sealed-in-plastic-for-your.html

and a lot more at https://elementcityblog.com (follow the links on the right of the page)

Pastoral Letter from Canberra Region Presbytery

The following letter has been prepared for the people of the Congregations across the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia. I am sharing it here for the interest of those beyond that network, with the intention that that it might inform and encourage people about the work taking place on-the-ground amongst the communities where the fires have hit hard in recent weeks.

******

Dear friends, the last few weeks have been challenging, confronting us with images of devastated landscapes, burnt native animals and birds, destroyed homes, and the bodies of farm stock unable to escape the fire, alongside of pictures and videos of the still-raging flames of fire, leaping high into air, travelling rapidly across the landscape. 

We have watched aghast as our screens take us right into the heart of the firestorm, standing with firefighters in the face of unbeatable odds. And we have breathed the air that is saturated with smoke from the fires, smoke that causes us to gasp, cough, and wheeze. It has been a challenging time.

Some of us have seen this kind of destruction at close quarters. Some have memories of the 2003 Canberra fires brought back to prominent attention. Some have been recently in areas that are now devastated, or have been caught in the early stages of the recent forefront activity. 

Some have family members or good friends who have had to evacuate in the face of the fire. Some of us know people whose properties, animals, and houses have been impacted by the intensity of the blazes. We are all caught into a sense of anxiety and grief as the fires continue.

We need to be gentle with each other. We need to hold each other in the comfort of friendship, offer supportive words, provide practical assistance, and sit with each other in the uncomfortable spaces of waiting, wondering, worrying. We need to make sure that we don’t expose ourselves, unnecessarily, to risks to our own health.

We need to be mindful of those in the midst of all the affected areas, whose homes are gone, whose friends are scattered, whose memories are burnt and whose hopes are scarred. We can pray for them. We can give to the bushfire disaster funds that have been set up to support people on the ground. The Uniting Church has one, as do Red Cross, the Rural Fire Service, and many other charities and agencies. (https://nswact.uca.org.au/about-us/giving/moderators-appeal/)

Above: Bushfire, by Gabrielle Jones: an invitation to pause and reflect, in the midst of the fires.

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We can pray, especially, for the Disaster Response Chaplains who are on the ground amongst these people—listening, comforting, praying; holding people in their time of grief, offering consolation and providing practical support. These chaplains are trained to work closely on the ground with the emergency services and the local councils in each location. 

These chaplains work with the volunteers from local churches and service clubs, who are providing meals, water, and a comforting presence to people in great need. Along with the volunteers they work with, they exemplify the ministry of hospitality, expressed through compassion and practical assistance, that is fundamental to the faith we share. 

To assist us with our prayerful support of these people, here is an overview of the ministers, pastors, chaplains, and key lay leaders who have been contributing so effectively to the local disaster responses in each location. Please uphold them as they go about their ministries in each place.


Julie Fletcher has been ministering in Braidwood and working closely with churches and organisations in the town, since the fires broke out there in November. Julie and husband Neil have formed an ecumenical co-operative with other churches and the Moderator’s Bushfire Appeal has already provided funds to assist as they meet the practical needs of people from the areas surrounding the town where the fires have struck. Roads are still closed between Braidwood and the coast.

David Russell and Susan Cann have been active, first in Bega and then in Merimbula, where David has been in placement for some years. David estimates he has had contact with a thousand people since the Sapphire Club was opened as an evacuation centre. This is the kind of ministry that we can support from distance through our prayers. 

Karyl Davison came to the area after the initial damaging impact of the fires had swept through. She has been based at the Merimbula RSL Club, where she has ministered with about 400 people. Ian Diamond travelled to the coast with her and is based at the Tathra Beach Country Club, where almost 400 people sheltered—along with about 70 pets! Most evacuation centres do not accept pets, so Ian set about ensuring that people with pets had a safe and secure place to shelter.

Michael Palmer is an Anglican minister serving the Uniting Church in Eden, and with the UCA people led Peter and Pam Skelton has been working long days and well into the nights to make properties safe, after most of the people in the town were evacuated. The hinterland of Eden is particularly at risk at this time. Instead of worship on Sunday, 

Michael opened his own home to the people still in town and met with people for conversation and prayer, with a cup of tea as well. He also spent some time visiting people who had stayed, praying with them. Some people have been unable to leave the town because they had no fuel and no funds.

Uniting Church ministers Yvonne Stephenson and Kath Merrifield, along with Ray Lemon, from the Assemblies of God, have served at the Batemans Bay evacuation centre. Yvonne, who lives in the area, has been active as a chaplain from the very start of the emergency and has done stirling work in difficult circumstances.

Up to 5,000 people have been fed, sheltered, and comforted in that town. Members of the Batemans Bay congregation cleared the pews so that people could sleep in the church. Some hardy souls were sleeping on the pews, which had been pushed together to form beds! Sunday worship was an informal gathering for prayer and singing over a cup of tea. Power has been cut to Batemans Bay on and off for some days.

Terence Corkin, who lives just out of Moruya, has spent a number of days at the local evacuation centre, helping people to adjust to their frightening situation. Terence and Julie have had to leave their own property for a time during the past week. He reports that the immediate threat of fire has diminished, but there are many people in the town from scattered communities that have been burnt, with little prospect of returning soon. After a period without power, the electricity is running. A fine layer of ash covers everything.

At both Bateman’s Bay and Narooma, a number of homeless men have been sleeping in swags and old vans in Church carparks. They have become the hands, heart and feet that clean the toilets, wash dishes, clear the gutters and are the protectors of church property and drop in centres.

Di White and Kath Crapp, in the town of Narooma, have marshalled and organised a great team that has provided food and water, shelter and support, for the many people evacuated into that town. Monty’s Place operates from the Uniting Church building, so there was already a team and the know-how on hand for the emergency. Kath has expressed their gratitude in the knowledge that people are praying for them each day.

Daniel Mossfield has been at the evacuation centre in Goulburn, where people from Bundanoon and other small towns in the Southern Highlands have gathered after being evacuated over the weekend. The evacuation centre is in the Showground, which is filled to capacity with people. There are many pets at this centre, and this creates various challenges to those organising the evacuations.

At the tail end of the most recent critical period, the township of Jindabyne became a focus point, as fires in the Snowy Mountains intensified and people were evacuated from right across the Monaro and Snowy Mountains region. The Uniting Church there has a small but very fine group off leaders, including Judy McKinlay, recently elected as Co-Chair of the Presbytery, and Peter Beer. Peter is the Mayor of the region, and thus is involved in the centre of all the planning for the region. It would be very good to pray especially for him, as he serves in that position. 

Cooma has also been busy with an official evacuation centre in operation which is now in receipt of DRCN chaplaincy from ADF reserve chaplains. UCA minister in Cooma, Noel Williams, has been at his farm near Adaminaby undertaking the difficult task of fire protecting his farm as it is subjected to ever changing threat levels from two separate fire fronts, whilst also trying to truck in semi-trailer loads of hay to battle the impact from the drought to feed his 1,500 merinos and 50 pigs. Noel’s story will be similar to many within our Presbytery and that of other Presbytery farmers across the NSW and ACT Synod.

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People who have been most impacted have expressed gratitude for the prayer and practical support from others not in the immediate danger zones. We do well to keep praying, and giving, and hoping. 

And as we pray, and watch, and wait with hope, be encouraged that there are people of Christian faith, people of other faiths, and people of no faith, all working together to ensure the safety of people, animals, and property, and to support one another in this time of need. And know that people are praying around the world for those in crisis. 

There is a collection of resources, for prayer and reflection, at https://www.unitingearth.org.au/bushfire-prayers/

The Moderators of each Synod, and the national President of the Uniting Church, have all expressed prayerful concern for the people who are being hardest hit, and for those seeking to serve them. The President’s message is on video at https://vimeo.com/382251990

Personal friends in countries all over the world are, through the wonders of our internet age, receiving up to date information and offering prayers for those affected. The General Secretary of the World Council of Church has assured Australians of the prayers of people from churches across the globe (https://www.oikoumene.org/en/press-centre/news/in-letter-to-australian-churches-wcc-prays-for-respite-from-the-heat-and-the-flames). 

The UCA Assembly webpage contains messages of support that have been sent by our partner churches around the world (https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/disaster/item/424-messages-of-support-from-overseas).

May you go in peace and hope in the days ahead.

Judy McKinlay, John Williams, Delia Quigley, Co-Chairs

John Squires, Presbytery Minister–Wellbeing

The letter is online at https://canberra.uca.org.au/presbytery-news/a-pastoral-message-for-the-bushfire-crisis/

There is a helpful list of resources relating to climate change and the bushfires at https://www.unitingearth.org.au/bushfire-crisis-info/ and some prayers and liturgies for use at this time at https://www.unitingearth.org.au/bushfire-prayers/

The image shows the Batemans Bay Uniting Church, transformed from a place of worship to a safe place for evacuated people to sleep. Photo by Pam Nuessler.

What are the churches doing during the bushfire crisis?

I have been seeing posts asking about how the churches are helping in the current bushfire emergency. Here are some thoughts.

First, I am very aware that there is a lot of energy and time being contributed on the ground by people of local congregations who have provided people affected by the fires with a place to sleep, a place to eat and drink water, and a place to talk with compassionate folk who are willing to listen. This is the ministry of hospitality, which is fundamental to being people of faith.

In my own denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia, the Canberra Region Presbytery covers much (but not all) of the areas in the south-east of Australia that are being affected by these savage fires. You can see from the images below just how many fires there are, and how many roads have been closed (as of 6 January 2020).

There are daily updates from situations on the ground, indicating what Uniting Church congregations and chaplains are doing, on the Facebook page of the Canberra Region Presbytery, which is public for anyone to read.

The major denominations each have a fund that receives donations and provides those funds to places where the need is great. Those funds are all being put to good use now, as the bushfires rage. The Uniting Church fund in NSW.ACT is at https://nswact.uca.org.au/about-us/giving/moderators-appeal/

These are excellent, immediate responses. It is great to learn of these actions by people of faith. However, perhaps the most enduring contribution comes through the provision of trained chaplains at the various evacuation centres that are set up. These people make themselves available to listen to affected people with compassion and to assist in the many practicalities that need to be attended to, when large numbers of people are displaced.

My colleague Stephen Robinson (pictured below, at right) is supported fulltime by the Uniting Church, to co-ordinate the Disaster Chaplaincy Response Network across NSW and the ACT. He has been doing a fine job! There is an article about this ministry at https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/2973-disaster-ready-chaplains

The DCRN is an ecumenical network with ministers and pastors from a number of denominations participating. You can read about it at http://www.nswdrcn.org.au/about_us

(The news page is not up to date—I suspect this reflects the limited personnel and the increased rate of disasters requiring attention in recent years . But the main information is clear and accurate.)

I have many excellent colleagues within the Uniting Church who are, right at this moment, sitting with people in evacuation centres, listening to their accounts of fire, loss, and grief, soothing their aggravated fears, and seeking to provide practical assistance.

The DCRN works closely with a network of church agencies, co-ordinated by a state government agency, as the image attached shows.

There’s a good overview of the ways that churches are responding to the bushfires at http://religionsforpeaceaustralia.org.au/?p=9473

From afar, one thing that people can certainly do, is pray—pray for the disaster chaplains, that their energies will be replenished, their words will exude compassion, their actions will assist those in need. I am certain that they would appreciate this.

The Moderator of the United Church of Christ in Canada, the Right Rev. Richard Bott, has offered this wonderful prayer in response to the Australia wildfires 

https://www.united-church.ca/prayers/prayer-people-animals-and-land-australia

See also https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3111-a-comforting-presence-in-a-time-of-crisis and https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/09/pastoral-letter-from-canberra-region-presbytery/

Faith in Action: a religious response to the Climate Emergency (Part Three)

Continuing my reflections on the first national conference in Canberra of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) …

Dr James Whelan, lecturer, researcher and longterm environmental activist, spoke about creating a faith network to tackle the climate emergency, advocating that we need to play to our strengths, ask the clarifying questions, “What are our strengths?”, “What are we lacking?”—and advocate that we need to be strategic!

He argued that we can learn from social movements that have come before—in areas as diverse as anti-apartheid, land rights, whaling, smoking, AIDS/HIV, breast cancer, anti-uranium, public transport, urban sanitation, workers’ rights, or domestic violence.

He then invited the participants to identify the strengths of ARRCC and its people; participants identified creativity, courage, a moral voice, the use of positional authority to persuade, energy from young people, shared values across a wide diversity, existing networks that can be engaged, a clarity of commitment to change, a commitment to respectful conversations as the basis for enabling change, a thoughtful, broad-based progressive religious voice in the public arena, and the fact that ARRCC is an intergenerational and transcontinental movement.

The afternoon was spent in small group workshops ranging across a range of issues exploring how people of faith might respond to the climate emergency. One group heard strategies used to convince religious groups to divest from companies that support fossil fuels; another explored a case study in “switching to sunshine” by installing solar panels.

In one group there was a focus on strategies for developing a climate-conserving lifestyle, noting both the opportunities and the challenges involved. A fourth group heard stories of nonviolent resistance “from the frontline”, whilst another group heard stories of developing local networks across religious faiths (and beyond), sharing the triumphs and the struggles of such work.

The afternoon continued with feedback of learnings and a consideration of how these learnings might best inform the ongoing work of ARRCC, as they focus on four areas: preventing the extraction of fossil fuels (no new coal mines)—transitioning to sustainable regional economies (retraining the labour force)—increasing clean energy uptake by local faith communities—and encouraging responsible lifestyle changes (through programs such as Living the Change, Switch to Sunshine, Eat Less Meat, and Climate Action Kits).

ARRCC President, Thea Ormerod, reminded us of the practical steps that people of faith (and others, too) can take: flying less and driving more; cycling more and taking public transport; eating less meat, shopping locally, and growing your vegetables; all of these (and more) contribute to a more sustainable lifestyle.

The scourge of our society is that we think that increased comfort and convenience, and abundant choice as consumers, makes us appreciate life more and feel happier and more contented. Not so, the research shows; more is not better, comfort does not always generate happiness, convenience does not help us flourish as human beings.

Quoting Prof. Mark Howden of the ANU, Thea noted that “each choice matters, each year matters, each half a degree matters”. Living the Change is a project that ARRCC now offers to educate and encourage such transitions in people’s lives. This project upholds two deep theological convictions: the Earth is a sacred gift, and each person has the responsibility to live in a way that supports and sustains our common home. You can read about this project at https://www.arrcc.org.au/living_the_change and download a climate action kit with practical strategies at https://www.arrcc.org.au/climate-action-kits

The conference continues on Sunday with further workshops on moving to a pant-based diet, making the most of one-on-one conversations, and building the climate movement in a local faith community—but I won’t be there as I will be leading worship in my local faith community and speaking about the importance of caring for creation and living sustainability.

It’s certainly been a most intense but very useful experience to have been involved in this conference.

(The photo montage shows key ARRCC people, Dr Miriam Pepper at top left, Thea Ormerod and Tejopala Rawls at bottom right, along with the large cross and the meeting place of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture in Barton.)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/09/faith-in-action-a-religious-response-to-the-climate-emergency-part-two/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/09/faith-in-action-a-religious-response-to-the-climate-emergency-part-one/

and related blogs at

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/08/look-up-to-the-sky-look-down-to-your-feet-luke-20/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/09/18/supporting-the-climate-strike/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/25/873/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/05/to-care-for-honour-and-respect-the-creation-we-need-to-stopadani-k/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-4/

Faith in Action: a religious response to the Climate Emergency (Part Two)

Today I am with people from a wide range of faith traditions from across the Australian continent and Aotearoa New Zealand, at the first national conference in Canberra of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC).

During the morning, a series of keynote speakers addressed the Conference: a scientist, followed by a Muslim scholar and a Christian researcher and activist.

Prof. Lesley Hughes of the Climate Council and Macquarie University (top right in the photo montage) gave an overview of the impacts that are being felt right around the world in this climate emergency. Significant changes in the climate are clearly documented; the rate of change is alarming and disturbing in so many areas: temperatures are rising, heatwaves are growing, snow coverage is declining, water levels are rising.

Emissions in 18 countries have been declining in recent years; Australia is not one of those countries. Globally, there is less use of coal and more dependence on renewable sources of energy. However, Australia remains the largest exporter of coal in the world, and we have the 12th highest emissions per capita. Figures demonstrate that the introduction of a Carbon Price under Gillard had a clear impact, but there has been a strong reversal since the time of Abbott.

A number of articles by Prof. Hughes setting out the details of these factors can be read on The Conversation at https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823/articles, whilst the Climate Council has recently published a landmark report, This is what climate change looks like. It offers sobering reading. You can download and read the report from https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/This-is-What-Climate-Change-Looks-Like.pdf

Prof. Hughes concluded by quoting the inspiring slogan, We are the ones we have been waiting for!

Prof. Mehmet Ozalp, of Charles Sturt University (bottom right in the photo montage) spoke about an Islamic response to the climate emergency, arguing that within Islamic theology there is a clear ethical obligation to respond in practical ways. On the scale of assessment regarding ethical matters (allowed, recommended, neutral, not recommended, prohibited), this clearly sits within the realm of allowed (halal). He bases this on the premise that, where harm and benefit co-exist, alleviation of harm is the priority.

In 2015, the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change was issued. It sets out the theological and ethical imperatives, but is not strong on offering practical strategies. See https://unfccc.int/news/islamic-declaration-on-climate-change

What motivates change? Prof. Ozalp outlined four factors: awareness through education, activism and media reports; relationships with friends, acquaintances and organisations; religious teachings in worship; and individual consciences which generate a concern for the earth and its creatures.

Prof. Ozalp referred to a range of initiatives: questions relating to the hajj and the use of plastic bottles for water; green makeovers of 600 mosques in Morocco and 2000 mosques in Jordan; the Greening the Desert project in Jordan is one of many projects in the Middle East; and the partnership of Greenpeace and the Indonesian Government to avoid plastic during Ramadan.

Trees for Change in Tanzania is one of a number of African tree planting projects; a proposed gold mine in the Kaz Mountains near Gallipoli in Turkey has been stopped by mass protest; an Eco Mosque is being built in Cambridge, UK; and a strong Green Muslim movement has emerged in the USA.

In Australia, Monash University held a Greener Iftar whilst a recently-opened Eco Mosque in Punchbowl has won an architectural award. Australian Muslim leaders have supported the Stop Adani campaign and signed the letter prepared by ARRCC. ISRA has been active in holding public education events in the Muslim community, including the 2019 Living the Change Workshop.

Dr Miriam Pepper, from the Uniting Church (bottom left in the photo montage), then spoke about Engagement and mobilisation on climate change in Christian churches, both to outline the responses and help participants to discern opportunities for future mobilisation.

In Australia, 1.6 million people attend Christian worship on any given Sunday, providing a significant opportunity for networking, influencing, and acting. However, church participants are generally socially and politically conservative, and takeup of climate activism, despite the clear evidence about the climate emergency, has been low and slow across all Christian denominations. (Some have been more active than others.)

Attitudes towards the climate emergency and activities taken in response to it can be schematised as citizen, reformer, rebel, or change agent. Each has a place in the overall movement. Dr Pepper spoke of a range of actions undertaken in Australian Christian churches. Community gardens, solar panels and climate signs outside churches are increasingly found associated with churches. Christian participation in marches, rallies and strikes remains consistent—especially from Uniting Church members, but spread across many denominations.

Divestment from companies supporting fossil fuels is a strategy employed by a growing number of religious organisations. Some Christians have participated in nonviolent direct actions—following the example of Jesus himself! Organisationally, churches work through Congregations and Parishes, denominational agencies focussed on environmental issues, influential positional leaders (most notably, Pope Francis), national and regional church bodies, church schools, university student groups, theological and bible colleges, religious orders, as well as in partnership with parachurch organisations and ecumenical networks.

Drawing on data from the NCLS, Dr Pepper reported that the majority of church people do accept that climate change is happening, but taking action on environmental issues does not rate high on the list of social and religious issues that churchgoers believe should be prioritised by their churches. That places a challenge before all ministers and leaders in the churches to press the point concerning this vital set of issues. See a series of NCLS papers on the environment at http://www.ncls.org.au/topic/environment

In summary, she noted that congregational engagement remains low; however, a sign of hope is provided through an increasing Roman Catholic commitment to caring for the earth, which has grown since the release of the encyclical Laudato si’.

The three presentations we followed by a lively panel discussion, responding to a range of questions and comments form conference participants. A clear role was seen for church communities to press for changes in lifestyle as well as the policy framework of society—through individual and communal actions, through public education and activism, and through political lobbying.

The importance of naming environmental issues in worship, inviting lament and grieving in prayers, offering practical strategies in sermons and study groups, and pointing to a hope for the future through specific actions, was also noted. The scientist on the panel, Prof. Hughes, made a strong statement about the importance of hope amongst everyone involved in responding to the climate emergency—both people of faith and people of no faith working together to a shared and hoped-for outcome.

Prof. Hughes also spoke about the interrelationship between environment, society, lifestyle and civilisation itself. We need to stop talking about “the environment” as an isolated entity, and frame it, rather, in terms of what impact the changes in climate will have on our way of living and our very existence as the human race. That is the extent of the challenge we face!

See related blogs at

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/09/faith-in-action-a-religious-response-to-the-climate-emergency-part-one/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/08/look-up-to-the-sky-look-down-to-your-feet-luke-20/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/09/18/supporting-the-climate-strike/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/25/873/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/05/to-care-for-honour-and-respect-the-creation-we-need-to-stopadani-k/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-4/

Faith in Action: a religious response to the Climate Emergency (Part One)

A good number of Uniting Church people from the ACT and NSW, and beyond, joined with people from a wide range of faith traditions from across the continent and Aotearoa New Zealand, at the first national conference in Canberra of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC).

The Friday evening began with the Kiddush, a welcome to the Sabbath, with blessings and sharing of wine and bread, as is the Jewish custom for the Friday evening start of Sabbath. This was led, and explained, by Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black from the Leo Baeck Centre in Melbourne.

A Welcome to Country was offered by Uncle Wally Bell, of the Buru Ngunawal Aboriginal Corporation, who sang and spoke in language as he explained the spiritual importance of land for the First Peoples of the country. This was followed by an introduction to the Conference by the President of ARRCC, Thea Ormerod, and a welcome to participants from Bishop Stephen Pickard, Director of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, which was the location for the conference.

Spirituality is at the centre of the ethos of ARRCC, so prayers were led by people of faith from the Hindu, Muslim, Brahma Kumaris, and Buddhist faith traditions.

This was followed by a powerful reflection on how Indigenous spirituality informs the work of caring for and protecting the environment. The reflection was offered by Murrawah Johnson, a young Wirdi woman from Wangan and Jagalingou country, the land of the Galilee Basin where it is proposed to build the monstrous Adani coal mine. She is an activist, inspired by Eddie Mabo and others of his era, who has worked hard towards the goal of stopping the Adani mine. “When you love your people, amazing things can happen”, she observed, bringing a strong sense of optimism into the conference deliberations,

The Muslim speaker quoted a verse of the Quran which appears to provide a direct commentary on the climate emergency that we are currently experiencing, not shying away from the contribution that human beings have made to that emergency: Corruption has appeared in the land and the sea on account of what the hands of men have wrought, that He may make them taste a part of that which they have done, so that they may return. (Quran, 30:41)

That seems, to me, to be a powerful statement in our current context. It does not seek to excuse human beings for the scenario we are facing; in fact, it centres the ecological crisis deep in the heart of the spiritual dis-ease of human beings. It also signals some hope: is it possible that we might return (repent, change, transform) as a result of what we are currently experiencing. That means it is as much a spiritual, or religious, matter, as it is a political, legal, economic, and social matter.

For links to people and organisations noted above, see

http://www.buru-ngunawal.com/426483484

https://grist.org/grist-50/profile/murrawah-johnson/

https://www.arrcc.org.au/about

https://www.arrcc.org.au/arrcc_national_conference

https://about.csu.edu.au/community/accc/about

For some of my other blogs on the environment, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/08/look-up-to-the-sky-look-down-to-your-feet-luke-20/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/09/18/supporting-the-climate-strike/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/25/873/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/05/to-care-for-honour-and-respect-the-creation-we-need-to-stopadani-k/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-4/

Supporting the Climate Strike

It is clear to me that many people across the Uniting Church are concerned about the impacts of climate change, and have been supportive of the various efforts to raise this attention in the public arena. The Climate Strike this week is the latest such enterprise, and we should be supporting it. In addition, we need to ensure that we do everything we can to change our way of living to reduce our impact on the environment.

When the Synod of NSW.ACT met in July, it agreed by consensus to support the School Student Climate Strike on 20 September, and others like it. Synod comprises people from towns and cities right across NSW and the ACT, from every Congregation and Presbytery of the UCA. I was very proud, as a member of the Synod, to see the clear message given by the younger members of Synod, and the strong support across all members.

The precise resolution is:

SYNOD CLIMATE CHANGE ACTION STRATEGY

Resolved 106/19S

That the Synod

(i) Develops a Synod-wide Climate Action Strategy to reduce carbon emissions across all levels councils and agencies of the Church and to advocate to the Federal, State Governments and Local

Councils to take decisive steps to reduce our emissions nationally.

(ii) Supports initiatives taken by young people in advocating for action on climate change, including the global climate strikes.

You can find this on page 5 of the Minutes at https://nswact.uca.org.au/media/7536/synod-2019-minutes-final.pdf

I blogged about it at the time at https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/09/advocacy-and-climate-change-growth-and-formation-treaty-with-first-peoples-synod-2019/

and my colleague Amy Junor provided a fine reflection on the set of issues involved in confronting climate change, at https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/19/climate-change-a-central-concern-in-contemporary-ministry/

The widespread support for this decision, both at Synod and in discussions subsequent to this meeting, is quite striking. In my experience, this crosses generations, political leanings, and theological commitments.

The Moderator has written an article, published by Eternity News, which articulates the theological underpinnings for supporting this strike, which you can read at https://www.eternitynews.com.au/current/why-the-uniting-church-supports-students-striking-for-climate-change/

A Synod media release was issued on 26 August, at https://nswact.uca.org.au/communications/newsroom/media-release-uniting-church-the-first-to-endorse-the-climatestrike-movement/

A strong statement has been issued in support of the strike from the Head of Newington College, a UCA school in Sydney, at https://massmail.fi.net.au/t/ViewEmail/j/CE89880F76CEFA0D2540EF23F30FEDED/F4747CB15B40540BF99AA49ED5AF8B9E

Common Grace has provided a clear explanation of the issues involved at https://www.commongrace.org.au/im_rallying_for

Vivian Harris provides clear testimony about the impact of persistent protest at https://climateactionbega.blogspot.com/2019/09/persistent-presence.html

and The Conversation explains how participation in such an event can motivate stronger action for change at https://theconversation.com/why-attending-a-climate-strike-can-change-minds-most-importantly-your-own-122862

These links provide us with a clear understanding as to why the Uniting Church has been such a strong advocate for participation in this strike and why we are joining with school children and concerned citizens around the world to participate in this strike.

My wife Elizabeth Raine has written some helpful reflections on environmental theology at

https://revivemagazine.org.au/2018/07/20/and-god-saw-it-was-good/

and

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2012/06/musing-on-ecological-economy-why.html

and a series of blogs on living a life with low environmental impact, at

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/setting-sail-on-ss-low-impact.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/rubbish-to-left-of-me-and-rubbish-to.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/07/planet-at-risk-sorry-for-inconvenience.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/10/hygenically-sealed-in-plastic-for-your.html

and a lot more at https://elementcityblog.com (follow the links on the right of the page)

For my other blogs on the environment, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/25/873/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/05/to-care-for-honour-and-respect-the-creation-we-need-to-stopadani-k/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-4/

Australian Religious Leaders support renewable energy

I have joined more than one hundred and fifty religious leaders across Australia as a signatory to an open letter to the Prime Minister about the climate crisis. The letter has been released today, 25 June 2019.

We are writing because we have #NoFaithInCoal and we need to grow our use of renewable energy sources. We asking Mr Morrison to show real moral leadership by taking bold action along the lines that the school strikers have demanded:

Stopping the proposed Adani coal mine

Committing to no new coal or gas projects in Australia

Moving to 100% renewable energy by the year 2030.

You can read the letter at https://www.arrcc.org.au/no_faith_in_coal?utm_campaign=no_faith_in_coal&utm_medium=email&utm_source=arrcc