Tag Archives: Christianity

Living with thorns

Last month I was invited to take part in a teaching series my church has been running on mental health. Each session had looked at a different aspect of mental health from the perspectives of scripture, a mental health professional, and a testimony from a church member. I was invited to be the testimony for the session on depression.

I was actually very excited to speak about this, as being open about my mental health is really important to me personally and in terms of creating a space for others to talk about it too. You can listen to the whole teaching slot here (search for ‘Living With Thorns’), featuring myself and a therapist from the congregation being interviewed by the preacher as part of the talk, but here is my testimony itself:

Interview:

In your darkest moments what is it like for you to live with depression?

I found this first question a bit difficult as I’ve had two experiences of depression, one severe in my teens and before I became a Christian (I was actually spontaneously healed when I fist met Jesus!), and more recently a spell of mild depression, mainly through 2016, though I’m still very much walking through recovery from that now, it can be a bit of a process. So the lows are all very much past tense, and day-to-day now it is pretty mundane. Maybe that’s helpful to note in itself?

Depression takes many forms. Back in my teens I had severe depression and it manifested in suicidal thoughts, hopelessness and emotional numbness. My recent, mild, illness has been more like a crushing lack of energy and motivation and a tendency to feel so overwhelmed it paralyses me, only occasionally spilling over into low mood. But it’s all the same illness, it presses down on you as a heavy weight. For me, recently, the bad days have felt like a spiral out of control; my thoughts assail me so heavily it feels like being beaten round the head and knocked down. Thoughts of failure, of not being enough, of inadequacy, and on top of that, of all the myriad things I ‘should’ be doing, and you can imagine how upsetting is would be to have someone have that sort of rant at you – it’s like that, I break down in tears and can’t easily separate out what really needs to be done now from all those ‘should’s under the weight of it all. So – I get stuck, end up lying on the sofa, having an uphill battle to even make myself drink a glass of water…

So that’s the worst of the current beast I live with! Most days now it just manifests as a lack of energy, a frustratingly low burn-out point, despite my hope and joy and love of life.

But the darkest I’ve known previously has felt like absolute hopelessness. It is dark and terrifying to be unable to see any hope or potential for change. Depression can lie so convincingly that there is no hope it feels like an objective fact that no-one else could ever possibly understand from outside. But having come out the other side I can tell you it is a lie, and that there absolutely is always hope, in God’s big picture that is bigger than us and our lives if nothing more, and as long as you are breathing you can live for that and be part of it.

We know you have faith in Jesus so could you tell us what it is like to follow Jesus through depression?

Positives and negatives; because my illness lies to me it can be harder to hang onto the truth, I easily find myself projecting my own insecurities onto God (ie in my case I first realised I wasn’t well when I noticed I was starting to wonder if God had a place for me or had just made me ‘for decoration’ without a real purpose in God’s plan… in truth, finding my place and purpose is not easy. I’m struggling with that myself. But that’s not God!). Faith is also potentially an area I can beat myself up over, for example when I want to read the Bible but don’t for whatever reason – it’s normal I think to feel bad about that, but when depression weighs in on it it can feel really bad (I can start telling myself I’m a bad Christian…).

On the other hand, I’m more aware of my need for God, even if God feels distant or silent sometimes. Sometimes God has felt extremely close in the silence. And there’s been something special and important about giving God some very raw prayers, rants, tears… Sometimes, when things have felt very dark and I’ve lost hope for myself, I’ve seen God’s light and the big-picture hope of God’s Kingdom coming shine so strongly in contrast to it that it takes my breath away! Without the dark I couldn’t see how strong and bright that hope is. That’s been very good for me. So too has seeing God using my experiences to help others – that’s been an incredible honour and I know God’s been using me there.

What were the best and worst parts of being part of church during times of depression?

It’s made me flaky (even in recovery!). I struggle to commit to things, have to take things one day at a time, pull out of things if I don’t feel up to it (I can easily get overwhelmed, I’ve less capacity, and things get on top of me easier), and can struggle with motivation (ie to go out, or to do certain things). All this makes it very hard to get more actively involved in church, and get to know people and become part of the community (it makes it very hard to arrange to see friends too…). That in itself can feed back into the illness as it doesn’t feel good. Church/homegroup is particularly hard if it feels like everyone else is doing fine and has their life in order! On the other hand church/homegroup can be a supportive and safe environment and somewhere I can get out the house and most importantly seek God and truth.

What helps you to cope?

Talking about it. Depression thrives on secrecy, but getting it out in the open lessens its grip, whilst also helping you to find help and support from others, solidarity with others also going through it that helps you feel less alone, and also helps you find others you can walk alongside too.

Prayer. Honesty before God. God is big enough to handle our rawest emotions, let it all out.

Self care. It’s not an easy ‘just do this and you won’t be depressed’, but it genuinely does help to be more intentional about things like exercise, healthy eating, socialising, doing things you enjoy(ed) of find/found relaxing.

Work. Having a job with a lot of structure and regular hours, and supportive colleagues and a good mental health and wellbeing culture, really, really helps.

Perspective. I need the big picture hope narrative of the Bible to pull me out of myself and keep reminding me that whatever happens in my lifetime, God’s Kingdom is coming and love wins.

Therapy. I’ve been to a CBT course, it felt frustratingly like being taught how to walk – but if I’d had a debilitating accident and lost the full use of my legs I would need just that, so why expect different of my injured mind? It’s been helpful. I’ve also been seeing a counsellor to try tackling my underlying issues.

Switchfoot! I’m only semi-joking; admittedly I am a megafan of theirs and was already before I got ill, however, the work of Christian artists who are grappling with this stuff can be a real help and support. Switchfoot is one such band and certainly do a lot for me, but there are other musicians and other forms of artists whose work explores depression and mental illness at times, and I recommend finding artists who can give words to what you’re experiencing and point you towards hope.

Here’s the vid of the interview that we recorded as a back-up in case I couldn’t speak in person on the day (featuring a feline cameo!).


If you’re struggling, or just not feeling quite right, please do try to get help – it isn’t always straightforward, but help, and hope, are out there. For a start, try this if you are in the UK, and this might be useful wherever you are.

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Implicit worship

Fake News Of The Week amongst the Switchfam was this satirical article from the Babylon Bee, ‘Switchfoot release implicit worship album’.

It provoked mixed reactions – but I have to admit, I laugh-snorted!  The article does have a dig at Jon’s writing style – it’s fair enough, except that he’s a lot more versatile and varied than is implied – but the classier dig is at the likes of me, who actually really get a lot out of that sort of songwriting. It’s bang on, and a proper ‘ouch!’.

The piece actually nailed so much of what I love about Switchfoot. And that got me thinking, why is that? I’m passionate about worship, yet this article shows me that ‘implicit worship’ is something I’m really behind. ‘Implicit worship’ sounds like a bad thing. Shouldn’t our worship be explicit? Shouldn’t we be saying it like we mean it? Are we not..? Here’s where my thoughts led me:

Firstly, I think we are. Being explicit is good and there’s a place for that, and you’ll find it within Switchfoot’s repertoire as well as in my own life.

But worship is more than singing praise songs. Worship is whole life. It would quickly become dry and meaningless if all we did were state our praise in words, especially in words that had been said many times before to the point of cliche, just as we do not live our personal relationships entirely through love songs. Worship cannot be words alone. Music helps it to stir our emotions, but that in itself is not enough. Worship must touch our whole lives, turn around our entire way of life. We need to be able to bring the whole of life and experience to God, engage with God there, allow ourselves to be challenged and changed and reshaped and motivated to act, and then go out and live it in God’s general direction. Simply singing ‘I love You Jesus’ songs has its place, but will not fulfil that whole purpose. Those songs I will use in church when we all need to be able to sing something simple together, and in moments when that is exactly what I need to express, but are not the sorts of songs I carry with me day to day, that help me work out how to be a better follower of Jesus in the everyday situations I find myself facing. They are not the songs that stretch and broaden my understanding and deepen my awe of God. For me, Switchfoot’s music takes me to those deeper places, the places that help me wrestle life and faith together and work through how to walk it out in the world I’m living in.

Implicit worship. Worship that involves the trajectory of my life, not merely my words. It’s precisely why someone like myself will connect more with songs of the sort the article pokes fun at, such as Stars, than with their more straightforwardly ‘explicit’ material, like new single You Found Me. They are the songs that go deep in my life, that I walk with over the years, that make me think, and change me, slowly, into something a little more Christlike, as they help me figure out what a faithful response to the world I live in might look like. Switchfoot’s music won’t do that for everyone, if it’s not to your taste or the way you think, but it does for many of us who connect with it.

And music has a purpose beyond explicit praise too, even for Christians believe it or not. And that’s an important factor to understanding the Foremans’ ethos. Switchfoot’s aim is not to be a church worship band. They are artists, making the music that expresses what is on their hearts, purely for the sake of that authentic expression. Music has value in itself. Its value is not just in ‘worship’ music. That is no higher or more spiritual than any other music. Music helps us to make sense of the big stuff, where we can turn with the things we don’t understand. Where we can experience feeling, and mystery, and wonder. That is as important to the Christian journey as singing praise songs, if not more so, and God, and good, can be found in any kind of music or art, labelled ‘Christian’ or otherwise. There is more to the human existence to experience and express than just the religious bits, and God wants to be involved in it all. We are made creative beings in God’s image, so simply using our creative capacity for any artistic expression is itself a godly act. God does not need to be excluded if we choose to use that art to express say our romantic feelings for another person or our frustration with politics or struggles with depression for example. God is present. And in music we can explore how to handle those situations faithfully. That too is worship, lived out.

So ‘implicit worship’ need not be a negative. It’s not about being ashamed or embarrassed of Jesus. Switchfoot are more than happy to speak openly about their faith and to publicly call themselves Christians, as am I. If we couldn’t bring ourselves to talk openly about Jesus at all we’d certainly have a problem. So too if I thought Switchfoot were trying to hide their faith to gain popularity amongst non-Christians. But that’s not their game. Theirs is just a different approach to both music and to worship than that of a ‘worship band’. Their calling is to make honest music. ‘Worship’ is not explicitly their aim, any more than it is mine when I go to work. Yet every day on my way to the office I’m praying for God to use me and my work that day. I’m not about to start a praise party in the office, and neither should we expect it of Switchfoot just because music is involved, but it is all worship nonetheless.

I don’t want my worship to be limited to the occasions I am singing praise songs. I want my whole life to imply worship. And long may there be music in our lives that moves us to live that way!

RefuJesus

I woke up this morning, looked at my phone, and saw social media flooded with the growing storm over asylum seekers’ children being taken from their families in the USA and detained in cages.

Opening my email, I found a second response from my MP to my letter about the treatment of detainees in Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre here in the UK; he sent me the response of the Immigration Minister, in which she claims the government’s good intentions to treat people fairly and respectfully are in fact reality, contrary to the evidence pouring in from the detainees themselves.

We’re also in the middle of a campaign, spearheaded by Lord Dubs who himself came to the UK as a child refugee in the second world war, to persuade the UK government to do more for today’s vulnerable unaccompanied child refugees and take in 10,000 of them over the coming decade, echoing our wartime response.

Meanwhile, thousands of desperate people are still piling into unsafe boats and attempting the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean to try to find safety in Europe, many dying in the attempt.

My Bible reading plan this morning happened to bring me to Matthew 2, in which I read how Joseph had to get up in the night and flee over the border into Egypt with the baby Jesus and his mother Mary to escape king Herod’s attempt to kill the child, and how the young family had to remain in the foreign country’s sanctuary until after Herod’s death before being able to return. Like so many today, they wouldn’t have been able to fill in a visa application first…

And it happens to be World Refugee Day. This year it seems a bigger global issue than ever.

According to Safe Passage this week, there are currently 68 million displaced people in the world, of whom 24 million are refugees. 82% are in developing countries. Over half of these people are children.

Refugees are those who have had to flee for their lives due to some form of fear of persecution. Asylum is an international process whereby those who have to escape their country can claim protection from that persecution in another country. Usually, this is the neighbouring country to their own. Because, like Jesus’ family, people are often having to flee in an emergency, it is not only legal under international law but vital that they are able to enter that other country for the sole purpose of claiming asylum without the necessary documentation that would otherwise be required, and they must claim asylum on arrival. There is then a process within that country to determine if asylum should be granted.

In addition, many people emigrate from their home countries. This happens for a variety of reasons, including for work, family or a simple change of scene, but many are also in desperate circumstances such as crushing poverty.

Probably my biggest fear when it comes to climate change is not that we may lose iconic species like polar bears, as appalling as that would be. No, my biggest fear has long been the borders going up, as more and more people find themselves under pressure to move, either directly because of resource wars or increasing natural disasters, or indirectly as the world becomes more unstable or they find their livelihoods less profitable. I fear this becoming an increased driver of refugees and migration, and that the response of countries like ours that are less affected by these pressures will be to close our borders. Alas, I’m seeing it happening already, along with rising xenophobia and fracturing of non-military international cooperation. I fear the sort of world this will create, where desperate people will have to be kept at bay by force, and will likely respond with terrorism, as desperate people so often do, fuelling a hateful vicious cycle. It’s not a world I want to live in.

Although the vast majority of displaced people are either moving within their own countries or to neighbouring countries, the figures are still shocking. The default position when faced with increasing numbers of people attempting to enter the country either as refugees or migrants seems to be ‘How do we keep numbers down? How do we keep them out? How can we get rid of them?’

What about if we took the time to ask why they come?

I can understand that we on the ‘right’ side of a border want to hang on to the benefits of our position. We feel entitled to the privileges we experience as a result of being born in a safe and prosperous country, despite our place of birth being pure serendipity, not something we have earned ourselves. That entitlement is strange framed like that – but then, a desire for safety and prosperity is no bad thing, and when we have it, it’s no bad thing to want to hang onto it. It only becomes problematic when we don’t want to extend that to others.

I suspect we have more capacity to help than we think we do, but we are still not infinite. We can’t take in the world. But surely the real solution is not to harden our hearts and strengthen our borders, clinging to what we have and shutting out anyone else, but to extend humanity and generosity as far as possible whilst working to tackle the causes of movement, the war, persecution, poverty, that drives it?

As long as we live in an unequal world there will be net movement from more disadvantaged and dangerous places to places of safety and opportunity, either because people have to flee for their lives from the former, or because they will choose to migrate to the latter. Not many will be moving the opposite way.

I dream of a more equal world. For now, we really need to extend mercy, compassion, fairness and kindness to those who come to us and treat them with human dignity, even if some must be turned away, especially considering the horrors and hardships so many have endured and escaped to get here. But long term, I dream of a truly free world. We need to work to understand and end the things that are forcing people from their homes, the war, poverty, persecution and climate change, and work towards a world where all countries are equally safe and prosperous, where people can be free to move as they please, where there is no net movement of people because as many people are moving in one direction as in the other, and there are no refugees. We need to build other countries up, rather than shutting our doors and building up ourselves. That’s ambitious, but surely we are capable of that if we try? Wouldn’t that be what true progress looks like?

Meanwhile, Jesus stands on the ‘wrong’ side of all our borders – with the poor, the refugee, the persecuted, and with those working for them, suffering with them. When we welcome others, we welcome God. Is God truly welcome here, or are we ‘full’? Can we expand our hearts’ borders? I fear that if we don’t, as well as seeing an increasingly dangerous and divided world, it is Christ Himself we will be shutting out.

White Sky Church

One I wrote back in 2013 under similar skies and frustrations…

 

Oh! What to do with this world?

Some day these white skies have got to break

Black or blue

The haze that obscures You

As if the world would think we never knew You

Let the dark clouds gather

Deep convection of our souls

Finally do some good for this dried-up Earth

Oh! What to do with us?

Don’t let us off

Average as the concrete sky

 

 

Liturgy in the waves

Whilst I’ve been quiet on the blog, I’ve got really into bodyboarding this warm sea season.

I’ve been having an occasional go for about five years now, but this is the first time it’s really got hold of me. My previous attempts were embarrassingly laughable. I’ve joked that I spent more time clinging to the underside of the board , thinking I’m sure this isn’t how it’s supposed to work and wondering what went wrong, than actually riding on top of it! And I was only half joking; upside-down boards happened far too frequently! I was scared of any waves approaching my own size or bigger. I couldn’t read the sea so waves would rear up and take me by surprise. My attempts at catching them were complete trial and error, launching at waves of any stage of formation and just hoping I didn’t fall off if I happened to time it right. And most of the times, I did fall off! But it was so much fun when I did catch one – even if at some point down the beach I did end up on the wrong side of the board.

This summer we had two consecutive weekends away in good surf spots with different sets of friends who wanted to spend time bodyboarding. Over those two weekends we had five whole days catching waves, and although I had boasted of my unfortunate talent for upside-down waveriding, I was surprised to find I was actually staying on top of the board. What’s more, over the five days, I found I was making a lot of discoveries and truly learning something each day. By the end of the first weekend I was reading the waves, knowing when to launch, and catching the majority of the waves I attempted… and pushing out further into the larger waves further out too. I learnt how to choose a good wave, how to steer, how to angle the board, and how the waves change in mood, power and difficulty from beach to beach, day to day, tide to tide. Of course I developed a new special talent for overshooting the board when launching out and sliding right over the top, and once or twice found myself barrelled head over heels under a massive breaker, momentarily wondering how I was going to escape, but on the whole it’s been going great.

I’ve been out boarding several times since to take advantage of the nice autumn sea temperatures and quieter beaches. I’ve officially got the bug!

So, is it play? Is it therapy? Or is it worship?

I think it’s definitely all three, but the mix varies depending on where the sea and I are at. It began as pure play, but it’s been healing at times too, and I’ve started to find it can be an act of worship.

A couple of Sundays ago I was in Wales with fiends. We spent the morning celebrating Harvest at St David’s Cathedral, and then went down to Whitesands Bay for the afternoon. Wowww!! I was already feeling celebratory and full of joy and thankfulness as a result of the Harvest service, but the place was so stunning and the waves so beautiful and glittery it all just overflowed. The worship on the beach felt like a seamless continuation of the worship in church.

First of all, it is nearly impossible not to bodyboard in a state of mindfulness. All the senses are involved, and you have to pay attention to what is immediately going on around you and be immersed completely in the moment, fully awake to where you are and what you are doing. You smell the sea air; your eyes feast on the colours, light, contrast, drama and movement of the sea and sky and wildlife and other beachgoers; there’s no avoiding the taste of saltwater; you hear the hiss, fizz, and roar of the waves, and your own laughter and whooping; and you feel all the textures of the sea, the sting of salt, and of cold water on hot skin, the feel of the board, soft sand, rough stones, the sometimes violent slap of waves, gentle rising and falling, warmth, wet… In the sea I am really in the now, and it is incredibly centring.

At risk of sounding clichéd, it is something like baptism with every wave or spray that breaks over me, reminding me of what is washed away and blessing me with new life.

It’s a humbling experience. In the sea I get the smallest glimpse of the size and power of its maker, and my contrasting insignificance. It’s amazing to be out in nature, surrounded by this huge unknown, unpredictable, power, tumbled about in it, but to be able to play in its edges and get to know it a little nonetheless.

I find myself full of thankfulness! It’s a grace experience, an undeserving land creature immersed in such beauty and laughter that’s completely not my own element, and seeing waves presented to me as perfect curls to play with. At its most beautiful I can never believe I’m experiencing it. Every good wave finishes in hallelujah, thank You, as it brings me to rest on the beach. More often than not I find I fetch up in a prayer posture, on my knees or face down at the edge of the surf, and thanking the sea and our God just flows, before I get up and run back in. It comes naturally, but I’ve also begun to make a conscious discipline of turning to say thank You for every good ride, as it develops in me a lasting attitude of thankfulness.

There are moments of quiet contemplative solitude…  and then there are moments of shared joy when catching the same wave, high fiving and cheering at each other’s good waves, and teaching one another skills.

At the end of a good beach day I come away full of joy, re-set, with a bigger, truer perspective on our size and significance compared to our beautiful world and the one it comes from. I am reminded so much how good the world can be, and that for all its problems, that is only ever part of the reality and there is still so much to enjoy and celebrate. We get immersed in the big news of the day, and forget that we are transient, and that some things are that much bigger and better and more lasting than we are. The sea brings me back to that truth.

I come home with waves in my mind, still feeling the rise and fall of the swell, the sea still alive before me every time I close my eyes.

Bodyboarding is no substitute for church. That day at Whitesands was made all the more meaningful following on from a service, and a service of thanksgiving in particular. But it can definitely be a powerful, playful worship experience, as the formal liturgy of church finds its way into the everyday world, and I hope I never lose that.

Chasing the wind?

I read the book of Ecclesiastes this summer. If you’re not familiar with it, it is the musings of an old ‘Philosopher’ on life; what satisfies, what is the point of it all? He tries to make sense of life, and what the purpose of both life itself and its pleasures are, given its brevity, the randomness of chance, and the fact that, taking the long view in his eyes, everything comes around again in an endless cycle in which nothing lasts. ‘Everything is meaningless, like chasing the wind’. He speaks with great wisdom, and yet I found myself debating with him as I read.

It occurred to me I’m thinking like the Philosopher, and not in a good way; in the long, slow recovery from the depression that has knocked back my energy for activism, if not my desire to see things change, I’m starting to succumb to the feeling that everything has happened before and will happen again, it all comes around again and nothing makes a difference. And then as I try to nurse myself, I find I am just trying to ‘feed’ myself, give myself the things I want, as if that could satisfy, and finding unsurprisingly that it doesn’t.

The Philosopher blows back and forth on this, on the one hand saying it’s useless as chasing the wind, on the other that enjoying what we have is all we can and should do.

But is that true?

I think adding Jesus to the equation changes everything. In Him there is a bigger narrative of hope and direction. There is eternity. Everything is headed somewhere. There will be justice – beyond the timeframes of our lives. Which side of that we choose to stand on now matters, not because we can change the endless cycles of rise and fall in this world in our lives, but because He sees it, and is honoured and assisted, or dishonoured and hindered, in His work by our actions and inactions in all things.

Recently at church the speaker preached on the whole book! Their conclusion was similar, that you need Jesus to complete the picture. The service was focussed on wisdom, rather than any other aspect of the book, but it took a similar course. The Philosopher points out that wisdom does not guarantee success, and asks what the point is, and yet concludes that it is still the best way to live and enjoy life. And yet wisdom is personified in Jesus; without Him, there is a hole in the logic. Why live wisely if it doesn’t bring us any benefits, except to know and please the one who is Wisdom?

The speakers made a big deal of how ‘depressing’ the book is to keep emphasising the reality of death. But isn’t this an important, and even life-giving, perspective, a wake-up call to remind us to actually remember to live whilst we have time? It is good and healthy to look at the material and remember how transient we are. But the conclusion of that should not be that we can only consume it in the time we have, but that we need to find contentment. And more than that, we can do far more than simply enjoy what we have; we can actually use it to help others thrive. We are blessed to bless, given to to give. In this way we build something bigger and more lasting than anything merely material we could build and invest in here for ourselves.

Everything may well come around. The justice, peace and progress we work for may well never be seen in our lifetimes, and may be undone in the generations to come. It is important to remember that I cannot fix the world. Even small acts of good that I do may be undone again afterwards. Does that mean it is worthless? No, it is worth it if I can help others now nonetheless. It is not my own legacy that I’m working for, but God’s, not my own kingdom but the eternal Kingdom of God. Never let fatalism become an excuse for apathy! It matters now!

What struck me most from the church sermon was when we were told the meaning of the word translated as ‘meaningless’ – ‘hevel’. It means vapour, breath, smoke.  Real, but intangible, transient, hard to grasp, hard to hold onto. Life is like this. It isn’t meaningless, but we cannot hold on to it, or anything in it. We can enjoy them. We can live in the now. But the only solid, lasting thing we can build is the Kingdom of God, and making life more enjoyable for others.

This is the perspective that I need right now. I cannot truly care for myself and nurse myself back into health by simply feeding my desires, though a certain amount of that is no bad thing. It won’t actually satisfy; but blessing others will. And whilst I cannot fix the world, I can always look for the opportunities before me in all situations and take the baby  steps towards bringing in God’s Kingdom that will get me walking again with some direction.

Don’t try to run from what’s uncomfortable; look for what opportunities you’ve been given to do good, and take them. That will satisfy in a way that feeding our comfort and material desires never could. It will outlast us all.

Veggie Theology

“All creatures of our God and King

Lift up your voice and with us sing

Sun, moon and stars rejoice on high

Praise to the Lord of light divine!”

 

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow

Praise Him all creatures here below

Praise Him above you heavenly host

Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost”

 

“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!”

 

 

What do you think of that? We sing these songs, and others like them, all the time, but do we ever think about what we’re singing?

 

My initial reasons for going veggie were purely ethical, and I was extremely surprised when my Christian boyfriend, now husband, told me that he was veggie for spiritual reasons. It hadn’t occurred to me that being veggie related at all to Christianity. However, over the years, I have come to appreciate the links between my faith and our relationship to animals.

 

Here is some research I did into the subject a few years ago for a workshop I was leading at a food justice gathering; if you want to study along, I’ve included links to each scripture I quote, which will open in a new window, or you can look them up in your own Bible:

 

A Brief Biblical History:

In the beginning, all things were made by and for God (Colossians 1:16).*

We were made together with the animals, but we alone were made ‘in God’s image’ and put in charge of other animals and the rest of the Earth. We were given grains and fruits to eat. God looked at it all and was pleased with it. (Genesis 1:24-31) Jesus is our model for how to be good rulers.

We were put in Eden to care for and work the Earth, in companionship with animals (Genesis 2:15-20).

We were permitted to eat animals as well as plants following the fall and flood, when much of the Earth was destroyed (Genesis 9:3).

When the law was given, animal welfare commands were put in place (for example Exodus 23:12 and 19, Deuteronomy 22:6-7 and 25:4).

 

God’s plan:

We often assume animals have no soul, but the most the Bible says explicitly is ‘who knows?’! (Ecclesiastes 3:19-21) There are strong hints that they do, in that the creation story uses the same original words for the bringing to life of other animals as for humans, but this is translated as soul for humans, and breath for animals.

In Isaiah 11 a return to Eden’s peace (restored relationships, not mere absence of conflict) is prophesied.

John 3:16 says that God so loved the ‘kosmos’… (meaning pretty much exactly what it does in English); God’s purpose in Jesus was far bigger than just humanity.

This is expanded in Romans 8:19-21 and Colossians 1:20 – all created things are waiting for salvation, via us, via Christ!

 

So that’s the Bible’s view of our relationship with animals. However, I don’t think it stops there, as the Bible also teaches us ethical principles:

 

Ethics:

How we treat others is important, so we should always think about our impacts on fellow human beings and how we can best live in love (Matthew 22:36-39 and 25:31-46, Romans 12:1-2, 1 John 4:16, and many more!).

Meat impacts on the lives of other humans in many ways. About 10% of the average Brit’s carbon footprint comes from meat and dairy; beef and milk in particular have huge carbon impacts associated with them as cattle produce a lot of methane, which is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. A vast amount of land is also being deforested globally for livestock farming, either directly for pasture or indirectly to grow animal feed, releasing more greenhouse gases, removing a carbon sink, and also often taking land away from indigenous people. All of this matters as climate change is already hitting the poorest and most vulnerable people hard through famines, land losses and natural disasters, and adding to human migration pressures. Meat production also requires up to 20kg grain per kg of meat produced (and a vast amount of water); whilst there are still so many people going hungry in the world, isn’t it unjust to make more food into less food just for our own personal preferences? The land we have could feed many more people if we used more of it to feed people directly, rather than feeding so many livestock and making a relatively small amount of meat. I’m convinced that being veggie reduces my impact on others, and that this is therefore another way I can choose to live with a slightly more Christlike attitude.

 

And yet in spite of this, I still hear people say some weird stuff about Christianity and veg(etari)anism. Here are a few, and why I think they’re false:

 

  • Animals were made for our use

Animals, along with us and all other created things, were made for God and God’s praise and pleasure (Psalm 24:1, Colossians 1:16).

This is the stunning truth we so often, so easily sing in church without even thinking about it; we are not the only part of God’s creation made for worship, but everything that has breath should praise the Lord! Are we helping or hindering that praise to rise..?

 

  • We were given dominion over the animals

Absolutely; but Christ is to be our example, not a crazed, exploitative human dictator! Philippians 2:6-11 sets out what this looks like, a life of selfless love and service.

 

  • Christian men should be ‘real men’ (… which means eating lots of meat)

Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Christians must conform to Hollywood stereotypes, or indeed, eat meat. Being a good Christian man means Christ-like selfless love, not machismo (Ephesians 5:25-33).

There are no rules for the Christian – although not all things are beneficial (1 Corinthians 6:12); we are under grace, not law, and this statement comes dangerously close to undermining this Gospel truth.

 

  • We are called to be responsible stewards of the Earth

Absolutely; but let’s go a bit further. Stewardship implies that we are guardians of a resource to be used wisely. However, Biblical language speaks far less of animals as a resource to be used, and far more as living beings made of the same flesh as we are, made for God’s praise.

We are called far beyond mere stewardship, to bring the whole cosmos, including its people and animals, to salvation and resurrection in Christ  – see John 3:16, Romans 8, Colossians 1.

 

  • Animals will not be resurrected

Says who? All the Bible says directly is ‘who knows?’(Ecclesiastes 3:19-21), but ‘living creatures’, probably representing all animals, are present in the vision of heavenly worship in Revelation 4.

 

  • God made us carnivores

God made us not only vegan but fruitarian! (Genesis 1:29)

We are also made with sufficient intelligence to understand our nutritional needs and creative enough to meet those needs fully in more compassionate ways than our mere instincts would permit.

 

  • If I stop eating meat, it won’t make a difference as everyone else will carry on

This is not a Christian attitude – our smallest acts make a difference in God’s kingdom (Matthew 25:40). Mother Theresa was once asked why she did what she did, as her work was only a drop in the ocean. She wisely replied ‘Yes, but the ocean is made of many drops.’

 

  • If I stop eating meat, farm animals will go extinct, so meat eating keeps them alive

We have managed to conserve all kinds of species of non-economic importance, and any visit to a farm park or petting zoo will tell you that we love domestic animals enough to preserve them in the very least as tourist attractions if nothing more. Humanity, made in God’s image, has a unique ability to conserve, and even improve upon, creation in its current state – Genesis 2:15.

 

  • Vegetarians have weak faith; Romans 14:2 says so

Read the rest of Romans 14 too. The context of this advice is that some Christians were avoiding meat altogether as they were worried about accidentally eating something unclean or becoming spiritually unclean by eating meat sacrificed to other gods; they were afraid of accidentally angering God, a sign that their faith in God’s saving grace was weak. Weak faith may be one reason for some people to abstain from certain activities, despite all things being permitted the Christian. However, whatever reason a person has for abstaining, to them, doing that activity would be wrong, and we should not attempt to force them to change their views in case we caused them to act against their conscience.

Many Christians are well aware that there are indeed no food laws to adhere to any more, and are not afraid of accidentally losing their salvation in Christ, but still have ethical reasons for boycotting certain foods for the sake of loving others as ourselves – from meat to non-Fairtrade chocolate.

 

  • We were commanded to eat meat

We were commanded in Eden to eat grains and fruits, and later permitted to eat meat after the fall and after the flood had destroyed much of the land – Genesis 1:29, Genesis 9:3.

 

… and therefore, if Jesus was sinless then meat eating cannot be said to be a sinful act in itself.

However, Jesus modelled deep, border-crossing compassion that gives us an example to work towards where love has no limits.

It is also true that issues like factory farming, climate change and global hunger did not exist in the same way in Jesus’ time; perhaps He would take different ethical stances in today’s globalised world..?

 

I’ll finish there, but if you want to explore more, this is an interesting organisation to check out. Here is a prayer to close, which blew my mind when I first read how ancient it was; its powerful, beautiful insight far pre-dates today’s mass-market mistreatment of animals and is all the more relevant today:

“The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.

Oh God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things,

Our brethren the animals to whom Thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us.

We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty

So that the voice of the Earth, which should have gone up to Thee in song, has been a groan of travail.

May we realise that they live not for us alone, but for themselves and for Thee,

And that they love the sweetness of life even as we, and serve Thee in their place better than we in ours.”

– St Basil of Caesarea, 4th century church father

 

*I’m leaving aside questions over whether the Genesis account of creation was literal or figurative here; I do firmly believe it has a lot to teach us about God’s plan and intent and why things are as they are, and that that is not dependent upon it being literal.