Tag Archives: Nature

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.

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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.

A decade vegan

I have been vegan for ten years this year! I was 24. I get asked about it a lot, so here’s my story:

I never actually went vegetarian.

I grew up a real meat lover in a normal omnivorous household. My favourite foods were roast dinners, steaks, seafood, and meat stews. And pizza. But it had to have pepperoni on it really. If I was taken out for dinner, it was always my mission to order the meatiest thing on the menu that I was allowed; the biggest steak, a whole chicken, a mixed grill… When my younger sister went vegetarian when we were older children, I mocked and criticised her mercilessly! Surely it was unnatural, we evolved to eat meat, we need it to be healthy..?

So, what happened?!

I’ve always been passionate about nature, science and the environment, so studying environmental science at A-Level and then university made perfect sense (if you’ve not come across it, environmental science is the scientific study of all aspects of the natural world; the physics, chemistry, biology and sociology behind weather and wildlife, geology, oceans, soils, landscapes and more, and the way they interact…). I was 17 when my A-Level ‘Env’ class studied a module on agriculture and food production. For the first time, I had to really look closely at the way my food was produced. I knew meat was made of dead animals; I unemotionally thought this a fact of life and quite natural. It wasn’t a surprise to me to learn about how animals are grown for food and slaughtered. What did shock me was how unnatural we have made the farming system, and how much of an impact it has upon the rest of the natural world.

The kind of farms I thought of as a child, small land holdings run by a family, keeping small flocks and herds of a range of farmyard animals, are largely consigned to history.

Today, most of our food is industrially mass produced. Animals do not have names. Large companies run the farms purely for profit. Many animals, chickens in particular, never see sunlight or reach anything near adulthood before slaughter, and have been selectively bred away from their natural shape and size to produce more meat or milk than their bodies can physically support, crippling them in various ways before their early slaughter. Those that are kept outdoors are kept on huge scales, and unable to be supported by grazing the land they live on, require feeding with tonnes of mass-produced animal feed. This has to be grown of course. To do this, vast amounts of land many times the size of the livestock farms themselves are required; land is constantly being deforested to grow more and more animal feed, including in the rainforests, and to keep producing the quantities of animal feed needed requires constant inputs of industrial fertilisers and pesticides to be produced and sprayed over the land. Gallons of water are needed to irrigate the feed crops, as well as to rear the livestock themselves and produce the meat. Both the production of feed and livestock farming cause shocking amounts of pollution; water pollution from run-off contaminated with fertilisers, pesticides, slurry and bacteria, impacting aquatic life and human health; air pollution from spraying agrochemicals and from ammonia from industrial poultry units; greenhouse gases from the methane the livestock produce, fertiliser production and transport of feed. In addition, stocking animals at high densities of the same species leads to disease outbreaks. In many places, this is mitigated by routinely feeding antibiotics to livestock, but this is leading to the rise of antibiotic-resistant disease in both animals and humans.

The more I learnt (and there is more), the more I became convinced that industrial livestock production was not environmentally sound. I cared deeply about the world we live in, so because I could no longer eat meat without knowing how it was produced, I felt I needed to make sure that any meat I ate had been produced to good environmental standards.

So I did some research, and decided that certified organically farmed meat was  produced in much more sensitive ways, with much higher environmental and welfare standards than factory-farmed meat. So I decided to go ‘organic vegetarian’ – vegetarian, unless the meat was organic. Because organic farming has higher standards it costs more to produce, so is more expensive. So I therefore ended up eating less, but better quality, meat. I was not at all vegetarian, but I was eating many more vegetarian dishes, and eating vegetarian food or seafood when eating out. I got used to eating a wider variety of foods, and to the vibrant flavours in vegetarian cooking, though I still loved my meat.

I lived like this for a couple of years before it occurred to me (or I had to admit to myself!) that eggs and dairy were also factory farmed, so for consistency if I was going to cut out all my support for intensive livestock farming, I’d have to go organic there too.

And this is where things got tricky.

Milk and eggs are ingredients in a lot of foods. Reading labels to find out if they contained animal ingredients, and if so, how they had been produced, got boring and time consuming. And the social impact – having to ask, before anyone fed me, ‘Is it organic?’! Nope.

I was living this awkward ‘organic vegan’ lifestyle when I moved to my second university. And it was here I met several real-life vegans, including the man who became my boyfriend and then husband. They seemed to have it a lot easier than me! They didn’t spend hours in the shops scouring ingredients lists. They could shop and eat out in normal shops and restaurants. They didn’t have to ask socially awkward questions – a simple ‘I’m vegan’ sufficed to explain their diets. And they could eat chocolate!! I’d previously assumed being vegan was miserable and difficult, and probably unhealthy, but the reality I encountered was anything but!

So, I gave it a try. I was helped by the discovery that, to me at least, soya milk tasted far, far better than the cows’ milk I’d hated the taste of all my life! I missed and craved all sorts of animal-based things. But I made what turns out to have been a very wise decision to be extremely gracious with myself; if I had a craving (for cheese or pork for example), I would wait a short while to see if the craving went away (as it sometimes would). If it didn’t, I would allow myself to go and get some (if I could find it organic!), eat and enjoy it, and then, be vegan again the following day. I found over time the cravings got fewer and further between, and went away more quickly. I found I was having to give into them less and less, and eventually, after a couple of years, I found I just wasn’t feeling the need to buy animal-based foods. Today, whilst I do remember what animal-based foods were like and that I enjoyed them, it no more occurs to me to eat them as it would for me to eat cardboard. It doesn’t register to me as food.

The final straw was unexpected. I was on a train, passing through some beautiful countryside, where a few extremely sleek and contented looking cattle were happily grazing in a huge, open landscape. I thought to myself as I passed, ‘This is how farming should be…’, and was just beginning to feel pleased with myself when I heard God say to me, ‘So who are you to cut short those happy lives?’. Wow. I was hit with the compassion for animals that I’d never really experienced before. It was a perspective I’d not even thought of, that yes these animals were living happily on such farms, but that in demanding meat from them, I was taking that happy life away prematurely. So. No more meat.

Over that time I’d also learnt more and more recipes. I’d got a lot more creative and adventurous with my cooking (and started writing recipes!), finding ways to produce my favourite meals, desserts and snacks without animal ingredients. I actually put on a lot of weight (this was a positive, I’d been underweight for years), mostly I think from baking more than ever!

The last thing to go was the seafood; I’d been convinced for a long time that this was free from the concerns of factory farming, which was largely true for wild-caught fish at least. However, much of our seafood is also farmed, with similar associated problems, plus requiring huge amounts of wild-caught small fish for feed, to the detriment of seabird populations (as a bird lover this is the killer for me!). And wild caught seafoods have a myriad of associated environmental and ethical issues of their own. I realised, reluctantly, that this was also an ethical minefield I was best off out of. In my 24 years to that point I concluded I’d already eaten my fair share of the world’s fish stocks, so I decided to stop. That was a little sad; however, there is so much good food still out there for me it really hasn’t been a major loss. Including chocolate. 😉

Most foods are not made from animals at all, and are therefore on the menu. Almost everything that is can be replaced straightforwardly, especially if you have a good grasp of what flavours and ingredients suit the cuisine you are cooking. For a long time, the only things I couldn’t replace were cheese (for sandwiches and crackers – I could make cheesy sauces and substitute tahini for melted cheese in many recipes), meringues and seafood. Hardly a hardship, especially gotten used to over a period of many years as in my case.

When I went vegan a decade ago, veganism was about where vegetarianism had been in the 1970s – very much a minority lifestyle, seen as a bit unusual, not generally well understood, and you’d have to go to a vegetarian restaurant if you wanted a good meal out, though you could find something to eat in most places, especially if you looked them up beforehand and explained what you did and didn’t eat. There was great icecream and chocolate and yogurt and cream cheese available out there, in specialist shops mostly, but other ‘cheese’ substitutes resembled vanilla-and-Wotsit/Cheeto-flavoured plasticine!

Over the past decade, veganism has grown by over 350% in the UK, and the revolution has been really noticeable the past couple of years. Today veganism is about where vegetarianism was when my sister went veggie as a kid around 20 years ago; you could find something to eat almost anywhere, it was normal for a restaurant to have vegetarian options marked on the menu, sometimes including desserts, and there were a few lazy options like ready meals available if you searched, most people knew a vegetarian, and people generally knew what being vegetarian meant.

We’ve discovered that coconut cream whips like double cream, that the water from a can of chickpeas froths up just like egg white and makes a mean meringue (admit it, egg white is just as gross in its original form…), and even cheeze is becoming edible as some sort of cheese, even if it rarely resembles the particular variety of dairy cheese it claims to mimic. I now have a few brands I buy regularly, after almost a decade cheese-free! And oh how I am having to re-learn the art of self-control now that new vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants are opening up all over town, and café after bakery after tearoom, that I have to walk past every day, now serve irresistible vegan cakes..! Waistline expanding.

My favourite foods today are thai curries and stir fries, chocolate ganache pies, and pretty much anything involving roast aubergines! And pizza. Especially with veggie pepperoni. 😉

As now a relative old-school vegan I’m having to up my game with baking and cooking, and re-learn what I thought were my limits. But over the years I’ve also discovered more and more reasons I’m convinced that veganism is a step in the right direction; it’s no longer just about the environment, though that remains my passion; it’s about loving my global neighbours, about walking kindly alongside other species, about health, about my worship and that of the rest of creation, about understanding others with special diets, and about a love of food and creativity.

Let’s see where things head over the next ten years; I hope we can really begin to shape the world into something a little better.

Being thankful

We hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for the first time this year! This has not been an easy year at all, personally or politically, but aside from liking the tradition and fancying the cooking challenge, I wanted to do this as I felt that actually I still have a huge amount to be thankful for from the past year, and that in a time when circumstances make it harder to see the good things and feel thankful, setting aside a little time to focus on what I am truly thankful for is a good discipline. The more I’ve thought about it, the more good I’ve spotted amongst the mess, and it has left me feeling genuinely grateful for those good things and a lot more positive about the year. So; my list:

  • Time at home. My new year’s resolution this year was straightforward after last year’s wonderful chaos; to do nothing! Well, maybe not ‘nothing’, but no crazy plans, no charging around the country(/world) week after week, and to focus on spending time right here at home, with our local friends and church family, and making progress on our DIY projects. And we’ve done that! It’s been really nice being a little more settled.
  • Living in Devon. Related to the last point – we live in a nice place! It’s been good to spend more time just enjoying where we live. Our main holiday this year was to Lundy Island, an island off the north coast in a protected area, which is therefore jumping with sealife. We saw so many seabirds, seals, jellyfish, rockpoolies and dolphins, and it was beautiful – all almost on our doorstep! And the walks and beach trips we’ve done closer to home have been wonderful too. We made an effort this summer to go down to the coast on nice evenings for barbecues or chips on the beach as the sun goes down. I can’t help but be thankful that my life looks like this after years living and working in and near London, it’s a real blessing.
  • The support for our whitewashing nonviolent direct action last year. I’ve been blown away by the amount of support I and my fellow activists have received since our action last November. A huge crowd of supporters turned out to our trial, some coming a really long way to be there. There were far too many people to fit in the viewing gallery and many stood outside in driving rain for us all day, praying, holding banners and looking after us. I’m so humbled! And on top of that, when we received a (much smaller than expected) fine, friends, family and supporters crowdfunded enough to pay it off in full! We checked the amount that came in a week after the verdict, and it seemed a random amount; but then we totalled up our collective fine and realised it was the same amount to the nearest pound! Shortly after this we closed the crowdfunder early as we had exceeded our target, despite not expecting to meet it, and found the amount raised exactly covered our expenses for the action too! I am profoundly grateful to God for so fully honouring our imperfect willingness to do this, and to our supporters, both for the obvious practical help this was, but also for the solidarity of knowing we had so many people standing beside us and willing to also pay the price of speaking out on climate change.
  • Good news on climate change. Aside from the ratification of the Paris climate agreement, it seems politically that this has been a bad year for climate, as in practice the political world has barely moved into action at all, and in many cases we’re still seeing the politics moving backwards. However; more and more this year I’ve seen signs of change, almost in spite of the politics of it all. The economics are starting to shift. As renewables grow, in spite of policies that hamper them, and the combined pressure from increasingly cheap renewable energy, financial disinvestment, uncertainty over the future under international climate agreements and the cost of carbon hits the fossil fuel industries, a real practical shift away from fossil fuels has begun. We have a long way to go, and fast, but this is genuinely encouraging. We need to keep up the momentum on fossil fuel disinvestment, which is really a win-win situation, whilst at the same time urging our governments to think progressively and practically get behind this shift, which would really speed the process up.
  • Vegan abundance! Going vegan ten years ago was relatively straightforward, with plenty of choices available in ordinary shops, and at least something you could eat in most restaurants when out. But there has been such a fast shift over the last year or so! Several vegan/explicitly vegan-friendly businesses have popped up all over town, raised consciousness means I’m finding it more common for non-veggie friends to know how to make really nice things for us, little innovations the world seems to have just discovered (coconut cream makes wonderful whipped cream, chickpea water works like egg whites…) mean vegan baking has suddenly become even easier and cafes are cottoning on, and even some vegan cheese seems to be finally starting to resemble the real thing! I’m suddenly beginning to realise how much self-control I’ve lost over the years, now that what was a ‘special diet’ is becoming so mainstream; I’ve been used to luxuries being just that, and therefore jumping at the chance to indulge when the chance arose from time to time, but suddenly it seems there are easy luxuries everywhere and I have to be restrained for the sake of wallet and waistline! But at the same time, what a nice problem to have – such great news for me, and for animals and the environment 🙂
  • The mental health services. Wow am I thankful for the help that I’ve found available to me this year as I’ve found myself battling depression! I’ve heard the horror stories and know not everyone gets the help they need when they need it, even when they do seek it, but my experience has been good so I know that’s only one side of the picture. I’d love to see the day when mental health is taken as seriously as physical health, because it is, and everyone can find help. But I’m very thankful that I have a good GP, have been able to take part in a well-taught CBT course for free, and have had help from my church towards paying to see a counsellor. Each of these things have been a God-send in an unpleasant situation, and I am so thankful.
  • Supportive family and friends. And again on a related note, I am deeply thankful for the community of people I have in my life who have treated my illness as an illness, been understanding as they can be, and been there to encourage me and share advice. I feel honoured to be able to reciprocate that to others too, and am grateful to have that chance through this circumstance. It’s brought me closer to myself, to others, and to God.
  • The RSPB. Last year I was volunteering for several different charities, often on my own and with irregular hours. This year I decided to change and focus on my work with the RSPB nature conservation charity, filling my newly-free days in the week by taking on some scientific support work in their local office, which means I’m now working with others and with pretty regular office hours, and getting to use my science brain a bit. Simplifying my work this year has itself done me a lot of good; but so has the RSPB directly. Conservation is not always the most encouraging world to work in, with so many species and habitats under threat. But working with the RSPB, I see an amazing array of good news stories as hard work saving nature really does pay off. Both internally and externslly there’s a real emphasis on hope and encouragement around this. The project I’ve worked most with this year has just celebrated a milestone as a little bird we almost lost from the country has been brought back from the brink and is increasing (you can read more about that here, it’s a nice reminder that good news is out there!). But even in addition to this, the organisation takes staff wellbeing seriously (as a volunteeer I am still considered part of the staff team) and has done a lot of work to raise the profile of wellbeing and mental health and promote activities and support that can help. I’m not sure I could be working in a better environment right now!
  • Being able to ‘do autumn properly’. It’s no secret that I love autumn! I felt like I missed out on it a bit last year in my busyness, so this year I made an effort to give time to enjoying it as much as possible. So we went on holiday in the Lake District, swam and bodyboarded in the sea, went for walks in the local arboretum and elsewhere, picked up colourful leaves, made some of them into pretty decorations or collages, went birdwatching plenty to catch the migration in progress, baked for halloween and used it to pray over the world’s darkness, went to the legendary Nottingham Goose Fair (enormous cheesy funfair, and something I haven’t done since leaving home), went to an apple day and made apple fritters to celebrate, had a Thanksgiving party and a Harvest ploughman’s meal, went to a fireworks display, and planted trees in the garden. I don’t think I’ve missed anything this year, and although it’s been unusually warm and dry and the trees gave us a bit of a stop-start display this year it’s been wonderful – and I have far too many photos! 😀
  • Switchfoot. I confess, when I drafted this list, this was the first thing I wrote! A lot of bad things have happened in the world this year. But 2016 was also the year Switchfoot brought us their 10th album, Where The Light Shines Through. And in a dark year, it really has been where the light has shone through for me, not just a highlight of the year for a fan, but also an incredibly timely album full of messages of hope and strength and light, so much needed just now. This band has done more than anyone else this year to encourage me to look for the points of light breaking through the darkness, keep my eyes on the Source of my hope, and work to become where the light shines through myself.

Blackberries and grace

I went blackberry picking today, celebrating the first day of the year that everyone else seems to wake up to the fact that it’s autumn, even though I’ve known it since that first day back in august when the light changed, the morning felt fresh, the trees began turning colours, and the birds shifted their behaviour. Autumn is the most lovely time of year.

I hear you’re technically not supposed to forage on nature reserves; but then I can’t imagine anyone being concerned about blackberries. The bramble is, as far as I know, in no danger of extinction, and every year, the plants produce fruit at a rate that even the most voracious birds are unable to keep pace with. Most of the fruit goes over and drops well before it is eaten, no matter how hard we and the wild creatures try to gorge ourselves. So I picked a box full, now in my freezer to liven up our winter pancakes, the hedges still so weighed down with fruit after I’d left that it was as if I hadn’t touched them!

Blackberries to me are a powerful demonstration of grace. For the rest of the year, brambles are neglected and persecuted plants. As well as romping through the woods and hedgerows, they easily colonise the most neglected, abandoned and abused plots of land; overgrown gardens, derelict buildings, dubious alleyways, railway lines, back yards behind rows of shops, random scraps of wasteland where people dump rubbish and scrawl graffiti. We hack them back, dig them up, curse them for encroaching on ‘our’ spaces. I certainly count myself in this – my own sorry excuse for a garden produces little else, and I’ve spent rather a lot of time this summer repeatedly cutting back thorny tendrils threatening to take root in unwanted places, not to mention the great masses of them that I spend the winter pulling out of hedges on the very same nature reserve as part of their annual maintenance. The bramble is unwanted, unloved, and even many times unnoticed.

But then… blackberries!

The neglect, the weedkiller, the hedge trimmers, the rubbish and the cursing we’ve laid on the bramble the rest of the year are repaid with an outrageous generosity; simply too much fruit! No matter what our part has been previously in the bramble’s treatment, and whether or not we are interested in tasting it, it rewards us by overproducing, wastefully showering us with fruity goodness. My garden has already produced enough berries for two large cakes, a lot of snacking, food for the birds and ever-present snails, and still has fruit ripening and dropping. I find it humbling that a simple thorn bush can be so incredibly gracious, and every year it reminds me to take seriously the even greater grace of its maker. Truly worth celebrating!

2015 – An intense year

DSCN73852015 was a crazy year for me; I’ve never known a year so packed or so intense in my life! There’s been some bad-intense moments, but overwhelmingly more good-intense experiences. I’m left feeling pretty humbled by it all.

Life in general

It began particularly intense for my husband; 3 major deadlines in the first 3 weeks of the year (requiring a lot of all-nighters to finish it all), and culminating in a two week trip away from home to the USA for a conference and visit to his relatives, and a first experience of properly cold temperatures and American snow. And so the year continued from there!

We’ve been away a lot; my work has taken me away from home more than ever before, with 10 trips to London alone for meetings and climate rallies, plus visits to Bradford and Sheffield to lead workshops, a training weekend in Derbyshire, and several festivals. We went to three weddings, and our band managed to meet up eight times for performances and recording sessions, we attended a very geeky reunion weekend for our old university, and visited family in different parts of the country a few times too, during which we were introduced to three new ‘fur baby’ relatives.

And then there were the two holidays of a lifetime; the second, a trip to the incredibly beautiful Isles of Scilly with my family, and the first, following Switchfoot’s European tour and taking time during our travels to visit friends and family in London, Edinburgh, and Freiburg as well as some quality time exploring European cities together. Both adventures have left us with the most precious memories of happy times together. And we’ve seen some incredible wildlife too; cranes, storks, black woodpeckers, sunfish, dolphins, starfish, sea urchins, sea anemones, seals… amazing.

We’ve had a lot of visitors when we have been home; now we live in a nice part of the country a lot more of our friends and family have been keen to visit, and we’ve been busy giving tours of the local sights. There have been a fair few daytrips just as a household too, including some long cycle rides, hikes on the moors, a fossil hunting expedition (in which M actually found a dinosaur bone), a pirate festival, and trips to the beach. I’ve done a lot more sea swimming than usual; it usually takes a lot to get me in the sea but one day in the autumn the sea was so lovely I spent over an hour swimming!

The little time we have had at home, to ourselves, we’ve spent trying to redecorate our whole house, which has obviously not got all that far given how little time we’ve been able to give to the DIY project! But we’ve learnt to put up wallpaper, and crammed in time for a little housewarming party too once we got the worst of the DIY out the way.

So that’s what my life was like on the whole last year; this is how things panned out with my faith, politics, poetry and fandom:

Faith

Two recurring themes of this year in my relationship with God have been grace, and death as part of the resurrection process. This was a really significant year for me as it was the year I could finally celebrate having been ‘alive for half my life’. I’d been thinking about it a lot as the anniversary approached, and these lessons God has been teaching me seemed really fitting; a time to refocus on all I have been given, both in having my life saved in the first place, half my life ago, and all that I have been given since, and then to question what happens next in this process of being reborn, recreated and resurrected.

Grace has impacted me in so many ways in the past year, and I’ve encountered it from so many people as well as supremely from Godself. I’ve posted here already about the profound grace experience I encountered through my meetings with Jon Foreman whilst following Switchfoot on tour last spring, and also about a very different grace experience, which came about as the result of what felt, to me at least, a real epic fail, but which opened me up to a fresh sense of God’s love for me and my absolute dependence on that Love for strength, goodness and second chances. But I’ve also experienced a huge amount of grace from others through my failures, struggles with health and work, and my political activity; my husband has met all of this with forgiveness, love, patience and humour, and my friends, family and colleagues have been so amazingly supportive, offering prayer, sympathy and practical support over and over again, regardless of whether or not they’ve agreed with me. I feel deeply humbled by it all.

The intimate connection between death and resurrection has been on my mind a lot over the year. It began, logically enough, at Easter, as I remembered again how in Christ death itself died to bring life to us all through the resurrection. But I am a Jon Foreman fan; this past year he has seeded my thought life with so many new songs exploring life, death and resurrection, as well as the older songs that had accompanied my musings over Easter. As I spent the year looking back to the day one version of myself died and a new me came alive, and forward to the future, a day-to-day process of learning to die little by little to myself and live more fully the life I was made for to play my part in bringing in the Kingdom of God, it has been extremely powerful to share the journey with these songs. There have been some beautiful contemplative moments, experiencing God close by in still moments in festivals and out in nature. And I’ve seen more answers to prayers, big and small, than I can possibly count, everything from miraculous healings of people we’ve prayed for at church to good weather when I’ve needed it for travels and work. God is good.

Politics

Politically, this past year has been a battle, and it has taken me beyond what I’ve been able to handle – which in itself has meant depending more and more on grace, and sacrificing a little more of myself to allow more life in, but it has also stretched me to breaking point. I spend a lot of time campaigning for social justice and environmental protection, both with two of my ‘jobs’, and in my personal life, but this year has been very tough, with the election, the Paris climate summit, and the fall-out of both to deal with. It has felt like we’ve had to push extremely hard just to hold our ground, and at times it’s felt like things are heading in a backwards direction instead as poverty, inequality and xenophobia have risen, and climate change and nature protection measures have been in most cases cut, just when we need to be becoming more internationally cooperative, working more actively for peace, and pushing hard for real cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and a halt to species losses. So we’ve been working hard. And unfortunately I’ve felt extremely isolated in it all, working alone from home most of the time, and not having a good network of activist friends living nearby to rely on for help and solidarity.

For the positives – I’ve had a few different chances to speak and lead workshops this past year, including taking part in my first panel event on faith and the environment, I went on my first ever pride march, had wonderful encouraging visits to other activist groups, particularly with SPEAK, which reminded me I’m not alone and that good things are happening, and went to some really inspiring events, including Friends of the Earth’s Basecamp training weekend/ minifestival. And since it has been so hard to move things in conventional ways, I’ve turned to non-violent direct action; firstly supporting a fairly low-key prayer rally and banner drop in the Church of England synod meeting calling on the Church to disinvest from fossil fuels for the sake of those we should be showing love towards, and secondly, whitewashing and ‘rebranding’ the Department for Energy and Climate Change to expose the deadly policy changes taking place behind all the government’s talk on climate. And both went about as well as we could have hoped, and have received a lot of support. I just hope they lead to meaningful change…

Poetry

I haven’t written a lot of poetry this past year; however, I have managed to write, and actually finish, four songs, which is pretty amazing for me. It was mainly a year for the music; my band worked hard to release a new Christmas album at the end of the year, so we had a lot of band meetups and recording sessions to get it done. We also performed at two small festivals and two weddings, which was nice. In the process I have begun to learn to sing out loud, performing with a microphone, singing a duet with M, and finally recording a lead vocal! And improbably, despite our disorganisation, we did get the album out on time, and it’s quite fun!

Fandom

Wow this really has been a year of change in my life as a music fan. Although I’d largely given in to the inevitability of becoming a megafan years back, even up to the end of 2014 I was still fighting myself over it to some extent, trying to convince myself that it wasn’t an integral part of me. After spending some time fasting from all things Jon Foreman at the end of the year, it became clear to me that trying to detach myself too far from my fandom was actually unhealthy, and that I was fighting against my own self. I decided that whilst an occasional short ‘fast’ could be a good thing to stop me becoming too obsessed or unhealthily dependent, on the whole it was far better for me to give in to it completely, stop fighting myself and just become all that it can make me. And it has been an incredible ride!

As well as finding out just how much I can be changed for the better through it, I’ve also been learning what it is to really be a fan; that an artist-fan relationship is not the one-way, purely commercial process that I had previously thought it to be, but that it truly is a two-way relationship, that artists need our support in so many ways, including hearing from us personally.

So. I joined a couple of online fan forums to meet fellow fans. I took the chance to follow Switchfoot on tour around Europe back in the spring. I got tickets for five shows, plus all the buses, trains and hostels that involved to make it all possible. And I made some fan art to take along to show the band, a t-shirt and four banners, plus a couple of letters. And it worked out so incredibly, beautifully well! I made some great new friends, had some wonderful times with M and friends, and finally felt I’d made the connection with Jon and the rest of the band that I’d missed making all these years. I’m still even now getting the happiest flashbacks to it all that make my heart skip a beat or two, it’s hard to get my head around. It even spilled over a little to my relationships with other artists; if I’d been a bad fan to Switchfoot in the past I’d been a worse fan to band #2, Delirious. But last year I also finally got a message of appreciation through to the band’s Stu and Stew too, which helped heal some of those old regrets too.

And the intensity of the last year of fandom did not end when I returned home from that tour either; all last year Jon Foreman was releasing a series of EPs collectively called The Wonderlands (and ended the year by giving us a new Switchfoot song, New Year’s Day) – new music that has had, and continues to have, a lifechanging impact. For someone like me, this is more than ‘just music’; a major release like this becomes a significant life event, new songs become friends, lovers, mentors to me, guiding my walk with God and shaping who I am. I won’t go into details on individual songs here, I’ll leave that for a future post, but these songs truly make me who I am.

I was obviously a huge fan already, but by the end of the year my fan-love really was off the scale; he topped everything by celebrating the final release of The Wonderlands by performing 25 shows in 24 hours in a whole series of different weird and wonderful locations around San Diego, featuring each of the 25 songs from the project played at its appropriate hour, and all done to raise money for local disadvantaged kids. I couldn’t be there in person, but I was more than there in spirit; I stayed up the entire 24 hours, watching social media and periscope to catch as much of the event as I could and sending supportive messages and chatting to fellow fans watching from home too. Oh my heart! I don’t think I can exaggerate how beautiful the whole thing was! I’m not sure what I expected but Jon earnt my admiration hundreds of times over that day, not only keeping going but getting better as it went on, showing a lot of kindness to the fans and fellow musicians there, and having a lot of fun with it all too. There were some absolutely classic moments. It has been filmed, and trust me, if the film gets released you really do want to see it! For now, I collected a playlist of as many fan videos as I’ve been able to find.

Wow wow. Where does it go from here?!

 


 

2015 was also the year I:

  • Got a smart phone
  • Got locked out of facebook over changing my name
  • Discovered I like hazelnut lattes
  • Watched a solar eclipse
  • Tried again to join a samba band…
  • Found out how to chop down the tallest tree in the forest with a herring
  • Had my first eye test for 10 years, and found I have the beginnings of long sight
  • Became a music reviewer
  • Got my first henna tattoos
  • Discovered cheesy chart music
  • Enjoyed a stunningly beautiful autumn
  • Saw my work colleagues in a panto
  • Quit 2 jobs
  • Had a deep conversation with a random guy on a megabus journey
  • Gatecrashed a thanksgiving party

It’s been fun! 😀

Autumn

It’s October; my favourite month of the year. There’s so much I love about this time of year, and I felt it all so clearly today. This was my first day back at my work helping with the maintenance of a local nature reserve, so I had the pleasure of being outside in all autumn’s gloriousness all day. The air was crisp for the first time this year, that I’ve noticed anyway, as I cycled down the canal out to the reserve, and for the first time this season I began to wish I’d brought my gloves. The trees glowed with colour, the birds sang, and the air was sweetly scented by cut grass and fallen fruit. Without a cloud in the sky it became a beautiful sunny day, hot for the time of year, and certainly hot for the physical work we were doing, but in the sunshine and blue sky the hedgerows were radiant with colour. The leaves of most trees are still only just turning but here and there one would already be in red or gold, and the hedgerows were jewelled with blackberries, hawthorn berries, sloes, apples, rosehips and guelder rose berries. I think I spent almost as much time foraging wild fruit today as I did working! I cycled home past all manner of flowers having a last go at blooming before the winter, regardless of their ‘proper’ flowering time – buttercups, vetch, mallows, daisies, hogweed, and even the apple tree in my garden! Then a gentle pink sunset setting the trees in the park across my street glowing as a great flock of rooks and jackdaws assembled in the sky above before dropping down into the trees to roost. Such a beautiful day, and such a precious time of year.

I love the autumn. It perplexes summer people, who can never understand how I could like it so much when summer is over and cold, dark winter is on its way, but I love it. Everything is changing and it feels exciting. Autumn is exuberant; summer to me seems monotonous and seems to drag. It feels like everything is holding its breath as the birds stop singing, the grass browns and the flowers fade away, waiting for autumn to come and bring the rain and wake everything up again. Then suddenly it happens, and everything breathes again; the birds begin slowly to sing again, the flowers have one last burst, the grass begins to grow again, everything produces fruit, and flocks of migrating birds appear, preparing to leave or newly arrived.

I have so many more memories of autumn than of any other time of year. I think it’s because my senses seem so much more awake and I feel alive in a new way, so I pay more attention. But it’s always been a significant time of year. It begins for me in mid August as the first signs of change appear in nature and the year seems to wake up. I remember getting excited as a child when the leaves on the trees in the garden first began to turn during the summer holidays, and the chestnut tree dropped its first conker of the year. I looked out for it each year so I could go out to thank the tree for it! Then everywhere I went I’d be picking up tree seeds and planting them to see how many tree species I could get to grow. These days, I’m out foraging blackberries and looking for the first migrating birds, trying to record the date I last spot a swift and watching numbers of wading birds on the estuary increase week by week. September is a month of reunions. There was a lot I disliked about going back to school but I did look forward to seeing everyone again – especially since I went through a couple of hopeless crushes both at school and university! And the geek in me looked forward to the new year’s lessons. It’s also often been marked by reunions of SPEAK friends too, as we’ve held a lovely chilled out skill sharing weekend together. The sea is at its warmest in early autumn, and once the schools have restarted the beaches become so much quieter, so M and I always try and make time for beach days. October gained its place in my heart early on as it was the time of year for fairgrounds, family holidays and harvest parties. Growing up in Nottingham, the legendary Goose Fair was a highlight of my year (now I have moved away I still miss it!), one of the biggest funfairs in the country. It occupies a large city park with enormous numbers of silly rides, a famous vintage carousel, and lots of great fairground food, and we used to make an evening of it every year as a family, leaving with bags of doughnuts and brandy snaps and helium balloons as it grew dark and the lights shone brightly. We often went on holiday together at half term, usually finding a cosy cottage with an open fire somewhere wild. And then harvest parties, my family’s answer to Halloween, where me and my friends would get together to play silly fruit and vegetable related party games, eat a ploughman’s meal with homemade hedgehog-shaped bread, and usually end up playing very silly fantasy games and/or dancing to the funniest song we could find in my parents’ music collection! Fun times 🙂 And then November – bonfire night and fireworks, which these days involves me and my husband cooking far too much campfire food in the garden and seeing what fireworks displays we can spot for free from outside! But there was always a really spectacular display at my first university too, which me and my friends loved going to see. M and I have made it a tradition to go on a pilgrimage to find great displays of autumn leaves in November, when the colours reach their best. And thanks to our various transatlantic connections we’ve also imported the tradition of holding Thanksgiving celebrations – even if not on the day itself! Since it’s my favourite season I like to stretch my definition of it as far as possible to capture all its magic – beginning in mid August, as defined by nature, and ending at the winter solstice, as defined astronomically, therefore taking in the very last of the autumn colour, shortening days and sparkling fairy lights before I finally have to accept winter’s arrival.

Perhaps surprisingly autumn means a time for new starts for me. I’ve three times moved to a new town, and each time it’s been in the autumn. The last move two years ago was a major upheaval, leaving my job commuting to London to move for M’s new job, moving away from most of our friends but to a lovely part of the country and a much more relaxed way of life. M and I first met properly and became friends at this time of year – now somehow 10 years ago! It was November 4 years ago I first saw Switchfoot play live, which was a profoundly life-changing experience, not just because it forever confirmed me as a megafan but also because I came away buzzing with poetic inspiration for the first time. I may still be a very imperfect poet, but it has been so freeing to be able to put words around my feelings sometimes, something I was very rarely able to do before. And although October was already my favourite month, it now has a particularly special meaning to me as every October 24th is another anniversary of the day I first met Jesus, and He saved my life, and effectively brought me to life for the first time; it marks another year of life and grace.

Autumn speaks deeply to me too in many ways I haven’t yet really managed to put words around. It’s one of the most powerful demonstrations of grace that I know of, as nature over-provides, even for those of us who spend the rest of the year fighting her; the most abused and neglected patches of land produce flowers, autumn leaves and tonnes of blackberries. The nights draw in, reminding us that the day is finite and we should make the most of it before hurrying home to warmth. Beauty rises as everything falls; imperfection is never more beautiful than in autumn, as death and decay produce the wonderful colours, scents and exquisite leaf skeletons, bare trees, mushrooms, and eventually new life. All is revealed, and it is incredible.

I could go on. What have I missed? Wild fruit and autumn leaves, colours, scents, golden light, long shadows, the constantly changing feel of the air, the light and the weather, migrating birds, frosts, mists, sparkles, sunsets, fires, pumpkins, tree hugging, fireworks, planting seeds, harvesting food, cold birdwatching trips, kicking leaves, getting the winter woollies out for the first time, real outdoor work, storms… Can you feel it?