Tag: God's creation

I have set My Bow in the Clouds

Rainbow over Lane. photo Piers Northam

Thoughts on Genesis 9: 8-17 from Piers Northam
Licensed Lay Minister at St. Mary-at-Latton, Harlow

I can never resist commenting on a rainbow if I see one.  They’re wondrous things, aren’t they?  And it doesn’t seem to matter if we’re nine or ninety, they still stop us in our tracks and invite us to marvel.
I remember once, many years ago now, driving through a very heavy rainstorm in France and turning a corner to see perhaps the most intense rainbow I have ever seen, bright and vivid against a background of thick, dark threatening clouds; a blaze of glory in the assault of the storm. We stopped the car to take a photo, but actually that image is vibrant in my mind’s eye – along with the wonder and the excitement of what we saw.

Of course rainbows have become prominent symbols of late – not least because they have been adopted as the symbol of the NHS and we have seen drawings stuck up in people’s windows; badges and the like.
Originally Gilbert Baker devised the rainbow flag in 1978 with eight colours as a symbol of pride for the gay community – the colours speaking of diversity and the various elements of life.  Over the years the flag has been adapted, the number of colours reduced and changed slightly and variations adopted to draw attention to different groups.  Its meaning has been broadened to include concepts of social justice.
The rainbow badge was originally adopted by the NHS to show greater understanding and inclusivity for LGBTQI+ people;
but it also speaks of being mindful of the various discriminations that people live with and over time it has evolved into a symbol of wider inclusivity; of an acknowledgment of the rich diversity of life and human experience and of the NHS’s role in responding to that sensitively and generously.  And during the pandemic, of course, it’s also become a symbol of our collective support for each other.

But in the story of Noah that we heard read to us just now, there are further connotations to the rainbow.  Here it stands as a symbol of hope and life after the forty days and nights of the Flood which wiped out all living beings other than those carried in the safety of the Ark – it speaks of release from hardship and confinement: of hope for the future.
And our reading from Genesis tells us that the meaning of the rainbow is one of Covenant – of a solemn and immutable promise that God makes with us.  Actually, if you listen carefully, of the covenant that God makes with every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth…
‘When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’

So often, when we read again a familiar passage of Scripture, things pop out that we haven’t noticed before, and here, I was struck by the insistence that this covenant is made ‘with every living creature of all flesh’.  The phrase comes up three times in the passage we heard and God spells it out even further at the beginning:
As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.’

When Noah takes all the different species into the ark to save them from the floor he is fulfilling his proper role as a steward of God’s creation; caring for and keeping safe the beauty and diversity of that creation; the finely balanced ecosystems that exist.

As we embark on the season of Lent, this reading helps us to ponder two questions – which Jane Williams suggests are appropriate questions for us to consider in Lent: ‘What are we for?’ and ‘What [or who] do we depend on?’ 

So what are we for?  Well Noah – as the representative of humankind – is fulfilling his God-given role as the steward of God’s creation.  And it’s a role that includes all living creatures – not just the domestic animals that are going to be of some specific use to him.  As we watch programmes such as David Attenborough’s ‘A Life on our Planet’ we need to remember the proper interdependence of all life forms and the way that we plunder the natural world so greedily and wantonly.  Part of what we are for is to work with God to care for the life-sustaining world that we have been given to live in.
And who do we depend on?  Noah’s story reminds us that we depend on God for everything – for it is through God’s mercy that Noah and his family survive and come through the flood safely.

In our Gospel story we see Jesus faced with similar questions as he withdraws to the wilderness.  In following the Spirit’s promptings he makes time and space to ponder what his calling is and to rely on his Father’s mercy; to make himself vulnerable and to depend on his Father.
Again, this is a familiar passage – although, as is typical of Mark, it’s pretty pared back, with few details – but three phrases did catch my ear:
‘The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.’
‘He was with the wild beasts’ and
‘the angels waited on him.’

In this time of Lent we need to allow the Spirit to drive us; we need to be open to the Spirit’s insistence as she drives us into the wilderness – a place where we have time and space to ponder; to go deep; to listen…  There’s an urgency and a vitality to the Spirit’s prompting here that we need to open ourselves up to because it’s important to be addressing those questions: ‘what am I for?’  And ‘who do I depend on?’  To find again our place in the world and our relationship with God.

So Jesus followed the Spirit’s insistence and went alone into the wilderness ‘where he was with the wild beasts’.  I’ve always thought of the wild beasts as being a threatening part of the story – a symbol of the harsh surroundings that Jesus find himself in.  And in part that’s true.  But seen in the context of Noah’s story and the Covenant that God makes with every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth, we might take it that Jesus is in his – and our – rightful place in the midst of creation; alongside the wild animals and reptiles and birds with whom we share in God’s rainbow promise.  It’s a strong reminder of how we are all interlinked.

And then that final phrase – ‘and the angels waited on him’.  Hitherto, I’ve rather dismissed that phrase – it doesn’t seem sufficiently Lenten really, does it?  Bit too comfy perhaps.  A trifle ‘Wilderness Lite’…  But actually, is it not a reminder that even in the most desperate and isolated of situations we are not alone; that God cares for us; sending his angels (in whatever form they may take) to be with us?  I think many of us will have witnessed or experienced examples of this in recent months.
Taken in this way, the wilderness – the Lenten wilderness – reminds us of our rightful place in the world and of our rightful relationship with the Father.  It gives us space to ponder and explore what God might want for us; what he is calling us to; but it also reminds us that in all we do, we are reliant on God.

One last thought. 
As I imagined the rainbow, two things occurred to me – first, that each colour needs the others to be complete – the one bright light is refracted by the rain into the colours of the spectrum: but take one away and the rainbow is incomplete; the rainbow dissipates without inclusive diversity.
But also, beyond the colours that are visible to the eye are those that we can’t see – infra red at one end and ultraviolet at the other.  And I am sure there’s much more hidden glory beyond in both directions.  In our creed, we profess our faith in things ‘visible and invisible’ for we believe in the things God reveals to us, but also in the hidden workings; the hidden glories that we cannot perceive…

Promise, covenant, hope, inclusivity, diversity, interdependence and the glories of creation – both visible and invisible – there’s a lot bound up in that seemingly simple symbol.
May your time in the Lenten wilderness give you space and time to ponder all these things – and may you glimpse a rainbow or two along the way.

Piers Northam
21 February 2021

All creatures of our God and King

A reflection on Animal Welfare and Creation by my friend,
The Revd Lynn Hurry (Vicar of St. Mary-at-Latton, Harlow)

Wouldn’t it be so fantastic if it were said of all Christians, ‘see how they love God’s creatures’ ?
Believe me when I say, God knows just how bad the situation is on our planet right now as so many are faced with extinction.

In fact I think the artist and writer Helen Bradley gets it right in her book titled ‘In the beginning said great aunt Jane’, when at one-point she paints God standing on the roof of a house and weeping over the earth crying, ‘Oh my beautiful earth, my beautiful people’…..there wasn’t even time to see all the lost dogs and cats whom he loved so much. He held out his hand, ‘Please give a thought to me. I made you, and I made you so beautiful, and all the animals and birds I made, and they are beautiful. I gave you all love and yet you are without it……My beautiful world….what will become of it’. And a tear ran down his cheek.

A former bishop of Manchester once expressed within the House of Lords:
“My Lords, I once heard it said – and the saying has haunted me ever since –
that if animals believed in the devil he would look remarkably like a human being”.
Seeing and reading about the appalling treatment, abuse and neglect, such lack of feeling for all God’s creatures, I can agree with his sentiment.
In fact, many notable saints have had much to say in support of the care of God’s creatures and the appalling way they have been abused, including Saint Francis of Assisi whose feast day was on Sunday.

Yet despite thousands of years of human neglect and abuse, animals still reflect the very nature of the Divine in their selfless giving and loving.
We are given a remarkable, spiritual and unique relationship with animals, but you wouldn’t sometimes recognise that in the world or even in our churches.  Rarely do we speak of spirituality and animals in the same breath. 

In our culture, we are taught to eat them, wear them, and work them.
We even refer to other people as “animals” in a derogatory manner.  Publicly, our culture emphasises animals as ‘Things to be used.’ Things with a limited shelf life. 
We blame them for passing on diseases and we hunt them down.When there are too many, we turn our backs to millions who are euthanized due to overpopulation – a tragedy so easily prevented.  
We see them as property, rather than as separate beings who deserve the good things in life we want for ourselves. 
When they are bought for food, they no longer resemble animals grazing in our fields or more likely these days locked in cages and small crates on our farms.

And yet every one of them has the same complex feelings, as do the very cats and dogs that share our homes. They too have unique personalities, and value their lives. They nurse and snuggle with their young, they get hungry and thirsty like us, they mourn the deaths of their companions, they get scared by strangers and loud noises, they play, they cry, they feel pain.
And yet they are treated like machines and no more than products …. in their billions! Too often we give little thought to what the animals have sacrificed for us. 

Being stewards or caretakers of the earth’s creatures is the responsibility all of us…. Not just some of us!

If you watched the latest David Attenborough documentary called ‘Extinction’, then you will know that not everyone is playing their part in protecting our planet and its creatures.
Right now, a million species are at risk of becoming extinct.And how much do we care?

Everything in the natural world supports the whole of life on earth, including us, and we are losing many of the benefits that nature provides for us. The loss of insects threatens pollination of crops, loss of biodiversity in soil threatens plants. In fact, one in four plants face extinction right now. And the crisis will have a knock-on effect for everyone. It threatens our food and water, puts us at even greater risk of pandemic diseases and among the largest drivers are overfishing, climate change and pollution.
And it’s happening very, very fast!

But the single biggest driver of biodiversity loss is the destruction of natural habitats.  Seventy-five per cent of Earth’s land surface has been changed by humans, most of it for agriculture.

The way we are destroying God’s beautiful world isn’t just putting the ecosystems that we rely on at risk. Human activities like the trade in animals and the destruction of habitats are driving new diseases. We’ve heard a lot for example about the beautiful, gentle, now threatened pangolins that are boiled alive for Chinese medicines. Their scales carry coronavirus. And you and I have a huge responsibility as consumers, because unless we are very, very careful, without realising it we contribute towards the loss of species through what we buy in the supermarket.
A good example is products with palm oil. Its production is responsible for terrible human rights violations because corporations often forcefully remove Indigenous Peoples and rural communities from their lands in order to expand their palm oil plantations.
Tragically, child labour, modern day slavery and other serious labour abuses occur on plantations where most of the world’s palm oil is grown.
But it’s also one of the world’s leading causes of rainforest destruction. 
The expansion of the plantations push deep into the heart of some of the world’s most culturally and biologically diverse ecosystems.
And so irreplaceable wildlife species like the Sumatran Rhino, Sumatran Elephant and the Sumatran and Bornean Orangutan are being driven to the brink of extinction.
Look at the products you buy and you will see many have Palm oil in: Bread, crisps, soap, ice cream, shampoo, chocolate, biscuits and tons more. Look at the packaging.

The part that animals play in our world is so vital. We cannot afford our thoughtless, selfish behaviours to go on. All of us have a part to play.
Back in biblical days’ people lived with their animals, today the vast majority of those used for food and other purposes are hidden from sight in factory farming.

I don’t know how much people are really aware of the suffering involved in factory farming, because I do know a common reaction when faced with the facts is, ‘Don’t tell me, I don’t want to hear about it’ or ‘don’t tell me what I can or can’t eat’!

Well say that to God and hear what God would say……’My beautiful creatures, what has become of the people I asked to care for them’.

For most of history Christians have largely ignored animal suffering. Christian thinkers believed that human beings were greatly superior to animals and so could do what they like to them. Fortunately, modern Christians generally take a much more pro-animal line realizing mistreatment of animals is both sinful and morally wrong. But having said that many still shut their eyes to what goes on in the meat industry.

I’m a vegetarian working towards becoming a vegan. This wasn’t an overnight change. It’s an ongoing process.  And I’m not saying that all of you should do that same.
What I am saying is when people shop, do they really know about where our food comes from, how much the animals have suffered and what the impact is upon our planet?  Do people care enough to change shopping and eating practices?  Do people dare enough to ask what God requires of us? Do people care enough about their children and grandchildren and those yet unborn and what the impact of our buying will have on the planet and them, as well as all God’s creatures?

The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined, while millions of cows raised for meat produce tons of methane, far more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. The environmental impact of meat production needs to be taken much more seriously.
I could tell you so many stories about the negative impact and brutality of factory farming and the huge meat consumption there is, but at the end of the day it’s up to each of us as individuals to think very, very carefully about what we are doing. Most of us have computers and can research online if we really want to be good stewards of God or of the planet. Look up ‘Compassion for World Farming’ Or ‘Viva’ if you really would like to know the truth.

A start would be to buy less meat and fish and only buy free range because pigs and cows were not created to be forced to live their lives in pens they can’t even turn around in. In fact the majority of factory farmed chickens will have more room in your oven than they had in their short lives.
Yes, free range is more expensive, but you could eat less of it, eat more veg with it. It would be healthier, taste better, and the animals suffering would be reduced and the planet would thank you.

At the end of the day The Bible shows that God made a covenant with animals as well as human beings. They both have the same origin and God has the right to have everything created treated respectfully and equally – and so wronging animals is wronging God.
Our God is not indifferent to anything in creation and the example of a loving creator God should lead all humans to act lovingly towards them and take an active role in changing what’s happening to them and our planet.
Inflicting pain on any living creature is incompatible with living in a Christ-like way.

Change to our planet and the way God’s creatures are treated begins with you and me as we are all co-creators with God, called to acknowledge that we have a spiritual duty to take these issues seriously. It’s an important part of our Christian discipleship, this is not an optional ‘add on’.