There were a number of factors that influenced the decision:
- When I worked in an African community I witnessed the slaughtering of a bull. It was part of the Easter celebrations. When I saw and heard the distress of the animal, I realised that I would not be able to kill an animal, and that perhaps if I didn’t eat meat, it might be a small step towards making the world a less violent place. We were still living through quite a lot of violence in South Africa at the time.
- I had also begun to read about environmental issues. Part of my studies was a course in Environmental Ethics. I read that becoming vegetarian was a way in which one could walk more gently upon the earth.
Unfortunately as a 20 something year old and into my 30’s I didn’t read enough about how to supplement ones diet. During a period of fatigue that was partly depression related (I had just resigned as a Methodist Minister and felt quite lost), I was told by a Chinese doctor that I needed to at least introduce a bit of fish into my diet. And so for the past 5 years Wendy and I have been eating fish about twice or three times a week.
On Thursday morning, I read a new headline that was a reflection on the recent United Nations report on biodiversity on the planet. The report suggests that if we continue on as normal (business as usual), more than a million species around the world are soon going to face extinction. That is not just a devastating loss for the animals, birds, fish and insects themselves. Its not just going to make the world a more boring place, but it will be a devastating loss for humanity as well, because it will be a disruption to the whole eco-system on which we depend. Even though often we like to pretend to ourselves that concern over environmental matters is kind of optional, the truth is that humanity’s survival depends on the earth, as the Bible reminds us, we are Earth Creatures.
In the second Genesis creation story when we read of Adam, Adam is not in fact a name as such, it is a play on the Hebrew word 'adamah' which means earth, and therefore the word Adam really means mean: ‘Earth Creature’. Human beings are earth creatures. As the Genesis story puts it rather poetically, we are made of the soil of the earth. God may have set Eternity in our hearts, but when it comes to our bodies, we are utterly dependent on the health of the earth and of the planet.
Getting back to the News article on Thursday it was looking particularly t the state of the worlds oceans. The report that said that though the biodiversity of land species was becoming critical, the oceans are in fact in a much more serious position. And even though the problem of tonnes and tonnes of plastic being washed into the sea on a daily basis is a huge problem, the bigger problem for biodiversity in our oceans is in fact the commercial fishing industry.
I was under the impression that controlled fish farming in large fish farms off the coast was perhaps more environmentally friendly and sustainable, but I discovered in the article that this is not the case. Fish and prawns are often fed on entire marine ecosystems as trawlers indiscriminately dredge up everything and mash it into fish-meal to feed these fish farms.
The news article suggests that if we want to stop the ravaging of our oceans by great multinational fishing companies, we all need to radically cut our fish consumption and perhaps stop eating fish altogether.
This week, Wendy and I have decided to cut back our fish intake to once a week or maybe even once a month. In line with the children’s address, we are hoping in our small way, to become two little snowflakes (See "How much does a snowflake weigh"). It is becoming evident that if we all continue as normal, as business as usual, we and our children and our grand-children are going to soon be heading into an environmental dark age.
And that brings us to our passage today: In verse 22 we read what seems like an insignificant and passing detail. Just three words. “It was winter.”
Most scholars would tell us that when John makes a comment like that, he is not simply telling us a detail about the season of the year. It is a phrase that is meant to brim over with meaning. It is a bit like in the Game of Thrones, when you hear the phrase “Winter is coming!” it is more than just about the state of the weather. The phrase carries with it a sense of the ominous and the foreboding.
Winter is the time of year when darkness reigns. It is a time when both the light and the warmth recede. For John’s Gospel, it is a description of the state of humanity, the state of the human soul. In the context of the story, it was certainly descriptive of the state of the souls of the Jerusalem leaders who had already begun to plot Jesus’ death as they felt threatened by his presence and influence on the people. It was a description of the darkness that had begun to grow around Jesus.
It was winter.
All indications are from the news headlines and from people like David Attenborough is that metaphorically speaking “Winter is coming”. We are heading towards an age of great suffering in the world, if we do not pull back. If we do not collectively make radical changes to our lifestyles.
The second detail in the passage that I want to point out is also in verse 22: “It was the Festival of Dedication” at Jerusalem.
The Festival of Dedication (or Hanukah) was a celebration of the re-dedication of the Temple after the Seleucid King Antiochus Ephiphanes desecrated the Temple in 168 BC by sacrificing pigs on the altar and by erecting a statue of Zeus in the centre of it. These were actions designed to humiliate and infuriate the Jews who he had conquered. Antiochus’s title of Ephiphanes reveals what kind of ruler he was, or what he thought of himself, because the title means “a revelation of God”. In other words, he thought of himself as God’s gift to the world. It is interesting. While in the story, Antiochus Ephiphanes desecrated the Temple of God in Jerusalem, it could equally be said that today, even as we sit here in church, humanity collectively is desecrating the Temple of God’s creation.
When Antiochus Epiphanes had been defeated and driven out by the Maccabees, the Temple was rededicated over an 8 day period. The Festival of Dedication or Hannukha is likewise an 8 day festival, and over the period each night an extra candle is lit from a central candle on a menorah. So over the 8 days you would have a growing sense of light as more and more candles on the menorah were lit.
Perhaps today, as we hear that we are heading towards a time of ecological darkness, God invites us to begin to light candles in the dark as we seek to rededicate the temple of creation back to God and to no longer sacrifice it on the altar of continual material consumption and indifference. As Jesus is the light of the world, can we hear his call that we too should become lights in the world, becoming agents of change.
It is very easy when we hear the scale of the environmental problem to become depressed. One of those who worked with David Attenborough on his documentary "Climate Change: the Facts", said that after they had finished filming around the world and pulling all the detail of the documentary together, she fell into quite a depression when she saw how bad the problems really are. It was a depression of powerlessness. How do we turn this ship around?
There have been times in my life where I have felt that kind of despair and depression about the environment. But when I begin to feel that way, it is helpful to to remember the message of the children’s address. Every time we begin to feel despair we should ask ourselves the question: “How heavy is a snowflake?” And to remember that as little snowflakes begin to fall, and begin to build up. In the end it just takes one or two snowflakes extra to fall on a branch for the branch to become weighed down and for the snow to slide off. “How heavy is a snow-flake?” Are you willing to become a snowflake for change, and to be reminded that even the seemingly insignificant things you do to save the environment can begin to add up.
We can make a difference.
David Attenborough in his documentary provides a number of quite easy and practical ways in which we can start:
- Make our homes as energy efficient as possible. Do not put your heating on unnecessarily. Put on a jumper if it means being able to turn down your heating even just a little.
- Everything we buy has a carbon foot-print, from a mobile phone to a packet of crisps, a take-away coffee to a washing machine. We can cut carbon emissions by buying and consuming less.
- Do not replace appliances and furnishing unnecessarily. Buy higher quality so that it will last longer. Each appliance requires the burning of enormous amounts of fossil fuels just to make.
- Food is about a quarter of our carbon foot-print in the UK. Do not let food go to waste. We can care for the environment by simply eating everything we buy. Avoid air-freighted food which is about 100 times as impact-ful than putting it on a boat. Consider eating vegetarian, for just 2-3 days a week. Not everyone has to become a vegetarian. David Attenborough suggested that the problem is not with traditional farming techniques but rather with intensive farming.
In the last few weeks Wendy and I had to by a new mattress. It arrived this week. Our current mattress was such a disappointment, lasting only just over a year. We decided to buy an expensive mattress that would last. The more we researched, the more we realized that natural latex produces the longest lasting mattresses and they are environmentally friendly because they are biodegradable. But it was quite expensive. We struggled with the question. Do we do it or not? In the end our consciences won out. We decided to pay extra on an environmentally friendly mattress even though it was expensive. If we are going to pass on the planet to our children and grandchildren, humanity has some hard choices ahead of us. Perhaps one less polyurethane mattress might make a little difference: another snowflake.
Wendy and I are obviously concerned about the environment, but we are not environmental heroes. We are as enmeshed in the problem as everybody else. We are just as addicted to plastic as everyone else. We burn oil to heat our home like everybody else. We are just struggling to make sense of all of this, and hopefully, trying do our part in beginning to make a change.
May we remember that the Bible refers to us as earth creatures, we depend on this beautiful, fragile eco-system. In the darkness of the environmental news, may we begin to light our own Hanukah candles rededicating the Temple of Creation back to God. And when we feel down and depressed wondering if we can even make a difference let us remember to ask ourselves: “How heavy is a snowflake?”