Friday, 19 July 2013

Keep the earth below my feet


"The true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground."
(G.K. Chesterton)

Due to my technical difficulties in recent weeks, I've had thoughts for a particular post flapping around in my full little head since the feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost. I started thinking about our notions of heaven and earth and what store we might set by any separation or unity of the two.
The ascension of Jesus to heaven has always provided atheists and sceptics with massive heartburn. Bible critics point to the mythical cosmology of the New Testament in particular, citing the structural convenience of heaven above, earth as the middle ground and the depths of the underworld below; furthest removed from the celestial realm. Sceptics have also suggested that accounts of Jesus' ascension tidily discredited any possible ongoing claims of Jesus appearing within the growing Christian community. Yet the tradition of Jesus' ascension, professed in both the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, is certainly accepted and respected across the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches. The bodily ascension is seen as an obvious and unequivocal sign of Jesus' humanity and divinity, of his participation in our story and God's
power and love.
Jesus refers to heaven and the Father there throughout his ministry, accepting his inevitable return and promising us the same rise. Sounds a bit too pie in the sky to be feasible? We wordy humans refer to heaven constantly as we respond to both the minutiae and more unusual stresses or pleasant surprises in our daily lives. It's very, very hot in Brighton at the moment, but far from drawing comparisons with any fiery pit down below (and I don't mean the Antipodes), Brightonians and tourists alike exclaim that this is "heavenly weather", "heaven on earth". My neighbour described her leafy back garden as "paradise" earlier.
 It seems most of us grow up with the notion that there is a heaven "up there": somewhere over the rainbow; even higher than the sky, beyond the sun, in another dimension; infinity and beyond. We can calculate and probe the centre of our earth; we can salvage from the ocean floor. We know how to make fire and usually how to put out flames. Yet no rocket can ever really touch the sky. "To infinity and beyond" may conjure up ethereal realms but nitty gritties such as maths and physics are always in the elusive mix. We can hazard a guess at what the Neanderthals preferred for midweek dinner, but we can't quite calculate the edges of the universe; where our world might end and another could begin.
I like the Pentecostal symbolism of Spirit enfolding air, water and fire: the rushing wind that heralds Spirit, the water of baptism and the tongues of flame that anoint and inspire the Apostles. I understand now that the fourth element, earth, is found in the Apostles themselves. Man is grounded and of earth itself. And it's essentially a wonderful place, unimagined and still misunderstood by us, for all our scientific and philosophical digging. Whether you subscribe to the Big Bang Theory, the Bigger Big Bang Theory, or believe in creation by a higher power, we did not make this earth which supports our vast ambitions alongside the most microscopic, ancient ecosystems. Of course there are inherent extremes of temperature and terrain across this planet, but so many of the world's crisis and problems are due to man's mismanagement and lack of safe-guarding.
People starve, not because of some vaguely discriminating natural law or the survival of the fittest. A huge proportion of the finest arable land is used to grow grain to feed an increased animal population to satisfy meat consumerism. In the United States alone, 175 million tons of cereals and vegetable protein, suitable for human consumption, is fed to livestock bound for just 28 million tons of animal protein, often in the form of "fast food".
I assure you this is not a vegetarian rant. In what we constantly refer to as developing countries, the use of land to create and maintain an artificial food chain has resulted in misery and famine for millions of our neighbours. One acre of land used for local cereal or vegetable production will respectively produce five and ten times more protein than one acre used for meat production for market elsewhere. In the case of crops such as soya, the probable increased protein yield is thirty times more.
The terrible human consequences of the shift of focus from food to feed were dramatically evident during the Ethiopian famine in 1984. Ethiopians starved in front of our TV cameras, but Ethiopia was harvesting a wealth of linseed and rapeseed for European livestock. We wept as the redoubtable Michael Buerk reported on famine and desolation on an epic, biblical scale. The region held by many to be the location of the Garden of Eden was described as "hell on earth".
Ordinary people responded with what was seen to be extraordinary kindness. A dishevelled potty-mouthed Oirish punk called Bob shouted, swore and sweated and celebrities suddenly found their own feet of clay could actually help kick political butts. The BBC and CBC footage from 1984 still makes me cry: as it did for so many other people, "Live Aid" changed me and the way I saw the world, man and God. I remember the concerts as though they were last week, not thirty years ago. Unfortunately, the famine in that region and others has proved endless. Charity surged and continues to flow but common sense and economic justice still don't amount to much for governments and the corporate world.
It's both a tragedy and a travesty that 80 percent of the earth's hungry children live in lands with food surpluses which are fed to animals bred for consumption by the affluent. It's a terrible irony that tens of thousands in the so-called First World die every year from diseases exacerbated by affluence: heart disease, strokes, diabetes and some cancers. Many years ago, a lovely old man in a loincloth and blanket pointed out that the earth has enough to sustain man's needs but not his greed; we nodded at Gandhi's wisdom and smiled at his naiveté.
On this glowing, fine day, I truly don't wish to put anyone off their barbecued beef or even their bean burger. Yet under the same unremitting blue sky, military experts warn today that Britain must "be prepared to go to war" in Syria to effectively end the conflict there and keep chemical weapons out of terrorist hands. The United Nations has already called the conflict in Syria the worst humanitarian conflict of the past twenty years, estimating 100,000 fatalities so far. Millions of Syrians have already fled or been displaced and hunger and disease breed in their tracks.
Man should never be prepared to go to war: it's a chillingly pointless statement when you strip away ideologies and strategies, flags and uniforms. We tend our gardens and man our borders for personal preservation. The ancient indigenous populations knew that we belong to the earth rather than vice versa; we are indeed borrowing it for and from our children. Herbaceous borders are lovely but boundaries and division confine as well as protect. It riles me particularly when people say:"You guys believe in God - why doesn't he stop the war?" God doesn't start war; if all men really believed in God, heaven and hell and themselves, they wouldn't start it either.
It's seen as human nature to seek comfort, provenance and heaven on earth. Walking across the Level here in Brighton, I see folk seeking enlightenment or oneness with the universe through various cultivated substances. The Sanskrit word "nirvana" literally means "blown out", as in a candle, referring to the stillness and peace of mind which remain after desires, dissentions and delusion are extinguished. But you can't drink your way to Spirit, or smoke your way to heaven.
I do believe that we encounter people, places and events that help us on our individual paths to heaven. If we're fortunate, we recognise our soul mates along the way. If we're blessed, our soul mates recognise us back. There's much beauty to be found on earth and much more to aspire to beyond. I believe we should embrace and cherish this world rather than reaching to pull the next down to us, like a fruit-laden branch to be plundered and muddied.

"On earth there is no heaven, but there are pieces of it."
(Jules Renard)

"Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in."
(C.S. Lewis)

"Below My Feet"  Mumford and Sons

"Keep the earth below my feet;
For all my sweat, my blood runs weak.
Let me learn from where I have been;
Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn."
(Dwane, Lovett, Mumford, Marshall)

"And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair."
(Kahlil Gibran)


  1. I wonder ... when Jesus looks down on earth ... what does He think about us?

    God bless.

    1. Oh I'm sure Jesus thinks we're a right bunch of eejits Victor, but with bemusement and love! I don't get that people feel God wouldn't or shouldn't have a sense of humour; just look at us? Thanks for dropping by, God bless.