Living in the question

'. . . the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.' RAINER MARIA RILKE Letters to a Young Poet

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Fairtrade Harvest


 Reading - Luke 18: 1- 8
]esus was telling them a parable about their need to pray continuously and not to be discouraged. 2He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him, asking, 'Give me justice in this case against my adversary.' 4 For a while he refused but finally said to himself, I don't fear God or respect people, 5 but I will give this widow justice because she keeps bothering me. Otherwise, there will be no end to her coming here and embarrassing me." 6 The Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 Won't God provide justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he be slow to help them? 8 I tell you, he will give them justice quickly. 


Growing cotton in Mali is not easy. It’s a very thirsty crop, and soaks a huge amount of nutrients from the soil. But because it’s the only cash crop grown in the area which sells for a decent price, the farmers need to keep investing in it. With farmers reporting lower rainfall each year, they are seriously concerned for their livelihoods.
Moussa Keita has eight children and two wives. Like other farmers in the region he struggled to fend for his family on a low income and with poor access to healthcare and education. On top of this, lack of agricultural equipment and poor roads made it difficult to earn a living. But six years ago he started farming Fairtrade cotton and has seen the positive changes over time. Moussa is part of the Dougourakoroni village co-op but he is also the Secretary of UC-CPC de Djidian, which is the umbrella co-operative for the 37 smaller, village-level co-ops. Moussa said it was difficult to get by before and he was only able to send three of his children to school. ‘Today, all my children can go to school because I can afford to pay the school fees; we eat every day, we are able to eat when we are hungry. I can also meet the costs of medicines should we need them.’
As well as earning enough money to meet his basic needs through the Fairtrade minimum price, Moussa’s co-operative receives a Fairtrade premium – extra money to invest in the business or community. Children used to have to walk 2.5km to get to school each day so part of the premium money was used to build two classrooms and a staffroom, which has benefitted 119 children so far. Moussa says: ‘Thanks to the profits from Fairtrade many parents are able to meet school fees and the number of children going to school has increased.’
The co-operative has a long list of other projects they would like to invest in and people in Moussa’s village are generally feeling more secure in their future and their livelihoods with Fairtrade.


Well here we are again at that time of year when we have our harvest festival.  I always feel just ever so slightly hypocritical speaking about harvest festival because it is less and less relevant to the society in which we live today.  At one time in the history of mankind the harvest was an all important time and I am sure we can all imagine how the primitive man would want to give thanks for the gathering of food that would sustain him and his family over the long winter months.  But today we can get all sorts of foods, all the year round and not worry about the season at all.  In fact I should think we barely notice what season we are in if we look at our supermarket shelves.  It is therefore a bit nonsensical to ‘celebrate’ the harvest as such.  

Frances Moore Lappe says:

Because food is our most primal need and our common bond to the earth and to each other, it can ground us as we stretch ourselves to draw in all the interlaced threads so we can weave a whole meaningful picture for ourselves. With food as a starting point, we can choose to meet people and to encounter events so powerful that they can jar us out of our ordinary ways of seeing the world, and open us to new uplifting possibilities.

Food is the common connection that binds us all to the Earth and to each other. Our attitudes towards food are many and varied and this is for a variety of reasons.  The choices of what you ate as a child came in large part from your parents and their parents and in turn we have influenced our children and families as our tastes have grown and developed.
Food influences our cultural language something can be “as smooth as honey;” a bad attitude can be referred to as “sour grapes”, people can be “full of beans.”  Life can be “a bowl of cherries, as easy as pie, or a piece of cake.”
In the nursery rhymes we learned as children: Jack Spratt could eat no fat; his wife could eat no lean; Little Jack Horner stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plumb, Little Miss Muffet ate her curds and whey.   And I am sure you can think of many more to do with food.

In our parents day there was less variety in our diet and certainly not the choices we have today, where we can obtain food from different cultures in restaurants, fast food shops and supermarkets.  One thing is sure, and that is that we worry less about when we are going to eat and more about what we are going to eat.  Unfortunately though, it is not the same for everyone the world over.

I am sure that most of us will know the feeling of hunger only as the urge to eat that signals the time for the next meal. But many people, especially those in the third world or trapped in a world of poverty, know hunger as a constant companion because that meal does not always follow. Then hunger is ceaseless discomfort, weakness, and pain. Hunger can be "choice one is forced to make" and the other is a "choice freely made". To say this, though, is to fail to describe the depth of the experience of living without food. A writer in India describes hunger in more personal terms:

"For hunger is a curious thing: at first it is with you all the time, waking and sleeping and in your dreams, and your belly cries out insistently, and there is a gnawing and a pain as if your very vitals were being devoured, and you must stop it at any cost, and you buy a moment's respite even while you know and fear the sequel. Then the pain is no longer sharp but dull, and this too is with you always, so that you think of food many times a day and each time a terrible sickness assails you, and because you know this you try to avoid the thought, but you cannot, it is with you. Then that too is gone, all pain, all desire, only a great emptiness is left, like the sky, like a well in drought, and it is now that the strength drains from your limbs, and you try to rise and you cannot, or to swallow and your throat is powerless, and both the swallow and the effort of retaining the liquid tax you to the uttermost."

The Third World is the area where we are most likely to find extreme poverty, which results in this sort of hunger.  One of the ways in which we can help people overcome this poverty is by supporting ‘Fair Trade’.
For a long time now it has been recognised that the solution to the question of third world poverty is not just one of money, but rather to enable the poorer communities to help themselves by developing opportunities for trade and economical growth.  It is this that has led to the foundation of organisations that are concerned with ethical trading.  It is now over 30 years since, the ‘Tradecraft’ organisation was established. The Foundation Principles of Tradecraft are that:

·        it is a Christian response to Poverty.
·        it’s mission is fighting poverty through trade.
·        it respects all people and the environment.
·        it abides by and promotes fair business practices.
·        it strives to be transparent and accountable.

These principles arise out of the premise that God created humans in his own image and therefore each person is of value to God and should be treated with respect and dignity and love.

The Fairtrade Foundation does not buy and sell products at all but rather awards its stamp of approval – the FAIRTRADE Mark – to products that meet with international standards. 

Under the Fairtrade practice, producer organisations receive a basic price that covers their costs of production and a premium, which is invested on social, environmental or economic projects that the farmers or workers decide on for themselves. 
It is most apt that this year we have chosen to look at Fairtrade in our harvest service because of our Co-op connection.  The Co-op is renowned for the fact that it has declared its commitment to Fairtrade by using these products for its ‘own label’ goods.  Many of the large Supermarkets carry a range of Fairtrade products on their shelves, the most prominent items being; tea, coffee, chocolate, orange juice and bananas, although these have increased and now include clothes and other goods.  Oxfam, one of the founders of Fairtrade, stock a large range of Fairtrade goods in all their retail outlets.  Many companies and organisations have begun to use Fairtrade products in the workplace.  Many Unitarian churches have Fairtrade stalls or commit themselves to using Fairtrade products.

Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world.

Millions of people in developing countries depend on farming. But they are trapped in poverty by the rules of world trade, keeping those at the start of supply chains powerless to earn enough to cover their costs and with nothing to save for their families.

Choosing Fairtrade offers farmers and workers a better chance to work their way out of poverty, through fairer wages, safer conditions at work and a little extra, called the Fairtrade premium, to invest in projects to improve life for their whole communities.

In the first reading, the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, Jesus describes a situation where a woman forces an unjust judge to ensure that justice is done for her despite the fact that the judge does not want to. How does she do this? She makes so much noise and constantly harasses (literally ‘wears out’) the judge that eventually he gives in to get some peace. Jesus uses this parable to talk about the importance of prayer but it can also be taken very literally as a parable about overcoming injustice. Today the global power of many large multinational companies is similar to the local power a judge would have had in Jesus’ time, and like us as individual consumers the widow had little power. Yet even though we have little power as individuals we can do what the widow did and shout out loud about justice and expose the injustices in our world. We can choose to support Fairtrade and in doing so take the opportunity to make some noise, about how Fairtrade is helping to overcome the injustices in our global system of trade, and  pray that the unjust companies will be forced, like the unjust judge, to sit up and take notice.

At the end of the reading ‘Cotton on to Justice’ I found this prayer with which to close this address.
How long does it take for God to be heard? How long is a piece of string? Why are we so quick to queue for the sales yet so slow to move our hearts? Why are we so prompt in turning the tap yet so sluggish in saving the water? Why is the light switch an instant decision yet helping the poor a long term vision? Why is the food we eat a matter of when and not if, yet the hungry go starving before our checkouts? How long does it take for God to be heard? How long is a piece of string?
God in the midst of the weak and the strong,
who stands with us in the shopping street,
who stands with us in face of the poor,
grant us grace:
enough to love where love is yearned for,
enough to know where knowledge is truth,
enough to act where action is vital.

How long does it take for God to be heard? How long is a piece of string?
Let us cotton onto justice and weave words which eliminate poverty.
Let us cotton onto justice and sew threads of fairly traded goods.
Let us cotton onto justice and wear the label of change
before we condemn another generation to an early death.
 So may it be, Amen


Saturday, 15 September 2012

Zen and the art of knitting?

My friend and colleague Danny Crosby says 'you seem to be able to put zen in front of anything these days and get away with it!'  Must admit it feels like that sometimes as I 'zentangle' or 'zen doodle' but really - zen and knitting!!

Well yes - I have to say that I can see it that way, especially after my latest summer school experience.

It all began when Jane asked me if I would run a knitting workshop again at this year's summer school.  And of course me being me I said yes and then had to hunt around for a theme that would fit in with the summer school theme -

"Sacred Living: Encountering the Holy in the Everyday"

How would it be possible to capture this idea in a knitting workshop which would include both novice and experienced knitters.  I then decided that maybe we would knit a rainbow, because that would be able to be done in squares and squares can be as easy or as complex as they need to be.

 I found this quote:

Knitting workshop
“When we knit, we place our attention over and over again on the natural rhythm of creating fabric from yarn – insert needle, wrap yarn, pull through a new stitch, repeat.  Following this simple repetitive action is the basis of contemplative practice.  It continually reminds us to stay focused, to stay in the moment.  When we knit with this attention, we have an almost indescribable feeling of satisfaction and contentment.  This is a knitting meditation.” 
From ~ Mindful  Knitting: Inviting Contemplative Practice to the Craft by Tara Jon Manning

and then set about collecting yarn in a variety of rainbow colours.

 And it certainly looked exciting and so I was ready to go - I just needed the knitters.

I began with a reading from Linda Skolnik and Janice MacDaniels' book 'The Knitting Way'

"Listen to the music of knitting.  The knitting melody flows, carrying each one of us along a river of connection.  Find the kind of music it is for you.  It doesn't really matter what kind of music.  Just let it speak to you and open your soul to wonders."

And then we began knitting:

 and knitting

 and knitting

 and knitting some more.


 Until finally we had knit our rainbow!!
 I still don't know if there is anything to do with zen when it comes to knitting - but I do know that I knit differently now.  Once I used to knit quickly but as I said to a friend recently. . . 

"Now I knit every stitch" and maybe, just maybe that is knitting mindfully and there is something 'Zen-like' about that.

(Oh and the rainbow - is now winging its way to Jane!!)