Author Archives: David Coleman

Passionately caring

I sent this in as a response to the recent article in the Church of Scotland’s magazine on the reasons for the decision of that denomination to continue to invest in those fossil fuel companies that are not convincingly and transparently making plans to comply in the whole of their operations with the targets of the Paris Agreement.  The deadline for letters was approaching, so I sent it in, and there’s no guarantee it will be used. Editors have their job to do. The point here is to challenge, but in love. In the debate on what churches are doing with their money on public, there’s no doubt that all involved are trying to act for the best, for the common good. But we are now in a completely different and more unstable world situation even than just a few years ago. This does call for a different approach to mission, and in all organised churches. We need to stand up to the idea that those who look for the end of fossil fuel exploration do not care for those involved in it: just as we know those who protest with integrity for the end of war care desperately for the welfare of soldiers and those caught up in it. The website description of our movement is of those who care passionately for Creation, which of course includes our neighbours, however employed. Tonight I’m at an ecumenical conference, listening to a talk by Lord John McFall, introducing the idea of ‘Good Disagreement’ . Perhaps that might be one of the possible roles for Eco Congregation Scotland. And yes, we are likely to encounter intimidation in this respect: the call to shame that we might suggest such a thing: the insistence that, because of our detachment and ignorance, we should keep silent. But please, friends, do not be seduced into the situation of accepting the role of enemies to those whom we love, and the planet we share.

Letters to magazines are necessarily short and incomplete . But everything I write in this role is public. The blog gives me a chance to add context.
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Response to the second article on Disinvestment, September Life & Work

What is the Church – any church – for? Should churches hold to Jesus’ strategic priority of the kingdom of God, or allow over-riding ‘prudent’ considerations to dictate policy? In time of Climate Crisis, these questions become more acute, visible and difficult.

The false alternative of “engagement versus disinvestment” in dealing with corporations, which consciously, cleverly and intentionally evade compliance with Paris targets, gets us nowhere fast, but we have long since run out of time. We can engage -as churches – without playing the part of shareholders, but in wholehearted solidarity with those employed in these industries, as we energetically advocate a “just transition” towards a carbon-neutral economy.

The idea of “forcing” transformations in corporate behaviour” is, one churches should abandon. Christian mission cannot be of coercion, only persuasion. Freed from the aspiration to dictate, our witness gains power and momentum to touch hearts and change minds. Nor can we wait until we ourselves are perfect before we take the relatively easy first steps of reshuffling money. However strange and counter-cultural that might seem, public witness will continue to be compromised when mouths appear to be where money is, or where hearts appear to be where treasure is. To wait, shoots mission in the foot.

Brian Duffin mentions injustice “to those companies” making cosmetic changes towards compliance. What of the manifest climate injustice, long highlighted by Christian Aid and others, of devastation of crops and inundation of homelands? And if you wish to reward those companies that really are changing, switch investment to those primarily engaged in sustainable energy. The location of investments is ultimately a moral, rather than a financial decision. That was the journey that led to a unanimous decision of the United Reformed Church to disinvest, (and switch) with ripples beyond their expected financial clout. It also led to a recognition that conscientious financial and other advisors can be reconciled with those who have seemed to be opposing them. This isn’t about victory or defeat. It’s the hard lesson, for churches, of responsiveness in faith, to the signs of the times.

All Together Urgent

As a preamble:

It’s been observed that the proportion  of single-occupant households in the UK is rising, and with it, inevitably, the per capita environmental impact.  At the same time, there are many signs of hope – community gardens, tool  and other libraries:  sharing of vehicles, sharing of resources which, with goodwill, enriches the lives of a neighbourhood.  

Perhaps the most environmentally friendly direction you might choose is to build community; whether as  lone or multiple householder, to ween ourselves off the idea that everyone has to possess their own copy of everything, and that life is otherwise diminished or impoverished. 

Like almost everything we will recommend in EcoCongregation Scotland, it’s a ‘rewarding sacrifice”. Think about clean air, better health, less stress, when we learn again to walk even those short distances… to the post box… the shops…. to church?

But of course, you know that already, don’t you?  Community’s “carbon feet” tread more lightly. When everyone feels the pressure  to own everything, the  costs to the planet are wont to spiral.

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Ok.

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There’s a recurring motif in science-fiction and horror genres: –Stephen King’s ‘It’ and Dr Who are examples that spring to mind – where  we see significant and earth-shattering events, which should permanently have changed public consciousness, or at least raised suspicion that all was not as it should be. 

And then everything just reverts to the default position. 

It’s as if the event, tragedy, wonder, or revelation had never been. Which does make it easier for the next team of writers to pen a  subsequent series.

I’m wondering if Scottish churches have been afflicted with something of the same syndrome. And I’m wondering how to get the scales to fall from eyes. Prayer perhaps? (Is a blog a prayer?- answers on a postcard!)

Eighteen years ago, as a minister from Barrhead, I managed to sneak into the “first” Scottish Ecumenical Assembly, held in Edinburgh, with a procession  of banners in the streets, and an uplifting and challenging  opening service in St Giles’ Cathedral, where, as I recall, the sermon reminded those present of the danger of the default: that way of just resetting everything once the pressure is off, when significant changes have actually been agreed, or seem likely. Sliding back to square one. 

A loss of hope, a drought of vision.

The Assembly was an occasion of significant fellowship. Pretty well all available RC bishops were present, as bishops,  moderators and superintendents.  And low-status hangers-on like me. There were luminaries from politics and religion, and indeed, from quite a wide spectrum of organised churches.  No attempt at inclusiveness is ever perfect, but they had a good  go. 

We looked at a number of themes, many of which are still highly relevant, such as poverty, migration, alienation, work, and the churches’ relationship with science and technology.  All of these are now brutally impacted by climate crisis. 

That is our context. It won’t go away.

As to the two parallel communion/eucharistic services, at the Assembly, which shared lovely music by James MacMillan,  a significant number of us attended ‘the other side’, still bearing the painful burden of respecting the status quo of church regulations which to this day  prohibit (though not unevenly or in both directions) the sharing of Christ, by faith, in bread and wine.  

I remember, (and I hope I’m not embroidering the memory), that few could have come out of the experience still just wishing that everyone else would “see sense” and “do it their way”. 

Uniformity is the totalitarian and imperialist ‘dark side’ of unity. 

At my induction as chaplain, I expressed the hope that EcoCongregation involvement might make you all, respectively “a more catholic Catholic,

 a more truly evangelical evangelical,  a happier presbyterian…” though all these identities depend on what we share in Christ, who talks of a Father’s House-of-Multiple-Occupation (οἰκῐ́ᾱ)  and prays, for all to hear and share “that they may be one”. 

There’s little in the Gospels so clear and yet so fiercely resisted. 

A bit like our  defence of private property in all things.

Re-reading  the essays published for the Assembly  with the perspective of our current crisis, it feels as if ‘environment’ is  only dredged up as a means to an end:  to prop up rhetorical flourishes,  as a scaremongering  bogey, to offer romantic  words of comfort….. and of course, anything globally scary or apocalyptic in tone is decidedly future-focussed.  The safe world for the great great-grandchildren… and other such obsolete hopes.

 There is a mention of “companionship”   with Creation,  quite tellingly in   the bit on science and religion. 

(We now depend on science as we listen for the Voice of the Earth, the groans, the cries, the warnings….)

Back in 2001, we still had the remnants of nuclear angst. And since  the Assembly convened just a few days after “9:11” threats to life and peace were – compared to what we now face –  on the relatively pedestrian scale of war and politics,  that is,  of possibility  if chosen, rather than inevitability unless acted upon.  

(And if you want to read that last sentence again, go ahead. Relatively pedestrian.)

Although I soon after realised that the “statement” that came out of my own reflection group  had been  skilfully watered down at the drafting stage by an experienced church bureaucrat, nonetheless, there was a feeling of collaboration, movement and momentum.  

But I’m wondering where that all went.  Like the “Invasion of the…” – whoever they were-  or the outbreak of child disappearances in Stephen King’s town of Derry.

The impetus for the Assembly  had been the ‘Great Jubilee’ of the Millennium,  encouraged by Pope St John Paul II’s encyclical ‘Ut Unum Sint’, in which proactive dialogue and repentance over disunity were affirmed  as essential to Christianity,

And  the “Lund Principle”  was proclaimed anew, that, “at local, regional, national and international levels, churches must act together except where deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately.” 

 It’s been good to see similar  words surface relatively recently  at national committee level in various places, but you and I both know that at the grassroots of locally neighbouring churches, (-where fear and misunderstood  respect dictates hesitation over seeking  permission rather than risk of apology, -) such a a basic and obvious  “principle” as Lund might as well be obscure and esoteric.

Ecumenism, where  sidelined to toothless  committees, has suffered all the more from the battening down of the hatches as denominations  struggle with financial pressures. Some of us have jealously guarded what we felt to be our distinct identities, though no church can with integrity prioritise  any other identity than that of the Body of Christ. Everything else is derivative, with or without the vows and promises that bind us over ( me included)  to uphold our particular rules and regulations.

It’s as if the Ecumenical Assembly had never been at all.  And the vastly expensive  luxury of division,  not unlike the costs of loneliness and divided communities of any kind, presses down towards a time of deserts of Christian Witness. 

Here too, the internal combustion engine has played a role. How many folk, who live within walking or cycling  distance of a church, nonetheless burn fossil fuels to attend one of their preference? And in how many small  settlements does one small portion of a minister share ‘responsibility’ for that town or village  with a smaller portion of another?

(See how these Christians love each other!)

Rural and island communities, with a hugely practical attitude to thinly-spread church leadership and the shareability of resources, often  offer, if not a model, at least some sort of direction. And I’m not being romantic about this, because I know of the hardship  and sacrifice that nonetheless sometimes triumphs in such circumstances.

We also see, where attention to carbon brownie points goes together with the loving expression of Christian witness in the alleviation of poverty and the elimination of waste, in community gardens,  sharing of clothing, rescue of bread, fair trade, buying locally, and  those other wonderful expressions of love…. we see that when Christians let themselves be seduced into living out their faith with integrity, then care for the Planet is part and parcel. 

Is it far-fetched to suggest that the urgency of the environmental crisis should powerfully kick-start our confidence in the Spirit’s gift of the Unity of the Church?

Could the range of an electric bike, rather than of a petrol engine, determine the radius of the ‘Sunday journey’ ( as they put it in Welsh Presbyterianism) of a denominational chameleon of a local church leader? 

I sometimes laugh with God at what I get away with. You should try it!

A few years later, I managed to wangle a trip to Brazil, to the World Council of Churches, as part of my first sabbatical. And I sneaked into an ecumenical  session entitled “the implications of common Baptism”. 

As it happened, this meeting was reviewing a report produced at a high level between churches which had clearly taken its remit as, with the utmost   eloquence,  to find  ways of avoiding the implications of common Baptism, because no one was quite ready to confront the most blindingly obvious of those implications. 

 I can say that here, because I’m not speaking for anyone else. But read the document, if you don’t believe me, and then be honest about your own conclusion.

Back then, I also heard that old self-congratulatory chestnut “this wouldn’t have happened forty years ago” . That stung. Back then, in my forties, I pointed out  that I had been hearing that in churches all my life .  

Wasn’t it time to regret, rather than congratulate on the slow progress?

A certain Archbishop  commented that I must have been “an awfully precocious child!”  I was far too polite in those days (maybe I still am)  to ask why we didn’t just yell “Get on with it!”  But, as you might say, that wasn’t the end of the world, or even the world as we know it.  (That’s what we face now!)

Churches have learned the sleight of hand of being good neighbours by avoiding the most obvious progress towards unity. And so time goes on. Perhaps we need to learn to smile and say “this wouldn’t have happened sixty years ago” .

Things are different now

Not only the Pope’s visionary encyclical letter  Laudato Si, but the screamingly urgent  bulletins of scary environmental news that drop each day into my inbox confront us now with the implications not only of common Baptism,  and Christ’s prayer for our unity  (it was in prayer that he shared his fears, by the way, as well as his longings)  but, most undeniably all ,  a common home. A home shared not just with other Christians and people of good -and bad – will, but the multitude of stakeholders in God’s covenant with All Flesh. 

Now is the time and place when we cannot evade an urgent call to “get on with” many things we have left lying by the wayside, not least that gentle ecumenical principle of the conference of Lund Sweden, that Churches “should consider, for the sake of the Gospel, being prepared to do together everything that only the deeper differences of conviction prevent.”  

In our day, we have become painfully aware of the environmental costs of divided living. The level of waste rises higher, where there’s no one around to enjoy your leftovers. … And of course, churches, when they can swallow their pride and learn to trust each other, can share premises, suppliers, and in many cases youth work or even clergy. If not for every task, then for many. Some years ago, I did hear of a Church of Scotland parish and a Roman Catholic parish sharing preparation for Baptism. But the personalities it depended on moved away. And it fell apart.

A couple of  years ago, I reviewed the Pope’s encyclical letter “Laudato Si” for the national magazine of the United Reformed Church. I read it again, more intensely, and with the perspective of my role as Environmental Chaplain with a remit and aspiration to dance with a loving boldness across the borders of Christian division.

I have been, actually, unexpectedly shaken by the level of relevance and overlap. Given that it should be in my interest to find areas of agreement, that should be reassuring:

 And yet the  level of relevance was such that Pope Francis,  or maybe the Holy Spirit, underneath all the layers of diplomatic nicety might have been yelling “get on with it!”.  So too are the stones beneath our feet, of which Jesus said that, if the Lord’s disciples keep silent, they would shout aloud. 

Get on with acknowledging in meaningful ways the voice of the Earth in the chorus of praise.

Get on with reading the Bible with eyes wide open to the integral call for care: not stopping at page one or chapter one, but being ready to discover in the subsequent twelve hundred or so pages the richness of God’s partnership through Christ with the World God loves so much that God gives Godself in Jesus Christ… 

Christianity is ecological.

Christianity is ecumenical 

(And this chaplaincy is arguably an expression of the Lund Principle)

God has broken down all the garden fences.

And love is a crime against extinction.

 

Summer reading! Summer rambling!

 
Note: in the Creation Time resource for Week 4 written by our friend Rev Dr Tamás Kodácsy  of the Hungarian Eco-Congregation ( Ökogyülekezet )you will find a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reminding us powerfully that human relationships can be a “Yes to the Earth”.

 There are many ways in which you can use the material we have gathered and presented: for personal devotion, small group work, and to enrich congregational life and worship.

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Summer reading….sort of. 

In line with my belief that it is in our reading of mainstream Christianity that the most compelling environmental arguments will be found, I’m trying to look at some few  things which might have been referred to in theology books and courses, but which I otherwise never got round to inspecting first hand in the whirl of everyday ministry, or the unseemly haste of university study. 

A case in point are the “Prison Letters” of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who,  as a ‘martyr’ pastor of the Confessing Church in Hitler’s Third Reich, is almost always referred to in hushed tones. The translations we have ‘grown up with’ of course, like the Bibles we live with, reflect the times in which they were made. 

So, for instance, Bonhoeffer’s scathing attacks on, lukewarm and pliable ‘religion(= lacking in integrity, and more concerned with heaven than love for the Earth) which were used  in the sixties to support a damaging attack on spirituality altogether in (British) churches, really don’t  seem to  lend themselves to this use.  The (mixed)  comfort he found in the resources of traditional devotionalism is also instructive.

Reading in German, I’m finding a picture of a deeply conventional citizen and committed, even patriotic German Christian under impossible, intractable pressure and threat, confronted by his own flaws (not least, a somewhat belligerent nature). 

It’s comparable, in that sense, to the wilder apocalyptic literature of the New Testament: what happens to your faith when the pips squeak?  What of hope, when each day brings reason to abandon it?  Though hope is more meaningful when your faith is characterised by “this-sidedness” [Diesseitigkeit] rather than an anaesthetic longing for the Other Side/World Beyond, which to the great credit of Bonhoeffer, he sees as appropriate, if at all, only to the moment of death.

Like  some Christian writers of our day, reflecting on a damaged climate, Bonhoeffer is drawn to a more radical incarnationalism, an appreciation of the underlying reality of the goodness of Creation and the relationships it offers, which are to be savoured and celebrated.

““dass ein Mensch in den Armen seiner Frau sich nach dem Jenseits sehnen soll, das ist, milde gesagt eine Geschmacklosigkeit und jedenfalls nicht Gottes Wille”

[The idea that someone might, in the loving arms of their [partner] be longing instead for the World Beyond, is, to put it mildly, lacking in taste, and in any case, not the ‘Will of God’]

Thus, the value of the letters from prison, remembering too, the letter of Paul from prison (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) is as a window onto faith under  desperate pressure. More pressure, admittedly, than pressures under which I labour, though in some ways, well-nigh as ‘global’ in their impact on everyday life.

So given the threats we (and the world)  face, which few of us can fully take in, then, in order to act and pray appropriately what can we really learn from such Writings of Crisis?

In one letter to a theological soul-friend, Bonhoeffer raises the squeamishly uncomfortable subject of ‘pudenda’ : the parts of what we are that we tend, for decency’s sake, to cover up. He suggests that fear may have become part of this: we are ashamed of our fears, as if they were in some sense an improper reaction to threat. 

As I’ve noted before, fear is a gift: there are times when it’s right to be afraid, even if only because it opens our ears to the angelic message not to be!

We should probably also understand, in perspective, Bonhoeffer’s tendency to be comforted by a hierarchy of suffering, which disrupts many of our own discussions of sensitive issues. 

People who are ‘up against it’ may well see everything more sharply, though, first of all, that doesn’t actually make them right. (And I realise I’m stepping outside some over-easy conventional wisdom in saying this.)  

The  folk reading of the ‘IHS’ on the pulpit drop as “I have suffered” does not necessarily lend authority. Suffering may lead to bitterness, vengefulness and damaged ability to make decisions – as well as insights not previously accessible. But you can understand how Bonhoeffer felt that 

“Nur, wenn Man das Leben und die Erde so liebt, dass mit ihr alles verloren und zu ende zu sein scheint, darf man an die Auferstehung der Toten und eine neue Welt glauben”

[Only if you have come to love both life and the Earth [as you know it]  to such an extent, that with their passing, everything seems lost and at an end, are you permitted to believe in the Resurrection of the Dead and a New [Heaven and Earth]]

…but I beg to differ. Christian faith is not restricted to the pioneers of suffering.  The hierarchical exclusivity of suffering should be resisted, even as its insights are respected. Because, secondly, even if they are right, the gift of their witness may need the spiritual interpretation (strengthening as well as, more usually, softening) of a community’s contextual interpretation. This was understood in the congregations of the Earliest Church. (cf 1 John: 4). 

How, though, do we, like the prosperous status quo of Nineveh, (cf Book of Jonah)  act right now on the warnings of the  climate  prophets and suffering sisters and brothers  of our day; how do we act on the prophetic messages  of the Earth itself , before they reach disastrous fulfilment?

Green Christian  concern is not a minority  or marginal calling, nor one to be shuffled off onto the annoying enthusiast in the congregation with an environmental conscience. On the contrary, look with genuine pride on your own  fellowship if they find room for such a  Green Thorn in the side of church life. And if you’re the thorn yourself, remember you have grown from the stem.

In passing, this is a story I hear very frequently, and not just in churches:  the burden of ostracism (whether overt or unspoken) carried by those who insist on talking about climate issues on “inappropriate” occasions (Christmas, family parties etc). I usually congratulate such offenders. We should also congratulate the churches that, even if they don’t move ‘fast enough’, find room for, or even welcome these irritating people.

In the Early Church, ‘awkward bastards’ were known as ‘prophets’. Respected advocates  of change for the benefit of others. Though not ruling out their own welfare: we are all of us enmeshed in communities of one sort or another. The possibility, that helping others helps you, is no cause to hesitate.  We’re back with the inhibiting force of inappropriate shame here:

Theres’s always a danger  that promoting something, that might benefit you personally, undermines what you’re about. This goes back a long way, not least to the document known as the ‘Didache’ or ‘the teaching of the Apostles’, 

Chapter 11:9

“no prophet who orders a meal in a spirit shall eat of it: otherwise he is a false prophet. 

12 …. whosoever shall say in a spirit `Give me money, or something else,’ you shall not listen to him; but if he tell you to give on behalf of others in want, let none judge him.

The Didache comes from the first century, earlier than some parts of the Bible.

This was a time when the emerging  culture of the church, a grudgingly tolerated and sometimes persecuted faith group,  liked to welcome visiting ‘prophets’ who came with a touch of spiritual theatre about them, perhaps comparable to the “hwyl” of a Welsh preacher, getting carried away. 

Not just the preacher, of course: congregations  are allowed to be passionate. When I preached in Jamaica some years ago, it was amazingly affirming to hear ‘amen’s and the odd ‘hallelujah!’ coming from the congregation. 

Passionate spiritual enthusiasm, however expressed, (and there are infinite varieties of expression)  is a life-saving expression of a church with an awareness ( or a remembered tradition) – or a myth – of threat.  From which might follow  a questioning of the  calm acceptance of the status quo (which is now, de facto, a slippery slope to climate catastrophe).

But passion and enthusiasm too, suffer under the barrier of shame.

How did I arrive at these thoughts? 

 I attended the Climate Challenge Fund’s  Transport Gathering, and, to get there, travelled the narrow canal toe-path cycle route.  It’s lovely, though when it gets busy, you’re in some danger of ending up in the canal. I could not but be impressed at how it is taken for granted that passive (conventional motor vehicle) rather than “active transport”  (walking, cycling, public transport) has dominated most of our lifetime decisions about infrastructure, and indeed finance.  The cycle route is hidden away, shoved in a second-hand space, or acknowledge with an intermittent white line.  I recall one in North Wales which was barely the length of a bus.  

The “real road”  is still the one for cars. It’s a mindset in stone, asphalt steel and space. Anything else is a ‘less worthy member’.  Clear, in a language we understand, even if unstated in words.

And it isn’t just infrastructure. Throughout the whole of my ministry, the expenses acknowledgment of cycle mileage  has been exactly the same, whilst car claims have risen.  Brake-pads, tyres, chains, gears are a cost that cyclists have, on the whole, gladly carried.  

What if churches and businesses could offer the same mileage for bikes as for cars (which might actually be realistic, for quality or e-bikes).  And yes though , I’d benefit from that myself. (£4 from yesterday’s outing) would that be another aspect of the change of mind we need to embrace, the shame we need to put behind us?  The HMRC hasn’t got there yet, so employers can  still shift the blame. 

To conclude.

There was more carrot-rather-than stick wisdom too at the gathering:  from those working with hard-pressed communities whose immediate and over-riding concern is to feed their families: you don’t start your conversation with climate change and carbon footprint, but rather with the tangible benefits of the small changes that  EcoCongregation Scotland also encourages:   saving money, feeling cosy in your home, and so on. 

On a broader scale, remember, if you’re feeling prophetic, the real good-life  benefits of cleaner air, exercise, more jobs for a given investment. In the midst of all the bad news, remember the good. 

That’s the way God made it.

Way back: thoughts from 2003, written for a United Reformed Church Project

Many of the problems we envisage are about how to do the same things in a different way, rather than do something different.   It seems this was on my mind, when I was asked to write this for the URC some years ago. The picture was taken a year after the piece was written, and not in a crowded city street!  We now have concerns about plastic in hospitality packaging, and of course, the Carbon Footprint of our churches and homes.  But I’ll leave the text as it was when I wrote it.

I rode through the centre of Glasgow around 5pm. My young son was on the back of the bike, and we gently free-wheeled to the front of the queue of revving, grumbling  traffic. We had had a good day out. But the faces of the drivers told a different story. Every other vehicle had many times the power at their disposal, but we would not get back home much later, and we would have the benefit of more exercise – with the uplift to spirits that that involves –  and less stress. And in the meantime less pollution, less wear and tear on the roads. Last of all, it probably cost us less money.  Or is that last of all; for now, we only see dimly the final cost of our lifestyle. (cf 1 Cor 13:12) A time may come, when it catches up with us. Or is it just that we aren’t looking at what is staring us in the face. Do we really have any excuse, or are we so ground down by the business of 24/7 that the God whose work was not complete without a day off (Genesis 2:2-4) is redundant?  We are used to assessing things in economic terms. And yet our lives involve many currencies: spiritual, physical, emotional, environmental. 

If we only ever measure with common standards, there is little prospect of our being motivated to change. Or getting round to it. A car goes faster, usually keeps the rain off, is more prestigious than a bike, there is carrying capacity, and of course horsepower. But a bike is a bike, rather than a grossly inferior car. And we probably arrived home happier and healthier  than the driver of the Porsche we left behind at the traffic lights. (cf Matthew 6:27). Not that I want to go back to walking everywhere. Not that I think it would be wise to refuse the medical care that took my wife through cancer two months ago.  It is just that the way ahead may involve a turning now and then. God never turns back. (cf Job 42, 10ff: a happy ending, but what is lost stays lost!). And Jesus rises to new life, rather than coming back to the way things were. Luddites don’t gain spiritual brownie-points.

It’s like that with organic and fairly-traded food. A few pence more in the narrow view.  But when Christian Aid and others open your eyes, to the cost of fleecing your neighbours,  disrupting and destabilising economies. What you can see – or all you are prepared to see – can easily block out what distance and packaging  obscure. What integrity is there in the hospitality of a church which welcomes visitors with coffee subsidised by the labour of the poor?  Isn’t it easier just to feel good that you have put a pound in a shaken tin than to change your shopping habits? Easier. But not necessarily cheaper. What is the true cost of looking your neighbour in the face when you have berayed her? What would you pay to avoid that? 

 In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus never stops talking about money. Nor, by implication, the many other currencies of life.  Talk of judgement is a reminder, in time we hope (cf Luke 16:19ff) of the cost of “saving”.  And healing, when it happens, is often at the cost of healthy onlookers.(Try Mark 2: 1-12). That’s not fair. But it is God  we try to worship, not the fairness of the privileged. Which is a long way from God’s justice-as-acknowledgement of need. 

What would Jesus say when we complain about taxes or fair trade prices  that pay for medical care and education? – how often might it be “Tough!”?

And we have other neighbours. Not just the human ones. Early British Christians were alive to the “communion of Creation” – that God’s promise in the rainbow (Genesis 9:12-17) was to “all flesh”. The earth, the air, the water are kin to us, for that is what we are made of, both in biblical and scientific ways of seeing.   Humanity’s purpose is to care like a hired shepherd for God’s garden; to befriend every creature ( Genesis 2:19-20) and uncover their particular potential for fellowship and the enrichment of life. Not just friendship in a human-human sense, but ways of living that acknowledge birth death and pain that we share.

 And the “redemption” ( what do you really think that means?)  in which Christians may be caught up is not of some distant wafty-floaty world, we are to escape to but of the same creation we are inescapably part of (cf Romans 8:19).

But for now we don’t see it. We don’t get round to it. We regret it. We are sorry. But what use is being sorry? (Some people just like being sorry!)

The first call of John the Baptist and Jesus was not to be sorry. 

But simply to change your mind. 

All else follows.

Chaplain on the spot

Link to an off-the-cuff talk at the Edinburgh Festival Sustainability hub. Very ‘late booking’…so no script, and relying on eye contact with audience…

https://youtu.be/gDB3lnb_lAs

Psalm 104 ( Paraphrase) The Mighty Partnership

 

A friend in the Netherlands asked me for a suitable version fo Psalm 104 to acknowledge and celebrate  Creation . I sent links for various existing versions, but also this paraphrase. 

A paraphrase  – and there are several well-known Bible versions which fall into this category – is a Bible Reading, with preaching built in.

 

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Loud I shout out; it’s what defines me:

 for all I am speaks highly

of my Leader: God and Guide.

Nobility, integrity-arrayed, as sky-light clothes you,

Immense the skies’ pavilion, taut you pitched

as rafters of your dwelling span the seas,

you drive the rain-clouds

gliding high on wings of wind

that in their turn bear urgent news 

as do your servants, fire and flame.

The Earth, you have enthroned  robustly;

Robed in deepest blue, which in its turn

Stands proud aside  at your rebuke

And when you make the point with thunder

waters shall retreat.

Indeed, the waters, should they rise again,

to threatening levels, over land

will do so not as you require,

who set them in their place, providing space 

for life to thrive.

And in the meantime water gushes

bringing life between the hills,

hydrating wildlife so that even 

wild asses quench their thirst.

And habitats diverse with birds

the choirs of branches green and growing.

We visualise you:  garden-tender of the mountains:

fruitful work that causes Earth to smile.

Grass, growing, ‘cos of you feeds all the cattle;

whilst rooted plants in partnership

enable Earth to nourish us

and gladden human hears with wine

as faces shine with plant-oil,

bread is broken, giving life.

God’s watering of trees is generous 

In Lebanon the cedars which God planted;

trees where small birds build their nests

-the stork’s at home in fir trees.

and habitat for wild goats, up mountain-high

shared :  safe-house for the hyrax.

The moon, you made, defines the  seasons;

Your sun’s aware of time for setting,

relinquishing the light to your  hands:

night is summoned, filled, as humans sleep

exploding  life nocturnal in the forest:

when roading lions young 

shall look to God for prey,

though in their turn, at daybreak take their rest

and lie down in their dens;

the morning shift of people then set out to work

a full-day’s labour, till the work is done.

My God, diversity, abundant, wonder, beauty

all your wisdom’s offspring,

creatures, such as us, and others, 

fill the  whole wide earth:

Yes: over there the great wide sea

which may be measured, never grasped;

more life than we can comprehend;

our ships may come and go,

no more than touch the surface

of  Leviathan’s playground 

law unto themself, for your joy, not our profit.

All this life that looks to you for food 

within due time and season. 

When they harvest what you offer,

from your hand; with good things  they are filled

their life-long.

When you hide your face, distress ensues;

You take away their breath: it’s death

for us and all that’s living;

dust to dust, and so life’s circles turn.

You breathe again, and life, and flesh reborn

adorn the face of Earth made new.

May the wondrous shining love of God endure forever!

God, rejoice in all that’s made!

God, nonetheless, who makes Earth tremor 

God: volcanoes smoke your power!

As for me: here’s what defines me:

singing lifelong, mind and body

gratitude in work and worship:

aiming high for justice in my 

thoughts and deeds and prayers.

=======================

And, all that said, acknowledge: 

unjust choices, God-entrusted:

our extinction is an option if we choose

But  may this define me:

all I am speaks highly

of my Leader: God and Guide.

 

.

Swimming with Christopher

Swimming with Christopher. Two ambushes.

“Hey, Father, will you bless this for us?”

I had come, for peace and quiet,  up the road on my bike,  to the ancient Holy Well of St Gwenfrewi ‘ at Holywell/Treffynnon, ‘the Lourdes of Wales’, cared for for the whole church, at that time, by a small, hospitable,  group of Catholic sisters.( Maybe Lourdes is the Treffynnon of France!  But I haven’t got there…. yet!).

Perhaps back then I was far too cautious, and had not, as a hymn-writer friend recommended, immersed myself in the icy waters, even though I had been impressed with the Spirituality of Ann Griffiths, the Creation-aware Calvinist poet who had described prayer as “swimming in God”.  I touched the water. I tasted it; enjoyed the quiet wet noises and the ancient stonework.

I hadn’t known what to make, back then,  of a member of my congregation who had been involved in the piping and channelling to make sure that the Well remained a well, and thus held the firm but regrettable opinion that such enabling engineering work would have banished any imagined holiness proper to a “natural” spring.

I might have reminded him, nowadays, of the holiness of all water, and indeed, of his own labour, in facilitating a beautiful, ancient, place of prayer, but it takes a few years after the (unintentionally) stifling trauma of college and assessments, before you can begin to say what really needs to be said. 

Some of us never escape. 

Though now I’m in a double bind, because, all the more, to do this job, I have to stick my neck out. And encourage others – even those in training – in the recklessly responsible discipline of meaning what you say. Which is the last thing in the world our culture expects of harmless people of faith like you, dear reader! 

And it’s sometimes the last thing the Church expects, even of its leaders.

I had chained my bike, with the baby-seat  prominently visible, to the railings. The staff knew very well who I was, and in fact, I went on, soon after, to organise an ecumenical  bike pilgrimage [which would be a great eco-idea now?] with Holywell as a destination, and worship in the largely disused historic chapel. We got on well. 

Duty and the diary persuading me I’d spent  sufficient time with the water, I walked back, in black shirt and clerical collar, through the souvenir area, which was where the eager pilgrims caught me. 

The staff suppressed a giggle, and looked away:

“Hey, Father, will you bless this for us?”

I’m fairly sure one of the items was a ‘St Christopher’, an item of significance in folk spirituality well beyond the bounds of the Catholic Church. But just as, when Princess Diana was killed, I was  asked to do “something  creative”, but it took place in the Catholic church ‘because they had candles’,  this was a time when the faith of the people was more important than the brand of the clergy.

So I did what was asked, with integrity, asking that God might remind us, through the items they had bought, and  as we travel, of the holiness of water, the roads we travel, and  the places we pause to pray.

The pilgrims  went away satisfied. I climbed back onto my bike with the baby-seat a few minutes later. 

North Wales was like that. When my son was born, an RC neighbour stopped his car over the road, wound down the window  and yelled “I suppose we’ll have to call you ‘Father’ now!”. The Fflint Catholic Club gave me a farewell  party when I left.

It’s  a humbling irony that,  being an incurable  and maybe slightly smug non-driver for most of my ministry, I now cover some substantial distances as a ‘travelling salesman’ of the Green Gospel . 

Three years ago, after my wife’s death, driving was a bizarre new experience, requiring next to no physical effort, but intense alertness. 

My reward is that  I rejoice in the changing scenery [LINKS FOLLOW ]  (Glencoe, the Drumochter Pass, and the Dalveen  Pass, Glenshee and, of course, the road across Mull,  have been highlights.) “Travelling mercies” are part of my daily prayer, and I much appreciate being upheld in that way. I encounter graciousness ( as in those experienced with the etiquette of Scotland’s single track roads) and of course, I encounter  entitlement,  boorishness and impatience, all  amplified by powerful engines. (The selfish expression of power, via the accelerator, burns more fuel.). 

As yet, though, no ‘sacred’ items (other than those I travel with directly to lead worship) accompany me.  But the Earth itself is sacred.

Maybe that’s why, returning by train  (phew) from  study leave in Germany, I was ambushed by St Christopher. 

With three hours to change trains in Cologne, I made my way to the rather wonderful cathedral there. Revisiting the shrine of those wise travellers, the ‘Holy Three Kings’…

 When I saw a great figure looming out from one of the pillars. He looked rather rustic, with a touch of Father Christmas.  But perched, like Timon on Pumbaa’s back, was the figure of a small child. The genius of the statue was, the closer you looked, the harder a time Christopher seemed to be having. 

“Carrying all the weight of the world on his shoulders” 

…came to mind. I checked the Catholic Encyclopedia and other easily accessible sites on my phone. You  can do likewise. 

What spoke to me  there was the adoption of Christopher as a patron saint for “motorists.”  

Driving  used to be  a morally neutral activity.  Though each time, now,  I turn the key, I needs must ask if it’s worth it. For now, perhaps,  in pursuit of change, but not indefinitely.

It was part of my journey, as I began this role,  to publish “a blessing for a new car”.  Maybe I need to revisit that, as time goes on. 

 The summarised stories of “Christopher”,  martyred for his faith around 251 ad  told of someone who took up on the “easy” job of transporting the [Christ]-child across a torrential  river.  

Like those of us who drive.  It’s easy, effortless by comparison with walking or cycling.  But perhaps in the awareness of the Climate Crisis, we’re becoming more aware of the “weight of the whole world”  pressing down in the midst  of what seems harmless and straightforward.  

Recently publicised revelations about the cobalt in batteries for electric vehicles  offer us slender  respite.  

I am one of you. Today, and next week,  I travel on your behalf.  Together, and sooner than we might like or expect,  we ( including me) need to embrace, not just  new ways of doing exactly the same things, but new ways altogether.  

I wonder what Christopher had to let go of, to reach the far bank?

For me, now, the story of Christopher, who, in the midst of the river, feared he might drown, offers  a companion in the transition  we face before we can “get to the other side” .   

We’re in the river of change. ( Swimming, perhaps, in God?) . And we need to come to feel both the weight of what we carry,  the burden of the planet’s  life, and the importance of Who comes with us, and Who it is, who sees us through.