Category Archives: Chaplain Page

The cutting room floor

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The accommodation provided for the chaplain includes a garden, which contains an apple tree. Some apple crumble has resulted, as well as chutney and jelly, made by a close friend. But this year saw a bumper crop, and we didn’t manage to (or were too lazy to) pick up all the apples. Now I could always blame this on the deceptively wise and ecological  guidance in Leviticus , but the fact is, it has been a huge  source of delight for my family, to look on, as a variety of wild birds piled in and devoured the windfalls. 

So often, the things we disregard, neglect, or avoid,  turn out to be of great value. Anyone re-reading the Bible with a ‘green’ awareness is going to discover something similar. But not just the Bible.

Long before the possibility of being the second Eco-Chaplain was even on the horizon, it fell to me to review, for the United Reformed Church’s magazine ‘Reform’  the 2015 papal encyclical ‘Laudato Si’  (‘Praise be to you…’) ‘On the environment and human ecology”.

The review  was one of those jobs you take on, and then think ‘ what have I got myself into’.  The text is densely written.  But overall, it was a reminder to re-think any prejudices I might have had about official church documents, especially given some years of numbing experience. 

I know every denomination has its jargon; its ways of finally getting round to saying what needs said, but also that squeezing urgent environmental messages into the ponderous procedures of synods and assemblies is a demanding task. Those of us in ‘organised’ churches may need to have our wits about us, to help their life and work be responsive to the global disruption of which each day brings additional confirmation.

One of the wonders of the New Testament, by contrast, is that so little is smoothed over and homogenised, or forced to agree too precisely with other parts.

In the age of climate disruption, we can be grateful  for the remnants we can turn to of the historic  apocalyptic preaching of Jesus, expressing a vibrant consciousness of threat, and encouraging alertness in disciples, to the ‘signs of the times’.  That New Testament writers  invested the time and commitment to bring these things into a written medium suggests both commitment, and perhaps, that they had ‘nothing to lose’ by  passing on memories of the  robust, provocative,  and experiential imagery employed by Jesus.

That’s why Laudato Si  is amazing. It uses and acknowledges the conventions of a Papal encyclical, but goes further, to challenge every reader of good will. The Pope is writing as the Pope, not sloping off somewhere incognito to do a bit of environmentalism on the side. What he is writing is integral to his role and calling. 

This  is what Eco Congregation looks to the churches for:  to be. whilst being recognisably themselves,  the beautiful gift of God  they’re called to be  in this day and age.  Like Scripture,  Laudato Si includes  many gems that are easily missed on first reading. What took my breath away, reviewing my own review, was this quote:

“Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs..”

 

“governs us”

 

There’s lots of argument, and some easy point-scoring about the idea of human beings having ‘dominion’ over the Earth, which most wise Christians interpret as a mandate for care and stewardship, rather than ruthless exploitation.   but perhaps here, Pope Francis challenges that remaining shred of unjustified  superiority that we cling to, when we think of the rest of Creation on this planet. Yes, like it or not, we are governed by the Earth.  We aspire  to dominate,  but that brings danger for all. Good government requires wise citizenship, and partnership, and acknowledgement of mutual need, rather than greed and anarchy. An ecology, indeed.

Many of us, even in Christian  environmental circles, struggle to make the leap from seeing Creation as an object ( a’thing’) to respecting her as a subject (a ‘person’, perhaps, a soul). In this lyrical sentence, the Pope leads us several steps further: Creation as part of the government of all our lives, and all life…. to break faith with which, we do, perhaps, at peril.

 

 
-A further instance of the Pope’s environmental witness, last year: http://www.climatechangenews.com/2018/06/09/pope-francis-tells-oil-chiefs-keep-ground/

Conversations about trees

I headed out on my bike today.  A Christmas tree blew across the road in front  of me, escaping the pile by the bins by the pavement.  The needles were falling off and beginning to brown. It had done its job of celebration, but was now discarded. A nuisance, cluttering up the streets, as if it were not beautiful, or had never been so….  where would these thoughts lead?

The small team employed by Eco-Congregation Scotland has been looking over the archived material we have accumulated in response to the call for ‘resources’. It’s a sobering experience. A small change, as a result, is that the link to the section previously headlined ‘Celebrating Creation’ is now labelled ‘Greening Worship’.  

We are recognising that, along with the extreme urgency of action and participation in environmental initiatives at all levels, we have already entered a  more spiritually challenging era of response to the Christian call to care and partnership with Creation. There are, as a result, few laurels to rest on. 

Not that we cease to celebrate,  nor to deepen our knowledge with study, but perhaps, in the urgency, we identify the more immediately with our fellow creatures. Less on the fence, more with dirty hands. Beyond celebration.

We do learn, of course, from other times and places. In the 1970s and 80s, and before, the threat of nuclear destruction hung over the young people of Europe. Popular culture ruthlessly exploited the mood of’ No future’. with various despairing, bitter and anarchic  outcomes.  What was the point of studying, working, starting a family, if the super-powers were going to blow it all up anyway?  

But  in our day, catastrophic change is not just possible but likely,  unless we all choose a different way of life. How did we let this happen, and what can we do about it?

Out of the still darker days of Nazi Germany, the poet Bertolt Brecht wrote “To posterity” of his heart-wrenching sadness, living in a time when something so lovely and harmless as “a  conversation about trees” seemed like “a crime”, “because it involved silence about so many horrors”. Brecht was living in a time when people of faith were barely visible as a force against the tide of Fascism, and indeed, some had allowed Christianity to be co-opted, though others, in the “Confessing Church” quietly suffered when they did stand up or try to speak out.  Brecht was more convinced of the ineffectual hypocrisy of people of faith, than their value as a power for justice.  Nonetheless, even in writing a poem “to those born after”, there was, nonetheless, something akin to  hope.

The other subtlety I missed, on first reading, was Brecht’s  recognition that, even in the darkest times,  “a conversation about trees” remains something beautiful and valuable, and so, likewise, though ‘Celebrating Creation’ may no longer  be the appropriate headline, we all of us need to seek opportunities of celebration, refreshment and inspiration. Plant those  trees!. Get out on that country walk!. transform the church grounds into a haven for wildlife!  Visit Whitelee wind-farm and see how farming, conservation recreation and sustainable energy belong together. (How about a church outing to do that? I’d love to come with you). And make sure you come along to Dundee for the Eco Congregation  annual gathering on March 30th.  Do all you can to be encouraged and enthused. Fall in love with Creation. That is, itself, an environmental action, for what you love is what you’ll live for.  And radically aware ‘conversations about trees’ are now precisely what we need to have, offer and share, with no evasion or denial of the crisis. (If conscience need be troubled, it’s in the ‘criminal’ avoidance of chat about trees!)

 

To the wonder and delight in the ‘natural world’, our movement adds   passionate engagement, though perhaps also lament and protest.  But we need to let this soak in. Hymns and reflections on Creation have often been ‘soft’, and ornamental: ’Isn’t nature lovely’. Nice.  But even in the recent past, that has  left us with few resources to face genuinely ‘natural’ disasters .  God may not be speaking as simplistically or judgementally as some would like to infer after an earthquake or a famine, but we should not conclude that God, who in Christ calls us to the love both of neighbour and enemy,  is saying nothing.  Nor, as people of faith, need we have nothing to say. In these dark days – and here’s the surprise –  the relevance of our faith becomes acute.  Love for the neighbour includes the planet. 

 Of all the resources we can commend, your own faith, and the faith of your community undergirds all else. Build it up, be encouraged. Be open, be honest.  Be the ‘environmentally confessing’ church we need to be at this time.  And  have the confidence to  make the changes to the shape and content of your prayer and worship, embedding environmental  solidarity into your regular ‘diet’, so it comes naturally. I pray the chaplaincy may help with that: do get in touch, and we’ll see what we can do together. Your stories will encourage others.

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As a PS: I will be sharing the leadership of an event on Iona just before Easter, leading into the service for Palm Sunday in the Abbey, which we hope to shape in an environmental context. Those whose environmental commitment is inspired by things ‘Celtic’ may find this worthwhile. Please do share !

 

Getting real with the Christmas Story

 

Christmas cards love camels. And when, last year, I made a nativity film with the congregation of  Greenock West URC, it was a popular move to place the ‘Wise Men’ on camels, as  a likely, but not essential mode of travel.

The text of Matthew’s Gospel neither mentions camels nor attributes wisdom to the visitors from  the nondescript  East. Indeed, it has been a convenience for monocultural Christians to disregard the intrusion of high-status visitors  – (no, not kings, that’s another unhelpful over-interpretation)  – from an alien culture and religion. ‘Wise’ allows you to ignore “pagan’. The Bible is not so fussy or ‘precious’ as its users. It has also  been a convenience for ‘liberal’ scholars simply to assume most of the story is made up anyway by Matthew to massage into the tale of Jesus a bit more fulfilment of prophecy. And yet it remains: the story is its own evidence, with much to trip up the complacent, and no shortage of telling realism: in the naive arrogance of the learned and the ultimately futile  violence of those sensing their power, or authority, is at risk.  And is there, after all, something rather last-minute about the Magi(cians)’ gifts, rummaging in their treasure chests for something appropriate? Today, of course, Herod would be a climate denier. Both well-informed and acting at the  cost of the innocent  to hide that information. Don’t mistake denialism for mere evasiveness: it has real casualties, as our friends in churches  around the world assure us.

Having control of ‘wardrobe’ in the nativity film, I did take the  spiritual liberty of dressing the Magi (Zoroastrians?) in the white coats of scientists. They are, if nothing else, learned observers of Creation. Though,  hampered in their honest  interpretation of what God’s about by their conventional attitudes. Seeking a “king”, and assuming that others will think as they do, they head for Herod’s palace, and ultimately provoke the massacres of the infants of Bethlehem. One correction  here to most of your Bibles at home: it’s not just the baby boys, but all the children up to about 2.

The defence of privilege and the status quo is marvellously inclusive. Matthew’s Nativity Story came up as the Bible study in a conference I was invited to these last few days. We read through the story, in a standard translation,  slowly, and more than once, to let things sink in. You could try that.Then the leader of the study asked us all to consider what we might be led to share with someone else. Well, lacking a congregation, as such, there’s you, dear reader..

May you have a joyful and deeply challenging Christmas.

And next year, less plastic.

And next year less carbon.

May we dream the dreams that change our course.

May we  go home by another way!

On being both Jeremiah and Barnabas

Barnabus and Jeremiah


I had somehow not anticipated how much environmentally-flavoured preaching at this time involves being a bearer of bad news. Being, proverbially, a ‘Jeremiah’.  


Even in the couple of months since I began this job, the prospects for the state of the world well within most of our lifetimes have quite dramatically worsened, at least as regards public reporting of climate science consensus and of the limited success of such  nations of the world as are seriously pursuing even the upper limit of the Paris Agreement


And yet at the end of a chaplain’s visit, quite diverse congregations are not emerging weeping or shaking with fear. 


When I first began training for ministry, my grandmother observed that I was ‘smiling more’ and  I do hope that worship is a nourishing experience as well as a serious one.   One of my Bible heroes is Barnabus, the Encourager. 


 But I don’t think I’m seriously underplaying the situation, or being unduly jolly. And through it may be, to some extent, because few of us do not quite think through the implications, though I don’t think this is why the  Eco-Congregations I have so far encountered do  exhibit a certain spiritual  buoyancy.


The safe space of Christian worship, at its best, is a place both for good news and bad news, for joys and sorrows.  As a distinctively Christian  environmental movement, we bring to the fraught and sometimes bitter environmental debates a trust in God, the experience of grace, and the remit of forgiveness, which may also involve receiving  the forgiveness of our own complicity in the crisis,  if only to  set us free to act.


At the staff meeting today,  we heard from 1 Corinthians 13, both the acknowledgement of the mystery and unpredictability of life, and of the affirming gifts of faith, hope, and love.  


As a Member of the Iona Community, I like to claim that other triplet, as part of one of our most loved prayers: “Courage, faith, and cheerfulness”.


My online  Advent Calendar, as a devotional project for this season of reflection has led me into some unexpected thoughts based on the Sunday readings. 


Most of all, though, the importance of building up the confidence and faith of the church, to be a People of Hope,   and of hospitality, come what may. 


How many Eco-Congregations does it take?

It’s amongst the oldest of  Christian cracker-jokes:  How many Catholics, Episcopalians, Evangelicals, Methodists,  Presbyterians....[fill in the gaps] does it take to change a light-bulb?   It’s probably best just  to give the answer for your own tradition, at least until you have very good ecumenical relations!   So, for my own church: How many URC folks does it take to change light-light-bulbs to LED? Probably, a Church Meeting, then a synod, then a General Assembly, then an assembly committee, then an additional special assembly to finally make the decision.  Then another Church Meeting to see if they really want to take notice.  Then, just one, to go out and  get the bulb.  Hmm. I’m sure you could do better, but the saddest answer is probably “Change? -We don’t do change!” Although the reflective time of Advent comes first for most Christians,  a friend of mine is thinking of making her own, plastic-free Christmas crackers, and was wondering what might be included to give the jokes a wee bit more bite.  Humour is a great gift from God, with, sometimes, the power to introduce ideas which would be ruled out as too hurried, too  dangerous, too different, otherwise to be entertained.  It’s a holy  task, to challenge and bring folks with you, with the solidarity of  a laugh, rather than an insult or  smugness. As, also, to lift spirits in the face of worrying news. The jester. or the king’s ‘fool’ was amongst the most important minsters of state in European royal courts. They could say what no one else could get away with, and, sometimes, was needed to be said.  In a society which loves to portray Christians as stuffy, naive  and boring (and therefore not even worth persecuting) this may sometimes be our surprising role. Our hearers’ guard is down if they’re not expecting anything worthwhile from us.  Then, joyful  humility, rather than pride of status, can take us far. We have nothing to lose by telling the truth about climate crisis and the urgency of action, as well as the importance of holding on to hope in this strange time in which we live. As to the opening question: we have 430+ congregations, but there's always room for more!  Keep on talking, keep on praying, keep on being the Church, for the greatest of all stand-ups, the Master of one-liners. a  mere carpenter from Nazareth,  born at the bottom of the heap, is the light that lights our way.

Be more snake

  Niceness is not enough.  It is, however - and consistently - deeply touching to encounter hospitality, willing listeners, and  even more, engaged storytellers among the communities that make up  Eco-Congregation Scotland. If you’re doing good things, they need to be actively shared and visible. There are some  very nice people in this movement, of which a recent academic report nonetheless noted both our slowness to change, and our disarming level of modesty about our achievements.  But Jesus, who leads us here, whilst he’s always about love,  - even for your enemies  - does not train disciples in a wishy-washy trample-all-over-us ‘nice’ approach to Good news, justice and freedom.   Indeed, as scholars have convincingly shown, even ‘turning the other cheek’ is a subversive strategy in the face of Empire.   In Matthew 10:16, where Jesus is knowingly sending his vulnerable apostles out into a devious and malicious society, obsessed by greed and the preservation of privilege and the injustice of the status quo, he instructs them to be as ‘innocent’ as pigeons (*or if you really insist, “doves”) but as crafty/wise as snakes (*if you’re fussy, not the poisonous type). The proverbial craftiness of snakes gives the nuance, abundantly clear elsewhere, that though it is not for followers of Jesus to do harm, they should have their wits about them at least as much as the devious people they are likely to encounter. And thus craftiness in pursuit of justice should be recognised as a Gospel virtue.  Disingenuousness is no part of the equipment of the disciples. Overall then,  particularly when dealing with what you know full well are weak or bogus arguments against your responses to the climate crisis:  you’ve likely done ‘dove’: now’s the time to  be more snake!

Dodgy

The first Bible study I was ever specifically asked  by a congregation to undertake was on the parable of the “Wasteful” Manager (Luke 16),  a famous parable of Jesus which may reasonably  command  our prayerful  attention whenever we seek support and funding for environmental  action.  

The Ladies’ Fellowship in my first church were scandalised by Jesus’ parable, and felt there must have been something wrong if Jesus himself was coming over so disreputably. How could ‘Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild’ come out with such dangerous stuff?

I certainly haven’t yet got to the bottom of it myself, ,though I’m sure that   this is going to be one of the most important Bible treasures to challenge and guide  our thinking in the coming years.

Concluding the narrative, Jesus advises the ‘Children  of the Light- with whom, as his followers, we might reasonably identify -  to learn from the craftiness of the surrounding culture. And to make use of ‘dishonest/unrighteous wealth’ to make friends with the [social or other ] environment they need to rely on.

Many assume that this  touches on  ‘selling your soul’: selling out,  ending  up promoting an agenda alien to your church, in order to access funding or favourable terms for premises or leased equipment.  

 Or, perhaps,  neglecting  the  values you profess  to stand for  in trivial but obvious ways:

Giving minor, but very real and all-too visible examples: Nestlé coffee in a declared fair-trade  church,  disposable plastic cups used on every  social occasion in a registered Eco-Congregation, or even  a denominational headquarters.  Being seen to back, without engagement or criticism, industries not yet mindful of the Paris targets..... 

This issue of integrity  is actually dealt with elsewhere, [Mark 8:36, Matthew 16:26]. But not here.

The story of the crafty manager is not about such things.   He  hasn’t got “that sort of soul  so it is never on sale.   It is his  alleged wastefulness, not corruption,  that sets in progress a chain of irreversible events.  He is given notice. 

Are we, globally, in a similar position?  The IPCC message of ‘Act now, idiots!’  has set a clock ticking which should concentrate our minds.

The wealth of his master is the “unrighteous” wealth with which he has to deal, and indeed, that’s where the corruption comes in: it’s what he is already charged with looking after, when, accepting the coming disaster of his destitution,  he realises he needs to engineer a comfortable transition.   

He is well equipped.

His job, and perhaps ours thus far, has been to be “Steward of Dishonest Wealth ”.  Propping up the system which exploits. And in this, his bargaining skills, his knowledge of market conditions, have prepared him for the uncertainties ahead.  The  realism of the  wheeler-dealer 

in him comes to the fore in bargaining and creative compromise as, neither solving nor fleeing the crisis, he makes friends with it.  Transforms it. 

Our wastefulness as a species, compounded by human injustice,  means that we are veering   towards environmental crisis. Even  1.5 degrees, the minimum  global  temperature rise which seems possible, will already involve dramatic changes in our lives. Not just those of future generations.  No participant in current society should deceive themselves that they are not contributing  to the climate crisis; none are squeaky-clean. So what can we do with the things within our grasp?  

How can we subvert  the  throwaway culture of inequality and endless growth  by making friends with the environment which has so  suffered from human sharp  practice, and on whose hospitality we all of us continue  to depend?