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The visiting (digital) preacher

The online visiting preacher

In the video material I’m preparing from day to day, (which you can find in different versions on my own Facebook page, on EcoChaplain online (find on Facebook) on my YouTube channel , and elsewhere,) it may  will seem as if I’m not talking anywhere near as much or explicitly about the virus as some of my colleagues and local churches which have ventured into this, for them, largely uncharted territory. Part of this is that by virtue of the ways we are now investigating of being church, we are hugely acknowledging the context which this most acute emergency has created.  And the overall environmental emergency, of which this should be seen as part, continues.

I’m putting the time and energy which I would have devoted to church visits into what I hope are distinctively different, and thoughtful online offerings: at present, Palm Sunday , Maundy Thursday and Good Friday have something available, and I’m considering what I might offer for Easter Sunday Please do incorporate and share these fully, if you find it useful: NB there are no known copyright issues whatsoever as I use mostly completely original material, plus public domain, and occasionally things purchased under licence.

What would be rather wonderful in this medium term would be to be able to work with local churches who have taken the plunge into the online world.

Technically: the ideal is to combine the feel of ‘live’ with the reliability of pre-recorded, and experience shows how very unreliable completely live things tend to be without fully professional communications; nonetheless, the adventure is in collaboration.

A friend pointed out that during this time, I can reach more of the 500 churches that make up our EcoCongregation family than otherwise might be the case. That is a daunting, challenging privilege. We have small personal and technical resources, but telecommunications do make things shareable, and I will do my best to make anything I produce to be worth making and worth viewing, though with the expectation that it will be used and received with the same grace which I hope you might accord the sermon/homily provided by your own local priest or minister as they struggle towards successive Sundays.

And having said all that: support and pray for your own local congregations first and foremost, to sustain our fellowship through this strange strange time, hand in hand with Christ.

We’re supporting WWF’s Earth Hour

#EarthHourScotland

Saturday 28th March 2020, 8.30pm-9.30pm

In challenging times for everyone across Scotland during the coronavirus situation, it’s even more important to encourage activities that we can all take part in while we “stay at home”.

This year we’re again supporting the wonderful work of WWF Scotland and encouraging all our volunteers to take part in #EarthHour, the world’s biggest switch off event!

Learn more about Earth Hour and find out how to take part here, with great ideas and tips.

Below is a short meditation written by Rev Elizabeth Houston, retired former minister at Alexandria Parish Church, to use when you switch off lights for the planet. Alexandria recently became our latest Eco-Congregation Gold Award winners, following their union with Jamestown to become Lomond Parish Church.

Psalm 8

O Lord, our Lord, Your greatness is seen in all the world!
Your praise reaches up to the heavens; it is sung by children and babies.
You are safe and secure from all Your enemies; You stop anyone who opposes You.
When I look at the sky which You have made, and the moon and the stars which You set in their places – what is man that You think of him; mere man that You care for him?
You made him inferior only to Yourself; You crowned him with glory and honour.
You appointed him ruler over everything You made; You placed him over all creation: sheep and cattle and the wild animals too; the birds and the fish and the creatures in the seas.
O Lord, our Lord, Your greatness is seen in all the world!

Prayer

Almighty God, all-powerful and everlasting, we come before You in awe and yet with fear; for You have trusted us to care for this world which You have made, this world which You saw was good; You laid upon us, the responsibility for all the creatures of the earth, including our brothers and sisters across the globe – and, to our shame, we have allowed self-interest and greed to rule our hearts and threaten all creation.
Father God, forgive us.
Lord God, as we all feel the effects of this ‘coronavirus’, remind us of our responsibility to each other, to all the creatures in this world and, most of all, to You. Lift us from the darkness and remind us that The Light of the World will shine on through any darkness that humanity can devise and lead us, in Your mercy through this time of challenge for the whole earth and back into the safety and security of Your Light.
Father God, uphold us.
Remind us, Lord God, that our Lord Christ promised His disciples that He would be with His people, ‘until the end of the age’ and fill us with the spirit of peace and humility, inspire our prayers for one another and for all creation and as we walk again into the Light, Your Light, make us wiser and more responsible for the whole world’s sake and in Jesus’ Name.
Lord, hear us, help us and heal us, for Your love’s sake.
AMEN

Climate action

READ JOB chapter 38 and consider the theme for this year’s Earth Hour:
eliminating the use of single-use plastics; preserving biodiversity; the need for immediate climate action.
THINK on how you can help to make things better and live up to God’s challenge of caring for creation.
PRAY for the people you love and for this earth.
PLANT seeds to grow salads and flowers to colour your life.
LISTEN to the birdsong as nature gets on with doing what God made it to do.
PLACE a candle in your window (don’t leave it unattended) and help scatter the darkness.

Book of Job chapter 8

Bildad
Then Bildad the Shuhite replied:
“How long will you say such things? Your words are a blustering wind.
Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right?
When your children sinned against him, he gave them over to the penalty of their sin.
But if you will seek God earnestly and plead with the Almighty,
if you are pure and upright, even now he will rouse himself on your behalf and restore you to your prosperous state.
Your beginnings will seem humble, so prosperous will your future be. “Ask the former generation and find out what their ancestors learned,
for we were born only yesterday and know nothing, and our days on earth are but a shadow.
10 Will they not instruct you and tell you? Will they not bring forth words from their understanding?
11 Can papyrus grow tall where there is no marsh? Can reeds thrive without water?
12 While still growing and uncut, they wither more quickly than grass.
13 Such is the destiny of all who forget God; so perishes the hope of the godless.
14 What they trust in is fragile; what they rely on is a spider’s web.
15 They lean on the web, but it gives way; they cling to it, but it does not hold.
16 They are like a well-watered plant in the sunshine, spreading its shoots over the garden;
17 it entwines its roots around a pile of rocks and looks for a place among the stones.
18 But when it is torn from its spot, that place disowns it and says, ‘I never saw you.’
19 Surely its life withers away, and from the soil other plants grow. 20 “Surely God does not reject one who is blameless or strengthen the hands of evildoers.
21 He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy.
22 Your enemies will be clothed in shame, and the tents of the wicked will be no more.”
New International Version (NIV)

Pray

In the beginning – GOD; in the darkness – GOD; in Gethsemane – GOD; through the living – GOD; in our weakness – GOD; through our hopelessness – GOD; at the endings – GOD.
‘Till the dawn breaks’ – GOD.
Glory be to the Father, to the Son and the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, worlds without end.
AMEN

The Joy of …Mortality

Who would have thought it? After spending a year and a half developing a devotional approach to faith in the ‘end-times’ , we have something  which is both a dry-run and a brutal wake-up for the abruptness of change and the non-resilience of everyday life.

As someone in their late fifties, with asthma, and since my mother lives on her own, 300 miles away I’m aware of being a step closer to uncomfortable thresholds.

When I drove away from my mother’s house after a long-timetabled visit last week, I had to pull up and let the tears pass that ambushed me after waving goodbye. Every time could be the last time.  That’s always the case But we’re just a step closer.  As for myself, I’ve had a wonderful and fulfilling life: but my children are not remotely ‘settled’ yet.  They need me to stay alive for now.

As I’ve described myself, in terms of my carbon footprint, as someone ‘of unclean lips amongst a people of unclean lips’ (cf Isaiah 6 ) so too, today  I am someone nervous and confused amongst a people beset with nervousness and confusion.

The Manse is becoming a bunker and a film studio as I invest energy in replacing face to face visits with an online presence which I hope can be no less provocative.

https://www.facebook.com/EcoChaplain-online-267757747265132/

In a very short time,  we are looking at how to be more interactive too.

As the measures to respond to the virus take hold, perhaps with much more effect than the virus itself (- what will be the impact on those dependent on food-banks, on refugees; how many people will come to the end of their lives alone because community had been put on hold?) – amongst the most worrying development is the way that religious observance and community can be shelved and shuffled off as non-essential. And accepts this with its tail between its legs.

Poke your nose into the scrum of a  supermarket, even at 8am, and you’ll see every reason for spiritual guidance and reassurance: having  begun last year to order ‘ethical’ toilet rolls online, (and taken an order the week before last)  I’m expecting the burglars to leave the electric bikes next time they break in, and make off with the more attractive contraband!  

We also seem to be observing what used to be caricatured as the masculinity of society: the complete  inability to multi-task. We can do the virus, but only if we forget the climate.  But the bigger, if deceptively less acutely present emergency of the climate and environment has not gone away. Not that it has ever been taken with the seriousness of this real, but – yes, almost manageable – crisis.  Suddenly no one bothers about plastic any more.

Yes, really, this is a practice run, or perhaps ‘work experience’  and hopefully with a bit of breathing space the far side  in a few months, though there will be loads to learn each day, especially about responsiveness.

In terms of theological insights: one which was very dear to my late wife is this:  God never restores. (cf the final chapter of Job).  There may be good times ahead, though we will never ‘go back’ to how things have been. So:

Live each day as if it were your last.

Why? firstly, because it might be – and actually, when has that not been the case?

But secondly, get used to that idea, and that each beautiful experience  that we yet receive is to be savoured and honoured with gratitude.

Joy in each day, prayer in whatever mode. 

As I noted recently: the worst and most misleading thing in the conversation of the snake and the first people in the Garden of Eden was the comment “you will not die”.

Without that realisation, of our mortality, we won’t get round to living either. 

Love yourself as your neighbour, your neighbour as yourself, and the Earth, because we’re part of it!

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COP26 Glasgow

What is it?

The ‘twenty sixth conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’ (or CoP26 for short) will meet at the SEC in Glasgow from 9-19 November 2020.

Governments from around the world will be discussing action on climate change.  The first CoP was in Berlin in 1995 since which time there has been painstaking progress towards international agreement.  Getting every country in the world to sign up to life changing commitments is not easy but in Paris in 2015 (CoP21)  there was an agreement to set a goal of limiting global warming to well below 2 °Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels and if possible to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C.

Why is this important?

As global temperatures rise so do the risks, with increasingly severe impacts, especially in tropical countries.  Small island states and low lying countries are particularly at risk of sea level rise and have campaigned to limit temperature rises to 1.5 °C, a limit that without radical action will very likely be broken before mid-century.

Why Glasgow?  

The conference was originally intended to be in Brazil but President Bolsanaro withdrew his support and in late 2019 the UK Government offered to step in.  Glasgow is one of the few venues in the UK with a large enough conference facility, the SEC, to host such an event.

Who is involved?

Representatives from all countries will be joined by campaigners, lobbyists, businesses, scientists, NGOs and the world’s media.  One gap may be the USA as President Trump has committed to taking the USA out of the Paris climate agreement. Churches will be well represented by the World Council of Churches, and development agencies like Christian Aid, SCIAF and Oxfam will all have a presence.   The total number of participants could be 30,000 – In a city with only 8,000 hotel bed spaces.

What is up for decision?  

The Paris agreement (2015) set out a mechanism to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.   Each country has to prepare a plan (called its nationally determined contribution or NDC) to set out how it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.   NDCs have to be revised and strengthened every five years and the Glasgow CoP is five years on from Paris.   Unless the commitments in the current NDCs are strengthened and put into effect urgently there is no hope of limiting global warming to 2 °C.

How can we get involved?

While the diplomatic negotiations take place behind closed doors there are opportunities for churches and members of congregations to get involved, whether in Glasgow or elsewhere in Scotland.  We suggest you think about three sorts of activities: worship, action and advocacy.

Worship

Action

Advocacy

Details of events and activities are just emerging.  Keep in touch at www.climatefringe.org

Download this page as a PDF:

POSTPONED: All about food- Stirling Network Meeting

Eco-Congregation Scotland Stirling network are looking forward to their meeting on Wednesday 25th of March from 2-4pm (New date to be confirmed) when the topic is “All about Food.” Stuart Guzinski of Forth Environment Link will be talking about the work that they do involving food and growing.  FEL has run Stirling NeighbourFood an online farmers market for ethical, local and seasonal produce which they have recently handed over management of to The Kitchen at 44 King Street, a soon-to-open community kitchen, food event space and cookery school. Sara Macmillan from this social enterprise will also be joining us to share her exciting plans for more community food activity in Stirling with the network. 

All are welcome to attend this event. To assist with catering, if you would like to come along please let us know by filling in the contact form on the events page of this website.

Frogs and toads

Illustration by my son.

I don’t think there is much that we are taught in churches which doesn’t involve a leap or two. As well as learning to be  snakes at least as well as doves ( cf Matthew 10:16)  I’m feeling a need to encourage congregations to be leaping frogs, rather than crawling toads. In life, in prayer, in work, in worship. One step at a time may not do justice to the urgency of our day. 

  Some of these leaps  are very basic to everyday faith, such as the confident  insistence that the words of Jesus in the Gospels personally or corporately actually address us, at least insofar as we identify as disciples. On one level, it’s absurd, and yet on another, it’s essential. It’s true.

The inspiration I have found in Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘Laudato Si’. namely the fully conscious leap from ‘object’ to ‘subject’ (from ‘what’ to ‘who) is far more poetic than scholarly, though gaining authority from the precedent of a much-loved and fully official saint ( Francis of Assisi). And yet personification (which should not be dismissed as crass anthropomorphising) is widespread in the poetry of Scripture. 

Without it, we will refuse to hear the prophetic and suffering voice of the Earth, or permit Creation to join us in our interpretation of  scripture. 

But of course, such things are naive absurdities? Without them, find we have neither baby nor bathwater.

A similar matter is the phenomenon that we do receive the Bible in our own tongue. And the confidence ( though even this is relative) we ought to  be able to claim, that ‘losses in translation’ both are  and are not necessary.  To the Spirit is allocated  the task of making up any deficit, and the community of faith, rather than an individual, carries responsibility for their reliance on such help. 

I have frequently wondered how people who use “such a dire translation”, sing “such awful hymns”, or labour under an abusive theology,  have come to know Jesus, and even developed a strong motivation for environmental action.  At such times, it’s a liberating privilege to be wrong. 

Reason and Spirit are also not necessarily in tension, nor are systematic theologies necessarily the natural enemies of the pastoral and poetic. Like the Magi, they can reach the same destination by another way.  Though there are times when it’s difficult not to get sucked into that sort of conflict, or be the one who, in pursuit of the final word, fails to realise it’s been said some while ago. 

Things better unsaid, in a digital age, can at least be deleted. 

Where starting-points differ,  arguments will most likely either result in people coming to blows, resorting to  the transparent irony of the phrase “with respect”,  pulling rank, or at best (and I do mean best) agreeing , graciously, themselves, to differ.

 Here, in the matter of  the validity of differing languages; I choose to give authority – again in an absurd and not particularly rational way or coherent way (-but get used to it)  – to the experience of Pentecost. Another leap. Moving on, by the intervention of the Holy Spirit, from the idea of the ‘original’, which is, for instance, extremely dear to the spiritual traditions of Islam and Sikhism. A translation of ancient texts to modern IS the Bible, and in prayerful  use by a faithful community , becomes Scripture. Churches will vary as to how and where this process is recognised, with a greater or lesser degree of ‘official’ interpretation. 

This is always surreptitiously subversive: our encounter with ‘the Word of God’  has to involve some  margin of experience which cannot be pinned down. Or we would be forced, maliciously, to disregard every Bible -based insight from those of a different mother-tongue. 

It was probably during prohibitions on their language that Welsh became for Welsh-speakers ‘the language of heaven’. 

But if you speak it, the angels sing it. (Pole-vaulting).

(There is a high proportion of ‘get-used-to-it’ involved in these thoughts. A bit like the get-used-to-it that I have not achieved the lowest carbon footprint in ministry in Scotland nor am I likely to,  (I can admire and be encouraged by those who have done better) or  the get-used-to-it that we do not have time to reinvent the Church in response to climate emergency, only to asses our readiness, responsiveness, and spiritual resilience, relying on the mercy of God when these are found as wanting as the beautiful luxury of being seamlessly right in one’s arguments about the promise made to Noah whilst the sea-level nonetheless rises.

It’s liberating to get used to it, that every translation of the Bible, and every sermon, however hard we strive to be fair, has a slant, which will be judged, one way or another (another leap) by what God turns out to have said and done with, for, to and through us. 

The highest regard is unwaveringly due those who have devoted their lives to such work, and precisely therefore the recognition and acknowledgment of a slant should be cause neither for shame nor offence.  Agenda and methodology will legitimately vary; Bible versions will come and go, some leaving remarkable legacies in the consciousness of nation and church, in which I can’t imagine the King James Bible, first on the block in this sense, will ever be outdone. Scholarship provides the foundation, though not the building, nor the boundaries, of a community’s  active faith. 

From what I’ve seen so far of the training of the leaders of churches,  by and large, many really useful skills are widely  inculcated, especially in terms of reflective practice and spiritual responsiveness. 

 Since even the IPCC cannot do more than provide likely, and terrifying  trends for the fate of the life of the world,  our leaders’ being able to reflect creatively on what does turn out to happen, using Scripture as an authoritative tool and resource, in context, will be highly valuable to congregations  of Christians (and the communities in which they are embedded).  There is cause for confidence, here at least. 

I wonder sometimes though – and part of this is personal experience – what can be done to help people through their first few years in whatever sort of ministry: from the college, to the church. Like learning again to write poetry and paint pictures  after school. 

And the acuteness  of this journeyman  phase in a day of Creation Crisis…..

As  this year I approach my ‘silver jubilee’ of ordination, I am still struck, and surprised, by how useful a particular lecture or course  turned out to be;  though also how differently things might have turned out for me if I had then had the confidence to question more rigorously some of the culture of ( Oxford) university theology. 

I made and continue to make  many mistakes, but some of those, right now, are as valuable as the teaching.

Reuse, Recycle, Repurpose, Resanctify: Freedom from abuse. The lie of linear life. Getting heavy in Lent.

Log on the north beach at Alnmouth

Last night, Ash Wednesday, I attended a service at a local church which included the ritual of ‘imposition of ashes’ accompanied by the words “remember that you are dust” a rough cross of ash is smeared on the forehead of worshippers who come forward and stand or kneel whilst this is done. The Earth. In your face!

These words are God’s response, in Genesis  3:19, to  the story of the disobedience of the first humans, falling victim to the misdirected craftiness, ( though crucially, not the evil,) of the snake. It refers back to the making of humanity from the same stuff as all other life: the Earth. 

Ash Wednesday.  Or perhaps for us, Carbon Wednesday.  Carbon, in our  environmental speech, sounds like the new poison, which has led environmentalists to be caricatured. 

It’s not only a profound Biblical, but a factual truth, that like almost every other living creature on earth, we are carbon-based life-forms.  Carbon we are, to carbon we return.  

In places where seasonal  wildfires have always been normal and expected, it is from the ashes that new life rises. 

And the pictures we have seen from Australia,  of just that miracle, were in my mind as the gritty black stuff was imposed  “in my face.”

I did some Bible study on words for dust and earth and soil, and mud in the Old Testament. I was reminded of the myth that the Inuit people had seventeen words for snow.

The Old Testament both does  (and annoyingly occasionally  doesn’t ) distinguish between inert, lifeless dust, agriculturally viable soil, (which is what the name Adam means),  the ground,  and the land, (which is the stuff people still kill each other for). And then there’s ash, which comes into the story as a penitential thing. Dust and ashes in the Book of Job, though there, those of you either with medical knowledge or like me, an experience of eczema, might recall  the healing properties for Job’s skin problems associated with coal tar, and carbon-rich medicines.

The most foolhardy thing you can ever do in Biblical study is to make a generalisation, except the valid one, that it is always a mistake to assume that a Bible motif is simply symbolic, without experiential depth and practical application.

In shaping Adam, (the human race)  God transforms dust to soil,  and soil to something rather special, and as the story continues, has cause to remind Mr and Mrs Soil,  both that their health and fruitfulness is a gift not to be taken for granted, and  that their destiny, like other creatures of the earth, includes limited life……and potential  re-use.

Remember you are dust, to dust you will return.

Some Reformed Ash Wednesday liturgies have quite fairly included the concluding line 

“From dust you will be raised”.

Our EcoCongregation board meeting also fell yesterday,  and I was required to do some other reflection,  but it did strike me that the most destructive part of the Snake’s “spiel” was the suggestion “you shall not die”. 

This is the key to our dominant narrative of infinite and everlasting economic growth, accompanied by single-use wastage. 

The impoverished limitation of what might be reused, re-cycled, repurposed, indeed, resanctified.

We live, for now, by the mindless and abusive haemorrhage  of the very lifeblood  of the Earth. And we employ the gifts of craftiness, intelligence, every conceivable skill and technology  to achieve this. 

We live, for now,  preferring the lie of endless life to the truth of good and natural death,  (our  sister, as St Francis put it in his Canticle of the Sun) to which, to whom, after a good life, we should be reconciled.  

And the gracious and healthy acceptance of finitude sets our outlook in perspective. The urgency  of a change of course in all we do becomes the more serious, the more sacred. Denial of the limits of life emerges, with some irony,  as all the more deadly.  

 

Jesus, the Word made Flesh, did not evade death. 

Jesus repurposed it. 

 

(If my phrase “the lie of endless life” seems odd, please do follow it up:  the lazy translation  of “the end of the age  and related phrases as “forever”, or even of “all-the-days”  as “always” reflects how drenched even our worship has become in the denial of death that leads to death. Looking to the fulfilment of the“end of the age”, rather than into a sterile infinity, amounts toa deepening of faith in the goodness of God, without being bullied by a merely philosophical faith in superlatives,  which dictates, that what is more, must be God.  But what is only endless is also endlessly unfulfilled . )

By contrast, by the grace of God, leaves fall…that in time, the flowers may delight the bees.  

The Way of Life – and as I have written elsewhere, the Way of the Kingdom, is a circular economy, a circulation of energy, paralleled in the dance of the Trinity, illuminated for us by the Orthodox churches with the concept of ‘perichoresis‘  

It is so easy – and tragic –  to “spiritualise”,  to detach such ideas entirely from the experienced world of daily life. Or,  if the pendulum swings entirely in the other direction, to rob them of their meaning by over-literalising our reading.

One of our board members, John, also opened with a reading from Romans 8, where what struck me was the idea of Creation’s  bondage/slavery to decay’ .  

That what we need to consider is the problem of the ‘bondage’, whilst being mindful of the goodness of decay. 

Again, decay is why we’re still alive at all. Over and above our enjoyment  of cheese, wine, bread and plenty of other things that delight our life and that of Jesus of Nazareth, the work done by the tiniest of fellow creatures ensures the fertile circulation not just of water. 

Like death, decay is a wonder, a gift, a miracle. The single-use economy, built on the lie of everlasting resources enslaves us to an abusive relationship with good things. 

So my ‘leap’ of poetic theology  for today, is a prayer to view this ‘bondage/slavery’ relating to decay as we would any other abusive relationship: a travesty of something good and healthy and life-giving. Just as the single-use economy  is a slavery which prevents the recycling of goodness.

Not slavery, but partnership and friendship with decay, is where we find New Life. 

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