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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!

EVENT: The Economics of Arrival: ideas for a grown up economy by Wellbeing Economy Alliance

If the only way is up, how do we know when the economy has reached its destination? What does it mean for an economy to Arrive?

Instead of pursuing endless growth at all costs, it’s time for governments and other decision makers to prioritise shared wellbeing on a healthy planet.

In their new book “The Economics of Arrival: ideas for a growth up economy”, Dr. Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams present the exciting new concept of economic Arrival. They invite us to consider that “the agenda of fighting for survival could be over if the economy were to engage with a new challenge: that of building ourselves a lasting home in this place of plenty.”

Join the authors for a short talk on the book, followed by a Q&A and discussion about applying these ideas to contemporary Scottish politics, hosted by Jamie Livingstone, Head of Oxfam Scotland. The discussion will be followed by a book signing and light refreshments will be available.

 

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. 


Busy time at Zero Waste workshops

These folk look busy at something!

Wonder who they are?

They are a few of the 37 individuals from 24 different eco-congregations who took part in the Zero Waste workshops, organised by Eco-congregation Scotland, in Edinburgh and Glasgow  at the end of November.  The day flew by, with a 2-hour session in the morning called Love Food Hate Waste, followed after lunch by a 2 hour session on Love Your Clothes.  Together we learned about the contribution that food waste and the clothing industry make to climate change, and some practical steps that we can all take to reduce our environmental impact.  Great fun, but deadly serious too.   The idea was that those who came along and took part can go back to their churches or networks or groups of friends and run their own informal activities and information events based on what they learned and the materials they have access to.

Wish you have been there?  Don’t worry!

You have several options.

  1. Maybe someone from your church or area was at one of the workshops?  If so, ask them if they will run a local mini-workshop to share what they found out!
  2. If not, we are planning to repeat these “cascade” workshop events:

(a) in Stirling on Saturday 2nd February

(b) in Cupar on Tuesday 5th February

(c) in Inverness on Friday 8th February.

Detailed information and booking forms will be out shortly, Hope to see you there!

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!