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!


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?

Advent Calendar – the slower path to Christmas

There's a lot of pressure on local churches to join the headlong dash to Christmas, and bypass the dark reflective journey of Advent, which, in many traditions, involves an immersion in thoughts and poetry written in and for times of crisis, or times when hope was at a premium. I'm thinking about following the Sunday lectionary through with images and thoughts from our 'green' perspective. A small initiative, and easy to follow... as well as gently reasserting our right, in this forthcoming season, not to be dictated to by Xmas cards or even some 'Christmas' films, how and what we should be considering.