Author Archives: David Coleman

Hypocrites Anonymous – further thoughts

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(Image: preparation for leading worship on Palm Sunday (dressed in camouflage)  in Iona Abbey last year)

Hypocrites anonymous – further thoughts:  a treasure in plain sight

From the start of my calling to be  EcoChaplain, I’ve enjoyed the experience of  ‘bells ringing’  – things which seem very familiar shining out with significance and meaning for the age we’re in.  

This one’s quite personal, given my involvement with the Iona Community for more than thirty years, however, I’m grateful for any such gift, and it’s a reminder of how great are the existing treasures of our faith and traditions.

Last night I managed to attend my local Iona Community Family group, sharing in the distinctive ‘office’ of prayer which links those in the movement and is used daily in Iona Abbey.

Following on from the previous post’s acknowledgment about the need to acknowledge our damagedness,  and the fact of everyone being, to some extent, compromised and complicit, I found the ‘responsive’ prayer  of confession rather helpful, in that  the gathered community  acknowledges and prays for the moral frailty of the leader of worship, stained with the  involvement of their own people, rather than meekly receiving their leadership as they might that of an isolated spotless saint. 

This way, the leader is “exemplary” only in that they start from the same place as the people. 

(Leadership is good, even to the extent that dictatorship – or unwise and incompetent leadership –  is bad. (Read through the first  few chapters of Isaiah, incidentally, and you might see the point).

Whilst the Iona Community has not yet got round to reviewing  the anthropomorphic version of the quote from Psalm 24 (the world belongs to God/the earth and all its people) which, in due course  might be more creative in pronoun (from “it” to “her” or “their”) and inclusive in subject (creatures, dwells, or those the earth ‘harbours’) maybe even more crucially, it is good  already to offer this prayer both of confession, and recognition that the persistence  hopelessness and worthlessness are not a necessary consequence of the mess we may be in.

Before God, with the people of God

I confess to my brokenness:

to the ways I wound my life, the lives of others, and the life of the world

May God forgive you, Christ renew you, 

And the Spirit enable you to grow in love.

Amen

Before God, with the people of God

we confess to my brokenness:

to the ways we wound our lives, the lives of others, and the life of the world

May God forgive you, Christ renew you, 

And the Spirit enable you to grow in love.

Amen

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Have a good day, whatever mess it starts in!

Hypocrites anonymous

Hypocrites anonymous

In a few days, I’ll be working with some churches, using the recommended passages for the Week of Prayer for Unity.  I’ve written before about how current  conditions undermine almost all our polite hesitation about getting on with the project of Church Unity, seen as  setting aside most of what gives our members the excuse to see each other as something  short of ‘real’. We really have not come close even to the Lund Principle (to be prepared to do everything together other than what deeply held  conviction forces us to do separately).  despite it being reverentially enshrined even in some recent documents. By the nature of the documents, it doesn’t; filter down to ordinary-worshipper level. It you stood up on Sunday and asked for a straw poll on  who had a clue what the Lund principle is, I’d be interested in  the result.

CTBI, [ Churches Together in Britain and Ireland  ] passing on the collaborative work from the World Church, have made available material encouraging us to look at the narrative of the sea-voyage in captivity of Paul, at the end of Acts, including the shipwreck. 

It’s a ripping yarn, and full of lots of nautical jargon, though the overall image of ‘all being in the same boat’  is perhaps the most pastorally useful. When we’re so obviously all sharing the same planet, our ‘Common Home’ , there’s nowhere else to go away to to sulk. Likewise, the comforting complacency of some early Reformed missionaries (‘if they don’t listen, they must be damned anyway’) falls apart, because, however good your advice, you have nowhere to go to find someone more receptive. Any rattles intending to be thrown out of the pram land back in the pram.  And if they’re consigned to oblivion ( as Ezekiel realised) so are you!

I’m noticing in the terribly sterotypical attacks on Greta Thunberg (white, privileged  middle-aged men in the forefront: it’s so tediously predictable!) a desperation to expose her in some way either as ignorant (which doesn’t work: she refers us to the scientists, who aren’t!) or hypocritical. This is not only nasty, it’s grasping at straws and also, pointless, because, even if you might feel picked on, we really are all at fault: it is all but impossible to take part in Western civilisation and not contribute many times the carbon footprint ( for instance)  of someone in Rwanda. We are so tied up in it, the plastic thread runs through every fibre of our being. And yet nice kind gentle Christians (the ones who think Jesus only ever told you to be like doves) are terrified, disabled  and intimidated when the accusation of hypocrisy rears its head. 

When Jesus was being needled by Satan in the (wildlife-filled) wilderness, our Lord had the presence of mind to resist a string of inappropriate twisting of the Scriptures of his people. Since the devil departed ‘biding his time ‘, it’s not unexpected that Jesus own words, which have become our Scripture, get the same treatment. 

One of the most viciously mistreated is the one about hauling  the log out of your own eye before the speck out of your neighbour’s .  

Oh dear.  I ate a vegan burger  cooked in meat fat. Heaven help me, I drove  to a meeting, because I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to be there when my children got in . And the brown paper I ordered online to pack my Christmas presents in came packaged in a large box and wrapped additionally in plastic… surely I must be a hypocrite, and therefore have no business telling anyone what to do, especially if the change I’m looking for costs them some commitment, money – or worse still – consideration for the planet.

The interpretation of the Gospels is always contextual. Indeed, if you’re desperate to find contradictions, you can.’ If they’re not against us, they’re for us’  set in context, will actually be complementary to ‘If they’re not for us they’re against us’.  Because there are different applications. 

Of course there’s still the risk that you can make Scripture say anything you want it to, but in this instance: what would be best for the planet:? That I say nothing and let people get blithely on with a lifestyle consistent with global crisis, because I can’t say or do anything until I’ve completely, as an individual, cleaned up my act? – Or humbly and lovingly, nonetheless inform and suggest, whilst openly acknowledging how far I myself have to go BECAUSE WE’RE ALL IN THE SAME BOAT.

Or we have been sold on the idolatrous falsehood that nothing is worthwhile unless it clearly and demonstrably solves a  problem.  Or  like Isaiah, before he was zapped  by an angel, we imagine that being people of unclean lips amongst a people of unclean lips,   and burners of fossil fuel  amongst a fossil-fuel-burning people,  we’ re off the hook.  “Not at all,” says God. 

The Alcoholics Anonymous experience begins with the recognition  of  identity . “I’m an alcoholic”.  From which point grace and peer support take over, even through stumbling and failure. In that sense, I’m a hypocrite, so the only way is up!  I’m not spotless, so the odd stain won’t make that much difference.  But I do my best, and hope that others might too.

God needs all the hypocrites God can get.  We’re all in this boat, and there’s a big storm coming.  That’s not God or Greta getting at you. 

Happy New Year:  and don’t just be doves: be more snake!

Advent = Urgent

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Environmental Chaplaincy is something which those who drafted my job description wanted me to find ways of spreading, but in order to reach into the ‘hat’ and grab the requisite pair of ears, I need to have some idea as to what sort of [droid or ] ‘rabbit’ it is that we’re looking for

I’ve reached down the odd burrow as well over the past year. Asked around, pondered.

And reviewing the past year, of all the Christian Seasons, it is probably Advent, into which we are now launched, that has most shaped my spirituality, insights and theology in this role.  At least, now we know we’re well into an age of Emergency, the Season of Environmental Chaplaincy par excellence, is Advent. Advent, though, has long been the poor relation of Christian seasons, an embarrassment  to the outside world, reduced to a ‘Countdown to Christmas’ rather than a time of reflection, longing and urgency in its own right. There is, therefore, plenty of scope: plenty of space to work into, without seeming to threaten festivals like Christmas.

What has long been apparent, is that environmental  pastoral and liturgical input at a local church level needs to arise out of  the ‘general practice’ of the life of the churches. Whatever shape I might find for this project will not emerge by becoming remote from the day-to-day life of churches.  

There is also no way round the imperative of getting the key issues into Sunday worship and teaching. Fringe meetings have great value, but without developments in prayer, liturgy, preaching, hymnody and the rest, it will still be too easy to marginalise the evolution of  transformative ‘green’ attitudes, together with the evangelistic mission bonus it represents to young folk and many others to whom ‘church’ and ‘irrelevant’ go together like….. well.

Thus, although on occasion, and by invitation, I do pick and choose Scriptures for worship, I work, as far as possible from the ‘run of the mill’ that is,   with what would anyway have been part of the worship life of the local church.  Often, this means the Revised Common Lectionary (and its very close cousin used by the Roman Catholic Church). 

A reservation, and sometimes a problem, is that at the time when these programmes were devised, the climate emergency, which is our defining context, was not even on the radar. Nor did any of the committees or companies of translators of any of the most popular versions of the Bible see any cause either to highlight the earthed outlook of so much of the writing, nor even to fill in the gaps, as paraphrases (like the Good News) like to. Sometimes quite the contrary. As if the ‘world’ meant the human race, and so on. But if it were all ideal, it wouldn’t be realistic.

As regards the shape of chaplaincy, one  possible dimension began to emerge last year in Advent, and this happened simply   because  I was not avoiding  what goes with this season. I became aware in a different way of  how the traditions of that poorly  observed Christian Season focussed on  ‘apocalyptic’ themes, including the ‘Second Coming’, on which neither I  myself nor most preachers I have heard have ever had much of value  to say, other than perhaps recognising a vague longing for justice. 

Not that that is a bad thing. 

Global injustice and the climate emergency are so close as to be identical: the imbalance of causal responsibility and the experience of hardship and catastrophe is extreme. Even if that is all we grasp, it is worth going with the flow of the season.

A digression….

Just to pick up this point before  adding more. I heard of a story told at a party, (it would complicate to attribute)  recently of a western church worker being welcomed in the midst of poverty, asking what it was that the church could offer such downtrodden people. The answer they received was”hope” , with the proviso that we “should not confuse hope with optimism”.  Our global situation, where even the biggest, richest, and most powerful churches lack the scope to offer ‘solutions’, now evens out the pretension of those with an imperial legacy. 

Hope gets communities through crisis, even in the face of apparent impotence and insignificance. And the message of Advent and then Christmas, is of realistic hope, through the solidarity of God with Creation. 

Being sign of hope, a ‘Light in the Darkness’ is indeed a key gift, identity and task  of all the churches, including our own. It’s also what we’re qualified for, across the board. ‘You are the Light of the World’… said the Light of the World.

The wilder bits of the Bible actually locate us there. God knows.  Especially these ‘Advent readings’. Which offer, when you go back and look at them, spiritual guidance for times of crisis, such as those in which they emerged. Even if we’re still not sure how to ‘drive’ them.  There’s a harsh realism in the idea of “one will be taken, one left” : pause for thought on the indiscriminate nature of crisis and disaster.

A closeness of catastrophe and redemption is certainly noticeable in the New Testament. The ‘Kingdom’  ‘draws near’, as does redemption (cf Luke 21:28). The Day of Judgement, or of Doom, as our friend  Alastair McIntosh put it in his visionary speech at the Edinburgh Climate  Fair in the Summer, are decisive times; likewise the coming of the ‘Lord’ ( Matthew 24)

The ‘coming of the Lord’……  whom some have identified, more or less as ‘the Destroyer’, which fits perhaps better with other faiths than Christianity.  The Second Coming ends up as a fantasy of holocaust.  “It’s OK to press the button”, religious advisors told presidents, “because it will be the will of God anyway”. (!!!!!)  No wonder sensible theologians leave it well alone. But in so doing they leave the stage clear for heavy rock musicians and nutcases.

As things stand, and without very radical change of direction for our species as a whole, we are on course for some terrible outcomes.  This is no longer alarmism, but the most respectable science.   As reports of possible global ‘tipping point’ thresholds emerge, following on from all the terrifying wildfires of this last year, and plenty more besides, from the very humble position of Environmental Chaplain, I can’t but hazard a few fresh views, and in particular one positive slant.

Which, given our trajectory, is to look to the mythology of Second Coming as a reassurance of God-with-us: that ‘Emmanuel’ business the carols will be going on about. 

The solidarity of God that we need, not to dictate a solution, but to face with hope and courage what does lie ahead. And respond in some ways more wonderful and creative than paralysis and despair.

The hungry diary

Creation Time/Season of Creation won’t be in your own diary, perhaps, for another nine months, though preparations have begun. This has so far involved my assessing the Lectionary readings for September 2020 with regard to their suitability  for shaping worship with an environmental  slant/bias/commitment/call it what you will.  

As someone who, most weeks,  preaches with this approach, this bit of ‘subjective’ is going to be the closest to ‘objective’ you will get.

I used a five-point  grid:

XXXXX Ideal, with obvious Creation themes

XXXX Some obvious Creation themes

XXX Ok with prompting

XX Struggle: only for consistent writers on Creation

X Part of a set, but not easy.

It might be surprising that  ideas like ‘the voice of the Earth  or references to trees, seas and wildlife are not the only ‘point-scorers’  in such an assessment. 

Themes emerging from an intensive reading of these texts are as follows:

Responsibility  ( to self, God, world, neighbour )  including the responsibility to move beyond the mess you have made, rather than being overwhelmed by it.  Given our (collective)  complicity in global damage….  It is responsibility, rather than ‘control’  that God gives to our species in Genesis 1:26

Love for neighbour (taking neighbour rather widely). There’s a very serious need to hear and be shocked by the partisan xenophobia of some of the passages; to grow beyond local parochialism to a global concern. The vital movement in our thinking and praying is from “it” to “who”.

’Payback’ and revenge  vs Forgiveness = as enabling power.

Urgency in all things: though set against  the disabling  idea of  ‘already too late’. ( Advent is a time for alertness and urgency: ‘Lord come QUICKLY’ – rather than the luxury of relaxed patience.)

…………………………..

Maybe forgiveness, and the experience of grace will be the key to the most effective Christian environmental witness. 

It takes little study of the New Testament to  confirm that   Jesus’ practice was to liberate with forgiveness first,  before  evidence of changed life came to light. 

Should it be a surprise that the best we have to offer in the state of the world today are also the best expressions of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? 

The sheer practicality  of making forgiveness/healing/enabling a priority  over vengefulness   shoes through. 

If the one who sings prays twice, then the one  will also hurt twice, who insists on suffering and punishment, rather than a more ‘restorative’ sort of justice.

Advent (not Christmas countdown) Calendar 2019

Dear friends: as last year, I am preparing a series of video reflections, ‘freewheeling’ in a way I could not on behalf of a denomination, on the Lectionary readings for Advent. These will appear on the Facebook page ‘Advent with the Ecochaplain’  at 1 minute past midnight on each day of Advent. If you use Facebook, please do subscribe, and spread it around. Disclaimer: as I write, about a quarter of the ‘Days’ are prepared. All 24 will only happen barring unforeseen circumstance, but it’s good use of morning devotional time to prepare them.

Giving back control. From “what” to “who”

I’ve been involved with puppetry for a very long time: way back in the 80s, I was part of a European youth film movement, where my perhaps somewhat scary animated puppet films got me around to festivals in Belgium, Germany and Italy. I managed to get a small commission from the BBC for an item in the ‘Golden Oldies picture show, to accompany the Dubliners’ ‘Seven Drunken Nights’, and you can find bootleg versions still on YouTube, where the comments speculate as to who made it and how. I know it happened by being shut in a room with hot lights and a lot of plasticine for seven weeks.

Like many ministers. I’ve found it useful in what folk think of as the ‘childrens’ address slot, to bring in puppets. Not at all just for the children: they’re excellent icebreakers, and like Rod Hull’s emu, people readily accept the phenomenon of them developing a character of their own. What’s even more intriguing is that the characters a puppet exhibits are not always at all the same as their handlers.

Live action/glove puppets mean you can get a video clip together very much faster than with traditional stop-motion animation, though digital techniques also cut corners in what seems an indecent way, thinking back to when I really did have to make 25 adjustments per second. In my work with congregations, they’re even faster than that.

As environmental chaplain, my stable of puppets (- concentrating on those which are functional enough to admit an adult hand and permit some real characterisation, rather than just waving around -) has been growing. Orang-utans are there, reminding us of their plight as their habitat is eradicated for palm oil. The polar bear and the endangered, but vital bee, whales, British seabirds whose migration is vulnerable to climate. I have sheep who can be both lost and found. I have a panda on order! And the human race is represented too – by Punch and Judy! My ostrich introduces the futility of climate denial. But then I have to apologise for the groundless myth about heads in sand!

Let them run wild in a congregation for a few minutes, and you’re getting across the message about the Communion of Creation; that we share God’s beautiful planet with ‘all flesh’, in the covenant renewed in Christ’s self-giving. And it belongs, with complete appropriateness, with wonder at and love for biodiversity, gently re-defining the narrowness of our vision of the Kingdom of God. Wherever possible, I like people to keep the animals with them for the duration of the service: in sight, in mind.

There’s another, deeper and more subtle lesson, which is evident in the extreme dedication of professional puppeteers: there are skills to learn, and significant physical fitness is involved if you are providing an evening’s live show. It’s a different sort of self-giving from up-front acting.

What moved me most on a short course with a professional puppet company last year was the point at which, whilst supporting and sustaining the puppet, the handler lets go control to what has been until then a few bits of wood and/or fabric. That’s when wonders happen.  Using blue-screen in films, the puppeteer is not seen, but they’re still there, giving life.

In a framework of respect and acknowledgement of personality as well as interdependence. Yes, it’s reminiscent even of when we celebrate eucharist/holy communion: we gather and provide and facilitate and enable, but the central celebration of Christianity, I would suggest, in all traditions, involves a surrender of control and determination to life beyond out own life; power beyond our power, in the wonder of relationship.

Communion is impossible without our participation, but equally impossible if we only “take back control”, which attitude is killing the Earth. The crises we’re experiencing give terrifying meaning to the concept of being ‘out of communion’.

Absolutely the greatest spiritual contribution of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, and much other inspirational writing on faith and the environment is the recovery of the imperative of acknowledging the sentience of creatures, the personhood of the earth.

Moving in our dealings with Creation from object to subject. From ‘what’ to ‘who’.

Rat Rapure’ – the grown-up fable reflecting on finding your place in crisis.

In response – following a visit to a historic town

Dunblane has drawn visitors for many reasons over the centuries: the complex story told by the walls and the many components of the cathedral itself is witness to this, though it’s interesting to reflect on how the evolving life of that building, in response to the changing needs of the worshipping community, slowed down with the re-roofing and restoration of the late 1800s.

The sustaining and maintenance of our built and spiritual heritage undoubtedly enriches the lives of our citizens, though the question of “how, and for whom” needs always to be there, acknowledging that ‘preservation’, as ‘keeping things exactly the same’ is a very modern and not particularly sound idea. We cannot approach history of any kind, other than through the lens of our own time, and that is something both to get used to and to celebrate.

There was also a time when the streets of Dunblane would have been full of those seeking health and wellbeing during the hydrotherapy boom. Different modes of ‘pilgrimage’ have enriched your life.

Most of my own earlier visits were due to Scottish Churches House, providing a safe place for Christians of varying traditions to encounter, challenge and befriend each other. That way of meeting has had its day, though it’s good to see the ‘oikumene’ all-in-the-same-boat symbol still on the wall.

It’s a reminder of the value of bringing together our diverse treasures of insight and experience: the spiritual biodiversity which can enrich the lives of all, and together, be a sign of hope in times of stress and worrying outlook. Ecumenism works best when we are drawn together by what we have in common, whilst seeking to value, rather than eradicate our differences. Dialogue risks that we might all come out of the experience looking a bit different ourselves, but if our trust is in God, that may be a gift, rather than a tragedy.

This latest visit was also in the context of a common vehicle of the churches, though broader than any in living memory: Eco-Congregation Scotland is a response, ( involving so far about 12% of Scottish churches,) to the many-layered and disarmingly complex environmental threats which are rapidly overtaking our planet. These alarming changes are not just in conveniently far-away and foreign places, but on our own coastlines, in the impact on the wildlife around us, and indeed, reflected in the low-key ‘mitigation’ plans of local authorities and government agencies, now compelled to be looking to a different approach from mere ‘preservation’ of historic places…such as Dunblane.

But how might churches and other faith communities respond to climate crisis? More meaningfully than might be apparent, – but most basically, by being who they are; by coming into their own as distinctive beacons of blessing in a time of threat. ‘Be alert!’ is a key New Testament message, and a lively awareness of the state of God’s Creation is a starting point for how we might live out our faith and find ourselves in partnership with many others of goodwill.

In common with many other faith traditions, Christian scriptures, and especially the New Testament, came into existence in times of threat and oppression. In quieter and more stable eras, some of the ‘wilder’ poetic spiritual responses, (which are actually beginning to ‘speak’ to people around the world today ) have in our lifetimes tended to be ‘retired’ or set aside, on a mantle shelf, though a ‘quiet life’ might sometimes lack interest. My work as environmental Chaplain, travelling to visit many and varied local congregations , suggests that the environmental crises are once more calling us to find an identity, not as powerful or determinative communities, but as partners with many others in the care of Creation, able to contribute vision and experience from what it means to be church today.