Author Archives: David Coleman

Advent = Urgent

.

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.

A peculiar man

‘We need a peculiar man, for the young people’.
So ran the opening of an article in a Congregational Christian magazine of the early twentieth century, defending the right of ministers to be boring ……and reliable. The dilemma of local churches’ frustration with their less-than-imagined appeal to absent generations, goes a long way back.

And it has been the burden of those sharing my calling, to be measured against a cherished  magic solution, and frequently found wanting.

For a while, I was probably, on paper the ideal sought-after item: male, married to a woman, with two children, and neither too old nor too young, with good vocal projection. But then the specification might have slipped a bit, as I was vegetarian, I didn’t drive, had a pony-tail, wore sandals, and was rumoured to hang around with peace-loving activists. At least I wore a collar (it opens doors) and preferred to use the pulpit to preach from (as, frankly, you get better eye contact!)

In recent years, where applicable, the profiles churches assemble for their ideal minister have also taken on a still more intrusive slant, and the position on ‘marriage’ of a prospective candidate, one way or another, additionally, and sadly,  narrows the field.

Still, the demand is great for someone young, mature, scholarly but not highbrow, prayerful but down-to-earth, who will gather a crowd of compliant young people, and CHANGE NOTHING.

Right now, however, I am actually delighted that more than one church in vacancy has begun to include a further criterion: commitment to environmental concern in prayer and action. Then again, for a local Christian leader publicly to espouse climate denial could do serious spiritual harm to the vulnerability of people becoming aware of the crisis we’re in.

We need to be able to cope with the scary truth of climate emergency on the holy ground of church, and keep the inevitable rude awakenings and penny-droppings to a minimum . (Heaven knows, I’ve had enough of those myself!) . Churches need to be sanctuaries first, before they can be hotbeds of activism, and that will now include the task of gently and compassionately easing heads out of the sand; helping folk see that it isn’t ‘just a matter of opinion’, and it’s not going to go away. Truth – even the frightening truth – sets us free.

Most sorts of church do, however, quite reasonably, look for someone, as pastoral leader, who has studied, and acquired skills in Biblical interpretation and spiritual reflection. Good. These are vital resources for a time of crisis. And they are actually pretty widespread, though colleagues often lack the confidence to stick their necks out in a sermon or elsewhere, when, like Moses and the unburned bush, they notice something worthy of a double-take. That’s where the encouragement of a congregation – and maybe their tolerance for attempts falling flat now and then – comes in.

I am heartened when I see current ministry training prioritising responsiveness to context and circumstances, because whatever else the future holds, I’m sure there is going to be more, and more unprecedented change to deal with.

And these are the parameters of Eco-Chaplaincy that Eco Congregation would dearly like to see spreading. To be normal, and run-of-the-mill , not ‘peculiar’. (But not boring, either!). Because this is what it means to be church in our day.

No minister, pastor, priest or whatever, in a local setting, can do the magic that is looked for without consistent and compassionate collaborative support from the congregation. I hope and pray (and from what I have seen, have confidence ) that eco-congregations in vacancy look to share rather than offload what it means to follow Christ, the Word made Flesh, in an age of uncertainty and threat.

(Hint: part of it does mean having fun along the way!)

Disproportionate thoughts

.

(Picture: visiting the Rodin museum in Paris last year)

Feelings are a gift. To feel reminds you that you’re human, or at least, a living being. Feelings, along with faith,  are our equipment for the unexpected. 

And we can expect more of that.

Even some of the more questionable feelings, like anger and outrage. It was one of the most smugly quoted verses I encountered early in my faith journey: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26).

If I can stomach the smugness, it’s good advice.

I remember Fr Gerard Hughes, author of ‘God of Surprises’  talking about the uses of pain. I was sceptical. Though that was a long time ago. He also spoke inspiringly to that group of Iona Volunteers (that included myself) in 1990  about the crucial value of spirituality in sustaining a life of activism without burning out.

Over the last year, I have opened myself as never before to bad news. It drip-feeds into my consciousness every time I open my computer to check my emails. Perhaps I’m grateful it still seems strange to someone who did their growing up in the sixties and seventies. When crassness and (nuclear) despair about ‘no future’ seemed to be something one could dismiss or rise above. 

Those were the circles I moved in, then.

I even, reluctantly accepted the manifest  lies about the ‘need’ for nuclear weapons.

I had quite a few ‘conversion’ experiences ahead of me. And by the grace of God, I also found friends to help me through them. Companions. Angels in disguise? Thank God, anyway.

And I became angry, and afraid, I experienced injustice, and sadness. A year of  inescapable bitterness, being held up for ministry training. And these things  all passed. I married, we had children, my wife became terminally ill, I became exhausted, then  a widower. Feelings were big, crushing at times, but not inappropriate. I didn’t wish them away. They had a logic.

But the question of what to do with the feelings about the climate crisis is still a new one. Nothing has (adequately)  prepared me.  I need a bit more ‘conversion’. I’m still learning.

The Amazon is burning, the Arctic is burning. And yet we’re still here, for now. 

Why?  what have we still to do. ?

Silly question?

Seriously – and maybe surprising, even if it ought not to be surprising – scripture is significantly sustaining.  Matthew chapter 6  helps me each  and every day. Worrying less about tomorrow than I might, even though there is plenty to worry about. And it’s likely that will be the case for the rest of my life and those of my children. And accepting that to be the case, we need a sustainable approach to the gift of  emotions. 

A taller order.  Hope beyond hope’, I think someone called it. Retelling a story ancient even in his own time. 

For now, I’m comfortable, not in immediate danger. Some of my property was stolen, but I was in a position to replace it.  A bit of stress, but Life carried on.

The most irritated I got recently, was when a train which was running in the middle of the night claimed to have no room ,and I knew this was not the case, but an operational fiction. Maybe that’s out of proportion.  But emotional proportionality often eludes me.  

(I was going to say “ eludes us”, but I can’t presume to speak for you.

The political developments of the last few weeks, involving reprehensibly  total indifference to the environmental situation, have been much more problematic. 

The crimes of pig-ignorance…..

The stability I knew growing up, including my delight to be part of a European Community, has made almost every development seem outrageous. It’s been suggested that this is calculated: ‘outrage fatigue’ enables unacceptable things to be slipped in or hidden behind other news, or strategically numbs us.  Better than crushing us?

To sleep, perchance to dream. Or not.

Somehow I need to preserve and give thanks for the feelings which are there for short-term action, without experiencing them all day every day.

 The fight and flight stuff, in reserve, and the keeping going stuff, in balance, denying neither.

Well, maybe  that’s what prayer is for.  And the idea of “sustain” rather than “save” is creeping more into my own.  As well as the acknowledgement  of limits. Transformation, rather than resolution of  conflict.  And the companionship of God, come what may.

This ‘conversion’  malarkey is a lifelong ….thing!  

Being born. 

Again and again and again. 

Ouch.

“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26).

If I can stomach the smugness, it’s good advice, as the sun goes down, and there’s still tomorrow. 

And joy, and laughter as well. 

Just.