Category Archives: Chaplain Page

Up to the top of the hill, and not so far down again

A personal report on a study-leave attendance at a far-reaching, global, ecumenical conference. With Video Blog & Paper on ‘Season of Creation’.

As a URC minister I’m obliged to seek study leave opportunities, with moderate funding available to make this possible. Towards the end of last year, I received an invitation which looked very suitable: Seminar: The Feast of Creation and the Mystery of Creation: Ecumenism, Theology, Liturgy, and Signs of the Times in Dialogue. 

The travel involved also meant that I could better fulfil the chaplaincy remit to be in touch with the various training institutions serving the churches within Scotland, by visiting, if they were willing, the Pontifical Scots College in Rome, just after the seminar.

The –unregulated and personal – report is presented, for convenience, as a downloadable PDF

Click here to download the report

After an un-green Easter…..

Confessions of an EcoChaplain

Thirty  and forty years ago, the fashionable whipping-boy  still was St Augustine, for the ‘Deadly Disconnect’ between humanity and the rest of Creation. A Disconnect which those of us inclined to see ourselves as definitive of humanity still regarded as ‘universal’. 

 I was myself caught up in this, even as I moved  in my mid twenties from seeing Christianity as a ‘benign museum movement’ to something in which there was real truth and life. And very early in my journey of faith, I stumbled through Augustine’s confessions (Penguin classics paperback), not quite finding there either the harm or healing others suggested should be staring me in the face. What a surprise!  Perhaps I would have to trust the verdict of others after all!. A love for Creation did get me into trouble in my studies at Oxford, but somehow I got through the sausage machine. Somehow I looked safe enough, as perhaps by then, after four years of ‘formation’  I  actually was,  to  begin a couple of decades  of pastoral ministry in postindustrial small towns, with an interlude of three years in a brutally  secularist seaside city. I was sustained throughout  in many indefinable ways by the very special family of the Iona Community,  preserving in their key prayers the Great Commission of the Risen Christ that had been censored by historical criticism and the committees who gave their all to the Lectionary: to “bring Good News to every creature”.

The practicalities of getting started in ministry can be crushing. But I retained a quiet fondness for the disreputable liberation of those who offered that  ‘new, old’, way of care for Creation, purporting, as reformers always do,  to be more authentic than the tried and tested. And my ‘finals’ dissertation on the “Spirituality of St Columba” had yielded the treasured insight of the ‘Communion of Creation’ enfolding the Communion of Saints.  I carried that with me. And in the years that followed I still smiled from time  to time at the good, naïve intent of those who still took the name of Augustine in vain. How can I not love those who mean well?

A key part of this obsession was still, I think,  underlyingly, and despite lip-service,  a disregard of the spirituality of those in other cultures, who have at least  an equal claim to be Christians, but whose outlook was not so constrained by global north assumptions.  Or  by the insidious influence of colonialism and Empire. Our part looked like the whole. Thank God, though, it’s just a part. Thank God!

The Creation-Spirituality rhetoric against Christianity  as a whole  was therefore  often rather negative as a result: a shooting ourselves in the foot, rather than a repurposing of what we had, what we have, and have yet fully to value. These are Christianity’s roots as a valid spiritual response to threat and injustice, masked and misrepresented by its wanton abuse as a tool of oppression,  as if the poor and downtrodden should  be robbed of the means of spiritual resilience as well as of all else.  As if the dogs really are forbidden the scraps. That totalitarian refusal to recycle. As if vision were single-use. Or else!

So stories were perhaps set on one side in uncomprehending faithfulness, and the bizarre mysteries that incumbent preachers habitually fled, leaving the pulpit free for the dutiful stumbling of  visiting students, were pickled in dutiful obscurity. Transfiguration, Ascension, Trinity and more. Creation, Incarnation, Redemption. Transformative Mysteries too easily and despairingly discarded. All of which, taken seriously, should lead us more surely to care for Creation as an imperative of faith. None of which should prompt us, in their celebration, to put away and set aside  green things until all the proper holy stuff is out of the way once more. But how green was your Easter just passed? 

Even in the  objectively very different planet some of us inhabited in the late twentieth century, the manifest  results of the Disconnect , there for all to see,  were injustice, pollution, warfare, and many such evils. The existential threat of nuclear obliteration offered itself readily as  radioactive fuel for anxiety, and yet, I have to say,  yet again,  we lived on a different planet. One in which oblivion was a possible choice by the irresponsible powerful, but for all that, not yet a slippery slope of inevitability. In that sense, the world could be ‘saved’.  Problems could be fixed, rather than only transformed as the best outlook available. Everything still could be all right.

The practicality  for the spiritual blame-game of Creation Spirituality,  for which I was an onlooker, in the 80s and 90s was that far fewer folks would ever read  or ponder on a word of Augustine, than would piggy-back the iconoclasm of those who pinned the blame. Or even get high on it. The hat seemed to fit, and to some extent, perhaps it did.  Augustine has of course been very influential in the history of the more elitist aspects of our faith, but not nearly as much as late twentieth century Creation Spirituality  would like to be the case. Grassroots Christians are probably limited to one or two decontextualised but  inspiring  and comforting quotes culled from the enormity of Augustine’s writings. Their souls are “restless until they find their rest in God”, and maybe, sometimes, they do.

The way things have turned out as we conclude the first quarter of the twenty-first century, a far more powerful influence has begun to assume that mantle of universal bogey, namely the rather complex movement of the [European] Enlightenment. And  pig-ignorant caricature once more carries with it an infuriating quantum of truth.  

As with Augustine, diagnosing a malign influence will to some extent involve leaving aside the optimistic and compassionate concern of so many and diverse Enlightenment thinkers  with ‘improvement’ and, indeed, with what they saw as justice – even their legacy of human rights and more. The problem is not the blessings, and yet the ‘curse’ of the Enlightentment, its possibly unprecedented concern with human supremacy, which does very real harm from day to day, is intimately  tied up with whatever ‘progress’ we have made in knowledge and technology, if not with the wisdom to know what to do with it all. 

The Disconnect in our day, is reinforced by  the most perverse conception of maturity. And of the ‘childish things’ that should be ‘put away’.  Reinforced by shame and contempt for the very  relationships, emotions, and poetic faculties that help humanity find meaning. It does not insult or damagingly romanticise the languages, traditions, feelings and other faculties of fellow creatures to recognise these as meaningful  parallels rather than ‘mere metaphor’.  To recognise, as did those who adorned Rosslyn Chapel with Green Men, Women & Children, the knowable personalities of Creation, rather than worrying about who should be accorded ‘personhood’.

We approach God not only through, but overwhelmingly with all who have breath, all flesh, all life. They are not mere means to an end, and if Creation is a Book of God’s Works,  then we too are the handwriting on their pages. With a special place and purpose. With the chance to choose to be more blessing than curse. Redemption, for now, and for the foreseeable future, cannot mean ‘everything’s going to be all right’.  But the solidarity of Emmanuel, God With Us,  Sustainer, will have to be enough for now. Content with that, I’m not about to ask for more. 

Prayer/Meditation as COP begins …

[Downloadable PDF: text alone below ]

Dear Sustaining God

in Scotland, we’ve been here:

we hosted COP

and made the most

of getting together,

sticking our necks out

marching, protesting encouraging.

It did some good, thank God.

Though not enough, 

as the sweltering  Earth 

in person assures us:

breathlessly groaning, 

and lashing out.

with fire and flood and drought.

And so this time round

when still, so much could come 

of the gathering 

and mutual encouragement of nations

yet when disappointment and frustration 

seem part of the process

simply, help us 

from the outset,

to wish them well:

the scientists who compare notes

the indigenous folk, who bring wisdom

the protesters, 

who hold it all to account

and even the ludicrous greenwashers

and lackeys of pollution

that on the Road to Damascus 

or even Dubai

they may be inspired

to practice what they proclaim.

We pray for the strengthening 

of the voices of the smaller nations;

For the laughter 

that brings down unjust  thrones;

the faith that shouts Hosanna!

God Help Us!

Hallelujah anyway!

And bless and use 

the  Great Green Circus of the nations

for justice in Heaven and Earth.

AMEN

A sermon stranded by extreme weather

Exodus 33:12-23, Matthew 22:15-22

Give God what’s God’s.  

Exodus 33:12-23

Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favour in my sight.’ Now if I have found favour in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favour in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”

The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 

And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 

But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Matthew 22:15-22

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

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Give to God what is God’s. 

Does that sound controversial?

I still encounter the expectation that, if as a visitor  to a church I’m preaching on Creation, the Earth, the Environment – and, verging into the state of the planet – it’s presumed the parts of the Bible I’ll be on heading for  will be the bit at the beginning and the bit at the end: the Seven days of Creation full of God’s Goodness, and the notable biodiversity of the Nation-Healing-Trees at the far tip of  the Book of Revelation.  Two valuable insights, separated, but more importantly,  connected, by a thousand pages in between.

Sometimes too, and not unlike most reporting of the terrible attack on Israel  by Hamas, the environmental story is presumed to start  without a history.  

Just as in previous centuries Europeans  declared the homelands of other humans to be uninhabited and fair game for the brutalities of colonisation. We were quite happy. Driving, flying, burning and destroying habitats of what seemed to be beautiful but ultimately expendable fellow creatures. And exploiting the homelands of neighbours who lived near mineral wealth. Seldom to the benefit of locals.

 And  so every  incremental impact or cost of environmental action is hauled over the coals without reference to the previous century of what Pope Francis described as the war  against the Earth.  It’s a sobering truth that although we’ve been burning stuff for a couple of centuries, the greater part of the damage thus far has been in my own lifetime.

Like all wars, the layers of injustice and responsibility are extremely complex. What of the poor on the streets of a rich polluting nation? What of the civilians for decades confined to the tiny territory of Gaza, when, suddenly,  other civilians are brutally murdered by Hamas militia? 

It’s so easy to be green if you can blame the poor for having children. Or export your pollution to the people who make things for you. 

Do you blame the oil worker feeding their family, or the chief executive, or the prime minister who makes their decisions, knowing full well that further fossil fuel development, – rather than considerate phasing out of existing projects – will, somewhere down the line,  kill our neighbours, human or otherwise.  And knowing that if jobs were really what mattered, a serious level of sustainable investment would bring more. 

Who is your emperor, who is your god?

Back in Matthew’s Gospel: maybe those people trying to put words in Jesus’ mouth which would  provoke the Romans to do their dirty work… maybe they were the ancestors of such decision-makers. Or of Donald Trump with his absurd lies about wind turbines killing whales. Or the ancestors of anyone who talks about “national security’ and then goes ahead and endangers  the planet which is still home to that  ‘insecure’ nation as well as to sisters and brothers in Christ from the Pacific who’ve been warning us for the last two or three decades. 

Everything is connected, all the way through. Its’ the global temperature which has exceeded 1.5 degrees for a third of this year. It’s the holiday destinations Scots fly to that have been on fire. It’s the already flooded landscapes of Scotland that suffer a downpour too many.

As Jesus said to the disciples: what you do on the ground makes a difference to the sky.  That’s never been more true, given the scale of human activity. 

Though we’ve spent a couple of generations reassuring worshippers that “heaven” is a science fiction dimension of detachment, rather than part of God’s unified creation.  

We’ve separated out the things of God who sustains us  and the Emperor who exploits us.

We’ve given the surrounding society the chance to imagine that churches teach a fairy tale, rather than a deep truth about God’s Created Reality….which means that, alongside other people of faith and goodwill, we have a real gift to offer, a real light to shine. 

English speaking churches, perhaps uniquely, have to be reminded that whilst denying nothing else you might – legitimately -mean by “heaven”, heaven is  also always “sky”. The atmosphere, the climate. The signs of which the wise take note. Heaven. Which Jesus said is “vulnerable to violence and attack’. But we just skim over that.

Everything in God’s creation is interconnected, interdependent. 

And that truth is what underlay Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and Herodians who hated each others’ guts. But not so much as they hated this rabbi from the backwaters. Jesus threw back at them their false separation of  what is holy from what is not.  

As certainly all of the churches in EcoCongregation should feel justified in throwing back at anyone who protests that the care of the Earth and the partnership with their creatures might not be a priority for Christian witness, mission, discipleship and evangelism. 

All of which is resourced by scripture: not just by “the bit at the beginning and the bit at the end. “

What has all this tree-huggery got to do with Christ? – who said “look at all the trees!” Everything. 

As regards Christian Scripture, I’ve been delighted to confirm that   the intervening thousand pages are enriched when we stop working so hard to exclude and ignore the participation of the personalities of the Earth and fellow Creatures and the rollercoaster of our relations with them. 

The more we  insist that Scripture is concerned with realities rather than abstractions, the more meaningful and enjoyable and powerful becomes our relationship with it.

So we could  pick a reading out at random, but  a text without a context is a pretext. Yes, we’ve read the passage,  but if I’m writing the sermon, I need to have read the preceding chapters. 

And this  reading  from Exodus comes after the failure of a detailed religious programme, of pandering to the peoples’ need for reassurance, rather than telling them the truth, and providing resources for them to respond. 

That’s of course, is what EcoCongregation Scotland is about. The truth about the planet – and the urgency thereof – sets us free to respond in hope and faith and love. Now. 

Truth and freedom. Another connection.

I  mentioned that failure of a religious programme, because of a pandering to the peoples’ need for reassurance, rather than their need for truth.

From time to time this is also the way things look when good faithful people imagine that the cosy duty-based approach to Creation from way back  is still sufficient.  – Or maybe science will just fix things.

 Maybe not so “way back” – but way back when what is now beyond reasonable doubt about the unjust human causes of the crises of nature and climate would have seen like wild apocalyptic fantasy. 

When Creation  seemed something  to fob off on the children.  Or those completely unbiblical prayers on the lines of  “God’s in charge so everything will be all right”. Straight from the mouth of the one who tempted Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple. 

Jesus knew better. That’s why so much of his teaching in the Gospels takes the form of warnings. To take or leave.

Just as in the letters of John, we hear you can’t love God unless you love your neighbour. So too, can you love God without caring for fellow creatures?  Including human ones?  Course not!

Cherish for God who and what  is God’s! 

In our reading, the Hebrews are on the brink of losing their special relationship with God, because God requires an integrity which -following the abuses of slavery – they  haven’t yet had the chance to develop. Moses argues on their behalf;  in response  God gives him resources of personal experience of who God is and what God’s about. Personal.

When Moses looks to see God’s “glory”- and glory is also an attribute of human kings, God offers a vision of “goodness”- which is the delightful, enjoyable, wonderful stuff God has invested in Creation. Goodness is the personality of God. 

 But as a resource  for dealing with the challenges of life, God also gifts to Moses  that truth that you can’t speak God’s name and deceive yourself that you’re in charge. God whose name is ‘I am who I am, or ‘I will be who I choose to be”. 

That’s  the true idolatry of the false security of the golden calf, or indeed of the internationally  scandalous decision to go ahead with Rosebank oilfield and all the rest. 

Because from then on, all your decisions are based on a lie, and that lie is that you yourself can invent truth, rather than receive it and respond to it.  But everything is connected. In God the maker of Heaven and Earth.

This last month or two has some disturbing similarities which go beyond the standard preacher’s stock in trade of making vague connections. 

Because although it may not have felt like it,  from COP in Glasgow 2 years ago, The UK as a collection of nations – even if only relative to the sluggishness  of others – had been in a position of leadership with reading the signs of the heavens, and acknowledging God’s Goodness by  taking note of the facts of climate crisis. A beginning was being made to begin that transition, with fairness and  justice, to the promised land of a low-carbon economy, looking for a healthier and fairer society, which also took note, for the good of all, of the cost of our way of life both to wildlife and to human beings who suffer most and pollute least.

But now there’s  a cascade of retrograde measures: the go-ahead for new oil and gas and the raft of u-turns on green policies which look costly only from their economic text without a context. Which astoundingly ignores the realities of  this year.  Floods, droughts, wildfires, heatwaves. Oh, and floods.  Extremes made more extreme by the knowingly chosen continuation of our slavery to  fossil fuels and our refusal fully to embrace -rapidly – an Exodus from that way bondage.  

Which we’ve begun. 

As the Hebrews began. But lost faith and languished in the wilderness  of transition until the generation of grumblers had died out.

We don’t have the luxury of that timescale.

Give to God what is God’s.  Amen.