Category Archives: Chaplain Page

EcoCongregation Advent Calendar Project: The Judge to cheer the Forest


EcoCongregation Video Advent Calendar 2020

-Inviting participation  from the EcoCongregation Movement and others for an Alternative Advent event! Looking for reflections based on all the aspects of our life, work and prayer: housing, food, anti-waste, anti-poverty, ethical finance, insulation, farming, forestry, just transition… whatever you’re into.


  1. This is an “Advent” calendar, not a ‘Christmas Countdown’. It uses carefully selected verses from the 2020 lectionary for the discrete season of  Advent.   The emphasis in selecting texts  is on Creation’s active participation in the Story, and on scary stuff, because we live in scary times. To note, about use of language : ’Heaven’ will be rendered as ‘Sky’, ‘Righteousness’ as ‘justice’ etc. Elements of Creation are capitalised  by my choice. 
  1. This should NOT be a lot of work.
  2. Please only say you will take part if you will go ahead. Deadline is a week before your chosen date. Sooner is appreciated.  Gaps will be filled in abruptly if material does not arrive.
  3. Choose a ‘Day’ to reflect on. First come, first served. OK to do more than one, if you get carried away. Reply to to make sure the one you like isn’t already spoken for.
  4. Record yourself on video, ( head and shoulders) reading the Scripture, if possible with a plain background, (or green or blue screen if you have one). Use Zoom if it’s easier). Daylight is the best light. ( ideal illustrated)
  • 6: Add a sentence or so ( not more than 2) of sharp reflective observation. Nothing bland. The whole thing should be a minute or less, though some will be just a wee bit longer.
  • 7: Participation implies full permission for creative editing and visual manipulation of the video you send.
  • 8: Examples of last year’s Advent Calendar can be viewed, below, though this will be in a different style, since readers will be visible this year.


ADVENT 1 SUNDAY 29th November

Isaiah 64

If you would only rip open the Sky and come down,
so that the Mountains would quake at your presence…

as when fire kindles brushwood, causing water to boil–



30th November 

Isaiah 64

We … fade like leaves,

and our sins, like the wind, blow us away.


1st December 

1 Corinthians 1

I give thanks to my God always for you … for in every way you have been enriched in [Christ Jesus ], in speech and knowledge of every kind-…. so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift …..


2nd December 

Mark 13: 

Jesus said, ….

the Sun will be darkened,
and the Moon will begrudge its light,

and the Stars will be falling from the Sky,
and the Powers in the Skies will be shaken.


3rd  December 

Mark 13: 

Jesus said, ….

they will see ‘the Earthling’s Child*’ coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 

Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the Earth to the ends of the Sky.

*From ’Son of Man’ as unpacked  by Bishop James Jones in an A  Rocha webinar. October 2020


4th December 

Mark 13: 

Jesus said, ….

“From the … Tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. …. Sky and Earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.


5th December

Mark 13: 

Jesus said, ….

Keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come,….or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 

And what I say to you,  I say to all: Keep awake.”



6th December ( St Nicholas)

Isaiah 40

A voice cries out:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight, in the desert, a highway for our God.


7th  December 

Isaiah 40 

Every valley shall be lifted up,
every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,

8th  December 

Isaiah 40

People are grass,
their constancy like the flower of the field.

The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely people are grass.

The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the Word of our God will stand for ever.


9th  December 

Psalm 85:11

Truth shall spring up from the Earth,
and Justice  shall look down from the Sky.


10th  December 

2 Peter 3:

The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the Skies will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the Earth and everything that is done on Earth will be disclosed.


11th December

Mark 1

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, offering  an immersion* in change-of-mind** for the forgiveness of sins. 

*’Baptism’ loses the ‘dipping’ aspect. **close translation of ‘meta-noia’


12th December 

Mark 1: 

John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.



13th December 

Isaiah 61

They will be called Oaks of Justice,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.


14th December  

Isaiah 61

As Earth brings forth shoots,
and as a Garden causes what is sown in the Garden 

to spring up,

so the Lord God will cause justice  and praise
to spring up before all the nations.


15th December 

Psalm 126

 Those who sowed with tears
will reap with songs of joy.

 Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed,
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.


16th December 

Luke 1 [Magnificat]

The  Almighty … has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.

God  has shown the strength of his arm,
God  has scattered the proud in their conceit.

God  has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.

God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich empty away.


17th December 

1 Thessalonians 5

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 

Do not quench the Spirit. 

Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything.


18th December 

John 1

Priests and Levites from Jerusalem  asked John Who are you?”…” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.


19th December 

Psalm 89: 

Your love is established for ever;
You have set your faithfulness firmly in the Skies.



20th December 

Luke 1:

This is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 

For nothing will be impossible with God


21st December 

Luke 1

[Mary said] “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

 Then the angel departed


22nd December

Psalm 96

Sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the whole Earth.


23rd December 

Psalm 96

 Let the skies rejoice, and let the Earth be glad;
let the Sea thunder and all that is in it; 

let the Field be joyful and all that is therein.


24th December ( Christmas Eve)

Psalm 96

 Then shall all the trees of the forest shout for joy
before our God, when God comes to judge the Earth.


A ‘Cat-and-monkey’ Retreat : looking after what matters

In the midst of the very considerable restrictions  on the previous shape of my work of travelling to visit, encourage and challenge churches, in September, I was able, thanks to a visit to congregations in Skye, to spend a couple of  reflective/active days in the landscape of Scotland. This was also a way of marking my 25 years in ordained Christian Ministry ( September 1995).

The moon will not strike you by night

On the walls of ancient churches, like Iona Abbey, you may find both a cat (contemplative) and a monkey ( active). For these few days, I combined the two.

Here I present my video diary, and some of the Psalms which I took with me, having asked friends which Bible passages they felt would be spoken to by amazing locations.   I am an occasional hillwalker, rather than a mountain-climber, so I didn’t go up things I was likely to fall off, but enjoyed some wonderful sights.

Filming is, of course, rough and ready. but as good as I could manage. The locations stretch perception. Overall, a reminder to place yourself, either imaginatively or actually, in the concrete  situations referred to  in Biblical imagery, rather than watering things down with abstraction. The majority of the visuals are from the immediate occasion, with some added.

25th Anniversary Retreat Video Diary….


Part 1; Red Point : the End of the Road

[Goes with Psalm 8 under the stars)


Part 2: The Skye Cuilin on an open-ended day

\-What do we need to set out?

[Goes with Psalm 121 on Sgurr Alastair


Part 3 Bein Damh – with the view that brought me to Applecross.

Cake and Eat it/ What a Mountain really is….

[Goes with Lord’s prayer



Part 4: Rest Day: the Cycle of the Kingdom

(building on my observation of the cyclic nature of Creation and the Kingdom) We are  Mostly Water.

Part 5: The Lost Valley,  panting with the deer, and some reflections on the value of the Reformation, and love-songs.


Psalms as pilgrimage

It’s a recognised way of Bible reflection, to read  passages over and over. I added to that what came to mind in a location.

Psalm 8 as a pilgrimage

Psalm 121 as a pilgrimage

Psalm 139 as a pilgrimage

Psalm 95 with dancing strangers

Psalm 36 by a mountain stream

Demo Clips: Hymns on YouTube to trad tunes.

I’m extremely grateful for these demo recordings of the hymn texts offered for the Season of Creation
Wording and credits can be found in the description box on YouTube in each case. They’re also on my Facebook page ‘EcoChaplain Online’

Please do use, if they have a place in your worship or devotions.
Now Christ lives here ( Courage Brother)

Now Christ lives here ( Blaenwern)
Our Legacy is dire ( Kingsfold)
One Day I said sorry ( St Deinio)
Deep our Longing ( Westminster Abbey)

Season of Creation: Thoughts on the launch

EcoCongregation Scotland has been preparing material for use during the ‘Season of Creation’ for some years, previously  gathered by Miriam McHardy of ACTS and my predecessor Rev Trevor Jamison. We've struggled this year, with the background of COVID, which has added to everyone's workload and stress, and we are thus all the more grateful to this year's writers who found they were able to take part after all.

We began the project looking forward to preparations for the COP conference, which will now happen next year in Glasgow:  we have a breathing space  to work towards a fruitful use of the opportunities for prayer, and the raising of consciousness which that will bring.

We aim to provide something which is of real use to local churches, many of whom will be using the Revised Common Lectionary,  or its close relative used by Roman Catholic congregations. 

We’re grateful for permission to use the graphic from the Global Catholic Climate Movement this year, as we’ve very much aiming at partnership rather than competition, and the overarching theme of Jubilee for the Earth has deep biblical resonance. 

We also welcome the initiative of Climate Sunday from Churches together in Britain and Ireland, whose launch coincides with our first ‘Sunday’.

Our approach, quite appropriately, is encouraging and challenging, though  never prescriptive:  use these things as seems good to you and the Holy  Spirit. Work it in together with the way you do things:   between us we provide both the medicine and the spoonful of sugar to help it go down. Grab a phrase, an image, or an idea, and run off with it!  Have fun! Get carried away! See what you can get away with!

We’re indebted to the care taken by Church of Scotland Weekly Worship in shaping their own very helpful guidelines, though, necessarily,  we go further.

We are not  ‘filling in a gap’, but rather making space.  We bring to this task a belief, born of current and practical experience, that much of the Bible can immediately  be read, with integrity, in a way which highlights the rootedness of our faith in the partnership of God with Creation - variously described as ‘covenant’, in which human beings have a vital part to play, though by no means the only part. We are, as Pope Francis has said, “ruled” by the Earth.

I’ve discovered that this may require the cashing in of some reserves of daring.  We often exist in a theological  environment patrolled by what Alastair McIntosh calls “silverbacks” 

“:Silverbacks” = older and once eminent men (as they usually are) who still pronounce with a head-of-department authority on matters  over which they’re  either out of touch, or aren’t within their field”[Riders on the Storm, published 13th August 2020 ]

So  sometimes we need to say things  differently, which seemed long ago to be settled. But God alone is unchanging.   To be clear :we never impugn the integrity of those who came to different conclusions in a different time and context,  but we do need, most urgently, to open  wide eyes ( including our own) to the signs of these particular times,  which are not by any means exclusively, of the virus threat,  which seems, prematurely and lethally,  to block out all others.  

The surprise for some is that no mode of churchmanship has a monopoly either on ‘climate’ issues, nor, for that matter, the problems of denial and incrementalism within our communities. We turn up  treasure  new and old.  

Once a church, congregation or community learns to trust and read the Voice of Creation through the honesty of science, Christian commitment compels involvement. 

I’m relieved that I’m not a ‘climate’ chaplain only, as there are so many stacked up but interweaving environmental crises, of which COVID 19 is but one.

in our writing, we  have required the discipline of taking note, but not being overwhelmed by the crisis which has forced us online , thereby actually multiplying the scope  of our audience.

In Bible poetry - frequently - the mountains dance, the trees clap hands, the stones (threaten to) shout aloud and  Creation groans.  Poetry is so often the most emotionally accurate way of expressing deeper truths -   without conflict with science.

The currently renewed appreciation of the sentience of fellow creatures, brings a new depth of meaning to this imagery. We ‘hear the voice of the earth’ as never before, though we have a whole raft of wonderful ( and well-financed) strategies for ignoring, or postponing action on what that geo-prophetic voice might have to say.

The most  obvious images ( beasts, birds, seas,  skies, soil) are not at all the only ‘creation’ themes.  As  environmental scientist Gus Speth has famously said, 

“The  top environmental  problems are selfishness, greed and apathy”,

Thus themes emerging from this year’s texts are as follows:

Responsibility  ( Given our (collective)  complicity in global damage....  It is responsibility, more  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.

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

Urgency in all things: though set against  the disabling  idea of  ‘already too late’.

Maybe forgiveness, and the experience of grace will be the key to the most effective Christian environmental witness, especially where churches have been bombarded with the demand to “do more”. 

This last attitude is, of course, one of the errors which is killing the world with the pursuit of endless growth.

  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, so  encouragement takes precedence over condemnation.

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.

Enjoy the Season, and see where the Spirit leads!

Book Review: Riders on the Storm, by Alastair McIntosh

If Ian Bradley’s ‘God is Green’ is a primer for green theology, Professor Alastair McIntosh’s ‘Riders on the Storm’ is a handbook for well-informed and authoritative activism. Two hundred pages  bursting with quotable and meme-able sayings to reflect- and act – on.

As activists and pastors, actors and prophets in this spiritual, environmental, ecumenical  movement, [EcoCongregation Scotland ] we  seldom have time or space to read every book that’s going. 

To be practitioners, in an age  of urgency, we seldom have the luxury only to be students. Reading matter on which we can hitch a ride, without being taken for one – not even the pleasure cruise we think we’ve paid for – turns out particularly rewarding.

With startlingly frequent permissions to ‘skim over’ this or that chapter, and an apology in the acknowledgments that this, actually quite short, book is twice its intended length, Alastair is clearly mindful of that. However, even if you think you know what you ought to know about the climate emergency ( the more pedestrian ‘climate change’ is used throughout) this small library of interwoven books will repay attention, and perhaps non-sequential  reading. “Be warned that I love few things better than moving from hard science to spiritual reflections by a Hebridean loch”.

And it’s seriously up to date in late 2020. Great preparation for COP in Glasgow next year.

As a public speaker,  Alastair has the charming knack of speaking with authority: irritating, independent-minded, but the twenty-three pages of meticulous notes at the back of this volume should leave you in no doubt of his rigour; why he’s hard to dismiss, and why he pulls off what others might see as the scandalous trick of combining the insightful power of science, academia, poetry and eclectic spirituality.  

 We discover why the notoriously cautious  IPCC ( Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is “an incredible organisation”,  and also how to interpret its jargon of “highly likely” “unlikely” , and so on.  We unpack the  crucial difference between emissions and concentration.  We are forced to reflect on why “Climate change denial is a waste of time, but climate change alarmism is a theft of time”.

“My view is that if a case can’t be made without it being over-egged, either the case is not valid or those to whom it is being pitched are being spun. “The unembellished science is quite bad enough to be good enough”.  For the reader, anxious for the tide to come in of radical actions and commitment, have patience: the ninth wave is on the way! (“‘Sustainable economic growth’ . There’s an oxymoron if ever there was one”.)

This writer has the courage to be discerningly, compassionately critical of friends and movements like Extinction Rebellion, without falling prey to the idolatry of false equivalence: 

““There is no substitute for balance. That said, the balance says that only by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and thereby stabilising and preferably heavily reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, can very serious future risks be averted.”

“What if nations were to dig into their treasuries of poetry, song, literature, mythology and spirituality, and draw out oft-forgotten material..” Precisely for those who approach climate change from a faith perspective, this is excellent advice. “ “If the journey of the head looks like solar panels, heat pumps and green new deals, what of the journey of the heart?”

Alastair  delights in myths, and values their capacity to point to truth, but is ruthlessly hard on any that are wantonly unfounded. Pseudoscience of every kind  has a bloody nose from this radical moderate who, whilst walking the walk in personal commitment, refuses to deny his- and our – complicity in a situation of threat to life and being even beyond that of warfare. “Climate will remain the most pressing  global leadership issue of our time.”  Although facts, figures, and peer-reviewed science provide a playing field, with this book, we gain  courage to assert that spiritual emptiness, the clearances of the soul, constitute  the more determinative malaise to be addressed in building resilience of community and planet. As in Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘Laudato Si’, justice for the planet is absolutely inseparable from ‘integral human development’.  Justice and ecology are near-identical siblings.

As we each only can,  Alastair brings out of his treasure of a lifetime’s activism and study, treasures of experience which inescapably ground the crisis in our own homelands and coastlands, refuting with humour many of the denialist staples, for instance, about the small amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, comparing it to  mine but dangerous blood alcohol levels: “Our whisky is quite the best, but at 414ppm you’re banned.”

 If we might be tempted  by the ‘devil we know’, Alastair makes a point of introducing us to all the devils we need to know. Though face to face with Pacific islanders – fast becoming the go-to example of a comfortingly distant crisis –  we’re left in no doubt that, with sea-level  rises in our lifetime “ . On the beaches of  Harris and Berneray, “it’s happening before our eyes” 

This should be the end of any Scottish complacency, any delay in pulling out “all the stops of sustainable development”.  Or of reclaiming  the wilder spiritual resources, so often born in times of trouble, that providence and love have made available to humanity.

Hope-lessness is no valid option, nor to take refuge in pernicious narratives of the pointlessness of individual action and commitment, indeed Alastair conveys a heartfelt case for doing whatever you can, without succumbing to burnout and toxic indispensability .

“As with the making of the proverbial stone soup, if we can all add just one ingredient, we can end up with a rich broth round the hearth”.

‘God is Green’ – recycled!






(Released in September: Available for order from DLT


This is a fuller version of a review that may appear elsewhere.

The first edition of ‘God is Green’, by Rev Prof. Ian Bradley, has lurked in my bookcase since it irked the tutors in my training when I was inspired by the epidemic of ‘Creation Spirituality’ at that time.


That tendency itself perched on twin shoulders of the late twentieth century environmental movements and an interest in the justice and peace dimensions of what might be gleaned from the remnants of a ‘Celtic Church’, with which Ian Bradley is very familiar, and of which he has held differing opinions over time. Our movement includes plenty who bring with them a fond familiarity with all that, and they will welcome what Ian describes as a “short book” from such a stable.


Even back then, Ian Bradley offered one of the sounder, more orthodox - and therefore more deceptively radical - approaches. There is more to be said for bringing the resources of your faith with you into environmental crisis than fumbling around to cobble a new one together from scratch.


Thus, God is Green, if it introduces to a congregation, a study group (discussion points are provided after each chapter) or an online fellowship, something hitherto un-heard of, will be an enrichment, and a reinforcement, and not a threat.


Christianity, despite slings, arrows and much to be apologised for, emerges as the hero of this book. It is heartening to have such allies on board in the struggle to be the Church for these strange and threatening days.


All the more so, on those occasions when someone with rank to pull, but not having woken up to the crisis, says “you can’t say that!”.


Green preaching and worship - which our movement works to make less of an endangered species than Ian suggests it currently might be - involves a fair bit of sticking your neck out, both in congregations and in the public sphere. Although, in common with most academic writers, Ian always finds an external authority to say what he wants to say, the risks and leaps we need to make will seem less foolish and fragile with Ian beside us. He also has the confidence to say “I believe” in some conclusions. However much evidence he may have assembled to make his point, he is honest about the fragility and provsionality of all we proclaim. Though this is insufficient cause to pipe down!


Alongside dignified humility at our self-centred wrong turnings there is also grateful acknowledgement of the positive initiatives of the churches, such as EcoChurch and EcoCongregation.


Some of the quoted exemplars of past narrow-mindedness finally seem all the more crass in 2020, yet we are reminded that these attitudes remain for now, part of the landscape of our churches. There’s some considerable giant-slaying there too: Calvin, Aquinas and Newman lined up with horrendous statements on the dispensability of non-human life, and it might be good to investigate how all three can also, on occasion, be quoted in support of wonder at and appreciation of Creation. This might forestall the widespread phenomenon of ‘blaming Augustine’ for all the church’s ills, without actually having read him.


I would feel completely happy if this current edition found its way into every one of the five hundred congregations of EcoCongregation Scotland, as, like a good sermon, there is so much food for thought, so many occasions for further reflection and action. And none of it would hinder or handicap the process of ‘ecological conversion’ which Pope Francis identified as the mode of pilgrimage for faithful Christians today.


Revisiting ‘God is Green’ in this edition is a delight and an affirmation of the directions which should urgently be commending themselves to everyone in any sort of leadership role in every sort of church, and for which, so we discover, we are actually well equipped as active communities of faith. With Herbert, Hopkins and Teilhard de Chardin, it does get very cultural at times, and Ian’s wide ecumenical overview of the spectrum of environmentally aware Christianity and literature will be nourishing, though there’s not much cited more recent than ‘The Circle of Life’ from ‘The Lion King’.


The changes in tone and conclusion in this edition, especially those highlighted, with explanation, in the final chapter on the place of human beings, encourage the reader, excited by the green meaningfulness of Christianity, to continue the journey, led by the prophetic voice of the Earth, equipped with with a readiness for further guidance and insight.


The key insight of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical ‘Laudato Si’, that we recover the Biblical habit of addressing and listening to the Earth and creatures as ‘who’ rather than ‘it’, as subject rather than inert object , runs all the way through, with rich support from many theological and literary authorities.


Whilst ‘God is Green’ has not been converted into a resource of existential urgency, nor one which risks much dalliance in the ‘scarier’ apocalyptic resources of Christianity, which may be commending themselves to those in most acute situations, it is an authoritative toolbox and annotated booklist par excellence on which the day-to-day life of the churches can confidently build.


If a scribe of the Kingdom requires treasures both new and old, the strength of God is Green - some will feel, reassuringly - is in the treasuring of older, yet deep green threads which not only comprise, but hold together, the faith of Christianity.


A welcome transformative rather than additive approach to the defining festivals and ceremonies of Christianity is encouraged: who knew how ‘cosmically aware’ was Wesley in the original version of ‘Hark the Herald Angels sing? Is your church’s Christmas ‘greenery-free’, at least in the story you will tell?


Though played by Queensberry rules, this is, thank goodness, a book that pulls few punches. Ian abruptly calls back to scripture many who might be under the illusion that their anthropocentricism (humans as God’s be-all and end-all) rested precisely on that foundation. If a complacent attitude of disregard to the life and dignity of fellow creatures seems to be well-explained, you can look forward to it being knocked flat in the following paragraph.


Without neglecting the usual culprits - the ‘dominion' problem in Genesis 1:28, God is Green offers a good wide spread of Bible quotes and references, with discussion of how the consensus of their interpretation continues to evolve. Theology is a snapshot, but also like an Iona Pilgrimage: those at the front may think they’re getting there, but it only works if we take care to cherish those who move more slowly.


‘God is Green’ hasn’t become a book for ‘the last days’, yet leaves plenty of room for ‘bells to ring’ as you recognise the inherent immersion of liturgy and scripture in our partnership with Creation.

Rambling round the roses

I was asked to comment elsewhere on whether there is a ‘theology of plants’…  Perhaps I should have responded that “a theology which excludes them is likely to be deficient!” But this induced the following ramble, some of which regular readers may recognise.

I have needed to be wary of claiming “theology” due to a culture which takes it for an empirical science, requiring water-tight arguments; a discipline which proves rather than convinces. ‘Natural theology’ has to work a bit too hard in its reasoning, where the awe and wonder may already have done its job for it.

Human beings don’t need to think and pray only in that way, and in my work as EcoChaplain, I was openly commissioned, from the outset, to recognise the value, scope and power of ‘poetic theology’. Hymns and prayers, with all their logical flaws, may be at least as valid as essays and theses as we encounter the mystery of God. Should we, when we turn to God, always speak of trees/plants? I’m convinced!

Though some of this requires an appreciation of divine irony.

Jesus was welcomed (Palm Sunday) by branches, hung on a tree. The identity between Christ, affixed by human cruelty, and the abuse of the tree (of life) to hang him up there should take our breath away. When I’ve used the Iona prayer about ‘wood and nails…purchased our salvation’, have I forgotten that wood comes from plants? The deeply moving Anglo-Saxon poem ’The Dream of the Rood’ which is quoted ( in runic script) on the tree-like cross now sheltered by Ruthwell Parish Church narrates the feelings of the tree wrenched from their forest home by ’stone enemies’ and forced to become an instrument of torture of the World’s friend’. On the sides of the cross, happy birds much berries from its leaves. The animals Jesus encountered, without antagonism, in the unkempt wilderness, are also there.

It’s clear that ‘wilderness’ is not lifeless ‘desert’, but perhaps more, as the Celtic Christians would have sought it out, a ‘deserted place’, where you can escape the bustle and listen for the voice of God. But can there be a wilderness in the midst of a city? The last few weeks, when we hear the birds as the traffic subsided, suggest there can.

What do you grow in your garden? In Holy Communion, through faith, by grace, fruit and grains are offered as the flesh and blood of Christ, broken and scattered, gathered and shared, for the good of all. Few of us would be outraged at singing along with’JesusChrist the Apple-tree’. The convergence of God and nature, whilst we remain calmly aware of the difference between creator and creation, wonderfully reconciled in the body of Jesus Christ, deepens rather than damages our faith. Can a garden speak of this ?

The hyssop that comforts and eases pain on the cross (John 19:28–30) reminds of our awesome debt to the healing powers of plants, celebrated in Revelation, 21, where the leaves of “the tree” (and when you read this, “the tree” implies wonderful diversity) are for the healing of the nations. A right relationship with this part of fellow creation implies justice and peace as well. Out of utter practicality, monasteries and Christian communities cultivated medicinal plants, as do we, though they’re so often masked by blister-packed pills. My late wife’s cancer treatment came from yew berries. Foxgloves help people with heart disease. The list is well-nigh endless. And few folk remedies are lacking in a grain of efficacy.

And Pope Francis recalls a tradition many churches are now happy to revive (Laudato Si Paragraph 12. “What is more, Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker” (Wis 13:5); indeed, “his eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20). For this reason, Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty.
Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.”

It’s truly refreshing that people have begun to delight in wildflower borders and meadows – even on the grass verges in Motherwell!

In our approach to climate crisis, do we try to fight a war, or befriend an abused neighbour and carer? So often too, there is need to balance the arrogance of ‘care FOR Creation’ with the humility of acknowledging how we might be cared for BY Creation. The shaping of a garden should surely take this into account. Just as it should provide for other creatures than ourselves. It is with unambiguous approval that Jesus notes how the mustard-shrub provides habitat for the birds. ( Matthew (13:31–32), Mark (4:30–32), and Luke (13:18–19)

The parable of the Sower ends with an abundant harvest, perhaps because of and not despite the modus operandi of scatter-sowing. It allows for the ecosystem in which this takes place. The birds are fed, and there are weeds. Nature can do their part. Likewise, ecological wisdom underlies the prohibition on superficially efficient reaping. Extreme tidiness, we are discovering, kills: not only starving the creatures whose habitat is on the margins, but also the poor, and ultimately even the rich. And it’s with the authority of God that this point is made. Nothing we do will affect only ourselves. Only sinful arrogance says otherwise.

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you are not to reap to the very edge of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not strip your vineyard bare or gather its fallen grapes. Leave them for the poor and the resident alien; I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:9-10).

This provides the food-bank which ensures the survival of Ruth, one of Jesus’ ancestors, all the more as Jewish tradition values the female line of decent).(Cf Matthew’s genealogy.) Many community gardens provide open access to passers by whilst going food. With all the challenges of regulation that this involves!

I’ve noted that even German churches are being encouraged to allow for wild-flower borders in the graveyards and green spaces they administer, to let foliage cover their church buildings, recognising that managing structural damage may be offset against the welcome for other creatures whose habitat the church then provides, and the bonus in delight for the people who visit. Church authorities even appoint consultants to advise on this, though it’s also necessarily an education in perseverance and collaboration with the needs and demands of nature. Our recent and timely appreciation of our dependance on pollinating insects surely encourages us to acknowledge their place in our spirituality. I don’t know how far we may have come in the appreciation of decay: of the sheer beauty of a rotting log, or indeed what goes on inside a compost bin; and yet life continues because life recycles, and plants and fungi are the workers involved. Not ‘bondage to decay’ comes to mind, but partnership with it. Bondage, like all slavery, is an abuse, and the processes of decay are themselves wondrous aspects of creation.

The ancient and fundamental duty and honour of hospitality is surely key: a locked and completely private, walled-off garden says much about its owner. Abraham welcomed God in person from under the shade of the trees. And in the Book of Isaiah, is it the abuse of the holiness of trees, rather than that the pagans had sacred groves, that so infuriates the prophet?

Next time someone tries to make a case for cutting down a tree in church grounds “because it takes light” think again. In so doing, it’s helping you breathe. Always question such things.

You might have visited various types of historic gardens: those where nature is collaborated with and thoughtfully managed (the school of Capability Brown and others) and those where the aim is to show the complete human mastery of nature, forcing it into artificial geometries and shapes (look at pictures of Versailles). I cannot see that the second expresses a spirituality appropriate to our own age.

The mention of the fig tree in Luke 21 often obscures the following phrase: that we look at and learn from “all the trees”, and there has never been a better time to do so. Science, of course, far from undermining a biblical approach to vegetation, has begun to give meaning to the ‘personalisation’ of plants in Biblical language. We shouldn’t be intimidated into neglecting this though fear of inappropriate anthropomorphising. Green leaves do not just feed us, they give us and all other creatures oxygen for life. Not only do they ‘clap their hands’, (watch the trees in a stiff breeze) but plants certainly communicate, and respond to stimuli. They work together . We share in the building blocks of our DNA so much of what they are, that any approach towards the domination of nature which disregards its spiritual nature and value will tend towards an idolatry of the human. Your garden needs to be someone to ’tend and keep’ rather than to dominate and ruthlessly exploit. Be wary, please, of popular Bible translations which, in your living memory at least, have “weeded out” references to fellow creatures and replaced these with the assumption that it’s only about people. (see Mark 16:15 in GNB!!!). Again, nothing is absolute and clear-cut, but open up you mind to the partnership of plants and animals in the background of everything you hear, pray and sing in church, and you might find the garden of your faith is richer, lusher, more sustainable and sustaining in the turmoil of present day life.

A garden is a privilege, and access to it, even if it isn’t ‘your own’ should be a delight. In sight, sound, smell and peaceful hospitality. I don’t know the details of the ‘paradises’ of middle eastern aristocratic gardens, but it’s worthy of a final comment, that this was what Jesus, from the wood and the nails of the cross, promised the barbarically punished and lowly fellow creature on the point of death. In a garden, we may be with our ancestors, and they in God’s hands. Do you keep memorials fresh and tidy or allow nature to take their course, in the faith that God remembers? What do you think.

And since it is not ourselves, but the Sabbath, which is the culmination of the first Genesis story, perhaps a garden must be a place to value rest, rather than just of labour. God ‘walks in the garden’.

Ultimately, we don’t need to stretch points or lean over backwards to feel how a garden can be a sacred space. But it’s worthy of some discernment and thought, what message we receive from it and give to others.