A draft – for you to adapt. Adapted from words used at the planting of a sapling oak to mark the Jubilee, with the church of Colonsay in 2022
‘As the days of a tree, shall the days of my people be’ [Is 65:22], says the prophet, but planting this wee tree, we’re looking -God willing – way beyond the life of anyone here. To do so implies a wee partnership of mutual care between the people who plant and tend and the trees who give life in so many ways.
Indeed, when God gave King Solomon wisdom the King spoke of animals, birds, creeping things, fish, and of course trees.
And of all the ways in which to mark a milestone of our own nations and cultures, the dedication of a tree is now, more than ever amongst the most appropriate
I think that I shall never see a carbon capture technology as lovely as a tree, though we’ve learned from the scientists of COP and elsewhere that what matters is the right tree in the right place. It might be more difficult to dedicate a bog or a grove of seagrass, so trees it is!
If an oak [research may fill in if a different tree is chosen, e.g. rowan, apple etc ]
An oak has a very special pedigree: it was a species of Oak that hosted the meeting of Abraham and Sarah with God. Isaiah and other prophets cried out against the blasphemous desecration of the self-evident holiness of Oak trees in the abusive cults of Israel’s neighbours; It’s the right trees and as for the right place: Columba, a friend of these islands, learned much from the legacy of his Celtic ancestors about the sanctity of the Oak, which is throughly born out by the environmental science of our day.
Dedicating this very long-lived tree is a sign of hope which, in their lifetime connects as we are connected with ancestors of our faith in Scotland, just the lifetime of an oak ago. Thus it is very much in faith, looking into a future we can’t know, that we mark the beginning of King Charles’ reign in this way, remembering also how, together with the late Queen, over the seventy years of her reign, the planting of trees has been a joy, a delight, and a sign of hope.
Dear God who shapes the trees from the same stuff as your people, we dedicate and ask you blessing on the planting and the continuing care of this young oak .[or other tree as applicable ]
As a young sapling, may they be a sign of hope and inspiration, and the gratitude we feel today.
As a mature tree, and perhaps within our own lifetime, a fruitful habitat and refuge for the birds of the heavens and the many other creatures on whom, unbeknown, we so crucially. May every creature with breath praise God – as we breathe in what trees breathe out, in all our work and worship.
And if, by your grace, some centuries hence this [Oak] tree reaches that venerable final stage of their life, giving back to the Earth, playing their part in the web of life whilst still offering their rich hospitality, then by that wonder may God’s name be praised.
But for us today, as we dedicate this Oak tree on the occasion of the Coronation, in the words of Isaiah
“May your heart and the heart of your people be moved as the trees of the forest are moved by the wind.” and by the Spirit of God, to the care of Creation AMEN.
A train journey to meet with churches in Caithness provided the opportunity to look through the new anthology from the Unitarian tradition, Cherishing the Earth – Nourishing the Spirit, Edited by Maria Curtis and published by the Lindsey Press: here’s how it turned out.
Cherishing the Earth – Nourishing the Spirit – the Unitarian Laudato Si?
The title connects what should never have been seen as apart: that mutually-blessing way of world-care as self-care. But maybe it needs to be stated and re-stated in an intimidatingly objectifying global north culture. And in religious cultures where the need for ‘self-denial’ brownie-points leads us into spiritually unsustainable actions and commitments. Because we’re not in control, and our individual actions won’t ‘save the planet’ the ones we do choose need to nourish us too. Cherishing the Earth doesn’t happen on flat spiritual batteries. This is a power-pack.
At a time when some spiritual writers are still trawling the Big Name authorities of the late century on creation topics, Climate Crisis debunks the medieval conceit of “midgets on the shoulders of giants”, grassroots worshippers, poets pastors and activists really are better informed -and can easily become so – than those who by definition, could not take into account the urgency of the crises we’re now in the middle of. We honour them by recycling, but not by restricting ourselves to their insights.
This project is both an expression of and encouragement to that rebellion, with a very mixed bag of modes of writing, each ‘essay’ adorned with a postscript of more overtly creative writing, and section introductions which tell you want to look out for before you trip over it. There are aspects of ‘primer’, but also of manifesto here.
Don’t be daunted by a preface, a foreword AND an introduction before things seem to get going. These are part of the value of this book, and not incidental reading.
I understand why our friend Alastair McIntosh’s foreword, which is a delight in itself, doesn’t waste time picking up highlights of the book elsewhere , but contributes his own scientifically and spiritually literate perspective, with the anecdote of his being sternly warned at a Unitarian Conference :“‘Don’t give them too much Christianity”. So I gave them lots!”This collection is rightly bold in giving readers “lots of Unitarianism”, looking for their distinctive gifts, and arriving, blessedly, at what – because I’m seeing them in so many spiritual traditions – need to be recognised as Public Domain conclusions,: taking science seriously, seeking kinship with the non-human, resisting both despair and (permanent) lament, and delighting in the creative recycling of spiritual resources we might hitherto have shelved or even despised.
Thus it’s good to be able to endorse the assertiveness of some of the writers -and indeed the project as a whole – in sticking their necks out to present something which recognises for the first time in any book I’ve yet come across, that our challenge is no longer “what if” and “it might…” but rather, by the standards we’ve heard in our own lifetimes “too late”!
Tipping points have tumbled, the crisis is now! Thus the book is a welcome contrast to the Grand-old-Duke-of Yorkism [to the top of the hill and down again] of British mainstream churches as they struggle to find an appropriately urgent response to a pile-up of crises in which even Unitarians begin to see the point and purpose of apocalyptic modes of speech and thought as a spiritual response to threat, seeking a balance of blessing.
‘Stewardship’ – that comfortable shibboleth of liberal Christians who didn’t like ‘dominon’ but just haven’t grasped the need for kinship and friendship of a Creation on whom we depend – makes only two appearances, and those do no harm.
Thus this compendium of densely-written pamphlets, or perhaps ‘season of lectures’ bound together in one volume bears fair comparison to that other less transparently group effort under the umbrella of a particular tradition, Pope Francis’s ‘Laudato Si’.
The writers are recycling reassessing repurposing the treasures of their tradition, and therefore affirming its value both to them and the kinship of the Earth. Maybe the purpose of faith is to equip us in response to crisis, and here, a liberal faith, priding itself on a relative absence of dogmatic clutter – though here noting with honesty the traditional shackles of individualism – is offered both to Unitarians and others of goodwill.
Despite occasional lapses into bibliography in the body of the text, ( prompting the reader to wonder why they didn’t just go straight to Joanna Macy or Henry David Thoreau ) the struggles insights ands solidarity of these Unitarian writers of the Now, shines through, Like the multiple inventors of television and telephone, shared inspired ideas need to be shared and widely owned, rather than encouraging a copyright mentality of hesitation to express them and own them yourself in your own terms. As a reader who’s a practitioner rather than a student, I’m far more interested in what the writers have to say than in what books they have read.
Don’t swallow it all at once. It’s a menu, and the ingredients are fresh. But read it now. Don’t leave it too long.
Not bragging but explaining. A bit of a review, now the Chaplaincy has been reviewed to be relaunched on September 17th – 28 years and a day after my ordination.
As chaplain, the actual number of ‘pieces of work’ that I produce is probably less – though not that much less – than in my time as a local church minister. Over and above visits and online resources, especially those connected with Season of Creation, there are also requests for articles and video input from various other mission organisations like, this Spring, the World Day of Prayer.
There are protracted email conversations, which sometimes bear fruit. There’s one getting lively now, pinging away on my computer as I write. A vitally important aspect of the Pope’s film ‘The Letter’ was how the impacts of the climate crisis brutally impinged on the experience of the people he had drawn together as ‘voices’ of youth, indigenous, poor, and nature, even in the graced midst of the experience they shared in Rome. Whatever we say, pray and do, the background is frighteningly constant upheaval.
So, life as chaplain goes on, with contacts with students, lecturers, pastors, and “irritating” local activists. Reponses to contacts with journalists, for which I’m very grateful, though handled with caution after some painful times in previous ministries, which still leave their internet footprint. (Maybe I’ll know the Kingdom is near when the D**** M*** gives sympathetic coverage to sensitive matters.) The dangerous amount of personal energy involved is, quite comparable to some ‘normal’ full-time ministry, with, perhaps, even more scope to dig pits before you realise you’ve stepped in them. The higher profile dictates greater care on copyright and other matters which frequently pass under the radar at a merely local level. Personal resources have to be firmly managed, space made for family, and signs which might lead to burnout – or even ‘singe-out’, kept an eye on. The loving and informal good advice of friends ( you know who you are) is always heeded and welcomed, even if not always “followed”, because even that, like other Good News, involves discernment.
But what is it, that quite reasonably justifies the allocation of an entire ministry post to the environmental chaplaincy when local churches struggle to fill vacancies? For the provision of housing and expenses across denominations? There’s a case, of course, for seeing the project as an expensive luxury, but also as “the perfume poured over the feet”. An offering , in love. What it can’t and mustn’t be, is one more excuse, merely to appear be “doing something” .
From week to week, I spend time most of all with the carousel of lectionary texts which have spun round and round in my daily work over the last quarter century. I’m enjoying and valuing them more than ever.
Especially when dealing deeper than the English of popular translations brings up a far greater inclusiveness, even in ‘original’ texts than I ever would have imagined.
If it felt right, I have plenty to fall back on, even after a major breakdown of my key hard drive ( don’t ask further!) . But what takes the most time, energy commitment and foolhardy daring – all of which I’m trying to encourage in churches and my colleagues in ministry and those in training – is dealing with the respectable ‘voices in my head’, as it were, which prescribe and prohibit, because of the deep respect I have for the academic and ecclesiological culture which provided my training and formation in Christian ministry. In which, to caricature somewhat, nature is subsidiary, or even expendable, rather than protagonist in the Work of God, and in which humanity, or even ‘men’ is the default definitive. Inevitably, almost all published theological writing is going to be behind the crest of the wave of the climate crisis. Even the most prestigious writing from the end of the last century does not and cannot take into account current pressures -and readable signs – for a differing relationship with Creation.
If this job is to be done conscientiously and with integrity, I will be sticking my neck out pretty well every day.
So, like some other chaplaincies, in hospitals or with the military, perhaps, this has emerged as a distinct and often lonely vocation. To embody, at cost, the confidence I long to see in the churches I work with: the confidence of Moses to turn aside to the blazing bush, rather than dutifully be bogged down with the flock. The confidence of Joseph to take note of his dreams rather than pursue received decency and withdraw from Mary and her baby, the lifeline support they needed. There are plenty more examples to be inspired by. Especially those where the deepest loyalty had to be expressed by something which, on the surface appeared subversive or disobedient. Jesus above all, has not come to seek the setting aside of the Law, but its fulfilment. And for me, fulfilment implies continual, dedicated, responsive recycling – which enables the enjoyment of some good old songs as well as exciting new ones!
So, although my foundation is the long experience of a general practitioner in pastoral ministry, each day is also pioneering. Each step into the risky unknown, but carrying the heavy responsibility for the orthodoxy and theological coherence of what I say, do, record, edit and upload. URC vows require ‘a holy life’ . Church of Scotland specifies ‘circumspect’. The Presbyterian Church in Wales, which provided part of my ordination, looks to ‘God’s unspeakable gift’ (!!!) for which we give thanks.
It actually sometimes hurts, and feels unsafe to depart from well-worn voices which speak, like the conscientious translators of so many ‘versions’ of the Bible in English (or what I want to check, in German or French too) in the idiom they believed they were expected to use. Martin Luther’s “look the people in the gob” (dem Volk aufs Maul schauen!). As a linguist too – 4 years of German at University including one at Mainz – I’m constantly aware of how seldom a precise equivalent can be given of a particular thought; and how the process of Biblical interpretation – especially in that poetic, spiritual and pastoral task we call preaching – always has about it something of ‘conversion’ in the sense of change-of-mind, repentance, rethinking. This is something to live with and enjoy, rather than shy away from or feel frustrated about.
With every sentence and every sequence of video: what is the Spirit saying/what is the wind blowing into the Church today, that the Church may give Good News to all Creation? Even if, like the Gospels themselves, a great proportion of that Good News takes the form of warning.
So for every sort of sign that things are getting through, thanks be to God!
The four ruling R’s of our time are reduce, re-use, recycle, repurpose.
Broadly in that order, since we’re now at a completely unviable level of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
The latter is of course not easy for folk like yourselves who reply on lifeline ferries, though that immediately gets us into the question of who bears responsibility for the harm that’s done, and whether what seems “unavoidable” can be offset in some way: though if the islands are part of Scotland and the UK, then that responsibility should be carried by those who can change it, rather than blamed on those who can’t.
Is it the responsibility of the people at the sharp end – and I may here also think about those I’ve met who live on the fast-disappearing islands of the Pacific – or of those who have been given the power to make changes for the good of all?
For most of the world church, this last Sunday of the Christian year is observed as something on the lines of “Christ the King Sunday”.
The message it can’t and must not be allowed to carry, though is this:
“Here’s your king…. keep your head down, your nose clean, and don’t argue. “
The name and title ‘Israel’ which we’ll be pinning on Jesus in Christmas carols not many days from now, is that of someone who argues, wrestles, even, with God. And a good king listens, rather than crushes, dissenting voices.
In the UN climate conference just concluded, some countries have more influence over the organisation than others, either due to their size, military power, or effectiveness in international diplomacy.
Yet, this is one of the genuine positives about COP: that the big polluters actually are under some pressure from voices never heard at other meetings. The cats really do look at the kings.
You’re meeting today as Reformed Christians: heirs of a movement in European Christianity, which for all its faults encouraged everyday folk in the language of love-songs to address Jesus.
An intimacy which strict royalists would surely find improper. Reclaiming the closeness which power and privilege would steal away.
Like when we use the word ‘Heaven’ to suggest something distant and apart, as if the word did not also encompass the reality of the sky above us, part of the unity of Creation.
For God is the maker of Heaven and Earth, sky and soil. So many many times we read that in Scripture. Whatever else you need it to mean, “heaven” is part of creation. Intimately, dynamically connected with the Earth.
It’s taken more than a century for the unifying idea of the greenhouse effect to become widely credible. That those “laws which never shall be broken” can be shattered.
Surely the earth is big enough that we can pollute with impunity? Not when there’s that many of us. Held together, like it or not.
It’s not done the church any good to try to separate one part of Creation – the Earth – from another -Heaven, or the Sky, though Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray that God’s will be done throughout.
Some nervous Christians, perhaps mindful of the same faults of kingship which exercised the writers of 1 Samuel, have softened it to “reign of Christ”. As they might put it:
“We know what kings do, and we want none of that!”
But with the urgency which enriches our faith in the awareness of a global climate crisis no longer future or straightforwardly to be solved, it might be better to go with it: to recycle and carry forward whatever is good and true about Christ as king, who himself said his kingdom, really is not like that so arrogantly thought of as “this world”.
This year it feels different, not least because we actually do have someone we call “king”, which brings it just slightly more down to Earth: all those worship songs still being written that go on and on about the “king” are now confronted, for better or worse, with flesh and blood. A wee bit more ‘incarnate’ you might say.
What should a “king” do? When I was involved in dedicating a jubilee tree on Colonsay this year, the people there came up with the beautiful truth, that we’d had a monarch who, for seventy years, had planted trees.
If you would rule, then live an exemplary life.
Though for Charles 3rd thus far, being king seems to involve trying hard not to have an opinion, and doing what you’re told by whoever happens to be prime minister in any given week. Despite a life-long interest in environmental protection. “No you shall not go to the Ball (in Egypt.)!”
We’re just a day or two past that gathering, some three thousand miles from here, of more nations than we’ve ever heard of, to discuss what can be done to respond to a mess they’ve made together.
The similar great circus I witnessed in Glasgow is a competition of magics. Everyone screaming about how much they care, how much they’ve invested in nature based solutions, and terribly nice young people trying to convince you that small nuclear reactors are such a good thing after all. And the man on the National Pavilion of Qatar who gave me a delicious coffee to assure me that his country wasn’t as bad as the Saudis because they only produced gas, not oil.
But our king is not allowed to go.
There’s a certain irony there: the custodian of power in the UK state absolutely must not use it. Not even to encourage other countries.
Irony is perhaps the most powerful tool of language, and in God’s hands it only grows in sharpness.
We can marvel that in the treatment of Jesus by those he was first sent to, it’s through wood and nails that he becomes one with the Tree of life. The blood of the Cross, the Tree, as the Bible also puts it [Acts 5:30]
Which unlocks the deeper aspects of God’s covenant with the Earth and with All Flesh: and of course it’s the efforts completely to eradicate God’s authority in Christ that reveal not just that authority, but authority arising from connections: that idea in the Bible letter of “holding together” in something those concerned with the environment are increasingly calling ‘the web of life’.
Christ as King is not about domination, but rather the sustaining of life-giving relationships; and as is made clear elsewhere in Colossians, diversity, not uniformity, is how Christ achieves unity, be it in the church or in this planet.
So too, the multiple layers of divine irony in the events of the crucifixion: Jesus, born and adopted into the same dodgy claim as half the Jewish population to descent from King David, labelled a king in the eradicating humiliation of the cross by Pilate, in a sickeningly calculated insult to every aspiration of the people the Roman Empire had asked Pilate to rule,… this same Jesus risen from the dead is praised as king through centuries, by hundreds of millions. Undermining (- or it ought to be undermining, wouldn’t you think -?) the model of domination that Empires prefer.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
The past couple of hundred years, there’s been a slightly different power struggle: a game of thrones and crowns, you might say, about who and what rules whom.
Some like to think that human beings rule the planet, and therefore, whoever can pull off the stunt of forcing them into line, might reasonably be entitled to the title of king, or monarch, as it were. Rule this one species and you rule the world. Whether through war and guns or through an addiction to fossil fuels, which also causes wars. Or through continuing, as does the UK government, to offer licences for additional oil and gas exploration whilst claiming leadership in carbon reduction.
I hope you can think of the right words for that.
In the Pope’s letter to ‘everyone of good will’ in 2015, he noted that the Earth ‘rules’ us. Almost without exception, even those who commented favourably on that letter completely ignored that point. And it’s the ‘not being in charge’ that even churches – especially larger churches – have most difficulty with.
[What if you gave your loyalty to a King who ruled by delegation? By putting you on a throne, in order, in turn, to pass that parcel?]
I like the story of King Canute, who in the eleventh century, would have claimed overlordship of the Isle of Mull. Knut let himself be talked into sitting on the beach and commanding the tide not to come in and wet his robes.
But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king’s feet. Jumping back, the king cried: “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will Heaven, Earth and the Sea obey eternal laws.’
Mind you, Knut carried on as King. Presumably “by the grace of God”.
Amongst people of faith, more widely, there is nonetheless that awareness that since we remain very much at the mercy of the cycles of nature, God alone can be said to rule.
However mighty a given human organisation might aspire to be, we’ve managed to disrupt, rather than rule the Earth of which we are part.
Floods and famines and droughts have always reminded human beings of the power of God as creator, and in the book of Job, it’s accepted that God does have very much more on their plate than providing a sunny day on Mull for those with a bit of time on their hands.
But look a few verses either side of the most frequently quoted verses on justice and upright living in the Bible, and you’ll find Creation, one way or another, enlisted to hold human beings to account. So what is happening in Pakistan this year both is and isn’t a ‘natural’ disaster. This is what you’d have heard from the scientists in Egypt, because I heard it in Glasgow last year.
Equally in agreement with Scripture and current experience, is that the poor suffer first and hardest, which judges all the more those who sit on the sidelines and do nothing at all. (Not even what is promised under “loss and damage”.)
Or allow their own rulers to do nothing at all. We sang that hymn before the readings ‘Crown him with many crowns’ – it’s an open secret that no ruler, no regime, can hold power in the long-run, without the consent of their people.
In the letters of the New testament, despite a somewhat skewed presentation, it’s clear that the criterion for whether a pretender to kingship or whatever is that they’d always seek the common good.
But we do need good leaders. Social activists like to write letters of protest to their MPs or MSPs – when did you last think of writing a letter of appreciation, when they get something right?
What do you do to express your loyalty to Christ the King …..through the rulers you are given?