Category Archives: Chaplain Page

Lent thoughts: Don’t put the greenery on one side.

If my role were one which involved authority or discipline, then it might be easy, but maybe it is all the better that I can do no more than appeal, and attempt to convince….

….That the green of our love for the Earth remains in view alongside the penitential purple of Lent.

Ultimately, though, it is not the Chaplain, but the Christian Calendar which issues this challenge:

The Church in its many forms is about to enter a season, variously observed- and sometimes pointedly ignored, – which leads us towards the defining story of Christianity: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Word Made Flesh, who commissioned the Church to be bearers of Good News to Every Creature

Liturgies, hymns, and ways of worship have been cherished and refined throughout the ages, safeguarded against dilution from trivial and transitory issues. Local custom can be at least as rigid as the conscientiousness of an official denominational committee.

The plight of Creation is not such a triviality, to be put on one side whilst we get on with the proper business of being church, but rather, a concern, to take account of which, will deepen and enrich the whole of our faith.

Thus, what I feel compelled to raise, is whether the Easter Message has been hedged around in something of a ring of steel (or perhaps an impenetrable crown of thorns ) comparable to that we will encounter in the COP meeting in Glasgow later this year.?

Close to 500 congregations have made the commitment involved in taking on the identity of an Eco Congregation. How many of these will set that aside as we begin to observe Lent, and move on to Easter?

In the coming weeks we will welcome Jesus with branches, and see him nailed to the Tree, received gently by the Earth, and re-establish contact with his community though a meeting in a garden. The greenery of the story is in plain sight, but will we see it?

Thus it’s an encouragement that Pope Francis, in his Lenten message lists environmental devastation amongst the ‘satanic’ challenges we face . Sometimes we have let such language become emptied of its meaning.

But the denialism which Jesus himself faces up in the temptations, the twisting of truth that all will be well if we trust greed and power and step off the precipice, is insidiously present in our church and national life.

Does anyone expect the message of ‘Satan’ to be obvious? It would be of no danger if so.

If you make something of Lent, you might ponder these questions:

  1. Do I, or does my church, evade the implications even of the scientific consensus on the Environmental Emergency which we actually believe we accept? Are we always looking for someone else to make the first move?
  2. Do we insist on perfection, and on ‘solutions’  in the responses to the emergency?  Even sustainable energy has an impact, though that may not be sufficient reason not to give things a try.
  3. If we could make a leap, rather than a step, in our practical response (e.g. from coal/oil to heat-pump, rather than to the temporary and intermediate step of fossil-fuel gas), would we be prepared to do so?
  4. Is the fate of the world allowed to remain a merely mystical matter in the prayer and worship of my church, or is a clear connection made ?
  5. Will our message throughout and beyond Easter be one which celebrates a ‘saved’ world, or one which rejoices in the continuing solidarity of Christ in the struggles ahead? Is there a difference ?
  6. If I’m ‘doing something for Lent’ will this build up my hope and resilience, and ability to face the truth that climate science works hard to uncover?  Is there anything more valuable that it might achieve than this?
  7. If  I’m doing something good/worthwhile,  as an exceptional Lenten discipline, will I also have the courage to shout about it and make it visible, even at the risk of being thought immodest. Is the risk not just as great that folk will miss out on the encouragement? (Matthew 5:16) let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Quoting Pope Francis:
“Christ’s wounds are also represented in “environmental disasters, the unequal distribution of the earth’s goods, human trafficking in all its forms, and the unbridled thirst for profit, which is a form of idolatry,”

The Circular Economy of the Kingdom

At my induction,  the approach  to Biblical interpretation that we might call ‘poetic theology’ was affirmed. 

What I’ve since noticed, is that regarding prayer and creativity, as they were in the past, as legitimate tools of theological enquiry often gets you to the same sort of destination as more formal methods.

Theology is a quest for meaning. This is one approach, which is not in competition with rigorous formality, but sits alongside it.

Insights don’t need to be definitive to be valid. I’m not competing with, or aiming to defeat  other methods.

Whilst being aware of these limitations, I’ll share here a small part of what is convincing me that Christianity needs the ‘green specs’ that folk have expected to see in my work, and maybe a bit more than was expected.

I noticed, as I have before, – but never gave it further thought-, that the ‘kingdom’  (‘basileia’) which many have preferred to call ‘reign’, in Matthew’s Gospel  (alone) is mentioned a remarkable 32 (!!!) times as the ‘kingdom of heaven’.   Or the reign of ‘heaven’.  The way heaven is ruled…. It is perfectly normal to make the leap to assume that  the ‘Kingdom of God’ (approx 70+ occurrences in the New Testament ) is identical. In practice, few preachers ever notice or register the difference. That is accepted, but for now, I’m just looking at Matthew’s  preference. (Matthew also does use Kingdom of God).

The other principle  which is not just my own, but observable wherever people are doing theology in the light of the Climate Crisis, could, I suppose, be described as a ‘reconcretisation of metaphor’. An overwhelming majority of the ‘images’ in Biblical language are rather more firmly grounded in the experiential than we have allowed for. If we read of Jesus suggesting ‘look at the birds’, have we actually looked at the birds?  If we read his advice to look and learn from ‘all the trees’. The climate crisis is the death of abstract metaphor.  Creation literally groans.  Stones shout. Science, as the codification of experience,  is our ‘universal translator’ of the prophetic witness of Creation. Though again, such things are not limited  to the formal.

The ivory tower of the abstract  theologian  is exchanged for an immersion in the  threatened cycles of  nature.

And  having noted that  our use of the word ‘heaven’ tends to shunt our daily experience of the sky into a remote and abstract dimension, let’s just allow that the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’  can be  imagined as ‘the way the sky is ruled’.  Which in the case of the very well-known phenomenon of the water cycle, is cyclic. A circular economy, as it were.  What else is the background to Isaiah 55:10-11, when the ‘sky/heaven’ itself becomes a major player in the cyclic purposes of God, and not as a mere catalyst, but an active agent. Science has added to the water cycle, the carbon flux. And human activity is messing them both  up royally.

Having  ‘Got Creation Done’, (!!!) God is Sustainer, and the Way God ‘Rules’, is by ‘recycling.’ See also the previous blog post about the recycled God that we know as the Trinity., rather than as a vertically hierarchical single-use  Boss-bird-and Junior . The dance of Creation, and of God, is a circle-dance. Let that sink in. And test it out against Jesus’ many stories of the kingdom, its order and even its apparent  (relative) chaos.

The Recycled God, or the Single-Use ‘Trinity’?

After that gentle blog (above) about claiming the green, now something a wee bit heavier, but, I hope, all the more liberating.

Classic Christian teaching frequently seems difficult to defend, possibly because it’s culturally easy to dissociate it from the expression of love, rather than the oppressive rules of a hierarchy of some kind, whether supported by law and violence, or self-deceiving pretensions to definitive and final  authority.  Or that’s the way it looks from the outside.  That’s even expected.

But this is the first ‘hermeneutical’ principle in this exploration: “love is why we teach it.”

Following from that, the fresh look that an ecochaplain is obliged to take, (on the fringes of a cultural context which prizes re-use/repair/re-purpose/recycle as a prominent ethical value-cluster,) frequently ends up as an affirmation of Christian mainstream.

It’s nice that you’re often surprised. I’d prefer ‘delighted’. But hey….

One area of ‘marginalised orthodoxy’, (which probably sounds like a complete oxymoron to those whose experience of ‘orthodox’ goes with oppressive lovelessness), is the most distinctive teaching of Christianity, the idea of God as Holy Trinity.

The grotesque hierarchical depictions of the Holy Trinity which so totally negate the idea of the equal persons of the Creative Unity as to be characterised as ‘Spot the Pigeon(I’m quoting the most memorable bit of lectures by Prof Sara Coakley in Oxford in the early 90s) or ‘The Boss, the Bird, and the Junior’. (see above, Cologne Cathedral)

These depictions (or, strictly, what they imply) drive a coach and horses over the affirmation that the definitive and exemplary nature of God, as shown through Jesus, is as persons lovingly  “coequal, coeternal, and consubstantial” .(Nicene Creed, some versions).

These pictures are markedly in contrast with the ‘Celtic Trinity ‘symbol, the ‘triquetra’ in which the three components form an ever-interlacing knot. Tellingly, this appears on notice-boards for recycling stations, (see above)  and for a while, was adopted by DEFRA.

(I wrote to DEFRA at the time, disingenuously asking if they intended to use any other religious symbols on their letterheads. They wrote back, claiming they had no such intention).

In the Triquetra Trinity, the Three are equal, connected, dependent, distinct. It saves pages of theology. (And I have it tattooed on my shoulder, not that you need to know that).

It’s been in devotional use by Christians for a good 1400 years, and used by other faiths before and since.

I’d like to see a really convincing argument (and I don’t think there is one) to suggest that the feudal system, whose remnants we still cherish, has not skewed Christian devotional language in favour of kingship rather than any other model of leadership, and kings, having been absolute authorities, didn’t fit at all with the fundamentally collaborative Trinity.

And since, in the Old Testament, God is, demonstrably, far more a reshaper and recycler than Creator out of absolutely nothing, perhaps Christians need to recognise a greater holiness and dignity in ‘making all things new’ rather than ‘making new things.’ In all aspects of life and faith.

The ‘Boss, bird and junior’, which, staggeringly, often passes by unchallenged in our churches, is by contrast a ‘single-use model of God, allied to ecological devastation because it prioritises domination rather than (costly) partnership.

It sees no need to collaborate, or rethink, only to be obeyed. Vertical hierarchy, rather than collaboration, is a game of extinction. Unenriched by trinitarian  theodiversity. Ever only upwards, like the idolatry of unlimited economic growth, which never pauses and re-makes.

And that’s not how to be Christlike. Not the model of the one who came that we should have life in abundance, and joy in fullnesss.

My hope is in the recycling and recycled God. Who calls us out to be recycled, repurposed, reinvigorated too.

Our world reflects what we believe.

Yep, it matters, this theology game.

Claiming the green

Claim it for Green: rejoice in the ‘ordinary’.

(illustration: the lower part of my EcoChaplain stole #2

Many of the churches and chapels ( or however they identified themselves ) where I preached in training and in the earlier years of my ministry were enriched with pulpit drops/falls, of which some bore the legend, often in ornate and therefore barely legible script “IHS”. It had taken me a few years to identify this ‘Christogram’ as”IHS” or “IHC”, denoting the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus, ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, iota-eta-sigma, or ΙΗΣ.

In the meantime, other worshippers, noting that it was a more or less permanent part of a worship space, had found other interpretations, which served them well enough: “In HIs Steps” was pretty postive, “I Have Suffered”, maybe requiring a bit more thought. Some of the dictionary definitions , whilst trying to sound authoritative, were no more accurate or worthwhile.

I was fortunate, in an English free-church background to encounter the beautiful game of liturgical colours. (My tradition is one which is open to take or to leave as contextually appropriate, the repertoire of world Christianity.) Rev Murdoch MacKenzie, one of my mentors when I was new to Christian commitment, brought such things through from his work with the Church of South India. . For some of you liturgical colours in the churches are is less of an ‘option’, but a level of creative spiritual interpretation might nonetheless be in order. (And a bit of fun, which keeps us going).

If you have just entered what might, a touch boringly, be described as ‘ordinary time’ when green is the colour that pops out of the cupboard and onto the tables, altars, pulpits and stoles, perhaps give some thought to the scope it gives for environmental storytelling:

A standard web search (or a delve in an encyclopaedia) will come up with something like “a colour of growth”, but green is of course, the colour of chlorophyll, the truly miraculous substance that enables most plants to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and produce oxygen. It’s the colour of natural carbon capture, of the breathing of the Earth, of hope as green shoots emerge after a bushfire, of health, as science catches up with the obvious insight that immersion in ‘green pastures’ restores the soul”…. I hope you yourselves could and will go on and on: how about one creative interpretation (for a spare space in the pew sheet) every week? “Look at …all the trees,” says Jesus… Green as the colour of awareness….

Or, when the time comes to commission some new vestment or item of furniture, give some thought to the environmental story it could be telling.

I know that even the word ‘ordinary’ has other origins, but it is in our creative use of the ordinary, mainstream gifts of the Churches that change of mind, heart, and conviction about our place and purpose as Church at this time is consolidated.

If your church or your worship leader is adorned with green, pick it up and run with it.

As ever…. get on with it!

Hypocrites Anonymous – further thoughts

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

Hypocrites anonymous – further thoughts:  a treasure in plain sight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before God, with the people of God

I confess to my brokenness:

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

May God forgive you, Christ renew you, 

And the Spirit enable you to grow in love.

Amen

Before God, with the people of God

we confess to my brokenness:

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

May God forgive you, Christ renew you, 

And the Spirit enable you to grow in love.

Amen

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Have a good day, whatever mess it starts in!

Hypocrites anonymous

Hypocrites anonymous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent = Urgent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not that that is a bad thing. 

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

A digression….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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