Link to an off-the-cuff talk at the Edinburgh Festival Sustainability hub. Very ‘late booking’…so no script, and relying on eye contact with audience…
Category Archives: Chaplain Page
A friend in the Netherlands asked me for a suitable version fo Psalm 104 to acknowledge and celebrate Creation . I sent links for various existing versions, but also this paraphrase.
A paraphrase – and there are several well-known Bible versions which fall into this category – is a Bible Reading, with preaching built in.
Loud I shout out; it’s what defines me:
for all I am speaks highly
of my Leader: God and Guide.
Nobility, integrity-arrayed, as sky-light clothes you,
Immense the skies’ pavilion, taut you pitched
as rafters of your dwelling span the seas,
you drive the rain-clouds
gliding high on wings of wind
that in their turn bear urgent news
as do your servants, fire and flame.
The Earth, you have enthroned robustly;
Robed in deepest blue, which in its turn
Stands proud aside at your rebuke
And when you make the point with thunder
waters shall retreat.
Indeed, the waters, should they rise again,
to threatening levels, over land
will do so not as you require,
who set them in their place, providing space
for life to thrive.
And in the meantime water gushes
bringing life between the hills,
hydrating wildlife so that even
wild asses quench their thirst.
And habitats diverse with birds
the choirs of branches green and growing.
We visualise you: garden-tender of the mountains:
fruitful work that causes Earth to smile.
Grass, growing, ‘cos of you feeds all the cattle;
whilst rooted plants in partnership
enable Earth to nourish us
and gladden human hears with wine
as faces shine with plant-oil,
bread is broken, giving life.
God’s watering of trees is generous
In Lebanon the cedars which God planted;
trees where small birds build their nests
-the stork’s at home in fir trees.
and habitat for wild goats, up mountain-high
shared : safe-house for the hyrax.
The moon, you made, defines the seasons;
Your sun’s aware of time for setting,
relinquishing the light to your hands:
night is summoned, filled, as humans sleep
exploding life nocturnal in the forest:
when roading lions young
shall look to God for prey,
though in their turn, at daybreak take their rest
and lie down in their dens;
the morning shift of people then set out to work
a full-day’s labour, till the work is done.
My God, diversity, abundant, wonder, beauty
all your wisdom’s offspring,
creatures, such as us, and others,
fill the whole wide earth:
Yes: over there the great wide sea
which may be measured, never grasped;
more life than we can comprehend;
our ships may come and go,
no more than touch the surface
of Leviathan’s playground
law unto themself, for your joy, not our profit.
All this life that looks to you for food
within due time and season.
When they harvest what you offer,
from your hand; with good things they are filled
When you hide your face, distress ensues;
You take away their breath: it’s death
for us and all that’s living;
dust to dust, and so life’s circles turn.
You breathe again, and life, and flesh reborn
adorn the face of Earth made new.
May the wondrous shining love of God endure forever!
God, rejoice in all that’s made!
God, nonetheless, who makes Earth tremor
God: volcanoes smoke your power!
As for me: here’s what defines me:
singing lifelong, mind and body
gratitude in work and worship:
aiming high for justice in my
thoughts and deeds and prayers.
And, all that said, acknowledge:
unjust choices, God-entrusted:
our extinction is an option if we choose
But may this define me:
all I am speaks highly
of my Leader: God and Guide.
Swimming with Christopher. Two ambushes.
“Hey, Father, will you bless this for us?”
I had come, for peace and quiet, up the road on my bike, to the ancient Holy Well of St Gwenfrewi ‘ at Holywell/Treffynnon, ‘the Lourdes of Wales’, cared for for the whole church, at that time, by a small, hospitable, group of Catholic sisters.( Maybe Lourdes is the Treffynnon of France! But I haven’t got there…. yet!).
Perhaps back then I was far too cautious, and had not, as a hymn-writer friend recommended, immersed myself in the icy waters, even though I had been impressed with the Spirituality of Ann Griffiths, the Creation-aware Calvinist poet who had described prayer as “swimming in God”. I touched the water. I tasted it; enjoyed the quiet wet noises and the ancient stonework.
I hadn’t known what to make, back then, of a member of my congregation who had been involved in the piping and channelling to make sure that the Well remained a well, and thus held the firm but regrettable opinion that such enabling engineering work would have banished any imagined holiness proper to a “natural” spring.
I might have reminded him, nowadays, of the holiness of all water, and indeed, of his own labour, in facilitating a beautiful, ancient, place of prayer, but it takes a few years after the (unintentionally) stifling trauma of college and assessments, before you can begin to say what really needs to be said.
Some of us never escape.
Though now I’m in a double bind, because, all the more, to do this job, I have to stick my neck out. And encourage others – even those in training – in the recklessly responsible discipline of meaning what you say. Which is the last thing in the world our culture expects of harmless people of faith like you, dear reader!
And it’s sometimes the last thing the Church expects, even of its leaders.
I had chained my bike, with the baby-seat prominently visible, to the railings. The staff knew very well who I was, and in fact, I went on, soon after, to organise an ecumenical bike pilgrimage [which would be a great eco-idea now?] with Holywell as a destination, and worship in the largely disused historic chapel. We got on well.
Duty and the diary persuading me I’d spent sufficient time with the water, I walked back, in black shirt and clerical collar, through the souvenir area, which was where the eager pilgrims caught me.
The staff suppressed a giggle, and looked away:
“Hey, Father, will you bless this for us?”
I’m fairly sure one of the items was a ‘St Christopher’, an item of significance in folk spirituality well beyond the bounds of the Catholic Church. But just as, when Princess Diana was killed, I was asked to do “something creative”, but it took place in the Catholic church ‘because they had candles’, this was a time when the faith of the people was more important than the brand of the clergy.
So I did what was asked, with integrity, asking that God might remind us, through the items they had bought, and as we travel, of the holiness of water, the roads we travel, and the places we pause to pray.
The pilgrims went away satisfied. I climbed back onto my bike with the baby-seat a few minutes later.
North Wales was like that. When my son was born, an RC neighbour stopped his car over the road, wound down the window and yelled “I suppose we’ll have to call you ‘Father’ now!”. The Fflint Catholic Club gave me a farewell party when I left.
It’s a humbling irony that, being an incurable and maybe slightly smug non-driver for most of my ministry, I now cover some substantial distances as a ‘travelling salesman’ of the Green Gospel .
Three years ago, after my wife’s death, driving was a bizarre new experience, requiring next to no physical effort, but intense alertness.
My reward is that I rejoice in the changing scenery [LINKS FOLLOW ] (Glencoe, the Drumochter Pass, and the Dalveen Pass, Glenshee and, of course, the road across Mull, have been highlights.) “Travelling mercies” are part of my daily prayer, and I much appreciate being upheld in that way. I encounter graciousness ( as in those experienced with the etiquette of Scotland’s single track roads) and of course, I encounter entitlement, boorishness and impatience, all amplified by powerful engines. (The selfish expression of power, via the accelerator, burns more fuel.).
As yet, though, no ‘sacred’ items (other than those I travel with directly to lead worship) accompany me. But the Earth itself is sacred.
Maybe that’s why, returning by train (phew) from study leave in Germany, I was ambushed by St Christopher.
With three hours to change trains in Cologne, I made my way to the rather wonderful cathedral there. Revisiting the shrine of those wise travellers, the ‘Holy Three Kings’…
When I saw a great figure looming out from one of the pillars. He looked rather rustic, with a touch of Father Christmas. But perched, like Timon on Pumbaa’s back, was the figure of a small child. The genius of the statue was, the closer you looked, the harder a time Christopher seemed to be having.
“Carrying all the weight of the world on his shoulders”
…came to mind. I checked the Catholic Encyclopedia and other easily accessible sites on my phone. You can do likewise.
What spoke to me there was the adoption of Christopher as a patron saint for “motorists.”
Driving used to be a morally neutral activity. Though each time, now, I turn the key, I needs must ask if it’s worth it. For now, perhaps, in pursuit of change, but not indefinitely.
It was part of my journey, as I began this role, to publish “a blessing for a new car”. Maybe I need to revisit that, as time goes on.
The summarised stories of “Christopher”, martyred for his faith around 251 ad told of someone who took up on the “easy” job of transporting the [Christ]-child across a torrential river.
Like those of us who drive. It’s easy, effortless by comparison with walking or cycling. But perhaps in the awareness of the Climate Crisis, we’re becoming more aware of the “weight of the whole world” pressing down in the midst of what seems harmless and straightforward.
Recently publicised revelations about the cobalt in batteries for electric vehicles offer us slender respite.
I am one of you. Today, and next week, I travel on your behalf. Together, and sooner than we might like or expect, we ( including me) need to embrace, not just new ways of doing exactly the same things, but new ways altogether.
I wonder what Christopher had to let go of, to reach the far bank?
For me, now, the story of Christopher, who, in the midst of the river, feared he might drown, offers a companion in the transition we face before we can “get to the other side” .
We’re in the river of change. ( Swimming, perhaps, in God?) . And we need to come to feel both the weight of what we carry, the burden of the planet’s life, and the importance of Who comes with us, and Who it is, who sees us through.
Since this job began for me, it’s been an emotional - and theological - rollercoaster. Which is probably the way it needs to be, given the developing crisis which is the backdrop to anything ‘environmental’.
Preaching Good News, whilst bad news keeps rolling into the inbox, day after day. With some encouragements, such as the increasing insight that almost all the changes advocated to mitigate climate crisis come with substantial economic or wellbeing-related benefits.
The jury’s out on the balance here, but radical change can make for a better life all round. And when you also begin to see things differently, your real experience will be that they are different. Greener. And even.... better.
But how to let go of what you have come to rely on? No room for complacency anywhere at all!
When has the development of vision not been a major calling of the church?
One of the tasks in the job description is to develop some appropriate form of environmental chaplaincy to take over when my term comes to an end. Reflections so far point in the direction of the acute need for something like this role to continue, or indeed, to be expanded, though a formal role would need to find the appreciable funding and denominational backing that makes the current role possible.
Chaplaincy, of course, is widely exercised by people who are neither ordained, nor whose main work is to offer religious leadership. But what might be recognised as key gifts to exercise a catalytic ministry within Scottish churches and society? As something whose presence, though it has no direct power, nonetheless helps changes to take place?
My background in studying both theology and language suggests to me some answers.
Firstly, there is the idea of phonemes.
When you learn a language, your brain is trained in recognising sometimes minute meaningful nuances which distinguish between one meaning, mood, or even just word, and another. I once spent a very intense week trying to teach an unfortunate French Businessman English. By the end of each day, it seemed we were getting somewhere, but by the following morning, his ability to hear the distinctive sounds - even “h” - had evaporated.
An environmental chaplain needs to be able to hear the eco-phonemes of the Signs of the Times: to recognise the mode of language of the Voice of the Earth, and perhaps also of those closest to it, or suffering most immediately from the effects of climate crisis. Especially when these things just don’t register on the radar of everyday church life.
In recent correspondence, a local church leader sounded completely baffled about what ECS could possibly contribute, as, barring a couple of enthusiasts, “we don’t really have anyone [in the congregation] with an interest in ecology” Phonemes needed. And these emerge, as babies learn language, through immersion and repetition. Which is what folk in local churches need to be able to work on. And what EcoCongregation, as a movement, offers.
In the context of moral reflection, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s trenchant criticism of “conscience” is comparable. A number of Christian traditions, my own included, like to be gently respectful of the ‘rights of conscience’. Others may go so far as to suggest that conscience is ‘the voice of God’, setting you right when you go wrong, or at least convicting you, supplying the corrective of shame and guilt when you know you have chosen to harm yourself or others.
The UK has demonstrably suffered an atrophy of human conscience in the movement which contributed to the brexit vote, and the accompanying seeming moral permission to dig in and nurture what previously seemed to be unacceptable attitudes to nation, race, and the neighbour. It’s hardly surprising that among the Brexit Party’s few policy statements, we can discern ( see if you can find any policies here )an antipathy to ‘being told what to do’ by advocates of climate action. This attitude seems also to be rife amongst supporters of some candidates in the Conservative and Unionist Party leadership election.
How can the signs of the times be so glaringly obvious, and yet so easily disregarded? Back to the extreme situation of Bonhoeffer, who was surrounded by very nice well-meaning people whose conscience was nonetheless not triggered (in time) by the evil around them. Even if they were nice people, it’s still evil.
An acceleration of conscience-events and phoneme experiences started happening to me, (actually, alarmingly late), after learning I had been appointed. I began to hear bells ringing, chiming in the everyday mainstream liturgies and prayers of the churches, with the immersive partnership of God with Creation. It’s there in full view. And yet, nice Christian people, our sisters and brothers, our neighbours will still retain their bafflement about what Christianity “has to do with ecology”. Bear with them. They’re your flesh and blood. They are who you are. Even if they make, or infuriatingly refuse to make, obvious decisions.
All the more reason, then, to promote the subversive “world and sacrament” mission of EcoCongregation Scotland, to do, for congregations, what getting this job did for me: a wake-up call, to awareness, to the new edification of Christian conscience. Have the courage to irritate your neighbours until they budge. If a congregation can own the identity of being a registered Eco-Congregation, then fruitful awareness and readiness to change can readily follow. As it is following, alarmingly and embarrassingly late for me. Of course we’re not the only way. But we’re real. And we’ve just begun.
Finally, look at how you tell the story. Throughout my career, I’ve enjoyed the teaching possibilities of colour : clergy shirts that reflect the seasons, preaching stoles that bring in themes. like the desirable harmony of creation and human action. When I haven’t found what I’m looking for in the hymnbooks, I’ve written new words to old and very singable tunes. And now and then, I make wee film clips that take ideas further .These have been some of the games I’ve been allowed to play.
“But”, - no, that “but”needs to be bigger needs be bigger:
BUT if that’s not your thing, then Please don’t copy me, because it’s you yourself who are the best resource for environmental ministry. Play the games you’re good at yourself. As the fisher-folk fished for people.
Of course, there are costs: along with the joy of finding beauty, spiritual depth and encouragement in much traditional material, much of the fond and lovely material connecting faith and Creation, presenting it as a ‘gift’ from God or deriving comfort from its eternal resilience, begins to look out of date or irrelevant, just as some things which seemed long out of date, or as with apocalyptic passages, simply too “scary" (as a theological educator recently put it) now find a new meaningfulness.
Thank God for exciting times!
I happened upon a grand old lady (as people like to style the gender of masculine named locomotives!) the other day. After an informal visit to a church, I dropped by at the Bo’ness and Kinneil (preserved) railway, and there, like a great simmering kettle, was the 60103 Flying Scotsman, resplendent despite the subdued BR livery that she is currently sporting, attracting nonetheless the reverence due the oldest mainline working locomotive on Britain’s tracks.
Every panel and pipe shone, no dents or scratches: none of the ‘cellulite’ that creeps into the bodywork of workhorses with fewer armies of adoring fans. Looking, of course, rather different from when she first steamed out of the Doncaster engine sheds in 1923. Re-numbered, with a different livery, thoroughly renewed inside and out, even her face is changed by the compulsory addition of smoke deflectors to channel the smoke and cinders at high speed. She ran with a bell and cowcatcher in America, which are of course now absent.
It’s easy to lose count of the alterations and renovations, as well as “restorations”, reversing technological advance for the sake of “preserving” what she had been, let alone those grim years lying around dismantled in the NRM, that this particular much-loved fossil fuel vehicle (ouch) has been through. And to ask, with reluctant scepticism, whether there is any point in claiming that ‘she’ is at all the same ‘engine’? And although everyone likes to say that the locomotive was ‘designed by Sir Nigel Gresley’, a full list of those skilled engineers who have had a hand in it would fill up your screen.
A television documentary put this iconoclastic question to an enthusiast, who faced it honestly, head on: whilst much of the metal has been replaced, or even functional parts (like the double funnel) swapped in and out so many times, he was confident that the ‘spirit’ of the Flying Scotsman lived on convincingly and meaningfully. Even seeing her simmering in the sidings at Bo’ness, let alone thundering across the Forth Bridge, you’d have to be the most boorish of locomotive atheists to disagree.
This encounter came after a struggle with Scripture: John Chapter 5. If you check online at Biblehub , you’ll find that 16 English language versions are on offer for verse 4. Move to verse 5, and you have a choice of 28. As it happens, the story of Jesus’ intervention with the question “Do you want to be well” only makes sense if verse 4 is included, with a mention of an angel who intermittently troubles the waters of the pool of Bethesda/Beth-Zatha. The angel verse is authenticated in a very important manuscript which was authoritative for Martin Luther and the King James Bible, though seems to be absent in earlier manuscripts. This does not in itself mean it is either inauthentic or a later addition, though some scholars would lean in that direction, and editors of modern-language Bibles exhibit, perhaps an embarrassment both about folk religion and indeed about angels, which is foreign to all the Gospel writers. That’s why you find it in some versions and not others. But is it, or isn’t it “the Bible”?
Maybe the Bible is not far from the Flying Scotsman: inspiring awe, joy and wonder, a spirit of continuity, maintained and re-thought by thousands, and reinterpreted by often very valid agendas. Having had the additional scandalously iconoclastic thought of what might be the implications of a fossil-free steam loco ( e..g. water heated by hydrogen), I also ask you to consider what the Bible needs to be, to help us discern what the continuing identity of the Holy Spirit is saying to us today. Which parts do we take or leave or re-shape? But whatever we do, it helps to be honest about it. “My version IS the Bible, full stop” does violence to the Bible as dynamic and interactive resource for relationship with the Word of God.
In the event, I decided to acknowledge the place of the angel in the story, which, as noted, adds both coherence, and helps us understand that Jesus did not claim any sort of personal monopoly on healing. Neither should we. It also sets certain ‘miracles’ in perspective, but also the importance of letting the church be the church, letting mystery be mystery. The mystic and the realistic are complementary, not at odds. The deep rationality of spirituality, and the experiential power of story help us more fully to grasp the deep currents of change that are vital to our survival in this age.
And when the churches face up to the need to convince themselves to make changes of policy (including financial) and liturgy in the light of the Climate Crisis, they perhaps might reflect on what it means to work with the continuing Spirit of their own identity, rather than falling back on facts and figures unadorned by narrative or passion.
Be church, not just committee. Full steam ahead.
I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience:
Atheists, agnostics or secularists taking the ‘Dawkins’ line of telling you what they think you ought to believe, and having set up this particular straw man, expecting you to be intimidated as they proceed to attack and dismantle it?
It’s important to be able to say with confidence, that you don’t believe in the useless, petty, and obnoxious god they don’t believe in!
Nor in the fluffy bunny!
Nor indeed, in a faith hostile to and domineering with regard to life and natural ‘resources’. Though such assertions frequently go unchallenged.
You don’t believe in that…
But do you? Or do you think you ought to? Is there some voice in the back of your head?
As a grassroots minister, I sometimes wondered if I were continually at war, in preaching, with the Sunday-school teachers of half a century or more before, themselves passing on, with less than reflective obedience, what they had received. Please, if, today you are introducing children to Christianity, immerse them in Creation, and in wonder!
But for now:
Was there ever a time when the narrative of the danger to life of avoidable human destructiveness had more coherence? Or indeed, the peril of idolatry: the lethally misleading worship of false gods?
Catastrophe repeatedly seems to be built into the way the world works, when pushed too hard, and disaster, unsurprisingly, frequently linked to human behaviour, stupidity, greed and injustice.
Surveys of prehistoric Britain show that ecological collapse through defoliation has been well within the capability even of less technological societies. We’ve done it before. We should take note. And I might speculate (wildly) that the importance of sacred trees to the spirituality we dimly glimpse from afar to the ‘druids’, described by writers from the hostile, invading, Romans, and even mentioned (by attribution) by such as St Columba, should not be underestimated.
Returning to more easily attributable thoughts….
A sense of ‘you have been warned’ pervades the whole of Scripture. (And, incidentally, not just in Christianity, but we’ll keep the word-count down for now.) I can’t think of any instance where a bolt from the blue arrives because God had a bad hair day, though the Book of Job – and indeed much of the teaching of Jesus – goes out of its way to disconnect genuinely ‘natural’ processes from any sort of ‘no smoke without fire’ argument. The planet always has its own agenda.
Creation becomes the more alarmingly irrational when we pretend that it came into being for us, or that we are the centre, the pinnacle and purpose of the universe. Mainstream Christian critics of ‘anthropocentricism’ concur. Maybe even that “big word” isn’t strong enough: ‘anthropolatry” – the idolatry of the human might be more like it, though even that, it seems, is a mask to the idolatry of the injustice of the Market, ( mammonolatry) itself a human invention.
Not that human beings are at all neglected in the stories of our faith. Humanity has and evolves a place and purpose in the management of the Garden.
Is the Incarnation “for us”? Or just the Cross? And how wide or how exclusive is the “us”? Every time I try to pin down provision reserved only for human life, it involves a mental pruning of the wide web of Life. Of the thicket, the brush, the forest of intimate connection with the rest of Creation.
There’s realism in the poetic Book of Job: the processes of the earth are not determined by humanity, though we are now effectively at war with “laws that cannot broken”. I wonder if this might seem ‘gloomy’, but it looks as if living well and with justice is not automatically “rewarded” by prosperity, (for that is the fallacy of ‘Prosperity Gospel’ ) though self-destructive behaviour and pig-headedness and complacency, with regard to warning signs, lay cataclysmic foundations.
God the Creator also repeatedly does time as God the Mitigator: what matters is not the wrath or anger of God expressed through cataclysm, but the safeguarding of the seeds of life, in partnership with faithful, and invariably far-from-perfect people. We find God picking up the pieces after tragedy, rather than bringing it on. But also in the tears of Christ, seeing it coming.
Do you find, in the Garden of Eden story of Genesis, a vindictive overlord, or a God creatively limiting damage?
Do you find in the story of the Great Flood someone who has thrown their rattle out of the pram, or who in the face of damage done to the planet holds on to life through partnership with people who will listen?
Do you share in the terror of Isaiah that God cannot be contained either in temples or ideas, but rather that God’s glory fills all Creation?
And are you able to hear, in John 1:14 That the Word became flesh, rather than, in the first instance, only human?
Ah well, this is a speculative blog, rather than a PhD thesis. But if you’ve begin to question some of what imprisons and enslaves us as Christians, and liberated from the feeling you need to defend what turns out, in the end, to be inauthentic, then it’s worthwhile .
I believe…. we should pray and think about what we believe.
And maybe, as Abraham looked up and found in the thicket, confirmation both welcome and disillusioning, that a God worth believing in does not require sacrifice of what we should love, a way forward may be found.