Category Archives: Chaplain Page

Befriending the elephant


Acts 2:43 And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. KJV

Many are the elephants in church meeting rooms. 

The big beasties, staring us in the face, that won’t go away. That, if they chose, could mess everything up. Some of them have been around much longer than I have. If you choose to notice  them, you can, perhaps, befriend them. If not, they remain a threat.  

There’s one such mammoth, in whose desperate obscuring  I have long been wilfully complicit as a grassroots pastor. 

 But the other day, it popped out and stood in my way. Not yet trumpeting or charging, but it looked me in the eye, and  there was no way round it.

The Eco-Chaplain experience of encountering  the habits of churches is nerve-racking and disquieting. 

When the otherwise good, wholesome and faithful life of churches makes no provision to acknowledge the environmental crisis, or perhaps sidelines it under another heading, it  now feels like singing a hymn to the Trinity, with only two verses. Like Advent or Lent with a week missing. 

These are Good Things, though lacking, and therefore less equipped for challenge,  or for “trial”. 

I find encouragement in the Lord’s Prayer as  used within the Iona Community. The line ‘save us in the time of trial’ chooses the realistic option: acknowledging the bad things that do happen.  It’s in the awareness of these  trials, and , being honest, the associated discomfort,  that we cry out for help. And become more ready to receive it.

There are  many schemes and programmes, generating  resources, which you can take or leave. Ideas which provide  positive encouragement for community development.  If you’re doing them, don’t stop now.

The ‘Five Marks of Mission’  originating in the Anglican Communion, and adopted or acknowledged by many others, leaves it to (the near afterthought) of  number five to include ‘care for creation’, but at least it’s there and clear.

With Holy Habits, (book 2016) which has the backing of my own Church, it’s nowhere, initially,  to be seen’. The programme is based on the Holy Habits of the Early Church, as seen in Acts 2: biblical teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, prayer, giving, service, eating together, gladness and generosity, worship and the making of more disciples.

I’m not simply  going to suggest just tagging on ‘Care for Creation’, and thereby risk it being ‘just another module’.  

Every single one of those Holy Habits’ is being actively  transformed by our context, not least ‘the making of more disciples’, for  a church which is realistic about climate challenge, is an attractive spiritual home.

The ‘gap’ in that list, is actually the omission of something present in Acts 2, which  I have struggled to own up to as a part of my faith, namely ‘fear’, which can, of course be toned down and tamed as ‘awe’.  

Throughout my ministry, I have worked to promote ‘awe’ and wonder at the works of God, certainly convinced that this is a ‘Holy Habit’, transforming and nourishing  of life and faith.  But awe and wonder is allowed for  in Acts 2:43. Fear is also still there. 

So today, I find courage - or foolishness -  recognising, in the same helpful way that “it’s all right not to be all right”  that appropriate fear, not of God, but of our planet’s prospects, is indeed a ‘Holy Habit’. 

Holy, because we can be honest about it before God, and in Christian Community. 

Like that other activist's Holy Habit of anger, (cf Ephesians 4:26) it's there to move things on, not to be permanent. It has its place. It can be befriended, transformed, lived with.  But not denied. 

Prayer is the opposite of denial. 

In our alertness to the state of the planet, God help us acknowledge, and work through, the Holy Habit of Fear.

Apathy the enemy

With the rise of social media (including this blog)  has come an explosion in sources of news. 

In one way, this can be seen a a democratisation. 

As the group that live-streamed my induction service, ‘Independence Live’  like to put it, ‘Don’t hate the media - be the media!”. Small groups  can indeed bring the unexpected  truth, or a welcome alternative slant on events. 

Nonetheless, we’re probably still the right side of the horrific  tipping point when nothing anywhere is trustworthy at all.

That said, in the semi-global environment of the English-speaking internet, there is plenty of scope for fake news, and indeed, for those sincerely looking for clarity to gain completely false impressions. Worse still, these can be picked up by - you guessed it- the media. The impression can be given that churches or faith groups are obstacles to the acceptance of the alarming scientific insights which can help nations wisely encounter the challenges of climate crisis.

Inevitably, I have encountered some folk in the churches, instinctively suspicious of what they see as an imposed narrative and timetable of climate crisis, with implications for all our lives and lifestyles. You may have a few in your own congregations. 

These good friends are prime fodder for climate denial campaigns,  YouTubers bloggers and vloggers, as well as those with some sort of  scientific background, eager for research funding. 

It is well-known and well-established that some energy industry corporations give (to you and me) huge backing to climate denial groups focussed primarily on the United States.

Thus, if climate denying friends direct you to their latest assertively and aggressively voiced YouTube clip, which is holding them back from bringing their commitment on board with your environmental programmes, do check the accent!  It takes only a little jargon to blind with (non-)science. 

As we are beginning to assemble material for Creation Time/Season of Creation this year, I have been looking over the lectionary readings for September 2019 ( Year C). 

To the extent that there is a common thread, it is one  familiar to mission-minded Christians:  ‘bringing the baddies on board’  or the imperative of convincing and enlisting those whom you (or I) might see as annoyingly misled, unqualified,  or in some sense ‘the wrong people’. A challenge, in other words, to our own prejudice.

But since our ministry as EcoCongregation Scotland is located here, rather than across the Atlantic, there is a different context, and indeed, there are different obstacles.

Look around, and ask around. 

In the UK,  there are, as far as I can see, (and I have checked)  no mainstream Christian or religious groups actively involved in climate denial.   

Our biggest challenges  in Scotland are apathy, postponement and sidelining: where lip-service to the importance of the climate issues is formally  paid, but strategies are employed to keep things on hold.  

And this happens  not out of malice, but rather because that is the way things are done. All of which we probably understand, and all of which, many of us (either knowingly or otherwise) condone or take part in.  It might be nice to carry on this way, but the urgency of climate crisis compels many re-assessments.

Perhaps readers of ‘Lord of the Rings’ might be encouraged to  recall the difficulty the Hobbits had with the Ents, here  shamelessly paraphrased:

“Climate change? yes.

it affects us all.

But you must understand, young EcoHobbit

it takes a long time to say anything 

in Old Churchspeak,

and we never say anything 

unless it is worth taking a long time to say. 

(cf The Two Towers. JRR Tolkien)

When the Ents (a sort of tree-like giant) were eventually convinced, they became formidable and committed allies. The engagement of churches, -especially when they have the confidence to act as churches - is a powerful force for good.

Don’t give up on your churches, even if they’re taking a while to wake up. 

Be encouraged by the good news from other active EcoCongregations. (And come along the Gathering in Dundee, 30th March)  

Be graciously impatient, And shout loudly: your good news can change minds. 


PS: Another encouragement possibility.

The cutting room floor


The accommodation provided for the chaplain includes a garden, which contains an apple tree. Some apple crumble has resulted, as well as chutney and jelly, made by a close friend. But this year saw a bumper crop, and we didn’t manage to (or were too lazy to) pick up all the apples. Now I could always blame this on the deceptively wise and ecological  guidance in Leviticus , but the fact is, it has been a huge  source of delight for my family, to look on, as a variety of wild birds piled in and devoured the windfalls. 

So often, the things we disregard, neglect, or avoid,  turn out to be of great value. Anyone re-reading the Bible with a ‘green’ awareness is going to discover something similar. But not just the Bible.

Long before the possibility of being the second Eco-Chaplain was even on the horizon, it fell to me to review, for the United Reformed Church’s magazine ‘Reform’  the 2015 papal encyclical ‘Laudato Si’  (‘Praise be to you...’) ‘On the environment and human ecology”.

The review  was one of those jobs you take on, and then think ‘ what have I got myself into’.  The text is densely written.  But overall, it was a reminder to re-think any prejudices I might have had about official church documents, especially given some years of numbing experience. 

I know every denomination has its jargon; its ways of finally getting round to saying what needs said, but also that squeezing urgent environmental messages into the ponderous procedures of synods and assemblies is a demanding task. Those of us in ‘organised’ churches may need to have our wits about us, to help their life and work be responsive to the global disruption of which each day brings additional confirmation.

One of the wonders of the New Testament, by contrast, is that so little is smoothed over and homogenised, or forced to agree too precisely with other parts.

In the age of climate disruption, we can be grateful  for the remnants we can turn to of the historic  apocalyptic preaching of Jesus, expressing a vibrant consciousness of threat, and encouraging alertness in disciples, to the ‘signs of the times’.  That New Testament writers  invested the time and commitment to bring these things into a written medium suggests both commitment, and perhaps, that they had ‘nothing to lose’ by  passing on memories of the  robust, provocative,  and experiential imagery employed by Jesus.

That’s why Laudato Si  is amazing. It uses and acknowledges the conventions of a Papal encyclical, but goes further, to challenge every reader of good will. The Pope is writing as the Pope, not sloping off somewhere incognito to do a bit of environmentalism on the side. What he is writing is integral to his role and calling. 

This  is what Eco Congregation looks to the churches for:  to be. whilst being recognisably themselves,  the beautiful gift of God  they’re called to be  in this day and age.  Like Scripture,  Laudato Si includes  many gems that are easily missed on first reading. What took my breath away, reviewing my own review, was this quote:

“Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs..”


“governs us”


There’s lots of argument, and some easy point-scoring about the idea of human beings having ‘dominion’ over the Earth, which most wise Christians interpret as a mandate for care and stewardship, rather than ruthless exploitation.   but perhaps here, Pope Francis challenges that remaining shred of unjustified  superiority that we cling to, when we think of the rest of Creation on this planet. Yes, like it or not, we are governed by the Earth.  We aspire  to dominate,  but that brings danger for all. Good government requires wise citizenship, and partnership, and acknowledgement of mutual need, rather than greed and anarchy. An ecology, indeed.

Many of us, even in Christian  environmental circles, struggle to make the leap from seeing Creation as an object ( a’thing’) to respecting her as a subject (a ‘person’, perhaps, a soul). In this lyrical sentence, the Pope leads us several steps further: Creation as part of the government of all our lives, and all life.... to break faith with which, we do, perhaps, at peril.

-A further instance of the Pope's environmental witness, last year:

Conversations about trees

I headed out on my bike today.  A Christmas tree blew across the road in front  of me, escaping the pile by the bins by the pavement.  The needles were falling off and beginning to brown. It had done its job of celebration, but was now discarded. A nuisance, cluttering up the streets, as if it were not beautiful, or had never been so....  where would these thoughts lead? The small team employed by Eco-Congregation Scotland has been looking over the archived material we have accumulated in response to the call for ‘resources’. It’s a sobering experience. A small change, as a result, is that the link to the section previously headlined ‘Celebrating Creation’ is now labelled ‘Greening Worship’.   We are recognising that, along with the extreme urgency of action and participation in environmental initiatives at all levels, we have already entered a  more spiritually challenging era of response to the Christian call to care and partnership with Creation. There are, as a result, few laurels to rest on.  Not that we cease to celebrate,  nor to deepen our knowledge with study, but perhaps, in the urgency, we identify the more immediately with our fellow creatures. Less on the fence, more with dirty hands. Beyond celebration. We do learn, of course, from other times and places. In the 1970s and 80s, and before, the threat of nuclear destruction hung over the young people of Europe. Popular culture ruthlessly exploited the mood of’ No future’. with various despairing, bitter and anarchic  outcomes.  What was the point of studying, working, starting a family, if the super-powers were going to blow it all up anyway?   But  in our day, catastrophic change is not just possible but likely,  unless we all choose a different way of life. How did we let this happen, and what can we do about it? Out of the still darker days of Nazi Germany, the poet Bertolt Brecht wrote “To posterity” of his heart-wrenching sadness, living in a time when something so lovely and harmless as “a  conversation about trees” seemed like “a crime”, “because it involved silence about so many horrors”. Brecht was living in a time when people of faith were barely visible as a force against the tide of Fascism, and indeed, some had allowed Christianity to be co-opted, though others, in the "Confessing Church" quietly suffered when they did stand up or try to speak out.  Brecht was more convinced of the ineffectual hypocrisy of people of faith, than their value as a power for justice.  Nonetheless, even in writing a poem “to those born after”, there was, nonetheless, something akin to  hope. The other subtlety I missed, on first reading, was Brecht’s  recognition that, even in the darkest times,  “a conversation about trees” remains something beautiful and valuable, and so, likewise, though ‘Celebrating Creation’ may no longer  be the appropriate headline, we all of us need to seek opportunities of celebration, refreshment and inspiration. Plant those  trees!. Get out on that country walk!. transform the church grounds into a haven for wildlife!  Visit Whitelee wind-farm and see how farming, conservation recreation and sustainable energy belong together. (How about a church outing to do that? I’d love to come with you). And make sure you come along to Dundee for the Eco Congregation  annual gathering on March 30th.  Do all you can to be encouraged and enthused. Fall in love with Creation. That is, itself, an environmental action, for what you love is what you’ll live for.  And radically aware 'conversations about trees' are now precisely what we need to have, offer and share, with no evasion or denial of the crisis. (If conscience need be troubled, it's in the 'criminal' avoidance of chat about trees!)   To the wonder and delight in the ‘natural world’, our movement adds   passionate engagement, though perhaps also lament and protest.  But we need to let this soak in. Hymns and reflections on Creation have often been ‘soft’, and ornamental: ’Isn’t nature lovely’. Nice.  But even in the recent past, that has  left us with few resources to face genuinely ‘natural’ disasters .  God may not be speaking as simplistically or judgementally as some would like to infer after an earthquake or a famine, but we should not conclude that God, who in Christ calls us to the love both of neighbour and enemy,  is saying nothing.  Nor, as people of faith, need we have nothing to say. In these dark days - and here’s the surprise -  the relevance of our faith becomes acute.  Love for the neighbour includes the planet.   Of all the resources we can commend, your own faith, and the faith of your community undergirds all else. Build it up, be encouraged. Be open, be honest.  Be the 'environmentally confessing' church we need to be at this time.  And  have the confidence to  make the changes to the shape and content of your prayer and worship, embedding environmental  solidarity into your regular ‘diet’, so it comes naturally. I pray the chaplaincy may help with that: do get in touch, and we’ll see what we can do together. Your stories will encourage others. ================================================= As a PS: I will be sharing the leadership of an event on Iona just before Easter, leading into the service for Palm Sunday in the Abbey, which we hope to shape in an environmental context. Those whose environmental commitment is inspired by things ‘Celtic’ may find this worthwhile. Please do share !  

Getting real with the Christmas Story


Christmas cards love camels. And when, last year, I made a nativity film with the congregation of  Greenock West URC, it was a popular move to place the ‘Wise Men’ on camels, as  a likely, but not essential mode of travel.

The text of Matthew’s Gospel neither mentions camels nor attributes wisdom to the visitors from  the nondescript  East. Indeed, it has been a convenience for monocultural Christians to disregard the intrusion of high-status visitors  - (no, not kings, that’s another unhelpful over-interpretation)  - from an alien culture and religion. ‘Wise’ allows you to ignore “pagan’. The Bible is not so fussy or ‘precious’ as its users. It has also  been a convenience for ‘liberal’ scholars simply to assume most of the story is made up anyway by Matthew to massage into the tale of Jesus a bit more fulfilment of prophecy. And yet it remains: the story is its own evidence, with much to trip up the complacent, and no shortage of telling realism: in the naive arrogance of the learned and the ultimately futile  violence of those sensing their power, or authority, is at risk.  And is there, after all, something rather last-minute about the Magi(cians)’ gifts, rummaging in their treasure chests for something appropriate? Today, of course, Herod would be a climate denier. Both well-informed and acting at the  cost of the innocent  to hide that information. Don’t mistake denialism for mere evasiveness: it has real casualties, as our friends in churches  around the world assure us.

Having control of ‘wardrobe’ in the nativity film, I did take the  spiritual liberty of dressing the Magi (Zoroastrians?) in the white coats of scientists. They are, if nothing else, learned observers of Creation. Though,  hampered in their honest  interpretation of what God’s about by their conventional attitudes. Seeking a “king”, and assuming that others will think as they do, they head for Herod’s palace, and ultimately provoke the massacres of the infants of Bethlehem. One correction  here to most of your Bibles at home: it’s not just the baby boys, but all the children up to about 2.

The defence of privilege and the status quo is marvellously inclusive. Matthew’s Nativity Story came up as the Bible study in a conference I was invited to these last few days. We read through the story, in a standard translation,  slowly, and more than once, to let things sink in. You could try that.Then the leader of the study asked us all to consider what we might be led to share with someone else. Well, lacking a congregation, as such, there’s you, dear reader..

May you have a joyful and deeply challenging Christmas.

And next year, less plastic.

And next year less carbon.

May we dream the dreams that change our course.

May we  go home by another way!

On being both Jeremiah and Barnabas

Barnabus and Jeremiah

I had somehow not anticipated how much environmentally-flavoured preaching at this time involves being a bearer of bad news. Being, proverbially, a ‘Jeremiah’.  

Even in the couple of months since I began this job, the prospects for the state of the world well within most of our lifetimes have quite dramatically worsened, at least as regards public reporting of climate science consensus and of the limited success of such  nations of the world as are seriously pursuing even the upper limit of the Paris Agreement

And yet at the end of a chaplain’s visit, quite diverse congregations are not emerging weeping or shaking with fear. 

When I first began training for ministry, my grandmother observed that I was ‘smiling more’ and  I do hope that worship is a nourishing experience as well as a serious one.   One of my Bible heroes is Barnabus, the Encourager. 

 But I don’t think I’m seriously underplaying the situation, or being unduly jolly. And through it may be, to some extent, because few of us do not quite think through the implications, though I don’t think this is why the  Eco-Congregations I have so far encountered do  exhibit a certain spiritual  buoyancy.

The safe space of Christian worship, at its best, is a place both for good news and bad news, for joys and sorrows.  As a distinctively Christian  environmental movement, we bring to the fraught and sometimes bitter environmental debates a trust in God, the experience of grace, and the remit of forgiveness, which may also involve receiving  the forgiveness of our own complicity in the crisis,  if only to  set us free to act.

At the staff meeting today,  we heard from 1 Corinthians 13, both the acknowledgement of the mystery and unpredictability of life, and of the affirming gifts of faith, hope, and love.  

As a Member of the Iona Community, I like to claim that other triplet, as part of one of our most loved prayers: “Courage, faith, and cheerfulness”.

My online  Advent Calendar, as a devotional project for this season of reflection has led me into some unexpected thoughts based on the Sunday readings. 

Most of all, though, the importance of building up the confidence and faith of the church, to be a People of Hope,   and of hospitality, come what may. 

How many Eco-Congregations does it take?

It’s amongst the oldest of  Christian cracker-jokes:  How many Catholics, Episcopalians, Evangelicals, Methodists,  Presbyterians....[fill in the gaps] does it take to change a light-bulb?   It’s probably best just  to give the answer for your own tradition, at least until you have very good ecumenical relations!   So, for my own church: How many URC folks does it take to change light-light-bulbs to LED? Probably, a Church Meeting, then a synod, then a General Assembly, then an assembly committee, then an additional special assembly to finally make the decision.  Then another Church Meeting to see if they really want to take notice.  Then, just one, to go out and  get the bulb.  Hmm. I’m sure you could do better, but the saddest answer is probably “Change? -We don’t do change!” Although the reflective time of Advent comes first for most Christians,  a friend of mine is thinking of making her own, plastic-free Christmas crackers, and was wondering what might be included to give the jokes a wee bit more bite.  Humour is a great gift from God, with, sometimes, the power to introduce ideas which would be ruled out as too hurried, too  dangerous, too different, otherwise to be entertained.  It’s a holy  task, to challenge and bring folks with you, with the solidarity of  a laugh, rather than an insult or  smugness. As, also, to lift spirits in the face of worrying news. The jester. or the king’s ‘fool’ was amongst the most important minsters of state in European royal courts. They could say what no one else could get away with, and, sometimes, was needed to be said.  In a society which loves to portray Christians as stuffy, naive  and boring (and therefore not even worth persecuting) this may sometimes be our surprising role. Our hearers’ guard is down if they’re not expecting anything worthwhile from us.  Then, joyful  humility, rather than pride of status, can take us far. We have nothing to lose by telling the truth about climate crisis and the urgency of action, as well as the importance of holding on to hope in this strange time in which we live. As to the opening question: we have 430+ congregations, but there's always room for more!  Keep on talking, keep on praying, keep on being the Church, for the greatest of all stand-ups, the Master of one-liners. a  mere carpenter from Nazareth,  born at the bottom of the heap, is the light that lights our way.