Category Archives: News

Gold Award given to Lomond Parish Church for their environmental work.

The Lomond Parish Church Eco- team received their Gold award from Len Gregory, Eco-Congregation Scotland trustee. Pictured here are MSP Jackie Baillie, Mary Sweetland, Doreen Lowe, Cllr Sally Page, Len Gregory, and Cllr Ian Dickson.

The Gold award which Lomond Parish has achieved recognises that their congregation has met or exceeded Eco-Congregation’s highest standards in spiritual living, practical living and global living, and is seen as a beacon in the area for caring about environmental issues.

The congregation has been especially commended by the assessors for the breadth of their work, with many members taking positive action to reduce their individual carbon footprint as well as that of the church building. Environmental issues are embedded in worship and extend beyond the grounds, with a reflective walk being  prepared for RSPB Loch Lomond as part of a Faith Action for Nature project.

The assessors were very impressed by the commitment and enthusiasm of the congregation. Strengths were noted in all the areas being assessed but particularly in the area of spiritual living.  They were commended for the outstanding work they are doing in making connections between Christian faith and environmental concerns for the whole congregation.

The church grounds are used to provide community allotments. These are managed in an ecologically positive way and this has had an impressive impact both within the congregation and the wider community.

The church has been involved in the pilot of Faith Action for Nature, supplying locally grown plants for community displays and running an Eco fair. This work has contributed significantly to the church becoming very well known locally for their leadership and their commitment to environmental concerns.

Energy use within the church buildings has been monitored and they now have a zoned heating system with smart WiFi enabled controls, which has helped them to minimise the energy they use in heating their buildings. They are careful to monitoring and evaluate their use of energy. Members of the congregation have taken steps to address the use of energy in their own homes, addressing a range of issues from buying locally to attending a course to learn how to change their driving habits to reduce the use of fuel. There are a variety of examples of the congregation going the extra mile to find environmentally friendly solutions such as switching to bio oasis for flower arrangements and finding a recycling provider for old photographs

“We started on this journey in 2011, and have worked through the levels of the award, raising awareness among the congregation and users of our buildings on the importance of reducing our carbon footprint to protect  God’s Creation. With the Climate Emergency now declared by governments we will continue to strive help the transition to a low carbon economy, so that our children and their children can continue to enjoy the beauty of Loch Lomondside and the Leven Valley ”    Mary Sweetland, Eco-Convenor

Lomond Parish is the new name for the Church of Scotland in north Vale of Leven following the union recently of  Alexandria Parish and Jamestown Parish. The award was assessed for Alexandria Parish Church.


Nov 2019

Giving back control. From “what” to “who”

I’ve been involved with puppetry for a very long time: way back in the 80s, I was part of a European youth film movement, where my perhaps somewhat scary animated puppet films got me around to festivals in Belgium, Germany and Italy. I managed to get a small commission from the BBC for an item in the ‘Golden Oldies picture show, to accompany the Dubliners’ ‘Seven Drunken Nights’, and you can find bootleg versions still on YouTube, where the comments speculate as to who made it and how. I know it happened by being shut in a room with hot lights and a lot of plasticine for seven weeks.

Like many ministers. I’ve found it useful in what folk think of as the ‘childrens’ address slot, to bring in puppets. Not at all just for the children: they’re excellent icebreakers, and like Rod Hull’s emu, people readily accept the phenomenon of them developing a character of their own. What’s even more intriguing is that the characters a puppet exhibits are not always at all the same as their handlers.

Live action/glove puppets mean you can get a video clip together very much faster than with traditional stop-motion animation, though digital techniques also cut corners in what seems an indecent way, thinking back to when I really did have to make 25 adjustments per second. In my work with congregations, they’re even faster than that.

As environmental chaplain, my stable of puppets (- concentrating on those which are functional enough to admit an adult hand and permit some real characterisation, rather than just waving around -) has been growing. Orang-utans are there, reminding us of their plight as their habitat is eradicated for palm oil. The polar bear and the endangered, but vital bee, whales, British seabirds whose migration is vulnerable to climate. I have sheep who can be both lost and found. I have a panda on order! And the human race is represented too – by Punch and Judy! My ostrich introduces the futility of climate denial. But then I have to apologise for the groundless myth about heads in sand!

Let them run wild in a congregation for a few minutes, and you’re getting across the message about the Communion of Creation; that we share God’s beautiful planet with ‘all flesh’, in the covenant renewed in Christ’s self-giving. And it belongs, with complete appropriateness, with wonder at and love for biodiversity, gently re-defining the narrowness of our vision of the Kingdom of God. Wherever possible, I like people to keep the animals with them for the duration of the service: in sight, in mind.

There’s another, deeper and more subtle lesson, which is evident in the extreme dedication of professional puppeteers: there are skills to learn, and significant physical fitness is involved if you are providing an evening’s live show. It’s a different sort of self-giving from up-front acting.

What moved me most on a short course with a professional puppet company last year was the point at which, whilst supporting and sustaining the puppet, the handler lets go control to what has been until then a few bits of wood and/or fabric. That’s when wonders happen.  Using blue-screen in films, the puppeteer is not seen, but they’re still there, giving life.

In a framework of respect and acknowledgement of personality as well as interdependence. Yes, it’s reminiscent even of when we celebrate eucharist/holy communion: we gather and provide and facilitate and enable, but the central celebration of Christianity, I would suggest, in all traditions, involves a surrender of control and determination to life beyond out own life; power beyond our power, in the wonder of relationship.

Communion is impossible without our participation, but equally impossible if we only “take back control”, which attitude is killing the Earth. The crises we’re experiencing give terrifying meaning to the concept of being ‘out of communion’.

Absolutely the greatest spiritual contribution of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, and much other inspirational writing on faith and the environment is the recovery of the imperative of acknowledging the sentience of creatures, the personhood of the earth.

Moving in our dealings with Creation from object to subject. From ‘what’ to ‘who’.

Rat Rapure’ – the grown-up fable reflecting on finding your place in crisis.

In response – following a visit to a historic town

Dunblane has drawn visitors for many reasons over the centuries: the complex story told by the walls and the many components of the cathedral itself is witness to this, though it’s interesting to reflect on how the evolving life of that building, in response to the changing needs of the worshipping community, slowed down with the re-roofing and restoration of the late 1800s.

The sustaining and maintenance of our built and spiritual heritage undoubtedly enriches the lives of our citizens, though the question of “how, and for whom” needs always to be there, acknowledging that ‘preservation’, as ‘keeping things exactly the same’ is a very modern and not particularly sound idea. We cannot approach history of any kind, other than through the lens of our own time, and that is something both to get used to and to celebrate.

There was also a time when the streets of Dunblane would have been full of those seeking health and wellbeing during the hydrotherapy boom. Different modes of ‘pilgrimage’ have enriched your life.

Most of my own earlier visits were due to Scottish Churches House, providing a safe place for Christians of varying traditions to encounter, challenge and befriend each other. That way of meeting has had its day, though it’s good to see the ‘oikumene’ all-in-the-same-boat symbol still on the wall.

It’s a reminder of the value of bringing together our diverse treasures of insight and experience: the spiritual biodiversity which can enrich the lives of all, and together, be a sign of hope in times of stress and worrying outlook. Ecumenism works best when we are drawn together by what we have in common, whilst seeking to value, rather than eradicate our differences. Dialogue risks that we might all come out of the experience looking a bit different ourselves, but if our trust is in God, that may be a gift, rather than a tragedy.

This latest visit was also in the context of a common vehicle of the churches, though broader than any in living memory: Eco-Congregation Scotland is a response, ( involving so far about 12% of Scottish churches,) to the many-layered and disarmingly complex environmental threats which are rapidly overtaking our planet. These alarming changes are not just in conveniently far-away and foreign places, but on our own coastlines, in the impact on the wildlife around us, and indeed, reflected in the low-key ‘mitigation’ plans of local authorities and government agencies, now compelled to be looking to a different approach from mere ‘preservation’ of historic places…such as Dunblane.

But how might churches and other faith communities respond to climate crisis? More meaningfully than might be apparent, – but most basically, by being who they are; by coming into their own as distinctive beacons of blessing in a time of threat. ‘Be alert!’ is a key New Testament message, and a lively awareness of the state of God’s Creation is a starting point for how we might live out our faith and find ourselves in partnership with many others of goodwill.

In common with many other faith traditions, Christian scriptures, and especially the New Testament, came into existence in times of threat and oppression. In quieter and more stable eras, some of the ‘wilder’ poetic spiritual responses, (which are actually beginning to ‘speak’ to people around the world today ) have in our lifetimes tended to be ‘retired’ or set aside, on a mantle shelf, though a ‘quiet life’ might sometimes lack interest. My work as environmental Chaplain, travelling to visit many and varied local congregations , suggests that the environmental crises are once more calling us to find an identity, not as powerful or determinative communities, but as partners with many others in the care of Creation, able to contribute vision and experience from what it means to be church today.

A peculiar man

‘We need a peculiar man, for the young people’.
So ran the opening of an article in a Congregational Christian magazine of the early twentieth century, defending the right of ministers to be boring ……and reliable. The dilemma of local churches’ frustration with their less-than-imagined appeal to absent generations, goes a long way back.

And it has been the burden of those sharing my calling, to be measured against a cherished  magic solution, and frequently found wanting.

For a while, I was probably, on paper the ideal sought-after item: male, married to a woman, with two children, and neither too old nor too young, with good vocal projection. But then the specification might have slipped a bit, as I was vegetarian, I didn’t drive, had a pony-tail, wore sandals, and was rumoured to hang around with peace-loving activists. At least I wore a collar (it opens doors) and preferred to use the pulpit to preach from (as, frankly, you get better eye contact!)

In recent years, where applicable, the profiles churches assemble for their ideal minister have also taken on a still more intrusive slant, and the position on ‘marriage’ of a prospective candidate, one way or another, additionally, and sadly,  narrows the field.

Still, the demand is great for someone young, mature, scholarly but not highbrow, prayerful but down-to-earth, who will gather a crowd of compliant young people, and CHANGE NOTHING.

Right now, however, I am actually delighted that more than one church in vacancy has begun to include a further criterion: commitment to environmental concern in prayer and action. Then again, for a local Christian leader publicly to espouse climate denial could do serious spiritual harm to the vulnerability of people becoming aware of the crisis we’re in.

We need to be able to cope with the scary truth of climate emergency on the holy ground of church, and keep the inevitable rude awakenings and penny-droppings to a minimum . (Heaven knows, I’ve had enough of those myself!) . Churches need to be sanctuaries first, before they can be hotbeds of activism, and that will now include the task of gently and compassionately easing heads out of the sand; helping folk see that it isn’t ‘just a matter of opinion’, and it’s not going to go away. Truth – even the frightening truth – sets us free.

Most sorts of church do, however, quite reasonably, look for someone, as pastoral leader, who has studied, and acquired skills in Biblical interpretation and spiritual reflection. Good. These are vital resources for a time of crisis. And they are actually pretty widespread, though colleagues often lack the confidence to stick their necks out in a sermon or elsewhere, when, like Moses and the unburned bush, they notice something worthy of a double-take. That’s where the encouragement of a congregation – and maybe their tolerance for attempts falling flat now and then – comes in.

I am heartened when I see current ministry training prioritising responsiveness to context and circumstances, because whatever else the future holds, I’m sure there is going to be more, and more unprecedented change to deal with.

And these are the parameters of Eco-Chaplaincy that Eco Congregation would dearly like to see spreading. To be normal, and run-of-the-mill , not ‘peculiar’. (But not boring, either!). Because this is what it means to be church in our day.

No minister, pastor, priest or whatever, in a local setting, can do the magic that is looked for without consistent and compassionate collaborative support from the congregation. I hope and pray (and from what I have seen, have confidence ) that eco-congregations in vacancy look to share rather than offload what it means to follow Christ, the Word made Flesh, in an age of uncertainty and threat.

(Hint: part of it does mean having fun along the way!)

Disproportionate thoughts

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(Picture: visiting the Rodin museum in Paris last year)

Feelings are a gift. To feel reminds you that you’re human, or at least, a living being. Feelings, along with faith,  are our equipment for the unexpected. 

And we can expect more of that.

Even some of the more questionable feelings, like anger and outrage. It was one of the most smugly quoted verses I encountered early in my faith journey: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26).

If I can stomach the smugness, it’s good advice.

I remember Fr Gerard Hughes, author of ‘God of Surprises’  talking about the uses of pain. I was sceptical. Though that was a long time ago. He also spoke inspiringly to that group of Iona Volunteers (that included myself) in 1990  about the crucial value of spirituality in sustaining a life of activism without burning out.

Over the last year, I have opened myself as never before to bad news. It drip-feeds into my consciousness every time I open my computer to check my emails. Perhaps I’m grateful it still seems strange to someone who did their growing up in the sixties and seventies. When crassness and (nuclear) despair about ‘no future’ seemed to be something one could dismiss or rise above. 

Those were the circles I moved in, then.

I even, reluctantly accepted the manifest  lies about the ‘need’ for nuclear weapons.

I had quite a few ‘conversion’ experiences ahead of me. And by the grace of God, I also found friends to help me through them. Companions. Angels in disguise? Thank God, anyway.

And I became angry, and afraid, I experienced injustice, and sadness. A year of  inescapable bitterness, being held up for ministry training. And these things  all passed. I married, we had children, my wife became terminally ill, I became exhausted, then  a widower. Feelings were big, crushing at times, but not inappropriate. I didn’t wish them away. They had a logic.

But the question of what to do with the feelings about the climate crisis is still a new one. Nothing has (adequately)  prepared me.  I need a bit more ‘conversion’. I’m still learning.

The Amazon is burning, the Arctic is burning. And yet we’re still here, for now. 

Why?  what have we still to do. ?

Silly question?

Seriously – and maybe surprising, even if it ought not to be surprising – scripture is significantly sustaining.  Matthew chapter 6  helps me each  and every day. Worrying less about tomorrow than I might, even though there is plenty to worry about. And it’s likely that will be the case for the rest of my life and those of my children. And accepting that to be the case, we need a sustainable approach to the gift of  emotions. 

A taller order.  Hope beyond hope’, I think someone called it. Retelling a story ancient even in his own time. 

For now, I’m comfortable, not in immediate danger. Some of my property was stolen, but I was in a position to replace it.  A bit of stress, but Life carried on.

The most irritated I got recently, was when a train which was running in the middle of the night claimed to have no room ,and I knew this was not the case, but an operational fiction. Maybe that’s out of proportion.  But emotional proportionality often eludes me.  

(I was going to say “ eludes us”, but I can’t presume to speak for you.

The political developments of the last few weeks, involving reprehensibly  total indifference to the environmental situation, have been much more problematic. 

The crimes of pig-ignorance…..

The stability I knew growing up, including my delight to be part of a European Community, has made almost every development seem outrageous. It’s been suggested that this is calculated: ‘outrage fatigue’ enables unacceptable things to be slipped in or hidden behind other news, or strategically numbs us.  Better than crushing us?

To sleep, perchance to dream. Or not.

Somehow I need to preserve and give thanks for the feelings which are there for short-term action, without experiencing them all day every day.

 The fight and flight stuff, in reserve, and the keeping going stuff, in balance, denying neither.

Well, maybe  that’s what prayer is for.  And the idea of “sustain” rather than “save” is creeping more into my own.  As well as the acknowledgement  of limits. Transformation, rather than resolution of  conflict.  And the companionship of God, come what may.

This ‘conversion’  malarkey is a lifelong ….thing!  

Being born. 

Again and again and again. 

Ouch.

“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26).

If I can stomach the smugness, it’s good advice, as the sun goes down, and there’s still tomorrow. 

And joy, and laughter as well. 

Just.

Conversations about trees: part two:

In January I recalled the tragic poetry of Bertolt Brecht What times do we live in, when a conversation about trees seems like a crime, because it involves silence about so many horrors?”. (See this archived blog entry) . Just a few months later, in one of so many grim reverses jammed into this ever-concertina-ing age, I find even those thoughts tossed up in the air and shaken to bits.  January has already become “back then”. Spiritually, we are, or ought to be at a tipping point. ‘Business as usual’ is slipping beyond mere obsolescence into toxicity.

Because as if we needed more perspective, the Amazon and the Arctic, those areas perhaps so like the wilderness in which Christ was prepared for his ministry, – and this precisely because ‘wilderness’ was presented in the New Testament as the place impervious to the shaping influence of “civilised” humanity – these holy places of God’s encounter are ablaze.

Out of the end-of-the-world atmosphere of Nazi Germany, just heading into War on the back of Fascist racist populism, Brecht lamented the tragedy that soft and beautiful things like “a conversation about trees” seemed to provide “the opium/anaesthetic of the people”. Getting them through a dark day without the engagement that was called for. I saw today  that even in defiance of the recommendations of a right-wing think-tank, the naked  bribe of reduced fuel duty -and thus encouragement to burn more with impunity –   may be  dangled before voters. You couldn’t make it up!

Never mind religion or opium: try  “The petrol of the people!”

Today, if I were to approach the desperation of Brecht, I might suggest that it has finally become a crime to *avoid* conversations about trees: even that to worship God or indeed, to pursue social justice without acknowledgement of the deep spiritual challenge of global momentum to catastrophe, will ring hollow because it ignores the overarching context of our day.

Though, in the meantime, I also do continue to be comforted by the experience of the “bells that can ring” as the creation-connectedness even of regular worship comes to light: the treasures of our faith, hidden in plain sight.

Is it enough to draw attention, rather than waiting on transformation?

The vitriol of Amos 5 is nonetheless lurking in the wings. How dearly we always hoped that referred to someone else,  conveniently distant in time and space.

This is a blog, not a sermon. It is an exploration of thoughts. Sermons have to be pastoral.  And not only my various audiences, but I myself need God’s help with stomaching the bitter pills cascading down our throats ..of scientific findings and news of real events and damage that won’t be undone.

Am I realising that to describe myself too, in all this, as a ‘sinner’, or in Brecht’s terms ‘a criminal’ is not to be condemned , but to be blessed to claim a starting point for hope?  The obsession with tidiness and perfection strangles more than it encourages.

This, then,  is truly raising the bar: To do the little I can do, and offer the rest to God.

For now the daily and weekly devotions of Christian communities, like conversations about trees, do comfort and sustain.  That must not be diminished. The  indefinable goodness  that sometimes indwells  becomes daily more valuable. It can be more so.

Though  I heard of a Christian leader of a local congregation who demanded  that worship should be kept free of  “all that tree-hugging nonsense “.  Which Bible, as Desmond Tutu used to say, more or less, “is he reading?”. How I would love to be incredulous at that report.

The ecological conversion of the spirituality and liturgy of the churches, let alone their institutional frameworks,  takes time that we do not have. But that need not disable us.  No matter: the Spirit prays where we are incompetent, Christ is with us, when our footsteps falter.

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So we give thanks for any and every step nonetheless. Every spark of hope.

Even our own small encouragements, actions, and conversations.

Help us not to under-value the small things God can use.

And allow that  God’s people will find the reward of joy and even laughter on the way.

For  meaning, and relevance of the quest for Good News and the Kindom of God,

is calling our bluff, right here in front of us.

God, help us sing, and give us hope.

Even on days where Christ himself seems the only reason remaining.

And may we always,

when we turn to you,

speak of trees.

AMEN

Passionately caring

I sent this in as a response to the recent article in the Church of Scotland’s magazine on the reasons for the decision of that denomination to continue to invest in those fossil fuel companies that are not convincingly and transparently making plans to comply in the whole of their operations with the targets of the Paris Agreement.  The deadline for letters was approaching, so I sent it in, and there’s no guarantee it will be used. Editors have their job to do. The point here is to challenge, but in love. In the debate on what churches are doing with their money on public, there’s no doubt that all involved are trying to act for the best, for the common good. But we are now in a completely different and more unstable world situation even than just a few years ago. This does call for a different approach to mission, and in all organised churches. We need to stand up to the idea that those who look for the end of fossil fuel exploration do not care for those involved in it: just as we know those who protest with integrity for the end of war care desperately for the welfare of soldiers and those caught up in it. The website description of our movement is of those who care passionately for Creation, which of course includes our neighbours, however employed. Tonight I’m at an ecumenical conference, listening to a talk by Lord John McFall, introducing the idea of ‘Good Disagreement’ . Perhaps that might be one of the possible roles for Eco Congregation Scotland. And yes, we are likely to encounter intimidation in this respect: the call to shame that we might suggest such a thing: the insistence that, because of our detachment and ignorance, we should keep silent. But please, friends, do not be seduced into the situation of accepting the role of enemies to those whom we love, and the planet we share.

Letters to magazines are necessarily short and incomplete . But everything I write in this role is public. The blog gives me a chance to add context.
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Response to the second article on Disinvestment, September Life & Work

What is the Church – any church – for? Should churches hold to Jesus’ strategic priority of the kingdom of God, or allow over-riding ‘prudent’ considerations to dictate policy? In time of Climate Crisis, these questions become more acute, visible and difficult.

The false alternative of “engagement versus disinvestment” in dealing with corporations, which consciously, cleverly and intentionally evade compliance with Paris targets, gets us nowhere fast, but we have long since run out of time. We can engage -as churches – without playing the part of shareholders, but in wholehearted solidarity with those employed in these industries, as we energetically advocate a “just transition” towards a carbon-neutral economy.

The idea of “forcing” transformations in corporate behaviour” is, one churches should abandon. Christian mission cannot be of coercion, only persuasion. Freed from the aspiration to dictate, our witness gains power and momentum to touch hearts and change minds. Nor can we wait until we ourselves are perfect before we take the relatively easy first steps of reshuffling money. However strange and counter-cultural that might seem, public witness will continue to be compromised when mouths appear to be where money is, or where hearts appear to be where treasure is. To wait, shoots mission in the foot.

Brian Duffin mentions injustice “to those companies” making cosmetic changes towards compliance. What of the manifest climate injustice, long highlighted by Christian Aid and others, of devastation of crops and inundation of homelands? And if you wish to reward those companies that really are changing, switch investment to those primarily engaged in sustainable energy. The location of investments is ultimately a moral, rather than a financial decision. That was the journey that led to a unanimous decision of the United Reformed Church to disinvest, (and switch) with ripples beyond their expected financial clout. It also led to a recognition that conscientious financial and other advisors can be reconciled with those who have seemed to be opposing them. This isn’t about victory or defeat. It’s the hard lesson, for churches, of responsiveness in faith, to the signs of the times.