Category Archives: News

Way back: thoughts from 2003, written for a United Reformed Church Project

Many of the problems we envisage are about how to do the same things in a different way, rather than do something different.   It seems this was on my mind, when I was asked to write this for the URC some years ago. The picture was taken a year after the piece was written, and not in a crowded city street!  We now have concerns about plastic in hospitality packaging, and of course, the Carbon Footprint of our churches and homes.  But I’ll leave the text as it was when I wrote it.

I rode through the centre of Glasgow around 5pm. My young son was on the back of the bike, and we gently free-wheeled to the front of the queue of revving, grumbling  traffic. We had had a good day out. But the faces of the drivers told a different story. Every other vehicle had many times the power at their disposal, but we would not get back home much later, and we would have the benefit of more exercise – with the uplift to spirits that that involves –  and less stress. And in the meantime less pollution, less wear and tear on the roads. Last of all, it probably cost us less money.  Or is that last of all; for now, we only see dimly the final cost of our lifestyle. (cf 1 Cor 13:12) A time may come, when it catches up with us. Or is it just that we aren’t looking at what is staring us in the face. Do we really have any excuse, or are we so ground down by the business of 24/7 that the God whose work was not complete without a day off (Genesis 2:2-4) is redundant?  We are used to assessing things in economic terms. And yet our lives involve many currencies: spiritual, physical, emotional, environmental. 

If we only ever measure with common standards, there is little prospect of our being motivated to change. Or getting round to it. A car goes faster, usually keeps the rain off, is more prestigious than a bike, there is carrying capacity, and of course horsepower. But a bike is a bike, rather than a grossly inferior car. And we probably arrived home happier and healthier  than the driver of the Porsche we left behind at the traffic lights. (cf Matthew 6:27). Not that I want to go back to walking everywhere. Not that I think it would be wise to refuse the medical care that took my wife through cancer two months ago.  It is just that the way ahead may involve a turning now and then. God never turns back. (cf Job 42, 10ff: a happy ending, but what is lost stays lost!). And Jesus rises to new life, rather than coming back to the way things were. Luddites don’t gain spiritual brownie-points.

It’s like that with organic and fairly-traded food. A few pence more in the narrow view.  But when Christian Aid and others open your eyes, to the cost of fleecing your neighbours,  disrupting and destabilising economies. What you can see – or all you are prepared to see – can easily block out what distance and packaging  obscure. What integrity is there in the hospitality of a church which welcomes visitors with coffee subsidised by the labour of the poor?  Isn’t it easier just to feel good that you have put a pound in a shaken tin than to change your shopping habits? Easier. But not necessarily cheaper. What is the true cost of looking your neighbour in the face when you have berayed her? What would you pay to avoid that? 

 In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus never stops talking about money. Nor, by implication, the many other currencies of life.  Talk of judgement is a reminder, in time we hope (cf Luke 16:19ff) of the cost of “saving”.  And healing, when it happens, is often at the cost of healthy onlookers.(Try Mark 2: 1-12). That’s not fair. But it is God  we try to worship, not the fairness of the privileged. Which is a long way from God’s justice-as-acknowledgement of need. 

What would Jesus say when we complain about taxes or fair trade prices  that pay for medical care and education? – how often might it be “Tough!”?

And we have other neighbours. Not just the human ones. Early British Christians were alive to the “communion of Creation” – that God’s promise in the rainbow (Genesis 9:12-17) was to “all flesh”. The earth, the air, the water are kin to us, for that is what we are made of, both in biblical and scientific ways of seeing.   Humanity’s purpose is to care like a hired shepherd for God’s garden; to befriend every creature ( Genesis 2:19-20) and uncover their particular potential for fellowship and the enrichment of life. Not just friendship in a human-human sense, but ways of living that acknowledge birth death and pain that we share.

 And the “redemption” ( what do you really think that means?)  in which Christians may be caught up is not of some distant wafty-floaty world, we are to escape to but of the same creation we are inescapably part of (cf Romans 8:19).

But for now we don’t see it. We don’t get round to it. We regret it. We are sorry. But what use is being sorry? (Some people just like being sorry!)

The first call of John the Baptist and Jesus was not to be sorry. 

But simply to change your mind. 

All else follows.

Psalm 104 ( Paraphrase) The Mighty Partnership

 

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.

 

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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

their life-long.

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.

 

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Swimming with Christopher

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.

 

 

Study leave: Kirchentag Dortmund: wearing the shoes out/ unreliable impressions.

Here are some thoughts on my study leave at the German ‘Evangelical’ Churches’ ‘Kirchentag’ a gathering when churches take over a city and offer 2000+ events ( services, concerts, seminars, etc). My brief was to seek out from amongst all this, things with a relevance to my work as Environmental Chaplain. Here it is as a report in PDF format.

Fairlie Bring and Buy

Fairlie Parish Church Bring and Buy

Fairlie Parish Church ran a very successful Bring and Buy sale on the 30th of May.

Fairlie Bring and Buy

People outwith the church gave some delightful home made cards, dainty baskets for gifts and smaller ones containing a Ferrero Roche chocolate.  There were donations of plants, books, marmalade, baking, pashminas, toiletries and jewellery.  People were also wonderfully generous with donations of money. The final total raised was £198, which will be gratefully used to help support events in the region.

Fairlie Bring and Buy Items

A selections of items for sale at the Fairlie Parish bring and buy sale

Fairlie first registered with us in 2002 and have done much work since then, for example in renovating their building to be more energy efficient, beach clean-ups, and community involvement. They have received three awards from us in recognition of this work. They also have a regular column in their newsletter highlighting environmental concerns which is a wonderful way to keep these issues fresh in the minds of the congregation.

Well done Fairlie Parish!

[DON’T] Be like me….

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.

 

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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!