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The Circular Economy of the Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our world reflects what we believe.

Yep, it matters, this theology game.

Claiming the green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As ever…. get on with it!

Hypocrites Anonymous – further thoughts

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

Hypocrites anonymous – further thoughts:  a treasure in plain sight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before God, with the people of God

I confess to my brokenness:

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

May God forgive you, Christ renew you, 

And the Spirit enable you to grow in love.

Amen

Before God, with the people of God

we confess to my brokenness:

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

May God forgive you, Christ renew you, 

And the Spirit enable you to grow in love.

Amen

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Have a good day, whatever mess it starts in!

Hypocrites anonymous

Hypocrites anonymous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buchlyvie Church Christmas Tree Festival

Buchlyvie Church have been holding a Christmas tree festival on the December weekends in the run up to Christmas. The theme is “He’s got the whole world in His hands” Fifteen trees have been beautifully decorated by village groups and individuals and include up-cycling, save the oceans, polar ice cap, after the rains comes the rainbow, and birds, bees and butterfly conservation.

If you are in the area this weekend (21st and 22nd December 2019) it would be worth popping along to see the trees. (Please see our events page for details)