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Advent = Urgent

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Environmental Chaplaincy is something which those who drafted my job description wanted me to find ways of spreading, but in order to reach into the ‘hat’ and grab the requisite pair of ears, I need to have some idea as to what sort of [droid or ] ‘rabbit’ it is that we’re looking for

I’ve reached down the odd burrow as well over the past year. Asked around, pondered.

And reviewing the past year, of all the Christian Seasons, it is probably Advent, into which we are now launched, that has most shaped my spirituality, insights and theology in this role.  At least, now we know we’re well into an age of Emergency, the Season of Environmental Chaplaincy par excellence, is Advent. Advent, though, has long been the poor relation of Christian seasons, an embarrassment  to the outside world, reduced to a ‘Countdown to Christmas’ rather than a time of reflection, longing and urgency in its own right. There is, therefore, plenty of scope: plenty of space to work into, without seeming to threaten festivals like Christmas.

What has long been apparent, is that environmental  pastoral and liturgical input at a local church level needs to arise out of  the ‘general practice’ of the life of the churches. Whatever shape I might find for this project will not emerge by becoming remote from the day-to-day life of churches.  

There is also no way round the imperative of getting the key issues into Sunday worship and teaching. Fringe meetings have great value, but without developments in prayer, liturgy, preaching, hymnody and the rest, it will still be too easy to marginalise the evolution of  transformative ‘green’ attitudes, together with the evangelistic mission bonus it represents to young folk and many others to whom ‘church’ and ‘irrelevant’ go together like….. well.

Thus, although on occasion, and by invitation, I do pick and choose Scriptures for worship, I work, as far as possible from the ‘run of the mill’ that is,   with what would anyway have been part of the worship life of the local church.  Often, this means the Revised Common Lectionary (and its very close cousin used by the Roman Catholic Church). 

A reservation, and sometimes a problem, is that at the time when these programmes were devised, the climate emergency, which is our defining context, was not even on the radar. Nor did any of the committees or companies of translators of any of the most popular versions of the Bible see any cause either to highlight the earthed outlook of so much of the writing, nor even to fill in the gaps, as paraphrases (like the Good News) like to. Sometimes quite the contrary. As if the ‘world’ meant the human race, and so on. But if it were all ideal, it wouldn’t be realistic.

As regards the shape of chaplaincy, one  possible dimension began to emerge last year in Advent, and this happened simply   because  I was not avoiding  what goes with this season. I became aware in a different way of  how the traditions of that poorly  observed Christian Season focussed on  ‘apocalyptic’ themes, including the ‘Second Coming’, on which neither I  myself nor most preachers I have heard have ever had much of value  to say, other than perhaps recognising a vague longing for justice. 

Not that that is a bad thing. 

Global injustice and the climate emergency are so close as to be identical: the imbalance of causal responsibility and the experience of hardship and catastrophe is extreme. Even if that is all we grasp, it is worth going with the flow of the season.

A digression….

Just to pick up this point before  adding more. I heard of a story told at a party, (it would complicate to attribute)  recently of a western church worker being welcomed in the midst of poverty, asking what it was that the church could offer such downtrodden people. The answer they received was”hope” , with the proviso that we “should not confuse hope with optimism”.  Our global situation, where even the biggest, richest, and most powerful churches lack the scope to offer ‘solutions’, now evens out the pretension of those with an imperial legacy. 

Hope gets communities through crisis, even in the face of apparent impotence and insignificance. And the message of Advent and then Christmas, is of realistic hope, through the solidarity of God with Creation. 

Being sign of hope, a ‘Light in the Darkness’ is indeed a key gift, identity and task  of all the churches, including our own. It’s also what we’re qualified for, across the board. ‘You are the Light of the World’… said the Light of the World.

The wilder bits of the Bible actually locate us there. God knows.  Especially these ‘Advent readings’. Which offer, when you go back and look at them, spiritual guidance for times of crisis, such as those in which they emerged. Even if we’re still not sure how to ‘drive’ them.  There’s a harsh realism in the idea of “one will be taken, one left” : pause for thought on the indiscriminate nature of crisis and disaster.

A closeness of catastrophe and redemption is certainly noticeable in the New Testament. The ‘Kingdom’  ‘draws near’, as does redemption (cf Luke 21:28). The Day of Judgement, or of Doom, as our friend  Alastair McIntosh put it in his visionary speech at the Edinburgh Climate  Fair in the Summer, are decisive times; likewise the coming of the ‘Lord’ ( Matthew 24)

The ‘coming of the Lord’……  whom some have identified, more or less as ‘the Destroyer’, which fits perhaps better with other faiths than Christianity.  The Second Coming ends up as a fantasy of holocaust.  “It’s OK to press the button”, religious advisors told presidents, “because it will be the will of God anyway”. (!!!!!)  No wonder sensible theologians leave it well alone. But in so doing they leave the stage clear for heavy rock musicians and nutcases.

As things stand, and without very radical change of direction for our species as a whole, we are on course for some terrible outcomes.  This is no longer alarmism, but the most respectable science.   As reports of possible global ‘tipping point’ thresholds emerge, following on from all the terrifying wildfires of this last year, and plenty more besides, from the very humble position of Environmental Chaplain, I can’t but hazard a few fresh views, and in particular one positive slant.

Which, given our trajectory, is to look to the mythology of Second Coming as a reassurance of God-with-us: that ‘Emmanuel’ business the carols will be going on about. 

The solidarity of God that we need, not to dictate a solution, but to face with hope and courage what does lie ahead. And respond in some ways more wonderful and creative than paralysis and despair.

The hungry diary

Creation Time/Season of Creation won’t be in your own diary, perhaps, for another nine months, though preparations have begun. This has so far involved my assessing the Lectionary readings for September 2020 with regard to their suitability  for shaping worship with an environmental  slant/bias/commitment/call it what you will.  

As someone who, most weeks,  preaches with this approach, this bit of ‘subjective’ is going to be the closest to ‘objective’ you will get.

I used a five-point  grid:

XXXXX Ideal, with obvious Creation themes

XXXX Some obvious Creation themes

XXX Ok with prompting

XX Struggle: only for consistent writers on Creation

X Part of a set, but not easy.

It might be surprising that  ideas like ‘the voice of the Earth  or references to trees, seas and wildlife are not the only ‘point-scorers’  in such an assessment. 

Themes emerging from an intensive reading of these texts are as follows:

Responsibility  ( to self, God, world, neighbour )  including the responsibility to move beyond the mess you have made, rather than being overwhelmed by it.  Given our (collective)  complicity in global damage….  It is responsibility, rather than ‘control’  that God gives to our species in Genesis 1:26

Love for neighbour (taking neighbour rather widely). There’s a very serious need to hear and be shocked by the partisan xenophobia of some of the passages; to grow beyond local parochialism to a global concern. The vital movement in our thinking and praying is from “it” to “who”.

’Payback’ and revenge  vs Forgiveness = as enabling power.

Urgency in all things: though set against  the disabling  idea of  ‘already too late’. ( Advent is a time for alertness and urgency: ‘Lord come QUICKLY’ – rather than the luxury of relaxed patience.)

…………………………..

Maybe forgiveness, and the experience of grace will be the key to the most effective Christian environmental witness. 

It takes little study of the New Testament to  confirm that   Jesus’ practice was to liberate with forgiveness first,  before  evidence of changed life came to light. 

Should it be a surprise that the best we have to offer in the state of the world today are also the best expressions of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? 

The sheer practicality  of making forgiveness/healing/enabling a priority  over vengefulness   shoes through. 

If the one who sings prays twice, then the one  will also hurt twice, who insists on suffering and punishment, rather than a more ‘restorative’ sort of justice.

Advent (not Christmas countdown) Calendar 2019

Dear friends: as last year, I am preparing a series of video reflections, ‘freewheeling’ in a way I could not on behalf of a denomination, on the Lectionary readings for Advent. These will appear on the Facebook page ‘Advent with the Ecochaplain’  at 1 minute past midnight on each day of Advent. If you use Facebook, please do subscribe, and spread it around. Disclaimer: as I write, about a quarter of the ‘Days’ are prepared. All 24 will only happen barring unforeseen circumstance, but it’s good use of morning devotional time to prepare them.

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

Food is not rubbish- Love Food- Hate Waste training

A free, interactive and fun workshop to help you find new ways to reduce food waste. Coming along to this workshop could help you save as much as £460 a year (that’s the amount of food the average Scottish household throws away and much of it could have been eaten.) Come and learn some new food saving tips and help play your part in creating a cleaner, greener Scotland.

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.