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Temptations: The pastoral/prophetic dilemma




This blog entry arises out of participation in  a Bible study on Luke 4:1-13 with URC minsters from Cumbria in the North of England. At the end of the Bible study, in the ‘Swedish’ method, participants are encouraged to make a feasible commitment.


Writing this is mine. It reflects a struggle.




Our AGM/Gathering on 30th March has the theme: Transformation.  It could not be more timely or appropriate. 


The most resistant entities to transformation of any kind are  our conviction, conscience and consciousness. 


‘Fix’ these, and  change follows rapidly.  


And right from the start, this is the business of the Church. ‘Behaviour change’ was not invented by governments trying to raise consciousness of carbon footprints. 


 (Remember, in your Bible at home ‘repent’ means ‘change of mind’, and it follows from/goes with the proclamation of Good News. )


Given the alarming progress of climate disruption, we might sometimes feel we are struggling to offer with honesty anything more than “slightly less worse” news, but nonetheless...


Matters of conscience and integrity are amongst the most fraught and  potentially divisive in spiritual conversation. 


This holds good in particular, for those in leadership and those ‘on the ground’ who share the brunt of any immediate consequences. 


The pressure is intense on local churches and pastors - and for that matter, elected political  representatives of one sort or another - to stand with the immediate needs for shelter and career.  


Our conversations with MSPs in particular have shown that ignorance of climate issues is unusual. The confidence  and power to act adequately on them may be a different matter.


The tension between pastoral (in intimate and local solidarity) and prophetic (in global and long-term solidarity) might therefore seem irreconcilable. I can’t offer a solution, but pretending this shared problem  isn’t there will be adding to the burden of denial that we’re already struggling with.


How, as a local church, can you minister to/with people in a place of low or no employment, offered the possibility of, for instance, jobs in a brand new coal mine or nuclear power station, if you also agree -and campaign- in public that coal should be  ‘left in the ground’?



This, because of the urgent (though superficially less immediate) threat to every livelihood on the planet including, in a shorter timescale than we might imagine, those very local jobs as well. And not just jobs, but the whole living environment. 


There's a wilderness of sorts here.


You can prayerfully offer up your own contradictions, but not everyone will be able to be both prophetic and pastoral at the same time. Then again, different parts of the body have differing functions. You may be on different sides, but not antagonists.


Divided, but not polarised.


Conveniently absent and enjoying their immunity from any such confrontation will be the political  and commercial decision-makers whose policies have led to this sort of artificial either-or blackmail  in which no alternative is offered other than environmentally unacceptable occupations, and no transformation of conditions and livelihood is envisaged.


A comparison with scapegoating of migrants and minorities when, through none of their doing,  the health service is starved of funding, would be apposite.



Off the hook entirely  are those in industry and politics who have long known full of well the danger to all life on the planet, but are content to pretend business can still be “as usual”. 



The idea of a ‘Just Transition’  from  where we are now to where we need to be, (in which  the welfare of those in industries which, in view of crisis,  cannot continue, becomes  a priority,) needs to be mainstream in the proclamation of churches and other humanitarian groups.



That said, campaigns for environmental causes, we can expect,  will have costs to someone, (“I’ll support you except if my job is on the line”) though we may also need to be much clearer and more honest both about their limits,  and their unexpected benefits. 


Do you love, and how do you show love, to those who lose jobs in the event of the changes you advocate? 


Jesus offered examples on disagreement with your family  (- whom, presumably, at the outset, you love and feel loyal to -) for the sake of the Kingdom of God.  


Some of these were very strongly and rhetorically  worded. The outrage we might feel at Luke 14:26 is part of our discipleship. It sets any wishy-washiness in perspective.




No solutions, but comments offered in the hope they may be helpful:


Firstly: a church is a body, a community. No one should be abandoned to carry the prophetic burden in a pastoral situation.  Perhaps shaping  this  supportive and transformative  community is one of the key roles of networks in a movement like Eco Congregation Scotland.


Secondly, though churches almost  universally proclaim their respect for the rights of conscience, the witness of writers like Bonhoeffer : that conscience may itself be in need of transformation, is salutary.  Conscience needs to be well-informed, as well as aspiring to be receptive to the guidance of the Spirit through prayer.  


You do have the right to your opinion. Do you also have the right to hold unchallenged, an opinion which will lead to harm for others?


Thirdly: solidarity goes with humilty. A principled and  conscientious stand deserves respect,  though raising questions on a conscience (which defends climate destruction)  may still be the loving thing to do. 


Complacency and smugness, wherever they arise, play into the Devil’s hand.


God help us, even in the wilderness, to love our neighbours, and our fellow creatures, as ourselves.



Jesus with the Wildlife – Liberating Lent

As we advance into Lent, it’s worth a close look at the Bible stories it’s meant to be based on. Lest, just as the ‘Magi’ turn into kings on Christmas cards, and the Massacre of the Innocents gets left out of the Nativity so as not to spoil a pretty, harmless story, we only receive the story of Jesus  at second or third hand.

At my induction, I drew attention to a closer reading of the story of the Temptations of Jesus, as given in the  early and  discreet witness of the Gospel of Mark,  1:13. 

As  the King James Bible rather quaintly puts it:

13 And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.

Whilst there are many authentic and traditional ways to observe Lent as a time of some sort of discipline, with the aim of being built up spiritually, may I, on the basis of these verses, suggest two further aspects: 

Firstly, the companionship of the creatures in the wilderness, which need not be seen as lifeless desert, but rather a domain not dominated by people. The ‘beasts’ are not necessarily ‘beastly’, and the addition in English language of “wild” simply conveys that neither are the creatures in question domesticated. No antagonism is suggested. They are ‘wild’ in the sense of the wild birds you may have been helping  through the winter, and may need additionally to care for if they are taken by surprise with a return of cold weather. 

Try reading “he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wildlife

Thus is it not surprising that in previous ages, (in the carvings of the Ruthwell* and Bewcastle high stone crosses, as well as, arguably, St Martin’s Cross on Iona),  depictions or stories of Jesus experiencing the fellowship of our covenant partners on this planet have been presented as properly part of the preparation for his ministry of service to all the world.

Maybe this is a time to take care of the ‘wild’ creatures you yourself encounter, providing  birdseed, a bug hotel, or some other expression of hospitality and fellowship, as a Lenten discipline, joining Jesus ‘with the wild beasts’.  If you’re  already doing so, just be happy! 

You can find more ideas in the ‘Faith Action for Nature’ material prepared in collaboration with Eco Congregation Scotland and the RSPB

Secondly, and perhaps more shockingly for some, especially anyone feeling exhaustion or discouragement, in the face of slow progress in greening our lives, churches and societies, maybe Lent is a time to remember the pampering of Jesus by the angels away from it all. The refreshment of a walk in the country, and a readiness to receive the kindness and encouragement of others is at least as much a ‘discipline’ as ‘giving something up. What will prepare you for a committed environmental witness?  What will sustain the embedding of care for Creation in the spiritual, practical and global issues we share?  Who is an angel to you?

Think of it, and grasp it. 

Give up being at a loss in Lent.

*The Ruthwell carving carries this wonderful inscription: "IHS XPS iudex aequitatis; bestiae et dracones cognoverunt in deserto salvatorem mundi" – "Jesus Christ: the judge of righteousness: the beasts and dragons recognised in the desert the saviour of the world.

bug hotel: Loch leven RSPB)

The Car-Park of the Transfiguration

The very strange story of the Transfiguration is grounded in a realistic depiction of human frailty and intransigence. 


Falling back on the familiar  when we have the chance to take a leap into the unknown. Undergirded by our faith.

Not at all irrelevant as “climate change” slides down the slippery slope into crisis.

Whilst this story ( Luke 9:28-36)  does call, I like to think, for some wild and far-fetched speculation as we read it,  our reading will also be grounded in everyday humanity. Grounded in our failings and our potential. Which in  its turn authenticates the strangeness. Helps us to grasp it, value it, rather than dismiss it.

Jesus takes Peter James and John  ‘up on a mountain to pray’, at which the disciples are gifted with a bright  and mysterious vision of Jesus, authenticated, as it were,  in conversation with Moses and Elijah, the legendary sources of near-supreme spiritual authority, for their people .

Like going for a drive in the country, and coming across a couple of  A-list celebrities.

Transforming Energy surrounds Jesus . Preachers have seen it as a foretaste. A signpost to what is to come. But we are told of Jesus’ forthcoming ‘departure’.  So  it’s not at all about standing still 

Peter’s – perhaps understandably – odd reaction is not to soak in this fleeting gift and use it as a stepping-stone for  reflection. For him, it’s not awe, but overdrive.

He looks to build “refuges/booths/shelters”.  He puts his energy into  slowing things down. To preserve the moment. Like a fan besotted by celebrity. Clings to a fleeting moment which is only given as a moment

We are told he “didn’t know what he was saying”. I wonder if we know what we are saying, when we ponder  the authority of the radiant and transformative messages we hear from climate scientists.  The intoxicating message of impending catastrophe. The urgency of action. The journey, which should already have been under way. Ah yes. 

We sigh. And we go back to the car-park. Get back  on the  planes. We go back to the reassurance of our conspicuous consumption .

What refuge would we offer, perhaps up on one of those ‘viewpoint’ car-parks that adorn our beautiful country.  

Would the friends  of Jesus be unusually  adventurous outdoor folk, set out  on foot, or would they rather  have gone for a drive in the country?

You can get unnecessarily scholarly about the ‘shelters’. Maybe that is the fall-back  refuge of those of us who preach, or try to pre-wrestle these stories to the ground for congregations. 

 Maybe there is a reference here to the ‘Feast of Booths/Tabernacles, otherwise known  as Sukkot, though the season seems to mitigate against it. Whatever, Peter suddenly roused from his sleepiness, aims to offer temporary refuges,  with the implication of prolonging the moment, and, traditionally, of  waiting for the Messiah, when he has the chance to  head off with Jesus on the journey to see where he might lead.

But by then, Moses and Elijah,  the two authenticating conversationalists (I wonder who we would choose, or who we would see?) are already on their way.  

Before the disciples know “what next”, the mysterious cloud  overwhelms them and identifies Jesus in no uncertain terms as ‘my Son’,  perhaps rebuking  their misinterpretation;  setting in perspective what it means to mistake the gift of a  call to action for an encouragement to procrastinate.

What is the tone of this heavenly voice? Is it irritation that they didn’t read the signs in the first place? Is it kindly, giving yet another chance to ‘get’ what Jesus is about. Does it say “Get on with it!”

Many are the “maybe’s”. But following Jesus into the hazardous unknown, leaving behind our fall-backs, is what Eco-Congregation is there to encourage, as we approach the season of Lent, and then Easter.



Not just stewards, but partners

Amongst the various relics of bygone ages in my household is a ‘Missionary Box’. It’s a small, quaint  mud hut, perhaps made of something a bit like papier maché, with a slot in the top to put coins in, which would then finance the ‘mission’ of our western churches to romantically faraway places, where people lived, as indeed millions still do, in houses that looked, to western eyes,  a bit like the missionary box. 

Much good was done, much compassion expressed through this medium. A kind response to problems far away can be an encouragement in our lives here and now.

By the time I was reaching my teens, it was recognised that donor-recipient aid interventions didn’t quite tell the whole story. ‘Mission IS partnership’ began to be the watchword, and this is very much reinforced by the developing global strategy of Christian Aid and other expressions of ‘good news’ arising out of Christian faithfulness. 

Not so much ‘giving’ but doing our part.  And where Christian giving is involved, of course, it is giving that you do happily or not at all. It can be its own reward, and there’s nothing wrong with that. 

You’re more likely to keep on doing things that make you happy, and give meaning. And the world benefits too.

As encouragement, we do now have the advantage of widespread and excellent communications: we can see and hear via various media, of the experiences of our sisters and brothers in Christ (and everyone  else God loves) in places which can nonetheless still seem conveniently far away. 

In these situations, thank God, myths can and must  be busted.

Firstly, the romantic picture  of innocence or naivety of people far away in difficult situations is unsustainable. A worker from the Scottish Government who has spent time observing climate mitigation strategies in Malawi assured me that the people he encountered were fully ‘climate literate’, well aware both of the alarming changes confronting them, and their causes. As well as that  that these developments  were not, primarily, their own doing. Having accepted the evolution of their environment, their ingenuity and conscientiousness  in adapting to circumstance is impressively  set free.

A visiting speaker from Christian Aid Sierra Leone confirmed a similar situation, from a country where the annual dry season is all but disappearing, with resultant impact on agriculture.

Friends in Southern Africa cry out to us to get on with action in solidarity:  to make the changes that fall to us, which we are not yet grasping with urgency. Putting our money where our mouth is.

Secondly, and with accelerating rapidity, the overheating of the globe is impacting directly our own weather. As I write, people are sweating in the streets of Edinburgh, having dressed for February, but encountered not just winter  sunshine but a temperature above the average for May.   The disquieting disruption of the rhythm of the seasons, one begins to suspect, will have ramifications beyond what we can see today.

So familiar and nearby animals and birds, and of course, our own agriculture begin to bear the brunt of what human activity is doing to the planet that we all share. Not so much ‘poor stewardship’ as deficient partnership,  and this not just with human neighbours, but with the living planet of which we ourselves are part. 

And, having just now reviewed the book ‘God so loved the world, and so what?’ by Nigerian Presbyterian George O Kalu, I’m wondering with him, whether even the cherished image of ‘steward’, which has sustained and encouraged environmental action and commitment, belongs with the missionary box as something whose time has come and gone.  

The parable of the ‘Steward of unjust wealth’( Luke 16:1-13) has much to say to us, but maybe it belongs together with Jesus’ comments in John 10:12-13 about the uncommitted, stand-in shepherd. The world belongs to God, but we nonetheless need to ‘own’ our heartfelt commitment to it and responsibility for its welfare. Which is our own good, too. 

We’re not the 'hired hands’: we’re part of the family business!

God, help us take notice; 

God, help us change before it is taken out of our hands; 

God, wake us up.

For it is late.

Though you are with us.


Farewell to the piggies

PICTURE: The pig-with-bagpipes gargoyle at Melrose Abbey

There’s a group of UK churches who do important things together: the Joint Public Issues Group (JPIT) is the umbrella, dealing with substantial justice issues like migration, refugees, and of course, the climate crisis. 

JPIT are encouraging folk in the various churches - and of course, beyond - to use the traditions of Lent to develop our personal and public response, with a programme they are calling  ‘Living Lent’

It’s very easy just to sit back and lament, in resignation, the alarming damage that is being done, now at a brutal pace, to everything which feeds and provides habitat both to us and our fellow creatures. 

The Season of Lent has always offered opportunity for an exercise in spiritual growth, earthed in a strictly  manageable level of commitment.  How appropriate to dedicate and channel  Lenten observances towards greater environmental awareness and personal active  participation in our response. 

I have already  given up buying beef, because of the huge carbon footprint which that meat source has  compared to, for instance, chicken (see the national Geographic film ‘Before the Flood’ available for free download ), but as with any addiction, getting to the point of  being meat-free, and seeing that as a liberation, is a step or two further. Thus the encouragement of ‘Living Lent’ is rather helpful.  And as  ‘Living Lent’  points out, vegetarians have about half the carbon footprint of regular meat eaters.

 I will be joining in myself, as the project has given me the kick-start to get back to vegetarianism. I really appreciate  the odd bacon sandwich, and as a minister, there will be times when honouring hospitality ( as in sausage rolls at funerals) may provide exceptions, but I can’t simply ignore the basic, easy, manageable stuff: like giving up meat. 

The other option, ’Buy nothing new’ also has its liberating  attractions and challenges, but one at a time! 

  Recognising that the support of a community has more chance of embedding change in lives, the campaign is itself ‘live’ and will develop and take shape as Lent proceeds.  Having ’subscribed’ to my commitment,   I’ve just received a friendly acknowledging email from Hannah and the JPIT team.

To take part is a small and worthwhile step. And each small step, like a prayer, is in God’s hands.

I’m making a wee video clip about the experience, so I decided, a bit early,  to get the wherewithal for my final bacon roll, not from a boring anonymous plastic shelf, but from a proper hands-on  butcher, who knew where  the meat came from and the conditions under which it was raised. 

If, after the exercise, I do go back to meat, this is what I would need to go back to. And yes, it’s dearer,  but perhaps that better reflects the cost to the planet.

 I was delighted to see, in a display in the  butcher’s shop, the mantra ‘reduce, re-use, recycle’ about their approach to packaging, as well as information about the farms they buy from, and the welfare  of the animals.  

Over and over again, the ‘small step’ of commitment turns out to be like ripples in a pond: doing the right thing for one reason ends up rewarded with a wider bonus.  If I were a meat eater, these are things I should always have been concerned about.

I’m going to really appreciate that last bacon roll! 

The tatty wee guide to green reading

[First published by the Iona Community in 'e-Coracle' online magazine.]

When  you hear ‘Heaven’look at the sky, and what is happening today. The sky is perhaps ‘out of reach’, but not remote to your experience. It’s always there. It doesn’t need to be talked about to be brought to mind. And it’s in danger, same as the earth! In the Bible, Heaven/Sky are the same word, most of the time. Heaven and Earth are one Creation, and belong together, in the same breath. Look it up! Next time there’s thick fog, have a walk in Heaven! But if you insist on separating them, experience Sky first of all, and only then bring your imagination into gear for ‘Heaven’.

When you hear ‘World’touch the earth, stroke an animal, drink water. Eat bread, exchange a sign of Peace. Don’t be funnelled down only into the genuine, but not universal, narrower meaning of ‘human culture’. ‘World’ includes every living thing, every creature. This is our starting point today. This is what God so loves that he gave his only Son … And the depths of the word’s meaning suggest something worth delighting in.

When you hear ‘Spirit’go outside and stand in the wind and feel its movement. Breathe in and out. Spirit, breath and the wayward gusty wind belong together in the Bible, and require no additional rapture to step into. But if you are given some sort of rapturous vision, remember, the community needs to interpret it, rather than just you yourself. 

When you hear ‘Redemption’ always substitute ‘liberation’. Christ and the truth (both, without conflict) set us free! Freedom goes with finding your place and purpose. Don’t wait till you’re dead to find it.

When you hear obedienceobediently and faithfully question who or what it is that you are being asked to be obedient to. When at Christmas someone sings ‘Christian children all must be/mild, obedient, good as he’, read again the only story we have of Jesus’ childhood, when he disappears in the middle of a crowded city and drives his parents to distraction.

When you hear servant/slave remember that it is the useless ones that do only what they’re told.

When you hear of God in Christ Jesusremember and respect how the Church has insisted on (though also often ignored) the full and unreserved humanity of Jesus, revealing the holiness of that of which he was made. Feel your own body. Go to the toilet. Get hot, get cold. The radical implication of the Incarnation, if you don’t limply pass it off as a mere metaphor, is that Jesus also shares our evolutionary history – thus also that of all living things.

Befriending the elephant


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

Many are the elephants in church meeting rooms. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayer is the opposite of denial. 

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