Rev’d David Coleman is eager to get to know local congregations’ initiatives, and to hear of your trials and joys, and to lead or share leadership of worship, when appropriate, taking note of your own tradition. Encouraging the committed core of congregations is also a high priority. David is an experienced, ordained minister in the United Reformed Church, a mainstream Christian church in the UK, and is also a Member of the Iona Community, having led programmed weeks at the Abbey.
Invite David to visit you by getting in touch through our staff page here
In preaching and in presentations, David makes exciting use of multimedia (see one of his videos below), and is well-equipped to work in very varied venues, not just on Sundays, or Sunday mornings.
A visit from the chaplain is an opportunity to celebrate what it means to be an Eco-Congregation.
Continue reading to follow his thoughts and reflections:
In their eagerness to praise God, hymns sometimes neglect the place God has given to the life of the world on which we depend. To appreciate our reliance on fellow creatures honours God; the inherent value, wonder and mystery of the Earth is not in competition with the Creator and Sustainer, nor are these fringe benefits for humanity the only purpose of Creation. In the chain of enablement, Creation, directed by God, very much ‘calls the tune’.Continue reading →
Tunes: St Michael (Genevan), or Sandys
1)Creation calls the tune;
no voice can sing alone:
our song needs Trees – because we breathe-
the Earth, for flesh and bone
2)God’s covenant’s diverse:
sustained by love’s embrace
the branch cut from the Tree is dead
though Earth brings fruit from death.
3)We claim God’s likeness true
and rule by right divine;
Yet Christ the Vine, by God, by Breath
sustains, creates, combines.
4)God gives us to the Earth
to till and tend and love;
though chosen violence is done
to soil, sea, heaven above.
5)Creation calls the tune:
a chorus-woven joy
of praise and justice: gifts of God
for healing to employ.
Hello. my friend. You come to mind this morning, as the early summer sunlight in Scotland wakes me up (sunrise is 4.33am) and I wander over to my notes for a sermon (Isaiah 55) as Environmental Chaplain. You come to mind as I recall the shock I felt when you prophetically quoted Desmond Tutu at the CWM ( Council for World Mission: global church family) Assembly in American Samoa in 2012: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” .. though I think you put it a bit more strongly than that. I spoke up as a descendent of the culture responsible. Looking for a constructive way forward , and we became friends. That’s where humanity is with the Earth. The outcome of human injustice – often directed in the first instance at other humans – is the devastation of Creation, and yet we depend on the life of the Earth. And the Earth depends on our wise prearedness to intervene, engage and sometimes leave well alone with the processes of that life. We are part of that web. Emnity with Creation, or even penitential disengagment is not an option: we need partnership and reconciliation, acknowledging fully and openly what has been amiss in the way humanity has exploited and abused fellow creatures . And finding, as God’s gift, by God’s grace, a joy and encouragement to sustain us in healing. So this very early morning, I’m thanking God for the challenge through your speech. And that, through the technology that links us, though lives diverge, we can read and ‘like’ what we each write, as friends in Christ.Continue reading →
Continue reading →
used with: Isaiah 55:6-13 Luke 13:6ff
In the strand of thought in this hymn-poem, Jesus, – with the irony of God- becomes Christ Crucified ( cf 1 Cor 23 etc) when human violence unites him with the Tree. That’s who I mean by “Christ the Tree”. Christ tree-ified. Elsewhere I’ve already re-cycled the much admired older song ‘Jesus Christ the Apple-tree’
For so many artists over the centuries, it has been unthinkable that the Cross of Christ (and so often theologians speak of the Cross when they mean Christ) is not also a tree, with leaves and fruit, using and delighting the birds who make the sky Sky/Heaven, just as humanity can be said to make the Earth the World and the fish the sea Sea .
Through Christ the Tree, the violent imperative to eradicate and defeat rather than to be reconciled is itself self-defeating. Trees are also, at least as we encounter them from ground level, the creatures who quite literally unite Earth and Heaven/sky, with roots in the soil, and leaves that – thanks to the biodiverse habitats in which they live, – create what we and so many other life forms need to breathe and thrive, let alone be nourished by the fruit they produce. Trees, of course, participate wholeheartedly in the natural cycles of water, carbon, oxygen and more, which for Isaiah 55 and in Jesus’ images of the ‘Kingdom/reign’ express the active will of God.
I’ve always been happy to sing hymns which expand my own vocabulary:.“Burled” (v3) refers to the fascinating knotty growths which adorn wilder and older trees, badges of honour which distinguish them from those trees which grow more obediently in straight lines. An inclusive church with room for all, will be a church of Good News.
Melody 8787 e.g. CH4 255 Gott Will’s Machen
CH4 139 Laus Deo
Ch4 509 St Andrew
Possibly CH4 226 Shipston
1)Christ the Tree, tight holds Creation
Sky soil water, nourish round
river’s flow, and cloudburst freshing
God’s the Reign that mingles, bound.
2)Christ the Word, sent earthwards, warning:
Urgent seeking: urgent change.
Love with eyes wide open, hiding
nothing scary, nothing strange!
3)Christ the gardener, last-chance saviour
dirty-handed for the world:
pruning grafting, fertilising
every wood: the straight, the burled.
4)Christ whose thoughts, though we can think them
show us God’s alternate mind
unifying what we fractured:
root and branch to heal inclined.
Continue reading →
God above us around us beneath us, within us
We delight to share with all life
the building-blocks of cells and the minerals of which we are made
We acknowledge the limits of our knowledge, limits which become the more apparent, the more we learn.
We wonder at the mystery of our radical interdependence, the waving of the web of life, as the snakes and flowers weave together on the high stone crosses of this island;
And we are inspired by those artists of the past, for whom it was inconceivable
that a cross of salvation would not also be a tree.
Feeding and offering habitat to all the birds of the air.
We see much too, that seems cruel and vicious in what we call nature.
Predators, who nonetheless ensure the balance
of life and environment
And human selfishness and arrogance
which afflicts us as a species, expressed in
injustice and the oppression of the poor.
For if we are yet to find our calling in the communion of Creation
then we must needs model it on how we treat ourselves.
And so, appalled at the damage that has been done
But encouraged by the beauty which remains
we seek and claim the forgiveness
which Jesus so often offered
before folk could put right the harm they had chosen.
God in Christ, hear us, continue to warn us
help us to turn
and rejoice in your way.
(following an invitation to contribute to a book on intercultural preaching) For formatted annotated PDF version, see bottom of page.
And he said to them, because of this, every scribe, having been discipled into the reign of the skies is like a person in charge of a household, who brings out of their treasury both new and old.
To my shame….. It took me more than twenty years of preaching before I was prepared to acknowledge the apocalyptic dimension of what had hitherto seemed a balanced, civilised and delightfully quotable verse, (above) rather than part of a narrative delivered to powerless people immersed in the desperation proper to the trajectory of catastrophe.
More ‘grab anything that’s useful and run with it!’
than ‘tastefully balance antiques with innovations.’
This involved a desperate yet liberating ‘leap’ from the comfort of my previous use of that text, and perhaps I should declare at the outset that for a practitioner – with no time to be a student – of ‘environmental’ preaching, leaps, like the joyful leaps of the lame, which are at once also the leaps of the hunted deer [cf Isaiah 35:5] are the order of the day. Get used to it!. And leap, yourself. The risks and resources you might have kept in reserve for that rainy day should be cashed in now it’s tipping down. Forget the timetable of church decline. Now, we live! And it’s far more exciting to be a Christian in the midst of crisis.
Well-fed and safe people are not revolutionary, but dwell in (the illusion of ) the sabbath, and perhaps also under the misapprehension of completion. They more easily lose empathy with those experiencing injustice.
Crisis is actually the mode in which Christianity, and Christian prayer, makes sense. And we need to distance ourselves from any embarrassment about that, any snide suggestion that “we only pray because we are afraid.”
Even if that were true, it is nothing to be ashamed of. Perhaps to be grateful for. The pandemic has introduced, with a vengeance, the theme and genuine experience of crisis, though at time of writing, with the disadvantage that people confidently look beyond it, rather than building and embracing a resilient spirituality for the long haul. Given the accelerating worsening of prospects for the safety of children, grandchildren, (or even the twilight of our own years,) an environmental perspective for Christianity has in the meantime decisively shifted well beyond the “nice thing to do” of the early days to a purposeful quest to evolve our spirituality (and therefore our lives and the lives of others).
This is a mucky, messy preaching, where “black and white” (alongside the supposed opposites), good and bad resist distinction, where metaphor dies the death of reality, where globally contextual Biblical inspiration finds itself unable dutifully to bow the knee to the anthropocentric big beasts of written theology.
The old Calvinist convenience, that “if they don’t listen they’re damned anyway”, falls apart, because we are so much in the same boat, so much co-dependent on the ‘common home’. God’s warning to Ezekiel that if he didn’t speak up then the responsibility was his, is more like it.
This is public and missional discipleship where the craftiness of the snake comes into its own, supplanting the worn-out caution of the dove, and the Sign of Jonah is that Ninevites make the change that saves them before the game-changing disaster hits.
( Though what if Jonah had arrived just a few days later, when the sea-levels were already rising, the CO2 was more than any time in human history? Maybe, like us, they’d have ignored him anyway?).
This is the inconvenient observation that the promise not to overwhelm terrestrial life with flooding is made by God, but not by Noah or his offspring.
This is voicing the suspicion that jolly liberal talk of ‘stewardship’ of Creation, in effete horror at dominationalist language, might no longer be fit for purpose, and that the ‘Good Shepherd’, rather than the Hired Hand, (who buggers off when the wolf howls), might be a better role-model than just looking after someone else’s soul-less property, which you can control better than the average sheep-dog does the wayward sheep. Control is gone. The “omnipotent dictator” model of God, in crisis, loses all viability and risks destroying faith and replacing it with despair. ‘God’s in charge, everything’s all right’ needs identifying with the temptation Jesus resisted, to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple, as a demonstration of faith.
This is rejecting the unbiblical idea that our species, though we have a special role, are the be-all and end-all of Creation. [try the whole book of Job] . Or the culmination of the Creation [Let’s just forget the Sabbath, though maybe that’s why it was migrated to Genesis chapter 2 when they set the chapter headings?]
This is standing up to the secular nihilism that paints human beings as a virus on the planet. And even to environmentalists who come, with their despair, to the same conclusion.
This is sticking your neck out like pacifists in the Blitz, to respect and befriend an environment which might be presented as your enemy, to reveal Nature as your much-maligned friend and supporter.
This is recognising the blessing of Isaiah’s ‘Little Child’s Leadership’ [11:6] in the climate strike movement as well as the curse of childish leaders [cf Isaiah 3:4]. This is seeing both that those against us are for us and those not for us are against us. Whatever works!
But beauty always helps. And multimedia or online preaching can help with beautiful and deeply moving images. “ Bringing the mountain” to the prophetic community, that they might hear the mountain’s prophecy. A congregation in love with, but not anaesthetised by the green pastures, able to be taught by the trees and birds of their own locality, and with permission to speak as roughly and lovingly to the storm as they might to a human being in need of repentance, will be making friends with Jesus, rather than just nurturing anger at the irrelevance of church inaction.
Relationship with the rest of Creation is not characterised by cotton wool, but perhaps the blunt practicality of those who live close to the soil. Can preaching bridge this gap to those socially distanced from the Earth in urban bubbles?
The bizarre egalitarianism of online worship – a reshuffling of our patterns of exclusion, where the housebound take part and the conservatively stuffy are excluded, at the most trivial level enables family pets to be present in worship. We have experienced holiness in different sorts of boxes from the usual. It’s not yet clear whether this will help.
Where online eucharistic celebrations have subverted the ponderous committees, there’s also been the chance to experience all food and drink as holy – a significant advance on rarified and specialised substances fondled in expensive vessels.
The deepest temptation for churches during and since the restrictions of 2020 has been to shelve or prohibit talk of every other crisis; as if tragedy never required multitasking.
Putting the gloom back in, when things are not just grim but very different. Pastoral gloom forbids prophetic fervour.
How to forestall the accusation that joy in the changes we saw and their possibility (schadenbedingte Freude) might appear as repellent as Schadenfreude?
The more resourceful amongst us have tracked down those scientific reports which clearly linked the virus crisis to the abuse of nature. The Law of Connection, so fundamental to partnership with Creation, helps wake us from the attractive torpor of an anaesthetic church.
At all times, environmentally-aware preaching involves a ride on the “within-reachness” of the kingdom: taking care to share ( and from lockdown on, affirm by clear demonstration) the genuine and tangible benefits of some of the changes we need to embrace anyway, such as cleaner air, better physical and mental health, less stress, and more. An honest vision of a better life, and how we can begin to live it, belongs alongside awareness of the problems.
Few treasurers are other than completely conscientious, when it comes to the church’s treasure and the location of their heart. When do you share the feelings of Christians in southern Africa, that investments in fossil fuel companies are comparable to historic support for slavery? If you do so, do you need to allow for a pastoral picking-up of the pieces? What sort of encouragement do you offer to a local church which bucks its denominational trend and steps out of line, for love of the Earth?
A preacher can, and should, delightfully affirm the bug-hotel in the church grounds, the bird-feeder on the notice-board, signifying hospitality to the ‘strangers’ with and without wings that might be the angels sent that we might entertain them unawares. ….And supply the corrective to the slippery slope of works-righteousness for those who have done everything environmental ‘since my youth’ [e.g. Matthew 19] that our creative environmental actions (insulation, LED lightbulbs, banning single-use plastic in the church etc) are a currency of prayer in their own right, leading us on, rather than locking us down.
It should be obvious – but love and encouragement move things on better than the overt rebukes of a visiting eco-preacher.
Few congregations are not trying to do ‘the right thing’. Respect that!
Things which it’s right to do, are those whose effect and measurement we hand over to God. Next to reassuring denialism, the most spiritually damaging messages right now are those which promise to “fix” the world. “Solutions” rather than transformation. We have much to learn here from the Mennonite approach to conflict . And where we do come into controversy, to learn what it means to be ‘more than conquerors’.
The distinctiveness of a church which is more into convincing than defeating those who set themselves up as opponents, should bring evangelistic dividends. And call out the exclusivism of those who prioritise “mission” over global climate justice.
Evangelism, as the proclamation of Good News ( – in the neglected verses of Mark 16:15, to “every creature”) can now shuffle off any liberal reservations.
Sharing stories, such as of the neighbouring church which drastically reduced their carbon footprint by feeding the hungry, clothing those in need of clothing , and generally doing what a church ought to do in its community. All the good stuff belongs together. People need to know. The place of boasting in the Lord needs to be revisited, however un-British that might seem.
Unambiguously, and shamelessly, it is to your hearer’s good that they become fully aware of the climate emergency, that they dedicate prayer and/or action to their response, and that they feel they have permission for sustaining hope, even where a rational/logical pathway to such hope is not forthcoming.
It is unloving to omit these omnipresent concerns from preaching.
To preach with environmental awareness is far more to be a rushing-in fool than a fearfully-treading cautious angel. Indeed, the role of a Gospel Clown, a fool for Christ may be more sustainable than conscientious correctness, or the mantle of a more sombre prophet.
A fool holding on to the hope that the foolishness of getting on with it and acknowledging the rocking of the boat we are all in, is wiser than the settled wisdom of the status quo or its near cousin, evasive incrementalism = doing nothing by doing it a bit at a time.
I’ve learned that, in a service where I am completely and even brutally open that the ‘end of the world is nigh’, it’s not a bad outcome that over handshakes at the door, comments veer towards “lovely service, minister!”
Either folks have taken no more notice than they usually do, or they have indeed been enabled to bring their fears before God, their frailty onto holy ground, less self-conscious of slipping off their shoes at the spectacle of the only bush unburned by wildfire.
To lead, through the progress of worship, from despair and disinterest to refreshment and repentance, is no longer the prerogative of would-be Spurgeons. Whatever you have to offer, and whatever your theological background, a hard look at your own prejudices and inhibitions might lead you to some unexpected places. I’ve come across a convinced vegan Seventh-Day Adventist, a conservative Nigerian Presbyterian, whose critique of ‘stewardship’ helpfully challenged my previous moderation, evangelicals who take to environmental initiatives like ducks to water, and inspiring Roman Catholics taking the lead from Pope Francis, which leads us across so many boundaries. Your church tradition should be no excuse. The only “dragon to slay” is a mindless distrust of honest science in its interpretation of the Voice of the Earth.
Looking around,(and based on things I have been sent for review) there’s a theological convergence which is a function of the urgency of the crisis, which I might describe as a circumstantial pressure towards radical incarnationalism: taking seriously what it means to say that Jesus is fully human. Does it follow, for instance, that he shares our evolutionary history? You yourself will work out what avenues beckon.
I try not to get frustrated when (usually) senior church leaders fumble on about Genesis 1-3 or Revelation 22 as if the intervening thousand pages were not full of God’s partnership and love for the whole of Creation. Which is why, although the widespread discipline of the Revised Common Lectionary is decidedly pre-crisis, I am happy to work with it on my visits to congregations. That said, the systematic omission of the apocalyptic needs pointing out. I have chosen to seek the partnership of Creation in the whole of Scripture, and so far, have found this search far more justified than I expected.
In preaching, words may seem cheap, especially when you write a few thousand most weeks, but in this job, every word, refined by the fire of the consciousness both that it needs to be spoken and that it’s open to challenge from a culture of complacency, can turn out to be cripplingly costly. And thus far, lonely. Some sort of support or spiritual direction; the prayerful backing of your community can’t be over-valued.
I could wish for an instant ecumenical order of environmental chaplains, because being obliged to stick your neck out, in seeming defiance of attitudes taken for granted in theological training, will be less hazardous when all our pastoral leaders are awake to the global – and no less local – context in which all our preaching will take place for the rest of our lives.
For now, environmental preaching is dancing on a tightrope, with the rope held between the churches, and by their consent. My hope is that the creative and interpretative skills currently being inculcated wherever ministry training involves spiritual reflection and responsiveness, will result in leaders and preachers more than minimally equipped to support God’s people in this particular iteration (not the first, I hope not the last) of the End of the World. Where an End is, there is also purpose.
The habit of leaps is historically extremely widespread, though ‘a fact universally unacknowledged’ in the worship life and practice of mainstream churches, where embedded songs and rituals develop from associative use of scripture, rather than direct and prescriptive instruction. [Cf Matthew 22:37-40]. In so many ways, reliance on grace, forgiveness, and love for the other are the most environmental of values, working through our faith.
Certainly with gratitude for Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, the biggest and most irrevocable leap of all comes when we hazard anew the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ -And discover our neighbour Earth, holding us, feeding us, healing us when given the chance.
We find, richly and immersively supported by the poetry of scripture, that the crass anthropocentricism of the Enlightenment is now a garden fence blown down by severe weather: the sentience of fellow creatures can no longer be denied, or even scientifically justified, and “our neighbour”, the hungry, thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned and sick confronts us with more than just human eyes. Almost everything about humanity: intelligence, emotions, and more, is also found elsewhere. This should school us in wonder and humility, making us less easy fodder for the well-resourced corporations banking on fear and denial.
There is even a role for fear, – shared, not inflicted. Fear is not a sign of lack of faith. There is a place for the fight-and-flight emotions, to shift us, whilst working to avoid these becoming chronic conditions.
So how can we be unworriedly aware of the scary outlook of tomorrow, whilst concentrating on the ‘kakia’ we are up to our eyes in today? The choice, not to worry about tomorrow, makes possible an annoying, sustainable hope, which is a distinctive contribution of churches to public discourse.
If the Pope is content to describe the Earth as our Mother, our sister and our ruler, then it becomes meaningful to hear the voice of Christ saying “Whatever you do to the Earth, you do to me”.
The poetic magic of preaching, but seldom of scholarship, can draw this together with the obedience we owe, to our own advantage, to our parents, [e.g. Ephesians 6] and Jesus’ outrageous treatment of his family in Mark 3, where one’s true family are those who do the will of God. One’s parents in Christ are those who teach us to care and take responsibility. Honour the Earth! For whatever your immediate genetic connections, science happily confirms what ancient scripture discerned, that down to the DNA, all life is related; made of the same stardust.
Since awareness of crisis lays bare any subterfuge, we also note that forgiveness, (including of our polluting self,) and awareness of our slants, prejudices and agenda is now more than ever the foundation of humility on which assertive proclamation has to be built.
We ‘would say that anyway’, yet, out of love, for the Earth, which is the only consistently honest way to love people, we find the courage to say it, notwithstanding, which transparency enables us to call out the anthropocentric bias of almost all translations and written material of the churches over the last century. In so doing we have no interest in impugning the integrity of sincere and dedicated scholars of the past, but every reason to be seeking to ask what the Spirit is saying to the churches today.
Thus our functional hypocrisy is on the table. The best place for it. When hidden, it becomes a weapon against us, a trap to undermine. Though I find I have now to draw the line at domestic or European flights, I will burn fossil fuels in order to visit and preach, though in lockdown, I am valuing other ways. The literal urgency is such, that we lack the leisure to remove the logs from our own eyes even as we offer help with the motes of others. The preacher gains credit from the example they personally set, although the next best thing is to look to the hearer to outdo them.
I did encounter textbooks in my training, which squirmingly described Jesus himself as an “apocalyptic preacher,” though if that were a treasure, it was one my congregations were content – and perhaps relieved – for me to shove to the bottom of the treasured baggage with which I arrived at the congregations I served as “their minister”.
Congregations are unprepared for the possibility that a preacher might actually mean what they say, though the ’scariness’ of the global situation means that the ’scariness’ even of neglected or sidelined apocalyptic scriptures acquires a potentially comforting level of meaning. I’m realising “scariness” is a theological term. It includes the thought that speaking truth even to the power of your own congregation might threaten your ability to do so.
Without (for now) descending into wild-eyed gleeful literalism, a new meaningfulness should be inescapable when there are “… signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. [Luke 21.25 ]. Equally, the closeness in Jeremiah and Isaiah of injustice and environmental devastation should not leave us untouched by the suffering of Creation in solidarity with impoverished and exploited humanity, even when, corporately, it is our species that wields the knife.
Resident and incumbent preachers, rather than white-horse peripatetics like myself have an exceptional opportunity in the ‘times and seasons’ of the Christian year, as well as preaching the occasional offices of Baptism, marriage and funerals, sensitively and with integrity to open up awareness.
This works best reansformatively rather than additively.
No number of “special eco-Sundays” will equal the value of “seeing the green” in the defining festivals of our faith.
A heavy-handed approach might well be counter-productive, but nothing is too holy to be green. In Holy Week, Jesus is welcomed by branches, nailed to a tree; the Earth alone receives him, before he meets his friends, being (mis)taken for the Gardener. I was particularly impressed by the ‘green protocol’ of the Church of South India, encouraging the planting of a tree in place of the burning of an oil lamp at weddings. Amongst the ‘memes’ I have perpetrated, one of the most penetrating is that “there is nothing too holy to be green”. It is no longer responsible to “shelve all that treehuggery” because it’s Lent, Advent, Easter or Pentecost.” Instead, these traditions stand to be enriched and enlivened as we listen for the voice and place of Creation in all of them.
In Advent, liturgically minded churches may place Judgement and the Second Coming decoratively on mantleshelf of their worship, though in such a way as to affirm what is, rather than to accompany what’s headed our way. So much confusion and nervousness: that mention of ‘judgement’ of reckoning and radical transformation, keeps company with a safely distant and thus unrealistic global destruction, that we prematurely identify one with the other and fearfully and tragically postpone our wholehearted engagement with the completely literal juggernauts of climate emergency. ‘Lord, come quickly’ is the more welcome when we realise we’re locked to a ‘come-upperance’ anyway, barring the most unlikely, radical and widespread change. Thus ideas of ‘Second Coming’ becomes an encouraging search for God’s solidarity and encouragement in discovering the place and purpose of the church today. If we have to negotiate disaster, I hope we’d prefer to do so with Christ!
In my first pastorate, in Wales, folk spoke with more love than awe of the entertainingly fiery preachers, who would ‘get a hwyl on’ and hammer the pulpit with their fists in the passion of their deliverance.
Locked into that pitch-pine forecastle of the chapel, which was designed not so much to be ‘six feet above contradiction’ but rather, to be in viscerally close eye contact and unamplified voice range of densely-packed worshippers, they offered a weekly and profoundly sustaining catharsis, delivered in the Language of Heaven/the Skies [Iaith y Nefoedd]. ‘Salvation’ was in there somewhere, and the uprightness and decency of chapel folk was related to that, though the focus of eschatology was post-mortem. ‘Hiraeth’, that untranslatable, infectious and deeply longing for a “home”, with permission for tears and love, demonstrably sustained spiritual, and therefore physical survival. Salvation-as-deliverance in the Bible stories joined hands with salvation-as-relationship, (justification by faith,) these twin anchors of our faith. (Additionally, an African friend has described the inclusion of Creation in tis scope as “changing the doctrine of salvation”.) The confused logic of Hell gave coherence as a to-be-saved-from location, and perhaps that resonated with the working conditions of the miners. Song and spirituality carried and undergirded political activism. Such things are indispensable right now, and so there’s every reason both to write and seek out new (and singable) songs to support our preaching. Hymn poems may play with images and push boundaries even more effectively than preaching. Emotions are key. Where a song cultivates longing, this can be for a healed (or recovering) Earth, rather than a distant detached heaven. And there is room for lament.
The pinnacle of Welsh tradition, and the associated and politicised ‘revivals’ seemed – and let’s go with recollection, rather than necessarily forensic history – to coincide with that of the grossest exploitation both of the Earth and of those who were the “human tools” of the violation of the landscape (and, though we did’t notice, climate) that was the coal industry. Creation groaned, and with it, the workers, God’s children or not. Cardiff Castle (and the “very religious” Marquis of Bute’s overblown palace Mount Stuart), were built well-nigh literally in the blood of the mining communities. Pacé Max Boyce, “I was not there”, but arrived, instead to serve post-industrial communities (also in Scotland) whose cohesive raison d’être, both loved and hated, had been torn from them like a cancerous limb excised without anaesthetic. Solidarity from the churches had been patchy. Ministers who had stood, suffered, and maybe been arrested with striking miners earned deep respect. Preaching and solidarity were one. And I wonder if the ideational content of preaching mattered that much.
(All preaching, all worship, is ultimately speaking in tongues, relying on the Spirit to be our kindly editor. It’s freedom from the responsibility to make everything happen that makes activist preaching possible.)
Heavy industry, polluting, and invariably in the service of warfare, had come with the gift of identity. As it does to oil and gas workers unsure of how “just” the transition to a zero carbon economy might be. As it does to farmers, feeling under attack over the methane footprint of their ruminants.
Without the pit or the shipyard, the powerlessness whose sting had been mitigated by the solidarity of labour and the deep dark song of the chapels, was rubbed more definitively in their faces as community fragmented: pubs and chapels both became sad skeletons.
And salvation, (from what?) as well as sinfulness (who’s bothered if the things I enjoy or my deepest identity upsets some bloke with a long white beard in a galaxy far away? ), drifted loose from their demonstrable anchor in experienced reality.
Metaphor acquired a “mere”. Poetry became decorative, rather than a vehicle of truth. That sin might be about “what truly harms the Earth”, rather than some harmless enjoyment that irritates vicars, or involves weight gain…. this comes as news to our hearers.
Further -and this will be for the reader to resolve – what are the implications of the global insignificance of personal chosen harm? How much guilt should an individual be prepared to acknowledge for the violence and abuse of their species, their culture, their race, towards the Earth, all of which will be self-destructive, and all of which, with an injustice which cannot but cry out with the blood from the Earth, [cf Genesis 4:10] is already hitting the poorest worst and first. Which lives matter? The racial dimension of climate disaster is also emerging on the back of a renewed awareness of imperial history and its legacy.
The New Testament in particular, having emerged redundant out of a context and expectation of powerlessness, persecution, threat and catastrophe, found profoundly uncomfortable and humiliating employment as tool of Empire and social control. National, Established, and very large churches, whilst they may lovingly dispose over considerable assets and organisation, may struggle to be free of the illusion of being ‘in charge’, wary of being blamed for the demise of the Gadarene swine in time of transition. It’s in the debates that follow from environmental conscientisation of congregations and their leaders, that even the largest church should be able to overcome inertia.
At the other end of the scale, and with the precedent of heroic preachers of pacifism in time of war, we cannot underestimate the pressure involved when a local preacher conscientiously opposes the ‘hanging fruit’ of jobs and prosperity in, for instance, a new coal mine, runway, or fracking plant.
These things become the more acute with the telescoping of timescale. Even if many folk in churches find motivation for eco action because of love of their grandchildren, we now have to convey the unwelcome truth that the world ‘as we know it’, will not ‘see you out’. Nor can a ten-year scale to peak CO2 be approached incrementally. Change is best embraced yesterday, but the next best time is today.
Even for someone whose faith was found and grounded in the justice and peace commitment of the Iona Community, salvation-as-relationship, be it individual or corporate, has loomed disproportionately large – or worse – has seemed disconnected from/antagonistic to salvation-as-real-world-deliverance, which can sometimes put mere religion to shame.
The ‘Rule’ of the Iona Community attempts to hold these things in tension; to mix up the love-of-God people and the justice and peace people so you can’t tell the difference.
To sustain by spirituality a life of loving activism. And vice-versa. And this, whilst not being ultimately dependant upon success or achievement. A sustaining faith needs to look reality eye to eye without letting procrastination or complacency take the place of wisdom.
With a more than 99% consensus of peer-reviewed science, that human corporate action has dangerously and permanently disrupted the ‘laws that never shall be broken’ . The complacency that goes with “God’s in charge, so we don’t need to bother about climate change” needs to be assertively confronted, and as in so much of environmental preaching, with overtly Biblical resources. Churches offer something qualitatively different from secular environmental groups, though we sometimes lack the confidence to drag Jesus into our debates. The result is, that Satan holds on longer.
If Jesus, tempted by Satan didn’t fall for the reassurance of misapplied scripture and jump off the pinnacle of the Temple, then his disciples should cultivate an analogous scepticism. And the immense catalogue of disasters that is the Old Testament cannot square with ‘everything will be all right’. It’s precisely the God who is in charge who is screaming ‘Don’t do it!’ whilst allowing you the freedom to go ahead and mess things up anyway, before being present to pick up the pieces.
Truth -that sets us free to act – is there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, though the limits of our sight and knowledge – in particular, where the Crisis of Creation has not yet hit us hardest – might not yet have pushed us over the edge to the radical and incarnate repentance called for by the prophetic voices of Greta Thunberg, the IPCC and the disregarded prophetic groaning and shouting of the prophetic Earth-self (cf Romans 8, Luke 19:40, and the Iona Community daily office) conveyed with especial poignancy by indigenous peoples. What voices, and not just human ones, do we marginalise as a matter of course?
The danger of activist burnout, and the pitfalls of indispensability, with some irony, is the incarnation of the demons at work to kill the earth with their message of indefinite ‘growth’ and single-use, throwaway styles-for-lives evading the embarrassment and humiliation of mortality. Even ‘building back’ after COVID presents this danger.
The most lethal half-truth of the crafty (but not evil) snake of Eden was [Genesis 3:4] “You (probably) won’t die.
And the kindest response to the Fall,( if that’s how you want to see it) is God’s reminder that we will die. That, and our literal identity with dust, soil, minerals, and all the Life that we share it with. [Genesis 3:19b] Memento mori, almost compulsory on ancient gravestones, with their stone hour-glasses, is a keystone of Environmental Preaching, which does well to learn too, from the spiritual insights of palliative care. A good life is marked by love and justice, not by the lie of ‘endless’ life. Maybe having been a carer and partner in life and work to a terminally ill person has been good preparation for the palliative dimension too. We’re into ‘End-of-world’ ministry, rather than just’ end-of-life’. Have we neglected the duty of the ‘Reformed Pastor’ by Richard Baxter in our preaching, ‘to prepare for death’? Do we allow for the comfort of lament, the mourning for the loss of creatures prematurely extinct, or of the world that might have been?
The lazy presentation of “the end of the age” and related phrases as “forever”, or even of “all-the-days” as “always” reflects how drenched even our worship has become in the denial of death that leads to death.
Looking to the fulfilment of the “end of the age”, rather than into a sterile infinity, amounts to a deepening of faith in the goodness and solidarity of God, without being bullied by a merely philosophical faith in superlatives .
Today I may join a congregation in worship, perhaps to lead, most often to preach. Worship is the best place for climate awareness. A ‘talk’ has less safeguards, less scope to hold on to hope, than a sermon. Wherever possible, I will have examined the scripture to work from, and negotiated the ‘right to tweak’ any given version.
If ‘heaven’ can be experienced as sky, rather than an irrelevantly distant dimension; if Spirit blows in your face, if ‘world’ is not tyrannically limited to the human ‘world’ (even though, sometimes, that may be what is meant). The ‘Earth’, dust, soil, and the World have been variously and sometimes conveyed. If you’re an interpreter of Scripture, then, with integrity, be bold enough to be prepared to be part of a process here. Does the language detach itself from, or embed itself in the life of the hearer? That’s for the preacher to discern. Or maybe to follow on in preaching from a more dialogical form, like group Bible study.
I am always aware both of the danger of ‘making the Bible say what you want it to say’. Yet I work with that apocalyptic desperation to see what we might grab hold of, old or new, to find, build and sustain our hope, without adding to the pre-immmersion in hypocrisy or dishonesty, and what is actually there under our noses, that might be opened up for our good and the good of the world. The idolatry of the ‘pew bible’, the locally-authorised version is my enemy, whereas the option to project rather than print is welcome. Undoubtedly, given our social media culture multi-sensory, competent and sensitive multimedia preaching has the best change of being memorable, rather than anaesthetic. People will handle bigger ideas with visual backing and ‘footnotes’, and it’s good to be able to share Bible references on the fly, without constantly stopping to give chapter and verse verbally.
Two years in to my post of Environmental chaplain, I can say I’ve never before felt as excited or rewarded in my struggle and relationship with the Bible. Crisis draws us more closely in to our friendship with Christ. It becomes, necessarily, less exclusive.
I’ve been inspired simply by the phrase ‘Hallelujah anyway’ as well as challenging the dominant superficially rationalist cultural withholding of permission to hope, where such hope cannot demonstrate a rational and coherent pathway. As ‘children’ lead in Isaiah, so does the spirituality of the oppressed from now on. Though life can and should still be a blessing. I hope I could say that to couples who wonder if they should have children in this time. Where else should our leadership come from? The decision remains theirs, of course.
Spirituality is not a refuge (in the sense of somewhere to escape to) but a context which enables hope in the face of everything which might eviscerate it.
Hallelujah! Lord, Come Quickly!
or perhaps, more realistically “ Hosanna: God help us!”
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