Chaplain’s Blog

Welcome to the Environmental Chaplain’s blog – a new page where Rev’d David Coleman shares his thoughts and reflections.

  • Faith in the thicket
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    I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience:

     

    Atheists, agnostics or secularists taking the ‘Dawkins’ line of telling you what they think you ought to believe, and having set up this particular straw man, expecting you to be intimidated as they proceed to attack and dismantle it?  

     

    It’s important to be able to say with confidence, that you don’t believe in the useless, petty,  and obnoxious god they don’t believe in! 

     

    Nor in the fluffy bunny!

     

    Nor indeed, in a faith hostile to and domineering with regard to  life and natural ‘resources’. Though such assertions frequently go unchallenged.

     

    You don’t believe in that...

     

    But do you?  Or do you think you ought to?  Is there some voice in the back of your head?  

     

    As a grassroots minister, I  sometimes wondered if I were continually at war, in preaching,  with the Sunday-school teachers of half a century or more before, themselves passing  on, with less than reflective obedience, what they had received.  Please, if, today  you are introducing children to Christianity, immerse them in Creation, and in wonder!

     

    But for now:

     

    Was there ever a time when the narrative of the danger to life of avoidable human destructiveness had more coherence? Or indeed, the peril  of idolatry: the lethally misleading worship of false gods?

     

    Catastrophe repeatedly seems to be built into the way the world works, when pushed too hard, and  disaster, unsurprisingly,  frequently linked to human behaviour, stupidity, greed and injustice. 

     

    Surveys of prehistoric  Britain show that  ecological collapse through defoliation has been well within the capability even of less technological societies.  We’ve done it before.  We should take note. And I might speculate (wildly) that the importance of sacred  trees to the spirituality we dimly glimpse from afar to the ‘druids’, described by writers from the hostile,  invading,  Romans, and even mentioned (by attribution)  by such as St Columba, should not be underestimated.

     

    Returning to more easily attributable thoughts....

     

    A sense of ‘you have been warned’ pervades the whole of Scripture. (And, incidentally, not just in Christianity, but we’ll keep the word-count down for now.)  I can’t think of any instance where a bolt from the blue arrives because God had a bad hair day, though the Book of Job - and indeed much of the teaching of Jesus - goes out of its way to disconnect genuinely ‘natural’ processes from any sort of ‘no smoke without fire’ argument.  The planet always has its own agenda.

     

    Creation becomes the  more alarmingly irrational when we pretend that it came into being for us, or that we are the centre, the pinnacle and purpose of the universe.  Mainstream Christian  critics of ‘anthropocentricism’ concur.  Maybe  even that  “big word” isn’t strong enough: ‘anthropolatry” - the idolatry of the human might be more like it, though even that, it seems, is a mask to the idolatry of the injustice of the Market, ( mammonolatry) itself a human invention.

     

    Not that human beings are at all neglected in the stories of our faith. Humanity has and evolves a place and purpose in the management of the Garden. 

     

    Is the Incarnation “for us”? Or just the Cross? And how wide or how exclusive is the “us”? Every time  I try to pin down provision reserved only  for human life, it involves a mental pruning of the wide web of Life. Of the thicket, the brush, the forest of intimate connection with the rest of Creation.

     

    There’s realism in  the poetic Book  of Job: the processes of the earth are not determined by humanity, though we are now effectively  at war  with “laws that cannot broken”.  I wonder if this might seem ‘gloomy’, but it looks as if living well and with justice is not automatically “rewarded” by prosperity, (for  that is the fallacy of ‘Prosperity Gospel’ ) though self-destructive behaviour and pig-headedness and complacency, with regard to warning signs, lay cataclysmic foundations.

     

    God the Creator also repeatedly does time as God the Mitigator: what matters is not the wrath or anger of God expressed through cataclysm, but the safeguarding of the seeds of life, in partnership with faithful, and invariably far-from-perfect people. We find God picking up the pieces after tragedy, rather than bringing it on.  But also in the tears of Christ, seeing it coming.

     

     

    Do you find, in the Garden of Eden story of Genesis, a vindictive overlord, or a God creatively limiting damage?

     

    Do you find in the story of the Great Flood someone who has thrown their rattle out of the pram, or who  in the face of damage done to the planet holds on to life through partnership with people who will listen?

     

    Do you share in the terror of Isaiah that God cannot be contained either in temples or ideas, but rather that God’s glory fills all Creation?

     

    And are you able to  hear, in John 1:14  That the Word  became flesh, rather than, in the first instance, only human?

     

    Ah well, this is a speculative blog, rather than a PhD thesis. But if you’ve begin to question some of what imprisons and enslaves  us as Christians, and liberated from the feeling you need to defend what turns out, in the end, to be inauthentic, then it’s worthwhile .

     

    I believe.... we should pray and think about what we believe.

     

    And maybe, as Abraham looked up and found in the thicket, confirmation both welcome and disillusioning,  that a God worth believing in does not require sacrifice of what we should love, a way forward may be found. 

     

     

     

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  • Cut the crap: the Brand of Hope

     

    “...The church is big and influential enough to be a significant part of the solution to the current crisis.”

     

    This was the recent  banner headline for the recruitment webpage for a ‘sister’ Christian organisation. 

     

    I do have a problem with this. 

     

    The language still conveys a less-than-fully honest confidence in a “fix-it”  ‘solution’, rather than a creative  approach to an enduring  and already ongoing  crisis.  

     

    Relying on  this sort of strapline, we won’t be transforming ourselves as the church into what we need  to be for the damaged  world, because we’ll just be buying into doing things the old imperial way.  

     

    It’s in our weakness, our differentiation from “might is right” that our strength, and our prophetic ability to speak truth to power, will lie.

     

    We don’t defeat empire by being empire, because empire is seductively expert at co-opting.  

     

    (As an example in passing: if you ever get invited to a Royal Garden Party, see how republican you feel by the end of it! Wow, what graciousness, what  wonderful tiny sandwiches....)

     

     

    And yes, when we, as churches, do  engage with the mighty industries which already plan to continue selling us extinction and climate catastrophe, we need to do so with the spiritual and moral authority we have as churches, rather than as pathetically insignificant shareholders.

     

    And we need to be honest about our own  hypocrisy and imperfection: we fly, drive, drop plastic, and all the rest of it. The distance of repentance we ourselves  have to travel should not be allowed to silence us. Because if we waited to put our own house completely in order, there would be no voice to speak that truth.

     

    That we, as “people of unclean lips”, can nonetheless engage with  people of unclean lips, is hopeful and wonderful.

     

    Whilst hope, and its sustaining, is a vital part of our work as churches and as Eco-Congregation Scotland, misleading ourselves and others about the magnitude of what we face, is not. 

     

    Not, as in distant memory,  the ‘Band of Hope’  but the The Brand of Hope we’re after is a deep and durable one.  We are a passionate, -  and yes, joyful  - movement, because realism sets us free to the profoundly defiant power  of joy. 

     

    (I’ve already had a piece I worked hard  on for a church ‘pulled’ for being ‘gloomy’, but this blog is a place for free reflection. For being realistic, not ‘gloomy’. And if the blessing of “dark humour” is part of it, then bring it on!)

     

    We are perhaps  the first age of humanity which has swallowed, hook, line, and sinker,  the assurance of Satan to Jesus that ‘angels will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’.  We have already jumped off the parapet, and wonder what’s keeping those angels. 

     

    I’m not ruling out the odd branch sticking out of  the cliff on the way down, though.

     

    We are a  culture cherishing  a wholesale denial of cause and effect, grounded not even in a twisted, naive faith in God,  but in the blinkering tyranny of unlimited greed and growth. 

     

    I’ve already noted the ‘greenwashing’  of the job-title of the UK “Minister of State for Energy and Clean Growth”.  

     

    For it’s the idolatry of growth, and the enforced lie that business as usual can continue with a bit of ‘green’ tinkering, that continues to break the “laws that never shall be broken”.(cf Psalm 148).  If we’re attentive followers of Christ, then we do not pretend Sky  and Earth will not  pass away. 

     

    The promise to Noah was that if rising waters destroy, it’s not God’s doing. Again, naive and decontextualised reliance on that sort of promise, is putting God to the test.

     

    Our species (and perhaps the asset managers of some Christian organisations)  have presumed to disagree with the God who in conversation with Job, cited the invincible strength of Creation in the Leviathan and Behemoth: and something obscene and blasphemously out of balance has resulted, where other species die out, not in God’s good time of ‘seedtime and harvest’, but wholesale

     

    (Of course, since we’re not creatures like the other creatures, we might be sad, but we’ll be safe - or will we?)

     

    It’s the most perverse reading - if they bothered to read - of  Jesus in Matthew 6: 34 

     

    ’Do not worry about tomorrow’.... 

     

    because it disregards the  “- κακία -“ (genteel translation) troubles” or perhaps, given the way language often  works, the ‘crap(speculative translation) we’re up to our eyes in today. If you don’t deal with today, there won’t be a tomorrow.

     

     Whether we’re also living out the gullibility of Adam and Eve, that ‘you will be like God’ needs more reflection. 

     

    I looked at the selection of medieval gravestones in St Andrews Cathedral recently:  pretty well all of them had some variation on the words “memento mori” “remember that you will die”. 

     

    That’s not gloomy, but part of what we need to know to live well. 

     

    To know that everything we know does have an ending, which would be fine. 

     

    How would we behave if we were more conscious that this “day” could be  our last?  

     

    Guess what....?

     

    Some, perhaps, would react  with despair, some with hope and compassion. Which itself transforms every situation. 

     

     

    We seek a Life Appropriate to the Age, and the church, not the empire, that God call us to be, for God’s glory and the good of Christ’s beautiful, crucified, creation.  In joyful faith, we seek the Way, because the solution  is not yet  in sight.

     

    Hallelujah anyway. Amen.

     

     

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  • Christ and the Tree.
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    [Image: a happy bird feeding on the Tree of Life, surrounded by runic script, quoting the poem] .

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    Once before I have mentioned  the Ruthwell Cross, which, in stone, and with the clout of history, presents the fellowship of Jesus with wildlife in the wilderness. 

     

    It’s an even more fascinating pile of rock, in that, incised on one of the faces of a cross, presented very much as a tree of life, and a habitat for God’s creatures, is a quote (for Celtomaniacs, wow: it’s in runic script!!!!) from the moving Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The dream of the Rood(the Cross)’.

     

    The poem has been part of my own journey to faith. 

     

    Before I came back to Christianity in my twenties, this poetry, completely unexpectedly,  reached out to me. 

     

    It’s doing so again, after the retreat I co-led on Iona.

     

     Studying Anglo-Saxon as a subsidiary  in my German degree, ‘The Rood’  had leapt out at me with an unexpected power, not only in the contextualisation of Christ as a ‘Young warrior’,( though crucially, one who powerfully resisted all pressure to destroy his enemies) but also the predicament of the ‘Forest -Tree’ itself:  viciously torn from its forest home and coerced into being an instrument of torture.... 

     

    ....Which is what humankind does daily with the ‘resources’ of Creation. We use good things badly. And neglect even to use bad things well.

     

    In ‘The Dream’, The central words and image of the unity of Christ with the Cross itself (Crist waes on rode) ironically achieved by human evil,  let alone  the weeping of all Creation, (Wēop eal ġesceaft) - for human mourning cannot be sufficient...... these are staggering ideas.  

     

    That violence, both against Christ and against Creation, drives these closer together, to the extent that we cannot evade the concept of the ongoing  Crucifixion of Creation. 

     

    Whatever/whoever suffers, is the concern of Christ crucified. 

     

    This  adds powerfully to a theme of how, through the instrumentality of human action, and perhaps despite it, God’s will might nonetheless be seen to be done, in the one who was welcomed by branches and nailed to the tree.

     

    In the nailing of Christ to the Tree, we find we have nailed the Tree to Christ. We cannot henceforth contemplate them in isolation. We cannot follow Christ and neglect the life of the Earth.

     

    In the final lines of the poem, the solidarity of the ‘tree’ with Christ continues,  searchingly, after the resurrection, in the question of who might be prepared to put their own life on the line in response to the harm that is done to the world.

     

    Perhaps the ‘Sheep and Goats’ speech from the Risen Christ, of Matthew 25 takes us, with the logic of preaching, a little further. And science, apart from mediating  the warning voice of the Earth in climate crisis, also confirms the extreme level of kinship of all life, including us, down to a celular level and beyond.

     

    Thus, when you see the Creatures of God in distress, and respond, you respond to Christ. Whether you know it or  not.

     

    After Easter, keep it mainstream!

     

     

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  • Don’t leave the stage clear: feed your faith this Easter!

     

     

    I’m grateful that the blurb on the Eco-Congregation Scotland website describes us as ‘passionate’ – so committed that it hurts.

    The days ( and years)  ahead in all our lives  will require extraordinary love, forgiveness and generosity. 

    For the churches to burn brightly as signs of hope in the gloom of climate crisis, we need fuel; we need to fill up with inspiration, for where there is commitment, there is also always, the danger of burnout. 

    So, above all, seek out occasions of feeding this Easter Season, and if you’re shaping worship or events, look any how they encourage and sustain, rather than macho considerations of sacrifice. You can’t compete with the sacrifice of Christ. You can only share in it.

    For that, though, there needs to be trust in the possibility that we can be fed. I know that, as with politics in a time of brexit, disabling disillusion stalks our consciousness: the disconnect between threatening reality and ‘theology’ means the stage is free for harmful responses to our situation:  the  pernicious ‘common sense’  of  denial  funded by growth fixated commerce; the bitter blame game that polarises and ignores the need for just transition; and of course, the ‘rationality’ of despair.  

    So let Easter be to you a time of refreshment, as well as of confrontation, in solidarity with Christ on the Cross, on Good Friday, with the genuine threats to Creation.

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    So, perhaps,  play this game: Creation itself, like mission, is a partnership. We cannot therefore ‘imitate’ Christ or be ‘Godly’ by isolation,  by selfish power-games. Life, like God, is a community project. Communion. 

    Most Christian traditions are content to talk of the ‘Communion of Saints’ ( the Church in heaven and on Earth). Of course, they interpret their relationship variously, but nonetheless…  The language we are learning again to ‘drive’, to inhabit, and to pray with, is broader.  Allowing the Voices of the Earth the standing of fellow worshippers leads us into a ‘Communion of Creation’. 

    It may not  often have been put  that way, but it certainly has genuine ancient roots in the churches of the British Isles. 

    I’ve recently been able to refer to stories of St Columba and his followers; how, when faced with real peril from natural forces, they chose blessing and friendship over cursing and emnity.  

    There’s wisdom there. In a time of accelerating climate crisis,  we might be threatened by natural forces,  though these are not our enemies. Rather, they are allies in the fight for survival, to be abused at our peril. The war against the environment, against Creation, cannot be won. The alternative approach, to befriend and cultivate them, seems to be what we were put here for.

    Preparing for Palm Sunday in Iona Abbey, a few days ago, I had the privilege of a conversation with a Christian friend of some years standing, about how they were looking forward to Holy Week and Easter. They certainly found the worship, and the celebrations worthwhile, though it seemed that they had given up some years before on the foreground teaching they were based on. Which, like the community dynamism of the Holy Trinity, ( into whose dance, humanity, in the image of that Communion, is invited, ) should get us moving. 

    Somehow,  again, like politics in the era of brexit,  with ecocidal parties courting the popular vote, my friend felt disconnected and bored by a  ‘theology” , which had been captured by the professionals and locked away somewhere.   Even as Easter approached, they were ‘going  along with it’, without being ensnared by the connection with our reality. In a low moment, they might just be content to let  Jesus be sold short  merely as ‘a good man’.  And ‘sin’ was dismissed as some abstract concept, rather than about real damage to Creation.

    I hope that in these special days,  my friend will find it helpful to recall that Jesus, welcomed by branches, was nailed to a tree; that Christians less precious about letting theology be poetic, see in that the Tree of Life,  itself torn from the forest and abused by that wicked use,   a fellow creature, finding itself in solidarity with the abuse of Christ by power and Empire.  

    Sharing, ultimately too, in the triumph of life made new despite it all.

    Faith makes connections. If you see them, encourage your friends.

    More soon.

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  • Sunday of the Branches

    Local churches will mostly be far advanced in their preparations for Holy Week and Easter.  In my rather strange role, after 2 decades in a local setting, I have been preparing to co-lead a reflective retreat on Iona.

     

    I hope that when the main operation of the Iona Community  gets going again from next year, after renovation, we might be able to do something like this on a larger scale.

     

    On this occasion,  it also means that I have the very special opportunity partially  to shape festival worship, - as ever, collaboratively rather than dictatorially  - for Iona Abbey.  

     

    Iona (and more widely, the Iona Community)  has sometimes been a place of experiment; a laboratory of liturgy, though always with the discipline of working in the ecumenical context of the wider Church. 

     

    Trial and error, both, of course.

     

    Able on this occasion to depart from the Lectionary to select readings, I am bringing “if (disciples) keep silent, the stones would shout aloud”  together with the “groaning Creation/earth” of Romans 8: 22, both acknowledging the Voice of Creation, which we so readily exclude.

     

    What I probably could not responsibly do, would be to accept an Easter ‘booking’ as Chaplain with a local church, without a considerable amount of collaborative preparation. 

     

    Maybe in the next couple of years it might happen. 

    But I’ve just begun. Real change needs relationship.

     

    Yes, all our Easters are now in the global contact of climate crisis, but a local worshipping community also needs to feel, in a meaningful way,  that they have ‘done’ or experienced Easter, whatever the shaping influences. The spiritual nourishment of the festival should not in any way be diminished.  Though you may already have taken up this task and discovered it certainly can be enhanced.

     

    A ‘green Easter’ needs to be sufficiently familiar that it feels like Easter. Because it will have brought out some authentic ingredient, rather than just added decorative green icing on the Easter cake.

     

    As I have noted, with delight, of the Pope’s encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ , he didn’t suddenly step aside from being Pope to write it,  but rather, it arose  out of the mainstream calling of his office.

     

    Nonetheless, I am excited whenever  the boat can be pushed out just a little in looking, from a ‘green’ context, at the key  festivals and celebrations of the Christian calendar.  

     

    Some of you have more opportunity here than others, according to your tradition.

     

    But if you were asking: (and maybe thinking about next year) : as regards Palm Sunday, I would encourage a gentle departure from imported palms in the direction of use of foliage and branches from your own neighbourhoods. ‘Look.... at all the trees’ says Jesus. 

     

     A forester friend suggested a “top-and-lop Sunday!. 

     

    In French, Palm Sunday is ‘Dimanche des Rameaux” (Sunday of the branches). 

     

    We gain a closeness to the Gospel when we find it at work in our own environment, rather than  just somewhere detached and conveniently distant. 

     

    It might also be very interesting for a study group to look at liturgical commonplaces, or well-known hymns, and come to appreciate the creative distance these wordings have travelled from their invariably scriptural origins. And what agendas were at work in that journey. 

     

     Even as far back as the voyage from the ‘Word made fleshof John’s Gospel  to “he was made [specifically]  human in the Nicene Creed.

     

    I am working with a music composer  friend on a fresh look - for this occasion - at the  Agnus Dei (‘Lamb of God’) which is already known and used in a wonderful variety of wordings and settings. 

     

    The aim will be: not to replace, but to deepen our understanding of the power of Christian heritage. The result needs to be both recognisable and meaningful.

     

    Not just a matter of tweaking the odd word, but a prayerful and poetic challenge.  I am encouraged to hear of several denominations taking up this gauntlet.

     

    Have a good Holy Week!

     

     

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  • Getting cultural: resources you already have

     

    Aware that we may be getting into new, deep water, the first call of churches and worship leaders taking the risk of integrating environmental issues into their prayer and worship as well as their community action, is for 

     

    “resources”.  

     

    At the AGM and Gathering In Dundee, I mentioned how I do sometimes get funny looks when I reply to people looking for “recommended reading” that they could do worse than start with the Bible. 

     

    But there is such richness there, I wonder why we are still surprised. 

     

    Is there a remnant of the notion that the closeness of what people like to call the ‘Celtic’ church to Creation was merely a sign of their syncretistic paganism, rather than their complete immersion  in study of the Bible?

     

    Likewise, when I also emphasise that you yourself, your willingness to learn and change, are the best resource, (God’s greatest gift in a Christian response to the Climate Crisis, as well as in gratitude to the beauty, spiritual nourishment  and encouragement we also encounter) this too seems ‘news’. It shouldn’t be.

     

    However....

     

    Whilst EcoCongregation Scotland is actively involved in the production of material   (and with the valued help of a very diverse group of writers,  I’ve just assembled Creation Time Resources  for this coming September),  nonetheless,  there are few local  churches which can cope on a regular basis with a barrage of 100% new words, and -heaven forbid - tunes. 

     

    Even on the occasion of a Chaplain visit, I’m always looking to find appreciable existing common ground in which to plant the seeds of  spiritual growth for further environmental commitment.

     

    So, as a sequel to my ‘tatty wee guide’, some thoughts on what ‘normal’ and ‘well-kent’ hymns etc lend themselves to use, without setting the clock back, or diverting the focus onto those previous mission agendas of the churches which have led to the sidelining of the ‘Creation’ content of our Christian heritage. 

     

    Sometimes the answer might be to find a hymn poet in your midst,  to pen a new verse or two, or even go back to the still-living writer of a an otherwise excellent hymn, and see what they would make of a request for an update to take account of climate crisis.

     

    I might give numbers  below,  from CH4, which I know is used well beyond the Church of Scotland, though my guess is that these  should be included in a number of current hymnals.

     

     

    This might take a few entries, but I’ll make a start with the Psalms, of which there are so very many settings.

     

     

    PSALMS

    If you need nature poetry, the Psalms are a very rich hunting ground, though some of the ‘world’ references have been toned down to ‘people’. I mentioned the ‘Old Hundredth’ last time, and I’m still working on what to do about that. CH4 64: “Sing all creation, sing to God in gladness” is a more recent version, with the easy tune Christie Sanctorum’ as offered.

     

    However:

     

    Psalm 8: many different settings : it’s difficult not to find this useful, though some wording is a bit heavy on the ruling/dominion of humankind CH4 4, 5, are nonetheless quite usable.

     

    Psalm 19: The general praise of the cosmos: (though the tune at no 10 in CH4 may take a bit of learning)

     

    Psalm 23: Again, many settings: good on the responsibility for Creation, as well as God’s exercise of care.

     

    Psalm 36  (e.g. CH4 28) A very wholesome expression of gratitude, bringing together the essential concern of the Creator with justice. 

     

    Psalm 46: ( Many settings) A song of hope and faith in the face of crisis which sounds not unlike what is already faced in climate crisis by sisters and brothers around the world . it can be used to help us reflect on these things.

     

    Psalm 77: More justice/creation linkage.

     

    Psalm 90: reflection with wonder on the immense age of the earth, compared to God’s faithfulness. CH4 54 and CH4 161 “O God our help in ages past”.

     

    Psalm 121: I to the hills will lift my eyes”. Scholarship points us sometimes in a counter-intuitive direction: the threat of the mountains to the writer contrasts with the comfort we most often derive from them

     

    Psalm 139: e.g. CH4 96, 97  “You are before me, Lord, you are behind”. Creation as the stage on which we encounter and learn to trust God, who nonetheless  remains mysterious and beyond our knowing.

     

    Psalm 147:  e.g. CH4 103: Fill your hearts with joy and gladness. Verging into harvest. A song of praise to a generous and compassionate creator.

     

    Psalm 148 e.g. Ch4 104 - We are invited to join in the praise of Creation, of which we are already part. Some lovely attention to mythical and mysterious beasts too!  Lively modern setting from John Bell at 105

     

    How do you face this challenge of relevance without overwhelming people with novelty?  I’ll return to it in due course.

     

     

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  • Godliness and cleanliness: the hit-and-run favourite.

    Picture: my son's picture of the traveller and the Samaritan, as dinosaurs.

     

     

     

     

    The Biblical  insight that God is Creator belongs inseparably with the certainty of God’s will for justice, seen as the acknowledgment of need.

     

    Christian Aid  and SCIAF have  always ( or in living memory) rightly  seen the link between the abuse of the environment and material poverty.

     

    They, together with  the Pope, and many other significant voices in Christianity will not permit the sort of environmentalism which is a cosy preoccupation of the rich and privileged. 

     

    If we talk of climate crisis, climate justice: attention to the  disproportionate impact on those who themselves cause the least disruption, must needs be in the same breath. Without the luxury of a full stop.

     

    ‘Who is my neighbour?’ was  the question put to Jesus by ‘an expert in the law’, “wanting to justify himself”. 

     

    This led on, of course, to that  staple of the hit-and-run visiting preacher, the story of the Good Samaritan’. 

     

     In this story,  the  life of the traveller from the hearer’s own community is saved by the generous intervention of someone with whom no relationship or friendship would decently be thought possible. 

     

    That’s the way with bigotry and sectarianism: it can be genteel as well as thuggish. The ‘demon’ involved aims to block the view from one person to another; from one creature to another. To deny rights, gifts and value. This can appear benign: the “proper care” of “things  and objects” . Alongside which,  the always-learned mechanism of disgust is such a potent weapon. 

     

    The Victorian maxim ran that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’.   In our day, godliness doesn’t even come a poor second.  EcoCongregation is a movement in which spirituality can again come to the fore without ‘needing to justify itself’ 

     

    As the  complicated fight to reduce pesticides that kill pollinating insects  has shown, our still very arbitrary ideas of order, tidiness, control, may have precious little to do with biological safety or even the eventual value of the measures we feel pushed into. 

     

    To allow a wildflower strip  in  a field of cultivated crops, or garden flowers, requires a widespread change  of attitudes to ‘weeds’, and even to profit. 

     

     It may involve cost  and inconvenience, to start with, which outsiders may not appreciate, leading to the abandonment of those at the sharp end to face these challenges.  Or blaming. 

     

    Transition needs to be just.

     

     But it ultimately also  requires a  relationship prohibited by those who want to maximise sales of pesticides. And a relationship with mutuality, which can only be fully appreciated when we see, in living things, not just a tool, but a partner;  not just a thing, but a person, a soul, a fellow creature and participant in God’s Covenant with ‘all flesh’. 

     

    God is the ‘God of the spirits of all flesh’, and Jesus has ‘authority over all flesh’. 

     

    Just for once, try  to allow that God is great enough not to reduce these references to our own species alone. 

     

    The language does  exist in Hebrew and Greek, to say ‘people’, if that really was all that was meant. Play the game of imagining that Creation was included on purpose.

     

    Within  the context of the ‘Good Samaritan’ story; for the most devout of the first community, even to be touched in caring by the second would feel unclean. In order to survive, the traveller had to consent (or found, perhaps to their disgust that they had presumed consent) to receiving hospitality, generosity and kindness.

     

    Tellingly, Jesus leaves it to us to wonder what happened next. Did the traveller sneak back to the life they had known before,  not upsetting any applecarts, rocking boats. Or was their conscience  also healed along with their body? Would the Judean traveller even think twice before snubbing the next Samaritan to cross their path?

     

    In conversation with leaders in various denominations and faith groups, it seems time to look at our religious language: do we sing and pray in such a way that we impoverish the nourishing relationship evident to science and faith? 

     

    Do we exclude from the choir the voice of  ( our nrighbour) the Earth?

     

    And in churches where liturgy is  tightly controlled, how is that voice being heard?

     

    This goes very deep. I do invite you to look (online helps make this much easier than you might think ) even at the ‘Old Hundredth’. ‘All people [sic] that on earth do dwell’. 

     

    There is so much more. So much so,  that I’m suggesting, that  the many exceptions, which you will also no doubt discover, will not be sufficient to dismiss our need for a new relationship of faithfulness  in our appreciation of the treasures of Scripture.

     

    Perhaps I can return for inspiration  to Charles Darwin, for whom the voice of the rainforest, in his travels, was a profound spiritual experience unlike his theological studies. Deeply conscious that his theories, being based on observation of nature, would initially lack evidence to be 100% watertight, he wrote of how 

     

    “a crowd of difficulties will have occurred to the reader. Some of them are so grave that to this day I can never reflect on them without being staggered; but, to the best of my judgment, the greater number are only apparent, and those that are real are not, I think, fatal to my theory.”

     

    I began by talking about the unshakeable connection between a spirituality acknowledging God as Creator and our motivation to fight poverty and seek justice. Guess what! This is about you!

     

    Our human world is wounded. Our spirituality is impoverished. In some places, the description ‘half dead’  might be an understatement. And I recall in the internship year of my training, how I lived in the most multiply deprived housing scheme in South Wales.  The ecumenical church in the centre of the community was therefore  an attempt to foster dignity and value. Which it still does, with the total dedication of its workers.

     

    It was a difficult time in many ways, but one of the tragedies for folk living in that pocket of poverty in the  hills of the Rhondda, was that, surrounded by the green  beauty of the hills,  by farm land, and much that could have been spiritually refreshing, people seemed to have little relationship with it.  Looking in, not out. When I took a group of young people to Iona, though they came from a rural area, they were terrified  to be in proximity to farm animals. 

     

    Can we  grasp the spiritual gifts of Scripture as transformative resources for the struggle we know is ahead of us? To enrich our own  poverty; our starvation of a give and take  relationship of Christian neighbourliness  with creatures and a planet  we have been brought up to see as "things  and objects". This new relationship   is a foundation  on which our commitment to action and activism can be built.  Acknowledge your need. Drink deeply of the healing that nature has to offer. Immerse yourself in something green and fall in love with it.  

     

    Don’t be afraid to be nourished, because no one, and no church, has the wealth  or resources, on their own, to encounter the challenge of our day. 

     

     

    For that we need Christ, and Christ’s friends.

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  • Confessional

    A  short confessional thought.

     

    EcoCongregation Scotland has not the time or scope to reinvent the church. On the contrary, it seems that our calling may be to bring out what is authentic and nourishing within the various strands of the faith. 

     

    This properly includes prayer of confession of sin, and its essential healing companion, the assurance of pardon/absolution.

     

    In looking over various possibilities for content of the devotional beginning and end of our Gathering, I first considered the Lectionary readings, prescribed or available to quite a few of our congregations. They might read this,  if  Lent 4 doesn’t get overlaid with Mothering Sunday: itself a chance to reflect on the Pope’s vision of a new relationship with Mother Earth).

     

    Thus Psalm 32 presented itself, and in particular verse 3, which I’ll quote in the Contemporary English version.

     

     

    Before I confessed my sins, 

    my bones felt limp, 

    and I groaned all day long. 

     

    The deadly nature of denial, not only of the facts of climate crisis, but also of our own complicity in it, is well worth pondering.  

     

    Keeping quiet hurts.  

    Opening up (to God)  heals.

     

    Keeping silent, and pretending that only other people cause the problem is a  very twisted way of being,  and I would also guess, might  make us less open or eager to take and share responsibility for a “just transition”.  

     

    If the planet’s future is to be as good as it might be, much that is valued, cherished, taken for granted or relied on must be let go of.  For some, that seems easy to say.

     

    Yet given  the musical chairs of life, some will have landed at the sharp end, working, perhaps, in headline industries that get the blame for greenhouse gases, and will need a priority of support , be it financial, spiritual, social.  

     

    If you’re looking for a carbon neutral world, pray every day for the workers on the rigs, down the mines, or in the factories where the plastics are made.

     

    I’m very cautious of the phrase ‘the Bible teaches’, but statistically at least, in Scripture, the responsibility of  nations and collectives for damaging behaviour  seems to be more determinative than that of individuals.  

     

    The carbon footprint of our society is mine, every bit as much as someone who is longing to get a job as a coal miner.  

    If I would rather they left the stuff in the ground, then I need loving words and consideration for what it would cost my neighbour. 

     

    Not necessarily that such a cost should persuade me to desist from protest and advocacy. But I’ll do it better, more sensitively, and maybe even more effectively if I’m mindful of who pays on my behalf.

     

    As well as, in the more frequent extremes elsewhere in the world, who has already paid for my silence.

     

    No intelligent person, who is not led astray by bogus false science, nor  consumed by greed, malice, despair or apathy,  will deny the principles of ‘climate change’, nor the urgency of action.  

     

    But that’s not the battle. Not even half of it.

     

    It’s not the principles we’ll need God’s help with: its’ the exceptions, the excuses. The postponements, the special cases.

     

    Is there anything which can’t be made a special case?

     

    ---------------------------------

     

    While we’re on ‘confession’, there’s a famous phrase from St Augustine’s description, in his much-mauled (by Green Christians) ‘Confessions’ which sheds light on this. In his somewhat colourful youth, Augustine says he prayed:

     

    “Lord make me chaste/pure, but not yet”

     

    Is our prayer “Lord make me green, but not yet”?  Or have we been keeping that under wraps?

     

    Once more:

     

    Keeping quiet hurts us.  

    Opening up heals.

     

    Let’s pray for the courage, and the mutual support of our movement, not to judge, but to encourage each other in our life, in our prayer, in our partnership with Creation. 

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  • ‘Let alone….”

    “Let alone”

     

     

    ‘He came to his own; but his own did not receive him’ [John 1:11]

     

    Given the evident spiritual and other harm impending and already done by the curse that is “brexit”, the apparent  reluctance/inability of  almost all churches to organise any meaningful comment on the ‘great matter’ which is blocking the horizon of the nations of the UK, is profoundly depressing.  

     

    And I’m already moderating my language in this initial description. But then I never learned to swear, which is a deficiency which has served me well through four local pastorates.

     

    As I have noted elsewhere, the actual and potential impact  of brexit on the regime of regulations to protect  the beautiful  heritage and diversity  of the environment, let alone the economy, rural and industrial, AND  let alone the climate, should have been quite sufficient at least for Social Justice committees to arrive at a  definite and constructive public  position. 

     

    But hands are tied. 

    Maybe I’m not well informed.

    I would love to be mistaken. 

     

    As environmental chaplain, in these circumstances,  I would be grossly negligent if I sat on the fence,  let alone  as the grandchild of the generation of Europeans which sent young men in thousands to kill each other and dropped bombs on the cities of those we now know as friends and neighbours. 

     

    To ‘re-foreign’ our mainland  and Irish family is a violent act. And in conflict, the first casualty  is generally the natural environment.

     

    This being Lent, in these farcical days of our ‘civilisation’ the Devil - or whoever it was that Jesus  met in the wilderness - is looking on and laughing.  

     

    Out of a long history of crass and inappropriate intervention,  churches seem to  have become terribly reticent, and very easily intimidated. 

     

    Media offices have learned to  dread the incontinent warfare of those scathing but  near-anonymous critics on social media. ( One thinks of the ‘Knights who say ‘Ni’ in Monty Python).

     

    That said,  speaking spiritual truth to power (or to ignorance) still requires skill and discernment if our forthrightness is not further to undermine the credibility we should seek for the sake of our care for Creation. 

     

    And scope for martyrdom, of whatever sort, is limited and unrepeatable. 

     

    But reticence and ‘prudence’ contribute to the impression that churches provide a ‘service’, a commodity like any other. Or that they’re a business. Or that  the duty of a church is simply to reflect the fears and prejudices of the people, and that agreement  and submissiveness is the only appropriate form of solidarity.

     

    I know  this is not always  the case, and that the faithfulness of Christians will frequently  extend beyond simply doing and saying what people want them to; ( this being the precondition  under which the Word of the one who ‘came to his own’ might be received without  bother. Or effect.)

     

    Jesus brings a message of liberation from whatever it is that oppresses us.  Even our own acquiescence:  Be it poverty, be it inequality resulting in our wealth, be it sickness, be it health. Be it obsession with this brexit  mess which blocks every horizon, obscuring the challenges of climate justice, poverty, ecocide.... let alone.....

     

    In 1971, South African campaigner Steve Biko wrote:

    "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed."

    How, especially amongst those with any awareness of the climate crisis, are we going to encourage each other in the sort of courage which the church will need, to be there as, with and for God’s creatures, in the climate trajectory of our lives? 

     

    Is brexit  the gift of a trivial training ground, a mere practice sparring partner, rather than some invincible ogre? 

     

    No sane or compassionate person will now claim any tangible benefit of brexit to the majority of ‘the British People’. Certainly  not to nature. We know it has already cost jobs and probably lives. But churches, even acknowledging the complexity of their conciliar structures, seem to be ‘sitting back’. 

     

    In the meantime, we already have more than sufficient evidence of the far greater  harm our species is choosing to inflict on the Common Home of all God’s creatures.

     

    More certain than brexit?

     

    Is it our job to make this clear? 

     

    The Gospel is wet paint. Reach out and touch  it; you will be marked!  St Paul, writing to the smug, self-satisfied Corinthian church, expresses this in a florid, even camp manner, when he says: 

     

    Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

     

    I imagine ‘content’ is a comforting overstatement. Paul certainly did not enjoy, nor seek out the rotten treatment he experienced as a representative of the Good News, but he knows that it goes with the territory. 

     

    Indeed, looking out for violent opposition as  a sign that  something is beginning to get through, gives rather sparse  comfort. 

     

    What instead keeps Paul going is the love and support of the church community which shares his love for God in Christ, and supports his calling. 

    Our movement exhibits that potential.

     

    Paul frequently used  his own resources as a self-employed businessman, refusing to claim his fully justified expenses.  But whatever his own private  financial contribution,  we still have above all to  recognise that Paul’s work was only able to happen because of the love and material support  of the Christian church. Because, one way or another, he did have somewhere to call home.  Which Life on Earth won’t have, without  thorough transformation of our lives.

     

    When Jesus is rejected, whether from above or below, he goes on his way, again, teaching the apostles to do likewise. Not cursing, not calling down destruction and flames on those who chose to reject the good news. There is no need. Refuse goodness, ignore justice, disbelieve what is plainly there in front of you, and you are the one who causes what follows. No need to find a vengeful God to blame for what you have chosen when the chance was there for something better.

     

    The question, then,   is not, are we gifted with God’s love, and signs of God’s love, let alone  loving warnings, but rather, what we do with such gifts?

     

    Jesus does not condemn those who choose to miss out. But he does not go running after those who have been abundantly gifted and turned it all down. Reject him, and he moves sadly on, amazed, bewildered that we can be so blinkered. The judgement lies therein, that he respects our choice.

     

     At the beginning of my ministry,  I tried to say to people ‘don’t blame me for the gospel’, remembering what Paul wrote:

     

    Galatians 1: ’10 

    I am not trying to please people. I want to please God. Do you think I am trying to please people? If I were doing that, I would not be a servant of Christ.

     

    But as time has gone on, I have had to conclude that this is a forlorn hope.   Bearing Good News and Bad News  involves you with a community of faith. Whatever you wear on your sleeve, let alone on your collar or lapel, people will both blame you for and praise you for.

     

    It is another  of the things I have learned over a quarter century of preaching, that people do  blame not the message but the messenger.  

     

    We need, to get used to this; that for better or for worse, for the people we encounter, we are the gospel.  

     

    God knows:  it can be a terrible blessing!.

     

     

     

     

     

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  • Temptations: The pastoral/prophetic dilemma

     

    NOTE:

     

    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.

     

    So.

     

    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.

     

     

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