Chaplain’s Blog

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

  • ‘God is Green’ – recycled!

     

     

     

     

     

    (Released in September: Available for order from DLT http://dltbooks.com)

     

    This is a fuller version of a review that may appear elsewhere.

    The first edition of ‘God is Green’, by Rev Prof. Ian Bradley, has lurked in my bookcase since it irked the tutors in my training when I was inspired by the epidemic of ‘Creation Spirituality’ at that time.

     

    That tendency itself perched on twin shoulders of the late twentieth century environmental movements and an interest in the justice and peace dimensions of what might be gleaned from the remnants of a ‘Celtic Church’, with which Ian Bradley is very familiar, and of which he has held differing opinions over time. Our movement includes plenty who bring with them a fond familiarity with all that, and they will welcome what Ian describes as a “short book” from such a stable.

     

    Even back then, Ian Bradley offered one of the sounder, more orthodox - and therefore more deceptively radical - approaches. There is more to be said for bringing the resources of your faith with you into environmental crisis than fumbling around to cobble a new one together from scratch.

     

    Thus, God is Green, if it introduces to a congregation, a study group (discussion points are provided after each chapter) or an online fellowship, something hitherto un-heard of, will be an enrichment, and a reinforcement, and not a threat.

     

    Christianity, despite slings, arrows and much to be apologised for, emerges as the hero of this book. It is heartening to have such allies on board in the struggle to be the Church for these strange and threatening days.

     

    All the more so, on those occasions when someone with rank to pull, but not having woken up to the crisis, says “you can’t say that!”.

     

    Green preaching and worship - which our movement works to make less of an endangered species than Ian suggests it currently might be - involves a fair bit of sticking your neck out, both in congregations and in the public sphere. Although, in common with most academic writers, Ian always finds an external authority to say what he wants to say, the risks and leaps we need to make will seem less foolish and fragile with Ian beside us. He also has the confidence to say “I believe” in some conclusions. However much evidence he may have assembled to make his point, he is honest about the fragility and provsionality of all we proclaim. Though this is insufficient cause to pipe down!

     

    Alongside dignified humility at our self-centred wrong turnings there is also grateful acknowledgement of the positive initiatives of the churches, such as EcoChurch and EcoCongregation.

     

    Some of the quoted exemplars of past narrow-mindedness finally seem all the more crass in 2020, yet we are reminded that these attitudes remain for now, part of the landscape of our churches. There’s some considerable giant-slaying there too: Calvin, Aquinas and Newman lined up with horrendous statements on the dispensability of non-human life, and it might be good to investigate how all three can also, on occasion, be quoted in support of wonder at and appreciation of Creation. This might forestall the widespread phenomenon of ‘blaming Augustine’ for all the church’s ills, without actually having read him.

     

    I would feel completely happy if this current edition found its way into every one of the five hundred congregations of EcoCongregation Scotland, as, like a good sermon, there is so much food for thought, so many occasions for further reflection and action. And none of it would hinder or handicap the process of ‘ecological conversion’ which Pope Francis identified as the mode of pilgrimage for faithful Christians today.

     

    Revisiting ‘God is Green’ in this edition is a delight and an affirmation of the directions which should urgently be commending themselves to everyone in any sort of leadership role in every sort of church, and for which, so we discover, we are actually well equipped as active communities of faith. With Herbert, Hopkins and Teilhard de Chardin, it does get very cultural at times, and Ian’s wide ecumenical overview of the spectrum of environmentally aware Christianity and literature will be nourishing, though there’s not much cited more recent than ‘The Circle of Life’ from ‘The Lion King’.

     

    The changes in tone and conclusion in this edition, especially those highlighted, with explanation, in the final chapter on the place of human beings, encourage the reader, excited by the green meaningfulness of Christianity, to continue the journey, led by the prophetic voice of the Earth, equipped with with a readiness for further guidance and insight.

     

    The key insight of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical ‘Laudato Si’, that we recover the Biblical habit of addressing and listening to the Earth and creatures as ‘who’ rather than ‘it’, as subject rather than inert object , runs all the way through, with rich support from many theological and literary authorities.

     

    Whilst ‘God is Green’ has not been converted into a resource of existential urgency, nor one which risks much dalliance in the ‘scarier’ apocalyptic resources of Christianity, which may be commending themselves to those in most acute situations, it is an authoritative toolbox and annotated booklist par excellence on which the day-to-day life of the churches can confidently build.

     

    If a scribe of the Kingdom requires treasures both new and old, the strength of God is Green - some will feel, reassuringly - is in the treasuring of older, yet deep green threads which not only comprise, but hold together, the faith of Christianity.

     

    A welcome transformative rather than additive approach to the defining festivals and ceremonies of Christianity is encouraged: who knew how ‘cosmically aware’ was Wesley in the original version of ‘Hark the Herald Angels sing? Is your church’s Christmas ‘greenery-free’, at least in the story you will tell?

     

    Though played by Queensberry rules, this is, thank goodness, a book that pulls few punches. Ian abruptly calls back to scripture many who might be under the illusion that their anthropocentricism (humans as God’s be-all and end-all) rested precisely on that foundation. If a complacent attitude of disregard to the life and dignity of fellow creatures seems to be well-explained, you can look forward to it being knocked flat in the following paragraph.

     

    Without neglecting the usual culprits - the ‘dominion' problem in Genesis 1:28, God is Green offers a good wide spread of Bible quotes and references, with discussion of how the consensus of their interpretation continues to evolve. Theology is a snapshot, but also like an Iona Pilgrimage: those at the front may think they’re getting there, but it only works if we take care to cherish those who move more slowly.

     

    ‘God is Green’ hasn’t become a book for ‘the last days’, yet leaves plenty of room for ‘bells to ring’ as you recognise the inherent immersion of liturgy and scripture in our partnership with Creation.

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  • Rambling round the roses

    I was asked to comment elsewhere on whether there is a ‘theology of plants’…  Perhaps I should have responded that “a theology which excludes them is likely to be deficient!” But this induced the following ramble, some of which regular readers may recognise.

    I have needed to be wary of claiming “theology” due to a culture which takes it for an empirical science, requiring water-tight arguments; a discipline which proves rather than convinces. ‘Natural theology’ has to work a bit too hard in its reasoning, where the awe and wonder may already have done its job for it.

    Human beings don’t need to think and pray only in that way, and in my work as EcoChaplain, I was openly commissioned, from the outset, to recognise the value, scope and power of ‘poetic theology’. Hymns and prayers, with all their logical flaws, may be at least as valid as essays and theses as we encounter the mystery of God. Should we, when we turn to God, always speak of trees/plants? I’m convinced!

    Though some of this requires an appreciation of divine irony.

    Jesus was welcomed (Palm Sunday) by branches, hung on a tree. The identity between Christ, affixed by human cruelty, and the abuse of the tree (of life) to hang him up there should take our breath away. When I’ve used the Iona prayer about ‘wood and nails…purchased our salvation’, have I forgotten that wood comes from plants? The deeply moving Anglo-Saxon poem ’The Dream of the Rood’ which is quoted ( in runic script) on the tree-like cross now sheltered by Ruthwell Parish Church narrates the feelings of the tree wrenched from their forest home by ’stone enemies’ and forced to become an instrument of torture of the World’s friend’. On the sides of the cross, happy birds much berries from its leaves. The animals Jesus encountered, without antagonism, in the unkempt wilderness, are also there.

    It’s clear that ‘wilderness’ is not lifeless ‘desert’, but perhaps more, as the Celtic Christians would have sought it out, a ‘deserted place’, where you can escape the bustle and listen for the voice of God. But can there be a wilderness in the midst of a city? The last few weeks, when we hear the birds as the traffic subsided, suggest there can.

    What do you grow in your garden? In Holy Communion, through faith, by grace, fruit and grains are offered as the flesh and blood of Christ, broken and scattered, gathered and shared, for the good of all. Few of us would be outraged at singing along with’JesusChrist the Apple-tree’. The convergence of God and nature, whilst we remain calmly aware of the difference between creator and creation, wonderfully reconciled in the body of Jesus Christ, deepens rather than damages our faith. Can a garden speak of this ?

    The hyssop that comforts and eases pain on the cross (John 19:28–30) reminds of our awesome debt to the healing powers of plants, celebrated in Revelation, 21, where the leaves of “the tree” (and when you read this, “the tree” implies wonderful diversity) are for the healing of the nations. A right relationship with this part of fellow creation implies justice and peace as well. Out of utter practicality, monasteries and Christian communities cultivated medicinal plants, as do we, though they’re so often masked by blister-packed pills. My late wife’s cancer treatment came from yew berries. Foxgloves help people with heart disease. The list is well-nigh endless. And few folk remedies are lacking in a grain of efficacy.

    And Pope Francis recalls a tradition many churches are now happy to revive (Laudato Si Paragraph 12. “What is more, Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker” (Wis 13:5); indeed, “his eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20). For this reason, Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty.
    Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.”

    It’s truly refreshing that people have begun to delight in wildflower borders and meadows – even on the grass verges in Motherwell!

    In our approach to climate crisis, do we try to fight a war, or befriend an abused neighbour and carer? So often too, there is need to balance the arrogance of ‘care FOR Creation’ with the humility of acknowledging how we might be cared for BY Creation. The shaping of a garden should surely take this into account. Just as it should provide for other creatures than ourselves. It is with unambiguous approval that Jesus notes how the mustard-shrub provides habitat for the birds. ( Matthew (13:31–32), Mark (4:30–32), and Luke (13:18–19)

    The parable of the Sower ends with an abundant harvest, perhaps because of and not despite the modus operandi of scatter-sowing. It allows for the ecosystem in which this takes place. The birds are fed, and there are weeds. Nature can do their part. Likewise, ecological wisdom underlies the prohibition on superficially efficient reaping. Extreme tidiness, we are discovering, kills: not only starving the creatures whose habitat is on the margins, but also the poor, and ultimately even the rich. And it’s with the authority of God that this point is made. Nothing we do will affect only ourselves. Only sinful arrogance says otherwise.

    “When you reap the harvest of your land, you are not to reap to the very edge of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not strip your vineyard bare or gather its fallen grapes. Leave them for the poor and the resident alien; I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:9-10).

    This provides the food-bank which ensures the survival of Ruth, one of Jesus’ ancestors, all the more as Jewish tradition values the female line of decent).(Cf Matthew’s genealogy.) Many community gardens provide open access to passers by whilst going food. With all the challenges of regulation that this involves!

    I’ve noted that even German churches are being encouraged to allow for wild-flower borders in the graveyards and green spaces they administer, to let foliage cover their church buildings, recognising that managing structural damage may be offset against the welcome for other creatures whose habitat the church then provides, and the bonus in delight for the people who visit. Church authorities even appoint consultants to advise on this, though it’s also necessarily an education in perseverance and collaboration with the needs and demands of nature. Our recent and timely appreciation of our dependance on pollinating insects surely encourages us to acknowledge their place in our spirituality. I don’t know how far we may have come in the appreciation of decay: of the sheer beauty of a rotting log, or indeed what goes on inside a compost bin; and yet life continues because life recycles, and plants and fungi are the workers involved. Not ‘bondage to decay’ comes to mind, but partnership with it. Bondage, like all slavery, is an abuse, and the processes of decay are themselves wondrous aspects of creation.

    The ancient and fundamental duty and honour of hospitality is surely key: a locked and completely private, walled-off garden says much about its owner. Abraham welcomed God in person from under the shade of the trees. And in the Book of Isaiah, is it the abuse of the holiness of trees, rather than that the pagans had sacred groves, that so infuriates the prophet?

    Next time someone tries to make a case for cutting down a tree in church grounds “because it takes light” think again. In so doing, it’s helping you breathe. Always question such things.

    You might have visited various types of historic gardens: those where nature is collaborated with and thoughtfully managed (the school of Capability Brown and others) and those where the aim is to show the complete human mastery of nature, forcing it into artificial geometries and shapes (look at pictures of Versailles). I cannot see that the second expresses a spirituality appropriate to our own age.

    The mention of the fig tree in Luke 21 often obscures the following phrase: that we look at and learn from “all the trees”, and there has never been a better time to do so. Science, of course, far from undermining a biblical approach to vegetation, has begun to give meaning to the ‘personalisation’ of plants in Biblical language. We shouldn’t be intimidated into neglecting this though fear of inappropriate anthropomorphising. Green leaves do not just feed us, they give us and all other creatures oxygen for life. Not only do they ‘clap their hands’, (watch the trees in a stiff breeze) but plants certainly communicate, and respond to stimuli. They work together . We share in the building blocks of our DNA so much of what they are, that any approach towards the domination of nature which disregards its spiritual nature and value will tend towards an idolatry of the human. Your garden needs to be someone to ’tend and keep’ rather than to dominate and ruthlessly exploit. Be wary, please, of popular Bible translations which, in your living memory at least, have “weeded out” references to fellow creatures and replaced these with the assumption that it’s only about people. (see Mark 16:15 in GNB!!!). Again, nothing is absolute and clear-cut, but open up you mind to the partnership of plants and animals in the background of everything you hear, pray and sing in church, and you might find the garden of your faith is richer, lusher, more sustainable and sustaining in the turmoil of present day life.

    A garden is a privilege, and access to it, even if it isn’t ‘your own’ should be a delight. In sight, sound, smell and peaceful hospitality. I don’t know the details of the ‘paradises’ of middle eastern aristocratic gardens, but it’s worthy of a final comment, that this was what Jesus, from the wood and the nails of the cross, promised the barbarically punished and lowly fellow creature on the point of death. In a garden, we may be with our ancestors, and they in God’s hands. Do you keep memorials fresh and tidy or allow nature to take their course, in the faith that God remembers? What do you think.

    And since it is not ourselves, but the Sabbath, which is the culmination of the first Genesis story, perhaps a garden must be a place to value rest, rather than just of labour. God ‘walks in the garden’.

    Ultimately, we don’t need to stretch points or lean over backwards to feel how a garden can be a sacred space. But it’s worthy of some discernment and thought, what message we receive from it and give to others.

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  • Going up? Looking down!

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    The  environmental chaplaincy is in crisis mode.  

    And that’s OK

    Maybe that’s  actually the most realistic place to be for the foreseeable future. 

    Never a normal again.

    I remember with enduring and sustaining gratitude and delight, that it’s two years since I heard that Would be able to take up this wonderful and impossible post. 

    The ways of working over past years  ( travelling, face-to-face encounter) have been put beyond use, though these may remain in our residual repertoire for now.

    But, for now:….

    Some roles are unavoidably “furloughed”, such as interaction with those in training institutions, though I have reason to believe that, like the blossoming of Network meetings online through the perseverance of our programme co-ordinator,  this might actually become more possible due to current circumstances. Likewise, or so it might first appear, the obligation to lay foundations for environmental chaplaincy beyond the time of the current iteration ( though read on…)

    For the time being,  following discernment, rather than anything in my terms of service/job description, I am a full-time digitally visiting preacher, putting into video ‘sermons’ a level or energy comparable to that involved in planing and carrying out a visit to a local congregation. 

    Also emerging more strongly at this point, is to  continue to pioneer a green approach to the waypoints of the Christian calendar.  Like Ascension.

    The project of ‘Creation Time/Season of Creation’  ( and coming up, ‘Climate Sunday’) is an additive, rather than transformative step in this direction, though these remain  as vulnerable as ‘green issues’ generally are to being sidelined as icing on the cake.  How many congregations  will want to know about ‘Climate Sunday’ if churches are still subject to lockdown measures by September? 

    To break into the most memorable and constitutive festivals which, (for good or ill,)  help people to grasp and define for themselves what the church is when the church is being the church, has been one of the most difficult nuts to crack. Even making plain the missional implications of Christmas as the  story of a refugee family can be rather uphill.

    We’re happy to have a special eco-service now and then, and might even enrich it by inviting neighbours,  though Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity are still, for most of  British Christians, ‘too holy to be green’.  And, for pastoral reasons, we can often add Mothering Sunday and Harvest  to this list.  EcCongregation Scotland is an agency of Mission and evangelism to the churches.

    Lockdown circumstances are pushing me into more worthwhile reflection, precisely on things to which I would not likely be invited to be part of by local churches. For instance, that the extremely odd and often unhelpfully picturesque festival of Ascension is indeed Ascension into Creation, rather than out of reality. In this I am building on some liturgical models from the Iona Community.

     In the ‘old days’ , someone in my position would head off on a sabbatical and come up with a manuscript for a book, “Greening the Christian Year”  – or some other such predictable title….. which would be published, reviewed, swiftly remaindered, then pulped.

    Should such a thing happen, at least digital publishing saves the environmental impact of those  final stage. 

    But where the green dimension of completely mainstream and identity-defining customs and celebrations is brought out , that’s where the answer lies to continuing ‘environmental chaplaincy’, and precisely because  everyday churches and leaders will make it happen. 

    The question of how  to reach this stage still requires further reflection and inspiration.

    But please do not underestimate this potential for lasting transformation of church life by targeting what people think of as the under-rated and empowering foundations of that life.  Right now, under very real pressure from the Pandemic (which we really do have to see as the ‘foothills’ of the greater layers of crisis,)  the old solutions of trusting money  and giving greatest  power to those who administer it might look to be  reasserting themselves. 

    One wonders how deep the awareness in our institutions of the magnitude of environmental emergency ever penetrated at all?

    What is needed is dialogue and partnership, rather than a power game. Or a blame game. As noted, the pressures are  horizon-blockingly real. We need to pray for and constructively support those who are trying to respond to them.  No one would want these things on their plate!

    As part of the preparation for the online retreat I was asked to lead during  Laudato Si week, I looked in greater detail, than ever I had  before, at the ‘commandments’ of Jesus. I combed the four Gospels on the lookout for direct commands, instructions and interventions.  The occasion was a reflection on John 14, where, rather than insisting disciples ‘obey’ commandments, Jesus asks that they ‘keep’ (treasure) the commandments that they ‘have’. In the version of the Bible I was using, ‘obey’ occurs in John’s Gospel  when it is used not by Jesus, but by his complacent opponents:

    “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.” (John 9:31)

    Our hope as Christians, of course, is precisely that God does listen to sinners, and loves and guides those who realise they have acted against God’s will.  And  of the friends of Jesus, more is expected than the mere obedience of slaves. (cf also Luke 17:10)

    And that instructional teaching from Jesus is the starting point for the concrete and grounded decisions, of varying scale and moment, which lie before us together and alone.

    Still, you can’t legislate on the basis of one translated word. And every theological assertion will have holes. This is something we have to live with, and not be disabled by. The most destructive and unhelpful theology is one which intimidates by trying to sew everything up, or to annihilate opponents. That also throws away the great advantage of theological reflection: that, with honesty, we responsibly  make leaps of reasoning before the pathway to our landing-point may fully have emerged. The colours of the rainbow coexist, even when we insist we only see white light.  How to find our place and purpose in the created World, without continuing our ancestral capitulation to the injustice and idolatry of the systems of the human “world”?

    (For the record: a huge proportion of  Jesus’ ‘commands’ are for the equipping/formation/shaping of disciples. Healings are accomplished by direct intervention against natural forces, but generally only with the consent  or at the request of humans who look to be healed.  Rather more of Jesus; teaching ( especially in Luke)  is of the order of “this is the situation: you decide, though take the consequences”.  Jesus commandingly  evicts, rather than destroys, natural forces/demons who are in the wrong place. And I wondered if his robust conversation with the wind and the waves, to the benefit of terrified disciples, might be helpful in giving us confidence in managerial interventions to ‘tend and keep’ the environment, whilst mitigated by the comforting nuance of “peace, be still” ( Mark 4:39)).

    Reflecting on differences of church tradition also throws up  the sense in which imperatives emerge through discernment. Reformed churches are reticent about acknowledging as ‘sacrament’ anything not directly ‘ordered’ by Jesus in scripture, though others are more than content to allow discernment to command, albeit with very heavy safeguards.

    Circumstance, like Jesus, both prunes us  and enables. What is the fruit we look to bear?

    Nonetheless, the question I’m left with is this: what does Christ command us today, equipping us as friends, and how, having discerned this, will we allow our lives to be transformed?

    As the ‘men in white’ of Ascension bluntly advised the Galileans on the hill  [paraphrase]  

    “Stop looking up into the sky, and get on with it!”

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  • A day in the life of a digital travelling preacher….

    There was some old joke about ‘labour’saving devices’… that you always ended up doing more work if someone thought you had time on your hands. 

    I don’t think it’s quite like that, to have moved from a physically travelling preacher to a digital one: the hours and energy demanded are actually quite  similar, even if the front-end minutes (on-screen) may seem less.  Even more than when I’m making what may be my only possible visit to your community in five years, every minute is an opportunity, every second of precious attention-span needs to be justified. This Sunday’s  “sermon on wheels” is eight minutes,  but started with an already whittled-down script and  more than  half an hour of footage.  The ratio for the reflection with which the AGM will begin is somewhat more extreme.

    Setting perfectionism in perspective: a good “view” is worthwhile, even if we don’t hold the viewer to the end because the phone rings, or the cat throws up.

    Mind you, cats are BIG participants in online meetings!

    Then , having reached that stage, there is a “Twitter edition”, brutally cut down to 2 mins 20 seconds.

    Online meetings are also a swings and roundabouts thing: they are deceptively draining because they demand more focussed attention, but you can attend, because you do so from home.

    And the AGM and Gathering will be a pioneer large  ecumenical meeting for the churches of Scotland . As my colleagues said at a recent meeting “no pressure”  – but this will be in an atmosphere of peace and encouragement, rather than haughty entitlement. Because this is what I have generally been delighted to discover with the movement. Most of us know that all of us are doing our best. Compassion, commitment, and a yearning for justice are powerful environmental values. 

    Some things are actually better: the staff group have spent much more time ‘together’, encouraging and talking about projects. The networks are coming into their own as seldom before, thanks to the energetic initiative of Judith,  our programme co-ordinator.  No need to mention the carbon footprint implications of being at home. And its’ great  to breathe fresher air, and hear the birds sing, who are usually drowned out by traffic where I live.

    And I’ve ‘got to church’ at my local congregation ,much more often than expected, and with my family. Which impresses upon me both the need to support the online  and other efforts of local churches, and for the chaplaincy to continue to offer something special, distinctive, and in addition to the ‘regular’ things in which people are now gaining a degree of confidence.  

    May we help to add to that, and the assertive visibility of our movement, through lockdown and beyond, to the Grace of God!

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  • Holy Saturday in lockdown

    Holy Saturday in Lockdown. For the first time in most of our lives, we have pause for thought on this Day of Uncertainty.

    The disciples, in hiding, because they were afraid.
    And not without cause, because the danger was very real.
    The authorities had lost their patience.

    And never mind about tomorrow, as Jesus had said. Every horizon was blocked by the pain and tensions of today. For us, it’s really difficult to look beyond the virus, for instance to the news of continuing freak weather in the Pacific region.

    The easy way to see the events of the Passion is to portray everything destructive as corruption by the powerful snd influential. People have looked for the technicalities that today might get those accused of abusive crimes off the hook, as if the systems of social control and criminal justice etc in the Empire were themselves sound and reliable. Like the ‘good thief’ who imagines that crucifixion is a proper legal response to his own crimes. We note that Jesus, himself on the cross, doesn’t waste time putting him right, but offers the promise of a paradise which sets all that in perspective.

    More demanding is to realise that those who acted against Jesus, by and large, seemed to be people under pressure, doing their best. Trying to be faithful to the spirit of their principles when the pips squeak.

    And both during and subsequent to our current and utterly acute emergency, we can expect to see more of that, aided and abetted by what has begun to be described as ‘virtuous snooping’ – the repellent tendency to leap to the worst conclusion if one’s neighbour even appears to be transgressing the letter of the precautions, which are, nonetheless necessary. A walk which doesn’t quite look like ‘exercise’ is a long way from a crass mass gathering. The sanctions appropriate to one should not be applied to the other. Grace, forgiveness, and compassion, these most environmental of divine gifts, never stop applying.

    The Passion story shows people with and without authority pushed to that stage when the letter of principles seem – rightly, and even responsibly – to be set aside. A pretty terrible burden. Which, as I have noted before, was what I saw in the preaching of the post-war generation when I was growing up. The non-logic of supporting nuclear weapons ‘because of Auschwitz’. Or annoyance at remembering the tragedy of everyone caught up in a war, “Because our own homes were bombed!”

    Yes, I have heard all  of that, as a grassroots pastor, in churches.

    And in the answer of the army chaplain to my question, on a chaplaincy course, about whether they prayed for the Iraqis in that war . “Yes, once they were defeated”.

    I hope I will continue to be shocked that the spirit and teaching of Jesus Christ, which come into their own in times of crisis, might be set aside, (whether by me or by others, ) precisely when they are most needed, because, when things were good, we never quite learned how to learn to drive these ‘emergency vehicles’.

    The statement of Caiaphas, that it might be right for one person to die for the good of the people is two-edged. For Christianity, whilst crying out against the means and motivation, in some sense has also agreed with the statement.

    Yet again, black and white serves us rather poorly. Christianity is born out of the resurrection, which is the divine repurposing of an evil and unjust act.

    There’s another deceptively huge step of interpretation. This is in how we read ‘according to the scriptures’. The letter kills but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor 3:6). One dramatised Passion I saw this year did not make that saving difference clear, which is necessary if we are to receive, at the end of Easter Sunday:  the story of the walk to Emmaus: the poetic and mystical relationship of the Word made Flesh to Scriptures whose origins are in different times and situations, but which, because they can be seen to relate to our Risen Lord, also shed saving light on the struggles of our own day, and the Life of Emergency that still lies before us.

    Holy Saturday is cruel. A day of no visible hope. But Sunday does dawn. Not with solutions, but with  transformation……. and a challenge of love far greater than the despair of Good Friday.

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  • The visiting (digital) preacher

    The online visiting preacher

    In the video material I’m preparing from day to day, (which you can find in different versions on my own Facebook page, on EcoChaplain online (find on Facebook) on my YouTube channel , and elsewhere,) it may  will seem as if I’m not talking anywhere near as much or explicitly about the virus as some of my colleagues and local churches which have ventured into this, for them, largely uncharted territory. Part of this is that by virtue of the ways we are now investigating of being church, we are hugely acknowledging the context which this most acute emergency has created.  And the overall environmental emergency, of which this should be seen as part, continues.

    I’m putting the time and energy which I would have devoted to church visits into what I hope are distinctively different, and thoughtful online offerings: at present, Palm Sunday , Maundy Thursday and Good Friday have something available, and I’m considering what I might offer for Easter Sunday Please do incorporate and share these fully, if you find it useful: NB there are no known copyright issues whatsoever as I use mostly completely original material, plus public domain, and occasionally things purchased under licence.

    What would be rather wonderful in this medium term would be to be able to work with local churches who have taken the plunge into the online world.

    Technically: the ideal is to combine the feel of ‘live’ with the reliability of pre-recorded, and experience shows how very unreliable completely live things tend to be without fully professional communications; nonetheless, the adventure is in collaboration.

    A friend pointed out that during this time, I can reach more of the 500 churches that make up our EcoCongregation family than otherwise might be the case. That is a daunting, challenging privilege. We have small personal and technical resources, but telecommunications do make things shareable, and I will do my best to make anything I produce to be worth making and worth viewing, though with the expectation that it will be used and received with the same grace which I hope you might accord the sermon/homily provided by your own local priest or minister as they struggle towards successive Sundays.

    And having said all that: support and pray for your own local congregations first and foremost, to sustain our fellowship through this strange strange time, hand in hand with Christ.

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  • The Joy of …Mortality

    Who would have thought it? After spending a year and a half developing a devotional approach to faith in the ‘end-times’ , we have something  which is both a dry-run and a brutal wake-up for the abruptness of change and the non-resilience of everyday life.

    As someone in their late fifties, with asthma, and since my mother lives on her own, 300 miles away I’m aware of being a step closer to uncomfortable thresholds.

    When I drove away from my mother’s house after a long-timetabled visit last week, I had to pull up and let the tears pass that ambushed me after waving goodbye. Every time could be the last time.  That’s always the case But we’re just a step closer.  As for myself, I’ve had a wonderful and fulfilling life: but my children are not remotely ‘settled’ yet.  They need me to stay alive for now.

    As I’ve described myself, in terms of my carbon footprint, as someone ‘of unclean lips amongst a people of unclean lips’ (cf Isaiah 6 ) so too, today  I am someone nervous and confused amongst a people beset with nervousness and confusion.

    The Manse is becoming a bunker and a film studio as I invest energy in replacing face to face visits with an online presence which I hope can be no less provocative.

    https://www.facebook.com/EcoChaplain-online-267757747265132/

    In a very short time,  we are looking at how to be more interactive too.

    As the measures to respond to the virus take hold, perhaps with much more effect than the virus itself (- what will be the impact on those dependent on food-banks, on refugees; how many people will come to the end of their lives alone because community had been put on hold?) – amongst the most worrying development is the way that religious observance and community can be shelved and shuffled off as non-essential. And accepts this with its tail between its legs.

    Poke your nose into the scrum of a  supermarket, even at 8am, and you’ll see every reason for spiritual guidance and reassurance: having  begun last year to order ‘ethical’ toilet rolls online, (and taken an order the week before last)  I’m expecting the burglars to leave the electric bikes next time they break in, and make off with the more attractive contraband!  

    We also seem to be observing what used to be caricatured as the masculinity of society: the complete  inability to multi-task. We can do the virus, but only if we forget the climate.  But the bigger, if deceptively less acutely present emergency of the climate and environment has not gone away. Not that it has ever been taken with the seriousness of this real, but – yes, almost manageable – crisis.  Suddenly no one bothers about plastic any more.

    Yes, really, this is a practice run, or perhaps ‘work experience’  and hopefully with a bit of breathing space the far side  in a few months, though there will be loads to learn each day, especially about responsiveness.

    In terms of theological insights: one which was very dear to my late wife is this:  God never restores. (cf the final chapter of Job).  There may be good times ahead, though we will never ‘go back’ to how things have been. So:

    Live each day as if it were your last.

    Why? firstly, because it might be – and actually, when has that not been the case?

    But secondly, get used to that idea, and that each beautiful experience  that we yet receive is to be savoured and honoured with gratitude.

    Joy in each day, prayer in whatever mode. 

    As I noted recently: the worst and most misleading thing in the conversation of the snake and the first people in the Garden of Eden was the comment “you will not die”.

    Without that realisation, of our mortality, we won’t get round to living either. 

    Love yourself as your neighbour, your neighbour as yourself, and the Earth, because we’re part of it!

    .

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  • Frogs and toads

    Illustration by my son.

    I don’t think there is much that we are taught in churches which doesn’t involve a leap or two. As well as learning to be  snakes at least as well as doves ( cf Matthew 10:16)  I’m feeling a need to encourage congregations to be leaping frogs, rather than crawling toads. In life, in prayer, in work, in worship. One step at a time may not do justice to the urgency of our day. 

      Some of these leaps  are very basic to everyday faith, such as the confident  insistence that the words of Jesus in the Gospels personally or corporately actually address us, at least insofar as we identify as disciples. On one level, it’s absurd, and yet on another, it’s essential. It’s true.

    The inspiration I have found in Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘Laudato Si’. namely the fully conscious leap from ‘object’ to ‘subject’ (from ‘what’ to ‘who) is far more poetic than scholarly, though gaining authority from the precedent of a much-loved and fully official saint ( Francis of Assisi). And yet personification (which should not be dismissed as crass anthropomorphising) is widespread in the poetry of Scripture. 

    Without it, we will refuse to hear the prophetic and suffering voice of the Earth, or permit Creation to join us in our interpretation of  scripture. 

    But of course, such things are naive absurdities? Without them, find we have neither baby nor bathwater.

    A similar matter is the phenomenon that we do receive the Bible in our own tongue. And the confidence ( though even this is relative) we ought to  be able to claim, that ‘losses in translation’ both are  and are not necessary.  To the Spirit is allocated  the task of making up any deficit, and the community of faith, rather than an individual, carries responsibility for their reliance on such help. 

    I have frequently wondered how people who use “such a dire translation”, sing “such awful hymns”, or labour under an abusive theology,  have come to know Jesus, and even developed a strong motivation for environmental action.  At such times, it’s a liberating privilege to be wrong. 

    Reason and Spirit are also not necessarily in tension, nor are systematic theologies necessarily the natural enemies of the pastoral and poetic. Like the Magi, they can reach the same destination by another way.  Though there are times when it’s difficult not to get sucked into that sort of conflict, or be the one who, in pursuit of the final word, fails to realise it’s been said some while ago. 

    Things better unsaid, in a digital age, can at least be deleted. 

    Where starting-points differ,  arguments will most likely either result in people coming to blows, resorting to  the transparent irony of the phrase “with respect”,  pulling rank, or at best (and I do mean best) agreeing , graciously, themselves, to differ.

     Here, in the matter of  the validity of differing languages; I choose to give authority – again in an absurd and not particularly rational way or coherent way (-but get used to it)  – to the experience of Pentecost. Another leap. Moving on, by the intervention of the Holy Spirit, from the idea of the ‘original’, which is, for instance, extremely dear to the spiritual traditions of Islam and Sikhism. A translation of ancient texts to modern IS the Bible, and in prayerful  use by a faithful community , becomes Scripture. Churches will vary as to how and where this process is recognised, with a greater or lesser degree of ‘official’ interpretation. 

    This is always surreptitiously subversive: our encounter with ‘the Word of God’  has to involve some  margin of experience which cannot be pinned down. Or we would be forced, maliciously, to disregard every Bible -based insight from those of a different mother-tongue. 

    It was probably during prohibitions on their language that Welsh became for Welsh-speakers ‘the language of heaven’. 

    But if you speak it, the angels sing it. (Pole-vaulting).

    (There is a high proportion of ‘get-used-to-it’ involved in these thoughts. A bit like the get-used-to-it that I have not achieved the lowest carbon footprint in ministry in Scotland nor am I likely to,  (I can admire and be encouraged by those who have done better) or  the get-used-to-it that we do not have time to reinvent the Church in response to climate emergency, only to asses our readiness, responsiveness, and spiritual resilience, relying on the mercy of God when these are found as wanting as the beautiful luxury of being seamlessly right in one’s arguments about the promise made to Noah whilst the sea-level nonetheless rises.

    It’s liberating to get used to it, that every translation of the Bible, and every sermon, however hard we strive to be fair, has a slant, which will be judged, one way or another (another leap) by what God turns out to have said and done with, for, to and through us. 

    The highest regard is unwaveringly due those who have devoted their lives to such work, and precisely therefore the recognition and acknowledgment of a slant should be cause neither for shame nor offence.  Agenda and methodology will legitimately vary; Bible versions will come and go, some leaving remarkable legacies in the consciousness of nation and church, in which I can’t imagine the King James Bible, first on the block in this sense, will ever be outdone. Scholarship provides the foundation, though not the building, nor the boundaries, of a community’s  active faith. 

    From what I’ve seen so far of the training of the leaders of churches,  by and large, many really useful skills are widely  inculcated, especially in terms of reflective practice and spiritual responsiveness. 

     Since even the IPCC cannot do more than provide likely, and terrifying  trends for the fate of the life of the world,  our leaders’ being able to reflect creatively on what does turn out to happen, using Scripture as an authoritative tool and resource, in context, will be highly valuable to congregations  of Christians (and the communities in which they are embedded).  There is cause for confidence, here at least. 

    I wonder sometimes though – and part of this is personal experience – what can be done to help people through their first few years in whatever sort of ministry: from the college, to the church. Like learning again to write poetry and paint pictures  after school. 

    And the acuteness  of this journeyman  phase in a day of Creation Crisis…..

    As  this year I approach my ‘silver jubilee’ of ordination, I am still struck, and surprised, by how useful a particular lecture or course  turned out to be;  though also how differently things might have turned out for me if I had then had the confidence to question more rigorously some of the culture of ( Oxford) university theology. 

    I made and continue to make  many mistakes, but some of those, right now, are as valuable as the teaching.

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  • Reuse, Recycle, Repurpose, Resanctify: Freedom from abuse. The lie of linear life. Getting heavy in Lent.

    Log on the north beach at Alnmouth

    Last night, Ash Wednesday, I attended a service at a local church which included the ritual of ‘imposition of ashes’ accompanied by the words “remember that you are dust” a rough cross of ash is smeared on the forehead of worshippers who come forward and stand or kneel whilst this is done. The Earth. In your face!

    These words are God’s response, in Genesis  3:19, to  the story of the disobedience of the first humans, falling victim to the misdirected craftiness, ( though crucially, not the evil,) of the snake. It refers back to the making of humanity from the same stuff as all other life: the Earth. 

    Ash Wednesday.  Or perhaps for us, Carbon Wednesday.  Carbon, in our  environmental speech, sounds like the new poison, which has led environmentalists to be caricatured. 

    It’s not only a profound Biblical, but a factual truth, that like almost every other living creature on earth, we are carbon-based life-forms.  Carbon we are, to carbon we return.  

    In places where seasonal  wildfires have always been normal and expected, it is from the ashes that new life rises. 

    And the pictures we have seen from Australia,  of just that miracle, were in my mind as the gritty black stuff was imposed  “in my face.”

    I did some Bible study on words for dust and earth and soil, and mud in the Old Testament. I was reminded of the myth that the Inuit people had seventeen words for snow.

    The Old Testament both does  (and annoyingly occasionally  doesn’t ) distinguish between inert, lifeless dust, agriculturally viable soil, (which is what the name Adam means),  the ground,  and the land, (which is the stuff people still kill each other for). And then there’s ash, which comes into the story as a penitential thing. Dust and ashes in the Book of Job, though there, those of you either with medical knowledge or like me, an experience of eczema, might recall  the healing properties for Job’s skin problems associated with coal tar, and carbon-rich medicines.

    The most foolhardy thing you can ever do in Biblical study is to make a generalisation, except the valid one, that it is always a mistake to assume that a Bible motif is simply symbolic, without experiential depth and practical application.

    In shaping Adam, (the human race)  God transforms dust to soil,  and soil to something rather special, and as the story continues, has cause to remind Mr and Mrs Soil,  both that their health and fruitfulness is a gift not to be taken for granted, and  that their destiny, like other creatures of the earth, includes limited life……and potential  re-use.

    Remember you are dust, to dust you will return.

    Some Reformed Ash Wednesday liturgies have quite fairly included the concluding line 

    “From dust you will be raised”.

    Our EcoCongregation board meeting also fell yesterday,  and I was required to do some other reflection,  but it did strike me that the most destructive part of the Snake’s “spiel” was the suggestion “you shall not die”. 

    This is the key to our dominant narrative of infinite and everlasting economic growth, accompanied by single-use wastage. 

    The impoverished limitation of what might be reused, re-cycled, repurposed, indeed, resanctified.

    We live, for now, by the mindless and abusive haemorrhage  of the very lifeblood  of the Earth. And we employ the gifts of craftiness, intelligence, every conceivable skill and technology  to achieve this. 

    We live, for now,  preferring the lie of endless life to the truth of good and natural death,  (our  sister, as St Francis put it in his Canticle of the Sun) to which, to whom, after a good life, we should be reconciled.  

    And the gracious and healthy acceptance of finitude sets our outlook in perspective. The urgency  of a change of course in all we do becomes the more serious, the more sacred. Denial of the limits of life emerges, with some irony,  as all the more deadly.  

     

    Jesus, the Word made Flesh, did not evade death. 

    Jesus repurposed it. 

     

    (If my phrase “the lie of endless life” seems odd, please do follow it up:  the lazy translation  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 toa deepening of faith in the goodness of God, without being bullied by a merely philosophical faith in superlatives,  which dictates, that what is more, must be God.  But what is only endless is also endlessly unfulfilled . )

    By contrast, by the grace of God, leaves fall…that in time, the flowers may delight the bees.  

    The Way of Life – and as I have written elsewhere, the Way of the Kingdom, is a circular economy, a circulation of energy, paralleled in the dance of the Trinity, illuminated for us by the Orthodox churches with the concept of ‘perichoresis‘  

    It is so easy – and tragic –  to “spiritualise”,  to detach such ideas entirely from the experienced world of daily life. Or,  if the pendulum swings entirely in the other direction, to rob them of their meaning by over-literalising our reading.

    One of our board members, John, also opened with a reading from Romans 8, where what struck me was the idea of Creation’s  bondage/slavery to decay’ .  

    That what we need to consider is the problem of the ‘bondage’, whilst being mindful of the goodness of decay. 

    Again, decay is why we’re still alive at all. Over and above our enjoyment  of cheese, wine, bread and plenty of other things that delight our life and that of Jesus of Nazareth, the work done by the tiniest of fellow creatures ensures the fertile circulation not just of water. 

    Like death, decay is a wonder, a gift, a miracle. The single-use economy, built on the lie of everlasting resources enslaves us to an abusive relationship with good things. 

    So my ‘leap’ of poetic theology  for today, is a prayer to view this ‘bondage/slavery’ relating to decay as we would any other abusive relationship: a travesty of something good and healthy and life-giving. Just as the single-use economy  is a slavery which prevents the recycling of goodness.

    Not slavery, but partnership and friendship with decay, is where we find New Life. 

    =======

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  • Lent thoughts: Don’t put the greenery on one side.

    If my role were one which involved authority or discipline, then it might be easy, but maybe it is all the better that I can do no more than appeal, and attempt to convince….

    ….That the green of our love for the Earth remains in view alongside the penitential purple of Lent.

    Ultimately, though, it is not the Chaplain, but the Christian Calendar which issues this challenge:

    The Church in its many forms is about to enter a season, variously observed- and sometimes pointedly ignored, – which leads us towards the defining story of Christianity: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Word Made Flesh, who commissioned the Church to be bearers of Good News to Every Creature

    Liturgies, hymns, and ways of worship have been cherished and refined throughout the ages, safeguarded against dilution from trivial and transitory issues. Local custom can be at least as rigid as the conscientiousness of an official denominational committee.

    The plight of Creation is not such a triviality, to be put on one side whilst we get on with the proper business of being church, but rather, a concern, to take account of which, will deepen and enrich the whole of our faith.

    Thus, what I feel compelled to raise, is whether the Easter Message has been hedged around in something of a ring of steel (or perhaps an impenetrable crown of thorns ) comparable to that we will encounter in the COP meeting in Glasgow later this year.?

    Close to 500 congregations have made the commitment involved in taking on the identity of an Eco Congregation. How many of these will set that aside as we begin to observe Lent, and move on to Easter?

    In the coming weeks we will welcome Jesus with branches, and see him nailed to the Tree, received gently by the Earth, and re-establish contact with his community though a meeting in a garden. The greenery of the story is in plain sight, but will we see it?

    Thus it’s an encouragement that Pope Francis, in his Lenten message lists environmental devastation amongst the ‘satanic’ challenges we face . Sometimes we have let such language become emptied of its meaning.

    But the denialism which Jesus himself faces up in the temptations, the twisting of truth that all will be well if we trust greed and power and step off the precipice, is insidiously present in our church and national life.

    Does anyone expect the message of ‘Satan’ to be obvious? It would be of no danger if so.

    If you make something of Lent, you might ponder these questions:

    1. Do I, or does my church, evade the implications even of the scientific consensus on the Environmental Emergency which we actually believe we accept? Are we always looking for someone else to make the first move?
    2. Do we insist on perfection, and on ‘solutions’  in the responses to the emergency?  Even sustainable energy has an impact, though that may not be sufficient reason not to give things a try.
    3. If we could make a leap, rather than a step, in our practical response (e.g. from coal/oil to heat-pump, rather than to the temporary and intermediate step of fossil-fuel gas), would we be prepared to do so?
    4. Is the fate of the world allowed to remain a merely mystical matter in the prayer and worship of my church, or is a clear connection made ?
    5. Will our message throughout and beyond Easter be one which celebrates a ‘saved’ world, or one which rejoices in the continuing solidarity of Christ in the struggles ahead? Is there a difference ?
    6. If I’m ‘doing something for Lent’ will this build up my hope and resilience, and ability to face the truth that climate science works hard to uncover?  Is there anything more valuable that it might achieve than this?
    7. If  I’m doing something good/worthwhile,  as an exceptional Lenten discipline, will I also have the courage to shout about it and make it visible, even at the risk of being thought immodest. Is the risk not just as great that folk will miss out on the encouragement? (Matthew 5:16) let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

    Quoting Pope Francis:
    “Christ’s wounds are also represented in “environmental disasters, the unequal distribution of the earth’s goods, human trafficking in all its forms, and the unbridled thirst for profit, which is a form of idolatry,”

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