By Faith Alone. By Scripture Alone. By Grace Alone. By Results? Or just by context: “the way that you do it”. “Thus”: is a really frequent adverb in the New Testament.
Maybe it’s time to examine one of the most tyrannical and dangerous weapons of the English language in our age: “Making A Difference”. If we can be said and seen to ‘make a difference’, we feel warm inside valued, valuable. The fear that we might not lurks in wait for a project like EcoCongregation Scotland. But who is our audience, and who do we feel needs to be? “Alms” given in secret (Matthew 6:1-4) are acknowledged – and rewarded – by God, who gets the credit. Win win!
And yet this is not a prohibition on visible practice of just living, but rather a severe caveat on the prime motivation. There will be a mix of other motivations, taking off the shine, perhaps, though neither invalidating that justice, nor offering any pious excuse for abstaining. Never wait until you’re perfect before getting on with what’s urgent. It would be a long, long wait. And climate emergency does not allow ‘long’ for anything. The hungry may be fed by ostentatious self-seeking, but – tragically- (?) the ostentatious self-seeker gains nothing. Given the forthrightness of the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount – though conscious of urgency – I can’t but feel that a premature counsel of perfection here risks the whole project. The ‘different’ points of view in Jesus’ teaching (-be secret/be seen-) are side by side, in their strength and vigour, rather than modifying and minimising each other.
So I don’t want to speak of ‘grey areas’ which suggest general boring dilution, but rather ‘rainbow areas’: realistically, our motivations will cover a spectrum, of which, according to prevailing conditions some are more prominent and visible. Some come and go. What matters is the overall project of the “glorification” of God who “loves the World”. You don’t buy your vegan friend a beef burger. And unless you’re an unduly prescriptive parent, your child’s birthday is the occasion for delight rather than just utilitarian ‘need’. So in devotional practice, you don’t offer things, however valuable, with unjust origins or significant harm for fellow creatures and their habitats. Bring God a cup of tea!
As also, in the high-profile good deeds which certainly do Make A Difference a few verses earlier in Matthew: when our own light shines the way it ought to, God is glorified. (Matt 5:16). And still we shine. And so we should. Without embarrassment, guilt, complacency, or looking down on others. We are – in following Christ – Earth- Illumination. Hallelujah! That’s “the way” EcoCongregation awards should work. Do good stuff and shout about it!
We’ve made a difference. The sacrificial efforts we offered were meaningful and worthwhile. Not futile or foolish. Making a difference is the reward of right living. And the currency that reward comes in does not need to be financial. Indeed, though we often look for it to be objectively measurable, a ‘feeling’ may be adequate. Our ‘hearts’ seem to be more determinative of change, of “ecological conversion” [quoting Laudato Si] than our ‘heads’, though neither could function without the other. Provided we have enough to eat and drink, being paid for work pales into insignificance beside having ‘Made A Difference’, and I have myself been sustained by that reassurance. Ten years of EcoChaplaincy, though very difficult to measure, seems to have ‘Made A Difference’ to the Scottish churches, to the extent that a further five years are now – partially – underwritten. We feel a need to be seen to be Making A Difference, which does influence the balance of decisions about how time, personal energy and other scarce resources are shared out. Fair enough. And I don’t think we’re going to do without ‘Making A Difference”. Even the somewhat macho prayer of Ignatius so frequently and dangerously half-quoted (…to toil and not seek for rest!!!) seeks out substantial currencies of M.A.D: “to labour and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do your will. “Knowing” that we do God’s will? That’s huge! Extreme! I’ve only ever been able to trust that I might… Make A Difference. In Climate emergency, in agreement with the Reformers in whose tradition I stand, I can see that, globally speaking a reliance on my own ‘works-righteousness’ is so pathetically and annihilatingly insignificant that the reliance on and participation in grace – the Difference God Makes – is my only hope. For meaning. For validation.
M. A.D. We rely on it so much. And yet M.A.D. is also a low-key relative of the seductive need for control. To be God, rather than work with God. Net-Zero campaigns thus far tend to lean on the feasibly ‘measurable’ side, which gives them a useful mission prominence. Boxes ticked garner M.A.D points, and we welcome this because it is integrally part of the whole project of Christian, practical, local, global, spiritual living, as we, individual members are part of the Body. Diminished or disabled, where the member, neither expendable nor replaceable, becomes disconnected, but what is it without which everything really does fall apart? Just as Heaven and Earth are a unified, interwoven Creation, this can’t be one isolated thing. Goodness is always in relation. Cask-strength whisky needs water to be the Water of Life!
Make A Difference. So that everything else can too.