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Disproportionate thoughts

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(Picture: visiting the Rodin museum in Paris last year)

Feelings are a gift. To feel reminds you that you’re human, or at least, a living being. Feelings, along with faith,  are our equipment for the unexpected. 

And we can expect more of that.

Even some of the more questionable feelings, like anger and outrage. It was one of the most smugly quoted verses I encountered early in my faith journey: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26).

If I can stomach the smugness, it’s good advice.

I remember Fr Gerard Hughes, author of ‘God of Surprises’  talking about the uses of pain. I was sceptical. Though that was a long time ago. He also spoke inspiringly to that group of Iona Volunteers (that included myself) in 1990  about the crucial value of spirituality in sustaining a life of activism without burning out.

Over the last year, I have opened myself as never before to bad news. It drip-feeds into my consciousness every time I open my computer to check my emails. Perhaps I’m grateful it still seems strange to someone who did their growing up in the sixties and seventies. When crassness and (nuclear) despair about ‘no future’ seemed to be something one could dismiss or rise above. 

Those were the circles I moved in, then.

I even, reluctantly accepted the manifest  lies about the ‘need’ for nuclear weapons.

I had quite a few ‘conversion’ experiences ahead of me. And by the grace of God, I also found friends to help me through them. Companions. Angels in disguise? Thank God, anyway.

And I became angry, and afraid, I experienced injustice, and sadness. A year of  inescapable bitterness, being held up for ministry training. And these things  all passed. I married, we had children, my wife became terminally ill, I became exhausted, then  a widower. Feelings were big, crushing at times, but not inappropriate. I didn’t wish them away. They had a logic.

But the question of what to do with the feelings about the climate crisis is still a new one. Nothing has (adequately)  prepared me.  I need a bit more ‘conversion’. I’m still learning.

The Amazon is burning, the Arctic is burning. And yet we’re still here, for now. 

Why?  what have we still to do. ?

Silly question?

Seriously – and maybe surprising, even if it ought not to be surprising – scripture is significantly sustaining.  Matthew chapter 6  helps me each  and every day. Worrying less about tomorrow than I might, even though there is plenty to worry about. And it’s likely that will be the case for the rest of my life and those of my children. And accepting that to be the case, we need a sustainable approach to the gift of  emotions. 

A taller order.  Hope beyond hope’, I think someone called it. Retelling a story ancient even in his own time. 

For now, I’m comfortable, not in immediate danger. Some of my property was stolen, but I was in a position to replace it.  A bit of stress, but Life carried on.

The most irritated I got recently, was when a train which was running in the middle of the night claimed to have no room ,and I knew this was not the case, but an operational fiction. Maybe that’s out of proportion.  But emotional proportionality often eludes me.  

(I was going to say “ eludes us”, but I can’t presume to speak for you.

The political developments of the last few weeks, involving reprehensibly  total indifference to the environmental situation, have been much more problematic. 

The crimes of pig-ignorance…..

The stability I knew growing up, including my delight to be part of a European Community, has made almost every development seem outrageous. It’s been suggested that this is calculated: ‘outrage fatigue’ enables unacceptable things to be slipped in or hidden behind other news, or strategically numbs us.  Better than crushing us?

To sleep, perchance to dream. Or not.

Somehow I need to preserve and give thanks for the feelings which are there for short-term action, without experiencing them all day every day.

 The fight and flight stuff, in reserve, and the keeping going stuff, in balance, denying neither.

Well, maybe  that’s what prayer is for.  And the idea of “sustain” rather than “save” is creeping more into my own.  As well as the acknowledgement  of limits. Transformation, rather than resolution of  conflict.  And the companionship of God, come what may.

This ‘conversion’  malarkey is a lifelong ….thing!  

Being born. 

Again and again and again. 

Ouch.

“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26).

If I can stomach the smugness, it’s good advice, as the sun goes down, and there’s still tomorrow. 

And joy, and laughter as well. 

Just.

Conversations about trees: part two:

In January I recalled the tragic poetry of Bertolt Brecht What times do we live in, when a conversation about trees seems like a crime, because it involves silence about so many horrors?”. (See this archived blog entry) . Just a few months later, in one of so many grim reverses jammed into this ever-concertina-ing age, I find even those thoughts tossed up in the air and shaken to bits.  January has already become “back then”. Spiritually, we are, or ought to be at a tipping point. ‘Business as usual’ is slipping beyond mere obsolescence into toxicity.

Because as if we needed more perspective, the Amazon and the Arctic, those areas perhaps so like the wilderness in which Christ was prepared for his ministry, – and this precisely because ‘wilderness’ was presented in the New Testament as the place impervious to the shaping influence of “civilised” humanity – these holy places of God’s encounter are ablaze.

Out of the end-of-the-world atmosphere of Nazi Germany, just heading into War on the back of Fascist racist populism, Brecht lamented the tragedy that soft and beautiful things like “a conversation about trees” seemed to provide “the opium/anaesthetic of the people”. Getting them through a dark day without the engagement that was called for. I saw today  that even in defiance of the recommendations of a right-wing think-tank, the naked  bribe of reduced fuel duty -and thus encouragement to burn more with impunity –   may be  dangled before voters. You couldn’t make it up!

Never mind religion or opium: try  “The petrol of the people!”

Today, if I were to approach the desperation of Brecht, I might suggest that it has finally become a crime to *avoid* conversations about trees: even that to worship God or indeed, to pursue social justice without acknowledgement of the deep spiritual challenge of global momentum to catastrophe, will ring hollow because it ignores the overarching context of our day.

Though, in the meantime, I also do continue to be comforted by the experience of the “bells that can ring” as the creation-connectedness even of regular worship comes to light: the treasures of our faith, hidden in plain sight.

Is it enough to draw attention, rather than waiting on transformation?

The vitriol of Amos 5 is nonetheless lurking in the wings. How dearly we always hoped that referred to someone else,  conveniently distant in time and space.

This is a blog, not a sermon. It is an exploration of thoughts. Sermons have to be pastoral.  And not only my various audiences, but I myself need God’s help with stomaching the bitter pills cascading down our throats ..of scientific findings and news of real events and damage that won’t be undone.

Am I realising that to describe myself too, in all this, as a ‘sinner’, or in Brecht’s terms ‘a criminal’ is not to be condemned , but to be blessed to claim a starting point for hope?  The obsession with tidiness and perfection strangles more than it encourages.

This, then,  is truly raising the bar: To do the little I can do, and offer the rest to God.

For now the daily and weekly devotions of Christian communities, like conversations about trees, do comfort and sustain.  That must not be diminished. The  indefinable goodness  that sometimes indwells  becomes daily more valuable. It can be more so.

Though  I heard of a Christian leader of a local congregation who demanded  that worship should be kept free of  “all that tree-hugging nonsense “.  Which Bible, as Desmond Tutu used to say, more or less, “is he reading?”. How I would love to be incredulous at that report.

The ecological conversion of the spirituality and liturgy of the churches, let alone their institutional frameworks,  takes time that we do not have. But that need not disable us.  No matter: the Spirit prays where we are incompetent, Christ is with us, when our footsteps falter.

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So we give thanks for any and every step nonetheless. Every spark of hope.

Even our own small encouragements, actions, and conversations.

Help us not to under-value the small things God can use.

And allow that  God’s people will find the reward of joy and even laughter on the way.

For  meaning, and relevance of the quest for Good News and the Kindom of God,

is calling our bluff, right here in front of us.

God, help us sing, and give us hope.

Even on days where Christ himself seems the only reason remaining.

And may we always,

when we turn to you,

speak of trees.

AMEN

Passionately caring

I sent this in as a response to the recent article in the Church of Scotland’s magazine on the reasons for the decision of that denomination to continue to invest in those fossil fuel companies that are not convincingly and transparently making plans to comply in the whole of their operations with the targets of the Paris Agreement.  The deadline for letters was approaching, so I sent it in, and there’s no guarantee it will be used. Editors have their job to do. The point here is to challenge, but in love. In the debate on what churches are doing with their money on public, there’s no doubt that all involved are trying to act for the best, for the common good. But we are now in a completely different and more unstable world situation even than just a few years ago. This does call for a different approach to mission, and in all organised churches. We need to stand up to the idea that those who look for the end of fossil fuel exploration do not care for those involved in it: just as we know those who protest with integrity for the end of war care desperately for the welfare of soldiers and those caught up in it. The website description of our movement is of those who care passionately for Creation, which of course includes our neighbours, however employed. Tonight I’m at an ecumenical conference, listening to a talk by Lord John McFall, introducing the idea of ‘Good Disagreement’ . Perhaps that might be one of the possible roles for Eco Congregation Scotland. And yes, we are likely to encounter intimidation in this respect: the call to shame that we might suggest such a thing: the insistence that, because of our detachment and ignorance, we should keep silent. But please, friends, do not be seduced into the situation of accepting the role of enemies to those whom we love, and the planet we share.

Letters to magazines are necessarily short and incomplete . But everything I write in this role is public. The blog gives me a chance to add context.
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Response to the second article on Disinvestment, September Life & Work

What is the Church – any church – for? Should churches hold to Jesus’ strategic priority of the kingdom of God, or allow over-riding ‘prudent’ considerations to dictate policy? In time of Climate Crisis, these questions become more acute, visible and difficult.

The false alternative of “engagement versus disinvestment” in dealing with corporations, which consciously, cleverly and intentionally evade compliance with Paris targets, gets us nowhere fast, but we have long since run out of time. We can engage -as churches – without playing the part of shareholders, but in wholehearted solidarity with those employed in these industries, as we energetically advocate a “just transition” towards a carbon-neutral economy.

The idea of “forcing” transformations in corporate behaviour” is, one churches should abandon. Christian mission cannot be of coercion, only persuasion. Freed from the aspiration to dictate, our witness gains power and momentum to touch hearts and change minds. Nor can we wait until we ourselves are perfect before we take the relatively easy first steps of reshuffling money. However strange and counter-cultural that might seem, public witness will continue to be compromised when mouths appear to be where money is, or where hearts appear to be where treasure is. To wait, shoots mission in the foot.

Brian Duffin mentions injustice “to those companies” making cosmetic changes towards compliance. What of the manifest climate injustice, long highlighted by Christian Aid and others, of devastation of crops and inundation of homelands? And if you wish to reward those companies that really are changing, switch investment to those primarily engaged in sustainable energy. The location of investments is ultimately a moral, rather than a financial decision. That was the journey that led to a unanimous decision of the United Reformed Church to disinvest, (and switch) with ripples beyond their expected financial clout. It also led to a recognition that conscientious financial and other advisors can be reconciled with those who have seemed to be opposing them. This isn’t about victory or defeat. It’s the hard lesson, for churches, of responsiveness in faith, to the signs of the times.

All Together Urgent

As a preamble:

It’s been observed that the proportion  of single-occupant households in the UK is rising, and with it, inevitably, the per capita environmental impact.  At the same time, there are many signs of hope – community gardens, tool  and other libraries:  sharing of vehicles, sharing of resources which, with goodwill, enriches the lives of a neighbourhood.  

Perhaps the most environmentally friendly direction you might choose is to build community; whether as  lone or multiple householder, to ween ourselves off the idea that everyone has to possess their own copy of everything, and that life is otherwise diminished or impoverished. 

Like almost everything we will recommend in EcoCongregation Scotland, it’s a ‘rewarding sacrifice”. Think about clean air, better health, less stress, when we learn again to walk even those short distances… to the post box… the shops…. to church?

But of course, you know that already, don’t you?  Community’s “carbon feet” tread more lightly. When everyone feels the pressure  to own everything, the  costs to the planet are wont to spiral.

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Ok.

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There’s a recurring motif in science-fiction and horror genres: –Stephen King’s ‘It’ and Dr Who are examples that spring to mind – where  we see significant and earth-shattering events, which should permanently have changed public consciousness, or at least raised suspicion that all was not as it should be. 

And then everything just reverts to the default position. 

It’s as if the event, tragedy, wonder, or revelation had never been. Which does make it easier for the next team of writers to pen a  subsequent series.

I’m wondering if Scottish churches have been afflicted with something of the same syndrome. And I’m wondering how to get the scales to fall from eyes. Prayer perhaps? (Is a blog a prayer?- answers on a postcard!)

Eighteen years ago, as a minister from Barrhead, I managed to sneak into the “first” Scottish Ecumenical Assembly, held in Edinburgh, with a procession  of banners in the streets, and an uplifting and challenging  opening service in St Giles’ Cathedral, where, as I recall, the sermon reminded those present of the danger of the default: that way of just resetting everything once the pressure is off, when significant changes have actually been agreed, or seem likely. Sliding back to square one. 

A loss of hope, a drought of vision.

The Assembly was an occasion of significant fellowship. Pretty well all available RC bishops were present, as bishops,  moderators and superintendents.  And low-status hangers-on like me. There were luminaries from politics and religion, and indeed, from quite a wide spectrum of organised churches.  No attempt at inclusiveness is ever perfect, but they had a good  go. 

We looked at a number of themes, many of which are still highly relevant, such as poverty, migration, alienation, work, and the churches’ relationship with science and technology.  All of these are now brutally impacted by climate crisis. 

That is our context. It won’t go away.

As to the two parallel communion/eucharistic services, at the Assembly, which shared lovely music by James MacMillan,  a significant number of us attended ‘the other side’, still bearing the painful burden of respecting the status quo of church regulations which to this day  prohibit (though not unevenly or in both directions) the sharing of Christ, by faith, in bread and wine.  

I remember, (and I hope I’m not embroidering the memory), that few could have come out of the experience still just wishing that everyone else would “see sense” and “do it their way”. 

Uniformity is the totalitarian and imperialist ‘dark side’ of unity. 

At my induction as chaplain, I expressed the hope that EcoCongregation involvement might make you all, respectively “a more catholic Catholic,

 a more truly evangelical evangelical,  a happier presbyterian…” though all these identities depend on what we share in Christ, who talks of a Father’s House-of-Multiple-Occupation (οἰκῐ́ᾱ)  and prays, for all to hear and share “that they may be one”. 

There’s little in the Gospels so clear and yet so fiercely resisted. 

A bit like our  defence of private property in all things.

Re-reading  the essays published for the Assembly  with the perspective of our current crisis, it feels as if ‘environment’ is  only dredged up as a means to an end:  to prop up rhetorical flourishes,  as a scaremongering  bogey, to offer romantic  words of comfort….. and of course, anything globally scary or apocalyptic in tone is decidedly future-focussed.  The safe world for the great great-grandchildren… and other such obsolete hopes.

 There is a mention of “companionship”   with Creation,  quite tellingly in   the bit on science and religion. 

(We now depend on science as we listen for the Voice of the Earth, the groans, the cries, the warnings….)

Back in 2001, we still had the remnants of nuclear angst. And since  the Assembly convened just a few days after “9:11” threats to life and peace were – compared to what we now face –  on the relatively pedestrian scale of war and politics,  that is,  of possibility  if chosen, rather than inevitability unless acted upon.  

(And if you want to read that last sentence again, go ahead. Relatively pedestrian.)

Although I soon after realised that the “statement” that came out of my own reflection group  had been  skilfully watered down at the drafting stage by an experienced church bureaucrat, nonetheless, there was a feeling of collaboration, movement and momentum.  

But I’m wondering where that all went.  Like the “Invasion of the…” – whoever they were-  or the outbreak of child disappearances in Stephen King’s town of Derry.

The impetus for the Assembly  had been the ‘Great Jubilee’ of the Millennium,  encouraged by Pope St John Paul II’s encyclical ‘Ut Unum Sint’, in which proactive dialogue and repentance over disunity were affirmed  as essential to Christianity,

And  the “Lund Principle”  was proclaimed anew, that, “at local, regional, national and international levels, churches must act together except where deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately.” 

 It’s been good to see similar  words surface relatively recently  at national committee level in various places, but you and I both know that at the grassroots of locally neighbouring churches, (-where fear and misunderstood  respect dictates hesitation over seeking  permission rather than risk of apology, -) such a a basic and obvious  “principle” as Lund might as well be obscure and esoteric.

Ecumenism, where  sidelined to toothless  committees, has suffered all the more from the battening down of the hatches as denominations  struggle with financial pressures. Some of us have jealously guarded what we felt to be our distinct identities, though no church can with integrity prioritise  any other identity than that of the Body of Christ. Everything else is derivative, with or without the vows and promises that bind us over ( me included)  to uphold our particular rules and regulations.

It’s as if the Ecumenical Assembly had never been at all.  And the vastly expensive  luxury of division,  not unlike the costs of loneliness and divided communities of any kind, presses down towards a time of deserts of Christian Witness. 

Here too, the internal combustion engine has played a role. How many folk, who live within walking or cycling  distance of a church, nonetheless burn fossil fuels to attend one of their preference? And in how many small  settlements does one small portion of a minister share ‘responsibility’ for that town or village  with a smaller portion of another?

(See how these Christians love each other!)

Rural and island communities, with a hugely practical attitude to thinly-spread church leadership and the shareability of resources, often  offer, if not a model, at least some sort of direction. And I’m not being romantic about this, because I know of the hardship  and sacrifice that nonetheless sometimes triumphs in such circumstances.

We also see, where attention to carbon brownie points goes together with the loving expression of Christian witness in the alleviation of poverty and the elimination of waste, in community gardens,  sharing of clothing, rescue of bread, fair trade, buying locally, and  those other wonderful expressions of love…. we see that when Christians let themselves be seduced into living out their faith with integrity, then care for the Planet is part and parcel. 

Is it far-fetched to suggest that the urgency of the environmental crisis should powerfully kick-start our confidence in the Spirit’s gift of the Unity of the Church?

Could the range of an electric bike, rather than of a petrol engine, determine the radius of the ‘Sunday journey’ ( as they put it in Welsh Presbyterianism) of a denominational chameleon of a local church leader? 

I sometimes laugh with God at what I get away with. You should try it!

A few years later, I managed to wangle a trip to Brazil, to the World Council of Churches, as part of my first sabbatical. And I sneaked into an ecumenical  session entitled “the implications of common Baptism”. 

As it happened, this meeting was reviewing a report produced at a high level between churches which had clearly taken its remit as, with the utmost   eloquence,  to find  ways of avoiding the implications of common Baptism, because no one was quite ready to confront the most blindingly obvious of those implications. 

 I can say that here, because I’m not speaking for anyone else. But read the document, if you don’t believe me, and then be honest about your own conclusion.

Back then, I also heard that old self-congratulatory chestnut “this wouldn’t have happened forty years ago” . That stung. Back then, in my forties, I pointed out  that I had been hearing that in churches all my life .  

Wasn’t it time to regret, rather than congratulate on the slow progress?

A certain Archbishop  commented that I must have been “an awfully precocious child!”  I was far too polite in those days (maybe I still am)  to ask why we didn’t just yell “Get on with it!”  But, as you might say, that wasn’t the end of the world, or even the world as we know it.  (That’s what we face now!)

Churches have learned the sleight of hand of being good neighbours by avoiding the most obvious progress towards unity. And so time goes on. Perhaps we need to learn to smile and say “this wouldn’t have happened sixty years ago” .

Things are different now

Not only the Pope’s visionary encyclical letter  Laudato Si, but the screamingly urgent  bulletins of scary environmental news that drop each day into my inbox confront us now with the implications not only of common Baptism,  and Christ’s prayer for our unity  (it was in prayer that he shared his fears, by the way, as well as his longings)  but, most undeniably all ,  a common home. A home shared not just with other Christians and people of good -and bad – will, but the multitude of stakeholders in God’s covenant with All Flesh. 

Now is the time and place when we cannot evade an urgent call to “get on with” many things we have left lying by the wayside, not least that gentle ecumenical principle of the conference of Lund Sweden, that Churches “should consider, for the sake of the Gospel, being prepared to do together everything that only the deeper differences of conviction prevent.”  

In our day, we have become painfully aware of the environmental costs of divided living. The level of waste rises higher, where there’s no one around to enjoy your leftovers. … And of course, churches, when they can swallow their pride and learn to trust each other, can share premises, suppliers, and in many cases youth work or even clergy. If not for every task, then for many. Some years ago, I did hear of a Church of Scotland parish and a Roman Catholic parish sharing preparation for Baptism. But the personalities it depended on moved away. And it fell apart.

A couple of  years ago, I reviewed the Pope’s encyclical letter “Laudato Si” for the national magazine of the United Reformed Church. I read it again, more intensely, and with the perspective of my role as Environmental Chaplain with a remit and aspiration to dance with a loving boldness across the borders of Christian division.

I have been, actually, unexpectedly shaken by the level of relevance and overlap. Given that it should be in my interest to find areas of agreement, that should be reassuring:

 And yet the  level of relevance was such that Pope Francis,  or maybe the Holy Spirit, underneath all the layers of diplomatic nicety might have been yelling “get on with it!”.  So too are the stones beneath our feet, of which Jesus said that, if the Lord’s disciples keep silent, they would shout aloud. 

Get on with acknowledging in meaningful ways the voice of the Earth in the chorus of praise.

Get on with reading the Bible with eyes wide open to the integral call for care: not stopping at page one or chapter one, but being ready to discover in the subsequent twelve hundred or so pages the richness of God’s partnership through Christ with the World God loves so much that God gives Godself in Jesus Christ… 

Christianity is ecological.

Christianity is ecumenical 

(And this chaplaincy is arguably an expression of the Lund Principle)

God has broken down all the garden fences.

And love is a crime against extinction.