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.

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. 


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,”

EVENT POSTPONED Cadder Parish Church Climate Change Conference

Mark the 21st of March 2020 in your diary.

Cadder Parish Church, Bishopbriggs, are offering an opportunity for you to consider your response to climate change. Come along between 10 and 12, to hear speakers from Eco-Congregation Scotland and Christian Aid, Scotland. Join in discussion and find out what other folk are doing personally and in their congregations in response to climate change.

All are welcome. To help with catering, please can you use the form on this page to indicate if you are likely to attend.

The Circular Economy of the Kingdom

At my induction,  the approach  to Biblical interpretation that we might call ‘poetic theology’ was affirmed. 

What I’ve since noticed, is that regarding prayer and creativity, as they were in the past, as legitimate tools of theological enquiry often gets you to the same sort of destination as more formal methods.

Theology is a quest for meaning. This is one approach, which is not in competition with rigorous formality, but sits alongside it.

Insights don’t need to be definitive to be valid. I’m not competing with, or aiming to defeat  other methods.

Whilst being aware of these limitations, I’ll share here a small part of what is convincing me that Christianity needs the ‘green specs’ that folk have expected to see in my work, and maybe a bit more than was expected.

I noticed, as I have before, – but never gave it further thought-, that the ‘kingdom’  (‘basileia’) which many have preferred to call ‘reign’, in Matthew’s Gospel  (alone) is mentioned a remarkable 32 (!!!) times as the ‘kingdom of heaven’.   Or the reign of ‘heaven’.  The way heaven is ruled…. It is perfectly normal to make the leap to assume that  the ‘Kingdom of God’ (approx 70+ occurrences in the New Testament ) is identical. In practice, few preachers ever notice or register the difference. That is accepted, but for now, I’m just looking at Matthew’s  preference. (Matthew also does use Kingdom of God).

The other principle  which is not just my own, but observable wherever people are doing theology in the light of the Climate Crisis, could, I suppose, be described as a ‘reconcretisation of metaphor’. An overwhelming majority of the ‘images’ in Biblical language are rather more firmly grounded in the experiential than we have allowed for. If we read of Jesus suggesting ‘look at the birds’, have we actually looked at the birds?  If we read his advice to look and learn from ‘all the trees’. The climate crisis is the death of abstract metaphor.  Creation literally groans.  Stones shout. Science, as the codification of experience,  is our ‘universal translator’ of the prophetic witness of Creation. Though again, such things are not limited  to the formal.

The ivory tower of the abstract  theologian  is exchanged for an immersion in the  threatened cycles of  nature.

And  having noted that  our use of the word ‘heaven’ tends to shunt our daily experience of the sky into a remote and abstract dimension, let’s just allow that the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’  can be  imagined as ‘the way the sky is ruled’.  Which in the case of the very well-known phenomenon of the water cycle, is cyclic. A circular economy, as it were.  What else is the background to Isaiah 55:10-11, when the ‘sky/heaven’ itself becomes a major player in the cyclic purposes of God, and not as a mere catalyst, but an active agent. Science has added to the water cycle, the carbon flux. And human activity is messing them both  up royally.

Having  ‘Got Creation Done’, (!!!) God is Sustainer, and the Way God ‘Rules’, is by ‘recycling.’ See also the previous blog post about the recycled God that we know as the Trinity., rather than as a vertically hierarchical single-use  Boss-bird-and Junior . The dance of Creation, and of God, is a circle-dance. Let that sink in. And test it out against Jesus’ many stories of the kingdom, its order and even its apparent  (relative) chaos.

The Recycled God, or the Single-Use ‘Trinity’?

After that gentle blog (above) about claiming the green, now something a wee bit heavier, but, I hope, all the more liberating.

Classic Christian teaching frequently seems difficult to defend, possibly because it’s culturally easy to dissociate it from the expression of love, rather than the oppressive rules of a hierarchy of some kind, whether supported by law and violence, or self-deceiving pretensions to definitive and final  authority.  Or that’s the way it looks from the outside.  That’s even expected.

But this is the first ‘hermeneutical’ principle in this exploration: “love is why we teach it.”

Following from that, the fresh look that an ecochaplain is obliged to take, (on the fringes of a cultural context which prizes re-use/repair/re-purpose/recycle as a prominent ethical value-cluster,) frequently ends up as an affirmation of Christian mainstream.

It’s nice that you’re often surprised. I’d prefer ‘delighted’. But hey….

One area of ‘marginalised orthodoxy’, (which probably sounds like a complete oxymoron to those whose experience of ‘orthodox’ goes with oppressive lovelessness), is the most distinctive teaching of Christianity, the idea of God as Holy Trinity.

The grotesque hierarchical depictions of the Holy Trinity which so totally negate the idea of the equal persons of the Creative Unity as to be characterised as ‘Spot the Pigeon(I’m quoting the most memorable bit of lectures by Prof Sara Coakley in Oxford in the early 90s) or ‘The Boss, the Bird, and the Junior’. (see above, Cologne Cathedral)

These depictions (or, strictly, what they imply) drive a coach and horses over the affirmation that the definitive and exemplary nature of God, as shown through Jesus, is as persons lovingly  “coequal, coeternal, and consubstantial” .(Nicene Creed, some versions).

These pictures are markedly in contrast with the ‘Celtic Trinity ‘symbol, the ‘triquetra’ in which the three components form an ever-interlacing knot. Tellingly, this appears on notice-boards for recycling stations, (see above)  and for a while, was adopted by DEFRA.

(I wrote to DEFRA at the time, disingenuously asking if they intended to use any other religious symbols on their letterheads. They wrote back, claiming they had no such intention).

In the Triquetra Trinity, the Three are equal, connected, dependent, distinct. It saves pages of theology. (And I have it tattooed on my shoulder, not that you need to know that).

It’s been in devotional use by Christians for a good 1400 years, and used by other faiths before and since.

I’d like to see a really convincing argument (and I don’t think there is one) to suggest that the feudal system, whose remnants we still cherish, has not skewed Christian devotional language in favour of kingship rather than any other model of leadership, and kings, having been absolute authorities, didn’t fit at all with the fundamentally collaborative Trinity.

And since, in the Old Testament, God is, demonstrably, far more a reshaper and recycler than Creator out of absolutely nothing, perhaps Christians need to recognise a greater holiness and dignity in ‘making all things new’ rather than ‘making new things.’ In all aspects of life and faith.

The ‘Boss, bird and junior’, which, staggeringly, often passes by unchallenged in our churches, is by contrast a ‘single-use model of God, allied to ecological devastation because it prioritises domination rather than (costly) partnership.

It sees no need to collaborate, or rethink, only to be obeyed. Vertical hierarchy, rather than collaboration, is a game of extinction. Unenriched by trinitarian  theodiversity. Ever only upwards, like the idolatry of unlimited economic growth, which never pauses and re-makes.

And that’s not how to be Christlike. Not the model of the one who came that we should have life in abundance, and joy in fullnesss.

My hope is in the recycling and recycled God. Who calls us out to be recycled, repurposed, reinvigorated too.

Our world reflects what we believe.

Yep, it matters, this theology game.