An evening reflection from Iona Abbey

Readings :

Genesis: 2:19 naming the other creatures: (not just classifying) [Kirsten]
Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the human to see what they would name them; and whatever the human called each living creature, that was their name.

Proverbs 30:24-28: the triumph of the insignificant
Four things are small on the earth,
But they are exceedingly wise:
The ants are not a strong people,
But they prepare their food in the summer;
The rabbits (let’s call them rabbits for now)
are not mighty people,
Yet they make their houses in the rocks;
The locusts have no king,
Yet all of them march in formation
The lizard is small enough to hold in your hand
Yet it hangs around kings’ palaces.

Matthew 6:26ff Birds, our teachers, in life and death. [Rob]

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life
 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even King Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For those without faith run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.


Classification of all the wonders we see helps us find our place in Creation, but giving a name is the start of relationship. This week we have been When we saw a Great Skua or heard a Storm Petrel, we have been very eager to identify it.

Whether the spotted bird on the phone wire making such a wonderful racket is a mistle thrush or, as it turned out, and most appropriately, a song thrush… Is the cuckoo really a cuckoo? What has been notably absent was what Jesus suffered: being put in a box because folk mistake knowledge for relationship.

And we began to wonder, when the Bible points out that not a sparrow falls to the ground without God’s knowledge, whether these were the sparrows that are zooming around the cloisters, or something completely different. The reference books, gave us a Dead Sea Sparrow, and concluded that the difference was not significant: the small birds we delight in speak to us as those Jesus knew spoke to him.

It took me an embarrassingly long time to notice that when Jesus teaches using a fig tree, he also says “look at all the trees” , or that the foliage spread on the ground when Jesus makes his entry on a donkey to Jerusalem is only once called Palms, but also “branches gathered where they are”. God is where you are. Speaking through the wildlife in the wildernesses we end up in, not just the one Jesus inhabited in his time preparation for his work.

Right from the start of our time together, the naming of fellow creatures has been a delight of this week.
Ben and Billy, Eve, Barbara Hannah, John, Hunta, Kirsten, Rob, Matthew, Bee, Ermine Moth, Small heath, Mouse-ear hawkweed, Sundew, Sea spleenwort – that’s I think, the rather beautiful plant that the laws of the land has thus far prevented from being removed from the walls of this church. There’s a rightness in there, somewhere. Think about it next time you bring a tree into church and smother it with baubles and tinsel.

We may in the course of our life, have the honour and privilege of giving names to another human being. With my late wife, I named my own children in ways we hoped would express our love and hopes for them. Welsh names we had come to love, for the stories that went with them: Taliesin, the boy who sang before he could talk, which turned out to be the case, and Melangell Honey-Angel: the princess who ran away from an arranged marriage to set up a healing community of sisters in the Berwyn mountains, where hospitality for wild animals was key.

I wonder if any child has ever been named Mouse-Ear Hawkweed? The yellow flower which isn’t a dandelion. I’d love that Baptism. On our wildflower walk, the names and their stories began to help us make sense of what we saw.

In local churches, I encountered a different, equally valid approach: families who chose a name because of the lovely sound: I baptised a wee girl called Kyrie. It’s the Greek for Lord or owner, but they remembered it as the name of a prayer.

For my wife it was different: she chose her own name to reclaim her life following a harrowing history of abuse.

If we give names, let it be always names that are who names. Way back, Moses got know God by name: YHWH – God is called I AM WHO I WILL BE – a name so holy that many people still hesitate to use it, and the imperialist heritage of English speakers leapt at the chance to use “Lord” the term of address for aristocratic overlords. From the sixteenth century, though, whatever else, good or bad, the Reformation brought, ordinary people once more learned to sing love-songs to God; to relate; to reach out with hearts, in partnership with heads.

That’s why I was delighted by the short passage from Proverbs about the small wise people. Yes, people, not just animals, not just “it” . The ants, the rabbits ( well rock hyraxes if you want a direct translation, but rabbits will do) the locusts and the lizards – Hannah found a common lizard on the island this week – I was delighted at how the wisdom and indeed the personhood of these “peoples” was acknowledged . Moving us on from “it” to “who”.

Even though their ways of life and communication are, so different from ours. Biologically and in other ways, we have so much in common. And science now confirms how much if makes sense to talk of the Earth as a living being, of the communication and family life even of trees. If we look creation in the eye, and listen to their voice, as interpreted by climate scientists, we will think and act differently to people just looking after property. Can you really care, if you don’t relate?

Then the third reading: the one that sets our human busyness in perspective. Look at the birds. Can we read it without really looking at the real birds? I cannot conceive that Jesus would have just plucked this poetry out of thin air:

And then, finally, the verse that keeps me going as every day more bad news about the state of the planet drops through my inbox: the key learning from the birds and other creatures who get on with it.
Do not worry about tomorrow.

Is it just unhelpfully naive? Because there’s plenty to be worrying about. Climate crisis, freefall premature extinction, ocean overheating and acidification. Plastics, and far far more.

Could we take it that by far the most practical reading is that we seek the support of God and the resources of our faith, which, like others, has probably been through the threat of the end of the world several times already.

And also that, having taken note, having read the signs of today we get on with it.
That, if you like, is the summary of the Gospel. Take note and get on with it.

That we embrace the costs of change today rather than the far greater costs of change tomorrow.

And because Christians value prayer, that small offering sent to God to do with what God wills then none of our small actions initiatives, light-bulb changings, insulations or cuttings down on plastic need be without value or significance. These things are unambiguously an expression of faith. As work and worship were drawn together in the beginnings of the Iona Community, so prayer and Creation Care belong together from now on.

I’m so pleased Iona Abbey, which I’m so pleased is now registered as an ecocongregation along with five hundred churches of all sorts of shapes and sizes around Scotland.

You will not save the planet or stop the climate crisis. Not on your own, and not in any perfect sort of way, but you, especially with others, will make a difference. God who keeps an eye on the sparrows, will know.

So snapping our fingers and sorting things out is the really unhelpfully naive approach.

I value Matthew’s thoughts as a doctor that even the common cold has a place and a contribution to health. And when we see other people, other creatures as the problem to be solved, rather than a relationship to be transformed, that’s deadly. Genocide is the logical conclusion of perfection.

But living with hope is the joyful practicality
As Pope Francis, who has used – shall we say recycled – his office so well…

May our struggles and our concern for this planet
never take away the joy of our hope.

Whether it’s the pope or the song-thrush who in the absence of trees sits on the telegraph wires, the message is the same.
Look at the birds. Wonder. Learn. Get on with it.