Magi detail

Magi detail (Photo credit: JoetheLion)

It is now the Eve of Epiphany. The Magi have travelled by camel in a starlit night. As many Christmas cards depict, they arrive on the crest of a hill overlooking Bethlehem and one star dominates the sky. They link the star to where its light tells them they will find the new-born King of the Jews. They wait, they see and they wonder.

The popular astronomer Heather Couper had a series of programmes on BBC Radio about the ancient associations of stars and planets with astrological predictions of the future and has written extensively on her subject [co-author of A History of Astronomy]. She has some speculative comments on the story of the wise men, about the identity of the star and the date it appeared. It’s a fascinating subject and it’s very helpful when experts explain things in a way that laypeople can understand. But despite all we have learned about the origin of the universe, there is still a great deal more we have to find out.

An example of simulated data modelled for the ...

An example of simulated data modelled for the CMS particle detector on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s been a lot of Big Bang Theory lately, and I don’t mean the festival of the American comedy series lately on E4. The Nobel Prize has been awarded to the English physicist Peter Higgs with the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs’ boson. According to The Guardian (see below), the cosmologist Stephen Hawking made the cryptic comment that physics would have been “far more interesting” if scientists had been unable to find the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider in Cern. This may have been just a piece of Hawking whimsy and while we admire the elegance of Stephen Hawking’s mathematical language, even this wise man cannot explain why we are here at all.

But Hawking said something else that was interesting. He said, “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and hold on to that child-like wonder about what makes the universe exist.”

The Prologue of the Gospel of John tries to take us beyond ‘a history of time’ to the mystery of ‘in the beginning’. The Prologue echoes and continues the Genesis story of creation, and is written in beautiful and puzzling language. It attempts to describe the shattering, time breaking moment in the history of the world when the God of all creation became a human being.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” [John 1.14]

The Redeemer of the earth entered the world of darkness and became the Light and eventually, in humility, was baptised in the River Jordan.

This fusion of light and water is essential for life on earth. Water interacts with the entire cycle of nature to help things grow and light is essential to photosynthesis, the process behind every growing plant.  We are complex human beings created in the image of God to ‘till and keep’ [Genesis 2.15] the earth, but if God commissioned us to serve nature as God’s qualified and able stewards, then we have failed to live up to our job specification. The problem for us is that some of our Christian forebears developed a train of thought that saw this world as simply instrumental to humankind’s needs and it became the dominant narrative.

Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626)

Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“No item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes,” said Francis Bacon, the seventeenth century statesman, philosopher and scientist. As humankind imposed its rational standards our rebelliousness grew. At the heart of our self-awareness we love ourselves more than we love God and others, or conversely we think too poorly of ourselves, or we are many shades of grey in between, all the time making ourselves vulnerable, and distancing ourselves from our Creator.

If we loved creation enough to notice the needs of the planet itself, to be aware of its rhythm of life, we would be more likely to live in harmony with God’s gift of creation than try to dominate it. Of course we need an earthly dwelling place, but if we try to geo-engineer the world, we should not be surprised if the world reminds us how elusive and complex the physical world is collectively. Our world is not static, but moves and changes, because otherwise it would not sustain life.

But humankind is overriding the natural rhythm of life. Whilst extreme weather events are, at least in part, a result of climate change, the overwhelming scientific evidence is that human activity is magnifying the effects of climate change. To date the average rise in global temperature has only been 0.8 degrees C above pre-industrial times. Imagine how things might be if average global temperature rose more than 2 degrees C, which is the complacent view about where we are heading in the next few decades.

The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change warns that keeping global warming below 2 degrees C is beyond our grasp and 4 degrees C is challenging. Latest scientific evidence (see below) suggests that by 2100 that figure may be reached and life on earth will indeed be challenging. Unless we understand the size of the problem, it will be too late to develop avoiding action.

What will 2014 hold? If forecasts are correct, then we’ll see more hurricanes, droughts, floods, crop failures, diminished biodiversity, and further drift into our overcrowded cities where desperate people are attempting to escape poverty. Are we heading for a perfect storm where ecological and economic factors collide? As our resource depletion accelerates, perhaps the scarcest commodity of all is hope. What hope can we have for the future of the earth, and in particular our own species?

For there is yet hope. The ethics of hope that will drive the kind of co-operation we need to conserve our world for future generations. But it will be costly. As Chris Polhill of the Iona Community says, [The Heart of Creation: Worship Resources and Reflections on the Environment] “it will require us to grow as disciples, to struggle both within and without, and to seek that transformation that God alone can bring.”

So at this Eve of Epiphany, to celebrate the gift of creation, we need to begin our journey out of the wilderness. And like the journey of the

Scapegoat Wilderness

Scapegoat Wilderness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

wise men following the Bethlehem star it will not be easy. We shall have to contend with ‘the powers that be’ as the wise men did with King Herod. We will be confronted by authoritative structures that will seek to bend our will, and will be subverted by our natural instincts for affection and esteem making obeisance to the providers of security and survival who will try to enslave us.

But the overarching problem, as the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch writes [Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature],  “Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.” So the spiritual journey will be quite challenging, but eventually we will come to a fuller understanding and acceptance of our belovedness by God.

When we encounter the presence of God, our lives become en-livened, and I mean this in its original 17th century sense of ‘restored to life’and ‘give life to’. The outward expression of this new life will be the way we will live in the world, through acts of voluntary service to each other and to all living creatures. In this way we become co-creators with God. As Chris Polhill says, “Together we celebrate, and together we become a force for change.”

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January 5, 2014 · 12:01

The one who shook the tree, and others

Jesus meets John the Baptist

Jesus meets John the Baptist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The charismatic leader John the Baptist is a lone prophetic voice, who by the River Jordan, nourished the shrivelled roots of what became the resurrection people of our Lord Jesus Christ.  His ministry was highly charged, with its disturbing warning of judgement and calling for national repentance. It was much more political than some of the previous prophets, foretelling that the tree of the Herodian regime would be shaken with an axe [Matthew 3.10]. Because he lived in the desert, ate harsh food and wore the clothes of rejection, he appeared to be like Elijah the Prophet, whom Queen Jezebel had described as the ‘troubler of Israel’. The Jewish historian Josephus said that John the Baptist was ‘a good man who bade the Jews practise virtue, be just to one another, and pious toward God, and come together by means of baptism’.

The funeral of another ‘troubler’ of the political status quo, the ‘troubler of apartheid South Africa’ is taking place today. His second African name, Rolihlahla means ‘stirring up trouble’. Some also translate this as meaning ‘the one who shakes the tree’.  Mandela spent 27 years of his life incarcerated, sleeping on the floor, with a bucket for a lavatory, forced to do hard labour in a quarry, allowed one visitor a year for 30 minutes, and to write and receive a letter once every six months. Far from silencing him he became a voice in the wilderness, and something of a mystery. As a result, his presence in that Robben Island jail became a beacon of hope, while South Africa battled with its inner demons. Prison can crush the spirit and while John the Baptist was in prison in Machaerus he appears to have lost his faith. “Are you the one who is to come?”[Matthew 11.3] he asks hesitantly of Jesus, unable to contain his doubts in the darkness of his prison cell.

Mandela too had doubts and many dark moments when his faith in humanity was sorely tested.  He began his long walk to freedom on a sunny day in February 1990.  I wonder at the thoughts and crushing weight of conflicting expectations that were weighing on his slender frame. He had started a journey that was daunting; how to unite a divided, angry and fearful nation. Many expected some fiery winnowing-fork-wielding-Messiah. Instead his message was of reconciliation and forgiveness.  What extraordinary prophetic insight Mandela’s mother had in naming her son, ‘the one who shakes the tree’. Did she see his potential to bring an end to oppression and inequality? Mandela became a political firebrand and was never a saint but neither was he the devil that his opponents made him out to be. One cannot fail to bring to mind, especially at this time of the year, another mother whose song, the Magnificat, we celebrate at Evensong. Ultimately Mary’s son shook a different kind of tree, when Jesus took his long tortured walk to Calvary.

The message that John the Baptist brought was that Israel needed to go through a time of penance and purgation in preparation for the “Coming One’.  In Advent, we need to listen to the vox clamantis. The vibrating wind that ruffles our tangled thoughts, like the reeds. The inner voice that upsets every expectation. What are our expectations for Christmas? Celebration is important. Of course it is. But singing carols and eating mince pies is not enough. We need to set aside the soft robes of Santa Claus and open ourselves to the true gift of Christmas, the loving, healing life that God is offering.

My ‘tree’ was shaken last week. I was chatting with the ‘fish lady’, as one does, other customers waiting patiently in the queue by her van, when I discovered that she and her husband are going to forgo present giving this Christmas. Instead they will give the money they would have spent on each other to a local children’s charity. Now there is nothing unusual about this. Lots of us take this option, particularly when the choosing of a present is going to be difficult, like for my big sister, for example.  But what shook me was when she revealed that on Christmas Day they will travel down to Dundee to volunteer in a soup kitchen.

In casual conversation she had spoken to me in God’s power. I was shocked not because they were doing a generous thing, I knew she and her husband were regular supporters of many good causes. I was shocked because I had never thought of spending Christmas in this way.

Just then, the face of the ‘fish lady’ shone with the light of Christ.

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From darkness to light….

Red light buld in darkness

Red light buld in darkness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a child, I was afraid of the dark. I never told my parents about my fear so they did not have a chance to indulge me and let me have a nightlight. But when I was ill, a fire was lit in the grate in my bedroom and a candle placed on the mantlepiece. That was a great comfort.

Of course, as the apostle Paul would say, we grow out of childish things. Or do we? I have no interest in horror films, for example, or any of the supernatural-action-with-aliens we see so often on television these days. I have never watched Dr Who. Perhaps they still hold a deep fear for me that I do not want to come to the surface.

What is darkness? The word ‘darkness’ evokes a number of ideas. There is the literal meaning of a physical absence or lack of light, the opposite of day, which itself implies impairment of vision, where something may not be within one’s field of view. Or even worse a ‘blindness’ of all the senses, with nothing to see, nothing to touch, no sound, no smell, no sense of direction. Or it can be a mental state of confusion with no frame of reference and a rush of competing thoughts; and in this vulnerable state, darkness is imbued with a sense of something unpleasant, a space where a malign force may be in control. Here the imagination goes into overdrive.

Spiritual darkness is not very different. In the Bible, darkness is sometimes a metaphor to describe the absence of God, or a lack of understanding about God. Job complains, “If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!” [Job 23.17 NRSV]

Yet darkness can also be a place of discovery as in the Exodus story. ‘While the people stood at a distance, Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.’ [Exodus 20.21 NRSV] And even more strangely, darkness is also a metaphor where there is an excess of light of God, where God seems to be beyond anything we could possibly conceive, a dazzling darkness.

The good news is that God dwells in the darkness. The darkness was prior to the light; it was, and is, God’s home. In this darkness, the promise is that we will never be alone. In this darkness there is nothing to be afraid of.

T S Eliot describes a comforting darkness of anticipation, in his poem ‘East Coker’ –

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Well you may saying, this is all very well for poets like T S Eliot. We yearn for stillness as the ultimate good; communion with God in the silence of the heart. But how do we get there? There is no map. No ‘satnav’ invented will deliver you to this destination. But we can all get there, though some skill is required, as otherwise it could just turn out to be an exercise in escapism.

We begin our journey in a state of wakefulness. But it is not the kind of wakefulness when we awaken from sleep. Spiritual wakefulness is different. It is a state of being fully awake in the present moment, aware of all the thoughts and feelings passing through us but not being dominated by them. Aware of a stillness, but a stillness that is vibrantly alive. A stillness that allows us to become witness to our thoughts instead of being imprisoned by them. We experience a depth to our thoughts that we have never known before.

There are many occasions when this stillness can be realised; in silent prayer; in meditation; in the ritual of worship and sacrament; in the study of Scripture, known as lectio divina. The key aspect of this stillness is watchfulness or awareness. The process of watchfulness is about realising the presence of God in our lives.

Advent is a time of darkness, of expectant waiting, of preparing for the Christ Child to be born in our hearts. Christ is bringing back the light. The light we must allow into ourselves. Into the heart of our deepest darkness.

Like Lent, Advent is a time of repentance. A time to examine ourselves. To consider ourselves deeply, honestly. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.”[11.36]  The importance of the Luke passage, to our contemporary hearing, is not that light is a searchlight we throw out onto an object, as the ancient philosophers believed. It is what happens when we allow the Light into ourselves.

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Lest we forget

Lest we forget (Photo credit: Parksy1964)

In my thoughts about Remembrance Sunday has been the use of modern mass warfare against civilians.  Syria is a recent example. We sometimes forget that only one in ten who die through war will be combatants. So whilst it is right that we remember today the heroes who have fallen in battle and the survivors who are mentally or physically scarred, we should also remember the women, children and men(not in active service), who happen to get in the way of weapons of mass destruction. Realists airbrush this horrific reality as ‘collateral damage’. 

In the desert of New Mexico is the site of the first atomic explosion, which took place on July 16, 1945. Dr Oppenheimer, the man who oversaw the building of the first atomic bomb, called the test site Trinity, in honour of a sonnet by the seventeenth century poet John Donne, ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’. Twenty years later he couldn’t remember exactly the reasons why. Perhaps he was influenced by the words “break, blow, burn, and make me new” describing in simple terms the sequence of events in a nuclear explosion.

Here is the full text of Donne’s poem,

John Donne, one of the most famous Metaphysica...

John Donne, one of the most famous Metaphysical Poets. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

John Donne was deeply divided between religious spirituality and a physical lust for life. Many of his poems, mix the language of the spiritual and the carnal; or the holy and the secular. In this sonnet, the poet is in a passionate conversation with God. Donne asks the “three-personed God” to “batter” his heart, for as yet God “knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend.” He needs God to overthrow him and bend his force to break, blow, and burn and make him new. Like a town captured by the enemy, he seeks unsuccessfully to allow God into his heart. Reason, like God’s viceroy, has been captured by the enemy, and proves weak or untrue. Yet he says that he loves God dearly and wants to be loved in return; but this self-proclaimed false lover is betrothed to God’s enemy. He asks God to divorce him, “untie, or breake that knot againe” to take him prisoner; for paradoxically, until he is God’s prisoner, he will never be free, and he will never be chaste until God ravishes him. Extraordinary stuff from a Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral.

The nuclear test at ‘Trinity’ is the subject of “Doctor Atomic,” an opera, with music by John Adams and libretto by Peter Sellars. In the final scene of Act 1, Oppenheimer is alone and the bomb is behind a veil, a white curtain, with the shadow of the bomb projecting onto it. Oppenheimer can hardly look behind the curtain. He tries to reason with God, attempting reconciliation and forgiveness. The librettist uses the words in John Donne’s poem.

We live in a technological age, homo sapiens has become homo technologicus. A creature that is now counter-nature or even anti-nature. Technology has become anchored in the idea of the unfettered will displacing all transcendent frames of reference that might have limited technology’s influence. A contemporary of John Donne was King James’ Lord Chancellor, Francis Bacon. Bacon claimed that the development of the ‘useful arts’, a medieval term, which included the “mechanical arts”, was  growing and becoming more perfect. He said that humankind’s mission to remake the world was in reality “but the footsteps of the Creator imprinted on his creatures.”

In his book, The Religion of Technology, David Noble says that the atomic engineers and scientists viewed the ‘Trinity’ project and themselves in an almost divine light and as saviours of mankind. They believed that the atomic bomb signalled a beginning as well as an end, “a weapon of death that might redeem mankind”. Mesmerised by their achievement the atomic pioneers behaved as if they were walking in the footsteps of the Creator towards divine-likeness, as much redeemers, as redeemed; the illusion of ultimate and unlimited power, like being God. Oppenheimer, after the detonation of the first atomic bomb, quoted the Bhagavad Gita, part of Hindu scripture, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The realist tries to argue that the ownership of nuclear weapons by rational governments, prevents the world from becoming destroyed. But what if these apocalyptic devices were to fall into the hands of irrational people, like terrorists, would they be used and with what consequences? And should we worry about the inherent instability in regional conflicts such as Israel and the Arab nations, India and Pakistan, or North and South Korea?

Whilst the momentum towards abolishing nuclear weapons has increased in recent years, long-range conventional ballistic missiles and missile defence technology such as drones have increased. But even if this gives super powers such as America confidence to reduce its arsenal of nuclear weapons, other states may feel even more vulnerable. So nuclear weapons remain the ‘great equalisers’ in global strategic relations.

The realist may argue that war and violence is rational but there is nothing rational about a nuclear bomb even if today it acts as more of a deterrent. There is something hugely cynical and morally unacceptable in the belief that the choice is between being ready to will the deaths of many millions of  civilians or give up our concern to keep world security and peace.

For a thousand years, the imago die, the divine likeness, has been a vision that has impelled technological advance, the vocation to be co-worker with God in the establishment of God’s kingdom and in sharing God’s dominion over the earth.

But the kingdom of God is justice and peace.  It has to do with right relationship. The kingdom of God is about collective well-being. 

Whilst the identification and advancement of the ‘useful arts’ towards the politics of perfection is a part of Christian history, the Bible says that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge’, [Proverbs 1.7].  Scripture counsels treating God with utmost seriousness, that is, being attentive towards God.  Biblical wisdom does not begin in human autonomy, but in deep reverence for God. It is not just about intellectual capacity.  Intellectual capacity needs to be counterbalanced with discipline, practicality and common sense. Wise people make a difference for good in the world by the way they speak and act; by their honesty, hard work, faithfulness and reliability, tempered by thoughtful insight and generosity of spirit. Not by making bombs.

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November 10, 2013 · 07:03

At the end of the rainbow

Nov-embering Mull. This was meant to be a silent retreat (sort of) to quieten the thoughts that had been pummelling my brain recently, the interior soap opera that Martin Laird talks about [Into the Silent Land, OUP, p.15]. It was not a good beginning. A nightmarish journey from the ferry to my cottage at the other end of the island on the back of a single track road. In the pitch black. Torrents of raindrops glaring back at me in the headlights. A slippery, tarmac switchback road, rising, rising until, for a moment, I thought that I had been carried by a Valkyrie from the battlefield to Valhalla. Instead I found myself deposited outside a former blackhouse at Haunn. I stepped into the….. dark, dark night of the soul.

The next day was all sunshine and smiles. Sheep safely grazing in the garden. A hawk [buteo buteo] rising over the hill, mobbed by some ‘hoodies’ [corvus corone corvix]. My cottage was one of three built by fishing families, who would have used the natural harbour at Port Haunn. I descended the cliffs, now smoothed by the relentless battering of the Atlantic Ocean. Little sign of human presence save for the flotsam of ships’ detritus on the shore. Looking out over to the horizon to the flattened Treshnish Islands, just a few miles out to sea spoke of a creative edge of fragility. A fragment of the original chaos, elements of liminality, permeable and calming. The surrounding cliff sent out a frisson of fear. Not in the sense of terror, but the experience of wonder and awe and the indifference of the wilderness to human safety.

I walked along the raised beach, along a footpath that took me round the headland for about one and a half miles.  I stopped to take every opportunity to explore the beach, keen to find the infamous Whisky Cave, the site of an illicit still. A glance over my shoulder reassured me that I was not alone. A rainbow had risen out of the grey sea and arced over the headland. However, several, more anxious glances later, as I continued my heroic scramble, revealed that the rainbow was following me. Just above the infamous cave the track came to an abrupt halt as the cliffs ran sheer down to the sea. It was high tide so there was little point going down to the cave and along the shore.  I turned to go back the way I came. The shock of being confronted by the rainbow, much closer now, had me scrabbling down the hill and jumping the stream back to the flat headland.

The OS map revealed this to be the site of a ruined chapel so I dug out the guidebook from my day-bag. It spoke of possible mediaeval chapel ruins, and perhaps a burial ground, but little else was known. To my mind’s eye it was just a pile of stones. But to my heart’s ‘eye,’ I had a strong liminal sense of ʻplaceʼ and my ʻplace in the worldʼ which intimately connected me with my journey so far. Somehow this seemed just as important spiritually as my arrival at this sacred space. I became sensitised to Godʼs presence and said the Daily Office using the Universalis ‘app.’   A God particle on my iPhone. “How lovely is your dwelling place,  O Lord of hosts!” [Psalm 84.1] In this silent contemplation I left behind my connections with the world. The words on the faux parchment of the app echoed around the stones and reconnected me to my mainland sadness but also led me out of it. “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,  to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways  and that we may walk in his paths.” The Canticle from Isaiah 2.3.

I walked on. A wood on the hill and a waterfall signposted the way, so I set off following a steep path up the valley. The ruined crofting villages of Crackaig and Glac Gugairidh lay beyond.  They wanted to tell me their sad story.  Unusually, not the highland clearances this time, but of how they had been abandoned after a deadly outbreak of typhoid. And I wanted to listen. A natural tragedy and I remembered the book by Annie Dillard I was reading,

“I am a sacrifice bound with cords to the horns of the world’s rock altar, waiting for worms. I take a deep breath, I open my eyes. Looking, I see there are worms in the horns of the altar like live maggots in amber, there are shells of worms in the rock and moths flapping at my eyes. A wind from noplace rises. A sense of the real exults me; the cords loose; I walk on my way.” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

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Why we need a ‘greener’ Christian faith

Food – food access, food quality, food production – is one of the defining issues of our age. The rapid growth of local food movements provides a creative and essential conversation that links the revitalisation of rural economies, food access for urban areas and the health and well-being of all our communities, national and international.  This is important because, as Martin Harper of the RSPB said at the 2012 Oxford Farming Conference,  globally, agriculture is facing unprecedented pressures over the coming decades. Global population currently stands at seven billion people, and is predicted to rise to over nine billion by 2050.

However, the global system is failing in two major ways: hunger remains widespread, a billion people are malnourished, yet a billion people are risking damage to their health by over-consuming. Second, many systems of food production are unsustainable, degrading the environment and compromising the world’s ability to produce food in the future.

Human beings are the most significant entities in the universe.  Our geographic imprint in recent times is now influencing every aspect of the Earth on a scale akin to the great forces of nature.  Because there are now so many of us, using so many resources, we’re disrupting the grand cycles of biology, chemistry and geology by which elements like carbon and nitrogen circulate between land, sea and atmosphere. This new age is being called the anthropocene.  It comes from the Greek anthrōpos meaning ‘human being’ and kainos meaning ‘recent.’  This age has been ushered in just over the last 200 years.  However there are some who argue that its roots go much earlier.

The American medieval historian Lynn White said in his 1967 essay titled, The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis [1967 Science 155: 1203-7]  that the crisis lies not in what the Bible says about our relationship with the natural world, but what we have taken the text to mean at certain periods of history; how it has motivated certain activities: and how it has come to sanction a particular attitude towards nature.  White bases his case largely on what happened in the Middle Ages. He says that the introduction of the heavy plough in mediaeval times made the large-scale cultivation of land possible and lifted agricultural production above the level of subsistence farming. This technological innovation revolutionised the relationship between human beings and the land.

In the medieval period, an understanding of God in creation reflected contemporary debates over humankind’s position in nature.  It was not a scientific view of nature.  It was one which found in the cosmos a moral and theological order and located human beings at its centre.  There were other voices in the Middle ages.  St Francis of Assisi is known for his framework of a theologically infused way of living.  The lives of the Franciscans and the Poor Sisters of St Clare were dedicated to the life of the spirit and their spirituality emphasised the intrinsic value of nature.  And there were the Benedictines, who united worship and labour.

On the whole medieval attitudes toward labour and nature, were positive but hardly enthusiastic.  Farming was still hard work. It was undertaken by a feudal society in which land, woods and water were managed collectively.  In the late Middle Ages, social changes and tensions caused by poverty and disease broke down the complex, formal structures of society and city.  As the medieval economy grew, ancient forests were no longer chopped down to drive out pagan spirits or to make room for settled monastic communities and agriculture.  Instead they were clear felled for ship building, driven by growth in international trade.  Following the Protestant Reformation the medieval world was turned upside down.  And the scientific observations of Copernicus displaced the earth from the centre of the universe and called into question the privileged place of the human race.  A new narrative to describe mankind’s dominion over the land had to be found.  Francis Bacon started to develop his theories in the natural sciences.  Nature had to be removed from its curse.  It should not be left in its fallen state but experimented with, manipulated and improved and mankind’s dominion restored.

By the seventeenth century, new sciences were developing agriculture and husbandry, and landscape gardeners controlling nature.  Age of Enlightenment philosophy and its accompanying scientific revolution finally subjugated nature to the control of the rational mind, severing it from the roots of its scriptural and theological inheritance.   So the medieval moral view of the world was replaced by a mechanistic one, a collection of self-interested individuals operating the world as an objective machine, no longer for the common good.

The primary measure of progress has become the growth of the economy: growth in production, in gross domestic product, in incomes and in consumption.  Yet we live in an age when the ecological and social implications of indefinite growth in the economy are becoming

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220)

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

more serious.  The global economy is unravelling and we are in an environmental crisis.  International efforts to avert the gathering perfect storm seem doomed to fail and national targets to tackle climate change are being missed who else can drive forward the green agenda?  We are left with civil society of which the churches are a significant part.  How should we respond?  How confident are we that we can adapt religious teaching to the task of revaluing nature to prevent its destruction?  How can we as church get engaged in issues affecting food, sustainable energy, restoration, and urban environmental management?

One way of becoming more active in civil society is through the network of environmental organisations.  Some are faith based such as aRocha UK, Christian Ecology Link, EarthAbbey and Ecocongregation Scotland; helping members to understand and relate these responsibilities to their faith, so that we as individuals within civil society can confront the politicians, to ensure that responsibility at local, national and international level is not diluted.

The other way that churches can be involved is through our liturgy.  It is important that we continue to give thanks for those who plant and grow, pick and transport the first fruits of what we enjoy today, even if the link with the liturgy of Deuteronomy is becoming more tenuous because the sense that everything is a gift from God has all but disappeared. Liturgical practice expresses a fundamental connection with structures of meaning and value in the universe, time and seasons.  What was revived as a Victorian traditional service of the harvest has grown into a global ecumenical movement focusing on care for creation.

Our personal spiritual life is another key area.  I mentioned St Francis earlier.  The Franciscan way is a way of seeing our world that is different from our own but not in a world denying way.  In a world affirming way.  For St Francis the entire universe – the self and the total environment to which the self belongs – is a theophany, in other words, a manifestation of God, a creative outpouring of the abundant goodness and love which is the life of the Blessed Trinity.

God creates the world not out of necessity – there’s nothing inevitable about creation – but rather out of love; everything that is – is pure gift.  Benedictines follow the Rule of Life written by St Benedict in the sixth century; one of their key vows is obedience. Obedience — abandoning our own will, cheerfully and ungrudgingly, comes from the Latin for “listen intently.”  Spirituality has at its root the Latin word spiritus, meaning spirit, ‘the deepest centre of the person.’

If we were to live in such mindfulness, our vision would be one of one respect.  Gazing on nature, we would see the incarnation of a promise yet to be fulfilled and that we are partners to that promise.  We would see Christ is reconciling human beings with nature and nature with human beings.

The problem we face is much deeper than the likely devastating effects of climate change; it’s a problem that concerns the loss of our home – with each other, with the universe and in God.  A loss which we are only now beginning to comprehend. The word ‘ecology’ comes from the Greek ‘oikos’, meaning our home; we need an ecology which recognises our ‘belonging’ as part of the universe and belonging with each other in God.

Francis of Assisi, with his sense of abundant giftedness, his recognition of brotherhood and sisterhood, offers an ecology which brings together the environmental, the societal and the spiritual. Such an integrated ecology is one that can lead us to a radical re-orientation – a revolution in our thinking, our living, and our praying, that will be the emerging Christian wisdom for a global future.

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Fools for God

Yes, I know, All Fools’ Day was last Sunday, but I am referring to a lifetime engagement.

Last Sunday, after I had distributed the palm crosses, I suggested that we might all become Fools for God. Nervous glances were exchanged. Like a court jester, I played fast-and-loose with the lectionary and chose some ‘foolish’ readings, one of them describing David disrobed before his slave girls wearing just his ephod [2 Samuel 6:20]. Restless shifting in the pews.

I then told the story of St Francis of Assisi. The saint had become a self-confessed ‘fool for God.’ He had a life transforming experience as a result of a startling vision of Christ on the Cross. He had been born into a wealthy merchant family. By all accounts he was a bit of a lad dreaming of medieval chivalry and going on crusades. After receiving the vision he began to seek God in solitude and prayer. He took some of his father’s best cloth and sold it in the marketplace, distributing the money to the poor. His father was not best pleased and hauled him before the Bishop in Assisi. There St Francis made the dramatic act of stripping himself naked, as a mark of complete renunciation of his family and the ways of the world.

By now the exit was being surveyed for proximity, so I reverted to the story of Palm Sunday.

Three processions entered Jerusalem. One was an imperial procession, led by Pontius Pilate, the representative of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. A joyful scene of music, dance and songs expressing confidence, security and happiness in the Empire.  The second, the royal retinue of Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee in full fig. The high priest Caiaphas and the temple authorities were there to greet them in their sacred vestments standing underneath the great golden eagle above the temple’s western entrance.

They had a difficult task. Their obligation was to the city of Rome, to the cult of the Emperor. The uncomfortable truth was that the name of God had become subservient to the domination system. The Temple was both the house of the God of the Jews on earth and the institutional seat of submission to Rome headed by a different god. It was a delicate balancing act managing this clash of theologies. Slavish fools keeping a wary eye on the public square.

Meanwhile, the third procession was a peasant crowd. The cloaks they were strewing on the ground were not expensive cloaks of finest wool, worn by the elite, the 1%. They were tired rags, smeared with toil and wearing the smell of the 99%. The procession was led by a charismatic leader. A liberator riding in from the Mount of Olives, completing a journey that had begun in the wilderness. A fool for God, acting the fool, mocking the political narrative of the other street processions after the tradition of the prophet Zechariah,

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!   Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. [Zechariah 9:9]

Which procession are we in? Are we free individuals having rights to ʻlife, liberty, and the pursuit of happinessʼ? Living in a society of freedom and choice? But is too much choice liberating? Have we become fools feeling the beat from the tambourine, jiving and believing that we are having the time of our lives –

Friday night and the lights are low

Looking out for the place to go

Where they play the right music, getting in the swing

You come in to look for a King

[apologies to Benny Anderson, Stig Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus et al]

But which King? And will we follow if he asks us to be Fools for God? If we value job, money, reputation, prestige and acceptance of the crowd over and above our spiritual lives then we are in the wrong procession. We are deaf to the music of the radical Messiah, who is ushering in the Kingdom of God, where all are called but none will be “in the depths of the grave.” [Proverbs 10:18]

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Render unto Caesar

Some months before Budget day, Mother Revenue was clearing out her tax cupboard and found some things that had lingered for a while and were beginning to take on an unpleasant smell. “Borderline anomalies” she muttered, “these zero-rates and exemptions were designed to determine the tax treatment of the goods and services which existed when VAT was introduced in 1973 and are long past their repeal date.”   More mutterings, “In some cases the reliefs have been exploited by avoiders or non compliant businesses, allowing them to secure an unfair advantage over other businesses. Tch! Tch!” So Mother Revenue decided that they must go. “I’ll slip them onto the Starters List for the Budget and hopefully the Chancellor will not notice….”

And so it was. Amid the clarification of the VAT treatment of catering to make sure that all hot takeaway food is taxed together with sports nutrition drinks, and self storage, rental of hairdressers’ chairs and holiday caravans are all taxed correctly – approved alterations to certain listed buildings formerly zero-rated will now be taxed at the standard rated of 20%.

Meanwhile…., in a tiny architectural gem, a Scottish Episcopal church alongside one of the busiest commuter routes in Aberdeenshire, the vestry committee was meeting. It would be a good idea, they thought, to offer disabled toilet facilities in the church so that folks would not have to make their way to the village hall where the facilities are not so, ahem, convenient. And we could add a kitchen to offer refreshments after the church service. And what about a quiet meeting room where folks in the hamlet and others could meet in congenial surroundings with all facilities on hand? The village hall is a bit of a barn and expensive to heat and not really conducive for small clubs and the like. The vestry so resolved and a warm feeling was generated about making small contribution to the ‘big society.’

Plans were drawn up to alter the Grade B listed building.  Few realise it has a colourful connection with Westminster Abbey through its interior architect Sir Ninian Comper. The son of an Episcopal priest in Aberdeen, Sir Ninian produced the beautiful painted glass windows for All Saints’, Whiterashes about the same time that he was producing similar windows for Westminster Abbey. The congregation was consulted, the neighbours approached about drainage matters and plans were commissioned for listed building consent, planning permission and approval of the diocesan buildings committee.

But then…. the Chancellor, George Osborne, made his bombshell announcement in the Budget. Actually, the weasel words were slipped sotto voce into Chapter 2, para 179. of budget2012_documents.htm (if you’re really interested). Consternation in the vestry committee! This will add at least £12,000 to the building cost! Can we now afford to go ahead and undertake the works required? This is a real blow to our ministry and mission, as we try to improve our facilities and make them more widely used by the community.

Of course, anticipating an unfavourable reaction, Mother Revenue had carefully pointed out in the accompanying Treasury document that the Government was ‘extending’ the scope of the Grant Scheme administered by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to include reimbursement of VAT for approved alterations. The document did not however promise any increase in funding of the scheme. So an already inadequately covered scheme would simply be apportioned among a larger group of claimants.

So what to do? Render unto Caesar the extra VAT due [Mark 12:17]?

“By no means,” as St Paul would have spluttered [various]. Let’s contact our local MP and add this to the many examples of how this extra 20% charge will impact on the communities and fundraising of churches across the UK.

Repent therefore Chancellor! We shall come to you and will fight you with the sword of our mouths [Revelation 2:16].

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‘Leaving Alexandria’ and ‘Love unknown’

‘Love Unknown’ is the title of Ruth Burrow’s latest book, Archbishop Rowan Williams’ chosen book for Lent.  But it could also describe Richard Holloway’s quest for the presence beyond the absence, laid bare with searing honesty in his autobiography ‘Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt.’  I have just read both books in quick succession and was struck by their experience of depression about the absence of God.  Ruth Burrows found her faith in “The Word became Flesh.”  Richard drifts away from his.  Both confess that at times they have felt a sham.

Faith is not the same as belief. There is a tendency in contemporary language to make the two words synonymous. Belief in its original Anglo-Saxon is about holding dear, to prize, to give allegiance to, to be loyal to. The accessibility of the mystery of God is prior to theological reflection.  Not the other way about.  As Richard Holloway says, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.”  And faith is not some mysterious religious quality which only a few possess. Faith is not something reserved for some holy, perfect, religious person, something given to some, but not given to others.  Ruth Burrows attests strongly to this.

Faith is a willing, but struggling trust in the revealed intentions of God; it is a confidence in what God promises. It can only be calibrated in terms of depth and perseverance. And it is also about humility, since faith may be as small as a mustard seed, hesitant, uneasy, filled with doubts, and yet determined to hold onto God’s promises even though the world and all its wiles will do everything to assail us. All the great saints of the past persevered by faith despite being persecuted and mistreated. But in doing so they were not exercising some Herculean choice, the reward of toil in preference to pleasure. For them faith was not simply belief that there was a God but trust that God rewards those who seek him.

God calls Abram to leave his father’s household in south-eastern Turkey and journey south into Canaan.  The promise God is making to Abram is a promise of blessing.  A blessing to him and through him a blessing to the world. The promise of a blessing is repeated on numerous occasions throughout the book of Genesis.  Eighty-eight times to save you counting.

The tragedy acted out in Holloway’s book is that God seems to be calling the precocious youth from Alexandria, Dunbartonshire with a promise of blessing.  But first he is distracted by the formularies and ritual and monastic rigours of Kelham seminary.  Then the peace he finds at Old Saint Paul’s Edinburgh devoting most of his time answering the knock from Jesus at the door, in other words, the passing vagrant, the insane, the drunk, the lonely and the homeless, eventually disintegrates into compassion fatigue.  And finally, whilst Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, he allows the dogmatic certainty of the institutional church to provoke his waspish mind and he walks away from his priestly vocation.

Ruth Burrows, on the other hand, lives out intensely all the truth disclosed by liturgy, scripture and doctrine against a background of “black depression.”  She matures in her faith, notwithstanding her “failure at prayer, not just now and then, but day after day, year after year!”  Her advice is, “His loving gaze rests on you.  You have no excuse.  Gird your loins and follow the Lord.”

Abrams Falls Trail

Abrams Falls Trail (Photo credit: Frank Kehren)

Both books are a wonderful read but both should be read with an open mind.

As we journey this Lent, God’s call to journey with him is not about having everything about the journey carefully worked out so that we know where God is calling us. Like Abram, it’s about being sufficiently open to God and ready to make space for God to work in us so that he will draw us closer to him.

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The ‘politics’ of discipleship

My letter in this week’s Church Times

Dear Editor,

I refer to your report on Lord Carey’s article in the Daily Mail (Bishops were wrong to defy Government, 27 January), where he reflected on his life as a child in a humble 1940s council estate in Dagenham. He says that his father was a low-paid hospital porter and his mother stayed at home to care for himself and his four siblings. In other words, he had a secure upbringing in a low cost home. Contrast this with a similar large family, receiving benefits, in London or the south east, where adequate secure affordable housing is scarce and most of their income passes straight to the hands of private landlords. At least the comparative family with a modest earned income, that Lord Carey and the government refer to, will have the cushion of the additional universal child benefit, preventing them falling into serious poverty, or even homelessness.

Sometimes I wish the length of Lord Carey’s column reflected the depth of his understanding.

Yours sincerely

Not anticipating a response.

My letter to my MP on the main issue

Dear Robert Smith,

I am very concerned about the impact of proposed cuts and changes in welfare impacting on poor, sick, disabled, jobless and vulnerable

It does not take much effort to expose some myths behind the official ‘facts’. Proving once again the old adage about ‘lies, damned lies and statistics.’ I suspect that many currently hardworking, taxpaying people are going to find themselves experiencing this welfare cap in the coming year. They may lose their job and home, have move away from family and friends, probably into temporary accommodation where they may be at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords [I speak from experience]. I wonder how many of those mouthing negative and abusive comments, in the slipstream of the Prime Minister’s populist stance about ‘facing up to the facts’ and ‘fairness to working people,’ have ever experienced such hardship.

Estimates are that around 67,000 people, rising to 75,000 in 2014 will find themselves in this difficult place; and the number of children who will be affected could be up to 220,000. Yet the estimated welfare budget saving is put at 0.1 per cent and as Eric Pickles’ private secretary helpfully pointed out to the Prime Minister’s PS, this ‘does not take account of the additional costs to local authorities (through homelessness and temporary accommodation). In fact we think it is likely that the policy as it stands will generate a net cost.’ I expect that you will be aware of the correspondence.

Charities and churches have cautioned that the current proposals will significantly increase homelessness and there is concern for working people receiving state support as well unemployed families. Low pay, joblessness and poverty are linked rather than separable and it is hard to escape the criticism of ‘divide and rule’ rhetoric, classifying people into the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor”.

This policy needs to be substantially rethought and I trust that the House of Commons will not be pressured into reversing the House of
Lords amendment yesterday.

Yours sincerely,

He has promised a response which I am looking forward to having checked his recent voting record on the matter.

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