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Garden Update (May 2017)

It’s been a long time since I posted about the garden. This is the last photo of the back garden I showed you, back in January 2015:Braemore garden

This is the same view today (sorry about the blurry photo):IMG_20170529_125244

Some of this is simply the difference between January and May, but most of the difference is down to hard work and planting! Today I did some more planting, and I think I am more or less sorted for the summer. My courgettes are getting on nicely, in the back and along the side of the house.

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Today I planted out broccoli seedlings in the front and in various places out back.

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You’ll see that in the front bed, I’ve also got some beet ‘spinach’ and a couple of tomato plants that are really doing well. I’ve also got strawberries in another raised bed in the front, and some raspberry canes against the fence. Today was the first strawberry harvest of the season. They were delicious.IMG_20170529_123208

On the patio, I planted some flowers in this old sink, to replace the ganzanias I planted a month back which were eaten by molluscs. These are geraniums, petunias and begonias, plus one ganzania (I live in hope) and a tomato – all from Portslade Church’s plant sale. I’m ready with my gloves and head torch to do a slug patrol after dark – I’m very reluctant to use pellets – it’s their garden too. I’m also trying another fuschia, in the hope that this one will survive the winter unlike its predecessor. I love fuschias.IMG_20170529_125258

The wire caging is to keep the fox from digging up the plants. There’s plenty of soil for him (I think he’s a him) to dig up in the wild corner of the garden, near the laurel bush under which he likes to take a nap. IMG_20170529_125629

I enjoy pottering in the garden, but what I really like to do is sit on the swing seat. I extended the roof a couple of years ago, sIMG_20170529_125656o I can sit there even when it’s raining. It has a great view (see below: oak, hawthorn, hazel, rowan, hydrangea, laurel, camelia, budleia, apple, pittosporum and next door’s silver birch, as well as grass I let grow tall, as grass should), and it’s tucked away from sight. I bring a coffee out here early every morning and have a little time thinking, praying and watching the birds on the feeder. It’s my favourite place at other times, too, for reading or just sitting. Because what’s the point of a garden if you don’t sit and do nothing except enjoy it?IMG_20170529_125133

 

By the waters

It being the first day of the month, it was time for Pray In The Sea. Inspired by Ourvoices.net, this was something we did in Brighton in 2014 and 2015, and we have revived it this year – after all, climate change has not gone away and the average sea level continues to rise. We meet just after low tide and stand in or near the sea, edging back as the tide rises. We keep silence for about 20 minutes, which means that it’s open to anyone of any or no religious practice or affiliation, and then there’s the opportunity to share any thoughts with the others, and that’s it.

2015.10.01 Praying for planet. Brighton beach 2This picture shows the time, in October 2015, when we were joined by Maina Taila from Tuvalu and Rev. Maleta Tenten from Kiribati. This was especially poignant, as the Pacific islands had been a particular focus for us, as they are so vulnerable to the rising sea. Also in this picture are a couple who were just walking along the beach, saw our banner and joined in.

Today, even though it was May Day, the sea was grey and wild, with dark threatening clouds scudding across in a cold easterly wind. I was thinking about Maina and Maleta and their island communities, where people are already leaving their ancestral homes for the safety of places like New Zealand. I thought about the people who are still, daily, crossing the Mediterranean to escape famine, drought, war, poverty or whatever other reason is so great as to force someone to leave their home and spend everything and risk everything to seek a different life in a new land. In a new land, their accent and perhaps skin colour will always mark them out as a foreigner. They will have to work hard to learn a new language and learn the unspoken rules of a new culture; they will have to work hard just to survive. As the West becomes increasingly hostile to migrants and refugees, they may never feel welcome and may never feel truly at home again. How does it feel to look out on an angry sea, across which a new but hard life may await, knowing that you can’t go back to an old life that civil war or climate change has destroyed?

Mucking about on my banjo yesterday, I discovered how to play Don McLean’s ‘Babylon‘ (capo at 3rd fret – seems obvious when you know). “By the waters, the waters of Babylon / We laid down and wept, and wept, for thee, Zion / We remember thee, remember thee, remember thee, Zion.” The Jewish exiles in Babylon, as described in Psalm 137, felt very homesick, to the point where they couldn’t sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land and hung up their harps on the willows. There is some linguistic fluidity in the psalm between the words Jerusalem and Zion. In verses 5-6, which perhaps express most deeply how far from home the exiles felt, it is Jerusalem that they vow never to forget. But in verse 1, they remember Zion, and in verse 3, their captors ask for “One of the songs of Zion.” In the bible, Zion is often simply an alternative name for Jerusalem, perhaps referring to the hill on which Solomon built the temple. But sometimes, Zion also takes on a greater symbolism to speak in ideal terms of, say, the messianic kingdom, and this utopian sense gets reflected in later thought, for example in modern Zionism, or in the spirituals of American slaves, or in the songs of Rastafari reggae. Zion becomes a metaphor for an ideal homeland yet to come. So, going back to Psalm 137, there was a challenge to the exiles not to hang up their harps in (understandable) sadness and despair, but to learn how to sing, in a foreign land, the songs of Zion: songs of the world to come when they would be free. For the exile who has hope, home is not where you came from, or where you are, but where you’re going.

As I stood by the waters of Brighton this morning, I thought that a similar challenge presents itself to climate activists and anyone else who feels that the world is not as it should be and longs for a better world. I think it’s to do with acknowledging the sense of dissonance we feel – that sense of being out of step with a narcissistic consumer culture – and making something creative of that sense. It’s about identifying yourself as an exile, a foreigner, a migrant, whilst living in this culture and participating in it for the common good – but always with a foreign accent and always out of step, always finding the cultural norms weird and un-natural, always refusing to assimilate. It’s odd because we are exiles within the culture we have left – it’s an inner migration but with an outward effect. The challenge is about learning to sing the songs of Zion in this foreign land: imagining how a world of justice, peace and life in its fullness might look in its different aspects, and putting that vision into conversation, song, story, poetry, art and a life lived out of step with what is, but in step with what we hope for. And I wonder if standing by (or in) the waters and weeping because of the distance between Babylon and Zion is the beginning of learning the songs of Zion and the journey home.

My feet in the sea

Milk is murder…?

Over the years, I have tried several times to be a vegetarian. The longest I managed was for a year in 2015, which was my way of participating in Fast For The Climate in the lead-up to the Paris climate summit. Ironically, it was while I was in Paris for the start of the summit that I started eating meat again, as I was eating in restaurants and there wasn’t a lot of option. These days, we probably eat meat once or twice a week, and we make sure that it’s organic and as local as possible. But it’s a shoddy compromise.

One of my problems is that I really, really like meat. I was brought up eating meat at least once a day, but usually more than once, and I love it. I still have this feeling that a proper meal consists of meat, mashed potatoes and a vegetable. That’s a deep-seated reason why I have struggled to be vegetarian. Another reason is simply lack of imagination and time. I get home from work tired and really can’t be bothered to think too hard about what to cook for the family supper. I know that I could tackle this by looking through some vegetarian recipes and making a plan, but I don’t do it.

One thing that de-motivates me is that I’m aware that being a vegetarian doesn’t solve the issues that I want it to, in terms of either the environment or animal welfare. I watched a short video last night called ‘Dairy is Scary’. I can’t embed video on this blog, but you can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wB72wd819Ck  I know it’s sensationalist and that American food standards are often lower than those in Europe, but even so, I was appalled and found myself shaking my head and saying ‘No’ through much of it. The thing is that it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I already knew that, for environmental and welfare reasons, not eating meat is not enough – I should also stop eating milk and cheese. Whereas, in fact, being a vegetarian led me to eating much more cheese than before.

And that leads to another consideration. In a meat-eating culture, giving hospitality to a vegetarian is a nuisance and, in my erstwhile vegetarian experience, hosts often just substitute a slab of meat for a slab of cheese. It’s either that, or you end up eating a lot of Quorn. So – is it better to be gracious in giving and receiving hospitality (and simply living in the company of others) by eating meat or easy substitutes, or should you find a way of sticking to your principles, in humility and grace? Is it better for the environment to eat some chicken that was organically farmed up the road, or some weird stuff that was made in a factory somewhere, wrapped in plastic and driven for miles? What about almonds grown in drought-stricken California? Is it better to eat butter made, in a simple process, from English organic milk and wrapped in paper, or margarine made in a factory from Indonesian palm oil (Palm oil! No!!) and wrapped in a plastic tub? I have wrestled with these kind of questions for several years, but today I feel that the answers come more easily when the mental image is still playing in my head of milked-out exhausted dairy cows being dragged across concrete by a tractor, thrashing their legs as they go to be hung up, still conscious, by those legs while some man eventually gets around to killing them since they’ve given all the lovely milk that they possibly could and are no use to humans any more.

[Pause to shed some tears]

I recently heard someone say, while defending the oil industry against the divestment movement, that for every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, clear, easily understood and wrong. My own response is that for every problem that can be made complicated as a way of avoiding change, there is a solution that is simple, right and scary. In this case, how can the solution be other than adopting a vegan diet?

Here are a few thoughts about it…

  • A low-impact, plant-based diet is going to be very different from a meat-based diet. Substitutes like Quorn and margarine are problematic in their own ways, so the answer lies in re-thinking food. It occurs to me that re-thinking food in a dietary culture shaped through animal-exploitation is similar to the challenge of re-thinking the use of fossil-fuels in a culture based on cheap energy. You tend not to notice the culture in which you’re raised – it’s just the way life is – so the values go right to your core and often go unnoticed. Going against the culture means dragging those values into the open, naming them and changing them and the change goes right to the core of who you are. That couldn’t possibly be easy, but when the culture is destructive, a new culture that affirms life will be far better in every way once you transition into it – and holding onto that prospect in hope, disciplined hope, will (hopefully) help the transition.
  • Ethics don’t begin and end with animals. An animal-free diet still presents moral challenges to do with the origins of our food, including impact on soil, water and wildlife, packaging waste, food miles, and emissions and waste from processing.
  • Time is of the essence. I’m thinking of time to think about what to buy and cook, as well as time to prepare food. As I’ve written elsewhere, saving time often costs the earth.
  • No regrets! Rather than thinking about what I’m missing out on, I should focus on what is gained by this change and make it positive rather than reductive. I need to figure this one out, because it just feels reductive, not only in terms of my diet and the food I enjoy, but also reductive in terms of the suffering of farm animals.

I’ll let you know how I get on. It’s not going to be instant, not least because I live and eat with other people. I think that trying to live a morally good life in the modern world is always going to be an exercise in deciding where the compromises are going to fall. But, step by step, I hope to move the compromise nearer to what I believe in.

Is this an issue that you’ve wrestled with? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

 

 

 

Story-telling Boots

 

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My walking boots are starting to look their age, just like their owner. Some cleaning and some waxing would improve their appearance, but there’s not a lot I can do for the worn out linings. Still, I think they look interesting. They look like they could tell some stories of the places they’ve been with me.

These boots have climbed mountains, like Hellvelyn with my friend Simon, when all we had was an afternoon free while on a course in the Lake District. They have rested on a rock on Lindisfarne for hours and for days when I’ve been there on retreat. They have tramped through snow and ice, like the time when walking was the only travel option to go and see my counsellor when I’d had my breakdown. They have trodden hills and woods, fields and beaches in Devon, Wales, Dorset, Derbyshire, Northumberland and, of course, on the beautiful South Downs. They’ve gone camping and gardening and have even done a bushcraft course. These boots have lived, and I have lived in them and trodden this amazing earth with them and had some incredible experiences while wearing them (or alongside them, having taken them off for a swim in a river or to walk barefoot on dewy grass in the moonlight).

I feel my boots and I could sit down by a campfire and tell nostalgic stories of our adventures together, and even if no one else would be especially interested, my boots and I would understand each other like old friends do. And they do feel like friends, in a way that no other part of my kit does, and it’s a shame that they are wearing out. I think that some cleaning and waxing is the least I could do for them, faithful companions, and perhaps we can share a few more adventures yet.

Noah

For those of you who like bible studies, I’ve written a new one about the end of the story of Noah. Click on the link here – Noah After The Flood – or use the menu. It’s developed from an older study and explores the darker side of the story and its challenges for these days of extinction and rising seas.

For those of you who don’t like bible studies, I’ll be writing something else soon!

 

Edge time

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a day in some woods staring at the trees. Always time well spent, I find. img_20170201_111748It being a beech wood, the floor was covered in thick leaf litter – just a uniform sea of brown. After a while, I noticed some green near my feet. And then I noticed more specks of green. The bluebells were just starting to poke living leaves through the dead beech leaves. My point is that I didn’t notice them until I had stopped for a while and slowed down my brain.

I went for another meditative walk in nearby woods yesterday. img_20170215_114135This time, I tried becoming attentive from the start, by identifying the trees at the edge of the wood. Then I deliberately walked slowly so that the point of the walk was to become aware rather than to reach a destination, even though I had one in mind. I found I noticed more things, including some badger snuffle tracks, img_20170215_114055a tree stump where a bird of prey had plucked a wood pigeon and more signs of spring: elder coming into leaf and a clump of snowdrops.

I have commented before that I think trees keep to a different sense of time than do humans. So much of my life is lived by the clock, with deadlines to meet, work to be done, places to get to. Possibly the most frequent response I get when I ask people how they are is, “Busy,” and I find myself saying the same thing, perhaps, if I’m honest, just to keep up. I wonder if any of us really know why.

I think it’s important to create an edge to time. It is unnatural and therefore unhealthy to travel so fast all the time, and keep spinning so fast, and filling every moment with activity. It’s important to go to the edge of this fast time sometimes, and stop. Life becomes grey and dull without contrast. img_20170215_105325There was wisdom in the old idea of a Sabbath day – one day in seven that was different to the other six because you didn’t work in it. I’m trying a few things, like not gardening or doing laundry on Sundays, which means I can sit in the garden and enjoy it without thinking of the jobs I need to do. I try to sit quietly with a coffee in the garden every morning after breakfast. It’s not always possible, but I don’t want that to be simply because I’ve got stuff I want to get on with. The stuff can wait for twenty minutes – it will still be there. On my way in to the office, however late I may be, I stop and look at the sea, if only for a minute. It is such a privilege to live near the beautiful sea, and there is rarely as much need to hurry as I think. And I am trying to get regular time in the woods. These are just some of the ways that I am trying to apply the brakes and create some edge space in my life, some contrast between on and off.

In permaculture thinking, the edges are especially fruitful places, and maybe it is the same in the times of our lives. When we slow down and pay attention, we notice things about the world around us and about ourselves that would otherwise go un-noticed in the normal frantic whirl. Noticing the bluebells made me tread very carefully, as they are easily damaged and it will be lovely to go back in April and see them in flower. I find that attentiveness leads to appreciation and that leads to loving action, although perhaps not as much as it should. There really is little to be gained from the ceaseless high-speed stampede of modern life, but applying the brakes and introducing some contrast, some edge time, could be a big gain for you and for the world.img_20170201_135935

The Lord’s Prayer

Rowan Williams, in his book ‘Being Disciples’, makes an interesting link between the line in the Lord’s Prayer “Give us this day our daily bread” and the succeeding lines about forgiveness. I struggle to follow Rowan Williams a lot of the time, probably because I’m not one of your natural mystics. (For all the time I spend staring at trees, I would find it difficult to articulate what’s going on for me in those encounters beyond simply finding it spiritually satisfying). However, what Williams wrote did feel profound and these are the thoughts I’ve been having in the days since reading it.

First of all, I have grown to like the Lord’s Prayer. I started using it more frequently a few years ago when reading about St Francis of Assisi. I like St Francis because he liked animals. I like animals. Apparently Francis told the Friars to say the Lord’s Prayer 24 times when they prayed. I find the prayer says all that needs to be said, and very succinctly and helps keep my rambling prayer-thoughts on track. In particular, I think that the double-sided forgiveness clause is a stroke of genius, connecting my attitude towards those who have wronged me to my hope that God will forgive me, and describing a life lived in grace towards God and towards the world. The perfect tense in Matthew’s gospel challenges me – I ask for forgiveness “as [I] have forgiven.” It’s not a pledge of vague intention, but a statement of completed deeds, which is presented as the model for God’s forgiveness of me. The language of debts and debtors (not sins or trespasses) also seems to root forgiveness in the real, material world. I might forgive you for the way you spoke to me, but I’d still appreciate having the ten pounds you owe me – they’re two quite different things … unless you’re Jesus, in which case they’re not. I think that, for Jesus, spiritual and material were like dimensions of one reality, in the same way that thoughts and actions were dimensions of one real person.

The debt thing leads back to the daily bread. If I am praying for my daily bread, trusting God for my needs, then why would I borrow, either from a neighbour or from the future? Racking up a debt would indicate that I have not been content to live within the gift God has given. God’s provision is enough, but it doesn’t always feel like it. The present moment is enough, but I worry a lot about the future and fret about the past. On the flip side, if I am content with God’s gift of today, why would I lend to you? Who cares about tomorrow, or next year, when in each day, God provides? I should just share today’s bread with you, because it’s “Give us…” So it seems that the radical trust involved in living in the grace of what God has given is wrapped up with not finding ways to get more for myself and not keeping accounts with others, but letting the grace ebb and flow around and everyone will have enough. It seems like a very gentle way of life, and contrasts hugely with the way the world is, where some of us accumulate so much at such great cost to other people, animals, plants and the earth itself.  Jesus’ alternative seems very liberating to me, but a long way from where I am.

The Lord’s Prayer is found in Matthew’s gospel (Luke’s version doesn’t count because he’s missed half of it out while his mind wandered – so much for ‘Lord, teach us to pray’). Nigel Wright says that Matthew presents the story of Jesus – including his teaching – as a framework within which we may learn to live as his followers. To me, it’s as if within the grace and truth embodied in Jesus, there’s a broad space where we can live free. Jesus’ teaching can be hard, and his example is near-impossible, but it’s not a test to fail or a stick to beat yourself with. It’s a gift from God, with trust and forgiveness and love at the heart of it – a broad space within which life is given and received, hallowed and enjoyed.

There are parallels in the older covenant. The Torah, the Law of Moses, is not just a collection of commandments against which your life is to measured. It’s five books of stories, including some great stories (and some terrifying stories), about people and the God who made a covenant with them, within which life can be lived as a gift of God’s liberating grace. I think that engaging with the Law in its wholeness teaches how you can live free by God’s grace: not just the commands but letting the larger story live as your story, inhabiting the story just as you might inhabit the land itself as a gift.

I think it might be the same with Jesus. The Christian life may be less about some transaction when a holy man was killed on a cross and more about that episode plus the rest of his story too: not a transaction at all but a gift. It’s about inhabiting that story as our story and I think that the Lord’s Prayer takes us to the heart of doing that. Amongst other things, it looks for God’s will to be done on earth – including the bit of earth that’s me and the bit I inhabit, but applying to all other inhabitants of earth too. As already pointed out, it uses the material language of debt rather than the spiritualized language of sin. It insists on being plural: although Jesus has been advising praying in your room, in secret, it’s still ‘us’ and ‘our’ daily bread. So it’s a prayer prayed with the world, on behalf of all beings on earth who (in the words of Psalm 104.27) look to God to give them their food in due season. And it has at its heart this radical trust in God and a refusal to keep accounts either with God or with anyone else, because today is a gift and the gift of God is always more than enough. So the Lord’s Prayer is not about my spiritual (or mystical) practice. It’s about a world whose basic system moves wealth from the poor to the rich, a world of refugees and war, of pollution and climate change, of exploitation of soil and extinction of species, and it’s about the transformation of this world until it resembles a just and peaceful community in which all flourish. I wonder if it literally was the Lord’s Prayer, i.e. the prayer Jesus prayed, the prayer that kept him grounded in and aligned to his mission, and I wonder why it’s not had the same effect on the church that’s prayed it for 2,000 years or on the dominating culture that’s supposedly rooted in Christianity? Or on me, for that matter.

“Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Such a simple sentence that, if it were ever put into practice, would change the world.

 

 

The future’s not what it used to be

Back in the early 1970s, when I was quite young, I entered a competition to design the car of the future. I drew some sleek rocket-powered thing that hovered above the ground – very space-age. And it was the space-age. space-age-2We were still sending men to the moon. The future was going to be amazing. We would have colonies in space. Our homes would be filled with labour-saving gadgets and robots and our food would be swallowed as a pill (“Take your protein pill and put your helmet on” – David Bowie in 1969). We would be able to speak to each other via our wristbands or maybe a video-phone on the wall. In all sorts of ways, we imagined a future quite different from the present in which we were living.

In a blog post for Dark Mountain, John Michael Greer argues that over successive decades, our imaginations have narrowed and the futures now portrayed in our stories are not radically different from our real lives. He says a great deal more that is worth reading, not least about different understandings of time in the world’s great civilizations, and perhaps I’ll write about that soon. But this observation about the poverty of the modern imagination set me thinking.

Perhaps one reason why the future is much like the present these days is that we’re just pretty pleased with ourselves. We’ve done very well and our lives are pretty good and so as long as we can keep up-grading our phones, that’s as much future as we need. The sight of cathode-ray tubes and QWERTY keyboards in The Matrix or Blade Runner should give us pause for thought in our hubris: the future looks back and scoffs. But still, we have progressed nicely… as long as you don’t look too hard around the world; as long as you don’t see what it’s like when others pay the cost of the progress of the few.

Maybe that kind of denial is another possible reason for our lack of imagination. This is Greer’s argument. Our sense of progress has worn thin. We are tired of having to continually upgrade, when every upgrade costs us more and gains us less than the last one. It’s getting harder to close our eyes to the devastation brought to the earth by deforestation, by mining, by intensive farming and by just about every other feature of how we live today. The unspeakable things we’ve always feared were lurking underneath the shiny stone of progress are starting to creep out. (As Gustavo Gutierrez said in 2015, “The poor are beating on the gates of the rich in their thousands, demanding to be let in.”) The stone is getting hotter. We dare not think about climate change and rising seas and many of today’s coastal mega-cities being underwater within a generation or less. When the future is so damn scary, it is hard to look at it for long. The future won’t look back and scoff, it will scream. So we have to stop our ears and close our eyes and find some narrative fascination in a slightly improved phone and some robotic toys for the super-rich.

The future is going to be radically different from the present, whether we like it or not. Greer argues (more or less) that we have to pluck up the courage to lift our eyes from the lackluster screen of our present imagination and look the future in its unimaginable face.

To write like this feels like heresy. I am supposed to be telling people that if they make a few changes to their lifestyle (change the lightbulbs, eat less meat, fly and drive less, etc) they can help keep the world much as it is now. To say anything else feels like doom and gloom and giving up in despair. However, I wonder if the opposite is true. It may be that clinging to the idea that we can conserve the present is worse than despair, because it is a despair that denies the truth. Post-Paris and the pledges that didn’t add up (despite the laudable goodwill of COP21); post-the 2015 and 2016 elections that have driven climate change off the political agenda in UK and US; and the prospect of the south-east of England being turned into an oil-field (with the moral blessing of the Church of England, let alone the determination of the UK Government), I think the truth is that we are stuffed. At least, we are stuffed if the un-stuffed alternative is to keep things more or less as they are now.

I don’t think I want to keep things as they are now. There is so much pain and suffering in the world, not least amongst people, animals and plants that are bearing the cost of oil-and-debt-fuelled free-market capitalism. We need a different world and it looks like we’re going to get one anyway. Predictions of a climate-changed world are only predictions, because the change is unprecedented in human history and we have no experience to inform us. But we can start thinking about what will help make life possible for as many life-forms as possible. One of the obvious things is to work at re-building broad-based communities rather than the like-minded bubbles encouraged by social media. Such communities will really exist – real bodies in proximity learning how people can belong to each other with grace, generosity and care, and applying those lessons in the wider world and to include all life.

The task of conventional climate campaigning remains valid (and vital), because we need to keep the temperature rise as low as possible by removing as much carbon from the atmosphere as possible. What I’m suggesting here is that this cannot be at the expense of also addressing adaptation to a changed future in which as much life as possible can thrive.

It is going to take great courage to turn away from the re-assuring lies of our present culture. It is going to take renewed imagination and love to face a frightening and uncertain future and engage with it. But I think there is hope if we do it together.

(I was planning to include some biblical reflection in this post, but I think it’s long enough already! The bible, especially in the prophetic literature, contains a lot of courageous analysis and critique of dysfunctional and unjust (and complacent) societies, alongside far-seeing imagination of how things could be different. See my article on Isaiah 11 in the ‘Bible studies’ section if you’re interested.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life and death

I’m sorry about this one, O cheery reader. But dark days seem to call for dark stories, told around a fire with the gloom and the shadows surround you, while the wind howls outside and Jack Frost’s fingers creep under the window towards your neck. Stories about forests and wild things with big teeth, and magic and monsters and ghosts and death. Sorry.

My journey to the office finishes with a walk through a graveyard. Twice a day, at least, I walk past memorials to Georgian and Victorian Presbyterians who were once members of the church where I am now minister. Most of their bodily remains were removed to a cemetery on the edge of town when the church building was redeveloped in the 1980s, but their headstones are still there, around the edge of what we now call the garden.

img_20170103_142115When this church was built, in the 1820s, it was common for churches to be surrounded by their dead. Until the rapid growth of the towns in the early nineteenth century, people living in villages would go about their daily lives with their ancestors in the centre of their community. They would walk past those ancestors on their way into church to join in worship with “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” Life lived in the company of the dead.

I was particularly conscious of this at Christmas. For the first time in over 10 years, on Christmas Eve I was able to listen to the carols from Kings College while preparing vegetables. I realized that the last time I had done this, it had been with Dudley, my dear friend who always came to us at Christmas and who died last winter. I had to wipe away a little tear, especially as the Dean on the radio intoned those beautiful words in the prayer that begins the service: “Let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light.” On Boxing Day, sitting at the table with my extended family, we gave thanks not only for the food but also for loved ones who used to be with us at Christmas but are with us no longer, very mindful of course of my nephew, Dan. It felt to me that the celebration was richer for acknowledging our dead loved ones, still loved.

As towns grew and space became scarce, dealing with the dead became the business of the state rather than the church and was done at the edge of town, or even in a different town, rather than in the centre of the community. There was no need for churches to be surrounded by graveyards, although memorial tablets still filled up the internal walls. Nowadays, many churches (like mine) have refurbished and have removed the memorials to the long-dead whom no one remembers. In our drive to be modern we have cut ourselves loose from the past. We don’t hold bibles or hymnbooks in our hands but read selected words on a screen that might also show a picture of the natural beauty that’s out there somewhere beyond our frosted windows. We sing words that were made up just the other day. And we don’t acknowledge the dead.

Talking with colleagues, we remark on how funeral practice has changed. These days it’s more common to have a small committal, perhaps with just immediate family, and a thanksgiving service quite separately. Sometimes no one goes to the committal, as it’s the other side of town and by the time you’ve gone and come back, the sandwiches and half the guests have disappeared. The thanksgiving service is often promoted as a celebration of the person’s life, with several tributes, often humorous, by family members. Talking with colleagues, we agree that it’s good that these occasions are so much more personal than they used to be. But we can’t help feeling that it’s not just the ministers who are being sidelined, it is death itself.

In a fascinating blog on the Dark Mountain website, Charlotte Du Cann writes about the sense of the layers of dead under her feet in her Suffolk village, and imagines their rage against the destruction of the countryside and of village life. She writes, “We are in a spiritual crisis, an existential crisis. We don’t know what it means to be human anymore. We have lost contact with the meaning of our time, our presence here.” In a society that has cut itself loose from history, that doggedly ignores the ancestors, that has built a deathly yet death-denying civilization out of death (dead trees fossilized into coal and dead animals fossilized into oil) and where our pursuit of life can only be at the cost of felled forests and poisoned soil and gaping mines and a greenhouse atmosphere and the mass extinction of wildlife, are we really still human? We have lost contact with our humanity as we have lost touch with the humus, the layers of death that are no longer present in the exhausted earth. We are no longer people of the land to which our ancestors belonged. Instead the land was enclosed, stolen, commodified, sold, exploited. So where do we belong now? Without roots in the humus, who are we? Without roots in God (because there’s no need for God since we nature-defeating, death-defying biological androids think we’ve become gods), who are we, really?

I remember, long ago, my theology teacher, Heather Walton, talking about an ancient African statue she had seen in an art gallery. It was titled “The Prophet” and was a figure of a human, clothed in some tight-fitting costume, with its mouth disturbingly wide open. As she looked closer, Heather recalled her horror to see that the figure was actually clothed in the skin of another human being. She said perhaps all prophets speak from inside the skins of the dead.

What message would we speak from inside the skins of extinct animals? What curses should be screamed?  What prophecy spoken to a death-denying yet deathly civilization?

To ignore the dead is to deny life. If we are to find life – and ways of living – in these dark days while our civilization unravels and the ice melts and the soil shrivels and extinction advances, we need to acknowledge a number of things:

  • We need to acknowledge the dead. We need to own our losses and name our dead and own up to our relatedness to them and show them some respect. We need to find ways of doing this, perhaps in renewed Eucharistic liturgy or other rituals. When we no longer walk past them in their graves and when our feet no longer tread the same paths and work the same land, we need new ways of connecting with our ancestors, not least because that enriches the value we place on those loved ones still living and those yet to come.
  • We need to acknowledge the darkness and the pain in so many lives today. We can’t settle for dealing with problems in the abstract. We need to know names. We need to sit in the darkness with brothers and sisters. If we won’t wear their skins we should at least sit with them. We can hear and re-tell their stories. They are not ‘the poor’ or ‘the refugees’ – they have names and we are related.
  • We need to acknowledge the dead species that will never again live on earth. We need to scream out this tragedy, this crime, this waste, so that it might perhaps stop.
  • We need to acknowledge that we are not likely to solve all the problems that face us. But if we can become human again and know again what that means, the new world that emerges from the ashes of the old might at least have some humanity about it.
  • And, I think, we need to acknowledge God and find ways of articulating spirituality, because I think that connection with God is as important as the connection with the earth for connecting with and receiving a new humanity. While this spirituality will need to have roots in history and learn from ancient traditions, it will also need to be true to the darkness of our present situation. It will need to refuse to collude with philosophies of power or privilege. It will need to resist domesticated or utilitarian views of God. I am increasingly convinced that it will be a spirituality that finds God in nature, in wildness not romance; on a cross outside the town rather than in a tidy garden, even if the garden was once a graveyard.