Being a Good Ancestor

These are uncertain times. The COVID pandemic and the climate crisis are dismantling the life we’ve known and the bridge back to normality is on fire. I wonder if November’s autumnal mood of remembering those who have gone before us might give us courage to walk into the darkness that lies ahead. Can our ancestors help us, in our turn today, to be good ancestors?

Remembrance

November gives us All Saints Day, then All Souls Day. Then there’s Remembrance Sunday. “We will remember them,” we intone, as we honour our war dead. Then, at the end of the month, some of us mark the Remembrance Day for Lost Species. We mourn the animals and plants that have been lost to the earth – to us – in this present mass extinction.

Meanwhile, all around us (at this northern latitude, anyway), the leaves are falling from the trees, the daylight is retreating, and there’s a melancholic mood in the damp air.

Today, England has gone into a second lock-down in response to a sharp rise in COVID cases. In the summer we thought we were coming out of it, but here we go again. How many more of these will we have? Will I ever get my old life back?

The answer is increasingly looking like, “No.” It looks, increasingly, as if we’re going to have to learn to live with this virus – and perhaps others that will cross to humans from the beleaguered and diminished wild.

The leaves fall on the graves of the dead. Earth to earth. Death to death. Autumn’s melancholy is ripe for nostalgic remembrance.

Fore-bearance

In church we marked All Saints Day. We looked at that passage in Hebrews chapter 11, of the ‘hall of fame’ of heroes of faith. The book of Hebrews draws on earlier biblical traditions of remembering inspirational people from the past, with that idea that God helped them so God will help us.

But Hebrews twists the tradition. The emphasis is not so much on God-given gains but on loss. The writer tells of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, making the point that they didn’t see the fulfilment of what God had promised them. The same goes for Moses. Then the writer moves on, almost seamlessly, from famous biblical characters to un-named martyrs, possibly martyrs known to that particular church community.

The point is not to look back but to look forward. That’s what the ancestors teach us, says the writer of the book. Their faith was not primarily for themselves but for those who would follow after. “They would not, without us, be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11.40).

The saints in glory are not demanding our attention – if anything, they are giving us theirs. They know that their sacrifices are only meaningful if those coming after them build on their foundation so that the better world for which they longed becomes reality.

A good ancestor is one who looked ahead so that those who followed after could have a better future.

Can I be a good ancestor?

This is the subject of Roman Krznaric’s latest book (you can see his 7-minute TED talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/roman_krznaric_how_to_be_a_good_ancestor#t-1482). I think it’s a fascinating idea. He says that industrialised societies have colonised the future. Our extractive and wasteful way of life is devastating future generations in a similar way that European empires devastated their colonies in other continents. Those future generations, though, are powerless to rebel or resist because they don’t yet exist.

Krznaric contrasts a growing movement to decolonise the future. He relates the way that seven-generation decision-making practices of indigenous Americans are influencing Future Design workshops in Japan. What if every decision – whether in business, government, or whatever – had to consider the impact on the seventh generation to come?

Become a time rebel! Learn to think long-term and be a good ancestor.

Since 2015, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act has put good ancestry into law. The well-being of the unborn is embedded into the Welsh government’s decision-making, with a ‘future generations commissioner’ to hold the government to account.

Holding the future in open arms

Going back to the bible, I think of a story in chapter 2 of Luke’s gospel. Simeon and Anna are elderly and devout, spending much of their time in the temple in Jerusalem. Simeon believes that he will not die until he sees the Messiah. In come Mary and Joseph to dedicate their 40-day-old baby to God. Simeon takes baby Jesus in his ancient arms and Anna joins him in praising God.

Simeon and Anna didn’t see that baby grow up. They didn’t hear the parables or see the miracles. They didn’t see him fulfil his destiny. Their faith in a baby held a door open for him into a future they could not and did not themselves enter.

I want to learn to be more mindful of the impact of my life on the well-being of future generations, including generations of my direct descendants. Perhaps if I could hold that future in open arms, the love that acts for good but lets the beloved be free might replace my fear with hope and courage.

As I hold in my ageing arms a future I cannot determine, I myself am held in arms immeasurably ancient. And so I go out into the darkness. “Put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” (Minnie Louise Haskins)

My father-in-law holding his first grandchild, then one day old. Tony died when Zac was 14 and didn’t see him grow up to follow in his footsteps as a highways engineer. But as he did with his own children, Tony would have encouraged Zac, above all, to follow his dreams and be himself. A good ancestor.

Songs of Zion in Covid Babylon

I’ve been in quarantine for nearly two weeks and I am going stir crazy. I am longing to be able to go for a walk or a cycle ride again and venture beyond our front garden wall. I am telling myself: Friday. Even if it’s raining, on Friday I will go out.

But underlying this is a growing sense that the end of the wider coronavirus restrictions may never come. I find myself daydreaming about holidays, or what I might do in church, or at Christmas. Then I come back to reality, because I wonder if the life I’ve known will ever be possible again.

This is how I feel:

By the rivers of Babylon –
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth,
saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the LORD’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

(Then it gets quite nasty, which is for another day’s comment.)

Psalm 137.1-6

For the Jews in exile 2500 years ago, thousands of miles away from home in Babylon, I wonder if they felt a similar sense of despair. There were prophets like Hananiah, who foretold that the exile would only last two years before God broke the yoke of the Babylonians (Jeremiah 28). Jeremiah, on the other hand, was a doomsayer, rejecting any sunny optimism.

Or was he? He encouraged the exiles to make the most of their time in exile – that in the flourishing of Babylon would be their flourishing. He foretold it would be 70 years before they might return home.

In fact, many of the dispersed Jews never returned to Jerusalem. For those who did, and for those who didn’t, life would never be the same as it had been before the Babylonian conquest.

I am finding it very hard to believe that my life will ever be the same as it was before the virus hit. I feel something of the anger that the nasty end of the psalm expresses, however silly it may be to be angry with a little blob of protein.

I also feel something of the nostalgia expressed in the psalm. Ah – those happy days of travelling by train; of singing in a crowd; of meeting up with family and friends; of coffee and cake, of events and Interesting Things To Do.

Jerusalem was (is!) a real place. The psalmist resolves never to forget it. Their longing for the end of exile is rooted in a real place. It’s not abstract.

Zion, on the other hand, is ambiguous. It can sometimes be a synonym for Jerusalem, but at other times it means a kind of idealised, maybe utopian, homeland-to-come. For example, when Bob Marley sang about Zion, he wasn’t thinking about the city of Jerusalem itself.

For the exile with hope, home is not where you’ve come from but where you’re going.

The songs of Zion could be songs about the world to come, not the world that used to be.  But because Zion has this ambiguity about it, our hope is rooted in reality. It shouldn’t be spiritualised.

The challenge of the psalm, perhaps, is not to hang up our harps in sad despair, but to bring our anger and our nostalgia into the light and learn how to sing of the world to come, while still in this strange, foreign land of exile.

So perhaps I am asking the wrong question in my frustration, nostalgia and anger. Rather than try to figure out how I can do the things I used to do but within the ever-changing restrictions of the pandemic, perhaps the question should go forwards: What kind of world do I hope for? What will be important in the world I hope for? And then: How can I practise what I hope for while still in this strange land?

It’s not about how I can live when I get back to Jerusalem, but how do I live here and now, and flourish here and now in what is important to me?

Can this kind of exilic Zion thinking be applied to society? At the moment, the narrative is about propping up enough of the life we knew so that we can survive this exile until the old life can be restored – in the travel industry, the hospitality sector, university education, church services and community projects and just about everything else.

What if we were able to think together about what we want from the world and truly build a new normal, one that’s more like the world we want, here in the exile that no one wanted but that’s where we are for the foreseeable future? What if we could do this and make sure that justice for those who are most vulnerable is at the forefront of our concerns?

What if we could figure out how to sing songs of Zion in Babylon?

I doubt it will happen. It took the Jewish people centuries to transition from a pre-exilic, temple-based culture, and I’m naïve if I think our culture will change itself in a matter of months.

But I can change. I can change my outlook from anger and nostalgia to hope.

At least, I can try…

The Messenger Is The Message

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is on the streets in London, Manchester and Cardiff this week. In the news: Protesters arrested. Protesters urged to reconsider actions because of COVID-19. Literary figures join the campaign. Police put on a show of strength. XR blocks roads.

XR tweeted this complaint: We are not the story. The story is catastrophic government failure to act on the climate emergency.

The problem is, that’s not as interesting as a load of people blocking roads, waving flags, shouting, getting too close to each other, and being arrested.

People make good stories. People are interesting. What they have to say is usually not so interesting.

The challenge is, then, if you’ve got something very important to say, how do you get it into the news? How do you get others to join you? How do you get the government to change its policy, especially one that seems to take little seriously and that’s so riven through with vested interests? The conventional wisdom behind demonstrations and protests has always been to make a big fuss, disrupting and obstructing the normal business of a city centre. The story is that we’re making this big fuss because the point we want to make is really important, perhaps so important that we’re willing to make some personal sacrifices for it, like getting arrested.

And that is the problem. The story is the fuss, not the message.

The messenger is the message, like it or not.

There is a story worth telling here. Business as usual is being disrupted by global heating and the disruption will only get worse. Our lives are on the line. We are all going to be arrested to some degree or other in the sense that our present way of life is going to come to a stop. At the same time, the mutual support and respect that’s expressed within XR and their commitment to non-violence embodies something of a world of care and gentleness that could emerge from the coming collapse of this world. You could say that XR is being prophetic, not so much in what they say as in what they do.

If no one listens or understands, that was always the fate of the prophets. The word is like fire in the bones, according to Jeremiah (20.9) – impossible to hold in.

The messenger is the message, so live it out loud!

Fire Bird

What flashed through my mind as I fell was the image of a bird, plummeting down from the sun, its feathers like fire, with all the colours of the rainbow in those flames as it soared through the sky.

When I came to, the world had gone black. I could feel hundreds of legs and proboscises all over me. Quick as I could, I jumped up and immediately collapsed in a flash of pain. My left leg! I had to get the bugs off me, so standing on my right leg, I shook and brushed with my hand as the pain hit me again and again. I had to get them off me.

I had to get me off the ground. Hauling myself up onto the lowest branch, swinging my good leg up, I ripped off my top and shook it out. Boots next. Lucky the laces rotted away months ago. A good shake of my trouser legs would have to do. Too much pain. Rummaging for my knife in my pocket, I got a purchase on whatever was burrowing into my arm and hooked it out. I wanted to lick the wound but it was too risky. I rolled up my shirt and wrapped my arm as tightly as I could. The smell of blood was almost as dangerous as the smell of carbon dioxide. I was being eaten alive as it was.

I had to move higher up. If I was lucky I might make it back to my pack, which if I was lucky was where I’d left it so suddenly, way up there. I needed water, salt and my insect net or I might not last till morning.

My leg hurt like hell and I felt dizzy but up I went, feeling my way in the dark. My injured leg slowed me, but so did the fear of a branch breaking if I was too quick. Everything was so eaten away these days. Also, the tree was covered in wet moss and I knew if I slipped again that might be the end. It seemed so much further this time, but at last my groping hand brushed against the canvas of my pack where it rested against the trunk.

First things first. There was the insect net. It was like a tent that went all around me and zipped up. I always seemed to trap a few things inside, but it kept the worst at bay. There was my water bottle. I took a good swig. There was the little jar of salt. I unwrapped my arm and sprinkled salt until I felt it sting. There was the last shirt I possessed. On it went, as did the top half of the protective overalls I’d stolen earlier.

I leaned back against the trunk, my left leg along the narrow branch and my right dangling. I had thought I’d tie myself to the trunk to stop myself falling in my sleep, but once in place, I realised that I hadn’t figured out how I could do that and be inside the net. But I was in so much pain with my leg and my arm that sleep was unlikely anyway.

So there I sat and mulled it all over. This hadn’t been my plan at all. The plan had been to raid the Residence and get back to our settlement and that be that.

Han, spying the day before, had spotted that the little red light on a camera overlooking one of their food-growing domes was no longer blinking. Perhaps water had got in and damaged it. We were surprised they hadn’t fixed it, but perhaps they needed to get a part sent over from another Residence. Time was of the essence, so that night we struck.

The Residences were like networks of linked geodesic domes, built by the wealthy as it became clear that things were going very badly – food scarcity, social collapse, weather.

At first the domes were only used to grow food, now that there was less direct sunlight and a lot more rain. They were made of toughened polycarbonate and fortified with a high fence. They were self-sufficient with power from wind turbines and systems for collecting and purifying rain water. The wealthy kept adding to them until they were the size of small towns.

As the large towns and cities became uninhabitable, being too near rivers or the sea, the wealthy moved into the Residences.

In the early days, Outsiders, living nearby in houses, worked in the Residences as domestic servants or in the horticulture domes. But after the birds disappeared and the insect population bounced back with a vengeance and the warm and wet climate grew warmer and wetter, we grew sicker and the Insiders shut us out and did the work themselves.

There were battles then, and many of us died. They had guns and we had sticks. But they had food and medicine and dryness and we had none of those things.

We could forage but it was a poor diet and the knowledge our grandparents might have had about which plants and bugs were edible and which were poisonous had been forgotten, so we had to use trial and error and yet more of us died while we learned.

So when we saw a chance to raid the nearby Residence, it was a chance we had to take.

We got over the fence OK and then, placing the sharpened point of a big flint against the edge of a low pane of polycarbonate and striking it with a much bigger rock, we broke in.

The food was good. Modified for maximum nutrition, I could feel its energy as I swallowed. I stashed as many leaves as I could into my pack. Sol found a box of weather-proof protective suits and we had those too, one each. My raincoat had stopped being waterproof a long time ago. This was great.

But then they came.

The door crashed open and I dived to the ground behind a plant bed. Quick as I could, I wriggled out of the broken panel while the bullets flew. I stayed low but fast. When I reached the fence, I skirted around until I was away from that dome. Then with one good jump and a clamber I was out.

I had no idea where I was going. Nights are usually dark these days. Sometimes the clouds show a little lighter where they’re hiding the moon, but tonight the new moon was only a day old.

I knew there was no point going back to the settlement. The Insiders were certain to seek retribution, even if everyone was lying dead in that horticulture dome at the Residence.

Everyone but me.

I kept up a good pace all through the night. When the sky started to lighten ahead of me, it was a relief.

After a few hours of daylight, I saw some old houses and made my way over. They were in poor shape. It doesn’t rain all the time, not quite, but when it’s not raining the air is still damp and everything rots. Any structural timber that the insects haven’t eaten rots away. Structural steel rusts. Bricks crumble. The things that survive best are aluminium window frames and doors.

One of the houses had a lean-to at one side that was fairly intact. It had a solid, tiled floor and some chairs that looked like they were made of woven plastic. I had a quick look around but there were no signs of recent human activity. I sat on the long chair, got into my net, lay down and was asleep straight away.

A sharp pain in my foot woke me. I jumped up and saw a rat run off. I had a look and there was a bite out of my big toe. I used a little water to wash it and dabbed a little salt on it. I should have kept my boots on. I knocked the bugs out of them, put them on, packed up my net and set off again.

Over the hill, to my left was an expanse of water, several kilometres wide. That would be the Trent, I guessed. From Derby (or where Derby now lay submerged) to where it ran into the sea near Gainsborough, the river was more like a lake. I turned away from it and headed in what I presumed was an easterly direction.

By twilight I was in the wood. That’s a rather romantic description. Most trees had fallen prey to a combination of insect damage and diseases carried by the insects. Mostly the ‘wood’ consisted of the rotting, diseased remains of trees, some still half-alive, surrounded by ferns, sedges and the horse-tails that seemed to be taking over everywhere. But here and there stood trees that seemed to be resistant to the insects.

I found one that looked sturdy enough to hold me. It was tall, but the lowest branch was at waist height. A good climbing tree, even though it was covered in thick moss. Willow? Poplar? I don’t know – as I said, it was my Grandparents who turned their backs on nature.

The ground was seething with all sorts of creeping things and to rest on the ground, even standing, wasn’t an option. So up I climbed and, as you know, down I fell. And up I climbed again and kept vigil with my searingly painful leg through the long night.

As soon as it was light enough to see, I did some careful stretching, extracted myself from my net, shouldered my pack and started lowering myself towards the ground. It still hurt to use my left leg, but I could put some weight on it, so there was hope.

At the foot of the tree, I hobbled across to a sapling of something and cut around it with my knife until I could snap it off. I trimmed it to about two-and-a-half metres, and then cut a length of that to match against my left leg. I tore my bloodied shirt into strips and lashed the pole to my leg. With the other pole in my right hand, I limped off towards the sea.

It was slow going. Partly it was my leg, and partly the soft ground, which tried to swallow my walking stick every time I put it down.

About half-way through the afternoon I could smell the sea. It was revolting. I had been told about the rafts of decaying fish and other marine creatures that floated around on the surface of the sea, but it had to be smelled to be believed. However, the advantage of that, I had also been told, was that all that rotting flesh drew flies away from the land. In any case, there were fewer insects that could tolerate the salt in the marshes, compared with inland. Also, I could now see the other thing that had attracted me to head this way when my old life in the settlement got shot to pieces.

It was a collection of large buildings made of glass panels set in aluminium frames, a bit like the Residences but basically cuboid. All around this part of Lincolnshire, when the sea started to wash over what had been the most productive arable land in the country, farmers turned to farming insects.

It was the first Great Food Crisis and insects were seen as a good source of protein and calories, and farming them required few costly inputs. Starting with crickets, locusts and buffalo worms, this was going to be the future. If people hadn’t been starving, it might not have caught on, but for a while it was a booming industry and glass-houses like these went up all over the place, breeding an increasing range of edible insects, many of them imported exotic species.

But the cities flooded, weather changed, society collapsed into anarchy, the Insiders retreated to the Residences, and many Outsiders didn’t survive for long. The insect farms were abandoned to the storms and the floods, and the insects escaped and colonized the land left vacant by the first round of extinctions. But now, here, was somewhere I might be able to live.

I chose the house with the most intact panels. Cannibalising the other houses to repair it would give me something to do after my leg healed. But in the meantime, I would be alright with my net.

Growing around the marsh was kale, purslane and samphire. The sea itself was probably too poisonous, but there was more than enough insect life, even here, to supplement the plants in my diet. I’d get used to the smell of the sea.

My first job would be to rig up some rain-water collection, which I would do in the morning. I just about had enough left in my bottle for tonight. I also had the last of the stolen leaves. I would be OK.

Early the next morning, I stood outside looking over the marsh, and there it was. I had never seen a bird before in my life, but there it was. It looked so clean: white and grey, with dark tips on its long, outstretched wings, gliding past me with unimaginable grace, in no hurry at all. A gap opened in the cloud near the horizon and a shaft of sunrise lit the bird as if it were aflame. I hadn’t thought there could be such raw freedom and beauty in the world. It was incredible. The breath stopped in my throat and a fire of joy leapt inside me.

I’m alive. I am going to be OK.

Europe’s Rainforest: a theological response

In one of the spurious endings to Mark’s gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” (Mark 16.15). It’s not in the oldest manuscripts, but I think it echoes the way Mark tells the temptation story at the beginning of the gospel. There, in just one verse (1.13) Mark tells us that Jesus’ companions in the wilderness were Satan, angels, and wild beasts. Jesus is good news for the animals and for the whole creation. Maybe in the wilderness Jesus was modelling Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable rule of God (Isaiah 11.1-9) that would be fulfilled through him.

In my work with churches, I try to focus on positive stories from the Bible that will motivate and inspire people. I don’t think many people are persuaded to change by graphs and numbers, and fear tends to be more disabling than motivating. So I talk about Abraham being called to be a blessing (Genesis 12.3), a promise echoed to his grandson, Jacob (Genesis 28.14), and the calling on Israel in the days of Moses to be a priestly nation (Exodus 19.6): this emphasis on God calling people to serve the rest of the world in order to bless all. Jesus took a servant’s role too (e.g. Matthew 20.28, John 13.1-15). Then Paul in Romans 8 writes about creation being set free from its ‘bondage to decay’ as part of the great move of liberation that includes the liberation of ‘the children of God’ (Romans 8.18-23). His vision is one of a new creation, not just a few humans being given some sort of blessed afterlife; an inclusive, cosmic vision, stated again in Colossians 1.15-20. It seems to me that, while that longer ending of Mark’s gospel is likely to be a later addition and so of doubtful authority, it’s nevertheless true: the commission of Jesus to his followers is to express good news to the whole creation.

It seems to me that this is a fundamental idea for Christian action on the environment. We are part of creation, not separate from it, and we are here to serve and to be a blessing.

I think this takes environmental action to a whole new level. The challenge is more than simply doing less harm. It is to be good news. That’s why I’m writing this as a theological response to my last blog post, where I wrote about the abundance and diversity of chalk grassland being the result of careful human intervention.

Perhaps the argument that humans should intervene as little as possible in nature forces the same divide between humans and majority-nature as the argument that humans are somehow privileged and of a different order of being, as seen in the folk-religion that claims only humans have souls, and in the wide-spread sense of entitlement to extract, commodify and destroy nature to serve human wants. The truth is (and we really need this truth) that humans are one species among all the others. We are nature – interconnected, interdependent, part of the web of all things. Theologically, we are created beings, creatures of the earth, formed of the same dust of earth as the animals, animated with the same breath of God (e.g. Genesis 2.7, 19; Psalm 104.30). Historically, humans have been a feature of the British landscape for nearly a million years, and Homo sapiens came north with the plants, the trees, and the other mammals as the last ice age retreated. We are nature: inextricably part of the living world.

It would be irresponsible of us to claim a division and try to retreat from nature – irresponsible and a denial of our nature. The key is that idea of being good news. Chalk grassland, heathland, well-managed woodland, all point to the way that human interaction in nature can be beneficial to many – it can be good news. Of course there is a huge challenge before us to reduce our enormously harmful impact on the living world. But alongside that there is an equally huge challenge to be regenerative, to serve and bless, to be good news to the whole creation.

Europe’s Rainforest

Chalk grassland is an enormously rich habitat. It’s so biodiverse and yet so fragile, that the late naturalist David Bellamy called it “Europe’s rainforest”. There are some beautiful examples of it on the South Downs, especially at this time of year with so many plants in flower.

It’s not a natural habitat. It’s the result of thousands of years of careful management. The secret is grazing. The right density of sheep and cattle, grazed in the right rotation pattern, keeps the grass at the right height for other plants to flourish. With a flourishing variety of plants comes a flourishing variety of insects and other invertebrate life. With those comes a flourishing bird population. The animal dung enriches the otherwise poor soil. Too many heads of livestock and you end up with short-cropped grass and little else. Too few, or none, and the grassland would turn to scrub and eventually to woodland. That might not necessarily be a bad thing in itself, but the species that thrive on the chalk downs would be lost.

It seems to me that this grassland environment is a good example of the kind of co-operation between humans and majority-nature that leads to the flourishing of life: how humans can shape the world for the good of many, with more biodiversity as a result than there would be without human intervention.

But all over the Downs is evidence of human intervention that is less positive. Only 4% of the surface area of the South Downs National Park is grassland. Much of the open land is under the plough, with great fields of wheat and other cereals standing in what looks like dry flinty clay. There are also fields of vegetables, and more intensive pasture. The most rapid loss of grassland to the plough happened during the second world war, and that illustrates the dilemma. We have to eat. Can we afford to be sentimental about wild flowers and butterflies when we need farmers to provide us with food – and at a time when the new isolationist politics in Britain are likely to make home-grown food much more important? At the same time, there is environmental pressure to eat less meat, especially lamb and beef: the very meat that makes any economic sense at all of conservation grazing on the Downs.

There are two arguments here to which I’m sympathetic:

  1. Land shouldn’t need to be economic. The commons should be restored. In particular, the land that is now in the hands of large estates as a result of enclosure processes should be returned to the people. The trouble is, what would the people do with it? Most enclosure happened hundreds of years ago, since when most of the population has become urban and detached from the land. Personally, I wouldn’t have a clue.
  2. Nature should be allowed to take its course, with no human interference. Why should humans get to decide the fate of other species, or determine which particular snapshot of history gets conserved? I love the idea of this, but I suspect it’s somewhat romantic. For example, woodland benefits from being managed: coppicing increases the lifespan of trees and increases biodiversity by allowing more light through. The amazing wilding project at the Knepp Estate in West Sussex also shows the value of careful management. While their approach is one of minimal intervention, they do intervene, for example in controlling the sizes of populations of the large mammals (deer, cattle, ponies and pigs) whose introduction, with the different ways they graze, browse and disturb the soil, has been largely responsible for the incredible resurgence of biodiversity there.

Perhaps a bigger picture needs to come into play. This is not just about land use, it’s about economics and the structure of society. What if we took our networks of food production and radically localised them? There’s no obvious reason why, in my supermarket right now, loose onions come from Suffolk while the bagged onions right next to them come from Egypt. Come to that, there’s no good reason why I’m even looking at onions in a supermarket. If the food chain were shortened as much as possible, it would help those of us in towns to develop more awareness of farming: what’s in season, where it’s grown, how it’s grown, and so on. I would like to buy less of my food from huge food corporations, with their ridiculously far-flung sourcing, their over-processing and over-packaging, and their economic strangle-hold on farmers and sellers. Sure, in my busy urban lifestyle, I can (in theory) seek out farmers markets and so on, but if local food is going to catch on it needs to be much easier to buy – for everyone.

Localise and simplify the whole thing. The answer to methane emissions from the dairy and meat industries is not to replace industrialised meat and dairy with industrialised plant-based products made from God-knows-what transported from God-knows-where and wrapped in plastic. The answer is not to have meat and dairy industries. In fact, the answer is not to have industrialised food. Instead, if I could be assured that the milk or cheese came from a small farm just over the hills, and that the lamb I occasionally ate as a rare treat came from sheep grazed responsibly on chalk grassland, there would be many benefits. There would be more wildlife in the countryside, not least on the Downs. The money would stay local rather than propping up Unilever or whoever. I suspect my carbon emissions would be lower. I’m not sure how we move from our present industrialised food supply to one that is local, but I do think that food supply is only one aspect of the economy that needs to be re-distributed more locally if we want a flourishing and humane society.

This is starting to feel rather technical and argumentative, especially as just the mention of food ethics is enough to raise hackles and cause deeply held opinions to be fired from trench to trench. I want to go back to the meadow on the downs, sit on the grass among the flowers and listen to the thrum of insects and the singing of skylarks. This diverse abundance seems to me to speak of harmony and co-operation. Even if those Neolithic ancestors who started grazing sheep and cattle on the Sussex hills weren’t doing so to provide a habitat for the Adonis blue butterfly, we can do so. We know enough about the complexity and interconnectedness of ecosystems to be able to manage the land for the benefit of all life, not just to do less harm but in such a way as to promote greater abundance in the big picture. It’s a choice. Perhaps the vulnerability of habitats like chalk grassland and the endangered status of so many wild species across all habitats might help us value them more, perhaps even to the extent that we are able to weigh them sensibly in the balance against money. Surely it must be possible to live with nature in such a way that the abundance of life is enhanced, with ample habitat (including food) for all?

These thoughts started life as one of my two-minute sermons. You can watch it here:
https://youtu.be/LaQcKviZNqU

Spirituality in an Ecological Crisis

It’s not enough to know we’re in an ecological crisis. You have to feel it. It’s a question of the story you tell yourself about who you are. It’s a question of meaning and of spirituality – a question of being who you are in relation to all the life (human and otherwise) that is.

I’m increasingly convinced of this. I can change some aspects of my behaviour and reduce the amount of harm I do, and that’s good. But something deeper has to happen if I am going to be part of shaping a world where all life flourishes. That story I tell myself about who I am needs to develop so that I change from the core of my being outwards. For me, I am finding that is happening as I pay attention to nature, as I work on a practice of nature-focused outdoor prayer/meditation, and learn to read the bible through a ‘greener’/majority-nature lens. Little by little, I feel a deepening connection with the living world beyond myself.

All that is by way of introducing my latest piece of work: Creation Psalms.

It’s a series of resources based on seven psalms that address issues to do with nature and humanity. In each one, there are questions to prompt reflection on the text, some suggestions for prayer, outdoors and indoors, some written prayers and poems, and my own reflection on the psalm.

This may ring a faint bell if you’ve been following my blog for some time. In 2016, I had some sabbatical leave and spent it exploring a spirituality of nature connection. The resulting written work was a set of essays on these seven psalms. Those essays form the core that I have now expanded into this new resource for individuals, groups and Churches wanting to explore bible-based spirituality for an ecological crisis.

The bible, being an ancient text, doesn’t address 450 parts-per-million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or oil-fuelled transportation and energy, or the way that growth-obsessed liberal capitalism ravages the planet. It does, however, often talk very positively about nature and it addresses the place of humans within nature. Its ethical code includes principles that respect and care for the land, that protect those who are vulnerable, and that should prevent exploitation, hoarding and inequality. It’s true that parts of the bible have been used to justify oppression, and that modern interpretations have tended to focus on an after-life, with a correlated devaluing of the present life (also used as a tool of oppression, as Karl Marx rightly said) and of the physical world. However, I find that there’s more than enough in this ancient anthology of spiritual texts that is affirming of life and promotes justice and compassionate living, that it still feels like a holy book to me, especially if remember to ask whose eyes am I reading it through, being alert to my own privilege and the culture of privilege in which I was raised.

The Psalms are the prayer book of the bible, so they’re a good place to go to resource prayer and reflection on who we are and how we live in relation to the living world beyond us. Themes that emerge in the psalms I’ve looked at include:

  • The completeness of creation – complete when we each participate (Psalm 145)
  • The wildness of God, against the harm done by a well-ordered bureaucratic system (Psalm 29)
  • Celebration of wildness on the earth, including wild animals – a big picture in which humanity is marginal (Psalm 104)
  • A critique of the word ‘dominion’ and the hubris and harm that result (Psalm 8)
  • The importance of a long and broad sense of belonging in community (Psalm 136)
  • Feeling at home in our bodies; not ghosts in machines but embodied beings (Psalm 139)
  • All the universe as able to worship God – a sense of the connectedness of all things, including the Divine (Psalm 148)

If this sounds like your thing, please do go to Creation Psalms and explore!

Active Hope

Hope is hard to come by. I imagine that’s a feeling I share with many others who care about climate, wildlife, extinction, and so on. That sense of despair always lurks in the background and it easily slips into the foreground if I don’t work hard enough to keep it at bay. Part of my problem is that I don’t really have faith in mantras like, “We still have time,” and “If we all do our bit…” and I really, really, don’t have faith in the UK government. I think this weird time of lockdown has made hope even harder for me to come by, as it feels so difficult to see how the pandemic will pan out and whether many of the ways of life that I have taken for granted will ever return.

Over the past year or two, I have run workshops that included a discernment tool based loosely on a mash up of the Ignatian Examen and the “Great Turning” spiral from Joanna Macy’s “Work That Reconnects”. Wallowing in lockdown in this sense of hopelessness, I thought it’s time I actually read something about the Work That Reconnects and so I read “Active Hope” by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. The sub-title, “How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy”, sounded like just what I need, and it chimed with the rather more clumsy title of my workshop: “Taking action in a heating world without losing your cool.”

I found that many other things in this book resonated with me. I’ll just mention a few here, by way of personal reflection.

The spiral starts with Coming from Gratitude. I realise how much my life is transactional rather that grace-filled. For example, if I am pleased with something I have, whether a new coat or the meal in front of me, I paid for it with money that I earned. It doesn’t feel like a gift for which I naturally feel thankful. I am so far removed from the natural world that lies behind everything, where sunshine and rain, and cosmic and geological processes, provide a rich and regenerative world. By default I don’t think about where my stuff comes from and all the people, animals and plants involved in the chain from earth to plate or pocket. Even though I like to think of myself as a thoughtful person, an informed supporter of development charities, fair trade, organic farming and so on, my transactional life is far removed from the natural grace of the earth. I want to explore some habits that will build grace and gratefulness into my attitudes and strengthen my sense of connection with the natural world.

This leads into some of the aspects of “Seeing with new eyes”, the third station on the spiral, for example having a wider sense of self and a larger view of time. Macy and Johnstone write about widening circles of belonging, from family through community and the human race to the whole web of life. I find this helpful. I can’t always hold in my mind that big picture. It’s hard enough sometimes to belong in my wider family, or my church family, let alone my local community. The big picture of the world-wide web of life can be very abstract, but I can work on some aspects of my connection in it while recognising that developing similar caring and responsible connection in my local community is just as important. Working on those closer circles may help concretise my sense of connection in the big, global picture. If I want a peaceful, flourishing world, that requires all my layers of connection, from the immediate to the global to be peaceful, just and loving.

I also found it helpful to think about the temporal dimension of this connection: that sense of belonging in history. The idea of seeing my ancestors as my allies resonates with the Christian idea of the communion of the saints: that those who have gone before are cheering me on, inspiring me, warning me and guiding me. But also, what about those who will follow after? What about my responsibility as an ancestor to them? When the Haudenosaunee people make decisions, they ask, “How will this affect the seventh generation?” I can see my children, and they are getting to the age (although I am not!) when the prospect of grandchildren is becoming more realistic, but I can barely imagine the lives of my great-great-great-great-grandchildren. Thinking about them stretches my view of time forwards, with a reminder that what I do today impacts their lives. I belong to them, just as I belong to my great-great-great-great-grandparents. I belong in a story that spans centuries and, in fact, my story spans millennia in geological and cosmological time. In an age of now, having a deeper and wider sense of connection and belonging may help us all to be wiser and perhaps happier too.

Belonging in this wider, deeper, longer community is important for seeing with new eyes a different kind of power. Macy and Johnstone describe the conventional view of power as power-over: a commodity with winners and losers and with fear at its heart. They then describe a different view of power, as ability, expressed as power-with. This power-with, say the authors, is “not about dominating others but about being able to address the mess we’re in.” (p.108). Power-with is exercised in co-operation, taking small steps towards a big vision, seeking to give rather than gain, and letting an outcome emerge. I find this idea of power-with inspiring, because it gives me hope that positive change is possible. I am able to contribute my skills, my inner strengths, my experience and my vision and desire in community with you and others and something greater than the sum of the parts may emerge.

I have an old Greenpeace T-shirt that’s now so raggedy I just wear it in bed. Its slogan reads, “The optimism of the action is better than the pessimism of the thought.” I interpret it to mean that the pessimist believes there’s no point in doing anything, so they never get beyond thinking about a problem. In contrast, taking action is inherently hopeful because you wouldn’t act without thinking it serves a purpose. The future may be uncertain, and the likeliest outcomes may be ones I don’t want, but doing nothing won’t do. I need to act, in community and connection, in accordance with a shared vision of a peaceable, flourishing world. Hope in action; active hope.

“Active Hope: How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy” by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone was published in 2012 by New World Library.

The Work That Reconnects website gives an introduction to the “Great Turning” spiral: https://workthatreconnects.org/

Preach from the Beach

I’m launching a new video resource for Churches and for anyone who wants to bring together their faith and their concern for nature. Every week I’ll put a short video on YouTube, commenting on a theme to do with nature and the bible (usually referring to the lectionary). If this sounds like something that you might be interested in, please go to the Earth Church YouTube channel and subscribe (or if you know someone who might be interested, please tell them). Here’s a link to the first one for Trinity Sunday, about God being expansive and inclusive – https://youtu.be/9lJFXXxhs-s

I might not have blogged during lockdown (although I can feel something brewing in my bowels, so to speak) but I haven’t been entirely idle. I’ve done a few music videos, and a few reflective talks for local churches – and they’re all on my personal YouTube channel – just search for me, Alex Mabbs

Everyday God

Reading the bible story of Naaman from 2 Kings 5 this morning, it seemed to resonate in some ways with the global health crisis, where we are being encouraged to distance ourselves from each other, wash our hands, stop some of the more ‘holy’ aspects of church life like Eucharist, and choose between hoarding stuff to ourselves on one hand or looking after vulnerable people in our communities on the other. I came across this old sermon I preached in Brighton in 2015, and thought I’d offer it here, in the hope that it might be helpful in finding God in some way in whatever your ordinary, perhaps dull, life looks like today…

For a great healing story, this story’s very dull. There’s is no great ritual, no glitz, glamour or theatrics, no hocus pocus, no shouting, no special words, no dressing up, not even an offering – at least, not one that’s accepted. A sick man has a wash in a river and is healed. We don’t even know the names of the real heroes of the story – the Israelite servant girl, the messenger at Elisha’s house, or Naaman’s servants – the ones who spoke the words that guided Naaman to his healing.

What makes this dull story a great story is how it shines a bright light on the way we expect religion to be and challenges not only our religious values but our values in general.

There is a tendency in religion to make God so special that he can only be found in special places and in special ways, using special words and special people. While we’re right that God is special, and more special than we imagine, the problem with this tendency of ours is that we end up confining God to this special kind of realm. This in turn means that there must be places and times that are not God’s, where God is not to be found. So if we have the Lord’s day, that leaves six that aren’t. If we have God’s house, that leaves a lot that aren’t. So for one thing we think that God just isn’t around in the bulk of our lives – our everyday lives. And for another, we might be tempted to think that God can’t see what we’re up to most of the time. It’s why many religious people are, practically speaking, atheists.

What this story tells us, amongst other things, is that God is not confined. Some Israelites 2,800 years ago (and later, when the book of Kings was compiled) were inclined to think God only loved them and no one else – that they alone were God’s special people. But here’s Naaman, who is not only a foreigner, but the commander of an aggressive foreign army that was attacking Israel and carrying off children to be slaves. He should be the bad guy in the story, but all through the narrative he’s treated with sympathy and mercy.

That’s a shock.  It’s also shocking to see in verse 1 that Naaman’s foreign army was given success against Israel by the Lord, the God of Israel.

It’s a shock to find him getting healed in such a simple way. It was certainly a shock to Naaman, who wanted a bit of hocus pocus, a bit of special treatment, especially considering his status. Elisha doesn’t even speak to him directly.

Elisha’s servant Gehazi was shocked that Elisha turned down Naaman’s gifts.  “My master has let that foreigner off lightly,” he says, as if Naaman was not entitled to any favours from Israel’s God without paying through the nose for them. Gehazi was confining God in a story that is full of grace.

There is another shock when Elisha condones Naaman bowing down with the king of Syria in the temple of Rimmon. Rather than telling him the evils of idolatry, Elisha simply says, “Go in peace”. This is a story of a big, unconfined and undomesticated God, the God of the whole world, who is not limited to nations or rituals or kings or commanders or prophets, but who is found in simplicity and trust, through the words of nameless servants.

Our culture has been designed to work around broken-ness. The divisions must be maintained or the world will stop working. Division is how some people can be richer than others, and how we get economic growth. Division lets us exploit animals and suck all the goodness out of the earth or fill the air and sea with our waste – and generally serve our own interests and be happy. Except that we’re not happy – we’re adrift in a sea of stuff, lonely and shallow and without purpose. The truth we dare not say out loud is that a broken, divided world does not work. It is sick. It needs healing.

What this broken, divided world needs is community, true and deep community that transcends all differences and includes all creation. A few big name, big leaders grasping power and prestige goes against the formation of community. And if the church wants to serve the coming of God’s salvation in the world that is coming, it is going to have to repent of the avarice shown by Gehazi in this story, and of the ways we’ve broken and divided the world through our hunger for power, money and razzamataz.

In the world to come, the heroes of the church will neither seek glory for themselves nor will they receive glory. People will not remember their names. They will not be noticed in the church or in the world, but because of them God will be noticed.

The heroes of the church to come will not seek power or act out of jealousy; they will genuinely put the needs of the other person first and seek salvation for others before they seek it for themselves.

The heroes of the church to come will not need to hide behind language or ritual. They will be quietly confident in God and have such a deep sense of the reality of God in every moment that they will simply speak the truth of God and God will act.

The heroes of the church to come will not drive bargains with God or with people. The heroes of the church to come will be people of grace, of generosity, of celebration. They will be the kind of people that for a long time no one has expected God to use – but the kind of people prophesied by Mary when the body of Christ was still being formed in her womb –

“God has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

The love of God is for the whole world – for Syrians as well as for Israelites, for Gentiles and Jews, for servants and masters, for children and adults, for black and white, for people and animals and plants, etc etc etc – the love of God is for the whole world – and the messengers of that love of God will not be its messengers if they seek its benefits for themselves first and try to hold on to it without giving it away, or if they try to use the message as a way of gaining status and power for themselves.

This story calls us to find God in the ordinary places and people. If God seems distant or absent, perhaps we’re looking in the wrong places – to holy places, special rituals or prayers, big names, famous people, razzamatazz and bling. God is the God of the trafficked girl, the servant, the messenger, the muddy river. God doesn’t make things as difficult as we sometimes make them. The story calls us to notice and value each other, to give and receive everyday love and care, and discover that God is just there in the ordinary, the everyday, waiting quietly to be noticed so that healing can come.

We may be dull and ordinary, but that’s why we’re going to change the world.