Who am I?

I would consider myself to be both a patriot and an internationalist. I love the English countryside and some of our great cities and I cheer for England on the rare occasions that I watch international sport. But I also find other cultures fascinating. I’ve enjoyed travelling in other countries and experiencing different food and customs, especially when I’ve stayed in people’s homes. I’m not sure the borders really matter much. We’re all one race and should learn to live together in peace with justice.

So I’m sad today, the first day after the UK left the European Union, because I believe in co-operation and that we are better together, learning from those who are different and so mutually being enriched. One humanity.

One of the factors behind the vote to leave the EU was to do with people’s sense of who they are. What does it mean to be British? There were many lies told in the campaigns, to be sure, but also many rational economic arguments showing that the UK was likely to be worse off out of the EU, at least to begin with. As with all politics, especially in the present rise of populism, facts and figures don’t persuade people as much as a story that resonates with them and their sense of who they are. Many British voters were willing either to ignore the data or to take a risk with their economic well-being because who they are is more important to them.

Despite all the other news, the Big Problem remains: the environmental crisis. If we don’t find ways of co-operating to tackle this, we’re all stuffed, in or out of the EU. What encourages me today is this thought that people can choose to take an economic hit if it serves their sense of who they are. At the moment, too many people see themselves as individual consumers who are entitled to ever-increasing prosperity, and that leads them to ignore the data about the trouble we’re in. The story is a lie, but it’s very appealing – obviously – and it’s costing the earth. Is there another story about who we are that would bring life instead?

I’m always aware that more fingers point back at me than I point. What story am I believing as I live here in this culture of globalised liberal consumer capitalism? Who am I, really? There is a better story: I am a natural creature of the earth living in a vastly complex web of interdependence with all other creatures. In this story, it’s not just about one humanity but one nature.

We need this story. I need it. This is who we need to be if every living being is to flourish. We need artists, poets, musicians, film-makers, spiritual practitioners – story-tellers – to bring this story to life … for life … for all life.

Being human in the age of now

My friend Brian has worked as a crane engineer for over four decades. He told me that in the early days, to erect a tower crane on a building site required considerable skill, experience and chalk lines. Now, a computer does all the calculations. The plus side is that there’s less room for error. What is lost is pride in a job well done due to your skill and experience. Brian and I sat in the pub and moaned, like the grumpy old men we are, about how so many skills are being taken away from people nowadays. We shared our concern about jobs that are going this way, where the human input becomes not much more than following the computer’s instructions or simply pressing the right button to make the machine do the actual work.

Last year I spent my birthday money on a moka pot and a hand grinder. On Saturday mornings, I grind just the right amount of coffee beans. (I’ve already set up the grinder, through a process of trial and error – not too coarse, not too fine). I take care not to turn the grinder too fast because I don’t want to burn the coffee. I load up the funnel basket thingy with the ground coffee and set the pot on the stove, on a low light because it’s only a little pot and – again – I don’t want to burn the coffee. The whole process takes about 15 minutes before the coffee is ready to pour into my little cup that Mrs M made for me.

There are machines that would make me a double espresso in a fraction of the time. But part of the pleasure of drinking this coffee is the pleasure of the process of making it. I made it, with care and some skill and with willingness to wait.

In the age of now, insisting on doing something slowly, and doing it myself when a machine could do it quicker and, possibly, better, seems counter-cultural and subversive. I’m a rebel, resisting the system with my little moka pot, holding onto my humanity against the machines that would rob me of my dignity and self-respect and turn me into a button-pushing consumer of efficiency. I don’t mind waiting. Waiting time is not wasting time but it’s a gift when I can stop and reflect and notice stuff and appreciate the world. I think life is better when it’s lived at three miles per hour. Whether it’s cranes or coffee or tuning a guitar or navigating with a map or making bread (that’s a new year resolution by the way – the machine is too easy!) – I want to hold onto my humanity and what few skills I have. I don’t want to contract out more of my life than I must – I want to live it as fully as I can. With a lovely coffee.

And there was a shepherdess

Here’s this year’s Christmas story for you…

You say that it’s a fairy story for children, but while it’s true that I was a child, there were plenty of adults present who saw what I saw. What’s more, those were angels, not fairies. You say the facts don’t add up and that the dates don’t match, but dates don’t mean much when time stands still and all eternity is contained in one single moment. You say I’m just an old woman, and it’s true that sometimes I forget my grandchildren’s names, but how could I ever forget the night when I held all the love and light and truth of the universe in my arms? You say such a thing can’t happen, but it happened to me.

Listen, and I’ll tell you. I was about five years old, just a tiny, fierce little thing, always in trouble. I’d had a very bad day, just told off and punished from waking up to supper time. I had a baby sister whom I wished had never been born and I guess I’d let my resentment show too much. So, as my father and my oldest brother were getting ready to go out to the fields for the night shift looking after the sheep, mother bundled me off with them. “She’s just not safe around the baby,” she said.

So off we went into the night. I didn’t want to go. It was bitterly cold – one of those nights when there’s so much ice in the air that the stars have haloes around them, and the wind carries a knife. And the sheep stank. I crouched down near the mean little fire the men had going and put on my best scowl. “Just stay there and keep quiet,” said father. I stared into the flames. It was going to be a long night.

The next thing I knew, the sky was alight and alive. The haloes weren’t around stars but around enormous, golden, sparkling people, hovering on huge graceful wings. They were singing and the music was like it came from beyond the stars, it was so breathtakingly beautiful. I looked around me and the men were on their knees, and their weather-beaten under-nourished faces looked almost as beautiful as the angels. I was terrified and I ran to my father and buried my face in his cloak.

The singing faded and one of the men said, “Let’s go and see for ourselves.” Father got up and said to me, “Well, are you coming?” There was no way I was going to stay out there on that hillside, so I trotted alongside the men towards the village.

We came to Ben’s house. There, where he kept his milk goat, was a baby lying in the goat’s feeding trough. I was horrified. Babies ruined everything and another one was the last thing I wanted to see. This was the worst day of my life.

I felt a hand on my head. It was the baby’s mother. She seemed so peaceful and kind and she said, “You’re such a good girl. Thank you for coming to see us.” And I sort of felt like perhaps I was good, and that felt good. I peered over into the hay and looked at the baby sleeping. Gingerly, I reached out a finger and stroked his cheek. I could feel my father tensing up beside me – after all, I wasn’t safe around babies. But the baby’s mother said, “Would you like to cuddle him? It’s OK.” I leaned over into the manger and put my arms around him. He opened his eyes and held my gaze and it was like looking into the night sky, into the darkness beyond the stars, like all of everything, the depths of the ages, was there in his eyes and yet I didn’t feel lost or frightened like I had on the hillside. As I held him, I felt held. Eternal arms were underneath me and swaddled within mine. I felt I was safe, that I was OK, that I had nothing to fear.

It didn’t make me a saint. But afterwards, whenever I held my baby sister, and when in time I held my own children and then their children, I remembered that baby in the hay and it was like I was with him again. Every time my hands have held another hand, I have known that I am held and you are held and the world is held in a love greater than could be imagined – a love I first held in that baby long ago and that has never let me go.

You say that it’s all in my head, but when I look back over my life, I can only make sense of it in the light of that night. You say that people don’t change and we have to accept the world as it is, but I tell you that I was there when the glory of God was revealed to a bunch of peasants so poor they didn’t even own a single share of one of the sheep they were looking after, but that night they felt like the whole world belonged to them and it would never be the same again. You see, I was there the night Jesus came.

Walking in the light in the dark

I feel a little reluctant to post sermons, as I know that not all my readers share my faith in Christ. However, someone has kindly encouraged me to share more, so here’s one for Advent Sunday. I guess you don’t have to read on, but if you’d like to…

Isaiah 2.1-5 – Advent Sunday

These are dark days. There are so many causes for concern in the world, so many big problems that just seem intractable. In my own field of Christian engagement with environmental issues, the outlook seems very bleak.

Do I need to go into details? It’s really too depressing.

In these dark days we begin Advent.

In our culture, Advent is just about getting ready for Christmas, and for many it seems to be the start of Christmas. In the church, it’s traditionally been a time for entering into the darkness of a suffering world and experiencing, in the darkness, the long waiting for the light and salvation of God to come. That’s why we have readings today encouraging us to stay alert and awake – to make ourselves ready for the day of God’s coming and to live as people of light. I think the idea is to give us hope in our waiting.

Isaiah presents a vision to a people experiencing darkness, exile, the end of their nation, perhaps the end of their story. The remnant of Israel needed hope. The few that were left after years and years of invasion, siege, captivity and paying tribute to foreign empires, needed hope. They’d had years of having to defend their land and their crops against invaders. Years of sending their sons into battle armed with tools from the farm – boys carrying ploughshares and pruning hooks beaten into crude swords and spears. They’d had years of it and they needed change and they needed hope that things would change.

The world has had centuries of this – of oppression and injustice, of war and slaughter, of destruction of crops and land and livelihoods and homes – of tribe lifting up sword against tribe, of the powerful beating down the poor and taking what little they have – and we need change and in these dark days we need hope.

So here’s Isaiah’s vision – see if it makes you feel hopeful. The temple of God will be raised up and all nations will stream into it, looking to learn God’s way of living. That way will be a way of peace between all nations. There will be no more war.

Does it make you feel hopeful? To me, it seems naïve, idealistic. The evidence runs against this vision coming true. But I don’t want to let go of it, because it is a great vision – a vision worth holding on to, aspiring to, hoping for.

Whether it’s hopeful or not might depend on what you think prophecy is and does. There’s a view of prophecy that sees a passage like this as simple fore-telling. This is what the future will be like – it’s God’s plan and God will bring it about, because what God says will happen, will happen. All you have to do is wait for the prophecy to come true.

That doesn’t quite ring true for me, I’m afraid – and I’m sorry if that seems heretical. Bear with me for a minute. I can’t look at the state of the world and believe that God always gets what God wants. If God is not getting what God wants now, especially in relation to people I love & people I’m praying for, why should I think one day the world will be how God wants it, if it’s simply about God making it so. If then, why not now, for the sake of suffering people and a suffering world? If God can do it in the future, why not do it now?

So I’m more inclined towards a view of prophecy that sees people like Isaiah imagining (Holy-Spirit-inspired if you like) what God’s will might look like. By putting this vision into words, it helps bring it into being, but a response is also needed from hearers and readers. The prophecy can only come true when, in the words of this prophetic passage, people say, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Eternal” – when they make that choice to align their lives with the words of the prophecy and invite the word of God to be made flesh in their lives.

This passage talks about people saying to each other, “Come”. It uses the language of learning and walking. It involves action in response: as people submit to the judgement of God rather than their own greed and anxiety; as they beat their tools of killing and war back into tools of growing food for life; and as people learn the ways of God, rather than learning better ways of killing each other.

It’s a prophecy that calls for response and for action. And as people choose to make this vision their vision for life, the prophecy comes true.

So every act of love becomes a fulfilment of prophecy. Every act of compassion becomes a fulfilment of prophecy. Every act of thoughtful care for creation. Every act of standing up to injustice. Every act of peace-making. Every act – however small – that is aligned with the word of God, that is aligned with the compassion of God for every person and every creature in all creation – becomes a building block of the kingdom of God.

I am sure this is how Jesus lived and how he saw himself fulfilling prophecy. I don’t think Jesus was a fatalist – he was inspired by the scriptures and chose for them to be fulfilled in him. He knew he had to say ‘Yes’ to God’s will in order for it to come into being. He knew how costly that would be for him, but he chose to walk in the light of the Lord, to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and to live out the deep and powerful compassion of God for a broken creation.

But this is not simply a message of human determination and effort, which is just as well, for me at least, because I know that I fall short of these ideals over and over again. I need God. Even Jesus needed God. He lived and acted in trust and dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit – in Jesus we see the union of God and humanity in its fullest possible manifestation.

It’s in the reading, too. It’s not about God making things happen, and it’s not about people making things happen. It’s about a union of lives – of the life of God and the lives of people. It is God who teaches the way of peace, but the people have to learn it. It is God who arbitrates between people, but the people have to beat their weapons back into farm tools. It is God’s light, but the people need to walk in it.

It would be easy to despair and feel there’s nothing you can do in the face of the problems in the world, and to feel that you’ll have to wait forever for God to do anything about them. But this reading gives us hope, because it assures us that a new world is possible. It assures us that God’s will is to bring peace to the world and to bring that new world into being. It shows us that when we respond to God’s word and align our will with God’s will and welcome the light of God into our lives, we can learn to walk in God’s way and be part of the coming of this new world of peace.

Every act of love and positivity that is the result of us walking in the light of God – however small those acts may be – means that we are doing something and God is doing something, and so something can be done, and a new world breaks into the present world like a shaft of light through storm clouds. There is hope, however dark it gets.

So, for Jesus’ sake, that his words and actions might come to fulfilment in a world where all creation is made new and all creation lives together in peace – Come! Let us walk in the light of God.

 

 

Money makes the world go round?

As Extinction Rebellion turns its attention to financial institutions this week, I’ve posted a sermon about money from a few weeks ago.

Jesus had a lot to say about money and power. It’s not always easy to hear it and can be even harder to put it into practice in a culture that’s been based around the steady movement of wealth from poor to rich – a culture of debt recently (relatively speaking) enhanced by an environmental debt incurred through the burning of fossil fuels.

You can read the sermon here (or use the menu to find “The Dishonest Manager” under “Bible Studies”). Find out more here about Operation Noah’s Bright Now campaign to persuade churches to line up their finances with their faith.

Out-fox the fox

There’s a family of foxes in our neighbourhood. I suspect they live next-door, where the garden is more of a junk-yard (or as he’s an artist, he’d probably say ‘store of useful objects’). Foxes have been regular visitors to our garden but their activity has really stepped up this year, possibly because there are cubs. I posted a photo of one of the cubs on Facebook and provoked a range of comments, for and against foxes.

Foxy

I like seeing the foxes in the garden. I see little enough wildlife in my urban existence, so it’s a treat when there’s a fox sniffing around or some cubs playing.

However… It’s not a treat to have to keep picking up the dog-food wrappers they leave behind, presumably brought through from a neighbour’s badly-secured bin. It’s also not a treat to have to keep filling in the holes they dig around the roots of shrubs. Worse still is the way they dig up my pots. I had planted clover and phacelia in this old sink, with a few dwarf sunflowers, giving it a fallow year – a break from tomatoes. The foxes keep digging it up, scattering the plants and the compost. I (and the plants) can’t keep up with them, so it’s just a mess.

Belfast sink

I keep the back end of the garden wild for wildlife. The grass grows long. The weeds go unweeded. The leaves are left. There’s hawthorn and hazel, rowan and laurel. There are a couple of log piles. The foxes would be welcome to dig there, but not in my pots on the patio. One of the Facebook comments said, How is a fox supposed to know not to dig there? Fair enough. But is it wrong to feel that it’s OK for me to exert some control over my garden?

wild side

I think I know where the foxes were getting in: through a damaged fence panel behind the shed. I’ve blocked off the holes (leaving a little hole for hedgehogs – don’t worry) and added some chicken wire above the fence too. It’s too early to tell if it’s worked or not. I suspect nothing will keep them out, but in making access less easy I may restore some balance to the situation.

View behind shed

It’s balance that I’m concerned about. I’m happy for the foxes to come in and do a bit of digging for worms, and I can deal with the occasional food wrapper and the occasional lump of scat. But it was overwhelming. In the same way, I’ve taken measures to keep the squirrels off the bird feeder: I like seeing squirrels in the garden, but they were eating all the bird food and I want to support the birds.

I’m working on a very small scale here in a small garden. I feel that if I didn’t take steps to impose some control over the garden eco-system, it would soon get out of balance. Perhaps on a bigger scale, I could be more laid back and nature would find its own balance. I worry that my decisions about control are just based on my wish to have a nice garden. Even though, for me, a nice garden means a wildlife-friendly garden, I also want it to provide some food for me and my family and a pleasant environment for relaxation. I’m sure I’m making mistakes, because I know I don’t have the full picture of the complexity of the garden eco-system in my mind. But I want to do the right thing for the plants and animals of the garden, including the human animals.

There’s an obvious parallel with the way that human activity has become way out of balance with the rest of nature, overwhelming the global eco-system in so many ways. What we should have been doing, biblically-speaking at least, was caring for the earth in such a way that balance was maintained for the benefit of every creature – using our power for the common good. Perhaps the least I can do is become better informed about the wildlife in the garden and pay better attention to it – attention that is less judgemental, less self-centred and more loving, more humble, and more servant-hearted. The parallel coming back at me feels just as obvious.

By the people, for the people

Frack protestorsYesterday these three men were jailed for protesting against fracking in Lancashire. They had climbed onto trucks carrying drilling equipment and so prevented them from moving. The men were charged with causing a public nuisance. Simon Roscoe Blevins and Richard Roberts were jailed for 16 months, Richard Loizou for 15, and a fourth man, Julian Brock, was given a 12-month suspended sentence. In sentencing them, the judge said that he believed they were not rehabilitated inasmuch as they remained convinced of the rightness of their cause and that only a custodial sentence could punish them.

Lancashire County Council had refused planning permission for fracking at this site, but the UK government over-ruled the local authority. There is talk of making fracking exempt from planning permission, but the Lancashire case shows that local democracy counts for little anyway. So not only is the democratic channel of protest demolished, but in applying anti-terrorism and other laws to what in the past would have been regarded as peaceful, non-violent direct action and imprisoning those who protest, the government has illegitimated all opposition.

What will never happen is the oil and gas companies, or their political friends, being charged under public nuisance laws for the nuisance their drilling activities will cause to local people, which is likely to be far greater than a country road being closed for a couple of days. Neither will they ever be imprisoned for the criminal damage that burning their products causes to people, animals and plants all over the world, with the poorest and most vulnerable being the first and worst affected.

Biblically, rulers have a duty to protect the poorest and most vulnerable. Psalm 72, praying for the king, says, “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” (Psalm 72.4). When governments defend the cause of big business and crush the poor, they act contrary to the will of God. When governments put money-making before caring for the vulnerable, and at great cost to the vulnerable, they act contrary to the will of God. Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6.24).

But… When governments choose money over God, are they simply reflecting a democratic mandate in the sense that choosing money over God is a daily choice many of us make? Jesus also said, “The rulers of the nations lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you…” (Matthew 20.25-26). If I want to say that my government, in delegitimising opposition and promoting economic growth through developing a domestic oil and gas industry whose products we should not use if we want to check climate change and keep the earth habitable for humans and many other species – if I want to say that they are not acting in my name, I need to make sure that I am choosing God over money, choosing servanthood over power, and doing what I can to defend the cause of the poor against the oppressor. I have much to learn, and there’s no time to lose.

 

Earthship

Today I went on a fascinating tour of Brighton’s Earthship.

In the words of pioneer Michael Reynolds, Earthships are “Buildings that sail on the seas of tomorrow.” In more mundane language, an Earthship is a building made of a mixture of waste, recycled and natural materials that is autonomous in terms of heating, cooling, power, water and sewage. The Brighton Earthship was built as an educational and community resource rather than a home. The walls are made of old tyres packed with sand and earth, apart from the south-facing wall of glass. Rainwater is harvested from the roof for all water needs. Thermal solar panels heat the water and photo-voltaic panels generate electricity, with the help of a small wind turbine and battery storage. There’s a wood-burning stove in the main room for extra heat in winter. Waste water is filtered through two internal plant beds and then into a reed bed outside, and there’s a compost toilet in the garden.

It’s certainly a funky place. I love the flowing lines of the building, the way it sits back into the hillside and the idea of building from waste and being off-grid. But the big eye-opener for me was how something that could come across as idealistic is far from being so.

Mischa, who showed us around (and I hope I am not mis-representing him – my memory is full of holes like a Swiss cheese these days), was very open about some of the draw-backs, for example, the equipment needed to make the rain-water safe to drink, and the limitations of off-grid power. They use a gas cooker (bottled gas) because to cook with electricity would require a much beefier power system. They looked into the possibility of hooking up to mains electricity and it was the price that put them off. Mischa’s point was that location is a major factor: if you’re near a mains water supply, for example, it’s probably better to use that than buy, maintain and power the equipment to deal with rain-water. Very early on in his presentation, Mischa said that this approach to buildings wouldn’t work in a densely-populated urban context, although some of the ideas could – and should – be applied.

It all brings me back to a recent blog post about how complicated ethical living can be. Sometimes going straight for the sexy eco-tech solution might be more harmful than a more conventional option. On the bus back to the office, I read an article about plastic in the latest edition of ‘Clean Slate’ magazine from the Centre for Alternative Technology. In the article, Judith Thornton explains how plastic wrapping of food saves carbon emissions, because food keeps longer and less is wasted. For example, a shrink-wrapped cucumber lasts about four times as long as a loose one. The carbon footprint of uneaten food is estimated to be equivalent to 3.3 Giga-tonnes of CO2 – which, if it were a country, would make food waste the third largest emitter after the USA and China. Of course, you can reduce the supply chain by buying local food from a farmers market, in which case the supplier doesn’t need to wrap it in plastic (though you may need to at home – but it can be re-usable).

I think it’s important that places like the Brighton Earthship exist and demonstrate low-impact alternatives to mainstream ways of living. My take-away from the morning was that there’s a cost to everything, and being thoughtful and informed is more important for making good choices than just blindly following a campaign, and that all the (necessarily) focussed environmental campaigners need to avoid fundamentalist thinking but talk to each other so that we can see the big picture and tell a big story that will help us all sail on the seas of tomorrow.

Giving up

Four years ago, I bought a five-string banjo. I had discovered the joy of bluegrass music and loved the sound of the banjo in it. I’ve been playing the guitar most of my life and finger-pick quite a lot, so I thought, How hard could it be to learn the banjo?

dsc_00118577056650445278454.jpg

I started with some tutor videos on Youtube and practised a couple of rolls. I quickly realised that playing bluegrass banjo is very hard, with its pesky chanter string that’s high-pitched but positioned below the bottom string, and with the way the thumb tends to carry the tune, but still, I made a little progress. Then we moved house and I no longer had the space to have the banjo out, so it sat, neglected, in its case. In new year 2017 I resolved to give it another go (and went public with a blog post). I bought a tutor book written by Earl Scruggs himself, and tried practising a little every day. I did quite well and learned to play Cripple Creek by mid-February. The next section involved a lot of technical stuff, with roll after roll, and I hit that wall you hit in learning anything new, when it seems like you’re not progressing and it’s just too hard. I needed to have lessons but I couldn’t afford them and I didn’t think I was nearly good enough to start playing with others (whoever they might have been).

So the banjo stayed in its case. This summer, I decided that I was never going to play bluegrass banjo and it was just cluttering up the dining room, so I put it up for sale on Gumtree. No one was interested in the ad, so at Brighthelm Camp I offered it to anyone who wanted it, in exchange for a donation to our local hospice, and it was snapped up straight away.

Part of me felt bad about giving up. But a bigger part of me felt liberated. It felt like a burden of oughts and shoulds being lifted from me. It also felt like a movement towards simplifying my life, which I always find joyful. I’m sure it’s good to try to learn new skills and have new experiences and stretch yourself. But I wonder if it’s also good to be realistic about your limitations (of time and ability). I am naturally stubborn and don’t like giving anything up, so in giving up the banjo I also had to give up some pride and some ambition and I think (I hope!) I have learned a little humility as a result. I certainly feel lighter. Maybe the quest for a simpler life includes reviewing and simplifying not just possessions but ambition and dreams as well, where perhaps less can be more.