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!

 

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.

 

 

 

Loss

I have been to three events in recent weeks that seemed to me to reflect the sense of loss I’m feeling in this post-Brexit, post-US-election, post-sabbatical world.

The first was a local gathering to show solidarity with the protectors at Standing Rock. I’m against unconventional oil extraction and the infrastructure that makes that oil accessible. If we are to keep global temperature rise to less than 2 Celcius, we need to keep most of the known reserves of oil in the ground, let alone develop new sources. img_20161112_135113There are all sorts of other reasons to oppose pipelines like Dakota Access, carrying tar-sands bitumen thinned down in a cocktail of dangerous solvents across wilderness, under the Missouri, etc. The risks to life from inevitable leaks are just too great. Anyway – about 100 people gathered in Brighton in the rain to express our solidarity, and it was a very moving and spiritual time.

The second event had a similar theme, but closer to home. It was a picnic on Leith Hill, the highest point in southern England, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and the proposed site of an exploratory oil drill. Most of the Surrey/Sussex Weald has been carved up for oil and gas extraction licences. Some drills have already gone ahead, but Leith Hill has become a major focus for protest.img_20161203_115909 It’s a stunningly beautiful part of the North Downs countryside, heavily wooded, where vehicle access is along narrow ancient sunken roads with mature trees growing out of steep banks. The thought is that if they can drill for oil here, nowhere is safe. (It would be fracking if the Government hadn’t changed the legal definition of fracking). I grew up not far from here and often came to Leith Hill on walks or cycle rides and so I admit to a sense of sentimental attachment – I don’t want this beautiful woodland and farmland ripped up to make way for concrete pads for heavy industrial equipment or the roads widened and new roads put down for heavy trucks to access the concrete pads. I particularly don’t want that destruction to be for the sake of oil that, if we burn it, will contribute to all this dying anyway, while some rich people get richer as a result.

The third event was more explicitly about loss. November 30th was a day of remembrance for lost species, with events held all over the world to mark and mourn this 6th great extinction event (and the first in human history) in which we are living.img_20161130_185433 In Brighton, we processed through the town with a model of a Thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), made in the form of a Chinese dragon. The last Thylacine died in 1937. On the beach, we gathered around the Thylacine. We named some species that have become extinct, and others at risk of extinction. We also named people, plants and animals, for whom we are thankful – including the environmental protectors at Standing Rock and Leith Hill. Then we cremated our Thylacine. It was, again, a very moving and spiritual occasion.

I think I live in a death-denying culture. At many funerals now, people are encouraged not to wear black, and the mood is often one celebrating a life rather than mourning a passing. In some ways, that’s a good thing, but it leaves a great truth unexpressed – that I have lost someone I love deeply, that they are no longer here, that the manner of their passing may have been cruel, painful and undignified and this gaping loss has ripped my world apart. It feels as if acknowledging this is a heresy against the Myth Of Progress that underpins the modern worldview. But, sometimes the darkness needs to be cursed, even if at the same time you light a candle.

I think we need to name and curse the darkness. We need to own up to the loss we feel as the world changes. Grief will come out some way or other and maybe that is one way of explaining, at the wide level of society, the anger that has been expressed in the ballot boxes this year in the UK, USA and elsewhere.

In particular, I think it is important that we name and mourn the evil that is the extinction of so many species of animal and plant. This autumn’s report issued by Zoological Society of London and the World-Wide Fund for Nature estimated that the world has lost 58% of wildlife since 1970. Much of this is attributed to human activity, just as global warming and climate change are. I am angry about the destruction of the rain forest in Borneo, epitomised in the sad faces of orphaned Orang-utans, all for the sake of palm oil. I am angry about the destruction being wrought on earth through pollution, intensive farming and the burning of oil. This is not progress – unless you only look at selective stories of human well-being. Otherwise, it is a bloody mess.

Maybe, if we can find ways of expressing grief for destruction and injustice, and find ways of supporting each other in that grief – not to deepen the vortex but to uncover sources of love and courage between us – some creative, caring action will emerge. I wonder if action that doesn’t emerge from love discovered in the darkness will simply be angry, shallow and ineffective.

One of the things that struck me in all three of the events I’ve described, was a sense of unity, which was sometimes articulated. It echoed in an article by Charles Eisenstein about Standing Rock, in which he essentially said, how you play is what you win. If our protests and our action are expressed in the binary us-and-them terms that have caused the problems in the first place, then further division and destruction will be the result. What I hope for is a world of kindness, grace and peace between all beings. If I try to work towards that in a framework of thinking that sees oil executives or farmers as my enemies, I won’t build peace. I might, just possibly (because the powerful are powerful) win an occasional battle, but I won’t win the peaceful, loving world I long for. War doesn’t make peace. Peace makes peace and love makes love.

It’s all starting to sound sentimental, but then I think of the Christmas story and, despite the best efforts of the cards and carols and nativity plays, there’s little in the life of Christ that was sentimental, from his humble birth to his execution, but there’s so much about love: love in action (non-violent direct action, if you like) that is good news to the poor, that heals division and embodies hope of new life for all the earth.

At one with nature at any price

Yesterday I set out on a hike from home, over the Downs, to a campsite in the woods about 12 miles away. It was always going to be quite a challenge as I haven’t walked that far with a big pack since my legs were younger, but I liked the idea of doing the round trip from home on foot (although Mrs Mabbsonsea’s offer of a lift for the first mile was too good to turn down – and perhaps that signified what was to follow …)

I hadn’t gone more than half a mile, at 9am, before the sweat was pouring down my face. It wasn’t the heat so much as the humidity. Without a breath of wind, the humidity was so high that you could feel the water in the air. I pressed on, feeling increasingly uncomfortable, miserable and tired. Shortly after crossing the by-pass, out of the town and into the fields, and after much dithering, I gave up. I turned around, walked back to the nearest bus stop and caught a bus home. The weather had beaten me.

After a shower, a change of clothes and lunch, I loaded my pack into the car and drove to the campsite. Well, I had already paid for it, and I really wanted to spend a night in the woods. I had a fantastic time, with a splendid view of the Downs from my clearing. I listened to the birds, I watched the sunset and I watched my camp-fire until bed-time.

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Staring into the flames, it struck me how ridiculous I was being and that I’m a very bad ecologist. Nature had made my plans unworkable, so I beat nature by burning some petrol – precisely the kind of thing I object to when moaning about patio heaters, air travel and politicians saying we have to keep the lights on. I like to argue that we have to start accepting limits to our behaviour and our consumption, e.g. if the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, you’re going to have to make a cold drink because there isn’t any electricity (burning fossil fuels not being an option). But here was I driving my car because I’d booked a campsite and arranged the time away and I was going to go, come rain or high humidity.

I could let myself off the hook a little by saying that our leisured consumer culture runs deep in me. But the truth is that I had choices at every step but I didn’t think it through. Another truth is that I had a lovely stay in a rather quirky but rather fabulous woodland campsite (Blackberry Wood, near Streat, for those of you within striking distance). If I hadn’t planned it and booked it, I know it wouldn’t have happened at all. But how do I live more in harmony with the weather in my highly-scheduled life? I don’t want to wait until the costly tech is no longer available – I want to do the right thing now. I have much to learn … and there’s some irony with this lesson in that the trees started to teach it to me in Blackberry Wood on my motoring trip.

Creation Psalms

I am about two-thirds of the way through a sabbatical, in which I’ve been exploring connections with nature. There are a few posts here on the blog about this, but a new project that’s emerging from this period of focused study and prayer is a website called Creation Psalms. I’m writing some reflections on some of the psalms that deal with nature/creation, incorporating some of the insights I’ve been getting from staring at trees and reading the occasional book.

It won’t appeal to everyone, but here you are, if you’re interested:

http:\\creationpsalms.wordpress.com

 

Dartmoor

I spent a few days on Dartmoor, camping in a small oak wood up the valley of the River Erme. Piles Copse is an ancient woodland, once part of a farmstead. It’s a beautiful and peaceful place, ascending from the river up into dark, impenetrable, boulder-strewn woodland, filled with oaks so old they have beards. It was fantastic to spend time in it.

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And yet … not in it. I could only spend a few days here because I’d carried enough food with me. I could only drink safe water because I’d brought the equipment with me to purify it (there’s a lot of poo on Dartmoor). I could only take shelter from the voracious midges because I’d brought a tent. In fact, I felt it was less a case of being in nature and more like being against nature. Being attacked by swarms of midges quickly shattered my romantic view of the peaceful community of creation. They may well, for all I know, have been thanking God for the food he’d provided for them, as I would have done if I’d caught and cooked one of the fish in the river. Thinking of Isaiah 11, maybe one glorious day the midge shall eat sap like the aphid, but even this magical sylvan grove was far from paradise on that sweltering, still, humid evening.

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Water purification stage 1

This struggle against nature goes almost back to the beginning of the biblical story, in the curse laid on Adam in Genesis 3. The transition from foraging to hunting to settled agriculture was possible because we learned how to subdue the earth. But in the end, the earth, on which and from which we have lived through our toil and sweat and struggle against it, will subdue us – “To the earth you shall return.” (Genesis 3.19). A ruined medieval farmstead high on Dartmoor was a good place to reflect on this. Life must have been hard for those farmers – too hard in the end, I guess.

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Water purification stage 2

So I think any scheme for harmony between humanity and majority-nature, and any spirituality of nature-connection, must avoid too much romance and take account of the reality of how technological humanity has evolved against nature. We are not simply animals with tools. Our use of technology over millennia has made us what we are today and if the technology were taken away, we would quickly lose the struggle. But perhaps being aware of this could help us set better limits on that struggle and on the harm it is doing to fellow creatures. Spending more time and effort in paying attention to the life around us and enjoying it, combined with humility and frank acknowledgement of how much harm we can do, might help us make vital moral choices about how we use technology and for whose benefit.

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One further reflection is about the backpacking experience. Concern for minimal impact made me very aware of my footprint on this sensitive environment. I had to think carefully, firstly, about the food I took because I had to carry all the rubbish off the moor; then about how my washing waste could be minimal both in terms of where I put it and how much precious water I used; then about my own waste. The moor was very dry, so I sourced my drinking water from the river, which meant having to purify it. This took time, as well as gas (itself on a limited supply), and I had to balance keeping myself hydrated in hot weather against how hard-come-by the water was.  Then there’s having a minimal impact on yourself, in the sense that whatever you want to have on the expedition you have to carry and every ounce counts. It is sobering to reflect on how little I needed on the trip compared with how much I use in normal life, when water and fuel are on endless supply, the waste goes down the drain and some nice men turn up each week to take our rubbish away somewhere, and the impact of my consumption is not borne by me. I wouldn’t want to live a nomadic life, although an increasing number of people are being forced into one. I wonder if part of the problem is thinking “This is it, this is the good life,” when in fact I am a pilgrim on a journey and not yet settled in a world of peace and flourishing. Settling too soon is, in a sense, trying to cheat God and leads to the huge levels of destructive impact that are presently threatening our civilization. As The Eagles sang so poignantly on ‘The Last Resort’ – “Call someplace Paradise, kiss it goodbye.”

 

 

Identity

I have been doing a bushcraft course, with the assessment weekend coming up fast. One aspect of the course is natural history. We have had to learn to identify trees and woodland plants, as well as animal tracks and signs.

Out and about in parks and in the countryside these past six weeks, armed with my pocket tree guide, I have bored Mrs Mabbsonsea and other companions with my constant stopping to figure out what ‘that one over there’ is. What’s frustrated me is that the pictures in the book don’t usually look much like that one over there, but I have found the process more fascinating than frustrating. I feel that the need to notice in order to learn has made me much more attentive and appreciative of the living being in front of me. I feel that the desire to assign a name to that one over there connects me to it – which was the broad and basic point of doing the course anyway.

In the bible story of Genesis 2, the man gives names to the animals. I’ve tended to see that naming as an act of taking power over them, but my recent experience makes me wonder if I was wrong. Perhaps it was an expression of humble connection in that ideal place: taking an interest in another being and noticing what is special about it. “Hmm… this little brown bird looks very similar to that one, but their beaks are a different shape and one is happy to feed in the trees, but the other only feeds on the ground.”

Richard Bauckham, writing on the praises of creation in Psalm 148, says, “Sharing something of God’s primal delight in creation enables us also to delight in God himself.” I think he is on to something. Perhaps as I learn to identify more beings with whom I share life on earth, the deeper connection that results from that deepens my understanding of my own true identity as one special being in community amongst many.

Climate Action

I say I hate meetings, but I seem to spend a lot of time at them and prioritise them in my diary. I suspect that’s because I secretly like them. There’s something about being on a committee that makes me feel important. I like being with people, too, especially if they’re my friend or if they’re important, or both. Some decisions are important and have an impact, especially if someone acts on them. My confession is that, more often than should be, that someone is not me.

I think I need to balance the talking with more action. That’s not to say I don’t do anything already. In fact, Mrs Mabbsonsea and I think hard about how we live and have taken quite a lot of steps over the years to live less destructively and more creatively.  But I am becoming conscious of how often I make excuses (probably there’s a meeting I have to go to) and how little I dirty my hands.  And I want to change.

Last Friday I went on my first student demo. I’m 50 years old and have never been on a student demo. It was part of the global day of action for fossil-fuel divestment. I was tempted to say, it’s my first day off in 2 weeks, I’m tired, I’ve got lots of little jobs to do in the house, blah blah. But I want to change and become a man of action – a man with dirty hands – and so I went tIMG_0538o Sussex University and helped make a web of red ribbons across the square for the red lines (like 1.5C temperature rise) we mustn’t cross but that we will cross if we keep giving financial support to the fossil-fuel industry, and I joined in with the chanting and talked to some people about what was going on and then helped take it all down again and went home.

 

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OK – it wasn’t much of an action and while it was the first student demo I’d been on, it certainly wasn’t the first demo of any kind, not by a long way. But what changed was that I ignored some perfectly legitimate excuses and went. I have another idea for this Friday, and the excuses are limbering up. I was wondering last week what I would do for Lent this year, and perhaps this is it – a kind of anti-Lent – to counter the excuses that tempt me to do nothing with the self-disciplined choice to act.

 

Time To Cycle

125 cyclists stopped over in Brighton on Sunday evening. They arrived late afternoon at my church, Brighthelm, where there was a reception for them, a meal and overnight accommodation.

Most were cycling from London to Paris, to arrive there at the end of the COP21 climate summit. Like the other pilgrims (see my last post, “Paris”, to which this one is pretty much a supplement), they are inspirational in their commitment to demonstrating their support for a good deal from this summit for the climate and for the world’s poor, and in acting a better world into being.

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100 bicycles tucked up in bed

 

I asked one young man if he’d cycled from London. “Sort of,” he said. He’d been studying this last term in London, but comes from Seattle. “But you didn’t cycle from Seattle, ha ha,” I joked. “Actually, I did,” he replied. He had cycled from Seattle to New York, then travelled by ship to Southampton. I was seriously impressed, not only by his epic journey but by his story of the kindness and hospitality he had received from strangers as he made his way across the States. People can be amazing.

One of the resources that was essential for this man’s journey was time. Everything in our culture is fast. I complain when the broadband is slow – I say, “It’s like the old days of dial-up”, but before that I had to go to the library for information. I don’t have any more leisure time now, but I spend much more of it in front of a screen. The train from London to Birmingham takes just 80 minutes, but this isn’t fast enough for us and we are going to spend an awful lot of money to rip through some beautiful countryside to put in a high-speed line. Our hunger for more speed comes at a huge cost, financially and environmentally. If I want to travel halfway around the world, say from Seattle to London, why should I expect to be able to do it within a day? It’s a very long way and perhaps it should take a very long time. It’s only natural. We don’t need a third runway at Heathrow – take the bike instead. It’s a simple choice between spending time or saving it.

Spending the money and the oil buys speed and saves time. We have built a whole way of life around this approach and it seems to have many benefits. But we are realizing that debt and climate change are high prices to pay. It may be, too, that we lose on the one hand at least as much as we gain on the other. Spending the time buys … a new world: scenery that you’re travelling slowly enough to take in; encounters with people whose simple hospitality forms new friendships; space to think deeply and encounter yourself; a sense of place in the wide world; a sense of achievement at making a journey fuelled by the burning of glucose in your cells.

These cyclists and pilgrims show that an alternative approach is possible. They make it possible. They make it happen. Every step, every turn of the chainwheel, is a choice to think differently, to spend time and save this beautiful planet and its inhabitants.