The Lord’s Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

whyPhone?

In my talk to a group of international post-grad students, there was a section about consumerism in relation to climate change. I critiqued our addiction to more stuff and to the latest thing and advocated a simple life that used less of the earth’s resources. At the end, I invited questions. The first question was, “Can you show us your phone?”Photo on 19-01-2016 at 14.05

What could I do? I knew he’d got me. Reluctantly, I had to pull my iPhone out of my pocket. Yes, I could say it’s only an iPhone 4; I could say it wasn’t the latest model when I got it; I could say it’s not mine, it’s provided by my church. But I still felt a fraud. I’ve always known there are more eco-friendly phones on the market. There are certainly cheaper phones. There are simpler phones – do I need a smart phone? In fact, do I need a phone at all?

Last week there was a piece in The Guardian by Steve Hilton, who runs a Silicon Valley start-up and hasn’t had a phone for over three years. Hilton writes that at the end of his first week without a phone he felt more relaxed, carefree, happier. He questions the way everyone is forever anxiously checking things and says that he finds something menacing in our need to be connected and contactable all the time. He says that people are incredulous when they hear about his phone-free life, saying, “But how do you live?” The most common response, though, is, “How fantastic that must be. I wish I could do that.”

Do I wish I could do that? Part of me does. It’s only two years old, but my iPhone is approaching the end of its natural life. I have to re-charge the battery at least once a day, and that’s with hardly using it. The memory is too small to update the operating system. I object to this built-in obsolescence. Amnesty International alleges that thousands of children, some as young as seven, are doing back-breaking work in terrible conditions mining cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Cobalt is used in the lithium batteries in our phones (and other devices) and half the world’s supply comes from DRC. By having a phone, I am the rich man for whom these African children work like slaves. It’s not the only way my consumption of stuff causes others to suffer, but it’s one way.

Maybe I don’t need a smart-phone. Maybe I don’t need a mobile phone at all. I don’t keep checking things on it. Emails only come via wifi and I’m not perpetually logged in to Facebook or a news service. I use a paper diary. If you phone me and I’m with someone, I’m not going to answer – it’s rude. But the maps are useful. Having all my contact details on it is very useful. Having a camera on me all the time is handy. Texting is the main way my son, at university 350 miles away, keeps in touch with me. And what about emergencies? Somehow we used to cope, but the world has changed and the world expects us all to have phones in our pockets.

Asking if I need something by weighing up the pros and cons in terms of my convenience, is the wrong question, I think. The real question is about the justice of the level of my consumption. The real question may be about the price paid by others for my choices, answered in attending not to my needs but the needs of seven-year-old cobalt miners.

What would you do?

 

Time to re-think energy

Yesterday’s referral of the U.K.’s six biggest energy companies to the Competition and Markets Authority gives us a choice between a bad situation and a good situation.  The enquiry could take as long as two years. Already, investment in our energy supply is behind where it should be if we are (to use the over-worn phrase) to keep the lights on.  These six companies, who combine generation, distribution and both wholesale and retail sales, control 95% of the UK market. A two-year delay, during which these companies will be reluctant to invest in new generating plant, could be catastrophic. Investors may also be reluctant to keep investing in the Big Six companies.  That could damage the companies’ ability to build new plant even if they wished to.  We could find ourselves with a very precarious electricity supply very soon.

That bad scenario assumes that we all stick with an attitude that expects to switch a switch and the lights come on. The electricity is always available. We’re not really bothered about where it comes from (American coal? Turkmeni gas? Uranium? A dam at the head of a flooded valley? A wind farm in the countryside?) and we’re not really bothered about the cost of that generation – except the cost shown in pounds and pence on our bills.

There is an alternative. This is an opportunity to re-think how we use energy, how we generate it and how we distribute it. The probable reluctance of the Big Six to invest in new infrastructure for a couple of years opens up the picture to alternatives.  Why do we need big energy companies?  Why do we need big, remote generating plants that are a blight on the local environment and that lose a substantial amount of the power generated over long transmission lines and in step-down transformers?  Why can’t we start being more aware of the electricity and gas we need to use and be clever about using it efficiently and appropriately?

This is the time for smaller, independent energy companies to step into the breach and start breaking up the energy oligopoly.  They’re not going to build a massive power station, but they are well-placed to invest in smaller scale, more localized generation and distribution projects.

This is the time for communities to get together and put up solar panels, including thermal panels to heat water, put up wind turbines on houses, invest in heat pumps, and so forth. We can bring the whole expectation of energy supply down to the local level (where, of course, it began in the first place).  There are lots of community energy groups out there, already part way down this road, who can share their expertise and enthusiasm with others.

This is also the time for investors to pull out of the dodgy Big Six and invest in less risky small-scale schemes. This makes sense just from a financial point of view – e.g. Brighton Energy Co-op is currently giving a good rate of return.  But it also makes sense in the bigger, longer picture.  Whatever happens with this competition enquiry, the future of large-scale, fossil-fuel power generation is short, for all sorts of reasons.  This is the time to start thinking again – thinking small, local and sustainable.

Burn, baby, burn

The second biggest energy company in the UK, SSE, has announced a price freeze on domestic gas and electricity until 2016.  Good news for customers for the next two years, then.

That’s the limit of the good news in this announcement.  Because of the expectation that this will hit the firm’s profits, they have also announced cost savings – 500 job losses (not good news for them) and the withdrawal of much investment in biomass and offshore wind generation.

Presumably, SSE’s plan is to focus on burning fossil fuels.  That makes sense given the prevarication of successive UK governments over energy policy, which has discouraged investment and left the nation with little alternative. The present government is putting most of their energy into promoting fracking, with tax breaks for corporations, and financial incentives (I think we used to call them bribes) for local communities.

The only way in which fracking makes sense is if the alternative is burning coal.  It’s a very short-term solution.  A shale gas well will only be productive for a couple of years, if that.  We will need many thousands of them in our densely populated country in order to meet our needs. I’m not sure what we’re going to do about water supply and road safety and so on, but then joined-up thinking doesn’t seem to be our strong point.

What we need to do is to invest in technologies that help us to use much less energy. We need to invest in renewable generation.  We need to re-think how we generate, distribute and use electricity. (We need to move away from using gas altogether – there is no climate-friendly gas).

But while the government (and opposition parties) fail to think beyond their big idea of winning the next election, and corporations fail to think beyond the next AGM and dividend pay-out, and citizens fail to think beyond this month’s bills, we will remain addicted to ways of living that will kill us all.

There is a bigger, longer picture, that involves us all living and thriving.  But who has the courage to imagine it, let alone seek to make it reality?

 

Get thee behind me, shiny new bike

Here is Mrs Mabbsonsea’s shiny new bike.

Her bike

 

It was fair enough. Her old one, which had carried each of our 3 children and all sorts of baggage as well as Mrs M herself over its 18 years, had stopped co-operating.

Here, by way of contrast, is my bike:

My bike

 

It’s just over a year old and it’s proving to be a trusty, reasonably fast workhorse and I like it very much.  But it’s no longer very shiny and the problem with spending time in bike shops is that they are full of shiny new bikes.  I liked the look of a smart single-speed city bike with drop handlebars.  I like the idea of the simplicity of not having gears, and a fixie would take that simplicity even further.  On the other hand, it might be fun to have an off-road bike and get out into the countryside.  The temptation was all too much and I had to retreat to a cafe to read my book about the non-growth economics of ‘Enough’ over a coffee and chocolate croissant while Mrs M took a couple of bikes for test rides.

How many bikes is enough?  (There’s a similar question to be asked about guitars, in my opinion).  The reality is that I don’t need more than one bike.  It won’t thank me for being taken off-road, but it’s fine – it’s enough – for what I want to do, really.  But I am a sucker for shiny new.  It alarms me how strong is my urge to acquire stuff – and I’m someone who doesn’t spend much time in shops and doesn’t look at much advertising and doesn’t worry much about my image.  If I find it so tempting, it’s no wonder that, as a society, we are consuming our way into oblivion.

The concept of ‘Enough’ is a good one, but I suspect it needs quantifying at a much lower level than most of us would like if we are to achieve a world in which all people and nature can thrive together.

An hour with some soapy water and a rag might restore shiny-ness to my bike, after all.

 

The Little Hen’s Egg

I’m going to tell this story to the pre-school children tomorrow.  Against the background of my current reading about a Steady State Economy (“Enough is Enough” – Rob Dietz & Dan O’Neill), it feels appropriate.  So – are you sitting comfortably?  Then I’ll begin …

Once upon a time, there was a little hen.  She lived on a farm with a cow, a sheep and a goat.  Not far from the farm there lived a fox.

One day, the little hen laid an egg.  It was her very first egg.  Because it was her first egg, she wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.  The cow, the sheep and the goat were very excited about the little hen’s egg, but the hen didn’t see why.  So when the fox came along and offered to swap her egg for a nice fat wriggly worm, the little hen didn’t see why not, and said ‘Yes’.

When the cow and the sheep and the goat found out about this, they were horrified.  They said, ‘How could you be so silly?  Your egg is worth a lot more than a worm.  You shouldn’t have sold it to the fox.’

So the hen, the cow, the sheep and the goat went to see the fox.  The little hen said, ‘Please could I have my egg back?’  The fox said – ‘No’.

The cow said, ‘Will you swap the little hen’s egg for some lovely fresh milk?’  The fox said – ‘No’

The sheep said, ‘Will you swap the little hen’s egg for some lovely warm wool?’  The fox said – ‘No’

The goat said, ‘Will you swap the little hen’s egg for some lovely tasty cheese?  The fox said – ‘No’.

The fox said, ‘I am going to cook this egg and eat it with some toast and butter for my tea.  Egg and toast is my favourite food’.

The little hen was really upset to hear this.  By now, she really wanted her egg back.  But the animals could see that they would have to think of a really clever plan.  So the cow and the sheep and the goat put their heads together and hatched a really clever plan.  They found a big, round stone at the edge of the farmyard.  In fact, it looked a little bit egg shaped.  Then they found a pot of white paint in a corner of the barn.  They painted the stone and rolled it out to where the fox lived.

They said, ‘Will you swap this enormous white egg for that tiny little brown one?’  The greedy fox licked his lips.  He thought to himself, ‘These animals must be really stupid’.  He gave them the little hen’s egg and then, with all his strength, he lifted the big white stone egg into a pan of water he had ready.

The cow and the sheep and the goat took the egg back to the little hen.  She was delighted.  She took her egg to the barn and sat on it until, a few days later, out popped a little chicken.

They never saw the fox again.  Some say that he is still waiting for his enormous egg to cook.

 

Moses the Eco-Warrior

A couple of things I’ve read recently have mentioned the Exodus story in relation to climate change.  Move over Genesis – you’re just too clichéd, with your garden and your God saying creation is good and, by the way, let’s not mention filling the earth and having mastery over it.  We need liberation songs.  We need stories of freedom for captives.  We need Exodus to take us through the desert to a land flowing with beer and chocolate (or whatever passes for milk and honey in your imagination).

Michael Meacher MP, writing in Resurgence Magazine (March/April 2014), refers to the part of the Exodus story where Pharaoh’s heart is repeatedly hardened (by God, somewhat embarrassingly – ahem, move on).  Meacher describes how Pharaoh “will not give up the way of life to which he is addicted”, i.e. a life that relies on a nation of slaves.  Today, the rich world’s addiction to stuff requires us to harden our hearts to the poor who are suffering most because of our way of life.  We know about slavery, plantations, loss of habitats, deforestation, tar sands, intensive industrial farming, flooding, species loss, refugees, and so on.  Yet we have to harden our hearts to it all because otherwise we would have to change beyond imagination.  We dare not set God’s people free.

In the same article, Meacher refers to the story of the Golden Calf, cast by Moses’ brother, Aaron, while Moses is up the mountain receiving the law from God.  Much of that law addressed how the Israelites could live together in such a way that all could thrive – a combination of instructions about worship and justice that Jesus (amongst others) later summed up as “Love God” and “Love your neighbour as yourself.”  Instead, the people worshipped a golden calf.  Meacher says, “The threat to religion doesn’t come from the likes of Richard Dawkins, but from out-of-town hypermarkets … The poverty of affluence has left a profound spiritual void in the West, and this remains an emptiness we all need to be awakened from.”

I have just started reading Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill’s book, ‘Enough is Enough’ (and, yes, I do have that song running in my head).  Outlining their case for a Steady State Economy, as opposed to one based on endless growth, the book is subtitled, “Building a sustainable economy in a world of finite resources.”  Sounds good.  In his foreword, Herman Daly refers to the provision of manna to the Israelites in the desert.  In the Exodus story, each morning (except for the Sabbath), the Israelites found a wafer-like substance lying on the ground, and this provided their basic food for forty years of desert wandering.  They called the substance, Manna. Exodus 16.18 says that when they measured it out, “Those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage.”  Each had gathered enough for that day.  If anyone tried to keep some over, it spoiled overnight.  The exception was the day before the Sabbath, when they gathered enough for two days and it didn’t spoil.  God provided enough.  It wasn’t a luxury diet, but it was enough.  No one could sell an excess and get rich, and no one starved.  There was enough for everyone.

We need to learn how to be content with enough, and build that ‘enough’ into our economics and our culture.  In order to do that, we need to be set free from our addiction to ever more stuff.  Perhaps the path to our freedom lies through the desert, learning to trust God, learning to love with softened hearts, and learning to be happy with little (but enough).

Welcome to Lent.

 

 

Acts of Tea and the IPCC

Yesterday’s publication of the IPCC’s report on climate change has left me feeling quite despondent.  I expected to feel better – after all, it should feel good to be proved right. But, perhaps, deep down, it would have been nicer to have been proved wrong. It would have been good to have been told that the science has been mistaken and I can drive my car without concern, heat the house to a comfortable temperature, use a tumble dryer in weather like this, eat more meat, and so on. But I can’t. And we can’t. We’re already over half way through the carbon budget the report allows us. We’ve got to change, but I think that some of my despondency comes from a pessimistic view about our ability, and our willingness, to change. I expect that politicians will continue to tell lies (and believe the lies of big business) and argue and do much less than is needed.

So what do I do? I have been under the weather this week with a cold, and needed something lighter than Bill McKibben to read (yes, I’m still reading Eaarth – a sign of how busy life has been lately). Anyway, at times like this I often turn to Precious Ramotswe of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency in Gabarone.  Alexander McCall Smith’s beautiful stories are love letters to Botswana and to a way of life that values simplicity, courtesy and respect in the face of a world that is changing. Here’s a quote from “The Good Husband of Zebra Drive”:

“The world, Mma Ramotswe believed, was composed of big things and small things. The big things were written large and one could not but be aware of them – wars, oppression, the familiar theft by the rich and the strong of those simple things that the poor needed, those scraps which would make their life more bearable; this happened, and could make even the reading of a newspaper an exercise in sorrow. […] So the small things came into their own: small acts of helping others […] acts of love, acts of tea, acts of laughter.”

But, as Mma Ramotswe is aware, you can’t simply retreat into your own small world while drinking another cup of bush tea. Daily life with all its problems is still there. So what do we do?

The small acts of love – even “acts of tea” – are important, especially when they are planted in hope like seeds in the earth. Small acts of humanity humanize the world when the larger systems dehumanize and commodify it. Offered in faith, our small acts can have an effect way beyond themselves: five small loaves and two fish, given to Jesus, fed five thousand people. But we also need to have the big picture in our sights. We need to be thinking and talking and acting towards changing the world so that its systems are governed by the same simple love that makes someone a cup of tea and gives hospitality to another being in need. We need to burn less carbon. We need to change the basis of our economics from growth to grace. We need to share the goodness and beauty of the earth. These things will happen if they can happen with love and respect and a generous heart. They might not happen if the change is left to the politicians to argue about and impose.

So we need to build community with our near neighbours and our far-away neighbours. We need to listen to stories and hear songs of liberation, hope and redemption and tell new stories and sing new songs.

Perhaps, just to finish by focusing on my own small world, the church can build on our sense of community that crosses so many boundaries around the world and draw on the stories of liberation that are at the heart of our faith and be part of the change that needs to happen in the bigger world. And, of course, everything at church involves a cup of tea at some point.

 

 

Sacred Economics

I came across this film of Charles Eisenstein talking about economics based on gifts rather than earnings – economics not predicated on growth.   I thought it was very interesting …

Sacred Economics

I’m currently reading Bill McKibben’s book ‘Eaarth’.  Thus far in (just finished chapter 2), he is also challenging the notion of endless growth.  He suggests that we have grown the economy (and our civilisation) about as much as nature will permit and we are about to crash off a cliff, or the bubble is about to burst, or any other metaphor of catastrophe you care to employ.  I am very interested in how we can re-order our lives around community, earth-care (and people-care), in a deeper connection to the world of which we are part: living “lightly, carefully, gracefully” (to quote the title of chapter 4).