Different Horizons: Antigua and Barbuda.

Around 90,000 people live on Antigua and Barbuda. It’s not a huge country, not a place that regularly makes the headlines. Not until something terrible happens.

Yesterday, 90% of Barbuda was flattened by Hurricane Irma. The scene has been described as “catastrophic”; buildings were torn down and the island was devastated. And the intensity of this recent spate of hurricanes is linked to climate change.

That’s not to say that climate change caused Irma (or Harvey or Jose or…) – it’s hurricane season after all – but rising sea levels and warmer oceans make them worse. That’s why we’ve had two ‘once in a century’ storms within a week of each other. This stuff isn’t theoretical any more.

Somega nations have been aware of this for a while – they’re on the frontlines.  Antigua and Barbuda have long been aware of the threat of climate change to food security, ecosystems, water resources and their vital tourism industry. That’s why they’ve put so much investment into solar power. The problem is, this is a global threat that requires global solutions.

Climate change is real. At this point, it doesn’t matter how much people claim that it’s a hoax or a mistake, it remains that 90% of buildings in Barbuda were destroyed yesterday. This threat isn’t going to disappear, and any attempt to minimise it does a disservice to places like Barbuda, to those who lost their homes and those who lost their lives.

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Different Horizons: Syria

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What happens when the rains don’t come?

I’m guessing that most of us reading this haven’t had to answer this question; the closest I’ve been to an environmental disaster is watching a post-apocalyptic move on the SyFy Channel. But then I’m privileged, and lucky, and insulated; not everyone has that luxury.

The increase in global temperatures is leading to a hotter, drier climate in the Middle East, a serious problem for a region that’s already hot and dry. There’s been a reduction in rainfall, and increased evaporation desiccates soil. This is the situation that faced Syria from 2006-11, resulting in a collapse of agriculture and the subsequent migration of farming communities into the cities. Then food prices started to rise, poverty levels increased, all of this collided with existing tensions, and then…

Well, just watch the news.

That’s not to say that climate change directly causes wars. But it’s increasingly being recognised as a ‘threat multiplier’, something that exacerbates existing conditions and, in worst case scenarios, pushes delicately-balanced problems over in to the abyss; in that sense, climate change isn’t strictly a cause, it’s a catalyst.

None of this is hypothetical any more. Waves of refugees have fled Syria. Those left behind are suffering a horrific civil war. The US military is keeping an eye on climate change because of its national security implications. And as people abandon once fertile land, terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram move in.

As with Tuvalu and other places vulnerable to drought or rises in sea level, climate change in Syria is a justice issue and a pastoral issue. Churches can spend all the time they want debating the causes of climate change, but in the meantime homes are destroyed, bombs keep falling and lives are lost. From the perspective of global mission, this is going to become the new normal, and our churches need to come to terms with that when looking to practice justice, compassion and love. Because sometimes the rains don’t come, and we need to be prepared for what happens next.

Don’t Step On A Bee

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Apparently it’s Don’t Step On a Bee Day, which I must confess that I hadn’t heard of before. The idea of the day is to raise awareness of the fall in bee numbers as the result Colony Collapse Disorder, changing agricultural practices, parasites and other factors. A fall in the number of bees can have widespread implications – honeybees are responsible for the pollination of a third of the world’s food crops. Lose the bees and we’re in serious trouble, which is why we have Don’t Step On A Bee Day and why we’re being encouraged to carry out small local practices to preserve the future of apian-kind.

So let’s think about this from a church point of view. Certainly in the UK, many of our buildings are surrounded by gardens, fields or graveyards – to the extent that they’ve been recognised as the biodiversity equivalent of Noah’s Arks, the last refuge for many of the country’s species of plants and trees. This gives us the opportunity to support local conservation efforts, and with it a chance to let the more green-fingered members of our congregations to use their gifts. Nature can be mission.

So if you’ve got a nearby farm shop or honey producer, maybe give them some of your customer rather than the big supermarkets. If you’ve got a patch of land, maybe plant some wild, bee-friendly flowers and see what happens, or just let a corner of your land grow wild and see what happens. Maybe take the Sunday School kids outside and make a bee hotel – and buddy up with the church maintenance team if you need their help. Ask the people who look after the church garden or the churchyard to be careful about what chemicals and pesticides they might be using. Pop over to Oxfam Unwrapped and buy some beekeeping equipment for a community in Africa.

Climate change is a huge, world-shaping issue – so much so that we can feel powerless in the face of it, or deny it even happens. But small, simple local actions also help protect nature and improve our environment. We don’t always have to think big – sometimes thinking small, say the size of a honeybee, is the way to go.

 

When The Land Holds The Memory Of Blood

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“If I walk under a tree, what are the other memories that I have, either through my epigenetic code or a direct family memory or just stories… Trees were sites of lynching, the open spaces were sites of danger, of hunts where the prey, the quarry were human beings.” Camille Dungy, interviewed on Generation Anthropocene.

We tend to consider our impact on the environment in two ways: either a blitzed, polluted landscape, scarred by industry, or the opposite, an untouched wilderness that needs to be protected and defended. And that’s fine as far as it goes, but there are times that we need to see beyond the physical to see the other scars we leave on our environment – psychological, historical, spiritual.

The quotation from Camille Dungy above points to this; the human impact on the environment isn’t just seen in oil-choked lakes or soil turned to dust, but in the memories of lynching trees, in the buried bones of genocides. These also threaten our land, our communities, our futures.

We need to see these scars, listen to those who sing songs of lament and rage and protest over those sites and their history, pilgrimage to these places with a sense of acknowledgement and repentance. There needs to be healing and restitution for the land and those who live on it. Denials just exacerbate the damage, intensify the scars, hasten the collapse. These aren’t just peculiarities of history, these are wounds inflicted systematically, imperially, and the pain isn’t momentary, it’s embedded.

Yet deny we do, and seek to erase. Emmett Till’s historical marker on the Mississippi Freedom Trail is regularly riddled with bullet holes, churches and crosses still burn, nooses still hang, pipelines still appear across sacred sites, drinking water is still tainted. We don’t just deny how our actions change the physical climate, but the spiritual climate as well. Some of us suffer from these actions every day; some of us benefit from them, even if we’d rather repudiate that.

This too calls for prophetic lament, for communal repentance, for indignant protest. It calls for our eyes to be opened every time we walk past a plaque, for our ears to hear the blood and the history that cries from beneath our feet, for our hearts to be open to the pain and anger that surrounds us. Maybe the land can heal with repentance.

 

Guerilla Gardening and the Gospel

I’ll be honest with you. I’m not a gardener. I don’t have the patience or the aptitude and my favourite plants are dead and waiting for me on a plate.

But I’m fascinated by guerrilla gardening, a branch of street craft in which public spaces are turned into ‘gardens’. This isn’t the formal nurturing of city parks or green spaces, it’s a radical attempt to reclaim public spaces for everyone, a mission to bring beauty to places where a lack of care or investment has turned them into blighted concrete wastelands. And I see the reports of this happening and something nags at the back of my brain, and while I wouldn’t see turning a roundabout into a sea of sunflowers necessarily as prophetic, I do wonder if there’s a spiritual dimension to all this, a theology of radical urban gardening.

There’s a moment towards the end of John’s gospel – just a moment – when Mary Magdalene looks at Jesus and doesn’t see her friend, she sees a gardener. And while we tend to see this as her being blinded by grief and loss, there’s more to it than that. It’s a case of spiritual face blindness. Prophetic mistaken identity.

Pastor Brian Zahnd tells the story in a sermon of being in an Italian art gallery and trying to guess which passages from the Bible inspired the various paintings. One picture depicted a man and a woman, the man dressed in a sun hat and carrying a hoe, and Zahnd struggled to figure out which story this represented – until he realised it was John 20. Because while the agricultural uniform looked a little out of place, in reality it’s no more bizarre than all those pictures of Jesus carrying a lamb and acting as a shepherd. Jesus is, in fact, a gardener.

Guerrilla gardening is all about reclaiming the world around us – abandoned spaces, neglected places. It’s about cultivating beauty where previously there was nothing but garbage, growing life where the ground was barren. And in doing so, those spaces blossom and flourish, they bring new life. And what makes this so powerful and inspirational is that it’s not happening in carefully tended gardens, it’s not even the expansive random beauty of a  wilderness,  it’s in parking lots and waste land and at the bases of lamp posts. Dead spaces are resurrected, and when you witness this in action, if you have the eyes to see, you can see something of the gospel in all this.

Mary mistaking Jesus for a gardener ties the whole Easter story back to the book of Genesis, when the original gardeners failed in that role and ended up in exile. Now a greater Gardener rises up in the springtime and starts tending those in his care. It’s the reclamation of Eden, the end of the exile, the return to the Garden. The explosive blossoming of new life and new creation we see on Easter Sunday is also seen wherever the Kingdom breaks through into the world around us. The Gardener is still at work, but he doesn’t just work in the places we reserve for him, he doesn’t just work within the limits of a walled garden. He goes to work in the dark places, the broken places, the abandoned places, the barren places.  And in doing so he brings new life to the dead places, just as he’s been doing ever since he broke out of his borrowed tomb and bumped into Mary.

Jesus is a gardener. His garden is our lives. Let’s remember that every time we see a corner of a parking lot turned into an oasis, every time we see wild flowers bursting through the cracks in the pavement.

(Cross-posted from Bezalel’s Legacy.)

Different Horizons: Tuvalu

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In 2015, Rev. Tafue Lusama, leader of the Christian Church of Tuvalu, embarked on a speaking tour with Restoring Eden in an effort to explain how climate change isn’t a hypothetical concern for the future, but a real and present danger to communities across the world. Tuvalu, a group of Pacific islands, is one of the smallest countries in the world, lying on average at just 2 metres above sea level. That means, in the event of rising oceans, Tuvalu is going to bear the brunt of a changing climate. Not only will land disappear beneath the waves, but valuable crops will be wiped out and sources of fresh water will be lost.

Tuvalu is small and remote, and doesn’t get much coverage in global media. Yet it’s on the frontline of climate change. A subsistence economy, the church in Tuvalu has a more proactive approach to the current threat, seeing a response to climate change as an intrinsic part of the church’s mission. The land is eroding away, livelihoods are being threatened, and ironically the country is suffering from drought (too much salt water, not enough fresh water). It’s easy to suggest evacuating the islands, but that’s almost a flippant response, requiring the loss of a home, a culture, a community, a language, an identity.

This situation illuminates the difference between rich, secure nations and smaller, low-lying countries. In the US and the UK, people will debate whether climate change is even real; in Tuvalu, climate change is the most social issue, impacting resources, skills, economy, environment and culture. This isn’t a matter for debate, this is something that is bleaching coral and salinizing water right now. That’s why the church in Tuvalu is so involved with the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network.

 The Church needs to take this seriously: Climate change isn’t ideological or hypothetical, it’s pastoral. It’s pastoral for ministers like Rev. Lusama, it’s pastoral for you and me. Lusama makes the point that we need to know which side we’re on – the side of those who are suffering the immediate impacts of climate change, or the side of the systems that would exploit, ignore and belittle those people. As a Church, the answer to that should be easy; unfortunately it too often isn’t.

Water is Life

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An oil-blooded serpent runs through Dakota. People in Michigan turn on their taps and lead-tainted water flows out. Girls can’t go to school for lack of water. Water is life. Water has always been life.

The history of civilisation is, in some ways, the history of water – streams and rivers, irrigation and wells, sewage systems and canals. Water is essential, for farming, for hygiene, for life itself, and when water becomes polluted, when water dries up, civilisation starts to fade and move on.

There’s a story, buried away in the second biblical Book of Kings, of Elisha healing the waters of Jericho. It’s a strange one, but let’s see it as a healing miracle for a whole community, rather than an individual; a resurrection miracle for the land rather than a person. Jericho is dying, but the prophet walks into town and brings the springs back to life in the power of God. Day to day urban practicalities sit alongside more spiritual concerns, the two not separate but intimately interwoven. There’s a darker side to that – in Joshua 6:26, Jericho is placed under a curse, with death promised to whoever rebuilds it. The weight of history sits heavily upon that community, but Elisha turns the situation round – the healing of the waters is also a healing of that curse, a new start for a community, an act of grace. Water is life.

Nowadays, that healing would be a more controversial subject. Some of the biggest problems relating to the supply of water aren’t related to natural forces but to human greed and a refusal to consider the human cost of corporate ‘progress’. And, as with many issues relating to the environment, the forces of racism also loom large.

So, when the water supply to Flint, Michigan has been polluted by dangerously high levels of lead since 2014, we need to confront how those waters can be healed, but also why – especially as up to 12,000 children could have been exposed to what is effectively a neurotoxin, especially as the situation disproportionately affects black communities.

So, when the Dakota Access Pipeline is diverted away from the water source of the state capital and through the Standing Rock Sioux reservation lands, leading to assaults on protesters and the renewal of activity as the result of an executive order from President Trump, we have to see it in the light of the historic mistreatment of Native American tribes and a tendency for protests to be met with violence.

So when girls across Africa can’t go to school because the lack of facilities means they can’t go to the toilet without putting themselves at risk of rape, we have to look at how we can support moves to address this inequality.

Like the story of Elisha healing the water, these are, on their surface, stories of anomalies, of problems that need to be fixed. But on the deeper level, they’re symptoms of a curse – of the way in which we’ve commodified resources as precious as water, of the way in which indigenous and black and poor communities are often the first to suffer the ill effects of the way in which we manipulate our environment and disrupt our climate. And that’s a curse that needs lifting, healing.

And so maybe, in these stories in which the corruption of water brings death, we can ask for the grace of healing, and see our communities resurrected. But that can only be done when the history of those communities is confronted, and present injustices fixed. Only then can the water be healed; only then can our lands start to prosper again.

Different Horizons: Ethiopia

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As I was growing up, Ethiopia was synonymous with one thing: famine. The BBC broadcast heart-breaking footage of children with swollen bellies covered in flies, and Live Aid was born out of those scenes of genuine human catastrophe. Those images stuck with me for years, and even though I grew to appreciate that a country is bigger than the 10 o’clock news and a moment in history, Ethiopia still conjured scenes of dust and despair.

But there are other images of Ethiopia. The Church Forests, mainly concentrated around the source of the Blue Nile, were created as a physical reminder of God’s creation, symbolic Gardens of Eden in areas where much land has been cleared for agriculture. Administered by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church, they’re home to much of the country’s biodiversity, and while they’ve always served a spiritual purpose, now the church is working with conservationists to help preserve the country’s flora and fauna. And that has a knock-effect for communities, with plans to engage the children involved with the churches with mini-conservation surveys based around insects, projects that are simple and cheap and therefore sustainable and replicable in the future for more on this, check out the work of Dr. Margaret Lowman, who has been working with local churches to help preserve the forests.

It’s funny how, in that last paragraph, I drew an implicit distinction between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘physical’. That’s a failing of the Western Church, I think, where concern for the environment is seen as something New Agey and has a negative impact on how we approach issues like climate change. When we adopt an attitude of domination rather than genuine stewardship, the church can be embedded as part of the problem rather than contributing to a solution.

But the Church Forests have been doing this for over 1,500 years. And while they’re now having to build protective walls around their forests, there’s still a challenge here – what if churches from around the world learned from Ethiopia? What if this was one of the models by which the church engaged with environmental issues? What if one of the priests who look after the Church Forests was asked to speak at one of our big conferences? That raises a lot of questions and issues, around perceived authority and colonialism, and the environment is a lens through which we need to confront this. The question at the root of it all, though, is simple:

What if we became better at learning from each other?

Climate Refugees: A Faith Perspective

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One day the rains didn’t come, and the next day, and the next. Then the herds began to thirst and die, crops crumbled into the dry ground, skies still parched and empty and bearing down on a family nearing starvation.

Salvation was at hand; one brother had found their way into Egypt, and through a series of misadventures he had the ear of Pharaoh. Joseph, blessed with insight as to how to distribute the Nile’s bounty during a time of famine, saved his family from the worst a changing climate had to offer.

But in times of crisis, opportunists will arise, and so Joseph became powerful and exploited the vulnerable, in the way that you can when you’ve got something everyone else needs. A couple of hundred years later his descendants found themselves slaves of the Egyptians. When the climate turns against you it can cast a long shadow.

Centuries later, another famine swept through Israel, forcing a particular family to flee to Moab, an ancient land now in modern Jordan. Soil turning to dust underfoot, Elimelek and his family took a look back at the Promised Land and made their way towards a new life. Only one of them would return, accompanied by a widowed daughter-in-law, and yet in the face of starvation and natural disaster, those poverty-scarred survivors would go on to become the line of King David, the ancestors of the Messiah. And throughout the narrative, names conjure images of emptiness and fulfillment, famine and harvest. The dust of a vicious climate coats the whole story.

There are other examples; a famine striking the Romans Empire in Acts 11, prompting the infant Church to pool together resources and distribute aid; the climatic conditions that drive Abraham into conflict with PharaohJoel’s locust swarm that forms the backdrop to his great prophecy of the coming of the Holy Spirit. The environment is Scripture’s silent backdrop that nevertheless shapes events and people and the work of God. We can’t ignore it.

Nor can we ignore the 20 million climate refugees thought to be on the move today. We can’t ignore those whose water supplies are polluted, or whose food sources are dying, whose homes have tides lapping at their door, whose churches are facing a Noah’s Ark scenario of their own. We argue about how and why these things happen, but we forget the people. When it comes to theology we seem to spend more time debating the eschatology of the Anthropocene, its mechanisms and its imagined idolatries, than we do in serving those most affected by a changing climate. Faith and history will both judge us for that.

In his latest book, Rob Bell highlights the danger of reading the Bible as if it’s about the past or the future but not the present. We can’t ignore how the stories we read throughout the Bible intersect with what’s going on in the world around us. That’said why we need public theology. That’said why we need to speak with grace and mercy and love rather than treating vulnerable people as problems to be confronted by our dogmatism

And that’s why your church needs an environmental policy, and see the footprints in the dust and in the mud, and to know they could be our own.

Out of the Waves, Out of the Dust

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Climate Change.

It’s a big phrase, isn’t it? A phrase that inspires activism and concern, rage and disdain. Some deny it exists, some deny our complicity in it, some think it’s something that happens to other people. All these different voices scream at each other and it’s easy to want to hide behind the sofa, our ears covered and eyes closed, trying to shut out the future.

Sometimes we spiritualise that. A lot of Christians see the earth as transitory, that our ultimate destiny lies in the recreated new heaven and new earth described in Revelation. And so when climate change is described in apocalyptic terms, it almost feels like a clash of eschatologies, a theological Mexican stand-off. This is fascinating as far as it goes, but it’s an indulgent theological dead end; there are plenty of people experiencing environmental problems now. This isn’t an issue for the future, it’s an issue that’s arrived, kicked over the bins and sat down on our doorstep. Our spiritual ancestors walked out of the waves of floods and through the dust of famines, and they haven’t stopped walking yet.

Just ask the people living in areas impacted by the Dakota Access Pipeline. If you live thee, environmental issues have a daily impact, especially if you’re getting manhandled by security and railroaded by corporations and watching your rivers get poisoned. And it’s not getting a vast amount of airtime, but it’s a lived reality for a lot of people right now. It’s not a hypothetical situation, it’s something that needs an immediate, local, incarnational response. Imagine if you live in Flint, Michigan, with lead-poisoned water. Imagine if you live in Tuvalu, with your very country starting to disappear beneath the waves, a slow Atlantis with genuine human consequences.

Of course, you and I may have been fortunate enough to have dodged this, at least in the immediate sense. That’s great for me, but it’s a major reason to think about how our churches respond to environmental issues. Because acres of the Bible teach us that we should have compassion and concern for the poor, and yet who’s on the front line of climate change and other green issues?

Exactly. The poor.

That immediately places a responsibility on the church. People are suffering as a result of environmental issues, many of those our brothers and sisters in Christ, and as disciples we need to be aware of this. We need to develop a greater appreciation for what’s happening in the wider world, we need to have a greater awareness of how our choices affect people on the other side of the globe, we need to get better at foreseeing all those unforeseen circumstances.

Now, that might be beyond the resources of most churches, but we can keep an eye on our neighbours, we can be better stewards of our resources, we can build more informed relationships with all those countries we support through our mission budgets. And that means asking some very focused questions about our local communities: how does all this affect churches in rural, agricultural areas? What happens if a town or city becomes more prone to flooding? Is your churchyard a Noah’s Ark? Who in our congregations are most at risk from extremes of temperature? Kids? The elderly? How do we look after them? Does everyone have decent drinking water? Is someone about to dump toxic waste into our local river? Are there any decent green spaces in our town? What about outdoor leisure facilities? How many jobs depend on the environment (or on trashing the environment)?

“Environment” is a big word. It encompasses climate, biodiversity, waste management, public spaces, public hygiene, plants and animals, soil and seed. And all of these impact each one of us, and our churches, because it’s another way of serving our communities and demonstrating God’s love to those around us, both right now and in the future. It’s not a matter of scientific or theological debate; it’s a matter of compassion and justice.

There are opportunities here, if we’ll open our eyes to them. Maybe it’s the impetus you need to do something fun and creative with that patch of land at the back of your church. Maybe by saving energy you can save money and reinvest those savings into new and existing projects. Maybe this could transform your next harvest festival. Maybe it could bring you out onto the streets for justice. Maybe it’ll awaken some prophets.

And as the environment is a global issue, there are opportunities for us to act as the worldwide Body of Christ. Congregations in the West could learn something about biodiversity from Ethiopia’s forest churches, for example; maybe this is another reason we should act as a network rather than in silos.

I don’t know what all this looks like in your church community – that’s for you to figure out. But I do know you need to plan for how your congregation interacts with its environment because that’s not something that’ll be dealt with by the eschaton, it’s something that affects all our lives, every minute, every day. And if we’re going to live out the Kingdom of God in our world, the least we can do is make sure the streets are clean, that the baptismal waters are non-toxic, that the least among us are protected. And that the good creation gift of God is honoured and respected.

This blog is an attempt to explore what this looks like in the world around us, and how each of us need to change to respond to the challenges and opportunities that emerge. I hope you’ll join me in this journey.