Different Horizons: Syria


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


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


“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.)