From walking the nature reserves to caring for Creation

When I mention to Christian friends that I visit the local nature reserves, I sometimes get a response that leaves me slightly wrong-footed. They may say something like, “How good it is that you can get out into open and worship God there!”. It’s a lovely thought, and I do do that occasionally – but when I go watching wildlife, I’m primarily focussed on watching wildlife and not on worshipping God.

It’s quite hard to pray when there’s a photogenic egret just in front…

The reality is that I find it far easier to worship God when I can focus on doing just that, and not being distracted by other things. Otherwise the praying can be a bit like “Lord, I just want to commit to you… hang a sec, Lord, an egret’s just landed in front of me, where’s my camera, back in a mo…”

The more I watch wildlife, though, the more I realise that I can’t ignore the global issues that affect the animals and birds themselves. A small example was given in my recent blog post about Great White Egrets, but it’s a far bigger problem.

The latest information from the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission is that 13% of bird species, 25% of mammals, 33% of reef-building corals, 34% of conifers and 41% of amphibians are threatened with extinction. There are a range of issues that contribute to these depressing statistics: three major ones are pollution, invasive species and global warming. So what should we do about it?

Vine growing up the side of one of the church’s buildings in Martley; we also had one in Wichenford that grew through from next door.

Although global warming has been widely known about for thirty years, I have to admit that my response then was somewhat bone-headed. I even tried to be a Climate Change denier. My argument was that we really don’t know enough about the Sun’s behaviour and its effect on the Earth to rule it out as the cause. This was a weak argument at best and has since been ruled out – but what eventually convinced me was that it’s not just global warming that’s the problem: there’s atmospheric pollution, for example, which is itself a major cause of global warming. It’s effectively the smoking gun. (I remember the discussion that made me wake up to this, and wish I’d had the guts to admit it.)

Despite realising the seriousness of global warming and related issues for at least twenty years, I have to admit that until recently I haven’t done much about it, apart from using energy-saving light-bulbs and driving a fuel-efficient car. Getting married to Jen has made a substantial difference in that area – she’s much more naturally conscientious than I am about acting on what she believes in. We’ve therefore recently decided to adopt a flexitarian diet, which is designed to be environmentally sustainable without going vegetarian. A major part of it is to reduce the amount of red meat that we consume: animal products (and especially red meat) have a much bigger environmental impact than plant products.

Last autumn, I did a series of talks here called ‘Eyes on God’s Creation’, which was intended to be a follow-up to the wildlife weekend back in June. One of the talks was on climate change, for which we had a really good outside speaker. To my surprise we had half the numbers for that than for the previous two talks. While I was reflecting on this afterwards, one person seemed to put her finger on it: climate change makes us feel bad – that we ought to be doing more than we are – and we tend not to like hearing it.

This has led me to begin to write a Lent course on Creation Care. The purpose of Lent is to look at those areas of our lives that are not pleasing to God: if it makes us feel bad, well, that’s part of the reason for the season. While we’ll often do Lent in a way that’s quite personal – which is really valuable and important in itself – looking at environmental issues forces us to see ourselves as part of a society that is causing global ecological problems.

There are several challenges: to make the course relevant environmentally, while being accessible and not too stodgy; and to engage with scripture in a meaningful way that isn’t contrived. We’ll have to see how well this works!

Refreshment or burnout?

Jen and I have just been to an excellent Pastoral Refreshment Conference, an annual event at Hothorpe Hall in Leicestershire. It’s run by Living Leadership, an organisation which aims not only to train pastors, but to enable them to be able to sustain ministry over many years.

It’s an issue I’m passionate about because I’m all too aware of how often ministers burn out or fall into serious sin. For example, at a well-known Anglican church over the last twenty years, two associate ministers had to leave because of depression, two others through having affairs, and then the senior pastor had to leave, also because of an affair. I am convinced that ministers need to be living healthy, balanced lives – and failure to do so impairs our witess to the good news of the gospel, which is at the heart of what we do.

Mark Meynell, the speaker at the Pastoral Refreshment conference.

Mark Meynell, the speaker at the Pastoral Refreshment conference. (source)

The speaker for the conference was Mark Meynell, who was an associate pastor at All Souls, Langham Place. Jen had heard him speak regularly and had found his preaching to be particularly helpful. Then after some years Mark admitted that he had been suffering from depression throughout his time there, and some time after that resigned from his job.

Jen and I missed the first talk on the Wednesday evening (we were late!), but heard the evening session when Mark talked in detail about his depression. He described what it was that had triggered it, and how he coped (or didn’t) with the aftermath. It was a powerful session because he didn’t give easy answers, and shared honestly about the bleakness and blackness of the hardest times. (His blog describes some of this experience here).

At one point the next day, as Mark was describing the reality of being in depression, I wasn’t entirely sure how he was going to pull the series through: after all, the conference was about ‘refreshment’ rather than ‘depression’! I need not have feared because his talk on the final morning was both refreshing and very challenging. He didn’t join all the dots, but he’s writing a book that probably fills a few of the gaps.

Inferring somewhat, at some point Mark took a step of faith to believe that the gospel is true, even though he didn’t have the right feelings. A key verse for him is from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, “we live by faith, not by sight” (here) – in other words, if it’s true, it doesn’t matter what we feel. What the New Testament doesn’t offer Christians is an easy, struggle-free life – and Paul certainly doesn’t, either. When he talks about “light and momentary troubles” (here), he’s downplaying the ordeals that he describes in detail elsewhere (such as imprisonment, floggings and shipwrecks: here).

Towards the end, Mark played us a song by Steven Curtis Chapman which expressed his own battle after heart-rending tragedy.

After returning from the conference I came across a very moving interview with Chapman himself, a year and a half after his own tragedy. It’s a very powerful testimony (so much so that one of the interviewers struggles with his own emotions).

One of the most refreshing aspects of the conference was the willingness to tackle a difficult subject. The more healthily pastors can talk about issues like depression, the more easily we’ll be able to assist those going through similar experiences – but also, the more we’ll be enabled to take preventive steps for ourselves.

What’s the most important aspect of the gospel?

As we approach the Easter season, I am reminded of a question that I was asked some years ago, by John, an interviewer while I was in the application process for ordination. Without intending to, I completely bamboozled him with my answer.

The question was outwardly straightforward: “What’s the most important aspect of the gospel?”. I’ve since discovered that this is a fairly standard question for ordination candidates to be asked, and there are a number of basic answers, depending upon your theological preferences – none of which I gave.

For example, I could have focussed on the events around Christmas (in theological language, the incarnation, when God became man in Jesus). Without this, the other extraordinary events of Jesus’ life could not have happened. 

Or I could have looked at the events of Good Friday: through Jesus’ one, perfect sacrifice of himself on the cross, for our sake, Jesus opened the way for each one of us to have a living and active relationship with God. Everything else is a bonus.

The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, which may be the site where Jesus’ body was taken, and from which Jesus rose from the dead. (Photo © Philip Benshmuel; original here)

Alternatively, I could have chosen Easter, which celebrates the resurrection: the fact that Jesus rose bodily from the dead: the crowning triumph of Jesus life on earth, when he showed that he had defeated both sin and death.

Instead I said, without hesitation, “the fact that it’s true, that’s what’s most important about the gospel”.

“Uh-huh, uh-huh,” spluttered John, “the fact that it’s true, is that all you can say?”

My point was that the gospel is based on historical fact – most particularly as recorded  in the four reasonably-independent biographies known to us as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – rather than upon myth or legend, or some esoteric knowledge that only the chosen few have access to. I’d be tempted to answer the same way today.

However, if I’d answered the question the way John wanted me to answer, I’d choose Easter and the Resurrection. This is the defining event of Christianity: it’s the miracle that trumps all the others, where even death itself was defeated. All four gospels climax with it and provide evidence for it. The incarnation may have paved the way for it, and Jesus needed to go through the one perfect sacrifice on the cross for it to happen, but it’s the resurrection that is the greatest triumph of all.

Cuthbert and the otters

There’s a story about the Celtic hermit-monk, St Cuthbert, and a pair of otters, which is very endearing – but whose truth, until recently, I doubted. It’s told by Bede, his biographer and near-contemporary.

An icon of Cuthbert praying - with otters in attendance

An icon of Cuthbert praying – with otters in attendance (from Aidan Hart Sacred Icons)

Cuthbert lived as a monk on Lindisfarne in the 7th century, and soon acquired a reputation of great holiness. While visiting another monastic community he was known to slip outside in the middle of the night and return in the morning. A fellow monk wanted to find out what he did, so one night he followed him from a distance. He discovered that Cuthbert waded into the sea up to his neck. When morning came he returned, knelt on the beach, and prayed. While he did so, “two otters bounded out of the water, stretched themselves out before him, warmed his feet with their breath, and tried to dry him with their fur. They finished, received his blessing, and slipped back to their watery home”.

It’s hardly surprising that Cuthbert had a reputation for closeness to nature! But when I frist read the story my thoughts were, “I wish this were true, but really, it’s too far-fetched; it must be pious legend.”

I thought the same about another story of Cuthbert – his association with crows – but that changed because of evidence from an unexpected source.

Cuthbert had sought greater solitude in later life and ended up on Inner Farne, a small, bleak island in the North Sea off the Northumbrian coast. Some ravens that shared the island decided that straw on the visitors’ house would make great nesting material. Cuthbert rebuked them – but they ignored him. So Cuthbert resorted to more drastic words: “In the name of Jesus Christ, depart forthwith!”. At this, the ravens departed.

Bede records what happened next: “Three days later, one of a pair of them returned, and finding Cuthbert digging, stood before him, with feathers outspread and head bowed low to its feet in a sign of grief. Using whatever signs it could to express contrition it very humbly asked pardon. When Cuthbert realised what it meant, he gave permission for them all to return. Back they came with a fitting gift – a lump of pig’s lard. Cuthbert would often show this to his visitors, inviting them to grease their shoes with it”.

Again a lovely story – but again one that my sceptical mind doubted severely.

Until I read a couple of articles on the BBC News website about crows bringing gifts. The one that really struck me was about a crow called Sheryl (geddit?!): “Sheryl brings me gifts. My first was presented to me with her wings splayed open and head bowed. I was very ceremoniously handed a yellow foam dart from a toy gun! She refused to take the dart back as she does when we play games. I felt truly honoured.”

What really struck me about the story is not just the fact that it brought the gift, but the gesture while doing so which evoked Bede’s description of Cuthbert’s raven. I suddenly realised that story had a ring of truth to it: he was accurately describing the bird’s behaviour. Whether the ravens were “repentant” in the way that Bede described is a little less clear- but perhaps the event itself is described accurately.

I wonder whether the same might be said of Cuthbert and the otters? Perhaps they did indeed play around his feet as described – but perhaps with less intention to warm him with their breath and dry him with their fur as the monk described? I’m realising that I may have underestimated the veracity of Bede’s ‘Life of Cuthbert’, which the story of the ravens unexpectedly reveals.

An otter sighting

I may have otters on the brain at the moment. I went for a birding trip last week to the new hide at Catcott Lows which overlooks a small, reed-lined lake. There was hardly a bird in sight, apart from a little egret on the far side and three little grebes in the middle. Then I became aware that there was a form in the water to my left – “What have we here?” I thought, as I saw the unmistakable shape of an otter swimming through. It cruised along, diving gracefully, emerging to swim further on and dive again. I watched it doing this for about five minutes before it disappeared. It was a stunning sighting!

The stories about Cuthbert are from “The Age of Bede”, Penguin (2004), p54 and p71

Searching for the desert in the Scillies

There's a good reason why humans are not allowed on Annet... two of the present residents swimming offshore

There’s a good reason why humans are not allowed on Annet… two of the present residents swimming offshore

The Scilly Isles has a large number of deserted islands and rocky outcrops, each of which have their own history… Nornour, in the Eastern isles, was only recently discovered to have housed an important Roman shrine on the way from Gaul to Ireland; Samson was populated until the middle of the nineteenth century; and islands such as Annet now house important seabird colonies.But there were a number of others, which lay close to St Martin’s, that particularly fascinated Jen and myself.

One of these, White Island, lay tantalisingly opposite our lunch spot on our final full day. Seals bobbed around in the sheltered channel, entertainingly curious. I was sure that the map showed that a bar across to the island would appear at low tide but while we were there the sea remained a barrier.

White Island from St. Martin's

White Island from St. Martin’s

We left after lunch, but the lure of exploring a deserted island proved too strong and I persuaded Jen that we should try to cross. By this time another young couple (sorry, a couple who were themselves young) arrived, peered at the sea, and then trod across carefully, trying not to slip from the rocks into any unseen gullies.

So we followed, removing boots and socks, and gingerly waded in… not, in my case, very elegantly… but having learned from the other two we picked our way across without getting too deep. Ten minutes later we looked back and saw that the shingle bar was almost clear of the water… had we waited we’d have crossed with little drama.

White Island at low tide

White Island at low tide: no longer an island

Yet there was still the excitement of being on an uninhabited island, knowing that if we stayed on more than about three hours, we’d be stranded until the next low tide. We were experiencing the allure of the desert… more than a millenium ago, this drew Christian hermits to these islands – and specifically to two that lay a short distance further west.

St Helen's - the home of St Elidius around the 7th century, as seen from White Island

The island at top left is St Helen’s, the home of St Elidius around the 7th century – as seen from White Island

Fifteen hundred years agothese two (St Helen’s and Teän) would have been tidal islands – much as White Island is now. The name St Helen’s is a corruption of St Elidius, the name of a 7th or 8th century hermit about whom little is known, except that he was reputed to be the son of a British king and a bishop. His cell is still visible on the island, as are the mediaeval buildings connected with the monastery on Tresco. In 1461 Pope Pius II granted an indulgence to “the faithful who go in great numbers to the Chapel of St Elidius” [ref] which, whatever the pre-Reformation tone, indicates the great significance of the site locally.

Neighbouring St Helen’s is Teän, a name more obviously derived from ‘Theona’, a female hermit from the same era, about whom even less is known than Elidius. Her influence also seems to have inspired a monastic community that survived for centuries. In the 1950s, an archaeological investigation discovered sixteen Christian graves. One belonged to an elderly lady, who may (because of the location of her grave under the altar of the mediaeval chapel on the island) have been Theona herself.

Teän and St. Helen's - homes to the hermits St Theona and St Elidius - with Round Island Lighthouse in the distance

Teän and St. Helen’s – homes to the hermits St Theona and St Elidius – with Round Island Lighthouse in the distance; viewed from St Martin’s

Like St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne (and later, even more remotely, on Inner Farne), these Celtic saints were heading for the British equivalent of the desert. They were following in the footsteps of Antony the Great towards the end of the fourth century, and the thousands who followed him, in subsequent centuries, into the Egyptian desert. Their purpose was to become holy by battling demons, and to intercede for others in spiritual warfare.

This view of what it is to live a holy life seems alien to us in the 21st century, used as we are to comfortable western lifestyles. But perhaps the island mystics had a better insight into Biblical spirituality than we do today: after all, John the Baptist spent his life in the desert eating locusts and wild honey (Matt 3), and Jesus went into the desert for 40 days and nights specifically to be tested by the devil (Matt 4).

I’m fascinated by St Elidius and St Theona – about whom so little is known except what has been found archaeologically, but who represent a deep strand of Celtic spirituality about which we ourselves have very little understanding.

Does post-Christendom enable us to get back to the Gospel?

In the aftermath of the Brexit win in the referendum, it’s natural for Brits to wonder what life will be like after the country leaves the European Union. But as a Christian, I suspect that the move away from Christendom, which has been happening for rather longer, is a much bigger shift – and it affects much of Europe as a whole (ourselves very much included).

I’ve been helped to think about this by a book on Post-Christendom (sub-titled ‘Church and mission in a strange new world’) by Stuart Murray. He’s written in a challenging and thought-provoking way, much of which I agree with – but there’s also much that I am not convinced by.

The core of Murray’s argument is that the church of the first few centuries was marginalised, poor, pacifist and subject to persecution. After the Roman Emperor Constantine came to power, the church became the dominant religious institution, wealthy, willing to go to war, and now prone to perecuting those of other religions – as well as Christian heretics.

This represents the Christendom shift. It is hard to argue against the basic reality of this change, and it is easy to see that the church may well have taken on certain attitudes that were more about religious power than about the gospel. However, Murray is a passionate writer, prone to writing polemically, and I am not convinced that all his arguments stand up to scrutiny.

One example is his treatment of Augustine’s theory of the ‘just war’. Augustine reasoned that a war could be just if certain conditions were met – the most famous of which is if going to war is a lesser evil than not doing so. The second world war to combat Hitler’s Nazi regime is often referred to in this context. Murray – himself a convnced pacifist – regards just war theory as an example of Christendom thinking that would not have been possible in the pacifist early church, and is therefore inherently suspect. Instead, this is a subject that should prompt some more nuanced thinking: some wars are, at the very least, more just than others – but protagonists may try to cloak their actions with the ‘just war’ label whatever the actual morality.

Nevertheless, Murray makes a rather pungent critique of the Reformation which highlights an issue that I had not recognised before: for all that the Reformers did change, they remained embeded within the Christendom mindset. They continued to embrace the opportunity for political power, as the Roman Catholic church had done previously. It has long puzzled me that the long and brutal Thirty Years’ War in Central Europe (from 1618 to 1648) was between Protestants and Catholics – how on earth did they think this was consistent with Jesus’ teaching in the gospels? What the Protestant reformers didn’t change was this Christendom mindset, in which power games seemed to play a key part. Presumably all sides thought they were fighting a ‘just war’…

The later part of the book is about mission in a post-Christendom world, and I tend to think that he brings to his discussion rather too much of his own personal gripes with some sections of the church. A much better, and far more practical, treatment is ‘Making new disciples’ by Mark Ireland and Mike Booker, which is a survey of different approaches to mission and how they are faring in a changing culture. Nevertheless, Murray’s book, despite his polemical tendency, is a most valuable treatment of an issue which seems to be below the radar of the wider culture.


Jen at the Open Gardens in Catcott

Jen at the Open Gardens in Catcott

Jen and I have been enjoying getting to know the Somerset area over the last few weeks. This weekend there were two particularly good events, though in very different ways – the Ashcott Beer Fest and the Catcott Open Gardens.

Until we arrived, we hadn’t realised how well organised the Beer Fest actually is – with a large variety of beers available to taste, and live entertainment in another marquee.

The Open Gardens event was also extremely well organised – with guests being driven round in classic cars provided by a Catcott resident! It might not surprise readers of this blog to know that one of my highlights of the day was an unplanned intruder…

Look who slithered into the Open Gardens... a grass snake in Catcott

Look who slithered into the Open Gardens… a grass snake in Catcott

Getting refreshed

Jen and I went to the Pastoral Refreshment conference just over a week ago, organised by the Living Leadership team. The aim of the event is to provide an environment for churh leaders to be refreshed in the Lord, rather than being trained or motivated or equipped with new techniques.

The headline speaker was Terry Virgo from New Frontiers International. He’s an inspirational speaker, and I particularly appreciated some of the enriching insights he gave into scripture. For example, in one session he looked at Jesus turning the water into wine in John 2 (a passage that’s close to our hearts because it was the one which Rico Tice preached on at our wedding!). He drew attention to Jesus’ command to the servants to fill the six purification jars with water, saying that it was ‘specific, unreasonable and required faith’… it would have been easy for the servants to argue the point with Jesus saying, “Jesus, it’s not the water that’s the problem, it’s the wine!”. The servants had to do it Jesus’ way – otherwise nothing would have happened.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the conference was the welcome and hospitality, so that it was easy to mix and converse with other participants, however long they have been coming to the conference or have been in ministry. There was an atmosphere of humility which was most refreshing. Jen and I both felt that the relationships we’ve begun to develop this time might be of great value over the coming years.

On the Thursday afternoon, we had some free time, so we went to Rutland Water: Jen took the opportunity for a ten-mile run, while I went birdwatching! I’d heard that there were some smews, and was lucky enough to bump into a birdwatcher at the visitor centre, who directed me to Lagoon IV. As soon as I arrived in the hide, I opened one of the hatches – and there they were!

"We need to talk", said Mrs Smew, as Mr Smew sailed serenely past.

“We need to talk”, said Mrs Smew, as Mr Smew sailed serenely past.

Smews (male and female) at Rutland Water Lagoon IV.

Smews (male and female) at Rutland Water Lagoon IV. Both images are worth clicking on to see the higher resolution versions.