faith

A time to weep

I had an allotment post planned for today but although I believe with all my heart that growing food well is one of the most important, life-giving and even holy things we can do, now is not the time for me to write about gardening.

Of all the images that have filled our screens during this summer of horrors – and I do not remember a summer like this for horror – the ones that haunt me continually are from Ferguson, Missouri, where black teenager Michael Brown was gunned down by a policeman and his body left untended in the street for four hours.

Michael Brown was unarmed and he was shot at least six times, Eyewitnesses say he had his hands in the air. He was due to start college two days later.

I have a son just one year older than Michael Brown. I am writing this late at night and I know that soon he will be emerging onto the streets of Edinburgh, elated if his show at the Fringe has gone well, perhaps more subdued if it hasn’t.

Either way, he and his university friends may be a bit loud. There’s a lot of tension to release after a show. But they won’t attract attention from the police. (And even if they did, we in the UK do not, thank God, routinely give our police officers firearms.)

How is that one teenager can walk down the street freely with his friends, while another ends up dead in the road?

How is it that I can be rejoicing in my son’s achievements while a mother in Missouri has been robbed of the chance ever again to hug hers and tell him: ‘Well done: I’m so proud of you’?

I have read some powerful posts about Ferguson this week. Two that stood out were Black Bodies, White Souls by Austin Channing and  The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail by Christena Cleveland (links at the bottom of this post).

Both are strongly worded, disturbing challenges to people like me, white people who claim to follow Jesus.

These women – and the pain and anger I have seen in the news from Ferguson – have made me face up to what I know in theory but mostly try not to accept as reality: there are structural injustices built into Western society (let’s not kid ourselves this is just about the US) that work in favour of people like me and my son.

I can’t write about the allotment today  – not because the allotment is unimportant but because to ignore what I have seen these past days would be a form of walking by on the other side, pretending that the people who are bleeding at the edge of the road are somehow nothing to do with me.

In fact it would be worse than that because what I need to think about today is not just that the mother of a boy the same age as my son is grieving, but also my own complicity in the structures that are compounding that grief.

I need to think about how my life might shore up those injustices, and what I am going to do about it.

I highly recommend these posts: Black Bodies, White Souls by Austin Channing; The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail by Christena Cleveland.

There is a very full and thoroughly referenced timeline of the events in Ferguson here.

 

In which naming the bees is like worship

nasturtiums

vinegar

It’s the season for hot colours. I am making nasturtium vinegar and it sits on the windowsill as lurid as Lucozade. In the garden, the helenium is out, a variety called ‘Moerheim Beauty’. I have read that helenium is commonly called ‘sneezeweed’ because its leaves used to be dried for snuff.

helenium

It’s the season for exam papers too and I have spent entire days marking scripts, but with the sun so bright outside it’s impossible not to wander out from time to time, and sometimes to linger over lunch in the garden. That’s when I realise that the helenium is a magnet for bees.

honeybee

honeybee on yellow

Last week I was watching the honeybees come and go; it’s like a form of hypnosis. Then a bumblebee arrived and began to crawl over the flower centres. It was my daughter who said: ‘Look at the pollen sacs.’

cropped bumblebee

They are huge in proportion to the pin-thin legs, like growths, or the saddlebags of an overloaded packhorse.

bumblebee cropped

Something happens when you pay attention to the natural world. You find your curiosity awakened. It’s like recovering the endlessly wondering mindset of childhood. One question predominates: what’s it called?

Trying to answer that is a humbling thing. I dive into Google, wanting to identify the bees that have come to our helenium. I am fairly sure about the honeybee: there is only one species of honeybee in the UK, and although I may have confused it with a solitary bee (225 species).

The bumblebee is more challenging. I discover that it’s definitely a female because only they have the pollen sacs. Beyond that, it could be one of 250 different species found in this country, but the Bumblebee Conservation Trust recommends starting with the eight most common ones. I used their excellent, free chart here to decide it was either a buff-tailed or a white-tailed bumblebee. I’m not sure how you could be more certain without having the two species side by side.

climbing bumblebee with sacs

I planted this garden eight years ago. A succession of blindsiding life events had left me paralysed with depression: forget trying to take one day at a time; my target was to navigate the next ten minutes. Most everyday tasks became impossible but I found that if I could only get myself outside, I could garden for a couple of hours and not think about the time at all. Gradually, with help from all kinds of sources, but always against the backdrop of planting and growing, the depression receded

Depression kills your prayer life, or at least it did mine. I am recovering it slowly, along with the sense of wonder that is necessary for worship. I did not expect learning about nature to help but sometimes it feels almost sacramental, a resonance with the story of Adam in the first garden, naming the animals in response to God’s invitation to intimacy and co-operation.(Genesis 2:19).

Staying still long enough to really observe the bee, then taking the time to work on identification works a bit like contemplation for me. It opens up stillness and silence; it decentres my anxieties, my selfish preoccupations; it is a repeated, necessary reminder that humans are not the only creatures that matter on this planet.

Stepping out of line

I am done with not rocking the boat.

I am done with putting up with things in church that I would not for a minute tolerate anywhere else.

I am done with letting bigotry have the last word in the name of unity or respect.

The church is too important for that.

I walked out of a church meeting last week because it was clear that the visiting speaker assumed that everyone there would agree with him that an extremely controversial and homophobic view of sexuality is an essential part of the true Gospel.

Crap, crap, utter crap.

I was too shocked and emotional to stand up and challenge him, so I had to do the next best thing, which was to remove myself from a situation where my presence would imply that I condoned what he was saying

Many of the people I know would say I should never walk back into a place where that kind of speech is tolerated. They have a point.

The trouble is, that after so many years as a Christian I have learnt that I need to belong to the messy, flawed and ultimately hope-filled place that is the local church.

I have tried doing without church in the past, only to discover that there is a way of encountering God there that doesn’t present itself anywhere else.

I have found that being committed to a group of people who may not be the ones I would naturally seek out as friends brings about growth in a way that nothing else does.

(Let me be clear here: if I belonged to a church where the kind of dehumanising attitudes I encountered last week were a regular feature, then I would go elsewhere. But this was a visiting speaker and such an approach is unusual for us.)

As I struggled with the powerful emotions that came up after that meeting, I resolved two things, both of them appropriate for the year of dare.

First of all, I will err on the side of offending when I encounter prejudice in the Church. I would rather create an atmosphere of discomfort than remain silent about ugly attitudes that have no place in a community of love and truth.

People in churches – and I include myself – are too often quiet and inactive because we are afraid of stepping out of line. I don’t know how this happens when we are supposed to be following the greatest out-of-line-stepper who has ever walked the earth, but it does.

And the result is not just that we end up tolerating prejudice, we can also do great harm to ourselves and to our relationship with God.

We can develop a mindset of constant, anxious self-censorship that prevents us from doing the very thing we say we are committed to, which is becoming the people God created us to be.

Churches should be among the most vibrant, creative, risk-taking, innovative, life-giving organisations on the planet – but how often is that creativity stifled through fear of disapproval?

How many world-changers, prophets and visionaries are sitting silent in church pews because we have bought into the lie that unity is the same as uniformity?

If we believe what we preach, that God’s love is unending and unchanging, then shouldn’t we be marked by a joyful, childlike desire to try new things, to seek out adventure, to explore who we are?

My second resolution was that I am not going to spend my life sitting quietly. I am going to dream and experiment and go on adventures because I believe that is our calling as children of God.

That means I will make mistakes. I may well fall flat on my face in public. But if the church is even remotely what we claim it to be, then surely it should be the one place where we don’t need to worry about falling over because we can rely on people to pick us up, dust us down and send us back on our way with a hug.

What’s harder is the knowledge that if I am more active and adventurous I will almost certainly expose some pretty unattractive character traits that I would have preferred to keep hidden.

When that happens, I need to know that my church people will not be afraid to call me out on it.

But I also need to know that it’s not the end of our relationship, that even when they find my attitudes offensive they will stay committed to working with me to bring about change – change in myself and change in the world around us, just as we are called to do.

2013: learning about hope

derwent bridge

When I chose hope as my one word for 2013, I must have thought I knew what it meant. Writing about the choice here, I said it would be my touchstone for year, a prism through which to view whatever unfolded.

It turns out that was a bit over-ambitious. If I think about the role hope has played in my life this year, I seem to have mostly been working out what it means! It’s been worth it, though.

Partly, my new understanding of hope has come about through reading. Some truly formative books have fallen into my hands over the past twelve months, and the most important of them was Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination (thank you, Kelley Nikondeha!).

Brueggemann helped me to identify false hope, which is actually a form of hopelessness. You can recognise false hope because in the end it doesn’t change anything.

The false hope offered by our affluent Western culture is that the answer to any discomfort is to consume more. In the short term, and on an individual level, this works (hello, new shoes and chocolate cake). In the long term it makes things worse. Our pain could be a catalyst to action but over-consumption dulls our emotions and takes away the energy we need to act.

In effect, the more we eat, drink and buy, the more deeply we reinforce the very structures that imprison us.

Brueggemann introduced me to the unsettling notion that the only way to real hope is through pain. We have to begin by looking unflinchingly at the darkness that is both around us and within us.

This idea was reinforced for me during the Advent just passed, through many of the Bible readings traditionally associated with that great season of hope.

It is the people walking in darkness who see the ‘great light’ promised by the prophet (Isaiah 9:2).

Or as Richard Rohr puts it in his book Preparing for Christmas: ‘We must wait and work with hope inside of the darkness – while never doubting the light that God always is … That is the narrow birth canal of God into the world – through the darkness and into an ever greater Light.’

It sobered me to think that if we manage to dispel the darkness temporarily, with all kinds of artificial things that are ultimately themselves part of the darkness – then we could miss the true light.

Which leads me to Leah Kostamo’s Planted. This book tells the funny and grace-filled story of how Kostamo and her husband established a branch of the Christian conservation organisation A Rocha in Canada, and also weaves in some serious wrestling with issues of justice, community and how to live simply in a world in crisis.

Unsurprisingly, hope is often in short supply among those who care for the environment. As Kostamo puts it: ‘Knowing what conservationists know, it’s only logical they would be tempted to despair.’

Gently and convincingly, Kostamo explains how her Christian faith roots her in hope – ‘hope that some day, some how, some way redemption is possible for all things’.

This is not another airy-fairy, false notion of hope. It is a hope born of what Kostamo calls ‘a divine adventure of reckless love’ – namely that other great Advent theme: the incarnation. An all-powerful God could choose to engage with creation in any way at all. The decision to become a part of it by taking on human form has endless implications for the way we think about the world.

As Kostamo says: ‘The incarnation shows God’s commitment to creation. The Creator becomes the created in the ultimate act of solidarity.’

The ultimate act of solidarity. Therein lies the third thing I have learnt about hope – it is inseparable from action. Another book that influenced me profoundly was Ellen Davis’s Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture. Described as an examination of ‘the theology and ethics of land use’, it sounds dry but it is the opposite. It propelled me into the garden, determined to care for it properly, recognising for the first time that care of the land is a non-negotiable part of my Christian discipleship.

I still have so much to learn as a gardener but already I am understanding that the actions of caring for soil and seed, leaf and bud, bring about a new kind of consciousness, an opportunity to disrupt some old and hitherto unquestioned notions about how to be in the world.

It’s not a bad place from which to enter 2014. I’m glad I joined in with the ‘one word’ idea. It turns out it was, as I hoped, a much better way of starting a new year than making lots of soon-to-be-broken resolutions.

The picture is of the Derwent Reservoir, Derbyshire, on Boxing Day 2013

watershed

If someone asks for directions to your home, how do you respond? Our house is some way from the city centre and if I ever get a cab from the railway station I usually have to give the driver a rough indication of whereabouts to go. I generally say something like ‘near the Co-op’ or ‘not far from the shops’.

I do it without thinking. Or I did until I read this very challenging post from Leah Kostamo at the A Rocha conservation group. ‘Where on Earth are you?’ she asks – and ‘near the shops’ is definitely not the right answer.

Kostamo breaks this big question down into ten smaller ones designed to challenge the reader to see how well they really know the area where they live. Getting to know your own place, she says, is the first step towards caring for the natural environment.

Her first question is: ‘What is the name of your watershed?’

Excuse me? I have a watershed? And it has a name?

The question hit me as extraordinary – despite the fact that I walk almost daily beside Porter Brook, the stream at the bottom of our valley.

porter brook

Stupidly, I had never consciously linked this stretch of water, which I love, to the wider context of the landscape that surrounds it.

Yesterday I set off to discover ‘my’ watershed. I pulled out the Ordnance Survey map, traced the Porter Brook to its source and arrived at a place called White Path Moss.

Stanage Edge and White Path Moss

As is the nature of watersheds, it’s a big, boggy area and while it may appear to lack exciting features, it turns out to be the source of three watery landscapes to which I have a huge emotional connection. As well as feeding my beloved Porter Brook, the waters from White Path Moss also flow down to a reservoir where I used to run with a lovely neighbour who has now moved from the area.

IMG_3776

To the south, ‘my’ watershed feeds Burbage Brook in the valley below Higger Tor, a gritstone hill that I have climbed countless times, often in the company of precious people, some family, some fleeting visitors from overseas.

IMG_3811

kite

I wandered in the valley for a while yesterday, enjoying the contrasts of dark green reeds and almost neon moss against the rich, peaty water.

burbage brook

bubbly

As I walked, I realised that understanding how this stretch of water was linked to the one near my house had made me feel more connected to the entire area. I was beginning to see what Leah Kostamo meant by saying that the first step towards caring for a place is to really know it.

What I hadn’t expected was that the discovery would make me feel differently about myself. When I tell people I live ‘near the Co-op’ I am unthinkingly buying into the dominant culture that would define us all as consumers. I situate myself with reference to shops.

To say ‘I live near Porter Brook, which flows from White Path Moss, which also feeds the waters at Burbage and Redmires’ is quite a different thing. It is to situate myself with reference to the landscape and particularly to the water that is so essential for life.

I doubt I’ll be using it as a direction for cab drivers any time soon but I will definitely be saying it to myself. I want to assert my identity as a creature at home in a landscape, not unthinkingly accept one that places me as a consumer whose primary connection is to shops.

In another piece I read this week the outdoor learning specialist Dr Robbie Nicol spoke of the importance of emotion in spurring us to make ethical decisions about the environment.

Few things make us more emotional than a risk to our very identity. I hope that as I gain more understanding of the importance of the land to who I am, so I will be quicker to respond when it comes under threat.

UPDATE: This morning I received an email from Steve Dumpleton, who lives not far from me and clearly knows far more about geology than I ever will. He gently corrected my statements about White Path Moss and then explained how the waters near us actually travel. I thought the sequence of place names read a bit like a found poem, so have copied his words exactly and also included one of his beautiful photographs.

“As you have said, your local water flows via the River Porter into Sheffield and beyond, but you need to think of Stanage Edge as the true watershed divide.

stanage after rain

View NW along Stanage Edge. The photo was taken just after a shower had passed over and everything was sparkling wet and clear.

“Here are two contrasting routes for raindrops depending on exactly which side of Stanage Edge they fall:

“1. East side of Stanage Edge (River Don catchment)
White Path Moss/Hallam Moors -> River Porter; flows into River Sheaf near Midland Station; flows into River Don at Blonk Street bridge; flows into River Ouse at Goole; flows into River Humber at Trent Falls; flows into the North Sea at Spurn Point/Grimsby.

“2. West side of Stanage Edge (Derwent/Trent catchment)
Various streams into Ladybower Reservoir or directly into River Derwent near Bamford/Hathersage; flows into River Trent near Long Eaton (between Derby and Nottingham); flows into River Humber at Trent Falls; flows into the North Sea at Spurn Point/Grimsby.

“Route 1 is the fairly direct route, about 100 miles ignoring minor river ‘wiggles’.
Route 2 is much longer, about 190 miles.”

Thanks, Steve!

Picture of White Path Moss copyright John Topping and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Picture of Stanage Edge by Steve Dumpleton, used under Creative Commons Licence.

one word for 2013

Can you really choose just one word as a focus for an entire year? In the last few days a positive rash of ‘words for 2013’ has been erupting all over the blogosphere, thanks mainly to this link-up. I read a few and realised that in many ways having one word as a touchstone, a prism through which to view life for the following twelve months, is a whole lot better than making a heap of resolutions and then forgetting them.

I prayed a bit and found there was a word that kept nudging me and just wouldn’t go away.

The word was HOPE. And it made my heart sink.

Oh no, I thought, hope is what you need when times get really tough. I must be thinking of this word because I’m going to have a hard year. Um, can I have a different word please?

But I kept seeing the word everywhere and as I mulled it over it began to make sense. I thought of all the reading I’ve been doing about the state of the environment and in particular about the way our busted food system continues to wreak havoc on the earth and in the lives of individuals.

It’s hard to pick from the abundance of grim facts out there, but here’s a couple that I came across just yesterday.

  • In 2012, China bought up sixty per cent of the world’s soya beans and fed them all to pigs (story here). I’m not having a go at China in particular – for years the west has been destroying virgin rainforest in order to farm cattle for our beef addiction.
  • In Ethiopia, a prime target for foreign land acquisitions yet also a major food aid recipient, an acre of land can be leased for less than $1 per year. (See this factsheet from the Earth Policy Institute.)

The statistics seem overwhelming. How can we respond to injustice and stupidity on such a massive scale?

We can despair – the opposite of hope – and there is a certain logic to that, but it achieves nothing and makes our lives meaningless.

We can ignore it. It’s easy enough in the midst of a busy and often anxious life: deadlines to meet, shopping to do, family to care for. But it’s the equivalent of sticking our fingers in our ears and shouting ‘la, la, la’. It changes nothing and sooner or later people will tell us we look stupid.

Or we can hope.

peony shoots: hope of glory

peony shoots: hope of glory

In 2013 I am choosing hope. This is quite a discipline. I am a natural pessimist with a tendency to depression. But I am choosing hope because it’s only through hope that things ever change.

peony bud

I am choosing hope because I have seen, for example, how a handful of committed individuals set up an amazing movement called Incredible Edible Todmorden (motto: we don’t do negative) and now their town is being transformed from post-industrial decline to a place with a burgeoning local food economy that is building real community and creating proper jobs.

peony unfurls

I am choosing hope because I believe the tomb was empty on Easter Day and that God is still active in the world, bringing good out of evil and hope out of despair.

As Tom Wright puts it: ‘Hope is what you get when you suddenly realise that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word. The same worldview shift that is demanded by the resurrection of Jesus is the shift that will enable us to transform the world.’ (From Surprised by Hope. This book changed my life, no exaggeration.)

I am choosing hope because I believe that with this God it is never too late to change.

peony bloom

 

2013? Bring it on.

one word logo