Saturday, September 01, 2012

Green Sunday (St Edmunds, Wembley)

The other day I Googled 'Green Sunday' to get a bit of inspiration.  There's quite a lot there, actually, but the article that really grabbed my attention was totally secular.  The writer pointed out that in the past, Sunday used to be a day of rest.  No more, he said.  What with sport and Sunday trading and shiftwork, not to mention our ever higher tech forms of relaxation - Sundays are as frantic as any other day.  Take a break, he advised.  Spend Sunday loafing, talk to the people you love, take half the day to read the paper.  Do a crossword.  A day off for you is also a day off for the planet.  Satish Kumar advised us to start small, in our own homes.  Declare Sunday a fossil fuel free day, he recommended, or at least a low fuel day.  Make Sunday a day of rest for Earth's living systems, and by-the-by, for yourself as well.  Turn off the telly.  Refuse to go to the supermarket. Enjoy Sunday again, do some gardening, paint or read a book, go for a walk or spend time meditating or just plain daydreaming.  At one stroke you have cut down your personal carbon footprint, your impact on the living systems of the planet, by one seventh.  And you'll feel better for it.  As Christians, of course, this should remind us of our roots in the spiritual tradition of ancient Israel.  Practise the keeping of Sabbath as a way of restoring yourself to yourself, and the world around you to God.

Today begins our annual Diocesan Sustainable September tradition.  The wider Church calls this short season the Season of Creation, and suggests an alternative lectionary, but the intent is the same, to reflect intentionally on the link between creation and God, between our own spirituality and the flourishing of the living systems of Planet Earth.  The Bible studies produced this year by Anglican EcoCare centre around the themes of Earth, Air, Fire and Water - considered by the ancients to be both the four physical elements from which the world was put together, and the four 'humours', or flows that governed sickness and health in the human mind and body.  The Bible studies which have been suggested - either for small weekly groups or Sunday sermons for imaginative clergy - draw a connection between the living systems of our planet under threat, and the movement of God's Holy Spirit that in the Hebrew Bible is so often compared to fire, or water, or wind, and that is the ground of our own human life and spirituality.  It is, I think, about the noticing of the fundamental connection between what gives us life, and what sustains the life of all creation.

As Christians, we are called to the practise of Wisdom, which in the Hebrew Bible is described as the living wisdom of the earth and its creatures, the wisdom of human culture and learning and Torah.  The Hebrew Wisdom literature is holistic, it counsels for example against a narrow-minded reading of scripture and bids us to be inquisitive learners, to take instruction where we find it.  And so in our own age, Christians who practise Wisdom need to use the insights of of the social and physical sciences, to exercise responsibility and take the time to inform ourselves of the big issues.  And so as a basic part of our own spirituality we find ourselves responding to the challenge to care for the environment, to practise in our own lives the disciplines of doing with less, living simply, cutting down on our use of wasteful packaging, conserving water, thinking about where our food comes from and how it is produced, asking ourselves whether we really need to take the car - and so on.  All this is good, and restorative both for the planet and for our own sense of connection to the world around us.

But there is also a specifically Christian task to which we are called, I believe, and that is to think and to talk about the God of ecology.  To find a way of doing theology - of worshipping and praying and talking about God - that can express for us the connection between the environment, the fundamentals of soil, and water, and light and air – and our own lives, and God.  Because unless we can express an authentically Christian eco-spirituality then the Christian response to the environment will always be an optional extra, we will actually fail to see where God might be challenging us to grow and even to take a lead.

A good place to start is always the Book of Genesis, and the two creation stories in chapters one and two.  And amongst the wealth of insight that these two chapters give us into our place as human beings in God's creation, I just want to make a couple of quick observations. Firstly, that in both the stories of creation -and they are different, in significant ways - human beings come last.  We are created into a context, and into relationship with the non-human creation.  The first story is more big-picture stuff – sun and moon and water and earth - the second story tells us that we are placed in the garden of creation in order to serve it - your Bible might say, to till it, but the Hebrew word, ebed, actually means to serve, or to care for.  And then the first human creature is introduced to every other living creature, to name it and to determine what its proper relationship might be.  And Adam and Eve are invited to enjoy the garden, and to take what they need from it, but to care for it and live within the limits of the relationship God intended.  It's a good start, though as we know, it's all downhill from there. 

The Old Testament gives us further intriguing glimpses of God's love and care for the non-human creation, for example in the Book of Job that tells us that God causes it to rain in the desert in order to refresh the earth and its creatures, how the wisdom of God sustains all living things by providing the appropriate food for them, and in Psalm 104 we read the delightful description of lions roaring in the night as they await the rising of the sun and their food from the hand of God.  In the book of Isaiah we read the marvellous vision of shalom, the lying down together of natural enemies, of lion and sheep, and human children.  It's a vision of creation as God intended, of the garden of creation restored at the end of all things. 

In the New Testament, in the letters of Paul, we see amazing insight into the connection between Christian spirituality and the fulfillment of the whole created order.  Creation itself, Paul tells us in Romans, chapter eight, is groaning as with labour pains as it awaits the coming into spiritual maturity of the people of God.  The fulfilment or completion of God's creation, then, is connected to our spirituality and our learning to live in right relationship!  And in Colossians, chapter one, we see the extent of St Paul's cosmic vision that claims the whole of creation, not just human beings, but everything that has come into being through the Word of God is also being drawn towards its fulfilment and its true end in Christ.  At the ground level of the nature of reality itself, we are created in relation with and in context with the natural systems and living things of our garden planet, and our own true end is also found in context and in relationship.  There is no authentic Christian spirituality, I think, of withdrawal - no authentic Christian version of sitting in a cave or on top of a mountain, meditating on our navels or just focussing on getting to heaven and forgetting about the earth that sustains our lives.  Our spirituality is formed by justice and by relationship. It's not an optional extra, it's core business for Christian disciples.

Writer Sallie McFague wrote a wonderful book called 'A new climate for theology', in which she argues that the biggest problem that is driving climate change and water scarcity and species extinction and all the matrix of natural disasters we face today has got nothing to do with technology - but everything to do with who we human beings think we are.  The individual consumer model of human life, she says, tells us that it's OK to accumulate and to consume as much as you can afford.  It's a view of human life driven by the marketplace.  Why shouldn't I go on that round the world trip?  I work hard, I've saved up, the L'Oreal ads tell me I deserve it.  The relational, or ecological view of what it means to be human, on the other hand, tells us that our own lives depend on a network of relationships, and that the long-term costs of our decisions are borne by others, by future generations, by the poor of other countries, and silently by the non-human creation – by birds and animals and fish and plant life, and the by the living systems of water and soil and air that suffer when we think it is OK to get an a jet aircraft and pour tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere because we really really need to see the Eiffel Tower.  People, you don't need to see the Eiffel Tower.  It's in books.  What you do need is to learn to see clearly the world around you, and the beauty and vulnerability of God's creation beneath your feet and at your doorstep.  And Sallie McFague suggests that a good way of learning the ecological view of ourselves is to think of the world itself as the body of God.  Which means how we live can cause God suffering.  If it's a metaphor, it's a good one.  If we think of the world as God's body, then we behave differently.

And so I want to end by proposing a model for Christian eco-spirituality that is suggested to me by Franciscan theologian, St Bonaventure.  He reflected on the way of St Francis and he saw how Francis immersed himself in creation and related to sun and moon and water and fire and living things as sisters and brothers, and how Francis served the creation he loved.  And so Bonaventure wrote a spiritual treatise that tried to codify the life that Francis lived, and at the very end, he says we have to die with Christ, so that we can rest with Christ in the tomb.

When I first read it, it seemed to me an unnecessarily gloomy way to reflect on a life that was essentially joyful and light, until it occurred to me that Bonaventure is talking about the keeping of Sabbath, and not just any Sabbath, but the Sabbath rest of Holy Saturday.  For Bonaventure, who reflects on the existential basis of the entire creation in Christ, Holy Saturday is the Great Sabbath, the sleep not only of Christ but of the whole creation.  For us to enter the Great Sabbath, to rest with Christ in the tomb of uncreation, is to put to death in ourselves all that disfigures God's creation, our unreflective overconsumption and our heedless self-centredness. But Bonaventure is too good a theologian to leave it there – he knows that what follows Holy Saturday is the day of re-creation and shalom that is Easter Day.  A reawakening of creation and the renewal of the promise of Eden that – I believe – is the true purpose of Christian spirituality.