Saturday, December 03, 2016

Daily Reflections for Advent 2016. Day 7: 3rd December

St Bartholomew's Hospital London

My reflection for each day in Advent celebrates examples of action in the world inspired by hope and the desire to bring closer God's kingdom of love, peace and justice. These examples are set within a reflection on a piece of Scripture the Church provides for reading daily.

One of the Scripture texts set for today highlights the centrality of healing at the foundation of the Christian hope and vision for the world.

"Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness." Matthew 9:35

It is striking in this text to see the words "all" and "every"; reflecting the universality of concern which is at the core of the love of neighbour in the Christian vision. No community is to be excluded from access to peace and justice; no condition or illness is to be regarded as beyond the reach of healing and care. 

The impetus within the Christian faith and community towards healing and care found expression in the growth of European civilization through the establishment of hospitals and homes for the poor and vulnerable. Many of the great hospitals today for example can trace their origins back to a religious foundation; in some cases, eg St Bartholomew's in London, over 800 years. 

Today that motivation to bring healing and care to all those in pain and distress in every condition is shared across many spiritual and secular traditions and has been embedded in our society in large-scale organisations such as the NHS , the hospitals and health centres across the country, staffed by professionals who have dedicated years of study and training to employ the best knowledge and resources to the task.  In an advanced welfare economy like ours the numbers of people and the amount of resources engaged in heathcare in all its aspects is almost beyond any one person's capacity to comprehend. Instead, it is in those caring one-to-one encounters between the patient and the healer when the signs are revealed which give hope that there is a kingdom where love holds sway.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Daily Reflections for Advent. Day 6: 2nd December

In today's short reflection I simply juxtapose a piece from the sayings of Jesus about God's kingdom and the story of the development of one of the largest philanthropic welfare organisations in the world, the Edhi Foundation of Pakistan

"‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ Matthew 13:31-32

Daily reflections for Advent Day 5: 1st December

This Advent daily reflection for 1st December is published a day late because yesterday I spent 9 hours on the road travelling to Yorkshire and back to meet our three-day-old grandson , who is a beautiful boy; as indeed is his two- and-a-half- year old brother. The journey was definitively worth it of course!

1st December is many things. For meteorologists it is the first day of the winter season. It is popularly seen as the beginning of the Christmas festivities. For consistency, Advent calendars start on this date. And it is World AIDS Day. I've chosen instead to notice one of the major item of news in Britain on 1st December this year.. It is the call by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, NICE, to local government to do more to reduce air pollution, which is linked to more than 25,000 deaths a year in England and Wales. This news reminded me of the huge corporate scandal about this time last year when  it was  revealed Volkswagen had cheated emissions tests for many of their vehicles especially in the United States, allowing diesel engines to discharge nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above what is allowed. 

One of the Bible readings set by the Church of England for 1st December  (Matthew 7: 24 -27) contains a parable of Jesus, popular with children in churches where it is captured in a fun action song known as "The Wide Man built his house upon the rock". He is compared with the foolish man who built his house upon the sand.  I could make a link with environmental protection issues in this story since it is the rain and flooding which reveals the foolishness of the builder upon sand when his house is destroyed. But the spiritual message to which Matthew's text links this story is the more general one, contained within these words which preface the story: 

"Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock." Matthew 7: 24

The words in question are in fact the golden rule which appears in some form in the teachings of many of the world's faiths and spiritual teachers:

"So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." Matthew 7:12

The story of the wise and foolish builders is an illustration of the final consequence , which is disaster, of ignoring the gap between what is said and what is done, the discrepancy between saying the right thing and doing it; between looking good and doing good. It is part of the Christian hope at Advent that the coming of God's kingdom of love, peace and justice does involve the unmasking of this gap and its closing - that practice, especially action impacting on others,  will be brought into line with values. It is the burden of much of the writings of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures; the work of the prophetic figures such as Isaiah, and Jesus in his role as a prophet, to call out that gap and to "speak truth to power". 

The image I've chosen today is a portrait of Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855), the Danish philosopher. From a position of sympathy towards the faith he challenged Christians and churches over complacency and accommodation to self-seeking values; and in particular, over the gap between the corporate power of the church and actual Christian practice. He stressed the importance of personal responsibility and accountability. He observed that almost all of us prefer the idea of love to the reality of it. We prefer to choose to whom we shall show love and care - our family, friends  those like us and those we like -  rather than be under the obligation to treat every person equally in respect of care and consideration. Without this tendency there would be no room for a gap to open between the ideal of love of neighbour and its practice. 

Today there are many organisations in civil society - some with explicit reference to Christian values - which exist to hold governments and corporate bodies, to account by shining a light on the gap between stated values and actual practice. Often this is done by careful scientific research to highlight the facts of the case. This was the situation in the VW scandal. It was work by scientists commissioned by the International Council on Green Transportation which revealed the discrepancies in emissions. 

Increasingly shareholders are pressing corporations to close the gap between values and practice. One of the oldest and most effective shareholder advocacy bodies is the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility in the USA. It enables shareholders to call "the world's most powerful companies to address their impacts on the world's most vulnerable communities." Rooted in faith bodies who are concerned to ensure ethical investment, today ICCR's membership has grown to include many other shareholders and institutional investors who recognise the ethical dimension to financial decisions.  There is a  similar organisation in the United Kingdom, the Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility (ECCR), which I served as a board member and chair for a few years in the 1990's. ECCR " undertakes research, advocacy and dialogue to encourage companies to meet the highest standards of corporate responsibility and transparency". Less well-known and more difficult to portray, nonetheless bodies like ICCR and ECCR are further examples of action in the world inspired by hope and the desire to bring closer God's kingdom of love, peace and justice.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Daily Reflections for Advent 2016. Day 4: 30th November. St Andrew's Day.

My reflection for each day in Advent will celebrate examples of action in the world inspired by hope and the desire to bring closer God's kingdom of love, peace and justice. These examples are set within a reflection on a piece of Scripture the Church provides for reading daily.

Today the Christian Church celebrates Saint Andrew. Best known in the British Isles as patron saint of Scotland, Andrew, the Galilean fisherman, is identified in gospel accounts as the first follower of Jesus Christ; the brother of Saint Peter, and the one who brought Peter to meet Christ, according to the gospel of John. Andrew is regarded by Christians as the first example of an evangelist, because he went to share the good news with others when he came to believe that Jesus was the Chosen One sent by God to save the world. 

As well as the stories about Andrew in the four gospels the Church also provides a text from the prophet Isaiah to be read on St Andrew's Day which contains the following verse:

How beautiful upon the mountains
  are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
  who announces salvation,
  who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’  Is. 52:7

This verse has become well-known in many Christian churches after it was included in a worship song which was particularly popular in the last quarter of the 20th century. The verse has its origins in a long ago time in which news of distant events , such as battle victories or the fall of enemy kings, was transmitted by messengers running between the cities of the ancient world across deserts, plain and mountains. 

In a world of global communication there is no shortage of bad news. Even what is regarded with ecstatic joy as good news by some, is received as devastatingly bad news by others, as illustrated in the recent election of Donald Trump to be the next President of the United States. Instances of news which is good for everyone are known to be rare. So claims for such examples of universally good news are, not unreasonably, received by many people with caution, or even outrightly rejected. Hidden agendas, ulterior motives and dissimulation are suspected.

 Christian preachers and evangelists are especially prone to be regarded with this kind of suspicion.  What has been described as the "long institutional nightmare" (John Kent, 1987) of the Church,  the abuse of the good news of Christ for the purposes of political and psychological power, overshadows Christian preaching and interferes with how it is received.

And yet there are examples though history of Christian evangelists, announcers of good news, who,whilst unequivocally located within a Christian vision of the world, have been able to be heard and to deliver a message of good news for everyone which has inspired hope and motivated action by many; producing a profound and universally acknowledged change for good in the world. In this way they have witnessed to the truth and proximity of God's kingdom of love, peace and justice.

Amongst the living examples of such a true heir to Saint Andrew is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Tutu, now in his mid-eighties, has been a fearless voice of the voiceless and unstinting in his advocacy of compassion, non-violence, and justice for the oppressed. He has not always been popular, especially among those who benefit from an oppressive status quo.  Yet the universally good news of Tutu's message has caused him to be showered with hundreds of honours by both secular and religious bodies. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, being cited for his ""role as a unifying leader figure in the campaign to resolve the problem of apartheid in South Africa". He received the Templeton Prize for Religion in 2013 for " "his life-long work in advancing spiritual principles such as love and forgiveness". Last year he was made a Companion of Honour by HM the Queen.

In 2006 on the occasion of Tutu's 75th birthday the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev'd Samual Kobia, wrote in his letter of congratulations to Tutu:

 “You have challenged and pushed us never to adjust to the powers that are, but always to discern the signs of God's coming kingdom and to act accordingly…Through your work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, you gave this fractured and broken world a model for overcoming the wounds of past evils and for creating space for healing and reconciliation.”

Thank God for Desmond Tutu, a true bringer of good news for all.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Daily Reflections for Advent 2016. Day 4: 29th November

The Peaceable Kingdom - Edward Hicks
My reflection for each day in Advent will celebrate examples of action in the world inspired by hope and the desire to bring closer God's kingdom of love, peace and justice. These examples are set within a reflection on a piece of Scripture the Church provides for reading daily.

Sunrise this morning was the first dawn in the life of our fourth grandson, Zachary, who was born last night. It occurs to me that with every child born the world is a new creation. There is so much in the world that is wrong and needs healing and putting right. It's quite common to hear anxiety expressed about bringing children into such a world. Yet there is an alternative view, inspired by Christian hope. Every new life is a sign of hope. In each human life there is the potential for a different world to begin to come into being; a world where love not hate holds sway.  

One of the readings from the Bible set for today includes these well-known verses from the prophet Isaiah:

"The wolf shall live with the lamb,
  the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
  and a little child shall lead them." Is. 11:6

The prophet paints a picture of a world so full of peace and unity that a child could be in charge and no harm would come to her. The child emerges in the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ as a special focus of divine grace.

"Whoever welcomes this child in my name, welcomes me.." Luke 9: 48.

Christian communities through history have by no means been consistent in the value and protection they have afforded to children; nor in their commitment to the social peace and justice which provides for a world in which a child, or any of the childlike virtues, may flourish. Yet there has been a golden thread in Christian practice and teaching, never entirely lost sight of, running all the way back to Jesus himself, which values and uplifts the child. This seam of concern for children has had its most common expression historically in the efforts to educate children rather than simply train them to carry out the functions of their parents before them. 

Many of the charities and agencies which exist to support and protect vulnerable children today have their roots in the churches or were founded by compassionate visionaries motivated by their Christian faith.

Some have lost direct connection with active Christian communities. One charity which continues to rely on both spiritual and financial support from the network of Anglican churches in England and Wales is The Children's Society. 

This charity was founded in the nineteenth century by Edward Rudolf, a Sunday School teacher who engaged the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury to set up children's homes for orphaned and neglected children, as a better alternative than workhouses and large orphanages. Today The Children's Society's work focuses on both intervention to change the lives of vulnerable children in their communities; and also on campaigning for justice and changes in policies and attitudes to improve the lives of all children and young people.

 In a master stroke of marketing some 40 years ago The Children's Society introduced to the Church of England the Christingle - a tradition brought from continental Europe in the 18th century and previously confined to the Moravian Church. Now almost every Anglican church in England and Wales, and many primary schools, hold special Christingle services at or around Christmas. An orange is decorated and topped by a candle as a symbol of Christ the light of the world; and the events raise both awareness and money for the work of The Children's Society.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Daily reflections for Advent 2016. Day 2: 28th November

Reflection for Advent 2016. Day 2 : 28th November 2016
from Canon David Hodgson, Rector of All Saints Wokingham

My reflection for each day in Advent will celebrate examples of action in the world inspired by hope and the desire to bring closer God's kingdom of love, peace and justice. These examples are set within a reflection on a piece of Scripture the Church provides for reading daily.

In one of the Scriptures given to be read today the prophet Isaiah praises God for deliverance from oppression in these verses:

"For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat."
 Isaiah 25: 4

Poets and songsters protesting poverty and oppression continue to fasten on the image of torrential rain as a metaphor for the overwhelming and incapacitating impact of enforced poverty on people's lives. There's Bob Dylan's 1960's classic "It's a Hard rain's gonna fall" and there's this year's new album from Kate Tempest "Let Them Eat Chaos"  which depicts the crisis overtaking the isolated lives of seven residents of a south London street, all of them awake and disoriented at 4.18am.

Poverty and a growing gap in life opportunities between the poorest and the wealthiest has become a shameful blight on some of the most economically advanced societies in the world. The United Kingdom ranks among the worst of the developed economies for income inequality. Welfare and social security systems have been disfigured and become a punitive shock therapy forcing the most vulnerable into an illusory and  unsustainable self-sufficiency. Millions of working people, let alone those dependent on inadequate and capriciously-administered "welfare" benefits, are being forced to seek the help of charities to make ends meet. 

Faced with neighbours and people down their street reduced to the crisis point of making the impossible choice between heating or eating; volunteers in thousands of communities across the UK have come together to set up food banks. These are staffed often by people who may never have done anything like this in their lives before; out of compassion and simple decency acting to feed people. Food banks in modern Britain are a sign of the failure of economic policy in the last 20 years. Yet they are a refuge to the needy in their distress; a shelter from the economic storm. They are also a sign that God's kingdom of love and justice is always near. 

The food bank in Wokingham, the town where I serve as an Anglican priest,  is sustained by the voluntary work and the generous donations of many people of all faiths and none. Yet it was an initiated with skill and in hope by founders motivated by a compassion rooted in their Christian faith and supported by an alliance of the local Christian churches.

(Opinions expressed in this blog are entirely my own)

Daily Reflections for Advent 2016. Day 1: 27th November

Today is the first day of the Christian season of Advent. This is a time when the mode of prayer and reflection in the Christian Church is one of hopeful longing. We are looking forward to the fulfilment of God's promised kingdom of peace and justice, when love will hold sway in the world. Advent brings focus to the quintessential Christian prayer "Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven". 

Christian hope in Advent springs up from the  tension between, on the one hand our confidence in the unassailable victory of love, completed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ , and on the other hand , the sorrow and pain of a world which is not yet transformed into God's kingdom. This hope-filled tension moves Christian action to change the world for the better, to shine light into dark places, to work for justice, and to love those who suffer. Christian prayer and effort to bring God's kingdom nearer is not driven by fear of the consequences of failure, but inspired by joyful confidence that love endures and will always be the last word.

My blog for each day in Advent will celebrate examples of action in the world inspired by hope and the desire to bring closer God's kingdom of love, peace and justice. These examples will be set within a reflection on a verse from the piece of Scripture the Church provides for reading that day. 

Today, in a reading from the prophet Isaiah we find these well-known words:

" they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
  and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
  neither shall they learn war any more." (Isaiah 2: 4b)

Hope that the nations of the world may learn to forswear war is perhaps as old as war itself. Today there are many hope-filled examples of people and organisations committed to finding ways to help us learn how to make peace and transform conflict. One of these I came upon by accident earlier this year whilst visiting Sweden. On holiday in the southern part of the country Lorraine and I spotted a road sign to Hammarskjold's Backakra. We were delighted to discover what had been the farm of Dag Hammarskjold,  former Secretary -General of the United Nations. Set in 30 hectare of open fields by the Baltic coast the house at Backakra has been used as a museum and a retreat. The tranquil grounds include a meditation area which has at its centre a stone inscribed with the word PAX - peace.

In 2016 plans were announced by  the estate's owners, the Dag Hammarskjold Backakra Foundation, to renovate the house and turn it into a modern conference centre dedicated to research in peace, conflict and human rights, in the spirit of Dag Hammarskold. Hammarskjold has been described as the best Secretary General the United Nations has had to date  He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace posthumously following his mysterious death in a plane crash over the Congo on his way to cease-fire negotiations. There is sufficient evidence for some to believe that the plane was shot down by persons still unknown,  to murder Hammarskjold before his intervention could damage certain vested interests in the ongoing conflict. 

Hammarskjold's journal of his musings and aphorisms, Markings,  was published in 1963 two years after his death; with a preface by his friend the poet W.H. Auden. In the preface Auden quotes a statement of Hammarskjold which characterises his spirituality:

 "In our age, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action." 

Another of Hammarskjold's sayings has taken flight well beyond its author and is found quoted in many different texts and prayers;

 " For all that has been,Thank you. For all that is to come,Yes!"

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Creation Time Day 33

Rivers have shaped the landscape of the earth, carving out valleys and creating floodplains and deltas. They exercise huge influence on human development. Rivers have provided water and fertile soil to support large concentrations of population. They have acted as vital transport channels for the expansion of human settlement into continental interiors and for the movement of people and goods for trade. 

In more recent human history the energy of rivers has been harnessed first to drive flour grinding mills and today to generate electricity. This has involved controversial schemes of dams and channel diversions in several area of the world.

Rivers are vital in the hydrological cycle which ensures the drainage of water from the land back into the sea becoming available once again to fall as rain.

This photograph depicts the Orange River near Upington in South Africa. At 1400 miles it is the longest river in South Africa flowing from east to west into the Atlantic Ocean, passing through the arid regions on the southern edge of the Kalahari Desert. Although Upington is the only major settlement through which it flows the river is important to the South African economy for hydroelectricity and irrigation.

As well as their material and economic benefits rivers provide a rich stimulus to the human imagination. Rivers are a symbolic resource for reflection on the paradox in human experience of the co-existence of endless change and constant presence; provoking thought on time and mortality. 

"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." Heraclitus

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Creation Time Day 32

No celebration of the creation would be complete without paying homage to the glory of green. Large swathes of the landmass of the Earth appear green because of its vegetation cover. The colour green has come to symbolise nature and the natural in human culture. There is plenty of anecdotal, and some scientific, evidence that spending time with, or even having regular sight of, plants or woodland environments can relieve stress. Green is good.

There remains some mystery nonetheless about why plants are green. Yes it is because plant tissue is full of the green pigment chlorophyll. The presence of chlorophyll is vital for photosynthesis which is the process whereby plants absorb energy from sunlight. Chlorophyll absorbs light in the red and blue sections of the spectrum but it reflects green; making plants appear green to the human eye.

The question which I understand has yet to be answered fully to the satisfaction of all scientists is why plants evolved with chlorophyll predominant, since it does not absorb a significant section of the light spectrum, namely the green. Why would plants not maximise absorption of the full range of light from which to convert to energy? There are several theories still under discussion.

If another pigment which absorbed the full  light spectrum had evolved in plants all that is now green would appear black to the human eye. Who knows what that would have done to the evolution of vision in humans and other creatures. 

Mystery or not, green is worth celebrating: a gift in creation which calms the human spirit.

"Our response to the world is essentially one of wonder, of confronting the mysterious with a sense, not of being small, or insignificant, but of being part of a rich and complex narrative." John Burnside, poet (1955 - )

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Creation Time Day 31

Creation Time Day 31
Today's photo of a cardoon approaching the end of the growing season introduces the theme of the seed. The diversity and resilience of plant life on earth is a result of the evolution of the humble seed. It allows for plants to await the right growing conditions before coming to life.
The myriad ways in which human life is dependent upon plants would be impossible without the seed. Today scientists are collecting and banking seeds to prevent species from complete extinction.

The wonder of the seed is recognised in the sayings of many wise teachers in human history. In the Christian gospels the power of the seed to generate abundance of life from tiny beginnings is used by Jesus to illustrate the capacity of faith in God to transform human existence.

 ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’ Mark 4:30 - 32

Friday, September 30, 2016

Creation Time Day 30

If England's national tree is the oak then certainly the London plane may lay claim to be the arborial icon of its capital city. The London plane is believed to have been "born" in the city itself in the 17th century, as a natural hybrid of the Oriental plane from South-east Europe and the Western plane or American sycamore. It owes its existence to London's role as a global hub.

Now it represents more than half of the city's trees. The London plane is ideally suited to life as a street tree. The distinctive mottled bark pattern, captured in my photograph from the garden of London's Natural History Museum, indicates its resilience in the face of air pollution. Its ability to shed pieces of bark allow it to be rid of polluting toxins. Whilst the tree may grow to an inconvenient height (over 30m) it readily survives, indeed thrives on,  pollarding. It does not require an extensive root system and is not fussy about soil type. It is said that no London plane tree has yet been known to die of natural causes. 

The tree's allegorical significance has been noted, among others, by Lia Leendertz writing in The Garden magazine (May 2016, p22): "..for the excellence that can spring from inner-city melting pots." It is also a useful symbol of the importance of human influence on the natural world as we now experience it.

Some scientists have proposed that we have entered a new geological epoch in the history of the Earth. Known as the Anthropocene age, it represents the period in which human activity has become significant for the future of the planet as a whole.  In the spirituality of an ecologically-conscious Christian faith humanity may be regarded as "co-creator" with God in the renewing of the Earth. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Creation Time Day 29

Today is the Christian festival of St Michael and All Angels. In the traditional cosmologies of Christianity, Islam and Judaism angels are part of the created order, though in its heavenly rather than earthly dimension.

Interest in angels and angelic beings continues into the present day. Though none will be found in any museum of natural history at the very least it may be said angels exist in the creative imagination of human culture and its representations in the arts. Almost any British primary school child is capable of describing an angel.

In spiritual traditions angels are agents or messengers of God whose intervention or appearance signals a purposeful and wholly altruistic divine assistance. However there is also a dualism in some traditions. These posit the existence of demonic beings who are corrupted angels capable of masquerading as wholesome in order to extend the influence of evil.

One of the most significant differences in spiritual understanding in the world is that between those traditions which have adapted to the rationalism of the science -based public culture of modern European societies; and those spiritualities which were never nurtured in that cultural milieu or have reacted against it.

The majority of people with a spiritual dimension to their lives in the world today belong to the latter category and for them the creation without spiritual beings such as angels and demons is inconceivable.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Creation Time Day 28

When did you last lie on the ground and simply look up into the sky? I have a childhood recollection of doing that one sunny summer's day, mesmerised by the infinitude into which I was staring.  I've chosen today's image of a cloud to focus reflection on the atmosphere.

The earth's atmosphere is a vital element of the creation without which life in its current form and diversity, and certainly human life, could not exist. Earth is the only planet we know which has a life-sustaining atmosphere. As well as being the air we breathe, the atmosphere re-distributes life-giving precipitation and moderates temperature; protects against deadly radiation and meteorites, and allows for radio communication as waves are bounced around the globe.

The colours of the sky, as sunlight interacts with the atmosphere and the water and dust particles it holds, produce a visually stunning canvas which lifts the human spirit. In most traditional understandings of the world the sky has been the domain of the divine and in many languages the word for sky and heaven is one and the same. In the Christian faith, drawing on its Jewish  heritage, there are strong metaphorical associations between wind, air or breath and the Spirit of God. In stories of the Creation of the world contained in the Bible's Book of Genesis a wind from God sweeping over the formless void is the antecedent to the creative command; and Adam the first human is brought to life by receiving the breath of God.

Today it is the impact of human activity on the atmosphere which is the cause of greatest concern for the future well-being of human societies and all other communities and species of life on earth.

The local pollution of air in and around urban areas is more widespread and more detrimental than often reported. London was well-known in the nineteenth and early 20th century for its deadly smogs or  "peasoupers" culminating in the worst episode of this in 1952. It was reckoned an additional 4000 deaths were attributed to the Great Smog of that year; resulting in the implementation of the Clean Air Act. Today many city smogs especially in hot climates under certain weather conditions are caused by the build-up of vehicle engine exhaust. The worst episodes of smog today are found in the megacities of modern China where astonishingly high annual economic growth rates in recent decades have been sustained by rapid industrialisation.

Even where smog is not visibly evident poor levels of air quality should remain a cause for concern in Britain. The UK and more than half of the other countries of the European Union consistently register levels of air pollution higher than the safe limit recommended by the World Health Organisation. Some experts lay the blame for failure to reduce air pollution in the UK on the rise in the number of diesel cars which contribute to the increased levels of nitrogen dioxide particulates in the atmosphere. 

As well its local impact on air quality there is a global impact of human activity on the atmosphere leading to climate change. Increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have intensified the greenhouse effect whereby more of the  warmth of the sun is trapped in the atmosphere causing average air temperatures to rise. The incidence of carbon dioxide has risen from 280 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution, to over 400 parts per million in 2016. This is a result of the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests. Raised levels of methane from intensive livestock farming have also contributed to global warming. Climate change is reckoned to be the single biggest threat to human well-being and security as well as ecological stability.

International efforts to co-ordinate action to combat climate change have reached a new pitch with the agreement signed at the 21st Global United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris in 2015. However there are many political and economic as well as some ideological barriers to the  effective and timely implementation of the necessary measures. Civil society and campaign groups including spiritual  leaders are called upon to press for the changes human societies need to make if climate change is to be restrained. 

"A consensus has emerged about the need to move to a low carbon economy.Whatever the scientific, economic and political difficulties, at root this is a spiritual problem."  Rt Rev'd Nicholas Holtham, Bishop of Salisbury and Church of England Lead Bishop for the Environment

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Creation Time Day 27

Today I return again to an image of a tree; in this case the most common tree species in Britain , the English oak. Familiarity need never be a reason to overlook the glory of the creation and the oak tree proves this truth. This photograph depicts an oak tree on a field boundary above the River Thames in Berkshire near the village of Wargrave. It was in early leaf on a sunny morning in mid-April.

The oak tree has acquired a status as an emblem of England. A reference to the oak is claimed for many town or village place-names. One of the largest and oldest living specimens is a tree known as the Major Oak, standing in Sherwood Forest near Nottingham and associated with the legend of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. It is frequently voted in popular polls as England's favourite tree.

Oak trees were revered in pre-Christian European cultures and dedicated to the gods. A seminal episode in the conversion to Christianity of the Germanic peoples of central Europe is recounted in the story of St Boniface; the monk from Devon sent by the Pope to preach the gospel in the early 8th century. Famously he is said to have felled a mighty oak tree which was a sacred site of ritual sacrifice to the god Thor. The people were so impressed by his fearlessness that they accepted his message and were baptised into Christ.

The oak tree has many historic associations in English history, not least the role its wood played in the building of ships for the defence of the nation. It is a timber which continues to be valued in construction for its strength.

Oak forests are important habitats for many animal, bird, insect and plant species. They sustain a high level of biodiversity and support more species than other native woodlands. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

Creation Time Day 26

Creation Time Day 26
Today's image in celebration of the creation is an example of the popular South African flower Strelitzia, known as the  "bird of paradise" or "crane" flower. I've chosen it to represent the theme of colour in nature. The variety and vibrancy of colour found in the natural world is an astonishing and uplifting aspect of its presence to the human mind and spirit.

Whilst there are explanations for the evolution of colour and vision in plants and animal in terms of reproduction and survival, the emotional and spiritual response to colour in human experience may be received as a gift in creation inspiring in us a sense of joy and gratitude. 

The colours of nature have influenced many spheres of human creativity from painting through architecture, design, gardening, fashion and cooking. Colours have acquired symbolic meanings in religious and cultural traditions linked to their common associations; blue for the divine; red for life, white for purity, green for the earth; black for death. Like many symbolic elements colours may have several, even opposed, meanings depending upon their context and use in relation to other symbols.

Colour therapy is a field of complementary therapy which goes beyond the belief that colour enhances human well-being and our appreciation of the gift of creation, but also claims that intentional exposure to coloured light may assist in the healing of a range of physical ailments and mental distress.

Brian Keenan is a journalist and writer who was held hostage by terrorists in the late 1980s and imprisoned in colourless confined spaces for over 4 years. One day a bowl of fruits was placed in his cell. It was the first time he had experienced vivid colour for many months. In his book about this time he describes how the colour of the orange almost burned his eyes with its intensity. "I am entranced by colour. I lift an orange into the flat, filthy palm of my hand and feel and smell and lick it. The colour orange, the colour, the colour, my God the colour orange.. I sit in quiet joy, so complete, beyond the meaning of joy....I want to bow before it, loving that blazing, roaring orange colour." An Evil Cradling (1992)

"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these." (St Matthew 6: 28-29)

For greater understanding and appreciation of our knowledge of colour in nature, London's Natural History Museum is running a special exhibition: Colour and Vision; through the eyes of nature (until 6th November 2016).

Creation Time Day 25

Creation Time Day 25
The earliest recorded winter snowfall in London was on this day 25th of September in 1885. Snow is undoubtedly one of the most wondrous phenomena of nature. Children in areas of the world where it occurs infrequently are especially excited by it. Yet people of all ages enjoy leisure and sport in snow and the skiing holiday is popular in prosperous societies with access to snow-covered mountains.

For some communities in the higher continental latitudes of the northern hemisphere or mountain communities ground snow cover is a normal aspect of winter every year and life adapts accordingly.

 In the United Kingdom there are only 15.6 days a year on average when snow is covering the ground , 26.2 in Scotland. There is also considerable variability between years as to how much snow falls. The snowiest winters in the 21st century to date in the United Kingdom have been 2009 - 2010 and 2010 -2011. This photograph is of a snowy day in southern England in January 2010.

The infrequent and relatively random distribution of snowy days in the annual seasonal cycle have given rise to the phenomenon of the "snow day" in climates such as that of Britain. Traffic grinds to a halt, and schools and offices are closed because staff are unable to commute in. On snow days neighbours and communities which do not normally communicate very much pull together to assist those who are more vulnerable such as the elderly. Local heroes are identified and praised for their efforts  to go the extra mile to help others. Meanwhile local government agencies are evaluated sometimes severely for their readiness or otherwise.

Street - corner and office coffee-time conversations assess the relative merits of the extra light levels and beauty of snow cover as compared with the inconvenience of travel and the impact on heating costs. Invariably all children are delighted when a snow day occurs.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Creation Time Day 24

Creation Time Day 24
Thousands of spider webs coated in dew are revealed to plain sight on misty Autumn mornings. The phenomenon was famously written about by one of the earliest modern naturalists, Church of England vicar The Reverend Gilbert White in his seminal study A Natural History of Selborne published in 1789. Beginning with a carpet of webs draped everywhere the day in question - 21st September 1741 -"turned out to be one of those most lovely ones which no season but the autumn produces; cloudless, calm, serene, and worthy of the South of France itself.".

Spider webs can lay claim to being one of the everyday wonders of the creation. Notwithstanding the latent arachnophobia which seems instinctive to human beings still we marvel at the intricacy and resilience of the spider web despite its obvious fragility. 

In language and culture the spider web has metaphorical associations both positive and negative. In its prolific  dust-laden manifestation as cobweb the spider web is indicative of places which are neglected and where active human life is absent, and so associated with the dead. The cobweb is a familiar motif at Halloween parties, on fairground ghost trains, and in horror films. Coupled with the fear of spiders the cobweb is a visual cliché provoking dread of death and evil on the one hand, and yet affirming by its vulnerability that these enemies of life and joy can be cleared away and conquered.

In English the idiom "web of deceit" is commonly used in reference to criminal activities. Increasingly it characterises popular views of governments and corporations, inspired by conspiracy theories. Yet there is sufficient evidence from whistle-blowing activities such as Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and the recent release of the Panama Papers, to warrant reasonable beliefs that there is a web of information and connections between powerful agents both legitimate and otherwise which are rarely if ever cast into the light of public view.

Now the most common use of the word web in English refers to the internet's  worldwide web. A vast network of interconnected computers ensures a resilience and a distribution for information which has allowed for much greater public access to knowledge; and yet also has enabled the global spread of pernicious ideologies.

In a positive vein the classic best-selling children's novel Charlotte's Web by E.B.White (1952) has provided millions of children and adults with a wholesome assessment of spiders and their webs.

Its combination of evident fragility with symmetrical beauty and resilience and the ability of a relatively small creature to produce it gives the spider web an enduring place in the human imagination. Leaving aside its association with predatory behaviour it may inspire confidence in human endeavour to persevere in protecting the earth.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Creation Time Day 23

Creation Time Day 23
Wild elephants will have disappeared from Africa within 25 years if more action is not taken to stop poaching now. Rhinos faces extinction "in our lifetimes". This was the warning given by Prince William at an event organised by conservation charity Tusk in London. Many governments, experts and conservationists are now calling for a complete ban on the ivory trade. The African elephant population has fallen from about one million 40 years ago to under 350,000 today. 

The Prince highlighted the moral dimension of the issue. “Materialistic greed cannot be allowed to win against our moral duty to protect threatened species and vulnerable communities.”

It is worth reflecting that whilst there are 7 billlion (seven thousand million) human beings on earth; the number of large mammals now living wild in the world is probably less than 2 million; equal to what in global terms is a single small city.

Today's photograph is an image of an elephant engraved into rock in South Africa more than 1,200 years ago. This example is found on stones scattered across a small hill at what is now the Wildebeest Kuil Rock Art Centre, near Kimberley in Northern Cape. Other examples of engravings and paintings on rock by the Khoe-San are found in several locations in South Africa. This site is particularly characterised by images of the large mammals, elephant, rhino and hippo. It is thought that they were made as an expression of the spiritual life of the community.

Creation Time Day 22

Creation Time Day 22
Today is the Autumn Equinox in the northern hemisphere. It signals the end of the Spring and Summer half of the year and the start of the Autumn and Winter half; when the nights are longer than the days and temperatures fall.  This is because of the combined result of the angle of incline of the earth's axis and its annual orbit around the sun.

For today's photograph I've chosen a view of the River Cam in the City of Cambridge England, taken a few days after the Autumn Equinox in 2015. This is an image iconic of Cambridge University, both one of the oldest and also one of the leading research-based universities in the world today. The well-kept grounds and gardens of many of the historic Cambridge colleges back on to the river in an area of the city known as "The Backs".

I've chosen this photograph of Cambridge for the connection with Sir Isaac Newton (1642 -1726). Of the many influential scientists in the history of Cambridge University he is perhaps the most famous of all. It is Newton who provided the principles enabling us to understand and predict the earth’s orbit and the pattern of 'wobble' of the earth's axis which affects the timing of the Equinox .His astronomical work, with his understanding of gravity and motion, and work on optics, places him with Galileo in importance.

Newton is also a significant figure whose thought repays being studied for a better understanding of possibilities in the relationship between science and religion. For Newton greater scientific knowledge of the world enhanced rather than detracted from his belief in divine creation.

Many people today would see a leading centre of scientific research like Cambridge University as determinative of the question of whether God exists; and the latest opinion on this question of its most famous contemporary physicist  and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking,  is eagerly sought.

Nonetheless Cambridge University also includes many leading modern scientists of religious faith. The Revd Dr John Polkinghorne KBE FRS was Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University until he resigned his Chair to study for the Anglican priesthood and become a significant exponent of a mutually positive relationship between science and religion. He was President of Queens' College Cambridge for 8 years.

Today Cambridge is also the home of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion an interdisciplinary research centre which also promotes public understanding of science and religion. It is named for another hugely influential English scientist, Michael Faraday (born on 22nd September 1791, died 1867) a person of Christian faith who had a profound sense of the presence of God in nature.

Creation Time Day 21

Creation Time Day 21
Today I've chosen another photograph from the amazing Table Mountain area of South Africa which I took during a visit in 2005. This is a group of palm trees in the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, Cape Town; on the lower slopes of the mountain. The particular species of palm tree depicted here appears to be the Kosi Palm, Raphia australis, also known as the Giant Palm because it is believed to have the largest leaves of any of the more than 2,500 palm species in the world. This species originates in a small area of South Africa , Kosi Bay, in the KwaZulu-Natal region. Today its natural habitat is protected as part of a UN World Heritage site.

Trees and plants of the Palm family in general are more widely-known for their popular edible seeds and fruits, such as dates, coconuts, or bananas. Despite the great variety and diversity of species palms generally have a simple structure by comparison with other trees ; effectively their leaves are their branches.

Palms have a long history of usefulness to human society as a source of both food and also materials for building and daily life. In the cultures and religious traditions developed in the Middle East palms are strongly associated with the divine blessings of security, prosperity and peace in life. They were symbols of the gift of good governance, for example being used in the celebrations of triumphant Roman emperors. In the Christian tradition palms are linked with the Kingship of Christ; rooted in the gospel account of Christ's triumphal yet humble entry into Jerusalem in the week of his crucifixion. 

The most widely used palm product in modern society is palm oil. It is found in many mass-produced consumer food and general products and also used to make biofuel. Notwithstanding its significant economic contribution to producer countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, palm oil has become highly controversial because of the impact of extensive plantations on the environment; especially in rainforest areas.

Whilst conservation campaigners work to prevent unregulated and unsustainable palm oil production, and encourage consumer boycotts of errant companies, it seems the palm leaf may now become a symbol of the need to struggle for better governance of our use of the earth's resources and to aspire for peace between humanity and rest of creation.

Creation Time Day 20

Creation Time Day 20
Table Mountain in South Africa, rising to over 1000 metres above the city of Cape Town on the south-western tip of Africa, is iconic and well-known because of its unusual form, reflected in the name, of an extensive plateau summit falling away to steep cliffs. Recently voted in a popular poll as one of the natural wonders of the world , it is a global tourist attraction and contributes to the international  identity not only of Cape Town but of South Africa as a country. Today's photograph of a misty morning on the plateau summit I took when visiting South Africa in 2005.

What may be less widely-known is the unique botanical character of Table Mountain and its surrounding regions in the Cape Peninsula. The amazing biodiversity of the vegetation in the region means Table Mountain National Park is one of several protected conservation areas,  designated a UN World Heritage site , in what is known as the Cape Floristic Region.

The South African Cape encompasses the whole of one of the only six recognised floral kingdoms of the earth, which is an astonishing fact given that one of those floral kingdoms covers almost all of the Eurasian and North American continents! The Cape is home to some 9000 species of plants of which more than two-thirds are found naturally nowhere else on earth. In one 40 square mile area around Table Mountain there are 1,500 plant species,  as many as are found in the whole of the United Kingdom. This region is the habitat of the well- known and striking flowering species of Protea for example. As Spring arrives now in the southern hemisphere the nature reserves and national parks of the Cape are covered in a carpet of colour from the many wild flowers; and this week (19 - 25th September) admission to all Western Cape nature reserves is free of charge.

Much of the amazing diversity of species is associated with the unique fynbos; a vegetation zone of fire-adapted shrubland. This habitat is believed to have developed because of frequent exposure to fire as a result of human activity over more than 12000 years. Fynbos is now one of the top conservation priority habitats in the world, undergoing a rapid rate of species extinction because of the impact of modern human expansion.

Paradoxically Cape Floristic region developed as a unique floral kingdom partly as a product of early human interaction with the environment, but it is now under threat of losing its character because of expanding human activity. It has been the source of beautiful species of flowers transmitted to enhance gardens across the world, but is now under threat from the arrival of alien species crowding out and and reducing local variety.

Amazing as Table Mountain's eye-catching shape and form is, its awesomeness consists equally, if not more so, in the richness of its plant life. In Christian spirituality the sheer abundance and diversity of the earth's life forms are fertile also with meaning, revealing the unbounded Divine generosity and delight in creation. It is the sharing of this spirit - of generosity and delight -  which may inspire and sustain human care to conserve and renew the earth.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Creation Time Day 19

Creation Time Day 19
I return today to the topic of the bedrock and in particular limestone. This remarkable type of rock results from the accumulated sedimentation over millions of years of the remains of sea creatures such as coral and molluscs. Limestone is soluble in water and so landscapes across the world in which it is the bedrock are characterised by sinkholes and caves. Rivers and streams disappear underground and in some places huge and complex subterranean drainage networks are formed. 

This type of landscape is found in North Yorkshire. Today's photograph depicts a characteristic formation, the limestone pavement at Malham in the Yorkshire Dales. The action of rainwater along the joints and cracks of a horizontally-laid outcrop of this soluble rock produces slabs which give the surface the appearance of an architect-designed feature. Networks of underground caves and potholes exist beneath the limestone area of the Yorkshire Dales. Some of the largest more accessible subterranean chambers are open to be visited by tourists; others are the preserve of cavers and potholers who enjoy the challenges of exploring the invisible world below ground. 

In traditional mythology and religions the subterranean world was the domain of the dead, for obvious reasons in cultures where burial was the norm. Later it became associated in Christian tradition as the location of hell in its sense of the permanent abode of the damned. Today many Christians regard the ancient topography of hell as "down there" and heaven "up there" as purely metaphorical. The notion of human souls condemned to a place of eternal and cruel punishment and tortured by demons whether subterranean or otherwise, as depicted in medieval wall-paintings for example, is similarly rejected by many Christian believers today, including myself, as archaic and sub-Christian. Rather it is engaging the divine spirit and will to tackle hells on earth - the impact of the violence, abuse and degradation which humans inflict upon one another -  which is the focus of Christian prayer and action today. 

Perhaps retaining some residual frisson of its early cultural association with death and evil, the underground world retains a fascination to many; but in modern times and sensibilities,  rather what draws people underground is the opportunity it offers for further enjoyment and exploration of the wonderful and awesome scope of the creation.

Creation Time Day 18

Creation Time Day 18
Roasted sweet chestnuts for sale on the streets of London and other cities of Britain are one of the consolations to be enjoyed in the gathering gloom of our short winter afternoons. Today's image depicts windfall sweet chestnuts on a public footpath near my house. Free food!

The trees originate in the Mediterranean region and are believed to have been brought to the British Isles by the Romans. As well as a source of nuts, they are a rich provider of nectar and pollen for bees; and their wood is strong yet easily worked and so used for furniture. In Britain copses of the tree are managed to supply wooden poles. The tree fruits after 25 years and can live for up to 700 years, though currently it is susceptible to chestnut blight. The ancient Greeks regarded the nuts as the food of the gods and dedicated them to Zeus.

Whilst there is little spiritual symbolism or significance attached to the trees in the cultures of northern Europe they may nonetheless be celebrated as yet another example of the character of the creation as sheer gift. The sweetness to be unlocked inside a smooth hard shell and prickly case is an intriguing and ultimately attractive feature; perhaps providing also food for the thought that external appearance is not a necessary indicator of inner character.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Creation Time Day 17

This is a Crab Spider which I spotted having its dinner earlier this summer. Apparently quite common in southern England it was the first time in my life I had seen one. This species (Misumena vatia)
is capable of changing colour according to its background. It prefers white or yellow flowers and its body may appear white, yellow or green. The one depicted is a female, which is very much larger than a male. This spider doesn't make a web but sits camouflaged on flowers ready to pounce on insects which come close, trapping them with its pincer-like front legs, as can be seen here.

Many species in the broad group of Arthropoda, which includes all the insects and all the spiders (arachnida) , may be experienced by humans as both beautiful and fascinating and yet induce dread and repulsion. Even people not afflicted by outright arachnophobia are unlikely to be comfortable with an uninvited spider on their skin. Recent scientific studies have suggested fear of spiders could be primordial,  encoded in human DNA for  survival reasons.

The behaviour and capabilities of species of both spiders and insects nonetheless have inspired awe and respect in human cultures. Ants and bees have been admired for their industriousness, not to mention the honey from bees; and spiders for their intricate webs. Modern ecological science has come to a full appreciation of the role of many arthropods in plant pollination, and pest control, and so their importance to the human and animal food supply chain. At the same time greater popular awareness of the life-cycles and feeding habits together with the dissemination of detailed close-up images of these creatures have engendered an awe mixed with dread ; a paradoxical combination of both fascinated attraction and disgusted repulsion.

The very existence of such species has caused some people to question how faith in a loving Creator God may be compatible with them ( however beautiful some may appear even at microscopic level), especially given the deleterious effect of some of them on human health. Famously the celebrity atheist Stephen Fry has cited the activity of a parasite which burrows into the human eye as a reason for rejecting belief in God.

This is part of the general question of the problem of horrendous evil in the creation.  It is not restricted to the paradoxical combination of both helpful and harmful impacts of animal life on humans. One might also question how it is that thousands of decent, kindly "school-gate mums" and "football dads"  in Britain go to work every day to manufacture weaponry  which has been detonated in the urban areas of Gaza or Yemen, killing or maiming for life any hapless children standing by. It was professor of medical ethics Jonathan Glover in his book Humanity- a moral history of the twentieth century who starkly highlighted the paradox of a human society which employs its finest minds and directs huge resources both to treating premature babies with infinite care on the one hand, and to bombing foreign cities on the other.

The compatibility of evil, suffering and pain with faith in divine love and mercy is perhaps the most important spiritual issue, if not the most important of any question all humans must face. But it is not simply an intellectual paradox - it is a question of how to live and flourish in the world we have been given.  Faith in God is not a solution to the paradoxes the world presents us with, but one possible response, which for many millions of people today and through the ages has been found to be the most truthful, coherent , hopeful and life-enhancing response.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Creation Time Day 16

In the south of England today we've woken up after, or maybe during, the most intense thunderstorm of the year with torrential rain and hail. Despite knowing we cannot live without it, we rarely welcome rainfall. In our culture, located on the Atlantic seaboard where generally we have as much rain as we need and more, rain is a nuisance. It stops play. It's associated with being cold since temperatures in winter are not high enough to promote quick evaporation. We have enough of it and we're often sick of it both emotionally and physically.

Contrast our attitude to rain with the other regions of the world. In the desert fringe areas of Africa, or even wetter regions in which rain is very seasonal and its return after months of drought is not a foregone conclusion, the arrival of rain is a cause of great joy and celebration. Rain is a blessing not a nuisance. God is praised and thanked for the gift of rain. Attitudes to rain depend on how abundant or otherwise it is and  on how closely daily life, even ultimate survival, is affected by its immediate local availability. Perhaps the only form of precipitation to cause joy for some in the urban areas of north-western Europe is the occasional arrival of snow. Children delight in the play opportunities it offers.

Concerns around rainfall seem to have heightened in densely- populated countries like Britain. Recent decades have seen more episodes of damaging floods in Western Europe with apparently greater intensity as well as amounts of rainfall. Some of these may be related to climate change. Scientists' modelling predicts the effect of rising global temperatures will be to make temperate regions wetter and rainfall episodes more intense.

But the greater incidence and impact of flooding following heavy rainstorms is also a result of unwise development. Houses and roads are built on floodplains putting them at risk and affecting the local drainage patterns. Deforestation in hill areas upstream prevents rainfall from being absorbed and so it flows more quickly to fill streams and rivers. Schemes to address these issues are being undertaken in some areas but they are costly and divert resources from other important social and community needs.

Stronger measures to control development and to encourage appropriate land management in river basins would prevent some of the flooding, with its human suffering and economic costs. They might also re-balance our attitude to rain.

Today's image is of a rain-bearing cloud about to deposit over Sharp Haw which overlooks Airedale in North Yorkshire, England. 

“Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” Wendell Berry