God’s cosmos, creation and free will.

This article seeks to address the following questions:

  • Does the creation account of Genesis give confidence to the claim that God has given us free will in a meaningful and valuable sense? Or are believers, at best, fooling themselves, since whatever ‘freedom’ they might claim is too limited to be of value?
  • Are there other agents in God’s cosmos that have meaningful freedom to will and to act? If so, how might their freedoms be constrained compared with ours?
  • Is my free will a gift of God I am squandering?

At Gen 2:9 we are told that ‘the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground- trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.’ And we read that two particular trees were placed in the middle of the garden.

In Gen 3:6, the woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some… and also gave some to her husband… then the eyes of both of them were opened.

Do you see that their ‘seeing’ was transformed – they both had perfectly good eyes, but they are said to be ‘opened’ into another mode of seeing. At first, their physical eyes could see trees and people- well, one other person anyway- and all the other wondrous things in God’s garden. We have also been given a ‘heads up’ view, a revelation no less, of ‘God’s own eye view’ of the trees in the garden. The scripture [ie God] tells us that the trees of the garden were good for food– that is a category of goodness recognised by biologists. All the proper nutrients available in a readily digestible manner, and on an ongoing and reliable basis. Good food! And the scripture further adds that the trees are pleasing to the eye. They are beautiful. The fruit isn’t merely nutritious, as a field of brown wheat, full of plump seeds ready for harvest. Sure, grass seeds are packed with starchy carbohydrate, and you might rub off the husks to glean a few dry morsels to chew on a summer day’s walk. But no one scans the deli counter for a cereal bar.

So the text is telling us that God has imbued the human couple with a certain range of senses, and these span the categories of physiology and psychology. Like the animals, we can see what we need to walk around and not into, what might be good for food, and what is not. But there is more to being human than the qualities possessed by brute beasts. In making beautiful trees, God is blessing us with an aesthetic appreciation of His world that is beyond the appraisal of a balanced diet with the proper daily provision of calories. For sure, God’s own creativity is in view in the vast range of flora and fauna and all that is in this world and beyond, but we were at the first given a capacity to not merely assess but to appreciate the artistry as well as bioengineering competency of our fellow creatures. Is it this aesthetic sense that transform functional supplies into a gift? And this description of the beauty of the trees is a placeholder for wider aesthetic sensibilities, as we shall see.

1

But Gen 3:6 tells us that the woman’s ‘seeing’ has been changed in some ways- and in a crucial way for the worse. The deceptive and diverting questioning of the serpent was listened to and allowed to override the cautionary instructions [precautionary instructions perhaps] the Lord God gave to the ha’adam [the Hebrew word is better read here as human rather than as ‘Adam’]. Her assessment of the tree and its fruit is now different to what the text asserts on God’s behalf at 2:9, and the stern warning God gave at 2:17 is set aside. ‘You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat if it you will surely die.’ The serpent bluntly contradicts God’s ordinance, though this treason is only an act of speech. It is the woman who chooses to act contrary to God’s instruction, which is another way of saying that the man does the same and all at once. The text says she has ‘some’ and she hands ‘some’ to her husband, who acts as one with his wife, and eats, without words being spoken [though 3:17a might undermine my argument just there]. The text does not say directly, but does it not seem to you that he was ‘seeing’ the same things that she did, and consciously and deliberately made the same free choices? I think so.

God indeed knew the import of what He had chosen to reveal to the man, and what he had retained. God is God, which is to say, He exercises His freedom in creation and in relational ordinance. God decides what to make, and how it functions. In regard to conscious and intelligent creatures- that’s us- the ‘how it functions’ is not limited to the realm of instinct or physiological feedback loops that automatically regulate the natural urges of all organisms to minimise discomfort and maintain homeostatic balance. Our parents teach us language and give us instructions, persuading us from experience and wisdom what not to do and what to do. Don’t put your fingers in the electric socket. Do walk carefully around the yellow sign because the floor is slippery- no dear, more slowly than that! Oopsie… Oh deary dear. Come here- Mummy kiss it better. Now off you go, but carefully this time. Learn to walk before you can run!

In the story, Adam and Eve don’t have any parents, so God handles that responsibility. “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden…” That’s pretty generous. The first instruction starts with the most amazing criterion: You are free! Now we are all smart enough to know that will be followed in some way by a ‘but.’ The way the serpent talks, any such a ‘but’ will be cast as a negation of God’s decree for freedom. If you insist on taking such a suspicious view, so be it. We may part company at this point. But if you are willing, let’s take a more generous approach and assume that God intends for us to respond in good faith, just as Genesis 1-2 shows that God is acting in good faith in creating and sustaining God’s own cosmos. Is it reasonable that the sovereign creator, Who by nature is capable of exercising so much potential creativity that theologians categorise God as being omnipotent, should decree limits even to the gift of freedom for God’s most capable creatures? I don’t see anything controversial here. God is not in the business of creating co-gods, a pantheon. God is interested in imparting a meaningful degree of god-likeness to us, which must include a significant degree of agency. That agency, to be like-as-to-God, can only be indeterminate- not constrained according to a rigid list of instructions. That would be a computer program, and then we would be robots, not humans at all. Surely freedom with limits isn’t really freedom, you might object? Well really? Can God do whatever God might like to do? Can God do anything at all? Is God not constrained also? Apparently so: God has instituted a cosmos that operates according to what scientists call laws, which are really descriptions for how the cosmos operates, though we haven’t a clue what that means in terms of how they actually work. And while our knowledge of these ‘laws’ has increased massively in the last couple of centuries, the knowledge we do have does not exclude the rare possibilities we might categorise under the heading of miracles. What I mean to say is that whatever science has to learn about miracles, they are rare2. They don’t usually happen. Newtonian physics is what usually happens. That’s rocket science. And once in space, our satellites need to tell the time, and that means correcting for the big things that happen across spacetime, which Einstein told us about in his relativistic theories. This is all normal and determined and predictable and God doesn’t mess with it.

Napoleon: You have written this huge book on the system of the world without once mentioning the author of the universe.
Laplace: Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.
Later when told by Napoleon about the incident, Lagrange commented: Ah, but that is a fine hypothesis. It explains so many things.

Quoted in A De Morgan Budget of Paradoxes. 1872 ref 3

Whatever truth may lie behind the above apocryphal account3, God agrees that God’s omnipotence should not be used as basis for asserting that God can do whatever God likes, according to whimsy, which might change from one day to the next. In this important sense, God freely chooses to be constrained. So we ought not take offense that the Creator of us and everything should straightforwardly set out constraints around our freedom. God made birds with wings (Gen 1:20), and insects, as well as pterosaurs, to enjoy the freedom of the air, but we don’t have wings, so we can’t fly. The dreams of Icarus imitating the birds remained just that- fanciful dreams. Even at the time of the first reports of the success of the Wright brothers hard-headed and down-to-earth folk found it impossible to believe4 that technologies might be developed to overcome the boundary of insufficient power-to-weight ratio. But they were, and now those who learned to walk and run could now fly- using machines.

“The Baron crosses the Thames without the assistance of a bridge, ship, boat, or balloon, or even his own will.” 1809 Thomas Rowlandson artist, British (1757–1827) pic 5

But the account of the two trees in God’s garden is not of this mode. Do we take seriously the idea that there was a tree with fruit that would confer knowledge on the persons who ate it? What of the second tree? A deathless life? If the animals that were given all the plants and fruit to eat had eaten of that tree, what would the effects on them have been? Immortal llamas? Eternal elephants? Might there even have been a troop of undying and very clever chimpanzees whooping around God’s garden the week after Adam and Eve had been dispatched on their east-of-Eden walking trip?

Better surely to accept what we know very well to be the case: it is complex socialisation and education that makes us smart, and however rich and varied our diets may be- whatever privilege we enjoy- none of us would have lived for ever. What we are being told in simple words is that there is both truth and meaning in the hunch that we have that our life might just reach beyond the here and now, and that we need the rich wisdom of God to navigate the moral challenges of community life. These particular trees in the Genesis text may be symbolic, as is much in language, but the God who speaks through them to us is not, and nor is our need for intelligible boundaries: God’s intent is toward us and his world such that our freedom remains sustainable so that order rather than chaos is the rule of society as well as science. Order in a society of free agents necessarily requires boundaries. Free agents can say ‘Yes’ to all kinds of possibilities, but needs must also learn to say ‘No’. We don’t like this lesson, and make all manner of excuses. As the Lord Jesus put it to Saul when they met on the Damascus Road, ‘ I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.’ [Acts 9:6 AV]6

Perhaps inevitably, that was rather long-winded, so we can sum it up like this. We are made in the image and likeness of Yahweh God, and the Garden Rule [‘but you may not eat…’] is a prefiguring of the Sinai laws of the Exodus, which are themselves prophetic. What is really at stake is whether we are prepared to take God at His word. To trust Him. To trust in Him, when we know that the words we use can’t explain the mysteries and profundities of what is nevertheless absolutely true. That a good life must certainly be lived on God’s terms, and we cannot just do as we please.

But having said that, and much ink has been spilt in this discussion by competent and erudite experts in philosophy and theology, we must conclude that human free will is real and significant. Such that God can place His trust in us, His human creatures, to do good things in His world. Even to be co-creators of the future, in junior partnership with the Sovereign God.

The scripture addresses the question of the origin of evil in a mysterious manner. In brief, God makes the world well: it is very good, God then declares. Yet there is a malign influence at large, somehow associated with the serpent creature that God made. Are we supposed to understand that there was a talking ‘snake’ in the garden of God? I think not, just as we understand that the two trees are symbols of mysterious realities. What is clear, it is generally agreed, is that whatever interplay there may be between this earthly and creaturely realm and some other invisible realm of elohim-spiritual beings, they are not the prime agents of concern before the Lord. We are. The woman is tempted, we understand, but it is she who acts. It is the man who was with her who acts, and it is they whom God holds to account first of all. God does deal with the treasonous serpent, and also prophesies that its final fate will come through the seed of the woman- a further endorsement of the primacy of our agency over whatever agency might be exercised by other spiritual personalities. So in reviewing the difficult question of theodicy- the whereabouts and wherefores of the creation and thriving of sin and evil, the scripture points our attention to ourselves first of all, and reinforces this by asserting that the final resolution of this great dilemma- how we wilfully flawed creatures might yet enjoy full fellowship with God- will come about through a policy and programme that God institutes through humanity itself. In short, through the obedient partnership of the virgin woman Mary, becoming the mother of Jesus Christ, Saviour.

It seems that Genesis has more to say about the agency of human creatures versus other spiritual personalities, which we can see in the challenging passage of chapter 6. I will not rehearse all the possibilities here, as my focus is on God’s endorsement of our free agency as his particular creatures, charged to represent Godself on earth, doing what He would do if the role had not been delegated to us.

Verse 2 of chapter 6 reads thus7a:

6:2 That the sons 1121 of ´Élöhîmאֱלֹהִים430 saw 7200z8799x853 the daughters 1323 of men 120 that x3588 they 2007 [were] fair2896 and they took 3947z8799 them wives 802 of all x4480x3605 which x834 they chose977z8804

I am not at all the first to notice that there are structural similarities7b between this portion of the text and what we read just before in chapter 3. The highlighting and emphasis draws our attention to certain similarities.

3:6 And when the woman 802 saw 7200z8799 that x3588 the tree 6086 [was] good 2896 for food, 3978 and that x3588 it 1931 [was] pleasant 8378 to the eyes, 5869 and a tree 6086 to be desired 2530z8737 to make [one] wise, 7919z8687 she took 3947z8799 of the fruit x4480x6529 thereof, y6529 and did eat, 398z8799 and gave 5414z8799 also 1571 unto her husband 376 with x5973 her; and he did eat398z8799

Thus:

the sons…. saw…that…were fair… and they took… they chose

the woman… saw…that… pleasant to the eyes… she took… and he did eat.

I note that there is not a direct parallel in 6:2 to the clause where the woman ‘sees that the tree is to be desired to make wise’ (3:6). Perhaps you agree we can see the characteristic of desire similar to that in the phrase ‘came in unto’ later in 6:4…

6:4 There were x1961 giants 5303 in the earth 776 in those x1992 days; 3117 and also x1571 after 310 that, 3651 when 834 the sons 1121 of ´Élöhîmאֱלֹהִים430 came in 935z8799 unto x413 the daughters 1323 of men, 120 and they bare 3205z8804 [children] to them, the same 1992 [became] mighty men 1368 which x834 [were] of old, 5769x4480 men y582x376 of renown. 8034

Part of the puzzle of Genesis 6 is that verses 2 and 4, which I have presented to you first, are interspersed as follows (shown in italics). Note that in the ESV, the opening two sentences are run together,

When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in[a] man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim[b] were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord.

I highlight that the particularly difficult/challenging lines (v2 and 4) that have been taken by some to mysteriously assert not merely contact but interbreeding between (masculine) supernatural entities and (female) humans are interleaved with sentences that are much less ambiguous, referring directly and solely to humans. Whether the identification of ‘nephilim’ is sufficient to evidence the claim that there was hybridisation beyond the human species I am not attempting to give a final adjudication on7c. My hunch is that this passage is, like Gen 1-3, also to be considered as polemic rebuttal of ancient Near Eastern cosmological myths. ‘You might have have about things being like this, but instead I suggest you think in this way.’ We can see God exercising divine agency in this passage. There is narrative in v1-2, God expresses His will in v3 and then in v5 we are told what it is that God can see. Of course, God’s eyes did not need to be opened, but at this nadir of theological history, we are given a direct report from God’s perspective. In this analysis, my attention is drawn to this question: what is God looking at? Is God concerned about the expressed desires or actions of the sons of elohim? Is God attentive to the Nephilim? No, in both cases. God is directly concerned with human beings only, and God comes to a reasoned conclusion, based on His assessment of the moral state of mankind, that He has had enough. He determines to undo His Creation and blot out both mankind and animals.

Fresco of the giants and human women by Niccolò di Tommaso. Pistoia, Tuscany : Cappella del Tau, the church of Sant’Antonio Abate. pic 8

What will the effect of this be? Whatever may or may not have been alluded to be the case in verse 2 and 4, God will resolve it finally by decreating all human beings. Even if there have been ‘hybridisations,’ they will be wiped out along with everything else. In the brevity of its treatment, the scripture does not add to speculation on such suspicions that ancient cultures might have had about any such interplay between nonhuman and human persons. But what it does do is draws a line under the possibility of its continuation.

In this text, God says that human agency is given priority, in terms of significance before God, over the (hypothetical) agency of any other (potential or real) agents. Judgement will come because of human lives and choices, the exercise of our freedoms, in priority to any other judgments.

Then see this: God then admits that He has not told us everything that He can see. Noah, we are told, with simple drama at the end of this cosmic assessment, finds favour in the eyes of the Lord! God had determined to wipe out both men and beasts, saying that He had come to a final repentance for creating us all in the first place, but now repents of that repentance. What has made the difference; what is the cause of this change in God? Noah’s life agency, the consistent exercise of his free will, put into action in deeds.

It is Noah’s agency that is given the last word in the judgements of God, over the questions of extra-human influences or even the general perspective of Godself.

What extraordinary affirmation of the profound meaning that God allows to emerge from the free agency of one single individual. Do we ever wonder what the value of a single life might amount to in the eternal scheme of things? Here is our answer.

We have investigated the significance of the syntactical similarities7b between the way Genesis reports that the woman saw in chapter 3v6 and what ‘the sons of Elohim’ saw in 6v2. I suggest that what follows in verses 5-8 continues to develop the same theme8:

6:5 ¶ And Yähwèיָהוֶה3068 saw 7200z8799 that x3588 the wickedness 7451 of man 120 [was] great 7227 in the earth, 776 and [that] every x3605 imagination 3336 of the thoughts 4284 of his heart 3820 [was] only 7535 evil 7451 continually3117x3605

6:6 And it repented 5162 z8735 Yähwè יָהוֶה 3068 that x3588 he had made 6213 z8804 x853 man 120 on the earth, 776 and it grieved 6087 z8691 him at 413 his heart. 3820

6:7 And Yähwè יָהוֶה 3068 said, 559 z8799 I will destroy 4229 z8799 x853 man 120 whom x834 I have created 1254 z8804 from x4480 x5921 the face 6440 of the earth; 127 both man, 120 x4480 and 5704 beast, 929 and x5704 the creeping thing, 7431 and x5704 the fowls 5775 of the air; 8064 for x3588 it repenteth 5162 z8738 me that x3588 I have made 6213 z8804 them.

6:8 But Nöåç נֹחַ 5146 found 4672 z8804 grace 2580 in the eyes 5869 of Yähwè יָהוֶה3068

In Genesis 3 God comes back to the couple in God’s garden to appraise the situation directly, and then in vv14-19 God pronounces judgements over the serpent, then the woman and finally the man. The man is told that he will have to work harder at the ground, as whatever fruitfulness can be gained will be at the expense of his sweat. At least humans are not brought down as the serpent to crawl along the ground- perhaps this is some gentle allusion to the divine imaging-nature of the humans which they retain, compared with the serpent. God immediately acts to bring temporary rectification to all their relationships by clothing the couple in animal skins, after which God then securely exiles the first couple from God’s own garden. Life everlasting is a prize and purpose in the heart of God that is being retained for a later Day, suggesting that by whatever means God’s judgement will finally be satisfied, it will not be an unmitigated tragedy. However, everything that happens in the accounting and resolution of Genesis 3 is very clearly entirely at God’s sole initiative. The God who freely created, without assistance, is the same God who adjusts and mitigates. All agency and will is with God: none with man or the serpent.

In Genesis 6, there are some significant similarities with the Genesis 3 episode. God comes near to properly appraise the situation. God discerns the actions and responsibilities of all the various agents; God perceives the heart attitudes of those God holds most responsible- human beings. God also notes that the ‘sons of Elohim’ took… [and] came in, but withholds any further direct comment. The overall judgement God reaches is explained to us, with deep feeling. The structure and tone of these lines, though longer than 3:6, is surely not much dissimilar to it. We might imagine, at the end of verse 7, that God’s will is now determined and that the inevitable action will follow. The woman reached out and took… and gave. God is pained, and repents, and will now, finally, judge, for the cause of God’s mercy and patience has now been shown to be hopeless.

But Noah found grace in the eyes of Yahweh.

I hope you agree that this point bears repeating. Most of us will know that when a young person crosses their parent or teacher with a speech that begins, “But..!” it doesn’t end well. The child is going to be shouted down- in fact, they are likely to be in more trouble than they were in to start with.

But that’s not what happened, as Noah doesn’t speak. The ‘but’ comes not from his mouth, nor even from his imagination (6:5). It comes from the text.

There are a handful of instances where but is used in the English translation of Genesis. Here are the early instances from the English Standard Version:

However, a quick comparison of alternative translations shows inconsistent use of this coordinating conjunction across various English translations. What caught my attention is that Genesis 3:1 isn’t in this listing. On examining various versions, I find that while the majority of translations give Genesis 3:1 as Now/And/[T]he serpent was more cunning/crafty/shrewd/subtle than… only a small number of older texts begin with, ‘But the serpent…’ which is how the verse has stuck in my mind. For example10,

Wycliffe Bible 1382 to 1395

But the serpent was feller than all living beasts of [the] earth, which the Lord God had made. The which serpent said to the woman, Why commanded God to you, that ye should not eat of each tree of paradise?

Coverdale Bible of 1535
Bvt the serpent was sotyller then all the beastes of the felde (which ye LORDE God had made) and sayde vnto the woman: Yee, hath God sayde indede: Ye shall not eate of all maner trees in the garden?

Tyndale Bible of 1526
But the serpent was sotyller than all the beastes of the felde which ye LORde God had made and sayd vnto the woman. Ah syr that God hath sayd ye shall not eate of all maner trees in the garden.

Or in the next case, a synonym for but is selected;

Catholic Public Domain Version
However, the serpent was more crafty than any of the creatures of the earth that the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Why has God instructed you, that you should not eat from every tree of Paradise?”

As our Bible teachers will remind us, if I have an idea about something in the Bible that has no grounding in the original languages, then I’m likely making stuff up. So let’s see what the Hebrew says. (The Hebrew reads right-to-left, with the pronunciation shown above one word at a time, left to right, and the English underneath, following the same pattern.) You can skip this bit if you are prepared to trust me. Following the top three rows from Gen 3:1f is one row showing Gen 6:8. The Hebrew translated ‘But‘ in 6:8 is shown by the arrow, and you can see the same word in the text of 3:1, also with an arrow.

So it is the same word in both cases. I’m going to have to get help12 to find out why this is not the preferred option since the early Catholic era of translations. It seems to me that ‘wə’ was given as ‘But’ by the Wycliffe translation team and others at 3:1 for the same reason it is given at 6:8 in the Interlinear Hebrew-English above- because it is the best word! What might be being said theologically at this point? In Gen 3:1, we are introduced to the new character of the serpent who is going to throw a spanner in the works of God’s very good creation. The question will be, how will the mechanisms- the true agents- of God’s good creation cope with this challenge? ‘But…’ alerts us to this mysterious challenge, the deeper origin and evolution of which is permanently shrouded from our view. As I have already explained, the crucial disruption to God’s purposes does not come from the questioning words of the serpent, but rather from the confirmed imagination and decisive actions of the first couple. Judgement on the treasonous serpent would doubtless have followed the refusal of its temptations, had they been refused, without much consequence, we might imagine. Obviously, I would not have refused the temptation, and sadly it is not what the first humans did.

Two miniatures: Eve and the Serpent and Adam and Eve eating the apple. With text, initials, linefillers, placemarkers, fol. 6v 1390 CCO 1.0 pic 13

So I propose that we ought to see Gen 6:8 as a reference back to Gen 3:1. ‘But the serpent…’ begins the episode of the tragedy of the first fall. The problem at issue is not the existence of the ‘serpent’, but the exercise of its agency contrary to God’s image-creatures and God’s Word. To what extent is the serpent a free agent? I don’t think we can really say. It was surely inevitable that the first couple would face some significant test of their will and agency. What we read is the way that the biblical account chooses to give it- as God’s eye view on humanity. In the Genesis account, the figure of the serpent is the means by which the crucial question of trust is put to the woman and the man. [The statement that the serpent is one of the animals ‘that the LORD God had made’ is another polemic rebuttal, against a miscellany of prior beliefs that the earliest beings, including divinities, had various and independent origins.] We note that the consequences of the choices to see in a certain way, and then to act in accordance with that mindset, are cosmic in scope, not just affecting the two individuals. We know how God then chooses to avert final judgement in preference for the merciful alternative of salvation that is even now still in process. As I have already said, what is decided in chapter 3 is entirely the product of God’s sovereign agency. God freely decides to set aside the judgement which He had warned of, selecting a new path for God’s creation. If any are inclined to complain, rather foolishly in my view, that God has allowed us to think less of His character as appearing to be inconsistent and, well, not very Godly, then more fool them. How else would we be here?!

Thus we come to Genesis chapter 6, and hear that God has finally decided what we really knew in chapter 3- humanity is a hopeless case. Whatever we may believe, following Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and the other Church Fathers, regarding the first fall of our first parents, a handful of generations later it is now confirmed by evidenced appraisal and reflective divine judgment that we are an altogether bad lot. The court report has been compiled and published. God has had enough. Thus we come to Genesis chapter 6, and hear that God has finally decided what we really knew in chapter 3- humanity is a hopeless case. Whatever we may believe, following Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and the other Church Fathers, regarding the first fall of our first parents, a handful of generations later it is now confirmed by evidenced appraisal and reflective divine judgment that we are an altogether bad lot. The court report has been compiled and published. God has had enough. The moral prognosis is terminal. Divine patience has been exhausted. The Creation project is over! If we reflect on what we have heard and seen, what might we say? Has God been too hasty? Should humanity get a second chance- oh, hang on, that was in chapter 3. There have been umpteen extra chances in the following three chapters, and very little has gone well. However unqualified a jury we might be, can we reasonably object that God’s judgment is unreasonable?

Of course it isn’t.

But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.

‘But’ alerts us to a change of fortunes. In the earlier case, ‘But…’ introduced the serpent, though it turned out that the human creatures were the ones who made the decisive moves. Their agency was what necessitated God’s intervention, while it was God’s free agency that determined that we would be given a means of grace, a future route to rescue, which would come through divine-human partnership (Gen 3:15). I must not rush on too quickly: this mysterious promise of a subsequent human-divine partnership is only possible because God gave a spectacular degree of agency and freedom at the outset.

In this case, ‘But’ announces a most unexpected change in the destiny of the entire cosmos. When all seems lost, on our account at least, God sees in this single person a basis for favour to be extended once again, not just to him (as in the case of Enoch, Gen 5:24, Heb 11:5) but to the whole creation project, excluding the unrepentant generation at the time of Noah. Only a seed family would be preserved, to continue the species, without any contamination which might have been implied in 6:1-5.

File:God Summons Noah and His Family into the Ark MET DP820494.jpg
God Summons Noah and His Family into the Ark, drawing by Joseph von Führich 1827 Metropolitan Museum of Art. pic 14

Whose will and agency is actually in operation at this point? Grace means unmerited favour, so we ought not assume that God was particularly impressed with Noah. Or, therefore, that Noah was a man of exceptional moral quality or outstanding responsible action and good works. There again, given his subsequent obedience, and the testimony of the letter to the Hebrews (11:7), perhaps I am being rather obtuse in this judgement. We should all know well enough- there is no reason why God should be impressed by our righteousness, and certainly not to the extent that the destiny of the cosmos would be changed as a result of God’s assessment of us. What else should be expected of a humble creature? And yet, as the image-and-likeness creatures of the Deity, we are surprised and delighted that this is in fact the case, because God wants it to be that way. What is clear is that we cannot maintain our integrity with any reliability to deserve any reward or justify a position of influence. God says that our creation with agency is meaningful to Him- and Noah was found to be a faithful man- and yet we must still rely on His grace, the unmerited favour of God toward His weak and inconsistent creatures. As Cain found before he went to the fields with his brother, God extends more than mere pity when the temptation came to his door (Gen 4:7). ‘You must master sin!’ God expects us to make good in such circumstances, to prove that our freedom is of consequence and that our choices will do justice to our status as the Deity’s ambassadors on earth, as co-creators of the future.

It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that Noah has shown a significant degree of mastery over his moral progress. He and his wife prove to have brought up obedient and industrious sons who cooperate in the ark building project. This is all a convincing testimony to meaningful free will and good character exercised in consistent moral agency. By the grace of God, this is leveraged with an impact of cosmic dimensions. The world that was does not end after all, though there is a terrible judgement in the Flood. And so the seed of the woman may yet be seen to crush the serpent’s head.

So we must finally conclude that human agency is elevated to an unexpected degree within the free will and agency of the true God who creates us and chooses to keep covenant with us, generation after generation.

God sets his will to a final course of action; a double repentance, says Genesis 6. It is not that God has changed as such, but through the changes of the narrative of our-life-with-God-in-God’s-cosmos we have discovered God’s deeper nature, something of the qualities of Godself, which God has even shared with us creatures in a generous measure, including free agency that might transcend the boundaries of our mortal lives and fundamentally influence the choices of Godself. God is prepared to be surprised by us.

I have not spent time considering alternative possibilities, but this much ought to be clear. We are not in the false position of Pascal’s wager, where the exercise of putative free will is approached by each individual as a crude gamble- if there is a God who will hold me to account, then I’d better be good and act in ‘good faith’ simply for my own eternal survival. If faith was a fantasy, then I have lost nothing as I disappear into the void at my death. I think I have shown that the God of the Bible has created us with much more dignity than this poor narrative offers. The covenant making YAHWEH says we each have a significant calling with co-creative potential.

To summarise,

In 3:6ff, God’s will is not respected; the will of the humans is given priority. The measure of will and agency is significant: whether the first couple choose wisely and obediently, or irreverent hubris, the consequences will be cosmic in scope. God could, but choses not to assert his prior warning. As James Barr15 puts it, God wants life to go on. Judgement comes to all, starting with the serpent, though it is much restrained from what was first pronounced, especially regarding God’s human creatures.

In 6:2 and 4, (perhaps) the will and actions of the sons of Elohim are noted but not respected by God, who rather gives priority to His image-and-likeness creatures. Through the scriptural account, God makes clear that what happens in God’s cosmos is under God’s sovereign will and agency, and significantly prioritised with regard to humanity, not any other (putative) entities.

In 6:8 we again find God delaying His very much warranted judgement, and embarking on a different course of action that ensures that life can go on in a manner in which covenant can continue and, ultimately, redemption can be made good. The proven character, ie free agency of just one man, Noah, is valued by God as the motivation to change the course of history and the destiny of God’s cosmos. His choices for submissive obedience are the flip side of the choices made by the first couple at the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. God’s sovereign will and freedom to act out God’s agency is framed not in terms of law, promise or even covenant, but ultimately in terms of grace. Thus love triumphs over judgement.

So what manner of people should we be? Am I squandering the free gift of G-d? Do I value my own free will and empowered agency in the proper way that this analysis seems to demand?

My thoughts settle on this passage later in Genesis. See how it is that the older brother Esau values his birthright and destiny when he returns from the fields16:

27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.

29 Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.[e]31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

Genesis 25: 27-34 ESV

Let’s reflect on this in the next posting.

(c) 2022 Stephen Thompson

The Gospel According to Moses & Jesus (Whymanity Research and Training,Maidstone 2021-22) Crispin Fletcher-Louis: Pre-course questions.

Before this course starts, attendees are invited to think about these questions: [and consider whether your answers are based on some text or theological truth found in the Old Testament.]
Here are my considerations, presented as ‘thinking out loud’ for your encouragement and as a prompt to your own thinking.

“We have a duty to look after ourselves.” Is this true? Explain!


Parking his theological tanks on the terrace, CFL drives the heavy armour onto Conservative territory (if you agree), or Labour (if you don’t). Then again, what assumptions are we being caught in? Is talk of ‘duty’ an OT and biblical thing, and if so, how close to our modern and largely secular understanding? If I simply concede that ‘duty’ is a fair approximation to biblical and OT values, then the truth must surely be closer to a double-handed (binary) truth. Yes, I have a responsibility to myself and yet also to others, and thus a duty to care for me and them. Such is Jesus charge that we love neighbour as we love ourselves. That’s theologically challenging: where else is it acknowledged that self love is a valid thing? That’s the kind of talk that tends to get evangelists shouting at their listeners to repent. Love of self is what got us into such a mess. Of course Jesus agrees. His instruction is much more subtle. He takes for granted the grounding of responsible self care, following the things our mothers bring us up in as we are children, not adding any further emphasis to that, and radically extends that same kind of taken for granted thinking to those around us- ALL those around us. “Love your neighbour as yourself!” The extension is the kicker. We get that Jesus hearer’s were surprised. Should Jews have been surprised? Did they miss something in their scriptures (as CFL prompts us) that should have alerted them to this ‘radical’ truth? I suspect that Genesis 12 is a good place to go: Abraham is charged and gifted to be a blessing to all nations. Whatever the nature of a holy community ought to be, it must not exclude loving- caring for- the Other, those outside.

An appeal to God’s mission through Abraham could be thought decisive. Might there also be a valid No to CFL’s question? I suspect so. We must respect that in the providence and grace of God, we are not responsible for ourselves in rather a lot of ways. My very being here is the result of God’s sovereign creation. He has determined the times and places in which we live, says Paul to the Athenians. Perhaps I might have been a Māori fighting off Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who sailed into ‘Golden Bay’, ‘New Zealand’ on 13 December 1642, or a Viking fisher woman eeking out a simple existence in a wooden hut in ‘Newfoundland’ in 1021AD. Instead, I’m sitting here, rather comfortably, idly viewing social media posts of an old friend in New Zealand writing irreverent songs about the pandemic, while eating fish caught by some factory ship in the North Atlantic and ferried efficiently to one of my many local supermarkets. I used to read Genesis rather more ‘literally’ in regard to human origins, but now I realise that there is more than a grain of scientific truth in the notion that God can raise up sons for Abraham even from stones.

“And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”

Mt 3:9 ESV

Here’s what John Gill (d.1771) has to say about this passage:

Some by “the stones” understand the Gentiles, comparable to stones, both for the hardness of their hearts, and their idolatry in worshipping stocks and stones; of and among whom God was able to raise, and has raised up, a spiritual seed to Abraham; who are of the same faith with him, who walk in his steps, and whose father he is: but then it must be supposed, according to this sense, that there were some Gentiles present, since John calls them “these” stones, pointing to some persons or things, that were before him; wherefore I rather think that this phrase is to be taken literally, and that John pointed to some certain stones that were near him, within sight, and which lay upon the banks of Jordan, where he was baptizing; for what is it that the omnipotent God cannot do? He could as easily of stones make men, as make Adam out of the dust of the earth, and then make these men, in a spiritual sense, children of Abraham; that is, believers in Christ, and partakers of his “grace; for if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise”, ( Galatians 3:29 ) . So that God stood in no need of these persons, nor had they any reason to boast of their natural descent from Abraham; since this in spiritual matters, and in things relating to the Gospel dispensation, would stand them in no stead, or be of any advantage to them.

There is absolutely no way in which we are responsible for the ‘care’ with which God endowed His creation with the capacity to ‘make things make themselves’ and I daresay we now share a great deal of ignorance regarding His effective Providence in preserving each of us from disaster and premature death, be that from disease, our own splendid stupidity, or our frequent indulgence of motorised transport. God is doubtless continuing to care for each of us more securely than we could possibly know. But all that can be quite reasonably be taken as given. It is in the common grace of God to human beings. Beyond this, we are most certainly responsible to rescue animals from wells on the Sabbath, seemingly against religious regulations, and even more so, to cover the well with a secure lid so neither our neighbour or our own child falls in during the night. I saw too many open wells in Africa.

If it is appropriate to read ‘duty’ as equivalent to ‘calling,’ ‘mandated,’ or ‘mission,’ and I think it can be all of those things, then this enquiry can be properly taken as a worldview question. Reading elsewhere in this blog will show that my position on the biblical worldview, based consistently on both OT and NT, is an holistic one. God has created and is sustaining a tripartite cosmos: God’s relationship with God’s created cosmos is at once transcendent and immanent, and it is the nature of God’s relationships with God’s cosmos that are of primary significance, over against a reductionist approach that stops with the questions, Who/What is God, and What creation is. (This second ontological question tends to slide away into a conversation in the realm of science, and then fall into opposition with the first- ‘We have no need of that hypothesis’ (allegedly said by Pierre Simon Laplace to Napoleon when asked of the place of God in his cosmology).) 

So it is all at once the duty of humankind to properly attend to all three directions of relationship: firstly with God, secondly with our fellow (potential) worshippers, other human beings, be they believers or not, and also with all else that God has made and makes possible; the rest of creation, on which we are belatedly realise we so crucially depend. Ecclesiastes and Micah put these in an opposite fashion to one another, as if to bracket everything together in God, whom we call the Alpha and Omega. Ecclesiastes starts with God;

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.

Eccl 12:13 ESV

While Micah draws all our being and doing together into God;

And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

I note that both statements are prefaced with a formalised or legal formula, which CFL’s phraseology of ‘duty’ is resonant with. We easily miss in both these summaries that while God is recognised in a distinct clause, the ‘duty’ of human beings to neighbours and environment is not separated under distinct headings. It is perhaps better this way, as the matter of whether my actions toward my neighbour with regard to water rights, their access to clothing or bread, or to land or a fair rate of pay cannot finally be separated from our collective use or misuse of water, land or the other resources that the earth affords to us- even the quality of the air we breathe and which we are pushing to climactic extremes.

The Westminster Catechism puts it succinctly, but commentators understood that there must be many facets of expression in contiguous organic combination to do justice to our living ‘in the image and likeness’ of God:

Once again and finally to CFL’s question: Do we have a duty to look after ourselves? You would think this was the normality, and a statement on which there is uncontroversial agreement. Absolutely, yes, because looking after Number One is what its all about! Is there a different view in the church? There ought to be. Take up your cross, says the Master. Follow someone Else. Christian duty points Elsewhere. Then again, once the call to service and self-sacrifice is understood and acted on, there remains a kernel of soundness in the suggestion. Too many believers suffer a different malaise, that of over-reliance on their leaders. In regard of spiritual disciplines and personal growth to maturity, there are the words of Paul: by now you should be off milk, and on to solid food, which is for the mature.

My graphics for the ‘Biblical worldview’ which combine God, God’s creation and ourselves in an active dialogic relationship. The two different versions allow a depiction of God’s immanence within God’s cosmos (Left) and transcendence over it (Right).
“Every believer is designed to hear from God for others.” Do you agree?


Designed, in terms of the basic ability or capacity? Maybe so. I have just been arguing that God intends for us to hear Him with more discernment for our neighbours than for ourselves. But that we are so called to do? As a basic principle of life, this suggestion is questionable: Jer 31:34a And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD.

Yet in witness and evangelism this is perhaps exactly the gift of God; that God speaks of tangible things in the life of the Other to whom He would have me speak. The specific gift of prophecy that was bestowed on a few in the OT remains in focus in the Church Age, where the common gift of the Spirit opens such insightfulness to all the saints. We are intended to learn lessons from the accounts of the prophets like Elisha, who goes to the king (2 Kings 8) to answer the secret hubris of the nation’s monarch; to be the corrective and enlightening voice of God even to the head of state. While in 2 Ki 3:13 Elisha comforts the kings of Judah and Edom with God’s assurance that a confluence of natural phenomena, human manipulation of environment and the providence of God will bring them to deliverance. Hearing God for others should therefore be a common and continuous part of our human experience as the people of God, where we exercise responsibility for our neighbours and ourselves, from richly creative lives that exercise ‘spiritual’ and ‘natural’ gifts in seamless combination. Since our hearts are formed in God to know Godself, Who is a Community in unity, this phenomenon should be no surprise.

Meditating on this matter in the light of Jer 31 leads me to the conclusion that this is another example of the dispensational now and not yet nature of revelation and God’s partnership with God’s people in history. Before Jeremiah, there was a succession of particular prophets and anointed leaders who acted as go-betweens joining God and His human creatures. But in these words of Jeremiah, we see that God’s intention is to exceed even the double portion anointing on Elijah, not just for the privileged spiritual leader, but for all believers. What was ‘not yet’ for in the time of Elisha and then Jeremiah is now for us in the age of the Spirit in the Church. And yet this is not the final fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. The richest understanding of the biblical message is to be found in a full canonical reading of scripture.

“The better a business serves its customers, the more healthy and profitable it will be.” Do you agree? If you agree, can you think of biblical or theological reasons why this is true?


My main response to this question is to put the purpose of business, and of any particular business, under spiritual examination. The outcome of business, as formulated in this question, appears to be profit and the ability to be profitable even more than it is about serving its customers. And while a business exists within and inseparable from community, the customers are only a subset of that community, and this could be a bias with moral implications- perhaps negative ones. Better to begin on a different basis: that any business – an enterprise that facilitates societal thriving and may also make profit, if compatible with such societal thriving- serves the health and growth of society, which is now to be considered in the context of the global village. This reframing demands a new economics, not least one that is eco-nomic, and that includes criteria of social justice and equity as well as environmental sustainability. Doing good for people- whether customers directly, or broader society, must be calculated to be in step with doing good in the world, for the planet as a going concern into the far future.
All this is informed by the continuing creation mandate of Gen 2:15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. Work is from ’tilling’ as in the agricultural working of the soil, extended to all human doings. Keeping is from watching, (shomer) which implies a profound responsiveness and thus respect for God’s creation. To work with watchfulness is to ensure that our doings are compatible with the order of God’s wider creation. Our ability to watch at all levels of discernment, from the subatomic to the cosmic, suggests that with such ability comes concomitant responsibility. So in sum, I answer Crispin’s question with a bias toward the negative, in the sense that I understand modern business to be antipathetic to holistic considerations of society and planetary health. Yet I would concede, aside from such concern, that a small enterprise that sought to exercise a ‘neighbourly’ attitude to its customers and wider society could reasonably expect such reward. What is at issue is the matter of how much consideration must be given to human sinfulness and community fallenness. If the prevailing context for a business plan is that the fallen state of society makes such neighbourly service questionable, then I give a negative response. Some business plans could be thought of with more optimism, and so the outlook is more favourable.

“Practising justice is only for some believers.” Do you agree and why?


What an extraordinary question! I am at a loss to imagine why CFL thinks it important to pose this question- a reverse instance of the NT wondering aloud, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ How could one possible agree with this suggestion? I have a hunch this is a catch out challenge, like Nathan the prophet popping in to ask King David about sheep. The point of the Genesis 2-4 scenario is to rebut the rival view that the King is the only one with divine calling, position or significant authority. Rather, we all are. All in the demut and tselem of God, all called to do what He would do from our place on earth. So too with Cain: his brother’s blood cries out to heaven, and its cry is heard. [I am reading brother as equivalent to neighbour.] The doing of justice and mercy is everyone’s duty and privilege, as the image of God on earth, doing justice in the earth, to all possible one anothers, and by one’s self. For this is the Divine disposition, and we are here in His place. So I am provoked to muse why this is even a question for CFL. Does he perceive a common malaise in the church that many defer to the few in this sort of leadership, as the realisation of the priesthood of all believers has still not dawned upon all. Is CFLs intent to scrutinise the integrity of my position? Viz, that I am very happy to affirm that it is the business of all believers to do justice as we walk with God- but that it is truly the case that I and too few others who so affirm do much less than we should to act on that stated conviction. I might have got the message that work is worship, but do I still put limits on the scope of my concern for justice in the world God places me in on His behalf? Doing justice is also worship.

Is it possible to draw together these four questions under the rubric of duty? Our duty to God for ourselves and for neighbours; the duty of one believer to speak on God’s behalf to into another believer’s life; the duty of business creators to customers and society; the duty of the Church to address matters of justice at all levels of community and society. How best to consider whether and to what extent these proposals are valid formulations for advancing the Kingdom of God? Is it that the conceptuality of duty emerges from the confluence of the character of God, which sets a high bar for the behaviour of God’s holy community, and God’s determination of human becoming in freedom. There cannot be meaningful justice or business or relationships that are determined by the likes of OT law or NT principle. God does not operate in such a manner: each day’s work was followed by another in Genesis, and Jesus made plain that His Father is not done working. Such continuing work is surely not the product of a legalistic formula, though there may be formulae that are helpful in our early schooling in the walk of faith.

(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson

  • tank-main-battle-tank-the-war-slovakia-monument-t-34
  • A_well_in_africa
  • An Exposition of the Shorter Catechism Stewart Salmond 1884 40106_007_05
  • p 12 40106_007_06
  • PRAYER: jon-tyson-YtYNavix3pw-unsplash
  • BUSINESS: jake-nebov-seTS7bvcr0A-unsplash
  • roberto-carlos-roman-don-K77xDt7E1fE-unsplash
  • JUSTICE: logan-weaver-nEyhFPjEmY8-unsplash
  • rod-long-f6PNAO4Kn18-unsplash

COP26 Pope Francis to the ‘Conference of Parties’ and the World: Analysis

Here is the text from the Vatican released by the BBC on 29 10 21:

Climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic have exposed our deep vulnerability and raised numerous doubts and concerns about our economic systems and the way we organize our societies. We have lost our sense of security, and are experiencing a sense of powerlessness and loss of control over our lives. We find ourselves increasingly frail and even fearful, caught up in a succession of “crises” in the areas of health care, the environment, food supplies and the economy, to say nothing of social, humanitarian and ethical crises. All these crises are profoundly interconnected. They also forecast a “perfect storm” that could rupture the bonds holding our society together within the greater gift of God’s creation. Every crisis calls for vision, the ability to formulate plans and put them rapidly into action, to rethink the future of the world, our common home, and to reassess our common purpose. These crises present us with the need to take decisions, radical decisions that are not always easy. At the same time, moments of difficulty like these also present opportunities, opportunities that we must not waste. We can confront these crises by retreating into isolationism, protectionism and exploitation. Or we can see in them a real chance for change, a genuine moment of conversion, and not simply in a spiritual sense. This last approach alone can guide us towards a brighter horizon. Yet it can only be pursued through a renewed sense of shared responsibility for our world, and an effective solidarity based on justice, a sense of our common destiny and a recognition of the unity of our human family in God’s plan for the world. All this represents an immense cultural challenge. It means giving priority to the common good, and it calls for a change in perspective, a new outlook, in which the dignity of every human being, now and in the future, will guide our ways of thinking and acting. The most important lesson we can take from these crises is our need to build together, so that there will no longer be any borders, barriers or political walls for us to hide behind. Some days ago, on 4 October, I met with religious leaders and scientists to sign a Joint Appeal in which we called upon ourselves and our political leaders to act in a more responsible and consistent manner. I was impressed by something said by one of the scientists present at that meeting. He told us: “If things continue as they are, in fifty years’ time my baby granddaughter will have to live in an unliveable world”. We cannot allow this to happen! It is essential that each of us be committed to this urgent change of direction, sustained by our own faith and spirituality. In the Joint Appeal, we spoke of the need to work responsibly towards a “culture of care” for our common home, but also for ourselves, and the need to work tirelessly to eliminate “the seeds of conflicts: greed, indifference, ignorance, fear, injustice, insecurity and violence”. Humanity has never before had at its disposal so many means for achieving this goal. The political decision makers who will meet at COP26 in Glasgow are urgently summoned to provide effective responses to the present ecological crisis and in this way to offer concrete hope to future generations. And it is worth repeating that each of us – whoever and wherever we may be – can play our own part in changing our collective response to the unprecedented threat of climate change and the degradation of our common home.

What is the message that Pope Francis is trying to convey in this statement? Much could be observed, for it is a carefully crafted address, acknowledging many interlinked factors. I have added highlights above to ground my own reflections. I suggest the following analysis to draw attention to what I see as the principal points:

  1. Since the Industrial Revolution, the scaling up of sanitary living conditions and especially since the widespread manufacture and distribution of vaccines, humanity has cultured a mindset of security in life, ever-increasing power over natural resources and thus a sense of being in control of our corporate and collective existence. The only enemy we would admit to would be the ‘other’ we have gone to war against, a point now generally ignored as WW1, WW2 and the Cold War have been consigned to history.
  2. The caveat to the above is that what quickly became true for the well-off elites, especially in the ‘developed’ West was never true for many others, in so-called developed countries, and much more so elsewhere. Most of the world has been poor, and this is very much the case for many billions alive today. The hope extended in the narrative of human progress was that the services and prosperity gained from technological and medical advances would trickle down to the masses. But in much of the world, while the benefits have not reached the least well off, many of the costs of our riches have been and growingly are being inflicted on those who have never been anything other than ‘poor’.
  3. The many aspects of climate change, the accumulating effects of which are increasing in severity, and the relatively sudden COVID19 pandemic that brought economic havoc, even if it did not directly imperil life, both give the lie to the suggestion- even the firm belief- that all that is needed for the success of the human project is more time, after which the many very regrettable and, it is claimed, temporary injustices will be rectified.
  4. Increasing technological prowess built on the exploitation and spoilage of nature and all its resources is itself the problem. To be clear, the powers that scientific understanding and insight give us are in no way evils- they are an amoral product of human culture- but the way in which the human imagination has been allowed to apply those insights into particular technologies, within a worldview framework ruled by a certain mode of capitalist economics is now exposed to have underpinned the development of many evils. [I add, for the benefit for a more critical audience, that the Vatican has resolved the historical misunderstand about the relations between the objective science which showed that the Earth is a satellite of our nearest star, with the profound theological view that puts the claim that we on this singular Earth have great significance in the sight of God. There must be a constructive dialogue between ‘science and religion’ in order to establish what ‘the facts’ do and do not suggest in terms of meaning and value. The postmodern view, if it is at all possible to generalise, has compromised such dialogue and allowed a reduced economic model to thrive in which the integrity of our unique and singular home is in great peril.]
  5. We need to reach for a paradigm shift in our understanding of our relationships with one another as human beings: ‘society’, and also between humans and the world which is in fact God’s world. Pope Francis does not here spell out all the details of what a higher quality of relationships between humans and with the world we find ourselves in might be, but does succinctly indicate some significant landmarks in this worldview. He says that we should accord a quality of dignity to one another, thus as human persons. Each ‘other’ person is absolutely not merely an economic unit of production or consumption, an agent in the commercial market, a placeholder in a habitat, a point of ecological flux, though there may be efficiency in certain aspects of human government in temporarily adopting such perspectives. Rather, we have a transcendent quality of dignity as human beings that stems from our common origin of creation in the image of God, imago Dei. Thus it is asserted that the ‘religious’ perspective is not an epiphenomenon of our biological existence on the conveniently equipped third rock from our Sun, but rather a fixed point in the value system which we ought not have strayed from and to which we must return to empower the recovery of both peoples and planet. We find we are made as individuals with integrity of identity in the image of the Divine, and collectively are one family as we answer to the same Father. Such is our ‘common destiny’- not merely that we exist as one variety of primates in this period of earth’s long geological history, in a brief and futile interlude preceding the ultimate heat death of the universe which we can anticipate in the same instant as we came to consciousness of our miniscule place among many billions of far-flung galaxies. We need not fret to grapple with such a distant future crisis when our immediate circumstances are so much more pressing, and should take sober comfort from the theological understanding that this physical creation is a continuing gift from Godself to us all. We are not to treat this unique biosphere with its diversity of ecosystems merely as a commodity, as a thing for crude use, then to be discarded, reduced to mere materials at our disposal, but rather to be respected as a gift: a sign of God’s disposition of love towards us all in all times and places. Since it is a continuing gift of God to those who should come tomorrow, we are necessarily expected to encompass all our notions of use within the bounds of responsible and humble stewardship*.
  6. Such, following Pope Francis, is the basis for the worldview in which faith and spirituality are fundamental to the solution of this unprecedented predicament. For the Christian Pope Francis, the commitment to the God of Creation covenant is strong enough to enable interreligious dialogue and partnership, which he has put into practice, and also to appeal to the world’s politicians to work together as never before in hope, which surely cannot be based solely in our human capacities, though these are not inconsiderable. In claiming that facing the ecological crisis is a valid part of the Christian gospel message, Pope Francis is implying that while it proved a simple matter for human ego and excess to misuse recent science and technology to bring about our current crises, it will be the transformations of our cultural systems of economics and commerce by justice, forgiveness and restitution that no animal community could conceive of- this is the spiritual conversion of which he speaks- spiritual certainly in the sense of coming to a repaired relationship with God, but at one and the same time recognising that a transformed relationship with God ought necessarily and automatically spill over into a transformed relationship with our neighbours, and to further flood into our relationship with our common environment. Our mistake has been to bracket off the first kind of spirituality and pretend that the other two are not all part and parcel of the same thing. Surely God does care for the animals and plants- the oceans and forests and mountains- which is why we are here on God’s behalf. We broke the bonds of this covenant in our minds and hearts, and there they must be repaired. Pope Francis lists some of the seeds of conflict that we must attend to, ever germinating in the gardens of our hearts, quickly pulling them out by the roots to consign them to oblivion, and Christian people aspire to be examples of such redemptive co-working with the Spirit of God.
  7. Such spiritual work cannot be an optional extra to the work of recovery we must commence and perhaps even complete in the next decade. With beautiful irony Pope Francis describes the hope that must be conceived and brought to birth in our global politics being as substantial as concrete; one of the technological marvels of our age that has also been responsible for the ravages of a million quarries and emission of vast quantities of greenhouse gases. Hope can be a human product, but heaven’s resources are indeed available to us individually and corporately to co-create such a hope on such as scale that we may come to partnership in common cause and mutual trust to repent– to turn around and live differently. Perhaps such hope in a few will sustain the many- though Pope Francis invites us to imagine what synergy could result from a more general embrace of such a godly hope. St Paul said that the greatest things of all are love and faith, and hope- perhaps this is a time in which we realise why this is so.
  8. With such a transformation from our collective old ways, from a broken economy, a chaotic planet and ecological disaster, to a new culture of care… Yes! The change that is needed is first and foremost inside us- that is where the solution must begin. Pope Francis is right to affirm that our technological capacity- the likely fruitfulness of our intellect, imagination and creativity to address the ills of atmosphere and ecology need not be in question. As much as to say, “Can we fix this? Of course we can.” But the real challenge is in the realm of human heart, and it is in the collective heart that we can reform human society- to make it to be such a thing that is recognised as the seedbed of a culture of care for the whole globe- its 7 906 882 490 persons (as I write- and rising) and each of the organisms which we are presently squeezing off the face of the earth with such unwarranted aggression. Biologists struggle to estimate species diversity on our planet, guessing that there are at least another million species to add to the 2.1 million we have catalogued so far. All the while we are driving some 150 species to extinction each day. We certainly can change our behaviour to stop our collective wanton destruction, and live differently in order to ensure that even a growing human population can live a new kind of prosperous life without continuing to have a net impact on the health and integrity of our planet- especially its climate. What is crucial is that we discover and create something completely new- a solidarity and collective will to join hands (as our African friends say) to act differently and to act together. Bluntly: to share.
Gus Speth, American environmental lawyer and advocate. Shared Planet: Religion and Nature, BBC Radio 4 (1 October 2013) Speth’s reflection invites the headline involvement of religious leaders, showing why the Pope’s statement and wider activism should be warmly received in civil society.

9. In his concluding sentence, Pope Francis affirms what we already know- a journey of many miles does indeed start with a single step, and that step can, and must, be taken by me, and each of us. Quite so, and this is not at all trivial. But we will have no truck with multinational corporations9 who try to deflect attention from their corporate responsibilities in suggesting that transformative solutions really lie at the doors of the consumers of products and services- only in the local action of all of us as individuals. The Pope’s statement exquisitely avoids such sophistry. First of all is the place of the political decision makers who have it in their reach to set the governmental and legal frameworks in which all businesses and corporations of all sizes can operate. Our role as citizens, individually and collectively, must follow that, and can do so, when the governmental environment has been restructured so that the small choices of each individual can indeed add up to the collective impact that is needed.

10. Only once does Pope Francis use the word ‘urgently.’ This diplomatic nicety is not to be underestimated. As he does say more than once, we face multiple crises which are inextricably interlinked, and they may yet coincide to create a ‘perfect storm’ not only in the climate and its multiple physical effects but also in their ramifications in our globalised societies. But if we act NOW the worst may be averted. The Pope comes to this political call with considerable integrity, having made this matter a priority from the outset of his religious ministry- hence taking the name ‘Francis’, for Francis of Assisi. He has tackled the matter with respect to the voices of reason, by engaging with scientific experts, and yet showing that the voice of faith is contiguous with all other human concerns under God. Thus he draws together this collective plea for timely action and submits it to the world’s politicians meeting now and following COP26. He emphasises that the organisation he represents as Pope- the Catholic church- is as much responsible to act as any business or government, as well as the community of academics and scientists. In all these things we can see a significant example of leadership at this vital moment.

(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson

  • BBC Radio 4 ‘Thought for the Day’ at https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p0b10zxw, where a translator reads the speech in English, with the audio of the Pope speaking in Italian in the background. This is given prominence when he gets to the fifth sentence, which ends with the words tempesta perfetta.
  • * See https://www.professorbuzzkill.com/qnq-32/ “But, like spiritual quotes that get attached to Gandhi, political quips and gibes that get attributed to Churchill, and thoughtful sentiments that drift toward Martin Luther King, “we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children” got affixed to Chief Seattle, despite the fact that there’s no evidence he ever said it. The attribution happened during the environmental movement that started in the 1970s, but who first said it is unknown. The phrase is undoubtedly wise, and it seems to be common wisdom, a distillation of more extensive, paragraph-length ideas, or both. In fact, the nearest that Buzzkill Institute researchers have been able to come to a originator of the quote is the noted American writer, poet, and cultural critic, Wendell Berry. In his 1971 book, Unforeseen Wilderness, Berry wrote that environmental stewardship has been lost by most modern people. It can, however, be recovered. He said, “We can learn about it from exceptional people of our own culture, and from other cultures less destructive than ours. I am speaking of the life of a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children; who has undertaken to cherish it and do it no damage, not because he is duty-bound, but because he loves the world and loves his children…” Berry is well-known in literary circles, and should probably be much better known in our wider culture…
  • 9 “The oil and gas industry has spent years deflecting from its central part in global heating, pushing the claim that it is doing no more than selling a legal product and that it is the individual user who bears responsibility for putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.” https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/20/american-fishers-west-coast-sue-big-oil AND The truth behind the ads: Big oil’s rhetoric has evolved from outright denial to more subtle forms of propaganda, including shifting responsibility away from companies and on to consumers. This mimics big tobacco’s effort to combat criticism and defend against litigation and regulation by “casting itself as a kind of neutral innocent, buffeted by the forces of consumer demand”. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/18/the-forgotten-oil-ads-that-told-us-climate-change-was-nothing

COP26 Intercession with Hannah: Considered, timely and URGENT.

While COP President Alok Sharma praises the ‘can do’ spirit evident in the summit, COP Delegate from the Marshall Islands Tina Stege renewed the pleas of the most vulnerable nations. ‘This will be the decade that determines the rest of human history. We cannot let it slip by.’

The twenty sixth ‘Conference of Parties’ in Glasgow continues through Friday night into Saturday as I write. Live reports from the Blue Zone describe delegation leaders striding from room to room as they seek to collate a final text that’s agreeable to all, while the pleas of national leaders whose lands are disappearing beneath the rising seas are still ringing in their ears. Journalists are impatient for the programme to conclude according to the timetable, as if meeting news deadlines is more significant than the COP agreement itself. ‘Will this meeting end before Christmas?’ demands a BBC journalist of Alok Sharma, the UK COP president, [BBC NEWSNIGHT 12 11 2021] who simply responds with the suggestion that he should check the accuracy of his calendar. We hear that Mr Sharma worked right through the last night and day without sleep, but he still has his wits about him. The Christian Climate Observers Program further reports that the negotiations themselves are proceeding in a well-tempered and peaceable manner- a key answer to our prayers.

For those of us who are attentive to the call to prayer for the success of the COP process and the wider involvement of the Church in addressing our climate and ecological crisis, I submit this word from scripture:

After they had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. 11 And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”

12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. 14 And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” 17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” 18 And she said, “Let your servant find favour in your eyes.” Then the woman went on her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.

19 They rose early in the morning and worshipped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her. 20 And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the Lord.”[a]

1 Samuel 1:9-20 ESV

It is the conviction of Climate Intercessors that God will hear our prayers and bring profound transformative influence to these negotiations, even with and through human agents who hold no explicit commitment to the Christian faith- willingly or otherwise. This is the clear implication of St Paul’s words to the young leader Timothy that ‘prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.’ Whoever they are, be they ‘godly’ or ‘ungodly’, God instructs and assures us that this will and must make a difference, one prayer at a time.

And so we continue to pray, upholding these proceedings through Saturday and potentially even Sunday, after which the country representatives must certainly travel back to their homes.

“Now it is possible that there could be some miraculous surprise in the coming hours.” David Shukman, BBC Science Editor BBC News at Six. 12 11 21

But there is a higher court in which there is influence that overarches the vital human activities in Glasgow and the electronic communications doubtless winging back and forth between delegates and their sending authorities. The BBC Science Editor was reporting on the stalling progress of the talks on Friday, but then concluded his remarks with this: ‘…there could be a miraculous surprise…’ We agree, and indeed, God would insist that the BBC’s Science correspondent speaks more wisely than he knows. We do pray for those on earth, as this is vital, and we also pray in our very imperfect knowledge of the mystery of the heavenly realms simply because God instructs us to do humble business with Him there. As Paul’s words to Timothy imply, such prayer is a massive lever to somehow exert great advantage against the fulcrum, which is surely bound deeply into the Cross of Christ. If we persevere and join together one with another in prayer and supplication, the influence of our puny and insubstantial breath- combined in unity by God’s Spirit- will be amplified and magnified into the most glorious result, by the grace of God. As Moses once parted the waters, and Elisha used Elijah’s cloak to part the Jordan for a second time; as Christ was seen in human form to command both wind and waves before them- so also in our day Lord! We pray that by all means the winds will indeed be stilled and the waves no longer rise.

God assures us Today that He will use the little people and the ‘nobodies’. He is certainly listening to the children who are protesting as best they know how, crying out as they fear their single future is being stolen from them even as they grow up with failing hopes. And most of all God is attentive to the earnest prayers of those- of us- who are considered to have no influence. God saw and heard and understood the anguish in Hannah’s heart, for she had no child. A child certainly was needed, because the hopes of the nation were collapsing with the decline of leadership in temple and palace. Eli the priest was not doing well in bringing up his sons after him. Their self-indulgence was public knowledge, and if the succession of leadership is in peril, then all is in peril. God sees the answers to bigger challenges than even the ones we have in mind. God was delighted that Hannah was resolved to hold onto Him, as best she knew how.

Illuminated Manuscript, Bible Pictures by William de Brailes, Eli’s Sons Commit Sacrilege and Hannah Brings Samuel to the Temple. Around 1250AD

I hear God saying that we should continue to stand before Him as Hannah did, in her realistic appraisal of the situation in her life and in the wider awareness of the state of the nation- or rather nations, in our case. It is not the men, the priests, the leaders, the officials, or their chosen successors who are listened to, but this vulnerable woman who appeared to be incapable of speech, seeming both drunk and deluded. So she was censored and undermined, invalidated and banned from the place of petition that is now given to us all. Yet her protest is heard, first in heaven, and then on earth. Eli is brought up short by Hannah’s earnest response to his unsympathetic judgement, and once his eyes are opened, he blesses her and brings earthly alignment to the will of heaven.

We are beckoned to join Hannah in distress and affliction on account of the state of leadership that has brought us to these present circumstances. Truly, we need better leaders, whose eyes are opened to the true state of the reality that lies before us. We need to raise up leaders in the next generations who will partner for the common good and no longer abuse power and position. God will hear our prayer of repentance.

And we are invited to join Hannah in seeking a new birth, of God’s New Creation future in which planet and people come to live in harmony. Perhaps Hannah understands that a higher standard of leadership is called for in the future, and so she promises God that her longed for child will remain unshaven, in the Nazirite tradition. Perhaps we can thus surmise that we must call out to God for a different and more circumspect mode of life in what will be our collective tomorrows, so that as human beings have indeed ‘multiplied and filled the earth’ we will collectively determine to step more gently upon it from now on.

For both of these objectives, in all their dimensions, God wants us to hold onto Him.

We are not at all worthless women or men, but esteemed by the One who hears all intercession, and called to partner with the God of New Creation as co-creators. The scripture is not shy to point out that the conception occurred when Hannah returned to her husband and they ‘knew’ one another- an explicit (!) reference back to Adam and Eve beginning the human lineage. And there also God acts in ‘remembering’ the one who actively sought Him out in intercession, and so the child came to be and to be born, and to bring the temple priesthood into recovery, and thus the monarchy was sustained and rescued and recovered and recreated again. What and then’s might follow from our prayers over COP26? However satisfied and dissatisfied different parties will be next week when the COP statement is signed off and released, various actions and the COP process will continue, with the cycle of annual meetings continuing in Egypt next year and in Dubai in 2023. The whole ministry of the prophet-priest Samuel was an extended answer to Hannah’s prayer of anguish, and we can expect that what we are creating under God today will continue to require our prayerful attention. Yes, there is urgency; the COP text agreed this weekend will be crucial for what it says and for what it does not say, for that will be the basis for actions in all timeframes, but there will also be room for further consideration and development, for ratcheting in of our communities into ever closer cooperation so that the inevitable compromises are constructive rather than compromising to the whole process- that allowances and adaptations do genuinely mitigate suffering rather than deviously prolong it. Will the target of ‘net zero’ prove to be an effective facilitator for global action? Will ‘keeping 1.5 alive’ stand as the benchmark for judging the effectiveness of our new global covenant? I only know that we must start where we are, and that God’s blessing will come on our human agency. In His mysterious will, it remains patently simple: with us, God will. Without us, God will not.

(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson

  • Images from BBC News at Six 12 11 21.
  • Illuminated Manuscript, Bible Pictures by William de Brailes of Oxford, Eli’s Sons Commit Sacrilege and Hannah Brings Samuel to the Temple, Walters Art Museum Ms. W.106, fol. 17v Public domain image. From a volume comprising twenty-four leaves of Bible Pictures by W. de Brailes, an English artist active in Oxford in the middle of the thirteenth century. Seven leaves from the same set of images are now in the Musee Marmottan in Paris. These 31 leaves are all that remain of an image cycle that once contained at least 98 miniatures, and which was the longest cycle of Bible miniatures surviving from the thirteenth century in England. In all probability these Bible Pictures were actually prefatory matter to a Psalter, now Stockholm, National Museum, Ms. B.2010. De Brailes also composed and wrote the captions that accompany many of the images. W. de Brailes is one of only two English artists of the thirteenth century whose name we can associate with surviving works. 11 manuscripts have been identified that contain miniatures in his hand. De Brailes has a quirky and chatty style, and he was extremely gifted at turning Bible Stories into paint. To explore fully digitized manuscripts with a virtual page-turning application, please visit Walters Ex Libris.

COP26: Intercession for mobilising finance. Wednesday Nov 3rd 2021

King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, whose height was sixty cubits and its breadth six cubits. He set it up on the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon. 

Daniel 3:1 ESV
The story of Daniel and the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace. Icon at Benaki Musuem, Greece by Adrianoupolitis Konstantinos (1725 – 1750)

This post accompanies my general article “I am making everything New, and you can help, starting with COP26 in Glasgow, October 31-November 12 2021.”

You can view and also download the ‘Climate Intercessors’ 10 strategic prayers for COP26 document here: https://www.climateintercessors.org/10-prayers-for-cop26-1

Following Pope Francis on ‘Thought for the Day’ on Radio 4, here’s a short summary of the issues at stake at COP26: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-59075041

COP26 in Glasgow is about just one thing, namely saving the world. This will be achieved by reaching an earnest and honest covenant between the appointed leaders of some 200+ nations to reduce global heating gases in our atmosphere to levels that will restrain the average temperature of our planet to no more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. We are already at 1.1 degrees above that benchmark.

Or to put it a different way, COP26 is about just one thing, namely money. Carbon dioxide is produced by processes that consume coal, oil or natural gas, either to release energy- which is money- or to process other things that make money, such as steel. Methane is also a global heating gas, huge volumes of which are added to the atmosphere as a by product of rice paddy fields and industrial beef farming. Yet more is bubbling out of the melting permafrost in Arctic latitudes. How we heat our homes and move from A to B, what food is on our plates, and where in the world all our stuff comes from: CO2 (equivalent) emissions are in the warp and weft of our ‘civilised’ lives. At least, it is for those of us lucky to enjoy these modern benefits.

Is any of this new? Surely the ancients, the likes of which are the characters in the Biblical accounts, however real or semi-fictional or constructed they may be, knew little of our current challenges? Their lives were simply primitive, and they would have no grasp of our technology or economies.

Quite the opposite- in the Jewish scriptures all this social economy is very much taken as read. The book of Daniel does not enumerate what the duties of the civil servants in Babylon would include, because, for any civilisation, they are broadly constant. Food and fuel, shelter and sanitation, communication and transport, trade and warfare- we might not recognise their particular solutions, but you can predict what else would be on such a list. And for the leaders, the figure heads, the monarchs and highest ministers, their concerns are ever constant: fame, legacy, being the centre of attention, and most of all, staying there. This requires the management of the mindset of their people, even more than the management of the practical aspects of society.

This is why Nebuchadnezzar wants to build a statue to himself. This is what idolising himself as a god is for. This is the ever present temptation for leaders, and so many fall into it. For this reason, the economy of the kingdom is bent towards generating an excess of material and energy; and money buys both, if there is short supply. Invading your neighbours, prosecuting an imbalance of trade- these are shortcuts to the same, sequestrating the efforts and riches of others for your own ends. These ends are not needs– they are fatuous luxuries of excess.

As the third chapter of Daniel recounts, these techniques of societal manipulation are well-honed and generally highly effective. It takes extraordinary courage to go against the flow. A very different worldview is required to inspire the vision to put one’s life on the line to object. Such is in the minds of Daniel’s young peers, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, so when the call comes to bow down to the golden image of the king, they bluntly refuse.

This is the point we have come to today. The economies of the nations of the world have been constructed in order to meet the basic needs of their populations, but more than that, to maintain power structures. As the world has progressed from the great rival empires of the 19th century to the single global village we have become today, these structures of commerce and exploitation have become ever more entrenched. The haves of finance and industry now have more than the likes of Nebuchadnezzar and our modern day leaders, all far richer than any of the monarchs and even the empires of history. The universal one horse power horse was excelled by the steam engine. What was fuelled by coal and steam then became the franchise of oil – fuel oil, petrol, diesel and then aviation fuel. No column appeared in the ledger for the climate, but the cost- the great debt that we now face, the accumulating consequences of climate change- was nevertheless piling up, throwing the scale of Nebuchadnezzar’s self-aggrandising statue pale into insignificance.

Compare the narrative with what we know about the most substantial Wonder of the World to survive, The Great Pyramid, constructed at Giza during the reign of pharaoh Khufu (about 2551-2528 B.C.). His reign was only 20 years in duration, during which best estimates today are that some 20 000 willing workers were engaged in the ordered, efficient and highly skilful architecture, mining and construction of this grand pile of stones1. Perhaps only six months in every twelve were spent tilling the Nile floodplain to generate crops and therefore wealth in this nation, that so many could be spared to indulge in ‘cultural projects’ such as pyramids for dead leaders, or temples for the worship of… well, whatever it is decided shall be worshipped, by whoever it is decides such things.

But the three Jewish youths, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah; they were having none of it. They’d tolerated being absorbed into the Babylonian education system and quietly suffered the indignity of being given idolatrous Babylonian names. They were content to be made useful in the service of the foreign king in a foreign land- they knew that God is God of All and can see our discipleship wherever we walk it out. But this last move was too much- we may find relationships between people and place to be deeply flawed; community relations may be tragically broken, but we can muddle through, despite the fact that so often lions find they’re being led by donkeys. Now the king says he is a god?! ‘Our self-image is founded on the fact that our existence as humans is the created and sustained act of our God,’ they say. ‘We will serve you, but we will not give His glory to you, O king!’

King Nebuchadnezzar accuses the Jews Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. On the left is the golden statue of himself as a deity and a crowd of people worshiping the statue. In the background, a burning oven. Anyone who refuses to worship the image is to be thrown into the furnace.

I must admit that the argument must be advanced with nuance, for I am not claiming that we should have remained in caves and worn skins. We don’t need to argue for personal taste either- the statuary of our current civilisations is the product of complex cultural factors, and even amongst Christian folk, post Reformation and Counter Reformation, the creative use of imagery has continued with passion. I observe that the elevation of Liberty as an icon in New York harbour is a pointer to the freedom we can only have when all are free. The figure of Christ the Redeemer over the city of Rio de Janeiro may yet speak of deeper ambitions to those revelling in the carnival below, or splashing in the sea on Copacabana beach. In today’s money, the local Catholic community spent $3.4 million on this statue over a decade from 1922, with the express intention to stir a revival of faith.

Statue of Murugan, Batu Caves, Malaysia

In 2003, Hindu Tamil Malaysians built a 43m statue of their god Kartikeya, the Hindu god of war using 350 tons of steel, 1550 cubic metres of concrete, and 300 litres of gold paint. Perhaps this gives us an idea of what Nebuchadnezzar had built in Babylon. Once such a grand vision has actually been constructed, I can’t help thinking that a more critical reality is likely to dawn on people. This statue stands inelegantly above what appears to be a brick built convenience block, flanked on one side by an exotic gateway, while a line of fast food outlets, souvenir booths and a Starbucks copy cat coffee restaurant are on the other. In the photo, tourists are milling about, taking next to no notice of the shiny statue they apparently came to see.

Then there is the ‘ Statue of Unity’ built between 2013 and 2018 at the behest of Narendra Modi (today in Glasgow representing his country at COP26) as “Gujarat’s tribute to the nation”. This $422 million project is claimed to celebrate the role of independence activist Vallabhbhai Patel who brought significant unity to India after the close of British Empire rule- a thoroughly worthy cause for a memorial. But whose memorial is it? Patel’s, or Modi’s? Did this investment in the world’s tallest statue- all 182m of it- really serve to increase the sum of community well-being in this huge nation wracked by such poverty and social division? My current next door neighbours left their families in India to come to work here in the UK at the local hospital, and in a care home, and they shared their anguish with me during the pandemic when bodies were burnt in makeshift crematoria outside their hospitals. So many died without oxygen or vaccinations.

The Statue of Unity is a colossal statue of Indian statesman and independence activist Vallabhbhai Patel, who was the first deputy prime minister and home minister of independent India and an adherent of Mahatma Gandhi during the nonviolent Indian independence movement.
October 31st, 2018, marked the inauguration of the world’s tallest statue – the Statue of Unity, against the backdrop of the Satpura and Vindhyachal hills in Kevadia, Gujarat. The 182-metre statue is dedicated to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the architect of independent India.

In the UK we have different monuments now- towers of steel and concrete in the financial district of London , for example. We still have our Empire and Colonial trophies, so there is not such a desire for these things any more. The fourth plinth in Trafalgar square can host a rolling programme of temporary exhibits, which come and go at a whim. Or perhaps we can tear down the statues of slavers and throw them in the canal. There is no single overriding narrative to hold our attention, but the haves still have too much.

Can we afford to fix the climate crisis? It seems that COVID19 has proven that we certainly can change the ways that things are done when there is a sufficient grasp of the new priorities. Children stayed at home to learn, business went online, and millions were paid from the public purse to do nothing. Nature got to breathe briefly, as the sky over my house was empty of planes, and lorries hardly disturbed the silence outside. There were more birds, and more sorts of birds in my neighbourhood. Some are still there.

We certainly stopped, though whether there has been a great reset remains to be seen.

There is enough money, at least to get started, and we are slowly discovering how we might remake the economies of our countries. It is not at all the end for either creativity or commerce- even for readers of the Daily Telegraph, the term social conservatism need not be an oxymoron. A Green Economy does not mean a return to a world without business, technology, science, invention- all of these are needed for our collective betterment. Science in its fruitfulness is a great boon: quite simply, the gift of God. But after the British Empire, Nebuchadnezzar, Modi and friends (in no particular order) we must examine the road into the Future between ‘We can…’ and ‘We should…’ In history past the Jews were known, and generally unpopular, for their attitude to idols of all kinds- at least that was what the Ten Commandments said they thought. Right now, like never before, we need to discover the examined life– our collective life, and especially what we invest in and spend on. We need a profoundly rectified world view– and no more golden statues.

Lord, we pray for wisdom on Wednesday for all the leaders at COP26 as they consider how the piles of money should be valued, and how they should be spent. We pray that the Earth and all communities and creatures that live on it will be valued above all the silver and gold. In Jesus’ parable, the wicked servant was commended for making peace with those he had wronged before his judgement was upon him. We ask that our financiers learn to cancel debts and make such restitution with our world and those who are being wronged.

UPDATE

Lang Banks, director of WWF Scotland told BBC Scotland’s Drivetime he agreed with Ms Thunberg that politicians were not fulfilling their pledges, such as the promise of $100bn to help poorer nations cut emissions by 2020.

Ms Thunberg was one of the environmental activists speaking at the “Fridays for Future” meeting of young activists at Festival Park, near the COP26 campus.

She said: “This COP26 is so far just like the previous COPs and that has led us nowhere. They have led us nowhere.”

“Inside COP there are just politicians and people in power pretending to take our future seriously, pretending to take the present seriously of the people who are being affected already today by the climate crisis.

“Change is not going to come from inside there. That is not leadership – this is leadership.”

The Swedish teenager led cries of “climate justice” and “no more blah, blah, blah”.

“We’re sick and tired of it and we’re going to make the change whether they like it or not,” she added.

(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson

‘Maranatha’: my invitation to God for COP26

What is befalling us has been of our making, because we ‘like sheep have gone astray, each one to his own way.’ Let us return together to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls, and call on His Spirit, who will return to us if we tarry for Him, just as Jesus said at his ascension. We need to covenant in permanent partnership with God to co-create a good and better future here in heaven-earth, to His glory. We surely cannot do this alone, in the strength of our own uncoordinated efforts, spurred on only by the worthy cajoling of a few wise owls and energetic youths waving placards in city streets.

“If we don’t act now, it’ll be too late.” That’s the warning from Sir David Attenborough ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. The broadcaster says the richest nations have “a moral responsibility” to help the world’s poorest. And it would be “really catastrophic” if we ignored their problems, he told me in a BBC News interview. “Every day that goes by in which we don’t do something about it is a day wasted,” he said.

Climate change: Sir David Attenborough in ‘act now’ warning By David Shukman Science editor

Today, Sunday 31st October 2021, leaders, negotiators, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and activist protestors are gathering in Glasgow.

Holy Spirit of God, please Presence Yourself there also.

Spirit descend

In the story of Noah’s life with You, we read that after the great judgement, and when the Ark had come to peace on the surface of the seas, you commanded that he set loose the birds to discover if there was a place for a new home for all Your creatures. At the last journey, the bird returned with a sign of New Life. Even so, come Lord!

At the beginning of all things, we read that your Spirit came down to settle the dark chaos. Even so, come Lord!

In the river of Jordan you came to your cousin, John, and commanded that he baptise you, that everything should be completed. Your Father spoke from heaven of common sonship, and You, Great Spirit of God, were said to come down in physical form, like a dove, showing that New Life is coming to all. Even so, come Lord! We would that you come to us, Trinity of God, step down from earth to water, and fill the air with Your presence and Your approval once more.

Spirit hover

And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

Spirit of God, come to encounter with us, with your creatures and your world, our world, which we have not cared for. We have again released chaos into land, water and air, and we are sorry. Hover over your Earth once more, and bring us into counsel with you about what can be created in this day, and in the next; in the two weeks of this conference.

Spirit brood

You were not ashamed to be figured as birds in the narratives of old: even as a mother hen, who would gather her chicks to her, having laid and hatched them by Your gift, and call to them to return under her wings when danger is seen. Lord God, you hear the Alarm, and you indeed see what peril we are in. Come brood over us, and conceive in us your partnership plan for bringing New life and Healing to birth. Make us a saviour sibling to Your sacred Creation, to serve it and live our lives well for it, as an unseparated twin, a sacrificial servant, just as you modelled for us in Christ.

Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone.

Spirit, still

Creator God, we cannot bring calm to the chaos in our climate. We call to you for your aid in bringing stillness and calm where we have caused disaster by our pollution and excessive consumption, without consideration or care for the consequences. You see how the graphs rise horrifically- the levels of gases and their effects on the temperature and weather. Bring your gift of stillness Lord, that we may know that You are God of the whole world.

We look for your bow in the sky above Glasgow: your sign of covenant promise given to Noah that you will not destroy the earth again by flood. As the COP26 conference is gathering in a storm of human dysfunction and recriminations, of anger over the accumulated injustices of generations, we hold out our hands in faith to receive your spirit of Shalom Peace over all the speaking and listening that happens there. May words of kindness and covenant be spoken to turn away wrath.

Rainbow over the Finnieston neighbourhood of Glasgow, a mile west of the City Centre where COP26 is being held.

Spirit illumine

Creating God of all Providence, as You made all and gave life to all from your very Own Light, we ask you to bring your illumination again to the New Creation that is your will in this Day. All we have comes from you, and life relies on light. You are Light and the life of all mankind. Dispel our darkness and shine on us Today. Enlighten your whole earth we pray.

Spirit blow

Man is like grass, you tell us, and your Wind blows over it; it is gone and its place remembers it no more. But Lord we would remind you that you promise to give us a hope and a future, and that your Spirit will contend with us for a short while. You even promise to fill us with your very self, that we can be carried along by your Wind, in ways that men cannot understand. Come again, Spirit of God, breathe on your world, breathe in your people, and move in the air with us to do mysteries of healing.

Spirit breathe

21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” [John 20:21f ESV]

Spirit groan

Forgive us, Lord, for what You made ‘very good’ we have destroyed. We are ashamed, for the creation is groaning, the creatures are dying, the plants are burning, and the so-valuable soil is washed away. The air is full of filth, and we now realise, with complete horror that both we and our fathers have sinned against You. Truly, we are undone before You.

Spirit of God, we are comforted to know that you are willing to come again into this mess that we have made and to mourn with us.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

Romans 8 ESV

Lord, lead us in the road of repentance to the good works that You have prepared in advance for us to do.

Spirit ignite

Father God, you see the industrial-scale fires that we have lit in forests and woodlands everywhere, and then also the fires that started themselves where the land became parched and hot. For thousands of years we have been at war with your beautiful trees. Help us to put all these fires out.

Yet we see your power in the picture of the flame- as with any fire, power must be used wisely. Beyond all our sense and logic, you visited your apostles and disciples with fire in the secret room to infuse them with such Life- the very life of GOD!- that their natures were visibly transcended before one another, just as Moses was seen by the Israelites on descending the mountain. What does this picture say to us, O Lord? I see that your true fire really does purify your people deep within, so that you can come in with us- to sup with us. And then the work that we do can truly be a joint work of God and God’s holy people. So purify us now Lord, and partner with us, in particular the work of the Christian Climate Observers programme at the COP26 conference.

Spirit sing

In Your first Garden you planted trees to symbolise Life and a sharing in your very nature. But on your own terms, which we ignored. Yet you did not destroy us all then in judgement, but decided that your Life would continue, even to New Creation, and so we continue to live in hope. Thank you for keeping the Tree of Life growing in your New Jerusalem, which you are preparing even now. We thank you for the prophecy of the Singing Ringing Tree on the hills above Burnley, England, where the wind blows, and makes audible music through the sculpture.

The Lord your God is in your midst,

    a mighty one who will save;

he will rejoice over you with gladness;

    he will quiet you by his love;

he will exult over you with loud singing.

Zephaniah 3 17

I am trusting in the Great I AM! Let the wind blow.

Spirit speak!

Matthew 10: 16-20 “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 

Spirit of God, speak sovereign words of Creation in this day, in this conference, and in the world that then unfolds before You. Your Word is mighty and powerful, even bringing seasons of desolation and judgement. Yet you blessed the generations that followed with peace and joy.

Psalm 46:6 The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
    how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the chariots with fire.

Lord God, please bring to an end the destruction that we have done, where we have practised injustice on the weak all over the world. Give us words Lord, to all in common and also to your people, to speak truth to power and raise a standard of justice so that the materials of your creation are deployed only for the common good. Speak peace through us Lord, to end this War on the World.

Spirit energise!!

God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we praise you for your great power throughout the universe displayed, and especially here on Earth. In the time of Elijah, your prophet called upon you, and you answered him in Witness from heaven- the God Who answers by fire- He is God!!! You have given us power- your human creatures, and we have released great powers from the earth that have almost run out of our control. Lord, we pray to You now- meet us on the mountain in Glasgow and in your world- answer us with your power, and empower your people to be effective witnesses to the God of Creation and Salvation in our Logos Lord Jesus Christ. Bring Your order here on earth, we pray, as you anoint the work of this conference.

In your mercy,

Hear our prayer.

16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another [your false steps, your offenses], and pray for one another, that you may be healed and restored. The heartfelt and persistent prayer of a righteous man (believer) can accomplish much [when put into action and made effective by God—it is dynamic and can have tremendous power]. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours [with the same physical, mental, and spiritual limitations and shortcomings], and he prayed [d]intensely for it not to rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land produced its crops [as usual].

James 5:16-17 AMP

Energise our prayers, Spirit of God, with Your dunamis power, as we learn to pray them with You, so that Your lordship is seen over air and land: that rain falls as and when it should, that it comes in season, and as a blessing, and that the soil will be preserved everywhere it is found, and that it bears all its fruits as you first determined.

That the earth is healed, in Jesus’ Name!

Even so, Come Lord Jesus!

(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson

COP26 and beyond: Persistence in intercession.

Luke 18 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” ESV

This post accompanies my general article “I am making everything New, and you can help, starting with COP26 in Glasgow, October 31-November 12 2021.”

You can view and also download the ‘Climate Intercessors’ 10 strategic prayers for COP26 document here: https://www.climateintercessors.org/10-prayers-for-cop26-1

Here’s a great summary of the issues at stake at COP26: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-56901261

Strategic Prayer point 8: For vulnerable nations.

Lord God of Justice, we lift to you the peoples and nations of our world whose small voices might be unheard in the crowd at COP26. You see those peoples whose lands are disappearing as we do not act, as the sea level rises and more frequent and more powerful storms batter them out of existence. You see the smallholders whose lands are taken forcibly by distant governments and greedy corporations- and sometimes these agents are our governments and our corporations! You see the desperate people who find themselves born into a world of great inequality and deep injustice, where the ‘haves’ do not share and the ‘have nots’ are not loved. All these are like the woman in the parable, whose husband has died, whose children rely on her completely, and yet she is assailed and assaulted by injustice. Her adversaries are faceless, just as the causes of misery are today for those who suffer because of the chronic violence done to the earth’s climate, and so many other ills that have been done to it- your gift of the Created good Earth. This woman is nameless to us, but you know the names of all who are like her. You know the precise wrongs in all their legion number and who is blame. We confess our sins to you Lord. We pray that the voices of all these people are heard, in heaven, and in Glasgow. We pray that the justice of their cause is proclaimed, and that the story of who and what is to blame, what the consequences are, and how they can be repaired, will be told before Your throne and thus here on earth.

We hear the charge of our Lord Jesus in this parable: that we should pray and not give up. Therefore we join our voices to the cries of the many vulnerable, that you already hear. We ask Lord, Give them Justice: give relief from all perils that stem from this climate crisis, give direction to its repair, and direct our negotiations to actions that will correct the wrongs that generations have done, and especially this generation. We declare that we are willing to persist and not give up in giving breath to the prayers for justice that you will to answer in our day, in Jesus’ Name.

Lord of Justice, we commend to you all the parties in these negotiators that are like the unjust judge- the persons and corporations that have been shamelessly careless of the justice of these causes. We pray for a change of heart, a discovery of heart, a paradigm shift in their constitution, that what was created as a means to extract mere riches from planet and people will become a means of service and care for both. We pray that nation states that prioritise self-interest above all other priorities will in this cause become common partners for our common good, especially for the weak and those suffering the disastrous effects of climate change. We pray for a great miracle- that they will come to a new place of respecting man and even fearing You, respecting the earth that you have left as a gift in our care.

Father of All, we do not ask just for this group or that, for our friends or our favourite projects. We recognise that the scales of human justice are flawed- they cannot balance, as the rich and powerful manipulate them to their own advantage. So we lift our eyes to heaven to ask You for divine justice in this negotiation and in the decisions and actions that follow. We come together to You, to persist on behalf of those who have no voice: we will be their voice before You!

Holy God, who knows our sins and gifts us faith, teach me to pray as Jesus encourages in this subtle story: You are depicted as a distant and impersonal figure who will nevertheless give in to persistent bothering! Spirit of God, show us how to bother You according to your will and invitation. You also accept the misconception that You will give in to pestering, rather than being moved by objective justice, which impugns your holy character. We understand that these descriptions are not accurate, but that you are teaching us a lesson. School us in it Lord!

We ask for your healing for the world that You have made. This earth is but part of your whole creation, and we commend it to you – its plants and animals and materials, including the air- all the things that we have loved to use and to use up- and ask you to teach us how our presence in Your world as Your people can transform the relationships between everything for the better. We would that You use us to influence the climate of society so that the atmospheric climate can be brought back into proper balance.

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

As I read St Paul, I hear a parallel between the injured widow and the injured Creation. And we find that God joins both in the groaning, which is expressed in the prayers that we now give willing and obedient voice to. And so all can come together- the prayer of the peoples to whom injustice is being done, the wordless prayer of the groaning creation, the harmonising prayer of the Spirit of God, and all this given breath by God’s Spirit-filled people!

in this i see the tripartite worldview of God, god’s creation and God’s human creatures coming together in dynamic interrelationship- the thesis of this entire blog

God of Yeshua our Saviour Messiah, we thank You that you are indeed concerned for our collective welfare, in regard of our eternal spirits, as you have made us, each one. Since the beginning our hearts have been broken, marred by evil and our self-created wickedness. In this your Creation is broken, for we are at the heart of it, and so you grieve in your heart. You once unmade and remade your world because you wanted to mend everything. You are an awesome God, not least because you know how to make things New as you please. But in these recent centuries we have been unmaking your world, throwing the entire biosphere into a state of peril, driving so many species to extinction, and there are now many more ways in which your good Creation is provoked to groaning. We hear Your heart Lord: reveal your sons and daughters in this Day, who will hear your prophetic Voice calling us to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with You, our God! We are happy to be patient for your final End, whether you come soon or late, but we call to you now Lord for this need in this time, which cannot wait. As creation is groaning, so we are groaning before you Lord God, and though there is a mystery of futility in our lives, we humbly ask at this time that You empower a break though in all our affairs, that Good may be done in this conference and in the decade of action that must follow it. Hear from heaven, O our God, and heal our Land, even as you promised.

Lord, those of us that are your own people would draw nearer to You. You invite us in, to share in your groaning in the cause of what you have made, O God of Wonders. Come to us each one, Spirit of Holiness, and teach us to pray in this time. As we are willing for you to deal with the ‘spiritual’ state of our hearts, we are asking you to deal with the state of our doings in the world- is that not spiritual also? Your Incarnation says ‘Yes!’ Lord you see our great weakness as your body because we have restricted our vision to the eternal future and been careless of the beautiful and vital things you have made from your dust- the stuff of this world, which we said was dirty and even evil. Forgive us these heresies Lord! So we do not know how to pray. We thank you for these ten strategic prayers- give them breath by Your Spirit as we breathe them out to you with the best halting words we can muster, and show us what can come next. In the beginning your Spirit brooded over the formless void- was it chaos? There is chaos now Lord for it is us who have ruined waters and lands and all the air. Come brood in us! Come brood with us!! Reveal your best Will and use us today to release your saving purposes into the world, especially into everything that pertains to the state of the climate. Use us to bring together these peoples, their leaders and all the systems that there are for good– for Your Good Purposes.

In Jesus’ Name

Amen.

As written in the opening chapters of Genesis, the state of ‘Paradise’ does not last very long. Having left the first couple to tend God’s own Royal garden in His stead, the Lord returns in the cool of the day in hope of fellowship, but discovers disaster. I do not believe that the Creation-work mandate to us as God’s human creatures in over. Nor do I believe that God intends to wind back the clock of history to take everything Back to Genesis. The cross of Christ only advances. While Eden is closed behind us, God continues to surprise us by coming down to join us in our mess. And now my prayer is this:

Lord God in Jesus Christ, as you once came to seek fellowship with your worker friends in Eden, we would invite You in to the world you gave us to watch and keep. Lord God, we invite You back to show us how to partner with You in the good work you would have us create today and tomorrow. In Your Mercy Lord,

Hear our prayer.

 The Genesis account of Creation in the church of Christ the King, Gordon Square in London.

(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson

COP26 and beyond: Interceding for our world leaders.

This post accompanies my general article “I am making everything New, and you can help, starting with COP26 in Glasgow, October 31-November 12 2021.”

You can view and also download the ‘Climate Intercessors’ 10 strategic prayers for COP26 document here: https://www.climateintercessors.org/10-prayers-for-cop26-1

Strategic Prayer point 9: Leadership.

Lord God of Creation, we thank you for our human leaders, who are men and women like us, and so are not perfect! Nevertheless, we thank You for them, and for their service.

As we commend them to you as they and their representatives gather in Glasgow this weekend for the two days of leader speeches and negotiations, we recognise that you have long intervened in the affairs of this human world, in ways which our theology may still not accommodate. You treated the kings and pharaohs of old with grace and mercy, speaking to them personally and using them to accomplish your good purposes in this world, even though they were not your special people, your avowed followers. We hope for the same partnership and blessing at this crucial time, when the common fate of all lies before them and the decisions being made next week.

Thank you that some of our leaders are like Pharaoh in Egypt, who received your dreams of warning, of mysterious insight into a distant but nevertheless inevitable famine that would assail ‘his’ land in the politically far-off future. Against all the odds, as we would measure them, he gave his attention to your visions, tested his advisors and found them wanting, and then sought out the man of God whom you had prepared for such a time1. Extraordinarily you blessed Pharaoh and his court with an extraordinary level of humility to accept Joseph’s counsel2, which came from You, and further to promote him to ultimate office to bring about the adaptations required3. Pharaoh did this without changing his religion or the religion of his country, though that happened at other times – Lord, in Your Sovereignty we ask you to move the hearts of our leaders to be like this leader, and respond promptly with wisdom.

We pray that you will find many of our leaders will walk in this example when they meet in Glasgow, and as the negotiations continue right now through diplomatic channels. The prophesied seven years of plenty were just enough, for once they had ended, the famine was upon them all! Holy Father, we ask that there will be such a timely response, as the science says we have no more than a decade to act corporately, and to act differently. We ask that you impart a common gift by your Spirit of humility, to reject all faulty counsel and search out and embrace the right advice.

Father God, we know that some leaders have heard the warnings of heaven, whether through science, from their people, or simply through the talk of the international community. They say that they have heard, but in their hearts they have not, being wedded to habit, vested interests, and the lobbying of the foolish and to the banal evil of faceless corporations- the excuse of ‘the system.’ Like Nebuchadnezzar, they have heard Your direct challenge and may have paused to say the right things4, but then revert to their careless and arrogant hubris. And then- oh great God of Mercy- when your judgement falls upon them they eventually come to their senses! You preserved the life of this arrogant king, and even his place in government, as he was chastened before You, and as he came to his senses, he returned to the world stage to give You glory. We don’t know how his behaviour changed- what sort of leader he then became- but we surmise that he was a wiser king and a better servant of his community. And for such we pray for our leaders- You know who they are Lord, Merciful God!

Belshazzar’s feast.*oil on canvas.*167,6 x 209,2 cm .*signed c.r.: Rembrand/F 163(.).*inscribed t.r.: Mene mene tekel upharsin

Thirdly Lord, you know those leaders who are hiding from You and from all good wisdom at this time. Some will be those who stay away from the COP in Glasgow, but others will hide in plain sight, even saying the right things in public. Like Nebuchadnezzar’s son Belshazzar, who ought to have learned lessons5 from his father, they indulge their passions, exploit their people, ravage the earth, consuming its produce and products without thought for tomorrow, and nurture arrogance even before Your Face, as they serve up their feasts on the vessels of Your Temple. Lord, even as we cry for mercy, we pray that Your writing comes to them, in the secret halls and offices where they and their friends would try to hide. And we pray for the writing to be interpreted to them, that some may be saved from disaster. Let mercy triumph over judgement, as Jesus taught us, and yet please remove those who practice wickedness without repentance that is bringing our world, Your world, to such ruin. Give their place to wiser leaders, and may your people be found there to support them.

Be Lord of Mercy and Lord of Judgement in these things Father, for You alone see into all our hearts and know whether the soil there can be prepared to enable your Word-Seed to grow: can the stones be removed, and the soil turned over, or must the tares be left to grow with the wheat? We forgive their trespasses Lord, for we hope also for Your forgiveness; yet we beseech you that You will bless us with good leaders in our time, that there may be peace in our Day.

In Jesus’ Name

Amen

IMAGES

Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dream (Iran, 19th century)  Judeo-Persian illuminated manuscript on a rectangular sheet. Drawing depicting Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dream and Judeo-Persian inscription (written in Farsi using Hebrew characters) within a black and red double frame.  Accession no. 85.46.2 (Gift of Chimon Mayeri and Family). https://www.flickr.com/photos/magnesmuseum/4558795206

Detail of a miniature of Nebuchadnezzar and an ox, both eating grass. Image taken from f. 402 of Bible historiale, with various biblical books and saints lives (the early version) (Grand Bible historiale complétée à prologues). Written in French. Nebuchadnezzar from BL Royal 19 D III, f. 402 https://picryl.com/media/nebuchadnezzar-from-bl-royal-19-d-iii-f-402-8df794

Belshazzar’s feast.*oil on canvas.*167,6 x 209,2 cm .*signed c.r.: Rembrand/F 163(.).*inscribed t.r.: Mene mene tekel upharsin https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belshazzar%27s_Feast_(Sibelius)#/media/File:Belshazzar%E2%80%99s_feast,_by_Rembrandt.jpg

(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson

“I am making everything New, and you can help, starting with COP26 in Glasgow, October 31-November 12 2021.”

It’s nearly time for the twenty sixth Conference of the Parties (COP26) to begin in Glasgow- just over a week to go until the start of the biggest international meeting ever held in the UK, and, regardless of number of attendees, certainly the most important meeting of world leaders to take place in our generation. What time is it? It is decision time. And it is reality time. Either there will be substantial and effective plans from each country’s leadership- the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to reducing emissions driving our climate chaos- or there won’t. And the sum of all these individual commitments either will or will not add up to the collective difference that we have to make as one human race to recover our collective community to a state of sustainability. I’ve written much in this blog over the last 18 months about vision, co-creation and dreams that point to God’s very good ultimate future that could be seen in part in our here and now- in our community of people and planet. Perhaps you’ve been a friendly reader, or maybe a critical one. However, right now, the average global temperature is rising significantly, and though there are even some scientists I thought I could respect who still choose to argue about what ought to be uncontested facts, there will be as much use in arguing with thermometers as humble King Canute was said to prove on an English beach as the tide and waves came rolling towards him. It doesn’t matter what kings might decree, or knaves declare they do not believe. Apocryphal as Huntingdon’s story undoubtedly is, there’s never been much arguing with the tides. The Dutch have been best at it, while downstream from where Cnut the Great perhaps stood at Thorney Island, Westminster (in London) we now have a barrier in the Thames to keep the high water back. But there won’t be any arguing with rising global sea level. Soon enough, our Thames barrier won’t be big enough to keep the salt water out of the City of London. “By 2050, over 570 low-lying coastal cities will face projected sea level rise by at least 0,5 meters. This puts over 800 million people at risk from the impacts of rising seas and storm surges.”1 

12th Century historian Henry of Huntingdon describes how Canute (d 1035) set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the incoming tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes. Yet “continuing to rise as usual [the tide] dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.'” He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix, and never wore it again “to the honour of God the almighty King”

after wikipedia article on canute/cnut, accessed 22 10 21

It has long appeared to be the case that the actions of generations of kings, princes, slaves and peoples of all positions in society may well have profound effects upon one another, but not much on the environment in which we all live. This impression is simply not true.2 Though the population has been much smaller than current levels, woodland cover in Britain fell from around 75% about 4000 years ago to an all-time low of 5% in 1905, and most of this loss was before the Industrial Revolution. Many other historic examples of human impacts on environment and climate could be collated, where the fall of complete civilisations has been the inevitable result of our overreaching exploitation of the natural systems on which we depend. But now there are 7 902 132 110+ (says World Population meter, as I write) of us, which collectively is causing a crisis of near-apocalyptic proportions, and time is not on our side.

Make no mistake, if there are indeed some 2 380 000 000+ Christians in the world today, then there is much that we followers of Jesus can do- should do. Must do. In any economic system, that’s a lot of spending power, a lot of influence, and a great deal of responsibility. Today, I am simply applying our shared spiritual values to prayer. Each of us must consider our contribution in ‘practical’ terms, our lifestyle choices at home, in transport and energy use, our consumption of all kinds. But if I am persuading you that there could be a richness in the Christian world view that adds significantly to potential solutions to the crisis in our Commons, then we should also explore what vital contribution prayer might bring to our toolbox of actions.

In advance of COP26 a small band of Christians convened ‘Climate Intercessors’ to address this most urgent priority, including Eden Vigil, YWAM England and Tearfund. In turning to prayer, Christians are not claiming that action is not required. ‘I will show you my faith by my actions’, says the Apostle James (James 2:18). But the claim we are somewhat persuaded of is that by turning to God first in prayer, this will engage the agency of heaven and also shape the actions we ourselves go on to do, and the spirit in which we do those actions. If we are to encourage one another, and all the more as we see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:25) the Spirit we are filled with will make all the difference- how we speak, the love we show, the grace we extend to one another. We do not claim a monopoly on the truth of what must be done to rescue our world, but those truths must best be spoken in love, and it is this that is in such short supply. Most of all we are keeping covenant with our God, the Creator, who promises to be with us and amongst us when we join together in prayer. And to hear us. And to answer!

You can find this at climateintercessors.org including the sign up for emails during the conference helping us to all pray together.

This is strategic. The focus of this prayer initiative is on the conference and its aims and objective, and most of all, its outcomes. Many issues interrelate with these priorities, but we want to lift this conference to the Lord of the Cosmos and hear what the Spirit of God would do with us in answering the prayers of the world for urgent rescue. Here is the summary version of the COP26 programme: from https://ukcop26.org/the-conference/presidency-programme/

The Climate Intercessors team have responded to this agenda by suggesting that the (approximately) five main conference areas are supported by ten strategic prayer requests. This has been a corporate exercise, shared between the leaders of various organisations that have partnered to lead this vision, and also inviting contributions from anyone who attends the monthly prayer meetings or posts via the website. Speaking personally, I have been massively encouraged to join across a virtual e-link with my brothers and sisters in the USA and Canada, Europe and Singapore at different times, to hear their testimony and championing of the needs of local communities that they are giving their lives to. We have learned to pray into the COP programme, asking for exactly what it asks for. We are learning how to pray into these aims from God’s point of view- in partnership with God’s Spirit. What a privilege to co-create the future with God, for this is His invitation!

These are certainly not all the prayers that one can pray for COP26, neither are we claiming that they are the most important prayers for COP26, but we do believe we have been led by God in shaping these prayers for our stewardship of intercession. 

Lowell Bliss and the Climate Intercessors leadership team

My approach is to ask what the biblical perspectives could include that pertain to praying ‘Christianly’ about these matters, and this is what I would like to share with you here. As the final ten strategic requests are collated by Climate Intercessors, you may find these reflections of help when engaging prayerfully with the practical issues.

  1. We pray that people everywhere take notice of what is happening around us, in weather events and other consequences of climate-impacting pollution, and that their eyes are opened because, collectively, we are proving slow to see. God please give us discernment to understand what we do at home affects things far away and everywhere. Just as CFCs from our broken fridges or sprayed aerosols rose invisibly to the sky, the consequences were seen far away over the Antarctic as a hole in the UV-filtering ozone layer. This problem was understood and acted on successfully. Now our collective carbon emissions and methane production is causing increasing loss of Arctic sea ice and distant mountain glaciers- too far from our gaze, even the reach of our news media. Yet our acts of collective destruction do not demonstrate that we do not really belong in this Good Earth that God has made and placed us in. The ‘prophet’ Jonah (he didn’t want to be a prophet at the start of his story!) tried to ignore, deny and literally run away from God’s call to be a voice of warning and a prophet of repenting action in the foreign land of Nineveh. He ended up in the sea, and yet God did not allow him to drown and die. Rather, the text says that God provided a ‘great fish’ to swallow Jonah and thus give him pause for thought, even for prayer. You will perhaps know the foreshadowing of the work of Christ in this episode of Jonah’s journey, but as well as that I suggest that God uses His created world to ‘keep us in the loop,’ because spiritual priorities include ‘practical’ matters in this world. The book of Jonah concludes with God’s assurance that he cares about both human inhabitants and also the many animals that live at the city- though they were clearly farmed for people’s food. Therefore, the climate crisis should not be read as Creation ‘spitting us out’ but rather that God will deploy its networks to mitigate our excesses, keeping us connected within it.
  2. For all countries, and especially for those who have caused and are now causing the greatest damage, that all the warnings will be taken seriously- the warnings of our joint experience, of the IPCC reports, and from all who are suffering and protesting. The Egyptian Pharaoh of Genesis was awakened by a doubled dream that warned him of an approaching disaster of supply, of disruption to sustainability. After due consultation and testing, Pharaoh gave Joseph leadership and full authority, with signet ring, court robes and a gold chain, to implement his co-created plan of preparation and rescue. Such divinely inspired dreams passed to the role of prophets like Agabus in the early Church3. Much ink has been spilt to caution Christian folk from misunderstanding the role of prophecy in our day, and with much wisdom, no doubt. Yet Agabus spoke, and it is recorded, that God still gives insights into concrete events that are about to take place in history, including those that pertain to basic and general human survival, just like Pharaoh’s dreams in Genesis. God does have a special role for his people to play in bridging heaven and earth, even in the courts of those far from the good news of Jesus Christ. We pray therefore that Naaman’s servant girl will be heeded by all the ‘powerful’ leaders of the nations today (2 Kings 5 tells of the foreign leader, Naaman the Syrian, who sought healing from the God of Israel) and that these leaders will even come to value the very dirt on which we stand (2 Kings 5:17). (Or as Wendell Berry puts it, What I Stand For is What I Stand On.)
  3. That all ‘Pharaohs‘ will act proportionately to the present crisis; that global leaders will not be ‘Nebuchadnezzars‘ who hear the warning of the Watcher but simply ignore it. There will and must be a plan, and God would make this with us. We can seek God for wisdom on behalf of our leaders who may not themselves ask for it. God makes His first creation as a temple for his Presence with us, in which ha’adam works in Shalom peace; God gave a full plan for the Ark of rescue in judgement to the silently attentive and persistently obedient Noah. In the inhospitable wilderness God gave plans for a Tabernacle to Moses, and anointed skilled technicians to build it. At Jerusalem, where David prayed to build a House for the Almighty, God answered with plans, first of preparation and then instructions for his son Solomon, who built according to the pattern. God met with God’s people in all these times and places, and they lived! These foreshadowings point to the Body model of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, of which we are now all living stones, joined spiritually to our Head, joined relationally to one another and joined organically to the World- fully Incarnated! God would be in this co-created Plan with us- not at all distant- for the True God is not the far away god of Deism.

4. Many Christian folk see a foretelling of the Father of Lies in the Garden of Eden in the character of the serpent, and there is some accuracy in this. Though in some ways it is also accurate to say that we have left Eden, the first place of shared fellowship with God, God’s people and God’s creation, nevertheless this world is still an Eden for us all. And there are certainly many liars amongst us, and we all struggle to know the truth, and to tell it accurately. We pray therefore that the liars in our Garden will be seen for what they are, and that their various appeals to what we would see and taste and think (4 Gen 3:6) will be understood as a matter of our spirits being vulnerable and open to deception. Further, we pray that spiritual powers that inspire such lies will be exposed and dealt with in God’s grace.


5. The fifth prayer prompt mentions our recognising and being part of ‘ the community of creation.’ This is a positive motivation- it must also be coupled with a willingness to expose the great injuries done to both community and environment. These two are, in any case, never really separate. The great prophet Elijah grappled with many spiritual and political challenges in his life ministry, and very near its conclusion is an episode that speaks to our current priorities. The very judged but not yet fallen toxic partnership of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel is described at 1 Kings 215 in the episode of Naboth’s vineyard. Verses 25 and 26 of this passage observe that Ahab did many other egregious acts of evil in Israel, but this one story stands for them all. It perhaps takes some effort of imagination5b to perceive that this is a study in the breakdown of the biblical vision for the proper relations between leaders and people, people and land, and the whole network that makes up community living. The wickedness of Ahab and his wife are not prevented- this is a hard fact to accept. Naboth, the humble and obedient member of the community of God is bullied but resists, and then is framed and murdered in a shameless act that makes a mockery of the principles of justice. Only then are we told that God is watching and that He speaks to his prophet. Even then, judgement is only spoken but not yet followed through. Such divine patience underlines our agency and responsibility before God, rather than exposing any lack of compassion or ability on God’s part. All this is the very antithesis of Jesus’ instruction to pray simply, ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ How much is enough anyway? There is no specified quantity, but ‘daily bread’ is a sufficient guideline. The particular vineyard that Ahab was jealous for was not only a part of the land portion of Naboth’s family, it was a sign of the blessed life of the family of God, and a sign of the joy of abundance that God does indeed allow in this world. It was not a resource to be bought and sold but an inheritance gift from God through the present to the future, and to all generations. In Buber’s terms, not an ‘it’ but a ‘thou’. We read that on leaving his ark, Noah planted a vineyard and then overindulged in the wine he produced from it; a great stress on family and society followed. What is a gift for joy can so easily become the fuel of excess. And so it has been since the Victorian development of steam and the subsequent drilling and pumping of billions of barrels of oil. It is no small thing that BP, Shell and Equinor have been prevented from exerting influence as sponsors at COP26.6 Without being personal about the company directors or employees, Ahabs and Jezebels are not welcome here, and the judgement of the hour is finally being heard. [However, see here6b] Love for nature and community must also come with teeth. We urgently need to throw out the old economics and shift paradigms to an economy that rightly values Creation, which is why Sir Partha Dasgupta’s report to the UK government is so important.7 and 8


6. The sixth prayer point concerns our young people. As I welcome children back to school post-pandemic, it is very clear that there is a general sense of trepidation amongst our youth. What sort of future do they have to look forward to? Many perils and challenges could be expected. How long will the COVID19 pandemic last, with its knock on effects on education and child development? What of the economic situation and the prospects for jobs and housing? No challenge can be isolated: and perhaps the answers to these and others lie in a ‘Green Recovery.’ The scope for spiritually inspired co-creation is phenomenal, I think, and we can take a lesson from the exile of the Israelites to Babylon. The nation appears destroyed, its survivors sequestered into an oppressive empire that might seem to have its boot on the necks of the next generation of the Jews. Yet this is not at all how the picture is given in the book of Daniel. In exile, God gave extraordinary opportunity to Daniel and his peers to find a hope and future of cocreation even under this occupying and all-absorbing empire. Against all expectations, these youngsters Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (aka Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego), along with Daniel, discover that God makes a way for them ‘inside the system’ to be a generation of integrity, vision and cultural transformation. The whole testimony of the book of Daniel is that whatever chaos may be unleashed around us, even for the vulnerable young people of today, God first gives hope and then substance to that hope. May it be so now Lord!

7 The final prayer point published in advance is for God’s blessing and Presence in the city of Glasgow,; the name means ‘Dear Green Place.’ As the final days count down, this hope for blessing is being challenged by intentions for strike action in the city, and piles of uncollected rubbish on the streets. It is no idle matter to seek God’s blessing at a place of negotiation over such controversial matters as involved in the climate crisis; especially with some arguing that there is no crisis at all. Does the geographic location of this conference really matter from a spiritual perspective? Do I, your God, have need of an earthly House? G-d once asked, but then God came to the Temple anyway. We certainly want God to be especially Present in Glasgow, and our God is certainly big enough to take on all opposition and to be victorious over all obstacles. We certainly pray for justice for bin men9, that their valuable work is properly recognised, and for wider peace in civil society. I am considering the victory of the Philistines over Israel that resulted in the capture of the ark of the covenant (1 Samuel 4) which was then carried away to the town of Ashdod. As Robert Alter and the English Standard Version make plain, though the unfaithful Israelites deserved to go into exile, Godself goes in their place. We read that the Ark was placed in the temple of Dagon, but the next morning the statue of the idol was found collapsed in front of it. The Philistine priests set their Dagon up again, but the next day it was back on the floor with its head and hands broken off! None of this is meant to refer to Glasgow, but there will be idolatrous influences that we pray God works actively to bring down to dust- literally, to disarm them! No blessing came to the Philistines: wherever the ark was carried, there was fearful judgement, but after it was sent back to Israel, in 2 Samuel 6:11 we see that the household of Obed-Edom was blessed simply because the Ark was there. Such we pray for Glasgow itself. So I happily affirm that the principle of Incarnation can extend to God’s blessing of the places where God’s co-creative work is being done.

What suggestions would I make for the remaining three prayer prompts, to complete the set of ten? What do you think of these:


Suggestion 8: The brief was that we seek God regarding aspects of COP26, its programme and people. I am happy with this: but to pray ‘in the Spirit’ must surely mean that we are open to ‘seeing from God’s point of view.’ Now we can only know anything of God’s Point of View if God reveals it to us. Which is why scripture is a necessary guide, and I think we must take a lead from Nehemiah chapter 1.

O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. 

The chapter begins with research, which is a parallel to the IPCC reports that lay out in great depth and detail what the state of our atmosphere and climate is in. This is the business of science. But Nehemiah also reaches out to God with a spirit committed to the principle of repentance. Our political discourse is sullied by words of regret– that this or that tragedy has befallen certain parts of the community on the watch of this or that minister- but without accepting personal responsibility. I believe that Nehemiah gets results in his efforts to partner with God in co-creation because he does two things at the start: he puts his own life and reputation on the line, AND he aligns with those who went before him, owning their sins and failures as his own. He explicitly repents on behalf of those who may or may not have done so themselves. God says this is necessary: He covenants with Abraham in Gen 22 because of this step of willingness to sacrifice. Galatians 3 makes it clear that the Incarnation-Salvation project hinges on this self-identification. So too we may find breakthrough in the heavenlies by owning what we corporately have done to the climate, and what we have left undone in not fixing it up to now.

I repeat what I said before: the Disciple’s Prayer that Jesus gave us (Matt 6, Luke 11), that begins ‘Give us this Day our daily bread’ continues, ‘…and forgive us our sins…’ for taking from our brother and also for taking from our brother and sister Nature, or, as Francis of Assisi10 would have it:

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
And fair and stormy, all weather’s moods,
by which You cherish all that You have made.

Praised be You my Lord through Sister Water,
So useful, humble, precious and pure.

Praised be You my Lord through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You my Lord through our Sister,
Mother Earth
who sustains and governs us,
producing varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.
Praise be You my Lord through those who grant pardon for love of You and bear sickness and trial.

This is therefore a claim that we must pray for the Church, for God will surely recognise that we are an agent in this crisis, and must feature in a proper prayer programme, even if this does not fit neatly into the framework of the COP programme.


Suggestion 9: There are many people and interests that will not be represented at the COP26 negotiations, but God wills that their voices are heard directly. They may be represented in some way by others, and some may be in the streets and parks of Glasgow outside the fences, protesting and holding vigil for some worth aspect of this cause. God knows about off-site protests: I think we can bracket all these together under the heading of Luke 18 and the Parable of the Persistent Widow, Jesus commends to us the attitude of this powerless woman, who has no recourse to a husband or any man who can speak and gain influence on her behalf. Her approach is artless and blunt, even perhaps irreverent. The judge is openly godless in his commitments, using the law only as a means of making his living, and careless of duty or social responsibility. But God is watching over all this, and implies in this parable that if we play our proper part in partnership with God, then God will see to it that, eventually, justice is not subverted or hijacked by the violence that oppresses many around the world in our time- not least the indigenous peoples whose resources are under such sustained assault. Notice that this depends on us, or, as the champion of liberation in South Africa, Desmond Tutu puts it, God believes in us.


Suggestion 10: We do pray that God is present in the public meetings, in the sessions on days 1 and 2 when the world leaders convene, where their words and the words of their speechwriters are trotted out for scrutiny by delegates and the world’s media and the commentariat. Yet we know that the success of these talks and negotiations depends on everyone being in the room. Will everyone be in the room? Even if Putin, Morrison and Xi do show up, will they be present? Actually committed to the cause??

This need not be a problem. If Xi Jinping stays at home in China with his Communist Party friends, God can get to him there. Daniel 5 describes how Belshazzar is holding a private party for his committed friends and hangers-on. He is nevertheless very aware of the wider agenda, the global political realities- the fact that he is trying to hide. Why else does he bring out the golden vessels looted from the Jerusalem temple? And then God writes on his wall- God is not above expressing Godself as a graffiti artist, and then Belshazzar is brought up short. He is now very definitely present and in the moment, and Daniel is summoned to bring God’s now and rhema word. So we can pray confidently that God will find all those whose attention is needed in this moment, wherever they may conceal themselves, and that God will speak clearly through His people in mercy and judgement, and taking care of His servants as He does so. God’s shalom on those who are in the circle of the leaders of China and Russia, or wherever else God has His ‘Daniels’ who would speak truth to power even at great personal risk.

A few days ago we watched ‘I am Greta’, the 2010 BBC documentary film following Greta Thunberg and her father as she set off from Sweden around the world to be given audience by the great and the good of international politics. Much is made of the fact that she meets President Macron of France before she has been given any recognition back in her home country. It has ever been thus. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ Later we share her frustration as she notices that so many leaders don’t back up their apparent agreement that there should be change with concrete decisions to make the necessary changes happen.

How many of these meetings with the so-called influential people who lead governments and intergovernmental organisations were really worthwhile? How would anyone be able to tell? ‘God only knows’, you might say irreverently, with a shrug of resignation. But that begs the question. God does indeed know, and more that God lets on. Because there is another meeting in the middle of this documentary that most watchers will not have the faintest idea about. At one of the international conferences, Greta is filmed sharing a selfie photo with a gentleman who grabs an opportunity to say ‘Hello!’ As they pose together this unnamed ‘passer by’ explains that his 16 year old daughter too is ‘quite the activist.’ What we do not get to hear on film is that this is one of the members of the Christian Climate Observers Program, and I daresay that the film producers did not know this either when they selected clips to stitch together in this presentation. But here we can see, right in the middle of this landmark film, that God has His servants front and centre of the action, yet probably unseen by most.

So I close by observing that the prayers we are joining in praying over COP26 are not at all impersonal prayers, as though it did not matter who was praying them. God wants to hear from you, and me. ‘For the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.’ (Amos 3:7 ESV). He intends for us, personally, to be fully involved as co-creating partners with God in making everything New.

Starting in Glasgow.

Perhaps you and I will meet in a Climate Intercessors webmeet. I hope so.

On behalf of the Climate Intercessors leadership, from the website:

We would also appreciate prayers for those Climate Intercessors leaders and their programs or organizations which will also be at COP26 in Glasgow. Please pray for Laura, Jack, Samuel, Ben, Lowell, the Christian Climate Observers Program (CCOP), A Rocha International, Tearfund, and YWAM. Please pray for wisdom and discernment, faithfulness, stamina, safety and health. Thank you!

climateintercessors.org 10 prayers for COP26

The full list of prayers has now been published, and you can see it on their website, and download a 4 page pdf for printing from here:

https://www.climateintercessors.org/10-prayers-for-cop26-1

You can draw your own conclusions about how my suggestions compare with those on the final document.

Man stands behind a lectern in the sea to give a speech, with the water above his knees.
Tuvalu Foreign Minister Simon Kofe delivers a virtual speech at COP26 standing knee-deep in sea water to demonstrate the realities of climate change and rising sea levels (Photo: copyright Tuvalu Ministry of Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs)

We began considering Henry of Huntingdon’s fanciful account of King Canute, who has been so often misrepresented as an arrogant monarch, full of hubris, while the more modest attitude described in the earlier telling is typically lost – modesty does not make much of a headline. Wiser heads would observe that it is not Canute we should be shouting down, but his would-be courtiers, flattering him with superhuman powers he could not possibly possess. But in the biblical worldview, even this is short of the true mark. Look at what the Lord God tells Ezekiel He is actually looking for in the community of faith:

29 The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice. 30 And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none. 31 Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them. 

Ezekiel 22:29-31a

To be one who stands in a breach in a defensive line- that is the stuff of heroism, is it not? But what is the adversary in this fight? It is the Lord! What foolishness is this- to expect to stand in the way of God’s divine advance, in bringing righteous and warranted judgement on an uncompassionate, unjust and actively wicked people. Look at this! Such is precisely what God is dreaming of: a single Noah, a solitary Abraham, just one Deborah can be the saving of an apostate and undeserving community. It only takes one Son of Man to command the wind and waves, and that presumably might even include turning the tide. It would be hubris if the idea came from us, but God commands us as He commanded Ezekiel. What a relief it is to know that there are now many faithful intercessors building and standing just as God demanded of Ezekiel! And so God’s indignation can be turned away!!

(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson

Sense in the Ending

As we met to pray this week, the media news was full of the sudden change of political fortunes in Afghanistan, displacing the plethora of accounts of fires, smoke and flooding from the days before1, although further forest blazes broke out in the south of France, where double-jabbed Brits had driven to enjoy their summer camping. This briefly grabbed back a few column inches. The ‘story’ seen through the news lens seemed more that the holiday makers had been rudely interrupted in their merrymaking, rather than that forests in the only remaining country on the north coast of the Mediterranean that were not on fire last week had finally succumbed to the flames. There are a few forests on the North African coast too. Apparently their local authorities do not see fit to mention climate change, so the fires breaking out in Algeria are even being blamed on arson, where ‘suspects’ are then lynched, by suspicious locals or even by terrorist groups. How tragic that some folk who came to help put out the fires are viewed with hot-headed suspicion and become the targets of fatal violence.1b

Temperature map on the day of 14 August 2021

One of the criteria for setting our prayer agenda is drawn from Col 4:2; praying with watchfulness, which echoes the watching which God gave to humans to do in the garden [Gen 2:15 to till and watch…]. However, where should we be looking? Some say3 that the object of our attention should be only on ‘spiritual’ things, and being attentive to the state of our own hearts before God. Well and good; the problem here is in the ‘only’. Certainly we seek to prioritise the voice of the Spirit, and concur that if our spiritual health before the Lord is sound, then through our activated faith with Jesus, any obstacle can be overcome in partnership with God. But we are convinced that our daily work is worship, and that work happens in this world, which is where Jesus’ kingdom is coming. So while God’s Word and Voice must certainly be given priority, we watch for what is in Creation that we can partner with God in attending to in prayer and in daily work that He will then judge to be ‘good’.

The US and then, inevitably, the UK, decided to withdraw their military interventions from Afghanistan- the collective stomach for continued maintenance of the troubled peace was exhausted, apparently. What will happen next? Might the swift takeover by the Taliban lead to a sudden about-face by Western powers, with renewed bloodshed, or might the mere threat of such action lead to subtler outcomes? In spite of the results of this embarrassing failure of intelligence and hasty abandonment by the previous western alliance, might new power relations be exerted in the Middle East which generate completely unpredicted outcomes, even to the transformation of human rights concerns more widely in the region?

As these event occupy TV screens in Europe and America, as that is where editorial attention is focused, in Haiti, a decade after the last devastating earthquake that killed 200 000, a new 7.2 scale quake has now accounted for 2000 known deaths and multiplied destruction.4 Half a million children are without homes and a tropical storm arrives as families sleep outside without shelter. Leadership is in further crisis in the country following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse just a month ago. What news reports do emerge from such places typically include a focus on the destruction of religious buildings4 and the laments of those who belong to those communities. Is this motivated by the desire of TV editors for dramatic pictures, or is there something more cynical behind this particular focus?

Perhaps you will agree that there are resonances between all this and the conclusion of the account of Jesus’ earthly life in Israel in Matthew’s gospel, from chapters 23 to 25. We have recorded a remarkable set of thoughts that look beyond the coming events of the personal trial and crucifixion- Jesus speaks as King over All even as he is about to offer himself as the unique Passover Lamb. He looks past these immediate concerns, vital as they are, to speak of two Ends, we now understand:- the mortal end for the community of faith that Jesus foresaw would develop from the germ of the disciple-apostles, in what is prophesied of the clash of kingdoms and especially the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and the ensuing diaspora of the Jewish people. Fused with this is the further End of All things, related specifically to the Second and Final Coming back of God’s Anointed Saviour and Lord. In this melding of prophesying of the near and far-off future, two truths are asserted: you don’t know when the End will be, for only God the Father will determine this. And yet both sorts of End will surely arrive- the end of your lives, which in many cases, though doubtless not all, will be in times of great troubles and even persecutions, and then also the ultimate End, when Christ will return in glory for Judgement. In both cases, Jesus is addressing us as disciples with regard to ultimate concerns; God’s Kingdom and our place in His eternal Triumph! The purpose of this prophesying is related to these concerns, and not to the specific events of human history that transpire long after the first century AD. It is simply a truism to say that history- the Present become past- has Trouble in it. Jesus makes the following plain to us: even for people of true faith, life will never be straightforward, and yet even in the face of continued challenges, sometimes of the most acute and perilous sorts, meaningful discipleship will always be possible, in a mode that often transforms the world God gifted to us for the better, and that generates the fruitful creativity of God’s Kingdom Come.

Where is Jesus’ attention at the introduction of this prelude to the account of his trials and crucifixion? On Jerusalem, the central focus of YHWH God’s earthly attention through the Old Testament testimony of God’s dealings with humankind. On the city, the centre of social and business economy. On Israel’s capital, the place where trading and temple are cheek by jowl, the historic focal point of God’s partnership with the children of Abraham since Melchizedek and through the kingship of Saul and David and all the rest. Here still, at the moment of climax in YHWH God’s covenant dealings with humankind, is the Divine attention in the Holy of Holies and throughout God’s Holy City. Furthermore, Jesus prophesies that this is the place from which a crucial invitation to God must be uttered in unison – until then, God tarries. Remarkably indeed, we are here told that in God’s perspective, the Centre holds.

14th Century coloured reproduction of the Hereford Mappa Mundi [Map of the World] Jerusalem is right at the centre of this map, like a compass, the central pivot and focus of the whole world. East is at the top, which is where the sun rises. Inspired by apocalyptic prophecy, medieval Christians looked for the second coming of Christ from the east. Various distant lands are squeezed around the border, and the British Isles is at the bottom on the left.

Anticipating the deliberate destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, and including the final demolition of Herod’s Temple [the ‘Second’ temple rebuilt after the exile in 516 BC and lasting until 70 AD] Jesus takes issue with what his disciples are looking at, that is, what they are seeing when they look at the impressive temple complex. He engages their spiritual intelligence through a cryptic comment, asserting that it will all fallbut how? And what meaning should be drawn from this conclusion? We should not expect to be seers of the specific and detailed events of the future, but a co-creation mindset can include way of seeing the future through a kingdom-of-God lens, which shapes our evaluation of what is fixed and what is subject to change, and what therefore is really of value.

While God’s attention will remain on the city, the place of work and history future being made, this will not continue in the same terms as with God’s covenant Nation alone. The significance of the Temple is about to come to a close, as Jesus Himself becomes the final High Priest, offering himself as Paschal Lamb. So the temple of his body will be broken and fall into the ground, we now understand, and what is raised up is the New Creation Body of the Church, of which High Priest Christ is the Head, and we all, the fellowship of faith, are joined together to become the many-membered Body of the same Christ, yet spread abroad in every city and nation. The ‘mother hen’ Spirit is well able to keep us gathered in this way. The initial horror of the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the mockery of its continuing demise beneath the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque continues to vex the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem, yet their demolition by the earthquakes of AD746 and 1033 should continue to remind them that the long term future holds a different promise. We should not think that Jesus takes any pleasure in such disaster and destruction, or in the fatalities that result, but this is the perspective of the God of the new wineskin and new wine, the God of New Creation: unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, he once said, it abides alone. Death can be a baptism into a different future.

Just as we hear Jesus continuing to speak of Jerusalem in significant terms, so also we note that the disciples make their Lord their special focus of attention. In this separate and intimate meeting- such special privilege!- Jesus reciprocates with a personal and wide ranging intelligence briefing that speaks as much today- to us and our children – as it did then. It is impossible to tell exactly what speaks to then and what to now, and I think this is deliberate. There is a general and yet insightful portrayal of what the life of discipleship will always be like- very much in the world, with its tribulations and crises, and yet capable of being -indeed mandated to be ‘not of this world’, that is, above it. The ‘cloud of witnesses’ is both above and also within God’s creation, and thus the world is watered and nurtured.

Can we see what is in this ‘intelligence briefing’? There are seven ‘alert levels’, if you will, of which the first is the most urgent.

  • Misleading claims of those who claim to be Jesus, that is, to speak on His behalf, to speak as Him. This is of the highest priority- we must continue to know Him, not merely to know about Him.
  • wars
  • rumours of wars
  • nation rising against nation
  • kingdoms rising against kingdoms
  • famines
  • earthquakes

And no, this list is not exclusive or exhaustive, but as we see even this week, such events and happenstances have the capacity to dominate our attention, to demand our focus, and to undo our equilibrium which must only be centred on Him. The Centre must hold. But the focus Jesus is commending is not the centre and nothing else– it is the centre, in which all else can be held within God’s providence, and from which compassion can reach out even to that which is rotten, in agony, even dying.

We see in Jesus’ example that some who come to serve and love in God’s Name are reviled and persecuted. A servant is not greater than his master, and this world can refuse love with thoughtless cruelty. But note this- Jesus reassures his followers that their endurance is possible and meaningful before he states that the final triumph of the gospel good news of God and His kingdom is assured. In this we are assured that we are not merely servants, but esteemed forever friends, even in the most extreme of circumstances, if we persevere. Just as we have learned that we can only understand God’s Good News message by beholding it in the person of Jesus Christ, the priority of our Lord’s points in this passage show that we are each as important to Him as the gospel message itself. His missionaries may give their lives in persecution, but that does not make them disposable goods in God’s eternal economy.

I simply note the following in regard of this discussion: when the ultimate testing and peril come, even when the ‘present’ is brought to great strain, and each of us is under the greatest duress, Jesus assumes that we will be engaged in the economy of life in the same human terms as ever. Some are at work in their houses, doing family business, while others are out ‘in the fields’, whether literally or metaphorically. There are ‘inner rooms’ which we might imagine to be offices and places of significant business, while beyond the realms of general human habitation there is wilderness. So in sum, it is assumed that God’s people are engaged in life and work in God’s world, and Jesus is with us there, everywhere, for that is where salt and light ought to be. That is how we answer the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’

Again, to repeat, the life and identity and integrity of each of God’s saints is acknowledged and affirmed. Salvation in God is not general and impersonal, but He will see us and see us through to the End, even as He saw Hagar in the desert, with her child.

It is fashionable to note the various minorities of people in our society who have been overlooked, or whose interests might be forgotten in the commerce of so-called modern culture. This is an excellent thing. God has been taking care of the easily forgotten and the vulnerable for much longer than we have, as Jesus notes the special concern that is needed in crisis for pregnant or nursing mothers. In this way Jesus acknowledges the whole human life cycle, which hinges on this most vulnerable stage, where each and every one of us is utterly dependent for our origin and infant development on our mothers, and then many others too. We all ought to have been counted as part of a ‘vulnerable group’ and therefore relying on others for our survival at some point, even if we think we are strong now, as individuals, and Jesus speaks here to remind us not to forget it. What is more, and this is a further exciting affirmation of the key role of prayer in God’s kingdom economy, Jesus plainly asserts that we can engage with God in prayer partnership even with regard to when the final and ultimate tribulation comes to our communities. Even God’s great wrapping-up plan for History is apparently open to prayerful negotiation! In this, God cares about the weak and the weakest, and we have a part to play in this.

It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. What if that village has the Church within it?

In forthright terms, we are told that God’s worldview completely trumps all others. The present is going to end as God determines, and God will determine the New Future that will follow. Just as there is pain in childbirth, new life is released and born into being through that pain, and the pain is real but passing. The great works of God’s first creation in Genesis are each checked off and decreated- the lights which stood as signs are no longer required, because the Great Light is now plainly revealed, lightning and shaking and the very deliberate announcement of the End- but not for us. Just as the ‘sign’ of the Son of Man (Jesus’ adopted name from the testimony of Daniel the prophet) is seen more prominently than the signs that are to pass, so God’s elect are gathered. For us, those who persevere in faith with Jesus, this End is not the general End of oblivion, but a Great Meeting, in which all else is negotiable, except the ultimate intention of God in Christ that we will be With Him, One.

Our partnership with God in creating the future includes being observant about these serious circumstances of world affairs. To be sure, we cannot know that any particular set of disasters that we observe are the specific signs of the final End- Jesus makes that very plain. And yet we are to be constantly expectant of the Good in the End, just as Jesus had earlier approached a particular fig tree by the roadside, expecting to find flowers that had developed into fruit, though discovering that it was ‘not yet’. Just as the Sabbath speaks of Creation-yet-to-be-completed, so the birth pains of our present are in some way a sign of the New Creation that is coming. Contrasting with the uncertainly of exactly when God’s planned transformation takes place is the certainty of God’s Words, which are, above all, God’s Logos Words to us. In the metaphor of birth pains, Jesus extends the feminine sensibilities and aspects of God’s creative involvement in this world- in maintaining the processes of life and also in New Creation. What do birth pains tell the woman? The baby is coming, and she will be the child’s mother. Yet these contractive pains can come early, somewhat randomly, in the general period before the child is delivered, and this is the powerful mystery of the metaphor. In each generation there can be a genuine experience of birth pains, yet the actual End is in fact still afar off. But it is still coming!

Jesus draws a stark contrast between people amongst whom Noah silently built the ark, according to God’s instructions over a long century, the product of his studied and energetic labour, and the folk surrounding him, whose priorities are summed up in three activities: eating, drinking and marrying. There is nothing wrong with these expressions of the joys of God’s created life for human creatures. But in Jesus’ description we get the sense that these people were consumed with their pleasures, their own priorities, having a perspective on the world that all would continue in constancy and stability. It is really this thoughtlessness that God’s judgment comes to, and perhaps this is the very word that is timely for our friends today who rail against COVID precautions and/or ‘climate alarmism’. The tone changes from v40, though now without any sense that these hard working people are indulging themselves inappropriately. Jesus message is that we should aim to live in this naturally bounded world, yet with another eye fixed on the final purpose of God, as the Parable of the Dragnet spells out for us.

Here is where the faith message of Christ melds with the original mandate for work: like Adam and Eve, we are to be continually watchful in the world, regarding its inanimate resources, its creatures, and also the complexities of the vast human society that has recently exploded within it. Paying attention to all this, we have good works to do. These are profoundly informed by the values of the gospel of Christ, whom we meet as the Logos of God. He is watching over His Word, and will see that it comes to pass. We are to watch with God, and then act accordingly with the power that our human agency gives to us. We have sufficient freedom to do what is right.

As these passages continue, we are left in no doubt that the setting for God’s people in God’s world is properly understood to be work, rather than taking our ease, and not so much ‘meeting in church,’ because work was the gift of God to us even from the ‘pre-Fall’ garden.

We know that for Jesus, His ‘spiritual’ business in the false trials and His crucifixion will follow these words; in what Jesus says here, that work is implied. Once it is done, what is left to do? Just as in the garden in Genesis, God puts his people in charge, ‘over his household’ to manage and steward it on His behalf, doing as He would have done, being the living image and likeness of God in His Creation temple. This is a wholehearted intention, for at the end, God says He will give us charge over ‘all His possessions’! This co-creative partnership is no game, no temporary pretence before the final reality is manifest by some sovereign work of God completely beyond our agency. For sure, God will sovereignly and gloriously create the transition, to all things being New. But don’t expect to be putting your feet up afterwards.

I find it instructive that there is ambiguity in the translation of ‘servant.’ How much is voluntary and how much obligation? What is constrained, and in what are we free? Reflecting on the interchangeable use of servant and bondservant suggests this sense of tension, between following God’s divine and sovereign instructions for our lives, and the pleasant space within boundaries in which we can express our gifts and individuality, even as we attend to the same mission of the Kingdom of Christ and His Lordship.

Is ‘doing Church’ important? Well of course it is, but just as Jesus directed the [Jewish] disciples attention away from the stones of the Jerusalem city temple, so our attention should be directed away from the exterior trappings of ‘church’ to the transcending reality- we are the Church, and where the Church (ekklesia) is in the world, there is Christ doing what He sees His Father doing. Check the words of God in Christ to the seven churches in Asia to see the importance of Christian community rooted in the wider yet local community.

What does it mean when the delegated master is given charge of the household? This is not maintenance of the estate, of the building, of the trivial affairs of the absent owner separated from the community. The master of the household is firstly in charge of the feeding of the household- that’s the people in it! God wills that we are less concerned for stuff and more for society, though society needs a certain amount of stuff, and that must surely be managed too. There is a difference between use and indulgence, as Jesus explains. We must not give into people’s uncontrolled desires, because today some even want to set fire to the house.

There are more facets to the creative tension of free agency and obligation in this account. From 24:43 to the conclusion of chapter 25 we discover four pictures of delegated responsibility:

Matthew 24:43 The master of the house. This is an ambiguous title, either for the owner of a household, or for the chief manager who has been put in charge. It should make no difference, for the wise manager ought to do exactly as if they were its owner. Note that we must not assume this ‘master’ is the same as the servants in 24:46, which comes straight afterwards. So these variations should make it easy for us to understand that God is encouraging us to consider and reflect on what it means to live with watchfulness as widely as possible.

25:1- 13 The Ten Young women. They are neither owners nor stewards, but they are members of the community who are both invited and expected to attend the wedding festivities of a particularly important couple.

25:14-30 The servants of the man who went on a long journey. They are assigned variable portions of resource- life is really like that- and in God’s world, there is still the expectation of just and equal reward in value. God should be trusted both to act justly and to respect our differences.

25:31-46 The ‘sheep‘ who prove to have been those who did what Jesus would do, each individually and out of the public gaze, usually without media attention, so naturally overflowing from their spiritual lives that they are themselves surprised to realise that what kindnesses they showed to their fellow creatures is counted as high worship of God.

The account of Jesus’ words to his disciples given by Matthew takes another diverse turn with this depiction of the local cultural preparations for a wedding. I expect that big events might have a tendency to happen late. Long journeys on foot or even with animals are not trivial, which we forget in our age of cars. So with the arrangements for a wedding, and the need to take care with the preparation of special clothing and uncommon quantities of food, folk are likely to turn up late. No particular reason to blame brides. Maybe Jesus foresees this unfortunate habit- he blames the groom! (at least that’s how most versions translate it). While the groom or couple might be late, Jesus makes his point by impressing that it is the guests who must be ready, and its the young women of the community who we are brought to consider. Girls particularly love a wedding, I believe. Much energy and motivation is released in all the anticipation, all the chatter, all the doings that must be done. A great deal of human creativity is released when there is a wedding in the community. Art, flowers, music and dancing, cooking and serving. Hair, dressing up, general laughing and giggling. Just as Jesus said; eating, drinking and marrying. This is a wonderful thing. But it is not the general business of marrying that Jesus is now referring to- it is THE marriage, His own marriage to His Body, to us. It is God in Christ who is the Groom, and this most fabulous event is certainly to take place- BUT will we be being ready? I love how it is the young girls that Jesus uses in this story to address all of us regarding the serious business of planning and preparation. Is this a group of people you would place such trust in? Perhaps you can’t relate so much to the metaphors of managers and bondservants. Perhaps, as a woman, you agree that the metaphor of preparations for the wedding is easier to relate to. Now as both a married man and a father, it certainly does speak to me. The scripture is multidimensional and very inclusive. It is inclusive of wider human experience and expression- in considering our final End, there is still ample room for culture and art and all things joyful. A relative of mine has a sign in their kitchen. ‘If there is no wine in heaven, I’m not going.’ Judging by Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana, I don’t think that will be a problem.

We need to exercise some imagination in reading this text, as most of us have never used an oil lamp, relying completely on ever-present electricity. We mustn’t stretch the metaphor either- shouldn’t the well supplied young women (‘virgins’) share their oil with the others? That misses the point. The oil supply is a metaphor for our state of preparedness for God’s glorious and awesome Return. You have to do that yourself. Sure, I can encourage you, but you must listen and agree and then do your own planning and preparing- tilling and watching, if you will. We can pray together too, but you’ll need to commit to meeting up. Go ahead- make that plan!

Perhaps you are quite familiar with these words, as the Parable of the Talents is commonly known. I wonder if you agree that reading it as part of the two chapter discourse Jesus has with his disciples, then and now, extends your perspective. In brief, here is what strikes me. Once again, we are in the field of everyday life and business, in the marketplace, in the community. God’s household is outside as well as inside. There is an extraordinary level of trust and delegation from God (the travelling Master) and his selected servants. In the story, everyone gets a trust, and its a whole lifetime’s worth of property, investment, what you will. In short, what they are given is their lives. A happy accident in English means that many read ‘talent’ and hear the noun for our personal gifts and capabilities, rather than a large unit of money. Headteachers giving school assemblies like to make that deliberate mis-step to make a worthwhile and entirely valid point. We are not ‘in [the] church [building]’: we are in the world. And the share for each servant is absolutely not equal and it absolutely doesn’t matter. Every faithful servant who ‘invests’ the master’s trust is rewarded equally with ‘a share of their Master’s happiness.’ The last time I checked, money doesn’t buy joy or happiness, so that’s a very meaningful reward. It is deeply personal and intimate, for here is reward for the religion that God truly esteems.

The foil to the life work of the faithful is the fear of the servant who does not trust honestly in his master, and so does not put his single talent of money to work. The man does know know Him. This is the tragedy. Ironically, the Jewish Rabbi Jesus suggests such a one should break the Torah law and place the talent with worldly bankers for interest. The point really is who our trust is in- so even as we work in the World, our watching eye is on the true Master of the World, who is surely coming to seek account from us, each one, face to face. As the conclusion makes plain, the servants are working energetically within the current economy of the world, but perhaps expecting an accounting according to God’s higher and eternal economy. God will be reading from a different balance sheet.

There are two versions of this parable, and in case you need reminding that the whole section began with Jesus’ focus on Jerusalem, the city of cities in this world, go see Luke 19:11-27 to see what reward is given by the Master to each of his servants. I am astonished that this conclusion has not attracted more attention 6 in the past- perhaps it is a sign of the power of the lie that God is not interested in our daily work, or what goes on in the city, but only what happens ‘in church’. Or perhaps leaders who were jealous with their own power fear what would happen if the full truth of God’s trust in each of us were better comprehended, so have concealed this truth. If so, they fear rightly.

It is surely important to pay attention to fellowship in the family of God. I am much the richer for it, and am looking forward to the coming season of renewed community life as the easing of COVID restrictions continues. ‘Do not give up the habit of meeting together’, exhorts the writer to the Hebrews (10:25), and with good reason. This is taken as read by Jesus: what he really wants to say is on a simpler, practical and thus profoundly spiritual plane. Food, drink, clothing, human warmth and welcome, alertness to sickness and imprisonment- these are the practical concerns that God is looking towards, and though it may be a shock and a surprise to many of us, so should we be. Given the anticipated violence and destruction in Jerusalem, coupled with the final erasure of Israel at Masada by the Romans, and the subsequent diaspora of Jews and Christians, this makes sense. But don’t stop there. Surely we will always have opportunity to respond to immediate needs of those who befall these trials of life unexpectedly, through persecution or disaster, whether, say, in terms of job loss or illness, or larger scale issues like a pandemic. “You will always have the poor with you.”

Surely there is more for us to attend to, to anticipate, to plan for our ministering. Why might the food supply be restricted in coming years, and for particular people? Will there be a clean water supply in every place? How is clothing produced – is it just and sustainable? Why might people move from place to place, becoming refugees in the world, simply separated from home? What are the reasons that people fall into sicknesses- what are the contributing factors, the consequences, and the repercussions? All this is surely the management business of God’s living-and-praying-with-watchfulness people. For me, what is the role of a would-be theologian and teacher in all these things? What even are the reasons that the innocent might find themselves on the wrong side of the law, or why might the guilty be unjustly punished? Human rights abuses were not so-called in the Bible, but we can see them clearly now, and we may even be looking through God’s eyes. Surely we do these things first for those who are God’s people, but Jesus’ Samaritan parable taught us that there is no-one who is not a neighbour.

The conclusion to Jesus’ description of the final reckoning is truly the completion of the circle which begins at Genesis 2:15, ‘The Lord God placed the ha’adam in the garden, to till and watch over it.’ And then Yahweh left them there, to see what they would make of it, coming back to fellowship at the cool of the Day. When we are busy in the garden, are we constantly thinking of what the Creator of that garden would have done with it, moment by moment? To be honest, probably not. We just get on with it, though such a thought might come to mind from time to time. This is as it should be, if the gardeners are truly ‘in the image and likeness’ of the One who made both garden and gardeners. A good gardener attends to the seasons and the changes in the plants and their interactions – watching with acute attention to the opportunities and demands of the ecosystem, weighing up potential possibilities and consequences of the myriad choices that could be made, and then at once doing. The work of tilling the soil and tending to the plants and their fruit, the care and preparations that are required, season by season; these are all constant in the garden, and the gardener can get rather lost in it all! And so it proves to be with the watching and tilling of the saints in God’s world: the faithful watchers of God prove to be so attentive to the real needs of their neighbours that they have stopped giving account to Who may be watching them. We may be surrounded by CCTV in our modern towns and cities, but most law abiding folk are no longer self-conscious about them. Not that the grainy black and white videos tell the whole story of course, but God has us all on 24-7-365 CCTV (aka ‘Heavens Above’ Angel-Cam) and knows why we are doing what we do. The God who sees sparrows fall also sees each bottle of water, though a glass of water freshly drawn from the tap should be more sustainable, more just, and more appropriate to stewarding God’s world.

Stone carving from Baltimore Cathedral.

Too many sparrows have fallen from the skies through my lifetime, though I see a few more have returned to my own garden during the recent lockdowns. I let a few trees grow up too, which has provided them with more habitat. My friends in Kenya are sometimes obliged to spend on expensive bottled water since cholera is never far away, and as they generally wear second hand clothes transferred from Europe’s charity markets, this tends to undermine local clothing production. There and everywhere there is strife in the community, tribalism and party political squabbling, and then persecutions of various kinds. Bad leaders thrive through support from the powerful, while good leaders are unjustly blamed for complex consequences of the little good they seek to do. A teacher can help in understanding, in showing how the economy of the world operates at the moment, and suggesting how it might be transformed. How might we stop the forests burning? Where would it be best to plant new trees? How can we constructively interact with the water cycle in our area for the good of people and planet? Where should richer countries intervene with military might in the affairs of other countries, and to what end, and for how long? Which Afghan nationals should be rescued from their homeland and given safe passage to our country, at least for a season, or permanently? At the time of recording the words of Jesus and Peter and Paul and the rest, this scope of influence was beyond imagination. But not any more.

In God’s ultimate economy, His throne is at its centre, and the lives of the living saints are God’s means for holding all these concerns [and more: you know what they are!] in both prayer and action- with our whole lives- to the One at the Centre, who is already making all things New. Through our faithful stewardship, the centre can yet hold. If we hope for the reward of ruling cities in the Parable of the Minas (Luke 19)6, then our watching and doing need to expand to a larger scale than hitherto. If God is to return to find His people praying with impact in His world such that it has not been allowed to fall into fire and destruction, because God’s people are being truly salty, the our prayers must reach a greater scope than hitherto. It is time such prayer spread like wildfire, for there is growing chaos, and then soon He will be at the Gate.

You may think that I am ignoring questions regarding the justice of God. I will simply say this. If God’s people, who are addressed directly by all these words of Jesus in the first instance, woke up to the realisation of the responsibilities that we are thus charged with, individually and collectively, then perhaps the world at large might stand a chance of being able to hear the call of the God Who made them, and see the Way home. Let’s defer discussion of the justice of God’s judgements until after that. There may yet be sense in the Ending.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats 7

NOTES