Carbon offsets and indulgences

An indulgence? Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

History recurs as farce. I was thinking today of how offsetting your carbon is like the medieval practice of buying indulgences. With indulgences, a bit of money handed over bought you some excess righteousness- credit from someone who had plenty, a saint say – and used it to redeem souls from bad places. Carbon offsets are 21st century indulgences, spending money in one area in order to redeem transgression in another.

My wife and I, for example, pay extra for zero-carbon electricity and suitably offsetted gas, and we’ve cut a lot of meat out of our diets, in order to generate some indulgence for our flights to Spain (which we also offset) to where both our brothers have flats that need occupying. (I have tried renaming these holidays ‘retreats’, which appears to justify them at a certain level, though I don’t believe it reduces the carbon dioxide emissions.)

Of course indulgences were made up, a theological convenience, and perhaps there is an argument that carbon credits are the same. Just as sin continued to build up on medieval Earth, so carbon dioxide builds up on 21st century Earth.

Indulgences meanwhile deluded and defrauded thousands of peasants, turned grace into mercantilism, and debased the church. What did the human species get in return? St Peter’s in Rome. Nice though St Peter’s is, surely that was not a net gain.

Carbon offsets, on the other hand, go towards replacing all the forest our species has cleared over the years. All those tonnes of growing trees are made up of tonnes of atmospheric carbon, so we’re (eventually) just putting back what our ancestors took out.

But maybe the earth would happily re-wild itself just if it were left alone, without us setting up an industrial-scale tree-planting operation, complete with fossil-fuel powered earth-moving equipment and unbiogdegradable plastic collars round all the little saplings?

Is offsetting a net gain for the human species? A blundering, flawed first attempt to repair damage? Or a convenient cover for sucking out more fossil carbon from under the earth? Be good to know.

My personal guess is that you’ve got to start somewhere. Down the line are ways to replace kerosene with sustainable jet fuel, and petrol with batteries, and natural gas with all the net-zero electric generation tech. Hopefully offsetting is not just a cover for further climate sin, but a small net gain for us and the planet. A slow start is better than no start. In that way they are unlike medieval indulgences.

We can hope.

2023 – The AI spring?

I wonder if this will be the year that stories about AI start to pop up everywhere, a bit like, years ago, everyone suddenly started talking about ‘The information superhighway’ (as it was called back then). I had a lot of fun a couple of months ago supplying Stable Diffusion with text descriptions of the characters in my novels, and being amazed at the pictures it came up with.

Here are my two much-loved protaganists, Jamie the complacent, chauvinistic conflict-avoider:

and Keziah the angry, abused, punk lawyer:

I wonder if I’ll see the day when you can shove in the text of a whole novel and get some AI to make a movie? That would be fun.

Then just the other day my friend Jason Mandryk, one of my senior colleagues on the prayer handbook Operation World, asked ChatGPT ‘How do I pray for Eritrea’ and it replied thus:

  • Pray for peace and stability in the country, for an end to conflict and violence, and for the protection of the people from harm
  • Pray for the government and leaders of Eritrea, that they will be guided by wisdom and justice, and that they will work for the good of the people.
  • Pray for the economic and social well-being of the people of Eritrea, for prosperity and opportunity for all, and for the resources and infrastructure needed for development.
  • Pray for the health and welfare of the people of Eritrea, for access to quality medical care, clean water, and nutritious food.
  • Pray for the spiritual needs of the people of Eritrea, that they may come to know and follow Jesus, and that the church will be a beacon of hope and love in the country.

These AIs are just mushing together loads of public domain stuff that they have eaten; interesting though.

The future of Christianity and the view across the worlds

pixabay

Fascinating quote I came across from an unpublished paper called The Future of Christianity 1

When you give an honest account [of how] your life was encountered by Jesus Christ, and how that encounter has brought you to your present vocation and ministry, the witness of a Sri Lankan Catholic Bishop, a Pentecostal pastor from Peru, a bearded Coptic monk from Los Angeles, a Bolivian Baptist catechist, a Methodist nurse from Norway, or an Anglican woman Bishop from Canada, sound remarkably the same. And each carries a palpable integrity. And from such encounters, I have seen real friendship develop between such former bitter rivals bearing fruit in common service to the poor and marginalised as they continue to meet.

Robert Gribben, writing about the Global Christian Forum.

He concludes:

A future for Christianity? On God’s side, an assured yes. On ours: if we watch and pray, listen and learn, discern and discover, within the extraordinary diversity of the oikoumene, if we are ready to be radically changed  – that is, to grow again from the same roots -will not God honour that?

My books of the year

Yet again it’s been an utterly absorbing and fascinating year for reading books. So enjoyable to climb into people’s heads and the book – long, processed, considered, skippable, re-readable, sumarizable and quotable – is still the best format I know for deep and prolonged happiness. So here’s a few of the most enjoyable.

BTW – I never read books because they are ‘important’ or ‘significant’ but only because they give joy. Most of them were found by wandering randomly in our branch of Waterstones, still the best way to find a book that no algorithm would send you. I read plenty of other books too, but these stick out.

They aren’t in any order.

Powers and thrones – a new history of the Middle Ages by Dan Jones, rollicking, thousand-year European centred history.

Just my type, a book about fonts by Simon Garfield. Geekish, obsessive and very enjoyable book about fonts and font choices. A book I’ve wanted to give to the literary obsessives in my life, and a book that makes you look at every street sign, shopfront, advert, book and newspaper differently. Now I know, for example, why hospital corridors are such unsettling places: they are font chaos.

When the dust settles: stories of love, loss and hope from an expert in disaster, by Lucy Easthope. The story of people who prepare for, and mop up after, disasters. A very moving account of how people do, don’t, can, and can’t help when catastrophe strikes, and how much better things would be if we prepared for them (as we could’ve) rather than paring away the budgets of the planners. An unusual paeon to local councils who often have to clear up the messes. A really fine read that tugs suprisingly hard at the heart.

Are we having fun yet by Lucy Mangan, a book about family life, her husband, child-rearing, friendship, haircuts, pink-on-pink warfare and playdate power struggles by a person who is these days the most consistently, riotously funny and joyful columnist on the Guardian newspaper. Also the second book by someone called ‘Lucy’ that I have read this year. Perhaps I should devote a whole year to reading books written by people called Lucy; the two I landed on this year were in different ways, objects of wonder.

If these stones could talk: the history of Christianity in Britain and Ireland through twenty buildings by Peter Stanford. Does what it says on the tin, but is beautifully but unobtrusively researched and written. Lovely, gorgeous, thoughtful book.

I’ve also, courtesy of my subscription to Audible, been listening to lecture courses from the Great Courses series which those all-engulfing types at Amazon have brought into the Audible list. Here are three that had me gripped while I did my cardio physio.

Classics of British Literature by John Sutherland. A mind-expanding summary of the long history of great books and poems written by British authors, starting way back with Beowolf and ending in the 21st century, and nicely meshed with summaries of the cultural history that surrounded them and gave them birth. Failed to mention Anthony Trollope except perhaps in passing, but nobody’s perfect.

Augustine: Philosopher and saint by Philip Cary, an introduction to the thought of St Augustine, who is this great unavoidable massif in the Western theological tradition, standing, alone, between us and the apostles and prophets. Sufficiently simple for me to understand and enjoy.

London: A short history of the greatest city in the Western World by Robert Buchloz. 24 or so lectures from someone based, I think, at Loyola university in Chicago, but which in my listening did not skip a beat in its accuracy, presentation or overall fascination.

The oddly shaped Will

It’s complicated

Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay

I have been enjoying a set of lectures on the thinking of St Augustine, available on Audible.1

It is deeply satisfying because what I have left after finishing the series is a handful of crumbs about what Augustine thought about things, which is just substantial enough to really annoy people, but cannot be mistaken, on any proper test, for an actual understanding of the mind of the North African Doctor of the Church.

Augustine thought, or at least I think he thought, that the human will is complicated.

I really like this thought, and even if Augustine didn’t think it, he should’ve. One of the reasons I like it is because when my wife asks me, ‘So what do you want?’, I can refer to Augustine, and suggest that it’s possible to want several things, several contradictory things, simultaneously. That is because the will is not a thing like a light switch or a compass needle, that points in a single direction.

Augustine didn’t have the benefit of complex multi-dimensional geometries as a metaphor for the human will. Nor was able to call on the insights of quantum dynamics, of superposition, of Schrodinger’s Cat, with the will existing in two states at once and only revealed when you actually do something. I’m sure if Augustine had had those metaphors to hand, he would have used them.

The will is complex, superposed, and contradictory. My wife herself had an example of this when she offered a colleague a Kit-Kat. Her colleague simultaneously:

  • Wanted the Kit-Kat, perhaps because she is evolutionary disposed to fat, sugar and chocolate. Or perhaps because she was hungry.
  • Didn’t want the Kit-Kat because she was pre-diabetic, and also didn’t want the Kit-Kat because in her daily tally of calories, she had not left room for the 99 calories she knew it contained.

So what did she want? Her Will existed in quantum superposition of both simultaneously wanting, and not wanting the Kit-Kat. Actually resolving this, things could have gone either way.

I’ll leave you in suspense as to what actually happened. The point, is of course, if someone asks you ‘what do you want’, you can explain that Augustine felt that was not a fair question.

Though he was not, at the time of asking, married.

All the things you won’t die of

Nothing to fear here. Photo by Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash

‘You’ve got liver disease,’ my heart consultant said recently. ‘But you won’t die of it.’

This is a surprisingly comforting thought. Not least because you can add to it all the other things you won’t now die of:

  • Trying to land a spacecraft on Mars
  • Ballooning
  • Swimming the English Channel
  • The guillotine
  • Flying a light aircraft under a bridge
  • Being eaten alive by piranhas
  • Trying to break the world record for jumping a motorcycle over 42 double decker buses.

Really, it’s liberating. When you are a teenager, and happily raised in a land when you have some opportunity to express yourself, the possibilities are enormous. You can’t totally rule out, for example, being trampled by a herd of zebras or finding the end of hostile bayonet, or disappearing in a caving accident, or finding your attempt to cross the ocean on a giant rubber duck going horribly wrong.

It’s true that when young, if you’re lucky, all sorts of possible lives seem to present themselves, but they are accompanied by even more sorts of possible deaths.

Instead, as you ripen, with any luck or grace, you may be happy enough to find youself settling — into a life with people you love, things you love, work you love and times you love. Leaving those will be hard, and you will not want to let them go, even though some banal and workaday illness will finally prise your fingers away. But at least you found them and had them for a season, and thus perhaps, as I believe, sampled eternity.

A friend of mine

A friend of mine for more than 25 years has just died. He was a soldier, then a taxi driver, then in his final couple of years he worked at our local hospital, helping clear the rubbish from the wards and driving a vehicle than carried all this waste, snaking through the underground corridors. He struggled with health conditions all his life, a chest that wouldn’t sweep out infections, and he had been given just a few years to live when a teenager. He swallowed antibiotics every day. He sometimes swelled with arthritis until a new medication was found, and for many years plugged himself into a C-PAP machine, like a vacuum cleaner, every night.

He stayed a soldier in civilian life, gleaming shoes, immaculate taxi, always on time. For several decades he had contracts to shuttle materials between Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge and the nearby Papworth Hospital, the pioneering transplant centre. The contract only ended when Papworth become the Royal Papworth and moved onto the Addenbrooke’s site. Carrying radioactive materials for transplant purposes, he never let the patients down, and took on extra work, like taking mail between departments that otherwise might miss the collections. He told me once of a girl he’d taken home from the city centre, almost too drunk to give her address, certainly too drunk and incapable to pay her fare. He took this vulnerable girl home, knocked on her door, handed her over to her father, made sure she was safe, like she was his own daughter, and went on his way.

He was the beating heart of our men’s breakfast group, instigator of our weekends away in the Lake District, organizing them himself for many years, army style, with rations allocated and he would have had us travelling in convoy if we’d let him. He sought old army friends out and welcomed them in. He loved a curry. He loved his family and quietly fought his infirmities, every day, to keep going for them. His self-medication took him hours in a morning, and yet he was early to work every day. He had an encounter with Christ almost the first time he walked into our church (his daughter was at Sunday School) and followed him faithfully ever afterwards. I love his example of an ordinary life, each ordinary day, like his shoes, burnished, gleaming with grace.

The inside-out church

Solid at the core, fluid at the edges

Reshape to renew

I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m going. Image by Marianne Aldridge from Pixabay

We were talking with a couple recently who were part of a church that had turned itself inside out. They had sold their (Baptist) church building, and moved into a community centre that was owned by a mental health charity. The charity, a non-religious outfit, had been set up to provide community-based care but were short of volunteers. The church had volunteers but no building. Bringing the two together brought two half-formed visions together. Fascinating (even if I’ve somewhat garbled the story).

Much more could be done. I have sometimes wondered if a church, instead of employing a family worker or a youth worker, could employ a professional mental health nurse. She or he could supervise lay work in the community and provide professional backing. Many community mental health needs can be met by lay people. They are often at the level of dropping in on someone for a cup of coffee, or phoning them to make sure they’ve taken their meds, or helping with cooking, shopping or budgeting. Such community concern (also known as ‘friendship’) can be transforming in the life of someone struggling alone with mental health issues.

Similarly, I am very impressed by the work of legal aid charities, who provide free legal services. Some of this work doesn’t need trained lawyers – for example helping people get justice via disability or Special Educational Needs tribunals. It just needs suitably skilled and trained volunteers. A church could easily pay a legal professional to manage a community law centre who could in turn lead a team of enthusiastic (though trained) amateurs and perhaps the odd intern.

Imagine a community legal centre or mental health centre that became a worshipping community on Sundays and the evenings!

These are all examples of churches turning themselves inside out, or perhaps more strictly, dissolving their outer structures and seeking fluidly to fit themselves to pre-existing vulnerabilities in the community. Solid at the core, fuzzy or fluid at the edges. Becoming less like bacteria and more like viruses perhaps. The churches get to do all the good they want to, the community gets served. Better, surely, than worshippers in a building, and needy people in their homes, each alone in their own way.

Why electricity is just as good as miracles

Feels better already. (This is a photo of Singapore by lee junda on Unsplash)

Again I’m writing about healing, partly because I’m living it, partly because what I picked up from many years as a Christian now seems so wrong and there is so much rethinking to do.

I’m still rethinking, and I’m still breathing, both of which I feel are important.

The last few weeks: we bought a disabled buggy, a wonderful little thing, and took it on holiday. (It folds into the car.) We were with our daughter and son-in-law and grandchildren and there was much walking on the prom and the cliff-tops, all of it now painless and easy. Nor was anyone needed to push me around in a wheelchair. And I could give the kids rides. So now in God’s riches I have an electric bike for longer journeys around Cambridge and an electric buggy for when I am with others.

Then yesterday I took the train down to my specialist heart centre in London where they retuned the pacemaker in my chest. A week or so before that, after phone calls from me, I had downloaded the pacemaker data and sent it to the hospital via a piece of kit that lives under our bed. The hospital looked at it and called me in and did the necessary reprogramming. Amazing. It is early days for this treatment but I feel less breathless and my wife tells me I am no longer blue to look at. Those guys at the hospital (both female guys as it happened) don’t just measure your ECG; they modify it and tweak it. They don’t take an ECG lying down. They press buttons and see what happens. Such fun!

This techno-assistance, though, seems a far cry from the New Testament where the Lord Jesus or the apostles did their stuff and immediate physical transformation appears to have happened. My electric buggy and the retuning of the extraordinary electronics that supply my heartbeat seem a different order of a thing to that. Why can’t (as Naaman asked) a prophet just wave his hands over me and make me well? Does this techno-medical intervention really count as ‘healing’ at all? Or is it a second-best solution for those whose lives are so cold and lacking in faith and zeal that the real healing stuff never happens to them? What is healing after all?

The New Testament contains hints that what I have heard doctors call the ‘psycho-social’ parts of healing are important, just as are the physical deliverance parts. Ten lepers were cleansed: only one came back to say thank you. Was there a lingering psycho-social unhealing among the healed lepers? Body fine, head in wrong place. Demons are driven out of the Gaderene demoniac. He is seen sitting clothed and in his right mind. But Jesus tells him to go home to his family, rather than joining the band of disciples. Is that to complete his healing? To address the pyscho-social roots of what got him in such a state in the first place? As it is, Mark records that the former demoniac takes up a speaking ministry in the Ten Towns, and Mark is silent over whether or not that was what Jesus really intended for the man. Interesting.

Then I watch friends, with a cancer diagnosis say, put their lives on hold until the treatment is completed. I observe, I think, I might be wrong (I hope I am), that they are putting all their eggs in the physical healing basket. Zap the cancer, go back to the life we had before. Nothing else matters.

I am so not so sure that this is right. (Of course I have to allow for the fact that I am sitting in my garden, at my ease, contented, writing this, not suffering some medical emergency or hospitalization which would indeed require a lot of effort and focus.)

But still. I am coming to believe more and more that healing is life today, bread today, thriving today and that it is entirely God’s business how he delivers that. All good gifts come down from the Father of lights who does not change as the shifting shadows: buggies, pacemakers, holidays, instant miraculous physical transformations, play, vocation, nice food, people you love and good relationships with God and others.

I am coming to believe more and more that healing is life today, bread today, thriving today and that it is entirely God’s business how he delivers that.

Of course, you have to qualify that idea. There are seasons of emergency actions, long wintry paths of mourning, times of brute endurance of the deeply unpleasant. It’s hard to speak of ‘thriving today’ in the face of those. But still. Healing is thriving. Healing is enjoying our lives, nourished by God’s daily bread, despite everything, in these ramshackle tents of ours, before they are replaced for good with the eternal mansions of glory.

‘In whose shade they will never sit’

Photo: My own

A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit.

Loved this when I read it this in a book called ‘Ten Survival Skills for a World in Flux‘ by Tom Fletcher.

(As to its source, these two references hunt around a bit. )

It doesn’t need commentary.

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