The Power of Bare Trees

bare tree

‘The first time I saw Brother Lawrence was upon the 3rd of August, 1666. He told me that God had done him a singular favour in his conversion at the age of eighteen.

During that winter, upon seeing a tree stripped of its leaves and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed and after that the flowers and fruit appear, Brother Lawrence received a high view of the Providence and Power of God which has never since been effaced from his soul.

 This view had perfectly set him loose from the world and kindled in him such a love for God, that he could not tell whether it had increased in the forty years that he had lived since.’

(Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, 1693, p1)

This is the story of the conversion of Brother Lawrence, an unschooled peasant born in 1611 in eastern France. As a young man he went off to be a soldier and was soon wounded. This led to a life-long disability that made him clumsy and awkward.

He recounts here the story of how he came to faith.

All it took was the sight of a bare tree in winter.

Which is amazing, as I know that I have seen many thousands of bare trees in my life-time, none of which has been a moment of spiritual epiphany for me.

I imagine Brother Lawrence had previously seen many of them too.

Yet such is the power of the Holy Spirit in a human soul that when he chooses to act he can take a mundane ordinary object that we have seen thousands of times before and yet use it to bring insight and whole-life transformation.

I imagine if Brother Lawrence were to have lived in our time the story might have been very different.

There would have been books written about how to use bare trees in evangelism. There would have been conferences and seminars. No doubt there would be good-hearted Christian groups going up and down the country tearing the leaves off trees as a missional act.

Which is, of course, to completely miss the point. What made the moment a spiritual revelation that altered the whole direction of Brother Lawrence’s life and made him one of the most valued spiritual guides in the world-wide Christian church was not the tree – but the activity of the Holy Spirit in his heart and mind.

When the Spirit moves He needs almost no material to work with. He can take anything at all and make that a means of open a person’s heart and mind to God. And that can happen in an instant.

It is interesting to read that Brother Lawrence says that at that instant there was born such a love for God in his heart that after 40 years of monastic life, centred on living for God and for others, he was not sure at all that his love for God had increased one bit.

I suppose that is a bit like falling in love. When you encounter someone and your heart goes ‘boom’ and you feel such an intense attraction to them – does that ever get stronger over the years? I would say it alters, it matures, it widens and deepens, but I am not sure it gets stronger than that initial ‘boom’ moment.

All of which is to say that;

  • we need to have more faith in the accessibility of God’s grace.
  • we need to have a greater expectation that God can reach people where they are in the midst of their ordinary lives and activities.
  • we need to re-focus our energies and efforts less on programs and methods and more on prayerful bringing people to God asking that His Holy Spirit would be at work in their lives, ambushing them with God’s love where and when they least expect it.

A bare tree – who would have thought what it could do?

The Disturbing Spirit


In a recent book George LINGS[1] shows how much mission was something the Early Church was forced into reluctantly, often against its will by the Spirit of God using circumstances to disturb the status quo of the Church.

In Acts chapters 8 to 11 we see successive examples of a ‘Spirit-generated disturbance’ that forces the nascent church into unexpected mission activity.

(8:1-4) The first story is of the persecution that the Jewish religious authorities brought to bear on the early Christian communities. This led to a diaspora of Christian cultural Jews who fled their homeland and went to all corners of the Roman empire.

(8:5-25) Then we see the unexpected conversion of the Jews hated neighbours, the Samaritans. This group having come to faith in Christ is not amalgamated into the Jewish worshipping centred in Jerusalem, but becomes the first recorded Christian community outside Jerusalem.

In other words the gospel is taken out from Jerusalem to the Samaritans, but there is no expectation that those who accept the message will be sucked back into the sending church. Rather they establish their own church in a new place, in relation to, but not dependent upon, the mother church.

(8:26-40) Then we have the story of Philip and the Ethiopian. This was not the result of a plan or strategy of Philip, but of an unlooked for impulsion of the Spirit who brings together an evangelist and a seeker. Again this does not establish a link of dependency upon the Jerusalem church, but rather a new African church emerges.

(9:1-30) The conversion of Saul is again something that is brought about by the Spirit, almost against the will of the Church! This then opens up the possibility for a new thrust in mission towards Gentiles.

(10 – 11:18) Peter’s vision and subsequent encounter with the Roman soldier Cornelius, is again something that came unlooked for, was challenging and difficult for the Church to accept and which opened up new  cross-cultural missional avenues.

(11:19 – 20:25) Then we have the story of the church in Antioch. A church that was expressing the message of the Jewish Jesus in Gentile culture. There were some differences that were deeply challenging for the Jewish Church – they referred to Jesus not as Messiah (a Jewish concept), but as Saviour and Lord (Gentile concepts); they did not practice circumcision, they did not follow Jewish dietary laws.

What was the Jewish Christian Church to do?

Talking of Barnabas who was sent to visit the Antioch church in order to decide what to do, Bishop Steven CROFT states;

‘Note that Barnabas did not come to Antioch and apply a definition.

He comes with open eyes and ears and sees the grace of God.’

LINGS notes,

‘Assessment should be by fruit, not by past external forms.’

All of this has serious applications for how we understand how we are to do mission.

We must expect disturbance, we must actually embrace it.

We must learn to recognise the work of Christ when it presents itself in strange clothing – to quote the tile of a brilliant book by Dr Rev David E. BJORK[2].

Perhaps we might even be brave enough to pray the following prayer;

‘Disturb us, Lord’ by M.K.W. HEICHER


Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves,

When our dreams have come true

Because we have dreamed too little,

When we arrived safely

Because we sailed too close to the shore.


Disturb us, Lord, when

With the abundance of things we possess

We have lost our thirst

For the waters of life;

Having fallen in love with life,

We have ceased to dream of eternity

And in our efforts to build a new earth,

We have allowed our vision

Of the new Heaven to dim.


Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,

To venture on wider seas

Where storms will show your mastery;

Where losing sight of land,

We shall find the stars.

We ask You to push back

The horizons of our hopes;

And to push into the future

In strength, courage, hope, and love.


(Appears in ‘The Minister’s Manual’ Vol. 37, 1962 as ‘Stir us, O Lord’ but is often falsely attributed to Sir Francis DRAKE from 1577)

[1] George LINGS, Reproducing Churches, Abingdon : BRF, 2017, pp132-141

[2] David E. BJORK, Unfamiliar paths – The challenge of recognizing the work of Christ in strange clothing, Pasadena : Wm Carey Library, 1997

A Harvest Surprise


There is a discourse of Jesus that takes a rather surprising twist.

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them,

“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.
Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.
Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.”

Luke 10 :1-2 NIVUK

The last three sentences of this are very unexpected.

From Jesus’ statement about the abundance of the harvest and the lack of workers, the last line would very naturally follow on, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.”

But, surprisingly, these two lines are separated by a rather incongruous and unexpected exhortation to prayer. Indeed, if this line about prayer was missing and we had to complete Jesus’ words, I doubt that any of us would complete it in the way that Jesus does.

Perhaps the most logical follow-on would be something along the lines of; “The harvest is plentiful and the workers and few, so everybody get out there and get harvesting!”

So why this interjection about prayer, what is Jesus telling us by including this unexpected phrase?

1 Whose harvest it is.
The harvest belongs only to God. Human beings should not presume to try and take the initiative and control how the harvest is gathered, nor who gathers it. This is God’s harvest; we need to follow His leading and guiding.

2 Those gathered, are gathered by grace.
Harvesting souls into the Kingdom of God is a divine act and one that is dependent upon miracles of grace every step of the way. Those who turn to Christ need a miracle of grace in their hearts and minds; grace to enable them to perceive the spiritual truth about themselves and about Jesus and grace to enable them to receive that revelation and to respond in saving faith.

3 Those who gather, gather by grace.
Not only are those who are to be brought into the harvest totally dependent upon grace, so are those who gather the harvest.
Every messenger of the gospel, every gatherer of the harvest, is likewise a miracle of grace. No one involves themselves in the work of God, other than God moves in them by His Spirit. No messengers send themselves out, rather they are sent out through a divine stirring, calling, commissioning and sending out by God.

4 The gathering is dependent upon grace.
The gathering of the harvest is also totally dependent upon grace. Those who are sent out need to be indwelt by the Spirit of God, who will then call and motivate and drive them to mission, who will enable them to proclaim the good news about Jesus, and who will anoint their proclamation with evangelistic power for the transformation of lives.

Mission is therefore completely different to every other human endeavour. In most human activity effort, technique, skill, hard work, and good methodology will more or less guarantee you positive results – not so with mission.

In mission nothing we can do has any efficacy in and of itself. A positive outcome in mission activity is entirely dependent upon God, in His grace, sending forth His Spirit; something we can neither predict nor control.

In this passage Jesus is therefore telling us something very profound and surprising about the nature of mission. Jesus reveals that mission is a mystical, mysterious activity. An activity in which God invites us to participate – and we do so in a meaningful way – and yet there is a degree to which we participate in a rather clueless, befuddled and uncomprehending fashion.

This reminds me of an experience I had at school.

At school I really struggled with maths and I remember learning about quadratic equations. I didn’t understand the concept. However I did manage to work out that if I had a string of numbers and letters in a certain format, and I carried out certain manipulations on them, then that would enable me to get a string of numbers and letters in a different format, which would be the correct answer. But I had absolutely no idea of what I was actually doing, or what it meant!

It was only when I got to university and studied maths as part of an engineering degree that I finally understood what those strings of letters and numbers meant and what the manipulations were doing and what the answer signified.

Our involvement in mission is rather like my schoolboy maths. Most of the time we have little comprehension about what we are involved in, what might be happening, or how God is working through us.

There is deep mystery built into the heart of mission and we are required to embrace it. The Lord of the harvest works as He wills and our involvement is merely to pray for the workers to be sent out, and to hold ourselves available and obedient to His call when it comes to us.

We just obey – God does the clever stuff.

And up to now…


In the Confessio of Saint Patrick, written around 493 AD, the old missionary bishop reflects on his life and ministry. He identifies the key lessons he has learnt in his experience of living with God and, with great honesty, he writes them down for the benefit of those who also seek to live well with God.

Somewhat surprisingly, the first thing Saint Patrick attests is the inherent fragility of his faith.

But I do not trust myself, ‘as long as I am in this body of death’ C44: 105/6

Here, Patrick quotes Saint Paul in Romans 7:24, where, again with absolute transparency, St Paul lays bare his own struggle to live in a manner worthy of a Christian. A challenge that his own body, with its inherent tendency for sinfulness, opposes.

Saint Patrick also makes clear that his struggle is not merely against recalcitrant flesh, but also against an opposing spiritual force that works in and through this weakness,

 …he is strong who strives daily to turn me away from the faith

and from that chastity of an unfeigned religion which I have

proposed to keep to the end of my life for Christ my Lord. C44: 107-109

He acknowledges the activity of a powerful spiritual adversary who uses Patrick’s own fleshly weaknesses to try and turn him away from the faith he has embraced and the God he has vowed to serve.

The hostile flesh is always dragging towards death,

that is towards allurements to do that which is forbidden. C44: 110

Whilst he does not state specifically what these ‘allurements’ are, we can well imagine the possibilities. Patrick has been called by God to leave family, friends and homeland, to exile himself in a foreign land, to minister to those of a different language and culture and to seek to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ and establish a Christian Community amongst them.

Patrick faced opposition, which was sometimes violent. He was no doubt often lonely, tired, dispirited, discouraged. The temptations that might then be rained down upon a man are self-evident.

Patrick also identifies a more subtle struggle,

And I know in part wherein I have not lived a perfect life. C44: 112

Not only are there fleshly and demonically inspired temptations there are also the constant reminder of past failures, ever-present weaknesses. These present themselves to his mind and manifest his failure to be what he should be. He has to live with the reality of his own hypocrisy, which undermines his commitment, saps his morale.

Patrick also speaks of the opposition to his mission, sometimes even active opposition, which came from within the Church.

…many were trying to hinder my embassy.

They were even talking among themselves behind my back

and saying, ‘Why does this man throw himself into danger

among enemies who do not know God?’

Not out of malice,

but it did not seem wise to them,’ C46: 137-142

The idea of an organised mission to a pagan people was, to this point unprecedented. Many within the Church considered this ‘novelty’ unnecessary, unwise, and inappropriate.

In the light of all this, we might well ask, what is it that keeps Patrick going? In the face of these opposing forces, the inherent tendency to sin of his own body, the actions of a maleficent force opposed to his faith, the constant hardship and struggle of a difficult life in a foreign culture, the harsh reality of personal failure, even the active opposition of other church leaders who question the validity of his missionary approach; where does Patrick find the courage to carry on?

Well, fortunately Patrick reveals his secret to us. He says he can say with honesty before God,

…there grew in me the love of God and fear of him,

and up to now, with God’s grace, I have kept the faith. C44: 118/9

Patrick can look back over his life and see that he has come to love God and to live in fear before him. This fear is not a negative, servile fear, but rather the proper respect and bearing towards God that is birthed in a man or woman when they have come to glimpse something of God’s majesty and grandeur, his power and holiness. The contrast between this and our own evident weakness and sinfulness is such that it engenders a holy ‘fear’. This, in turn, becomes a motivating force in our life with God. This ‘fear’ is expressed in a life that worships God in all it does.

The reality of this love for God, and this holy fear, are evidence to Patrick of God’s grace at work in his life. He testifies that this grace has enabled him, however imperfectly, to keep the faith until now. But he is not complacent. His testimony is only, ‘up to now’. He is conscious of his utter reliance upon God to bring his life of faith to a successful conclusion.

It strikes me that this spiritual advice is as helpful now in the 21st century as it was in the 5th. The spiritual realities of human existence and not changed one iota in the intervening millennia and a half.

Like Patrick, anyone who seriously tries to respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, will immediately find himself / herself in the midst of an heroic struggle of epic proportions.

The spiritually twistedness of our human flesh will, like those shopping trolleys with wonky wheels, reveal immediately its unfailing tendency to shoot off in the wrong direction.

If this were not bad enough the situation is worsened by a spiritual adversary who will stoop to any base level, try any underhand trick, in order to knock us off course. One of his favourites being to simply remind us of our imperfection, of our manifest hypocrisy, that we are not the perfect Christians we try to be and know we should be.

We may well also encounter, alas, opposition from within the Church itself, people who don’t understand our calling and who cast doubt on our work for God.

There is only one thing that will keep us on track and help us bear up in the face of such trials – the reality of a love for God and a holy fear of God that is growing, however slowly, in our hearts through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God.

None of us can ever say more than,

‘And up to now, with God’s grace, I have kept the faith’ C44: 119