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 lie 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?


As Iron Sharpens Iron


As iron sharpens iron,
so one person sharpens another.
(Proverbs 27:17 NIV)

There is something fundamentally true in this statement. Indeed I think it can be stretched our further.

Every day we are making the people around us better or worse.

We make each other better by :

• Affirming good actions,
• Affirming good choices,
• Congratulating on the development of new competencies.
• Deprecating bad actions,
• Pointing our poor choices,
• Indicating areas where improvement is possible.

These are not things strangers can generally do for each other.

To be criticised is a painful existential experience.

To have some part of yourself held up to scrutiny and exposed at weak and wrong, can only be borne when the person doing so has earned the right to do so. A right they can only earn through proving consistently and convincingly their esteem for us. In which case their motives can at least be hoped to be pure – that they want our best – rather than being unworthy.

This process transforms not only individuals but their communities and societies.

When this process is absent, we make no forward progress in becoming a nobler, better person, in fulfilling our human potential and, at best, individuals and communities stay as bad as they are.

In the worst case scenario, in the presence of negative character reinforcement – applauding that which is base and poor and deprecating the good – we quickly take each other and our community into the deepest experience of hell.

So how do we choose to live?

Will we establish ‘sharpening’ relationships, invite mutually close observation and truth telling, in the hope of growth and advancement in character?

Or will we avoid the pain, difficulty and discomfort and accept the status quo?

Or will we embrace a pathology of mutual negative reinforcement that will take us all to hell?

The choice and the consequences are ours.

Disrespecting the Structure


(Noah and his sons by Andrea Sacchi C17th)

There is an interesting story of only a dozen or so lines that quickly follows the flood story in Genesis.

Noah and his family come out of the ark, saved from the flood, they re-establish life on a pristine, cleansed planet[1].

Noah plants a vineyard and then gets drunk on the wine.

His middle son, Ham, comes inside his father’s tent and sees him naked, sprawled out on the floor.

He then goes and tells his elder and younger brother what he has seen.

The two siblings, by contrast show respect for their father by averting their eyes as they place a covering over his nakedness.

When Noah sobers up and realises what has happened he curses Ham and blesses Shem and Japheth and tells them that Ham and his descendants will always serve them – be their slaves.

At first glance this is a confusing story. What on earth is it about?

Well Noah represents the patriarchy – order. In archetypical imagery patriarchy is order, which can also become tyranny, Matriarchy is chaos and danger, but which is also the place where new information is found.

So what is this story representing? Ham the middle son sees the vulnerability – the weaknesses and failing of the structure and instead of respecting it for the good it has done – saving the world from destruction, saving his own and his wife’s life – he shows contempt. The biblical phraseology ‘saw his father’s nakedness’ text might even be hinting at sexual assault. Not only does he personally show contempt, but he then tells his brothers what he has done.

It seems very much like a will to power action, he is trying to take a position at the top of the hierarchy – but the story tells us you cannot do that by disrespecting the hierarchy.

You cannot rise to the top and to a position of influence within a structure by attacking the structure itself.

If you do behave like that you will undermine your ability to ever be in a position of leadership.

What do we learn from this?

We learn that criticism has to be expressed in a framework of gratitude in order to be healthy.

When you see the ‘nakedness’ of a person, or an institution – your criticism of that vulnerability is only positive when it is expressed in a framework of gratitude for the valuable and praiseworthy elements of the person or institution.

I knew someone who wold only ever let a person say something negative about a person or thing, after they had said something positive.

I think he was wrong.

I think you need to say at least two or three positive things and really establish a framework of gratitude before criticism is appropriate.

This is why encouragement is such an important part of human interaction. In our encouragement of others we establish a normalcy of appreciation and valuing. Once this is established then we earn the right to have our criticisms heard (which are existentially very painful, even if, or especially if, they are true).

So look for reasons to be grateful,

express that often,

criticise in a spirit of wanting the best for the thing you are criticising

and don’t disrespect the systems that have protected and enabled you to flourish as much as you have, just because you see they are imperfect.

[1] Genesis 9

Brother Angelo


On Sunday I found myself worshipping in York Minster. Bizarrely it was the second time in under a fortnight that I was served communion by an Archbishop! But that’s another story.

The most significant person I met that morning – apart from Christ in the Eucharist – was not Archbishop SENTAMU but an old man called Angelo.

In a packed congregation of hundreds I found myself sitting next to an old man who turned about to be Italian but who had lived in York for many years.

In the few moments before the service Angelo and I ended up chatting and I asked why a Roman Catholic Italian was attending a Protestant service in York Minster?

He shared his testimony of how many years ago he had been far from God but was still attending Catholic church from time to time.

One Christmas his Catholic church in York was closed as the heating system had broken down. So he went to a Christmas service at the Minster.

At that service he encountered God in a new and life-changing way and since that day he has attended evensong each day.

He spoke of how he now knew that ‘labels’ mean nothing and that we all worship the same Jesus Christ.

I was then able to share with him my testimony of serving the French Catholic church as a Protestant Evangelical missionary for 14 years.

We embraced as brothers.

That felt like a ‘God-moment’ to me, like God was reminding me of how He has done something in Sharon and my hearts and lives which has opened us up to the ecumenical imperative of John 17;

I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,

that all of them may be one (John 17:20, NIV)

I’m not that sure what this encounter ‘means’.

But I think it was at least a reminder to Sharon and I that in our hearts God has put a deep love for our Catholic brothers and sisters and of all the other ‘sheep that are of a different sheep-fold’.

I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold (John 10:16, NLT)

As we approach the end of this ministry in Leicester, whatever we do, and wherever we go, we will do and go as people who embrace our brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of their spiritual tradition.

St Joseph Barsabbas – The Unchosen

St Joseph BARSABBASSome people just have no luck.

Finalists but never winners.

Get so close but never quite make the cut.

Those kinds of experiences can mark a person, make them bitter and twisted, sour them.

St Joseph of BARSABBAS had that kind of thing happen to him, twice.

He was part of the group of 72 disciples that Jesus formed and trained and sent out into ministry(1). But when Jesus chose the 12 who would be his inner circle, his apostles, Joseph didn’t make the cut.

When Judas betrayed Jesus and there was an opening amongst the 12, Joseph was in the frame again. This time it was only a choice of two – Joseph and Matthais. Guess who was chosen?

Twice up there, twice passed over. Can’t have been easy.

This is something very close to my own heart as I’m currently looking for a post in ministry. So far I’ve had two interviews for posts, after both interviews I have been rejected. Which is tough.

I mean you can be stoic and breezey, don’t panic, just carry on. You can be fatalistic ‘What’s for you won’t go by you’. You can spiritualise ‘God’s in control and all will be well’. All of which have some positive aspects, but none of them does anything to alleviate the crushed hope, the bruised ego, the lost dreams.

So I know exactly how Joseph must have felt. To be the unchosen hurts.

And when it happens again and again it can be crushing.

So I was interested to find out how St Joseph reacted to this double rejection. Did he become bitter and twisted? Was he the critical voice from the wings carping and pointing out the faults and failings of those who were chosen?

St John CHRYSOSTOM notes;

but the other candidate (Joseph) was not annoyed; for the apostolic writers would not have concealed [that or any other] failings of their own, seeing they have told of the very chief Apostles, that on other occasions they had indignation (Matthew 20:24; Matthew 26:8), and this not once only, but again and again .

In fact his life was of such piety and holiness that he was nicknamed ‘the Just’ and is most commonly known as St Justus of Eleutheropolis – although the town name Eleutheropolis is an anachronism as the name is later, it was a mere village called Betaris in the 1st century when he was made bishop of it.

Not only was St Joseph a man of exemplary holiness he was also brave.

When the Emperor Vespasian came to quell the rebellious Jewish population in 68AD he attacked Betaris and the surrounding villages and 10,000 people were slain – St Joseph amongst them for refusing to renounce his Christian faith(3).

So St Joseph is a particular help and encouragement to all those who are unchosen, passed over, neglected. If your spirituality allows it, you might ask for his intercession when you face such experiences, that you might meet the challenge of being unchosen with the same grace and goodness that he did.

(1) Eusebius Historia Ecclesiastica, I, 12

(2) St John CHRYSOSTOM, Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, Homily 3

(3) Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book 4, chapter 8, section 1



Come and See


At the Bishop of Leicester’s ‘School of Prayer’ event at St Botolph’s, Shepshed this evening we were encouraged to experience 5 different ways of praying.

One way that particularly helped me this evening was praying with scripture.

One of the biblical passages we were given to pray with was John 1:38-39

Then Jesus turned, and seeing them following, said to them, “What do you seek?”

They said to Him, “Rabbi” (which is to say, when translated, Teacher), “where are You staying?”

He said to them, “Come and see.”

Meditating on this led me to write the following poem:

You ask me a question

‘What are you looking for?’

I don’t have an answer

Something, someone, help?

I can’t truly say.

Your response to me

Is not an exploration of

My question

But an invitation to experience

Your answer

Come and see.


The Flying Fish


Our NEARER community met on Wednesday and we explored how poetry connects with prayer.

We were challenged to respond to different objects placed around the room.

The object that caught my attention was a Fish Cross. It is a cross that when viewed from the front looks perfectly ordinary, however when viewed from the side it looks like a fish.

This is a reference to the fact that the early Christians used the fish as a secret symbol of their faith. The word for fish in greek is ‘icthus’ and this can be used as an acronym – iesus, christos theos huios soter (Jesus, Christ, of God, the Son, Saviour).

As I thought about the fish I suddenly thought of flying fish and this led me into a reflection of how that can be seen as an image of Christians.

I wrote the following poem in response.


The Flying Fish

A fish that swims in company,

In playful relation,

Yet with purposeful intent,

Unlike its peers, is a citizen of two worlds,

Soaring now and then,

To its lower companions lost to sight,

Joining brother birds in glorious flight.


Then re-entering that heavy, liquid world

Warmed by the sun,

Invigorated by the air,

And dazzled by the light.


With a life above and below,

Ambassador between two worlds

That are strangers to each other.


So we who live below.

Immersed in torrent and tide,

Yet from time to time receive grace to know

Escape and soar in warmer, brighter climes,

Likewise must we return to share,

Our second life,

To strengthen, challenge, and implore,

Our low-bound companions,

That all might know and taste life on that more glorious plane,

The son to see, his warmth to share,

The joy to soar.


Stephen John MARCH, Feast of St. Winwaloc, 2017