"They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for a display of his splendour." - Isaiah Ch 61 V 3 (part)
I’ve always found the metaphor of a tree to be both personally and professionally important to me. On an Ignatian Quiet Day in Sheffield, I first really, really thought about my role in the Church, in Christianity. I was starting to put down roots, both in the church I attended and my developing faith. As I watched an oak tree outside, I could almost feel those roots hooking into the ground, being nourished. Like my roots. But there was also growth – not only a tree growing upwards and outwards, but also producing fruit, launching acorns into the world, to start new life. I knew God wanted me to give something back; this helped me see it fully. And this oak tree image has resonated with me in a variety of situations just when I needed it – acorn décor in the moulded plaster on the ceiling as I waited to be interviewed about my vocation to the priesthood, for starters.
As with that small acorn, in the Gospels we hear about how it only takes a mustard seed, a teeny tiny wisp of faith, to start a transformation. (I remember leading the Pram Service with under 5s and actually taking in some of those teeny tiny seeds.) As church, we are often brilliant at planting seeds and starting a chain reaction in people. We are less practised, I believe, at following up and sustaining new Christians. We may think about that first spark of life, but not support the spiritual sapling that is making its way in the world, trying to put down strong roots in the earth.
A little while ago I mused about the wonder of leaves – their role in the life of trees, and in our lives, as they engage our senses in their colourful death. This past week, however, I was thinking about ow dead leaves become mulch (and not just because my Dad subjected me to no end of gardening programmes on TV as a child!) I remembered that although it is the seed of the tree that makes a beginning, in the death of the leaves something also happens; the soil in which seeds grow is fertilised. Leaves decay; in doing so, they enrich. They retain moisture. They stop the weeds growing. As such, spiritual mulch can help provide a nurturing environment for people wherever they are on their faith journey. They ensure that the plant will put down strong roots and grow fruitfully.
Being part of an ageing church population means that I have had several friends who I feel have “gone too soon” – they have seemed too young, too part of things, to take their place amongst the dying and dementia sufferers. But they set an example. They were themselves. They were accepting. They were caring. They didn’t engage in self-publicity. They met you where you were. Their hearts were big. They didn’t need to know you well to know you. They helped sustain the life of the church through the Christmas Bazaar and other behind the scenes work and oh so much more without ever inviting credit. Just for the love of God, the love of Jesus, the love of people. We can use their inspiration to continue this being alongside our congregation, following in the footsteps. Let the richness of their faith sustain the faith as others.
Gardeners don’t have to use fallen leaves as mulch, either. There are lots of other varieties now available, which have been created over time to meet a specific need. Does your church have multiple ways of encouraging children, new Christians, those who are challenged in their faith, struggling on their spiritual journey? How do we help them to grow? Do we make sure they are seeing enough light? That they are well fed and watered with prayer, music, the Word, pastoral care, us knowing their name, giving them love?
We need to be encouraging as congregations – without being overwhelming! – in part by not expecting perfection, conformity or people who know what they are doing and instead inviting humanity, creating a learning environment and dispensing grace. In order to establish strong roots there needs to be a soil that is safe and stable, yet is rich in breadth and depth, with occasional threads of absolute beauty and plenty of earth that is nothing special to look at on the surface but has itself been nurtured and inspired by the lives – the leaves? – of those that have gone before us.
New life. New wine. New Testament. And always, a newness of approach, where it is needed, to gently nurture new faith.
"You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you may bear fruit" - John Ch 15 V 16