The Oaks of England

It is our last day in England and Tom and I have just returned from a wonderful walk along the Thames at Richmond.  Part of our walk went past Deer Park where the kings of England once hunted for deer – dating back centuries.  I was particularly struck by the beautiful old oaks some of which must have been standing when Henry VIII was raging his way around England.  Oaks are some of the longest lived of trees.  Down through the ages the oak tree has become known for its very durable wood, so much so that the phrase English oak has become a metaphor for strength and fortitude.

It was a very sobering moment – looking at these ancient trees and reflecting on their significance and what they have seen over the centuries so I thought that you would not mind if I indulged in a little looking back at the history of oaks in England.

From the pagan image of the Green Man garlanded by oak leaves found in many parish churches to the writing of Shakespeare and Keats, the oak has rooted itself deep in the British national consciousness and its influence is represented in many ways.

The Celts particularly revered the oak which represented their most prized virtue, hospitality. The Celts loved to hunt in oak woods, as did the Anglo Saxons and in Celtic mythology it was the tree of doors, believed to be a gateway between worlds.  It was also seen as a protector and healer.

The Royal Oak is the second most popular pub name in Britain, after the Red Lion.  The original Royal Oak was the Boscobel Oak near Shifnal in Shropshire where King Charles II and Colonel Carless hid after the Battle of Worcester in 1651.

After the Restoration, May 29th, the King’s birthday was declared Royal Oak Day. Ironically, the Boscobel Oak was dead by the end of the nineteenth century because patriotic souvenir-hunters tore off its branches, thereby hastening its demise. The name, the cult and the link to the pub all live on in the Royal Oak ale now made by the Eldridge Pope brewery. It is described as: “A beautifully soft, well-balanced, bitter, strong, full-flavoured pint.”

Not surprisingly, Robin Hood met his Merry Men under the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest. The joint symbolism of the hero and the talismanic tree is a powerful one. Here the qualities of both man and tree are entwined, representing once again strength, protection, durability, courage and truth.

The connection of hero and oak tree can also be traced through King Arthur, whose Round Table was said to be hewn from a massive piece of oak and whose coffin at Glastonbury Abbey – if indeed the coffin was Arthur’s – was made from a hollowed out oak tree. Other oak trees that have been associated with British heroes include the Elderslie Oak, which was said to have sheltered William Wallace and 300 of his men (that must have been a BIG tree!) and Owen Glendower’s Oak from which tree he witnessed the battle between King Henry IV and Henry Percy, Macbeth’s Oak at Birnam and Sir Philip Sydney’s oak tree at Penshurst. In all cases the trees are associated with or commemorate a war hero. They shed some of their strength on the hero, whose exploits mirror the timeless power of the tree.

The English oak is usually a symbol of liberty though sometimes, like Kett’s Oak in Norfolk, one of rebellion.  In July 1549 Robert Kett led an uprising against the Crown to demand the end to the practice of enclosure of common land. He made a rousing speech beneath the oak tree on the village green in Wymondham and led a mob in the march on Norwich, where he captured the castle. Defeated by the Earl of Warwick, Kett was condemned for treason and hanged.  His oak tree lived on, however, and became a symbol of freedom from oppression. Under the name of the Reformation Oak it became a place of regular pilgrimage for political radicals.

The image of the oak tree is also used to represent the strength of Britain’s fighting men. The central part of the tree, which has no sap and was prized in shipbuilding. During Nelson’s time 2000 oaks would have been used to build a 74 gun warship.These ships were the “wooden walls” that protected Britain during the Napoleonic Wars.

In 1763 Roger Fisher, published Heart of Oak, The British Bulwark, in which he argued empires rose or fell depending on their abundance or dearth of oaks. Fisher warned that the gentry were squandering the future by leaving woodlands to be destroyed by animalsprotected for the hunt, frittering away the birthright of future Britons so they might fund their passions for “horses and dogs, wine and women, cards and folly”.

The newly formed Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts offered prizes to those who planted the most trees – supremely the oak – but also the softwood conifersused for masts. As a result, acorn fever took hold. The great Dukes planted acre after acre of oak trees. Naval officers on leave, like Collingwood, went around surreptitiously scattering acorns from holes in his breeches in the parks of his unsuspecting hosts!

Even today the focus of many English villages is an ancient oak on a village green and the British Houses of Parliament are panelled in oak. The oak continues to be part of the fabric of English life though its numbers are now vastly depleted by the advance of modern cities.


Are We Having Fun Yet?

Thanks Chris and Naomi Lawrence for making me aware of this:

Volkswagen has started this new program called “the fun theory” where they explore new ways to get people to do things which are good for them or good for the environment. For example, it is noted that more people opt to take escalators than stairs even though stairs are much more healthy. So in Sweden, a team was hired to transform a staircase (next to an escalator) into a piano so that when people took a step, a note was triggered that would make a sound. The result was astounding. By making it fun, a ton more people took the stairs versus the escalator.

Open My Eyes I Want to See Jesus

This morning one of the songs we sang in our worship time was Open My eyes Lord I Want to See Jesus, a song that I usually enjoy singing.  However as I sat amongst urban workers who work amongst the street people, the drug addicts and alcoholics, the at risk youth of London and other English cities. As I looked at these people who are all struggling with work overload and facing cutbacks to their funding, I was caught short – Do I really want to see Jesus? I wondered.

Yes I love the images of Jesus the loving and caring one, the healing and comforting one, the redeeming and renewing one.  But I realized this morning that there are other images of Jesus I am far less comfortable with –

Jesus the lamb who was slain, the despised and abandoned one, the neglected and forgotten one, the tortured and wounded one who is present in the lives and faces of all those who live on the streets.  Jesus the weeping  and mourning one who is present in the faces of so many overworked urban workers who feel abandoned and despised by their governments and often church leadership as well.  Do I really want to see this Jesus and if so how do I respond?

Why I Write Prayers

I did not grow up in a faith tradition that commonly recites written prayers.  In fact I used to think that reading rote prayers was not good for my faith at all.  All that has changed over the last few years as I have both started to write and use prayers written by others specifically for use in group settings.

The publishing of Light for the Journey: Morning and Evening Prayers for Living into God’s World, has made me realize that I am not alone in the craving for prayers to recite on a regular basis alone or together with a community of fellow journeyers.  Prayers strengthen our faith, build up the community of God and help to motivate us to move forward into God’s purposes for our lives.  They can also move us beyond the chronic randomness of daily devotions that skip from place to place with little if any rational sequence.

I write prayers for several reasons.

First when I am struggling to understand theological truths I find that writing short prayers related to the topic really help me to get my own thoughts from my head to my heart.  When I recite the prayers aloud they resonate deep within my soul increasing my confidence in the truths of God’s word and urging me to respond.

Second I write prayers because I have found that reciting prayers as a community is a wonderful way to bind us together with common beliefs and values.   I am more and more convinced that when we read the same prayers together in community they bind us together in a way that reading spontaneous random prayers never does.  They can even bind us together across distances.  When communities of people around the world are all recite the same prayers together at the same time a bond forms that is beyond description.

Third I write prayers that focus on issues of justice and the need for unity because I have found that many of my activist friends are looking for resources that strengthen their faith in the principles of God’s kingdom purposes.

Forth I write prayers because I have discovered that I have a talent for writing prayers that others find helpful in strengthening their faith.

Spontaneity in prayer and worship is important but reciting prayers that others have written is also important and is an art that I think all of us need to rediscover.

Organic Dairy Goes Rap with its Ads

Tom & I are currently in England so it seemed appropriate to highlight this very creative Organic Dairy ad from a British dairy Yeo Organics.

A Prayer of Silence

Come into a place of solitude

Come into a garden of prayer

Come feast on a slience of plenty

For God await us there

Come to where your heart is calling

Come into God’s place of quiet

Leave your worries and distractions

Come walk in the garden of life

Last night we facilitated a meeting at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.  It was great to reconnect to friends we have not seen for a long time as well as to meet many new people who I am sure will become friends in the future.

I particularly enjoyed seeing worship leader Andy Flannagan again.  We met him last year at Black Stump in Australia where he shared his very moving song Bring Heaven to Earth which you can download for free here.   He started our worship with a 5 minute silence – a time to shut down our minds, refocus our thoughts on God and renew our spirits after the busyness of the day.  It was so refreshing and inspired me to write the prayer above.

Silence is a form of prayer that most of us (except my Quaker friends), know very little about and yet God so often comes to us in the quiet whisper that can only be heard in the midst of silence.  I wonder how often we miss what God is wanting to say to us because our lives are always so surrounded by noise.

Looking to the Future Goal

“Pilgrimage must always look to the future goal otherwise the clamour of the contemporary will all but drown out the eternal.  This will work in two ways.  The everyday will become filled with literally eternal significance because everything we say, do and are will be part of our pilgrimage and our spirituality.  Indeed the more we are devoted to the eternal city the harder we will try to pay as full a part as possible in the matters of the world.  On the other hand the eternal world will cease simply to be something in the far distant future and will become an increasing reality in our every day lives.  We will become increasingly attuned to the reality of God and what He is preparing for us.”

This quote from Travelling Hopefully: A Spiritual Pilgrimage by Robert Fyall really impacted me this morning.  We are getting ready to work with Livability here in the UK and I have been working on updating my presentation on Shalom.  The future of God with the inbreaking of a world of justice, abundance and health for all is a very real and anticipated reality for me though sometimes I am distracted from this vision by the busyness of my life.

I believe the bond that should hold us together as God’s people is this vision of shalom and the knowledge that we are working towards God’s new shalom world.  Our acts of service – healing the sick, setting the oppressed free and preaching the good news of the Gospel are all aimed at this goal of bringing God’s future into being.

Fyall goes on to add some other important thoughts that I want to conclude with:

There are many times on pilgrimage when situations like this occur; we have, we believe, been called by God and yet he has led us into a cul-de-sac.  We do not see how he can meet our need so be panic and we blame others, we blame circumstances, and our vision fails

It is vision in fact which is vital at moments like these.  Vision is not seeing what is not there, vision is seeing ALL that is there.  The thirst was real, the desert was real, but so also was the presence of God.  The difference was that the presence of God was discerned only by the eye of vision.  The letter to the Hebrews, speaking of Moses, captures this in a wonderful phrase: He persevered because he saw him who is invisible (Heb 11:27)  It is not that thirst can be conjured away but rather that the resources to meet it are there but not yet visible.” (37)

Austerity Measures – What Would Jesus Do?

Tom and I are now in Britain where the entire population is staggering under the drastic budget cuts that have just been announced.   These are the most severe cuts since the 1920s.  Some programmes have been cut by 10% others by 30% and still others have been annihilated completely.  A few people are breathing a sigh of relief thinking they have escaped the devastation.  Some are trying to hoard their existing resources and maintain a semblance of security.  And though the situation in the U.S. has not reached this stage I suspect that it might not be far behind.  I believe that we are in the midst of a major societal upheaval and we will never be the same again.

This is not all necessarily bad news though.  Jesus constantly instilled his followers with hope and expectation in a time that must have seemed as uncertain as our own.  His proclamations about God’s kingdom gave them confidence in the future – not just for some vague after life future, but for their very real future on earth too.  And as a result they radically reoriented their lives and reinvented their priorities.   In the midst of societal upheaval Jesus established a new community of love and mutual care.

In the midst of this challenging transition there is so much that gives me hope and much that excites me because it seems that God is doing something new, something I can imagine Jesus doing so that we catch wonderful glimpses of God’s kingdom.

First I love the new understanding of Christian mission that is emerging –  not as programmes that help or convert people but as relationships founded on mutual love and concern.  And out of these relationships new intentional Christian communities are evolving with spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines at their centre.

Second I believe we are seeing a re-definition of generosity – not as a giving of our leftovers to help those at the margins but as a willing turning away from self centred living towards simplicity that frees up more resources to share.  The increasing popularity of One Day’s Wages, started by Eugene Cho is a great example of this.  And as I travel I run into a growing number of people who voluntarily accept challenges such as the $2 challenge.  Others are living on minimum wage for several weeks in order to free up resources.

Third we are seeing a reconnecting to creation that is not just a wonderful way to provide fresh produce for ourselves but it is often a way to reach out and help others too.  In my post Is This A Move of God I talked about the community garden movement that has not just provided food for individuals and families but that has stocked food pantries and fed the homeless in amazing ways.

We are all facing challenging economic times but I do believe that God is still in control.  And God still provides us with hope for the future no matter how challenging the transitions may seem


What Does it Mean to Walk as Pilgrims?

Therefore since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up.  And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.  We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.  (Hebrew 12: 1,2)

I could not help but think about this today as I was reflecting again on pilgrimage.

Pilgrims prepared well for their journeys as they expected to be gone from home for a long time if not forever.  They wore a special costume, a brown woolen robe that was long enough to wrap around them at night to sleep.  This costume was regarded as both a penance and an honour.  It both identified the person as a pilgrim and helped them to beg alms on the way.  A cross decorated the sleeve.  On the head was a broad brimmed hat usually turned up to display the pilgrim badge and symbols of the shrines he had already visited.  Slung around the neck was a scrip with two days food and a large knife and a flask for water.  The pilgrim aso carried a long stout staff which was for vaulting over streams, climbing hills and as defense against outlaws and wild animals.

What difference would it make to our lives if we prepared for our Christian journeys in this way – recognizing that we are meant to be distinguished from the world around us with a very different purpose and a very different way of living?

A Sense of Pilgrimage

Tom and I are heading off to England this morning to work with Livability.  I am particularly looking forward to a few days relaxation in London between events.  Going to Britain always has a sense of pilgrimage for me.  On our honeymoon almost 20 years ago we visited Iona, for me my first trip to this very special island, and since then it has been the destination for several pilgrimages.  We have also visited Holy Island and other pilgrimage sites,  and so while we are away I thought that I would do a series of posts about pilgrimage.

Going to Holy Island for the first time, in particular, gave me a sense of my own life as a pilgrimage with the destination being “The Holy City of God” or in more modern terms – God’s eternal shalom world of wholeness and abundance.

I loved reading about how the pilgrims stopped along the way to pray and give thanks at shrines particularly designated for this purpose.  The pathways were often marked by crosses – wayside crosses – that gave an assurance that they were on the right track.  These wayside crosses also gave a sense that no matter how often the pilgrim stopped, they were always aware that the final destination, the holy city of God or in this case Holy Island toward which they were moving, still lay ahead.

Holy Island is still a popular place for pilgrimage.  And today as in the Middle Ages people go on pilgrimage for many reasons.  For many it is a true journey towards the presence of God and a recognition that all of life is a pilgrimage.  The journey’s end often culminates with a renewal of vows to God and a renewed sense of the kingdom of God as our final destination.

Pilgrimages that renew our sense of God’s purpose for us are very important and should be taken a regular intervals.  If we cannot go on a physical pilgrimage, activities that give us a sense of pilgrimage can be a good substitute.  As prepare for the celebration of Advent and Christmas, it is a great season to think about this.