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.


This is the International Year of Biodiversity

Last week I was sent an email reminding me that not only is this the Time for Creation but it is also the International Year of Biodiversity.  I am embarrassed to say that I did not know.  But now that I have remedied my error I thought that it was important to provide all of us with resources to celebrate and participate in this.  And there are some wonderful resources out there that we need to be aware of.  Much of the emphasis is on praying for Africa so I wanted to start with this reminder of the wonderful biodiversity of Africa

As 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity we especially encourage organizing prayers around this theme. At the same time, churches are encouraged to pray for and with people in Africa, where biodiversity and human welfare are threatened alike by climate change. Click here for suggested prayers.

African church leaders that met under the auspices of the All Africa Conference of Churches in Nairobi, Kenya, in June 2008 affirmed the need to take action in a public statement. “The current climate crisis is primarily spiritual and ethical with serious political, economic and justice implications,” the church leaders wrote. “As human beings we have failed to appreciate the intrinsic worth of ourselves, other humans, other species and future generations.”

The statement, along with comparable declarations by other ecumenical organizations and original articles on climate change and care for creation, is chronicled in the July 2010 issue of the Ecumenical Review. The issue is dedicated to the memory of the South African theologian Steve de Gruchy, who wrote an article on water and sanitation from a Christian perspective for the journal, shortly before his death in February 2010.

Africa has rich and varied biological resources forming the continent’s natural wealth on which its social and economic systems are based. These resources are also of global importance, for the world’s climate and for the development of agriculture, industrial activities, pharmaceutical production, construction and tourism, to name but a few of the most important areas.
Africa is home to some one quarter of the world’s 4,700 mammal species, including 79 species of antelope. (…) Eight of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots are in Africa.

UNEP: The state of biodiversity in Africa (Download the full report as pdf, 505 KB)

Liturgical resources

  • Readings, sermons, songs and other liturgical resources are also available on the Australian website Season of Creation.
  • God may we in all things seek you

    We are now at CCDA (reports to follow) and as so often happens when I travel I find that writing prayers is very therapeutic for me.  Here is one I wrote during our flights as I thought about all that I am looking forward to at this conference – the challenging presentations, the renewal of friendships and the opportunity to meet new people in particular.

    God may we in all things seek you

    God may we in all things praise you

    God may we in all things know you

    Remold us, remake us build us into you

    Christ may we in all things seek you

    Christ may we in all things praise you

    Christ may we in all things know you

    Remold us, remake us build us into you

    Spirit may we in all things seek you

    Spirit may we in all things praise you

    Spirit may we in all things know you

    Remold us, remake us build us into you

    Help Us Make Soap… In the Ukraine

    Some of you may remember that a couple of months ago I shared the story of Cindy Todd who started volunteering with us at Mustard Seed Associates at the beginning of this year.  Cindy started a small soap making business in order to help provide financially for this work.  She has even developed a Mustard Seed garden soap for me to sell at the spirituality of gardening seminars.  It is great for getting rid of the garden grime after a few hours outside.

    But that is not really what excites me about what Cindy is doing.  What really excites me is that this small business has already opened up new doors for her and in a few months she plans to head to the Ukraine to teach women there to make soap.

    Its only a few months away and yet it feels like an eternity. I’ll be headed to Ukraine again in early fall, sometime in September or October. I’m going to work with Vera Kushnir and the Aquila Foundation…partnering with some really strong women, those who care for their disabled children.

    They’ve had a tough time, culturally, financially, personally. They have struggled to stay with their kids, to care for them with little help from the government and community.  All too frequently they’ve become social outcasts.  Crazy, huh? These women are barely surviving. They are frequently isolated and living in extreme poverty. I’ve been invited to teach them how to make soap…and train them in business development. Its an awesome story of God and His infinite creativity.  Read the entire article

    We believe that as we continue to move into a volatile and turbulent future, this type of small business will become even more important to help provide for those at the margins.  Talk about planting mustard seeds that can grow into huge trees.  We would like to have Cindy as a full time MSA staff member.  Can you help?  You can support Cindy in her work here at MSA and her trip to the Ukraine through Mustard Seed Associates.

    A Weekend in British Columbia

    Tom and I have just returned from a great weekend in Abbotsford British Columbia.

    I started Friday evening with a Spirituality of Gardening seminar at Highland Community church.  The church is about to break ground for a community garden and so it was exciting to be able to help the participants think about their garden not just as a place to produce food or even as a way to reach out into the neighbourhood.  A garden is a wonderful place to connect to God and God’s story.

    As part of the seminar participants wandered outside in the garden.  During the reflection time that followed one woman shared about some rather dry and scraggly blackberries she had picked off the bushes around the church.  They reminded her of how God often provides us with free produce – if we are willing to go out and get it.  God really does provide for us abundantly if we look around and take notice.

    On the way home I kept thinking about this and listed off the many nourishing and free gifts that could help supplement our diets if we were only willing to harvest them – not just blackberries but also dandelions (probably the most nutritious plants in your garden) nettles, and in our part of the country wild mushrooms.  There are also the many fruit trees that are never harvested – apples and pears and peaches.

    I was delighted to discover recently that Community Harvest of Southwest Seattle has mapped all the fruit trees and sends out gleaners at the right season to harvest this valuable resource.  They make Windfall preserves from the fruit to help fund the organizations.

    I learnt a lot and hope the participants did too.  I also hope that other Abbotsford gardeners who were unable to attend may be able to make it across the border to the seminar in Lynden Washington May 22nd.

    Saturday Tom & I facilitated a futures creativity workshop for Communitas Care.  It was a very stimulating day talking about how the world and British Columbia are changing and how Communitas will need to change in order to be effective in the future.  Lots of creative ideas about how to move forward in a world that is likely to be very different than it is today.  Sunday we spoke at Highland Community church and then had lunch with friends before heading back to Seattle.

    March – May is always a busy season of travel and conferences for us.  However we are trying hard to preserve a balanced lifestyle in the midst of this.  Holy week we will take several days off to go on retreat, one of four that we do each year to help keep us on track spiritually.  Without these i find that my life can get out of control and focused on work and productivity rather than on God and God’s purposes for me.

    If you have never gone on retreat I would highly recommend this practice and there is not time like Holy week to begin

    Second Friday of Advent – Waiting Without A Calendar by Kristin Tennant

    I am writing this from our favourite doggie friendly motel the Islands Inn at Anacortes Washington.  Unlike many doggie friendly motels these days it does not charge an arm and a leg for our Bonnie girl.  We have just had a great Dutch breakfast (fresh baked bread, boiled egg real English marmalade and chocolate sprinkles) and are now getting ready to spend a day in retreat so this will be my only blog post for today.  I love to go on retreat at this season.  It is a great way to refocus and refresh and a wonderful preparation for the coming of Christ and our hope and anticipation of the coming of God’s new world of wholeness and completeness.

    This morning’s post comes from Kristin Tennant a freelance writer and blogger at Halfway to Normal.  She, her husband and three daughters live, learn, play and worship in Urbana Illinois.

    Living without a calendar

    I love the feeling of anticipation. There are many things, big and small, that I anticipate, but nothing encompasses the feeling quite like Advent—that season when waiting is perfectly wrapped in anticipation, and presented as the best of gifts.

    Anticipation is what makes the waiting delicious and bearable.

    As a child, following the well-worn path of rituals and traditions leading up to the candle-light Christmas Eve service worked its magic on me. Several Decembers later, as a college student, I waited for that moment when my last final exam was handed in and I could hurry through the Michigan winter back to my dorm room, finish packing, and head home. One Advent years later, I was reading a book that described, week by week, exactly how the baby in my womb was forming.

    Waiting. Anticipating. Counting down the days to a known end-point, a known result: Christmas will come. Exam week will end. This baby will be born.

    Now, as I reflect on the idea of “waiting,” it feels like a different creature—one void of anticipation. Sure, there are still specific moments I wait for with anticipation, like the family vacation we’re planning for the summer. So much of my waiting, though, has become more complex. I wait for a sign, for a change of heart. I wait for inspiration and direction, for complete healing and reconciliation. I wait for the life I live each day to align with the life I envision in my head and crave in my soul.

    In other words, the things I really find myself waiting for can’t be marked on the calendar. There aren’t four candles to light, one each week, as I grow nearer to that point of arrival. The anticipation is stripped away, and I’m left with the waiting—periods of hope clouded by periods of doubt: Am I waiting for the right things? Am I hoping for too much? Will I even know when the waiting is over?

    As I sat in church the first Sunday of Advent, though, I realized that’s exactly the kind of waiting we’re actually doing, as Jesus-followers. I mean, it’s important that we observe Advent as a journey toward December 25, the specific day we celebrate God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. It’s important to teach our children that waiting can be active and so rewarding, and to demonstrate it with wreaths of candles and special calendars with small doors to open, gradually revealing the full picture.

    But it’s that full picture—the really big one—that we’re actually waiting for. We’re waiting for things on earth to be as they are in heaven, and we don’t have a date on the calendar for that, any more than I have a date for when I’ll stop feeling hurt about difficult things in my past.

    It’s true, sometimes it feels like the most futile of waiting games. We do have God’s promises, though. One of the scriptures read at my church yesterday was Jeremiah 33:19-26, where God tells Jeremiah that he can count on God’s covenant promises as much as Jeremiah counts on the rising of the sun following each night.

    Those promises take what seems so abstract and uncertain in our waiting, and wraps it in the kind of anticipation we need to keep moving forward in hope.

    Kristin Tennant is a freelance writer and author of the blog Halfway to Normal. She, her husband and their three daughters live, learn, play and worship in Urbana, Illinois.

    Meeting the Twelve Apostles

    Tom & I have now arrived in Adelaide, after a long (1000 km) but spectacular 2 day trip along the coast between Melbourne and Adelaide.  I last made this trip with my family when I was 12 years old so as you can imagine there was a great deal of nostalgia and remembering for me.

    Things have changed a little since my last visit.  The roads have definitely improved which is a great blessing and there are loads of signs reminding American tourists that in Australia we drive on the left.  Evidently there are horrendous accidents each year because tourists rent cars at Melbourne airport and start their long trek towards Adelaide in jetlagged state along narrow windy roads that can be nerve racking even if you were familiar with them.

    falling rock sign

    Tom let me do most of the driving because at least I grew up driving on the left and rather enjoy the twisty turny roads But by the end of the day with only 400 km (250 miles) covered and 7 hours of driving even my nerves were a little frayed.

    Twelve Apostles

    Twelve Apostles

    Other things have changed too.  One of the spectacular rocks known as the twelve apostles has crumbled and London Bridge (another rock formation) has fallen down but this is still one of the most spectacular drives imaginable.

    We particularly enjoyed our stopover at Port Fairy a small community which is one of the oldest ports along the South coast of Australia.  The old norfolk pines lining the streets beautifully frame the old buildings.  A very memorable stop though it is a shame that what was once such a thriving community is now little more than a tourist stop.

    Port fairy buildings & norfolk pines

    Port fairy buildings & norfolk pines

    My greatest disappointment was the Blue Lake at Mt Gambier which I remember as this brilliant blue colour.  However what I had forgotten was that the colour changes dramatically in a couple of days mid November for no known reason.  So we are a month early and the lake just looked like any other deeper crater lake.

    Blue Lake Mt Gambier

    Blue Lake Mt Gambier

    What surprised me most was the vineyards that have developed all along this road.  We didn’t have time to stop but could have been quite tipsy by the time we made it to Adelaide.

    All in all this was a wonderful break in a hectic few weeks.  Lots to reflect on in regard to everyday spirituality too so probably more of that to come over the next few days.  We are now at Tabor College for a week teaching an intensive on the church and the future.  Saturday I also conduct a spiritual retreat on spiritual rhythms.

    Report from Down Under

    It is hard to believe that the first week of our trip Down Under is over.  Much to my discouragement the weather here in Sydney has been cold and wet – not much fun for Black Stump where most of the speaking was in tents.  I came back to my mother’s with very muddy shoes and feeling i needed to dry out before embarking on the next part of our trip.

    However we still thoroughly enjoyed the festival – an opportunity to reconnect to old friends like John and Glenna Smith as well as to make new ones like Ash Barker and Jim Reiher from UNOH (Urban Neighbours of Hope).  I also loved the emphasis on social justice issues.  Lots of fair trade tea, coffee and chocolate.  Lots of talk about issues of slavery, poverty and human rights.  We spoke mainly in the TEAR Australia tent.  The only disadvantage was that in the background they were making rice and dahl for lunch and the wonderful aroma wafted through our speaking area tantalizing our senses.

    We are really looking forward to speaking at the UNOH conference this weekend and from there i will fly to Launceston Tasmania for a week while Tom stays in Melbourne where he will be working with World Vision.  We then drive to Adelaide together and spend a week at tabor College before flying back to Sydney for the last week of our trek.  Hard to keep all the bits and pieces in the air but hopefully we will all be at the right place at the right time.

    One of the things I really enjoy about a trip like this is that it stretches my understanding of God and of what it means to be a person of Christian faith.  I realize that it is very easy for me and in fact for all of us to put up barriers to listening to people and perspectives that are different from our own.  A trip like this blows out the cobwebs for me and helps me to see a bigger and more incredible God than I ever thought possible.

    This does not mean that I unconditionally accept everything I hear but it does force me to think, to analyse and to reflect.  It also forces me to go back to the Bible to to see what it really says about a variety of issues from poverty to women’s rights and what it means to be holy.  My thinking is constantly changing which can make me feel a little insecure at times but the great part is that it helps me to see that God is far bigger and more impressive than I ever thought.

    Part of what I realize is that whenever we think we understand God we limit God’s ability to reveal himself to us and we limit our understanding of the awe inspiring nature of God.  Not that we can ever understand God – in fact the longer I am a Christian the less I feel I understand God – which I am sure is healthy because I realize that it is rather arrogant of me to think that I could ever understand the creator of the entire universe.

    Anyhow I am probably rambling here.  Hopefully as I continue to travel I will be able to more coherently express what i am thinking here particularly as it relates to my interest in interpreting our daily activities as spiritual practices.

    What I Have Read This Week

    With all the work involved in getting our Lenten guide completed you can imagine that you usual reading discipline has been rather curtailed.  Probably the book that has most held my attention this week is Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson an David Oliver Relin.  This is a must read for anyone interested in missions, Pakistan, Islam or just in a good read about other parts of the world.  I have also been working my way through The Essential Agrarian Reader edited by Norman Wirzba.  This is a great collection of essays by such note worthy writers like Wendell Berry who help us explore the relationship between our food community and the land on which we live.  I particularly enjoyed the challenging questions it raises about our faith and its connection to this discussion, like the statement from Wendell Berry

    If we believed that the existence of the world is rooted in mystery and in sanctity, then we would have a different economy.  It would still be an economy of use, necessarily, but it would be an economy also of return… this would involve return or propitiation, praise, gratitude, responsibility, good use, good care and the proper regard for the unborn.” p27

    I have also been fascinated by some great blog posts that have distracted me a little.  Here are my favourites for the week

    Mike Morrell Revisioning Jesus Atonement

    Catalystspace on 9 Ideas for the Church in Bad Economic Times

    Matt Stone’s wonderful images of Jesus from different cultures


    Urban Earth

    This is amazing – an opportunity to walk across some of the biggest cities in our world with Urban Earth

    Stroll through London, Mumbai. Mexico City , and Bristol.  Hmm not sure about that last one is it really one of the world’s biggest cities?