Lessons from the Trees – Week 50 – Frankincense and Myrrh

Sunrise – November 2018 –
©Ken Thomas Steer

Resin

Another product that we receive from trees is resin.  There are three kinds of tree resin:

  • Hard resins, such as mastic, which are generally used for varnishes and adhesives;
  • Odoriferous oleo-resins which are soft or liquid and contain lots of oil – such as turpentine and balsam; and
  • Gum resins which are a solid mix of resin and gum and contain essential oils – these include, asafoetida, frankincense and myrrh – and can be used medicinally.   For example: Pine resin or pitch can be chewed like gum, a fact well-known to Native Americans who consume the resin for its antibacterial properties and to help joint pain.  Frankincense is also edible and can be chewed like gum as well as being a herbal remedy among North African people against arthritis. (Source: Owlcation.com)
©Ali Male – Launde Abbey – November 2018

Amber is ancient, fossilised resin which has hardened over time, sometimes containing insects trapped when it was still sticky and perfectly preserved. It is much valued in jewellery making.

The difference between sap and resin is that the former is basically a sugar and water mix that is less viscous and feeds the tree, whereas resin is a sticky secretion whose composition may vary and is thus valued for its chemical properties and the wide range of different uses it can be put to.  For example, I had rosin which is a treated resin in my violin case to rub onto the bow before playing to make a clearer sound.

Frankincense resin

It was therefore interesting to me to find out that frankincense and myrrh are both tree products – one from five main species of the Boswellia genus which has been grown and traded on the Arabian Peninsula for over 6000 years, and the other from a small, thorny tree from the genus Commiphora.

While the word ‘myrrh’ is derived from the Aramaic and Arabic languages meaning ‘bitter’, ‘frankincense’ comes from Old French ‘franc encens’, meaning ‘incense of high quality’.  

Peruvian ceramic nativity from a Traidcraft project.

When the magi came to visit the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, the story tells us that they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh as gifts.  These gifts are heavily symbolic in the Christian story – gold for Christ’s kingship, frankincense for his priesthood and myrrh foreshadowing his death and burial.

Read: Matthew 2:1-12

The gifts offered to Christ also hark back to the Book of Isaiah (Chapter 60: 1-7) where he writes about the future glory of Jerusalem:

“Arise, Jerusalem! Let your light shine for all to see.
    For the glory of the Lord rises to shine on you.
Darkness as black as night covers all the nations of the earth,
    but the glory of the Lord rises and appears over you.
3All nations will come to your light;
    mighty kings will come to see your radiance.
 “Look and see, for everyone is coming home!
    Your sons are coming from distant lands;
    your little daughters will be carried home.
 Your eyes will shine,
    and your heart will thrill with joy,
for merchants from around the world will come to you.
    They will bring you the wealth of many lands.
 Vast caravans of camels will converge on you,
    the camels of Midian and Ephah.
The people of Sheba will bring gold and frankincense
    and will come worshipping the Lord.

 The flocks of Kedar will be given to you,
    and the rams of Nebaioth will be brought for my altars.
I will accept their offerings,
    and I will make my Temple glorious.


©Ali Thomas Steer – Galicia, Spain, August 2010

However, as I was researching this blog post, I came across a different telling of the visit of the Magi.  Frankincense and myrrh are key elements in the Book of Exodus where they are used in the priestly ceremonies in the Tabernacle. Myrrh was used in the mixture that formed the anointing oil that consecrated all parts to make it holy, as well as anointing priests, while frankincense was taken into the Holy of Holies and placed before the Ark of the Covenant where God met with the priest. It was also added to grain offerings to make them fragrant, but never to sin offerings, and was only ever to be used before God.

Read Exodus 30:34-38

It is clear that the Magi were knowledgeable about Judaism in bringing  these gifts and the article I read suggested that what the Magi brought was an offering or sacrifice to God – a sign of their worship – ‘They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him.’ (Matthew 2:11).  It sees these ‘gifts’ rather as being used in an act of worship.  The word used means ‘to draw yourself nearer to God’ and suggests that rather then being left with the Holy Family, the incense would have been burnt on a gold plate and consumed.  The power of this act lies in the fact that in the Old Testament this incense is specifically and clearly only to be offered in the presence of God in the gold-covered Holy of Holies.  The Magi must have believed truly that here was more than an earthly king of the Jews – God incarnate, who deserved their worship. (Source: chaimbentorah.com )

I have wondered what happened to the gifts, and this is a credible and symbolic alternative explanation to the traditional explanation that they funded the flight and refugee stay in Egypt.


©Ali Thomas Steer – ‘Waiting for the Christ Child’  – Carved Nativity scene at St Alban’s Abbey – 2014

Christmas is a time when we present gifts to one another in memory of the story, an act which for many has become the principal reason for the season. While Christmas has, in many parts of the world, become a showcase of consumerism gone mad, there is good reason to sit and reflect on the good in giving, and in the blessing that God gives us through the gifts of the Holy Spirit and His ongoing provision for our lives.  How well do we value these gifts?

They, in turn, are reflected in the good we can do to others.  So in the madness of the season, may I invite you to thank God for the good gifts he has given you, and to put those giftings into practice – hospitality, encouragement, musicality, peacemaking, generosity and so on, and enjoy blessing others in non-traditional ways.

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Lessons from the Trees – Week 49 – Family Tree


© Ali Thomas Steer – Advent Candle – December 2012

This week is the start of Advent – the time when we prepare ourselves to celebrate the arrival of the Christ child here on earth some 2000+ years ago.  This time of preparation has got more and more masked by our frenzied preparations for the festival, and we often arrive on 25th December exhausted and questioning what it is all about.

To try and bring some calm and reflection to this period, this year I am reading Trevor Hudson’s ‘Pauses for Advent‘ – a little book that packs much meaning into a couple of pages for each day of preparation.  This year I am being intentional about the waiting that Advent invites me into, which is so counter-cultural to the way December is being lived all around me. I am resolved that this year Advent will be different…

‘So what does this have to do with trees?’ you may ask.   There is a link, I promise! (At least in my thinking.)  The sending of the Messiah was promised for many centuries before the birth of Christ.  While the oppressed Jewish nation under Roman occupation was praying for a warrior king to re-establish their freedom and homeland, the prophets were promising someone very different.


© With thanks to the Male Family

Both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke contain genealogies (family trees) of Jesus, one believed to be of Mary’s line and one of Joseph’s.  The writers included them because they were important, both then and now.  One family history works from the birth of Jesus back through time, one works forwards. Like us, his ancestors were a mixed bunch!  But they establish Jesus as coming from the line of David, just as the prophet told us (2 Samuel 7:12-16).  Scripture also gives us other foretellings that with hindsight can be pieced together to see how in Jesus of Nazareth every piece is in place: He was to be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), the seed of woman (Genesis 3:15 (see Week 3) to a virgin mother (Isaiah 7:14), he would be called out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1) and these are just about his early years.  There are many other prophecies that point us to Jesus being the fulfilment of all the Old Testament promises and I found more valuable information on this site.

Whether we know them or not, we all have family trees which connect us with our diverse ancestry and which sometimes give us a better sense of who we are.  Those who are adopted, found or orphaned, or our brothers and sisters descended from slaves often struggle to find their identity when they know nothing of their family history.  Equally, we are all invited to be part of God’s family through our faith in Jesus Christ and his identity as the Son of God who became Emmanuel, God with us, coming humbly to earth and yet our Saviour King.

John 3:16 & 17 tells us 
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

(NIV)

© Ali Male – Launde Abbey – November 2018

God promises us that, far from perishing, believing in Jesus will open up eternal life and a place as his child.  We are adopted  (and grafted) into his family and his heritage becomes ours. 

Whatever our biological ancestry and whichever branch of God’s family we find ourselves in, we can see once again the faithfulness of God in bringing to pass the promises that he gave through the prophets long ago, which came true, not in a fairy tale sense, but in the solid reality of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ongoing invitation to become part of his family and experience the peace and joy of belonging.


© Terri Peter – Winter in Montana, November 2018

The Joy of Family

When we join the family of God, we become part of a global community.    In another of Trevor Hudson’s books ‘Discovering your Spiritual Identity‘, he writes “We cannot be Christ-followers alone. This becomes clear from the moment we decide to follow Jesus along the conversion road.  When we open our lives to Him, He enters with arms around His brothers and sisters.  As we uncurl our clenched fists to receive the kingdom’s gifts, they are touched by the hands of others.  Without option we discover ourselves situated within a new family, the family of God.”

As Jesus developed an intimate friendship with his disciples, Trevor encourages us to find a  friend with whom we can share our spiritual journey. 

“One to one support, encouragement and care is essential if our faith is to be kept strong and growing.

Pray specifically about who this kind of friend might be.  Ask God to lead you to someone who stands out as a possible companion on the way. They are not your counsellor, spiritual director or prayer partner, and the relationship is based on sharing something of life and faith on a regular basis.  The friendship is mutual,vulnerable, a sharing of joys and struggles and contains a promise to pray for each other.

Having a faithful friend helps us become whole, the person God intends us to be, helps us not to lose our way.  God is also there – ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.(Matthew 18:20)”

In this season of Emmanuel, may we make space to invite God into our busy lives.

Lessons from the Trees – Week 48 – Silhouettes

Against a flaming sky you stand, coal black and stark, each tiny twig outlined with fire, and reaching to the fading night….


© Diane Bolduc – Sunrise over Pushaw Lake, Maine – November 2018

© Ali Male- Launde Abbey, Leicestershire – 13th November 2018

The leaves are almost gone and one of the great blessings of the beautiful winter light is the glorious silhouettes of trees against a clear sky.  With sunrise late and sunset early, we are very likely to be able to notice and enjoy these wonderful moments. With the light behind them, every individual tree shape is picked out, the individuality and the family likeness both evident to the observer.

When the light silhouettes a tree there is no hiding;  every curve, every stray leaf, the straggly bits that could do with a trim, a rotten branch that needs removing before it becomes dangerous – all is revealed.  For us too, each flabby bit that needs toning, each flaw, the shape of us – everything is exposed when we stand in God’s good and glorious light.

“Wisdom is better than foolishness, just as light is better than darkness.” (Ecclesiastes 2:13)


© Ali Thomas Steer – Sutton – 2nd February 2018

These flaws make us real, when others see our weaknesses and struggles we become more human in their eyes, more approachable, more like them.   When we are not covered by our glorious crown of leaves, when we take the mask off, the real ‘me’ shines through in all its confusing and complex mélange of beauty and ugliness, on point or could do better….

The truth is that we need others to help us to grow and stay healthy and unless I share my real self, both with God and with others, that growth is likely to be stunted and sub-optimal.  It may be scary (and we do not need to bare our souls to all and sundry), but having those with whom we can truly be ourselves, who will have the courage to mention those straggly branches that need trimming and who will walk with us as we work them through with God is a blessing indeed.

In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)

Shining the light means we also get to see the beautiful bits, to hear the good stories that we may not hear otherwise, to appreciate previously hidden or undiscovered parts of people we know.  Just this week, two friends have shared stories of God’s amazing goodness in their struggles – without their bravery in sharing, I would not know the specific ways that God was working in their lives, so I can praise Him.  Another friend mentioned in passing a growing relationship with a neighbour in need and I gained a little insight into her thoughtfulness. 

We have a small tree in our back garden, a rather beautiful prunus that I am extremely fond of, but which had grown rather out of control.  Last week, she had rather extreme surgery and looks a little forlorn.  But I know that in order to thrive, she needed that work done – and we are no different.  Sometimes we are going through our own ‘renovation of the heart’ – which is largely unseen unless we choose to reveal it, but sharing the ‘work in progress’ can be very heartening for others, and for us as they take our hands and walk with us a while.  

This week:  take time to appreciate the silhouettes of trees, and then take time to see what the light shining on others is showing you.  Maybe you can see the goodness of God working in them or through them and you can rejoice with them.  Maybe they are struggling and need a word of encouragement or a helping hand.  Maybe, like my tree, radical pruning has taken place, and your support and prayers for them will be invaluable as they step forward into a different-shaped future.

For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.  (2 Corinthians 4:6)

If you are going through a ‘work in progress’ time, try to journal your experience, so that as you look back, you will see how far you have come….

May God bless you this week.

 

Lessons from the Trees – Week 47 – Hollow

It is November in Great Britain – autumn is greying into winter, the days are getting chillier and daylight becoming scarcer day by day.  It is a hollow time of year – after the warmth of summer, the colour of autumn and before the waiting of Advent.

I can understand why Thanksgiving is such a favourite festival across the pond – the days call for firelight and family.

There are days when I feel empty inside.  A bit lost, a bit boring, a bit grey, with a touch of nothingness.  Waiting for something, frustrated at the lack of forward movement – hollow.


© Nathan Thomas Steer – 19th November – Bangor, N. Wales

What to do on these days?  I can try to fill the void with something, but the options are often unhelpful and further blur my view of God.  I can wallow in the emptiness, wish I could hibernate, hunger after the distant spring….   but life always has seasons, they are part of the cycle of existence and denying them or refusing to live in the present moment seems to be a way to cut myself off from the opportunity to learn and grow.

Why am I feeling hollow?  Am I yearning after the wrong things? Am  I asking myself – is this all there is at this time? at this season of life?  Or can I turn this into a space that I can invite God into?

In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5, Jesus said “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

His promise is that when we are empty and we seek him with all our hearts, we will find the things that truly satisfy us.

© Nathan Thomas Steer – 19th November – Bangor, N. Wales

The Bible is full of verses about being filled with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus told his disciples before he left them to ascend into heaven that he would not leave them alone, but would send them the Comforter/Advocate  who is the Spirit of Truth.  When we listen to the guidance and truth of the Holy Spirit, who is with all Christ-followers, we receive the light, life and truth that we need to keep going on days which are dark, hard or dreary.  


© Ali Thomas Steer – A hollow tree in Bushy Park, May 2018

Ultimately it’s not about how we feel, but what we know.  If we trust God’s promises, then we know there is hope and we will not always feel like we do today.

So in these short, late autumn days, let us offer up our emptiness to God, for Him to fill with righteousness, peace and the assurances of his faithfulness and his ability to keep his promises even when we find it hard to see them, and for this, as well as for many other things, we all can experience Thanksgiving this week.

Hollow Redwood Trees in  California

There is a beautiful song by Paul Oakley called ‘Who is there like you?’.  The lyrics help me to remember the truths and the promises of God.  You can hear it on YouTube here.

And finally…..

When our kids were little, we had some wonderful stories by Nick Butterworth about Percy the Park Keeper, a wonderful old-style British park keeper who made friends with lots of animals as he lived in and looked after his extensive public parkland domain.

In one story, there was a big storm which blew over a big oak tree that housed many of his animal friends, who turned up at his door, one by one, bedraggled and miserable at the loss of their homes.

After the storm, the sun began to shine and Percy found just the place to rehouse them.  Armed with his trusty tool box and a lot of help, a hollow tree elsewhere in the park was rapidly turned into a comfortable home for families of badgers, rabbits, squirrels, mice and others, who could not have been happier in their new community.

Thinking back all those years to when reading this story was a regular event made me realise that when we offer our emptiness to God, we have no idea how he may choose to fill it.  Our creative God is often very unexpected in the way he works…..

Lessons from the Trees – Week 46 – Dying

A tree sprouts and grows. While many fail or remain stunted, the best examples spend about a third of their lives growing, a third in maturity (growing more slowly and producing the most fruit/seeds) and a third in decline. This may take hundreds of years.

When trees die, sometimes they fall and return to the soil, having been a haven for wildlife as they break down. Sometimes they stand bare for some considerable time, bringing a stark beauty and contrast to the living things around them.  Sometimes they provide shelter in their hollows for animals and birds. Eventually they fall, giving any remaining goodness back into the soil, and so the ecosystem continues.

 

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©Adam Thomas Steer – Tasmania – 1st March 2018

In recent weeks, we have had a family funeral, celebrating this life and mourning the loss of a lovely aunt, while other friends have lost those precious to them, and tragedies continue to happen all over the world, and so I want to write about dying.

I don’t believe that this blog, looking at the cycle of life through lessons learned from trees can be complete without facing up to the often unmentionable ending which seems so distasteful in modern society – death itself.

For Christ-followers, death is not the end, it is the gateway from this earthly life into eternal life.  It is not a brick wall, but a veil through which we pass in order to enter the glorious, unending reality of the Kingdom of God in all its fullness.  Though we already live in the Kingdom of God in this life, it is only in part, a training ground, if you like, in which we can be transformed and prepared for the life to come – a life where there is ‘no more death, or mourning, or crying or pain.’

Read: Revelation 21:1-8 for a beautiful picture of the next life.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul looks in detail about why Christ-followers hold on to the hope they have for something infinitely more when this life is ended.  Please take time to read this chapter if you are able.  Paul writes, O Death, where is thy sting? For we know that Christ’s resurrection has defeated death.  The sting is only for those left behind to mourn the loss of a loved one.

With this in mind, we can start to think about dying well because of the hope that we hold within us.  This does not make it easy, we are so embedded in our lives here on earth, where all is familiar and we move through the seasons of the calendar and of life, without necessarily thinking about the end.  It is hard to contemplate leaving behind all we know and love.  But if we know and trust God, then it is important to believe his promises about dying too, and live as though we believe them.

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©Adam Thomas Steer – Tasmania – 1st March 2018

While we generally do not choose the time or manner of our death, sometimes we have the opportunity to prepare for that time.  Radiance is not a word that you associate with dying, but in my limited experience, I have known those who have been so sure that they are beloved by God, will be welcomed into his Kingdom, and have a close daily relationship with Christ, that they have passed away glowing with that hope of the life to come, despite the frailty and decline of their bodies.  I have heard of those who have shared this hope as they shared the news of their terminal illness, giving others insight and invitation into a future altogether more glorious than the one most of the secular world faces with dread.

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©Ali Male

In Gary Moon’s recent book ‘Becoming Dallas Willard’, he writes about Dallas’ last few hours in this life, ” ‘I need to tell you what is happening so you can be prepared,’  Gary [Black] writes, “He started by saying he was in this hallway – in between this life and the next. And in this hallway, there are people who love us more than we can imagine.  He said that for his entire ministry, he couldn’t quite understand what to believe about the Bible’s description of the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1).  He tried to understand and believe in this reality; he wanted to believe in it, but he didn’t know quite what to make of it.  ‘But now,’ Dallas said, ‘now I do…. I really do believe.  I know they are here.’  …. He continued, ‘Don’t fret. It’s all right.  This is just the end of the beginning for me.'”

Whatever our legacy from this life – whether fame, significance, prominence or obscurity, each one of us can leave with others a memory of grace, of light and love for others that reflects God’s love for us, and a message of hope even in the darkest and most difficult times, and right up to the time we move into eternity.  The seeds that we plant in this life may grow and flourish long after we are gone, and, like ripples, in their turn plant more seeds for the glory of God.

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©Ali Thomas Steer – Leith Hill, Surrey – 13th October 2018

In the seventh Narnia book, The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis writes about the eternal life that his characters are walking into: “Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

What a life we have to look forward to – a life in the presence of God – for ever!

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©Adam Thomas Steer – Cherry Blossom in Japan – 10th April 2018

If you like contemporary music, you may enjoy this song ‘There is a Day’  by Phatfish which looks forward to the day Christ returns.

See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! But the people who belong to this world don’t recognise that we are God’s children because they don’t know him. Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is.  And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure. (1 John 3:1-3)

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Lessons from the Trees – Week 45 -When hard times come….

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©Wendy Wainwright – Malawi – August 2013

Hard times come into our lives – we are all subject to the ups and downs that happen to us unbidden.

A tree cannot get out of the way when problems come its way – floods or landslides will not avoid them, disease can attack them and they only have their internal resources to battle it, storms rage, elephants ravage, parasites strangle or destroy.  Sometimes a tree will recover fully, sometimes it will recover partly and sometimes it cannot prevail against the attacker and dies.

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©Adam Thomas Steer – Malawi – August 2013

Sometimes our hardships come because of our own poor decision-making, but often they are things from beyond our control – sickness,  the consequences of other people’s actions, accidents, genetic heritage, wrong place – wrong time, and so on……

I don’t believe that God sends these things in the main, I think they are usually caused by our fallen, decaying world, populated by broken people (ourselves included).  I do however believe that it is up to us whether we live through hard times with God, or without Him – it is our choice.  He will be there, but we may not choose to turn to him.

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©Ali Male

We can rail against the unfairness of life, wallow in our suffering, turn inwards, blame God and try to live through it on our own….

OR we can invite God into our troubles, cry out to Him in our pain, ask Him to walk with us in each and every difficult moment, pray for healing, and even ask Him to transform us through the experience into someone more Christ-like.

The Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians:

We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.

We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair.  We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed.  Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.

Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus, so that the life of Jesus will be evident in our dying bodies.  So we live in the face of death, but this has resulted in eternal life for you.

 But we continue to preach because we have the same kind of faith the psalmist had when he said, “I believed in God, so I spoke.” We know that God, who raised the Lord Jesus, will also raise us with Jesus and present us to himself together with you.  All of this is for your benefit. And as God’s grace reaches more and more people, there will be great thanksgiving, and God will receive more and more glory.

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever!  So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. (2 Corinthians 4: 7-18)

This can help us see our troubles in the greater scheme of things.  If our troubles (however vast they seem to us now)are only small and momentary, what must they be being compared with?  How glorious must the glory be that awaits us?  It seems that somehow we are to see our hard times in the context of eternal life with God.  That is now easy in each present moment, but as we are assured above – we are never abandoned by God.

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©Ali Male

Whether you are living through catastrophe, heartbreak, calamity, uncertainty or walking with someone who is right now, there is hope.  Knowledge that you are not alone, and promises that somehow, ultimately, all of this is working for the good of those who love God.  In it all, God is faithful, unchanging and not unsympathetic to all we are going through.  He loves us, come rain or shine.

My prayer for you this week is that you will know the extent of that love, that God’s pure light will penetrate the darkest depths of hardship or despair, that you will find comfort and healing and hope.

In Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis, when Lucy tells Aslan that he looks bigger than the last time she saw him, Aslan replies, “Every year you grow, you will find me bigger” –  Amen! Let it be.  Let us be willing to grow with God, so that we cannot fail to see more of his greatness.

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©Ali Thomas Steer – a spectacular bronze cast of a tree struck by lightning and gilded on the inside by Italian artist  Giuseppe Penone – at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield.  (August 2018).

 

 

And finally….

Catastrophe came to the two trees below, but miraculously they survived – the first one lived through the A-bomb catastrophe that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945 and the right hand one was found under the rubble of the Twin Towers at Ground Zero.

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Lessons from the Trees – Week 44 – Kicking Leaves

We have had an unbelievable beautiful Autumn here in London.  Warm days, blue skies – in fact my friends visiting from Maine last week barely saw a cloud in the sky.  Such a blessing to feel the warmth of the sun as the year begins to fade into winter.

One of my favourite activities at this time of year is kicking leaves – it gives me such joy to march  through piles of scrunchy dry leaves.

©Ali Thomas Steer – my daughter Isobel in Green Park, London – 22nd October 2018

The dictionary defines ‘joy’ like this: ‘the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying.’ (Dictionary.com)

However, within the Christian faith, we learn that joy is based on something a lot deeper than happiness, which is usually based on our current circumstances.  Joy is a gift, and is found because we know who we are,  what our purpose is  now and our eternal destiny when this life is over.  We are children of God, in whom he dwells and delights, that he is always with us – like David we can be ‘glad with the joy of [his] presence. (Psalm 21:6); secondly, that our lives are to be built around loving God with all of ourselves and loving others as we love ourselves – and we are allowed to love ourselves because God loved us first (1 John 4:19), and finally we know that we will go to be with God when we die.

Nehemiah 8:10 tells us ‘The joy of the Lord is my strength.’ Psalm 20:5 invites us to ‘Shout for joy to the Lord’ and the Apostle Paul sums it up as he prays for the church in Rome, ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope’ (Rom 15:13).

Knowing all this, we can choose joy.  And this autumn I am choosing joy by making time to worship God in the beauty of creation, being present in this season and enjoying God’s presence with me, playing in the leaves, noticing the marvels of the world around me.  Celebration is a spiritual discipline that I am immersing myself in right now – a celebration of my surroundings and the Holy One who made them.

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©Ali Thomas Steer – my daughter Isobel in Green Park, London – 22nd October 2018

I am a great one for looking at my feet as I walk, noticing what is on the ground around me.  Autumn leaves are beautiful, but sometimes one jumps out at me, because of its beauty and I bend and pick it up and carry it around with me for a while, just appreciating what nature has created.  Like the one below:

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©Ali Thomas Steer – Elmbrook Community Centre, North Cheam – 6th October 2018

It reminded me of those times when you find a hidden nugget of truth or beauty in the Bible when you are reading.  Not one of the well-known verses or passages, but something more hidden, or aside from the main story, – something that speaks to your heart.  One of my favourites is in Mark 7: 31-37 where Jesus heals a deaf mute man.  In the final verse the crowd reflect on Jesus’ ministry, ‘He has done everything well’.  What an endorsement, what truth.  Jesus does everything well – he is intelligent, creative, compassionate and so many more things.

Do you have any favourite ‘hidden’ verses?  Enjoy revisiting them this week, or maybe you will find a new one?

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©Ali Thomas Steer – Denbies Winery, Dorking – 13th October 2018

And finally, let’s celebrate and appreciate the god-given gift of writing expressed in ‘To Autumn’, a poem by John Keats – could it be described any better?  Isn’t it wonderful that we have a creative God who is interested in far more than the utilitarian in life?

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too –
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Lessons from the Trees – Week 43 – Joy or Duty?

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©Adam Thomas Steer – Muir Woods National Monument, California – 14th April 2008

John Muir* once said  ‘I’d rather be in the mountains thinking of God than in Church thinking of the mountains’

I get this!  Even though I am a regular church-goer.  I don’t believe that this is an anti-church statement at all, but a thought-provoking statement which makes me ask myself why I go to church. Am I driven by my desire to meet with God, or are there other reasons, motivations, or simply a calendar entry because that’s what I do on Sundays, like washing on Monday or mowing the lawn on Saturday?

Do we attend church for the wrong reasons?  Have you ever asked yourself why you attend church?

For me, a church service is a place to worship God in community; to share liturgy and bible reading, teaching and Holy Communion.  To remind myself that I belong to a family of believers who worship a beloved Trinitarian God.

But I also believe that 100% attendance at church meetings is not the ‘be all and end all’ of my life with God.  There is a straight-jacket of legalism which requires our attendance wherever our hearts and minds are, and it is this that John Muir is speaking about.

We worship God in all we do, badly or well, not just on Sunday, but every day.  We can worship God on a mountain top, by a river, watching wildlife or a host of other activities. When we forget to worship God, it shows in our lives – and that is what puts so many people off church – why would they want to be like us when we are miserable?

Everything is about God, He made it all and it is GOOD!.  So if our church lives are full of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’, then maybe we are wasting our time sitting in the pews thinking of the mountains, rather than worshipping God.

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©Debbie McLeod – Banstead Woods – September 2018

That is not to say give up.  The writer of the Hebrews is very keen to emphasise this. We need each other to encourage, share life and help us stay focused on what is important. Read Hebrews 10:19-25.

‘Do not give up meeting together’.

That is also not to say ‘go with a consumer mentality’ – Jesus modelled the servant life, putting others first.

It is to gently say – if you are going through the motions, if there is nothing life-giving about your church attendance, have a think about where the disconnect between the joy of the Lord and church is happening.  Pray about it, go outside and try to reconnect yourself with the joy and hope that the writer of the Hebrews is setting out in this passage.

The heading to this section is ‘persevere in faith’ and our faith is worth persisting with, because God is more than worth it.  But if you are tired, unmotivated or disengaged, spend some time praying about how new life can be injected into your worship, so that you are not metaphorically gazing out of the window wishing you were somewhere else each Sunday.  Go back to the gospels, or the Psalms to rekindle the spark of love for God that you would like to burn brighter.  Talk to God about it, because He doesn’t want your relationship to be an ‘ought’ but a blessing.  Talk to friends – maybe they can give a different viewpoint, sit with you in this pain, or share their journey into joy.

Helpful Bible passages to read include: Psalm 8, 150, 65, 100 or 111 – or Matthew 9, Mark 8 or John 21, or any other favourite that brings you face to face with the goodness and beauty of God.

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©Ali Thomas Steer – Muir Woods National Monument, California – 14th April 2008

So how is this about trees?  Obliquely!  Two reasons, firstly that when I encountered this quotation it was accompanied by a beautiful photograph of a forest, and secondly, I once visited the Muir Woods National Monument (see below) where giant redwood trees live in a conservation area.

*John Muir was a Scottish-born American, who was fascinated with the East Lothian countryside from a young age.  Growing up in a strict, religious household, his father believed that anything that distracted from Bible study was frivolous and should be punished.  A typical boy, John Muir found this hard to submit to, and wandered the local coast and country, learning about nature.

Having emigrated to the United States, he lived as a naturalist, author, environmental philosopher and early advocate of wilderness preservation in the USA.  He was a prolific and beautiful writer, describing his adventures in nature and inspiring millions of readers.  His activism was productive, founding the Sierra Club – a prominent conservation organisation, and helping to preserve the Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park and other wilderness areas. Many places across America named in his honour are testament to his passion and success in conserving environments for posterity and enjoyment by others (Source: Wikipedia).

I was fortunate to visit the Muir Woods National Monument in California in 2008.  How easy it would have been to fell this beautiful forest for the value of the wood, but John Muir understood the blessing of God’s creation, and saw the legacy of blessing and delight that would last for generations.  Though a visionary, he could not have known how much of a haven such places are in this crazy, diary-filled, high-speed, instant world we live in only one century later.

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Lessons from the Trees – Week 42 – Pruning

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©Ali Thomas Steer – The Medicine Garden, Cobham – 9th October 2018

For the past fortnight I have been talking about grafting. Taking a strong root and then grafting on different branches, adding them to the tree is intended to make it more fruitful….  but for continued healthy growth, maintenance is required.

Pruning

As a novice, when I started to think about pruning, I asked two of my good friends who are keen and knowledgeable gardeners what pruning means to them:

Debbie said “Pruning is vital work to a gardener.  To prune is to give each plant the best opportunity to flourish and to bloom and, where appropriate, produce fruit.”

Ali said “To me, pruning is cutting back a plant after it has flowered so that the goodness is harnessed back into the heart of the plant and roots rather than putting the effort into branches that have flowered and are spent.  It is also cutting out non-productive or dead wood so that the plant can regenerate and thrive.”

There are a few verses in the Bible about pruning in the gardening sense, but the main passage about pruning comes as imagery, as Jesus speaks of himself as the True Vine.  The Apostle John quotes Jesus of his gospel:

“I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.  You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you.  Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.”

 “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.  Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned.  But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.” (John 15:1-8 NLT)

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©Ali Thomas Steer – Denbies Winery, Dorking – October 13th, 2018

Jesus reminds us that there is work to do in our lives, and his life-giving correction will help us to become more like him.  Because he is the source of all life and without him we can do nothing.  When we are severed from him we are cut off from that source of life and goodness.

Ali continued “I think there is such a spiritual picture here of allowing Jesus to show me areas in my life where I’m not productive or that aren’t healthy that need cutting out or pruning back so He can grow me in other areas to be more fruitful/blossom.”

It’s not always easy to acknowledge that we need to be pruned, that there are areas of our lives that need change, that there are things to be dealt with, and as Ali says above, non-productive areas to be rooted out.  Facing up to these is often the hardest step, but God is so kind to us – we are not pruned all over all at once – he takes different parts to prune a bit at a time, and all the time we are connected to that source of goodness and vitality which helps us to become more fruitful, better versions of ourselves.  It is a beautiful phrase that we use when we describe someone as ‘blossoming’.

This pruning is something that God does in our lives when we are open to him. We cannot perform it instead, but we can put ourselves under the Master Gardener through spiritual disciplines (such as silence, solitude, confession, praise, reading Scripture, fasting and so on) and open ourselves up so that he can transform us into more fruitful followers.  He wants us to blossom….

This beautiful song called ‘Willing’ by Carolyn Arends tells of the battle that rages within ourselves when we know that there are things to change in our lives.  The lyrics can be found here.

At the end of the passage quoted above is this verse: “I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love.”   How much love must that be?  It is a mind-blowing thought that Jesus loves us as much as God loves him. Don’t rush away from this verse….

Reflect on the passage, on God’s love and on anything that you sense God is wanting to prune in your life.  Look back to a time where you felt you were being ‘pruned’ and think of what came from that.

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©Ali Thomas Steer –  Pollarded Tree – Sutton – 13th October 2018.

In the streets near my home they are pollarding trees.  This is a form of pruning, which is an effective way of preventing trees growing as tall as they would naturally, and reduces the amount of shade they cast.  The local council do this regularly to keep trees a sensible and safe size for the streets they grow in.

Different species can be pollarded, including as London plane, ash, lime, elm, oak and sweet chestnut.  It is usually better to pollard deciduous trees once their leaves have fallen as the reduced level of tree sap means the tree experiences lower stress and it is less likely to suffer infection from insects or fungi.  However, some trees like the walnut prefer summer pruning.

However, the trees do look bare and brutal when first pollarded, and it set me thinking, that while pruning is necessary and life-giving in our lives with God, pollarding is not.  He didn’t design us to be stunted into a smaller space than we were intended to fill.  He wants us to be the best version of ourselves, to his glory. (John 15:8)

For reflection: Do we do this to ourselves? Or to others?  Or do others do it to us? If this resonates with you (and it does to me), talk to God about it, or pray with a trusted friend.

 

 

Lessons from the Trees – Week 41 – Grafted (2)

Last week we I began talking about grafting : the combining of one plant’s qualities of flowering or fruiting with the roots of another that offers vigour and resilience. 

We learned how the Gentiles (non-Jews) were invited in to God’s family tree for the fulfilment of His plan for the world.  Those who had previously been excluded were now part of a family which was intended to come from all parts of the globe – which is still being fulfilled today.

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©Adam Thomas Steer – Japan – April 2018

Let’s backtrack a bit.  From the beginning, God’s plan for his people is that they should be a light for the nations – that they should draw others to God as they see him reflected in the lives and behaviour of his people.

The Bible charts the highs and lows of God’s people, from the covenant he made with one man, Abraham (Genesis 15) to a nation in servitude in Egypt. They have been chosen to serve Yahweh, the God of heaven and earth, and worship only him.

When he miraculously takes them out of Egypt, led by Moses, following 10 plagues of increasing horror, ‘many other people went up with them,’ (Exodus 12:38) and God sets out the ways in which foreigners can be included in the Passover (v 48-49) and in becoming part of the nation.

God is clear that there should be no compromise about his status. The first commandment told the Israelites ‘You shall have no other gods besides me.’ (Exodus 20:3)

The history which unfolds is largely based on their failure to keep this commandment.  They (and we) are seduced again and again by things, idols and lifestyles that take us away from the one true God.

Over and over, God reiterates that he loves them and that they can be a beacon of hope for the surrounding nations, and the Israelites vacillate between a worshipping nation and an idolatrous one.

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©Adam Thomas Steer – March 2018 – Tasmania

The book of Ezekiel is full of examples of how God acts in order that people should ‘know that I am the Lord’ – he wants them to see how he hates the wrongdoing and detestable practices that occur when their hearts are not turned towards him.  He wants other nations to see his power and to see the model of those who live according to his word – ‘then they will see that I am the Lord’.  Ezekiel 34 details how much he loves his people and wants others to see this. He knows that his way is best, a way to peace and contentment, of inclusion and flourishing.

In the end though, we need Christ to bring us back into God’s kingdom. The powerful and prophetic reconciling words of Isaiah 42:6-7 tell us, ‘I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles,  to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

But even in those ‘dark ages’ between the Old and New Testaments when we know very little about what God was doing with his people, and history tells us of the Roman invasion and subsequent rebellions by freedom fighters hoping to liberate the land, God is working.

Despite all human weakness, there are followers of Yahweh across the known world, and at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, many are gathered in Jerusalem just at the right time to hear the seismic changing of the world order – ‘Jesus is risen!’

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©Adam Thomas Steer – October 2017 – Niagara Falls, Canada

Read Acts 2

The apostles are starting to obey Jesus’ great commission – to make disciples of all nations.  They have received the promise of the Holy Spirit ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ (Acts 1:8)

God is working his purpose out, as the old hymn goes, and we are invited as those grafted in to God’s family, to help him in that – by our prayers, by our words and actions, by our lifestyle – our testimony that there is another way to live.

Praise Him! And then praise him some more – because his vision is far bigger than we can imagine – God has a plan for all time and all generations.

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