Minister’s Letter October 2013

Dear friends,

“You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12)

I like looking at trees, their shape, the bark (gnarled and lumpy or paper-thin), the leaves and the colours. In Brussels, with so many of its streets lined with trees, we are usually privy to a feast for the eyes during the autumn months. Where we live in Brussels commune (but on the edge of Watermael-Boitsfort) there are lots of trees. Watermael-Boitsfort is a very “green” commune in that respect, although over the past five years a number of the green spaces have been gobbled up with the construction of new homes. I have a most inspiring view from my study over the back gardens of the neighbouring houses and apartments. There is vast variety of trees.

What are my favourite trees? In the spring, Japanese maples with their new, near-translucent leaves shimmering in the sunshine as they herald the end of winter. In the autumn, many varieties produce a riot of colour from gold through to pink to deep crimson. But the trees and shrubs that surpass even these are those that produce flowers in the wintertime. Clusters of pink flowers of Viburnum can lift any dark winter morning, or the first blooms of Witch Hazel might unfurl their spindly flowers by Christmas Day. What are your favourite trees?

The Bible has a lot to say about trees. The words of the prophet Isaiah with which I begin this month’s letter look forward to the restoration of creation in the messianic age. Isaiah has a lot to say about the Messiah’s return and how the natural world will be restored to the state that God intended it to be. Other restoration images that the Bible paints are of the great heavenly banquet feast (God’s people may well be leaving the feast while the trees of the fields clap their hands, joining in the celebration), or the restoration of heaven and earth described at the end of the book of Revelation (21:1). God brings the two realms of the new heaven and the new earth together – the sea, or the distance that separates them, is gone for good.

In Biblical times, trees were used for shade from the searing heat in the hot Mediterranean climate. In Genesis chapter 18, Abraham has set up camp at the oaks of Mamre; he is resting under these trees when three heavenly visitors come calling. Likewise, Jesus calls cynical Nathaniel who is being shaded from the afternoon sun under a fig tree (John 1:43–50). Psalm 121 reminds us of God’s desire to protect his people (just as a father would do his child): he is their shade at their right hand. The Psalmist says “the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night” (v. 6). Several times this year I have been grateful for the shade of a tree to provide protection from the blistering heat of the sun’s rays.

Good timber also signified wealth in biblical times, and in today’s world perhaps it still does. Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem was constructed from the finest of materials, and this included the strong red cedar-wood that Lebanon was famed for (1 Kings 5:8). When Nehemiah petitions the Persian King Artaxerxes for permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild its ruined walls, he asks for wood from the king’s forests to help with the reconstruction (Nehemiah 2:8).

Trees also signify hope in the New Testament. When the apostle Paul was shipwrecked on Malta, the survivors, cold and shivering from their experience, gather wood from the beach to build a warming fire. Or think of Zacchaeus, the vertically challenged tax-collector who climbed a tree as a vantage point to see Jesus when he passed through Jericho. “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today,” said Jesus. The tax collector’s encounter with Jesus brought about a complete change in heart. But if he hadn’t climbed that tree, perhaps Jesus would never have seen him and Zacchaeus would never have known the hope and liberation that the gospel brings (Luke 19:1–10).

So trees have some important significance in the Bible. We are blessed to have so many fine trees in Brussels and to have the forest on our doorsteps.

Trees are facing significant threats in many parts of the world. Great swathes of tropical jungle have already been destroyed in the Amazon basin, the African continent and parts of the Far East. Natural habitats are annihilated, biodiversity is wiped out and important carbon sinks (plants) are lost forever. Some governments have turned a blind eye to illegal logging. Humanity has a habit of ruining the environment and not enhancing it.

The Bible is clear about how we are to relate to our immediate environment and world which God has created for us and gifted to us. We are called to be stewards of it and look after it – we have a God-given responsibility towards it. Yet in our sinful selfishness we have had a catastrophic impact upon ecosystems and the world’s climate.

In October, St Andrew’s will register with the Eco Congregation programme. How do we make an effort as God’s stewards to live up to our Christian responsibility as individual believers and as the body of Christ, to play our part in respecting God’s creation, his gift to us? Over the coming months, we will reflect carefully and think biblically on these issues, and make efforts to change our attitudes and how we live.

I always wondered why God promises to renew the earth as well as heaven at the end of time. Perhaps we will have exhausted the old one?

Your minister and friend,