‘To yonder Oak within the field, I spoke without restraint’ (Tennyson ‘The Talking Oak)
The Churchwarden Peter and I stood outside the church. The church was petite, historical, stunningly beautiful and set within the Lincolnshire Wolds. To preside at the Eucharist in this sacred place was always a profound experience. I would stand at the altar, facing East, and instead of looking at the reredos, I looked out of a transparent glass window at the gently undulating and richly-coloured
hills of the Wolds. It was a scene that placed me in hundreds of years of history, and the history in me. I never ceased to be amazed knowing that since the beginning of this little church’s life, the celebrant will always have looked at this very same view.
As Peter and I stood talking, the topic of the churchyard was raised. I asked him whether he planned to be buried in it. He response was unforgettable. He said, ‘Aly, I am going to be cremated.’ Peter was through and through a farmer who lived, slept, breathed the village and the land in which it was set. I was shocked. Surely he would want to be buried in the Churchyard of ‘his’ village? As he continued, I started to understand.
‘Aly you see that tree over on the hill in the middle of the field?’ I followed the direction of his raised arm and pointed finger, to see a single oak tree, steadfast in the middle of a ploughed field. It stood so proudly with the loyalty of the years swirling around it. There, standing in in the heart of Tennyson country, I understood the line in his poem The Talking Oak: ‘To yonder oak within the field, I spoke without restraint’.
This tree had seen everything, including Peter, year in and year out, ploughing the field around it. Here in this place, this faithful and dutiful man wanted his ashes to inhabit this area: to be ploughed-in and ploughed-out throughout time. A part of Peter wanted to be ever-present within this rich landscape he called Home.
The birth of Jesus made present for all eternity the reality of God in our midst. Immanuel, our God, is with us and forever present. This is not for any objective and arbitrary observation, but so that in all we do, whatever our calling, we endeavour to follow him and be transformed into his likeness. We are called to be ‘present’.
In Eugene Peterson’s book ‘Under the Unpredictable Plant’, he describes the men and women of the 4th Century monastic movement as being restless striving spiritual anarchists. They wanted to make a difference and strived for perfection, which resulted in a spiritual wanderlust. They were always looking for a better place to minster and find God.
By the time Benedict came along, this restlessness had reached its peak, and he put a stop to it. He introduced the vow of stability: be present where you are. Inhabit the place where God has placed you and allow it to inhabit you.
Of course, leaders experience conflict, change, pain, joy, sorrow, laughter, success and failure. But, they should also be earthed in God and let God be earthed in them. This is not possible in our strength. Constant tension can arise from being in our world and not being fashioned by it. We should be present within our culture and communities, yet not conform our spirit to its cultural mores.
God’s help is needed. The values of Incarnational Leadership include allowing God to be wholly present in our lives, so that we may be present with those whom we lead. This is not about skills, gifts, and experience. It is an ontological presence and craft, authentically leading out of who we are. It is not who we know, what we know or why we know it, but rather who we are, as we allow the presence of God to inhabit us, and encourage others to do the same.
‘Through all the changing scenes of life’, the oak tree has stood. Earthed, present, and steadfast, it has inhabited the earth. The example of the Incarnation bids us, wherever we are placed, to follow.
‘To yonder Oak within the field, I spoke without restraint’.
Immanuel – our God is with us. Alleluia.