All sorts of interesting people pop in to St Clare’s during the week; to shop, to browse or just to chat. Last week, an older man came in and had a quick look around, before settling himself down into one of our lovely chairs, clearly ready to pass some time with me. We got chatting, and I discovered that he is one of the Coventry tree wardens (who knew there were such people). I don’t know how we got there, but after a while he began to tell me a story.
Cast yourself back to 1850. Building is rife in Coventry, much as it is today, and plans are afoot to build the Quadrant, a new development on the outskirts of the city. But there’s a problem. A majestic 100 year old copper beech tree stands on the site, which must be felled in order for the work to proceed. No one is happy with this, and so a local horticulturalist hatches a plan. And what a plan it is, which surely only the Victorians could have dreamed up. They will move the tree.
And so it came to pass that on the 15th October 1850, one hundred and sixty seven years ago this week, they dug up this lovely tree, still in full leaf, and loaded it onto a wagon to transport it to its new home. The journey wasn’t easy. The only route to the new site meant going through old Coventry, with its narrow, medieval streets. Windows began to be smashed as the huge tree passed by. More and more branches had to be cut from the tree, in order for it to get through.
Eventually the tree arrived at its new home, in the recently opened London Road Cemetery. Developed by Joseph Paxton, this was no ordinary cemetery, but also a wonderful arboretum full of beautiful and exotic trees.
The copper beech was placed into the hole that was ready and waiting for it. It looked battered and broken and its leaves had wilted. No one really believed that it would survive. Except for one man. The horticulturalist. Over the winter, as the tree died its natural annual death, he continued to tend and water it, doing everything he could to ensure its survival. Come the spring, as the first signs of new life began to appear, the people of Coventry eagerly waited to see if the copper beech would put out new shoots. To their joy and delight it did. The tree had survived the journey and the winter and was now resplendent and thriving in its new setting.
As my visitor came to the end of the story, I hardly dared ask.
“It’s still there” he replied.
I could hardly wait for closing time to come, so I could go and look. I know the London Road Cemetery well. It is one of my favourite dog walks; a tranquil and beautiful place. And so it was that just a few hours later I found myself gazing at this magnificent tree, now well into its third century. Looking at it now, you would never know the loss and upheaval it endured.
As I continued my walk, I was praying about our Sunday service. The reading from the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians was quite challenging, and all week I had been struggling, at a loss as to what to say about it.
The words of St Paul were going round and round in my head.
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.
Eventually I made the connection. God had sent me a story to tell. The story of a tree that had suffered the loss of all things.
But. If the tree hadn’t moved, if it hadn’t been dug up and given up the very ground it was rooted in, if it hadn’t had it branches cut on the journey, if it hadn’t been replanted and undergone the death of winter, it would have died. In the end, the loss it suffered was nothing compared to what it gained. Planted in the one place in the city where you can pretty much guarantee there will be no development. In a cemetery, a place of eternity.
So my thoughts for us to ponder on, as we reflect on Paul’s words and this extraordinary story, are these.
- Are there losses I have suffered for Christ, which I can now see as gain?
- Are there losses I have suffered that I need to give to Christ, so that he can redeem them?
- Are there things that I need to give up, in order to know Christ more fully?
And if you can, go and look at the copper beech tree, a part of our city’s history, near the non-conformist chapel at the railway line end of the old cemetery, and be amazed.