The fable of the three trees and reflective practice

Ali Campbell

Written by Ali Campbell
on 13th June 2023

The fable of the three trees is one I have used again and again in children’s ministry. If you have never come across it have a read of the story here.

It’s been great for Easter holiday clubs, teaching up to Christmas in junior church and for after school mid week activities (I’ve used it a lot!)

Lately, I’ve been adapting it for use in training sessions I’ve led with teachers on collective worship and youth and children’s ministry degree students exploring reflective practice.

At the heart of the story are three key questions that we should be asking as we engage with children and young people. I think these questions are critical if we want to be effective in faith formation and discipleship. An additional layer you can apply is to ask yourself these questions - they are a great self reflective tool!

Question 1. Treasure.

In the story, the first tree wants to be an amazing treasure chest – covered in rich jewels, gems and precious stones. To be a thing of beauty! However, the tree is cut down and turned in to a feeding trough. Later, after their long trek to Bethlehem Mary and Joseph lay their new born baby in the feeding trough and the tree realises he is holding the greatest treasure in the world!

As we work with children, young people and families what treasure do we want them to discover? We long for them to know Jesus – but key, I believe, for that to be meaningful, for that “knowing” to become deep, rich and real is that they discover Him. Treasure is not generally lying around for us to pick up – we have to work for it, look for it, dig it up, sift through the grime and rubble to get to something beautiful and precious and worth keeping, worth holding on to.

Do our children work for it – or is faith handed down in a “ready to go”, “here is one I prepared earlier”, “pre-packaged” kind of way?

Those following Jesus around when he walked the earth had to do a bit of work off the back of hearing a parable or story. Jesus seemed to prefer to probe the understanding of his disciples with questions rather than give them pat answers.

We most value treasure that we have had to work for. Yes, we have a free gift from God – but just how precious Jesus is – that is something our children need to discover for themselves.

Another question worth asking as we work with children and young people is “Well, what do they treasure?” Actually ask them this question! What is it they value, they dream about, they long for? How do we connect their lives that are full of “stuff” with the incomparable richness of knowing Jesus and being his friend?

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also
Matthew 6:21

There is a battle for their hearts and minds. In Matthew 13 Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven being like “treasure in a field” – once discovered, it changes everything! Our desire, our hope our longing for our children should be that they discover the pearl of great price for themselves and treasure Jesus above all other things.

Finally – is Jesus our greatest treasure? As we seek to pass on to our children the stories of faith from our own lives how does Jesus feature? As we teach, train, encourage and equip children – are our eyes also on the prize? It is worth asking ourselves the questions we ask our children. Let’s not take our eyes of Jesus, let’s know the joy of our relationship with Him – if we have grown cold, weary, hardened, frustrated or cynical about our faith and life with God – how much harder it is to share it! Do you need to re-discover your first love?

Question 2. Strength.

In the story, the second tree wants to be a strong ocean going ship – carrying kings and queens on epic journeys, able to tackle anything with strength and courage. However, the tree is cut down and turned in to a little fishing boat – not strong enough to be on the sea, never mind traverse huge oceans – instead, it sits on a lake, dreaming about what might have been. Years later while out on the lake with a boat full of fishermen, a storm whips up and the little tree is almost ripped apart – until a man stands up in the boat and commands the waves and the wind to stop. Then the tree realises that it is holding the King of Kings.

As we work with children and young people where do they look for their strength? Who or what do they depend on? Where do they go for help? Who is always there when they are afraid? In so many ways the world would encourage our children and young people to trust in their own strength. To work hard to achieve, “you can’t rely on anyone but yourself”

There is this absolutely fabulous scripture, it’s just one verse really – right in the middle of God getting really cross with the people of Israel – they are trusting in the strength of their army, the might of their men, the speed of their horses . . . but, they have it all wrong,

In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength
Isaiah 30:15

Then the damning bit right after this, “but you would have none of it”.

It can be hard to trust in God’s strength and not our own, but what does Paul write?

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
2 Corinthians 12:9

That word power is “dynamis” in Greek – it’s where we get the word dynamite! This reliance on God grows and builds faith as we see his power accomplish what we cannot! Our children and young people need to know this and see this in their own lives – by their own strength they cannot follow Jesus; by their own strength they cannot love like Jesus; by their own strength they cannot be obedient like Jesus.

We need to encourage a faith that relies on the strength given by the Holy Spirit, the power of the risen Jesus – it is this strength that will get our children and young people through.

Finally – Where do you get your strength from? Is your hope in the Lord or the strength of your own efforts? Do you put your trust in Him or in your ability, gifts, personality, popularity, role?

Or,

The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him
Psalm 28:7

Question 3. Light.

In the story, the third tree wants to just stand where they are, grow tall and dominate the skyline. The tree wants people to look at them and think of God – wow, what a creator we must have just look at that tree! The tree though, like the others, was chopped down.

Years went by and the tree thought he was all but forgotten – until he was dragged from a shed, tied to a mans back and dragged up a hill. Here, the man was crucified on the tree. It would be three days before the tree realised that this was no ordinary man but was in fact the saviour of the world.

Now, when anyone looked at the tree – which had been made in to a cross – they would think of Jesus, the light of the world.

As we work with children and young people, what lights their way? There is much that shines, that glitters and draws attention – we live in an age of constant competition for money, commitment, loyalty, likes, followers . . . what lights the way for our children?

We do . . . or should.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven
Matthew 5:14-16

I think we can read this passage sometimes and apply it to the church. We think of the church as that “city on a hill” – but it is just one picture in this short couple of verses from Jesus. Our light – yours and mine – is also to give light “to the whole house”. That’s about family – yours and mine.

The primary place where the light of Christ should be lived, experienced and shared is the home.

How seriously do we take that?

Being a light to our own children. If our lives point to Christ, if our lives are lived for Christ, if our lives speak of Christ, if our actions honour Christ – what will the response be . . . glory to our Father in Heaven.

We cannot go out in to the world and seek to shine brightly there if we remain dim in our own homes.

Let’s think about those three things as we encourage and nurture faith in our children and young people – How can we help them discover the treasure of knowing Jesus? How can we help them find their strength in His power and presence? How can we be a light in our homes that points our children to Christ?

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