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Collingwood’s Acorns

I have to say, I wasn’t expecting it.

It just seemed to creep up on me. Perhaps it’s my age—I’m not sure—but my fascination with history is starting to leak out.*

And before you suggest that I’m rather odd—or I lack self-control—I must say I know a lot of guys around my age who are starting to betray a secret obsession with history. We all listen to The Rest is History podcast presented by Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook, and it shows. For me, it shows when an historical illustration finds its way into my sermons. Fewer references to people like David Beckham, and a lot more anecdotes about Wellington and Alfred the Great!

I’m learning to attribute my sources promptly, or I’ll be caught out.

A few months back, there was a whole episode devoted to great dogs in history. So it was that I learned that Admiral Collingwood’s dog was named Bounce. Collingwood was a naval commander during the Napoleonic wars, fighting alongside Nelson at Trafalgar. When on dry land, he liked nothing better than to stride the Northumbrian hills with Bounce at his side. He also stuffed his pockets full of acorns, and every so often he would plant one of them.

Why did he do this? Because he was a man of vision.

He knew how much the British Navy relied on mighty oaks for its fleet. He wanted there to be oaks growing for decades, centuries even. He knew that these trees would keep the Navy well supplied and strong. And though he didn’t predict the advent of iron and steel that would radically alter how ships were built (how could he?), the point remains. He recognised that a navy would be needed long after he was gone, and he wanted to do what he could, literally sowing seeds for the future.

Well, the church needs mighty oaks for the future too. The Lord uses this precise image to describe his people.

They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord, for the display of his splendour.

Isa 61.3

Amazingly, he wants us to join in with his forestry project.

Because here’s the truth—one day, we’ll be gone. And most of us won't have books written about us. Nor will we be a featured historical figure on The Rest is History. Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook won’t be waxing lyrical about our achievements.

But that doesn’t matter. Not one bit.

Because our significance lies in the fact that we’re planting acorns. That’s what matters. That takes real vision. It requires that we look past our own petty egos and ambitions and invest in God’s kingdom for the ages; indeed, for eternity. Such vision calls us to see our lives as just one leg of a relay race down through the millennia. We’re not called to be better, more noticeable, or more glorious than the other runners. We’re called to carry the baton safely and pass it on. We see this baton-passing mentioned often in the Bible. Here are some verses on this subject worth reading.

  • Proverbs 13.20; 27.17

  • Romans 15.14.

  • 1 Corinthians 4.15; 11.1.

  • Philippians 4.9

  • 2 Timothy 2.2; 3:14.

  • Hebrews 10.24-25; 13.7

Surely this is also a crucial element in Jesus’ great commission.

Go and make disciples . . . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you . . .

Matt 28.19a;20a

How do we do this? Certainly, we can do it through formal mentoring or discipling relationships, but actually these acorns are planted in all kinds of ways. It doesn’t require us to have younger believers sat at our feet, hanging on our every word as we recount our wisdom and experience. If that’s our method, we’ll probably be disappointed to find that not many want to sit and listen to our old war stories. Most often, and perhaps more effectively, it’s about drawing alongside people, listening intently, showing interest, and speaking words of encouragement. When we do this, our relationships blossom into ones in which we can ask gentle, open questions that spur growth. These budding acorns we then water with our prayers.

Though it’s not fully realised yet, I have a vision of a church community in which the twenty-somethings walk alongside teenagers; the middle-aged walk alongside the younger adults; the mature and seasoned saints draw close to the bemused mid-lifers, just letting them know that they’ve walked similar paths and learned from their mistakes. And are still learning.

God’s kingdom needs mighty oaks for the future. For those of us who more readily identify with the dandelion, it is wonderful to know that even our weaknesses—especially our weaknesses—can be used by the Lord to build up and encourage mighty oaks for the coming generations.

Many reading this will already be planting acorns in all kinds of ways. But you may also be discouraged. Sometimes we don’t see the impact we’re having. Sometimes we wonder if our acorns are growing at all. If this is you, I have a word of encouragement.

Please remember, acorns take time to grow. A long time.

Welsh poet R.S. Thomas once wrote a poem entitled ‘The Country Clergy’. He was himself a clergyman, and he wrote of little-recognised ministers, working in obscure country parishes who . . .

“…left no books,

Memorial to their lonely thought

In grey parishes; rather they wrote

On men’s hearts and in the minds

Of young children sublime words

Too soon forgotten. God in his time

Or out of time will correct this.” **

It’s a great vision, to be writing on people’s hearts, planting acorns for the future. For they are becoming mighty oaks, displaying not my renown but God’s splendour.

That’s what I want to be doing.

I’m sure you do too.


*Why do men of a certain age display a fascination with history? Now there’s a possible blog post for someone else. Watch this space!

** R.S. Thomas, in Collected Poems, 1945–1990 (London: Dent, 1993), p.82


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