Beauty arising from the ashes of despair – by James Mercer

Behind All Saints’ church in Harrow Weald, North London, a woodland has been transformed into a Forest School for local children.

It is only a few hundred yards from a busy London road, but for the children who visit the school established within the woods, it is a place of magic and surprise.

The small, hard-working and imaginative Forest School team have made the place safe and welcoming to children from local schools, especially those with learning difficulties or other special needs. A kitchen area and a mud-kitchen have been created, tarpaulins erected and an outdoor classroom shaped beneath the canopy of the trees. It is a beautiful alluring space.


Two days into my post-Easter break, I received an urgent phone call “Come quickly, the Forest School is on fire”. And so it was.

By the time I arrived all that remained was a pile of smoking charcoal, scorched canvas and melted plastic.

Sinister charred remains of the school’s story-telling puppets were scattered grotesquely across the site. It had taken the fire brigade two hours to extinguish the blaze.

Anger and disappointment

Suspicion fell on a group of young people seen in the vicinity earlier in the day. Maybe young people who had enjoyed the Forest School experience in the past?

I was very angry and profoundly disappointed. If this is what happens when you invest time, resources and energy to support the needs of young people in the local community, why bother?

What kind of shepherd?

In John’s gospel, Jesus says “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11-18) ‘Good’ however, may not be the most appropriate translation from the Greek in this context. Tom Wright suggests ‘beautiful’ may be a more appropriate description.

A good shepherd may hint of moralising, keeping rules. But a beautiful shepherd is one you would want to be with. Not necessarily beautiful in terms of appearance, but rather in his full humanity.

The beautiful shepherd does not run away when danger looms. He does not become disillusioned, however trying and disheartening the circumstances. He confronts danger, disappointment and betrayal by taking it on himself; facing it down on behalf of others.

Ultimately, he will give his own life for the well-being of those in his care. The beautiful shepherd can be trusted, however profound the presenting danger. He is not concerned for his own reputation or well-being. He is there for the good of others.

Disfigured and destroyed

Anger, bitterness, self-serving political and personal agendas all combined to claim the life of the beautiful shepherd. Yet he took these agendas upon himself, knowing they would kill him. His beauty and promise was disfigured and destroyed.

Then resurrection – the most beautiful denouement of all; beyond all imaginings. Life, not death having the final word.

Life which extends the embrace of forgiveness and the always creative possibilities of new beginnings; surpassing the lingering residues of bitterness, anger or revenge.

New opportunities

If the perpetrators of the Forest School destruction are ever identified, it is right that they be appropriately punished. The Christian story encompasses justice. Turning the other cheek never implies “there, there, it doesn’t matter”.

But resurrection embodies new opportunities, fresh beginnings.

The antidote to destruction and negativity is life, beauty and unforeseen creative surprise. The Forest School will be rebuilt. Children will still be welcomed and invited to enjoy the imaginative opportunities of the outdoor classroom.

Resilient hope

Through the life, death and resurrection of the good, the beautiful shepherd, life wins over death; love over anger; beauty over ugliness and tenacious perseverance, in pursuit of the well-being of others, over cynicism and disillusion.

We are invited to embrace and be embraced by the story of the good shepherd. It is a beautiful and resilient story, a transformative narrative of hope that refuses to be suppressed. Beauty will arise from the ashes of despair.

James Mercer is the Vicar of All Saints’, Harrow Weald. He is the founder of the Forest School working with marginalised young people in North West London.

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