We are planting a forest for the future
Scarisbrick being a farming community means that our Wednesday prayer meeting starts at a ridiculously early time – and this week I found myself sitting between the two extremes of today’s husbandry, John and Bernard. John specialising in laying lawns whereas Bernard plants trees. They work with totally different time scales – and this got me thinking. John operates in the very short term. As all football supporters know, today’s turf technology has totally transformed the modern playing surface. In fact, John can roll out a perfect lawn in a few hours. You want a brand new lawn for Monday? No problem. However, Bernard operates with a completely different time frame. You want a wood? Then be prepared for a wait of several decades, more if you want the whole ecosystem. Bernard will often point me to some impressive woodland and explain that he planted that in 1984. Patience is his watchword. Today we are bedevilled by short-termism – we want a new one and we want it now. As Starbucks’ Howard Schultz points out: “We live in an age where everything is based on the short term.” This temptation to forever operate in the short-term means that we close our eyes to the long term consequences. We go for the short-term fix even if we know it won’t last. We may even do things simply for the present experience even though we know full well it will cause us long-term damage. Like watching Everton. As the New Testament writer to the Hebrews warns: “Watch out for the Esau syndrome: trading away God’s lifelong gift in order to satisfy a short-term appetite. You well know how Esau later regretted that impulsive act and wanted God’s blessing—but by then it was too late, tears or no tears.” (Hebrews 12:14-17, the Message translation, obviously) But it’s not just our need for immediate enjoyment which causes short-termism, as human beings we have a definite bias for the present. You see this every Saturday at the ParkRun: most runners start too fast. It takes some experience and some nerve to start at a sustainable pace. You refuse to be swept up in the headlong rush! Sadly structures within our society make things even worse, restricting our time frame. Just ask Ole Gunnar Solskjær, for example. To rebuild Manchester United will take several seasons and many millions. However, a run of a few losses may well cost him his job. The Glaziers want a return on their investment as José Mourinho discovered.
As investor Esther Dyson observes, “In politics the dominant time frame is a term of office, in fashion and culture it’s a season. For corporations it’s a quarter, on the internet it’s minutes, and on the financial markets it is mere milliseconds.” (She could have added that for many vicars it’s a week!). All this adds up to long-term problems. One major area of concern, of course, is creation care. We need to radically change our present behaviour in order to save the planet for generations yet unborn. The danger is, as sociologist Elise Boulding points out, is future fatigue. “If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future.” But imagining the future is what we need to do, less of the John (“Sorry about that, John”) and more of the Bernard. Here as Christians we have a major contribution to make, such is our awareness of the long-term. In fact, my reading from Luke’s Gospel this morning speaks of Jesus warning his disciples of what will happen when the temple at Jerusalem is sacked, something which seemed impossible at the time. Even though all this is a whole generation away, about 40 years, he prepares his followers for this climatic event. Jesus teaches us how to live in the present with a future perspective and his main metaphor is derived from agriculture –sowing and harvest. There is a fundamental partnership between the person who sows and the one who reaps.
“I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together.” (John 4:35f) Seeds take time but even so farmers work hard, optimising conditions for the growth which God alone can give. As one of Jesus' disciples was later to write: “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains.” (James 5:7) Certainly in ministry I always have a sense that I am sowing seeds which may not bear fruit for a long time. The key as James points is patience, a gift of the Holy Spirit, a willingness to serve within God’s time frame. Even so we to sow well and wisely – short-term considerations - if we are to harvest one-hundred-fold. Just last month Jacqui and I were hugely encouraged by the cover photo of OUTLOOK, the parish magazine for Heswall, showing a large group of young people from the church heading out to help the church Uganda. No way we could have imagined this when we started this ministry with young people in 1982 As the apostle Paul encourages the Christian at Corinth, “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58). This promise makes all the difference – for we are planting a forest.