There is a Chinese proverb that says that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the second best time is now.
Nearly twenty years ago, when my husband and I moved into our home, we had to cut down what seemed like WAY too many trees – they were overgrown and planted in the wrong places. We replanted. In places that would provide shade for the house without threatening its foundations. And those trees grew! Today they grace our yard with shade and shelter. Every summer morning, when I sit in the yard and sip my morning tea and listen to the birds sing….I am grateful…for the seeds that were planted…and for the trees that have grown.
Last summer we lost one of the trees that we had specifically saved. A beautiful gnarly old maple tree. It split in half during a windstorm. So now it is time to replant again. We won’t see this new tree grow to magnificent heights. We will only see its beginning. And twenty years from now, someone (probably not me) will sit in the front yard and (I hope) give thanks for the tree we will plant this spring.
I think churches are a little like that. I’m not sure when the best time to plant a church would be. Maybe 75 years ago when the World War II soldiers were returning home to set up housekeeping and build their families? Maybe 500 years ago when the Protestant Reformation was spreading like wildfire across the northern hemisphere? Maybe 200 years ago as the Westward Expansion opened up the prairies and the plains to farmers and ranchers? May 50 years ago as suburbs and new communities sprang up all over the country? And the second-best time? Today? Really?
I don’t know the answer to those questions, but here’s what I do know. We are living in a time when there’s a lot of “”cutting down” happening all across the church. Even in churches that are thriving, it feels as though things “”used to be” different (bigger, more children, more young adults, more money…..you fill in the blank). In some places, the church literally is falling down. The building is failing, the congregation is floundering, and it seems that the only thing left to do is to wait for it all to die of natural causes, or cut it down before it falls down.
And yet! We have forgotten the replanting! We have forgotten the pruning that brings forth new life! Just because one part of the church is withering doesn’t mean that pruning or replanting won’t yield something strong and healthy and beautiful….in about twenty years. And we have forgotten that this Gospel has a life of its own. It is bigger than our churches. It is bigger than the number of people in our pews or in our Confirmation classes or in our choirs.
When we plant the seeds of faith today, we may not see the results in the way that we want or expect to see them. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Hearts and minds are changed – one person at a time. Justice and peace emerges – one issue after another after another. Worship calls us to humility and awe – week after week after week. Teaching calls forth wisdom and compassion. Hospitality is offered, human worth is upheld, the God of miracles and transformation is at work – both through us and in spite of us.
Every Sunday, I find myself grateful for the people of faith who have gone before me. The ones who cut out the stuff that wasn’t working anymore. The ones who planted seeds of faith. The ones who built buildings and gathered communities, and taught kids who didn’t want to be there (myself included). The ones who saw a need and organized the resources to fill it. The ones who didn’t know what to expect but tried it anyway.
That proverb may be right. The best time to plant a tree may well have been twenty years ago. But the second-best time IS today! Maybe instead of wringing our hands about how things “”used to be” should get busy and plant something new! God promises that we we will be surprised by what grows.
—Katherine Mulhern, Program Support/Adjunct 2030 Iowa