We all know the idea of safety in numbers, whether it’s herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the Serengeti, or shoals of mackerel avoiding predators like tuna. But we might not have noticed that trees do the same. A few tree species produce winged seeds that catch the wind and fly far away, but most, like the oak, produce heavy ones that don’t fall far from the parent tree, so that they can build up a forest around them for protection.
Whether it’s a naturally-occurring forest or a human-made plantation, trees tend to flourish in groups. This can be best seen in some of the Victorian plantations that still stand on the top of some of Britain’s hills. Trees seldom grow alone on the top of exposed hills, and if they do, they don’t always grow big and strong. The wind breaks off their tender new growth resulting in squat, bent trees. This still happens on the windward side of hilltop woods. The ones that bear the brunt of the wind still struggle, but in doing so, they provide shelter for the downwind ones. The further away the trees are from the force of the wind, the taller and straighter they grow. In other words, the upwind ones take a hit for the others.
Mission workers are too often like lone trees struggling against the elements. They leave the safety of their natural environment to go somewhere more demanding. They might persist but they don’t thrive. Which raises the obvious question – where is the community? Who is taking the hit for you so that you can grow big and strong?
It doesn’t have to be one supporter who suffers greatly bearing this burden, but a number who share it between them. Part of raising support before we go is finding the members of this team who not only provide the money (and that’s what we focus on getting, right?) but can provide practical and pastoral support, communication and prayer.
It’s also about being part of a team in the field which supports us in our challenges. Whether they are specialist member care workers, supportive colleagues or understanding team leaders, we need to make sure that we have a team which takes the hit for us (and vice versa). We must also remember not to overlook the provision that God has given us in the local believers. Too often we come to the mission field with a mentality of serving the local church which is at best paternalistic if not neo-colonialist, and we don’t even entertain the fact that they might be able to serve and encourage us. But perhaps we serve them best when we show that we are not strong and invincible but fragile and vulnerable and allow them to help us in our need.
Few of us are called to be a lonely pine on a hilltop. Most of us are intended to be mighty oaks of righteousness, planted together in groups which will bless and encourage others. So take a look around and see where the other trees are, and whether you can’t actually start growing closer together.