Deep roots for dry times

005 (3)Have you noticed that mission workers are often expected to be spiritually self-sufficient, able to sustain themselves by feeding on God’s word alone, with little or no access to relevant church or fellowship groups? Curiously, the people who assert this are often those who tell Christians that they cannot survive spiritually without regularly attending church meetings, Bible studies, home groups…. Why are mission workers expected to be so different?

The truth is that most of us are not different. We struggle to maintain our spiritual vitality without friends around us. Our spiritual disciplines can fail under the pressure of demands on us. We can become discouraged when we labour long in the mission field with apparently little result. We dry up inside, and our relationship with God can be little more than going through the motions.

So how can we, as mission workers, put down deep roots into the dry and dusty spiritual soil in which we’re planted? Often there is no easy answer – Psalm 1 might seem like a good place to start but who wants to Bible study night and day?

For most of us, it’s simply a case of hanging on and not giving up. And that’s ok. Because trees don’t put down deep roots when the drought comes. That’s the time to pause and wait. Deep roots are not developed during the hard times but in the good ones. When things are easier, perhaps we’re on home assignment, or a retreat, or at a conference, we can experience times of refreshing to see us through the dry periods.

This is such an important part of our early spiritual life, our training in church and Bible College, and our pre-departure preparation: building up spiritual stamina through regular Bible study, prayer and worship. These become habits that sustain us through the times of challenge.

But what do we do if we’re already in the middle of the drought and we didn’t take the time to develop deep roots before? How do we survive when it feels like we’re all dried up inside? That’s when we need someone to help water us! Make plans for a retreat or a conference. Invite someone to visit who can refresh you. Try a new church or a new version of the Bible that will bring things alive in a new way. Download some sermons or visit a cyberchurch. Hold a skype prayer meeting with friends once a week.

If you’ve tried all of these and you’re not getting anywhere, it’s time to re-evaluate your position – are you being effective if you’re that dry? How can you be a witness to the good news if it’s clearly not good news in your life?  Many of us are frightened of withdrawing from the mission field in case we’re seen as a failure, but what army doesn’t execute a strategic withdrawal when it realises it’s in an unsustainable position? It is better to leave the mission field than to lose your faith, which is what can happen if we just hang on grimly getting drier and drier without meeting God in the midst of our drought.

Safety in numbers

Chanctonbury ringWe 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.

Deep roots

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Last week I introduced our series on resilience by quoting Paul’s attitude to his “momentary, light afflictions” (2 Corinthians 4:17).  As I pointed out, these included arbitrary arrest, attempted lynching and transport accidents.  Things which would drive most mission workers to head for home on the first flight, if they hadn’t already been recalled by their HR departments.  So how come Paul was not perturbed by these challenges?  How could he be stoned and left for dead one day, and the next day go to the neighbouring town and carry on preaching the gospel (Acts 14:19-21)?

Paul had deep roots.  He was utterly convinced of God’s love for him despite such trials (Romans 8:38-39).  He was completely persuaded of the need for humanity to hear the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:16), and death held no fear for him because he knew what would happen to him after he died (Philippians 1:20-24).  This enabled him to keep his suffering in perspective – it was nothing compare to what Christ had suffered for him.

How do we develop these deep roots?  To use a sapling as an analogy, trees develop deep roots by going through hardship in the first place.  We know that we need to stake a young tree to stop it blowing over in the first place, but what most of us do not know is that if we stake it too tightly, it is stable and will not develop deep roots.  Only if it’s allowed to wave in the wind will its roots go deeper into the ground to provide more stability.  The more it shakes, the further the roots will go seeking rocks to hang onto.  For us, those rocks are God, and the great truths of our salvation.  When the storm strikes, our response should not be to doubt our calling, or to wonder why God did not help us when we needed him.  It should be to confess our trust in him despite our outward circumstances, as many of the psalms do.

In the psalms we read the thoughts of people going through great trials.  David on the run from a man trying to kill him (Psalm 7), or people taken into exile to a country where they find it hard to worship (Psalm 137).  Yet in many of the psalms which honestly cry out “Where are you God?” there are also great statements of faith and trust, such as in Psalm 13:

How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?

…but I have trusted in your love and my heart will rejoice in your salvation.

Even the 23rd psalm, a great favourite of many who suffer,  acknowledges the existence of the valley of the shadow of death, something to be afraid of, and enemies close at hand, at the same time as trusting in the comforting presence of the shepherd.  Indeed, if all were well, the sheep would not need the shepherd – it’s the very presence of danger and hardship that reminds the sheep of her vulnerability and makes her stay close to the shepherd.

This is why the psalms are a comfort for so many going through hardships – they do not ignore the tragedies and injustices of life, and confess God’s glory and faithfulness as a way to make sense of suffering.  In doing so, the psalmist reorientates himself back to trusting in God as he reconciles his belief in God with his difficult circumstance, either by confessing faith in the midst of adversity or by turning his accusation into a prayer for deliverance.  Having done this, he puts down deeper roots, finding greater stability and life-giving nutrients which will sustain him when the next disaster strikes:

He will be like a deep-rooted tree growing by a river:

It bears fruit in season and its leaves do not wither when there is drought.