On the Swedish island of Visingsö there’s a mysterious forest of oak trees; mysterious because oak trees aren’t indigenous to the island. The origin of the forest was unknown until 1980 when the Swedish navy received a letter. The letter was from the Swedish Forestry Department reporting that their requested ship lumber was ready. The Navy didn’t know they’d ordered any lumber, so records were checked and it was discovered that in 1829 the Swedish Parliament, recognising that it takes oak trees 150 years to mature and anticipating a shortage of lumber in the early twenty-first century, ordered that 20,000 oak trees be planted on Visingsö and be protected for future use by the Navy.
(with thanks to M&P Batterson, The Circle Maker for that true story).
Now that’s what I call long-term thinking and planning! In fact the decision to plant all those oak trees not only showed amazing foresight but also that the Swedish people of the time had a great but humble vision to provide not just for themselves, but for future generations.
It reminds me of those in 2009 who went from HTB in London to plant into St Peter’s Brighton. The leaders said that they weren’t just planting something that would last a few years but a church that would still be there in 100 years time. That warmed my heart, as it showed long-term thinking.
But we live in a culture that encourages a very different kind of thinking. So products are not made to last. Even though I love to shop in Ikea and enjoy my Swedish meatballs half way round, we don’t expect to be passing on our Ikea furniture to our grandchildren. It just won’t last. If you need a watch it’s likely that rather than saving up for a good one that will stand the test of time, most of us will buy a cheap one that will be discarded in three or four years before we buy another. It’s not easy for businesses either. They’re under pressure from banks who often will only give short-term loans, and shareholders are quick to criticise if they don’t see an immediate return on their investment. The owners and chairmen of football clubs seem to change their managers as often as their socks, impatient for results. Politicians rarely think further than the next election – which is never more than five years – and often they’re thinking even shorter as they’re concerned about their poll-rating which can so easily drop. All this goes against the reality that good things so often take time to come and agents of change need time for inspired strategy to take effect.
Investing for the long-term is perhaps best seen in family life. Husbands need to pour love and devotion into the lives of their wives. Henry Ford, the carmaker was right when he said on his 50th Wedding Anniversary that the secret to a good marriage was ‘Just like the automobile industry, stick to one model’. Parents need to keep caring for and praying for their children for many years if they’re to see good results. This is about staying committed in a world where many give up too easily.
This istrue in the non-profit sector and in churches as much as anywhere. We need more long-term thinking. More clear strategising. More praying. The bible has much to say on this – for instance in the Book of Proverbs (eg. 21:5), and in the big picture of God’s great plan of love, forgiveness and freedom, that will be consummated at the end of time.
I’m very conscious at The Belfrey, where we’re committed to serving God’s transformation of the North, that that will not happen over-night. It’s not meant to. Seeds sown take time to germinate and grow. And many of our prayers and plans and efforts, like the Swedish oak trees, may not even be for our benefit, but for future generations.
That’s why I think God is asking us if we’re willing to think and plan long. If we’ll be the kind of people who are committed to the long-haul. People who will not be discouraged by minor setbacks or by things that seem to get stuck. Instead, we’ll press on and pray and persevere and trust and keep going, doing the basics well.
If we’re to see the transformation we long and pray for, we need to think long.