Confession time: I love my aloe plant. It was given to me by a friend when it was only about three inches high. I’ve watered it and repotted it, and every morning I make sure my bedroom curtains are open so it gets lots of sunlight. I have watched it grow from a wee spikey thing to a, well, slightly bigger spikey thing and have been amazed that something that started so small has grown so much, just sitting there day after day on my chest of drawers.
A few months ago, I started noticing other wee spikey things pushing through the soil. There were four of them in a wide circle around my aloe plant. “What is this?” I thought. “Aloe babies? I didn’t know my aloe was having babies!” And yet, there they were. Aloe babies, right there in the pot, encircling their mother like a tiny hedge.
I left the babies alone for a while, but over time they started to crowd their mum, so I decided to take a risk and uproot them, planting each in its own tiny pot. Now, instead of one aloe plant, I have five.
God has a way of speaking to me about himself through his creation, and my aloe plant is no exception. I was minding my own business, thinking I had one aloe plant. I looked after it as best as I knew how, but all the while, under the surface, things were happening that I couldn’t have imagined. For months, deep below my carefully mixed, succulent-friendly soil, my aloe was putting out roots. When conditions were right, the roots sprouted, sent up shoots, and in time four new aloe plants burst into the world. It was a total shock.
How often does God do things under the surface? Things that we have no clue about? Things we wouldn’t believe were possible, even if He told us? Pretty much all the time, in my experience!
If I think about it in terms of mission, I see God’s character revealed in my aloe plant even more. I imagine just about every missionary you know could tell you a story involving months or even years of praying for and ministering to and loving a group of people who seemed completely impervious to the gospel, only to have God surprise them with what He’d been doing all along under the surface. A hardened tribal leader surrenders to Christ. A household of unbelievers “suddenly” believes. A whole community is radically transformed practically overnight.
It has happened. And it will keep happening. Because God loves a surprise. He loves to see the delight on our faces, and feel the worship rising from our grateful hearts when he moves in ways we didn’t see coming.
I started with one aloe plant, and now I have five. If the aloe babies have babies, that makes twenty. Imagine what the world would be like if God were to multiply by five each prayer we pray for a lost loved one, each person who ventures onto the mission field, each pound we give in support of His work in the world? And what if those were multiplied by five, and so on and so on? It could happen, you know. He’s always working under the surface. And he’s done a lot more than that with much less.
Our job is to keep believing he’s going to move, even if we can’t see what’s going on under the surface. Our job is to water the soil, provide sunlight, and make sure conditions are favourable so that when He does show us what he’s been up to, we’re ready to act.
BY DR DAVID SMITH
The very last verse in the Old Testament predicts that when a prophet comes to announce the arrival of the ‘great and dreadful day of the Lord’, he will ‘turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers’ (Malachi 4:6). Centuries later, the evangelist Luke began writing his gospel and recorded that an angel had appeared to the father of John the Baptist with the astounding message that his son would become a prophet, anointed with ‘the spirit and power of Elijah’ and would ‘turn the hearts of the fathers to their children’ (Luke 1:17).
We are used to thinking of the gospel as a message of reconciliation, overcoming the barriers and divisions of culture, race and class and creating a new community united through the healing power of the cross. In the first century the great division which concerned the disciples of Christ was that between Jews and Gentiles, and the letter to the Ephesians celebrates the power of the cross which is able to remove the dividing wall between these ethnic and religious identities and ‘in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross’ (Ephesians 2:16). However, there are other divisions within human society which may easily be overlooked, yet can be at least as significant as those which have ethnicity, class, or religion as their source. At the present time, perhaps the most pervasive and urgent of these tensions is what we have been used to call the generation gap.
The twenty first century is witnessing an explosion in the numbers of young people growing up with high expectations of change in the conditions of life which their parents and grand-parents took for granted and assumed were likely to be unchanging. An Indian writer, Snigdha Poonam, recently published a book with the title, Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing The World, in which he says that half the population of the sub-continent, more than 600 million people, are under the age of 25. Mind-blowing statistics like these can easily be paralleled elsewhere across the majority world and just walking the streets of cities like Lahore, Bangkok, Shanghai or Lagos, the youthfulness of the crowds encountered on the pavements is immediately striking.
Yet, what future is there for this generation? Millions of young people have access to education which comes with the promise of a different kind of future, only to discover that the reality of their situations is often bleak. In India in 2016 more than 1.5 million people applied for 1,500 jobs with a state-owned bank; more than 9 million took entrance exams for less than 1,000 vacancies on the railways; and 19,000 applied for 114 jobs as municipal street sweepers! Little wonder then that Pankaj Mishra has warned of a rising tide of frustration and anger among the young, making them vulnerable to political demagogues who prey upon their disappointments for their own ends.
What about the generation gap in the West? Here young and old seem increasingly to exist in different worlds, one of which is virtual, the other solid and time-bound. How do we cross that gap? Those promises in Malachi and Luke suddenly seem to be really significant, reminding us that the healing power of Christ relates to the tensions and alienation that can exist across the generations. Where the healing power of Jesus Christ is at work, old people will love and encourage the young, rejoicing in their zest for life and affirming their hopes and dreams, while the young will recognise and treasure the wisdom that comes with life-experience and be grateful for the knowledge left to them by parents and earlier generations stretching back into the mists of time.
A final point: sometimes the generation gap is also a faith gap; children turn away from the deeply held beliefs of their parents. Where this happens the promise of Malachi has to be read in the light of the extraordinary image of the ‘waiting father’ in Luke 15. If Christian parents need help in knowing how to relate to children who have rejected their faith, let them reflect on the example of God himself who granted freedom for the exploration of the far country, and whose love remained undimmed and was expressed in the uncritical embrace of the returning son.
Photo by Warren Wong.