The Second Best Time to Plant a Tree

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“Lord, Lord, open to us!”

But the door remained shut. From the other side, a voice: “Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.”

* * *

To the people of Pompeii, Vesuvius erupted without warning. In the span of moments, the infamous volcano filled the air with thick clouds of ash, tephra, and other pyroclastic material. Temperatures soared, darkness and sulfuric fumes swallowed the surrounding areas, and chaos descended from the skies. Entire settlements were obliterated. One eyewitness wrote that, even from a distance, “I believed that I was perishing with the world, and the world with me.”

But volcanoes don’t just explode. The residents of Pompeii were witnessing the end of a long and gradual process that had begun days or even years earlier. During that time, magma from deep within the earth rose up within Vesuvius, releasing gasses that slowly increased the internal pressure of the mountain, building and building until, like an aerosol can in a bonfire, the rock walls gave way to an unstoppable wave of destruction and death.

The destruction of Pompeii, in other words, was a long time coming. As much as Vesuvius appeared to have erupted on the spur of the moment, volcanoes don’t work that way. There’s a process required—a slow and deliberate chain of events—before an eruption is even a possibility.

* * *

Time.

In an always-on, 24/7, free-two-day-shipping culture, time is the overlooked ingredient. Order a burger at the drive-thru and it’s ready for you by the time you reach the window. Order a book from the other side of the country and, for a nominal fee, you can have it airlifted to your front door by tomorrow, guaranteed. Upload your pictures to the store of your choice, and you can pick up the prints within the hour.

That’s incredible. We’ve designed a world where we can get anything we like, as quick as we like—often by yesterday at the latest.

But nothing is truly instant. Not really. That burger you ordered was made a while ago in a batch of dozens or even hundreds, just in case someone like you wanted one. That book you ordered was manufactured on costly equipment that took years to develop and design, and then it was shipped through a delivery system that has been evolving and improving for centuries. And you uploaded your pictures through the Internet, which is an increasingly complex jungle of technological wonders, each painstakingly designed to communicate with the next, ending with an industrial printer programmed to interpret the incomprehensible stream of zeros and ones you just fed it and spit out a corresponding picture.

It feels instant, but it’s not. Every step in every one of those processes took years and years of research and development before it was ready for you to use on a whim. Like a volcano, this technological eruption we’re experiencing could never have happened without all the behind-the-scenes legwork that made it possible.

* * *

In the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), everyone fell asleep. That wasn’t what set the wise apart from the foolish—no, the real distinction between the two groups was their grasp of time. When the cry went out at midnight to go and meet the bridegroom, only five virgins had their lamps full of oil—that is, full of God’s Holy Spirit. The other five were running low.

All ten had lamps. All ten understood that the lamps required oil to function properly. All ten knew these lamps were necessary and important, but—and here’s the key distinction—only five had taken the time to actually fill them. The other five attempted to squeak by with what little they had, only to discover at the critical moment that what they had wasn’t enough (Matthew 25:8).

Then comes the tragedy. Because they lacked the oil they needed—and because the wise couldn’t afford to spare their own supplies, “lest there should not be enough for us and you” (Matthew 25:9)—the five foolish virgins had no choice but to go to the marketplace and get more. By the time they returned, the bridegroom had returned and the door was shut (Matthew 25:10). The five foolish virgins cried out, “Lord, Lord, open to us!” only to be met with the bridegroom’s chilling response from the other side of the door:

“Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you” (Matthew 25:11-12, emphasis added).

* * *

Some things require time. The degree to which we want or need them in a particular moment is completely irrelevant. These things do not come with “buy it now” or “one day shipping” options. They can only be attained through weeks, years, or even decades of effort and unceasing commitment.

The Holy Spirit is one of those things. We receive it as a gift at baptism—and all ten virgins had at least some oil in their lamps—but what happens afterward depends on us. We don’t just naturally interface with the limitless power of God, “the carnal mind is enmity against God” (Romans 8:7). Tapping into the mind of God requires a lifetime of effort on our part—a lifetime of praying, of studying, of fasting, of meditating, and of spending time with our brethren. There are no shortcuts to any of these steps, which is why the five foolish virgins ran into trouble. When the bridegroom returned, the foolish virgins were hoping to acquire in a single moment something that had taken the wise virgins years to cultivate.

God’s Holy Spirit doesn’t work that way. You can’t just borrow it from someone else when you need it. When the bridegroom returns—when Jesus Christ descends from the heavens and gathers His brethren—your lamp will either be full or it won’t. In that moment, there will be no shortcuts, no easy fixes, no “buy it now” button. Either you put in the work or you didn’t. Either you nurtured your connection with God’s Spirit or you let it dwindle.

Either you’re on the right side of the door or you’re not.

* * *

There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”

Volcanoes don’t just explode. Twenty-year-old trees don’t just appear. And your lamp won’t just “get full.” The bridegroom is coming, and a strong connection with the Holy Spirit of God is not a last-minute acquisition.

I’d love to say it’s never too late to start, but that’s simply not true. That’s the whole point. One day, it will be too late.

The best time to begin filling your lamp was twenty years ago.

The second best time is now.

Until next time,
Jeremy

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