The Best Time to Plant a Tree

Earlier this month we enjoyed dinner with two other couples when one man asked: “With everything happening in the world right now, how can we find hope? Is hope a ridiculous concept these days?”

If you think hope is hard to come by, imagine being a humanitarian worker in Afghanistan right now. You’ve poured yourself out for years to help people in need, and now the change of power there threatens to wipe out all the gains that have been made.

A World Vision colleague, James East, has just written an article about hope for passionate aid workers like these. James first arrived in Afghanistan in 2002, just after the allied invasion, as a rookie World Vision worker.

We had just funded a new school for girls there where there had been none before. The children were so excited to be there. At the end of the day, they rushed joyfully out of the gates screaming and laughing, and as they did an old man hit several with a long cane and sternly told them to be quiet. It shocked me, but the girls just ran on laughing and skipping through the streets in their new school uniforms. Many of those girls will now be in their thirties and mothers themselves. They will want the same for their daughters.

Did you catch that? “Many of those girls will now be in their thirties and mothers themselves. They will want the same for their daughters.” Those seeds which were planted 20 years ago and every year since—many will surely bear fruit. The energetic voices from inside and outside the country calling for equal rights and protections are encouraging signs that this is not the same place it was twenty years ago. Afghanistan has not come “full circle” back to where it was.

It’s true what they say: The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The next best time is today.

In Ethiopia, I had an experience similar to James, when I returned two decades later to a feeding camp that I’d visited when the country was only beginning to recover from the devastating famine of 1984-85. Among the early efforts World Vision was making back then toward rebuilding, a small school had been constructed for the children who had survived. Twenty years later there were now two schools there, the second larger and more modern. As we walked down the street, both the primary and the secondary schools were being dismissed and emptying out. We suddenly became engulfed in a sea of hundreds of smiling, curious children and adolescents, all dressed in their colorful uniforms. I wanted to ask them about their life since the famine, but then realized that none of these children were even alive back then… instead, these kids were the children of those children we had helped! Those seeds of survival had been planted twenty years earlier, and the fruit was stunning.

I appreciated my dinner companion’s question ‘where can we find hope?’ He has actually spent a significant portion of his time, talent and treasure helping address issues of global inequality. He’s not some skeptic who simply wants to wash his hands of the world and its problems. Yet we all get weary and need a safe place every now and then to ask if it all really makes any difference.

Even John the Baptist had to send some of his disciples to Jesus to ask if he was really “the one.” [Luke 7:18-23] I feel John’s angst: Hey, I’m really laying it all on the line here. Is this all worth it? The more deeply invested we are, the more we need outlets to be able to ask those questions. I think Jesus sensed that too, and his answer was gracious. He didn’t insist or raise his voice; he calmly pointed to the tangible signs.

Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.

At dinner, I recounted what has happened in the past 40-50 years, how extreme poverty has dropped from half the global population to under 10% for the first time in human history, how the number of children dying needlessly every day has dropped by two-thirds since 1981. Many other statistics tell the same story of stunning over-arching success despite some terrible setbacks along the way.

Here’s the key: We find hope in the long arch of faithful history. We recognize the seeds that have already been planted, years and decades ago. Today, the area of Ethiopia which I visited has gone from being a ‘basket-case’ to becoming the food-exporting breadbasket of north-central Ethiopia. And those schoolgirls given the opportunity to learn in Afghanistan twenty years ago will not easily allow their own daughters to be denied the opportunities they’ve had.

By the way: World Vision has already restarted operations in Afghanistan. The regions where we work had mostly been under Taliban control for half-a-year already: they know us, they want us to stay, they have not protested our female national director there. Great challenges lie ahead, but so far, so good.

We don’t get to write the end of the story. There will continue to be many ups and downs. Yet, by taking the long view, I am very far from losing hope or forgetting how to find it again.

We also find hope by putting our hand to the plough in our time. At the end of dinner, I offered to read what seemed the perfect benediction. It’s a prayer-poem about hope which has been linked to Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador assassinated in 1980. Here’s the ending… What speaks to you?

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the

Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.


The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The next best time… is today.


One thought on “The Best Time to Plant a Tree

  1. Hi Cory
    I just read this. It was great. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today. I wonder what tree I am being called to plant?

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