Of Moths & Multiplication

The Joshua tree is an iconic symbol of life in the Mojave Desert. It’s a tree straight out of a Dr. Suess story or ripped from a Vincent van Gogh painting. With its porcupine-like bark, spiky leaves, and topsy-turvy-arm-like branches, it looks like a clumsy giant towering over the barren, brown, sun-drenched landscape.

For me, pictures of the desert recall movie scenes with stranded travelers or run-away prisoners covered in sweat, drowning in sand, chasing elusive visions of an oasis on the horizon. That’s why the Joshua tree stands out. In an unforgiving environment, this tree means salvation. It offers shade and nutrition to a number of desert critters. Without it, they wouldn’t survive.

But as big of a deal as the Joshua tree is, it is dependent upon something very small. While the tree gives protection and nutrition to many, it wouldn’t make it for long were it not for a particular moth. Unlike other flowering trees, the Joshua tree doesn’t produce nectar to attract pollinators. The Yucca moth has reason to help the tree out with pollination. The moth’s babies eat the seeds from the flower of the tree for food in their first days of existence before they form cocoons.

Most pollination is kind of incidental. Bees like the nectar they pick up from flowers. They just happen to take on some pollen and carry it with them to the next flower as they search for another sugary treat. To them, their pollination is a bit of a happy accident. Since the Joshua tree is sans-nectar, this tree named for salvation is need of some saving itself.

Enter scene Yucca moth.

Not only do the Joshua trees not have nectar, they have very little pollen. In other words, there’s zero incentive to invite insects to pick up pollen, and picking up the pollen requires much more work. Were it not for the skillful jaws of the female Yucca moths, outfitted with tentacles near their mouths, the Joshua tree wouldn’t have a prayer.

The Yucca moths intentionally and carefully take pollen from one flower and deposit it on a another. But before they accomplish this important act of pollination, the female moths use a needle like appendage to first deposit their eggs. Charles Darwin called this “the most wonderful case of fertilization.”

The flower will grow into a fruit and the fruit will provide nutrition for the Yucca moth eggs when they hatch. The Joshua tree and the moth share what is called an obligate symbiotic relationship.

Think obligation. The two have a sort of obligation to one another. One could not survive without the other. Without the Yucca moth, the Joshua tree would have no method for pollination. Without the Joshua tree, the Yucca moth would lack an environment for their eggs to flourish in the desert.

You might be wondering why I’m giving so much space on my blog to the relationship between a moth and a tree. The truth is, I didn’t know any of this until I was asked to write a chapter for a book to be published by Crossway Books. I was given the assignment of writing about the relationship between evangelism and discipleship for the purpose of thinking about multiplication. In googling “symbiotic relationships,” I chased some links around the Internet and ended up learning about the Yucca moth and its favorite tree. The two provided a helpful metaphor for illustrating how genuine multiplication is the result of seeing evangelism and discipleship as having a necessary symbiotic relationship.

Today I’m on the campus of Southwestern Seminary, located in Fort Worth, Texas, to give a talk on my book chapter. The title of my talk is “Of Moths & Multiplication: Towards a Great Commission Ecosystem.” While I’m sure I have nothing new to say on the topic of evangelism and discipleship, I do hope to encourage myself and anyone who attends my talk, of the necessary relationship between these two fundamental elements of Jesus’s command to his disciples, and by extension, to all believers, which we call the Great Commission (Matthew 28). 

Evangelism and disicpleship share an obligate symbiotic relationship, which, when empowered by the work of the Spirit, leads to the growth of the church. They are not enemies. They were never intended to be separated. And, like the Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert, the church, a Great Commission ecosystem, is planted in desolate places to offer salvation.