Several years ago I heard an interview with Alan Weisman about his book The World Without Us. The book’s title is fairly explanatory of its subject–it is a book about the world after humankind–how long it would take for the asphalt and concrete to crack; how well all those animals we’ve bred to live with us would fare after we are gone. It was fascinating to hear Weisman describe the changes that would come to a place like Manhattan–how the weeds, and successional trees, and cats would take over (dogs it turns out have tied their fate to ours).
I like to entertain such ideas–of a city overgrown with weeds, of the industrial countryside reforested–not because I am a misanthrope but because I like the idea of a reset. The way we’re living on this earth isn’t sustainable, much less flourishing and it would be good to start fresh with our cities and our countryside alike. There are certainly times for repair, but then there are those times when what is in place has been so corrupted that it needs to be let go, to lie fallow for a while until something fruitful and flourishing can be made of it again.
This seems to me to be the theme in our text from Isaiah this week. In this strange love poem, of which we see only a portion, the prophet talks about the people of Israel and Judah as a vineyard, a garden that God did all that God could to make flourishing. But as any gardener knows, its not all up to the grower. Sometimes the crop fails due to no fault of our own–some bad seed, a disease, the uncontrollable variances of weather. The only solution is to plow it under or pull it up. If there is a disease in the soil then we have to let the ground go uncultivated for a time. God has seen the vineyard he planted that should have become fruitful with a bounty of love and righteous justice bear the diseased fruit of greed, violence and oppression. The only answer is a reset.
So what does this mean for those of us who live in a world that seems closer to the wild grapes of violence than the good vintage of love? Our best hope is to allow ourselves to be cultivated into flourishing places, to work in our communities to create the possibilities of love. But if the wild grapes have already fruited, as they certainly have done in so many places, then we must also learn to welcome those resets and fallow times that come to our own lives and the life of our communities. It is better that the gardens of our common life be brought back to the fallow wilds of an uncultivated garden than we continue producing the fruits of violence and oppression. We must not mourn the crash of unjust economies or the decline of violent nations. We must welcome the return of weeds and wild as we await the ready hand of the divine gardener who will lead us again to the fruits of a flourishing vine.
In the meantime the church must maintain the resources for flourishing, teach it to our children and anyone who would open themselves to hear and do. “No church in the wild,” goes a recent faux-profound hip-hop lyric. And we should answer in the spirit of Isaiah that no, there is a church in the wild, and it is the only place we will learn the skills to survive the fallow times that build toward flourishing.
Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.