God in the garden: a living parable
by Iona Reid-Dalglish
Images taken from natural systems and processes are littered throughout scripture, and particularly in the New Testament. Jesus’ parables are full of them. They seem, for him, to have been an obvious way of understanding what God’s vision of life is about. It wasn’t until I began a project with my brother recently, involving growing our own food on the land, organically and according to permaculture principles, that the vibrancy of some of these images really came to light. It’s all good and well, in theory, pondering the fact that ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ (Jn 12:24, NRSV). Or the somewhat threatening admonition ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit…Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.’ (Jn 15:1-3,6, NRSV). They are effective images, they get a message across. But living something of their reality, it turns out (for me at least) adds a whole new layer of flesh and blood, or maybe more aptly, mud and worms, to the images.
In natural systems, nothing is wasted. Death and decay are in fact the very birthplace of life. Neither exists without the other. At home, when we remove grass from around the beds where our fruit and veg are growing, we turn it over and lay it back down, roots upwards to dry in the sun, so that it mulches down to become rich green matter for the soil, to feed those same fruit and veg. Similarly, if there is pruning to be done, the pruned branches, leaves, sections, are again left to lie and compost around the base of the pruned plant. Sometimes I find the images of cutting away those branches that do not bear fruit in scripture sound harsh, almost brutal – as though there are elements of me that are inherently bad or wrong which need to be destroyed and got rid of. Growing our own food at home has shown me a much richer, more all-encompassing, side to this image. In those elements that need to die, or to be let go of, there too is life and nourishment, which will continue feeding into the system, continue nourishing the plant. They are not being jettisoned into outer space somewhere, ostracized, but rather re-oriented, allowed to enter a new phase of life, death and growth, which ultimately feeds and nourishes the whole system. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is deemed, in nature, as unacceptable. For me, our garden is teaching me something about God, and how God works. I suppose in a sense my garden is for me a living parable and I am finding what a difference it makes engaging with scriptural images I actually inhabit in my daily life, and the little details and truths that stand out anew when I do.