Today I’m in Ballarat at the Intergenerate Conference, where I’m giving a workshop on a practice we developed during lockdown: telling stories in the landscape. As you might remember, for a while we could meet outside in groups of 20, so I drove around to various places for outdoor communion served from our family van (temporarily christened the Manna-Mobile). This story, which I am sharing at the workshop, describes one such event. I hope you enjoy it!
Imagine: Kirrae Wurrung country. A large paddock fringed by manna gums. Around it are half a dozen homes, several connected to our church. Twenty years ago, after decades of conventional dairy farming, the paddocks were bare and ecologically depleted. So the farmer subdivided and sold off some tired acres near the creek; the lots were gradually bought by these households.
Inspired by Isaiah 58, several built sustainable homes. They cleared blackberries and thistles, they planted gardens, they restored the streets, they reinvigorated a tiny rural primary school that was threatened with closure; in these and many other ways, they sought the shalom of this rural hamlet.
As part of this work, they planted thousands of trees and other locally indigenous flora in wildlife corridors which extend up from the creek and around their properties. As the trees grew, koalas returned to the area, and wallabies, and yellow-tailed black cockatoos. Many of the manna gums are now 40 metres tall: graceful and elegant. In late summer, they are covered with white blossom.
We gathered in such a paddock, fragrant with eucalyptus, for a communion liturgy based on Isaiah 55. Adults and children heard the invitation to hungry people to come and enjoy good food and drink, which cost no money and are freely available to everyone. Together, they prayed the liturgy, and sang, and wondered about the text; together, they received heaven’s bread. Together, they were sent out with a final blessing, a paraphrase of Isaiah 55:11b-13. So let us listen for the word of God:
Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord says: My word will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it: You shall go out with joy and be led forth in shalom; the mountains and the hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of thistles, manna gums will grow, instead of blackberries, sheoaks. This will be a witness to God, living and lasting evidence of God. (Isaiah 55:11b-13)
The liturgy (here) had already alluded to the setting and the shalom these households had sought to create, the landscape they have taken part in healing, the trees they have planted and the weeds they have cleared; and the blessing mirrored it back as gift: for it hallowed their activity as participation in God’s work, and a witness to God’s life, and something to be celebrated.
Of course, this is not the only story which could be told in this landscape. There are stories of colonisation and stories of dispossession; stories of community-building and stories of disappointment; stories of families and stories of neighbours; stories of fruit trees and stories of seedlings; stories of loss and stories of redemption. But today, the words of Isaiah 55 linger in the air.
A koala grunts. The leaves on the manna gums rustle. The creek burbles, the volcanic hills hum, and Isaiah 55 is now inscribed on this landscape—and on these hearts. For as the words percolate, people hear that their lives in this place have embodied the ancient prophecy. Some grin, others shake their heads ruefully as one does at a trick, one or two wipe away a tear: and yes, they go forth in joy. Well, some go play chasey around the paddock, while others stand at a safe distance from each other, and chat.
May you, too, go out with joy and be led forth in the ways of shalom, as God’s word accomplishes God’s desire and God’s purpose through you and for you, and for your people and for the land. In all that you do, may your work be a witness to God, living and lasting evidence of God: as instead of thistles, manna gums grow; instead of blackberries, sheoaks. In the name of Christ, the ever-patient gardener, I pray: Amen.
Reflect: Where do you live? What stories have shaped your life there? How would you write a story / liturgy dreaming your neighbourhood through a biblical lens?
Notes on the liturgy, which you can find here: If it seems a bit odd, know that it was written to comply with government pandemic requirements at that time: No singing, no eating and drinking together (we took the bread home for later consumption and omitted wine), no hand shaking, and, I seem to recall, a time limit. Plus we had to be outdoors, masked and physically distanced for the duration. Phew!
Cudgee lies in Kirrae Wurrung country. Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country. Acknowledgement of country here. Emailed to Sanctuary 20 July 2022 © Sanctuary, 2022. Photo by Craig Manners on Unsplash.
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