We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now … (Romans 8:22) + And straightaway the spirit drove him out into the wilderness. (Mark 1:12)
We often think of the wilderness like a modern day national park, that is, somewhere without people. But this is a colonial view. Whether it’s the Amorites, the Jebusites, the Perizzites or the many peoples of the Eastern Maar nation, saying any land is empty erases the Indigenous peoples who have always walked and tended the earth; it is an act of genocide; it forgets that even national parks have been violently emptied.
So sometimes I think of the wilderness as being like the forest in Tuscany. It’s growing, not shrinking; it’s surrounded by people and villages; it’s full of trees, animals and footpaths; and people go there to collect food and firewood, or simply to walk into town. But you can always find a deserted place, a quiet pocket.
Other times, I think of the industrial estate at the end of my street. The roadside is full of dust and trash: but grasses spring up, wattles bloom. By 5pm, it’s deserted. It’s desert-like. It’s desolate.
Wilderness as desolation is nothing new. By the time Jesus walked the earth, the land of Israel had seen multiple waves of invasion and deforestation. Each new army had cut down trees to build camps, forts, and siege ramps, and had burned fields, salted the earth, and blocked waterways to disrupt local agriculture. Many species had been driven to the brink of extinction, so much so that Rome was concerned: for it was becoming difficult to find lions for the imperial games. When Paul writes in Romans that the earth groans, he is writing metaphorically but also literally: for, under the weight of empire, once fertile land was rapidly turning into desert.
Perhaps we imagine Jesus walked between villages through pristine countryside. But Jesus, too, knew deforestation, desertification and species loss; they were happening all around him. Even so, each gospel account tells us he went again and again to the wilderness, to a deserted place, to a desolation, to pray; and he taught his followers to attend to the things of the earth to learn about God’s kingdom.
But what things? Wildflowers, weeds, little birds. He didn’t point to apex predators or primeval forests or the game reserves of the elite. Instead, he pointed to small things, shabby things, things we might see in neglected roadsides.
So when I pray in wasteland and wilderness, I wonder: What small insignificant thing do I need to see? Where is God bringing new life now? And are we invited to participate in bringing that new life into being?
And I go back to the wilderness at the end of my street: that big industrial estate. The grasses rising up from the road reserves. The stunted blackwood here. The silver correa there. On the edge of the estate, there’s a little nursery, where the Worn Gundidj cooperative grows locally Indigenous trees and plants. A few go into little gardens like mine. But more importantly, their plants are used en masse by farmers as windbreaks, as salinity control, or to counter erosion. Some plants hold coastal dunes together; others filter stormwater outlets; still others fill roadside reserves, and replenish those little wildernesses, too. And all these plantings dotted here and there provide habitat for little things: grass blue butterflies, glinting flashes of damselflies, small flocks of red-browed finches.
In a corner of the wilderness of a big industrial estate, tiny beautiful things grow. They bring restoration and renewal to our deforested, groaning region—and the wilderness in my heart. Thanks be to God. Ω
What is this? Lent is the 40 days, excluding Sundays, before Easter. Traditionally it is a time of reflection and pilgrimage. To help you on this journey, Sanctuary has put together daily stories and images from people in the congregation which are focused on God in this place. Why this theme? Read this! #Lent2023. Our Spiritual Geography © Sanctuary, 2023. Sanctuary is based on Peek Whurrong country. Full acknowledgement of country here.
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