Suburban people love lawn.
We cut it, fertilize it, trim it, edge it. Some people even color it.
No matter how good your own lawn might be, there’s nothing like the twinge of covetousness and admiration you feel when walking past the lawn-keeping skills of a grandmaster.
We love it so much we think nothing of the prospect of watering and trimming a sizeable carpet of grass week after week. The perfect length and trim; the alternating mower lines; the absence of weeds — ah, there’s nothing like it. A perfect lawn epitomizes the suburban values of uniformity, symmetry, balance and neatness.
American columnist Dave Barry writes, “The average American home owner would rather live next to a pervert, heroin addict or communist pornographer than someone with an unkempt lawn.”
In fact, Americans spend $27 billion per year caring for their lawns, which amazingly is ten times more than they spend on school textbooks.
But what if I told you that lawn breaks every rule of nature. Actually, lawn is a freak of nature!
Lawn is a monoculture, but every law in the nature handbook tells our planet to strive for biodiversity. Biodiversity is life; monocultures are on the verge of death, which is why lawn can’t survive without an elaborate life-support system of phosphate-based fertilizers, garden pesticides and herbicides. And because you keep feeding and watering it, lawn’s root system is pathetic. Without deep roots to break up the soil, the ground eventually degrades and turns into dirt (hence your need for fertilizers).
As journalist and professor, Michael Pollan says, “Lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.”
If you’re willing to listen, your weeds are telling you all that.
Weeds are called “pioneer plants.” They are nature’s stormtroopers. Weeds are the D-Day paratroopers of the environment. It’s as if nature sees a monoculture like lawn and mobilizes its forces to bring diversity and beauty back to that lot. Weeds come first. They have long, strong root systems that penetrate deeper into the soil. They’re trying to aerate the ground, to make it able to sustain other species.
Later come the shrubs and the trees.
Nature wants diversity and fights relentlessly to achieve it.
In his book The World Without Us, Alan Weisman calculated that if the human race completely abandoned a city it would start looking like a forest in five years. Within 20 years the buildings would start coming down, and within 200 years the place would have been fully colonized by trees.
But none of that ever happens because we uproot weeds as soon as they show themselves. Or we zap them with chemicals.
I think this is a powerful metaphor for the unfurling of the reign of God in this world. Imagine a perfect lawn right alongside an ancient forest. The forest represents the Kingdom of God — rich, diverse, fecund, alive. The lawn represents the stultifying effects of this world — consumerism, greed, conformity, violence. If left to their own devices, the lawn would be no match for the forest. It would be converted from uniformity and neatness into wild, messy diversity in no time.
It takes the concerted effort of the lawnkeeper to stave off the earth’s natural impulses to wildness.
Now, think about that in terms of your church. To what degree would you say your church looks more like the lawn than the forest floor?
The Kingdom of God, as described and embodied by Christ, strives toward justice and reconciliation. The world unleashed by King Jesus is a beautiful, life-giving reality that values messy things like peace, mercy, hospitality and generosity. It looks more like a wet, fertile ecosystem, teeming with hopeful possibility, than a boring, uniform lawn.
Sure, it’s messy and muddy, crisscrossed with a snarl of moss-covered tree roots and blanketed in mulched dead leaves. But it’s diverse, bustling with life, magnificent in its beauty. Shafts of sunlight penetrate the canopy above, beaming like spotlights on a stage. New shoots lance the soil, fragile and freshly green. A forest floor is lush underfoot. It smells bountiful. It feels like it’s… breathing.
Lesslie Newbigin once wrote that the church exists “for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.”
Don’t be the lawn. Be like the forest floor, a stunningly diverse ecosystem in stark contrast to the grassy monoculture.
Weeds are the sign, instrument and foretaste of the forest which is to come. They parachute into the dying lawn with the promise of new life.
No one likes weeds, and maybe no one will like you upsetting their monochrome world, promising so much more, speaking about justice and new life, challenging their consumerism and their conformity, their apathy and their racism and sexism.
But who doesn’t love a forest? Teach your church to be like weeds, not to ruin the faux perfection of their neighbor’s lawn-like existence, but as agents of hope that life was meant to be more like a marvelous forest. Please, teach your congregations how to embody the kingdom ecosystem that Jesus presented to us. Lead us into diversity, hospitality, justice and reconciliation, no matter how messy and tangled it might be.
As David Fitch says, “The gospel is an extraordinary call to become part of an alien people, a social revolution, a politic called the church”.
11 thoughts on “Is your church a lawn or a forest floor?”
Bill Mollison, the co-creator of a life philosophy called Permaculture called lawns a “cancer on the face of the earth”, and I heartily agree with him.
Your article is absolutely spot on from both a biological and theological point of view.
Hallelujah for the weeds among us.
Love the visual Analogy
This needs lots of thinking about!
This excellent article using weeds as a parable reminds me of the Matthew Principle, that to those who have will be given. Weeds have power to invade a cultivated monoculture, showing the strength of diversity over conformity. They have the ability to adapt to circumstances and will be given more situations to prosper, The existential character traits of authenticity, freedom and openness are like weeds in a lawn, disturbing the artificial sameness of our mass culture and comforting myths. Weeds exemplify the basic principle of Christian ethics, that the last are first in the kingdom of God. With no friends and no help, weeds flourish anywhere. Durable, fecund and stable, weeds are the meek who will inherit the earth. Weeds feature strongly in the Gospel story of the kingdom, mainly in the parable of the wheat and the tares, with the weeds representing the false teachings that over the lifetime of the church have entwined themselves with the true teachings of Christ. The idea is that when God rules the world, the true and false teachings will reach maturity, and people will be able to see the difference. But considering the unsustainability of a well manicured lawn, with its complete dependence on artificial intervention, we should wonder where the wheat and weeds are really to be found. Industrial agriculture suppresses weeds with chemicals, like industrial medicine suppresses germs with drugs. These systems give us a bounty of wealth and health, but we should remember that the Biblical idea of dominion is more about wise stewardship than domination and control. By getting rid of weeds we also get rid of essential insects like bees, creating a toxic environment. Perhaps the authentic existential response to the messianic call of Jesus Christ is more like a pesky weed than a conformist lawn. After all, the decision to crucify Jesus treated him like a weed. He bounced back with the resurrection, just like a weed that you can’t get rid of.
What a fantastic comment! You not only honored me by fully appreciating what I was saying, but you’ve added to it by exploring even further implications of the metaphor. Thank you.
Terrific kingdom metaphor. Thanks!
This is a very little comment about the nature of forests that our amazing God has created… In Judi Dench’s 2017 documentary on trees I learnt that all of the trees in a forest are actually connected by a network of fungi under the surface. This means that if one tree is in trouble the other trees can send it vital nutrients via the network. I like to think that as followers of Christ we are able to do the same with the family, friends and believers we have surrounding us – sending out God’s peace, hospitality, mercy and generosity to those who need it most.
And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
Hi Mike, this is one of your finest blog posts and so profound, it really pokes at something deep and primal within me. Thanks for the reminder of this difficult and important mission.
Thank you for letting me comment here on your website.
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