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Getting to the bottom of a profound problem

15 May 2015

Down on the allotment, John Austen finds that weeds and sin are equally deep-rooted


Suffocating: an allotment garden overgrown with marestail, Equisetum arvense

Suffocating: an allotment garden overgrown with marestail, Equisetum arvense

IT'S GREAT to see rows of seeds which I planted in April beginning to come up; not so great to see weeds doing likewise.

"Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?" He answered, "An enemy has done this." Or - in the case of allotments - the plotholder next to you, who does less weeding than you do; or the empty plot next to yours (empty, that is, apart from weeds . . . )

The annual weeds are easy: they can be just skimmed off their roots and left to wither; it's the deep-rooted stuff that's the problem. I don't subscribe to the idea that weeds are plants in the wrong place. Couch grass, bindweed, and marestail are weeds, full stop - except that they don't stop (especially marestail, or Equisetum arvense).

When I dug the ground in the spring, I thought I was careful to get out the perennial weeds, but now the spurs of marestail have emerged like little periscopes all across the plot.

THEOLOGY grapples with the question where sin comes from. If God created a good world, why is there sin? "An enemy has done this." But the more pressing problem is what we do with sin - or weeds. They are similar, and getting out the roots is hard; the deep weeds seem impossible to shift.

Marestail goes so deep that, even when, digging the ground, you feel a satisfying snap on the root and pull out a 12-inch length of the stuff, you know that probably twice as much is still there underneath. And with sin, however fine things may appear on the surface, however often we accept forgiveness and make a fresh start, we know that, lurking underneath, is the potential for our own particular sins to re-erupt.

So, on the allotment, I look at the marestail and decide to get advice from a wise old hand on a plot near by. If I was hoping for a quick fix, however, I don't get it. He tells me that the best answer is to keep the ground well dug year after year, remove what you find, and make sure the earth is well manured. It certainly works for him: he has been doing that on his own plot for more than 50 years, and it looks superb.

But it seems to me that my friend has inadvertently given some good advice for Christian living. Keep digging the ground, and getting weeds out. Attend to the stuff that shouldn't be there - not in the expectation that we will sin no more, but in the belief that attending to it, doing something about it, will help to weaken it a bit - rather than just leave it to become more rampant.

The other thing my friend suggests is feeding the soil properly. Maybe that should be feeding the soul. Sin is less likely to flourish when the things we choose to do feed the soul rather than starve it.

Trying to keep the plot - or my soul - in better order by regular attention is an idea I like. We can't expect total and immediate transformation in either area, but step by step things can be changed. I know I won't entirely get rid of the marestail, but if I don't even try, it will keep getting worse. So I need to keep at it, year by year, reducing its strength. As, year by year, we work at our sins.

I LIKE the prayer in Common Worship: Daily Prayer which follows Psalm 15: "Lord, lead us to our heavenly home by single steps of self-restraint." I can manage single steps, and my regular attention to the weeds - which lack any capacity for self-restraint - will prevent things getting completely out of control.

I have to live with some of the weeds and accept that they are there: part of the allotment, as my own sins are part of my life. Sometimes they will appear in the middle of good crops; sometimes they will cause no bother. But I need to tackle them regularly, to prevent them from holding back what really needs to grow.

Lord, lead us to our heavenly home
by single steps of self-restraint
and deeds of righteousness;
through the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon John Austen is a spiritual director living in Birmingham.

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