Rabbits, Gardens, and the Stories That Shape Us

I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’ - Alasdair MacIntyre

You may remember that VBC hosted Mark Buchanan for our theology weekend back in January. If you were there, you likely have your own highlights (although his challenge to see people—to really see them—seemed to resonate broadly). The high point for me was his reference to Watership Down. This remains one of my favorite books of all time. If you have not read it, stop reading this blog right now and place it on hold at the library. Or run over to Chapters to buy a copy!

Watership Down tells the epic story of a group of rabbits who flee their home warren in search of a new home. Together, they encounter overt dangers from elil—natural enemies—and unexpected dangers from other rabbits. What keeps them alert, encouraged and ultimately focussed are the stories of El-ahrairah (I bet you didn’t know that rabbits love to tell stories). El-ahrairah is a mythical creature, the Prince of Rabbits, who always finds ingenious ways of overcoming adversity. At crucial turning points in the story, the rabbits look to the stories of El-ahairah to guide and inspire them. American theologian Stanley Hauerwas makes a strong case for the rabbits of Watership Down being a story-formed community. They allowed—even expected—these stories to shape their identity and their actions.

The question for us, of course, is, which story (or stories) shapes our community? One set of stories tends to highlight the problems, placing these front and centre. Before you assume these kinds of stories are only for the pessimists, consider how frequently they are told. Everyday we are confronted with inflation, job insecurity, scarcity, corruption, more bad weather, more random violence, and another coup in some African country we could never find on a map. Daily we bombarded with bad news. Daily we consume narratives that only highlight the problems. And it becomes easy to allow these stories to shape our reality. Perhaps the most significant danger of these stories—for Christians, at least—is that they describe the world without any reference to God. We begin to think of the world (or our lives) as one big problem that needs to be fixed.

There is another set of stories that recognize the problems but refuse to allow the problems to define reality. These are stories in which God is present and as such, they point to what C.S. Lewis refers to as “deeper magic.” The problems are real but there is something else going on. This is far more significant than you might think. Eugene Peterson explains: “If we are not constantly brought to an awareness of this huge God-dimension, trained in attentiveness to this immense God-presence, we will act and speak out of context, as if we are in a wasteland. But there is no wasteland. We are in a garden, a rose garden. No matter how purely motivated we are, we will finally do more damage than good if we do not operate in response to God rather than the environment. We live on holy ground. We inhabit sacred space. This holy ground is subject to incredible violations. This sacred space suffers constant sacrilege. But no matter. The holiness is there, the sacredness is there. If our lives… are shaped in response to the violations, to the sacrilege, and not out of the holy, our lives are shaped wrongly. We are responding to the wrong environment, a false environment, a wasteland environment. We are called to be gardeners, not garbage collectors.”

pink roses on bush; photo by Nadia Valko on Unsplash

I can remember exactly where I was sitting when I first read these words. I literally felt something inside me shift. This was shortly after the Columbine High School shooting and I was increasingly seeing the world as a wasteland. But the world—or my life, for that matter—is not a wasteland; it is a sacred place in which God is and remains the central actor. This is the deeper reality, the deeper magic. This is a story of God being present to and at work in his creation. Not unlike the stories of El-ahrairah, this story says a lot about what I am to do. If God is already present, already at work, then my primary role as a Christian is to pay attention. What is God doing?

We are at a turning point in the life of Varsity Bible Church. The Advisory Council, picking up the initiatives identified in the Varsity 2020 process, has spent the better part of six months listening and seeking to respond to what God is doing among us. Our sense is that God is calling us from our present structure (three semi-autonomous congregations) toward one church with two worship gatherings: Sunday AM and Sunday PM. We do not imagine these worship gatherings being identical; we do imagine bringing the unique strengths of each congregation to shape the whole church. This will require all three congregations to let some old things go and embrace new opportunities. While we anticipate a simpler church structure to free up staff, volunteers and resources, this decision is not primarily a reaction to problems. The move toward a more unified church is a response to God who is calling us forward.

As I stand at this turning point, I have been pondering the words in Isaiah 43:

This is what the Lord says—     he who made a way through the sea,     a path through the mighty waters, who drew out the chariots and horses,     the army and reinforcements together, and they lay there, never to rise again,     extinguished, snuffed out like a wick: “Forget the former things;     do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!     Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness     and streams in the wasteland.

It was Murray Arnold who pointed out although God had made a way through the sea, he was now making a way in the wilderness. As amazing as it would have been to walk through the Red Sea on dry land, God was (is) doing a something new. Like the people of Israel—like the rabbits of Watership Down—may we listen again to the story in which God is the centre, in which God is at work in his creation.

After all, wouldn’t you rather be a gardener? *

Rinus Janson

* Absolutely zero intent to downplay the importance of the fine folks in the City of Calgary who collect my garbage every second Wednesday.


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