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Toward Wholeness Blog

Fallow: Learning from a "Covid-Time" necessity

But in the seventh year you must let it lie fallow and leave it alone so that the poor of your people may eat, and what they leave any animal in the field may eat; you must do likewise with your vineyard and your olive grove. - Exodus 23:11

John Muir writes of his childhood in Wisconsin and how his father's crude farming methods led to an exhaustion of the land so that, having emptied the soil of its nutrients through endlessly repeated planting and harvesting of the same grains, the time quickly came when the family would move to a new homestead. When John asked his father about the wisdom of this, noting that the lands had been healthy under care of the Native Americans for thousands of years, his father said that the "God-fearing industriousness of the settlers was proven superior ((by which he meant their capacity to create a greater per acre yield, in spite of the fact that it was short term gain at the cost of soil health) thus proving as well, the superiority of the gospel and the need to compel Native Americans to believe"

Of course, we now know that the erosion of topsoil that comes about as a result of intensive industrial agriculture, is an ongoing, and even increasing threat. David Montgomery's epic work entitled "Dirt" posits that civilizations rise and fall based on that humblest and most overlooked elements in our culture: the soil. Care for it and civilizations thrive. Neglect it, and they must eventually collapse. You can't, in other words, keep extracting more and more in pursuit of endless upward mobility - doing so will end, has ended time and again throughout history, in a civilization's collapse.

God knew this, of course, as articulated in the verse above. God knew about "enough" - going to great lengths to teach us this early on, and not just regarding farming and soil: Don't work seven days a week because you're made for a rhythm of work and rest. Don't light up the night, because nature is telling you something when it gets dark - it's telling you that night is coming so wind down, because you're made for a rhythm of sleep and wake. And don't plant your fields with soybeans year after year after year - endlessly - because you'll be taking out more than you give back and ultimately this soil robbery, which gives you a heady sense of prosperity in the short run, will bankrupt you - not just financially and physically, but spiritually and emotionally too.

I'd suggest that American culture is guilty of a profound neglect of these principles of rhythm. We break the Sabbath consistently (in contrast with much of Europe, where Sunday is still a day of rest). We work hard to keep the lights on, as sleep deprivation, with all its attendant health issues, continues to rise. On the business front, we've determined that GDP must, must, must continue to grow endlessly. This is the only accepted economic model, in spite of the fact that thoughtful nations elsewhere are rethinking the notion of endless growth, for the simple reason that the soil, and water, and air, ultimately won't allow it. "Fallow" will come - either because we align with God's plans for our lives and the earth, or because we don't, and the earth breaks down as a result, forcing seasons of fallow.

Which brings us to the case of "Covid 2020". All over the world it's been the same: a radical and intentional season of economic fallow, enacted through stay at home orders, beats the virus. The theory, so self evident and simple, is that you can't spread a virus to others if you're not with them. The virus has called for a sort of social and economic "time out". The economics of this, especially for people on the edge, is a subject worthy of its own consideration, so I'll save that for another day. Suffice it to say that this forced season of fallow has revealed the depth of economic disparities, and wise leaders will absorb this tragedy and work for systemic change to close the wealth/poverty gap.

Economic hardships aside though, Covid 2020 has revealed just how terrible we are, as a culture, at the practice of "fallow". This shows up in two places. First, there are those who simply ignore the virus and pretend it will "miraculously disappear". Returning college students jam together in frat house parties. Presidential candidates invite people to sit closely together and listen to acceptance speeches, even as said speeches ironically declare victory over the virus because these politicians "just follow the science". A multitude of people are simply ignoring the fallow principle. They can do that -- but the principle will remain, and the price will still be payed -- it will just be more costly, and run out over a longer period of time.

A second group are trying to do the right thing - trying to be fallow - but instead of the time apart becoming a gifted space for renewal, intimacy building with family and our creator, and the cultivation of creativity, beauty, and restoration, the fallow time has become a sort of evil task master, leading souls into dark and ugly places. Domestic violence, addictive behavior, hiding away in worlds of pornography and sexual fantasy, wasting away precious hours in binge watching at the expense of creativity and conversation, hand wringing anger and frustration over the politics of our nation. These are the kinds of things we pastors are hearing about these days. Fallow sometimes needs to reveal before it can heal. But these hardships can make it seem that we're not wired for seasons of quiet and reflection, that we're only suited for a steady dose of distraction, and action, and work, and socializing. In truth, we’re made for seasons of fallow, as well as seasons of productivity. It’s just that our culture hasn’t nurtured us to embrace fallow seasons. Pascal said it this way: All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

It's time to learn how to do this friends, and not just because it's being imposed on you, though it is. You should learn this because you're made for this. Your human flourishing depends on your capacity to live in a constant dance between work and rest, winter and summer, sabbath and production, socializing and solitude, sowing and letting the ground lay fallow.

Here are some simple steps you can take to capitalize on the fallow time that is COVID

  1. inhale revelation from scripture every day - Our global monastery ministry will continue to offer daily scripture readings Monday through Friday of each week all the way through advent. I encourage you to subscribe and join with others who are receiving daily food this way.

  2. encourage someone every day - I think the favorite sermon I preached this summer was about a man named Barnabas who was famous for his capacity to encourage others. A friend who opened the door in my life so that I could walk out of a closet of depression and anxiety and into a place of joy and hope said it this way: "I'm convinced most people already know how they've failed and where they fall short. What most people need to hear is how they're loved, and what their gifts and potential are." What if you decided to call or message or email someone each day and let them know what you see in them that has value, or what you appreciate about them? Do that, and you'll find yourself looking at the world through a more hopeful lens, which is something all of us could use during this (USA) election season.

  3. journal a bit of gratitude every day - wildflowers, the capacity to hike (albeit slower than ten years ago), good coffee, a favorite wine, intimacy, family, sunrises -- there's cause for gratitude in your sphere. Seeing it and naming it has great value. I watch this at least once a year to remind me of the valuing of seeing and giving thanks.

Fallow won't last forever, but if we fail to practice it, fail to learn from it, we'll be doomed to the poverty of soul that comes from our self imposed demand to be always "on" and "upward" and "productive". There's a better way, and God's capacity to bring good out of evil means its hiding right here in COVID time. It's called, "fallow" and as the leaves begin changing color, it's time welcome it as the friend it really is.


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