Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 62:1-5) transports me to the English countryside near the little village of Garstang, Lancashire County, where our host and tour guide, James Dodding, was driving us around a few weeks ago, showing us the sights. We passed by the farm where his mother grew up, and saw that someone is still tending sheep. We saw the old castle ruins, and made a detour to an off-the-beaten-path well of miraculous healing water. We came back toward town and caught sight of the award winning flower gardens. The conversation in the car during these excursions often turned to theatre, as Mr. Dodding had been Kim’s theatre professor and director back in the 80s. At one point, the question of favorite Shakespeare Sonnets came up, and the two of them began reciting number 116 – Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments, love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, nor bends with the remover to remove. Listening to those beautiful lines, it occurred to me that Professor Dodding, a confirmed bachelor, was not, however, unmarried. People who have worked with him through the years would affirm that he has been a faithful marriage partner to the theatre. But on this trip to his home territory, I discovered that he is also wed to the land of his birth. He is married to Lancashire, to Garstang, to the English countryside. His love and devotion and dedication to place is equal to his passion for Romeo and Juliet or The Importance of Being Earnest. He has allowed no impediments between him and the land. The community that has formed around that land has been an ever fixed mark. The love is unbending.
The marriage metaphor may sound like an overly sentimental description of humans and their humus, their home soil, but I’m not the first to make it. I’ve read plenty of Wendell Berry and Barbara Brown Taylor and others who use the same language, but they weren’t the first to speak that way, either. I suspect Isaiah was among the first. People before the prophet had underscored the importance of land to the liberated Hebrew slaves. The connection between covenant life and life on the land admitted no impediments in the Torah and in the Writings. But the prophet is the first to use this particular imagery, describing the people as engaged inheritors of an arranged marriage, betrothed and wed to a promised land: your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called Hephzibah (meaning, My Delight Is in Her), and your land Beulah (meaning, Married) for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. It gives added meaning to the old Squire Parsons song – Beulah Land (translated, Married Land), I’m longing for you. If the marriage covenant means anything, then being married to the land is to long for it and for its well being. It means hard work, devotion, sorrow, joy, reward, loss. It means fidelity. It means relationship. And tragically, for the Middle East it means ongoing conflict and warfare, as two “husbands” battle over competing claims to the same “wife,” in an Israeli-Palestinian plural marriage that leaves the land battered and abused. Not to minimize the victimization and suffering of the slugging husbands, but the soil usually gets sadly neglected and forgotten in the fray.
In today’s world, where land has long been regarded as a commodity, as property to be owned and occupied and appraised only for its re-sale value, Isaiah’s matrimonial language sounds strange indeed. Here in the mountains where I live, many people come from all over to look at the land. People love the view. But few people want to engage in the work of husbandry. What we have now is the pornography of property, rather than a marriage to the land. Trading in the porn for the prophetic promise of nuptials ain’t an easy proposition. Tending the land is hard work, as is tending a marriage. It does entail great reward, and great loss. Part of that loss is knowing that it’s not forever, it’s til death do us part. My ancestors who were married to the land we call “The Old Place” 150 and 200 years ago are largely forgotten, their work long parted from the land they now inhabit in death. Generations from now, no one will think of the time Kim and I spend on the “The Old Place,” gathering leaf mulch to spread on the garden or planting flowers to attract beneficial insects. But we are devoted to it nonetheless; we are wed to it, and will keep at it til the edge of doom, as the bard said. And if this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith?