Thursday, December 15, 2005

koru: the unfurling fern

In New Zealand, the indigenous Maori culture places a certain importance upon the imagery of life and death as understood through the koru, or “unfurling fern.”[1] The fern begins as a tiny frond which, over time, unrolls providing it has a clear path to the sun. In order to encourage the growth of the koru, the Maori burn off the surrounding undergrowth so the fern has access to light. This enables the cyclical nature of life and death to continue; the death of the undergrowth and the life of koru. In his book, The Out of Bounds Church, author Steve Taylor uses the botany of the koru as a way of understanding the rhythm of death and decay and its role as “the compost of the new.”[2]

Too often in our spiritual lives we refuse to see the value of burning refuse. We allow things to grow in our lives that need to be destroyed, that need to die in order for other things to survive and grow. Death is an irreplaceable component of compost, however, and if we understand our spiritual lives organically we can also understand the value of rich soil fed and aided by decay.

Flowers, after all, grow best in manure.

When we realize this, we let go of the compulsion to keep alive those things that surround our spiritual koru and keep us from the sun. We burn off the undergrowth in much the same way that Jesus prunes us,[3] so that we may bear more fruit. Though this is not always a pleasant process, it is a necessary one; without it our old habits and hurts, old successes and triumphs, would hinder our new growth towards God. We must face these things and deliberately burn them away, or the “old order [will] go on a while longer, dead though it is”[4] causing us great harm in our spiritual lives.

This is a difficult reframing for many people, because we are constantly bombarded with a specific deception, that of eternity. While, on the one hand, we understand that there is such a thing as eternity and put our faith in a God who exists eternally, we are also deceived if we think that other things must also exist eternally, including governments and world powers, kingdoms, churches and empires. This is the reason Walter Brueggemann calls “forever” the “word of the Pharoah”[5], from which Moses and YHWH liberated Israel. “Forever” is the way that kings legitimize their empires, but nothing lasts forever and this ultimately reflects an absence of perspective.

Everything dies.[6]

Every empire, every church, every person will ultimately be overcome by the Clock and we are forced to choose how we will pitch ourselves towards the future. This is a choice between imagination and nostalgia, between “facing the future and backing into it.”[7] It is the way we embrace the complexity of life, the inherent paradox of death, and are able to participate with God in a via dialectia[8] in which the extremes of positive and negative are held together in a response of faith.[9]

Herein the beauty of koru is revealed. It is the invitation to discover the possibilities of who we will become, not the fantasy about who we used to be. It is the perspective that birth is the obverse blessing of death’s curse, and that Christ demonstrates the miracle of new birth for us. God is exemplified in scripture through several images that recall birth, including that of a nursing mother,[10] but our trouble is not that we ignore the milk of God, but that we also ingest a host of unhealthy things along with it. We eat these things because we refuse to remove or destroy them. So, instead of our spiritual lives being like a mother and her child, they are frequently like a distopian factory where chemically enhanced mother’s milk is fed to babies through tubes that cause cancer.

We have spent too much time as people and churches of palliative prayer,[11] praying only for those things that are almost dead, and not enough as people and churches of new life. Now we must burn off our undergrowth and “limit our non-growth conditions”[12] so that our faith can be robust. We must inspire a “spiritual journey that prioritizes transformation”[13] and looks for moments of awe.

God promises to be with us in this, both in our pain as well as in our newness, but it is our responsibility to ensure that that new life is not inhibited by our reluctance to let some things die. This becomes easier with an understanding of koru; for what is true of horticulture is also true of spirituality: “fruit only grows on new wood.”[14] Let us embrace the death that would kill us, so instead we can live in light.

[1] Cf.
[2] Steve Taylor, The Out of Bounds Church. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 48.
[3] John 15.1-2. Unless otherwise stated all Scriptural quotes will be taken from the New Living International Version.
[4] Bruggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001), 93.
[5] Bruggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001), 42.
[6] Rick Chromey, a fellow student, posited the interesting notion in a conversation once that since God limited the number of man’s years to 120 in Genesis 6.3, shouldn’t we also allow for Him to have limited the life of our churches?
[7] Toulmin, Steven. Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, (New York: The Free Press, 1990), 203.
[8] Karl Barth coined this phrase to advance the notion that we “know” God through dialogue. Cf. Tomlinson, Dave. The Post-Evangelical, (Grand Rapids: Emergent YS, 1995) pp.92-96 for Tomlinson’s discussion on Karl Barth and via dialectia.
[9] Ibid, pp.92-96.
[10] Cf. Psalm 131, Isaiah 49.15.
[11] In Canada, a palliative care unit is where cancer patients who are beyond hope are treated until their death.
[12] Dale, Robert. Seeds for the Future, (Danvers: Lake Hickory Resources, 2005), 33.
[13] Barna, George. Revolution, (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 2005), 14.
[14] Dale, Robert. Seeds for the Future, (Danvers: Lake Hickory Resources, 2005), 48.

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