Roots & Marram Grass

February 2013

The first time I saw the girl who was to become my wife was from a pulpit in a small Baptist church in Liverpool. Her effect on me was paralysing. She says I gave a compelling talk on Amos. My memory is of a decreasing focus on my train of thoughts and increasing blather every time I looked at her. The effect is occasionally still the same and she knows it. 

What I remember about that first summer is long conversations, emotional drunkenness and journeys to places we loved. I wittered on about God and poetry and theology. She was a surprise. She took me off to the Ainsdale nature reserve north of Liverpool and delivered impassioned speeches about sand dune development. I can see her now – brown cord jeans, yellow anorak and waist length hair caught into a braid. Amazing. Beautiful and mad about sand dune accretion, for goodness sake. I had no idea there was such a thing. She had just finished her BA dissertation on the subject and I was crazy in love with her so I listened and learned. 

Ollie gave me a memorable one on one lecture on marram grass which had a interesting effect. It clarified my calling to Christian ministry. I guess up to that point I had felt caught up in a compelling story of God loving the world and people and things, filling them with light and loveliness, finding the lost, healing the hurt and I wanted to tell the story. So I went through Bible College and then to be an assistant Baptist minister (Anglican orders were a little down the line). But there was something else. Ollie told me about how the sands blow around, restless, washed out and back by the sea, sterile until the marram grass begins to grow. We dug into the big dunes and found that below the soft sand was a tough, fibrous mat of roots. Home. Home to birds and animals and beetles and all manner of things. And the sand became stable. Marram grass is extremely tough – try pulling it up. No, don’t. You’ll really hurt yourself. It has immense strength from many tiny, rootlets which cling to the sand, allow it to retain moisture from the rain and thus begins diversification, as they (the environmental scientists) say. Marram grass is where solid land starts forming fresh from sterile, loose sand. Stability starts here. The sandcastle you make on the shore from warm golden sand will be gone tomorrow. Not so the dunes. They change, adapt, grow, decline and move about even. But this is where life begins on the shore. Dunes form a hospitable place in an inhospitable environment. 

I caught a glimpse of my calling. This is what Christian faith community does. It is the marram grass of a restless, spiritually sterile, unsettling social environment. People ache for a safe community. The focus I had on my calling panned back from the delivery of a message to the creation of community, where hospitality was given and received, where diversities of all kinds were welcomed, where strangers found a home and where we travelled together deeply and with awe into the healing love of God. A community that was good news. 

God is about two things – diversity and communion. Those fingerprints are on everything we see and experience. A diverse world can only survive if it can learn how to be in community. The Christian’s God is more like a community than an individual, more like a family than a person and more welcoming than we could imagine to our confusions, uncertainties and self exclusions. 

So, marram grass it is. And when I think about Anglican and other churches around the country in their diversities of scale and operation, I still think marram grass. A community of faith working to knit together the sands of our rootless society in communities where there is commitment to stay, commitment to provide shelter and a place to grow. In which is found the sanctuary of the love of God.

Tim Marks