Flowers of the Desert

Posted: February 16, 2021 in Uncategorized

Flowers of the Desert

William Blake wrote that:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour…”
(William Blake)

That sounds to me very much like an invitation to dream, imagine and create pictures and images that enrich life with depth, colour and meaning. It inspired me to read you a poem I wrote in search of the dive that is revealed in that imaginative yet very real place. We talk about theology as art and we talk about metaphor and imagination as ways of making accessible the great mysteries of life. language is a wonderful thing when we treasure its ability to create life as we might see it. I want to offer you the poem as a way of recognizing the power it has to give an image of this God we are in the image of. I have given it the title of Serendipitous Presence to highlight the randomness of life as a wonderful gift and the way we best might imagine the dynamic creating presence of what we might name as the Spirit of God. A Serendipitous Presence, A Lenten calling.

A Serendipitous Presence

Words are without completion

too small for the task that eludes all.
How can we speak of a gentleness within,
the warmth of heart in response to call?

How can we know you, ocean of love,
Words fail to be enough, this we know true,

strong as forever, soft as a dove.
living within and without is our clue.

We know times of spiritual blindness,
when excess and pain distort our sight.
Something within and without us,
shows us how darkness can turn into light.

Nothing we know will be wasted in derision,
all of our living is grounded in grace.
Gently taken down are the walls of division,
leading us on to a larger place.

Words are creative completion

small and yet enough, for the task of call.
They speak of the gentleness within,
and warm the heart in response to the call.

This week saw the commencement of the traditional religious season called Lent.

It began a few days ago… on Wednesday 17th February. Interestingly it fell after last Sunday which was St Valentine’s Day. Traditionally… at least, in 18th-century England, St Valentine’s Day evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards. Traditionally, also, well, since the year 1000CE, Ash Wednesday got its name from the act of being marked with ashes – previous year’s burnt palm branches – when worshippers gather and are reminded of their sinfulness and mortality. Interesting isn’t it that Love and sin are on the same day!!

Lent is also associated with the story of the Jewi wsh Galilean sage called Yeshu’a/Jesus,
and his 40-day stay or testing in the desert wilderness. The story says it happened at the beginning of his brief public activity in the north-west corner of the Galilee, in the early Roman Empire, sometime between the years 26-36CE.

Having given a brief introduction I want to think about ‘desert’, ’Lent’ and ‘God; and I want to think about what desert means in NZ as opposed to Australia because the image we have of a desert can influence how we embrace the world of Jesus.

Did you know that Australia has ten named deserts, the largest being the Great Victoria Desert which crosses the border into both Western Australia and South Australia. It is over 800 kilometres wide and covers an area of 348,750 square kilometres. In total the ten deserts cover nearly 1.4 million square kilometres or 18% of the Australian mainland.  But that’s not all because approximately 35% of the Australian continent receives so little rain
it is effectively desert.  The result is that Australia has been called the driest continent on earth.

Whereas the desert in NZ is the Rangipo desert around the central plateau in the North Island. It is a barren desert-like environment, located in the Ruapehu District on the North Island Volcanic Plateau; to the east of the three active peaks of Mount Tongariro, Mount Ngauruhoe, and Mount Ruapehu, and to the west of the Kaimanawa Range.

It IS also a desert like environment only because of its harsh environment and not because of its dryness or sand covered world, It gets quite significant rainfall but very poor soil and frequent strong winds mean that anything less hardy than tussock doesn’t survive except in very sheltered areas. It’s at quite a high elevation and winters in this area are pretty brutal with frequent heavy rain, high winds and snow. The closest we might get to a “traditional” desert is the semi-arid area of Central Otago, especially around Alexandra, but even then irrigation has made this a remarkably fertile area, especially for stone fruit. Summers are scorching, and winters will make you wish you had packed your thermal undies.

Australia’s deserts however are known for their distracting lure of the shimmering mirage, their “parched earth cracks and groans under the blazing sun across the wide spaces. The perception of what is a desert wilderness area, varies greatly. They still vary  as it depends on the different exposures people have to nature and the ‘great outdoors’.

To a person living on the coast, the desert is often dry and arid and dusty. A place without life. But for desert dwellers in Australia’s ‘outback’, for instance, beyond Charleville, it has a compelling fascination, as a place vibrant with life. The spinifex are blue grey with amber glints. They look soft but they are prickly and hard. They survive tenaciously because no grazing animal can eat them out or destroy their roots. It may look as if nothing can live in the desert, but underneath the spinifex, the desert creatures leave their tracks in the red sand. No life stirs all day, but come night… lizards, mice, and the rare animals of the desert live their delicate but vastly tough lives in this harsh habitat.

This brief look at deserts suggests that things are not always as they seem and that perception is important. Not just as an awareness of nature and its complexity but also as metaphor for faith. Jesus withdrawing for space to pray and think, his use of the desert as a place to reflect and contemplate what to do, is a seeding place for ideas of an alternate way of seeing things.

When we take this idea and place it in a Lenten time we can see that Lent  might be a very real time when we can once again, in an intentional way, seek out the present-ness of the sacred lurking in the most unlikely of places, waiting to be uncovered, found, and embraced. If we only see the desert as a place of harsh, relentlessness… where people face despair and animals die of thirst, the desert experience will always be an alien danger. It is tantamount to living in fear all one’s life. Sadly many people do this when the focus of lent is on sacrifice, sin and, a self-abasing repentance and this seeps through into our Autumn days as well.

A Zen teacher said to his students: ‘If you raise a speck of dust, the nation flourishes, but the elders furrow their brows. If you don’t raise a speck of dust, the nation perishes, but the elders relax their brows.’

If we listen to cosmologists they say we are made from dust—essentially stardust. We are all connected—biologically and spiritually—with planet Earth and with all its ‘other than human’ beings.

Echoing the words of William Blake, the former professor of biology at the University of Washington, John Palka, suggests: “To see a world in a grain of sand—to peer so deeply into the nature of any one thing that the riches of the Universe begin to be revealed—that to me is the essence of science as a quest. Not as a profession or a career, not as a niche in complex modern society, but as a quest for understanding one’s deepest nature.”  (John Palka. 15/11/2015. Nature’s Depths)

 of dust is to stir up goodness, struggle for justice, speak up for those who stutter or do not speak the languages of power, band together to stand resolutely and non violently before evil and refuse to be absorbed into it or intimidated by it.

Traditionally for many of us Christians Lent is a time of sorry self-deprecation. A perspective I have little time for these days I have to say. From a progressive perspective, Lent can be a time when, in positive and intentional ways, our focused actions can enable others to flourish. Lent can be a time when our selfless actions seep into the world ‘like the scent of perfume distilled in the air’… encouraging and giving fresh heart to those around us, and strengthening the bonds of community.

We actually don’t have a lot of historical knowledge of Yeshu’a/Jesus, but we can surmise pretty strongly that he is remembered as undermining popular religious wisdom, forcing his hearers to take a second look at the traditions that helped them make their way in the world. He was a devout Jew and his controversy was in that he questioned his own faith and suggested it needed to change. And he was able, with a storyteller’s imagination, to set people free from images and ideas and religious practices that bound them into fear, and a false sense of separation from the spirit of all life.

And the point of this is that none of it makes Yeshu’a supernatural. Or divine. Or No. 2 in the Trinity. Just human, insightful and willing to ask the hard questions of himself and his faith.

Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson, noted for publishing books
that ‘strain relations between the church hierarchy and Catholic theologians’, writes:
“Born of a woman… and the Hebrew gene pool, [he] was a creature of earth, a complex unit of minerals and fluids, an item in the carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen cycles, a moment in the biological evolution of this planet. Like all human beings, he carried within himself the signature of the supernovas and the geology and life history of the Earth…”

Whatever conclusion one might end up with about him, it must be a possible Yeshu’a/Jesus and not a hugely incredible one. And a possible Jesus is a Jesus situated in his historical circumstances “and who did things and said things that a real person could have reasonably believed or done at that time.”  (David Galston)

The desert is a place where one does not expect to find life. Let alone things of beauty such as flowers. It is a god-forsaken place we might say.

This Lent, in the wilderness of our 21st century cities, furrowed by freeways and overshot by motorways shaded by skyscrapers we might remember that in our dry seasons that seem to be increasing are time s and places where there are tiny seeds, at rest and waiting, dormant yet undefeated. There are Desert flowers waiting to show us a beauty we understand. “The desert is beautiful,” writes Rubem Alves, Brazilian theologian, psychoanalyst, author, and poet, “because it hides, somewhere, a garden.” And that might be why Jesus went there so often.

‘Nothing we know will be wasted in derision,
all of our living is grounded in grace.
Gently taken down are the walls of division,
leading us on to a larger place.’

Amen.

Notes:
Alves, R. A. The Poet The Warrior The ProphetEmbracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Edward Cadbury Lectures. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press International, 1990.
Galston, D. . Salem. Polebridge Press, 2012.
Hedrick, C. W. The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church. Eugene. Cascade Books, 2014.
Johnson, E. “Deep Incarnation: Prepare to be Astonished”UNIFAS ConferenceThe Colony. A History of Early Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, 7-14 July 2010. <https://sgfp.wordpress.com/2011/02/15/deep-incarnation-prepare-to-be-astonished/&gt; Accessed 4 October 2016
Karskens, G. . Crows Nest. Allen & Unwin, 2009.
McRae-McMahon, D. Rituals for Life, Love and Loss. Paddington. Jane Curry Publishing, 2003.
Winton, T.  The Land’s Edge. Sydney. Picador, 1993.

rexae74@gmail.com

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