DESERT JOURNEYS 8
Friday 23rd February 2018
Huacachina Oasis, Peru (Diego Delso CC BY-SA 4.0)
Mention of the Lenten blog brought to mind a song I wrote many years ago when I was about nineteen. It was called ‘Oasis’ and was, I thought, quite simply a work of genius.
“Yes,” I said to myself, “I’ll dig that out and send it to Sophia and everyone will be uplifted and enriched by it. Even without the melody, the rhythm and rhyme of lines like ‘We may wander when we thirst, but to me you were the first… oasis’ are quite splendid.” So full of smugness, I went to dig it out.
And it’s gone.
And then I remembered why.
It wasn’t very good at all! In fact I’d even nicked the first line from an old Eagles song!
Years ago I chose to discard it and work harder to become a better writer. And I have (although some may disagree because I just started this sentence with ‘and’ and I’m going to start the next with ‘but’!). But throughout my career and life journey, the rhythm and rhyme of that line has never left me. Just as God has never left me. Life has taken me in all sorts of directions and spiritual wildernesses many times but always at the back of my mind there has been the reminder that whatever attracts us, it is only Jesus, the living water that really satisfies. “We may wander when we thirst, but to me God is the first…oasis.”
DESERT JOURNEYS 7
22nd February 2018
Wadi Rum (Daniel Case, CC BY-SA 3.0)
I have had the good fortune to be able to spend a number of occasions on actual desert journeys. I find them incredible places of beauty and there is nothing like the silence of a desert. I want to tell you a little more about a cycle & climbing expedition in the Jordanian desert with my husband.
We flew out on Christmas Day 1997 – a strange time to travel but it was cheap. Over the next week we cycled the King’s Highway to Petra, on to the seaside resort of Aqaba, and then to spend time climbing. Neal had always dreamt of scaling the sandstone mountains of Jebel Rum after reading a book by his hero, Tony Howard. It was dedicated to the Bedouin people of the Wadi Rum area and in particular Sabbah Atieek who showed Tony many routes. So having arrived in Wadi Rum and found somewhere to camp it was a great thrill when Sabbah came to visit us the next day. He made us tea and discussed our plans. We then set off up the 1800m Jebel Rum, and while I have not got room here to describe the next two days in detail, in short we found ourselves still on the mountain as sunset approached.
At the time I was not an active Christian but that night I prayed as we were plunged into the dark of a desert night huddled high on a mountain with a diminishing amount of water and a small fire made from what scrubby gorse wood we could find to keep us warm. As soon as sun rose we continued our journey back down the mountain but soon came across an infamous gully that we knew we had to jump to continue down. This was the most terrifying thing I have ever had to do and it still fills me with fear when I think about it; but the words ‘Trust Me, you can do it’ propelled me to put in the biggest leap I could muster. God looks after us at all times – it is easier to hear in the wildness and remoteness of a desert but He is always there.
When we returned to the village and were sitting having some much needed food, Sabbah came visiting again. He had seen our fire on the mountainside in the night and he just wanted to check we were OK. God also sends us the people we need to look out for us; we don’t always know who they will be but at times we must trust in the kindness of strangers.
DESERT JOURNEYS 6
21st February 2018
Jesus’ temptation Jan Brueghel
All the synoptic accounts1 of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness state that Jesus spent forty days of fasting there. This echoes the forty years that the Israelites spent wandering in the desert. All the synoptic accounts state that Jesus began his journey in the desert after his baptism – a ritual where the old life is symbolically washed away ready for the new life that is to begin. The synoptics also record God’s dramatic affirmation of his love and Christ’s calling with the words ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.’2 The recognition of his vocation by the voice of God means that Jesus now needs to prepare more fully for his ministry. It is now that Jesus hears the voices of doubt that try to move him away from his true vocation. In order that he might fulfil his mission, these voices must be dealt with.
Many early Christian commentators saw Christ’s battle against the devil (especially in the fuller accounts given by SS Matthew and Luke) as portraying Christ as the model exemplar for a Christian. St John Chrysostom (c.347-407) wrote in a homily on Christ’s temptations in the wilderness: “All that Jesus did and suffered was for our instruction. He consented to be led into the desert and to do battle with the devil so that when the baptized were assailed by greater temptations after baptisms than before they would not be troubled as though this were something unexpected, but would remain steadfast, bearing all nobly.”3
Whilst this interpretation is undoubtedly true, Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness clearly echo the forty-year wanderings of the Israelites. It is here in the wilderness that Jesus must understand the demands of life under God’s direction, demonstrate mastery of the temptations that could steer him away from his mission, and prepare himself for the work ahead.
Perhaps when we find ourselves wandering in a ‘spiritual wilderness’ amongst the competing demands of life, it is to emphasise that it is God on whom we rely and who will ultimately give us the strength and guidance we need.
1 Matthew 4: 1-11, Mark 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13
2 Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22.
3 ‘Homilies on St Matthew’s Gospel by St John Chrysostom’ Christ our Light: Patristic Readings on Gospel Themes Volume I. Translated and Edited by Friends of Henry Ashworth (Exordium Books: 1981).
DESERT JOURNEYS 5
20th February 2018
The Jews in the Desert Tintoretto
The use of the word ‘wilderness’ occurs frequently throughout the Bible. I reach for my somewhat ancient copy of Cruden’s Concordance and scan its pages, counting up how many times the word ‘wilderness’ occurs. There are over seventy citations. This somewhat crude statistic serves to indicate the importance that the wilderness, and journeys through it, have for our understanding of God.
In both the Old and the New Testaments, a wilderness can refer to a barren desert, or just to land that is uncultivated – a sparsely populated area, consisting of a few nomadic herdsmen. One of the better-known stories of the Old Testament is told not in one continuous narrative, but spread throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It details the forty years that the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness, after gaining their freedom from slavery in Egypt, before arriving in the Promised Land. It was in the wilderness that the Israelites would learn to understand life under God’s direction.
As a motif, the wilderness expresses hardship and testing in inhospitable and potentially dangerous surroundings, but it is also a place where the old life can be discarded and the new life begun and practised. In the case of the Israelites, this meant leaving the old life in Egypt for a new life in Canaan. Viewed through this prism, it is perhaps no surprise that we find Jesus, shortly after his baptism by John, also in the wilderness.
to be continued tomorrow
DESERT JOURNEYS 4
19th February 2018
In my life I have been lucky enough to see the Arabian Desert from the air as I flew from Luxor to Cairo.
It wasn’t at all as I envisaged it, as mile upon mile of sand dunes. In fact I was surprised to see how mountainous and rocky it was. It just goes to show how our perceptions of things and reality don’t always match up.
I believe that this is also the case with believing in God, for example:
People that meet me seem surprised that I am a Christian. One person even said “I wouldn’t have thought that you were a God botherer”. I am not pious, I enjoy a G & T and the good things in life. Just because I believe in God I don’t have to be boring. In my experience many people believe that Christians are meek and mild individuals who in some way sacrifice their life for their beliefs, but to me that is a misconception. God is part of my life, and I feel his presence. My life is enriched because of my faith, not ruined.
As a Christian I feel that I am always at the ‘could do better’ stage. I judge people and tell the odd white lie amongst many other misdemeanours. I am not perfect and never will be. I see myself as a ‘work in progress’. I pray that with God’s help I can be a better person whilst living a happy life. The great thing is that I know God loves me for who I am as he does everyone in this world ‘warts and all’, be they ‘God botherers’ like myself or not. For me being a Christian is my oasis in the desert of humanity.
Desert Journeys 3
16th February 2018
Being a Christian and reflecting on the title of this Lent blog ‘Desert Journeys’ brought to mind places I have been to and over the years, or times during my life, where I have had the feeling of being in a ‘desert’ where, if left alone, I would not have known which way to go or what to do.
The Australian Outback, the Masai Mara in Africa, the time when the rest of my family emigrated to Australia and I chose to stay, and most recently when I broke my femur as a result of an accident have all been ‘desert’ places or times. Fortunately on each occasion I was not alone and having other people around me helped me feel secure and safe. But it did not remove the feeling of uncertainty, the ‘what if’ thought, which I am sure everyone gets from time to time.
Driving in the outback you can go for hours without seeing another person. In the Masai Mara, there are dangerous wild animals and vast plains where it would be easy to get lost. But in both places I was overcome by a sense of wonder and my thoughts quickly went to the wonder of creation – what an amazingly diverse place the world we live in is – and I found myself thanking God for this wonderful world. Those ‘what if’ thoughts were overtaken by thankfulness and the certainty that God was by my side.
When aged 20 and my family left for Australia, I saw them off from Southampton Docks and then drove back to Derby with feelings of sadness and those ‘what if’ thoughts spinning in my head. But along the way I found myself singing Onward Christian Soldiers to myself and suddenly my ‘what if’ thoughts were gone, I had lots to look forward to, again because I remembered God was by my side.
Finally, having broken my femur and recently returned home from hospital, I was feeling very low on a day when there was a Prayer Day in church with various prayer stations set up to help people pray. I went to church and spent some time there finally sitting in front of a large wooden cross. As I sat there still with those ‘what if’ thoughts in my mind, a great feeling of peace surrounded me and I knew that God was by my side. I sat in silence and received his healing and left church feeling renewed.
Desert Journeys 2
15th February 2018
A couple of years ago, on our Parish Weekend Away at Home, our Vicar at the time, Jennifer, gave us a picture of a labyrinth rather like the one above, and told us to imagine God as the centre of the labyrinth. She asked us to slowly trace the path to the centre with a finger whilst meditating on the Christian journey. These were my thoughts:
The journey towards God can be long and complex, with lots of twists and turns along the way. However, the path is already laid out for us (through the words of the Bible and the example of Jesus) and so long as you keep going forward and trust in the path you will reach God. Unlike a maze, where there are many false routes leading to dead ends, although the labyrinthine path twists and turns it does lead unerringly to the centre; there are no tricks or wrong turns and you don’t have to make a decision about which way to turn – you just need to follow. Like the Christian journey, sometimes the labyrinthine path doubles back on itself and you can feel that you are heading away from God – but in reality, you can be very close to him (like when the path circles the centre of the labyrinth), you just can’t see him. Like the labyrinthine path, on the Christian journey you cannot always see your destination and there are no markers on the way to tell you how much further you have to travel – but if you trust the path laid out by Jesus (‘I am the way’), you will get there.
This may well be an over-simplification of the Christian journey of faith and there are many times when we can feel that we are at a crossroads and need to decide which way to turn or that we are lost in the desert with no path at all to follow, but I have found this interpretation comforting and believe that there are many paths that lead to God – all of them labyrinthine in their own way. So whichever way you turn, and however long your journey of faith is, God is waiting at the end of the path for you.