Mingled down

In the home at Bethany. A Hearth. A Haven. (John 12.1-8) The events of the last weeks of Jesus’ earthly life are cast. A place, we presume, he knew well. We are told of some who were there. Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Judas, Jesus. From a distance we could see it as a time of preparation or planning. Perhaps. As we prepare to enter into the drama of Holy Week it feels like a pause button has been pressed on the road to Jerusalem for this moment of retreat and tenderness. Maybe it would be gentler to call it a time of shared food and shared close company. It seems as though this was a private moment for just the closest disciples. Moments of companionship on a road that was to become, well, difficult. And into that space Mary offers an extravagance. Judas says it is a crime against the backdrop of poverty. Jesus says different and adds a prophetic word that poverty will never be over. There will always be those who are poor. We will all have our own ideas of what should be “sold to pay for the poor.” It is the generous act of radical hospitality takes the centre stage as the house is filled with the scent of perfume. Sorrow and love flow mingled down. We raise a mirror here to the narrative of the crucifixion and watch the supreme generous outpouring of charged emotion.

What would we give? Or would we, like Judas scorn the radical generosity and claim the thirty pieces of silver. But as we all know silver does not last, so to frame this as a transaction makes little sense. Even the thief to one side of Jesus recognised in the crucifixion the act of revelation. We can turn the mirror to our own times. Amidst the violence and turbulent scenes there are stories of sorrow and love come mingled down for a time. It is truly heartbreaking to watch and to know we can do little more than be witness to these things. returning to Bethany, to Mary. She anoints Jesus’ feet with all that she had.

You risked it all in a moment of emotion charged with an energy that heightened the senses. Perfumed hands, feet, hair flow mingled down. For a time.  Physical touch, in kindness, sorrow and love. Knowing somehow another chance would not come.


A tree stands in the wilderness

In the wilderness of 1987 there stood an iconic tree. Arguably it still stands head and shoulders, though that should probably be leaves and branches, above all the other trees in that particular wilderness.  It was called the Joshua Tree. If your home is the Mojave desert a Joshua tree might be the symbol of home telling a story of resilience, of survival through perseverance. (For those who want to be exact it’s not actually a tree. Yucca Brevifolia is a member of the asparagus family and highly useful.) It was named my Mormon settlers after the biblical Joshua leading the Israelites. But that one tree encourages and sustains those who live there. In my wilderness of 1987 however, the Joshua Tree was an album by U2. One of those moments of musical genius that stands – much like the trees of it’s namesake – as an icon offering us direction. Yesterday Eglwys Wyllt gathered in a wilderness place at Cors Bodgynydd (no Joshua trees) an old quarry slowly reclaiming itself from human endeavour. From a distance or a passing glance it looks like wilderness and at this time of year, the occasional bare branched tree curves out against the stark landscape. However, when we began to explore we found it was full of life, full of the signs of spring, of new life, buds breaking, frogs and toads spawning, birds pairing. But even a place which appears full of life might also be for us a wilderness. A cage in the mind perhaps, which for us there appears to be no exit because we’re standing in the entrance unable to see beyond ourselves. Even a vineyard full of healthy grapevines can be a wilderness if all you want is a fig. In Jesus’ parable grapes are everywhere – but the man wanted figs. Yet the tree is seen in the parable to be barren.

What do we miss? Firstly, obviously I suppose, this is a vineyard, not a fig orchard.  The man comes looking for figs when all around are grapes.  If you were the gardener what would you want to say to him. I’m growing grapes here, can’t you see? But he doesn’t want grapes he wants figs. Grapes are so yesterday, passé, so everyday, so today I want figs. But I suspect the gardener has been tending to the vineyard to ensure the vines grow grapes, after all grapes are what the gardener grows. And surely there is nothing wrong with grapes, except if of course all you want is a fig. A little variety here?

Of course what we probably also miss is that the man deliberately planted the fig tree three years previously in the vineyard and so comes quite rightly to see if it has borne any fruit. We can cast this parable into the usual lenten sphere of patient forgiveness which is nice, comforting and there is nothing wrong with that at all, but I wonder if Jesus was saying more than one thing. If our spiritual wilderness is like a vineyard – plenty of fruit all around us, but nothing that quite reaches the heart. Yet for that spiritual experience which takes us further on that Lenten journey, perhaps we ought to begin looking to nurturing, planting even, the metaphorical fig tree. Or in terms of my 1987 wilderness moment – looking for the Joshua Tree.

It was arguably one of the most memorable moments in musical history; the release of the ‘Joshua Tree’ by U2. Side one Track one begins the unforgettable “Where the streets have no name” the guitar introduction still tingles down my spine. But for this moment I turn to the song with the lyrics: I have climbed the highest mountains, I have run through the fields, I have run, I have crawled, I have scaled these city walls, Only to be with you. But I still haven’t found What I’m looking for.

For many the spiritual wilderness continues. Keep watering and feeding the fig trees planted in the wilderness of vines, keep on offering that which is different for those who are searching for their own moments of revelation and icons of resilience, they are still there, just, harder to find. And to be honest – I’m still searching.

You are not alone

‘You are not alone’. The message on the card was destined for an unknown recipient inserted into a box of gifts for refugees. We gathered clothes, toys and other items at the feast of Christ the king. It is the end of another liturgical year. I’m reminded of the song: ‘Nothing ever happens’ by Glasgow based band Del Amitri. Particularly the line, ‘the needle returns to the start of the song and we all sing along as before.’ But not this year. Our song had become dull, ‘How are we to sing the Lord’s song in this strange land?’ Del Amitri’s song has a darker side than a record player (what are those?) with an automatic return. Words from the song which you might reflect on about the loneliness and sadness of life: ‘And we’ll all be lonely tonight and lonely tomorrow.’ But it goes on: ‘And bill holdings advertise products that nobody needs While angry from Manchester writes to complain about All the repeats on T.V. And computer terminals report some gains On the values of copper and tin While American businessmen snap up Van Goghs For the price of a hospital wing.’  There’s more here than being lonely during the long winter nights. I hear a critique of a world cut off from the rest and missing the connections which is why a simple child’s card written with the message ‘you are not alone’ struck me so much as an important thing to tell those to whom these things will go. Our song brightens as the message says: ‘We hear you’, ‘we see you’, and I would add, despite what some members of our government says and what you might read in some papers: ‘we believe your lives are worthy too.’ – It is a beautiful message of hope at a moment when the world is preparing for what could be for many the greatest festival of loneliness. And the song of the strange land of no borders, no limits, where all are welcomed in and valued begins to shine again. Before we prepare to sing along as before in our Advent preparations next week, we take a moment to reflect – difficult I know in these times. But we ought to. Reflect on the year past from birth to epiphany revelation to lent, betrayal, Easter resurrection. From the Spirit at Pentecost to the Trinity season, creation, harvest and Kingdom.  Such is our christian year.  Each time we go around, perhaps we go a little deeper, see a little more, learn something new, become people more attuned to the kingdom. As we gathered, collected, sorted and boxed up the gifts along with good wishes in cards we celebrate the kingdom of God and participate in its coming. The simple sentiment offering hope to those whose life has dealt them, a bitter pill it would seem, if you were to compare it to the lives lived by the two thirds world. The generosity of our communities of donated gifts for those who most desperately need them is wonderful. It is not without a small irony – that we didn’t need these things anyway and of course for those who did donate it was probably a little cathartic, purging our wardrobes of that which we seldom wear. Did you know we were celebrating the feast of Christ the king with a refugee clothes gathering party – or did you think we were just gathering clothes. You’d be mistaken for thinking it was just the latter, for who would suppose that such a simple act could be a celebration of Christ’s Kingdom?  Did Christ not compel us to clothe the naked and feed the hungry?