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.