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The Desert or the Garden

Donald Phillips


As a contribuition to Lent 08 Donald Phillipps wrote this thoughtful reflection  THE DESERT OR THE GARDEN on the place of the desert in the Biblical story,   and the recurring hope that the desert will in God's time become a garden.

One of the most familiar biblical pictures of the future is that of the desert transformed. Isaiah speaks of rivers of running water; of the desert rejoicing and blossoming like a rose; of the desert becoming like the garden of the Lord. The God of the Old Testament was encountered by Moses in the dry wilderness. I doubt whether we realise just how much the topography and climate of the Middle East affects our Christian faith.

Two things this week have triggered such thoughts. The second was a Tv programme called MEGASTRUCTURES showing the transformation of the desert coastline of Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates on the Arabian Gulf. With oil revenues decreasing the hereditary ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is intent on transforming his small country into one of the world’s leading holiday resorts. It already boasts the world’s tallest and most expensive hotel. Shortly it will have the world’s tallest skyscraper, rising to over 2000 ft. Its featureless coastline is the site of three massive artificial island groups, called the Palm Islands. Sheikh Al Maktoum is spending billions of dollars to make his desert into a tourist’s Garden of Eden.

One of the emphases in the Tv presentation was the absolutely relentless nature of the climate. Building the artificial islands was not simply a matter of good engineering. The storms, the heat, the aridity will always be a mortal threat to such human designs. The desert is unforgiving, it is dangerous, and, in the end it will have its way.

Back to the Old Testament. How far does the desert colour and define the understanding of God that is to be found there. I suggest it is about the most significant influence in the pictures it draws, and that we have accepted these into our consciousness. The desert is impersonal - it has no favourites, nor has Yahweh. The desert punishes those who do not take it seriously - so does Yahweh. The desert does not change, it is relentless - so is Yahweh.

And we need to constantly remind ourselves that Christianity arose out of Judaism, a desert religion. Just as we need to remind ourselves that Islam is a desert faith. How far removed from the desert is the gentleness which we would want to think is one of the chief marks of Christianity. Yet it was out of the desert faith of Micah that there arose a different vision - of doing justice, of loving mercy, and of walking humbly with God.

The first trigger this week was of a very different sort. I attended a talk given by Adrian Thein, the Project Manager for OCTA Associates for the Chinese Garden presently being completed next to the Early Settlers’ Museum. It was particularly fascinating to hear of the origin of the design of this garden. It all began 800 years ago in the city of Suzhou on the Yangtse River when a garden, known as the Master of Nets Garden, was first designed. It fell into disuse but was resurrected in the middle of the 18th century. It is an exact replica of this United Nations World Heritage Site that will become part of Dunedin. I can hardly wait to see it.

But that is the remark of a tourist. The Master of the Nets Garden is not something to simply walk through and photograph and add to the list of interesting things that one has seen. What is being constructed here in the heart of our city is a concrete (or granite and stone and water and wood) reminder of an ancient tradition. And that tradition brought together art and architect and nature. When you combine the vision of which the human mind is capable and the skills which the human mind has developed, with the inspiration and the beauty with which nature surrounds us, then I think you have what can be called an expression of human spirituality.

This is not the spirituality of the desert demanding obedience. This is something softer, greener, more humane. And what sort of a God speaks to us out of this very different dimension?

For too long, I believe, we have been busy turning God into some thing that conforms to human logic. But is human faith to be limited by human logic - is the only measure, the measure of the human mind? At one level the answer, of course, is, yes! What simply doesn’t make sense is to be discarded.

The problem with that is that we know we are more complicated, or more diverse, or more instinctive creatures than that. That’s why the story of Moses and his encounter with God on Mt Sinai touches our heart and mind in a different way. We feel his awe. That’s why a garden, a mountain, a sunset, a new-born child, a partner, can fill our hearts and minds with wonder and humility and love. That’s why, I think, a very ordinary human being like Jesus of Nazareth, whose teaching makes little sense to some logicians, can speak across the years to our hearts and minds - not the one or the other, but both.

All the best,

Donald P.



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