In June last year, Wendy Roderick wrote about her time in the Arabian desert and how the wilderness is a constant presence in the Bible. During the season of Epiphany, we have heard how John the Baptist lived in the wilderness Luke 1: 80 and baptised Jesus Luke 3 : 21. After his baptism by John “Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” Luke 4 : 1-2.
We begin February with the Feast of Candlemas when we recall the presentation of Christ in the Temple at Jerusalem. During February we will also recall the beginning of the Ministry of Jesus: The summoning of the disciples, the Sermon on the Mount and the Calming of the Storm on the Sea of Galilee. This is to be our preparation for the season of Lent which begins in March and will take us into the wilderness where we have time to reflect.
I once spent time in a wilderness – it happened to be in western Iran on the Jowkar Plain where the Magi, who travelled from the East to visit the infant Jesus, might have come from. My task there was to ensure that a steel roof was completed to protect the fragile mud brick remains of a Zoroastrian fire temple dating from the Median period which had been excavated on the summit of an isolated rock.
The experience summoned in me thoughts similar to the reflections Wendy has told us about. However, there was one very important difference. The desert of Arabia is one of shifting sands and nothing stays still for long. Even the infrequent rains which fill the river beds and supply the oases are followed by periods of intense scorching heat which dries up everything. The only people who inhabit this land keep moving across vast distances, relying on the few sources of water which are reliable.
The Jowkar plain in western Iran, on the other hand, was once fertile land. The crumbling remains of villages are to be seen throughout the area and the few families who remain eke out an existence in considerable difficulty. All the young people had left for the big cities further east where the prospects were better, leaving only the elderly and the very young in the village of their birth.
When I was left alone on the site after the archaeologists had returned to Teheran, I climbed up the rock to supervise the completion of the steel roof above the fire temple and the covering of the surrounding excavations. The thoughts which occupied me then were concerning the transience of man’s activity amidst God’s creation. The wilderness all around me was the result of man’s activities – which had failed.
In recent years I have begun to see that Dartmoor is a bit like that. It is a wilderness dominated by nature but it also embraces many traces of man’s former activity in the form of hut circles, stone rows, quarries, mines and leats. It also surrounds river valleys which continue the pattern of settlement in villages and farms which has been established for many centuries.
When I left Iran in 1972, I travelled alone through Turkey and Europe to my home in England. It was in Turkey that I first emerged from the wilderness. I was driving down a valley from the barren mountain pass in Georgia and noticed the tiny groups of spindly birch trees forming groves beside the river. This illustrated the power of water. It brought life and the new growth brought colour. It was the greenness which was so exciting to me at that moment. After a year spent in a grey/brown world, the sudden appearance of green leaves and silver bark with the sparkling activity of the water enticed me. The beauty is God’s creation and I wanted to stop my truck and experience the shade of the trees and feel the water running across my skin.
I have recently discovered the joys of wild swimming and this has taken me to a number of very special places where God’s creation is manifest. The water is warmed by flowing over the surface of huge rocks which have been heated by the sun. Its flow has, over centuries, worn down the valley to form pools fed by waterfalls.
It is good to hear the sound of flowing water: the power and the energy of it and it is good to immerse yourself in the pool as you see everything from a different point of view. The water supports your body and you can float looking up at the sky. Everything you can see is God’s creation and what is below the surface is also God’s but a different world. You are bridging two worlds.
At baptism the immersion of the body is a descent from our world to the world of death and the baptism is the emergence to new life in Christ. Last year, I felt blessed to witness the baptism of my grandson Sebastian at St Michael’s Church in Brentor. I saw him splashed with the water of baptism and I loved him even more because he has been claimed as Christ’s with the sign of the cross. Whatever he gets up to in his life ahead, he will have the support of all the people who made promises at this ceremony; those who came from Australia, from Canada and from Holland as well as the members of the three families that have formed my son James during his life so far.
Baptism is a sacrament but it is not the only rite we need as Christians because a child is not able to discern the implications of life in Christ and others, as Godparents, promise to intercede on behalf of this child. So when we grow up, it is important that we consider these implications for ourselves. We can choose to confirm the promises made on our behalf by godparents and make the commitment to life in Christ for ourselves. This choice can be supported by joining a group preparing for confirmation. Chris Hardwick, in the January Parish Magazine, has given a very clear invitation to explore Confirmation and I commend this to everyone you know who might be embarking on this journey.
Sally and I have walked alongside candidates for Confirmation over several years and know that the journey of faith is never ending. But confirmation is an important step because the commitment is a personal one. It affirms our relationship with God on our life journey and commits us to continue to learn as we grow. I am pleased to see that all our churches offer Pilgrim or other similar courses to give us encouragement to learn and to grow as Christians in this benefice.
The welcome I have experienced on the occasions when I have joined a study group has always been warm and inviting. The joy of listening to others as they explore the reading and the help I have received from being there as a participant is a real blessing. No one should be apprehensive about joining a study group because the environment is benign and safe. Tony Vigars is leading a group in Brentor on the Acts of the Apostles which I am enjoying. Mike Loader leads one in Tavistock and Judith Blowey has recently completed the whole series of Pilgrim Courses at Gulworthy.
During the season of Lent Chris Hardwick will be giving Lent Lectures in the parish Centre from 11.30am to 1.00pm followed by a light lunch of soup with a bread roll. This starts on Monday 11th March followed by 18th March, 25th March, 1st April and 8th April. Now you have your 2019 Diaries, make sure these dates are ringed!
May every possible blessing pour upon you in 2019.
Reader Christopher of Brentor