God seems to love changing people’s names. From Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah in the Old Testament right through to Simon/Peter and Saul/Paul in the new. A change of name reflects a change of identity. That is what a lot of scripture is about. Getting a genuine change in identity centred on Love himself.
This is a huge struggle. The Israelites preferred slavery in Egypt to their freedom in God. Quite often people released from oppressive environments have no idea how to be part of free society. Their identity is tied up in their previous environment.
The desert gives us the chance to let go of a certain part of our identity that doesn’t fit our present calling. For a long time my identity was as a bassist. I was known amongst two small groups of people in London and in South India as a bass guitar player. Regardless of what my playing ability was I had an impact on a few of those people. I’m glad and privileged to have done that. Yet being a bassist now doesn’t constitute a core part of my identity. I still play and on ocassion enjoy it; but it’s not near the core of who I am called to be. This is a huge tragedy for me but it’s one that I’m learning to accept. What replaces that? I’m not sure.
Reconfiguring old identities is what so much of what scripture is about. But sometimes I prefer my old name.
Memories. There are good ones and bad ones. Then there are the dangerous ones. The memories that create the rosy past and those that create evil caricatures of other human beings. Wandering in the desert really skews your memory. We long for a past that never was and pin blame for percieved hurts on others and on God.
The Israelites in the desert kept blaming Moses for bringing them into the desert. They continually said that they preferred Egypt. Their memories needed to be jogged. They were slaves. But if we are honest we would prefer structured oppression rather than wild freedom with God. Well I would. God is so wild, so unpredictable. Isn’t the little prison of my depressive state more comfortable, more predictable? So we long for the past. We long for those songs we used to sing and the food we used to eat and shake our heads ruing the present for it’s inability to conjure up our mythical past.
It makes it more complicated that this myth we create is intertwined around our real memories. The friendships, the food and the freedom. Yet the desert is very clear. You have left something behind. When and if you go back it is unlikely that it will be there.
David’s wilderness years are fascinating and disturbing. Filled with violence and yet kindness he wanders with his band of merrymen living out of society, pretending madness, marrying and sparing the life of the king who wants him dead.
We know for sure he wrote songs during such times. Psalm 57, 63 and 142 are the more explicit ones. Two of them are written in a cave. In a cave things can seem quite static. Maybe this is the life we’re meant to lead. Maybe we’re not called to do anything. Maybe there is no one out there. Light seems to have no power; it falls dead on to the stones. Yet there is something that can have life in the cave. Sound, which builds on itself. A song of solitude grows choral. A cave which could be a tomb can have life. This piece tries to capture the feeling that what seems static can move and grow.
Press play on the music and try and clap along to it. Or try and keep a count to the music. Ideally let me know what time signature it is :). Do you find your clapping moving out of time? Do you find yourself adjusting your clap to keep in time?
In the desert with structures stripped away we’re forced to play with new things. We are forced out of our comfort zones, our habits. But it needn’t be a chore. We can find ourselves slip into a completely new groove without knowing how. Others will find it difficult to join in, but that’s ok. Sometimes after the desert you might not need it; sometimes you will.
The characters of the bible faced much in their desert situations. It forced them to confront what was the accepted norm and to challenge it. David in his hiding from Saul pens enormously creative Psalms. We consider them to be personal emotiveness from personal experience. But I see them as theologically and liturgically creative.
The desert demands responses that are creative so that our theology continues to hit the road and not float in Hollywood. The desert demands new grooves.
In the desert all structures are stripped away. The habits that make you human wither away. Prayer is one of those structures. As they are thought they disappear to the bottom of the pile. As they are said, they are dead as the noise dies.
Prayers are sent with no seeming destination. Even the Amen feels bitter. But maybe the wind blows them somewhere.
Yesterday trying to put this piece together was very difficult. A substantial block developed and I even spent two hours on a piece that turned out to be a direct copy of someone else’s! So in many ways this piece is different from the others. It is based on this short verse that I wrote :
Prayers falling up to the sky
Prayers rising down to the deep
Pinched by gravity
Wild Goose carries them home
Elijah is tired. He is part of an amazing act of God; fire from heaven, rain after drought and the slaughtering of his enemies, the false prophets. But, with one threat from Queen Jezebel he flees. It is quite a turn around. He is fed by an angel and then he walks and comes to this cave. Here he has profound meeting with God where everything that could be God isn’t. God is not in the earthquake, the fire or the wind. He is in the ‘sheer silence.’ (NRSV 1 Kings 19) This is where God presents himself as the total other. It’s an otherness of strangeness and comfort.
This piece tries to picture Elijah trying to listen through the earthquake, the wind and the fire.
Although you may view the land from a distance, you shall not enter it – the land that I am giving to the Israelites.
God does seem a bit cruel here. Moses can view the land that he slavishly guides his people to, but can’t enter it. But he can see it. Then he is to die. Isn’t this infinitely sad?
But as Moses himself says (Deut 31:29) the Israelites will screw it up. Maybe he is spared that final insult. They have moaned from the beginning, through the plagues, to the crossing of the Red Sea, the manna, the provision of water.
As much as Moses himself understands or accepts his fate his emotions would have had a field day.
In a far tinier way I felt something similar when I left the Christ choir. It was the right thing. Yet there was a sense of loss. A loss which is expressed through this piece.
As I look through the wilderness stories in the bible I thought I would start with Hagar. Her story is an important one when looking at the wilderness. Her name means stranger. She was an Egyptian, yet God speaks with her and comforts her in the wilderness. Once she runs away unable to bear Sarah’s treatment. Like Elijah she runs away. Like Jesus she goes into the wilderness alone. The second time she is officially sent off. Like Israel she has to depend on God to survive.
Today I have heard Christians say that Hagar is one of causes of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. That is untrue. The story of Hagar shows a God who will meet with those outside the fold; a God who listens to the dispossessed; a God who cares for those we don’t have time for.
Hagar in the desert names God as ‘the one who sees me.’ Her son is called ‘God hears.’ When they’re in the desert God hears Ishmael’s crying and opens Hagar’s eyes to a well of water.
The desert is the place where we have to face the question whether God sees us or hears us. Hagar gives me comfort that maybe he does.
Jesus experiences the amazing affirmation that he is the beloved of God. Then he’s driven into the wilderness. It seems so strange. Elijah experiences an astonishing victory where one prophet essentially defeats hundreds. Then he flees to the wilderness in fear..
Luiza and I had a brilliant final year in college. We got married. We were heading to a new life in India with a new job, with new hopes. It all collapsed. Well, thankfully our marriage didn’t. It’s like we were primed to do something but then sent into nothing. Why does God do this time and again? I’ve often heard of the term refinement. Yet refinement is a word that doesn’t portray the sheer breakdown that is required in order to be a canvasser of the kingdom.
So I think it’s the breaking of delusion. For we have so many false hopes, false expectations and false impressions. These need to be broken down. The wilderness gives us the chance to do so. And it is a chance, not a certainty.
This piece, ‘Now here, now what?’ tries to capture that sense of nothingness that we are sent into but with the Holy Spirit singing alongside us. Harmonising breathly.
Lent has started. So I thought that instead of giving up something I would actually do something. I’m going to try and put up a new piece of music every day of Lent and write a short reflection on the wilderness experience. The music will be mostly incomplete pieces and ideas which are yet to be developed.
The first piece is called driven. After Jesus’ baptism he was driven into the desert by the Spirit. From the amazing experience of being declared ‘My Beloved Son’, he is led into the desert. This is a recurrent theme in scripture. Amazing events followed by dreary wanderings and all kind of false realities are attractive possibilities.
The Israelites after their astonishing exodus from Egypt wander for 40 years. Moses their most esteemed leader, like the rest of his generation doesn’t leave the wilderness alive.
Israel, after settling in the land is afterwards sent into exile.
Jesus is driven into the desert.
The early church after their initial warm cosy existence are driven out of Jerusalem.
And yet most of our scripture is written in these times. Possibly being taken out of your comfort zone strips away the dross and gives you the chance to break your delusions. Luiza and I have experienced this twice now. It’s not comfortable nor romantic. I can’t fully accept or understand it.
The piece of music is written in quasi-glam-rock style. It’s fairly noisy and groovy but goes nowhere, ending in chaos.