Image: Sturt’s desert rose (photo by Michelle Bartsch).

‘Dancing in the desert sand’

Andrew Collis
Outback Sunday, Season of Creation A
Matthew 3:13 – 4:11

Coloured Stone is a band from the Koonibba mission, west of Ceduna, South Australia. Their distinctive sound is described as “desert reggae”. Mirning singer-songwriter Bunna Lawrie and band perform using electric guitar, bass, drums, yidaki or didjeridu, bundawuthada (gong stone) and clap sticks.

I’m listening to “Wild Desert Rose”, Bunna’s tribute to the desert flowers, one of the stunning sights that make his home country such a special place. The sparkling lead guitar and joyful backing vocals conjure a stunning image of the outback.

“Don’t grow where no rain or snow / Don’t grow where no river flows / Don’t grow where no waterhole / Only where the north wind blows / Oh, wild desert rose // Dancing in the desert sand / Swaying from side while you stand / The desert is your paradise / Under the sun and blue skies / Oh, wild desert rose …”

The song, and album of the same name (1988), pay tribute to the extraordinary resilience of plants (and animals) that thrive in extreme conditions; Indigenous people and culture too. It is a song of encouragement for any who find themselves close to giving up. Life and beauty survive, light up an entire landscape.

I remember driving across the Nullabor with my family. I must have been about 10. We had a bright yellow Valiant station wagon (soon turned orange by the red dust). It was thrilling to watch for emus and kangaroos, to stop at night and set up camp with a fire for tea and damper. 

The song, like all good songs, causes various figures, ideas and times to interact with each other … 

I see succulents of all kinds, hardy, strange, wonderful – and cherish anew the black roses (aeonium arboreum) growing in the manse back yard … Creative women artists of the desert (Judy Napangardi Watson, Daisy and Molly Jugadai Napaltjarri, Emily Kame Kngwarreye), their bright and full-bodied artworks, visionary, gestural … Children laughing, playing football at Santa Teresa (Ltyentye Apurte Community) … Terrible events too – British nuclear tests at Maralinga, Rio Tinto’s destruction of ancient sites in the Juukan Gorge.

And in our gospel for today – Jesus baptised in the Jordan and driven by the Spirit into the desert, where he faces temptations to a life other than a life of creativity and wisdom. 

In the wilderness, in the company of wild animals and angels (according to St Mark’s account), Jesus learns, discovers, discerns, endures, works out, works through – watches, listens and prays …

I’ve been reading Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World (2019), struck (again) by a sense of belonging to an ancient wisdom tradition.

Yunkaporta invites readers to discern what he calls the “pattern of creation” (free-ranging, life-giving), to perceive the pattern in what we know (however little we know). 

Narcissism, he says, is a foundational human flaw. Wisdom entails keeping creativity in motion through kinship, maintaining diverse languages and cultures that reflect the ecosystems of the shifting landscapes we inhabit. 

“Look beyond the things and focus on the connections between them,” Yunkaporta says. Not mere materialism (bread alone), but sacramental wisdom – both bread and word, flesh and spirit.

“Then look beyond the connections and see the patterns they make.” Not power over others, but love that empowers – relationship, heterarchy.

“Find the sites of potential risk and increase …”  Not the thrill of risk in and of itself, but faith as true adventure in radical hospitality. Love as miracle.

In one passage the author describes human “temptations” and a calling to become “sustainability agents”. Did Jesus experience something like this, I wonder:

“It is difficult to relinquish the illusions of power and delusions of exceptionalism that come with privilege. But it is strangely liberating to realise your true status as a single node in a cooperative network. There is honour to be found in this role, and a certain dignified agency. You won’t be swallowed up by a hive mind or lose your individuality – you will retain your autonomy while simultaneously being profoundly interdependent and connected. In fact, sustainable systems cannot function without the full autonomy and unique expression of each independent part of the interdependent whole.”

I remember that Jesus is the Truly Human One (a good translation of the semitic idiom commonly rendered Son of Man). According to tradition, he also embodies Sophia (Wisdom) and Logos (divine Word or Pattern). 

Our calling is to follow and to join in – to become more truly human, and to wise up. 

Everything in creation (angel, wild desert rose, wild animal) is sentient and carries knowledge, therefore everything is deserving of respect. “Your culture is not what your hands touch or make,” Yunkaporta says, “it’s what moves your hands.” I love this. Traditions and cultures are living – motivating, animating … like the Spirit that drives Jesus into the desert. 

According to Yunkaporta, sustainability agents have a few simple operating guidelines: connect, diversify, interact and adapt. I want to keep thinking about this. Just as I want to attend to Yunkaporta’s prioritising of concrete over abstract nouns.

In one memorable analogy, he points to the flocking of birds, and sees that outliers, sensing subtle changes in their surroundings, are often first to shift direction. There is something wonderfully dynamic and complex in the way birds fly together. It’s not a simple matter of watching the “lead” bird. Leadership is shared … creative and wise.

Jesus is baptised and driven by the Spirit into the desert, where he faces temptations to a life other than a life of creativity and wisdom.

In the wilderness, in the company of wild animals and angels, Jesus learns, discovers, discerns, endures, delights in life and colour, sound, fragrance, touch, taste; he works out, works through – watches, listens and prays.

We’re invited to learn from him and with him – attending to time and place, within a wisdom tradition spanning time and place. 

Sometimes it’s frustrating to find myself thinking about reforming the church – the future shape and direction of Christianity, or something like that. I remember, every now and then, that Christianity was never one thing, has always taken various forms. Our calling is to bear witness, to help define a form of Christian or Christa community that acknowledges roots in multiple Jewish and Wisdom traditions – a branch on a much bigger tree – celebrating goodness, beauty, life. The “pattern of creation”.

We’re invited to learn from Jesus and with Jesus – attending to time and place, within a wisdom tradition spanning time and place. 

May the Spirit drive us into deserts and wild places of wonder. For our own sakes and for the sake of the world God loves. Amen.