Isaiah says ‘the desert shall rejoice and blossom’. The new series of ‘Planet Earth’ programmes makes us keenly aware of how close desert and fertile land can be. Through time-lapse photography we have seen the transformation of dry land by rainfall, shortening the time taken for the flourishing of greenery into a few seconds. Grasses grow on flooded plains and can produce seeds in days.
But the biblical miracle can fail. We observe that deserts are advancing everywhere. Last year’s water hole has dried up. The spring that was once fresh is now brackish. The programmes have also featured numerous scenes where the carnivorous hunter misses its prey, and might eventually be just one meal away from dying of starvation. ‘Planet Earth’ illustrates the fragility and precarious nature of life.
The biblical prophets, living on the margins of fertile Lebanon with its celebrated Cedar trees, and the treeless Negev Desert, were well placed to appreciate how unreliable the fertile lands can be. In a broadcast this week about endangered giraffes the researcher mentioned that the biblical pattern of lean years and good years never goes away.
December brings a lean time of year close to us with the re-opening of the Cambridge Churches (and Synagogue) homelessness project, where a hearty supper, and a warm bed for the night in a place of safety are provided for men who would otherwise be sleeping rough. As we share a meal together we become aware of how similar our lives are. Perhaps only a single misfortune has pushed someone over the edge to the point where he loses everything. It is as though the seasonal rain failed to materialise. The lean year proved too much to bear. All there harshness of the desert and the fragility of lives on the edge are set before us.
Once everything is lost, rebuilding is a lengthy business, and it can be difficult to maintain the long term support which is needed if homeless people are to regain the stability and support which a home would provide. The routine of having a place to stay every night instead of sleeping rough helps to break the cycle. And the regular contact through having accommodation provided every night in the winter months can provide the basis for rebuilding lives and moving towards a safer and more stable future.
Paradoxically, it may be in the harshest time of year that the most effective support can be given. Isaiah’s vision may be realised and lives can blossom once more.
Tom Ambrose is a priest in the diocese of Ely.
We invite you to make a contribution to the Church Urban Fund, which helps local groups work among the homeless and destitute, and tries, through local projects, to help them turn their lives around. You can support their work via this secure page www.cuf.org.uk/donate/advent-appeal/24/credit-card. Thank you.