As I write this it is Gaudete Sunday. I am staying with the Afghan Peace Volunteers in Kabul, on delegation from Voices for Creative Nonviolence UK. I have been reading the daily scriptures throughout Advent, although Christmas seems very far away. Today I read this passage,
‘Why did you go into the desert? To see a reed swaying in the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in fine palaces. Then why did you go out?’
Listening to the sounds the doves make in the garden, at least I think they’re doves, it’s easy to imagine Mary sitting on her sack in the corner of her courtyard, unstitching another sack, ready to say her ‘Here I am’ to the angel Gabriel when he appears.
That was last week. Today the reading for today, the prophesies in Isiah speak to me as I prepare to pack up and return home. Why did you go to Kabul? Jesus asks. Was it to see the blue sky, the flags flying from the schools and mosques, the little birds puffing out their feathers in the bare branches, the heavily polluted river rushing by.
On the flight from Istanbul, there were plenty of rich people, those who could afford a ticket and who had passports, if not fine clothing. There are glimpses of people in polished four by fours, or the people who have built high bomb barriers and a sentry box for their personal armed guard.
I went there maybe to meet a prophet, maybe a messenger. I can’t say I had any religious experiences, clutching my duvet as I wrestled with anxieties and sadness at the days stories, feeling far from home.
In one sense the message from the prophet is very clear. ‘Make the ways straight..’ while there is such inequality, such as the basic inequality between the West and the rest of the world, rich and poor, while the US continues to use Afghanistan as a strategic outpost, while the world sees Afghanistan as’ a cow that every one can milk’, as one activist described it, it seems nothing much can happen to solve the plight of the poor in a country like Afghanistan. Many people we spoke to sounded hopeless and some desperate. These are obvious mountains and valleys; the deprivation that we’ve seen on this trip, where the number of displaced people rises, where some are so destitute they cannot even, as one camp leader put it, afford to buy tea.
Another way of looking at it could be the different kinds of mountains and valleys we all encounter. The message is one of the transformation that will come, when the paths are made straight. The other night we went to visit the home of one of the Peace volunteers. Gulham Hussein’s mother and his younger brothers and sisters. The family live in a traditional house down a narrow mud lined path, in one room, within a dusty courtyard, the well in the middle, the latrine in one corner shared by three other families. We ate spinach and rice, served with oranges to squeeze over and spring onions. As a baby cousin was passed around, dressed up like a miniature queen in her tight swaddling, as the stove lost its stifling heat the room became pleasantly cosy. The smaller children came and snuggled up next to us, their eyes like saucers as they tried to stay awake, watching the foreign visitors. Outside was dark and foggy, I felt a little bit of anxiety as to how we should get back, but really I hardly wanted to leave. I found it consoling to be in a family environment, to enjoy the fellowship , joyfulness at gradually being able to share a meal, admire the children, communicate roughly in translation.
The relation of this experience and today’s scripture, is it this, fellowship and crossing borders and language barriers that can bring about transformation, that can make the way straight.