A Desert Tortoise

So, they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Jesus, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” ~ John 12:13-15

Over spring break Jennifer and I drove down to the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, Arizona for some R&R. We drove through a snowstorm as we left Mancos, a rainstorm from Shiprock to Gallup, we sat in a blizzard on a pass outside of Payson, and finally we descended into a light rain in Scottsdale. After two days of overcast skies, the sun came out and I headed out to the McDowell Sonoran Desert Conservancy, miles and miles of rolling desert mountains.

I always look forward to walking in the Sonoran Desert because the flora is so different from the Four Corners. Normally the slopes are a lazy brown and tan, but this year clusters of yellow brittlebush flowers blanketed the hills in luminous color. The juxtaposition of hundreds and hundreds of brilliant yellow blooms serenading still saguaros, cholla, and barrel cactus was mesmerizing. Monet said it well, “I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.”

I walked briskly up the rocky desert path, lifting my eyes to the hills (Psalm 121:1). Around a soft bend in the trail, a man was taking pictures while his wife waited impatiently on a rock. She is not enjoying the explosion of color I thought as I walked past them. The man said, “Turtle!” “What I said?” “Look, there’s a turtle.”

I looked back and a desert tortoise, bigger around than a large frisbee, was moving slowly across the trail, a non-anxious presence. “Wow!” I exclaimed. How did I miss seeing her? She would take a step, stop, and move her head left or right. The desert tortoise is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. I read that they can live from thirty to eighty years, and they are a keystone species which means they have a higher influence over their ecosystem than other species.

Yet, this tortoise was so quiet, unassuming, and vulnerable like a child, which endeared me to her more than ever. And I would have missed seeing her if the man would not have stopped me.

Douglas Christie, a theologian and a bird watcher, says, “What is being asked of us in this moment is patient attention; a willingness to slow down, listen, and look, a willingness to let go of our expectations.” Or as Father Rohr writes, “We’re sleep walkers. All religious teachers, have recognized that we human beings do not naturally see; we have to be taught to see. Jesus talks about ‘staying watchful.’”

What do we see? What clouds our vision? The world says go faster and faster but the Spirit says slow down, be aware, see with new eyes, be born again.

I wonder what the crowds saw on that inaugural Palm Sunday. They wave branches cut from palm trees and sing Hosanna which means “save us now.” They are celebrating the arrival of a new king.

Do their expectations of a king cloud their vision? The Reverend Tom Wright says when the famous Judas Maccabaeus, 200 years before, conquered the pagan armies that had oppressed Israel, the people welcomed him as a king by waving palm branches and spreading cloaks under his feet as a sign of loyalty. He was a king who would use his power to destroy their enemies with military force.

Does the crowd on Palm Sunday expect the same from Jesus? What do we expect from Him? What do we see?

Jesus does not ride in to Jerusalem on a war horse with an entourage of soldiers in a display of power and force. Instead, he rides in on a donkey, a symbol of peace. He carries “no gold and no weapons” (see “Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore.”) Rohr writes, “He inaugurated a new kind of leadership—not one based in dominative power, but one based in humble service.” Power rooted in powerlessness and love for one’s neighbors and enemies.

“Most Christians still don’t get the point,” writes Rohr. What kind of king do we wave a palm branch for? Who/what do we trust?

When I left my tortoise friend, she was still meandering across the trail—slow, beautiful, and persistent. I trust her and God’s grace to prevail.

Blessings and peace,