Eighteen months ago I was sitting at the very table where I write now, in the old mission hut at Warburton Ranges. It was Monday September 8th, 2008, and the most astonishing event in my life was about to take place.
Warburton is a place of enormous contrast. There are cool days of pristine colour in sky and earth. I have been here when joy and celebration could be tasted in the air. I’ve seen a flood run through. In the winter of 1980 the country was greened by wonderful rains, and Bush Turkey was on everyone’s dinner plates for months – even ours I recall! But Warburton is also, to me, a place of immense isolation, searing heat, oppressive tension, endlessly blowing dust, and a type of busy, draining noise that defies description.
This particular Monday was of the more desolate type, and I awoke with a bewildering sense of alienation. I was struggling to understand the things I was seeing in community life, and struggling even more to understand what in the world my place in them was. Why, God, am I here at all?
It’s my habit to read from the bible quite often, and on that day I read: “Look to the rock from which you were cut and the quarry from which you were hewn” (Isaiah 51). I responded to the passage in my journal; listing and pondering some of the many influences in my childhood and adolescence that led me to pursue Christian faith, and the many paths that followed. Feeling vaguely reassured I continued with the day’s agenda, which included a morning appointment with the Shire Clerk.
The Ngaanyatjarraku Shire building is a short drive out of Warburton, and on arrival there I happened upon a flock of bird watchers. It has to be said: they twitter. And they dress in a distinctive sort of desert camouflage that makes them easy to spot. I worked my way through the brood to the front desk, and announced myself to the receptionist. Instantly the bird watcher perched to my left let out an astonished squawk; and I turned to look into the face of my own Godmother. Well, jokes aside, neither of us could have been more stunned. Dumbstruck.
Marg, my dear Godmother, had been going into the building with the intent purpose of buying a postcard to send to me; being the only person she knew who had ever been to Warburton. Although in my childhood we had been together constantly, like close family, it had been many years since we had been in contact other than by a rare card or letter. Marg later told me that she had seen me walk past her and thought for a second that I was just as tall (5’19”) as the person she was at that moment thinking about.
The odds are ridiculous. To be in the Gibson Desert on the same day would be something, to be in Warburton astonishing, but to stand side by side at the same counter? A difference of minutes, and we may never have even known how close our paths had come. It is, simply put, the most astonishing moment of my life. In that instant, and reverberating through the hours that followed, it was as if I could hear the resonant, timeless and deep voice of the Almighty saying to me, “I know where you are”. In fact, I can hear it still.
A day or so later I woke up feeling a little unwell; and so it has been through to the present day, although to say ‘a little unwell’ might now be a little understated. This astonishing moment, and the revelation that accompanied it, brought stability to my Warburton visit. More importantly it brought stability and assurance to the weeks and months that followed. Throughout the testing times that ensued, I have largely retained the same sense of Presence: ‘I know where you are’. If it were merely the coincidence itself that sustained me, I could rightly be thought superstitious. But that’s not it at all. This was a sign, a confirmation, one of many but assuredly the best, that I am never alone.
I can’t begin to tell you what that means, how calming and deeply satisfying it is to know that this extraordinary pilgrimage of life is meaningful. It is ordained, it is timely and it is walked in company.
As a short postscript, let me tell you one more story. Some days later we made our way to Alice Springs and found a motel. Not being satisfied with our choice, we found another in the centre of town. This was our first opportunity to phone home in some while, and so I was perched on a cane chair on our first floor balcony speaking to my Favourite Wife, and telling her – among other things – of this remarkable series of events. I had almost hung up, in fact I had gone back into our room, when Karen said my daughter Ruthie wanted to say hello. So, I sat back on the outside chair to talk a bit longer, and I wonder if you can guess who, at that exact moment, walked out of the restaurant door directly below?