Wilderness Requirement for Change: Easter, Passover and the State of the
Jody Whelden – April 16, 2006
UU Society - Madison, WI
"It is in vain to
dream of a wilderness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog
in our brains and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us that inspires
that dream. I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater
wildness than in some recess of Concord, i.e. than I import into it."
Henry David Thoreau, Journal, August
READINGS The Wilderness of Neural Possibility............James
I think of thought as
a wilderness of possibility - a wilderness of neural possibility, if you like.
Most people take the highway. These are the thoughts we think everyday, the
thoughts that are dug like ruts into our mind, the recorded neural circuits
where we just push 'play' and away they go again, on the merry-go-round created
by psychological habits.
Then there are some
sealed side roads. We have been up these roads before when we were curious;
these are favorite little ideas of ours which we've picked up from here and
there and embellished, etc. and they are quaint little country roads that we
wander down for a cup of Devonshire tea every now and then.
Off these roads there
are some dirt tracks. These are roads where very occasionally we put our mind
into four-wheel drive and go chasing through the bush. The branches might
scrape the side of our car, the bumps might surprise us.
Off these dirt roads,
there are some footracks. This is where we might get out of our cars and walk
along in the bush of unexplored with almost brand new thoughts crowding all
Very occasionally we
might dare to enter the virgin bush and think a thought for which there has been
no neural precedent, an entirely new combination. This is rare. This is
dangerous. The habits, the preferences say its easier to think all the old
thoughts that you've been thinking for years.
To step in new places
without defaulting to the old circuits is extremely difficult. But it can be
done. By pushing on through the unknown forest you might arrive at a new
discovery, a beautiful pool, an untouched river, a spectacular rockface. You
might even see a wild creature that no-one has ever seen before. You might find
a great cave. These are possibilities. Or you may be too afraid and go running
back to your car, puffing and panting, relieved to be back inside with the
windows wound up, heading back to the highway of your mental habits.
This is the wilderness
of thought. The choice is yours.
19. Then Jesus went
with them to a place called Gethsem'ane, and he said to his disciples,
"Sit here, while I go yonder and pray." 20. And taking with him
Peter and the two sons of Zeb'edee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled.
21. Then he said to them, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death;
remain here, and watch with me." 22. And going a little farther he fell
on his face and prayed, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass
from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt." 23.. And he
came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, "So,
could you not watch with me one hour? 24. Watch and pray that you may not
enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is
weak." 25. Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, "My
Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done." 26.
And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 27.
So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the
same words. 28. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, "Are
you still sleeping and taking your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the
Son of man is betrayed...”
Today we talk about
wilderness experiences of the mind and heart. Wilderness can be defined as a
wild and uninhabited area. James Neil says.
“ I think of
thought as a wilderness of possibility. A wilderness of neural possibility, if
To me that means, you
have choice of going on the familiar routes your mind has grown, or venturing
into the wilderness, where you do not have clear paths to follow, and no
roadmap of how to get there. Since it is the time of year for Easter and
Passover, I am including them in my reflections.
The Easter Story is
of a man who has committed himself to a lifelong wilderness experience of body,
mind and soul. Jesus was willing to live in such uncharted territory in his
mind, in order to serve people and the beliefs he lived by. The Passover is of
an entire nation of people leaving home overnight on the promise of freedom in
a new country - the great story of immigration. But first, let us speak of
We have all had wilderness
experiences - where we entered uncharted territory. These moments in all of
our lives are reflected in James Neill's words from our reading....to ...
”...dare to enter
the virgin bush and think a thought for which there has been no neural precedent,
an entirely new combination. This is rare. This is dangerous. The habits, the
preferences say its easier to think all the old thoughts that you've been
thinking for years.”
For myself, I have
choose the wilderness as often as I can. It has always been where my deepest
satisfaction has come, and the place that gets me in the most trouble. As a
child I remember an eighth grade art class where Miss French told us we could
draw a picture of the universe anyway we wanted to. She said, “Here are some shapes
you can use if you want to use them.” - and she drew them on the board. I put
my head down and drew furiously for a half hour.
Then, she put
everyone's pictures went up. To my dismay, mine was the only one that was
entirely original. Everyone else had used Miss French's shapes. I was
mortified. Thank goodness for Miss French, though. As she went down the row of
drawings, she pointed out my uniqueness and hailed it as well done. I felt
much better, and pleased that I had struck out on my own.”
Let us begin with
Easter - I chose the story of Jesus in the Garden, after the Last Supper and
right before he is arrested. Human beings write all the Bible stories and
human beings edited them and they, like all authors, had a certain theme they
were trying to communicate. I thought the authors who wrote this story had
certain things to teach about being in a personal wilderness. This particular
story appears in each of the 4 Gospels, which is one of the scholarly tests for
authenticity. It is called the “Test of Multiple Sources.”
Jesus is in the
Garden. He has gone there after the Passover Supper and he knows the guards
will be coming to arrest him soon. In the next two days he will be tried,
convicted and executed. This is his last time alone, with the disciples.
First, though, the people who are supposed to be helping him keep going to
“23. And he came
to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, "So, could
you not watch with me one hour? “
Secondly, also, he knows Judas is
off turning him into the authorities,
28.  Then he
came to the disciples and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and taking
your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed...”
And, thirdly, he knows he will go
through a tortuous experience and die ...he is looking for a way out, if
22.  And
going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, "My Father, if it
be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless,
not as I will, but as thou wilt."
The academics approach
to the Bible story is to think about what the editor has tried to emphasize and
to look for themes in the stories. One theme I see is that Jesus, even in his
own wilderness experience, is willing to revisit, with patience and kindness,
the sleeping behavior of the disciples. Although he has to wake them 3 times,
he is willing to do that, confront them and teach them. He does not lose his
24.  Watch
and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing,
but the flesh is weak."
Secondly, he is
scared, also. He asks if there is a way out. He would be glad to take it...
and he accepts what he must do, if he must. This story teaches us that being
afraid is normal and recommitting to a difficult takes must be done over and
over again. We make the choice to continue in the wilderness - that is find
the new way - over and over again.
Once we go new places,
we can't go back - even if we want to - like in Narnia: The Lion, Witch and
Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. This classic children's story is showing in the
theaters now. Four child siblings find on of those large furniture wardrobe
closets, go into it and past big hanging coats and magically fall out the
back. Instead of hitting a wall, they tumble into a beautiful snow covered
forest on other side. This is Narnia.
Although the children
return back through the wardrobe to their own house, they can never see the
wardrobe the same way again. They want to see if they can do it again. When
they do go back into the wardrobe they reemerge in the magical forest. Now,
they must wrestle with the challenges the forest gives them...in this case, an
evil witch and her evil doings. As they do that, their own characters develop
and they make choices which change them. Again, the wilderness experience is
the place where they create themselves, anew.
In the Hebrew story of
Exodus, the Passover story is about God freeing the Hebrew people from being
slaves under the Pharaoh in Egypt. As they escape they begin the process of
creating themselves anew as the Jewish People in a land of their own.
The root word for
Passover comes from the Hebrew root Peh-Samech-Chet, meaning to pass through,
to pass over, to exempt or to spare. It refers to the fact that the night
before Moses led the people out of Egypt, G-d told Moses to tell the people to make a
special meal from lamb. They were to take the blood of the lamb and mark the
doors of their houses. In that way God would "pass over" - or spare
them. Meanwhile, GOD slayed the first-born male child of all Egyptian families,
to convince Pharaoh to finally let the Hebrew people go from slavery and to
leave the land. He was convinced and the Exodus started the next day.
As we listen to this
story we can think about what these authors were emphasizing. Of course, they
wanted to show the superiority of their God to the Pharaoh's many gods. But,
also they were talking about how one must prepare oneself for a wilderness
experience. One must expect things to be different; one must sustain oneself
individually and help each other as a group. Come together, eat well, share
experiences, trust the people which you have come to know as trustworthy. The
lessons can all be drawn from this story.
experiences are in the news, of course, also. Sr. Joan Chittister, a
Benedictine Sister presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace
Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating
a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East.
She wrote recently: ”There
is such a thing as being too “American,” too sure of how easy it is to be part
of a democratic society. I proved it to myself last week.
The Women's Global
Peace Initiative, the U.N. partnership organization of which I am a member, met
in New York City for the first of what is intended to be a series of
conferences between Iraqi and American women. The hope is to be able to create
alliances between U.S. and Iraqi women in order to respond as women to
the circumstances in Iraq together while the politicians go on doing
political things and the military goes on shooting. But don't be misled by the
word “conference.” This was not a conversation ala U.S.A.
This was, in part,
a shouting match. It was, furthermore, always a confusion of positions. The
Iraqi delegates contradicted themselves and argued with one another at the same
time. There were, we discovered, as many Iraqis in the room as there were
Someplace along the
way, I began to realize that if there were ever a metaphor for what is really
going on in Iraq, this firestorm of shouting, accusing, pleading, gratitude,
threats and resentment had to be it. It was an exercise in democracy for
people who are just learning what democracy means -- and do not like all of its
implications or understand all of its demands.
“Maelstrom” is too
mild a word for what happened in the session -- and yet, in the end, there was
no doubt that what is really going on in Iraq became far clearer in this room
than it was in the morning papers........
...While the Iraqis try to
understand that democracy does not mean the consent of the majority to repress
minority opinions or experiences, as some of these women attempted to do to
other women in the meeting in New York, (the US) we will be trying to chart our
own future regardless of theirs.
While the Iraqis
are learning that the democratic process is meant to gather all the ideas of a
group and then test each of them for their wisdom and their justice rather than
silence any of them, (the US) we will be trying to decide ourselves what
direction we want for our own country.”
No, as Sister
Chittister makes clear, wilderness experiences are no picnic, but we can work
to behave honorably. We can prepare ourselves, we can listen to differences,
we can take care of each other, we can forgive each other, we can nourish and
feed each other along the way. We can expect bumps in the road and difficult
And, out of them we
can make choices by understanding what James Neill puts this way ---
“To step in new places without
defaulting to the old circuits is extremely difficult. But it can be done. By
pushing on through the unknown forest you might arrive at a new discovery, a
beautiful pool, an untouched river, a spectacular rockface. You might even see
a wild creature that no-one has ever seen before. You might find a great cave.
These are possibilities. Or you may be too afraid and go running back to your
car, puffing and panting, relieved to be back inside with the windows wound up,
heading back to the highway of your mental habits.
This is the
wilderness of thought. The choice is yours.”
Finally, as a
congregation, Prairie has also been on a wilderness experience this year. You
have gone out and explored having a minister and working towards more growth.
I think we can feel good about what we have accomplished this year. One of our
great strengths is that we know how to support each other and how to work together.
There have been times of working through the hard things. We have worked to
create new things - like the Covenant of Right Relationships. We have done
many things well. Continuing these things - like taking care of each other,
getting more clear with each other and being more loving towards each other can
help us move forward through the uncharted territory ahead of us.
The wilderness is a
necessary part of the human life. May we have the courage to move into it, no
matter how scary or difficult, knowing we may have to travel parts of the
journey by ourselves, But, if we choose to, we can always have each other as
companions. May we always remember, we do not have to be alone.