Wilderness awareness | Lent 1 | March 10

Texts: Deutermonomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

11 million data points.

A week and a half ago I was up in Elkhart, Indiana.  I was attending the Pastors and Leaders event at the Mennonite seminary where I graduated – AMBS.  One of the speakers was Dr. David Anderson Hooker.  He’s a core faculty member at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

The topic was systemic racism and the church’s response.  Part of his talk touched on how we unconsciously classify and categorize people, right when we see or hear them, with race as a primary construct.

The best research out there, Dr Anderson Hooker noted, the best research we have to date suggests that at any given moment there are about 11 million data points within a person’s field of perception.  11 million.

So, the feel of your big toe in your sock, that’s a data point.  Your sock rubbing up against your shoe, that’s a data point.  The feel of your breath exhaling out of your nose, and the way it passes over your upper lip.  Data points.  The air temperature.  The sound of my voice.  The sound of a seat mate shifting on the pew.  The smell of cologne or perfume.  The way the light falls on the wood of this platform.  The sight of someone sketching on a large, blank canvas.

11 million data points at any given moment. Physiologically, this means the brain receives that many bits of information for processing per second.

Now I have no idea how they came up with that number, but that’s what the good Dr. said, and he spoke pretty convincingly, so I’m going to go ahead and take him at his word.  I also did a little online research afterwards which affirmed he wasn’t just making it up.  According to research, the brain indeed receives about 11 million bits of information for processing, per second.

So just let that sink in a bit.  Add that data point to the mix.

Our speaker went on to say that the most aware human beings, the most mindful and alert, are able to consciously process about 175 of those points at a time.  And for most people it’s more like 50.  That’s about as much as the human brain can handle before it just has to start filtering things out, or experience them below the level of conscious awareness.

And so habits, and established neurological pathways, and structures become central to how we process input and experience awareness.  Much processing is unconscious, sent along these well-worn paths.

“Practicing awareness” says Robin, our worship leader throughout Lent.  Practicing awareness as a theme throughout this Lenten season.  If we can’t be aware of 10, 999, 950 of the data points per second, which 50 are we giving our attention?  Or, to put it in another light – How do we practice a certain kind of awareness that looks like the kind of awareness Jesus offered this world?

Hopefully throughout Lent you can process at least two things at the same time.  A sermon and a sketch.

The primary image for the first Sunday of Lent is wilderness.  That’s what’s taking shape on the canvas today.

In Luke’s gospel, as in Matthew and Mark, we’re introduced to the adult person of Jesus at his baptism – this formative event in which Jesus joins the crowds being baptized by John in the Jordan River.  As Jesus rises from the water, out of the millions of data points in that moment, a couple are highlighted.  A dove descending down from the sky – like if the Spirit had a body.  And a voice, speaking, “You are my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

When we look at one another, we perceive whatever it is we perceive, frequently tired out forms of classification.  Systems do the same, categorizing, drawing boundary lines, constraining.   When the Divine looks, it sees Belovedness in that which it beholds.

What happens next for Jesus is not a direct line to public ministry – from the river straight to the synagogue.  Luke says, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.”  The dove takes a detour, and Jesus follows.  Into the wilderness.

It’s in the wilderness Jesus will encounter other voices – less friendly voices.  Less affirming.  More confusing than clarifying.  More combative.  Not the one that calls him Beloved, but the voices that would twist and distort his core identity.  Luke writes: “For forty days he was tempted by the devil.  He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.”  Which voices to believe?  Which to give one’s attention?

That the wilderness would be a formative place for awareness should not come as a surprise to those familiar with the biblical narrative.  Jesus’ forty wilderness days mirror the forty years of the Hebrew people, emerging from enslavement in Egypt, no longer bound, but not yet liberated.  It’s in the wilderness the Hebrews learn an alternative consciousness to the demands, habits, and structures imposed on them in Egypt.  It’s in the wilderness they receive life sustaining manna.  It’s in the wilderness they receive the Torah, an alternative teaching to the ways of Pharaoh.  Such that when they do arrive and settle in the land, they might live with a sense of memory and gratitude, offering the first fruits of their soil for the good of the community, as the children heard about this morning.

First fruits giving is certainly a way of practicing awareness.

Beyond the biblical narrative, the importance of wilderness in forming human consciousness also shows up in cultures around the world.

Cultures native to this continent developed practices like the Vision Quest, where one is sent into the wilderness to receive a sign that will help define their life from that point forward.  In the Vision Quest, one would often walk until one found a spot.  They would remain in that spot, sometimes for days, listening.  Paying attention.  Listening.  Looking.  Feeling.

Millions of data points, but which ones are going to register?  Which ones intersect with your life in such a way that you hear them speak?

To get a little more personal, one of the highlights of my Sabbatical last summer was a men’s retreat in central Illinois.  On the next to last day we were sent out on a Vision Quest.  It wasn’t exactly wilderness, but it was in a central Illinois kind of way.  Lots of woods and plenty of space for 30 some guys to spread out and not see each other all day.  No food, no directions, other than walk out, find your spot, stay there, and pay attention.

We were allowed to take journals.

I set out on a path from the center of the camp and eventually came to a bench overlooking a beautiful ravine.  I thought about claiming that spot, but it felt a bit like cheating.  Not quite enough wilderness.  Whether or not I was going to encounter the devil, I felt like I should at least do battle with a little poison ivy to make this count.

I climbed part way down the steep ravine, avoiding three leafed vines as best I could, and found a fallen tree trunk and found a large fallen tree trunk.  Nature’s bench.  That’s more like it.  That’s the spot.

I don’t know how many hours passed of looking out over the landscape, when I noticed that right in front of me, close enough to touch, was a linden tree.  Lindens have become significant in our life ever since we planted one on my parent’s farm in 2009 after we had a stillborn daughter, Belle.  We buried her ashes, planted a linden tree in that spot, and have watched it grow ever since.

Thoughts from this vision quest could be its own sermon, but here’s the short version.  Belle’s linden tree came from a nursery, and it has a beautiful symmetrical shape.  But in the wild lindens are about as unsymmetrical as a tree can get.  They often lean to one side.  They send out shoots and branches in all kinds of random directions.  They are noticeably undomesticated.  As unpredictable as the journey through grief, or the path a life takes through adulthood.

For the remainder of the day, I had a conversation with that wild linden tree and overheard it talking with Belle’s tree back on the farm.  They both had important things to say and I tried to keep up through the journal.

I never would have encountered this tree, or thought twice about what it might have to say to me, had I not been given specific instructions to practice awareness, in the wilderness, as best we had available.

Wilderness offers us new paths because there are no paths in the wilderness.  That’s why we call it wilderness.  It’s uncharted territory.  You leave behind the bench somebody else thought would make a great view and you find your own place in it all. It scrambles and rearranges our circuits because there are no circuits, there are no established and worn trails.  It can open up new possibilities.  To hear a new word we would not otherwise have heard were we not in the wilderness.

The Judean wilderness where the spirit led Jesus is a little more barren desert and a little less wooded central Illinois or central Ohio.  Not much growing on the side of the hills.  At the bottom of the ravine, the river runs dry.  For Jesus, the clear voice from the Jordan that claimed him as Beloved fell silent, and the other voices just below the surface of his consciousness surfaced.  This too is the wilderness experience.  How will Jesus use his power?  Turn stones into bread?  Save humanity from hunger to gain their loyalty?  No.  Seize control of political structures at the cost of his integrity?  No.  Hurl himself from the temple, assured that he is special enough to escape injury and mortality.  No.  Sometimes in the wilderness you get a message from a tree, other times you come face to face with the devil.

What’s the path ahead?  Jesus doesn’t yet know.  He has only determined what the path is not.  In the wilderness, he has rejected the false path, and that is enough.  After 40 days, the dove lifts her wings and moves on in her unpredictable flight.

There are 11 million things the wilderness can teach you.  Eleven million signs ready to be processed, but only a few essential lessons.  Or maybe just one lesson.  Like the point of every Mary Oliver poem.  Pay attention.  Pay attention.

The lack of clear pathways in the wilderness is why it works so well as a metaphor.  As valuable as the physical wilderness is, you don’t have to be in that kind of wilderness to be in the wilderness of the soul.

Franz Kafka once wrote: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice.”  -Franz Kafka, The Zürau Aphorisms

If you can’t see the path ahead of you, you’re in the wilderness.

If you can see the path ahead of you, it’s likely you were once in the wilderness, and it was out of that wandering that you were given manna, and a way forward.  And so we share our first fruits in gratitude.

If you cannot see the path ahead of you, you are in the wilderness, and though you feel alone, you are in such good, good company.  The Hebrew people have been there.  Jesus has wandered where you are.  The first peoples of this continent have gone there.  Your seat mate shifting in their pew has certainly been there and might be there now.  It is familiar territory in my own walk.  The wilderness is not a comfortable place to be, not even a safe place, but it is a gift.

When you’re in the wilderness, what’s difficult to believe is that the Spirit has led you there.  That the Spirit takes on a body and comes toward you in unpredictable form, close enough to touch.   That you are the beloved of God whether you get a clear message, or simply sit quite still and solitary.