The Wilderness Within
I met Neil when I was a first year student at Manchester College. I was young and naïve, and whole-heartedly devoted to immersing myself in life as a socially conscious college student. Having been involved with Amnesty International in high school, I was eager to meet the faculty adviser for the Amnesty chapter at Manchester. And I was told that it was a psychology professor, and that he would meet with me for a soda in the local snack bar at 9:00 on a Monday night. I arrived early and ordered my root beer and sat, scanning the room for Dr. Wollman. Students streamed in and out to get their evening pizza and popcorn. I sat nervously, with my file and notepad ready, anxious to meet this professor of psychology. Fifteen minutes passed. No sign of him. Across the room sat a burly looking man with an unkept beard, a white sweatshirt with the picture of an orange cat on the front tucked into his khaki pants which had grass stains on the knees. On the man’s feet were a pair of old tennis shoes. He was hunched over a stir fry, and had carefully seemed to be picking the pieces of chicken out of it, or spitting them out of his mouth and placing them on the side of his plate. His beard had a few rice pieces in it. I immediately took pity on this man, obviously hungry, and marveled at how nice it was that the college welcomed homeless people into eat. It was now 9:25. No Professor Wollman. I finished off my root beer, stood up to throw the cup away and did one more look out over the dining room to make sure I wasn’t missing him. The odd-looking cat-shirted, swarthy man saw me and yelled out, “Hey, are you who I’m supposed to be meeting about Amnesty?” I quickly realized my mistake. The man I assumed was homeless and hungry was actually the esteemed Dr. Wollman. Embarrassed and ashamed at how quick I was to judge, I sat down to a delightful, if not quirky, conversation. Neil and I became fast friends. I learned that he was devoted to issues of social justice, care of the poor, environmental activism. He was a crusader for equality and was known nationwide for the work he began with TIAA-CREF in working with other professors all from the second floor of the Administration Building at little old Manchester College to set up a socially responsible investment fund. His passion for social change has always deeply moved me. The way he lives his beliefs have inspired me. And while sometimes as a peace studies intern at the college I had to remind him to go home and sleep after staying up in his office for 48 hours straight working, or cue him about the social graces (like not just walking into someone’s home and opening their refrigerator or medicine cabinets to see what they liked to eat or what medicines they took), I learned from him what true generosity of spirit and prophetic vision looked like.
And so whenever I hear the words of John the Baptist, or think of that misunderstood prophet who ate wild locusts and honey and wore those strange clothes, the person I see in my mind’s eye is Dr. Neil Wollman, Ph.D.. North Manchester’s own John the Baptist who speaks of his passionate belief in the hope of an infusion of peace and justice entering this world with all the quirky glory he can muster.
In some ways, John the Baptist doesn’t fit into our Norman Rockwell, Currier and Ives holiday Christmas tableau. John is untamed and a little wild. He is a prophet of the old school, hearkening back to Elijah. His words are meant to cut a little, his proclamations to make us shudder. He offers spiritual baptism, and preaches repentance in a world that would prefer their faith safe and their sermons comforting. But what I love most about his story has as much to do with where he spoke, than with who he was.
You see John the Baptist was a wilderness kind of guy. Untamed and unpolished as he was it shouldn’t surprise us that his sermons were shouted into a desolate wasteland of wild open space. The wilderness of Judea was not the wilderness of Northern Indiana. It wasn’t a nature walk through Fox Island Park with meandering paths and quiet fresh brooks. The wilderness of Judea was a sparse, hot, unforgiving place. It was a land where one had to be scrappy to survive. It was barren and inhospitable. And so the fact that the call to prepare for the Christ came out of this nowhere place gives me pause.
There is something cosmically comforting to me about the idea that the coming of God was announced in the wilderness, for I believe that each of us carry some form of wilderness within our own souls. Sometimes that wilderness manifests itself in a cavern of doubts about the goodness of the universe or fears about the direction of life and our place in it, or it shows up in the form of a gaping sense of aloneness and unease even when surrounded by others. Sometimes we dwell in that wilderness for only hours, and sometimes we can live in it for season after season. The wilderness can be a frightening and desolate place, where we may flounder and question the presence of God.
And so how utterly and simply spell-binding is it that the first inklings of the coming of Christ into ministry were uttered in the wilderness, in the place where we thought no life could grow, no plant take root, there is this glimmering hope preached. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Home By Another Way speaks of the truth of the event this way, “That was the good news that started with John. He was the messenger, and the message lit him up like a bonfire in the wilderness…[But], only those who were willing to enter the wilderness got to taste his freedom.”
And so the question for this morning, in this season of Advent and waiting that I ask is this? Are you willing to go to the wilderness? Are you willing to go to the depths of your own soul, to the dark scary places, to the places which keep you awake at night, to the nagging worries and untold secrets? Are you willing to sit in that wild place and invite the prince of peace to come, invite the living God to shed some light into the dark night of your soul? Are you able to trust that the holy presence might crouch next to you, find you in the depths of your own wild places and then breathe quietly and softly and slowly some new life into that desolate place?
The poet Wendell Berry has written, “It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.” As we wait in the wilderness, may we recognize the shimmer of light on the horizon. For Christ comes anew, may we be wise enough to hear the words of the prophets who beckon us to be agents of hope.
*For more information about Dr. Neil Wollman and all the tremendous work he has done please note the following website.