They say that the Mosquito is the unofficial national bird of Alaska, and we went to the fiftieth state prepared to "deet" ourselves up. However, summer was fast closing up and the problem was nowhere near as bad as I had read about from early explorers and modern travellers. I did however come across an interesting debate, fueled by sad reports of devastating illness in mosquito-laden states further south, about a movement among public health officials to eliminate the mosquito from the planet. There are technological challenges, but it may happen; the romantic notion of every creature having a vital place in nature may not be enough to plead the mosquito's case. People in Alaska, though, see that as unwise, even foolhardy. They know the pesky insect has a role to play in the delicate balance of the wilderness ecosystem.
Entomologists tell us that mosquitoes have been on Earth for more than 100 million years, and have co-evolved with many species along the way. So wiping out a species of mosquito could leave a predator without prey, or a plant without a pollinator, especially in Alaska. Migratory birds that nest in the Arctic tundra could drop by more than 50% without mosquitoes to eat, and spiders, insects, lizards and frogs could also lose a primary food source. Caribou are thought to select paths facing into the wind to escape mosquitoes, and that help vary their patterns of movement through Arctic valleys, eating lichens, transporting nutrients, feeding wolves, and generally refreshing the ecology. One expert says that although eliminating mosquitoes would temporarily relieve human suffering, efforts to eradicate one vector species would be futile, as its niche would quickly be filled by another. That was certainly the view of a number of guides who spoke to us about the interrelationships of Arctic species, and how the harsh wilderness environment can actually help animals survive.
That resonated with some reading I had been doing for a sermon on Jesus' experience in the Judean wilderness. I found that the Greek word traditionally translated “desert” or “wilderness” doesn't actually mean hot and dry. It means uninhabited, lonely, with no human population, and could be used of many parts of Alaska that we saw from the ground or the air. The word can even be applied to people, in the sense of being without friends or supporters, or simply solitary. In the spiritual tradition, says psychologist and pastor Daniel Wolpert, wilderness is the place where we leave the world behind. and place ourselves at God's disposal.
We come across a lot of wild places in the Scriptures. Most of the patriarchs lived in or beside the desert. The Exodus is the story of deliverance through wilderness wanderings. The Exile was a cultural desert when people had to rediscover God in an entirely new landscape. For followers of Jesus too, the path of discipleship is often through a wilderness that shapes our souls. Jesus himself found his identity in physical and emotional desert places. Remember how at his baptism God’s Spirit, came like a dove, and said: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” We might have expected this affirmation of his call to launch Jesus into his ministry years, but instead he was sent by the Spirit into the silence and loneliness of the wilderness. Mark tells us:
"At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild.
For forty wilderness days and nights he was tested by Satan.
Wild animals were his companions, and angels took care of him."
It is generally taken that this testing happened in the Judean Wilderness southeast of Jerusalem, 1500 sq km of dusty sand and dry shingle, rocky crags and steep precipices, shimmering heat and deep silence, sometimes known as the Devastation. The word Mark uses – ekballo – the Spirit pushes, thrusts, even expels - suggests some reluctance on Jesus' part to engage in this formative experience. He must face hunger, wild beasts and the devil himself. Satan uses distortion, manipulation and intimidation, as Jesus is tempted to use power in all the wrong ways. But like steel tempered in the fire, he endures the fierce testing, and emerges with clarity of vision and certainty of purpose. He has soaked in the truth of God's affirmation, and he never forgets the value of that wilderness time, returning to solitude often to reconnect with his call.
Scripture tells us that as well as his testing in the Judean wasteland, Jesus passed through the inner, emotional deserts of Gethsemane and Golgotha, where again his life purpose was again crystallised, his goal clarified. Although humanly he felt abandoned, he trusted God's perspective and in time he was restored. His experience was that Suffering was the path to Resurrection. That can be true of us too. Deserts and wild places are still being experienced in London, San Francisco and Auckland, as people learn simplicity, humility and prayerfulness on a wilderness journey. A wild place, it seems, is anywhere we experience bleakness and barrenness, when we are stripped of our usual resources and are tested almost beyond endurance. It could be a wilderness of physical limitations, of loneliness, grief, mental anguish, financial loss, betrayal, unfulfilled dreams, or spiritual oppression, any situation of helplessness and hopelessness.
We can find these places terrifying. They are times of stripping away, of testing, of paralysis, of brokenness and vulnerability. But they can also be places of wonder, of encounter with God where we too hear words of affirmation and experience God in life-changing ways. We should not be surprised when our faith journey takes us to wild places of the heart. In today’s world success is often defined as the only legitimate goal, but the Bible shows us how failure, despair, even death, can be Gods way. Darkness and desolation can be pathways to guidance and grace.
For many people this is a huge paradigm shift. It turns the world’s normal values upside down, although Rebounders, a recently-published book by journalist Rick Newman, reflects on the same truth. He tells story after story about people who used experiences of failure and loss as a springboard for something new and hopeful. The secret, it seems, lies in how we respond to life’s pot holes and detours — from losing a job or a business to a relationship or dream that fails to pan out. Setbacks, he says, can be a secret weapon, and even small adversities can contribute to forming a resilient character. We can, it turns out, learn to "rebound" and not to "wallow". I recommend the book, even though I haven't finished reading it yet!
The mosquitoes in Alaska are a pesky foe, but they actually play their part in that finely-balanced system of wild beauty. We too can look for meaning and truth in our wild places, and be able to reflect back with gratitude, vision and hope. We can learn to ask ourselves questions that shape our awareness - Why am I in this place? Do I need solitude, a fresh experience of love, a place to express my anger, a new agenda, a new truth, a deliverance from evil? The philosopher Nietzsche said What doesn't kill me makes me stronger, but the apostle James offers a gentler wisdom:
Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.
To Chew Over: What emotional wilderness am I experiencing me right now? How can I see God's purpose in this place?
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.