Lent 1, 2018
© Rev Rex A E Hunt, MSc(Hons)
Spirit of Life Unitarian Fellowship
Kirribilli NSW


“To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour…”
(William Blake)

This week saw the commencement of the traditional religious season called Lent.

It began a few days ago… on Wednesday 14 February. The day was also St Valentine’s Day.
Traditionally… well, in 18th-century England, St Valentine’s Day evolved into an occasion
in which lovers expressed their love for each other by
        presenting flowers, offering confectionery,
        and sending greeting cards.

Traditionally… well, since the year 1000CE, Ash Wednesday got its name from the act
of being marked with ashes - previous year’s burnt palm branches - when worshippers gather
        and are reminded of their sinfulness and mortality.

Mmm. Love and sin. All on the same day!!

Lent is also associated with the story of the Jewish Galilean sage called Yeshu’a/Jesus,
and his 40-day stay or testing in the desert wilderness.

The story says it happened at the beginning of his brief public activity
in the north-west corner of the Galilee, in the early Roman Empire,
        sometime between the years 26-36CE.

So, let me share a few cameos reflecting on ‘desert’, ’Lent’ and ‘Unitarians’.


Australia has ten named deserts, the largest being the Great Victoria Desert
which crosses the border into both Western Australia and South Australia.
        It is over 800 kilometres wide
        and covers an area of 348,750 square kilometres.

In total the ten deserts cover nearly 1.4 million square kilometres
or 18% of the Australian mainland. 

However, approximately 35% of the Australian continent receives so little rain
it is effectively desert.
        Result? Australia has been called the driest continent on earth.

Some of this ‘desert’ experience I know first hand,
especially the distracting lure of the shimmering mirage,
        having been brought up in the dry Wimmera/Mallee area of Victoria
        and journeyed many times into the Little Desert!

“The parched earth cracks and groans
under the blazing sun across the wide land…”  (Dorothy McRae-McMahon)

The perception of what is a desert wilderness area, varies greatly.
It depends on the different exposures people have to nature and the ‘great outdoors’.

To a person living on the coast, the desert is often dry and arid and dusty.
A place without life.

But for desert dwellers in Australia’s ‘outback’, for instance, beyond Charleville,
        it has a compelling fascination,
        as a place vibrant with life.

The spinifex are blue grey with amber glints.
They look soft but they are prickly and hard.
They survive tenaciously because no grazing animal
        can eat them out or destroy their roots.

It may look as if nothing can live in the desert,
but underneath the spinifex,
        the desert creatures leave their tracks in the red sand.

No life stirs all day, but come night…
lizards, mice, and the rare animals of the desert
live their delicate but vastly tough lives in this harsh habitat.

A little closer to home, some historians claim that for the first white settlers in New South Wales
the landscape seemed barren, uninhabited, desolate - even hostile.
        Because it lacked the plants and animals of Europe.

According to historian Grace Karskens the Sydney wilderness environment
was described as both ‘very romantic, beautifully formed by nature’
as well as ‘the worst country in the world’:
        “… an ‘alien landscape’, where nature was ‘upside down’ and flora and fauna were so unnervingly weird”.

Why such contradiction?
Conditions for the convicts and early settlers were harsh,
undeniably primitive, and uncomfortable.
        Farming was pre-basic and the farmers lived in poverty.

The drive to clear the dense bushland of the ever-creeping vegetation,
and establish public farms, was to establish the initial food supply for the prison colony.
        Such conditions were also presented and remembered
        as places of torment and brutality.


Now to connect some of this with a brief suggestion and then a short aphorism.

The suggestion…
Lent, yes for Unitarians, is a very real time where many can once again,
in an intentional way, seek out the presentness of the sacred
        lurking in the most unlikely of places,
        waiting to be uncovered, found, and embraced.

If we only see the desert as a place of harsh, relentlessness…
where people face despair and animals die of thirst,
        the desert experience will always be an alien danger.

So too our autumn days.

Now the aphorism…  
A Zen teacher said to his students:
        ‘If you raise a speck of dust, the nation flourishes,
        but the elders furrow their brows.
        If you don’t raise a speck of dust, the nation perishes,
        but the elders relax their brows.’

If we listen to cosmologists they say we are made from dust—essentially stardust.
We are all connected—biologically and spiritually—with planet Earth
        and with all its ‘other than human’ beings.

Echoing the words of William Blake,
former professor of biology at the University of Washington, John Palka, suggests:
“To see a world in a grain of sand—to peer so deeply into the nature of any one thing that the riches of the Universe begin to be revealed—that to me is the essence of science as a quest. Not as a profession or a career, not as a niche in complex modern society, but as a quest for understanding one’s deepest nature.”  (John Palka. 15/11/2015. Nature’s Depths)

Our Zen teacher probably had a different thought in mind.
To raise a speck of dust is to stir up goodness,
        struggle for justice,
        speak up for those who stutter or do not speak the languages of power,
        band together to stand resolutely and non violently before evil
        and refuse to be absorbed into it or intimidated by it.

For many traditional Christians Lent is a time of sorry self-deprecation.
I, and many others, are not helped by that perspective.

From a progressive perspective, Lent can be a time when,
in positive and intentional ways,
        our focused actions can enable others to flourish.

When our selfless actions seep into the world
‘like the scent of perfume distilled in the air’…
        encouraging and giving fresh heart to those around us,
        and strengthening the bonds of community.

Judging from what little firm knowledge we have of Yeshu’a/Jesus,
he is remembered as undermining popular religious wisdom,
        forcing his hearers to take a second look at the traditions
        that helped them make their way in the world.

And he was able, with a storyteller’s imagination,
to set people free from images and ideas and religious practices
        that bound them into fear, and a false sense of separation
        from the spirit of all life.

None of this makes Yeshu’a supernatural. Or divine. Or No. 2 in the Trinity. Just human.

Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson, noted for publishing books
that ‘strain relations between the church hierarchy and Catholic theologians’, writes:
“Born of a woman… and the Hebrew gene pool, [he] was a creature of earth, a complex unit of minerals and fluids, an item in the carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen cycles, a moment in the biological evolution of this planet. Like all human beings, he carried within himself the signature of the supernovas and the geology and life history of the Earth…”

Whatever conclusion one might end up with about him,
it must be a possible Yeshu’a/Jesus and not an incredible one.

And a possible Jesus is a Jesus situated in his historical circumstances
“and who did things and said things that a real person could have reasonably believed or done at that time.”  (David Galston)


The desert is a place where one does not expect to find life.
A god-forsaken place we might say.

Historically, settlement for most ‘latecomers’ in Australia has been at the edge,
by the sea—on a large island.
        If Aboriginal people are a land-dreaming people,
        we latecomers are a sea-dreaming people.

Such a sentiment is endorsed by author, Tim Winton:
“The desert is a spiritual place, but we are coastal people, a people who predominantly dwell on our continent’s edge. It is there on the beach or pretty near it that the majority of Australians have discovered many things about life and what it means deep down to be Australian…”  (Winton 1993:36-37)

This Lent, in the wilderness of our 21st century cities,
furrowed by freeways and shaded by skyscrapers
rather than demoralising gibber plains and ridge after ridge of red sand,
        may we remember that in our dry ‘autumn’ seasons
        we, too, are tiny seeds, at rest and waiting,
        dormant yet undefeated. Desert flowers.

“The desert is beautiful,” writes Rubem Alves, Brazilian theologian, psychoanalyst, author, and poet,
“because it hides, somewhere, a garden.”

Oh, and by the way… Easter this year is on April Fool’s Day!

Alves, R. A. The Poet The Warrior The Prophet. Edward Cadbury Lectures. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press International, 1990.
Galston, D. 
Embracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Salem. Polebridge Press, 2012.
Hedrick, C. W.
The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church. Eugene. Cascade Books, 2014.
Johnson, E.
“Deep Incarnation: Prepare to be Astonished”, UNIFAS Conference, Rio de Janeiro, 7-14 July 2010. <> Accessed 4 October 2016
Karskens, G. 
The Colony. A History of Early Sydney. Crows Nest. Allen & Unwin, 2009.
McRae-McMahon, D.
Rituals for Life, Love and Loss. Paddington. Jane Curry Publishing, 2003.
Winton, T.  The Land’s Edge. Sydney. Picador, 1993.