John the Baptist

Precatio a Cetis Magnis (Prayer of the Great Whales) W. Zeitler

Improvisation on “God of the Sparrow, God of the Whales”

Voluntary Latimer (1783-1724)

In this morning’s Scriptures we have the story of John the Baptist — a lone wild figure in the wild-erness. The story emphasizes his wildness by pointing out that he wears animal skins and eats wild food. As opposed to the civilized city dwellers who live conventional lives, wearing the same clothes and eating the same food as everyone else. In other words, the Eccentric Outsider vs. the vast majority who color well within the lines of societal norms.

Now, to be sure, there are destructive outsiders such as Ted Kaczynski, generally suffering from mental illness. But the Bible — and history in general — has countless examples of Constructive Outsiders — visionaries — prophets — who see things the rest of us can’t. They speak to us a message that is hard to hear, but we need to hear it anyway: “You’ve got it all wrong! You need to change your minds/outlook/way of looking at things!”. (The Greek verb METANOEO — unfortunately frequently translated ‘repent’ — means just that: “Change your mindset!”) A standard label for these visionaries is ‘genius’.

We suppose that the essential characteristic of ‘genius’ is high intelligence, and to be sure that’s important. But perhaps more important is the courage (or compulsion?) to venture into the Wilderness of their chosen field and be an Outsider, following their Vision, their ‘Star in the East’ regardless of personal cost. Frequently they are not recognized in their own lifetimes. One of my favorite examples is Nikola Tesla (1856–1943), who virtually single-handedly invented the electrical power system now used around the world: he realized that Edison’s DC (direct current) system was not practical, so he invented the AC (alternating current) system we now use (considered at the time impossible). To do this he invented the AC generator to create electricity, the turbine to turn them in hydroelectric dams, the transformer to step AC up to high voltages to transmit over long distances and back down to safer voltages for the end user, the AC motor to put it to constructive use, deduced that the optimum frequency for an AC power system was around 60 cycles per second, on and on. In other words, an entire family of interlocking breakthrough inventions. Edison went on a rampage to discredit Tesla’s design, stooping to truly dirty tricks, but in the end the superiority of Tesla’s system won out. Nevertheless, we still pay our “Edison” bill to electric companies that universally use Tesla’s system. Tesla also invented tuned radio transmissions (lots of stations sharing the radio dial), years before Marconi’s crude system which blasted the entire spectrum (one station hogs the entire radio dial). In 1943 the Supreme Court overturned Marconi’s 1900 patent in favor of Tesla’s prior and superior radio system (how many patents make it to the Supreme Court?). When you turn on an electric light, or hear our pipe organ here at church (powered by an AC electric blower), or Sandy using a wireless microphone, or amplification in general, or turn on the radio, or use a cell phone: Tesla made that possible. (And a great cloud of others, of course.) Nevertheless, Tesla died in obscurity and poverty.

The word ‘genius’ comes from a Roman concept of a person’s guiding spirit — what makes you uniquely you. In other words, although there are ‘capital G Geniuses’ to be sure, we each of us have our own ‘lower-case g genius’ — what we are uniquely able to contribute to the Kingdom. We’ve been given all the talents we need (Matt.25). All that remains is the courage to venture out of the safety of our status quo into our own ‘wilderness’, and listen to our inner Wild Voice. After all, “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared ahead of time that we should walk in them.” (Eph.2:10)