No Wonder

Scripture: Psalm 139:1-18; Matthew 13:54-58

Years ago, Lisa and I had the opportunity to host a University of Michigan alumni group on a photo safari to several game parks in South Africa. It was a glorious trip, although we did spend a fair amount of time looking at things that might kill us. Bumping along down the makeshift roads in a Land Rover with no top, and with an armed guide seated on the hood, we found ourselves in fairly close proximity to lions, leopards, cape buffalo, crocodiles, and two of the world’s most poisonous snakes, the black mamba and the puff adder.

Our driver told us that so long as we remained seated inside the vehicle we’d stay out of harm’s way, but a few incidents gave us reason to be skeptical. One came when a grumpy rhinoceros decided to ram another of the Land Rovers connected with our tour, sending the guide flying into the bush. The rhino charged around the vehicle like a freight train but the guide managed to scramble back on board just in the nick of time. The driver sped everyone away to safety, where I assume the badly rattled guide immediately started looking for another line of work.

Another incident involved the Land Rover in which Lisa and I were riding. We were bouncing along a narrow stretch of dirt road when we spotted a very, very, very (did I say very?) large elephant headed our way. The driver stopped and backed up a bit. He and the guide looked at each other with obvious concern. That was not a good sign.

“I know this elephant,” the driver said. “He’s unpredictable and can be aggressive. I’m going to pull off the road into the thorn bushes. He’ll probably just ignore us. But if he acts up, I’m going to have to take off into the brush to get us out of here as quickly as possible.” 

In all candor, a plan that entailed a high-speed face-first plunge into a tall, thick bramble of thorns seemed less than ideal. But it was clearly superior to arguing with fourteen-thousand pounds of bad attitude. 

The driver pulled off the road and we waited. With menacing slowness, the elephant approached, eyeballing us the entire time. He passed as closely to our vehicle as he could without bumping it, and it occurred to me that I could reach out and touch him, an idea that thankfully I immediately identified as the worst one I’d ever had in my entire life.

Lots of things raced through my head at that moment, some of which cannot be expressed in language appropriate to a church pulpit. But I can honestly tell you that what I experienced above and beyond all other things was a sense of wonder. Yes, the elephant was dangerous, and finding ourselves on the receiving end of his gaze was deeply unsettling. But mostly he was just magnificent, amazing beyond anything I thought I’d ever see, let alone so up close and personal.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about wonder and the critical role that it plays in our lives and in our faith. I was led back to the subject by a powerful book written by the Jewish theologian and religious leader Abraham Joshua Heschel. The book is called God in Search of Man and I commend it to your attentionThis morning, I want to talk to you a little about one of the central ideas he advances in that book, its connection to the core messages of our faith, and the powerful and saving grace that this idea has to offer every one of us.

In the great rabbinic tradition, Heschel starts with a story that goes like this: An editor once sent an inexperienced reporter to cover a newsworthy wedding. The young man came back and said that, unfortunately, he had no story worth publishing. When the editor asked why, he responded: “Because the groom didn’t even show up!” Heschel’s point is that sometimes the big news is that something is missing.

Heschel observes that in our everyday lives we generally behave like rationalists. We make use of particular ways of thinking that rely upon logic, reason, and data. He acknowledges that those ways of engaging with the world have value for answering certain types of questions. But, he contends, some important things are missing from those approaches. One of those things is a sense of wonder.

Heschel doesn’t give us a precise, detailed definition of “wonder.” The Oxford English Dictionary does a pretty good job, describing it as “a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.” But, as Heschel recognizes, words can’t exactly capture what we’re getting at when we talk about wonder.

Heschel does, however, offer some helpful observations about what “wonder” looks like. He notes that wonder necessarily entails the presence of awareness and appreciation. He calls wonder a state of “radical amazement,” a phrase that I love and that admirably describes my mental state during my stare-down with the African elephant.

But, mostly, Heschel describes wonder by talking about its opposite. And the opposite of wonder, he says, is that state of mind in which we take things for granted. That seems to me a critical insight, especially because in our society taking things for granted is what we do best and most often.

Heschel sees this regrettable development as entirely predictable. Whatever their other virtues, ways of thinking that depend on logic, reason, and data do not require us to put our sense of wonder to work. “As civilization advances,” he observes, “the sense of wonder declines.” Today we live under the constant threat that our capacity for wonder will ossify, atrophy, and waste away from neglect.

This leaves things in a pretty dire place. Heschel contends that humankind “will not perish for want of information but for want of appreciation.” To paraphrase a line from a poem by T. S. Eliot: “This is the way the world ends: From taking things for granted—and no wonder.”

Heschel quotes numerous passages from the Hebrew Bible that incorporate and celebrate the idea of wonder. “God is clothed with terrible majesty,” it says in Job. “Behold the works of God, sublime in His dealing with the children of humankind,” it says in Psalm 66. “Give thanks to him who does great wonders,” it says in Psalm 136. “Wondrous are thy works,” it says in Psalm 139.

Heschel argues that wonder is indispensable to a life of spiritual depth. He contends that we need it in order to cultivate within us the sense of awe that makes wisdom, and finally faith, possible. He sees wonder as a critical first step, the state of mind that makes it possible for us to ponder the great questions that life presents to us. He believes that this is why wonder has such a central place in the Hebrew Bible and in the words of its prophets.

Because those are the books that Jesus read and studied it should come as no surprise to us that he, too, calls us to a place of wonder. Indeed, Jesus tells us that our only hope for participation in the Kingdom of God is to see the world as through the eyes of a little child. And what has more wonder in it than that?

Furthermore, how can we do any of the things that Jesus asks of us without a muscular sense of wonder? How can we become instruments of God’s peace, how can we forgive, how can we refrain from judging unless we have the capacity to see every single individual for the wonder that they are? How can we love ourselves, as Jesus calls us to do, if we cannot wonder over the miracle of our own existence?

How can we feed the hungry, clothe the needy, and care for the sickened and the saddened if we take them for granted? How can we do the work necessary to preserve and protect God’s creation if nature has lost it capacity to fill us with radical amazement? How can we praise God in all things if no things hold any wonder for us?

The absence of wonder is confining, corrosive, and corrupting. Heschel writes: “The beginning of our happiness lies in understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.” He cautions: “The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin.”

All of this brings me to the story at the end of the thirteenth chapter of Matthew. Remember where we are: Jesus has arrived in his hometown to continue his ministry. When he teaches in the synagogue, people are astounded and start asking questions.

Those questions are conspicuously prosaic, perhaps even sarcastic. Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t he Mary’s boy? Aren’t these his brothers and sisters? Isn’t he from around here? They’re not really even questions, because everyone knows the answers; they’re really statements, superficially disguised as questions.

Now, sometimes the gospels tell us cautionary stories about people saying things that aren’t true, but that’s not what’s going on here. It’s not that these people are saying anything that’s factually incorrect. It’s that they’re saying things that aren’t relevant, that don’t matter, that miss the point entirely and spectacularly.

But, you see, these people are doing what we mostly do: They are filtering the world through logic, reason, and data. If you were trying to complete a census form, these would probably be exactly the right questions. But in this context, in the context of engaging with Jesus as the Son of the Living God, they’re exactly the wrong questions because they are completely devoid of any openness to the possibilities of wonder.

In fact, these people have arrived at the opposite of wonder because they are taking Jesus for granted. He’s a homeboy from Nazareth and therefore couldn’t possibly be anything special. And so, the gospels tell us, he could do no miracles for them. Well, no wonder. No wonder, indeed. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? No. Wonder.

In my own life, when I find myself struggling to figure out why things are going wrong, the answer often lies in that phrase: No wonder. Why am I angry? No wonder. Why am I in a dark place? No wonder. Why am I bitter? No wonder. Why am I preoccupied by some petty offence? No wonder. The soul needs feeding and can slowly and silently starve from a want of wonder.

Often, the only thing I need to pass through the door that leads from despair to hope is to get my wonder back. And here’s where the yoke is easy and the burden is light: Doing so usually just requires me to look around, carefully, with my eyes wide open. And to take nothing, nothing and no one, for granted.

I have a few friends on Facebook who post pretty much the same picture almost every day. Maybe it’s a picture of the sunrise or sunset from their dock. Maybe it’s a picture of a pet, or a garden, or a favorite hiking path, or a loved one. Maybe it’s a photo of this little meeting house or something going on inside it.

And whenever I see the twentieth or thirtieth picture of one of those things posted by one of those friends it makes me smile from ear to ear. Because I know I am looking at the work of someone who has decided not to take something for granted. Because I know I am looking at the world through the eyes of wonder.

Well, the yoke may be easy and the burden may be light but make no mistake about it: There are forces constantly striving to drain us of our wonder. As a result, we have to work at it, protect it, foster it, nourish it. Heschel says: “The insights of wonder must be constantly kept alive. Since there is a need for daily wonder, there is a need for daily worship.”

Hold onto that idea. It seems to me a tremendously powerful one: To make for ourselves a spiritual discipline that consists in every single day allowing something to amaze us. To do this, my friends, is to live in the regular company of the Almighty.

The good news is that we don’t have to travel nine-thousand miles and go face-to-face with a curmudgeonly elephant to experience wonder. Among His infinite graces, God gives us wonder on the cheap. Heschel writes: “We do not come upon it only at the climax of thinking or in observing strange, extraordinary facts but in the startling fact that there are facts at all: being, the universe, the unfolding of time. We may face it at every turn, in a grain of sand, in an atom, as well as in the stellar space. Everything holds the great secret.” As William Blake put it, we strive “To see a world in a grain of sand / And a heaven in a wild flower / Hold infinity in the palm of [our] hand / And eternity in an hour.”

One evening in May, Lisa and I went down to our dock on Lake Leelanau to listen to the birds, feel the wind ease, and watch the water grow still. When we got there, we discovered that a giant mayfly hatch had erupted. The air was alive with them, swirling about us in clouds, pulsing with its own kind of electricity.

When I posted about this on Facebook, one friend asked whether the bugs didn’t get in our eyes and mouths. I said no, a few landed on us but they were mostly preoccupied with each other. And, I added, in any event I didn’t need to worry about them getting in my hair. It was a fair and an appropriate question that they asked, but it was also disconnected from my experience of the moment.

Many other questions would have been fair and appropriate, too, but would have been similarly disconnected. Those are the questions that we answer in the voices of reason, logic, and data. In response to those sorts of questions, I could tell you that there are more than 600 species of mayfly in the United States and roughly 3,000 worldwide. I could tell you that mayflies are geographically pervasive, living everywhere except the Arctic and Antarctic. I could tell you that within the great ecological engine that roars all around us mayflies have only one function, which is to reproduce. They then promptly die, so promptly that nature did not bother to equip them with mouth parts or aquatic gills. I could tell you that, when threatened, a mayfly nymph will raise its tail defensively, trying to look like a miniature scorpion. All of those facts are accurate and useful; but none of them has anything to do with the true and deep sense wonder in which God invites us to share.

In his book, Heschel writes that “the way to faith leads through acts of wonder and radical amazement.” He says that we must live in such a way that “commonplace deeds” become “spiritual adventures.” We must resist the forces that oppose wonder and must take nothing for granted. We must see the heaven in a wildflower—or even in a swarm of insects whose lives last for a breath. We must be, if you will, “wandering wonderers.”

So, I am here to tell you, to testify to you, to witness unto you, that standing on that dock, on that warm May evening, surrounded by the throb and buzz of life itself, our thinking did not tend toward the analytic, the scientific, and the data-driven. We were instead immersed in the miracle of creation, and in the miracle of the Creator, and we were awed even by one of His humbler exhibitions. It was the sacred stuff of which those elusive things we call wisdom and faith are made. And it was as if God glanced casually in our direction, smiled, maybe winked a little, and under His breath whispered: “Here. Watch this.”

Wonder of wonders. Wonder of wonders.

Permit me, if you will, to give the last word to Mary Oliver, which is never a bad idea. This is her poem called “Mindful”:

Every day
I see or hear
that more or less
kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over
in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

And the people said: Amen.

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