Being lost in wonder

Very clearly, I remember my first Philosophy class, taken my senior year in college. I loved it! If I had taken that class in my freshman year I would have changed my major! I would have been a thinker, a philosopher or as puts it, “a person who offers views or theories on profound questions in ethics, metaphysics, logic, and other related fields.”

The name of our text book was The Art of Wondering by James L Christian, now in its 11th edition and from the first class lecture, I was hooked. Our first assignment was to write a brief reflection answering the question: “What do you most wonder about?” We had a weekend to think about that question.

Friday evening came and went, but Friday wasn’t a good time to think about assignments, nor was all day on Saturday. At least, not when there was beautiful weather and a soccer game to attend. On Sunday, I still had not determined what I would write about, though I had thought about the assignment, so as night fell, I took a walk by the lake and I remember looking up at the sky — the night sky — with thousands of bright, visible stars and of course the moon.

The night sky! I had found what I wondered about most. Since I was a child, the night sky and especially the moon has fascinated me and I have wondered many things while looking up at the sky. Why do I feel so small and insignificant when I look at the stars, while at the same time feeling comforted and at peace with the universe? Why do I feel honored and significant when the stars twinkle at me? Why do I feel small, but never alone? These are the wonders that came into my mind that warm August night years ago.

What is wonder? What does it mean when we are wondering?

As a noun wonder is a cause of astonishment or surprise. The stars and moon in the night sky are a wonder to me. It is a feeling of awed astonishment or uncertainty brought on by something extraordinary.

As a verb wonder means to feel surprised or amazed. I wonder about the night sky because I am amazed by it. Wonder is to feel curiosity or doubt. Sometimes I wonder about the night sky and am curious about what else is out there. And I doubt my own importance when I am looking at stars that are ancient, millions of years old.

Wondering is found throughout the scriptures, especially in the psalms. Psalm 92 is a song for the Sabbath and a statement of the psalmist’s wonder about God — how deep God’s thoughts might be. The psalmist wonders how the righteous flourish through joy and sorrow, like the palm trees and the cedars of Lebanon, which are old–very old–yet still produce fruit. While this psalm contains statements about who God is, these statements come out of the psalmist’s wondering — pondering deeply about the nature of the Holy One.

How great are your works, O Lord!

Your thoughts are very deep…

The righteous flourish like the palm tree,

And grow like a cedar in Lebanon.

They are planted in the house of the Lord;

They flourish in the courts of our God.

In old age they still produce fruit;

They are always green and full of sap,

Showing that the Lord is upright;

He is my rock and there is no unrighteousness in God.

In the New Testament there is wondering as well. Mary had a visit from the angel Gabriel, telling her that she would give birth to a son, the son of God, born to set the people free. Mary visited with her cousin Elizabeth, who proclaimed that her baby leaped in her womb at the presence of Mary’s unborn son. That was a wonder and it led to Mary expressing this wonder in song:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.” (Luke 1:46-50)

Then there was the trip, the stable, the birth, the visit and wonderful stories from the shepherds and wise men.

And Mary kept all of these things and pondered them in her heart! She wondered!

She was astonished, amazed, curious, and maybe even doubted.

In the sixth chapter of Matthew, part of the Sermon on the Mount, we find Jesus wondering. He wondered at all around him. He was amazed that humanity had so little faith in God.

It was as if he was saying “What is wrong with you? Can’t you tell how God feels about you by looking at creation around you?

I think about Jesus asking us this question quite often. Don’t we know how God feels about us by looking at creation around us? Can’t we understand the depth of God’s love by pondering all that surrounds us — the warm breezes of spring, the deep greens of summer, the vibrant colors of fall, and the stark crystal beauty of winter? Easily, we can know or at least begin to understand the deep love that God has for all of us, if we can allow ourselves to wonder–to be astounded by God’s creation.

Our world — the actions of humanity — reflects that we spend little time wondering and much, much more time worrying.

Worrying occupies our thoughts:

About our future

About our finances

About our work

About our family and friends

About our health

About how other people can be like they are

About our world and the chaos and violence that is so much a part of it.

About the fear that causes us to be divisive

We worry while working and going about our days and just about every moment that we are awake. And then worry keeps us from sleeping.

Here, Jesus was saying to us:

Wait a minute. Look around you at all of creation. You won’t find worry in creation. You will find wonders. Don’t worry. Be astonished. Be amazed! Be aware that you are loved and cherished with grace and mercy by the Holy One who knows you best and loves you most.

What would happen to the way we live our lives and treated other people if we spent more time wondering–allowing ourselves to be astonished at what we find all around us?

We might find ourselves listening deeply to the birds of the air and their songs and find ourselves singing along with them.

We might find that the simplest, purest of foods satisfy and delight us, like muesli — nuts and fruits and oats — offering to us sustenance and energy in the purest forms of God’s provision.

We might find that it is easier to love others and wonder why we haven’t noticed that before.

We might find it easier to listen to others when we disagree with them, to find common ground and grow from what we have in common.

We might find it easier to forgive.

We might find generosity would become our nature and find ourselves giving more, out of wonder and gratitude.

We were created to wonder — to be astonished at the glories of the earth.

Several weeks ago I found myself walking in the late afternoon. It was one of the first chilly days of autumn. The sunlight and shadows were amazing to me, chasing each other in the late afternoon light. The light bounced off the colors of the flowers along the River Walk and formed patterns and shapes and captivated my attention.

I have experienced autumn after autumn in my life. I have noticed the changing colors of leaves in the trees, but that day, I wondered as I walked because it felt like the flowers were calling out to me to notice them, to appreciate them, to marvel at them. In that moment the flowers of summer were a gift that could be given only to me by God and only if I stopped and noticed with a heart of wonder.

I felt that the flowers were telling me to notice them because that night the cold air of the first autumn frost would carry them off. It was a sacred moment — holy — and in that moment there was no room for worry.

“And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?” (Matthew 6:25-31, NRSV).

Those moments of wonder and the glory of that late afternoon has stayed with me. I was melancholy to think that those beautiful gifts of glorious color were going away that night, but I kept thinking that they will return in the spring.

And I began to wonder about what other astonishments I might notice next.

The next afternoon I went along the River Walk again. And sure enough, the flowers had been touched by the frost. I was sad for a moment or so, but then I began to look around for other treasures and I noticed that in the late afternoon light the reflection of the changing leaves on the water was startling. There was a lot of green still, but in one place along the River there was the reflection of a golden maple tree in the water. The light was hitting the water just right. I stood there for some time.

It was wonderful.

Wondering is something that we do when our hearts are full. It is a form of expressing our adoration and gratitude to God, who created each of us with a capacity to wonder. Worry is something that does not take over our lives when we are in the midst of wondering at what God has created for us.

Thomas Merton, an America Trappist monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, social activist, and scholar, thought about wonder in this way:

To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything God has given us…. Every breath we draw is a gift of God’s love, every moment of existence is a grace…. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and praise….”

We were made to wonder, and it is a gift. It brings joy, makes us feel alive, and reveals to us a new way of life–a life of gratitude. If we are people who wonder, then we worry less, we trust God more, and our faith is alive. The best way to respond to this gift thankfully is to bring someone else to the experience.

Rachel Carson was an American marine biologist and conservationist who is best remembered by her book, Silent Spring, which advanced environmental studies. She had something to say about wonder, as well:

“Those who wonder … who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Whatever vexations and concerns of their personal lives, their thoughts can find paths that lead to inner contentment and renewed excitement in living. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts…. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night and spring after winter.”

What are we worrying about?

What are we wondering about?