Stewards of Wonder and Awe

Time for All Ages: Multiple voices telling Carole Martignacco’s The Everything Seed, a beautiful, big bang creation story.

Reading

For our reading this morning, I’m going to invite you to do what the kids did earlier. When I get to the end, I’m going to invite you to spend a moment thinking about what it made you wonder.

Stephen Hawking writes in A Brief History of Time:

“The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and the electron… The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.

For example, if the rate of expansion one second after the big bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before it ever reached its present size….

Or if the electric charge of the electron had been only slightly different, stars either would have been unable to burn hydrogen and helium, or else they would not have exploded.

Of course, there might be other forms of intelligent life, not dreamed of even by the writers of science fiction, that did not require the light of a star like the sun or the heavier chemical elements that are made from stars and are flung back into space when stars explode.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that there are relatively few ranges of values for the numbers that would allow the development of any form of intelligent life. Most sets of values would give rise to universes that, although they might be beautiful, would contain no one able to wonder at that beauty.”

Sermon

I wonder, I wonder, I wonder…

No matter how many times I whisper it inside or say it aloud, each time I hear something new. It all depends where the emphasis falls before I’m whisked away.

“I wonder…” how the moon makes the oceans rise and fall.

“I wonder…”, breath bated, at the marvel of a starry night.

“I wonder…” what my son will be willing to eat for dinner tonight.

I want to spend some time talking about wonder, partly because I can’t imagine anything more fun to explore, or anything more necessary in our world.

I also want to spend some time talking about it because I think it’s one of the real gifts of our Unitarian Universalist tradition, to inspire wonder, to value wonder.

To name it as a source of our own inspiration.

I know that every person in this place has a story of wonder, a story of awe.

We live, after all, just as Stephen Hawking suggested, not just in a beautiful universe, but one which contains beings capable of wonder.

Wonder is the very first of our six sources, and where the others are focused on knowledge in the head or traditional wisdom passed down by hand, that first source tells us to listen to our hearts, to the transcending wonder of experience.

[Open hymnals]

Michael Lerner is a political activist and Rabbi at Beyt Tikkun synagogue, editor of Tikkun Magazine, a progressive magazine focused on social and religious activism, and chair of the Interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives.

In a letter from the editor, he writes “It is the reality of human experience that at our core we respond to the universe with a sense of awe and wonder at creation. We are dazzled by the incomprehensible fact of being itself.”

In his words, I think I hear the deep truth beneath our first source.

We cannot not seek for the sacred, the mystery, and the wonder which moves us to renew our spirit and opens us to the forces that uphold life.

It is part of our DNA, part of our being; it is the essence of our humanity.

Questions of wonder are common in spiritual retreats – what inspires you, what fills you with awe.

In the last threads of your waking state, as your head settles into the pillow, what mysteries emerge?

Of course these are questions we ask.

We are a wondering species, we are a wondering people, we are a wondering faith.

I’m not sure anyone can doubt that.

From the earliest records of humanity there are carvings on walls that wonder what happens after death, that wonder where the animals come from, that wonder what is behind the sun and how the plants know when to grow.

Nature and science are, for me, places of the most deeply interior wonder.

Nature has knocked me to the ground too many times to count.

The most profound sense of connection with the universe and the mystery of all that is not known.

But even when it is known, when it is understood, the natural world still hasn’t lost its capacity to inspire that same sense of wonder.

There’s a fellow named Robin Ince, who hosts a podcast and radio show on the BBC. His show is called The Infinite Monkey Cage: an irreverent look at the world through scientists’ eyes.

I love that he calls his show, an irreverent look at the world, because he and his guests are filled with the most spectacular reverence for creation.

A most profound wonder at the world.

He talked once about how the most common letter of complaint that the show gets is people who write in to complain that the show ruins the magic and the mystery and wonder of life by bringing science into the picture.

They say that wonder and awe are undone by knowing.

That science ruins it for everyone.

I have to say that I’ve never had that experience.

Instead, my experience has often been like that of one my colleagues.

She tells a story about being in a university lab, trying to entice a lady friend to come home with her. The woman had her look through a microscope at some kind of pollen.

Recognizing the beauty of it, of what she was seeing, she found herself asking why everything seemed to be moving.

In the next few minutes, she fell in love with her eventual wife, learned about Brownian motion, and started a long path towards a doctorate in microbiology and eventually theology.

Wonder and inspiration.

In knowing, in seeing, the complexity of the world, the marvel of life compelled her and connected her.

I’ve been fortunate in my life to have a lot of moments of wonder in nature and science.

I’ve seen the sun rise through the cracks of the South Dakota badlands, formed of the strangest erosion over thousands of years; I’ve been diving in water so clear that I could see half a football field away, or I would’ve seen if I wasn’t so completely surrounded by fish of every colour and shape that I couldn’t stop smiling and laughing; I’ve sat in a canoe watching northern lights fill the sky above James Bay and been stunned into silence that seemed to last for days. Indeed, when we got up the next morning, my whole group ate and packed in whispers, the spell woven by the ribbons of light still holding us in its embrace.

I grew up back and forth between the city and the forest, on a hippie commune with 325 acres of Ottawa Valley hardwoods and too much dope smoking by the adults to ever get around to clearing much of it.

It was a magical place, sitting silent at dawn watching the beavers work; collecting paper wasp nests and snake skins; fireflies in the summer meadow and sap running from the trees in spring; snow so deep that one winter we used a second floor window over the porch as our entrance and exit because the regular door was completely buried beneath the snow and ice.

My childhood never lacked for wonder, and for magic.

I was reminded of that magic of connection a few summers back, sitting at a private outdoor concert with Peter Mayer, who wrote the hymns Blue Boat Home and Everything is Holy Now. He sang “When I go outside at night, and look up and the stars are bright, sometimes I lay on the ground and imagine that the sky is down, and if the earth should then let go I’d fall into the stars below.“

That connection, that inescapable sense of being intertwined, is a part of the divine for me.

This is what wonder in nature does.

It astonishes us.

It silences us, sometimes in ways oppressive like tsunamis and tornados, and sometimes in ways that are liberating, reminding us of the deep, deep web of which we are a part.

It silences us in groups as we acknowledge the majesty and the magic of what surrounds us, of what binds us one to another.

If we’re alone it silences the interior monologue, the interior conversation for a time.

Allows us to hear that still small voice inside, echoes of the mystery of creation.

Voice still and small, deep inside all, I hear you call, singing.

**break**

A few years back I was doing my field placement at the Grand River Unitarian congregation.

For a time I was listening to audiobooks to pass the hours of commuting from Toronto to Kitchener twice a week.

I remember one morning, driving out there very early and listening to an audiobook by Richard Louv, who coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder, 150 years after our own forebears Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau recognized the same problem.

And he spoke of the psychological harm that living without nature does, particularly to kids.

More anxiety, more depression, more anti-social behaviours.

Louv started his campaign, demanding that not only must no child be left behind, no child should be left inside.

His work reminds me of a very interesting and challenging study about fifteen years ago by David Sobel, an environmental educator out in British Columbia, who looked at how the environmental education movement was failing at that time to actually raise kids to be environmentalists.

While we had a generation of kids who were finding change under cushions and hosting car washes to buy South American rainforests and save arctic polar bears, they knew too little of the actual natural world around them.

His studies showed that if you want to raise an environmentalist, if you want to raise children into adults who care about the natural world, you have to get them out into it.

I know nature deficit disorder is real – I’ve been feeling it these last few years, so bound up in all the work and the studying and the teaching that I too often forget to pause.

I was lamenting this to my partner Ariel a few weeks ago and she reminded me of our trip across the continent, when I drove out to Vancouver to drive all her stuff back to my place in Toronto.

At some point along the way back I apparently noticed that she was stuck with her nose in her phone and I pulled off the highway.

She looked up wondering what we were stopping for, but I was already out my door and coming around to hers.

I opened it and invited her out.

We stood on the shoulder of a Montana highway, leaned against the car, held hands and watched the sun set upon Big Sky Country.

We had been driving for 27 of the previous 36 hours and just needed a moment to be reminded, to be reconnected, to acknowledge the wonder of the world beyond our air-conditioned bubble and gas station bathrooms.

Glorious sunsets and enormous skies are a blessing, whenever we notice them.

I had the same experience last night. Standing in Royal Oak Bay, feeling the lapping water of the tide on my feet, staring at a bright moon 240,000 miles away that was making it happen.

—–

I’ve been thinking lately that there may be a parallel problem emerging – one tied deeply into Louv’s nature deficit one – and at the moment I’m inclined to call it wonder deficit disorder.

Poet Emily Dickinson once wrote that you need to leave the door ajar if you want the spirit to get in.

And this is how I feel about wonder in my life most days and maybe your life is feeling kind of the same.

Filling my life to the brink with plans, with work, with learning, with ‘personal growth’ can fill the vessel to overflowing, can push the door closed or keep the room so full that even with an open door there’s no space to get in.

We need to make space for wonder to emerge, we need to give ourselves more unstructured time, more unstructured play, more space to sit, to walk, to explore.

As children, we are often overwhelmed with wonder, where everything is new and we can’t yet explain it.

As we grow and as we learn, wonder starts to slip away, pressed out beneath our ever-accumulating knowledge and the pressures of adult life.

Many of us find wonder again with children of our own or of our friends and family or of our church.

We can get the thrill vicariously when we become not just wonderers but wonder makers for these children.

The first UU principle, in our children’s sources vocabulary is this: Our beliefs come from our sense of wonder.

We learn by asking why.

Can you heed the words of Emily Dickinson?

Can you leave your door ajar to wonder, to inspiration, to awe?

Can you wonder at a thing and be satisfied in the mystery?

Can you figure the puzzle out, and wonder and marvel all the more now that you know how it works?

—-

There are lizards on the Poor Knights archipelago in New Zealand that for years defied logic for the researchers who studied them.

Each morning, birds on the island would fly away and the lizards would come slithering towards their nests.

The first time you’d see them coming and imagine that they’re going to eat the eggs.

The researchers were shocked when instead of eating them, these lizards would sit at the edge of the nests and protect the eggs from other birds or other animals that would eat them.

As the birds returned from their day of fishing and carousing, the lizards would take off, back to their own spot for the night.

It defied logic until the researchers figured out that the lizards were eating the bird droppings which gave them an amino acid that let them digest one of the island’s plants.

It was a bizarre symbiosis.

One could be inspired to wonder at the unknown nature of it, but I have to imagine that wonder was amplified when we finally figured out the system worked out between these species’ ancestors over millennia.

Knowing is not the enemy of wonder – indeed it can inspire infinitely more wonder to come.


Carl Sagan in his series Cosmos, said the following:

“Stellar nuclear reactions generate the elements we know in everyday life, elements returned to the interstellar gas, where they are swept up in a subsequent generation of cloud collapse and star and planet formation.

All the elements of the Earth except hydrogen and helium have been cooked by a kind of stellar alchemy billions of years ago in stars, some of which are today inconspicuous white dwarfs on the other side of the Milky Way Galaxy.

The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood and the carbon in our apple pie were made in the interiors of collapsing stars.

We are made of starstuff.”

The very end of that Sagan quote: “we are made of starstuff,” – I find thrilling, affirming.

It locates me in the midst of wonder – of a wonder-filled universe – one that’s still becoming.

All of which positions me, in a way that maybe I understand, sort of – positions me in time and space, and beyond.

And that, to me is exciting and wonderful.

I stand here, something like 13-point-seven billion years after the beginning of the universe, four-and-a-half billion years or so after the formation of this planet, three-and-a-half billion years, give or take, after life here began the trek that would include the creation of homo sapiens.

I stand in this place, at this time, made of elements formed in the alchemy of imploding stars, that in a fraction of an instant, might not have been at all.

And so do you.

You too are stardust.

There is a poem by Pablo Neruda, in which for several pages he asks question upon question, impossible questions:

– Where does the lizard’s tail buy its fresh paint?
– Where is the underground fire that resurrects the carnations?
– When did the lemons learn the same catechism as the sun?
– When did smoke learn to fly?
– Where does the tiger buy his stripes of sorrow, stripes of gold?
– Why is the scorpion poisonous, the elephant benign?
– And why are the leaves so green?

Question upon question, wonder upon wonder, and at the end an observation:

What we know is so little

And what we presume so much

And we learn so slowly …

Better to keep our pride for the city of the dead,

And there when the wind blows through the hollows

Of your skull,

It will decipher these enigmas for you,

Whispering the truth in the space where your ears used to be.

In other words, there are some things we can never know, eternal questions we can never answer. The wind will answer when we’re gone.

The words of the Rev. Dr. Susan Suchocki Brown

“The universe is richer than we can imagine, life is more mysterious than we can find answers for; human nature will always want to know the why and the what and how.

Being a religious, spiritual person is the how.

We do this by asking questions, exploring the interface of science and religion and partaking of spiritual reflections on the things that really matter, like our loved ones, our community, and where we put our energy and thoughts and resources will deepen our inner spirit, keep us connected with others and help us live more justly and lovingly in the whole world.”

Our job, now and here, is to ask and wonder, ask and learn, ask and stumble, ask again, keeping open to the mystery – as open as a scientist, as open as a child.

It’s a hard discipline for smart, rational, tech savvy, empirical, opinionated, outcome-driven 21st century Unitarian Universalists; a difficult discipline, to stay open to wonder and awe.

It requires the most courageous, creative humility, to stay open always to new truth, especially when you think you know the truth, or that someone else does not.

Openness to evolving truth (or an evolving grasp of evolving truth), openness to wonder, is the first important thing.

The great Hasidic Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote,

“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”

Heschel believed the goal of life was to live it with ‘radical amazement’.

Each day we wake we should take nothing for granted.

Everything should be seen as phenomenal, incredible.

Heschel knew that, “To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

I would add that to be spiritual is to wonder, and to that I would say Amen.

The wonders of the natural world are deeply compelling for me, connecting me to being and belonging in ways that other things can’t.

The power of nature in a child’s life, in an adult’s life. The joy of wonder and being a wonder maker. The hope of being a wonder seeker.

Terry Pratchett, one of my favourite science fiction authors, died a couple of years back. I remember well a story he told once in an interview about where his inspiration came from for the magical worlds he invented in his writing and for the exuberant wonder he expressed through his life.

He answered with the words of his character Masklin from The Bromeliad Trilogy

“I told her we were going to get married, and all she could talk about was frogs.

She said there’s these hills where it’s hot and rains all the time, and in the rainforests there are these very tall trees and right in the top branches of the trees there are these like great big flowers called… bromeliads, I think, and water gets into the flowers and makes little pools and there’s a type of frog that lays eggs in the pools and tadpoles hatch, and grow into new frogs and these little frogs live their whole lives in the flowers right at the top of the trees and don’t even know about the ground, and once you know the world is full of things like that, your life is never the same.

May your days be like Terry Pratchetts.

May you see wondrous things, hear wondrous tales, and know that when the world is full of things like that, your life will never be the same.

And when someone says “will wonders never cease” feel free to say “I sure hope not.”

“May your wonder never cease.”

Let that be the blessing we pray for one another.