Sunday, January 31, 2016

What I'd Give: Wonder, Awe, Wisdom

Last week a white-out dumped thirty inches of snow on us, slowing life to a crawl and crashing our patio roof to a tumble of shredded wood and shattered plexiglass panels.

The snow also caved in the roof of a church down the street and left more than 500 cars, trucks and buses stranded on the Pennsylvania turnpike for almost 24 hours.

We shoveled once, then again, then again, mindful that the world is beyond our control: vast, untamable, powerful, full of beauty.

It’s easy to forget how small we are. Easy to lose sight of the grandeur of this world around us.

A day of blinding snow, or a morning of brilliance, sun bright on glittering treetops, snow geese flying far overhead, can lead us back to amazement, awe, and wonder.

Just days ago, Psychology Today blog post lamented “The Loss of Awe";  
Awe-deprivation can be observed in many key areas of life. People are spending less mindful time in natural settings. Participation in organized religious groups is declining in many developed countries. Admiration for others is more difficult, as isolation becomes more common. Even schools, which have so much potential to nurture the natural sense of awe that many children naturally experience, tend not to do so for various reasons, perhaps even thwarting kids’ curiosity in the process. 
I’ve been posting during this season of Epiphany on the things I’d give you if I could – things I’d give every child, young adult, friend, loved one. Things that aren’t mine to give –beyond my reach, beyond human agency to give.

Wonder and awe are high on the list – so tightly entwined with faith, hope and awareness of love I can’t tease them apart.

We live in a sadly flattened world: trapped into worshipping the products of our own hands, little gods like smart phones and cars, ever-new apps and devices. In Deuteronomy, God warned his people that without care they would lose sight of him and worship gods of wood, stone and meta. “Junk-gods,” Eugene Peterson calls them in The Message, “the no-gods of the nations” (Deuteronomy 29).

The Psalmists warned, in Peterson’s paraphrase:  “The gods of the godless nations are mere trinkets, made for quick sale in the markets: chiseled mouths that can’t talk, painted eyes that can’t see, carved ears that can’t hear— dead wood! cold metal! Those who make and trust them become like them.” (Psalm 135)

We marvel at the mechanical voice of Siri, our “intelligent personal assistant,” while forgetting to marvel at the grand and glorious voice of creation, calling from just outside our window.

We research the next new gadget, failing to notice the miraculous stories unfolding all around us.

The day before our winter storm hit, I cleaned and refilled my bird feeders, strategically positioned where I could see them from my living room window. I put out extra suet and melted some to drizzle down the side of an old stump in the middle of my small front bird garden.

The birds are grateful. Juncos, sparrows and finches flit from feeder to feeder. Two Carolina wrens call from the shrubs below the windows. Bluebirds explore the stump and suet, perch on the shepherds hooks to survey the scene. Plump morning doves scavenge for dropped seed in the snow below the feeders.

The more I see of nature, the more I marvel. There are mysteries upon mysteries:  the ways bird communities work together to find food, watch for predators. The interplay between plants, bugs, birds that keep all in motion, provide for all.

Migration: how do birds know where to go, and when? What keeps them on course? What grand design set the whole migratory miracle in motion?

Science doesn’t explain it all, flatten it, remove the mystery. Science peels back the layers of miracle on miracle. The world more vast and mysterious than we could have imagined. The laws that govern it are far more amazing, complex, grand, than the human mind can fathom.

A 2014 editorial in Scientific American gave a quick list of what we don’t know about the universe
  • Why the universe exists
  • What dark matter is
  • Black holes
  • Quantum firewalls
  • How the human microbiome functions
  • Where the moon came from
  • What’s “out there” in the galaxies beyond us 

The writer concluded: 
There's an awful lot we don't know (far more than just the examples here). But the point is not to get despondent, because this ignorance is a beautiful thing. It's what ultimately drives science, and it's what makes the universe truly awe-inspiring. After the hundreds of thousands of years that Homo sapiens has loped around, the cosmos can still elude our fidgety, inquisitive minds, easily outracing our considerable imaginations. How wonderful. 
Another Psychology Today article described wonder as 
a complex emotion involving elements of surprise, curiosity, contemplation, and joy. It is perhaps best defined as a heightened state of consciousness and emotion brought about by something singularly beautiful, rare, or unexpected—that is, by a marvel. . . .
 Wonder is most similar to awe. However, awe is more explicitly directed at something that is much greater or more powerful than we are. Compared to wonder, awe is more closely associated with fear, respect, reverence, or veneration. . .
Eyes-open wonder can lead us to awe: worship of the one who set it all in motion.

And awe can lead us to wisdom.

In the Hebrew tradition, wisdom and awe, like wonder and awe, are so tightly joined it’s impossible to pry them apart.

“The fool says in his heart there is no God.” (Psalm 14:1Psalm 53:1)
“The fear/awe /reverence of God is the beginning of wisdom."  (Psalm 111:10Proverbs 9:10)

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in What Is Man (1965) explored the connections between awe, wonder and wisdom: 
Awe is more than an emotion; it is a way of understanding, insight into a meaning greater than ourselves. The beginning of awe is wonder, and the beginning of wisdom is awe.
Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme. Awe is a sense for transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things. It enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple: to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal. What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe.
 . . . Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the world becomes a market place for you. The loss of awe is the avoidance of insight. A return to reverence is the first prerequisite for a revival of wisdom, for the discovery of the world as an allusion to God.
Sometimes wisdom is described as “the knowledge to make the right choices.”

But I believe it’s more than that: it's an understanding of our place in relation to the God who loves us. It's the ability to forgive, because we're forgiven. To love, because we're loved. To wait with patience and grace, because the end of the story is assured, justice is promised, and it doesn't depend on us.  

Wisdom embodies both confidence and humility:  the confidence to trust direction that doesn’t fit the visible evidence. The humility to know we aren’t up to the task, yet are invited to walk and work in partnership with the one who sees above, beyond, around every envisioned option or imagined outcome. 

Wonder, awe, wisdom aren’t constants: they come and go, dependent on our own attention and intention. Our own willingness to listen, look, wait.

And yet – even that’s not true. Sometimes they blare through our deafness. Melt our resistance.  Shine into the darkness of our unbelief.

I can’t give wonder, awe, or wisdom.

Don’t have enough of my own to share, although I hold my own supply tightly and pray daily for more, for myself and those around me.

Even so, I can point toward what I see: a world full of glory and grandeur.

A God of grace who meets us when we turn toward him.

The promise of wisdom that carries us through the complexities of life, gives meaning beyond the marketplace, opens doors of opportunity when the way seems closed before us.

Treasure well worth having. 
The Lord is exalted, for he dwells on high;
    he will fill Zion with his justice and righteousness.
He will be the sure foundation for your times,
    a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge;
    the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure.  (Isaiah33:5-6)

During this Epiphany season (from the beginning of January until the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, February 10) I’ll be blogging about those things I would give if I could. 

    Sunday, January 24, 2016

    What I'd Give: Resolute Hope

    Our so-far mild winter disappeared yesterday morning in a swirl of snow and wind, with knee-deep snow when we first went out to shovel, and pathways drifting over as fast as we could clear them.

    Forecasters pronounced it the blizzard of the century, a top-ten winter storm. Our patio roof collapsed beneath the weight, while the neighborhood birds gathered to share the seed and suet I set out for them in the hours before the storm began.

    What if winter came, and never left?

    I find myself thinking of Narnia, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a land caught in the grasp of a hundred-year winter, a bleak frozen world that was “always winter, never Christmas.”

    Some residents of Narnia had given up hope, had slipped into allegiance to Jadis the Usurper, the wintry White Witch. Others watched for signs of change, maintained confidence that the world as it was was not the final story.

    I’ve been exploring the gifts I’d give if I could, the gifts that aren’t mine to give. Hope is a big one: a resolute hope that this world as it is is not the final story.

    A never-ending winter is not very likely; our own snow will be melting before the week is over.

    But what about a never-ending summer? Parts of the world once blessed with summer rains are rapidly turning into desert as drylands are over-farmed, trees are cut for fuel, climate change brings longer times of drought.  

    It’s easy to feel hopeless in the face of that reality. Easy to feel there’s nothing we can do.

    Martin Luther King’s birthday this week reminded us of another summer that lingers: “This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.” That summer of legitimate discontent lingers, half a century later.

    King insisted on hope, so much so that the centerpiece of the memorial built in DC to honor him is called “the stone of hope,” a line taken from his most famous speech:
    I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
    This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
    With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
    In Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, Walter Brueggemann explains the role of hope in fueling opposition to the prevailing narrative. He describes a destructive economy insistent on unsustainable dependence on fossil fuel, fueled by military profit and its attendant violence, trapped in an exceptionalist vision that places a highly entitled “we” in eternal opposition to an always encroaching “them.”

    Brueggemann catalogs “the despair-generating” epidemic of anxiety that confronts us:
    • anxiety acted out as unrestrained greed (there’s not enough, so grab what you can)
    • anxiety acted out as privatism (we need to look out for the private self; there’s no room for concern for the common good)
    • anxiety as willing violence (demonstrated in loyalty to guns, eagerness for military combat, readiness to torture, willingness to execute)
    • anxiety as nostalgia for the good old days: “the safe, protected, homogeneous community of the like-minded . . .  fencing out frightening otherness.” (117)
    • anxiety in the presence of a pervasive sense of “end time”, an apocalyptic vision in which “it’s every man for himself” and “you are on your own.” (118)

    In the face of that anxiety, according to Brueggemann, “The prophetic task is to articulate hope, the prospect of fresh historical possibility assured by God’s good governance of the future.” (119)

    During my years of youth ministry, I sat, more times than I can count, in the presence of a young person grieving options squandered, trapped by bad decisions, fearful of the future.

    And I've said, more times than I can count, “This is not the end of the story.”  

    I’ve seen that in my own life: great loss that led to new options and new avenues. Heavy sorrow that led to greater joy.

    And we've seen the same through the pages of history: empires collapse, principalities flounder. New ways of living emerge. 

    If we are loved, as I believe we are, if there is a good God holding us and this world in his hands, our own worst mistakes are not the end of the story.  

    The broken systems of this world, the pervasive powers, the prejudice, dysfunction, violence, inequity, may burden us, and do us harm, but they don’t have the final word.

    Jürgen Moltmann came of age during World War II and was drafted into the German army in 1944. He surrendered at the close of the war and spent the next three years as a prisoner of war. Tormented by “memories and gnawing thoughts,” he struggled with guilt, then found new faith, and hope, in reading the New Testament and Psalms given him by fellow prisoners. His Theology of Hope, published in 1964, explored the connection between faith and hope, and described the ways hope places us in opposition to the powers that surround us, enabling us to act in allegiance to God's greater vision:
    faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but it is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present. If we had before our eyes only what we see, then we should cheerfully or reluctantly reconcile ourselves with things as they happen to be. That we do not reconcile ourselves, that there is no pleasant harmony between us and reality, is due to our unquenchable hope" (Theology of Hope, 21-22).
    That unquenchable hope fueled William Wilberforce’s lifelong quest against the slave trade, gave MartinLuther King the strength to confront the injustices around him, drove Dorothy Day's work as suffragist, pacifist, and advocate for the poor and homeless, enboldened Óscar Romero to speak out against a violent, repressive regime. That same unquenchable hope has enlivened the work and witness of countless men and women across continents and centuries.

    That same hope pulls me from bed every morning, pushes me forward in unexpected ways, cries out, in me and so many I know and love, against the sweltering summers of racism, injustice, environmental degradation.

    Our hope is not in our own small offerings, but in the knowledge that the story isn’t over.

    The forces of this world will not have the final say.

    God’s love – greater than ours, more powerful than ours – will reconcile, renew, restore in ways beyond our understanding.

    Our hope in that love, our faith in that reality, gives us courage, conviction, and the ability to live and love in ways that defy the dominant narrative of our day. 

    I can't give you that hope. But I can pray:
    I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. (Ephesians 1:18-21)
    May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)

    During this Epiphany season (from the beginning of January until the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, February 10) I’ll be blogging about those things I would give if I could.