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. . .
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.
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.