The word “wonder” is one of my favorite words in the English language. We have the seven wonders of the world, “one-hit wonders,” “wonder workers”, and expressions like, “It’s a wonder that he even made the team,” or conversely,” “It’s no wonder that he was the leading scorer,” “I wonder what it all means?” and “I wonder how he got so fast all of a sudden”
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary offers these definitions of wonder:
1. a feeling of surprise and admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, or unfamiliar.
2. a person or thing that causes such a feeling.
[as modifier] having remarkable properties or abilities: a wonder drug.
1. feel curious; desire to know.
used to express a polite question or request.
2. feel doubt.
3. feel wonder.
There are 104 occurrences of the word “wonder” in the New Standard Bible. Nearly all are about miraculous “signs and wonders” by God or the disciples. These days, we don’t talk much about miracles, and many of us seldom feel a sense of awe or wonder. Technological advances are so commonplace that we not only aren’t surprised by them, but we have come to expect them.
We are much more likely to wonder in the sense of being curious or doubtful. I wonder what it feels like to drive a BMW, or whether the Twins will ever get out of the cellar. And I wonder where my life will take me over the next few years. But too seldom do I wonder at how a sunset could be so beautiful, or how another person can be so selfless. Not often enough do I experience feelings of awe, joyful surprise, unjealous admiration, and gratitude.
Besides making us less happy, the problem with our “wonder deficit” is that it can turn into a “caring deficit”. I believe that caring about our world, both the physical environment and the people in it, requires that we experience feelings of wonder for it. If you are struck with awe by the Grand Canyon or the North Shore, you are less inclined to want to mess them up with mining or other commercial development. Likewise, if you are charmed and delighted by the music or architecture of a people you are less likely to want to exploit them.
In Matthew 18:2 Jesus admonishes us to have faith like a child. The usual interpretation of the passage is that Jesus is calling us to a simple and elemental faith. But I wonder if it also suggests that we need to have a “childlike sense of wonder”. One of the joys of parenthood (or grandparenthood) is watching the delight of a child when he or she discovers something new and unexpectedly awesome, like eating an ice cream cone or seeing a big aquarium for the first time. At these times, kids are filled with unadulterated wonder. If we adults could capture more of that sense of wonder at God’s creation, we would be careful with that creation.
We at St. Matthew’s like to think of ourselves as being a “wondering” congregation. We pride ourselves on being intellectually curious about all aspects of our faith and our activities. We don’t blanch at questions like “Why does God permit evil?”, “Was Jesus really divine?” or “Where is God leading us?” But I think we also need to systematically cultivate the awe aspect of wonder and, in fact, become “ambassadors of wonder.” God calls us to promote love and caring among people, and to accomplish that mission, we need to help others to feel awe and joy at the wonders, both physical and personal, all around them.
The June issue of the Sierra Club magazine has an interesting article about an experiment in wonder ambassadorship: http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/201105/wilderness-diplomacy.aspx Working through an organization called Roots for Peace, nature photographer Ian Shive is distributing 25,000 copies of his book, The National Parks: Our American Landscape to a wide range of people in Afghanistan. Many Afghans know the United States only through our intervention there, through our movies, or though propaganda, all of which give a partial and often distorted picture of us. Their reaction upon seeing the pictures of our stunning national parks is one of surprise, awe, and wonder. And that reaction then opens up conversations about values, beauty and things we have in common. Shive is planning to reciprocate by photographing natural wonders in Afghanistan and sharing his photographs with Americans.
So I wonder: How can we as individuals, and as a congregation, cultivate and increase our sense of wonder, while still maintaining our open, wondering attitude? How can we be ambassadors of wonder and caring to people outside the church? Can we stage “wonder interventions” for those who need more wonder?