Anthem: “How Great Thou Art” (Arr. Courtney) :: Kelly Ford, soloist; Billie Kay Sawyer, pianist
Reader: Doc Shannon
Preaching: Rev. Mark Briley
Communion: “Wonder” (Hillsong United) :: The Rising Band; Andi Gross, soloist; Isaac Herbert, leader
Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise. Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you. All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name.” Selah Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals. He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There we rejoiced in him, who rules by his might forever, whose eyes keep watch on the nations—let the rebellious not exalt themselves. Selah Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip. For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.
When I was ten or eleven years old, I spent hours every summer day out on our back concrete patio throwing a tennis ball against a brick wall. I’d throw it hard, field it and throw it again. Over and over and over. Typically, I’d bring my old jam box outside too, pop in Michael Jackson’s Thriller album on cassette and let it play all the way through. Rewind it and start it over. When I wore out the brick wall, I’d start throwing the ball up on the roof, track the roll, catch it as it bounced off and fly it again. Occasionally, the ball would get stuck in the gutter. The ball was a pretty important component of the fun so I had no choice but to retrieve it. I discovered that the air conditioning unit over to the side of the house could get me half way to the roof. Placing a big cinder block on top of the A/C unit gave me enough height that I could reach the gutter with my fingertips. I’d stretch my fingertips around the edge of the gutter, hang from the gutter and America Ninja Warrior myself about eight feet over to the old rusty antenna pole. Then, I’d shimmy up the pole until I could stretch my legs around it to get up on the roof. Once on the roof, I could scoot over to where the ball had gotten stuck and toss it back to the ground. If my mom is listening to this message online right now, she is surely shaking her head for this risky behavior. What’s worse is that I kind of liked climbing up on the roof. My body was big enough that hanging on the gutter didn’t prove well for the gutter over time and that little eight-foot section that I dangled from to get over to the antenna pole became bent and battered and not so effective in its guttering task – and it looked terrible. Mom, again, my apologies.
What truly became some of my favorite times to climb up on the roof was at night time. I’d shimmy up my customary way, lay down on the roof and gaze at the stars – the wonder of the world from a rooftop in a tiny, rural, Missouri town. It was magnificent. “Look what God has done!” I would think to myself. It is really a magical memory of my childhood. Goose bump kind of moments. We all want those goose bump moments, right? They come when you are overcome by awe and beauty and wonder. Gazing upward from the floor of the Grand Canyon. Hearing your favorite song sung a cappella in a quiet room with the greatest acoustics. Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Seeing the sun being swallowed by the ocean when the day is done. Goose bumps. Our very bodies are telling us that we are standing in the presence of greatness and experiencing something beyond simple explanation. When is the last time you’ve simply been in awe of something?
You know, studies show that people who are capable of experiencing awe are also more likely to be compassionate and sensitive to the needs of others. Isn’t that interesting? Yet, the evidence also seems to be pointing us toward a discouraging trend. Many people are not seeking the mysterious and awe-inspiring moments any more… or have become desensitized to their presence. We spend more time looking down at our smart phones than up at the stars in the sky. The noise of our daily lives drown out the beautiful music all around us that can surprise, delight and lift our spirits again. H.G. Wells said, “There was a time when I looked up at the stars and felt a sense of awe and wonder. Now I look at the stars in the same sense that I look at the wallpaper in a train station waiting room.” How disheartening. And do you want to know something else I learned this week? Christians may be losing the wonder faster than anybody else in the world.
A recent article published by the Pew Research Center puts up the fresh data. They demonstrate that Americans are getting less religious as a whole (by the measures of our traditional standards – worship attendance for example) but feelings of awe and wonder for non-religious persons are on the rise. The most significant change they note comes from what may seem like an unlikely place – American’s atheists. The number of atheists who reported feelings of wonder about the universe soared from 37% to 54% over the span of their study — a whopping 17 percentage points. This is a higher percentage than both evangelical Christians and Catholics: 48% and 42% respectively. Where has all the wonder gone, my friends? When people say we are full of it, I want them to say we are full of wonder, not full of anything else. Okay. Honest self-check moment for each and every one of us… Simple yes or no answer to the question. You don’t have to say it out loud but trust your gut response to this question. “Have you lost the wonder of your faith?” The Psalmist has a thought or two about wonder to help us close our series in wonderland.
“Make a joyful noise to God!” “Give it up for God!” the Psalmist says. ‘Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds.” “You are so good,” the Psalmist writes, “that your goodness is cringe worthy to your adversaries.” “Say of God, “We’ve never seen anything like him!” When your enemies see you in action, they slink off like scolded dogs.” Fascinating. The Psalmist, presumably David here, says, “The whole earth falls to its knees in awe.” It’s a word to awaken ourselves to the world around us… awaken even to the Spirit within you. Don’t miss this. Don’t become desensitized or over stimulated to the point where you’re no longer in awe of your place in the world. It seems to be the unfortunate reality of politics right now – that we’re hardly shocked any more by what gets said, what length ads will go to in order to dehumanize their opponent, or what we will tolerate as acceptable vernacular of elected officials. We lose the wonder, we begin to think those things matter less or if we’re not inspired to wonder, we become less inclined to do our part to make things better. There’s research that suggests this is true as well.
Coming out of the work of Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, we learned of an experiment they tried on campus. In a particular quadrant of the campus, there is a spectacular [grove of trees] grove of Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees, some with heights exceeding 200 feet — a potent source of everyday awe for anyone who walks by. Piff and Keltner thought they’d take advantage of its natural wonder to conduct an experiment. The design was simple. They took participants to that area and had them either look up into the trees or look at the facade of a nearby science building, for one minute. Then, a minor “accident” occurred (which was the planned part of the experiment): A person stumbled and dropped a handful of pens. Participants who had spent the minute looking up at the tall trees — not long, but long enough, filled with awe — picked up more pens to help the other person that the participants staring at a blank wall. This happened over and over again. We lose awe, wonder, goose bumps … maybe worship… we lose a sense that what we do matters and can make a difference in the world. If we give up on that, then what? Perhaps the disappearance of integrity, service, and the sheer goodness of humanity. If wonder and awe make us more Christ-like in our behavior, then why not give more room for it in our lives?
The awe will cause us to pause in our tracks initially, at times eliciting a fear-like response as fear is a close companion of awe. It can compel us to act. It may be why the Bible speaks frequently about “the fear of the Lord” as we note in multiple places in the Psalms. The fear comes with the newness – maybe a component of God we have not yet fully uncovered in our lives. This is one important reason not to get complacent in our faith. Not simply to slack in our efforts to seek God more, further, deeper. We get complacent – eh, we know enough, we’re comfortable enough, the God I have works well enough to keep me comfortable where I am so I think I’ll not press those limits any further thank you very much. But there is no wonder in complacency. And if Jesus is anything, he is not complacent – we can’t follow him content with our own complacency of faith. This may make us a bit uncomfortable. You mean I have to reconsider some things? You mean I have to stretch myself on that issue, that matter, that idea, that call to service? Oh yes, we do.
You may remember C.S. Lewis’ great work, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” In his book, God is very much like Aslan the Lion. In the course of this Christian fantasy, the character named Susan asks Mr. Beaver the question of whether Aslan the Lion is safe. She admits that she would be rather nervous about meeting a lion. “Safe?” replied Mr. Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” Nothing about Jesus is safe but I believe everything Jesus invites us into in following him is good. It may be dangerous wonder, but it is the only thing that will transform us, and the world, into earth as it is in heaven. In this way, wonder is not lackadaisical. Yes, we need to get lost in wonder sometimes, lost in the overwhelming sense of beauty and magnitude and recognize our smallness in the cosmos but most often, wonder should inspire us… propel us forward into the good work of the Good News. It is the inspiration that pushes us through the muck to the promised land. This is why Oklahoma State plays the clip of Kurt Russell from the movie Tombstone before every game: “You tell ’em I’m coming … and hell’s comin’ with me. Ya hear? Hell’s comin’ with me!” It’s the wonder of going through hell and coming out the other side.
Our Christian approach has a bit of a different vibe to it than that, but the Psalmist does recognize the wonder of what it means to go through hell and keep pressing forward. He writes in verse eight: “Bless God! Give him a thunderous welcome! Didn’t he set us on the road to life? Didn’t he keep us out of the ditch? He trained us first, passed us like silver through refining fires, brought us into hardscrabble country, pushed us to our very limit, road-tested us inside and out, took us to hell and back;” until what? “Finally, he brought us to this well-watered place.” That well-watered place was the Promised Land – sign and symbol of God’s ultimate deliverance to a spacious place. That spacious place for you may be that space in your soul deprived of wonder. The Hebrew word used there for spacious place may be more accurately translated, “to a saturation,” which I absolutely love. This idea that God may bring us in wonder, through hellacious valleys into a saturation… a soul fully immersed in love and grace and wonder that we cannot help ourselves but become a force of transformation in every corner of our lives – our marriages, relationships, work places, government, neighborhoods, bowling allies- not a single place that doesn’t need a little wondrous transformation. That study coming out of Berkeley that I’ve referenced already discovered that everyone who experiences awe and wonder (no matter its source) share two characteristics: vastness and accommodation. In other words, you have this encounter that is so expansive and mind blowing that it nudges you to change the way you process the world. And whenever you change the way you process the world, doing so in a more Christ-centered fashion, the world gets better, stronger, less fragmented, more whole. Be someone who is saturated in wonder. It will set you up for opportunity to see and feel and experience what you wouldn’t otherwise.
The burning bush confronting Moses – certainly a wonder, yes? Goose bumps. What did it require? Moses had to take a timeout – at least if he wanted to do more than glance at it. Barbara Brown Taylor invites us to wonder about this encounter of Moses and the burning bush. “He could have just peeked at it. He could have seen the flash of red out of the corner of his eye, said, “Oh, how pretty,” and kept right on driving the sheep. He did not know that it was an angel in the bush, after all. Only the storyteller knew that. Moses could have decided that he would come back tomorrow to see if the bush was still burning, when he had a little more time, only then he would not have been Moses. He would just have been a guy who got away with murder, without ever discovering what else his life might have been about. What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside.” What makes you, you? What was the turning point of wonder that set your life on a course that has changed your world… if not the world around you? And, I wonder something else… What if… for every single one of us regardless of age or stage of life, that wondrous moment has not yet occurred? Are you ready to receive it?
So what if you lived your life wonder-full? Crank up your favorite song when it comes on the radio. Read a non-fiction book about a church saint or someone whose wonder-turn inspires you. Spend less time working and commuting when you can and spend more time outdoors and with other people. Give up the working weekends and late night meetings for camping trips, picnics and midnight skies. Go to art events and soak in live music and go to the theater or a museum. Climb up on your roof, however you have to shimmy up there and soak in the stars as you did when you were ten years old.
Experience more awe. Seek out what gives you Goosebumps. For when you do, your soul gets brighter, your life gets better, you serve more freely, and God is glorified. And I can’t imagine what could be more wonder-full than that.
 Carol Kuruvilla, “Americans may be getting less religious, but they’re feeling more wonder,” The Huffington Post, January 26, 2016. huffingtonpost.com.
 Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, “Why do we experience awe?” The New York Times, May 24, 2015, nytimes.com.
 Commentary note here stemming from the work of Bob Kaylor, Senior Writer for Homiletics Magazine, on this passage from Psalm 66.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (HarperOne, 2010), 25.