I found myself at my kitchen window one morning a couple of weeks ago, gazing out at the yard between where I stood and the little raised bed garden across the way. It is blanketed in white pine needles, that rusty brown shade they turn to once released from the tree. But there was something different about them that day, a glow about the space. Were they orange or, maybe pink? I was about to retrieve my box of 120 Crayolas in order to identify it! But at some point I gave up because I was captivated by this sense of color and light radiating upward from the earth. It wasn’t just the ground cover; it was in the air itself. Nothing was left untouched by it – not the English ivy or the red stemmed dogwood or the rhododendron – all of it awash with this aura of warmth and energy. So, I settled in - watching, waiting, soaking up the intensity of it. Soon the sun rose up from behind the wooded expanse to the east, the clouds now tinged with this wonderful hue until it burst through, melting the scene with its rays. I can still see it if I close my eyes, count myself blessed to have borne witness to such beauty. Awestruck!
I was filled with wonder that morning and “Wonder” is our theme this month. And I wonder how many of you know where that theme comes from each month? Do you wonder what I mean when I say that something is our “Soul Matters theme?” Soul Matters Sharing Circle is a network of Unitarian Universalist congregations who follow the same monthly themes so we can more easily share small group material, as well as worship, sermon, music and children’s religious education resources. Here we share in this theme between the worship committee, some of our small groups and our social media folks. It is a web of support and connection. It is nice to know that we are traveling on a journey together each month here within our faith community and with other UU communities. If religion is that which binds us, one to another, this resource is a tool designed to help make that happen. So, as we wonder about wonder this morning, we can know that countless other Unitarian Universalists across the country are also pondering similar questions and sharing experiences of wonder. How wonder-full is that!
I invited you to share with me your experiences of awe and wonder as I prepared for today and I noticed how many of you spoke about an experience of light – sunrise that is different every day as it shines through the clouds and comforting in its consistency - sunlight as it pours in through our Meeting House windows, our sunsets and seasonal color, the star-filled nights lighting up the sky.
Gail was in awe of the seasonal shifts that occur, changing daily if you pay attention, and comforted by the fact that she can count on each one following in turn, each one with its own color scheme, each one with its own accompanying rituals. Her grandchildren, too, unique and wonderful beings, growing into absolutely wonderful
youth and adults, such an awesome process as it unfolds.
Beth found herself in awe of a very industrious ant moving a bread crumb many times its own size across her picnic table, keeping tabs on it while she ate her lunch, staying with it until it reached the ground, wanting to share with it how inspired she was by its efforts. This feeling of awe shows up in witness to all kinds of tiny creatures for her – newly hatched turtles making their way to the ocean, baby birds taking their first flight from the nest. It is this “spirit-force” she says that is so awe inspiring.
Jennie noticed the pure sound of Jon and Sally rehearsing their piece for this morning in a near empty sanctuary. And she noticed the sanctuary itself – spacious and uncluttered, ready to be filled with melodies and harmonies and debate and negotiation and companionship and community and support and inspiration – awe in the face of all of it.
Pavia turned toward the ways she had been blessed in this life – the beauty and wonder of it all – the times when something came along giving her reason to live – thousands of them, but for her so much beautiful music. Upon hearing it she is dumbfounded by how moving it is and by the simple fact that someone created it! And how awesome that she was able to share one such piece with us this morning!
When we share in this ministry together – share in our weekly celebrations of faith – share what fills our hearts and minds and spirits – we are awed by the existence of this place, this community, these connections in our lives. Awed by the opportunity to come together in love and care for one another. Awed even perhaps by the responsibility that our values call us to. This sharing is so much more than just me standing up here talking about something interesting every Sunday. Shared ministry is about the awesomeness of being in this life and this faith-work together, a powerful expression of what can be.
Awe is that feeling of being in the presence of something transcendent, beyond our understanding. No longer reserved for divine beings, or to be experienced in religious ritual alone, these days we know that sense of awe at things more commonplace – all the ways you shared with me this week and many more, I am sure. We are awed by relational things, too – kindnesses exchanged – those gestures of selflessness we bear witness to. Awe may have become a part of our emotional repertoire originally as a means to bind us in our social connections and enable us to act more collaboratively, improving our survival rate. Studies at UC Berkley have shown that awe stimulates wonder and curiosity, driving people to paradigm-shifting discoveries and new technologies – think Darwin or Muir or Einstein here. But they also found that awe can have a positive influence on our health, bolstering our immune systems. Apparently folks experience something awe-inspiring on average about once every third day, feel they are in the presence of something vast and beyond immediate comprehension. And these daily bursts of awe appear to be predictors of well-being a few weeks into the future. 1
Our own Joan Konopka shared the idea that wonder is an act of exploration and that we have an inherent need for that. We start out this way, but often are discouraged rather than being nourished and given room to grow into the expansive human beings we are capable of becoming. Experiences of awe and wonder are life itself calling to us to explore. When I think about my window experience, I realize that part of me now wants to know what combination of light and temperature and moisture and whatever other elements melded together to create the scene I was privileged to happen upon. My curiosity has been piqued in equal measure with my desire to simply absorb the sacredness of the moment. But overall, the fact is that it has remained a part of me now for several weeks and I continue to be fed by it.
I could have walked away from the window that morning, noticed, but then shrugged it off, too much else to tend to. Instead, I gave myself over to it, not quite meditating, mindfully attentive though to what was happening. It turns out that these mindful moments interspersed throughout the day are actually beneficial to one’s health. It is a judgement free state of awareness. Some of its theorized benefits include self-control, enhanced flexibility, equanimity, improved concentration, and the ability to relate to oneself and others with kindness, acceptance, and compassion. 2
And while mindfulness meditation can lead to more frequent experiences of mindful awareness in the day to day, the simple act of stopping when something awesome is offered to us, noticing, staying with it and letting go of everything else our bodies and minds are calling on us to do, has the effect of slowing us down, creating that ever-so slight shift in our responses to those things that crowd our senses, in our reactivity with the world around us.
Activist, educator and filmmaker, Valarie Kaur suggests that wonder is where love begins and, conversely, that a failure to wonder is the root of violence. When we cease wondering about others and seeing them as a part of who we are, we reduce our capacity for empathy, allowing anything to happen to them or to be done to them. So, when we maintain an ability to be awed by their humanity, to cultivate a sense of openness to their thoughts and needs and experiences and pain, the very being-ness of someone else, we simultaneously up our ability to love. In the process we decrease the likelihood of our reacting in violent ways.
In our reading this morning, D. H. Lawrence talks about divination as being those acts of pure attentiveness from which insight results. When we succumb to the awesome, wonder-filled moments of our lives, turning all that we are toward that object, we are the recipients of discoveries as yet unknown to us, of a clarity of mind and heart that makes a path for decisions to come to the fore. To be present in the midst of awe-inspiring
experience is to open ourselves to insight, to a greater depth of being, to love itself. We are drawn beyond our familiar spiritual territory and into a place of pondering, wondering, questioning and wrestling, one that, if we are willing, will accompany us for the rest of our lives.
This week I invite you into a practice of wonder. We are blessed with a natural beauty here on this spit of land, no doubt what has drawn many of us here in the first place. How often do we take the time to be attentive to it? Have we become too caught up in doing to experience the benefits of simply being? With the holidays upon us there will be family and friends we may not see so often. Can we approach them with wonder and awe, relishing all of who they are, even when it is difficult or contrary to our own life path? Can we find in them that shining spark on which we might marvel for a moment or two, engendering greater love and compassion?
My invitation is to find yourself at your own “kitchen window experience” in the coming weeks and to stay with it long enough for the whole of it to wash over you. May you be blessed in those moments; may you know a peace that wasn’t previously present to you. Let’s take a second or two to look around this place, to notice the love in each awesome life gathered here this morning.
Blessed be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, December 11, 2022
2 What are the benefits of mindfulness? (apa.org)