More Wonder and Awe, Please!

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 12/07/2014

Our weather has been very up and down these past couple of weeks, but we’ve certainly gotten the taste of winter at least once or twice.  The leaves are down.  The greens are up. Thanksgiving is past, and it is December now.  It is a time of darkness, and coats, and holidays, and family, and shopping, and grappling with expectations.  Let us take a deep breath and take it all in. Let’s take in all the things that we are right now.


We are creatures, living in the darkest time of the year for this area, sometimes the coldest as well.  Soon, the light will shift towards increase, but so will the cold, strangely, and we’ll possibly be inclined to curl up by a fire in a blanket, and possibly we’ll be inclined to get more rest each night, and possibly we’ll celebrate the winter solstice with a sigh of relief even as we bundle up more against the chill.


We are social beings who have formed connections with others that sustain and also damage us.  We have formed connections with those with whom we will be able to spend time and we have formed connections with those who are lost to us. We’re likely to be reflecting much on those connections this month in one way or another.


And for those of us who are adults, perhaps we are wondering, just like our theme of Wonder invites us to this month.  Perhaps we are wondering about wonder, and where to find it this December.  I know I’ve been thinking about it a lot this year.


I remember being awed by this season, both as a child and as a young adult.  I grew up celebrating Christmas, with the tree and the presents and Santa and the whole nine yards.  That was awesome and wondrous to me as a child, for sure. 


But even as I grew, the wonder stayed. As a young adult, this time of year was when I got to go home to family, to return to where I came from, never geographically but biologically, for sure, and there was wonder in that for me, to see the same people, to do the same things, to have that always be there even as I changed and grew.


In my later adult years, I had children myself, and suddenly I was the wonder maker, the bearer of another generation of tradition holding and story telling and miracle making. I became the creator of, and the witness to, the wonder that my children were experiencing during this time of year.


And now, as those children grow and grow, it’s become important to me to wonder again about wonder.  I wonder if you find yourself doing the same.  Where exactly IS the wonder of the season for adults – not the cheap kind that comes from shopping or overeating, but the real, grounding, fulfilling wonder?  It can’t be so that one must be a child or near a child in order to experience wonder during this extended holiday season, can it? 


I think this is a question that people from any faith tradition can ask, but from the Christmas side of things, there’s a terribly sappy song by Faith Hill[1] which I hate to admit gets at this question: 

Where are you Christmas

 Why can't I find you

 Why have you gone away

 Where is the laughter

 You used to bring me

 Why can't I hear music play


 My world is changing

 I'm rearranging

 Does that mean Christmas changes too?


Whether you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah or solstice or New Year or a humanist blend of all of these things as UUs often do, I say that it is wonder that we’re really seeking this time of year.  It is certainly what I am seeking. As a person of faith, it is what I wish for all of you to experience this season.  It is what I want you to experience all the time.  I want that for me too.  I do believe that the routine experience of wonder is what deepens us and enriches us, not just in these days but in all of our days. 


But it’s not very worthwhile to jabber on about wonder as a concept.  It’s much better to experience it ourselves, to put ourselves in its presence.  With that in mind, I’d like to share with you a series of stories and opportunities, ideas and mental pictures, to help us find the wonder in this season, the wonder in this world that we might otherwise miss in the hustle and the cold.


Let’s start with a reflection from Rev. George Tyger, Unitarian Universalist Army chaplain, who is writing this from a tour in Afghanistan.[2]


Darkness falls.  I sit outside on a clear night looking up at the vast, starlit sky.  One more day down.  How many more to go?


Above, the dome of the sky rounds gracefully into the dark horizon.  Beyond that, mystery and wonder. Some things are too vast to fathom. To attempt to understand them ends only in misunderstanding.  Other things are finite.  They have a beginning. They have an end.  Our time here is one of those comprehensible things.  Sometimes it can seem like an eternity, but it is not. It had a beginning.  It has an end.


One of the great mistakes is to confuse ultimate mystery with finite reality.  We want to understand things, so we bring them down to our level.  But some things can only be felt in our souls as awe and wonder.


Human beings have tried to name this Truth.  We have tried to capture it in words.  The great religious traditions each give us a glimpse of it.  But none of these words or glimpses can describe the Holy.


We can hold the finite.  We must allow the infinite to hold us. 


…For a moment, I look at the stars and long to be home.  I long to hold my wife and children in my arms and feel the familiar warmth of their touch. At this moment, even one more day feels like too much.


Then I look again.  I imagine I am not held captive by the finite days ahead, but embraced by the infinite truth beyond.  I know somehow that the same mystery and wonder that embrace me embrace my family, embrace all.  In a real sense, if just for a moment, embraced by God, I am home.


Let us take a minute to recall a time when we were held by the infinite.  What holy moment have you been present to?


Here’s one such moment, from author Rob Brezsny: “You can drink a glass of water. You can spread butter on a slice of toast. You can wash your hair and prune your plants and draw infinity signs on a piece of paper. Your hands work wonderfully well! Their intricate force and sustained grace are amply supported by your heart, which circulates your blood all the way out to replenish the energy of the muscles and nerves in your fingers and palms and wrists. After your blood has delivered its blessings, it finds its way back to your heart to be refreshed. This masterful mystery repeats itself over and over again without you ever having to think about it.”[3]


Take a moment and contemplate your own hands.


Okay, I think we’re getting there.  More wonder.  More wonder, amazingly, in the things all around us, the things that ARE us.


Rev. Victoria Safford tells the story of Wilson Bentley[4], otherwise known as “Snowflake Bentley”.  He was born in Vermont in 1865. 


“He was a natural naturalist, self-taught; as a boy he didn’t go to school, but read through his mother’s set of encyclopedias.  He was a patient observer of beauty – grasses, flowers, insects – but what he loved most, even as a child, was precipitation: rainfall; the way dew gathers into liquid lace on spider webs, and most of all, snow.


When he was 15, Wilson began studying snow crystals under a microscope, and for three years he made hundreds of drawings, trying to capture the designs before they melted. His parents were farmers, but when Wilson told them he’d read of a new camera with a microscope attached, they took all their savings and bought it, even though it cost more than their whole herd of ten cows, even though everyone in town said “Snow in Vermont is as common as dirt.”  The abundance of it in no way diminished the miracle of snow for Wilson – in fact the opposite was true.  How could there be so many millions and billions of six sided designs?


Wilson had a steel trap memory, and he guessed before it was proven that no two [snowflakes] could be alike.  The camera [his parents bought him] made pictures on glass plates, and over the rest of his life, “Snowflake” Bentley made thousands of images.  When he died, his plates went to college libraries, where they are still used not only by scientists but also by artists and designers.


But most of [the pictures of snowflakes] he gave away in his lifetime to friends, because what he loved most was sharing the beauty with others.  In the summers he held slideshows for the people in the town, projecting enlarged images on a bed sheet over a clothesline, and it took their breath away.  They’d lived waist deep in snow all their lives, cursing it, and they’d never seen it.”


How about you?  Do you know a Snowflake Bentley, someone who points out the wonder in the everyday to those around them, to you?  Are you a Snowflake Bentley to people that you know?  Can you become one? 


What would you have to notice that you don’t notice now?


Another thought from Rob Brezsny:

“Contemplate the unfathomable prowess of your digestive system.

Countless chemical reactions have to unfold with alacrity in order for it to work as well as it does. The gastric juice has to be composed of just the right mix of pepsin, rennin, mucus, and hydrochloric acid. The bile and pancreatic juice must arrive at the right spot and at the right time. The enterocytes in your small intestine always have to remember anew how to carry out their uptake of ions, lipids, and peptides. How can they possibly be so good at knowing exactly what to do and when to do it?”


A miracle, right? 


Unitarian Universalism is a funny religion, in case you hadn’t noticed.  On the one hand, we’ve been so historically attached to the pursuit of reason that some of our sympathizers (I’m talking to you, Thomas Jefferson) actually rewrote the New Testament, taking out all the miracles that couldn’t be explained by logic or science, and leaving just the good words and sound advice that Jesus offered. 


And on the other hand, the very first official Source from which our tradition is drawn is this: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”  Unitarian Universalist Source Number One.


Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder.


It is affirmed by all cultures.


It opens us to the forces which create and uphold life.


It leads to renewal of our spirits.



A song I love more than Faith Hill’s comes from Peter Mayer, and it’s called Holy Now[5].  Maybe these are better words for the December season. 

When I was in Sunday school
We would learn about the time
Moses split the sea in two
Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad
That miracles don't happen still
But now I can't keep track
'Cause everything's a miracle

Wine from water is not so small
But an even better magic trick
Is that anything is here at all
So the challenging thing becomes
Not to look for miracles
But finding where there isn't one


I say that the line that some of our UU ancestors drew between “miracle” on the one hand and “reality” on the other is much more blurred than we might think it is.  I say, and I’m sure Peter Mayer would agree, that reality itself is full of miracles, reality itself is fundamentally miraculous, both in ways that can sort of be explained, like hands or snowflakes, and also in ways that can’t really be explained at all. 


And in a holiday time known for dark and cold, we are asked to be especially attentive to these everyday miracles, aren’t we?  The light that doesn’t stop burning.  The great goodness born in the form of a tiny baby to a world full of troubles.  The way the sun starts to come back before the cold even really begins. The way a new year begins afresh no matter what.  The way that we can turn to each other when we haven’t got enough, of whatever it is that we need, on our own.  Wonder, that is.  Miracle.


You’ve got a colored star in that miracle of a hand of yours.  Please take a moment to think of something wondrous, something that inspires awe in you, something infinite that holds you, and write it down in the star for us to put up on the wall for this season of wonder.


"We've been doing this a long, long time," writes Rev. Safford, “this staring into space, imagining.  Nothing else on earth that we know of – nothing else in the universe that we know so far – looks at the stars or the land, at their own existence or their own face in the mirror, with questions and terror and reverence and awe. We’re the part of all this that laughs and loves and notices, the part of the universe that can scratch its head in amazement, the part that falls on its knees in humility, in prayer. 


Our calling,” she goes on to say, “is to transform wonder into something that endures even after the moment of wonderment passes.  The calling is to transform awe into some kind of commitment, some kind of promise to stay awake and keep alive the change that took place in you, the emotion that took hold of you, the question that astounded you when you saw the star, or the flash of a cardinal’s wing, or whatever it was that amazed you.  This is the practice of staying awake.”


Take a look at the star in your hand, the star that tells where you’ve seen wonder, where you were awake to miraculous reality.  Let us make a commitment, together, can we?  This is also called a prayer. 


It can go like this: Forces that create and uphold Life, I see you.  Thank you for all the gifts I have come to notice all around me.  Help me to see all the wonders that there are to see, even when it is dark, even when I am cold, even when I am busy and even when I feel disconnected.  Help me to live my life as if everything is a miracle, for that is surely so.  Amen.


If you’ll pass your stars up to me, I’ll be putting them up after the service.  I’m hoping to make a general shooting star shape with them, so if you’re good at that sort of thing, please come and consult.  Mostly, though, come and see all the ways in which we experience wonder.  We can be Snowflake Bentleys to each other, helping each other see the miracles that are as common as dirt, or as big as changing water into wine.










[1] “Where Are You Christmas,” by Faith Hill.  Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, 2000.

[2] “Embraced by the Night,” in War Zone Faith: An Army Chaplain’s Reflections from Afghanistan, by George Tyger.  Boston: Skinner House Books, 2013.

[3] Rob Brezsny, Pronoia is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings. Berkeley: Frog, Ltd, 2005.

[4] “Wondering and Wandering,” by Victoria Safford, minister of White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church.  Printed in Quest: A Monthly for Religious Liberals, Church of the Larger Fellowship, December 2014.

[5] “Holy Now,” by Peter Mayer.  Million Year Mind, 1999.