Isabell’s Smile

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” wrote Albert Einstein. “It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” 

Albert Einstein

Isabell’s Wonder and her Grandfather’s Wondering

Christmas felt different this year. Until four-month-old granddaughter Isabell smiled, gurgled, and giggled back from the blanket on the floor. Before that I had been stuck in the soul-wrecking kind of wonder, not the wondrous kind of wonder Einstein described. No sugar plums danced in my head.

Photograph of Isabell Smiling
Four-month-old Isabell, Christmas day, 2021

Events of the past year were tumbling over each other. I hear the sound of a paper shredder and wonder whether any copies of the Constitution will survive the shredders. I see the Mother of Exiles, her lamp still held high, but dimming, while the torches of hate grow bright to erase Emma Lazarus’s poem welcoming “the poor, huddled masses, and tempest-tost, yearning to be free.” I hear the torch-bearers chanting in Charlottesville “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” and hear the Munich Beer Hall Putsch in my language. I see the party of Lincoln riding the wave of the Big Lie and wonder when patriotism became treasonous and “open carry” the closest synonym of freedom. I see the gallows outside the Capitol, hear the shouts “Hang Mike Pence” and “Execute Nancy,” and wonder how individual freedom was severed from responsibility, and who decided only whites neighbor. I wonder what happened to the Golden Rule and the parable of the Good Samaritan. I wonder whether the demons of national exceptionalism and white supremacy can be exorcized, and if and when the 100-year fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, and floods will knock sense into climate change-deniers before the murder-suicide pact leaves no one to be replaced. I wonder what will become of us. I have to wonder.

Bethlehem and an Empty Chair for Elijah

We are no closer to Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom than the day Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The Hebrew prophets’ “Day of the Lord” or its New Testament equivalent, “the Kingdom of God” is harder to imagine when Herod seems closer than the wisdom of the Wise. Elijah’s empty chair at the annual Seder meal is kept empty as a sign of hope against hope that the Messianic kingdom of Isaiah’s vision and Jesus’ preaching are more than pipe dreams.

Isabell knows nothing about any of this. She does not wonder the way I do. Shel smiles back at her grumpy grandfather, wiggling, gurgling, and giggling with joy. Isabell is no stranger to Einstein’s “beautiful thing” — the ‘thing’ that is not a ‘thing’.

The Experience of the Sacred

Fred and Jo never met Isabell. They were in their mid-90s and mid-80s when she first opened her eyes. She never saw Jo and Fred walking hand-in-hand around the retirement center. If it weren’t for the gray hair and hint of a limp, on onlooker might mistake them for teenagers. Their love was as fresh as the morning dew. The luster of love’s delight had not dimmed or faded until Jo’s daily greeting —“Good morning, Dear. How are you today?”— stopped. Two years later, her heart stopped also.

When the funeral home attendants arrived at the Memory Care Center, Fred had settled himself in the chair at the foot of the bed. Respecting his grief and wanting to protect him from viewing their work, the attendants invited him to leave the room until they were finished. Fred declined their invitation. He stayed in the room to watch each step of the process of preparing the deceased’s body, and followed the attendants and the body down the elevator and out to the hearse.

When asked later what his experience had been watching the whole process while deep in grief, Fred looked at me and paused. . . for a long time. The look on his face was quizzical. “I’m looking for the right words,” he said. “I can’t explain it. “‘Wondrous’ is the only word that comes to mind.” “I can’t explain it.” “It was ‘wondrous’!”

In that moment 90-year-old Fred and four-month-old Isabell were on the same page, alive and pausing in wonder at the beauty of it all.

“There are in life a few moments so beautiful that even words are a sort of profanity.” (Diana Palmer)

Diana Palmer

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (217 Wipf & Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Dec. 29, 2021.

Star of Wonder

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Adam Fronczek’s “Star of Wonder” sermon at Knox Church – Cincinnati comes as healing balm after a year when truth and wonder have been hard to come by. I needed this. Perhaps you do, too. You are not alone. Thank you, Adam. Thank you Knox.

Scroll forward to 22:58 to listen.

YouTube broadcast of Knox Church-Cincinnati, OH, Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2021

Best wishes for a truthful, wonder-filled Christmas,

Gordon. C. Stewart, Brooklyn Park, MN, December 24, 2021.

Verse – Sex When Pregnant

pregnancy

as your body
changes my dear
month by month by
month you become
more and more
eager more
often to be held
and touched and told
how happy i am you are
losing your girlish figure and
becoming rounder and rounder
as the new life grows within you
surprising us in spite of all we
have seen in many women
being mothers around
the round world for
years and years
and centuries
because for
us it is new
and quite
wonder
full

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, March 25, 2014

Wonder in the Culture of Possession

Tillich Park - "Man & nature belong together..."

Tillich Park – “Man and nature belong together…”

Do you sense the heart’s yearning for wonder?

Our hearts in the West are well-trained in possessing, controlling, and cajoling reality, bending it to suit our wants. The spiritual culture that accompanies “free market” economics is the drive to acquire and possess. Could our training in the culture of acquisition and possession be like the wall through which the flower breaks in Tennyson’s poem “Flower in the Crannied Wall”?

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

– Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1863

The flower lures him. Yet seeking to possess it, he destines its death. Having to possess it, analyze it “root and all”, he destroys the magnificent beauty that had drawn his eye.

Having and being are not the same. Only being is filled with wonder. Perhaps that is why Christmas Eve Candlelight services are packed with people who otherwise are not drawn there. There is a beauty to the story and the natural light which lifts yearning hearts from the wintry chill of an having into the warmth of wonder beyond our control or possession.

Silence and Cell Phones

This piece originally aired on “All Things Considered” (Minnesota Public Radio). Click here for an audio connection on the MPR site, or just read the piece.

Driving to work this morning, I suddenly started to pay attention to the drivers in my rear view mirror.  It all started when a large SUV nearly hit me from behind.  The driver was jabbering away on a cell phone.  I’m sure the conversation was important.  Why else would he jeopardize our safety?

For the next fifteen minutes on I35W I conducted my own scientific survey.  All of the drivers had cell phones glued to their ears.

Makes me wonder.  Are we that uncomfortable being alone?  Or do we think we’re so important that the rest of the world can’t get along without us?  Or perhaps we are afraid that the rest of the world WILL get along very well without us – so we need to keep reminding others that we exist because we’re not sure we really do unless someone else is filling the speechless void?  I wonder.

As concerned as we should be about the terrorism of distracted drivers on the highway, I’m more concerned about what our use of cell phones says about us as a people.  We are addicted to outside stimuli. Less and less comfortable with silence. Less and less attuned to wonder. More and more filled with chatter. More wordy – less thoughtful.

Sociologist Eugen Rosenstock-Huessey once observed – before the advent of the cell phone – that for many folks the drive to and from work was the only true “free zone” during their day.  It was time for solitude and reflection, a transitional pause to get your bearings, time to make the transition from home to work and from work to home. These were trips to be celebrated for what they were – opportunities to stand free from the herd – the herd mentality of religion, nationalism and ideology.  They were times to think.

Maybe I’m just getting older.  I am.  And that’s a good thing.  Because I’m getting tired of looking in my rear view mirror at someone with a cell phone stuck in his ear because he can’t stand the silence…or the sound of her own heartbeat.  Someday that beat will stop and there will only be the silence.  Maybe we ought to put down the phone and listen before there’s nothing to hear.