The year is 1995. You have just come out of a movie theater with a group of friends. Someone asks, “Hey, wasn’t that the same person playing? [insert character name] in [insert movie title]?” Someone else replies, “No, you think of [different actor].” And the debate would begin. An entire drive home, or a bite afterwards, could be spent discussing questions like these about the film. My husband and I always joked that the only way he could tell who someone was was by their voice. We were watching a commercial or animation and he immediately started asking me who was doing the voiceover.
Mostly it took me two or three times to get it. We joked about my inability to see something so obvious, and then I reminded him of another time I recognized someone’s face, and we continued with our good-natured ribbing. Fast forward to the present with Google. And smart phones. And Siri. And Alexa. And suddenly all these good-natured “disputes” are resolved instantly. We hardly have time to wonder. No question ever lingers. In the end, one is always right and the other wrong.
I think we used to be better at living with uncertainty. Maybe we couldn’t answer the question about the actor and eventually we would just move on. Agree to disagree and continue with our relationships. We’ve lost in this world of “instant certainty,” having good-natured disagreements and sometimes leaving things unresolved. This back and forth often taught us how to navigate discussions where two parties were not on the same page.
Without this practice in low-stakes situations, we are no longer able to solve more pressing issues without going insane. With easy access to so many “experts,” the conventional wisdom is that there only needs to be one correct answer. Which of course depends on who you ask. Since we can consult “authorities” on any subject, we are less likely to listen to another ordinary person or even share thoughts that we have kept private. All of this leads to a lack of ability to discuss even trivial matters with a spirit of politeness or good-natured banter.
Additionally, the need for instant reassurance makes it less likely that we’ll sit down and ponder the really tough questions of our faith. We’re so used to things having only one answer that we invent neat answers where there shouldn’t be. We counter people’s deep questioning with platitudes and hackneyed sayings. Instead of really being with someone who is wondering about a deep loss, we ask “Bible Siri” and come back with “Everything happens for a reason” or “God works everything for good” instead of sitting in the dark. Therefore, we avoid rushing into the hard things and do not allow ourselves to dwell or ponder on things that might bring us spiritually closer to the image of Christ. We don’t wonder as we wander.
My son turned 12 on the day schools closed in March 2020. By lucky timing, one of the gifts we chose for his birthday was a portable hammock. During the peak of the pandemic when we were home all the time, one of the family members could often be found hanging between two small trees in the corner of our yard. The hammock became a place of solitude in the midst of an always full and sometimes noisy house (photo MS Jazzband and fourth grade recorder lessons on Zoom). In the solitude that became “hammock time”, a door to wonder was opened again in me.
I watched the shape of the leaves move in the wind, the woodpecker searching for insects and the clouds moving across the sky. I wondered how long those two trees had been here and what my neighborhood looked like before they came into being and why the leaves were shaped like that and what the birds and squirrels thought of me. For the first time in ten years, I haven’t put any of these questions to Google. I wondered them just to wonder them. As I gave myself that permission, I recognized God’s voice saying it’s okay not to have answers.
In a world where we have so much information at our disposal, ignorance is seen as a sign of weakness. Faith is often defined by a certain set of core things that you know, can tell, and better are the right things, or you’re probably a heretic. However, we did everything wrong. Faith is having the big questions and the big doubts and still believing. Believing is agreeing not to know. Faith is an appreciation for the little piece you play in this overwhelming and amazing creation. Belief is not certainty. Faith is faith despite doubt.
To be amazed we must observe, and observation takes time. It takes a slowness and an intention that is not rewarded in our modern world. Our miracle is our worship. It says, “God, you are so amazingly glorious and complex that no amount of earthly words or Bible study I could do would ever begin to reveal the expression of your majesty.” It’s our way, the intricacies of a system to perceive and appreciate something so complex and beautiful that we could spend the next millennia studying it and never fully grasping all the parts. Our wonder allows us to spend time with God in a way that is non-transactional—that doesn’t rely on God to answer us or grant any heart’s desire. Our wonder draws us into the presence of God. It teaches us to stay.
We spend so much of our childhood in a state of wonder, and yet somewhere along the line we tone down that and replace it with just valuing the knowledge. Then we ask why are children’s hearts so light and their disposition so hopeful? They are consistent with asking the why of the world without expecting to understand everything. When a young child asks why the sky is blue, they don’t really want to know about tiny molecules that scatter light. They notice, appreciate, and appreciate the beauty they see. They acknowledge the majesty and the mystery. You can make up any questions and will not be held accountable for any of the answers.
My friend’s daughter used to be the kind of kid who asked big questions—the kind of overwhelming questions that shake you to the core. At a point when she didn’t even know where to begin in response to such profound thoughts from a four-year-old, her mother replied, “Well, we just have to put that on our list of things to ask God someday.” For this child, it was a perfectly acceptable answer that we should accept as well. We too can be formed spiritually by asking questions and accepting insecurities. As a friend of mine said, “I’m okay with something gray in my life.” Our questions are an acknowledgment of the power of God. As we rely less on ourselves and our knowledge, we rely more on God’s love and provision.
As we search for ways to become Christlike, find your own way to have some “hammock time.” Jesus often withdrew from the crowd to refresh himself in solitude. Jesus also noticed the little things around him – a touch of his robe, a little bird, petals on a flower, a fig tree.
How can we reactivate our sense of wonder and worship?
1) Start in solitude. Set aside some time to experience solitude, either on a walk, in a special private spot for lunch, in a chair on a balcony, on a park bench, or in a hammock if space allows. Remove the distractions and the answers and marvel at the intricacies of the world around you. What do you notice that you didn’t notice before?
2) Meditate on the mystics. Christian history is full of writers who took the time to observe and marvel. Writings by Julian of Norwich or Francis of Assisi can lead us to think more deeply about common elements in creation. John Muir turns nature into his cathedral. The romantic poets like William Wordsworth bring the landscape to life. Many other contemporary writers evoke this sense of wonder, such as Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, and the poetry of Mary Oliver. How do the writings of others help you see things more deeply?
3) Try some craftsmanship. Use your phone to photograph elements of creation. Post your favorites with a call to wonder on social media. Sketch something that catches your eye. The unique and the mundane can both open our eyes to the genius of creation design. Examine closely an element of God’s creation, such as an apple, a squirrel, or an acorn. What theological lessons can we learn from this article?
4) Chilling out with a kid. If you don’t have children or grandchildren of your own to take for a walk in the woods or even down the road, consider volunteering to help children in your faith community. Children have an unfiltered sense of wonder that can stimulate our own thoughts. Ask them deep questions to give them permission to ask their own.
5) Write down your surprises. Journal of your questions and things you are unsure about. Write a letter to a trusted family member or friend expressing some of your deepest thoughts. Turn these thoughts into a poem or lyrics to meditate on.
As we feel the world speeding up again, it is our duty to fight the urge to keep up. Our radical act of nonconformity that Paul writes about in Romans 12:2 can simply be the transformation that takes place when we are not committed to speed and certainty. So make sure Siri or Alexa have their own Sabbath and let the miracle creep back into your life. Do a real or metaphorical “hammock sit.” As we slow down, we observe. When noticing, we appreciate. By asking ourselves, we believe.
Sarah Blackwell is a Word&Way writer and a 2020 graduate of the Gardner-Webb School of Divinity. She is a former deacon and volunteers with youth and young adults at Providence Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. She still can’t say who is doing the voiceovers for commercials. Follow her writings at proximaltolove.org.