Find the Wonder
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
4 December 2022
George Bailey feels that his life has been wasted. He hasn’t done the things he’d hoped to do. His dreams have not come true. He’s made sacrifice after sacrifice and toiled away at a job he’d rather not have, only to now be facing financial ruin. Has it all been in vain? He feels he has no future to look forward to. And so he’s ready to jump from the bridge and end it all.
When Clarence the Angel prevents him from destroying himself. Then Clarence gives him a tour of what the world would have been like without George Bailey—a cruel place, robbed of joy and delight for the people he cares about.
Which finally leads George to see how wonderful his life has been, and he runs through the town excited at seeing all the old familiar things that long ago he had started taking for granted.
It seems that one thing George Bailey had lost, before his angelic encounter, was the capacity for wonder. Cody Sanders, the American Baptist chaplain at Harvard, writes that “Wonder is a characteristic of human flourishing, without which we may be unable to survive in ways we would deem desirable.” Yeah, that describes George Bailey, forlorn and lost, standing on the bridge in the snowstorm. But once that capacity for wonder is restored, George doesn’t only survive, he flourishes.
Early in the autumn as the staff met to consider Advent worship themes, we were pondering the idea of “what will come.” What does the future hold? And is the future threatening or not?
I had just finished reading a bunch of books about the changing climate and what we need to do to live faithfully and resiliently during this time of human history, and a theme in many of those books was how to retain our hope and joy despite the strong possibility that life will become harder in the decades ahead.
As the staff pondered these ideas, the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, and its conceit of an alternative future, entered into our conversation and eventually led to our Advent theme for this year “It’s a Wonder-filled Life.” We decided to explore how wonder is crucial to our survival and how wonder can remind us that the future doesn’t have to be threatening.
Later in the autumn I read Cody Sanders’ essay “Feeling Our Way through an Apocalypse” in the book Doing Theology in Pandemics. He writes about how the last few years have evoked many emotions in us, particularly fear, anger, and sadness. These feelings are good and proper and correct given what we’ve experienced. But his worry is when those feelings become moods and then persistent attitudes on life. In particular, how sadness can lead to immobility and resignation such that we quit working for a better world.
So he advises that we need to cultivate other experiences and emotions in order to learn how to feel our way through this season of our lives. He writes about the importance of grieving in community as a way to address the losses we’ve encountered. He advocates for practices of gratitude that will help us to experience the world as gift, which can help us to dismantle injustices. And he encourages us to direct our lives to wonder.
Cody Sanders is concerned about the ways that fear can become the dominating way we interact with un uncertain and dangerous world. Instead, he invites us to approach the world with wonder. If we are constantly surprised by all the ordinary things around us, how does that reshape our lives?
Wonder helps us suspend our habitual ways of looking at the world. Wonder lures us into creative engagement with our surroundings. Wonder induces receptivity and openness and connection to our environment. Wonder prompts us to consider life from new perspectives. Wonder entices us into relational aspects of reality, giving us a vision of our relatedness to the world, to other beings, and to sources of ultimacy, or the Divine.
Wow! That sounds like a super power. More creativity, more connection and belonging, more openness. Getting to see and experience the world in new ways. Finding deeper relations with everything around us, including the source of meaning in our lives.
And isn’t this exactly what happens to George Bailey when Clarence the Angel intervenes to save his life?
This week I asked Liz Loveday to help me find some poems about wonder and one she sent along was this by William Martin from The Parents Dao De Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents:
One of the greatest works on human emotions is Upheavals of Thought by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum. And in that over 700 page book, wonder plays a key role in our emotional and moral development.
Nussbaum writes that we humans are born into a world we do not control, a world that can be alarming and frightening to a newborn. The world can also be a place of delight. The world, for most babies, is both at the same time. Those first days and weeks and months and years of a human life are vital in shaping how we encounter the world. There’s strong evidence that the more we are held as newborns, the more likely we are to view the world as worth living in. And it falls to our earliest care givers to help us take delight in the world, to experience it with wonder, to cultivate our abilities to see and experience the good and the beautiful and the exciting. Imaginative play becomes central to developing these early skills, as evidence shows that children who are more playful are more likely to be show love, inclusivity, and generosity.
According to Nussbaum, wonder becomes the key element in leading to compassion. This is true developmentally—the better capacity we have developed for wonder as a child the more likely we are to be compassionate throughout life. But it’s also true for the adult skill of compassion. We are more likely to approach a person or situation with compassion if they or it evokes some of our wonder.
Wonder truly is a superpower that can save lives!
In her commentary on Isaiah’s vision, pastor Stacey Simpson Duke states, “Isaiah’s declaration stands in direct contrast to the terror and brutality that pervade our world.”
When the world as we know it has ended and is starting anew, when things are uncertain, alarming, maybe even terrifying, Isaiah’s vision speaks, wonderfully, to God’s dream that the world can and will be a better, more peaceful, more just, more beautiful place.
Yet, she acknowledges that it can be difficult for us to view this vision as applicable to us now. Our lives are ravaged by lions. Snakes coil hidden in our lives ready to strike. Bears prowl. Duke asks, “How is Isaiah’s word also a word of security for now, for people living in unstable and frightening times, and not just a word about a secure future?”
The answer, she writes, is in the vision itself. “According to Isaiah, the transformation from a culture of fear to a world at peace begins with a stump. Out of something that appears finished, lifeless, left behind, comes the sign of new life—a green sprig.” And this, she reminds us, is how hope starts “it emerges as tiny tendril in an unexpected place.”
Something we might fail to notice if we have not cultivated our capacity for wonder, right? Something we might fail to notice if we aren’t looking with the eyes of a child delighted with the world.
Just as George Bailey didn’t see how good his life was, how full of meaning, how significant its positive effects on other people, until Clarence the Angel evoked his capacity for wonder.
So, one of the keys to human flourishing, to living a desirable to life, to becoming more compassionate, to feeling our ways through uncertain and alarming times, is to find the wonder. As the poet said, “find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life.”
This Advent, as you decorate for the holidays, as you prepare your gifts for loved ones, as you celebrate with friends, as you drive around at night and look at the Christmas lights, as you bake cookies, and sing carols, and snuggle by the fire with a warm mug of apple cider, use this as a time to cultivate your wonder, for the kind of life you desire depends upon it.