May 7, 2017
These are words from Dr. Ricard Selzer in a book that he authored called, “Moral Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery.”
“I stand by the bed where the young woman lies, her face post-operative, her mouth twisted – palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of a facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed… To remove the tumor in her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve. The young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private… ‘Will my mouth always be like this?’ she asks. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘It is because the nerve was cut.’ She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. ‘I like it,’ he says. ‘It is kind of cute.’ He bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close that I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate her, to show her that their kiss still works… I hold my breath and let the wonder in.”
The image of this kiss, if you dwell on it a bit, is a pretty apt reminder of Christ. “God became man so that man might become God,” said the church father, Athanasius, sometime in the fourth century. In other words, In Christ, God twisted God’s kiss to the form of human lips so that humans might receive the gift of love that is God. God came to us as one of us so that we might receive God and thereby have unity with God.
The doctor’s response to the kiss that he saw is perfect, at least I think it is. He holds his breath and he lets the wonder of such love in. There’s nothing more important that he might do. It’s perfect in my little comparison because it is just like the response of the early church to the work of the Spirit as it unfolded before their eyes. “Awe and wonder, amazement and astonishment,” these are the words that characterize and describe the first members of Christ’s church in the post-resurrection world. Just read the first few chapters of Acts and you’ll see. “Awe came upon everyone because many signs and wonders were being done.”
It’s not that these first believers suddenly understood the mysteries of God; they didn’t suddenly learn right doctrine; and, it’s not that they now knew with clarity their mission in life; rather, it’s that they were filled with awe and wonder. They held their breath and they received the breath of God. They let the wonder of God in.
I received a bulletin cover the other day from the UCC, which they suggest we use if we want to support their “Strengthening the Church” initiative. The cover design included a multiple choice test intended to get you thinking about the ministry of the church. One question read: “What is Church? A) Worship on Sunday mornings?, B) Protests and rallies in support of the least of these, C) Helping to feed the hungry and support the addicted, or D) All of the above. I think they want you to pick “D,” but honestly I would have picked “none of the above.” I feel bad saying that, so I’ll qualify my statement a bit. But, I feel strongly that the church is none of those things first. The first thing that church is, is something that God is doing. It’s the movement of God’s Spirit. It’s people, by the flow of God’s Spirit, recognizing their sacred worth, recognizing the sacred worth of the world they’ve been invited into, coming together in awe and wonder at the grace that calls them by name into something greater than they are. Church is a community that God is making.
In her God moment reflection Kirsten talks about the church making the invisible God visible. She talks about how people from the church met with one another after Sandy Hook. They naturally, somewhat spontaneously, came to be with one another, love one another, to care for one another’s children. In that expression of love was Church, and in Church was God. It’s the perfect example, except it works in positive situations as well. The church is people coming together in response not just to tragedy but to the miracle of grace. When you are so remarkably loved you want to be with others who see it; to acknowledge it; to live in it with others; to share it with others as well.
The experience of awe and wonder is so important to the spiritual life because it reminds us of the transcendent, of what’s beyond us. It reminds us that we are part of a miracle, and for Christians it is a particular miracle. It is a miracle of amazing grace, and compassion, and mercy, and fellowship, and love.
So, the first church was overcome with awe, and if I could, I would make us that way as well. Awe is far more important than right teaching and right praxis. It has a more profound spiritual impact than anything I can think of, but it’s also impossible to give it or make it. You can’t just say “awe” and have it be. It’s much easier to focus on teaching and action, so maybe that why most churches do.
The thing is, the church can prioritize awe. We can seek it. We can train ourselves to look for it and to be ready for it. We can create the conditions for it. We can remind ourselves that in 1730 nothing less than the Spirit of the living God moved to form a family of people that now includes us. We can care more about awe than we tend to.
And, one way to do it, one way to pursue it is through beauty. Beauty is a bridge to wonder. And, wonder is a bridge to God. (Interestingly, beauty features pretty heavily in the collection of God moments that I have from you.)
I still remember one of the most beautiful sounds I ever heard and the impact it had on me. I was on sabbatical and Angela and I were sitting in an Anglican church somewhere in Rome listening to a small group of singers sing famous arias from famous Italian operas. Each song was sung with talent, and humor where appropriate, and there was a casual enjoyment to the evening. As I listened I was playing a kind of game, trying to tell if I had heard the song before and anticipating the other songs on the list to see if I would be familiar with any of them.
Out walked a man who had sung one of the other arias. (I wrote a series of reflections on my sabbatical experiences and I thought I would share what I wrote for this one.
“He was of average height with a slightish frame. He was somewhere between thirty and fifty years old. Bald – the kind of bald that looked as if he was losing most of his hair anyway so he shaved the rest off. He had a goatee and kind enough eyes. In other words, he seemed to be the perfect example of your average, every-day, common, “normal,” middle-aged man. I mean to say that simply by looking at him you would never have any reason to suspect that such a time-stopping, chill-inducing, life-affirming sound could come from his mouth.
His aria was from the opera Carmen and with it he silenced us – not only our words, but our thoughts and our hearts. We forgot to judge and assess. We forgot that we were being entertained. We forgot that we were having a night out in lovely Rome. His singing captured us fully and pulled us into a beauty that slowed us down and made our bodies tingle. …After a moment of silence we all clapped in appreciation, but that clapping for me was like a snapping-to, a waking-up to a truth that I know and yet regularly forget.
No one is simply average, every-day, or normal. Or rather, those words mean nothing. Beauty, great beauty, time-stopping beauty, comes from us all. At least it can. Of course, it comes in different ways. We cannot all be opera singers. But, this is what God does. God uses the common to reveal the beautiful.”
For me, and I believe for Angela, the beauty of that moment gave birth to the experience of wonder, and wonder brought me closer to God, and in a way, to the man who sang that song. God was the one who made the common holy, and the man was one of God’s miracles.
You have heard beautiful words. You have seen beautiful gestures. You have been to beautiful places. You have gazed at beautiful art. You have listened to beautiful music. You have read beautiful stories and watched beautiful movies. Beauty is rarely easy, but neither is it truly rare. And, it always has the same effect, the same hope-giving, life-affirming, home-coming effect. Beauty awakens us to a truer version of ourselves and the world which we’ve been given.
As your pastor, I don’t think I can make you feel wonder and awe the way the first church did. I think that job belongs more to God anyway. However, I can tell you that it is out there for us to experience. And, I can also tell that we’ll find it and feel it as we seek the beauty that is before us, and as we decide to be a part of it ourselves in the things we say, and do, and create, and become together.