The Gift of Wonder

February 9, 2014, Psalm 139:17-18, Eccelsiastes 8:16-17, Matthew 28:16-20

Almighty and eternal God,

You are hidden from our sight;

You are beyond the understanding of our minds;

Your thoughts are not our thoughts;

Your ways are past finding out.


Yet you have breathed your spirit into our lives;

You have formed our minds to seek you;

You have inclined our hearts to love you;

You have made us restless for the rest that is in you.

You have given us minds and filled them with curiosity and wonder and fascination with the world you have created.  Speak now to our eager, thirsty hearts and minds.  We pray in Jesus’ name.  Amen.  [based on Fourth Day Morning prayer in John Baillie’s “A Diary of Private Prayer]

In the spring of 1984 my life took a sudden, unexpected turn.  I was riding what is now called The Red Line, the elevated train, on the northside of Chicago.  It was my second year of college.  Just to the east of the tracks I saw several burned out buildings.  You could look through the back wall and see the sky.  I wondered what it would be like to live next door to such a building.  It was like when God got Moses’ attention with the Burning Bush.

A few days later I needed to pick a neighborhood to study for my Urban Sociology class.  I told the professor about the burned out buildings and she knew immediately that they were in Uptown.  I had my neighborhood.  During that term I made numerous trips to Uptown, walking around at various times of the day and night, talking to people on the street, making notes, doing participant observation.  Uptown was an extremely diverse and complicated neighborhood.  Studs Terkel said the only place on earth that is more diverse is the United Nations General Assembly.  Oh, and those burned out buildings that got my attention?  There were people living in them, but only on the first or second floor.  To a white kid from Peoria, Uptown was fascinating, mysterious and compelling.

One day I was walking down a street and spotted a tile menorah in the façade of a building.  It had obviously been a synagogue originally.  The marquee told me that it was now a movie theatre, and though my Spanish is not very good, I’m pretty sure it was showing a movie about the devil’s niece.  A few blocks to the north, on Argyle Street, there was a dentist sign in 5 languages: English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Khmer and Chinese.  A few blocks west of that, was the Uptown Theatre. It had more than 4,300 seats, which covered more than an acre!  It was built in 1925, right before talkies.  A block from the movie theatre was The Aragon Ballroom, built in the height of the big band era.  In the mid ‘80s up-and-coming rock bands played at the Aragon.  There were no seats, everyone stood and danced to the music.  I saw a promising new band from Ireland called U2 there twice.

A year later I had an internship with a neighborhood organization in Uptown.  I spent ten weeks studying buildings that were in Chicago’s housing court.  Uptown had a lot of problems.  In fact, looking back on the place I can’t think of an urban problem that Uptown didn’t have!  In spite of all that, it was a fairly safe place, I never felt that I was in danger in Uptown.  The neighborhood organization I worked with, Organization of the Northeast, worked to build communities and advocacy groups with various groups in Uptown.  There was a group for seniors, a group for Spanish-speakers and several groups for refugees that had been resettled in Uptown following the Vietnam War.  Once I met with the leader of Comite Latino.  Joaquin grew up in Cuba.  I asked if people from the Caribbean found it difficult to adjust to Chicago winters.  Joaquin spoke words I will never forget, “No, no Tomas, my people…we wear coats.” “Right, same with my people Joaquin!” I replied.   

I was fascinated by this place and I wondered what made Uptown like this.    What made Uptown this crazy combination of people and cultures and problems?  That question held my interest for more than half of the time I was in college.

Naturally, when I had to select a topic for my year-long senior Urban Studies project, I picked Uptown.  I resolved to write a history of the place, I was determined to find out why Uptown had gotten so strange.  I studied census data; I read reports from the City Planning Department and various neighborhood groups and agencies. I spent hours in Chicago Municipal Reference Library pouring through clipping files.  I talked to the mutual aid societies for the various immigrant groups.  I talked to the pastors of the churches.  I’ll never forget one morning when I interviewed a Roman Catholic priest.  He had grown up in Indo-China and been educated at French mission schools.  While sitting in his office, the phone rang and he answered it and started talking in a language I did not know.  He said, “Ok, bye, bye” and hung up and I resumed the interview.  A few minutes later the phone rang again.  He answered and I’m pretty sure he started speaking another language I did not understand.  He said, “Ok, bye, bye” and hung up.  I asked, “How many languages do you speak?”  He said, “Several.”  His English was nearly accent free.  I thought that was really cool.  I learned that “OK, bye, bye” is the universal term for “I’m done talking to you.” 

My curiosity was boundless.  I had to know what made Uptown so diverse.  And one day I found my answer: Since 1900 or so, Uptown’s land has been overvalued, which forced developers to build large projects to get a good return on their investment.  Large dwellings were easy to subdivide, which made them affordable to people who were new to Chicago—whether that was Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, who wanted to escape the discrimination they found on the West Coast, or Native Americans who were being forced off reservations by federal policy in the ‘50s, or Appalachian White [Hillbillies] who were drawn to industrial jobs in the ‘60s, or mental patients who were driven from closed state hospitals to the city or refugees from the Vietnam War in the mid-‘70s.  Wave after needy wave of people found their way to Uptown because big apartments got subdivided repeatedly.  Uptown became Chicago’s port of entry around 1940 because of land prices.  I remember sitting in the library when the mystery was finally unraveled.  Land prices explained everything.  Cool.

It was the worst thing that could have happened to me.  For two years I had been driven by curiosity and followed that curiosity into abandoned buildings, ethnic restaurants, churches and the offices of organizations that served people from places like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indian reservations…Now the puzzle was solved and I was completely uninterested in Uptown.  But I still had to write my project.  Oscar Wilde said “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”  I wanted an answer to the mystery of Uptown, but then I got it.  And I spent my last three months of college grinding out this project.  When I got my answer, I lost my curiosity.  When I lost my curiosity, I lost my passion.

Did you ever consider that curiosity might be a gift of the Spirit?  That being able to get lost in wonder before the mysteries of God is at the very core of all religion?  Maybe understanding something partially and incompletely, but wanting to understand more is the basis of all discovery and progress.  This is the gift of not knowing something.  That is the thing that spurs us to ask questions and deepen our understanding.  And experience tells me that when it comes to faith…there can never be an end to questions.   Praise God.

Whoever wrote Psalm 139 knew that.  Earlier he wrote that there is no place one can go to escape God’s presence—God is already above the sky and in Sheol, the home of the dead.  But then he goes on that there is no end to God’s thoughts.  One could no more count them than count the grains of sand in the Sahara.  God’s thoughts are infinite!  To put it another way, God can never be completely known or understood.  At best our encounters with God are incomplete.  Tradition has it that Solomon wrote the book we know as Ecclesiastes.  A lot of it is kind of dreary.  It reads like someone who is completely bored and jaded by everything that life has to offer.  My favorite example of this is when he writes: “All streams run to the sea, but the sea is never full.” [1:7]  There is an air of futility throughout the book, a weariness because one can never understand the ways of God.   But there is also hope and humility in this idea.  “However much [the wise] toil in seeking, they will not be able to [understand the work of God;] even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.” [8:17]

We are so much better off not knowing.  Really.  Let me give two examples I came across recently.  Remember last summer when physicists announced they had found the Higgs boson, aka “The God Particle?”  Understanding how this until last summer theoretical bit of matter behaved and stored and transferred energy and how much it weighed held the key to understanding how the entire universe works.  Last summer they found it.  And what they found was not what any of their theories anticipated.  “You might think that finding the Higgs boson, after 50 years and $10 billion or so would bring clarity to physics and to the cosmos.  But just the opposite is true: they may have found the Higgs boson, but they don’t understand it.” [NYT 11/5/2013,  pp. D1-2]  The God particle was only about 125 times more massive than the protons whose collisions created it.  Which means that both Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the competing theory called “supersymmetry” are inadequate to explain how matter behaves in this universe.  All the greatest physicists are baffled by what this observation means.  Which means, I hope, they’ll be spurred to do more research and build new models to understand the universe.  There is no end to questions—at least not now.  Praise God. 

I think one’s faith grows in the same way that scientific understanding grows.  We start with questions…we get answers to them…which leads us to new questions.  And sometimes we return to our original questions and ask them in new ways.  Or we ask them the same way, but get different answers, because we’re alive and therefore changing and God is also alive and therefore changing.  The one thing that faith cannot be, in my opinion, is static.  It is always dynamic.  The moment it becomes fixed and permanent it is no longer faith. 

Which brings me to the very end of Matthew’s gospel, these five verses are often taken as marching orders for the church.  The eleven surviving disciples meet the resurrected Christ on the mountain.  “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.”  It says.  If this were the last 30 seconds of a movie, you’d be saying, “Oh yeah, there’s gonna be a sequel!”  Those closest to Jesus, the ones who will build the church and spread the faith have some doubters among them.  Well, perhaps not.  Another way that verse can be translated is “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but they doubted.” 

Let me remind you who “they” are.  You’ve heard of these guys: Peter, James, John, Thomas…Judas isn’t with them anymore, but the rest of those who were closest to Jesus.  His followers who were broken and defeated at the crucifixion are gathered around Jesus on the first Easter Sunday.  These are the ones who had a front row seat at the Last Supper, at all the miraculous healings and both times Jesus fed throngs with a few loaves of bread and a couple fish.  They were with him when he rode up to the temple on a donkey…you know all the stories…and they worshiped and doubted.  And their doubts were not barriers to the task of spreading the gospel.  “It is not to angels or perfect believers, but to the worshipping/wavering community of disciples to whom the world mission is entrusted.” [New Interpreter’s Bible]  Look around at the other people gathered here for worship this morning.  We’re the ones who are responsible for sharing the Good News of grace—God’s gift to us through Christ—with the world.  And none of us understands the mystery of God’s love completely.  Not one of us.  Oh, and anyone who says, “Yep, I grasp the depth, height and breadth of God’s completely and fully,” is not telling the truth.  We’re the ones God has to work with, and so let’s do that.  Don’t wait until your understanding is thorough enough or your faith is deep and developed enough.  Start now.  Start with what you grasp, what you’ve experienced, and what you can explain. Your words, at best, can only point to the Living God.  But remember, that God is alive and using things like burning bushes, and burned out buildings, and beautiful, fiery sunsets to get our attention and make us thirsty and curious.

I’ll close this morning with a poem that one of members, Mandi Isaacson shared with me last week.  This poem has been accepted for publication in the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets 2015 calendar.  [Sorry, this poem cannot be shared here until it has been published!  Too bad, it rocks! TW]