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Beyond the Busyness: Is There a Place for Wonder in Our Lives?

November 8, 2009
return from evening church

Return from Evening Church, Samuel Palmer

There is much focus on action these days.  Action to stop climate change.  To end poverty.  To reach the world for God.  To win this or that.  To ensure my children succeed.  The primary question and task of action is “What must I do?”

Something more must be said.  Life is more than this.  I am not sure I can express it, but I must try.

Action, what is originated by me, is obviously at the heart of faithful everyday life.  As Henri Nouwen put it once, “I have to act in any way possible to alleviate the pain I see.”  Most focus on the life of Jesus, for example, is to inspire our action, namely, how our actions are to imitate his actions.  Jesus healed the sick, preached good news to the poor, and prayed, so we should do the same.

Yet everyday life and transformation of our and others’ lives and this world consists of more than what we do.  Just as important is to see and embrace is the significance of passion in our liveswhat is done to me, and how I receive and live with that reality everyday.  Passion, derived from the Latin passio, is being acted upon.  In reflecting on Jesus’ arrest and being “handed over,” Nouwen writes:

“Immediately after Jesus is handed over, he becomes the one to whom things are being done. He’s being arrested; he’s being led to the High Priest; he’s being taken before Pilate; he’s being crowned with thorns; he’s being nailed on a cross.   Things are being done to him over which he has no control.  That is the meaning of passion – being the recipient of other people’s initiatives.”

Not being in control is also part of the human condition.  And what we do with this truth is also a great challenge of everyday faithfulness.  Passion requires waiting.  Continues Nouwen, “When we allow ourselves to feel fully how we are being acted upon, we can come in touch with a new life that we were not even aware was there.”

So there is the negotiation of what is originated by me—action.  There is the negotiation of what is done to me—passion.  But the final word is wonder:  What is being done by the One who is greater than me? What is God’s action and where is God’s life in the midst of my life, my action, my passion?

This is what Denise Levertov calls us to see in her poem Primary Wonder which I discussed recently.  “Days pass,” she writes, “when I forget the mystery” amidst “problems insoluble” and “a host of diversions” which “jostle for my attention.”

“Man has lost the ability to admire, to wonder, and everything has become for him a problem” (p. 182), wrote Father Alexander Schmemann in his journals, which have become a great treasure to me in recent years.   Another day he writes, “Who invented the idea that religion is the resolution of problems?  Religion is always a transfer to another dimension, another level, and is therefore the annihilation of problems and not their solution” (p. 8).  Of a friend’s breakdown Schmemann wrote,

“’He buried himself in his activity.’  And that is just what one should not do.  One becomes unable to put things in perspective, to detach oneself, to push away all the fuss and the petty details that encumber our life and can devour our hearts.  Actually the cause is the same arrogance that seeks to convince me that all depends on me, all relates to me. Then the ‘I’ is filling all reality, and the downfall begins … The essential error of the modern man is to identify life with activism … hence an almost complete inability simply to ‘live’, i.e. to feel, to appreciate, to live life as a continuous gift.  To walk to the train station in a light that feels like spring, in the rain, to be able to see, to sense, to be conscious of a morning ray of sun on the wall—all of these are the reality of life” (p. 5)

It is easy to dwell in a desperateness around solving problems.   Wonder takes us into a new dimension.  Not solving all problems, but where the circumstances have not changed yet I see everything differently.  I see the mystery, and my action and my passion is profoundly reshaped by it.

My mentor John Alexander used to say,  “The fact that you sinned is a detail Chris.  What matters is that you’re forgiven.”  In this John was inviting me into a new place of seeing, a new dimension, a place beyond solving the problem of my sin.  He was calling me to the place of wonder, of forgiveness, the new dimension wherein I could be transformed.

Action, passion, wonder.  We must attend to all three.  But the greatest of these, it seems to me, is wonder.

About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.  He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. His writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers.

Related Posts: For Days When You Get Lost in the Trees

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 10, 2009 10:29 am

    This is great, Chris.
    I have shared it with my colleagues in World Vision.

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