Against Boredom and Disenchantment – A Sermon for Feb. 13

Texts: Ps. 104:1-4,14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20

I would like to begin this morning by drawing out two phrases from our scripture readings—just two. The first is from Ps. 104, “Oh LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”  Let me distill these sentences into one word: wonder.

And from I Corinthians 15, a question from the apostle Paul, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection from the dead?” Let me distill this sentence into one word: hope.

Wonder and hope are of crucial importance today. Wonder and hope are worth cultivating. They are even worth defending. Wonder and hope—in all their biblical nuance and universal appeal—are a response to a pernicious set of modern temptations.  

Rachel Carson is most famous for her book Silent Spring. That book was published in 1962. The goal of the book was to make the public aware of something many scientists already knew, which was that some widely used pesticides were having a horrendous effect on wildlife. Carson was not opposed to all such chemical agents, she just thought that their use needed to be carefully regulated to limit unintended consequences.

Silent Spring got a lot of attention. Some attention came in the form of vicious attacks from chemical companies. Some was more open-minded. In 1963 Carson was invited to testify before the US Congress. In her prepared statement, she said:

“We have acquired technical skills on a scale undreamed of even a generation ago. We can do dramatic things and we can do them quickly; by the time damaging side effects are apparent it is often too late, or impossible, to reverse our actions.”

At the time Carson published her book, most people simply assumed that increasing human control over nature was a good thing. They anticipated a new and wonderful age initiated by advances in chemistry and physics. Yet, relying on careful scientific observation, Carson began poking holes in that hubris.

What wasn’t widely known at the time, was that Carson was also engaged in a personal battle with cancer. She died in 1964. Her final book, published after she died, was called A Sense of Wonder. In actual fact, wonder was a constant motivator for Carson.

Rachel Carson was born in 1907 on a family farm in western Pennsylvania. She was an avid reader. A girl who liked to be alone, she was an excellent writer, even at a young age. Biographers tell us that her mother sold the family china to help pay for Rachel’s college education. She had intended to study literature, but instead fell in love with the study of biology. She won a scholarship to a research center on the Atlantic coast. Her prophetic and inspirational impact come through linking these two things: fine writing and rigorous science.

In July of 1956 Rachel Carson published a wonderful essay in a magazine called Women’s Home Companion. The essay was titled “Help Your Child to Wonder.” The magazine cost 35 cents.

In the essay Carson related what she learned from exploring the natural world with her young nephew. She wanted readers to encourage kids to wonder—to be interested and amazed by the natural world. Being caught up in wonder propels all of us to engage, to explore, to learn, to have fun, and to care.

Here is an important paragraph from Carson’s essay on wonder:

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

How do we encourage, or reclaim, a sense of wonder? One thing we can do, Carson said, is to look closely at the small things. Buy a simple magnifying glass: learn to see the intensity and complexity of life that usually goes unnoticed.

I remember once watching a garden slug with my son. We watched through the magnification of a hand lens. From that vantage the creature looked almost like a slippery dinosaur boldly venturing across a barren landscape.

Carson’s other recommendation was to concentrate on using our senses of smell and hearing. Take the time to deliberately pay attention to these when you’re outside. Especially if you can get away from street noise and diesel fumes. Try to not only listen to the whole orchestra, but pick out the individual instruments.

Rachel Carson ended up adopting her nephew. I expect he learned the power of wonder.

I share this snippet of Rachel Carson’s story as part of a response to a question that naturally comes up in our exploration of the Bible and ecology: What should we do? Given the ecological crisis unfolding around us, including climate change and a loss of biodiversity, what should we do?

Part of the answer, of course, must be political. These are large-scale collective problems that demand national and international policy responses. As Derrick Jensen has pointed out, our response to this crisis has to be more than taking shorter showers. Political change is essential. However, policy analysis is not quite our lane in worship.

So, think again about that quote from Carson:

“If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

This is a theological statement. And we needn’t be surprised. Carson was conversant in the theology of Paul Tillich, Harry Emerson Fosdick and Albert Schweitzer. Her mother was a devout Christian and her grandfather a Presbyterian minister. So, it’s not entirely surprising that Carson recommends an antidote to “boredom and disenchantments” that is essentially a spiritual practice.

She wants us to cultivate “a sense of wonder.” This is worship’s driving lane.

So, what I want to recommend to you today is this: in a world of “boredom and disenchantments,” a world of “sterile preoccupation,” a world where we are disconnected from the “sources of our strength,” cultivate a sense of wonder and, I’ll add, hope.

Wonder and hope—feed them, nurture them, defend them!

We need the character traits as never before. If wonder and hope characterize our relationship to the earth and its creatures, our lives will be transformed.

Wonder and hope—the Bible has much to say about each of these traits of character.   

When we think of how the Biblical writes encourage us to engage the temptations of our day we might fixate on the prophetic indictments of wealth or dishonesty or injustice. However, these are not the only temptations lurking: there is also boredom and disenchantment. This is the feeling that the world lacks depth. This is the feeling that the only interesting things are artificial creations, chemical hits or manufactured emotions. Boredom and disenchantment are not far from despair and cynicism.   

Wonder and hope are biblical responses to these temptations. The poet of Psalm 104 looks at the springs gushing in the valleys, the birds making their living on the stream banks and singing in the branches, the grass the feeds the cattle, the many plants that feed us, the cedar trees, the stork nesting in the fir, the wild goats in the mountains, the moon marking the seasons, the hunters that prowl at night.

The poet finds all this amazing and interesting—even more so because through these ecological relationships shines the light of God’s wisdom and majesty. If the life of the coho salmon is interesting in its own right, how much more when we understand it as a reflection of God? 

Joining the psalmist in wonder is not particularly hard. It can start as simply as Carson suggests, with being purposeful about our listening, or digging out that old magnifying glass.

You can be more ambitious: learn to identify the tree species of our city, trace the water from your tap to its source and from your drain to its outflow, begin a life list of birds you have seen.

You can take on a question: The lichen you find on rocks, what is that? Where are the ruby throated hummingbirds now? How do animals go without eating for months and lose all their muscle mass?

Cultivate wonder! With wonder comes joy.

Along with wonder we also need hope. The entire Bible speaks to hope. There is the hope that God will work with the faithful. There is hope fulfilled: the enslaved freed, those who walked in darkness seeing light, the sick being healed. In I Corinthians 15 the apostle Paul points to the catalyst of Christian hope. If even death and violence could not conquer the Anointed One, then we have reason for hope. It is not merely wishful thinking. Paul employs hope, along with faith and love, to form a tripod of wellbeing. 

There are reasons for ecological hope beyond the Bible. Leave a field fallow and it will grow trees. Stop maintaining an asphalt road and blades of grass will shred it. The community of nations has dealt positively with large-scale problems too: the thinning of atmospheric ozone and acid rain. There are species flourishing now, that were on the brink in past generations: elk and white-tailed deer have reclaimed much of their range. There are some hills that now feel the hooves of bison that did not for decades. There is reason for hope.

In the Bible hope in God’s victory over violence and sin is an invitation for participation. We not only experience reconciliation with God, but we are equipped to extend it. Hope energizes change.

Cultivate hope! With hope comes joy.

Hope and wonder—feed them, nurture them, defend them. Join God’s Spirit in the work of transformation.

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