January 24, 2021 Sunday Service Message: Abyss, Mystery and Wonder

Allow the Moment to Speak

It is an undeniable feature of the human species that we are curious.  As we evolved and our brains became larger, our capacity for exploration of our environment increased.  We began to ask bigger, better, deeper questions.  There is an unbroken legacy of inquisitiveness from the earliest humans more than two hundred thousand years ago through to the Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks and the Xia Dynasty.  As each civilization learned and grew, their capacity to ask ever more probing questions increased.  By the last quarter of the twentieth century our heritage of questioning led us to the ability to build astonishing tools to help us explore.  One such tool is the Hubble Telescope.

In her fourth talk in a series based on Wendy Farley’s book Beguiled by Beauty: Cultivating a Life of Contemplation and Compassion1, Rev. Joanne asks us to open our minds to a sense of wonder.  She tells us about the Deep Field Image taken by the Hubble Telescope.  It is an image taken on ten consecutive nights between December 18 and 28, 1995.  It focused on a tiny image of the sky, so chosen not because it was known there was much to see there, but for precisely the opposite reason.  It was a region of the sky 24 arc minutes wide, or an area that would be covered by a tennis ball one hundred meters away.  In this tiny area representing one 24-millionth of the sky was revealed more than three thousand galaxies.  What has been revealed by these images are simply astonishing, enough to make even the most knowledgeable scientists awestruck.  (Image at below is Hubble Ultra Deep Field, NASA.  https://hubblesite.org/image/3886/category/58-hubble-ultra-deep-field)

Rev. Joanne reminds us that our brains have evolved a useful property to classify objects – what is a dangerous predator, what is food, what is poison, who is a potential mate, etc.  She cautions us, however, to consider that while the ability to classify has its utility we can also encounter trouble when we oversimply.  Do we think, therefore, that we know all there is to know about a certain type of thing or group of people because we think we “know” what they are?  Too often, we fall into the trap of oversimplifying for the sake of expediency.

There are popular personality tests online that people like taking to help to understand themselves.  Setting aside the generalized nature of such tests, the more important point is that there is a very common desire for people to want to take such tests.  Rev. Joanne asks us, “if we do not know ourselves, how can we hope to “know” others?”

Throughout history people have also set about defining what God is.  Confident in their knowledge of God as they define it, many have gone to war over and over again with those who held a different view of what God is.  Even for some whose idea of God does not incite them to war, there is still a need for a definition of God.  Attempting to classify what may in fact be unclassifiable can run us into conflicts, but it is not always so.  It may be true that we in fact cannot know the true nature of ourselves, another person or God, but it is more than just a vain exercise.  We do need a framework within which to operate in our lives.  Without any framework at all, our lives would be chaotic.  Our Neolithic ancestors painted cave drawings of their spiritual ideas, often represented by animals or mythic beasts.  They were building a necessary framework for their world, but had not lost the sense of wonder that many people in the twenty-first century lack.

Generally speaking, humans do not do well with mystery.  We explore, we engage in scientific discovery, and as children we annoy our parents by unceasingly asking “why?”  Not immediately satisfied with what we are told by our parents we ask, “but why that? and again why the next thing?”  It is inherent to our species.  But just as even the most patient, well-educated and knowledgeable parent may eventually run out of answers for their child, not because they do not know the answer but because there actually is no answer to be known, we are all in a situation now where we are collectively asking “why?”  The great uncertainty surrounding the Covid situation may not be answerable in a neat and clean way.

Rev. Joanne asks us to sit with the mystery of not knowing when life will return to normal.  Ask yourself, “What is the gift here?  What is the beauty in this mystery?  What is this moment seeking to reveal to me?”  If we do so not needing to understand it or make it into something in particular, we may find that answers to these deeper questions are revealed to us.  We may also discover in that experience that God is that spirit of strength in me.

Such an exercise may seem unsatisfying.  When we are hungry, we want to eat.  When we are cold, we want to be warm.  And when there is a deep existential question whose answer eludes us, we are uneasy.  Unity Minister Eric Butterworth (1916-2003) spoke to such a need in one of his many lectures.  From his talk Superconsciousness:

There is an urge, a desire, a yearning at the heart of every person for wholeness.  And this is most strongly felt when we are weak, when we're unhappy, when we're ill, when we're frustrated in some way. Somehow, intuitively, we know that we're a part of what Teilhard de Chardin refers to as "the unimpeachable wholeness of the universe."  The exploration of space has been one of the most exciting developments of this century.  But whatever else we ultimately find the universe to be, it is whole.  We may not understand the whole, we may not be able to see it all, we may not even be able to understand the whole of the point where we exist.  But it is whole, and in this, we can feel secure.  Nothing can be taken out of the universe; therefore, nothing is ever irrelevant, nothing is ever inconsequential.2

Butterworth was speaking about our “need to know,” but also acknowledged that some things may not ever be knowable, and that is okay too.  We can be happy with the assurance that having a continuing sense of wonder will make lead us ever forward to knowing ourselves, and therefore being closer to God.

As she has done each of the last two weeks, Rev. Joanne again shares a passage from the Book of Psalms:

Your name, Lord, endures forever, your renown, Lord, through all generations.
For the Lord will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants.
The idols of the nations are silver and gold, made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear, nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.  Psalm 135:13-18

This psalm refers to literal idols.  She invites us to the understanding that ours are not idols of materiality, but idols that stop us from seeing clearly, from hearing one another clearly, from speaking words of truth – idols we are holding in mind of how we “know.”  She asks us to think about the idols that keep us from seeing clearly, that keep us from experiencing another as that beloved of the Divine.  This is what we are opening to this week, a greater understanding of the mystery, setting aside our ideas and letting what is here in this moment speak to us anew.

Now Go and Be the Light.

Scripture

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.  Proverbs 9:10

Spiritual Practice

We continue to integrate contemplative practices into our daily lives as a way of opening to the Divine in deeper ways, thereby training our spirits for compassion in all things.  This week’s ritual action is a practice of curiosity.  Set a reminder to spend some time exploring a “phenomenon” that you don’t yet know about.  It might be further exploration of what the Hubble Telescope images have taught us about the universe.  Or it could be about the behavior of an animal species.  Whatever you choose, as you do so, allow your mind to take in the wonder, contemplate the information slowly, open your heart to wonder.  You may want to put a note nearby that reads, “The more we know, the more we know that we don’t know.  Wonder and awe that leads to care of creation is good.”

Greg Skuderin

1Farley, Wendy, Beguiled by Beauty: Cultivating a Life of Contemplation and Compassion, Westminster John Knox Press (December 15, 2020).

2Butterworth, Eric, “On the Air,” Talk No. 7 – Superconsciousness.  Copyright 1981 Unity®; Unity Village, MO.  Link for audio file of this talk and complete transcript:  https://www.truthunity.net/audio/eric-butterworth/on-the-air/superconsciousness