I believe that there is something about human beings which promotes the compelling inevitability to turn to the big questions in life. ‘Why is the sky blue?’ ‘Why do people die?’ ‘Why do we have war when we would all prefer safety and love?’ ‘Will we ever learn to get along and feel safe with people who are different than us and be interested in them for their own right, rather than simply for whether or not they threatened or supported our personal orbit.
All my life I’ve felt unavoidably pointed toward the curious queries in life. The myriad of inconsistencies sprinkled throughout the world ingrained in me a mantra of ‘why’ that must have been challenging at best and annoying at worst for my blue collar parents struggling just to hold our family of five together. And yet, sometimes in the quiet moments, they would look down below the level of parental operations and wonder with me. I remember learning to read and sitting on the lap of whoever held the 1st grade primer delving into the adventurous world of Dick and Jane. I remember first reading the word, ‘LOOK’ and marveling at what a holy word I had just learned.
Years later I entered into the world of science, each day the hair on my arms and the back of my neck standing on end with the possibility I would earn one more opportunity to stand at the door of wonder and learn ‘why?’ I found that science captivated my interests. At least it did while I was in the learning phase.
But something changed for me after I graduated with a degree in Biochemistry and Biophysics. I found that when I went to work in industry as a pharmaceutical engineer, the great breath of wonder had been deflated from the life of science. Companies were not so curious in that playful, imaginative way we were as children. It was different. Companies had stopped cultivating any real interest in wonder. The people who designed and managed and ran the operations of such places had been carefully weaned from true curiosity. For them, the word “LOOK” lost its holiness and was incorporated into a safety policy.
Over the eight years I worked in science I never did get an official memo, but the official shift in motive felt clear. Questions no longer emerged out of excitement, but rather dread – to be replaced by certainty as quickly as possible so that we could close our mind to ‘the problem’ they presented.
After some time, I realized that science had travelled – with possible necessity – into an entirely different realm than where it was when I first encountered it. When I first fell in love with it. And this new arena of industrial science seemed to be travelling further and further away from the heroes and sages that helped me see discovery as a core piece of the human experience.
I changed careers, choosing to enter into the ministry, in part to ‘save my soul.’ But, by that I don’t mean individual salvation – chosen as elect and separated from the ‘lost’. Such divisive categories are something that continues to confuse me – especially in the realm of religion whose work is to love and serve and bring people together.
The part of my soul that I felt I was losing was the part that lost touch with wonder and openness and curiosity. It was the part of me that refused to relinquish imagination, playfulness, or the idea that every single person and piece of creation was inextricably connected to everything else. Like Einstein worked the last part of his career on establishing a unified field theory – believing in the power of imagination and wonder as tools of discovery – I wanted to explore a unified field theory of human existence. And it felt like I had to preserve whatever true curiosity and appreciation I had left after 12 years of learning and practicing science.
And I was fortunate to find that, like my parents, if I managed to take my eye off the sophisticated and technical realm problems, it was possible to reacquaint myself with the world of wonder. A world that lives a little closer to the ground. A world of great prophets and sages. And a world capable of not only saving my soul, but possibly saving the world.
Such prophets exist everywhere in our midst, in sometimes surprising places. Some years ago I encountered one that managed to turn my world upside down – and shake out the cynicism cultivated by almost anyone who manages to live into their forties.
I had been a minister for a year when Alexa entered my life. Having just turned five, she brought her mother to church to attend a meeting. After dropping her mother off at her place at the table, Alexa sat down the carry case she brought and took off her Winnie the Pooh rain coat. As took my place at the table next to her mother, I casually asked Alexa, “What’s in the box?” She smiled, realizing the moment of prophecy had arrived.
First, she let me know that it was not just a box. It was the house where her Madeline dolls lived; and that the house could go anywhere she could go. The dolls needed her, Alexa explained, to take them out so they can see different things in the world. She needed them because they are the ones who know her name, who’ve made room for her and become her friends. One by one, she proudly opened up the box and called every doll by name. Some were tall, some not. Some had long hair, others short. Some were shy. Some bold. But, each doll had a unique story - things they hoped for and things they were hurt by. One of them, Madeline herself, even had a scar.
Alexa explained things slowly, making sure I understood. Pretty soon, I had stopped trying to listen to the people having the meeting. It seemed obvious that the true course of human evolution could be seen in much greater clarity down on the floor. This is where the real secrets of our coming together are often shared.
Our world is a collective of such truths. Real life show and tell. A church is like a box where we turn to find people who know our name, who make room for us, who will be our friends. The people we meet are all different. All have hopes. All have hurts. Many even have scars. In times of trial and times of triumph, we turn to one another that our meaning be magnified by all whose hearts are open to ours. And though we may venture out on our journey, we are given courage by knowing we carry this place with us wherever we go.
When it was time to go, I realized I had been to the most productive meeting I’d been to in quite some time. I learned everyone’s name. I heard about new hopes, better understood some familiar hurts and felt better about my own scars. As we got up to leave, Alexa put her dolls back in their house and whispered to me that they wanted her to let me know they liked me. I had to stop and figure out if I had been entertaining angels unaware of if they had been entertaining me.
As a minister, I have not given up on science. I do not denounce it or even reprimand it. I do believe it has a very certain place at the table. But I sometimes think we have allowed it – and ourselves – to get so far above the level at which human wonder, creativity, imagination and real understanding live. When these two worlds get too far apart, we risk a loss of soul. It is a humbling spiritual practice to remind myself to stand before the great complexity of the world and reflect on questions without them – or the people they involve – becoming ‘problems to be solved.’ It is imperative we relearn and retain the spiritual practice of standing before each other and our interdependent lives and utter the holy word: ‘LOOK.’
To the Glory of Life.