Sermon: The Shoreline of Wonder by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons

2021 April 26

The Shoreline of Wonder

Ana Levy-Lyons

April 25, 2021

First Unitarian, Brooklyn – online

A couple weeks ago I was coming home from dropping my kid off at school and I saw that some city workers were trimming a tree and there were branches scattered on the ground. It just so happened that the tree was in bloom at the time and so I scooped up a few of these flowering branches and brought them home with me. (Anyone who has ever dated me or is now married to me has early on come to the distressing realization that I actually dislike receiving beautiful flowers that are chopped down in their prime and given to me as a symbol of love, only to watch them slowly die on the kitchen table.) But these flowers were free. They were otherwise destined for the wood chipper. So I was thrilled to be able to bring them home and put them in water and admire their beauty.

From high up in the tree, these branches look like they’re just covered with a pale glowy softness. But looking at them more closely when I got them home, I realized that the softness was really made up of individual tufts, each about the size of a fist. And each tuft was really a cluster of individual flowers. Each flower was comprised of tiny petals, each about the size of a pinky fingernail. I started counting: 5 petals per flower, 20 flowers per cluster. That’s 100 petals per cluster. How many clusters of flowers were there on those couple branches I had brought home? About twenty. 20 x 100? 2000. There were 2000 petals gracing these branches now on my kitchen table – just trimmings from an ordinary, medium sized tree. 2000 petals. I felt like I heard God chuckle at my amazement.

I’m like, “That’s impossible. How could there be that many? I must have done the math wrong.”

God’s like, “Count ‘em yourself if you really must quantify these things. Actually, don’t. I’ll just tell you. It’s 2,439.”

I’m like, “Okay….”

God says, “That’s nothing. Nothing. When you’re going outside sometime, let me know. I’ll go with you and you’ll see.”

So a few days later, I’m out running and I go to the Ramble in Central Park. The Ramble is a forested section of the park with a lake in the middle of it and I am lucky enough to live within running distance. I find a corner of the lake where there aren’t many people and I look around. Flowering trees are everywhere in spectacular bloom. I think about the branches at home with over 2000 petals on them. Each of these trees, bursting with branches like that. This tree right in front of me: hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of petals on it. “2,438,355,” says God. I hear the laughter again.

There are birds too all around me – reds, greys, browns, making a holy racket. The effortless abundance of it all. Each tree swaying in the breeze, each bush, each bird just a gesture, an easy splash of color. Looking at the kaleidoscope all around me, the explosions of life in every direction, the vibrations of sound, the unfathomable scale – there are no words, there are no numbers to contain this extravagance. And the lake is another dash of divine humor. “You want it all doubled?” says God, “Poof!” It’s all there again in mirror image on the surface of the water! “You want it tripled? You want it quadrupled? I spin off whole universes before you’ve had breakfast.” The giddy playfulness of creation; the humor. I feel joy welling up in me. Awe. I feel profound awe.

There was an article this week in the Times by Adam Grant called, “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.” It describes a state that’s not quite depression, but that’s not quite thriving either.  Grant calls languishing the dominant emotion of 2021. Unlike with serious depression, you can function while languishing; you can go through the motions of your day and get done what you need to do. But it all feels kind of joyless and aimless. Kind of blah. I think many of us have felt this at least at times over the last year, with the hours in front of screens, the background anxiety over the pandemic (or the foreground experience of COVID), nothing concrete to look forward to, the lack of touch. But what amazed me about this article was that Adam Grant talked about languishing in purely psychological terms and offered only psychological remedies for it. He did not talk about it as what it seems to so obviously be: a spiritual illness.

Languishing is the existential blah that comes from a disconnection from the holy source of life, a lack of higher purpose animating what we do, and an absence of awe. And just as I don’t believe this is just a psychological malady, I also don’t believe that it’s anything new in 2021. It might have gotten worse, but this is a spiritual illness of our culture that has been with us for a long time. For decades at least, we have collectively acted like a languishing individual – we function, we get things done… we get a lot done if you measure it by GDP or the amount that we produce and consume, how well we entertain ourselves. Much has gotten done. But as a society, we’ve done it all with a determined, teeth-clenched optimism, moving along the conveyer belt of progress without real joy. We’ve done it all without a sense of connection to the source of life — the earth from which we come. We’ve done it without a sense of shared purpose (why are we making 13 million new microwaves each year and how does that create a better world when so many people don’t have enough food to eat to begin with?). And we’ve done it all without awe.

Awe is a spiritual word. It suggests something bigger even than amazement. I think of it as the dawning awareness of the presence of something greater, something beyond ourselves, beyond our control and beyond our comprehension. It can feel thrilling, terrifying, liberating, even comforting. Awe is soul nourishment. It is the antidote to languishing. In the experience of awe, there can be no boredom. Life feels vibrant and purposeful, like we are part of a grand cosmic project yearning toward wholeness. It puts us each in our place… as one petal – one beautiful fragrant essential petal – out of billions. The more we know and the more we open ourselves to it, the more it can fill our consciousness. As Rev. Ralph Sockman put it, “The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.”

I want to invite you all to call up into your hearts an experience you’ve had where you’ve stood at the shoreline of wonder; where you have felt even the slightest touch of awe. It could be an experience in nature but it doesn’t have to be. We humans channel that divine creativity in so many ways. Think of artists, architects – think about all that went into designing and building the room that you are sitting in right now. Musicians – how they pluck sound and rhythm out of thin air and create another universe and make us dance or cry. Scientists who created a vaccine that is saving lives this very moment. The work of those who grow food and those who build and those who cook and those who heal and those who care for others. Almost anything can be experienced with awe if we open ourselves deeply enough to it.

You’ll have a chance to share your experiences in a little while. But first, four members of our congregation have prepared vignettes to share with you, of their own personal experiences. It makes a difference when we talk about these things and make space together for spiritual consciousness. It’s my hope that these stories will help open our hearts to the magic of what’s around us. We’re going to hear from Tyrone Davis Jr., Liz Komar, Peter Engel, and Jenifer Leigh. And we’re going to allow a moment of silence after each person speaks to honor what they’ve shared.

[Tyrone, Liz, Peter, Jenifer share vignettes]

Einstein famously said, “There are two ways to live life: one is as if nothing is a miracle and the other is as if everything is a miracle.” What a difference this shift in perspective makes. If nothing is a miracle, our stance toward the natural world is one of extraction and control. If everything is a miracle it is one of awe and reverence. If nothing is a miracle, the material world and all the people in it are just resources to be shaped and used. If everything is a miracle, each creature is infused with the holy and each person is of infinite value. If nothing is a miracle, we languish. If everything is a miracle, we blossom.

I believe that the culture of “nothing is a miracle” is the culture of languishing and it’s the culture that is driving our ecosystems to the edge of collapse. To begin to heal our relationship with each other and with the rest of creation, we need to transform that culture. If we don’t, technological fixes or market-based fixes will be a game of whack-a-mole: one problem gets solved and another pops up in its place. On the other hand, spiritual and culture change is so slow, it’s like planting the seed of a flowering tree. The Doomsday Clock being where it is, if we only plant seeds now, we will run out of time. So we need both at once – the practical and the spiritual.

On the practical side, there are a thousand ways we can bring our gifts to work for healing in whatever areas touch our hearts – climate change, reforestation, environmental justice, oceans; international, local – we need it all. There’s a great opportunity to do a small action at 3pm this very afternoon. It’s a NY state-wide UU event led by me and the First U team that should be really wonderful – you can read about it in the e-news and I’ll also put the registration link into the chat after the service. 

On the spiritual side, we can cultivate awe in ourselves and others. Whether we experience a God who has snarky conversations with us and knows how many petals are on a tree or we just contemplate the ineffable beauty and grandeur of the universe, we can each find our own ways to get to awe. We can make time for it and space in our week and in our day. Prayer, meditation, music, blessings before meals. Put ourselves in situations and give ourselves the opening to notice how miraculous everything really is. Because it really is, starting with the fact that there is something rather than nothing.

I want to invite you now over the next few minutes to think about an experience of awe in your own life, and as you feel comfortable, describe it in a sentence or two in the chat. Sharing these experiences together, making this part of our culture, can be a powerful way to open our hearts.

[people share in chat]

That there is something rather than nothing. And that the cosmic explosion of somethingness exploded into something so beautiful, so diverse, so unlikely as this earth that then somehow spawned every single petal on every flowering tree and every single one of us. The probability of my existing at all and you existing at all and all of us existing at the same time and sharing these experiences right now even though we are not in the same place is vanishingly small. It’s all a miracle. My prayer for all of us is that we might expand our shoreline of wonder, see the miracles all around us, work toward healing, languish no more, and eventually come to know life as the awesome gift that it is.

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