Wonder and Other Life Skills

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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How fun it is today to be lead-off batter in the summer preaching series, with Dean Hill’s choice theme of “the Gospel and Emerging Adulthood.”  I’m going to take a swing at this first pitch and see if I can get us on base with my sermon title, which I boldly borrow from Kathleen Fannin’s book title, “Wonder and Other Life Skills.” Fannin, who is a college chaplain, writes about creating spiritual life retreats for young adults.

WONDER.   I’m tempted to say it’s a Wonderful word, but you know we ought not be redundant in our definitions.  WONDER As a noun: “A  feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected.” As a verb, “to be curious to know something.”  Or better yet, WONDER as the reality of all life- as Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings….Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.”

Let’s name WONDER as a quality gifted us by emerging adults. It’s one of the reasons why I love being in ministry with young adults; they have yet to leave behind the beauty of “childlike wonder”; they are curious and open to learn; they haven’t yet developed the protective exoskeleton of cynicism some already emerged adults have grown. Let’s name today that we can all learn from young adults, and that indeed our very walk of Gospel discipleship has one persistent demand on us- that we are receptive. Receptive to wonder. That we keep our hearts and minds open to the presence of the divine all around us, and within us…. in short that we cultivate the life skill of wonder.

Pause a moment to ask What exactly is Emerging Adulthood? Whatever happened to being an adolescent and then a grown up?  Sociologists advance that Emerging Adulthood is actually a new developmental stage, one identified as part of a post-modern coming of age reality. A stage post-adolescence and pre-adulthood, generally identified as the years between 18-29. And it is interwoven with characteristics of the Millennial Generation-our current population of emerging adults.

Janjay Innis, a recent graduate of the BU STH, a young 20 something who is off taking the world by storm in mission work, spoke at the NE AC UMC last week- she said “in spite of staggering statistics about Church decline and the claims that Millennials are disengaged with the Church, God has raised up a new generation of young people who are seeking and asking questions about how faith calls them to be about the work of justice, peace, reconciliation, and love. This is Gospel.”


In the Gospel lesson that spoke to me for this day, Jesus teaches us how to engage the world. Jesus tells us to put on His yoke, to choose to walk with him tethered to the holy perspective of freedom and wonder.  To walk together, linked shoulder to shoulder along a route that he promises we’ll figure out together. And you will see dedication of service and love of selfie and love for neighbor in such a wonderful way.


The first time I saw an actual yoke happened to be in my own emerging adulthood years.  I was a brave 22 year old, and I had just loaded up my backpack to live a year on my own in Israel, learning Hebrew on a kibbutz, milking cows in Hebrew- I don’t know how to do it in English- pulling the 5 am shift in the milking parlor.  I was a NYC suburban kid enamored of farm life.  I still have the scar, faint now on my finger, given to me by the first cow I ever milked.  She didn’t like my unskilled touch so she stomped on my hand.   I learned to welcome the metal bar yoke of restraint that my kibbutznik partner taught me to apply.  It settled my bovine friends and allowed us to work together in the land of flowing milk and honey.

More commonly a yoke is used to link 2 working animals side by side – often oxen- so they can focus on the path intended for them.  With heads directed forward, the crossbar rests on their shoulders, distributing some of the weight of the pull of the plow or burden of the wagon. In Biblical metaphor, a yoke is a most often a symbol of servitude, of being harnessed to a life of toil.

But if you know anything about our friend Jesus, you know he is apt to invert metaphors, to Wake Up our settled assumptions so we might be receptive to wonder.  Jesus rebukes the established generation of religious folks who act is if they know it all and yet… they cannot recognize John the  Baptizer as a messenger of the kingdom of God- to them he is an ascetic nut job who wears weird clothes and eats weird food. They cannot recognize Jesus as the Son of God – to them he is a rule breaker who likes to wine and dine with the wrong sort of people. Jesus says these already emerged people are really like babies- they don’t get it.  Perhaps it will be the ones who are not so impressed with organized religion who will truly see him.

Hear Eugene Peterson’s lovely interpretation of our Gospel.  Jesus says, in Matthew 11:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

On this first weekend of summer, doesn’t that sound like the most wonderful invitation: to recover our lives? To learn the unforced rhythms of grace.  Here in Boston, let’s face it – the historic epicenter of the Puritan Work ethic – Jesus offers us a way forward in centered peace. Let’s hear a witness to the gospel keeping company and living freely with emerging adults.

I met Bethany Printup-Davis through my previous appointment as the Protestant Chaplain at Nazareth College in Rochester NY.  Bethany grew up on a Tuscarora Indian Reservation near Buffalo, she attended a church off reservation and was particularly fond of singing in the choir.  She was an enthusiastic undergrad who came to our Sunday evening Protestant Worship services.  These services that in my first semester drew a not-so-enthusiastic crowd of 4 or 5.  And 2 of us were paid to be in attendance- myself and the undergrad piano player. The College was founded as a Catholic all women’s school, but had been independent and co-educational for 3 decades.  However, the legacy of Catholicism reverberated, and every Sunday night I waited as pew after pew of Catholic students poured out of the Chapel from evening Mass, galvanized by a specific religious tradition. Then my little flock entered the Chapel for our service. I found that while my students were keen to explore their spirituality, and to offer their lives to make a difference, they had minimal introduction to religious tradition. And they called themselves “the not-Catholic kids.”

And so I started to introduce them to wonders of Protestant churches.  I began by bringing students to a national gathering organized by United Methodist college students.  And 2 wonderful things happened for Bethany Printup-Davis at a gathering in Shreveport Louisiana.

First, the keynote speaker was Dr. Eboo Patel, a sociologist of religion, a devout American Muslim from Chicago by way of family of origin in India.  Eboo Patel, the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, spoke eloquently to us about our Wesleyan heritage. He detailed the mission of John and Charles Wesley and enumerated the beauty of Methodism. He urged that the best way to be a fully engaged citizen and a full partner in interfaith cooperation is to know your own faith story.

Second, the music leaders were all Native Americans, taking the stage and leading us in songs with cadence of drumbeat and dancestep of ancient practice. My young friend Bethany sat in the front pew, as close as possible to the music. And she wept.  Grace flowed down her cheeks. Later she told me “Robin, I had no idea that I could unite my Native identity with my Christian identity.  I thought they had to be separate.”

The next year Bethany was up there on the stage- a leader in the music ministry.  She went on to take a Confirmation Class with me, to be baptized and welcomed into the UMC though our Campus ministry.  I saw her a few weeks ago as she led a Workshop for some 500 churches on Native American awareness.  Professionally she is a District educator for Native American cultural competencies, and is discerning a call to ministry. She is as enthusiastic as ever, attributing her joy to walking with Christ in wonder of identity.

My friend Micah Christian is a young man with a big and brave vision for being Church out in the world.  I’ve journeyed alongside him the past several years on a path that has taken him through Spiritual Life practices in seminary to baptism and confirmation in the Catholic Church to a year of service in Peru with his wife Jocelyn, to expressing beauty and faith through music. Perhaps you are one of 11.5 million people who watched him perform a couple weeks ago with his quartet “Sons of Serendip” on America’s Got Talent.  All 4 members of the band are recent BU grads- having earned degrees in law, theology, and music. At their audition they received a standing ovation. The judges- one of whom – Howard Stern – is a proud BU alumnus, were in rather stunned awe. Many in the crowd of thousands at Madison Square Garden and those of us huddled around TV sets cried for the beauty of it.  Their harp, cello, keyboard and vocals transported us.

I first learned about Micah’s new band on the last Saturday of the semester, when he approached me on Marsh Plaza.  I was in midst leading a Study Retreat for students, and we had brought the labyrinth Brother Larry and students made some years ago out onto the Plaza.  A whole variety of folks came by and walked the labyrinth – this ancient Christian practice now embraced by just about every spiritual tradition I know as a tool for centering. Students of engineering, law, management, fine arts…a family on their way to a Red Sox game, 3 fraternity brothers rushing to a big event, 2 girl scout troops… they all stopped to walk in peace. The engineers were the most suspicious.  “It’s a maze, right?  It’s a trick for me to solve, right?” “No,” I said “there is no trick, and the meaning isn’t found in external analysis.  You just have to get in there and start walking, trusting that you will be led to your center.” And so they did.

As Micah and I chatted around the perimeter of the labyrinth he told about this crazy, unexpected America’s Got Talent ride with the band.  He had just come from a rehearsal on campus. While he could not tell me anything about the results of the audition, sworn by Producers to secrecy, (we know now they advanced!)  He told me about fans waiting at the stage door, autographs requested, the pull and push of the glittery world of reality TV. And his desire, his burning deep desire to stay centered in the soul of the music and the soul of the friendship in the band.  To stay centered in integrity- so that everything he said and sang and did might reflect his calling to live as a follower of Christ.

He was on his way to see his Spiritual Director, and thanked me for sharing the labyrinth because “so many of us struggle to stay centered.”

Researchers at UCLA have a longitudinal study on Emerging Adults and Spirituality.  They conclude that there is a positive correlation between spirituality and well-being. While the highly spiritual students were by no means exempt from the significant stresses of collegiate life, they were also able to exhibit a high level of Equanimity. .. the qualities of being able to find meaning in times of hardship and feeling at peace and centered.

Micah, Kendall, Cordara, and Mason: Sons of Serendip, from the heart of your campus at BU, we wish you every joy and success.

Young adults witness to me just about every week the sentiment of Anne Frank, who wrote, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”  They get inspired and they get going.  Caitlin Schultz and Lyndsey Seeley Fellows attended a national campus ministry event, and came back to the Nazareth campus with hearts strangely warmed by the Church’s impact on malaria prevention in Africa. They said, “Robin we are going to raise $1000 to donate to the Nothing But Nets campaign, to send treated bed nets to Africa, because they are so effective in saving lives. We have this idea to partner with the Men’s basketball team, because they have nets.”  Apparently my exoskeleton of doubt had developed because I did not match their enthusiasm.  “But we are a small group, we don’t know anyone on the basketball team, actually we don’t know any athletes, and I’m just not sure that’s a realistic project.” And then they called me to WAKE UP! “Robin if you are not going to help us, you can at least get out of our way.”  And you bet I joined them –as they put on the yoke of service to the world. Over the next 2 years they raised $3000, with hundreds of students and faculty and staff from all over campus participating.  And our little group of “not Catholic kids” gave themselves a new name as they multiplied in numbers and confidence and spirit.  They called themselves “The Little Church That Could.”

And, finally, I share a story about the yoke of accompaniment.

Demarius Walker is soon to graduate from BU. He’s a philosopher and deep thinker and kind soul who loves to dive deep into conversations that matter. He’s the leader of our Howard Thurman discussion group here at Marsh.  He participated at one of our recent Study retreats as we ended the long, productive day by gathering here in the sanctuary at 10 pm.  Turned out all the lights, and walked up to balcony by candlelight to reflect on the day in the shared company of friendship and prayer.  Demarius lingered, absorbing  the tranquility of the stillness, the silence, the flickering of light.  Afterwards he shared a story with me.

He told me that one time during the winter, very late at night, he wandered across campus and found himself at Marsh Chapel.  He was slightly surprised to find the front door open.  He came in.  Something compelled him in, down the center aisle of the sanctuary.  All the lights were off, except for the solitary light that illuminates the face of Christ on our chancel.  It was a moment of sheer awe for him, and he stopped in his tracks midway.  He could not go further. Then he sensed a companion. He looked over and there stood David Soper, our Marsh sexton and steward extraordinaire of this block of Comm Ave. Now, Demarius wasn’t sure he was supposed to be in the middle of the sanctuary in the middle of the night, and he was getting a little nervous in front of this man in an official BU uniform.  But before he had a chance to give explanation David spoke, “Beautiful isn’t it?” as they both gazed at the illuminated Christ.  Then, David turned and left.

I followed up with David, and asked for his recollection of the night. He said, “Oh sure I came in early, probably 3 am or so, to get a head start on clearing all the snow on the Plaza.  It was a nice quiet moment to share together.”

Friends, we are called –young and old and in between – to accompany one another in this wondrous journey. Let’s step into the summer with Rachel Carson, pioneer environmentalist from Maine, who wrote, “If a young person is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder…she needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”  Let’s walk together in the unforced rhythms of grace.

~The Rev. Dr. Robin Olson

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