“Medicine, law, business, engineering – these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for!” – Dead Poets Society
Ever have one of those moments when your olfactory receptors get blasted with nostalgia?
When I was 12, I had a crush on a girl named Alicia in my small Awana group at church. For several months, she was the only girl in our midst. Maybe it was the sweaty adolescent guys in our circle, but she always seemed to carry a distinct scent whenever she entered the room. Being a socially awkward, bookish 12-year-old, I had no idea how to instigate a friendship, much less a romantic relationship at that age. I couldn’t even bring myself to mention her name around my parents since I was so smitten. I was just glad to be in the same room with Alicia.
A few years later, my family was driving through the highways of San Francisco when we passed by the now-closed Hostess Cake and Wonder Bread factory. A strangely familiar aroma wafted through the smoggy air. “That smell!” I exclaimed after getting a whiff. Among the cocktail of yeasty, jammy, artificial scents was the Alicia scent, which I finally realized was the magical smell…of Twinkies. For a wonderful, age-long moment, I was transported back.
Okay…so maybe reading all of that was a little strange. But I wrote all that detail because I know I don’t appreciate life’s little pleasures enough today and stop to smell the roses (or Twinkies, for that matter). My 12-year-old self may have been infatuated and foolish, but looking back now, I can’t help but wonder if he may have been onto something.
As an adult, my instinct is to bite when the lure of the pedantic is dangled. I crave a predictable life. It’s comforting when everything is boiled down to function, when I’m constantly aware of the purpose of every action or encounter, when everything carries some discernable meaning. Knowledge feels empowering, whether it’s educational (“the world works like this because of A and B”) or interpersonal (“this person works like this because they hold Opinions X and Y or have been through Experience Z”). When every question is answered, when every person’s action feeds into a preconceived narrative, when everything is explainable – the world feels safe and secure.
There’s a whole host of problems with such a life, but the one that stands out is this: a predictable life robs us of wonder, one of God’s greatest gifts.
What must it have been like for God to speak the universe into existence? He didn’t have to do so, after all. But He did – and even more, He took delight in what He created. He pronounced it good. And when man was created, something special happened: God was no longer alone in the creative arena. Man was made in His image, with all that urge to create, tend, and nurture. His entrusting of creation to man wasn’t just an obligatory mandate, but also an invitation to use the resources he stewards wisely, to be more Christ-like in the process.
Growing up, I never felt like God’s delight was a part of the creation narrative I was taught. Creation was merely a regimented, distantly ordered series of incremental steps to get the universe going. And while the details of creation and God’s orderliness are important, they’re only pieces of the whole story. If we, as imperfect human beings, experience the exuberant euphoria of delight in our own creation, how much more did God experience it when He created us in His own image?
Scripture doesn’t go into great detail, but the unmarred relationship Adam and Eve shared with God in the sinless idyll of Eden suggests delight and intimacy were both present in the context of working to tend the garden. I love imagining God smiling down upon Adam as he discovered and named all the animals. There’s a timeless truth tucked away in the garden: God isn’t a distant deity watching us from afar. He, too, engages in work – and in the context of relationship with us.
In our individualized, compartmentalized world, I often struggle with the practical, day-to-day living out of that truth. It’s far easier to respond to the overwhelming maelstrom of noise in the world by hunkering down and focusing on myself. In such a paradigm where everything begins and ends with self, work is only a quest for survival instead of an act of creative service in a much larger, relational context. Relationships are nothing more than a means to a self-fulfilling end instead of an opportunity to pour into the lives of friends and then band together to pour into others. The value of creation is measured by nothing more than its usefulness to us. Even in the context of following Christ, salvation ends at our own personal atonement and admission into Heaven instead of continuously seeking after the purpose of our salvation in this life.
The more I’m tempted toward focusing on personal efficiency wherever I go, the more I’m convicted. Several months ago, my pastor challenged all of us in church with a word for the year:
In the narrative of Scripture, whenever God or an angel commands someone to “behold,” the word can usually be translated to mean “stand still and be amazed.” I know I don’t stand still often enough. I know I don’t rest often enough. But arguably saddest of all, I know I don’t stop to be amazed often enough.
In a world riddled with distractions, where novelties are sought out in the service of pursuing the next high, the concept of amazement – particularly in the mundane doldrums of everyday life – feels antithetical to all we know to be true. In a world fraught with cynicism and pain, pure awe doesn’t seem deserved. In a world where the amassing of information and knowledge is valued, the idea of wonder is foreign and reminds us that we’re finite. In a world where competition and transactional encounters are commonplace, the idea of expressing amazement and love toward another without expecting anything in return is contrary to our natural instincts.
I think about the moments when Mary anointed Jesus at Bethany. When she poured the oil on His feet, and Judas responded with indignation, claiming it was all a waste, Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Leave her alone.” I think He recognized that Mary’s selfless act, sitting at His feet in wondrous awe, would be a waste if our calling in life was simply to be transactional. But in God’s economy, even something that looks as ephemeral as pouring out a bottle of perfume is meaningful. For Jesus, it wasn’t a matter of quantity or physical value, but of the heart. He recognized that Mary understood the gift Christ had given her and responded by showing generosity – even extravagant generosity. Her act of worship was beautiful.
Seeking beauty, responding to God’s gifts in wonder, standing in awe – why is it important?
Last week, I had the privilege of spending time with a number of friends who were a part of a writing forum with which I was briefly involved in high school. Some of them were old friends, while others were new. Some of them were only meeting for the first time, while others were reunited across the country for the eighth time. But no matter our background, there was a camaraderie present among us that wasn’t just manufactured.
After a while, I began to discern a trend: though we’re now adults, and some of us decided not to pursue careers in writing, there was a distinct awareness threaded throughout our group that we, our creativity, and our storytelling are all imperfect. We are fragile. We are frail. And sometimes, all we can do is approach each other – and Christ Himself – with our struggles and stand back in wonder as we watch God at work. But it doesn’t end there. In a room bristling with creative energy, many of us recognized that life isn’t just about healing ourselves, but also healing others – whether through the power of storytelling, sharing beauty, or extending a hand in selfless friendship.
By the time the week ended, I felt my walls beginning to crumble. Those transactional, pedantic instincts I described earlier felt so foolish and unfulfilling. I realize that I’ve still got a long way to go with respect to standing still and enjoying God’s gifts. I’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to living a life defined by wonder. And that’s okay. There’s no shame in being a work in progress. We all are.
Maybe it starts with stopping to smell the Twinkies.