Wonder is like grace, in that’s it’s not a condition we grasp; it grasps us. David James Duncan
Amy and I are not mall people or shopping people. So, we hate shopping at the mall. The mall changes me – I become an over-fed, over-stimulated consumer with less money and decidedly crotchety. Yet, when the two little guys were three and five, I had to take them to the mall for reasons now forgotten. It never occurred to me that it would be an event for them until I walked through the doors and their little hands tightened in mine. They were uncharacteristically silent and still; eyes wide, mouths open, they huddled up to me as we walked by shops, enthralled by the lights, colors and noise, a little scared and overwhelmed. To me, all excess and consumerism run amok. To them, it was a wonder, and they stayed close to me the whole time, never letting go of my hand.
“Daddy, the tooth-fairy didn’t come.” Nuts. Totally forgot to be tooth-fairy.
“Well,” I told him, “the tooth fairy died in a horrible farming mishap in Dublin, Ohio.” No, actually, I didn’t say that, but it did cross my mind. Thinking fast and noting it was Sunday I said; “Ah, of course not bud, the tooth fairy doesn’t work on Sabbath. Let’s try again tomorrow.” (Amy had to hide a snort.) This actually mollified him a bit. Sadly, just last week, Richey came snuffling into the room with the same complaint.
“What happened to the tooth-fairy?” he asked. (Let’s just say we won’t be written up in parenting magazines anytime soon.) For a moment, I considered it a small act of grace that Richey, too, lost his tooth on a Saturday night. As I begin to launch into my tooth-fairy Sabbath observance explanation, Robby my budding cynic blurts out:
“NO, IT’S BECAUSE THE TOOTH FAIRY ISN’T REAL. THE TOOTH FAIRY IS JUST MOM AND DAD!”
Richey, stunned, looks at me, eyes big, plaintive: “Daddy, is that true?”
I glare at Robby and reply to Richey; “Well, you usually get something when you lose your tooth, don’t you?” (I thought that was pretty a pretty slick response; it avoided the weird, profoundly unsatisfying; “Well, if you feel the tooth fairy in your heart, she must be real.”)
There was a long pause and then Richey asked, “Yea, but is the tooth fairy real?”
Now parents, check me here, but I’ll be darned if this isn’t a huge moral quandary. I don’t want to flat out lie to him. I have visions of an arraignment hearing where he tells the jury; “Well, my life of disrepute began the day my dad looked me in the eye and lied about the tooth fairy.” But saying “no” will crush his youthful innocence. And as I agonize over this tooth fairy ethical impasse, my pause gives away the truth. So, I simply have to say, “No, there is no tooth fairy, buddy.”
“But Santa’s real.” Robby proclaims with certainty. “Yeah.” says Richey. And they return to their pancakes, completely happy. (How do you not love willful suspicion of disbelief?)
The moment passed, but not the fact that their moments are passing and they are growing up. A trip to the mall is no longer filled with awe. The tooth fairy has been revealed as a fraud and Santa is quickly losing plausibility. Watching them lose this naiveté is a crushing blow, even though its inevitable. I so very much want them not to lose that innocence – the wide open, trusting, joy-rooted engagement with a world that is filled with wonder. I think of Jesus’ enigmatic assertion; “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Is wonder the very heart of this child-likeness? I am reminded of a passage from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
How do we get to young again? I really don’t know. Wonder for a 48 year old man revolves around questions like: “I wonder what sort of horribly embarrassing and invasive procedure the doctor will ‘suggest’ on my next visit?” More seriously, wonder is a remarkably hard thing to describe and there’s no sure path to get there. It’s not a thing, of course, but a disposition. One does not grab wonder but receives it, usually literally or figuratively on ones knees because the proud never wonder. It’s all wrapped up with worship and glory and the profound sense that there is something greater than us “shining like shook foil” in and through the world. If I were to try to put my expensive theology degree to use, I’d suggest that wonder is found in a praxis of worship oriented toward an end not of our own making and rooted in the creedal tradition. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.” Maybe wonder begins when we listen to those old stories with new ears, open to the possibility that they just might be true. If that’s true, then wonder is very much like reaching up to take a hand, knowing that it is safe and good and trustworthy and it will lead us through all the noise and chaos back home again where there’s light and love and warmth and deep laughter.