I preached on Simeon over the holiday season. Simeon – the mysterious old man in the temple who personifies the hope of Israel. Wrinkled fingers clasping the tiny hands of Jesus, hands that will grow up to bear eternal scars of love.
Simeon is most famous for his song (Nunc dimittis in Latin), a farewell hymn of praise to his Lord. I’m the Lord’s slave, he says, before launching into praise to God for His faithfulness to His covenant promises.
It’s a beautiful paradox. Because Simeon sees his position as a slave, he is therefore free to worship. Because he sees himself as a lowly servant, he is freely filled with gratitude for God’s goodness to him.
And that reminds me… Joy suffers whenever we are too big and God is too small.
The fuel of joy is gratitude, and the fuel of gratitude is wonder. But wonder gets stifled by entitlement, and gratitude disappears when wonder dies.
One way for us to recapture a sense of the glory of God is through seeing the grandeur of His handiwork. This is one way we shrink ourselves and magnify God – through childlike faith, we are to become like children, fully dependent on God our Father and enthralled once again at the world He has given us.
Our two-year-old son shouts in delight at the most ordinary things. Christmas lights! he chirps from the backseat as we pass the same house for the hundredth time. A truck! he yells, running to the window to wave at the garbage collector. Salsa! he cries with joy when we take our seats at Chili’s and a basket of chips is placed before his eyes.
“We feel no wonder at ordinary things,” writes David Fagerberg. “It’s no wonder that ordinary things disappoint us.”
The Discipline of Wonder
It takes discipline to see the wonder in the ordinary. That’s why Professor Clyde Kilby once made a list of daily resolutions in order to awake his soul to the sheer glory of existence.
“At least once every day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet traveling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above and about me,” he wrote. “I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are.”
N. D. Wilson says we ought to thank God every day for life:
As the earth screams through space, balanced exactly on the edge of everyone burning alive and everyone freezing solid, as we shriek through deadly obstacle courses of meteor showers and find them picturesque, as the nearest fiery star vomits eruptions hundreds of times bigger that our wee planet (giving chipper local weathermen northern lights to chatter about), as a giant reflective rock glides around us slopping the seas (and never falls down), and as we ride in our machines, darting past fools and drunks and texting teenagers, how many times do we thank God?
This takes work. It takes discipline. But why? Why is gratitude hard? Why do we lose our sense of delight in the ordinary?
The Curse of Comparison
Some would say it’s because we’ve become too familiar with things as they are. Over-familiarization leads to overlooking.
That’s only part of the answer. The bigger obstacle standing in the way of gratitude is that we suffer from the curse of comparison. As long as we are always comparing things, we will be incapable of just enjoying what is.
You will never delight in an apple if you are wishing you had an orange. You will never be able to marvel at a tulip if you are comparing it to a rose. The grass is always greener, some say. But wait – there’s grass!!! What marvelous carpet this is!
“Everything’s Amazing, and Nobody’s Happy!”
Comedian Louis C K captured this sentiment when he told Conan O’ Brien, “Everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.” He mentioned people who complain about how bothersome their experience was in the airport or airplane. “What happened next? Did you fly in the air, incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight?” Then, he yelled, “You’re sitting in a chair in the sky!”
Everyone laughs because, in one moment, the truth is presented so starkly that we can’t help but marvel. But watch how easy it will be for your sense of wonder to deflate when, next time you fly, you miss out on peanuts and pretzels, or you can’t get the movie to play right on your personalized screen.
We marvel as children when we encounter the world anew, realizing that nothing has to be this way. We cannot be truly grateful for fleeting moments of happiness if we believe we deserve each and every one of them. We must see ourselves as graced before we can be grateful.
Be Happy, Be Smaller
This interplay of gratitude and wonder, and wonder and happiness can only happen when the world becomes bigger and we become smaller. As long as we see ourselves at the center of this vast and ever-expanding universe, and as long as we think of ourselves as extraordinary and everything around us as ordinary or – God forbid – boring, then we will never discover happiness.
It is only when God is at the center of our existence, when He is big and we are small, when we see ourselves as ordinary people in a world of extraordinary marvels – only then do we discover the joy of gratitude.