Anne Lamott writes, “The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. “Wow” means we are not dulled to wonder. We click into being fully present when we’re stunned into that gasp, by the sight of a birth, or images of the World Trade Center towers falling, or the experience of being in a fjord, at dawn, for the first time. “Wow” is about having one’s mind blown by the mesmerizing or the miraculous: the veins in a leaf, birdsong, volcanoes.”*
The “Wow” prayer. Probably what first comes to mind when we think about praying “Wow”, is the overwhelming complexity and beauty of this created world and the way in which this realization engulfs our understanding at different times in our life. Fair enough. This is certainly part of praying “Wow”. But it’s so much more than that too. Interesting how Lamott refers to the world trade centers falling in her introduction on “Wow”. That’s not an image profound in its beauty. It was awful. I remember being glued to the TV screen that day, mesmerized by horror, shocked beyond words. Yes, there it is. Wow.
Wednesday evening a dear friend sent an email letting me know her 7 year old great nephew had died that afternoon. Isaac stood up to cancer bravely for almost two years and suffered so much in his final month. Whenever I thought about this family I have never met, I was slapped in the face by their suffering, their exquisitely private hell. I cried when I heard the news. I mean, wow. How else can you respond?
The Bible catalogues all sorts of different ways to pray “Wow”. You see the ocean for the first time, or the 10th or 76th time. You stare across the watery bank of eternity and whisper, “Wow”. You stop in your busy tracks to really look at and appreciate one of our grand Kansas sunsets. You listen to thunder shake the atmosphere and watch lightening dance in the sky. You witness tiny, fragile green shoots of life cracking concrete in their quest for sunlight. Wow, wow, wow.
**Psalm 29:3-9: The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
At other times, you may look at your life with sorrow. Overwhelmed by trouble, by suffering. Darkness closes in. You can’t see the light. “Wow, I didn’t know life could be so brutal.”
Lamentations 1:11-13: Look, O Lord, and see how worthless I have become. Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger. From on high he sent fire; it went deep into my bones; he spread a net for my feet; he turned my back; he has left me stunned, faint all day long.
And then there are those times when your eyes lift beyond your own sorry state, and you catch a glimpse of vastness. You see how big the universe is and how small you are. You are stunned by the panoramic view.
Job 40:3-5: Then Job answered the Lord: See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.
There are times in life when you think you have it all figured out. Everything is falling into place. And when you go to complete the puzzle, the final piece won’t fit. You are confused. Unsure how to proceed. A little scared at the unexpected turn. Wow, what do I do now?
Acts 1:6-11: So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
And then there are those glorious times in life when what seems too good to be true is in fact both good and true. When our understanding of possibility expands to include the miraculous. When we witness healing we had long ago written off.
Luke 5:17-26: One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting nearby (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. When he saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven you.’ Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, ‘Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven you”, or to say, “Stand up and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the one who was paralyzed—‘I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.’ Immediately he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God. Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‘We have seen strange things today.’
Again, Lamott writes, “When we are stunned to the place beyond words, we’re finally starting to get somewhere. It is so much more comfortable to think that we know what it all means, what to expect and how it all hangs together. When we are stunned to the place beyond words, when an aspect of life takes us away from being able to chip away at something until it’s down to a manageable size and then to file it nicely away, when all we can say in response is “Wow,” that’s a prayer.”
Most of the time, not always, but most of the time our rational and measured pace of thought and our emotional responses walk in step with each other. With the exception maybe of those moments when we lose our temper, the "Wow" prayer showcases times in our life when our emotions break lose and run far ahead of our rational response. But it’s more than just emotion too. It’s the indescribable recognition that we have found our way onto hallowed ground, and whether that hallowed ground is a place of agony or joy, it is a time when words escape us, when we gasp, when we cry, when we sit in stunned silence.
I have a sneaking suspicion that when we are rendered speechless, we have opened ourselves to the presence of God in a way that simply isn’t possible when we’re working to keep in step with our head. But because these experiences can be pretty traumatic simply in and of themselves, maybe we work to limit those moments of liminality. Maybe it’s not so much that we’re too busy to stop and gaze with wonder at a July sunset. Maybe it’s more a sense of being unsettled by that wonder that brings us into such direct connection to Holiness, to God.
I can only speak for myself. I spend a lot of time in my head. It’s my safe place. I like to approach God on an academic level. Talk about God isn’t nearly so intimidating as the experience of God. And I think I do often turn my back on Wow moments. It’s not so much an intentional thing, but every time a Wow moment sneaks up on me, it changes me in some way and often in a way I wasn’t ready for. It sends me on a fast track away from my words, away from my safe place.
I wonder if part of the reason the church is in decline is because we’ve made it such a safe place to talk about and think about God. But for most of us, it may not be a time and place where we encounter God. Because that wouldn’t be so safe, nor would it be terribly predictable. It would go against the better thought of an institution.
And yet, I think Wow is perhaps the gateway to prayer. Wow is what generally precedes, “Oh my God, help me”, or “Thankyouthankyouthankyou. These are our words as soon as we can talk again. I am so struck at the role prayer played in the early church. They gathered often to eat together and to pray together. To praise God. I have a sense their worship was an experience of God and this experiential movement is what attracted people in droves. Maybe this is what we have to learn from our more charismatic brothers and sisters, how to find our own way to that freedom they find in worship, in prayer, to experience God.
In a few weeks we will enter the second widely recognized Wow season of the church year - the first being Advent and Christmas. Although I’ve got to say Pentecost should rank right up there too. But anyway, we are quickly approaching Holy Week, when our walk with Jesus takes us along the whole Wow circuit, from terror, agony and loss to redemption, resurrection and hope. Maybe we prepare these next few weeks by making a conscious effort, going out of our way to be wowed. To encounter God in fleeting moments that may just turn us in a new direction.
*Quotes from "Help, Thanks, Wow" by Anne Lamott
**Scripture passages from NRSV translation