A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy Hammer, April 17, 2016
Psalm 77:11-20 ESV; Reading from Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder
I had heard the name “Rachel Carson” over the years, but I didn’t really become acquainted with her until three years ago. It was late spring or early summer 2013. I was anticipating taking a six-week study and travel sabbatical, and I was trying to decide upon a theme for my study and a focused project I could work on. I knew that I wanted to focus my attention on creation, the Earth, ecology, and environmental concerns. So one day while browsing the Nature section at our local Books-a-Million, a book caught my eye that seemed to be right up the ally I was hoping to travel. It had an attractive green cover, and the short blurb on the back confirmed it was a book I needed to read. The book was Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.
Now, many of you, no doubt, have read and became familiar with Silent Spring years ago. I must admit that Silent Spring can be a bit technical at times, and it is not always easy reading. But I finished it during my sabbatical and felt it was a good foundation for my studies and the other ten or so books on the Earth, ecology, and the environment I read that summer. About that same time I received as a gift another one of Carson’s works, The Sense of Wonder, a book that is much easier to read and leans more toward the naturalist writings with which I feel more at home.
But for those who are not familiar with Rachel Carson, she spent most of her professional life as a marine biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But she also established herself as a naturalist writer, as well as an environmental advocate. Silent Spring was a landmark book, published in 1962, that challenged our government and our nation as a whole on the wisdom of approving and using insecticides and pesticides such as DDT and Malathion without knowing the long-term consequences of doing so. It raised the issues of decreasing wildlife, possible birth defects, and illnesses such as cancer and leukemia. Carson is credited with helping keep the American Bald Eagle from extinction. Because of her work, advocacy, and writings, Carson was instrumental in birthing the American environmental movement. Carson made people think about the vital relationship between the environment and the human body and the effect that one has upon the other. One of Carson’s classic quotes is “in nature nothing exists alone.”
Echoing the thought of the psalmist, one of the key concepts in Carson’s overall thought is “wonder.” Wonder is a word that keeps cropping up in her writings. “It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder . . .” Carson wrote. “Drink in the beauty and wonder at the meaning of what you see,” she urged.
I will return to Carson, but in terms of wonder, let’s look for a moment at the thought of the psalmists and the psalm that served as our first reading today. In this psalm, as in many of the psalms, the Hebrew poet links God as Creator and sustainer of the universe with the natural world. For this psalmist, anyway, God is a “hands-on” God whose presence and power are manifested in Nature. “I will remember your wonders of old,” the psalmist affirms. “You are the God who works wonders.”
He continues in Psalm 77 to enumerate some of the wonders of creation that caused him to stand in amazement: the waters of the seas; the clouds that pour down rain; the lightning that splits and lights up the sky; the quakes that shake and rattle the earth. Though not all of them include the word “wonder,” there are several creation psalms that celebrate the power and wonders manifested in the natural world. I love the creation psalms, and they are some of the oldest literature in the Hebrew Scriptures. These psalms call us, as well, to stand in amazement, wonder, and awe as we study the world of Nature.
Although Jesus doesn’t use the word “wonder” either in the passage where he encourages us to “Look at the birds air” and to “Consider the lilies of the field” (Matthew 6:26, 28 ESV), I think he would have concurred with the psalmist and probably had a profound sense of wonder and respect for the natural world.
Well, returning to Rachel Carson, one of her hopes was that we might pass on to our children and grandchildren this sense of wonder for the natural world. In one of her most quoted passages, Carson expressed her wish that she could have the influence so that the “gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder . . .” But then she goes even further and says, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he 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.” What a joy befalls us as parents and grandparents and church leaders to try to instill and nurture the sense of creation wonder—an awe and admiration—in our children and grandchildren and children of our congregation by taking a walk with them in the woods; exploring the life that is present in mountain streams; taking them to a zoo to discover the diverse forms of animal and marine life in the world; helping them to learn to identify birds, trees, and flowers; and so on.
I feel blessed in that at least one of my grandchildren seems to have a naturalist leaning and love of the natural world like I do. He enjoys filling the birdfeeders with me, and taking photographs of flowers and butterflies. He has even started his own photo blog similar to my own; although, I can’t imagine where he got the idea to do so J .
And instilling a sense of wonder and awe for the natural world is one of the things Suzanne and I have sought to do in many of our Vacation Bible Schools these past few years. “God’s Amazing Creation” (which focused on animals), “God’s Blue Earth” (which focused on water), and “God’s Green Earth” (which focused on plants) are three of past years’ VBS themes. I think one of our callings and joys as a congregation is to instill within our children a sense of sacred wonder for all creation.
But for Rachel Carson, Earth wonder doesn’t just stop with a sense of wonder, awe, elation, and admiration for the beauty, majesty and complexity of the natural world. For Carson, wonder is necessarily connected with humility and responsibility. “Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions,” Carson noted, but “they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.” In another place Carson noted, “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”
I think that creation was a mixture of both wonder and sadness for Carson, as maybe it should be for all of us. As she stood in wonder, amazement, and admiration of the beauty and complexity of life on earth, she also stood in sadness, alarm, and trepidation, realizing that the human race was responsible for putting all life on earth in great jeopardy through the use and release of toxins. Carson’s sadness, alarm, and trepidation led her to do what she could to halt or at least slow down the forces of destruction as she saw them in her own day.
Few, if any, of us will ever write a book or become a recognized advocate for the environment on the scale that Rachel Carson did. But maybe there are small steps that we can take to slow down destructive practices, as well as promote restoration to the earth in our own little part of the world.
As we continue to observe Earth Day this week, there are many to whom we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude for leading the way before us. And one of those without a doubt is Rachel Carson. From Carson we are encouraged to discover or rediscover that sense of “Creation Wonder” celebrated by the psalmists of old, pass on this sense of wonder to our children and grandchildren, but also to let our sense of wonder lead us to more responsible living and action. May it be so for us, as individuals and as a congregation. Amen.
Works Cited: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. New York: Mariner Books, 1962. Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder. New York: Harper & Row, 1998.