childlike wonder

You had to be there – Part 2 1/2

by Steve Brock on January 4, 2012

A forest is a quiet place and yet where do you go for pure slience...and what do you find when you get there?

This doesn’t quite rate as Part 3 of the series on “You had to be there” because I hadn’t planned on it until I just read something that seemed highly related to the last entry (Part 2).

In that entry, we looked at the connection between “you had to be there” and the Incarnation, God’s “being there” on this planet and our own way of traveling both physically and spiritually. All heady stuff, I admit.

Then this weekend, I picked up a copy of Kathleen Norris’s book,  Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. In the book, she takes on the “scary words” of Christianity as she calls them, words that for years kept her away from her faith. The book chronicles her return to that faith and her understanding, or at least wrestling with words like “dogma,” “salvation,” “sinner,” “faith” and even “Incarnation.”

She approaches these words with honesty and hopefulness rather than cynicism and judgment. She also does so with a poet’s touch and intersperses her own story amidst the short meditations on the words. I’m only on page 17 but am enjoying the journey so far.

On that page, she addresses the word, “Silence.” She tells of teaching elementary school kids about poetry and language and in so doing, she does an exercise with them regarding noise and silence. She gives the children a simple rule: When she raises her hand, the kids are to make as much noise as possible without leaving their seats.

When she lowers her hand, they are to be completely silent. The responses are quite interesting. You can imagine how the kids dealt with noise – they know how to do that well (though never with permission to do so in school before this).

Silence, however, was something quite different. Many of them found it somewhat unnerving. Why? One fifth grader noted that, “It’s like waiting for something – it’s scary!”

But the main thing the silence did was to free the children’s imaginations. And that’s where we come to the connection to “You had to be there” and the idea of incarnational travel.

In a small town in North Dakota, a young girl offered an insight beyond her years regarding what silence meant to her:

“Silence reminds me to take my soul with me wherever I go.”

And so we do, wherever we travel. We just need to be silent or still enough to remember that.


 If you haven’t done so, check out the rest of the series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5

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The difficulty of wonder

by Steve Brock on June 28, 2011

A week ago last Friday, I went hiking with my son, Sumner. We took off after work to a popular hiking/mountain biking area, Tiger Mountain, not far from our home. And no, there are – to my knowledge – no tigers there.

The day was gorgeous, the trail near empty, and the lushness of the vegetation extraordinary. We commented on the “zones” we went through from dark, almost ominous forest to bright meadows to areas where mossy trees bent over the trail forming a cathedral of dappled light.

I periodically stopped to photograph some small detail that stood out: the gentle curve of a newly emerging fern, the smooth stone of a stream bed, the expanse of wildflowers just beginning their journey to full expression of brilliant summer color.

We spoke of God and the mysteries of such places, of the joy of being there at that particular time of day, of the transition from school to summer, of friendships passing as students graduate, of memories of past summers and the hope for future ones.

We appreciated this day, this hour, our time here together and the fact that it is so close to home. We missed little in our examination of the beauty that surrounded us except for one thing.


I had just spent that morning talking about wonder during my presentation on The Power of Place. Sumner and I discussed it on the drive to the trailhead. We even hinted at the subject as we hiked through a grove of trees with mysterious white stripes painted on their sides. And yet, amidst all the factors that should have triggered a response of awe and wonder, none came.

Surprise? Curiosity? Thankfulness? Attention to details I’d otherwise walk right past? Yes. But not wonder.


Wonder does not come easy to most of us over the age of ten. We spend our lives explaining things, solving the unknowns and attempting to bring order to the chaos in our lives. We have adult answers even to those things we don’t truly understand. We don’t make room in our lives for wonder because as adults we don’t feel we need it in our day-to-day struggles to just get by.

Sometimes, however, wonder sneaks up on us. It can even overwhelm us to where we have no choice but to pay attention. More often, however, we must pursue it with intentionality if we are to find it.

Wonder is neither easy to find nor easy to grasp. It wouldn’t be wonder if it was. Wonder is our response to something so new and marvelous that it shakes us and draws our full attention as we realize we’re in the presence of something we’ve likely never seen before, at least in that time, place or in that way.

Somehow in all the beauty of this day, I’d missed the deeper wonder. The funny thing about wonder is that we rarely miss that we’ve missed it. It was a great time of living in the moment and enjoying a good conversation, the simple warmth of the sun, the green coolness of a leafy canopy, the minty smell of fresh cut logs or the gentle cacophony of numerous small waterfalls.

Only later did I realize that seeing the day through the eyes of wonder might have made a good day even better. At first the thought made me sad, a tinge of regret invading a happy memory. Then I realized something else, a wonder of a different sort.

In God’s economy, nothing is wasted. I may have missed the opportunity to see the wonder behind the beauty at the time. Yet as is common to most good trips, reflection after the event affords me a second chance.

I may not have perceived wonder in the moment but I can now realize this:

It was there all along.

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The context of wonder

by Steve Brock on March 9, 2011

Where's the wonder in an old door knob? You're either not a kid or you're not looking close enough...

We’ve looked at the issue of retaining the innocence of a child, or at least the wonder of that innocence. But we can learn something else of great value from how children perceive the world, especially when they travel.

Several years ago, I read about a woman who took her four-year-old daughter on a multi-week trip to Italy along with her husband. They visited all the usual locations, seeking to instill in their young daughter an appreciation for history, art, culture and pasta. When they returned home, the mom asked the daughter what her favorite part of the trip was. The girl’s response?

“Playing with that old door knob in our room.” Antique hardware in the hotel in Rome won out over all the splendors of Italy.

When I read that I thought, “A door knob? But then what do you expect? Taking a kid that young to Europe. Some parents!”

I amaze even myself at my capacity sometimes to be an idiot.

Let me elaborate. Shortly thereafter, we took our whole family on a trip to Scotland. Our youngest son Connor was much, much older than the girl. Okay, he was seven. But a lot of development happens in those three years. Or so we thought.

When we returned home, we similarly asked Connor what his favorite thing was about the trip. The multiple castles? The cave we explored where William Wallace hid from the English? The leapfrogging cows? The wonderful, witty people? Our experimentation with haggis? Nope.

“I liked watching SpongeBob SquarePants on the plane all the way over.”

 What??? A cartoon marathon on the little screen on the back of the seat in front of you won out over all the amazing experiences in Scotland? Sure enough. And here’s why.

First of all, we didn’t have cable TV at home at the time so his only exposure to SpongeBob was via a few videos he’d seen. Call it suppressed demand if you will.

Second, the video monitor on the plane was itself a marvel. There it was, one built into every seat back.

Third, the monitor was his alone. No big brother to change the channels during his programs. No parents to tell him he shouldn’t be watching so much TV (though we did eventually make him stop and get some sleep).

The novelty of the whole experience is why it stood out. Kids love to stay up late not because of what they do, but because it isn’t a normal event. It’s something special. That’s what this was to Connor, a rite of passage in some ways.

But there’s more.

Check out my fancy information graphic here that explains why door knobs and yellow talking sponges made such an impression on these two kids:

When we hang out in the familiar (the left circle), things don’t stand out too much to us. We’re used to them. Move to the circle to the right, the exotic. Everything in that circle is new. On the surface, that seems good: everything is novel. But that’s also the problem. We don’t know what to do with what we don’t understand.

Only when you have the context to understand the exotic (the overlap with enough familiarity to provide you context) do you have a meaningful experience.

To us adults in Scotland, we knew enough about history and travel to enjoy the novelty we encountered. We could fit or translate all that was new into familiar enough buckets or categories in our minds. We had greater overlap of our circles. With Connor or the four-year-old girl, their context was more limited. So what they did was to find wonder within the narrower confines of their own contexts.

My context is so much broader than theirs. Thus, my capacity for wonder should be all that much greater. But too often I become blind to the familiar and get caught up desperately pursuing the exotic in the hopes of encountering wonder. I cease to remember what children have yet to forget, that wonder lies all around us.

Even in something as ordinary – or as marvelous – as a door knob.

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The problem of adult travel

by Steve Brock February 25, 2011

As adults, we learn to provide answers and solve problems. That works great for work. But it might not lead to the most meaningful travel.

Read the full article →