words and images: Jessica Sowards
It’s funny how we humans are able to get used to extraordinary things. When I lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, I attended a regular playgroup with my boys in neighboring Pigeon Forge. There was a point in the forty-minute drive where my car made a turn and there before me was the most breathtaking mountain view. Every time, every single time I made that turn, it hit me. I could physically feel the awe it inspired.
I would call my grandmother. Because she understood my heart and she encouraged my childlike wonder. And she never grew tired of her granddaughter, a grown woman with children of her own, calling her and ecstatically describing the mountains. “It’s unbelievable,” I’d say. “I don’t understand how people live their lives in the shadow of snow-capped peaks without a constant sense of awe. I don’t understand how they go to their doctors’ appointments and soccer practices without stopping to gawk.”
And she would always say the same thing, “They are just used to it. It’s just normal to them. If you don’t want to lose the wonder, don’t treat it like it’s just normal.”
It’s just normal. Oh, that was such a tragedy to me. I’d petition God when I hung up the phone, “Please, don’t let me ever see the extraordinary as normal.”
I have been blessed with a life full of wonders. When we pray for patience, God gives us the opportunities to practice patience. In the same fashion, I truly believe He heard my prayer for never dulling wonderment and so He set me on a road of great and extraordinary experiences. Through ministry and photography, I have endeavored down an unbeaten path and on it, I have strived to maintain an ever-growing reverence for the power and beauty of God.
I’ll never forget the moment I saw the Rocky Mountains for the first time and realized that East Tennessee’s Smokies were mere hills in comparison to these monstrous miracles. I’ll never forget the first time I photographed a baby being born, feeling the hefty impact of a life starting, weigh on my heart. It’s not just the big things either. Just a few nights ago, as my husband, Jeremiah, and I drove down country roads surrounding our property, I shouted, “Slow down!” So we did slow, and I gaped at the thousands of lightning bugs that dotted the cow pastures. Or this spring, when fluffy white clumps of seeds fell from trees by the heaps and floated through the air, I stopped in the grocery store parking lot and raised my hands to feel them hit my fingers. The cart girl stopped and said “Are you OK?” to which I responded, “They make me think of angels.”
Sure, it’s peculiar. Wonder is rarely refined. It isn’t described as childlike due to the measure of dignity it carries. But I don’t care. Let me be the crazy lady in the parking lot being moved by tree seeds if it means I don’t grow blind to all the beauty this life has to offer. It seems like a decent tradeoff to me.
I am wildly passionate about Creation. I am ever awed and deeply wooed by nature and babies and beautiful views. I am enraptured by the way the garden grows and the way my children learn. I could write for days and weeks about beauty and power and wonder. That’s not why I’m writing this, though. I know I have cultivated a deep appreciation for beauty, but I have allowed myself to take the most important thing for granted. This is a confession.
When a blade requires sharpening, it must be unsheathed and then run over the rod. It must first expose its dullness before the sharpening can happen. So here I am confessing. I have gotten busy and allowed myself to grow altogether dull to love.
Every day, I wake up in bed with a man that loves me wildly. He’s the kind of man that pulls over so I can see the fireflies. He is spending his life with a woman who has a romance with beauty he can’t always see, but he always tries. And I’ve found that more often than not when I am being swept away by some everyday, extraordinary thing, my sweet husband is not looking at the view or the baby or the firefly, he is looking at me. And I have taken it for granted.
This morning I woke up in a big, old house. Just two years ago, I was praying for hours a day that God would give me that house, and He did. We moved in with our six children, and we had so much space, and the need arose, so we moved two of Jeremiah’s brothers and his sister in as well. Now we live here all together, a big cramped mess of people who love each other more deeply that I can explain. And every morning I wake up in my big, old house and meet my big, loving family in the kitchen. We eat breakfast and make plans for the day. We pray and go about our routines.
And many mornings, I leave my big, old house and go about the business of ministry. I attend meetings and plan events. I make phone calls, and I pray and study. I am so familiar with the love of God, and I see it echoed so much in my church family that I’m afraid I’ve gotten used to it. This tribe of mine has gone through struggles and trials hand in hand. We have felt our souls knit together and endured pain together. We run the race together. It is truly extraordinary. But here I am confessing, I have gotten busy, and my to-do list has captured my focus. And I have grown dull.
I didn’t realize it. I didn’t realize that I was living in the shadow of uncommonly beautiful love, completely used to its unusual nature until a few weeks ago when my eyes were opened in a moment.
It was during a worship service, and I was kneeling at the altar in prayer. I felt tired. I don’t know why, I just felt really tired, run down by my beautiful but busy life. And my big tribe of family and friends were all around. We were singing and praying, and my pastor took the microphone and said, “I want us to call out the names of the people we have been praying for. Just lift them up to God right now.” At that moment, the overwhelming exhaustion from being so busy felt like five thousand pounds on my shoulders.
Then I heard someone call out a name. Jewel, my little sister. Then I heard someone else call out another. Drew, my brother. Then I heard my husband call out the name of my mom. I heard a friend of mine call out the name of my dad. And it started to resound all around me, my prayers and my concerns and my desires being called out by people who barely know my loved-ones. All they knew was that these names belonged to people I love unexplainably, and that was enough for these names to matter to them.
I’ll never forget the way it hit me. It was the same feeling that would cause me to pull over when I first saw the mountains around the bend in Tennessee. It was the same feeling that stirs in me every time I hear a baby cry for the first time. As I sat at the altar, my tear-streaked face hidden by my hair, a deeper awe and wonder than I think I’ve ever felt washed over me and I thought, “Oh, God, I am so loved.” I realized how much they all really loved me, and that it was just a reflection of Him. And some fathoms-deep place in my soul woke up, and I had a new revelation of how fiercely my God loves me.
I’ve been missing it. While I waged war against becoming dull to beauty, I allowed myself to become dull to love, and it made me indifferent to people. Sure, I’ve loved the people that I’m close to. I’ve loved the people I have ministered to. But I have been living the kind of life where I slowed down for fireflies and pretty views but walked past the broken lady in the grocery store because my list was long and my mind was full.
I realized how tragically I had taken for granted this extraordinary thing, and so, I repositioned my heart. I have prayed for so many strangers in the last few weeks, just random people in public. I’ve stopped and asked people questions about how they are doing, and surprisingly, many have answered honestly. I’ve looked at people in the eyes. I haven’t been in such a rush to move on. I’ve been thankful for my family. I’ve enjoyed my kids more. My heart has been set with a fresh fire.
So can I challenge you? Can I urge you to find the love in your life and step back and marvel at it for a while? Let it stir you up and spur you on to spread it. Don’t live in the shadow of some beautiful thing like this and treat it like it isn’t breathtaking.
It isn’t just normal. You are extraordinarily loved. So stop, and awe. Be washed over with wonder. Then don’t let it ever feel just normal again. It isn’t. It’s extraordinary.
Follow Jessica on her blog @thehodgepodgedarling.blogspot.com