All your works praise you, LORD;
your faithful people extol you.
They tell of the glory of your kingdom
and speak of your might,
so that all people may know of your mighty acts
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom….
My mouth will speak in praise of the LORD.
Let every creature praise his holy name
forever and ever.
-Psalm 145:10-13, 21 (NIV)
The Handel and Haydn Society in Boston is no collection of lightweights. An orchestra and chorus that performs Baroque and Classical music for over 50,000 people each year at Boston’s Symphony Hall, they’re accustomed to all sorts of audience reactions. But even President and CEO David Snead was taken by surprise by the reaction of one audience member at a recent performance, a reaction very out of character for H+H’s typical audience.
At the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music, very clearly, Snead heard someone in the audience shout one word: “Wow.”
"There's a sense of wonder in that ‘wow,’” Snead would later say. “You could really hear on the tape he was like, 'This was amazing.’
“He really touched my life in a way that I’ll never forget,” Snead says. He was so touched by the response , in fact, that he decided to try to find out whose outburst it was. Therein, as you might have guessed, lies a story.
Snead sent an email to everyone in the audience that night. Stephen Mattin read it and immediately knew who Snead was looking for. He had been at that performance with his 9-year-old grandson, Ronan, and Ronan was the one who had surprised and won over Snead with his heartfelt response to the orchestra’s performance of Mozart’s piece.
Snead wasn’t the only one surprised, though. Mattin had been as well when Ronan shouted his amazement. "He just doesn't do that. You know, usually he's in a world by himself," Stephen explained. "I can count on one hand the number of times that [he's] spontaneously ever come out with some expression of how he's feeling,"
Ronan is autistic, you see, and is considered non-verbal.
Keep in mind that Snead didn’t know that when he was first impressed by Ronan’s response. I’m sure it meant even more to him when he discovered that Ronan doesn’t usually speak at all, but it had an effect on him when he knew nothing about the person who had reacted to that piece of music. Ronan’s heartfelt “Wow” touched Snead’s heart in a way that a critic’s analysis of the music or the more conventional response of the Society’s usual audience wasn’t able to. It was honest, genuine, and empty of pretense or ulterior motive. That one “wow” had power.
I remember as a teenager being taught in church that I should share my faith. I was kind of convicted at the time that I didn’t talk much about my faith in my day-to-day life, and one day in a Sunday school class a teacher shared with us a “secret” that I really thought was going to give me the edge I needed. He took us through our Bibles and had us highlight Bible verses that he said would help us convince people that they needed Jesus. At each highlighted verse, he had us write a marginal note that would take us to the next verse, and the next, etc.
I don’t remember trying to use those verses on my friends, to be honest. (Some of my friends might have been tougher nuts to crack than that…) I do still have the Bible, though, and paging through I notice that almost all of the verses are in Acts or in Paul’s letters. No disrespect to that teacher intended — he’s to be commended for trying to get teenagers to talk about Jesus with their peers — but how were we supposed to tell people about Jesus without, you know, at least referencing the parts of the Bible that describe the life and teachings of Jesus?
Maybe that’s why I didn’t, and maybe that’s one of the reasons the church today doesn’t seem to do much of a job of sharing our faith. Maybe we’re leaving out Jesus?
I love the psalmist’s conviction that he should “speak in praise of the LORD.” He knows that God doesn’t really need him to testify — God’s works praise him, after all. But his faithful people do as well, and so the psalmist needs to. Earlier in the psalm, he resolves that he’ll join in the chain of generations commending God’s works to the next generation: he’ll “proclaim [God’s] great deeds” and “joyfully sing of [God’s] righteousness.” He doesn’t need anyone to give him a chain of Bible verses that will convince those who doubt with its unassailable logic. He only needs to respond out loud to the wonderful things he’s experienced from God.
In short, he just needs to hear the music and shout “Wow.”
“Wow” has power. It’s unassuming, but it has weight. “Wow” isn’t about convincing someone else to see things your way. It doesn’t question someone else’s intelligence. It doesn’t come from a place of superiority or holier-than-thou-ness. “Wow” is what someone says when they’re so floored by what they’re seeing that they don’t have the vocabulary to describe it or talk about it.
Listen, church: any God that we have the vocabulary to adequately describe, categorize, and explain is not a God worth our time or efforts.
On our vacation to Oregon a couple of weeks ago, we took a dune buggy ride. I know. I didn’t know there were sand dunes in Oregon either. But we set off down this trail through the woods, and suddenly we come out on this huge expanse of rolling dunes, blue sky, and ocean beyond. And I look over, and my wife sitting beside me is smiling under her goggles, and she makes this motion with her hands like she’s clapping. I suspect, in her head and heart, she was saying “Wow.”
An explanation of sand dunes wouldn’t have done much for her at that moment. Neither would someone asking her to pick through a handful of sand from those dunes. Surely she would’ve paid no attention to someone trying to tell her what she was looking at wasn’t really so great. There she sat, applauding God.
I know, it feels like we live in a skeptical world. But that’s just because they aren’t hearing enough people saying, “Wow, look what God has done in Jesus!” So let’s not feel the need to convince, debate, win arguments. Let’s not confuse our responsibility to speak of the Lord’s wonderful acts with something as mundane as political debate or a legislative agenda. If we can’t say “Wow” to the gospel story, then maybe we’ve lost track of that story. If we can’t experience God’s grace in all the forms it takes in our lives and respond by praising him and thanking him in the hearing of the people we work with and learn with and live with each day, then maybe we’ve lost sight of his grace entirely. Let’s go back to God, to Jesus, to the gospel until we can say “wow” again.
Who knows what lives your “Wow” might touch?