Sermons

The Gift of Awe; Rev. Dee Ledger, October 24, 2021

When is the last time that you felt awe?  Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines awe as “an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.”  Did you find that part about dread surprising?  Well, awe is a mixing together of fear, wonder, and reverential respect, which makes it different from other emotions, such as amazement.  When is the last time you felt that combination of wonder, fear, and great respect in your soul? Would you recognize the feeling if it came upon you disguised as the everyday?

We may associate fear and wonder with the kinds of emotion stirred when standing next to a churning ocean on a stormy day, or maybe when we stand high on a mountainside gazing into a valley far below, or perhaps we feel awe as new parents or grands when we look down into those vulnerable, wide-open eyes of innocence and miraculous life and realize that someone is depending on us to help them see beauty in this world.  Psychologist Jonah Paquette explains that awe experiences are those that involve both an experience of “vastness” as well as transcendence.”[1]

A lot of us have been feeling sensory deprived this past year and ½+  since Covid began.  It’s not that we don’t try to feel something, but a kind of numbness sets in when we are bombarded constantly – as we were and have been—with bad news, tragedy, loss, anger and frustration that we are not somehow further along in our careers or our vision of retirement or that we are not better masters of our daily lives.  It’s not that we have stopped caring or that we are somehow shortchanged on some life skill or are maladjusted; it’s that the pandemic and the past 18 months have taken their toll and we are weary of doing, of trying to keep it together, and of bracing ourselves for the next crisis requiring some kind of adaptation and energy that we may feel like we don’t have, or have in short supply.

Add to this the fact that many of us are glued to our screens, computers, phones, and televisions, and we suffer from a kind of mental and physical exhaustion.  In a TED talk, Saundra Dalton-Smith has said, “Rest should equal restoration in seven key areas of your life.”[2] Those areas are physical rest, mental rest, sensory rest, creative rest, emotional, social and spiritual rest.[3]

So, perhaps providentially, my family and I slipped away for a 2-night getaway into the Catoctin mountains on Thursday of this past week.  It’s beautiful this time of year and I figured we needed at least 5 of those different types of rest, particularly the sensory rest.  But, honestly, I was feeling a bit like Job.

You remember Job, yes?  He loses family, possessions, and his health in one fell swoop, and sits picking his scabby skin with a pottery shard as broken as he is. Somehow, through all of this, he doesn’t manage to lose his faith in God, though he’s internally tormented, not a little angry at the unfairness of it all, and classically unaware that the Devil and God are having friendly wager on his capacity to cope with little to no reward.  Sure, he gets everything he lost back in the end, but he goes through hell in the process.  And contrary to cultural belief, some things just can not be replaced by substitutes, Amazon, or the “next great trend.”

I’ve always been a bit miffed that God responds the way God does, kind of sticking it to Job with that voice from the whirlwind, demanding, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” and then pelting question after question like, “Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?” and “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the deer?” and  “Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars and spreads its wings toward the south?”  God demands that Job answer all of God’s rhetorical questions, knowing full well that Job cannot even begin to do so.  It always seemed not a little mean to me, God trying to get poor Job to say in a breath and in a whisper, “I am not you” and I shall repent in dust and ashes that I even questioned your wisdom.

But now, in the middle of this pandemic, I see it somewhat differently and maybe you can too.  Job, who is beaten and struck down by so much misfortune and tragedy that it makes our heads spin with the ramifications, seems to be numb to awe and sensory deprived.

Having felt everything all at once in rapid succession, Job seems to feel nothing— meaning, he has lost not just his sons and daughters, his health, and his financial well-being, but he has also lost his seeming capacity for awe and wonder.  Re-reading God’s many questions to Job, it is like a parent frantically trying to pour that awe and wonder back into Job’s hurting soul, so that the man’s faith won’t be an empty husk of a thing and joyless, but full to brimming with the sheer breadth and depth, the immense expanse, of that which he had previously been numb.

We are creatures with incredible senses, tools that aid us in appreciating the richness of this world.  We often cannot fully enjoy that which we can not see, hear, feel, taste, and/or touch.  And when we are struck down by reality, devastated by loss, or depressed beyond knowing we are even depressed, our senses and our capacity to feel “anything” at all suffers.  We get angry and irritable.  Witness those who self-harm, or cut themselves on purpose, just to feel something—even if it causes an open, bleeding wound that is dangerous to boot.

It’s not unlike when our eyes become so clouded with loss—real and imagined– that we can no longer lift our eyes to appreciate beauty, a new day, the transitory, or that which transcends our own skin.

So—again—I was feeling a bit like Job and maybe you are too.  Not because I had personally lost any one thing or person recently, but because I sensed a sensory deficit, a shortage of wonder, and an undersupply of awe in a world that presents opportunities for awe daily.

Studies have shown that experiencing awe can help us to be happier, kinder and more generous, and less stressful; it can increase our sense of connection to each other, reduce inflammation, and help us to feel more satisfied with life.[4] Not feeling awe on a regular basis is a kind of health crisis.  Or rather, feeling awe is something that reminds us that we are among the living, and not yet dead.

So, what would be the hopeful remedy to this deficiency of awe?  Off to the woods we went, my children and me, to a cabin in the Catoctin mountains.  Of course, I imagined seeing the full, Hunter moon in all of its brilliance, a canopy of stars in the pitch-black night, the smell of a blazing campfire that would start effortlessly, and even getting up at the crack of dawn for an incredible sunrise.   Only this didn’t really happen, at least not the way I have described.

Mind you, we were in the woods and in a cabin with heat and a stove.  I figured that “glamping” was more our style, since I would be on my own with two 9-year-olds.  Still, on the way there, I imagined the sense of awe that would come when we drove the long road up, up, up…  right into all those golden leaves cascading down.

And it was beautiful.  But it was also exactly not how I pictured awe and there’s a lesson there for all of us.  God helps Job to see the Pleiades, Orion, thunderbolts, the crocodile, and the ostrich—our experiences of awe are often much homelier and look more like those small moments that we unknowingly skip blithely over during the daily grind.

Case in point: I had planned to tell ghost stories around that blazing campfire, but by the time I got the fire going nice and bright, my crying son wanted to go inside lest a hungry bear come upon us in all that great dark.  To which I could have rung his neck (metaphorically, of course).   But you can’t debate fear with a child.  And, contrary to expectations, we really could not see that fantastic moon through the thick forest.  There was a diffuse glow, light broken by the branches.  It was a fractured moon, at most.  Furthermore, there were bound to be some disappointments on the trip, given the children and the scatterbrained mamma who had somehow managed to forget the marshmallows on the first night.  We are not veteran campers.

But awe came in smaller, no less significant and grace-filled ways.  Sure, we didn’t see the sunset, moonrise, or even a sunrise that whole time, but after we retreated from the scary nightfall, we cuddled in bed to hear “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” on YouTube (we weren’t completely tech-free) and marveled that we were warm, dry, and fed with a consistent internet connection at that moment.

On the way there, we stopped harried by traffic in Frederick and ate at the Golden Corral—something that we might not have done 6 months ago.  And then, my son, with eyes shining at the abundance set before him—all those buttery rolls and desserts for the picking—gasped and said out of the blue, “Mommy, this place is a homeless person’s dream come true.”  Out of the mouths of babes;  the gift of awe was right before my eyes.

Lastly, we marveled at the thoughtful and tasty, packaged, sweets left on the table our first night, the sound of the acorns falling on the aluminum roof like a heavy rain, and the spiders that left us alone, along with the bears, which was really no small thing at all.  We played air hockey in the rec room and listened to the crunch of leaves under our feet and songs on an old quarters jukebox.  We did not sleep in a cold, wet tent; we buried ourselves under quilts on a borrowed mattress.  We walked hand in hand gazing at the  winterized R.V.’s and got lost following a map of the grounds, but still found our way home.

Sometimes being away from home helps us to see what we can’t seem to see at other times.  But sometimes we don’t need to leave home to find wonder or awe right in our midst; we need only to find ways to awaken our senses or to sharpen them—to turn up the volume so that we can feel their vibrations.  Perhaps the way to do this is to remember that we have senses in the first place, to linger longer, not relying on any one sense at the exclusion of the others, or making the most of the ones that still work rather well by noticing when we haven’t used them for a while.

What is your favorite scent?  Last night, a man was selling roses by the highway and, after worrying for a minute about his safety, I tried to remember the smell of a rose and feel the softness of its delicate petals.  What about you?  What flower brings you joy?

What is the kind of nature that soothes your spirit the most?  Is it the salty surf and sand between your toes?  Or do you gravitate towards desert sun or lakeside shores?

And what brings pleasure to your palate?  Do you enjoy sweet or salty, savory or sour, bitter or some combination? When is the last time that you noticed the texture of what you ate or what your taste buds craved without regret?

Jonah Paquette is the author of Awestruck: How Embracing Wonder Can Make You Happier, Healthier, and More Connected. He writes, “One of the biggest things we can do to benefit ourselves when it comes to awe is [notice] the small stuff. You know, looking up at a sunset, watching the changing colors of the leaves or the passing of a season or watching it rain — these things that we essentially take for granted can actually be sources of wonder.” Furthermore, he says, “Small things that don’t take more than five or 10 minutes” are enough to feel a sense of awe. “These moments can be extremely brief and fleeting but have powerful ripple effects that last weeks when it comes to experiences of awe. It doesn’t have to be going somewhere that’s going to take an entire day of our lives, it can really be taking a few minutes and noticing something in a new way.”[5]

This past week, a catalog entitled “Awe” by West End coincidentally arrived at my doorstep, trying to entice me to buy awe in the form of expensive décor in the form of recycled seagrass rugs, felted gnome wine corks, and a cast iron octopus paper towel holder.  Clearly, someone’s algorithms believe I favor such things.  I have nothing against felted gnomes, but they aren’t transcendent.  Awe really, in the end, cannot be bought.

At the end of the book of Job, Job’s fortunes are restored twice as much.  Like the store-bought pretend awe, I am skeptical.  Replacement wealth is wonderful, but children and friends really don’t ever “replace” or somehow erase the pain of losing your first family.  And yet—there is truth here, if one reconsiders that Job could somehow more fully appreciate the gifts of life to which his trial and its aftermath had rendered him temporarily numb.  With his senses fully open, would it not seem as if God had “blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning”?  Would it not seem as if he had 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, and infinite wealth galore without succumbing to consumer madness?  With his eyes open to linger in the blessing, would it not seem “in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters” and would it not seem as if he had been not only restored to well-being, but restored to his senses?

Siblings in Christ, you do not have to pack up and go to a cabin in order to feel awe in your everyday.  You do not have to suffer like Job did in order to rediscover awe in your life.  Our God gives us wonders to behold under our feet and within proximity of our senses if we but notice and linger a bit.

Let go of your striving, your acquisitiveness, and your doing and receive awe in your day.

It is a gift that will keep giving and will wrap you in warmth and light when your fire burns low, when the night is deep and full of shadows, and it seems as if you are a pawn between the Devil who would diminish you and the God who sets a feast for you on your way and brings you home.

[1] Teja Pattabheraman, “Six Ways to Incorporate Awe Into Your Daily Life,” March 2, 2021, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/six_ways_to_incorporate_awe_into_your_daily_life

[2] Saundra Dalton-Smith, “The 7 types of rest that every person needs,” adapted from her TEDxAtlanta Talk, January 6, 2021.

https://ideas.ted.com/the-7-types-of-rest-that-every-person-needs/.

 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

 

[5] Sandra Ebejer, “Cultivating Awe is Great for Your Mental Health,” FEB 25, 2021. https://www.shondaland.com/live/body/a35591349/cultivating-awe-is-great-for-your-mental-health/