Imagine the scene – We emerge from an underground subway
tunnel, slowly moving up the escalator and this scene comes into view –
the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, one of the most amazing cathedrals in
the entire world. Begun by Antoni Guadi in the late 1800’s , this cathedral
is still under construction. That’s because of the intricate sculptures that
depict scenes from nature and from the Bible, along with beautiful
stained glass windows that create an ethereal glow of color on the
interior of the building. It’s an amazing place that defies explanation,
whether by words or by picture. It simply must be experienced.
Imagine the scene – every color of the rainbow competing with one
another in the sky at sunset for dominance, creating a breath taking light
show nearly every night. We spent three weeks at a Tuscan farmhouse
last summer during our sabbatical, which meant that nearly every night
was spent on the front patio of our apartment or by the swimming pool
simply gazing with awe and wonder as the sun slowly and deliberately
dropped behind the Tuscan hills, causing even more colors to dramatically
burst forth. To experience that over and over again was a gift for the
mind, body and spirit. It was simultaneously relaxing and exhilarating.
Imagine the scene – Trekking through the streets of Florence, the
cradle of the Renaissance. Coming around a street corner and glimpsing
Brunelecshi’s Dome on the cathedral or entering the great hall of the
Academia where Michelangelo’s famed statue of David stands or moving
from room to room in the incomparable Uffizi Gallery to bear witness to
works of art that are not only deeply spiritual and transcendent, but also
mark the evolution of the Christian world from the Dark Ages into the Age
of Reason, Beauty and Science. Florence is a relatively small city in Italy,
but simply by visiting it, by soaking it in on its own terms, one grasps the
story of humankind in its futility and its triumph.
Connect the dots and what do you get? A sense of awe. A sense of
wonder. Each of these places has the power to give us goose bumps. Awe
comes from being overwhelmed by greatness. We feel it when we stand
on the rim of the Grand Canyon. When we try to be calm in the basement
during a severe thunderstorm. When we rise to our feet during the
"Hallelujah Chorus." When we look up at the Milky Way on a clear,
lightless night or when we witness the birth of a baby. We feel it when we
are inspired by the rhetoric of a Barack Obama, by the steadfastness of
an Abraham Lincoln, the love of a Mother Teresa or the charisma of a
When we feel awe, we may get goose bumps. Our body is telling us
that we are standing in the presence of greatness and seeing something
we've never seen before. Unfortunately, we're not experiencing a lot of
awe these days. Many of us find our current political leaders to be awful
-- and quite ironically, that does not mean that they fill us with awe. We
spend more time looking down at our smartphones than gazing up at the
stars in the sky. Our ears are filled with the noise of daily life, which
drowns out the notes of beautiful music that can surprise us, delight us
and lift our spirits. We want the gift of goose bumps. But it is harder and
harder to find.
As an antidote, the writer of Psalm 66 points us to God, the most
awe-inspiring of all powers. "How awesome are your deeds! Because of
your great power, your enemies cringe before you.” This psalm correctly
identifies another component of awe -- fear. Did you know that most
nonhuman mammals get goose bumps when they face a threat. In the
presence of a predator, the muscles surrounding their hair follicles
contract. We humans get goose bumps when we are scared, but also
when we experience awe. Fear and awe are very closely connected.
Because God is both mighty and good, the reaction of God's people
is to stand in awe and offer worship. "All the earth worships you,"
proclaims the writer. "They sing praises to you, sing praises to your
name.” Psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner describe awe as "that
often-positive feeling of being in the presence of something vast that
transcends our understanding of the world." In the face of something vast
and all-knowing, we feel moved to offer our praise.
This kind of praise is not limited to a worship service. We praise the
Golden State Warriors for winning their 73rd game to set a record for
most wins in a season. They played 82 games and lost only nine. We
praise the American women’s gymnasts, who achieved near-perfection
this summer in Rio. We praised Rosa Parks, who refused to move to the
back of the bus and advanced the Civil Rights Movement. Some of us got
goose bumps in 1989 while watching on a fuzzy television transmission
the unknown student protester who stood in front of a battle tank in
Tiananmen Square in Beijing. We praise such people when they amaze us
with their athletic and artistic skills, or awe us with their political
courage. Adoration is a very natural reaction to an act that we have never
seen before, something that transcends our understanding of the world.
Praise is our response to the gift of goose bumps.
Notice that the praise of Psalm 66 is connected to both God's
character and God's accomplishments. "Come and see what God has
done," says the psalmist. "God is awesome in deeds among mortals. God
turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There
we rejoiced in the One who rules by his might forever" These acts of God
are what inspire the greatest awe and praise. God created the world out
of nothing and said that it was good. God liberated the Hebrew people
from captivity in Egypt, turning the Red Sea into dry land so that they
could escape. God came into the world in human form, as Jesus, so that
everyone could learn from him what it truly means to have life and life
But the most surprising benefit of being part of a group that stands
in awe of God: It makes us better people! Awe is the ultimate "collective"
emotion, according to research reported in The New York Times(May 24,
2015), because "it motivates people to do things that enhance the greater
good." The many activities that give us goose bumps, from music to
worship, "help shift our focus from our narrow self-interest to the
interests of the group to which we belong." Researchers have found that
people who experience more awe in their lives are more generous to
strangers. They also cooperate more, share more resources and sacrifice
more for others -- behaviors which enhance our life as a community.
So exactly how does this work? One answer, according to
researchers, is that "awe imbues people with a different sense of
themselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something
larger." Even brief experiences with awe "lead people to feel less
narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity
people share with one another." Awe reminds us that we are all
individuals, part of a larger whole. It makes us more humble and
connected to a larger God and a larger Christian community.
So crank up the "Hallelujah Chorus." Take a walk in Pokagon State
Park under a starry sky. Read a book that inspires you. Your awe won't
make you feel awful. Instead, it will turn you into a better person. "Our
culture today is awe-deprived," write Piff and Keltner. "Adults spend more
and more time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with
other people. Camping trips, picnics and midnight skies are forgone in
favor of working weekends and late at night. Attendance at arts events --
live music, theater, museums and galleries -- has dropped over the years.
This goes for children, too."
Their solution: Experience more awe. Seek out what gives you goose
bumps, whether it is looking at trees or listening to great music. As
Christians, our challenge is to "make a joyful noise to God" and to
remember the awesomeness of God's deeds (vv. 1, 3). As we do this, we'll
become less materialistic, more focused on others and more generous as
well. Our songs of praise will give us the gift of goose bumps. But even
more importantly, they will give us the gift of a better relationship with
God and each other. Amen.