First Reading from “Make Time for Awe” By Kathleen Vohs
Awe is quite threatening in certain ways, and something that is challenging and unwelcome can border on fear….The experience of awe is one where you are temporarily off-kilter in terms of your understanding of the world. People mostly walk around with a sense of knowing what is going on in the world. They have hypotheses about the way people behave and what might happen; those are pretty airtight. It is hard to get people to shake from those because that’s just how the brain works. We are always walking around trying to confirm the things we already think. When you are in a state of awe, it puts you off balance and as a consequence…people might be ready to learn new things and have some of their assumptions questioned.
Second Reading from “Eyes Remade for Wonder” by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner
Jewish tradition says that the splitting of the Red Sea was the greatest miracle ever performed. It was so extraordinary that on that day even a common servant beheld more than all the miracles beheld by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel combined. And yet we have one midrash that mentions two Israelites, Reuven and Shimon, who had a different experience.
Apparently the bottom of the sea, though safe to walk on, was not completely dry but a little muddy, like a beach at low tide. Reuven stepped into it and curled his lip. “What is this muck?”
Shimon scowled, “There’s mud all over the place!”
“This is just like the slime pits of Egypt!” replied Reuven.
“What’s the difference?” Complained Shimon. “Mud here, mud there; it’s all the same.”
And so it went for the two of them, grumbling all the way across the bottom of the sea. And, because they never once looked up, they never understood why on the distant shore, everyone else was singing songs of praise. For Reuven and Shimon the miracle never happened.
“Veteran Stacy Bare was suffering from PTSD, burdened by suicidal thoughts, and drinking heavily after a second deployment in Iraq. [One day] Bare and his brother were arguing while hiking when they suddenly viewed the [breathtaking] Druid Arch in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. “The men’s jaws dropped. They laughed. They hugged. What were they ever arguing about?” That experience ultimately led to a life-long passion to bring other veteran ptsd sufferers to the outdoors to help them heal.
Activist Rebecca Sentner took a rafting trip down the Canning River […] to the Arctic Ocean, a place she’d been working for years to protect. She went with seven others—none of whom she’d met before the trip. They spent ten days in this Arctic National Wildlife Refuge experiencing discomfort, anxiety and exhaustion, as well as beauty, amazement and wonder. Friendships formed, as they bonded through unique, sometime challenging, [sometimes awe-inspiring] experiences. They had begun the trip as strangers, but returned as friends.
Astronaut Shane Kimbrough, recalls an overwhelming launch, then the feel of the engine cut off, then floating to the window to look out. “I’m in space.” It hit him. A dream he’s had since childhood. In a short film called the overview effect, he and other astronauts describe the view: the line that separates day and night slowly moving across the planet, clouds casting long shadows, the earth coming alive [with] the lights from the cities and the towns; thunderstorms like a spectacular fireworks show. It was described as an experience of awe, a transcend[ing of] a [regular] sense of separation […] At some very deep level, one said, they were realizing their interconnectedness with that beautiful blooming ball….
All these people had been touched, astonished, moved. Their experience of themselves and the moment they were in was indelibly altered by this one elusive emotion: Awe.
It is a phenomenon, research suggests, that changes our perceptions, puts things into perspective, making us more open, more humble, more connected. Awe can make us more available for new experiences, can make room for new relationships, or spark change in the relationships we already have.
Awe even appears to increase people’s willingness to help others.
[In one experiment, psychology professor Dacher Keltner and his colleagues] took participants to a spectacular grove of Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees, some with heights exceeding 200 feet. [Researchers had participants] either look up into the trees or, look at the facade of a nearby [tall] science building, for one minute. Then, a minor “accident” occurred (actually a planned part of the experiment): A person stumbled and dropped a handful of pens. Participants who had spent the minute looking up at the tall trees — […] long enough […] to be filled with awe — were more likely to pick up pens. [Were more likely] to help the other person. 
“Awe-inducing events may be one of the fastest and most powerful methods of personal change and growth,” Keltner writes.
Can open us up to a whole new way of experiencing and engaging with the world.
As Einstein is reported to have said – there are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.
But even so… even with all the benefits of opening to awe, I, and maybe you too, so often find myself walking between the miraculously suspended walls of the red sea, looking down, complaining about the mud. [which is everywhere and when I do that I miss the miracle) Missing the miracle. Missing so many miracles.
Keltner claims our whole culture is “awe-deprived.” We are spending more […] time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with other people, he writes, less time on camping trips, at picnics or gazing at midnight skies, more time working weekends and late at night. And for our kids, prioritizing resume building activities and test preparation over unstructured time or time outdoors. [i]
And even when we’re there, even when we get ourselves outdoors or somewhere beautiful, we sometimes still… just… miss… it.
“You can [look at something vast, like the midnight sky],” Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron writes, “and the first hit is always, ‘Wow! It’s so big!’ and your mind opens. But if you stand there long enough, you’ll start to worry about something […]
“We begin to shut down, shut out, as if we were sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon but … had put a … bag over our heads,” she writes.
I do this. I notice something breathtaking and before I know it I’ve got some mental commentary going in my head. That’s pretty, my mind says to me. Now I’m no longer actually present to the thing, but judging it. The next thought might be. It’s pretty but I’ve seen other pretty things. Or, maybe I’ll think about who I should tell about it. How I might describe it. How impressed they’ll be. Or should be that I was here. Or maybe I think about what time it is and when are we supposed to have dinner anyway and what is it going to be and will I like it, maybe we should stop by the store, need to pick up some toothpaste anyway….
Why do we do this kind of thing? It seems to happen automatically.
Worry seeps in, to do lists seep in, our rational mind takes over to set us back on track. A familiar, predictable, comfortable track. Where we know what’s going to happens next.
There’s a term for this it’s called hedonic adaptation. We experience a thing and it’s fantastic. We’re fully absorbed. Then the next time it’s still great but not quite as awe-inspiring, and then after a while or after we do it a few more times it impacts us less and less and less until it barely touches us at all.
It seems once we know what to expect, we don’t pay attention the way we did before. Our minds are off imagining the next great thing. Or off and running to work out how to prevent the next bad thing. Or off to whatever it is that tends to occupy our attention.
Our minds swoop in, regulating, controlling, evaluating. Creating a fog of mental activity that’s like putting a bag over our heads while standing at the edge of the grand canyon. Or in front of a beautiful child or piece of art, or a beloved friend.
Our minds strive to meet expectations, to maintain consistency, and we miss it. All the miracles.
Former UUA president Rev John Buerhens once said that religious holidays are not just about marking cycles of time, but also about the upsetting of expectations. In fact, that upset of expectations may be the most important piece. The story of Hanukkah tells of a holy band of rebels who had just been through a bloody war, whose temple had been ransacked, who had no consecrated oil to sanctify their holiest space, and who could not be at peace until they did. The story of Christmas tells of that famous wandering couple under threat, she about to give birth, the family, no place to stay, uncertain, unsettled, out in the cold. The people in each of these stories were off balance, out of sorts, dealing with the unpredictable and unexpected. And yet, as Rev. Buehrens writes, it is in these stories we find the mark of God. It is in these stories we find awe.
Something about the unexpected, maybe even the upsetting, is central. Something about getting knocked off course, is important. Something about not getting what we think we want may also open up a window, allow us to be touched. Moved.
Even as it can feel threatening, as we heard in our first reading. Health scares, job loss, surprise declarations of any kind – upset expectations unnerve us. Even good news, a promotion, a new pregnancy, a financial windfall – these things too, can knock us out of whack, as we must now make room for something new.
Yet, it may be exactly in the places of not knowing, in these these unsettling places where the mind has nothing left to say, we find the mark of God, where we find the mark of a deeper truth, greater wisdom, wider love..
Uncertainty and awe, fear and God. They all seem to be connected.
I find it interesting that in the Bible the word for fear and the word for awe are sometimes interchangeable. And that both are used to apply to God.
There is an iconic awe story in the bible. It’s Moses, encountering a burning bush in the desert. A burning bush that catches his attention, piques his curiosity, draws him near. As he approaches, he hears the voice of God. “Take off your shoes,” this voice commands, “for you are standing on holy ground.” Moses’ curiosity turns to a mix of fear and reverence, terror and amazement. He’s struck by awe.
In this story though, Moses doesn’t get distracted, his mind doesn’t appear to pull him away, no paper bags anywhere in this story. He stays. Listens to that voice. Argues, but then listens again. In fact that burning bush moment is the beginning of one of the most awe-inspiring stories in the Bible, the story of the Exodus, the Israelites’ escape from bondage through the passage of the red sea. The story whose significance our other friends, Rueven and Shimon completely missed.
In an article on awe and fear in the bible, writer Tara Sophia Mohr quotes spiritual teacher Rabbi Alan Lew. He describes Moses’ state [in that burning bush moment] as [a] unique mixture of awe and fear that we feel in the presence of the divine, whether in the form of a burning bush or in the form of the still, small voice within ourselves.”
The unexpected can lead to holy ground. Being unsettled, can lead to fear and awe. Fear and awe can open us up to a still small voice that points somewhere.
In that same article Mohr describes the feeling we get when we listen, really listen to that small voice. When we become willing to act on it. There’s fear, there’s awe. There’s energy. There’s the feeling of inhabiting a larger space than we’re used to inhabiting.
This is the [kind of thing] that shows up in those moments when we uncover a dream, access our real feelings about an important situation, or contemplate taking a big leap toward a more authentic life. We feel sacred awe, which has a kind of trembling in it…
So, awe. It can grab us in a moment, draw us out of our preoccupations, haul us into the present moment and wake us up. It can be a window into magnificence, a bigger perspective, and an open-eyed humility, all at the same time. Moments of awe can show us what’s possible.
We can also became separated from experiences of awe by our own well-intentioned minds, seeking safety in stability, in work, in strong resumes or high test scores.
And, we can become immune to it, so that it requires something more and more awe-inspiring before we finally wake up. It may even be true that the more we seek awe directly, the more we focus on recreating life’s highs and avoiding its lows the more our minds cut us off, the more elusive it becomes.
But maybe awe was never meant to be an end in and of itself.
Maybe awe was always meant to be a window or a door. A window through the mental fog, that shows us who we really are and how we fit. A door that opens to the way forward – a door to holy ground, where we can finally hear some still small voice telling us where our hearts most want to go.
A path based in connection, humility and purpose – a path to playing our part in the larger fantastic, awe-inspiring whole, of which we just got a glimpse.
It may not be the easy way necessarily, just ask Moses or the faithful Christmas couple, just ask veteran Stacy Bare, Activist Rebecca sentner or anyone who’s ever tried to do something deeply meaningful. But it’s a gratifying path. One that may just open the way to more awe still.
In this month of miraculous lights and miracle births, may we be open. To the unexpected, to beauty, to trembling, and to the insights of a greater truth and love which is sometimes hidden but always there.
May we be willing to walk through the mud and the muck of the unexpected and unsettling, knowing that these may just be preparing us to finally see.
May we live our lives, opening to the miracles, around us, everywhere.