Slowing Down & Experiencing Awe

For many years, this past weekend had always been a special one. The obvious celebration and remembrance of the death and resurrection of Jesus place this weekend as a family and religious holiday. Easter egg hunts, dinner, and the ability to finally wear white as the spring has sprung all signaled a weekend that breaks from the winter months into the blooming and warming spring. Many years, I had either felt the weekend came and went quickly based on work demands, or others were jam-packed with family gatherings and services early in the morning or late at night.

Fortunately, this year was different. My office was closed on Friday in recognition of Good Friday, giving me a long weekend with Amanda as she didn't have to work either! Friday morning I got up early, letting my night-shift ICU nurse wife sleep in, and got started on a new book that had piqued my interest. Being a fan of existentialists and transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau, I had stumbled upon the book Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland.  Friday morning, as I waited for a preventative maintenance service on our air conditioner to be completed, I started reading the book on my Kindle. I was engrossed in his style of writing almost immediately, reminding me of the Emerson/Thoreau but modernized.

A little ways into the book was a discourse on awe, from the author's perspective something that he gained in nature but was often reduced to glimpses. We take the wild and try to make it exotic bloom now found in a garden, or  wildness of animals reduced to the household pet (don't get me wrong - I love my pets, but I get his point on seeing animals in their natural habitat). This quote in particular stuck out to me:

"Apprehension, disillusion, disorientation, selfishness, lust, irony, envy, greed, and even self-sacrifice are commonplace: but awe?"

This sentence made me stop and think. I was reading this on Good Friday, the day of remembrance for Jesus' death on the cross. Was I prepared to wonder at this event, or just intellectually accept it as necessary for my particular belief set? Is Jesus' death, in other words, something which can be fathomed in a purely "substitutionary atonement" kind of way? I'm not saying that isn't a part of the amazement at the event, but isn't the story so much more than a doctrine? The gravitas began to sink in of a story that was not even merely commonplace "self-sacrifice" like Hoagland wrote, but was to strike in us a movement into awe.

Hoagland continued this quote, "Society is not annealed enough. Trust and continuity and leadership are deteriorating, and the problem when you are alone is the clutter. Finding even a sight line outdoors without buildings, pavement, people, is a task, and we're not awed by other people anymore: too much of a good thing."

Ouch. He is right. I drive to work each and every day, and the concrete jungle, the moving arteries of steel and rubber which are our roads no longer captivate or enthrall. Rather, they are a bane, a thorn in my side that I try to get through with as little frustration as possible. The sunsets, the desert mountains and fields, all have become commonplace. Days become weeks, and soon months are gone with nothing seemingly changed or transcending the mundane routines of life. 

My weekend went on, and Amanda and I had a nice dinner out before heading to Emmaus Road Church for a Good Friday Way of the Cross experience. 14 stations of the cross had been creatively designed by members of the congregation and put on display in a courtyard outside the church. It was a time of prayer, Scripture reading, reflection, and meditation. It was a time of slowing down. Suddenly, on the very day I had read about awe, I had the opportunity to experience it. Over the next three hours I was able to put all else aside and just realize the magnitude and reality of the selfless acts of Jesus. Reading through Scripture, and reflecting on the images, the full isolation of Jesus became ever more real to me. In the midst of becoming alone, his cries of why God had forsaken him made all the more sense.

Even more awe-inspiring, however, was how in the midst of mocking, persecution, betrayal, power plays, and spineless-ness, Jesus somehow remained able to have moments with those around him in which he actually, truly was present to them. His very betrayers, his guards, the crowd all could have sensed something much different than what they were used to.

An ear reattached while rebuking Peter for fighting against those who betrayed.

A passer-by who suddenly became a bearer of the cross with Jesus.

The women of Jerusalem who wept (did they know who Jesus was, or simply wept for the violence?).

The forgiveness and promise of His kingdom to the thief on the cross.

Speaking to his mother Mary and disciple John, making them "mother" and "son" and addressing their needs in the midst of his death.

Jesus fully experiencing isolation, and yet crying out "Father, forgive them. For they no not what they do."

Could anything be more awe-inspiring?


Because Easter Sunday happened after Friday. My weekend stayed slow, with Saturday, the day in the tomb, being one Amanda and I spent at home. We did some good ole fashioned spring cleaning, and straightening up the backyard some as well. While it may have seemed mundane, it was a relaxing, but productive, day in amazing weather. Capping the day off was a great conversation around a fire, grilled steak, a glass of wine, and seeing the stars overheard. Again a day of amazement: the flowers during the day, the warm breeze, and then the stars at night with a warm, crackling fire.

Sunday morning it was back to church for Easter services. Simple, straightforward, and powerful because by this point my life was slowed to a pace I truly wish I can continue to remember. The services were revelatory that truly Jesus is Risen! To worship Him as Lord, not simply on Sunday, but each and every day. Death held no victory over him.

I'm not simply talking theology, expectation, or tradition. Rather, I was at awe of the implications for us all. Everything changed. I could have easily taken control of my thoughts and broken down the service or sermon into practical points or philosophical agreements. I was tempted to step into the role of critic which so often ensnares many of us in observing the actions of others. Instead, as I got up to pray the Congregational Prayer and lead the church in the Lord's prayer, I saw not the act, but the people behind the act. The needs of the congregational, real and in-your-face, were being placed at the mercy of the Risen Lord.

Reciting the Lord's Prayer was not ritual, nor merely words. It was an acknowledged, communal, plea for God's action and our response to Him at this very time. Not all ills were alleviated, and financial sufferings for many saw no immediate resolution, but rather it became apparent Jesus is enough. This was a moment of realizing that for these people, in the midst of doubt and joy, the words of the classic hymn rung true: "It is well with my soul."

Sunday finished slowly and without much of the creeping worry of work routines or the dread of speeding back up. Rather, it was simply awesome.

Somehow, the weekend was both a learning moment that I need to remember awe as well as the experience of awe in the moment all the same. Whether it was reading Scripture, Sex and the River Styx, cleaning windows, reflecting on scales, driving to church, or enjoying a glass of Grenache fire-side with my wife and taking in the stars, there was awe. Awe puts us in our place in the grand scheme of the universe - at the mercy of our creator.

The difference, I think, in what Hoagland compares awe is each commonplace item remains rooted in how we filter reality through our own self, rather than understanding ourselves through the filter of reality. We don't need to always understand, even though understanding can help us fully feel awe (like, for me, knowing geology and geomorphology help me to fully grasp the immense grandeur of the Grand Canyon). What more can awe describe than the creation of a loving God who works to redeem that creation to Himself? Who more than Jesus is worthy of awe but also inspiring enough to realize awe can be applied to all people?

Awe is definitely not commonplace.

But it is accessible and possible. 

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