He said, “You can practically hear the jaws dropping. The sense of wonder fills everyone in the whole place as this thing goes up and up. The first stage ignites this beautiful blue flame. It becomes like a star, but you realize there are humans on it. And then there’s total silence.” He said the effect on the people was profound. There was no more cynicism. There was wonder and humility. People even began treating each other more kindly and with more respect. They were changed because of the awe they had just experienced.
An old, not especially good movie that featured a young Tom Hanks was titled Joe Versus The Volcano. I’m not going to go into the story, but I do want to recall a few lines from the movie. At one point one of the main characters, Patricia, said, “My father says almost the whole world’s asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says only a few people are awake. And they live in a state of constant amazement.” I believe that’s true. We are either sleepwalking through life, or we are in awe. I find it odd that people like to go to frightening movies, especially some of the gory horror movies. But it’s obvious that they go to them in droves. Why is that? I believe it is because they want to feel something. Too many are, as Patricia in the movie said, asleep. They are dead inside, and they don’t want to be. What they long for, I believe, is awe. They like the tingle of fear that they get in a scary movie because it is a relative of true awe.
We should live in awe and amazement. My son has been taking an anatomy class these last few months and on several occasions I have helped him review for an upcoming exam. Even those few brief minutes as we have reviewed the skeletal and muscular systems, the central nervous system, the cardiovascular system, the endocrine system and so on I have been overwhelmed. The intricacy and the complexity of the human body are simply astounding. Most of the time we go around giving little thought to how our bodies function. Usually the only time we pay attention to it is when something goes wrong. But what a phenomenal, brilliant machine is this body. It is cause for wonder. It should be a constant cause of awe.
There are so many things around us that should stimulate awe. Not long ago one night Laurie and I sat on a beach and looked up at the sky. The beauty of the stars was inexpressible. I felt I could just sit and stare at the sight in awe for hours. Who has not felt the smallness of our existence before the expanse of the universe? As one looks around in nature one is surrounded by glorious beauty, by marvels beyond compare. Last year after years of work by researchers and scientists the first Census of Marine Lifewas presented. The researchers had discovered 6000 new species bringing the total of known marine species to 250,000! They reported they were constantly surprised by the diversity, abundance and beauty of creation. One scientist said they were astonished everywhere they looked. Another said, “the most surprising thing was the beauty…Our eyes pumped out of our heads in front of this beauty.”
The power, magnitude, expanse and beauty of what God has created will certainly produce wonder and awe in us if we take the time to perceive it. But I believe we are created for more than merely feeling astounded by things around us. Author and philosopher Dallas Willard said, “To handle the things of God without worship is always to falsify them.” That is one of the grave and oft-repeated errors of humans. They stand in awe of creation, but stop right there. They end up worshiping the created instead of the Creator. Paul discussed this problem in Romans 1:18-21. That mistake leads to all kinds of moral and spiritual ills.
The ultimate cause of real awe should be our God. I wish I could have been there to witness the launch of one of the Apollo missions and feel the wonder of it, or to experience the launch of one of the Space Shuttle missions. I won’t have that opportunity, but in the end that experience pales compared to living in awe of the Almighty God of creation. This Christmas season I find myself often shaking my head in wonder, near to tears at the thought that somehow this omnipotent God wrapped human frailty around himself. In the most jaw-dropping act that will ever take place, he lived with all the hurt and frustration of human life, he submitted to the extreme, the worst this world has to offer, so that I might have hope and life. I do not understand love like that. I can understand self-sacrificing love, for there are people in this world I love so dearly that no sacrifice would be too great. I get that when one loves deeply sacrifice is not even felt. It is a joy. But to have love like that for people who are unlovely in the extreme, even hateful or spiteful and rejecting? That is beyond my comprehension. Before that love I bow in awe.
I think about the comment Needleman made about the Apollo 17 launch. After the cynical people were affected by the awe of that powerful experience they were changed. What will happen when we live in awe of God? We too will be different. If we are truly in awe of God we will be truly alive. Life will be tinged with that spine-tingling feeling that something sublime, overwhelming, even a little terrifying is going on around us day by day. It will be an adventure. Humbled to participate in that adventure, to be invited in by our awesome God, we will surely treat God’s creatures, especially the human beings around us, with the respect, the patience, the kindness due one of God’s most awesome works.