Summit Presbyterian Church
February 14, 2010
A Life of Awe
This week you may have seen an article in the New York Times, written by John Tierney, about a study done by two professors at the University of Pennsylvania. They were researching the question: what kind of news travels fastest among people? They weren't interested in how gossip spreads, but information: what do we share most often? Good news or bad news, practical tips, surprising facts? Why, as they put it, do some news stories travel like wildfire while others languish?
Their theory was that we're most likely to share two kinds of news. First, we're likely to share stories with useful information, perhaps in the hope of getting useful information in return: so we pass on a report about snow conditions on Lincoln Drive or a story about antioxidants in blueberries. But they also thought we're likely to share stories that bring up strong emotions, in order to share those feelings with other people. They were curious about one emotion in particular: the feeling of awe. The authors note [I'm quoting]: "People who have had epiphanies through drug use or religious experience . . seem to have a deep need to talk about them or proselytize." So they wondered: do we have a need to share other kinds of awe-inspiring news?
Their answer was yes, and this is how they tested their hypothesis: they analyzed the kinds of articles most frequently emailed by readers of the New York Times online. (If you've ever read the New York Times online you may have noticed that you can email articles and that there's a box on the side with a list of "most frequently emailed articles.") I'm not going to explain how they did the study except to say it's complicated, they had to control for many things, and they had to hire lots of graduate students. But they discovered that articles which inspired awe were among the most frequently emailed. Articles on paleontology or cosmology: dinosaurs, stars, galaxies, black holes. Also articles about microscopic awe-inspiring things: RNA, how deers see. Also articles about courageous, awe-some people. Articles, that, in the words of the authors, "brought up an emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something bigger than themselves." In the face of something bigger than ourselves, they found, we want to share the news.
Peter, James and John didn't have email. (It's hard to believe because it seems like email has been around forever!). But they had awe-inspiring news to share. They had gone up on a mountain to pray with Jesus - an ordinary experience, it seems, for they were fighting sleep. But because they stayed awake they saw that the face of Jesus changed - just like the face of Moses had changed when he saw God on Mt. Sinai. His clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus and the disciples saw the glory of the Lord as he spoke with those great prophets, long gone. Peter wanted to keep them all on the mountain, to make dwelling places for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. But then a cloud came and overtook them. A terrifying cloud, a cloud from which they heard the voice of God. An awe-some experience.
When it was all over, when they came down from the mountain, at first they kept silent. Perhaps they didn't trust what they had seen, and wondered if it had even happened: after all, here was Jesus, with them like always. Yes, he was doing miracles: healing, expelling demons, multiplying loaves and catching fish. But still, he was a person like them, eating and drinking, doing those other bodily things that human beings do which we don't talk about in church. (And I wasn't thinking about sex.) Did they really seem him in glory or had they imagined it? Had they been sleeping? So they kept silent; it was only after Jesus died, after they saw the risen Christ, that they knew they had seen Jesus transfigured on that mountain. Then they had to tell others that awe-filled news.
The psalmist also wants to share news that is awe-inspiring: The Lord is King. God sits enthroned upon the cherubim; the Lord is great in Zion and exalted above all peoples. This Mighty King, says the psalmist, is a lover of justice who has established equity, make no mistake, even if we don't see it clearly now: let the peoples tremble. This mighty King, says the psalmist, also spoke with Moses and Aaron and Samuel, answering when they called, forgiving them while avenging their wrongdoings. Hear the news, and be in awe: the Lord our God is holy.
Awe-some, awe-inspiring, even awe-ful news. The disciples told it far and wide, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth; we email. And there's another difference. The professors at Penn hypothesize that we share awe-some news because we want friends and colleagues to share our feelings of awe, with the hope that shared feelings wil lead to deeper connections with each other. That may be. But the psalmist, and Peter and James and John had a different, and deeper, purpose for sharing their news. They told their story, they prayed the psalm, so that all who heard would worship, praise and listen to God. "Let them praise your great and awesome name," says the psalmist. "Extol the Lord our God, worship at his footstool. Worship at God's holy mountain." "This is my beloved son, my chosen one," said God's voice from the cloud: "Listen to him." They spread this awe-some news not to share feelings but to awaken us to God's glory and to call us to respond: in praise, worship, obedience.
But we're tone-deaf in this day and age. We've done so much to shield ourselves from moments when we might be awed by something greater than ourselves, when we might awaken to the holiness of God. We keep so busy. We fill our lives with clutter: cyber clutter and TV clutter, clutter in our house, on our calendars. We work on controlling things and go from one task to the next, even in church. (Story about Rutgers) How many of us, when the snow fell this week stood in awe before God's creation - and I'm not talking about a quick glance out the window to notice that the snow was pretty. How many of us stood in awe before we thought about digging out the car? How many of us praised God for the beauty of snow on the branches and evergreen trees, for the peace of the falling snow, for the magnificence of her handiwork?
Or let's think about Haiti. I know people have been following the news, and praying and giving money. And I know we've been wrestling with questions about how God could create a universe where earthquakes occur. But how many of us - as we considered the grave injustices underneath so much of the suffering in Haiti - how many of us stood in awe of the God who is a lover of justice and who is exalted above all peoples? The psalmist said, "let the people tremble," and Thomas Jefferson said, "Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever." As we see what is happening in Haiti, how many of us tremble before the God? A forgiving God who is nonetheless an avenger of wrongdoing and who executes justice and righteousness? Have we listened - wholeheartedly listened to and followed, the words of Jesus: blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and love your neighbor as yourself?
When I read the Times article this week, I followed a link to the study I've been talking about, "Social Transmission and Viral Culture" - by Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman. As you can probably tell by the title it wasn't an awe-inspiring article, though interesting. As I said before, the authors looked to psychological explanations for why we send certain kinds of news, and they suggest people send awesome articles to share that feeling of awe and make connections with other people. They may be right, but I hope that's not the whole story. I hope people are also emailing these articles because they sense something holy in the stories of stars and galaxies and dinosaurs, in the stories of remarkably good or courageous people and in the stories of the wonders we can see under a microscope. I hope people send them because they sense that which is greater than themselves, and are feeling called to respond. For awe is not just a feeling: it's the awareness of God. It's the awareness of a mighty, just and holy God. A life lived in awe is a life awake to God, a God who calls us to respond: in praise, worship, and obedience.