By Nate Mason
The heavens keep telling the wonders of God,
and the skies declare what he has done.
Each day informs the following day;
each night announces to the next.
They don't speak a word, and there is never the sound of a voice.
Yet their message reaches all the earth, and it travels around the world.
Psalm 19:1-4 (CEB)
Have you taken the time to check out the newly released images from the James Webb Space telescope? They are mind blowing! According to the NASA website, “This slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.” The cosmos has always fascinated me. I grew up in the middle of the Black Hills of South Dakota, 30 miles from a town of any significant size, and about 6,000 feet up in the air. Up there you can see countless stars. I imagine God coming to Abraham on a hill top like that when they proclaimed:
“I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed,” -Genesis 26:4 (NIV)
The James Webb Space Telescope puts that promise into a new light! We are witnessing more stars than ever, more galaxies than ever, we are witnessing light that has taken BILLIONS of years to travel to earth.
God’s creation is deeper, wider, and infinitely more complex than our imaginations can handle, and being exposed to that truth will overwhelm us with wonder and awe. The psalms frequently invite us into that experience; to take a moment to sit and be stunned by the glory and power of the LORD.
The importance of wonder and awe
Do you take time to experience wonder? I find as I grow older I do so less and less. Now that I live in Des Moines, I hardly get to see any stars at night. The whole concept of wonder seems tedious to me at times. Awe seems even more elusive.
Dr. Neel Burton defines wonder as ” Wonder is a complex emotion involving elements of surprise, curiosity, contemplation, and joy. It is perhaps best defined as a heightened state of consciousness and emotion brought about by something singularly beautiful, rare, or unexpected.” Wonder at its core is a complicated mishmash of emotions and experiences. Human beings struggle to make sense of one feeling, much less an alchemy of overwhelming stimuli. One of my family’s favorite books is I’m Happy-Sad Today: Making Sense of Mixed-Together Feelings, by Lory Britain and illustrated by Matthew Rivera. (Note there is a three-year-old and a five-year-old in my family, but it will still be a favorite year from now)
Experiencing wonder helps us develop emotional coping skills to process and understand complex emotions. In young children, when they flooded with several emotions at once, it all comes out in a big nasty tantrum. And like everything involving humanity, things that are true for children, are also true for adults but we just don’t talk about it. Why do you think holiday gatherings are so stressful? Getting together family bombards us with all kinds of emotional turmoil. We get excited to see the people we love, but we are exhausted from all the excitement. We love to spend time together, but sometimes decades old conflicts creep up. It is easy for us to see the toddler melt down at the grocery store and correctly diagnose that the emotional levee broke, but we often miss our own meltdowns. Taking time to wonder helps us build up our emotional muscles so they are strong enough to handle those complicated moments.
Another essential part of experiencing wonder, is the humbling practice of not knowing. Within wonder there is an essence of mystery. Look at the Webb’s First Deep Field image again for a moment. What can be found within all of those little specks of light? Billions of stars, a billion billion planets, and unimaginable marvels we have yet to witness. Wonder forces us to recognize the limits of our knowledge and understanding. Our culture has trained us to never admit we don’t know something. Our bosses always expect an answer out of us. We have to know everything in the moment, or it is a sign of weakness. In Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, they argue that admitting you don’t know something is the smartest and healthiest thing you can do. The problem with always pretending to know it all, is that you do not, in fact, know it all. No one can know everything! The Freakonomics guys claim that admitting a gap in your knowledge is the first step in personal growth. Finding that gap will give you an idea of what you can learn next.
This concept is crucial for Christian maturity. The Bible is a big, deep, complicated collection of works written in dead languages and translated dozens of times. At some point, we feel like we should know the whole thing. As a pastor has spent 10 to 20 hours a week for the past decade studying Scripture, I can tell you that you will NEVER know the whole thing, but still people feel like they should. The Bible is an excellent source of wonder when we embrace the mysteries presented within. Experiencing wonder will help us to recognize that our knowledge is limited, and we should not be ashamed of that limitation.
Awe is an even more difficult emotion. Again from Dr. Burton “Wonder is most similar to awe. But awe is more explicitly directed at something that is much greater or stronger than ourselves. Compared to wonder, awe is more closely associated with fear, reverence, or veneration than with joy.”
I’m not really into social media, I have a few accounts that I rarely use, but recently Facebook added a “Reels” feature. It plays short, usually less than 2 minutes, videos. It has an algorithm that adapts what it shows you by what you watch. Apparently, I trained the algorithm to show me nothing but big scary aquatic creature videos. Whales breaching by boats, sharks ripping apart prey, deep sea creatures swimming along, the primal lizard part of my brain cannot get enough of these videos. I am terrified of sea creatures. Hey, I was born and raised in landlocked states. The ocean and its denizens are weird and alien to me. I get a strong sense of awe when I watch these videos. Amazement, surprise, and just a hint of fear causes my heartbeat to pick up and gives me a rush of adrenaline. It’s that hint of fear that I like. It’s also why I like scary movies and love Stephen King novels.
It’s the fear aspect of awe that makes it hard for us to experience it. Adults, especially men, are trained to suppress their fear. “Man up,” is the mantra for suppressing fear, after all. Feeling fear has been shamed and ridiculed by our society, so now we all must hide it. This, of course, goes directly against biblical teachings sine “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” (Proverbs 1:7a NIV) Remember the Back to the Future movies? All the bad guys had to do to taunt the hero, Marty McFly, into doing something stupid was to say “What are you, chicken?” Expressing fear is so shameful, men would rather do something self-destructive rather than admit fear.
When I was in middle school, I had about a dozen shirts from the aggressively 90’s fashion brand “No Fear.” The front would say “No Fear” and the back would have some sort of macho one liner with a large predatory animal ripping out of the shirt. I wore them all the time because I was scared as hell! I had moved to a small town halfway through the 8thgrade. I had no friends, no connections, and very few things that could distract me from the constant social anxiety that is present in almost everyone’s middle school experience. In the spring I joined track as a long-distance runner. This is when I really got to explore and know the Black Hills. If you’ve never been out there, my suggestion to you is just drive past Mt. Rushmore to say you’ve seen it, then go find an old logging road to explore! Running through the back woods helped me experience awe. No matter how macho and brave you think you are, when you run across a bull elk, or see a mountain lion’s tail as it scampers off, you will feel a strong sense of awe with a heavy dose of fear.
Experiencing awe is like a vaccine against bigger fears. We give it to ourselves in small doses, so we can emotionally handle the bigger fearful moments in our lives. People, again especially men, who do not learn to cope with their fear, fall back on anger. For some weird reason, our culture views an angry man as acceptable, but a scared man is weak. Anger, when expressed in a healthy manner, is not necessarily a bad thing, but anger used to mask fear is toxic. This is the anger that ruins relationships and causes lasting harm. There’s a lot to fear right now. I will openly admit that I worry about the future all the time. Our country is changing so rapidly, and the fear brought about from these changes has brought about conflict and violence. It is easy to turn my fear into anger at those I disagree with, against those I don’t understand. In those moments, I try to remember the things that make me feel awe. Those mountain lions of my youth made me scared, given the opportunity they might maul me and take me home for their young, but I can still love and respect that creature even with my fear. I should be able to love and respect people who I see as working against my interests and the interests of my family.
So how do we find wonder and awe?
This is a difficult question since what one person finds awesome, another might find awful. Additionally, we all have time, travel, and financial constraints. If you have the opportunity and ability, nature is one of the best places to experience awe and wonder. Like CS Lewis once said “Nature never taught me that there exists a God of glory and of infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. But nature gave the word glory a meaning for me. I still do not know where else I could have found one. I do not see how "fear" of God could have ever meant to me anything but the lowest prudential efforts to be safe, if I had never seen certain ominous ravines and unapproachable crags. And if nature had never awakened certain longings in me, huge areas of what I can now mean by "love" of God would never, so far as I can see, have existed.” Here’s one of the cool things about nature: it’s everywhere! I might prefer the evergreen hills of my youth, but the Becky Zallek Disc Golf course in the middle of Des Moines is still a beautiful woodsy area my kids and I can play in.
Art is another great inspiration. For my birthday this past year, my wife took me to Chicago to see the immersive Van Gogh exhibit. It was a 360-degree projection experience of all of Van Gogh’s works. My wife lined up child care for our kids while we were away, got a hotel, lined up our Lyfts, and worked her tail off to make this happen. It blew me away! On the drive home, we saw an advertisement for that same exhibit coming to Des Moines. So, you don’t have to go to a big city to get an immersive art experience! In fact, you can check them out from home. Many world class museums have free virtual experiences you can try. You can invest in a $5 cardboard VR headset for your smartphone and really dive into the virtual tour.
Finally, spend sometime around wonderful and awesome people. Great people are everywhere, but if you feel the need to meet some new great people, let me know. I am not one of those great people, but I know who they are and I can connect you! People are the greatest inspiration, the greatest teachers, the greatest source of wonder and awe. Afterall, we are all “awesomely and wondrously made” (Psalm 139:14 Tanakh translation)