(1 Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 29)
[A portion of my faith story up until the Session Retreat in Pacific Palisades.] At the time, I would have said that I was puzzled. A truer word to describe my situation would have been: Awe.
When a long-accepted explanation of how the world works breaks down or is shown to be flawed, either among scientists and scholars or in our everyday life, the emotion that most helps scientists and others delve further and leap into the unknown is awe.
“Awe increases our tolerance for uncertainty and opens our receptivity to new and unusual ideas, which are crucial for paradigm change,” according to Helen De Cruz, professor of philosophy and humanities at Saint Louis University in Missouri.
Noting that awe is also a spiritual and moral emotion, De Cruz cites the work of others who maintain that “all clear cases of awe” have two components: an experience of vastness and a need for a mental accommodation to that vastness.
De Cruz says, “Awe is a self-transcendent emotion because it focuses our attention away from ourselves and toward our environment.” She goes on to describe awe, along with curiosity and wonder, as emotions related to the search for knowledge and says that a person lacking such emotions “won’t have the drive to become a good scientist, who can change her mind on the basis of evidence.”
And that brings us to Psalm 29, our Scripture for today. As we read the 11 verses of that psalm, it’s clear that the writer was in awe of the Lord. Just listen as the psalmist says:
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
And the rest of the psalm sings in a similar tone.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century, insisted that awe is critical for not taking the world for granted and thus losing the ability to experience it with depth and reverence. That means awe is a pathway not only to knowledge, but also to wisdom and to God.
Undoubtedly Samuel felt awestruck at the realization that a voice he assumed to be that of Eli was actually the One True God and He wanted to talk personally with Samuel. I know how the kid feels. But sometimes it takes someone else – a parent, a friend, a mentor – to help us hear God’s calling in our lives amidst the awe and wonder. It was certainly that way for Samuel. God was audibly calling out to the boy, and he didn’t recognize who was speaking to him until the old priest Eli caught on and told Samuel it was the voice of God.
Pastor Steve had pointed out God’s voice to me that night in Pacific Palisades, but it still took others to help me hear all God was saying. [Finish the faith story].
Awe still happens, usually unexpectedly, and we can learn to recognize it and seek to discover what God may be telling us when it does. Presbyterian theologian Frederick Buechner illustrates awe by telling of seeing a forest of giant redwoods for the first time. “There were some small children nearby,” Buechner said, “giggling and chattering and pushing each other around. Nobody had to tell them to quiet down as we entered. They quieted down all by themselves. Everybody did. You couldn’t hear a sound of any kind. It was like coming into a vast, empty room.”
In effect, Buechner was describing a paradigm shift: “Two or three hundred feet high the redwoods stood,” he said. “They made you realize that all your life you had been mistaken. Oaks and ashes, maples and chestnuts and elms you had seen for as long as you could remember, but never until this moment had you so much as dreamed what a tree really was.”
The kids probably didn’t have the life experience to identify what they were feeling as awe, but that emotion was there, and it struck them quiet. It would not be surprising if, in that moment, one of those kids had an awakening to think about God, about a career in ecology or nature, or simply fell in love with the outdoors, a love that would have a bearing on other choices he or she made in the future. Awe can set a direction for life and can even move a person toward God. It did for me.
We say that there is something spiritual going on when we feel awe, whether we recognize it as such, and whether or not we are a believer. And there is a paradigm shift too, from “the world is all about me” to “the world is larger than me” or even to “this is God’s world.”
Abraham Lincoln apparently had that experience. He is quoted as saying “I never behold the heavens filled with stars that I do not feel I am looking in the face of God. I can see how it might be possible for a man to look down upon the earth and be an atheist, but I cannot conceive how he could lie looking up into the heavens and say there is no God.”
I know that’s not everybody’s experience, and some people do say there is no God, but we should not expect everyone to find God through the same channels.
God uses various gateways to come into our lives, and awe is one such gate. Awe enables us to sense possibilities we hadn’t imagined before, which can enable us to get some sense of God. We may experience awe when we are struck by beauty around us, the surge and thunder of the ocean, the quiet of a late summer evening, by poetry and music, or the smell of wood smoke in the crisp autumn air. We might even be awed by the intricacy and effectiveness of the human body, as was the author of Psalm 139, who wrote, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (vv. 13-14).
Awe says to us, “this is life beyond what I have known,” and it is also for many an intimation of God. A sense of awe is where the impulse of religion often starts. Or, as De Cruz says, where we need to make “a mental accommodation to vastness.”
“Speak, Lord, your servant is listening,” Eli told Samuel to respond. Something to notice, however, is that Samuel was already listening and responding – to Eli. Samuel was attentive to those around him, eagerly responding to what he though was Eli’s call. Had he not been, both he and Eli would have missed what God was doing in their lives.
The main thrust of De Cruz’s article was that “awe is required not only for the day-to-day working of science but is also crucial to help reorient scientists’ thinking in times of paradigm change.” But she also acknowledged that the emotional drive of awe is what matters in other fields as well, and that it might be “our only path to knowledge and wisdom.” I would add that it can also be a path to God.
When we are awestruck, it is a good idea to consider what God may be saying to us through that emotion and to be aware that a paradigm shift may be forthcoming in our life. God is calling each of us to something. God’s voice can be hard to discern, but there are Elis to each of our Samuels, out there listening with us and helping us to hear. By listening for God in community, we can discern together the ways God is moving in our midst.