In Awe of Awe

Throughout the month of December we are exploring what it means to be a people of awe and wonder. Join us this Sunday as we explore how a change in perspective changes awe and wonder from an experience that makes us feel small to one that might invite us to feel connected.

“In Awe of Awe”

A Sermon Offered at All Souls Church; UU

December 8, 2019

Rev. Shayna Appel

 

Welcome & Announcements

Chalice Lighting  from A Jewish Book of Prayer [Adapted]

Were the sun to rise but once a year, we would all cry out…How glorious!  Our hymns would rise up, our thanks would ascend.  As we light this chalice, may we  receive new eyes…and vision to see the world anew.

Hymn #29  Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee

Opening Words by G.K. Chesterton

This at least seems to me the main problem… How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? …How can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honor of being our own town?

Anthem

Time for All Ages

Reading from Soul Matters Curriculum, Small Group Study

The path of awe seems well worn. It’s a journey intended to bring us down to size. Pictures of our galaxy with a note that there are 100 billion more just like it. Videos of deep-sea creatures with bioluminescent bodies. Images of the northern lights that are utterly otherworldly. All of them remind us that the universe is more vast than we can imagine. All of them leave us with a sense of wonder that overwhelms. We are brought to the edge of what we can wrap our minds around. It’s like staring into an incomprehensible abyss. One can’t help but feel humbled and small. 

But religion has never wanted us to stop there. Hold tight it says. I know it’s hard but trust us: the path doesn’t end with a deep darkness that doesn’t care. Just stand at the abyss a bit longer. Lean in just a little bit more. And when you do so, suddenly an invitation emerges from that awe-full abyss. You look into the vast mystery and surprisingly, it stares back, as if to say, “Welcome home.”

As physicists tell us, contemplation of the vast universe doesn’t make them feel smaller, it makes them realize the larger story of which they are a part. We are stardust, as they say. From the vastness we came and to it we will return again. In other words, to be a people of awe is not so much about feeling small; it’s about feeling connected. 

And not just connected to the stars, but also to each other. Awe reduces our size in order to make room for something more than our personal needs, wants and worries. With our narcissism shrunk down to a reasonable proportion, it becomes possible to notice that we are not the only ones up there on the stage. It’s in this way that looking up into the cosmos allows us to look across at each other. And it’s a huge gift, because while being center stage and center of the universe can feel powerful, it’s also a very lonely place to stand. 

So friends, don’t just look up at the stars this month. Let that looking up also lead to you looking across. And in doing so, may you…not simply be astonished at the universe but also feel at home in it. 

Sermon “In Awe of Awe”

Our Soul Matters theme for the month of December is ‘awe’ & ‘wonder,’ which seems entirely appropriate for a month in which we celebrate events of awe and wonder!  Christians are in the season of Advent, a time in which they prepare to receive the miracle birth of the Christ child again.  There’s the UU Holiday of Chalica, which calls us to stop and reflect on each of our seven principles over the course of seven days, and to engage in a good deed focused on each one. There’s the Jewish celebration of Chanukah which celebrates the miracle of a holy light that had little to no fuel, but which burned for eight days and nights anyhow.  Wiccan’s and Pagans celebrate the longest night of the year and encourage daylights return with the burning of a Yule log.  There’s Christmas, which celebrates the birth of a child who would grow to flip the world on it’s head.  And Kwanza, a seven day celebration of African heritage and culture which has survived despite the efforts of too many to subdue or destroy it. Talk about a miracle!

So, December is a great month to explore what it means to be a people of awe and wonder…but, what exactly is awe?  Well, according to our Soul Matters curriculum, the word “awe” is rooted in the Greek word achos, which also gives us the word ache.  Perhaps the vastness we can experience when we find ourselves in awe opens an ache in the heart, and by so doing, causes it to expand.  Dacher Keltner, the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and professor of psychology at U-Cal Berkley, defines awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.”  And Nicholas Humphrey, an English neuropsychologist based in Cambridge, defines awe as “An experience of such perceptual vastness you literally have to reconfigure your mental models of the world to assimilate it.”

I think it’s safe to say that awe is all of those things, and so much more because we all have our own experience of it.  As I was preparing for this service I began thinking about all the times I have found myself in awe.  I have no shortage of these experiences which is why my own UU faith is, among other traditions, animated by mysticism.  But, as I began thinking about all of those times I have found myself literally gobsmacked right in the middle of life itself, I remembered something that happened early in my career in pre-hospital emergency medicine.

It was before I had attained Paramedic certification, and I was working as an Emergency Medical Technician for a private ambulance service located in Fairfield, Connecticut.  It was a Friday afternoon during the summer and I was already looking forward to the weekend when my partner Joyce and I were dispatched to a doctors office in nearby Westport.  We were both a bit grumpy when the call came in because we were close to the end of our shift and a patient transport from Westport, CT to Bridgeport Hospital on a Friday afternoon absolutely insured we’d be getting off shift late.  But, off we went.

We arrived at the doctors office, which was an OB-GYN practice, and we were lead to an exam room where our patient was waiting.  She was full-term pregnant, partially dilated, and contractions were coming one right after another.  Joyce and I looked at each other with the controlled panic known well among those who work in this field.  We asked the nurse, calmly, where the doctor was.  “Oh, he’s going to meet you at the hospital.”  Wonderful.

We hastily but gently loaded our patient into the ambulance, lit the thing up and headed to the hospital forthwith.  However, Friday afternoon traffic on the Merritt Parkway was … well, Friday afternoon traffic on the Merritt Parkway, and we weren’t making much time.  And it soon became evident that the mother and unborn child at the heart of this story had reached the limits of their current orientation to one another and birth was beginning.

Joyce pulled the ambulance over to the side of the Parkway and hopped in back to help with the delivery.  The babies head presented without difficulty, (this was not mom’s first child), and as I gently lowered the babies head the rest of her slithered right out.  No tearing, no trauma.  We suctioned her airway, gave her a little rub and watched her pink up, wrapped her in a blanket, and gave her to her mother.

And then we just sat there for a moment.  What in the name of all that is holy just happened?  Where only moments ago there were only three of us, now there were four!  Joyce and I had both delivered children in the field before, but this was different.  Maybe because this delivery took place in the back of a small ambulance with just the three of us…and then four.  I remember being powerfully present to the arrival of this child.  Not just the physical arrival, but the fullness of her arrival…the arrival of her whole self.  It was as if the very cloth of the universe itself was wrent, had to be torn, to make room for an entirely new person.  A whole person, who might be tiny now but who’s life was going to unfold, and impact God only knows who or what.

Eventually Joyce hopped back into the drivers seat and I hopped on the radio to inform the hospital that we would now be arriving with 2 patients on board.  We were met at the ER dock by a whole herd of people and I could feel the magnificence of the experience rapidly begin to disappear, or maybe dissipate, as all of the hospital personnel moved in and took over the care of mother and child.

I think it was the great UU educator, author, and religious activist Sophia Lyon Fahs who once wrote that, “Every night a child is born is a holy night.”  Holy too are summer afternoons, not in a stable, or a cave, but alongside a well traveled parkway.  

When we think about awe and wonder, its easy to forget how common its sources are – how ever-present they are, always around us.  Always waiting for us to stop long enough to notice.  But we spend much of our time flying right by, like all those cars on the Merritt Parkway on that summers day.  Oblivious to the miracles that are happening adjacent to us.

Yes, the sun rises every day.  And so we take it for granted.  But as our chalice lighting this morning leads us to wonder, what if it only rose once a year?  We would all cry out…How glorious!  Our hymns would rise up, our thanks would ascend.  Yes, the stars light the sky each night, and we can take the for granted too.  But have you ever stood beneath the nights canopy, staring into those stars long enough to awaken to the realization that we too are stardust?  Have you ever allowed yourself to ponder that until the abyss between you and the stars over head whispered a welcome?

Sometimes aw and wonder  just happen.  Like that day in the back of my ambulance. But those times are rare.  More often than not, we have to cultivate our capacity for awe and wonder.  We have to stop long enough for it to unfold.  Actress and comedienne Lilly Tomlin captures this unfolding well as she talks about heading to the movies one night.  She stopped to look at the stars.  She writes:

I felt in awe.  And then I felt even deeper awe at this capacity we have to be in awe of something.  Then I became even more awestruck at the thought that I was, in some small way, a part of that which I was in awe about.

Cultivating our capacity to experience awe takes time.  And a little effort.  But my God, it is so worth it.  We look beyond ourselves for awe, which we generally reserve for majestic objects or events.  But over time, we come to realize that there really is no separation between what’s “out there” and us.  Our 7th UU Principle calls us to affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part!  Get it?  We are connected to that wonderful awe-filled world around us.

And less you doubt the power of awe to heal and transform us, consider this.  Two brothers were walking through Utah’s Canyonlands National Park.  One of them, a man by the name of Stacy Bare, was suffering from PTSD following two deployments to Iraq.  Burdened by suicidal thoughts and self-medicating with copious amounts of alcohol, Bare and his brother were arguing while hiking.  Arguing in the way only someone with PTSD can do.  Suddenly, they rounded a corner and there before them was the Druid Arch.  Their jaws dropped, they began to laugh, and they wondered what ever were they arguing about.

Writing about this incident for the Boston Globe’s Parade Magazine, Paula Spencer Scott explained that the two brothers had been awestruck – altered in an instant by an electrifying emotion…one, it turns out, scientists have only begun to study.

Dacher Keltner, the psychologist from U Cal Berklee who I quoted earlier in this sermon, took the healing and transforming power of awe a bit further.  He conducted some experiments focusing on the benefits of awe.  In one such experiment, he asked a group of participants to gaze at North America’s tallest eucalyptus tress while another group looked up at a tall science building.  Not surprisingly, those looking at the tree reported a greater feeling of awe than did those staring at th building.  A situation was then arranged in which participants from both groups encountered a person who stumbled and dropped a number of pens on the ground.  Those who had looked  at the trees were more apt to help the person pick up the pens than were those who gazed at the building.

Another experiment concluded that people who experienced awe, more so than those who experienced emotions like pride or amusement, cooperated more, shared more and sacrificed more for others.  In response to the question about how or why the experience of awe contributed to altruism of different kinds, Keltner and Piff offered this thought provoking explanation:

“…awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger.  Our research finds that even brief experiences of awe, such as being amid beautiful tall trees, lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity people share with one another. 

“…awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger.”

As we learned in our reading for today, physicists tell us, contemplation of the vast universe doesn’t make them feel smaller, it makes them realize the larger story of which they are a part. We are stardust, as they say. From the vastness we came and to it we will return again. In other words, to be a people of awe is not so much about feeling small; it’s about feeling connected. 

So friends, in this month of awe and wonder, don’t just look up at the stars. Let that looking up also lead to you looking across. And in doing so, may you…not simply be astonished at the universe but also feel at home in it. 

Hymn #57  All Beautiful the March of Days

Offering

You all know the story of “The Three Little Pigs.” One lived in a house of straw, another in a house of sticks, and the third in a house of bricks. The moral of the story is that the choices we make have consequences and that hard work pays off. The two little pigs who lived in the houses of straw and twigs are often depicted as frivolous creatures who made bad choices and didn’t work hard enough to build substantial dwellings that could withstand the attacks of the Big Bad Wolf (BBW). The third little pig, on the other hand, is depicted as a diligent worker which allowed him to live in a BBW-Safe house of bricks.

But what the story doesn’t tell is that the three little pigs lost their parents when they became homeless due to a home foreclosure and ultimately fell victim to a pack of BBWs. The three little orphaned and homeless pigs lived in constant fear of meeting the same fate as their parents. Together they did their best to escape the vengeance of the BBW, but after months of being pursued, they decided to split up and go to different towns in an attempt to ditch their nemesis.

The first little pig ended up in a town where there was no available housing and was told by the townspeople he would just have to fend for himself. He couldn’t find a job so he had few resources to use in building or renting a house. He diligently searched but the only affordable building materials that he could find were pieces of straw so he used those to build his home. He knew it wasn’t the safest home but it was comfortable and kept him from the elements.

The second little pig moved on to the next village where he found a decent paying job and soon earned enough, he thought, to rent a house. But as he searched, he realized housing was more expensive than he anticipated. He was nearing despair when he met a man who had just constructed a bunch of houses for the new folks in town. He hadn’t gotten approval from the city to build but he knew he would be able to rent them easily. To make them affordable he built them out of sticks. When the second little pig saw the house of sticks, he fell in love with it, paid the rent and moved in.

The third little pig ended up in another town. This town welcomed new arrivals and recognized their need for housing. The town also had a program to create affordable housing. They also required that every house constructed be made of bricks and have a sprinkler system, smoke and CO detectors, and plumbing and electrical systems that met the highest building code standards. The townspeople knew this was a sound 100 year investment that benefited everyone.

Although the third little pig was only able to find a minimum wage job, he discovered that he qualified for a low interest loan which allowed him to actually purchase a home that was just being built. He was pleased and thankful for this opportunity.

While all of this was going on the BBW continued to stalk the three little pigs and it wasn’t long before he came to the first little pig’s straw house.

“Little pig, little pig, let me come in.”

“No, no, not by the hair on my chinny chin chin I won’t let you in.”

“Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down.”

And he did.

You know the rest. The first little pig ran as fast as he could to the next town seeking shelter in the house of twigs with the second little pig. The BBW then blows down the house of sticks and moves on to the house of bricks where he is ultimately foiled. Supposedly everyone but the BBW lives happily ever after. But that’s not the case.

The truth is that the story about the three little pigs made the rounds to all the towns in the area. After hearing what happened, civic leaders decided to establish sustainable safe, secure and affordable housing initiatives for all homeless and new arrivals in their communities. They also began to make plans to end homelessness and enact strict building codes to protect all the residents of their town.

However, the builder of the stick houses knew that these building codes would put him out of business so he started to lobby the decision makers to back off on the codes. The builder was joined in this effort by the BBW and his friends who also didn’t like the codes and declared that it was better for the towns if these codes were voluntary because “the market” should dictate how houses should be constructed. They also argued that the resources used to help the homeless and newcomers be divided up and given back to business owners to help them create jobs that would ultimately solve the housing problems.

These arguments were countered by the three little pigs who contended that both ending homelessness and having safe and secure housing for everyone were not only the right thing to do but in the long-term best interest of the community and everyone who lived there.

As of today, some civic leaders are still debating the issues while the wolves and the builder and the three little pigs wait to see what happens.

Our plate this morning will be shared with Groundworks Collaborative which provides ongoing support to families and individuals facing a full continuum of housing and food insecurities in the greater Brattleboro area.

[Story by By Edward P. Ehlinger, MD, MSPH, is Minnesota’s commissioner of health and immediate-past president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. Read the original post at: http://www.commissionerblog.health.state.mn.us/2016/12/housing-security-is-not-fairy-tale.html.]

Offertory

Blessing Candles of Joy & Sorrow #501 STLT by Frederick Gillis

Spirit of Community, in which we share and find strength and common purpose, we turn our minds and hearts toward one another seeking to bringing our circle of concern all who need our love and support: those who are ill, those who are in pain, either in body or in spirit, those who are lonely, those who have been wronged.

We are part of a web of life that makes us one with all humanity, one with all the universe.

We are grateful for the miracle of consciousness that we share, the consciousness that gives us the power to remember, to love, to care.

Unison Affirmation

Hymn  #187 It Sounds Along the Ages

Extinguish the Chalice

Closing Circle