In speaking about his family’s trip to Iowa’s Maquoketa Caves, David Borger Germann found awe, and it made him re-examine his relationships with his family and the world around him. In examining the Biblical story of Isaiah, he sees several opportunities to examine how the brain registers awe, and how we can bring this powerful feeling to everyday experience, suffusing life with new interest and meaning.
This talk was part of a Sunday morning message at Sanctuary Community Church in Coralville, IA.
Hi everyone, good to see you all. A couple weeks ago, there was a no-school day on a Friday in the Iowa City school district. For my wife Ali, who’s a teacher, it’s like Christmas. So she proposed, about a week before that, to use the day for something special. “Let’s take a day trip or something, you know, let’s go on a hike.” And she thought, why not the Maquoketa Caves? So the Maquoketa Caves is a state park about an hour and a half away, hour and 45 minutes or so, and I’d always want to go. We’ve never been. So I wanted to go I was like “yes let’s do it!”. But it took our kids a little convincing. We’re at the dinner table and we’re saying, “yeah, let’s go to the Maquoketa Caves,” and they understand now that it’s about an hour and a half, hour and 45 minute drive, so they’re feeling that out, they’re like “I don’t know…”. They submit a counter-proposal, which is video games and nerf gun war with friends. We say “well, how about we do that Saturday. It’s not every day we can take a Friday for a half day or day trip, like let’s do this,” you know. “And it’ll be really fun,” my wife says, “you know we get to get muddy in the caves.” One of our kids says “I don’t know, I don’t wanna get muddy.” “You don’t want to get muddy?“ He loves to get muddy, OK, but he’s just, you know... OK, you don’t have to go in the caves, like we can just stay on the outside if you want. One of our kids asked “will there be bats?“ I actually have no idea if there will be bats, but I say “no, no they’re not there this time of year” like I’m just making it up.
So after much cajoling, we get them to agree. We are going to go to the Maquoketa Caves. So we’re really excited, the Friday arrives, and that morning and it doesn’t start off so great, okay. Our kids get up and even though we have decided we are going to the Maquoketa Caves, they are saying “I don’t know, we don’t really want to go, we want to play Nerf gun wars, we want to have, you know, some time with friends and play video games, come on.” I’m like “No, we are going, OK”. And then they say “OK, fine Dad, but we’re at least we’re going to bring our tablets, you know, in the car.” And I shut that down, I’m like “no no no, we’re not bringing tablets, we’re going to enjoy the ride, we’re going to read a book together, OK, and we’re going to have fun.” And they start yelling. And I start yelling back. It’s 6:45 A.M. and I have lost my parenting mind, OK.
So they’re kicking their way, dragging their way through the morning, and they’re like “fine, we’re going, we’re going,” you know, and Ali is just kind of oblivious to all this, she’s just happy, it’s her day off, she’s singing her way through the morning, OK. But then I start to realize that all the stuff I’m not going to get done that day, OK, so I start to get anxious, like I had already checked my e-mail, which (mistake number on)e but I’m seeing like 50 things I need to respond to, 100 projects at church that I’m not going to be a have time for because I’m going to go on this great family fun trip, right?
Somehow we get out the door, our souls mostly intact, I bribed our kids with limitless granola– whatever– granola bars, and they’re already eating those as we’re driving away. Ali asks can we start reading, we’re reading the Harry Potter series, we’re on book 6, “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince,” of the seven book series, the epic one, and so I’m like “Hold on, I just need some time to breathe.” 15 or 20 minutes later I’ve caught myself, I’ve caught up with myself, OK, I’m breathing, I’m OK, I’m OK, this is how long it takes me to like, snap out of the morning.
And then I realize we forgot the flashlights. “We forgot the the flashlights,” I say. Ali was driving. I said “We forgot the flashlights.” She’s like “Should we turn around?“ She’s like “no, we should buy something on the way,” We stop for gas, we look at the gas station convenience store, of course everything is marked up like 300% because it’s a gas station convenience store, and we find a flashlight and some batteries for $15, I’m thinking we can find something better on Amazon for $5 and I’m like “AAAAHHH!” So we get back in the car, and then I’m just angry. I’m angry we forgot the flashlight, I mean her for shelling out fifteen dollars for a flashlight, and you might think what’s the big deal? And I’m thinking, I don’t know what the big deal is. I tell myself the same thing. “David, what’s the big deal? You’re freaking out about $15 and a stupid flashlight.” But I can’t let go, all right, I’m in the moment and I’m embarrassed that I’m so angry and upset and so I’m just like oh my gosh. Back to breathing, back to breathing, back to that, and 15 or 20 minutes later, I’m like OK, I think I can do this. We start reading Harry Potter, get lost in the book, lost in the drive, and we arrive at the state park.
We get there, take a few minutes to get oriented, look at the map, figure out a plan where we’re gonna go, we go into the park, in the caves and it’s absolutely breathtaking. The first thing that hits us is this green verdant valley. The leaves on the trees are just beginning to come out, so you kind of see everything, it’s just like specks of green everywhere. You can see really, really far through the valley. There are wild flowers poking up everywhere. My wife took these photos of the wildflowers.
We hike around, we start exploring, and we’re going in and out of the caves, and we are amazed. Wow. Everywhere we look, it’s amazing. I go into the caves, I touch the ceiling, it’s moist, damp rock, it’s carved out from water. I make my way to the back of a couple caves and it’s just super super dark, so I close my eyes and open them, close my eyes, I trust the flashlight because it was $15. I close my eyes and open them and there’s no discernible difference, it’s just dark. There’s one large main cave that you can walk through and it’s amazing, I mean just majestic. You’re looking around like “How is this possible?“ and you’re going through the cave, we’re going through the cave and getting in that thick, thick mud, and our child that objected to the mud does not care about the mud anymore, it’s just awesome. Here’s our shoes. We’re loving every minute, we’re ooohing and aaahing our way through the Maquoketa caves. Wow.
After a few hours of exploring, a lunch break, lots of photos, an encounter with a small (friendly) snake, we finally sit by the creek to wash our shoes in the water, it’s cool, it’s warmer by this point, the sun is shining, and we are just ridiculously happy. We are so happy. I am not thinking about the 15 projects I have at church, my kids are not thinking about video games, Ali is still singing, and we are so happy.
This morning we’re going to consider the topic of awe. We’re thinking about how awe makes us better people. We’re in a teaching series called The Spiritual Brain, and we’re considering how science helps us understand our spiritual selves, so we’re going to look at the results of some studies around the experience of awe, and some surprising associations and benefits that come when we experience awe.
But first we’re going to look at an experience of awe in the Bible. Now, in the Bible, awe or reverence is a common theme. People who encounter God very quickly say “wow.” They are in awe, and this reverence comes over them. The Psalms, the Prayer Book of the Bible, are full of expressions of awe, and when Jesus launches his public ministry, that’s one of the most common themes early on, is that people are amazed, they are awed, they say while at what he’s doing, what he’s teaching, who he’s hanging around with, they can’t get enough of it.
Our story comes to us from the book of Isaiah and it’s a first person account, OK, so we’re going to hear Isaiah in his own words saying “this is what I saw.” Here we go, pick it up in chapter 6 starting in verse 1. “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting on the throne. Seraphs were in attendance above him, each had six wings. With two they cover their faces, and with two they cover their feet, and with two they flew. One called to another and said ‘Holy holy holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.’
The pivots on the threshold shook at the voices of those who called and the house filled with smoke, and I said, ‘woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the king, the Lord of hosts.’ And one of the seraphs flew to me holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it, and said now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed, your sin has been blotted out. Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?‘ And I said ‘Here am I, send me.'”
So this is quite an experience of awe. What’s remarkable about this moment for Isaiah is that it comes in the time of great, great transition. The first line is “in the year that King Uzziah died” and we’re given this detail because it would be a very anxious time in the life of the Nation of Israel. A king has died. There’s a new king. What will this new king be like? How will the new king behave? How will the economy go under the new king? How will he handle the foreign powers on our borders that are threatening us? Will this new king lead us into war? It would be an anxious time. These are the kinds of questions that Isaiah would be asking that the people would be asking, and it’s perhaps what drove Isaiah to the temple in the first place.
So Isaiah goes to the temple. And Isaiah– this temple, it’s hard to even get a sense of what the temple is, but this is a massive enormous structure, it would be kind of a cross between the nation’s capital and a cathedral. Just huge, vast. And he goes in the temple and he’s praying and he has this vision. And the vision seems to incorporate elements of the temple, but also transcend the physical limits of the temple. He sees the Lord on a throne and God is so big, we get this detail that the train of God’s robe fills this massive structure of the temple, it fills the temple. So it’s just the fringes, God’s so big, just the little fringes of God fills the temple. And he’s looking all the way up.
Isaiah sees seraphs, he sees the seraphs, who are, you know, these are all winged creatures six wings. Two they cover their faces they’re not looking directly at God, two they cover their feet as a sign of the intimacy or vulnerability they’re protecting, and two they fly, hover in God’s presence, and they’re singing a song “Holy holy holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.” Now this song is worth paying attention to, so I’ve a few slides to look at with this song. Let’s break it down. For the first line the seraphs are singing “holy holy holy is the Lord.” They’re talking about God’s holiness, which is God’s utter distinctness. God is separate, God is transcendent from them, so that’s next slide. God is not like, stuff, right? When we say God is holy, God is utterly distinct from, God has no beginning, God has no end, he is utterly separate from stuff and every thing and matter.
But the next line, paradoxically, talks about God’s glory. That the whole earth is full of God’s glory, which is God’s presentness to us, God’s accessibility, God’s immanence. And so we have this crazy paradox, this tension that on one hand God is totally outside stuff, and yet it is in, and through, everything that we access God. God can be felt, heard, seen, experienced, in everything. So think about this. This means that everything somehow gives us access to the divine. That somehow in everything God is presented to us. The whole earth, right.
And so we do this all the time, like with if we go to something brilliant and amazing like Makoqueta caves, or we go to the Grand Canyon, or a white sand beach we say “Wow.” Because we’re encountering God. God is in that. We can see God in elements like fire and wind, we can see God in creation, trees, the birds, even livestock and worms and insects. If we look close we can see the glory of God and say “Wow.”
But so is my toothbrush. Full of the glory of God, human artifacts, the things that we make of the stuff of the earth, of the glory of God, becomes in itself full of the glory of God. Bridges and skyscrapers, iPhones and sunglasses, cars and kitchen plates, these participate in the fullness of God’s glory. Think about the chair in front of you. I mean, take a look. Wow. That’s really quite brilliant, isn’t it? I mean just think about it for a minute. How did that chair come to be of the stuff of the earth that has evolved over 13 billion years in the universe, I mean how old is the earth? 6? 7? billion? Ok I don’t know, look it up. And then humans, we’ve been around for, I don’t know 80,000 years, 100,000 years with, yeah, OK, look that up too. And we take the stuff– I mean how many people went into the chair? How did it become presented to us, holding us in this comfortable nice room? Wow. We can do this with everything. Everything is full of the glory of God. This is the song of the seraphs. And they’re saying “wow.”
This is Isaiah’s experience: he’s in the temple, a building built by human hands, with materials that have come up from the earth, and he is seeing the holy transcendent living God in it. And then he sees smoke filling the place, the pivots shake as he’s having this present moment. But then something switches inside Isaiah. He begins to feel insecure and unclean. He perceives of himself as unworthy to be in God’s presence. He says “I am lost”– I love that. “I’m lost, woe is me.” Now he says “I am a man of unclean lips, I live among a people of unclean lips,” and when he says that, he’s just saying– the lips kind of just represent his whole self, his whole being, he feels unclean at the core, and he’s not sure why he’s gonna live through the experience he’s having.
What gives him permission to encounter this God and keep going? A seraph takes a hot coal. Brings it to him and touches his lips, says “you’re clean.” He receives God’s reassurance. And then he hears a voice say “whom shall I send, who will go for us.” God’s asking “who is going to be my messenger, who’s going to go out and say it?“ And Isaiah says “Here am I, send me.” He volunteers, so full of awe and wonder and the reassurance God’s offering, he’s gone, “I’m there, I’m with you, I’m going.”
So we receive this story as a story of movement, right, of transformation. Isaiah moves from insecurity to boldness, from focusing on himself and what’s wrong with him to being wrapped up in a much bigger story of the glory of God, and how he can participate in that story.
Now, here’s what’s cool. So now we’re going to go to the science part. We have to follow the science. So science confirms a lot of what we see in this story of Isaiah. It’s so cool, OK. So studies have been done to look at human experiences of awe and then what happens with it. Now, one of the first questions scientists ask about this is “what exactly is awe?“ Ok, so we have to ask that. “What is awe?“ And I found this photo, this photo is from our website, of our kids’ wing. And this is perfect. So one of the things scientists do is ask “what is a facial expression of awe?“ So here it is. Notice the slightly raised eyebrows, slightly open mouth, OK, but otherwise the face is pretty at rest. There’s not a lot of movement, you’re not all scrunched up, just pretty relaxed, OK. And so that’s exactly what we see other characteristics of awe. There’s this awe face, and there’s this slower breathing, slower heart rate, and you’re calm and you’re still. It’s the opposite of your body’s response to stress. It’s the opposite, that’s how you know you’re in awe.
That’s why when you go out to Woodpecker Trail, and you look out, you like. Just the high. Just feel it. Just comes right off you. OK, now, scientists then have framed or labeled a number of thoughts and feelings that accompany awe. So here are some of them, I’m not going through all of them. But check out the second-to-last one. Let’s talk about fear for a minute. So there’s some degree of fear that comes with awe, like “whoa.” But it’s not enough to trip that fight-flight-freeze response. OK, so when you’ve kind of gone and Isaiah did this, and we’ll talk about it a little bit, but Isaiah kind of first has awe and then he’s like “Oh my gosh, I’m going to die.” OK, that’s no longer our reverence of the good kind, that is “I’m going to die, I’m terrified.” So now, it’s interesting, because you can have awe with like, a tornado, if you feel safe and at a distance from said tornado, but as soon as that thing gets close enough to you, you start feeling like “I could die,” you’re no longer in awe, you are in terror and fight-flight-freeze kicks in and you’re just on automatic mode and survival mode, right, so that’s not what this is talking about.
OK, now here are associated benefits with awe that studies have been done to show and highlight. Greater gratitude and happiness, sharper awareness and focused attention, so people who have awe can then look more carefully and take time. Here, a quote from Socrates: “There’s no other foundation for philosophy than a sense of awe.” I love that. Awe makes you a philosopher. I owe one of our resident Greek experts, by the way, Mike Overholt, to that quote, he translated the Greek for us. There you are. And then lower need for cognitive closure, or an increased ability to accept the unknown. Isn’t that great?
Then this one, increased emphasis on membership in universal categories, because when you’re in front of the Grand Canyon, you’re not thinking about red state/blue state dynamics, you’re only thinking about “who am I to behold such a view?“ And it’s a universal category. There is there is awesomeness, and there is us human beings, who have somehow become privileged enough to live this life and behold such things. That’s it. There’s one category of human. And then increased willingness to help others.
And this is where we come back to Isaiah. Now by the way, the way scientists test all this is, they have a bigger group of people for the experiment, which means undergrads, as Tom pointed out a while ago. They break them into different categories and they’ll show them videos, so one group they show funny videos to, another group they show like a scary video, and then they’ll show this nature video that’s like “wow.” And then they lead them through a series of tasks series, or choices, or questions, and they’ve shown that people in those, they– after an awe audio they’re sharper awareness, they can read better and answer questions about an essay better. They are more generous, so they give more money away, and they help each other better than if they just watch a scary or funny video in these experiments.
This brings us back to Isaiah. Isaiah has this moment of awe. He receives God’s reassurance. He pushes through his insecurity, and he’s transformed. He becomes a better person, he’s like, “I’m in, I’ll do it, I’m going, I’ll be a messenger, I love this.” This is God’s invitation for us today. To become people more and more characterized by awe and wonder. We can become people who are more calibrated to locate and identify the “wow,” God’s glory presented to us in all of the earth.
And as we do so, we access all those benefits that come with the experience. We become people happier, more full of gratitude, more generous, willing to help. It’s what I experienced at the Maquoketa caves, right? I’m kind of grumpy. I’m angry over a flashlight. I need to be rescued. And this experience of awe in the caves makes me better. I’m happy, I’m full of joy and gratitude. That’s our invitation today. How’s that sound? Good? Yeah, doesn’t it. Can we commit to becoming people like Isaiah who can just say “wow,” who can lean in. And then become so transformed by that, just a little bit better people, as a result?
So let me make two suggestions of how we can do this, how we can put it into practice, OK. So number one is look and say “wow.” Look and say “wow.” Take time to look. Right? Just take the time, take the time to look, see something. This is what Isaiah does. He goes to the temple. He actually leans into it. He is looking for God. The temple is a great place to do it. Church is a great place for that (we hope). It’s a great place to be wowed, to experience God, but we can do this all over. It takes some effort I think.
Sometimes we have this false idea that, you know, “wow” comes to us as this passive experience, we’re just wandering around some day and boom, something happens to us. Well that’s true and we’ll take it. OK, so when those moments come, absolutely stop and say “wow.” But we can also train ourselves into looking, and looking for, God in and around us and saying “wow.” This is addictive, and I know because I started doing it this week as practice, and I just started saying “wow” all the time.
And actually I figured out this trick. This is really cool. You can say wow first, and then try to figure out what’s worth being awed about, OK. So I was driving the other day and I turned and I just I was just trying. To. Say “wow” like as much as I can so I turned the radio on and I say wow, I mean I wasn’t listening yet, but I was just like “wow” like “radio, like, wow”. All right like that’s pretty amazing– I’m sure someone in the room could probably explain exactly how it works, OK but wow. While I was writing with a pen, same thing, I thought “wow,” and then I’m looking at the pen, like, how did this pen come to me? That’s really quite brilliant, isn’t it? Wow. And I even checked my face like. Wow. And I can like, raise my eyebrows, open my mouth. And I start feeling my body just like, wow, I mean yeah, tap a vein, this is addictive stuff, it’s great.
One trick if you have young children, they are sometimes they’re in the zone, OK, they’re in the zone of wonder and curiosity. Go with them. Go with them. Right, enter their world, see what they’re seeing, say wow with them. Sometimes they are not in the zone and they need some bribes and cajoling to get them out there. OK, So we have to train our kids too. There we go.
Number two, name insecurities and receive God’s reassurance, OK. This is Isaiah, he’s in that moment, you know, and he just has to name it. You can’t see the awesomeness of everything if you’re so focused on “what is wrong with me.” You know what I’m just– and I do this all the time right every day I wake up and I think there’s something wrong with me, or I have an experience like “that was dumb” or I’m in the car on the way to a Maquoketa Caves and I’m thinking “I’m so angry about a stupid flashlight. Why am I so angry about a stupid flashlight? I wish I wasn’t angry about a stupid flashlight.” Right, I’m embarrassed and I’m just like, but I have to just sit there with it. I offer to God, I’m praying silently, I’m breathing.
I have to just push through my insecurities and what I think is wrong with me, I have to name it. And when I name it I can begin to receive God’s reassurance. That’s the thing, God is so near to us. It’s as though before it’s even on our lips, God is there to offer us God’s comfort and reassurance. “I am with you, you are mine.” And if we can get in that space, we are free. And we will see and behold the glory of God in everything. We will be like Isaiah. We will behold awesome visions everywhere and in anything, and then when the time comes we will say “Here am I, send me!”. This is what awe does to us, this is what God is doing for, and in, and through us. Amen.