The Experience of Awe

I recently posted an entry from “Jim’s Online Journal,” which I used to share with a few close friends and family members in the days before blogging became so popular (by the way, I love the quote someone shared with me recently about blogging: “Never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few.”  True!).  But here’s another excerpt from that old journal that still seems fresh.  I hope you will enjoy it.


Thursday, July 30, 1998

Spirituality professor Glenn Hinson says that “the appropriate response to God is this”:  and then he lets his mouth fall open with an audible “plop” and stands in front of his class  for a full sixty seconds while his students first laugh and then begin to squirm uncomfortably before such a sustained expression of awe.

Today, two full days after my return from a backpacking trip to Montana’s awe-inspiring Bob Marshall Wilderness, my jaws are still sore from rounding all those bends in the trail and having my mouth fall open again and again.  What a place!  What breathtaking beauty!  In the same way I felt helpless to cram all that glory into a snapshot as I took pictures, I feel helpless to describe the experience in words, but here are a few black and white, monotone memories of a technicolor, surround-sound trip:

Day 2:  Trudging up endless switchbacks and through a dense pine forest to emerge, at last, by the edge of an alpine lake, its clear blue-green waters overshadowed by a craggy peak, flanked with snow, towering 3,000 feet above the surface of the lake.

Day 3:  Leaving my backpack behind and climbing some of the smaller peaks around Koessler Lake.  Scrambling up a near-vertical face and thrusting my arms into the air in a gesture of triumph at the peak.  Looking over the North edge of that peak at a sheer cliff wall dropping 2,000 feet into Lick Lake.  Climbing down and entering a broad, flat alpine meadow, dotted with red, blue, yellow, and white wildflowers, bursting into a baritone rendition of “The Sound of Music.”  Leaning back into the shade of a huge boulder, eating beef jerky and sipping mountain spring water, feeling my soul nourished.

Day 5:  Swimming in the cool, clear water of a secluded mountain lake.  Sitting on a warm, flat rock in the sunshine to dry off afterward.  Listening to the sound of water falling in fat drops from my elbows and fingertips and hearing absolutely nothing else.  Silence.  Silence.  Ahhhh!

There is, of course, much more to tell, but let me leave you with the image of my eyes fixed on Montana, my mouth hanging open in awe.  To quote William Willimon:  “God is large, and prickly, and . . . large.”


New Year’s Resolution

On Sunday I preached on that often-neglected passage from Luke 2 about the time the boy Jesus was left behind at the temple in Jerusalem.  It reminded me of the time my dad left my brother Scott behind at the library in Charleston, West Virginia—a 45-minute drive from our house.  But Scott didn’t seem to mind.  He loved books, and the library was his favorite place in the world.  If he had run away from home in those days we would have known just where to find him.

So I asked the congregation at the end of the sermon: “If you turned up missing in the next 24 hours, where would people begin to look for you?  And when they found you, and you asked them, “Where else would I be?” where would you be?  And is there any chance you would be here, in church, thinking the things of God?  And if not, then why not?  What has become more important to you than that?

It sounds kind of pushy when I see it in print, but in context it was mostly about what we love most in the world, followed by the question: if God is not at the top of that list then why not?  What has taken his place?  So I ended the sermon with the litany of renewal from John Wesley’s covenant service, in which he urged his congregations at the beginning of each new year to “wholly give themselves up to God, and to renew at every point their covenant that the Lord should be their God.”  The litany can be found in its entirety in my post from this time last year (“Those Methodists Mean Business!”), but I want to reprint the closing paragraph here.  Let me challenge you in the way I challenged the congregation on Sunday: if you can say “Amen” to these words then say it, and if you can’t then don’t.  But if you can say it, say it with all your heart, and let this new year be one in which you live out the terms of this covenant.

I give myself completely to you, God.
Assign me to my place in your creation.
Let me suffer for you.
Give me the work you would have me do.
Give me many tasks
Or have me step aside while you call others.
Put me forward or humble me.
Give me riches or let me live in poverty.
I freely give all that I am and all that I have to you.
And now, holy God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
You are mine and I am yours.  So be it.
May this covenant made on earth
continue for all eternity.


A Time to Dance

Christmas just isn’t Christmas until sheep form a conga line and begin dancing in celebration of the Savior’s birth, at least it’s not to He Qi, China’s most sought-after contemporary Christian artist.  It’s a good illustration of what I talked about at last night’s Christmas Eve service:

“There is a time to mourn,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes, but there is also “a time to dance.”  And if there is such a time don’t you think that this time, Christmas time, is it?  I can imagine God putting the Incarnation together like a father bolting a bicycle together on Christmas Eve, anticipating the look of delight in his child’s eyes.  He would want to keep it a secret, of course.  He wouldn’t want to give away the surprise too soon.  So he might choose a virgin from a little town in Galilee to bear this gift.  Who would ever guess?  And he might choose a stable in Bethlehem as the place to deliver this gift.  Who would ever imagine?  But then, when the gift arrived, he might be so excited about it that he would want the whole world to know, and the last thing he would want the world to do is recite a litany of celebration in a dull monotone.  No!  He would want the world to clap its hands, to burst into song, to do a few, quick dance steps.  And so instead of announcing the news of Christ’s birth to the pastor of the First Baptist Church he sends his angels to some shepherds, abiding in the fields by night.

He did it for two reasons, I think:  one, because he knew the shepherds would be awake, and two, because he knew the shepherds would know how to party, that the one thing they would be wondrously free from was inhibition.  So when the angel tells them something big is happening in Bethlehem they don’t say, “Well, we probably ought to stay here and keep an eye on the sheep.”  They say, “Let’s go!”  “And they made haste,” Luke says, they ran, they raced, they tripped over rocks and roots and stumbled through the door of the stable breathless, laughing, and suddenly struck dumb with wonder.  But they didn’t stay that way long.  When they left that place they apparently banged on windows and doors, woke up their neighbors to tell them good news of great joy:  “God is with us!  God is here!  Let’s have a party!”

Merry Christmas everyone.  May your stocking be full of hope, peace, joy, and love, and may you too be inspired to do something a little crazy for Jesus’ sake.


What Mary Read on the Way to Bethlehem

What does it mean to swaddle a baby?

Swaddling is the art of snugly wrapping your baby in a blanket for warmth and security. It can keep him from being disturbed by his own startle reflex, and it may even help him stay warm and toasty for the first few days of life until his internal thermostat kicks in. Most important, it can help to calm your baby.

Nowadays, you probably won’t leave the hospital without a little lesson in this technique. Try it, after you’ve made sure your baby isn’t hungry, wet, or tired. It can be used to help settle your baby down when he’s overstimulated or when he just needs to feel something close to the tightness and security of the womb.

Once your baby is about a month old you might want to stop swaddling him while he’s awake, as it may interfere with mobility and development in older babies. It’s fine to keep swaddling your baby for naps and nighttime if he seems to sleep better that way. He’ll let you know by crying or kicking when he no longer wants to be bundled up.

—text from the BabyCenter web site; image: Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Madonna and Child (1319).

Go in Your Closet and Cuss

Here’s another excerpt from an old journal (1998), with some advice I hope you won’t have to use during this holiday season.  If memory serves, the advice was inspired by a Glenn Hinson article on “Praying the Imprecatory Psalms”: the ones that ask God to smite our enemies and “break the teeth in their mouths” (Ps. 58:6).  Ouch!


On Tuesday I talked with an 83-year-old woman whose children have decided she can no longer live by herself.  I think they are right, but that doesn’t make it any easier for her.  She came to my study to confess that she couldn’t stop crying, couldn’t stop feeling angry.  “I know I shouldn’t feel this way,” she mumbled. 

“We can’t choose how we feel,” I said.  “Choosing is a head thing.  Feeling is a heart thing.  The best we can do is identify our feelings.  Right now you’re angry, and that’s OK.  You have reason to be angry.  Your life is changing without your permission.”

“Still . . . ” she said, meekly, “I shouldn’t feel this way.”

So I wrote a prescription.  I took a slip of paper out of my desk drawer and wrote:  “It’s OK to be angry,” and then I handed it to her.  She looked at it, puzzled, and said, “But I always thought it was a sin to be angry.”  “No,” I said, emphatically.  “Paul says in Ephesians 4:26, ‘Be angry (there’s plenty to be angry about), and yet do not sin,’ that is, do not let your anger lead you to hurt or hate someone.  It’s one thing to throw a can of green beans across the kitchen in anger, it’s another thing to throw a can of green beans across the kitchen at your daughter” (the one who is asking her to move).

She smiled then.  She could see the difference.  I pushed it a little further:  “Go on home and be mad for awhile if you need to.  Rip up a newspaper.  Spit on the floor.  Go in your closet and cuss.”

They didn’t teach us this in seminary.  And it may not be the best counsel I’ve ever given.  But I couldn’t help feeling that this woman would never get to the point of acceptance if she didn’t first get through her anger, and you don’t get through it by repressing it or denying it (like pressure cookers we all need to let off some steam from time to time or we’ll blow—the trick is to let it off harmlessly, without scalding anyone in the process).

My dear, 83-year-old, friend sat for awhile thinking about what I had said, and then rose and shook my hand.  When she left my study she was smiling, looking forward (I think) to spending some time in her closet.

All in a day’s work,