Moments of awe and wonder

Lake Erie sunset

As the sun slid slowly toward the horizon, the clouds above and the lake below sparkled in brilliant, changing colors. I was back home in Cleveland for a few days this week and went to the beach to watch a sunset.

It had been a long time since I experienced one of my favorite things.

There’s something about standing on a beach at sunset that makes me feel both very small and very important at the same time. Being connected to the sky, the water and the earth gives me a sense of belonging and gratitude.

Others walked along the beach and splashed in the waves as the sunset performed its magic. I stood there and watched with a sense of wonder and awe.

All I could think was: Wow!!! Just wow!

When the sun slipped below the horizon and the sky’s colors started dimming into shades of gray, I turned and headed away. And I asked myself why I don’t do this more often.

The sun rises and sets every day in such spectacular ways. Why don’t I pay more attention?

Caught up in wonder

I’m bad at math, but by my calculation I’ve been given the gift of 22,570 sunsets and sunrises in my lifetime. Think of that – more than 22,000! Yet, how many of them have I actually noticed?

Very few, to be honest. I get so busy and caught up in the everydayness of life that I don’t remember to stop what I’m doing, look up and go: Wow!

And I’m the one missing out.

Deeply spiritual people remind us that those moments of awe and wonder bring us an experience of the Creator as well as the amazing creation. Such moments are drenched in holiness. They’re always right with us and available to us; we just need to notice them and allow ourselves to be swept away by them.

Why don’t we do it more often?

One of my favorite quotes from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is a reminder that such moments are at the core of what it means to be truly alive.

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement … get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted,” the rabbi wrote. “Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible. Never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

And those moments aren’t just individual experiences, either.

Such sacred moments

A few years ago, I was walking along Siesta Key in Florida as the sun was setting and transforming the color of everything around it. Perhaps a couple hundred people were enjoying the beach sunset with me.

Some of them were jogging. Others walked along listening to their music. Each of us was in our own little world, caught up in our own thoughts, doing our own thing.

People ahead of me stopped in place and started pointing toward the gulf. I stopped and looked as well. A pod of dolphins was playing in the sunset-tinged waves, splashing about in a way that made you smile.

Soon, most of the people on the beach had stopped to watch and talk to one another and marvel. It was a true “awe” moment that made you go: Wow! Look at that!

This diverse group of people – different ages, different backgrounds, different religions, different political outlooks – stood on the beach together and shared a collective moment of wonder. Strangers smiled at one another and talked to each other.

Our sense of awe overcame our differences and brought us together. It was a sacred moment in every sense.

We need more of those moments, don’t we?

Our collective awe

There’s so much frustration and division in our societies. It’s easy to feel like nothing can bring us back together and help us remove the walls and artificial divides we’ve spent so much time and so much energy erecting.

Maybe one way to do it is to get our heads out of the busyness of our daily lives and make ourselves aware of the wonder all around us. Allow ourselves to get caught up in the bright blessed days and dark sacred nights, as Louis Armstrong described them.

As we do, we’ll get the attention of the person next to us – the one who might feel so alienated from us – and simply say: Wow! Look at that! Aren’t we blessed to be able to experience this together?

Our shared sense of awe can humble us and reconnect us.

On the eighth day …

Sunset now

There’s a misconception that creation is a done deal, some grand project that God polished off in six figurative days. And then, with nothing left to do, God called it a day and got some rest.

Nothing is further from the truth.

The seventh day was followed by the eighth day of creation. And the second week. And month. And year.

And now.

Creation is an ongoing act, and God isn’t going it alone. That divine creativity is woven into our DNA. We’re active participants, chosen to be co-creators for our little chunk of the universe.

It’s good to remind ourselves of that responsibility this weekend and to spend some time thinking about what we’re doing to the world that God entrusted into our care.

Are we taking seriously the job that is ours individually and collectively? Are we treating all of creation as something sacred, or are we acting as though God’s handiwork doesn’t matter?

Many people don’t give it much thought. Some think that we should do whatever we wish to our world because we have “dominion” over it, which is a total misreading of our role.

The divine directive

Giving us dominion gives us direct responsibility to care and protect. That’s the point driven home from the beginning – we’re expected to conserve our world and nurture it.

Some of the most poetic and beautiful writing about creation is found in the Hebrew scriptures. The creation stories aren’t meant to be science or history or journalism; none of those things was around when Genesis was written. Rather, the stories are more parables meant to remind us of our connections to everything, including the creator.

The first story reminds us that our creator loves diversity – it’s a reflection of the divine spirit. God doesn’t just make one type of anything, but many variations of everything, including us.

We need to be attentive to respecting, fostering, celebrating and encouraging our great diversity.

The second creation story presents us with the wonderful image of humans beings being made from a scoop of earth. We’re not separate from the earth but derive from it, which makes us one with it. To desecrate the earth is to desecrate ourselves as well.

The second creation story also reminds us that we’re joined intimately not only to the earth, but to each other. We’re joined at the ribs, so to speak, and we are animated by the same divine breath.

The stories remind us that all of creation is interwoven, and we’re given responsibility to nurture it. We are caretakers for creation, and caregivers for one another. To trash either the earth or another person is the ultimate profanity.

Never about us alone

This point gets driven home even more directly in another familiar tale later in Genesis. Noah is instructed to care not only for his human family, but all the animals on the ark. The lives of the animals matter as much as his own.

And when the floods recede, God makes a covenant not only with humans – again, it’s never about us alone — but with the animals as well. We’re all in a covenantal relationship, everyone and everything all together.

That covenant remains intact today.

We’re still on the ark called Earth, entrusted with caring for all of creation as extensions of God’s creative hands and loving heart.

So this weekend, let’s remember our responsibility and renew our commitment to one another and to all of creation. Let’s never think of God’s beautiful world – something very good that was entrusted to all of us together – as something we have a right to abuse or desecrate.

Caring for all of creation isn’t optional. It’s a divine directive.

And let’s remember, too, that the earth’s bounty is for all. Nobody has a monopoly or a claim on any part of it. It’s a gift given freely for all to share. We need to treat it as such.

It’s the eighth day. What kind of world are we creating?