One of the Christmas time traditions my wife and I established with our children when they were young was looking at the Christmas lights around our community. Bundled up under blankets in our mini van (the twenty first century version of the horse-drawn sleigh) , the entire family would drive down one street and up another, seeing all the decorated houses in our neighborhood.
And people would go all out. Life-sized reindeer. Nativity scenes. Santas coming down chimneys. Snowmen with top hats and pipes. Candy canes lining people’s driveways. And lights. Lots and lots of lights. The more the lights, the more we’d “ooh” and “aah.” Then we’d drive back to our house and have hot cocoa.
It was in their third Christmas that my twins, Rachel and Paige, were old enough to really appreciate the event. And that they did. Through their little three year old eyes, our neighborhood was a magical and amazing place. Every house glowed like fresh baked gingerbread. Trees glistened like the moonlight on fresh-fallen snow. And everywhere there were lights, Rachel and Paige announced excitedly, “Ommagosh, it’s bootiful.”
It was extremely entertaining listening to them. They must have said it two hundred times. And every time they made this startling declaration, they really, really meant it. “Ommagosh, it’s bootiful.” “Ommagosh, it’s bootiful.” “Ommagosh! It’s bootiful!!!” I never got tired of hearing them say it. It was as if each street was a new adventure in awe and wonder.
I think we’ve forgotten what real awe is. Our high-tech, computer-generated, virtual-reality, angst-ridden dysfunctional world has taken much of the mystery and wonder out of life. Kids don’t look up at the clouds anymore and imagine bunnies and minnows; after all, they studied precipitation in third grade. They don’t take much time imagining dinosaurs; there are any number of movies out there that have imagined them for you already. Science—which teaches theory as fact and conjecture as theory—has erased all of the mysteries. Just ask any kid and they’ll tell you: the very mysteries of the universe are carefully and regularly explained in half hour segments on the Discovery Channel.
My sons aren’t nearly as impressed by the sight of a rainbow as I used to be when I was their age. Or as I am still.
Things I used to be in awe of when I was a little kid: Purple mountains. Big telescopes. Airplanes. Thunder. Pretty girls. Lighthouses. Big bass drums. Red fire trucks. Stoplights. Crossword puzzles. Our first color television. Walking on the moon. Snow. The doctor’s office. Police men. Sousaphones. The pyramids. Rockets. Big cities. The redwoods. The stars on a cloudless night sky.
Things I used to think were mysterious: The Teacher’s Lounge. Solar eclipses. Driving a car. The ocean. The adult section of the public library. Sharks. My big brother’s View Master slide viewer. Electricity. Slide rulers. Dinosaurs. Ships in bottles. Car engines. Women’s anatomy.
Make up your own list. Then ask your child to make up one. You’ll see what I mean. There is a reason why the song, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is a toddler favorite. Because wrapped up in six short lines is the awe and wonder of the universe.
I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church. And although I am a little more aligned with evangelicalism now, I have great respect for and warm recollections of my Catholic heritage. There was something about being in my church as a child. Sitting in the pew, being painted by the colored beams of light streaming through the stained glass. Watching the rows of lit candles dance. Kneeling on the cold white marble as I took communion, the kinesthetic symbolism of that white wafer melting on my tongue. These were powerful moments for me as a child, moments when I understood God in a visceral, unspeakable way. Somehow that seems lacking in the stripped down modern Christian tradition often experienced today. There is a lack of mystery, a lack of beauty, a lack of something, as if I were watching TV with the sound off, or eating a steak with a stuffy nose. The language of visual art and beauty are missing, or at least somewhat askew.
I remember there was a life-sized crucifix that hung center stage high above the altar. A statue of Jesus hung on that enormous cross. Eyes closed, his lean body limp and worn, a crown of thorns on His head, the pain and suffering and love pouring from his face, the statue was a longtime fixture in that church. And as such, it went largely ignored by the congregation. But it was there at the front of the church, upon marble steps, that I would kneel and stare up at this statue. And be in awe.
There in my little place, I would ponder God and the mystery of His grace. I would feel it, imagine it, sense it. As I saw the nails in His hands, I could almost hear the sound of the hammer. As I reflected on the crown of thorns, I could imagine the whips on His back. I pictured Jesus, placing Himself on the cross, opening His hands to accept the nails, fulfilling the promise. It was very surreal. And there was a real spiritual mystery to it too, that God the Son would do such a thing. How did He become man? Why would He choose to die like that? When will He return?
I remember I would pray, and my little prayers would just naturally stop, as my eyes continued to be drawn upward, to be in awe at the sight of Jesus on that cross.
Now I don’t bring this up in order to entertain a theological debate about statues and icons. But I think there is a truth here, and it is this: We humans were created to grapple with the mysteries of the universe, and to be in awe and wonder at the sight of them. There are places in our heart for feelings like this. We need to feel it, imagine it, sense it. About God. About His creation. Because the act of awe is inherent to the act of worship.
We need to put away our jaded glasses, our sour dispositions, our worldly pessimisms, and put ourselves in places where we can genuinely say, “Ommagosh, it’s bootiful.” We need to find the place in our hearts where we can be in awe. Because it fills our souls. It gives us hope. It reminds us of our place in the world. And it’s good practice. For those of us who declare that heaven is our real home, awe and wonder and mystery will be a regular part of life.
Things I am in awe of now: The stars. Art and music. The ocean. God’s grace.
[Originally a blog entry on this site, this is an excerpt from my book, Imagine That. I thought it would be appropriate to share it during this Christmas season.]