When I was a kid, growing up in the church, I heard a lot of phrases like: “Walk softly in the sanctuary.” “Talk quietly in the church.” “Be reverent” There was always a strong emphasis on reverence, (which basically just meant being quiet). I have since learned reverence is so much more than that. I can certainly respect the intentions, I believe mostly good, of drawing ones attention to the holiness of God, and to revere it. But real awe and reverence cannot be mandated, or forced. It is natural response when ordinary meets extraordinary. When natural meets supernatural. When our filthiness collides with His holiness. When our finite meets His infinite. When we know we should be thrown out with the evening garbage, but instead we are treasured. This is why when Isaiah gets a glimpse of God, “At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. He cries out “Woe to me!” “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:4–5). The angels did not have to tell Isaiah to “shush.” No one likes to be shushed. The angels did not have to tell Isaiah to be in awe. When Isaiah saw heaven he was in awe.
Frederick Buechner expounds on “awe” in his book, “Whistling in the Dark” He tells the story of seeing redwood trees for the first time. “There were some small children nearby, giggling and chattering and pushing each other. Nobody had to tell them to quiet down as we entered. They quieted down all by themselves. Everybody did. You could not hear a sound of any kind.
Two or three hundred feet high the redwoods stood. You had to crane your neck back as far as it would go to see the leaves at the top. They made their own twilight out of the bright California day. There was a stillness and stateliness about them that seemed to become part of you as you stood there stunned by the sight of them. They had been growing in that place for going on two thousand years. With infinite care they were growing even now. You could feel them doing it. They made you realize that all your life you had been mistaken. Oaks and ashes, maples and chestnuts and elms you had seen for as long as you can remember, but never until this moment had you so much as dreamed what a tree really was.
‘Behold the man’, pilot said when he led Jesus out where everybody could see him. He can’t have been much to look at after what they’d done to him by then, but my guess is that, even so, there suddenly fell over that mob a silence as awed as ours in the forest when for the first time in their lives they found themselves looking at a Human Being” (1).
I believe if we focused more energy and time on creating an atmosphere that is awe-inspiring, instead of cold and boring, we’d see more of the reverence we keep soliciting. That maybe the reason the congregation is not singing is because the people leading the songs are not inspired, or inspiring. Maybe if the preachers stopped getting on their soapboxes and started pointing to the attractions of Jesus more people would be left speechless. People would find themselves in awe as they gain a glimpse of God, for perhaps the first time. If a redwood tree can leave you in awe, imagine what a peek of the one who created the redwoods would do. I want to see people so, utterly, taken back by the church’s love for them that you can hear a pin drop. That’s the kind of reverence I want. Not the kind that is mandated or forced, but the kind that leaves you breathless, wanting more. Where the details of the program are lost in the absolute radiance of the person, Jesus Christ! Then we can join in with the seraphim and say, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Isaiah 6:3
- Buechner, Frederick,“Whistling in the Dark” Harper and Row