Dr. Preston Pouteaux is a bee keeper, author, and pastor in Alberta, Canada. His new book, The Bees of Rainbow Falls, is about finding faith, imagination, and delight in your neighborhood. In the chapter on “Awe,” there is a section entitled “People Are Sublime,” which is quoted below…
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For all the beauty of mountains and space, I am discovering that people are the most sublime.
Yes, strangely I’ve come to believe that boring, frustrating, and annoying humans are perhaps the pinnacle of all that is wonderful and good in the world.
This may be surprising to some; people seem to be so common. An hour stuck in traffic can almost make us feel like other humans are simply a part of the mundane fabric of the world around us, nowhere close to the breathtaking experience we think would be associated with awe.
Give yes mountains and beauty, not people. Stick with stars, birds, and bees. That’s the good stuff. Yet even from space, astronauts stare in awe at both the beauty and the fragility of the people too small to see. These mundane, boring, insignificant people may in fact ignite the highest sense of awe a person might experience.
I’ve often felt that mountains are not the pinnacle of beauty in the world, that they are not the most meaningful source of spiritual awe and satisfaction. Neither are bees, or birds, or stars. I leave the mountains with renewed life, but I return to my neighborhood and city to encounter the most stunning source of beauty in its most sublime form: people.
Eugene Peterson, a spiritual theologian who loves nature and beauty wrote that “Even a bare-bones human existence contains enough glory to stagger any one of us into bewildered awe.” Just by their very being, people proclaim something astonishing about the world we live in.
Not convinced? Read on.
Ani Binazir, an author and mathematician, was so astonished by how rare and beautiful people are that he wrote, in a whimsical article on the Harvard Law blog, about the chances of you and me coming into existence. He worked out the numbers and found that the mathematical likelihood of any person being born is about 1 in 102,685,000. According to Binazir, the chances of your mom and dad meeting were about 1 in 20,000, then figure in the chances of just the right combination of sperm and egg connecting on just the right day, and our numbers jump to about 1 in 400 quadrillion. Considering this had to happen just right across generations, while avoiding disease, war, famine, and you’ll see the sheer unlikeliness that you should even exist. It is simply staggering. Your chances of being here are about in in 102,685,000.
To get our head around that number, let’s consider that there are about this many atoms that make up planet earth:
133,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. That’s 133 with 48 zeros after it. But our number is so much bigger. Our number has millions of zeros after it. Enough zeros that you would need a bookshelf to contain all the zeros if they were written out on paper. Ali Binazir says, “So, what’s the probability of your existing? It’s the probability of 2 million people getting together – about the population of San Diego – each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided dice. They each roll the dice, and they all come up with the exact same number – say, 550,343,297,001.”
It is astonishing to think that the person reading this now (you!) are a rare, unique, utterly beautiful, mind-bindingly sublime person. You are handmade by God under conditions beyond our understanding. No mountain or telescope can compare to the sense of ‘awe’ that we should have when we think about the chances of our coming into existence. Without having accomplished so much as a breath, even babies command our attention, causing us to marvel in awe at God’s amazing creation.
Time and time again, people, like me, have been surprised to discover that the most beautiful thing they could discover is another person.
Vincent Van Gogh who famously painted stars and beauty in nature said “I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.” His love of nature brought him to a place where he could stand in awe of the people around him.
Humans, for all their flaws and brokenness, still carry within them this beautiful and strange truth: they are made in the image of God.
We reflect, in some mysterious way, qualities and characteristics of God. Generosity is a reflection of God’s character, and our neighbor embodies that every time they let you borrow their extra long ladder. There’s a very kind young boy who lives down our street. Every time I see the way he treats small kids and toddlers, I’m reminded that he’s’ reflecting God’s image every time he passes a soccer ball to one of the other kids. Nothing else in all of creation is described in the Bible in quite the way that people are. People best reflect the character and image of God, and some of those reflections are found right next door.
What does it mean to see others made in the image of God? Lewis B. Smedes said, “We must see every person as someone who lives each moment in relationship with God. We need to see the religious connection if we want to recognize essence of human sacredness. The concrete person, beautiful or ugly, productive or idle, smart or stupid, is the one God made, whom God loves, whose life is in God’s hands, and for whom his Son died on the cross. This is the person who walks humbly on the earth as the image and likeness of the Creator who made him.”
Whether it is a mountain, space, or the amazing uniqueness of people, we do not lack the inspiration for awe. All around us is a world, created by God, that stands on interactive display, declaring beauty, and showcasing the sublime. What is lacking is our ability to see and stand in awe of what is unfolding and blooming before us.
When we step out onto our front porch we often only see a row of houses, a few cars, and maybe that stray cat. We are hardly inspired to see our neighbors as anything other than mere people who live down our street. But when we begin to cultivate a sense of awe for the world around us, the people on our block begin to take on a new vibrancy.
Jesus’ command to love our neighbor sounds less like a duty and more like an invitation into relationship with God’s most astonishing, sublime creation.
Even wounded, used, and broken versions of God’s creation should draw out wordless awe from each of us. That kid who ran across your lawn is a one-of-a-kind, deeply loved, and adored person who was created in the image of God.
Be in awe of those around you and you’ll learn about the character and nature of God at work in you.