Monthly Archives: July 2017

Whence comes all this beauty. 1 Chron. 16:29

We are having a really frightful time of it, beloved. It seems as if lately the shocks just keep on coming—Boom! Boom! Boom!—one right after another, and you and I are forced to seek out whatever shelter we can find from the shocking venality of our government, from the appalling vulgarity of our public discourse, from our muddled, messed up lives. So in this frightful time what comfort is available to us?

Well, none at all, if we choose to focus our attention on the nasty business that confronts us daily in the newspapers and on television.  If we set our eyes on the destruction of the natural world upon which humanity seems so hell-bent, or if we listen only to the “organ concert” of our infirmities and diseases, there would indeed no hope. Ugliness—moral and physical–is inescapable. But if we make a decision to see it, the beautiful is also all around us. Whether we find the comfort that it offers is up to us to decide; whether to see the world as a hideous mess or suffused with eternal grace depends upon whether our eyes are really open.

There is a wonderful passage about—of all things—the flowers in “The Naval Treaty” by Arthur Conan Doyle. In the midst of solving a particularly puzzling case, the author has Sherlock Holmes pause to indulge in a very uncharacteristic meditation:

“He walked past the couch to the open window and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, [says Dr. Watson, Holmes’ fictional biographer] for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.

“‘There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as religion,’ said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.’”

So what hope does the great detective derive from the rose? In practical terms its beauty is useless–useless but not meaningless. It is “an extra”—not a necessity but “an embellishment of life,” a necessary unnecessary. It will not feed us or satisfy any of our ordinary physical needs or desires, but its beauty is a powerful sign of something beyond itself. It is not good for anything, it is good in itself and its goodness comes from outside itself, from what Sherlock calls “the goodness of Providence.”

It is a glimpse into another world which makes sense of this one. If our eyes are really open we cannot help but ask—Whence comes all this beauty? In the Nicene Creed we profess our faith in the God who is the maker of all things, “seen and unseen.” The real world—the night sky, the birds, the flowers–transmits the beauty of the unseen world behind it, the Really Real, where this world’s meaning is revealed. We presently see it “through a glass, darkly,” as St. Paul writes,  but it holds the promise that that eventually we will see that meaning “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

If I were given a choice among all the most beautiful places I have ever been, I would choose Sainte Chapelle in Paris. It was the chapel of the early French kings, and it contains the most extensive collection of 13th century glass in the world. The effect of the sun shining through those windows into the gilded interior of the chapel is nothing short of heavenly. But the guide will tell you that the chapel was used as an administrative office during the French Revolution, when its windows were obscured by enormous filing cabinets. The cabinets both hid them and saved them. And in the same way our view of the beautiful is often obscured by the ugly realities of our human situation. The light behind the windows, however, continues to shine.

It shines whether we see it or not. Beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder—it comes from somewhere else, beyond the world of the things it illuminates. Evil does its best to soil and destroy it, and it often succeeds. But beauty is both fragile as a rose and as tough and resilient as the roots of wisteria vines which cannot be rooted out. It keeps coming back and back and back for more. It no sooner does it die in one place than it breaks through somewhere else.

At this stage of my life my calling, as I see it, is to give hope to the perplexed—most particularly to myself–and encouragement in a world that seems to have gone mad. Hope for what exactly? Hope that things that currently seem to be falling apart will eventually come together in a more harmonious form. Beauty is a product of fitness and rightness in nature and art, every part of something working together to make a graceful whole. That’s what beauty is. A rose. A sunset. A common butterfly. A rare bird’s wing. The windows of Sainte Chapelle. A concerto for strings played there. It makes no difference. And to those who see it and give thanks for it, the beautiful offers the promise that things can and will someday work together that way, in harmony. And  that which seems to be falling part is really coming together in a more apt and fitting whole.

But we are helpless to make that happen, beloved. On one level you and I are called to change things, but the beautiful silently it asks us–Can you separate what is precious from the desire to possess it? Can you smell the rose without plucking it? Can you let it bloom on the bush? Can you be patient and let God, the original artist, finish his work? Can you be content to wait until the Really Real is fully revealed? The beautiful is a glimpse of that a transformed world. It is, like goodness and truth, a form that eternal grace takes. Without it this world would be hell, beloved, but filled to over-bursting with beauty, it indeed gives us “much to hope for.”

 

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Loving our Neighbor in Contentious Times

Jesus said: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
One of the ugliest aspects of the contentious time in which we find ourselves is the strong, indeed overmastering encouragement it gives us to detest those with whom we disagree politically. America is in fact two nations, one to the left of center, the other to the right, and there is no foreign power each detests as deeply the other. We have become the enemies of ourselves, beloved.
Of course, vehement differences of political opinion are nothing new. America always has been a polarized society–our two-party system is based upon that reality. But under this present administration the two-edged sword of partisan politics has been honed to a razor’s edge, while our public discourse has fallen to a new level of coarseness. Respect for government has vanished. And should we be surprised? When the one who occupies the highest office in the land uses that office to excoriate and ridicule his enemies, both real and imagined, in the most vulgar and cruel ways, how great is the temptation for all of us who differ from him to see the Abomination of Desolation set up in the White House and to demonize those who support him.
And there, you see. Off I go. I am as guilty as any. It is part of the profound tragedy of our American moment that the present administration has imparted its chaotic and vitriolic character to the whole nation, beloved. As a nation and as individuals we act as if we have received permission to be our worst selves. Yet in our hearts you and I both know that this is not right, let alone righteous. The loathing and denigration of others stand in opposition to the law of love that Jesus taught and lived. Such may be common currency these days, but they are still profoundly anti-Christ.
So what should we do, beloved, for the sake of our souls? If you have dealt with the problem to your own satisfaction I hope it goes well for you. But I myself am perplexed. And it is not enough to tell myself that detestation of those from whom we differ is nothing new. It comes as naturally to us as having beliefs and opinions to despise those who ridicule them. And for me it makes it no easier that on the crucial matters that face our nation and our world–health care, human rights and climate change–I firmly believe that I am right. But my sense of my own rightness only throws fuel for the fire. It may come naturally to detest as we are detested, to loathe as we are loathed. But the Lord summons those of us who call upon his name and want to be called by it to live beyond and above what comes naturally.
“Love one another. . . . By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Like all the commands of Christ, love it is not impossible, if you understand it concretely and practically, as a matter of doing rather than feeling. Back home in North Dakota my father was a yellow dog Democrat, and yet his best friends were the dyed-in-the-wool Republicans who lived around us. When they met after church or on the street they talked about the weather and the crops. They all knew each other’s political opinions, but they suffered and rejoiced together. They helped each other. They respected one another. The struggled together against the powers and the elements. They were neighbors, and they rose above politics to regard each other as such. They made a decision to live in unity. And dispassionate civility of that kind is a gift of divine grace, beloved, coming directly from the Holy Spirit.
But things were different fifty years ago. In our time when truth is so degraded by fake news and civility so compromised by the power of a bad example, it may no longer be possible to practice that that kind of enlightened detachment. With the issues of immigration, health care, the equality of rich and poor before the law, and the warming of our planet pressing in upon us, it may be morally impossible to remain silent and inwardly seethe. We live in an apocalyptic moment, at the end of something and the beginning of something else. This is time to tell the truth and live the truth you tell. In such times, writes the prophet Joel, “your sons and daughters will all prophesy, your old men will see dream dreams, and your young men will see visions” (2:28).
How you go about living prophetically is a matter for you and Holy Spirit to decide. For myself, this writing is a start. And furthermore I have decided to examine some of the more divisive issues coolly and without passion, issues that I had once considered closed, to see them in their complexity, recognizing that people of intelligence and sound conscience come down on both sides with great furor.
Abortion, for instance. No other issue cuts so deeply to the center of what we believe and no other issue stirs more dissention between right and left. But if we are pro-choice, while affirming a woman’s control over her own body, we need to consider the creeping—and creepy—technology-driven nightmare of eugenics. What is the next step beyond freedom? A more profound bondage? Do we really want to live in a world where imperfect fetuses are routinely culled?
And if you oppose abortion as a choice, if you are pro-life, have you considered what you would do if your daughter or grand-daughter–sixteen years old say—were being forced to give birth to an unwanted child. And what if that child were the result of rape? Or if the fetus were already dead in the womb? What then? Would your emotional and theological arguments melt like lemon drops in the heat of the situation?
Life is complicated, beloved. The truth is complex, more complex than anyone can conceive. And no one is completely right about anything. It is the recognition of that simple fact that forms the foundation of the kind of human connection the risen Lord is talking about when he commands us to love one another. He calls us to approach each other, even those from whom we differ most deeply, with a measure of Christ-like humility and treat them with a courtesy that has become uncommon in our time.
But at the same time we are summoned out of the world to tell the truth with boldness. There is the greatest spiritual danger in surrendering one’s own sense of the right and maintaining an angry silence. We each have a prophetic role to play. In this regard the collect we prayed in church a few weeks ago impressed itself upon me: “Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion…”
Boldness and compassion–that is not easy tension to live in, but that is what love means in this time and place, not a childish affection but a difficult decision. We may be solely tempted to detest those from whom we differ in this deeply polarized nation. But at the same time we need to recognize that to have compassion on those who differ from us is to have compassion on ourselves. We are all what we are–trapped in this corrupt human nature. But that does not nullify to call to righteousness, to speak the truth with boldness and to live above the standards of a debased and soiled world.

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