I See Beauty

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Sep 9

Nothing lasts forever

About two months ago, I bought a “new” car. A white 2002 Volkswagen Jetta I named Rosalind. She was beautiful. Her heated leather seats kept me warm on cold mornings, her CD player kept me company on long drives, and her sunroof made the evening commute just a bit more enjoyable. I worked hard to take good care of her, making sure she got a bath every few weeks, checking her oil before road trips, vacuuming sand off her seats after a weekend at the beach. It was love.

Then, a few weeks ago, it all came to a sudden end. At the risk of making myself sound like a bad driver, I’ll spare you the details and just say that Rosalind was attacked (almost literally) by a median and totaled. I was heartbroken.

A few days after the accident, while I was still dealing with frustration and, I’ll admit it, a bit of anger, I remembered the words that Job speaks immediately after learning that everything he owns — his livestock, his house, and his children — are gone. The New Living Translation phrases his reply this way: “The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord.”

Every time I read this, I’m blown away by Job’s response. And as I thought about these words after losing my car, they actually brought me comfort. You see, Job’s not pointing the finger at God here. Rather, he’s recognizing God’s divine sovereignty. And he’s acknowledging that everything he owned came from the hand of God. Even with his world shattered, he chose to trust — and worship — God.

And by God’s grace, that’s what I’m doing too. You see, when life doesn’t go our way, we have the same choices Job did. We can blame God and decide that he’s out to get us or that he doesn’t care about our circumstances. Or, we can acknowledge that he is sovereign in all things and trust in his goodness

I’m comforted by joining Job in saying, “The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away,” because this declaration takes the power away from my possessions. It affirms that my trust is completely in God, whose goodness has proven unfailing — even in the midst of this situation.

 God protected me and my passenger, he’s supplied the means for me to replace Rosalind, and he’s provided me with generous friends who are kind enough to lend me a vehicle while I car shop.

Rosalind wasn’t going to last forever. Accident or not, she was only temporary. And while I’m still bummed that she’s gone, I’m thankful that God used this situation to remind me that nothing I have is permanent. Living in this reality is actually freeing. It’s liberating, because it means that this situation doesn’t have the power to make or break me, and it reminds me that I live for something greater than temporal possessions — I live for a God whose goodness never fails.

Aug 2

Acting like a child

Neoteny

Derived from the Greek word neos, meaning new, fresh or youthful. Neoteny is the retention of youthful qualities by adults.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about joy. And what I’ve started to notice is that mine has gone missing. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but somewhere between the social stresses of high school, the emotional strain of college, and the physical challenges I’ve faced in recent years, the joy I once had simply dried up.

And I did have joy. It’s fresh enough in my mind that I can still get high off the memory — if only for an instant. As a child, my nickname was Joyful Jessie — and not just because it formed a nice alliteration. God had gifted me with genuine joy. But somewhere along the journey of life, I let the enemy steal it away.

There are a lot of things I miss about being a kid, but I think that genuine joy is one of the things I miss the most. And there’s a reason for that. We weren’t made to give up our joy. God designed joy to get us through the rough times. But all too often when the rough times come, the first thing we do is abandon our joy. And it’s a shame. It’s a shame because God has so much more for us.

You see, there’s something about a lack of joy that keeps us from telling great stories with our lives. In his book, In a Pit With a Lion on a Snow Day, Mark Batterson talks about this idea of neoteny, which he says, “isn’t just a nice concept about people who age well or lead well. [It] is at the very heart of what the kingdom of God is all about.”

This retention of youthful qualities is critical to our walk with Christ because kids look at things differently. They don’t let the can’ts and shouldn’ts get in the way of their dreams. And they don’t let life’s struggles steal their joy. Sure, they might experience unhappiness, but they have this optimism — this underlying hope that the world is truly beautiful. They may not express it in those words, but that’s their general approach to life.

No wonder Jesus told us to come to him as children. He knew this was the only way we’d be able to fully live in the joy he has to offer. He didn’t mean for us to be immature or overly optimistic, but he wasn’t suggesting that we be cynical either. Cynicism kills joy. It often feels practical and realistic, but it’s actually not the most effective — or enjoyable — way to go through life.

You see, the beautiful thing is that when we’re following Christ, childlike joy is not just optimism — it’s faith. It’s belief that even when we don’t understand what’s going on, God does. And there’s all kinds of joy to be found in that — even for a recovering cynic like myself.  

Getting off the couch

Resistance, community, and acting 3 years old

Couple of weeks ago, I was babysitting a 3 year old, and when I told him it was time for bed, he responded in typical 3-year-old fashion, informing me that he wasn’t tired. I told him we were going to get ready for bed anyway, and it wasn’t long before he was protesting through tears, “I’m not tired. I’m not tired.”

As I took him upstairs, I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself — not because I get some sort of sick enjoyment out of making crying children go to bed, but rather because I found it amusing that the amount of emotion he displayed actually revealed the opposite of what he wanted me to believe. Those freefalling tears told me just how tired he really was.

And then I realized that this is a lot like life: the things we desperately need are often those we resist most strongly.

I’ve spent a great many years convincing myself that I’m okay without deep relationships — that I don’t need to bother with the difficult, terrifying act of seeking community. After all, I am an introvert by nature. And I’m quite independent. Why would I need anyone else?

 I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been the metaphorical three-year-old, curled up on the couch in the comfort of my own home, adamantly insisting that I don’t need to let anyone into to my life, all the while knowing that deep down, that’s exactly what I want.

As humans, we’re hard-wired for community. There something in us that craves to be known. The longer we resist this, the more singular and out of touch we’ll become. Trust me, I know. But by the grace of God, I found the courage to get off the couch and seek relationships. And slowly, I’m learning what it means to live in community.

And it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful because community means being in relationship with people who aren’t like us — people we may not always agree with or understand. We can only teach ourselves so much, and the things we can learn from people just like us and greatly limited. We need to be around people who look at life from a different angle. That’s one reason for community. And it’s one of the reasons I’m grateful for the people God’s placed in my life — many of them people I would never have guessed I’d become friends with.  

Are there still days when I resist community, when it feels easier — or even more natural — to keep to myself? Sure there are. But the more I allow myself to enter into relationship, the more beautiful I’m finding it to be — and the more I’m realizing how much I need it. Kind of makes me want to start embracing more of the things I try to resist.

Jul 8

I love how sometimes God gives us little unexpected gifts — things we don’t necessarily need but that He knows we’ll enjoy.

A few weeks ago I took a road trip to the beach with a lifelong friend, and the entire weekend ended up being one of those unexpected gifts. The weather forecast was dismal, but we didn’t see a drop of rain, we were able to spend hours reading on the beach, and we made many wonderful memories. It all makes me increasingly thankful for friendship — and for a God who cares about the small things.

The heart of the Creator

The beautiful is as useful as the useful … More so, perhaps.

—Monseigneur Bienvenu, Les Miserables

When was the last time you looked at a vibrantly colored spring flower, the snow just covering the peak of a mountain, or the pattern made by clouds in the sky and simply asked “why?” Why so much detail, so much variety? It’s breathtaking, but if you think about it on a strictly pragmatic level, it’s also unnecessary. Wouldn’t the world turn at exactly the same speed if all the flowers were an identical shade of orange?  

Why is the quintessential question every creator must wrestle with before he or she can make truly good art. Why write poetry? Why paint murals? Why craft elaborate sculptures? In a world full of injustice and evil, wouldn’t our time be better spent feeding the hungry? Bandaging the wounded? Standing up to tyrannical governments?

There’s certainly a case to be made for this, and it might be valid if stomachs were the only things that needed to be fed, if the only wounds that needed ointment were those of the flesh, and if tyrannical dictators were the sole forces of evil. But it’s precisely because we live in a world full of injustice and evil that we need art. There’s something in our souls that cries for beauty. God knew this. That’s why he created our world with variety — with the hand of an artist worried about craftsmanship and beauty, not just functionality. And the part in each of us that longs to create is indeed evidence that we are created in God’s image.   

Yes, we must attend to the physical needs of those around us, but we shouldn’t do so to the peril of their spiritual needs. That’s what art and beauty are for. If anything is going to feed hungry souls, soothe emotional wounds, and overcome evil forces it’s beauty. It’s art. It’s creation reflecting the heart of the Creator.

Jun 3

Speaking of courage

I don’t know about you, but it’s not often I see a movie twice while it’s in the theater and then rush out and buy it the week it’s released on DVD. But that’s exactly what I did with "The King’s Speech." And when I watched it again this last week, I enjoyed it just as much as the first few times. Simply put, it’s brilliant. It’s well-written, it’s well-directed, and the acting is spectacular.

After watching it again, I started thinking about what it is that makes the story — not just the movie, but the story itself — so good. After all, the best actors, writers, and producers are only as good as the stories they have to work with.

My favorite writer, Donald Miller, always says that a story is about a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. For a story to be good, these elements must be clear — and I don’t think they’re hard to find in “The King’s Speech.” The Duke of York wants to speak publicly without stammering, and he overcomes a host of challenges — including an unforeseen “promotion” to king — before conquering not only his stammer, but more importantly, his self-doubt.

And as I thought about this story “formula” and how it plays out in “The King’s Speech,” there was one word I couldn’t get out of my mind: courage.

There’s a lot I love about his movie, but I think one of the things that makes it so great is that you have a vastly underestimated guy standing up to a whole slew of things he doesn’t want to face. He doesn’t want to face the public. He doesn’t want to face his stammer. He doesn’t want to become king. And he most certainly doesn’t want to speak for the nation in a time of war. But these are the issues in his path. And instead of running away, he stands up and he deals with them head on.

That takes courage. Loads of it.

Bertie (as the therapist, Lionel, fondly calls the Duke) would have loved to hide. In fact, he tells Lionel that were he not of royal blood, he would not be seeking help — he and his stammer would be confined to the privacy of his own home. But Bertie had a greater calling on his life. And to fulfill that calling, he had to face his fears.

There’s something intensely beautiful about finding the courage to face the things that haunt us — the things we’d like to change about ourselves, the circumstances we wish were different, or the people we’d rather just ignore. And I think what makes this so beautiful is that it means we’re doing something bigger than ourselves. We’re doing something that defies the odds. Something that people don’t think we can do — something that we might not think we can do. That’s what courage is all about.  

What is it that you don’t want to face? What is it that you’re afraid of — that you think you can’t do? And, more importantly, what greater calling might you be missing out on if you don’t face those fears?

I’ve got some things in my life that I’d rather not face. But I’m slowly doing it. Through God’s grace, I find a bit more courage every day. And I’m learning something in the process — something I think Bertie learned too. It’s easy to hole up at home with our problems. But it’s not very productive. We won’t be better off, and neither will anyone else. The best stories are the stories told with courage.

So forgive my cynicism, but I’m often skeptical of mainstream contemporary Christian songs because I feel like many of them just repeat Christian cliches without saying anything new. But when I stumbled across this song last week, it almost made me cry (and if you know me, I don’t cry) because it said something so real—something that I don’t think is said enough. And it’s something God’s been teaching me over the past few months.

We seek comfort, health, and prosperity. When these things are lacking, we often question God’s presence and involvement in our lives. But what I’ve been learning—and what we see throughout the Bible—is that it’s often during these times that God is doing the most in our lives—even if we can’t see him. And that’s why, more and more, I’m beginning to see the beauty in suffering.

Just a child in need

Today, I’m thankful for health. But I’m also particularly thankful for the days when my health isn’t exactly up to par. I’ve had several of those lately, and they’ve been teaching me something about faith.

You see, after two months of dealing with ongoing acid reflux, I was forced to question my faith in God’s healing. And what I discovered was that, while I fully believe God can and does heal people, I often struggle to believe that he will heal me.

I was praying about this on the drive to work last week, and it got me thinking about this story in the New Testament where a Roman Centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant who is near death. The centurion sends a message to Jesus, telling Him that He doesn’t even have to come to his house: “Just say the word, and my servant will be healed.” That’s when the Bible tells us that Jesus was actually amazed at this guy’s faith.

“I want that kind of faith,” I told God. “But I know that’s not where I’m at.” And that’s when God did something awesome. Just a day later, a coworker brought up this same story in devotions at work. And he posed the same question I’d been pondering for the past 24 hours: “What do we do when we don’t have faith?”  

In answer, he read one of my favorite stories from the New Testament. There’s a father who comes to Jesus seeking healing for his demon-possessed son. When asked if he believes Jesus has the power to heal his son, the man tells Jesus, “I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.” I’ve always loved this story, because I think it’s beautiful that we can be this open with God. We can tell him, “I want to believe, but I’m having a hard time. I want to have faith, but I need you to increase it.”

So I prayed that. And then that night while I spent time with my church community, God reminded me of something else that’s beautiful about faith. It doesn’t have to be complicated. The 9-year-old girl sitting next to me on the couch offered up a heart-felt prayer — just telling God what was on her heart, trusting that in His goodness he would hear — and as I listened to her, it was as if God said, “it’s that simple.”

I complicate things. I rationalize. I tell myself why I don’t deserve healing, or I look to medicine and science. And God knew I would do this. He knew we would do this. That’s why he told us to come to him as children.  

Today, my health is improving. But more importantly, my faith is growing. I still have a long ways to go, but at least — like the man who needed healing for his son — I’m aware of that. And that’s why I’m thankful for the days when I don’t feel so hot. They remind me that really, I’m just a child in need of good God.

Breakfast

“For eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably.”

—C.S. Lewis

Taste and see

So I’ve been into pears lately — eating one almost every day. And a few days ago, I had one that was at the perfect stage in the ripening process. The flavor was amazing. The texture was perfect. It was one of those pears where the juice drips down your chin, but it tastes so good that you don’t even care. And that’s when I realized something about flavor — something that’s also true about color and beauty and art. And it’s this: none of it is actually new.

The thing about this pear was not only that it was so good, but also that it reminded me of my favorite Jelly Belly flavor as a kid. And I thought how amazing it was that they captured the flavor of a pear so accurately. And that’s when it hit me that nothing we do — nothing we make — is new. The Jelly Belly flavor I loved as a child wouldn’t have been created if the flavor of an actual pear hadn’t preceded it.

Like I said, we like to think we’ve created new things. A chef can come up with a “new” flavor and an artist with a “new” color, but find a well-trained pallet and a sharp eye and you’ll be able to pick out the spices that went into the dish and the colors that were mixed for the painting.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to taste a completely new flavor — one that had no hints of any other taste here on earth? Or to see a color that was nothing like the ones that fill our landscape every day? Really, it’s beyond our imagination. God has given humans loads of creativity, but we’re still limited. We’re limited to the colors, the flavors, and the tools that God has given us.

I love this, because it says something about God and about us. It tells us that God is the only true creator, and it reminds us that all our attempts to create are only reflections — mere glimpses — of God. And all this makes me think about heaven. If God is the only one who can make things that are new, what’s heaven going to be like? I like to think that heaven will be full of completely new things. Colors we’ve never dreamed of. Flavors we can’t describe. Sounds and smells we have no words for. If we can taste and see God’s goodness now, what will it be like in heaven?