Sunday, February 28, 2016

After the Ashes: Beauty

Last Saturday I had the good fortune to see Max McLean’s one-man show, The Most Reluctant Convert, the story of C. S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. In it, McLean recounts a brief moment from Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, a first, fleeing glimpse of beauty:
my brother brought into the nursery the lid of a biscuit tin which he had covered with moss and garnished with twigs and flowers so as to make it a toy garden or a toy forest. That was the first beauty I ever knew. 
It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton's 'enormous bliss' of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to 'enormous') comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?...Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse... withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.... 
That glimpse of beauty, fragile, fleeting, quickly withdrawn, called to Lewis across decades and became part of an inward quest.

The mention of the childhood garden set me wondering about my own childhood glimpses of beauty and brought me to James Baldwin’s very different, yet somehow similar memory:
When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty? For black people, though I am aware that some of us, black and white, do not know it yet, are very beautiful. And when I sat at Elijah's table and watched the baby, the women, and the men, and we talked about God's – or Allah's – vengeance, I wondered, when that vengeance was achieved, What will happen to all that beauty then?  
Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins struggled with this throughout his short life (he was thirty-four when he died). What will happen to all that beauty?  A pair of challenging poems, The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo, address the question head on:
HOW to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such,
nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace,
láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty
My Lenten discipline this year is to focus my heart on things that will last, treasures that will remain after whatever “vengeance,” as Baldwin called it, is achieved, after the fire of human fury, or folly, or environmental destruction.

This week’s word and work is beauty.

Not an easy word to track.

Turning to Hebrew and Greek lexicons, I find over 20 very different words translated sometimes as “beauty” or “beautiful," but carrying literal meanings like pleasant, dignified, adorned, sweet, delightful, precious, boastful, arrogant, glorious, vigorous; “scraped of all impurity”.

I wrote of one word translated “beautiful” several years ago: Towb. It’s used in Genesis One, when God looks at creation and said it’s “good.” That word “good” is an astonishing flattening of a word that could be interpreted beautiful, sweet, pleasing, happy, prosperous, bountiful, agreeable, harmonious.

What is beauty?

Where does beauty come from?

Who decides what, or who, is beautiful?

Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:11, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.”

Lewis believed that beauty as we experience it is a glimpse of something beyond this world we live in, a way of seeing we can only hold for a moment: 
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” (The Weight of Glory)
 Two quick stories of my own, of seeing beauty just for a moment in a way that calls me on toward something more:

A young woman at the camp where I worked as a kid grated on my nerves. I lived all year for camp: a beautiful, peaceful place in the Catskill Mountains. That summer I found myself stuck, again and again, across the table from a person I considered ugly, whiny, endlessly irritating.

Sitting across from her at staff devotions one evening, I prayed, “God, help me see her as you do.” And saw beauty. Saw past the downturned mouth to a glorious smile. Saw past the constant unhappiness to a longing to be welcomed. Glimpsed a dearly loved daughter of God in as much need of embrace as I was myself.  It changed my response to her, changed her response to me. 

Another quick story: walking once in a scrubby municipal park in a sandy suburb near Miami, I was joined by a flock of wood stork, scratching along the edges of the parking lot. Wood stork! Walking along beside me as if I was a bird myself. 

As we walked along we encountered a deer, just standing on the edge of scrubby little woods, and then, in a tree just above us, a cloud of little kinglets went flitting from branch to branch, sometimes just inches from my head, tiny tinkling birds, some with bright golden crowns, some with red, dozens merrily snapping up invisible bugs as if I wasn’t there at all.

Two different experiences of beauty where beauty wasn’t expected.

Both hints of a country I’ve never yet visited, a place where every person is radiantly loved, a landscape where lion lies down with lamb and humans walk with wood stork, kinglets and deer.

Isaiah prophecied: 
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
Beauty instead of ashes. Beauty from ashes?

Some plants, like sequoias and lodgepole pine, only grow when the resinous coating of their seeds has been melted by searing forest fires.

Some eucalyptus trees can withstand incredible heat to spring back  from their roots a scouring blaze.

Some Australian grass trees only bloom after intense heat.

South African fire lilies can lie dormant for years until flames sweep away the debris covering them; after a fire, they can blossom almost overnight.

What if the real beauty, the lasting beauty, is yet to be revealed?

Hopkin’s poem The Leaden Echo, concluded with the thought that there’s nothing we can do to stop time, to hold beauty:  

So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
O there ’s none; no no no there ’s none:
Be beginning to despair, to despair,
Despair, despair, despair, despair.
Yet that poem was immediately followed by another, The Golden Echo:
I do know such a place,  Where whatever’s prized and passes of us, everything that ’s fresh and fast flying of us, seems to us sweet of us and swiftly away with, done away with, undone,
Undone, done with, soon done with, and yet dearly and dangerously sweet
Of us, the wimpled-water-dimpled, not-by-morning-matchèd face,
The flower of beauty, fleece of beauty, too too apt to, ah! to fleet,
Never fleets móre, fastened with the tenderest truth
To its own best being and its loveliness of youth
The language is difficult, but the idea is clear: there is a place where the best of beauty remains:
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God,
beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost;
every hair
Is, hair of the head, numbered.
Lewis, like Hopkins, believed our longing to see and experience beauty could lead us to longing for and knowledge of God:
We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words-to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.   
At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in. (The Weight of Glory: 42-3). 
If glimpses of beauty now are just foretaste and promise of beauty after ashes, what does that require of me now, today?

Lewis believed, in part, that we are called to treat others in the light of future glory:
in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no 'ordinary' people.
I find myself challenged to see the beauty Baldwin feared would be overlooked: the beauty of people who don’t fit the dominant paradigm, the beauty of the old, the weak, the beauty hidden behind sadness, indifference, anger.

And I find myself challenged to look for and work toward the beauty God saw in this world when he made it: beauty tragically damaged, diminished, dimmed, but never fully destroyed.

And maybe the largest challenge of all: I choose to trust that God, more merciful than I can imagine, will restore and renew beauty, will bring beauty from ashes, will reveal that weight of glory we see only in part in each other and this weary world around us. 

Will use our longing for beauty to bring us to the full beauty held so faithfully in store.

O then, weary then why 
When the thing we freely fórfeit is kept with fonder a care,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder
A care kept. — Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where. —
Yonder. — What high as that! We follow, now we
follow. — Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,

This is the third in a Lenten series.

Other Lenten posts:




From 2013:

Sunday, February 21, 2016

After the Ashes: Mercy

I’ve been reminded lately: life is short. It’s easy to spend our days on things that don’t matter and find ourselves looking back to wonder: was there any fruit that will last?

If this life is all there is, then that license plate that says “He who dies with the most toys wins” is a reasonable approach (although I’d prefer more gender inclusive language). 

But I don’t believe this life is all there is. With Christians across the ages, I  “look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come."

So this year, I’m spending the season of Lent asking God to focus my heart on things that will remain after the cleansing fire that burns off the wood, hay and stubble.

Rather than give up sugar, coffee, peripheral things, I’ve been praying God would lead me into seeing, living, loving the treasures easily overlooked, pearls of great price that too often stay buried.

In praying this, the word I’ve been given is “Mercy.”

“What does the Lord require of you,” the prophet Micah asked, “but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).

I’ve read and quoted that verse many times, but my focus has always been on justice, wondering what it means to do justice.” 

Somehow I never got around to asking: what does it mean to love mercy”?

I’ve said the word “mercy” thousands of times. It’s part of the liturgy, in some prayers repeated after every petition: “Lord have mercy.”

I’ve heard it, said it, sung it. I can even sing it in Latin, as I did just today, visiting St. Thomas Church in Manhattan: "Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kryie eleison. " "Lord have Mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy." 

Yet I’m not sure I ever really heard the word mercy - focused on it, considered it - it until just a week or so ago, when I suddenly found myself surrounded:

A new PBS TV series called “Mercy Street.”

A Blue Bloods police segment (it’s one of the few TV series I watch) with discussion between priest and police chief about the tension between justice and mercy. 

It seems every hymn I've sung, every prayer prayer in since the start of Lent has echoed the word mercy. 

Pope Frances has declared 2016 the “extraordinary jubilee of mercy,” and has been speaking regularly on the theme of mercy, which he describes as “the very foundation of the Church’s life.”
All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers: Nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love. 
That word “tenderness” reminds me of Christ’s interactions with so many who came to him in need: prostitutes, lepers, desperate parents.

Digging around in Hebrew and Greek, I find tenderness an appropriate word to use when trying to understand mercy.   

Hebrew offers three root words linked to mercy. One, "racham," is related to the word for womb, carrying with it a sense of family love, compassion, strong carrying weak, parent tenderly carrying a tiny child.  In the King James, “racham” was regularly translated “tender mercy.”

Another Hebrew word, "chanan," is sometimes translated pity, or generosity: those who have much giving to those with little.

The word most often translated mercy, “chesed,” or “hesed,” is also translated “steadfast love,” “lovingkindness,” “unfailing love,” “faithfulness.” Mercy is love that won’t give up, won’t let go, never grows tired. 

An Old Testament refrain insists: “For the Lord is good, his mercy (chesed) endures forever.” (Repeated in Psalms 100:5; 106:1; 107:1; 118:1-3; 1361 Chronicles 16:34; 2 Chronicles 5:13; 7:3; Ezra 3:11; Jeremiah 33:11

This is the unconditional love we can’t quite get our aheads around.

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love (hesed) for you will not be shaken.” (Isaiah 54:10)

“No one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love (hesed).” (Lamentations 3:31-32)
from The Life of Jesus of Nazareth,
William Hole, 1906, England

In the New Testament, the word translated “mercy” is the Greek word “eleos,”  from the same root as oil, “oil poured out”. Again and again, Jesus was asked for mercy and extended it in healing, in forgiveness and finally, in his greatest act of mercy, in conquering death through his own death and resurrection. 
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions (Ephesians 2:4-5)
I have to pause on that a moment: we so often think there's not enough to go around. Not enough love, not enough life. Yet God is rich in mercy, great in love, full of life even for those who are dead. 
But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3) 
Who receives mercy?

Those who have found their way to the right church, the right creed, the confession of personal faith?

Who deserves mercy?

Those who know to ask for it? Those who know they need it?

Who decides who is worthy of mercy?

Certainly not me.

As I track this word through scripture, it occurs to me that much theological study has been spent trying to set boundaries on God’s mercy: Will unbaptized babies receive mercy? What about disabled adults who never articulate a reasonable faith? Desperate men and women who give way to suicide? People born in times and places where they never hear the good news of Christ? Gentle souls driven to disbelief or doubt by the hard-hearted hypocrisy of those called to be shepherds?

We are not called to put boundaries on God’s mercy, but to love it.

To live it.

To set judgment aside and cry for mercy – for ourselves and this broken, weary world.

To look toward a time when all will see God’s mercy: “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” (Romans 11:32)

To pray for forgiveness for our own tendency to judge, rather than give mercy. To live as agents of mercy, rather than voices of judgment: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)

To act toward, wait for, pray for mercy.

When the daily news disturbs us, when our colleagues discount us, when our own failures dismay us: “Lord have mercy.”
Earl Stetson Crawford, ca 1950, California
This is the second in a Lenten series.

Other Lenten posts:




From 2013: