Tag Archives: Beauty

When you want to trade Little for Big.

They are still small, mini-people, with that baby fine hair and the imperfect use of pronouns.  But every single one already has strong opinions, big plans.  “Mine,” says one. “I want purple.”  She snatches a block, fierce and determined.  Her tower is prodigious (maybe six inches tall).  She guards it with a look that means trouble is coming; the boy next to her grins and his arm swings.  Purple blocks go flying.

She has built her little masterpiece with great care, but doesn’t yet know the rules of the game.  Nothing built under the sun will last.

Ecclesiastes says it loud and clear:  “I came to hate all my hard work here on earth, for I must leave to others everything I have earned.   And who can tell whether my successors will be wise or foolish? Yet they will control everything I have gained by my skill and hard work under the sun. How meaningless!  So I gave up in despair, questioning the value of all my hard work in this world.” (Ecc. 2:18-20, NLT)  

It’s a knowledge that can drive you mad or set you free depending on your perspective.  Howard Hughes?  Crazy as a loon.  Ernest Hemingway?  Despondent to the point of death.  It was Hemingway who once wrote, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”  It doesn’t take an Einstein to realize that life is short and work is hard.

Still, tilt your head another way and it’s a beauty that will knock you down.  Sometimes artists grab onto this, chiseling their sculptures in sand or ice or melting candles.  Even the medium they choose testifies to the truth:  life is so, so very short.  Like a fabulous sunset or a towering stormcloud, we live for a brief, incandescent moment, and then we are gone.  It's the blink-and-you'll-miss-it quality of life that makes it so precious.

But we little people like to do big things.  We want to build the Taj Majal, the Great Wall — but even those are an earthquake away from oblivion.  Our best efforts are more like the ancient mosaic archaeologists uncovered last year:  a happy skeleton with his wine bottle proclaiming, “Be cheerful, enjoy your life.”  Yep.  Chew on that irony for a minute.

So we squirm, we scorn our little lives.  We miss things of eternal value because they are small and transient, and we are reaching for grand and magnificent.  But what if the things that really last, that really matter, are intangible?  We see “through a glass darkly,” a wobbly, cloudy image of what’s real.  But one day we’ll step into the light and see clearly.

In an absolutely fascinating BBC video you can watch a Japanese pufferfish on the ocean floor–happy little guy, living his fishy little life far from Hollywood.  He seems to have found the secret of joy “under the sun,” embracing his momentary existence with verve.  He is just like us, small and insignificant, committed to projects that will soon wash away.  And yet in his own little way he whispers his winsome secret in his quiet corner of the sea.  It really is a marvel (you have to see it to believe it), but this engaging creature went undetected through all of history until just now.  The BBC comments, “Its fragility has no doubt played a role in this undiscovered secret. The structure has no permanence, or any need for permanence. Perhaps its simplicity has rendered previous witnesses confused or merely unimpressed.”  Think of it, such a wonder happening year after year, never seen or celebrated by the likes of us.  What kind of God bothers to make such crazy spectacles, only to keep them hidden for millennia?

My small son commented that our fishy friend has painted the sun, just as it would look from a rippling under-the-sea perspective.  I would like to say to Solomon that even “under the sun” there is beauty.

A fish that makes God smile.  A sandcastle that will soon erode away.  A life that flashes by, but touches other lives that touch other lives that touch other lives…

A diaper changed.  A nursing home visit.  A cup of hot chocolate for cold, homeless hands.  A field plowed and sown, weeded and fertilized, not just the once, but year after year after year.  Choosing joy when your heart aches and it would be so easy to just give up, choosing to serve when you’d rather sleep.  These little things are slow, unseen, difficult, and generally monotonous.  They remind us that we have more in common with strange, small fish than Michelangelo, and even Michelangelo is more fishy than forever.

Don’t be too quick to exchange Little for Big.  Maybe in the end, a little love is all that lasts.

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photo credit:  BBC

Startled

Sometimes Facebook juxtaposes just the right pair of posts, just the right images to startle me awake, to catch a new glimpse of truth.  Today I saw a such a pair.

Post #1, a video:  colorblind people see color for the first time with innovative new glasses.  Now, I’m going to let you roll that around in your mind for a minute before I hit you with Post #2.  A stream of people unable to distinguish red from green, trapped in a world where everything is a muted, muddy brown, suddenly seeing all the great glory of a simple garden, overwhelmed.  You see them see colors and suddenly you’re seeing color through their eyes, and you realize how much we take for granted, how much beauty overload we live in all the time.  You wonder what else we can’t see, what else is hiding in plain sight.

Now.  Post #2:  women at the March on Washington hold a sign proclaiming “If Mary had had an abortion, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”  And it’s a kick in the gut, one of the few statements left that still has power to shock.  Really?  And it’s a flood of horrifying thoughts, one struggling to top the last—you’d trade the Christmas story for a coat hanger?  Jesus’ death on a cross wasn’t awful enough?  You have that level of hate for the Savior of the world?  You lay the blame for all that’s wrong at His feet—at ours?

But then I understand.  Post #1 is the explanation for Post #2.  There is rampant blindness in our culture, like a population struck with scarlet fever.  I am not exempt.

We do not see the beauty of Christ, because we are dazzled by rhinestone substitutes.

We do not see the Great Story of the world, because we are sidetracked by our own little dramas.

We do not see the long stretch of eternity, because we are caught up in the vapor of now.

We don’t see the struggle and pain of others (but stub a toe and we’ll nurse it all the day long.)

We don’t see the glory of people Not Like Us, because we’re too busy gazing in a mirror.

We miss the rich tapestry of the races.

We miss the quirky strength of the genders.

We can’t see the value and dignity and perfection of the disabled, the bent and twisted ones, the elderly, the mentally challenged, the helpless, unborn human beings whose presence causes us discomfort or inconvenience or shame.

We are so very blind.  And I wonder what it will take for us to see, like Neo to wake up in the Matrix.  But like our colorblind friends, we have been given a pair of nifty glasses; all we have to do is put them on.

So let me pop those puppies on, let me remind myself of Truth.

Back in the very beginning there was a Trio of Oneness, an everlasting symphony of Love.  And this Love, this triune God, His creativity and laughter and yes, love, bubbled over and made the vast and spectacular universe, from Milky Way to micro-organism.  And there in the middle of an extraordinary garden (red and green included in all their shades), He put a pair of people, and He called them very good.  But a snake slithered in, and the world was broken, and instead of choosing light, we craved the darkness.  All that is broken and hurting and wrong in the world traces back, back, back to that choice, that moment, leaving us crying out, “Vanity!  Vanity!”

But still He wasn’t done, and Love came down into the muck to be spat upon, mocked, beaten, rejected, and finally murdered.  But still He wasn’t done; He burst the bonds of the grave, defeated death, and made a way for blind eyes, my eyes, to see.

He is beauty.  All that is good and right in the world shines because He breathed on it, shines because it bloomed out of His imagination.

Those women, the ones with the sign—they were dreamed up and fashioned out of Love.  There is grace for them just as there was mercy for me.  And the babies they’d just as soon dispose of?  Each one a wisp of smoke that never was?  No.  Each one was painstakingly designed, seen, and adored.

Let’s be the people of color, the people who dole out compassion, joy, forgiveness, and kindness, who lend others our lenses and help them want to see.

Dostoevsky said beauty will save the world.  Thank the Lord, He already did.

Counter-Culture

Christianity is so much more ridiculous than most people give us credit for.  Oh, there are a lot of stereotypes:  we’re narrow-minded or we’re stuffy, we’re anti-intellectual or we’re honorable.  It depends who you ask.  But the truth?

We believe in miracles, and beauty.  We sing — a lot.  We give away a chunk of everything we earn, value children, turn the other cheek.  We give up sex outside of marriage and persevere in marriages that are hard.  We spend a lot of time reading really, really old books.  We expect to be insulted and pray for our enemies.  That is to say, some of us do some of these things some of the time.  But our hero did all of them all of the time.

More than any time since the decadent Romans roamed the world, Christians stick out like a sore thumb.  A group that used to be fairly mainstream is more and more a fringe society, out of place.  We’re like the Amish.  Our ethics are antiquated and even our happiness is old-fashioned.  Almost everything we believe and all actions proceeding from that faith are out of step with the spirit of the times.

For starters, Christianity is built around the worship of a heroic, self-sacrificial, transcendent God-man who preached love, justice, restoration, and purity of heart.  But the zeitgeist worships self; scoffs at transcendence; and preaches scorn, comfort, futility, and self-determined, conditional ethics.  Taken one at a time, these beliefs of ours are radical.  Even the preliminary notion of a hero is a jolt.

It’s a sign of the times that movies with good guys who come out ahead are universally panned by the critics.  Take Steven Spielberg, for example.  Though his blockbuster hits keep coming, critics dog him over and again with the sneering assessment:  he’s too soft.  As Robert Dougherty states in a review for themovienetwork.com, “The seemingly easy solution is to just make a movie that is completely bleak, has no uplifting message about mankind, humanity, family or ordinary men, and makes audiences feel there is no such thing as heroes — basically the hallmarks of ‘prestige’ television these days.”  While the masses like their popcorn flicks, the critics, arbiters of culture that they are, consistently complain that a movie with hope cannot ring true.  So even The Lego Movie proclaims, “I’m dark and brooding, too!”fontcandy-5

No, heroes are for the unenlightened.  And in the absence of a good that triumphs over evil, we’re left without hope.  And since that’s kind of a bummer, we flip a switch and get… apathy.  Pass the popcorn.

Christians love beauty.  Historically, Christianity accounts for some of the world’s greatest architecture (think cathedrals), sculpture (Michelangelo springs to mind), music (hello, Bach) and literature (Milton) ever created.  As C.S. Lewis put it in Till We Have Faces, “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing – to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from – my country, the place where I ought to have been born.”

In a world where Robert Mapplethorpe’s pornography is regarded as high art and Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (it’s a toilet, folks) is considered an icon, the Christian insistence on light, hope, and purpose seems naïve and childish.  Not that abandoning beauty was ever the humanist’s goal; there is a persistent wistfulness underneath most of the scorn.  But having jettisoned God, and with him any fontcandy-4sense of otherworldly beauty, there can be no hope, and the best we can settle for is facing despair head-on.  But leaving Eden left a vacuum in the human heart, which our jaded culture attempts endlessly to fill.  And so while Christians seek transcendence, our neighbor lives for his appetite, a gloomy proposition of ever-diminishing returns.

That strange evangelical family down the block?  The one with a half-dozen kids?  They talk a lot about their heritage.  They plan for future generations.  When a friend is in the hospital (probably to have a baby — they seem to have a lot of babies), they drop everything to bring a meal.  When someone needs a place to stay, they cram the kids like sardines into one room to open up a guest bed.  They come and go a lot — church on Sunday, Bible study on Wednesday, their lives oriented around a community of like-minded weirdos, a family that extends beyond the four walls.  In contrast, secular millennials often have no particular attachment to the past.  Family ties are loose.  Relationships are somewhat transient.  Marriage (of any variety) is perceived as a fun option insofar as it comes with a big wedding party; children are a cute accessory, maybe, if and when they don’t interfere with other plans.  According to recent reports, the birth rates for women in their 20s saw a 15 percent drop from 2007 to 2012.  One writer went so far as to suggest giving all working adults the equivalent of maternity leave, baby or no baby, calling her invention “me-ternity.”  Christians tend to look at their secular counterparts and say selfish (yep, Christians can be judgy), seculars shrug innocently and say, logical.  And why not?  Jesus summed up this fancy-free attitude:  “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die.”

But is it merry, this void of connection?  Christians aim for timeless values, while seculars, feeling free, are paradoxically trapped in time.  Having rejected history and disregarded the future, all they have to live for is this moment, with its gossamer-fragile relationships, its long string of goodbyes.

And so it goes.  Christians espousing personal holiness and self-denial uphold ancient prescriptions for sexual purity: one man, one woman, for a lifetime.  We didn’t set out in our conviction to infuriate three-quarters of the world, but that’s what happened.  While I’m content to be the odd duck and let my neighbor do whatever she wants in her own bedroom, my commitment, my very existence, it would seem, is an affront to her.

In Sweden, forerunners of the gender revolution have abolished gender-specific pronouns in favor of enforced neutrality.  You’ll not likely meet a Christian who feels strongly about grammar, but share with him this development and watch sadness wash across his face.  Why?  We grieve the loss of God-given distinctives.  While seculars literally hold parades for diversity, we Christians quietly revel in it.  Step into my church and meet immigrants, professors, high school dropouts, alcoholics, cowboys, girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes, old people, toddlers — all welcomed, loved, and genuinely enjoyed for all their quirks.  We reject snobbish, vapid, body-obsessed androgyny.  We relish our differences.

Do you actually know any Christians?  The word (a religious slur that went viral) means “little Christs.”  Not someone who grew up Lutheran a million years ago or goes to church occasionally or someone who celebrates Santa Claus, but someone who celebrates truth and beauty, love and justice, prayer and worship.  Someone poor in spirit and pure in heart.  Someone who cherishes robust community, authentic relationships, matchless grace and the occasional miracle.  Perhaps we who worship Jesus are even more counter-cultural than you think we are .fontcandy-6

Under the Sea

We’re all up to our necks in it: deadlines, bills, school supplies, car repairs, health concerns, the neighbor’s noisy music, that stinky something in the refrigerator that’s gone bad and can’t be located.  And when we’re personally standing firm and holding fast, others around us are drowning.  Look to your right and left at the next stoplight.  See that guy?  The weary one?  See the angry mom?  The weepy kid?  That’s the human condition, right there.  A philosopher might say it better than I can:  “Everything is meaningless, utterly meaningless!  What do people get for all their hard work?  Generations come and generations go, but nothing really changes.”  All our lonesome days under the sun, we strive, we struggle, we gain and lose again.  What’s it all about?                                       

I wasn’t familiar with Jason deCaires Taylor until last week, as I searched the internet for images of slavery.  The first sculpture I found, a ring of people holding hands, popped up on a number of sites and was described as a memorial to the slaves lost during the brutal Middle Passage.  (I have learned now that Taylor actually didn’t set out to create a memorial, but welcomed this interpretation.)  That image, and all the varying photos of it, haunted me.  Who built such beauty?  Who thought to leave it hidden under ocean?  Won’t it be destroyed by salt and water?

What else is tucked away out of view under the green waves?

I’ve been snorkeling in the Florida Keys just once, and never scuba diving.  I’ve put my face down out of the bright air and under the blue surface and discovered an entirely new world.  It boggles the mind that such beauty exists in our midst, under our noses (or under the hulls of our paddle boats, more like) unseen and unvisited by all but a few.  And I have only broken the surface, never dived down to the depths.

Of course, there are shipwrecks, fascinating museums to loss and adventure.  And in several scattered places in the world there are underwater sculpture gardens, or lone statues, like “Christ of the Abyss” in the Mediterranean.  But Taylor really takes the cake.  This man (born in 1974, same year as me! has he learned the secret of freezing time? how else can he have accomplished so much??) married his love of diving with his love of sculpture, and the result is dozens of incredible works of art making habitats for coral, starfish, shark.

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If his sculptures could think, if they took stock of the world, what would they find?  Look to your right, look to your left — sorrow and weariness and trouble and decay.  How quickly we age!  How alone, unseen, forgotten, we are.  Where is our creator, who set us here and left?

“So now I hate life because everything done here under the sun [under the water?] is so irrational.  Everything is meaningless, like chasing the wind.  I am disgusted that I must leave the fruits of my hard work to others.  And who can tell whether my successors will be wise or foolish?”  (Ecc. 2:17-19)

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And so, despair.  Look down, brood.  Stick your head in the sand.  Return to dust.  Oh, it’s all vanity.

And let’s face it, if Taylor’s ranks of men and women were all alone under the sea, if never visited by angelfish or mermaid, then all his work would fade to oblivion for no greater good than the fact that they existed in the first place.  Like Solomon’s parks and gardens, they would disappear under the silt of time, unmourned.

But some of Taylor’s creations seem to sense another story.  Instead of gazing down into the muck, they are looking up.

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man in seaweed looking up

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The existence of an entire world above them must sound far-fetched to the underwater dweller.  Farms?  Airplanes?  Roller coasters?  Impossible, surely.  But then, what is that light that pierces the water day after day?  Who are these visitors who come and go?

Under the water, under the sun, everything is futility.  But if indeed there is another reality, another truth, an entire bright world where a person can breathe free, well, that puts another spin on it, don’t you think?

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(All photographs in this post are depictions of the work of Jason deCaires Taylor, and I didn’t take a single one.  For more of his unbelievable work, visit http://www.underwatersculpture.com.)