The Discipline of Beauty

Colossians 1:16-17 (ESV)

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

In light of not posting for awhile, I wanted to write about something that I have been personally convicted of lately: not practicing the discipline of looking for beauty. 

Unfortunately, I have been overwhelmed of late with the common scourge of the “tyranny of the urgent.” It is the pestilence that drains my energy while I actively “get things done.” This affliction isn’t about making lists, for a list naturally means forethought, and forethought at the very least has a rudimentary understanding of prioritization. Instead, tyranny of the urgent is the antithesis of forethought–it is living moment to moment without any context. It is performing the actions without understanding the purpose. It is like walking head-down in a dark tunnel without understanding that you are actually walking towards a light at the end. This kind of life breads hopelessness and ultimately anesthetizes our ability to see beauty. We devolve into creatures of task like oxen driven hard in the field without enjoying the harvest. And as far as I’m concerned, this is no way to live. 

TunnelI also believe that this is not the way that God designed us to live either. As the verse in Colossians says, all things were created through God to bring Him glory. In fact, all of these things are held together by Him. I believe that when we look into that which God has created then we are also looking into an aspect of God Himself. When we see the beauty of that which God has created, namely Nature and Humanity, then we see the beauty of God. Along with this, there is an aspect of beauty that does not come directly from the hand of God; it is that divine piece of Imago Dei (Image of God–Genesis 1:27) that lives in humanity, but it is also the beauty of creation that comes from the human hand. According to Dorothy L. Sayer’s fantastic book Mind of the Maker, the human desire to create is actually a characteristic that we share with God.

How then can he be said to resemble God? Is it his immortal soul, his rationality, his self-consciousness, his free will, or what, that gives him a claim to this rather startling distinction? A case may be argued for all these elements in the complex nature of man. But had the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote? It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, “God created”. The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.

This isn’t to say that humanity is divine as much as it consciously or subconsciously values the very part of our humanity that is made possible through the divine imprint left on us. Similar to the Fruits of the Spirit, we share certain qualities of goodness that are only perfected in God. With this said, there are aspects of this world both natural and constructed that point to a divine. These are symbols that should direct our gaze to the glory of God, and thus these symbols can be both beautiful and led to Beauty. This is the great act of Art that sets the human apart from the beast. For as G.K. Chesterton points out, animals may make homes like humans make homes, but animals don’t aspire to make architecture. Thus, Art can portray a certain beauty that draws us back to balance or harmony with God. This is not to say that all art is pleasing to the eye, or even effective in truth-telling, but the fact remains that the work of the hand when creating art is in a rude form trying to mimic our Creator. Like a son grabbing his plastic hammer to assist dad in building a tree house. 

Seeing this kind of beauty does not come easily or naturally, at least it doesn’t to me; instead, I believe we must cultivate our senses and practice the discipline of experiencing beauty. I believe we have the deep desire to be connected to beauty, but often don’t have the time or the discipline to experience that beauty. C.S. Lewis puts it well when he writes:

 “We do not want merely to see beauty… 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.

While I am by no means the poster boy for “stopping and smelling the roses” (remember, the tyranny of the urgent led me to this place), this process has helped me refocus my energies in an effort to lift my head up from the darkness in the tunnel and experience the beautiful light. After some thought, here are a activities that help me “bathe” in beauty. 

Study the Bible… instead of just reading it devotionally

Read poetry…and try to understand it

Write…but not about myself

Listen to the stories of the elderly…and ask them how they see the world

Ask good questions to children…and notice how they see the world 

Listen to music…without doing anything else

Read good fantasy…and allow yourself to escape

Read books that make me think…really, really hard

Climb a mountain…a big one with a good view

Take a walk early in the morning…when birds instead of cars are heard

Serve others…because Christ has served us

Sketch the small details of something that I see…even if it turns out horribly

Look at a good piece of art…for a really long time

Pray…and then be silent

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I would enjoy hearing about what others do to see Beauty.

 

 

We Are Not the Heroes of Our Story

P1000827It was nearly four years ago that I had the astounding experience of whitewater rafting on the Nile River in Jinja, Uganda. It was an exhausting 6-hour journey that took our group over 12 Class 4 & 5 rapids. I fell out or the raft flipped over 4 of those 12 rapids. Whether it was paddling through an intense rapid or floating on my back in the middle of the river, the whole experience continues to be surreal to me. Yet, even though I can’t fully express my adventure that day with words, I did learn a very valuable lesson that I doubt will ever forget: I am not in control.

The story goes like this. When I climbed into that raft with my wife and her family, my wife expressed anxiety about the trip. Now, she is a fantastic swimmer, and she is no stranger to adventure, but the prospect of being thrown from the raft over and over again made her nervous. Of course, being an understanding husband I gathered all my eloquent wisdom and responded by saying, “You don’t need to worry–everything will be okay.” Hard to believe, but her nervousness wasn’t exactly squelched by my little pep talk. Seeing that she was still unsure, I pulled the husband card by saying, “It’s going to be okay. If something happens, I will be sitting right behind you, and I will take care of you. I will protect you.” This worked only slightly better than the first comment, but like the brave-spirit that she is, she focused on having a good time.

Now, I was sincere in what I said to her. I really did want her to feel safe by knowing that I would look out for her, and I really was prepared to do whatever I could to make sure she was safe. Unfortunately, I greatly overestimated myself.

During the second rapid, our raft jettisoned everyone into the river. Although I had been sitting directly behind my wife in the raft, she was nowhere to be seen when I surfaced. I desperately looked around for her while I started to swim for the raft. Very strong men in little one man kayaks skimmed across the water to collect the people who were now bobbing up and down in the river like wine corks. It wasn’t until I was back in the raft that I saw my wife being pulled in by one of these helpers. As we pulled her into the raft, she handed me her paddle–which had been broken into two pieces. Once everyone was safely back in the boat, a devastating realization overcame me. There was no way that I could possibly begin to protect her from the river that so easily dragged us around like helpless children. My courage and good intentions were no match for the force of the Nile. It is hard to convey the utter fragility that I felt at that moment–the realization that I was of no use to my wife (and later on to find out that I was of almost no use to save myself) was heartbreaking. No personal willpower, collective positive thinking, or inspirational speeches could change the fact that I was at the mercy of the river. I was not in control.

This frightened me.

I could no longer assure my wife that it was “going to be okay” because I really wasn’t sure it was going to be okay.

Then, like a escaping balloon that is snatched from the air by the string and drug back down to earth, I realized something: The large Ugandan man who was steering out raft was yelling at me. “Paddle hard!” he shouted.

I broke out of my self-indulgent stupor just in time to see the next rapid in front us. Of course, this event continued to reinforce the fact that I was not in control…even to the point that I had to stop thinking about how I wasn’t in control so I could paddle and attempt to keep from being thrown in the river again. It was at this point that I decided to hang navel gazing and actually enjoy the ride.

This isn’t Nihilism–this is simply giving in to the fact that I didn’t hold the power in the situation.

Years later, as I reflect on my rafting journey on the Nile, I am reminded of Gandalf’s words to Bilbo at the end of The Hobbit.

“Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” said Bilbo.

“Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

“Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.

After all of the adventures that Bilbo endured, Gandalf reminds Bilbo that while he is the hero of his journey that he is in fact not the hero of The Journey. Interestingly enough, Bilbo plays a small and insignificant role in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And while Bilbo’s adventures are remembered and his heroism rewarded, Tolkien reminds his readers that the hero of one day is not the hero of a lifetime.

In affect, Gandalf is reminding Bilbo that he is not the centre of the story. “You are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all,” Gandalf reminds Bilbo. Even at the end of a story in which Bilbo is legitimately the hero, Bilbo is reminded that his story isn’t the The Story.

Throughout The Hobbit, Tolkien writes of Bilbo’s heroic journey–not heroic because Bilbo overcomes trolls, or spiders, or orcs, or even Smaug–heroic because Bilbo overcomes his fear of being out of control. Bilbo begins by hating adventures–“nasty things, make you late for dinner”–to accepting them.

My experience on the Nile River was so memorable to me because I learned something about my identity. I learned that despite my best efforts and intentions, I was not in control. Sure, I could assist in guiding the boat to the right or left in order to avoid rocks or other dangers, but there was no way I could defy the current on my own. Positive thought and pure will could not have kept me from being swept down the river. But that proved to be okay. In fact, that proved to be fantastic!

For some people, the story ends here: accept fate and enjoy life. Once again, I am not preaching Nihilism. I am not promoting a gospel of hopelessness or helplessness. I am speaking of having abundant life.

My experience on the river is one that is too familiar to me. I have far too often found myself trying to take control of my life in a way where I arrange the events and situations of my life to be conducive to staying in control (then I had kids, and blew that whole experiment up). I sometimes limit my experiences based on whether I can control the outcome, and if I’m not careful, I turn away the adventures that come knocking on my door because they might cause discomfort. Yes, adventures are nasty things that make you late for dinner. They cause disorder. They sometimes even create disdain within friends and family, but if we are not careful, our fear of discomfort will actually become our identity. We seek to keep our identities safe, but we in fact lose them. We seek to have an ordered and controlled life, but we are in fact destroying life.

This dichotomy rings the most true for me when I think about my own identity in Christ, and no more true than when I read the words of Jesus in Matthew and Luke.

Matthew 10:39 records Jesus saying,Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Luke 17:33 echoes the same words when it says, Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”

Like Bilbo, I am often so concerned for my own reputation and identity that I hold it closely, not realizing that all the while I am actually losing that thing I hold so dear. I jockey for position at my work, church, and even home while Christ beckons me to be called up from the slavery of my sin and become a child of God.

I am not the hero of my life; in fact, sometimes I’m the villain. I thrash and grasp for control and worth from things that are either temporary or unobtainable, all the while I am rejecting a position much higher position than my own. I may not be the hero, but when my identity is rooted in Christ’s ability instead of my own, then I find an abundance of joy in the great adventure of the Christian faith.

I am indeed just a little fellow in a wide world.

 

 

Dogma and Faith

“Seeing is not believing – it is only seeing.” 
― George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin

Our modern society loves material. Not necessarily materialism–like watches and necklaces and boats–but physical matter to touch. We are a people that like to have our feet firmly planted on the ground.

In John 3, Jesus has a very revealing conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus about salvation and the nature of human belief. Jesus chooses to use the metaphor of rebirth to illustrate what must take place  for a person to be saved:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3) 

Nicodemus responds:

“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4)

Nicodemus was a very learned man, so it is highly doubtful that he was asking how to physically crawl back into his mother’s womb. Instead, the text implies that Nicodemus was asking a much more penetrating question: “how can an old man like me, who is set in his beliefs, ever come to understand the Messiah differently.” It’s as if Nicodemus was stating that it is more likely for him to be physically reborn than spiritually reborn.

Jesus’ response to Nicodemus is enlightening: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6). 

In other words, Jesus tells Nicodemus that the only way for his to have salvation is for him to believe in the work of the Holy Spirit. Of course, this posses a challenge for Nicodemus (as it does for us all) because the Spirit is not physical like the flesh. There is an aspect of faith that must accompany belief (in fact, the Greek work for belief in this case denotes physical action–not just a state of mind).

Jesus continues to Nicodemus by saying:

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:10-15).

Jesus presses the spiritual leader hard by pointing out his inability to see the truth that is standing in front of him. Nicodemus asks the penetrating questions, but his presuppositions (or dogmas) keep him from seeing the truth. Jesus compares himself to the snake that Moses held up on the pole in the desert in order to heal the Israelites–a story which Nicodemus would have been very familiar with. This comparison further illustrates that Nicodemus understands the physical aspects of faith but fails to make the symbolic connections that they are tied to. In other words, Nicodemus understands the healing of the Israelites by Moses (earthly things) but is unable to understand the symbolic connections to Jesus (heavenly things).

The scriptures are unclear whether Nicodemus very believed that Jesus was the Messiah. He defended Jesus in front of the Pharisees, and he  helped place the dead body of Jesus in the tomb, but his beliefs are never mentioned. Regardless of this point, Jesus’ words obviously made and impact in the life of Nicodemus.

We would be good to follow the wisdom of Jesus in this story. Not that we must understand earthly things before we understand heavenly things; instead, we must believe in the heavenly things before the earthly things become clear.

Here is a short dramatization of G.K. Chesterton’s writing on dogma and faith that I believe illustrates what Jesus was trying to teach Nicodemus: Revelation often aways comes before reality.