Beauty > Sadness

Being a pastor, I am invited into the sadness of people’s lives, often.  As a pastor, I working on developing both empathy and boundaries; empathy, so that I can come alongside them and let them know they are not alone, and boundaries, so that I am not rendered undone by all of it.

But still.  Oh sometimes, I just want to stop everything, grab a box of Kleenex, get comfortable on the couch, and weep and weep and weep.  A parent with young children losing a battle with cancer.  A mother, on the verge of deportation, telling her children to be brave.  Estrangement for no good reason.  Violence for no good reason. Random accidents.  Mistakes.

The easiest boundary to create is shutting down, turning off the feelings, setting the empathy aside. Depending on what’s going on, I might find busy work for myself, or clean a drawer in the kitchen, or listen to the zippiest, happiest, most innocuous musical I have on my playlist. But that only works for so long.

When melancholy made its arrival yesterday, I began to think hard (another boundary – thinking instead of feeling.)  What dispels sadness, or at least alleviates it?  For this past day I’ve been wondering about that.

I know that for some, prayer alleviates the sadness, that somehow sharing the burden with the God who loves them lessens it all a bit.  I find prayer just makes me a little mad. Why isn’t God doing something about it?  Why can I not see or believe that God is doing something about it, that I have no idea how much worse it would be if God weren’t doing something about it?

I know for some distraction works, whatever the distraction – work or play, food or booze, sleep or medications.  They distract, but they don’t take away the sadness.  When the work is done or the play is over, when you’re full or hungover, when you wake up or the meds wear off, the sadness is still there.

In the brilliant movie Inside Out, Joy learns that she cannot be without Sadness.  The two need each other in order for their human to be whole.

I need sadness, then, I suppose.  Sadness doesn’t hurt, but it aches.  It’s like a constant sore muscle, or an inflamed gum, or arthritis.  It’s not a sharp pain but an unyielding soreness that acts as an incessant reminder that all is not well, that someone is going through something horrific and I am powerless to stop it.

And then I think about beauty, beauty as a counter to sadness, not as an eraser of it.  There is beauty all around, if only we have the eyes to see it.  Sometimes when I am sad I do some coloring, because the intentionality of choosing which pen to use where, and seeing all the colors together, makes me happy and for a moment creates some order in the midst of chaos.  Sometimes when I am sad I go back to a familiar book or poem.  Often A Wrinkle in Time will get me right again.  There is a beauty to the words that people put together in such a way that I am inspired and hopeful.  Music is the strongest of the beauties for me.  Barber’s Adagio for Strings feels like salt in the wound at first when I am sad, and then heals me in a way I cannot explain.  Appalachian Spring will do that too.  I love the beauty of a Chagall painting, and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and the Grand Canyon at Yellowstone, and the shades of blue in my daughter’s eyes.

So I draw or read or listen and I am reminded that as thwarting as it is, sadness is not the strongest thing.  Beauty wins over sadness.  It does.  There is joy in beauty, and sadness too, I think, and perhaps in that which we find beautiful, we understand at a level way beyond our rational thinking that joy and sadness really do need each other.


At the Center

(this is revised from a sermon I preached in 2011 on Romans 8:26-39; I recently reread, and thought it might be  helpful to someone today)

It’s such an elusive question: what is love? Hollywood gets it wrong more often than not; poets tend to get it right. The rest of us muddle through, experiencing those shining moments when we know we are in the midst of love, only for that moment to end and leave us wanting more.
I am drawn to what Jean Vanier said about love. “To love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude, ‘You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.”
Love is revealing to another his beauty, her value. Love as revelation from one to another, revelation that opens up vistas rather than shading them over.
So what happens if we make that our working definition of love and stick it onto Paul’s gorgeous words from Romans 8? It might mean that nothing can impede God in Christ from revealing to all of us our beauty and value.
But it doesn’t feel that way most of the time, does it? It feels as though the world is telling us, over and over and over again, that the creation is ugly, that people are ugly, that there is no value or meaning in anything other than acquisition and might and trendiness. The powers, as Paul calls them, strip away all sense of holy beauty and value. The powers tempt us every day, and we don’t have to look far to see them.
The powers tell us that we are conquerors, and we believe them. We have conquered discomfort, and if we don’t feel well we pop a pill, if we’re hot we turn on the air conditioning, if we’re in a hurry we buy a Big Mac at the drive through and eat in the car. And so we wonder why there is addiction, and a hole in the ozone, and obesity and litter and pollution.

The powers tell us we are conquerors. We have conquered weakness. If the enemy strikes, build a bigger weapon and strike back harder. If you don’t have enough room, take someone else’s space, their land, their country. If the battle isn’t going your way, use civilians as decoys, shields, and hostages. And still we are aghast about war, horrified by violence, and despair over endless cycles of retaliation.
The powers tell us we are conquerors. We have conquered the personal demons of loneliness. There’s a great commercial running on TV right now for Toyota, in which an adult child talks about her parents’ boring life while she has 763 friends on Facebook; meanwhile her parents are out in their Forerunner joining a big group of friends for a bonfire and cookout. The internet provides community for some, but not physical presence. And still we shake our heads as we gaze at the dining room table, covered with mail and books instead of placemats and silverware and meals shared by friends.
The powers are those forces that tell us we can rely on ourselves and don’t need anyone else, that we don’t have to wait to get what we want, and that we can use whatever force necessary to make our individual lives better. The powers are so seductive and offer us lives exactly as we want them.
And then I am reminded of something Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote in his journal. “You shall have joy, or you shall have power, said God. You shall not have both.” I wonder if Emerson had been reading Paul the day he wrote that. You shall have joy or you shall have power. Presented on paper, the choice seems easy. Or does it?
How do we choose – how do we make any of those crucial life decisions? What do we do when we come to one of those big crossroads, and we have to choose between power and joy? Are we ready, prepared, to make that decision? Or do we find ourselves flailing?
It may depend on whether or not one has a sense of what is at the center of life. What is at the center of your life, in the middle of your heart of hearts? What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning? What enables you to risk ridicule or ostracism, to stand up for something you believe in? What encourages you to put one foot forward when you are dog-tired and weary beyond all reckoning and utterly drained? What is at the center of your very soul?
It’s clear what was at the center of Paul’s soul: the love of God in Christ Jesus. Paul wrote a lot, and he wrote a lot of things that I disagree with or struggle with, but I have to give him this: he knew God’s love. He knew that God loved him, that God saw the beauty and value in him that had nothing to do with credentials or success. He knew that God trusted him. And so when he was stoned by enemies in one town, or shipwrecked, or thrown into jail, he knew he had the love of God deep in his heart. I imagine that as he went to his death, he knew that love of God.
How many of us can say the same thing for ourselves? How certain are you, on any given day, of God’s unconditional love for you? How certain am I, on any given day, that God sees my beauty and value? Most of us have that sense – until we start listening to the powers, to the culture, to the media, to those voices that tell us other things. But the truth is that we are all in the same boat, this boat that sometimes sails smoothly with deep confidence in love, and sometimes is tossed about by doubt and temptation.
I love the way poet Gwendolyn Brooks describes this in her poem “Infirm”.

Everbody here
is infirm.
Everybody here is infirm.
Oh. Mend me. Mend me. Lord.
Today I
say to them
say to them
say to them, Lord:
look! I am beautiful, beautiful with
my wing that is wounded
my eye that is bonded
or my ear not funded
or my walk all a-wobble.
I’m enough to be beautiful.
You are
beautiful too.

How was it possible, almost two thousand years ago, for Paul to write words that have such resonance today? We feebly struggle, and the Spirit shares our sighs and enables us to form those struggles into prayer. We hope that God is working in the good and the bad, in the beautiful and ugly, making all those things work together for some holy purpose. We pin our hope on God, who knows what sacrificial love is. We see our hope in Jesus Christ, who strides through all our hardship and danger and threat, through all those things to you and to me.
The world would have us be conquerors, but Paul tells us we are more than conquerors. We are more than conquerors. We are more than consumers. We are more than victors. We are more than victims. We are more than taxpayers. We are more than young, old, saggy, taut, smart, thick, Republican, Democrat, straight, queer, right, wrong, strong, weak. We are more than all those things. We are more than conquerors, because we are the Beloved.
We are the Beloved, and as Paul tells us, there is not one thing in the whole of creation that can change that. A child might ask a parent “will you ever stop loving me” and the parent says, no. So we might ask God “will you ever stop loving us?” And the resounding answer: No. Will you ever find us ugly? No. Will you ever find us worthless? No.
Paul tells us that God’s love is at the center, at the center of creation, at the center of the universe, at the center of each day we live our lives. God’s love is at the center. Every day God reveals our beauty and worth to us, and that impacts how we live with each other.
Every congregation has God’s love at its center. Some churches act like they don’t know that, or like they’ve forgotten it, but still, God’s love is the center, the anchor, the cornerstone of every congregation. So if we still use Jean Vanier’s words about love, we could say that at the center of every congregation is the revelation of the beauty and value of the people within and beyond the walls.
It’s easy to reveal beauty and value of another when we are all in one accord. It get tricky when we disagree, and when we disagree for noble reasons, and when we disagree with passion. I say this not because this is a congregation in terrible conflict; it is not. But we do face some interesting, God-given challenges, and how we work together and face those challenges is crucial.
In our decisions, will we choose power or joy? How will we hold in tension our very human disagreements and this divine call to love, to reveal beauty and value to and with each other?
The guy who rolls his eyes every time we sing your favorite hymn? He is beautiful.
The visitors who dare to sit in your pew? They are beautiful.
The woman whose car bumper sticker express everything you don’t believe in? She is beautiful.
Those kids who squirm and crawl under the pews and wave to their parents during the moments with children? They are beautiful.
The dear friend whose aging has taken a toll on mind and body and spirit? He is beautiful.
The acquaintance whose off-hand remark struck you at your very core? She is beautiful.

They are all enough to be beautiful.
You are beautiful too.
You are priceless.
You are more than conquerors.
You are the beloved. Thanks be to God.

To the planter of trees

tree_lined_street_lgTwo of my frequent routes include an arcade of trees.  One is at an intersection I drive by every day, the other on 99E heading south towards Milwaukie.  Neither is very long – one just a block, the other maybe a quarter-mile.  But even in winter, when the branches are bare, the trees form this graceful archway that we drive through.

As I went though one the other day, I started wondering about the person or persons who planted those trees.  Were they young?  Did they see the fruits of their labor?  Did they measure carefully the space between the trees, imagining how far apart they needed to be so their branches could grow without touching?  Did they plant them hoping that in eighty years, one hundred years, the trees would still be alive, healthy, providing a bower for motorists?

It seems to me that planting trees is a pretty selfless act.  You may get to watch a sapling get strong, but you will likely not live to see it in its prime.  And planting trees is an act of hope, too – hope that someone else will take up the care of the tree, that in the future when the planter is gone someone will look at the tree and offer thanks.

We have two enormous oak trees on the west side of our house.  I imagine they were planted when the house was built in 1925.  They are now two and a half times as tall as our house, and they are beautiful, whether with bared branches or in the lush fullness of summer.  They are beautiful and more often than not I do not appreciate them.  February is the one time of the year when they aren’t dropping something.  Come spring, it will be helicopter seed pods, then green acorns in the summer.  In the fall the brown acorns drop, aided by feuding squirrels.  Once the acorns are done, the leaves turn brown and drift down; we are very generous and share our leaves with the neighborhood.  In the chill of winter things are still unless there’s a wind storm, in which case we have branches adorning our yard and roof.

laugh inI wish I appreciated our two oaks more than I do.  They provide habitat for squirrels, and I think the crows are doing their own version of Laugh In in them.  They shade half the house, a relief in the relentless sun of summer.  But they are messy and trimming them is not cheap.  Their root system means that we have a basement in only half the house.

Would I cut them down if I could? That’s the question, isn’t it.  It would make our lives and landscaping easier.  We wouldn’t have to wear our bike helmets when we dine al fresco.

Would I cut them down if I could? No.  No, I wouldn’t.  They are things of beauty, among the most grand in the neighborhood.  The crows make me laugh.  The squirrels drive the dog nuts and give him something to do when we’re gone for the day.  The shade is lovely.

And there’s something plain wrong about cutting down a magnificent healthy tree – the inconvenience to us is far outweighed by the patience it took for that tree to go, the hearty conversations with neighbors in the fall when we’re all raking the leaves, the sheer beauty of something that towers over our man-made home.

So, to the planter of trees, our oaks, the trees that line the avenues: thank you.  Thank you for your foresight.  Thank you for your dream.  Thank you for your part in creating something beautiful that maybe you never saw.  Thank you for the trees.

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How we look

So, Renee Zellweger has been in the news in the last day because she emerged from her chosen seclusion to attend an event.  She does not look like she used to; had I not read the photo caption, I would not have thought it was her.  There’s been a lot of ink spilled about all of that, about how aging women are not allowed to be saggy AND gray AND beautiful, about why someone would undergo the knife, etc. etc.

photo (6)I read the story yesterday, after I woke up and looking like this first thing in the  morning.   I had fallen asleep early the night before and not taken off my mascara, and I use this awesome paste in my hair that creates hair sculptures while I sleep.  I texted the photo to my best friend who told me I am a good person.  Not a word about how I look, which is why I consider her my best friend.

Why does our appearance matter?  What does it matter if our facial features are perfectly symmetrical, or if we have a unibrow and moustache, if we’re rail thin or cellulite-dappled?  What does it matter if our hair is perfectly coiffed and colored or happily messy and silver streaked?

I know the answer.  Society says our looks matter; God says they don’t.  We live caught somewhere between those competing sentiments. In last week’s sermon I said this: “Maybe we will be a church that sees the face of Christ in everyone we meet. We belong to God because we look like Christ. We are created in God’s image.”

It never occurred to me to look for the face of Christ in Renee Zellweger.  I have no idea if she is a person of faith, but that’s not the point.  I think the point is to look beyond the surface to the humanity and the holiness.  Maybe Renee is a woman struggling with her professional life and her mortality.  Maybe she doesn’t give a damn.  Maybe her looks are none of our business.

I will admit that some people make it hard to see the face of Christ, and it has nothing to do with appearance. We hate their attitude or their actions, or we judge them, or we belittle them.  Why would the spirit of Christ reside in such an ugly person?  That’s the challenge – where is this person’s holiness or humanity?  How might God be speaking to us through them?

Head-of-ChristThen I think about the images of Christ that have been created over the millenia which look nothing like what a first century semitic male would have looked like.  I might make fun of a golden haired, peachy skinned Jesus, but I wouldn’t make fun of a Jesus with Asian features or African features.  I would respect that the artist in a different culture was trying to express that Jesus was theirs, too.  I hesitate at the blonde white Jesuses because of the assumption that if Jesus could have chosen, he really would have wanted to be an American.  Maybe that’s not what Warner Sallman and his like were getting at.  But still.

I don’t know what Jesus looked like.  I don’t know what Renee Zellweger would look like if she hadn’t, presumably, had work done.  I do know that over the years I’ve done a little plucking here and there to change my appearance, and as I’ve lived with this face for fifty years, I know how I look and accept it.

But do others struggle to see the face of Christ in mine?