Message for June 28, 2020
Text: Psalm 147
Access to beautiful things is, in no small measure, a matter of privilege. To be surrounded by artwork, to be able to step out one’s door and enjoy a garden or a walk among trees or along a natural water source, to attend concerts or museums, or to take music lessons — nearly all of these enjoyments are possible because of having financial resources and the freedom to choose where one lives — and that is not afforded to everyone. Of course, beauty is not only to be found in things that have a price tag, and having pretty things is not necessarily correlated with the ability to fully appreciate them, or with happiness, but there is a definite inequality in access, and an inequality in the amount of leisure time with which to focus on the enjoyment of beauty, which marks, or mars, life in our society in this day and age.
Professor Allie Utley points out that, while most of us are referring to the times we are living in now as “unprecedented,” it could reasonably be argued that many other periods in human history, including times documented in the Bible, were considered by those going through them to also be “unprecedented.” We might well remember the stories of the Flood, the Exodus, the Exile, any number of droughts, famines, and military conquests. Furthermore, the Bible reminds us that our God is a God of unprecedented times. Over and over, in the biblical witness, we encounter a God who acts in love and power, bringing people of faith through difficult circumstances that they never imagined possible, and does so in ways that they never imagined possible. God rebuilds what has been destroyed, God gathers those who have been scattered, God knows us better than we know ourselves.
Psalm 147 is a hymn of praise to this God who restores, who heals, and who knows us deeply and intimately. The word that ends today’s passage, often translated “faithful (or steadfast) love,” is one of the most frequent and important words in all of the Psalms, and is a description of God’s character; the phrase translated “those who wait for God’s faithful love” — the ones who are treasured, beloved, or delighted in, by God — this waiting, hoping, trusting in God’s faithful love, and working in concert for the establishment of the justice God intends for the world, is the stance and the task of God’s people, as it is proclaimed in the Psalms. This is the essence of beauty, contemplation, prayer and action.
“Beauty is not a luxury,” Dr. Wendy Farley says. It is a necessity to keep our spirits alive. And while one aspect of injustice is that there are places that are seemingly “designed to exclude beauty,” such as prisons, inner cities, hospital rooms, courtrooms, meeting rooms, and even some public school classrooms — still, it is not “possession” of pretty things which makes up a “beauty-full” life. Possession of pretty things can often get caught up in power as well as consumerism — but you cannot actually buy beauty. “The heart opening to the beauty of reality happens everywhere,” Farley says — and, I might add, that even in those “designed to exclude beauty” places there is beauty to be found, especially because there are people in those places. Finding beauty is a spiritual practice.
Indeed, some of the most beautiful expressions of art arise out of great turmoil and suffering. Consider the spirituals — music which arose out of the bitter experience of slavery — and the Blues, a form of music developed decades after the abolition of slavery, also speaking to the African-American experience (and popular music and spoken word poetry continues to evolve in this tradition, as a form resilient beauty and social critique in the face of suffering). Consider the art made from trash, or the jar of wildflowers that adorns a spare kitchen table, or the fabric scraps sewn into a crazy quilt, each piece with its own story. Beauty has a tenacious quality that draws us in, no matter the external circumstances, often bringing transformation to those living in those circumstances.
This is not to deny the evil of the forces behind situations of very real suffering, or to justify that cruelty in any way by pointing to the amazing work that came out of them. Farley asserts: “The beauty is that there was some unbelievable power within these people to not be totally defeated — and that’s the beauty of the human spirit empowered by the Divine goodness.” That is what we are falling in love with when she talks about contemplative practice helping us to “fall in love with the world:” falling in love with “the beauty of beings … and when we see them dehumanized, degraded, harmed, killed… That’s not beautiful … and our heart has opened to their beauty, and therefore we are invited in to care for, protect, lament, the world.”
This past Wednesday leaders of our denomination — United Methodist bishops, worship artists, laypeople, and leaders dedicated to justice ministries — invited all our people to engage in a service of lament over the evil of racism, the unjust murder of countless numbers of Black persons and other people of color by police, and to confess the complicity of our church as an institution in structural racism. The service itself was a thing of beauty, even as it stirred us to contemplate horror and brought forth tears and sadness. (The video, streamed live, is still viewable on YouTube, and I commend it to you if you haven’t seen it yet.)
Also this week, I read of a unique artistic installation created by a layperson at Northaven UMC, a mostly-white Methodist congregation in Dallas, Texas. These days, after sundown, folks driving past the modern-looking suburban church building now see, projected on the outside wall, the words “Jesus Weeps,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Say Their Names,” and the names of nearly fifty persons who have died in police custody or in racially motivated killings.
These expressions of lament and cries for justice have the form of beauty that does not deny the brokenness of reality.
In a conversation with Dr. Marcia McFee, Dr. Farley talks about her childhood experience — which may sound like yours — of dressing up for church, polishing shoes, putting on one’s best dress — and growing up thinking that we are only to bring our “perfect self” to God. This leads, she says, to a desire to “hide what’s hard in our own self, and … what’s hard in our own history … we want to not look at it … we want to conceal; we don’t want to admit the brokenness.” In contrast, she asserts, “the contemplative journey isn’t about lies, or deception, or hiding from ourselves or anybody else; it’s about a passion for what’s real. And what’s real is we are broken. And our world is broken.”
One avenue to that deep connection to what’s real, what is beautiful, and what is transformative, is through the senses. To notice God in the details — the smell, sound, touch, sight of resilient life bursting forth for all it’s got — is to open our hearts to both the wonder and the pain, and to hear God’s call to care.
So I invite you to pay attention, to focus in on some aspect of the world around you — whether it be in nature, in the photo of a human face, or in the detail of a story you hear or watch in the news. Zoom in, soak it up, notice your heart opening, and hear God speaking. Take the time to practice this, over and over, both with the things that immediately charm you and those things that might at first seem ugly or ordinary. Beauty is to be found everywhere, and God is speaking everywhere. God knows your name, and the names of every created being. Watch and wait on divine love, and ready yourself for the next faithful step.