A question for the new year: What do you think are the most obvious facts about this Creation? – this human world, or the natural world, the universe(s) that we live in?
I think there are two very important, very obvious facts, and they are succinctly presented in this line from the Psalms.
The enemy has damaged everything within the Sanctuary.
That “Sanctuary” was probably Solomon’s Temple, a work of huge expense, a great engineering and artistic achievement, a major statement of national and religious pride. But then it was terribly ravaged. Imagine yourself walking around in that complex of buildings and squares after “everything” in it had been damaged. What would you see? What would you feel? Would there not be two very obvious reactions?
1. Wow. This is (or was) awesome. Incredible.
2. Wow. This is so sad. This is really messed up.
That’s my take on our world – breath-takingly awesome, and really really messed up.
Beautiful and ugly. Excellent and awful. Awesome and repulsive. Incredibly well-planned and ordered, and terribly chaotic and dysfunctional. And we, and all we care about, suffer in the midst of that contradiction.
To my mind that applies to the natural world as well as to all our human worlds that we of necessity devise and live in. I think it impacts us more frequently and painfully – if we are paying much attention – in the world of humans, in politics and economics, in social arrangements and personal relationships, in cultural patterns and national habits. Still, of course, the decay in the physical or natural world will get us all in the end. And death is generally not seen as one of the beautiful things – though the way a person faces it might be.
III. Do You Accept Those Facts?
What’s our response to this obvious mixture in our personal and social lives of wonderful and horrible?
Should we as Christians emphasize one side of the equation and ignore the other? If so, which? And if we do ignore half of this reality, do we thereby endanger ourselves and others?
How about us personally? Do you and I as individuals tend to focus our attention and interest on one side of it and ignore the other? Do we tend to interpret events mostly from one perspective or the other? And if so, what is the impact on our lives of focusing on either the excellence or the damage?
Lots of questions, I know. And it’s hard to pause and wait in this setting for the answers and discussion that could prove so interesting and helpful.
I wish we could sit around the living room and have that discussion.
IV. Jesus Lived It
We see this duality in Jesus’ life. Years of beautiful ministry, full of integrity, of impact, of hope and implications for the human future. Lots of connection, and the ability to really impact peoplesâ€™ lives. Then it ended in that horrible travesty of justice in Jerusalem, and the political murder at the cross.
(Of course, the Resurrection followed. But that was changing the script, you know. That’s not what the crowds had been hoping for. Their hopes were dashed. It seems, even, that he felt that way himself to some extent.)
Much of the excellence and much of the pain are located in or derived from our human worlds. Jeremiah told the people to seek the welfare of the enemy city to which they had been relocated.
Jesus wept over a city. The people of that city loved the beauty of Herod’s construction projects (e.g. the Temple), and they loathed his personality and the bloodshed and other injustices he perpetrated so freely against them.
Our towns and cities are full of beauty. Every building, road, port, park represents a lot of cooperative effort, of excellent workmanship. Every school, church, business, home, yard or garden, or family is a miracle of order and energy.
And our towns and cities are well acquainted with decay and collapse, sorrow and brutality, ruined lives and ruined structures, betrayed promises, and institutions that are destroying the ends for which we brought them into being.
VI. We Live With It
Jesus saw the ugly AND the beautiful. And he clearly is teaching us that the beautiful is worth embracing, right on through the storms of ugly.
When the grain of sand gets into the oyster’s shell, that’s a pain (presumably – Iâ€™m not intimately acquainted with oyster perceptions). But the oyster goes ahead and covers it with what it has at hand – and thereby turns the irritant into a thing of beauty. But it remains an unsolicited interference. It remains. It gets “glorified” into pearldom, but itâ€™s still there. Thatâ€™s not what the oyster â€œintendedï¿½ï¿½? its life to be like.
Remember the two “Great Commandments”? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. In a way we have there these two opposites – the Beauty, God, and the ugly, human society. Draw on the love of the Beauty in order to sustain practicing love in the world of ugly.
But the humans also are a thing of beauty. That’s what the Gospel means – we are worth it. We are all worth it. And if we’re worth it to God, we have to allow the others, the “neighbors,” to be worth it to us. And since we are to love them as we love ourselves, we have to allow ourselves also to be worth it to us.
“The enemy has damaged everything in the sanctuary.” But God still loves this sanctuary that is under such long construction. God sees the present and the potential beauty. And that makes all the difference.
So as to the question whether Christians should emphasize one side or the other of this, it seems not. We can see both, and we must.
Christians have the freedom – luxury maybe – of facing both the beauty and the ugliness straight. We are freed from having to pretend. We are freed from having to live in a pit of cynicism and anger. We are not surprised at evil, neither are we surprised at good. We are free to resist storms, disease, injustice, and hate or indifference. And we are not ashamed to get misty-eyed over babies and sunsets, concerts and even city government. We are free to be awed by all the beauties, natural and human-made, and to deliberately love all of our fellow-citizens of this beautiful, ugly world.