Why Beauty Matters

Why Beauty Matters

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What images, either through words, film, art or music, have changed you? If you stop and think about it you may be surprised how much beauty has shaped who you are today. Possibly the most powerful image to shape my life came first from written words and later the same image as it was produced in film. It is the image of Atticus Finch, from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Atticus has just lost his case where his client, an innocent black man, was found guilty because of racial prejudice. His daughter, Scout, is in the balcony watching and as Atticus begins to leave the court room the local minister taps Scout and tells her to stand up. “Your father is passing,” he says.

That image tells so much. It tells us that justice is right and worth fighting for even against the odds. It tells us that character does not always win but it is always right. For me, it represented the kind of man and father I wanted to be. Do not dismiss beauty, in whatever form it may take because it has the power to transform and shape your life. Images of beauty makes us dream of a better world and strive for our better selves.

I believe that all art, in whatever form, is intensely spiritual. Images of beauty created through music, canvas, or words are the highest expression of the human spirit and push us to levels of experience and understanding that often cannot be defined.

Think about your experiences reading. Which has stayed with you longer an explanation of how something occurred or works or a picture created in your mind through an image or description? The best writing is that which is image driven rather than instructional. This is one reason I am so frustrated with the state of modern publishing, particularly that which labels itself “Christian.” They churn out books that tell us how to win, not sin, please God, stand up against culture, and all sorts of list and things to do and not do. But where is the beauty? Where is the creativity? One exceptional book that gives us beauty and allows to to see beyond ourselves and the present will change far more lives than some bland how to book. Where is the beauty in “Christian” publishing today?

When we live by beauty and love our lives with each other and with our creator grow beyond doctrine, theology or self-help sermons. “Right answers” seem shallow and simplistic when they are confronted with love and beauty. It is shocking how rarely Jesus seemed to be concerned with right answers, or even right behavior. It was his enemies that seemed to be consumed with such things. Jesus was much more interested in the human heart and assumed that a heart which produced beauty and love was what was desired rather than one that produced answers.

Increasingly I am finding that my soul is longing for beautiful images of my faith and that three point sermons, weekend seminars and books that either point out everything thats wrong or promise to make everything right are inadequate and stifling. I long to see dead instruction replaced by beautiful transcendent images.

So here is a question – “Does the way you are living your life encourage others to love better and to be image bearers of beauty? Does it cause others to dream? Or, does the path you set them on lead them to a religion of deeds and doctrine? Images are powerful. What are you creating?

The Forgotten Artist

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I believe one of the most beautiful pieces of art hangs on the wall of my office. When I saw it seven years ok through a picture on the internet, I immediately knew what represented. It spoke powerfully to my soul and spirit. I had to have it and within weeks it arrived. There is only one in the world, and it hangs in my office. There is no way to measure the hope and beauty it has brought to my life.

However, there is a reason it hangs in my office rather than my living room, den or bedroom. My wife does not like it – at all. She does not “get it” as some would say, and she is not alone. I can not tell you the times I have excitedly and proudly ushered people into my office to show them my pride and joy only to be met with blank stares and awkward responses. There have been people who have liked this particular piece of art, and a few who even seemed to have been as moved by it as I am. But they are the minority.

So how does one explain that I was so moved by something that I spent money I did not have to get that others look at with empty expressions and bewilderment? The answer lies in a rarely acknowledged truth about beauty and creativity. Art and beauty are not created by the artist – they are begun.

No matter what form art takes – visual, written, auditory or any other, the artist only provides the spark of genius to begin the process for bringing beauty into the world. There is an equally important person involved in the process of beauty, and that is the receiver. Art is a participatory experience.

“A painting which elicits no response from a viewer never lives,” writes author Madeleine L’Engle. A song that is not heard or evokes no effect has died somewhere between the musician and the hearer. If I write a book or poem and the reader cannot create it with me, then that book is “stillborn.” The person who listens and hears, who reads, who understands, and who sees is equally a creator as the one who set down the words to paper, applied paint to a canvass, or played notes upon their instrument.

There is no higher joy for a writer or artist than when we encounter someone who completed what we began.

Beauty is not something to read, see, or hear. It is an event for one to share. Beauty is a glorious thing that occurs when the artist, God, and the receiver become co-creators with each other. The creative process loudly proclaims our reliance upon each other and God.

Recently, I have discovered the Italian composer and pianist Ludovico Einaudi. When I listen to his “Nuvole Bianche,” I compose along with Einaudi as I hear it and allow it to take me to deep places within myself. As a writer, I spend hours and sometimes years writing a poem or book. However, whatever I have written only can become beautiful if someone reads it and finishes what I began.

Now go and create something beautiful with another!

*Mixed Media piece by Grace Carol Bomer

The Poet God

modern portrait art painting The Poet God

God could have decided to tell his story in any manner he wanted. He could have waited until modern times and put it on television, made a mini-series or an epic movie. He could have unfolded the sky and allowed us to see what he desired for us to know. He could have just spoken it to us or made a recording for us to play. Instead, he chose to tell us his story through the written word, and I think that is interesting.

Not only did God choose to tell his story of redemption through the written word but he chose to make a very large portion of his written revelation through poetry. Almost 60% of the Bible was written in one or another forms of poetry. When I first began studying the Hebrew and Greek languages that the Bible was originally written, I was shocked to discover how often God spoke in a non-precise manner, how often he communicated through creative, highly imaginative forms of poetry. Why? Why leave things open for different views, interpretations and opinions? Almost every book of the Bible has some form of poetry in it, and a number of the books are nothing but poetry!

God does not stop with his love of poetry at only his written word but when he shows up on earth in Jesus, he continues to speak that way. Today, we have a word for Jesus’ stories; we call them parables. However, the word parables can be deceptive to our modern ears. Jesus’ parables were highly creative, colorful and non-precise stories which, of all literary genres, are closest to poetry. In a sense, Jesus used street poetry to speak to the people of his day in a manner of art and language that they best related to. If he had come today, it is not outside the realm of possibility that Jesus would use rap or spoken word artistry as a means of revealing his message.

We call Matthew chapters 5 through 7 the “Sermon on the Mount” but the bible does not call it that. The truth of the matter is that what we call the “Sermon on the Mount” is nothing more than one of the most beautiful poems ever written. Its cadenced rhythms are so strong that they carry over through translation from Greek to English. The words Jesus uses here are vivid, lilting, hope-filled, engaging, rich words of transcendence.

Poets, artist, writers and creative types of all stripes see the world differently than others, and I am beginning to believe that they may be more attuned to seeing it the way our creative God does. As Karl Shapiro writes, a poet “does not go into training to sharpen his senses; he is a poet because his senses are naturally open and vitally sensitive.” I think the same can be said of any type of artist, no matter what form his creative energy takes.

So, if you are not a nail it down tight, say it precise, mathematical type take cheer! If you see the world as not always being painted by numbers or colored within the lines, you are not alone. The poet creator of the universe has, for some reason, chosen to make you with a sensitive heart that sees beyond simplistic definitions and beyond the boundaries of the known. I think that makes you pretty special!

*Painting is by artist Alan Firmin

How to Understand a Poem & Beauty

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When it comes to beauty one of the most misunderstood art forms is poetry. Our culture has bought the lie that words are only for understanding when they are also to be experienced. Words – writing – can be beautiful but, more often than not, many of us miss their beauty because we are so consumed with their meaning.

The number one thing you can do to enjoy the beauty and art of poetry is relax! Take a chill pill. Understanding a poem is often not the point. e.e. cummings went so far as to say “poetry gives most pleasure when only generally and not perfectly understood.”

Rather than looking for a deep hidden meaning or some profound philosophical or spiritual insight, look for beauty to be experienced. What images does the writer paint which open your imagination? What certain rhythms existence in the poem? How about the use of and play on words that are creative, unique and insightful? Is there a line or stanza which evokes an emotion, triggers a memory, or touches you in an intangible but real way?

So first, RELAX and choose to experience the poem a rather than understand it.

Second, accept that the poem is painting a picture to be enjoyed rather than explaining a concept. Poetry is an art and therefore should be approached as one would a beautiful painting or piece of music. There are classical poems just as there is classical music, but there are also Appalachian poems just as there is Appalachian music. There are urban poems, religious poems, children’s poems so make sure you know what type of poem you are looking at, and this will help you to enjoy its beauty.

If you’re a beginning poetry reader, I would encourage you to not worry about what style or form the poem takes. For most modern readers, free verse is the easiest and therefore that is where I would start. Free verse means just what it says; the poem is free to do whatever it desires. There are no set rules or requirements. Its only purpose is to tell a story, paint a picture or usher you into an experience.

With a poem, you can be content to relish the musical flow and beauty of its use of syllables, the waves of its stanzas and the alluring images painted by its crisp, clear images. Poetry is not meant to bring you to a point of understanding but rather to make you smile, laugh, dance, gasp or relax. You do not have to understand every word.

Beauty and art are often alluring because they are mysterious. Your ability to accept and enjoy that which you cannot define or understand goes a long way to enabling you to experience fully and enjoy that which is beautiful. So many of us miss so much because our insecurity or a bondage to rationality keeps us from seeing the vast amounts of beauty that lay just beyond the horizon of our understanding.

A creative mystery is not a problem that must be solved or eliminated; it is an experience that must be entered into and enjoyed. The same is true of all that is transcendent and beautiful which, I believe, includes God.

We spend a lifetime defining God, explaining him, categorizing him, dissecting him, doing everything we know to understand him. But what if God’s desire is not that we understand him as much as it is that we experience him? God is like a poem in that way, which is not so surprising when one considers that if God is anything he is beautiful and creative. Now we don’t reject all understanding of God or beauty. Understanding has its place. After all, God is both passionate and thoughtful and so is art. True art and holiness both engage our whole being and all its levels, even those things within ourselves we do not understand yet still can feel.

Our modern lives have become too dry, too pragmatic and too easily described. What art, music, poetry, mystery and beauty do is that they allow us to reagin a sense of wonder. Show me a person who has all the answers to your questions about God, eternity, and life, and I will show you someone who stopped growing long ago. Show me a poem, piece of art or music that can be defined and explained, and I will show you something that has no joy and beauty left to experience.

Embrace the mystery. Go experience something today that you can not define. Your soul will lighten.

* Painting is “Living Waters” by Robyn Sand Anderson

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

eng blog wildgoosechase Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver speaks to the soul with only a few words and says much better what took me an entire blog post when I wrote “Beauty, Writing & Poetry.”

Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

Beauty Writing & Poetry

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Things are getting ugly. No, I’m not talking about the political season, although the statement certainly could apply to our political culture. When I say things are getting ugly, I mean everything. I define ugly as the absence of beauty. It is not that beauty is not around, it is more that it has been diminished, ignored, and overlooked. It seems as if the average American will choose almost anything over the truly beautiful – that which is transcendent.

Violence is in.
Aggression is in.
Winning is in.
Succeeding is in.
Easy and cheap escapism is in.
Riches and materialism are in.
Ten easy steps to accomplish almost anything or become almost anyone is in.

Beauty and transcendence? Not so much.
I am growing fearful that we have become so dumbed down, so uncultured as a society that we no longer have any idea what is truly beautiful.

Part of the problem is that, in many ways, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” as the saying goes. However, there are some things that apply to beauty that are eternal and true. Manly we know that beauty touches the human heart and moves the human soul. There is an intangible aspect to it, but there is no doubt when one has encountered it. They are moved. They are changed. They, in some sense, have encountered that which is transcendent – a reality that is beyond themselves and is … well, beautiful.

Beauty does not inflict harm through violence, and it does not glorify it. Beauty does not destroy others. It does not jocky for advancement. It does not escape but rather seeks out the best of ourselves and celebrates it. It is much more interested in feeling more, experiencing more, and encountering more than it is in acquiring. Beauty is certainly not simplistic and will never be defined in 10 easy steps.

While “Ten Easy Steps to (fill in the blank)” may sell books, fill seminars and increase blog traffic, they rarely bring us into contact with that which last and moves us beyond ourselves. While concreate foundations may make us feel temporarly safe, they will never enable us to fly.

I have spent a lifetime seeking, reading, learning, hearing, teaching and proclaiming answers and if I am honest the result has been disappointing. Answers aren’t all they are cracked up to be. I’ll take beauty. Matthew Arnold says that “Not deep the poet sees, but wide.” While beauty may not be terribly pragmatic, it does open us to the possibilities that dreams open up within us.

While living a life committed to beauty, art, and transcendence may be countercultural in a society that values pragmatism over simply being, it is worth the effort.

One of the things I love about where I live in Colorado is that the sky is so often clear. I love to sit in my swing or lay in my hammock and stare up to the stars at night. I can not define what occurs but something good happens deep within my soul. The stars I see on the evenings when I take time to look at them accomplish no purpose, but to exist and to be encountered by a man laying in a hammock whose soul seeks that which is beautiful.

That is why I hang beautiful art in my home and listen to Ludovico Einaudi’s “Nuvole Bianche” while I write. It is why, after 35 years I still listen to Dave Gruisin’s “On Golden Pond” and it is as fresh as the day I first heard it. It is why I will read Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” or John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” again for the fifth and sixth time but have promised to never read another “leadership” book as long as I live.  It is why “The Mission” will beat out a super hero movie for as long as I live.

It is why I would rather be a writer than a proclaimer and why I would rather be a poet than professor.

A Poem for Autumn

After Apple Picking by Robert Frost

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MY long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.

Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.

But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.

For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

The Day That Laughter Died

Robin Williams The Day That Laughter Died

Robin Williams 1951-2014

While in the midst of writing another blog piece on a suicide, the news of Robin Williams arrived upon my computer screen. The first column will come later because everyone’s mind is on this man who by so many accounts was a gentle, compassionate, sensitive soul.  August 11, 2014 will be remembered as the day that laughter died.

The shock of William’s death is that we thought we knew him and discovered we did not.  That is always the shock of suicide. It leaves so many questions.  However, in Williams’ case the initial shock was compounded by the undisputable reality that he brought so much joy and insight into our lives. He lightened our journey by sharing his gifts. How could one with so much life choose to die? Questions – So many questions?

Robin Williams was not alone in his suffering – in his despair – in his disease of depression. There are Robin Williams’ all around us. We should not be as surprised as we are when something like Williams’ death occurs. The truth is none of us are truly known to any other. We have become a society of mask wearers, and a large portion of those masks are worn to hide mental illness.

I have no idea why there is such a stigma to diseases of the mind. I have no idea why we spiritualize depression, but not cancer or why we believe depression can be cured with a motivational speech, but cancer needs millions of dollars in research along with months, perhaps even years, of treatment.

There are those in your life whom you love deeply, but they hide their biggest struggle from you. They have fought it for years. At times it has taken every ounce of courage and fortitude, character and spirit, strength and guts just to survive the day. Social interactions can drain them and send them deeper into despair. Once or twice in your relationship with them they have been so desperate that they have decided to share their lifelong secret with you. When they began to broach the outer crust of what they suffer from, more likely than not, your response sent them back into their closet. Next time, if they are brave enough to try again, stay quiet, will compassion into your eyes and listen. When they have finished their confession just do one thing – love them.

Most who suffer from serious depression have done so for many years – perhaps their entire lives. By Robin William’s age they are exhausted beyond understanding. They have fought a battle that has never ended. It rages within them each day. When you rise to the sunrise – they have arisen to battle, and they are tired, so very very tired. Is it really that surprising that some give up? How much easier it would be to not be alone and know that they are one of many.

My heart is broken for the loss of this talented and generous man. The pain and loss of his family and friends are unimaginable. But I feel most for those that Robin has left behind who suffer from the same sickness and likely feel a tad more hopeless and alone than they did two days ago. Go to someone today and ask them, “Do you suffer from depression and, if so, can I hear your story and love you?” Love can roll stones away from tombs of darkness. I believe that. Do you?

The Hungry and World Vision

d052 0080 143 The Hungry and World Vision

World Vision has changed its mind. It hardly had a choice. Thousands of children were having their support taken away only one day after the Christian relief organization announced employing gay individuals with partners. The reaction was swift and angry. Many Christian celebrity leaders called for their followers to end all giving to World Vision.

Clearly, World Vision could have handled their announcement and the transition better. However the manner and level of anger Christians unloaded toward the ministry was, for me, a low point for the American church. Many of my spiritual heroes blew it, and it was hard for me to watch. Even as I say this I do so knowing that a large portion of my family and friends will disagree with me. But I have to say it. The one thing that was missing in this entire unfortunate situation was any resemblance of Jesus or Christ-likeness.

The overstatements and hyperbole were reactionary, dishonest, arrogant, and pharisaical. One individual, whom I have always respected, announced, apparently without asking anyone at World Vision, that the ministry no longer “believed in the Bible.” The person who said this is someone I take seriously, so I pulled up World Vision’s statement of faith to see if what he was saying was true. Guess what? World Vision believes “Jesus lived, died, and rose again.” They proclaim boldly that, “Jesus is Lord.” Elsewhere, they state that redemption is offered “only through faith in Jesus Christ.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty biblical to me.

Another “leader” announced that Christianity had “collapsed” at World Vision. According to this guy, the one organization which feeds more children and supports more families in Christ’s name than any other ministry in the world, are “apostates.” This writer went on to write that the announcement was a full frontal attack on “the gospel.” He did not say it was an attack on “the Bible’s teachings about sexuality”, he said on “the gospel.” Somehow in this fellow’s mind World Vision deciding to give gay people a job was an attack on the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Christ’s blood can wash away all our sin but can’t somehow cover World Vision’s hiring practices? Huh? What? Really? Did he really think this through before he said it? I believe in a Savior and a Cross much more powerful than that.

Now, please understand me. I think all those reacting are good people seeking to live out the truth of God’s word. They believe Scripture is under attack, and, therefore, they need to defend it. But Scripture can carry its own weight quit well without our help. The Bible is, after all, the very “breath of God.” So, while I think many had sincere motivation, I also believe they were misguided. God does not ask us to defend Him. He does tell us to follow Him and His Word tells us the best way to follow Christ is by love.

So, as I was praying and trying to sort all this out in my mind, a question popped into my mind. If Christ were here how would He have responded? Would Jesus insist that sinners not be given jobs so they could support themselves and their loved ones? If the answer is not obvious, I will answer the question for you. No. He would not have. The man who spoke with the woman at the well told her to sin no more, but He did not insist she not be allowed to make a living. I think Jesus would likely even get angry if someone insisted that the law of God was being broken, and therefore these sinners needed to not be allowed to work for a living.

The biggest thing of which I am most sure is that Jesus would not have called for His church to take food from the mouth’s of hungry children. Thousands of children and families who were being fed through monthly support given to World Vision had their support dropped at the insistence of “Christian leaders.” Yes, Christians were instructed to find another relief organization, such as Compassion International, and adopt a child through them. But that still doesn’t do anything about the kid you made a commitment to at World Vision who now will feel the pangs of hunger once again.

This week I heard a lot of noise. Many clanging cymbals so to speak. A lot of tongues wagging and self proclaimed prophets declaring God’s truth. What I did not see was much love and that is how we have been called to show Christ to the world.

Fred Phelps Is Dead. Now What?

“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”  Matthew 5:44

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Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, died today. He is famous for his hatred for almost anyone and everyone. I am sure there will be many who will give back as good as they got. His signs will be there but held by those he once condemned: “Burn in Hell”, “God Hates Fred” “Bigots Are God Haters”.  There will be many who will take pleasure in pointing out that the church he founded on intolerance became so narrow that they no longer tolerated him.  They will chuckle at the excommunication of the excommunicator.   However, I have a suggestion. How about we don’t become Fred now that he’s dead.

Already, the Twitter and Facebook universe is buzzing with tasteless jokes and hate filled venting. But if Fred Phelps was the example of everything God calls us not to be when he was alive why on earth would we follow his example now that he is gone?  How about we recognize what his parting has blessed us with, a more peaceful place to discover what it truly means to be a follower of Christ.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – MLK