People of Beauty

“What Does It Mean to Be a People of Beauty,” Susan Ryder

Genesis 1:26-27; 31 – Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; so God created humankind in the image of God; male and female. God saw everything God had made – the light and dark, the waters and sky, the dry land and plants, the creatures of the air, water, and land; and humankind – and indeed, it was very good.

1 John 4:7 – Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

Henri Nouwen – “We are indeed brothers and sisters not only of all other men and women in the world but also of all that surrounds us. Yes, we have to love the fields full of wheat, the snowcapped mountains, the roaring seas, the wild and tame animals, the huge redwoods, and the little daisies. Everything in creation belongs, with us, to the large family of God.”

I found this to be a challenging topic for me to launch as our theme for the next several weeks. What does it mean to be a people of beauty? I struggled with it all week – actually longer than that – because there is so much ugliness in the world. In particular these days it feels like racism and white supremacism are coming out from the rocks they used to hide under, with videos of white people yelling at people of color, threatening them and calling them despicable names, brazenly, without any shame. Last week I watched a video of a middle-aged white woman at a Starbucks shouting at a couple at a nearby table for speaking Korean, claiming it’s an ugly language and they should speak English. Later I saw a young white woman shouting obscenities at an American-born Muslim man and telling him to go back to his own country. Add to that the daily shootings and hateful rhetoric overwhelming the political landscape, and wow, it’s just a really ugly out there lately.

So how can we talk about beauty at a time everything feels so ugly? Fortunately, I soon realized we must focus on the beauty in the midst of all of the ugliness, or else the ugliness wins. For instance, on Friday a little bit of beauty broke through the ugliness of the mass murders in El Paso, as Antonio Basco stood in front of his wife’s casket for two hours hugging strangers. His wife, Margie Reckard, 63, was killed when a gunman opened fire at a Walmart. The couple had no relatives in the area, so a few days earlier he invited anyone who wanted to come to the service, because he thought no one would show up. When he walked into the La Paz Faith Memorial and Spiritual Center he was met with a storm of applause and a procession of people waiting to hug him. The building was at capacity with 400 mourners, while outside another 700 waited in nearly 100-degree heat to pay respects, according to funeral organizers. “People were telling me they came from different faiths, different cities. It’s just incredible how much love and support every single one of you has shown,” Reckard’s grandson, Tyler, said. The philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, In difficult times, carry something beautiful in your heart.” Since Friday, I have carried images of hundreds of strangers hugging Antonio Basco in my heart.

These are indeed difficult times, times which require courage, commitment, hope, and self-care, all of which can be sustained by beauty. We maintain our commitment by finding beauty that nourishes us, and we hold on to hope because experiences of beauty remind us that just maybe the universe is on our side. We find the courage to fight after falling in love with a beautiful vision worth fighting for, and counteract the dehumanization of others when rooted deeply in the beauty of our own, and everyone else’s dignity. There are individuals out on the front lines holding our humanity alive in areas of ultimate inhumanity, where things happen that the human eye should never see. And they’re able to sustain it because there is, within them, some sense of beauty that knows the horizon to which they are called. Always keep something beautiful in your heart, especially during times when it’s most difficult. If you can hold some kind of beautiful image that you are able to glimpse out of the corner of your eye every now and again, you can endure great bleakness.

Robert McAfee Brown wrote:
“Where beauty is apparent, we are to enjoy it.
Where there is beauty hidden, we are to unveil it.
Where there is beauty defaced, we are to restore it.
Where there is no beauty at all, we are to create it.”

“Where beauty is apparent, we are to enjoy it.” That seems simple enough, yet how often do we allow ourselves to pay attention to and enjoy that which we find beautiful? How often do we pull our faces out of our smartphones and explicitly pay attention to the beauty in our daily lives? It’s easy to miss out on the beauty in our lives. Rev. Peter Friedrichs says, “Even before every free moment was consumed by a screen, we were distracted. Distracted by the things we needed to get done, by the stresses and strains of our daily living. Now, when we have a few precious moments to breathe, instead of looking up and all around us, instead of seeking out and engaging with beauty, we’re looking down at these little ‘weapons of mass distraction’ we carry with us wherever we go. And even if we do actually encounter beauty somewhere along the way, what do we do? We grab our phones and take pictures of it, instead of just allowing ourselves to be immersed in it and embraced by it.

“Not only are we actively distracted from beauty these days, but we are also lured and tempted by the siren song of worry, of anxiety, of loss, of outrage, of maybe even a little bit of hatred. There’s certainly no small supply of reasons to grieve and mourn these days, from climate change to gun violence to presidential tweet storms of vile messages. If we’re not careful, we can be consumed by such things, and blinded by grief and rage to the beauty that always surrounds us. It’s so easy to lose sight of that – to forget that – that beauty is everywhere. That we are always able to access it. That no matter where we are or what we’re doing, we can find something that’s, somehow, beautiful.” Whether it’s going for walk in one of our many nearby nature areas, listening to beautiful music, reading a perfect poem, or stepping outside to see the full moon through the clouds at night and listen to the cicada song – during challenging and difficult times we need to remind ourselves to make the time for the beauty that will help us through.

“Where there is beauty hidden, we are to unveil it.” It is easier for us to find beauty in places that are more traditionally associated with it – out in nature, the mountains, the beach, a spectacular sunset, the faces of those we love, music that moves us, a work of art that takes our breath away. It can be harder to see the beauty in what we might otherwise consider mundane or even unattractive. And yet, if we look for it, beauty can be found in these places as well. A slab of broken concrete with a dandelion growing in the crack; the uniquely reflected light that comes from a broken mirror; a line of ants carrying small crumbs across a sidewalk. Beauty surrounds us, both in the classical ways we normally conceptualize it, and in places we might least expect it, as well as within so many of the seemingly mundane moments of our everyday lives. We need to pay attention. Cracks and imperfections are beautiful – they are how the light gets in, said Leonard Cohen.

And finally, “Where there is beauty defaced, we are to restore it. Where there is no beauty at all, we are to create it.” Rev. Sean Dennison writes, “The ability to see beauty is the beginning of our moral sensibility. What we believe is beautiful we will not wantonly destroy. With this, we are reminded that beauty does more than soothe and heal. It demands. It creates commitment. It doesn’t just say, ‘Love and appreciate me.’ It says, ‘Protect me! Fight for me!’” So yes, beauty is there for us to experience with awe and joy. Beauty is there to comfort us and sustain us in our struggles. Yet, our experiences with beauty also call us to create more of it – to restore it when it has been defaced and to create it where it has not yet existed.

Beauty calls us to love and justice, to leave our world a better place than the one into which we were born. With all of the ugliness, all of the beauty being defaced in our world today by hateful voices and offshore oil rigs and white power signs, it can sometimes be hard to hold on to a vision of that more beautiful world, that world toward which beauty beckons us.

As members of a spiritual community, we are called individually and together to combine each of our our unique gifts, and radiate the divine into our world, restoring beauty where it has been defaced, creating beauty where it has yet to become. What might that look like for you? What beauty can you help restore or create? For example – for me what beauty calls us to create is a world in which people coming to the U.S. fleeing persecution are welcomed with loving open arms rather than children being torn away from their parents and locked in cages. A beautiful world would be one in which we abolish immigrant concentration camps and prisons, and people no longer die while in the custody of our government. My votes, my dollars, will help support those causes. I also wouldn’t mind if there were no more guns … and … and … and … What about you? How can you restore beauty where it has been defaced, or create beauty where it has yet to become? Pascal said, In difficult times, carry something beautiful in your heart” – so what do you carry?