Beauty as Messenger

Beauty as messenger. I’ve taught literature for many years now. I remain convinced that great literature reflects man’s best, noblest, most exalted efforts to express truth beautifully. For some, that may sound sentimental and saccharine. For others, however, Browning’s line, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” expresses what great literature aims for, namely, truth beautifully written. Might truth beautifully expressed be a messenger? And why do most avoid contemplating it?

The things in life that mean most to us are oftentimes the things about which most people avoid talking. It is more convenient to tweet or post. Headlines, not history. News is just that—new. We’re a “… and now this” culture, as Neil Postman wrote about. It’s what’s “happening now.” There is no room for the great enduring truths of literature when we can get updates sent to our phones and have news scrolled across the gadgets of our choice. We’re connected electronically but exiled in our souls. Where’s room for truth and beauty? Any room for a messenger?

The world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;–/Little we see in Nature that is ours;/We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” Wordsworth’s poem, “The World Is Too Much With Us,” still speaks, does it not? Might these words, penned hundreds of years ago, serve as a messenger of that which endures?

This morning driving to work I had the radio on in my truck. The radio DJ was telling of how Tom Petty died this week, and of how his albums are now selling at many times the rate they were when he was still living. I was not a big fan of Petty’s music but I do respect how he labored in his craft. For Petty, it was music. His songs are played constantly because he spoke to the human experience and he tailored his talents to fit the genre of rock and roll. And music lovers continue to respond by buying up his albums and turning up the volume. There’s a message through all this and it’s not just the tunes. It speaks to a longing in the human heart for beauty and for truth. I do not wish to stretch the analogy too far. I would not choose to argue that Petty’s lyrics are great literature. However, Petty’s music has endured because it speaks to people in ways music mysteriously has the power to do. It touches people’s souls. It stirs them. It reminds them of what they value, of what brings joy. And those things endure.

I’ve read the following lines hundreds of times: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). It’s a reminder that we don’t know our end. I doubt that Tom Petty knew last week that he had less than a week to live.

James wrote in similar fashion: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:13-14).

Why do I still love teaching Shakespeare and Faulkner? Why do I try to open the Psalms to students who malnourish themselves on intellectual Twinkies? It’s because I remain more convinced than ever that the human soul atrophies if starved of truth and beauty.

I plan to drive home late today. When I do, I will drive north and the sun will be descending over the trees over my left shoulder. When I enter the community where my family and I live, I will wind over hills and cross a lake. On that lake, the sun will place its golden fingers across the water’s surface. Loons and geese will likely be flying overhead. Drakes and ducks are likely to be paddling around and dipping their heads beneath the surface, then reemerging with drops of water on their glossy crowns. And again I will be speechless before beauty. I will be suddenly filled with a message. It’s a message worth telling.

 

Celebrate the Simple

What is it about imagesmen circling up, as around fire, that lends itself to speech, and even wisdom?

The kindling and sticks of firewood had not been laid out yet when some of us huddled ‘round. The purposes of gathering were for one of the young men to teach and for men to come alongside one another as part of encouragement and accountability. Men often live lives of work alone whereby their relationships atrophy.

The topic? Consistency between professed faith and practice. The Christian walk is to bear witness to the Christian message. Christians’ lives are to be marked by transformation.

One passage of Scripture the teacher cited came from James: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22 ESV). A second came from Paul: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who be will be justified” (Romans 2:13).

We men gathered on the upper banks of the pond. It was near dusk. A light breeze blew from the west. Clouds indicated a chance of rain. Some of our sons were downhill, fishing. The pond’s surface rippled when the winds picked up. We all looked to the teacher. He had his Bible open on his lap. Gently, he read, explained, and illustrated the multiple texts of Scripture.

When he concluded teaching, some men’s faces had changed. Spiritual realities were at work. Then some men began to speak. They spoke of how time often had found them at work for things that perish, instead of at work on themselves, and/or their loved ones. Some had neglected their families for careers. Some spoke of how grace had found them amidst busyness.  Others told of how they’d hardened themselves against some church folks’ legalism.  Some sanctimonious church attendees had deterred some men from feeling welcome. As a result, some men chose to bury themselves in work/careers. Others spoke of how we men tend to labor for acclaim rather than for truth.

Evening wore on and, eventually, darkness fell. One of the men began removing kindling from his pickup truck and started the fire. We gathered around the growing flames, as he added pieces of split wood. The flames grew orange and lengthened towards the sky. The Spirit continued to work.

My son was still downhill, fishing with some of his buddies. I called to him, telling him that it was getting late, and to start loading up the fishing tackle. My mind kept at its interior monologue: This is what matters. This is what matters. Invest in people. Don’t lose your soul. Hear, yes, but do.

 Time came to depart the campground. Neither my son nor I wanted to leave. I helped clean up the area, and shook hands with some of the others. My son and I got into my pickup. Halfway home, and without any prompting from me, my son said, “I love you, Dad.”

“I love you, too, boy.” I glanced at him quickly to see if his thoughts were with mine. He had his left elbow on the armrest. I wrapped my right hand over his left hand, squeezed it, and fought not to weep for the joy of relearning to celebrate the simple. This is what matters. This is what matters. Invest in people. Don’t lose your soul. Hear, yes, but do.

 

 

Cut in Half

Three fire trucks, five cop cars, and three ambulances. Onlookers lined both sides of the road. Policemenimgres unrolled yellow tape and erected orange barrel barricades to keep the onlookers at a distance. Still, the number of onlookers grew. Huddles of Latino families lined both sides of the four-lane road. EMTs and paramedics loaded what appeared to be two bodies on gurneys into one of the ambulances. Blue lights from the police cars, and red lights from the fire trucks and ambulances, lit the onlookers’ faces. The facades of business buildings facing the road reflected lights from emergency vehicles. The rain had just stopped. Wisps of steam rose from the hot wet asphalt. Shattered glass.

One of the vehicles was a four-door Ford Lincoln from the early 1980s, a massive car by today’s standards. It was now in two pieces. The vehicle that had T-boned the Lincoln was unrecognizable. It was now smashed into what resembled a steel accordion. I could have fit it in the back of my pickup. It sat immobilized in the center of the four-lane. Steel, plastic, and fiberglass bent in upon itself in horrific shapes. The Lincoln was in two pieces. The front half was in the middle turn lane. The rear half was downhill about a hundred meters, steaming on the sidewalk. It had been cut in half from the impact.

I’d come upon this scene on my drive to Publix. I was on my way to purchase sandwich meat and bananas. But as I topped the hill, I instead encountered this. Lights from ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars that that had amassed over half a block of South Cobb Drive. We drivers who’d come upon the scene were being rerouted, as South Cobb Drive was now closed. But the crowd of people grew. They gathered on foot along the four-lane. To do what? To pray for the families of the dead? To offer help to the EMTs, policemen, and firefighters? To gaze, like vultures on a wire, upon human carnage?

My stomach began to hurt. I realized I’d lost my appetite. I’d been looking forward to a turkey sandwich and banana after my run. Now I felt sick and ashamed of my selfishness. James’ words flashed in my mind: “yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14 ESV).

I watched the red brake lights of the car in front of me, as we inched our new way past the crash site. Wisps of steam continued to rise from the blacktop. James’ words burned my brain. A mist. These men or women, or perhaps children, who may’ve been running errands, too, had lives of mist. Now some of them lie dead in ambulances. And other people lined the sides of this four-lane like vultures, gawking over glass-ridden blacktop, as if other people were prey. This had become a spectacle of life’s brevity.

We do not know what tomorrow will bring. We do not know what today will bring. “For my days pass away like smoke,” (Ps 102:3a). As a husband, father, uncle, teacher, chaplain, soldier, etc. let me not forget. May I use my mind for that which matters, and not waste the days appointed.