A fistfight broke out on an airplane. The President of the United States repeatedly lies. Whether or not the poor deserve medical treatment is actually debated. Far away, children are dying from famine. These were just some of the stories leading the news the other day.
Sometimes I feel that taking pictures and writing about the beauty of a flower or a bird or adorable children is gratuitous – a narcotic of sorts, anesthetizing away the vulgarity of our communities. Christians are, after all, called to see the least, the lost, the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned, the diseased, the most painful and grievous this world has to offer.
Jesus tells us to assume the burden of the cross, to bear the unbearable.
And I post a picture of a lily. It neither toiled nor spun. It doesn’t worry. It doesn’t care. It simply is. Just as the birds of the air come swooping down to my feeders and eat seed they did not plant. The Father, Jesus tells us, will care for these.
But the nightly news says God is selective in God’s caring. The vibrant reds, the subtle shades of purple and the dotted pedals that look like freckles. The captured detail of the anther where the pollen of the flower is stored. God can look at the lily and call it good, and we must concede that, yes, God does care about the lilies. But what about the rest? Does God see only the lilies among the brambles?
Oh, here we could accidently stumble into the briary tunnels of evil, theodicy, and the ink-covered question about why bad things happen. God knows when a sparrow falls and the hairs of your head. And we could accuse God. Why don’t you know about the children in South Sudan, God? It is a good question. A question that God deserves to be asked. And God might have a point, I think, if our question was returned to us. Why haven’t you noticed the lily?
If we never looked at the lily and fawned over its beauty, how will we mourn when the flower wilts back into the ground? If we pooh-poohed the admiration earned by the trill of the soggy-roadside bird, can we hear anything at all? If we don’t mourn the death of God, how can we truly celebrate the resurrection?
Beauty is the totality of creation – the created medium of existence. We live in a world, however, that is punctured with holes in existence. Failing to recognize beauty’s absence isn’t artistic or the triumph of some sort of natural theology. It is quite the opposite. When we fail to notice the hurt and brokenness of our world, our religion becomes a form of escapism. When everything is lily blooms and bird plumage, when our greatest spiritual accomplishment is posting a pithy quote on Facebook or reciting John 3:16, we slip into a Gnostic reality of illusions. This could be the difference between what is beautiful and what is merely pretty. Pretty is skin deep, the zippy, glossy-covered magazine. Pretty has no narrative, no story. Beauty on the other hand, rises with the cadence of song, moves and transforms us.
Beauty invites us to remember that what is good is meant to be. What is beautiful was created. There is urgency in finding beauty so we will feel and do something about beauty’s absence. Augustine said evil is the absence of the good. It isn’t a thing in and of itself. Or to put it another way, evil is like the hole in your jacket. Your jacket isn’t a hole. The hole is the absence of the jacket – it isn’t really real. And only when you notice the absence can something be done about it. For too long we’ve been staring in the abyss, the scarcity. All we see and hear and talk about is bad news. We are in danger of losing our God-created humanity by paying no mind to beauty. Notice the lily. Hear the bird. Not because it is pretty but because it is beautiful. Rejoice that Christ lives because Christ was dead. And because we see the beauty, be empowered to do something about its absence.