The Takeaway - Beauty
Today we’ll be focusing on the beauty of God as fuel for our lives—and we’ll explore how we can appreciate and participate in God’s beauty. Spoiler alert: it’s not by cultivating our own beauty or uniqueness. Listen in.
“For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies, for the love which from our birth, over and around us lies, Lord of all, to Thee we raise This our hymn of grateful praise.”
During this pandemic I’ve become more attuned to the beauty of the earth. I’ve admired black-eyed Susans, thistle, monarchs, swallowtails, blue jays, and red-tailed hawks—and all this week. If these brushstrokes in the canvas of creation are beautiful, then God must be beautiful too.
Beauty might be one of the most underappreciated attributes of God, the dark horse of season 2 of the Takeaway. It has a visual dimension, like glory, yet it leads to pleasure and delight. Why is God’s beauty noted in the margins of the Scriptures? The Jewish people are iconoclasts—the 10 commandments forbids images of God, after all. The rare visual depiction of God in ancient Jewish art is of a black hand reaching down from the sky.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines beauty as a combination of qualities that please the senses, intellect, and morality. In the Old Testament, there are several Hebrew words for beauty: yafe, meaning fair, beautiful; and naim, meaning pleasant, delightful, lovely, good. And there is a larger cluster of words surrounding beauty: splendor, majesty, and pleasing. In the New Testament, the Greek word for beauty is kalos, meaning quality, precious, praiseworthy, beautiful. Beauty is where goodness and truth meet—resulting in pleasure and delight. Biblical beauty involves depth—not just beauty on the surface, but beauty through and through.
What do the Scriptures say about beauty?
Beauty is found in God’s creation, from the very beginning: “Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” (Genesis 2.9) Beauty is most often found in the pinnacle of God’s creation—human beings: including Joseph, Absalom, Sarah, and Job’s daughters.
Beauty is especially found where God dwells: in Jerusalem, and in the temple specifically. “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” (Psalm 27.4)
Sacrifices, offered in the temple, are very pleasing to God. The Book of Leviticus, which focuses on the details of worship, describes sacrifices in this way: “The priest shall turn it into smoke on the altar, on the wood that is on the fire; it is a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD.” (Leviticus 1.17) Over a dozen times in Leviticus we are reminded of how pleasing sacrifices smell to God.
Beauty is also found in lives pleasing to God. A life pleasing to God begins with a focus on God and God’s beauty in the world. In the words of the Apostle Paul: “Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4.8) And a life pleasing to God also results in good deeds: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (Hebrews 13.16)
In the New Testament, Jesus calls many things beautiful in his parables: soil, pearls, good works, and signs. And he proclaims his anointing by the woman at Bethany with the costly perfume nard, “a beautiful service for me.” (Mark 14.6)
Do you sense the common thread? God’s beauty is often perceived through smell. The smells of the temple are incense and burnt offerings, perfume plus cookout. The smell of nard, offered by the woman at Bethany to Jesus, is sweet, earthy, and woodsy.
That God’s beauty is often smelled may strike you as a bit odd or antiquated. Well, I celebrated a pandemic birthday in May. My usual birthday requests (a new dress, swimsuit, purse, etc.) didn’t have any appeal this trip around the sun. I wanted soap. The best smelling soap I could find. For my birthday I received almond soap from Caswell-Massey—pure delight in a bar. Beautiful smells lodge deep within our brains; smell is the sense that forms the strongest memories. Maybe now you can perceive—the smells of incense, perfume, and burnt offerings—these are the smells of the beauty of God.
So what? How can you and I participate in God’s beauty and depth? How can we lean into it? How can we draft off of it? How can we fill up with God’s beauty in the fuel tanks of our lives?
Not by focusing on your own outward appearance or your inward quality of soul. Not by cultivating your own uniqueness. Not by being authentic to the broad range of emotions and thoughts inside you. True beauty does not come from standing out.
The quest to be special or unique is the quest of Enneagram fours, known as “The Romantics” or “The Individualists.” Recall that the enneagram is a personality model that describes how we see and interact with the world—and how we grow into our true, beautiful selves. The divine attribute that fours most reflect is God’s beauty, creativity, and depth. The most common way they get sidetracked in life is their need to be unique or special, to stand out. In order to meet this need, they focus on themselves—especially what is missing, a perceived tragic flaw or irredeemable deficiency—that prevents them from connecting with their true selves and others. And they become envious of others—the wholeness others enjoy, the connections others have, the ease with which others make their way in the world. This envy, or chronic disappointment, trips them up.
The way ahead for all of us in growing in beauty, and not just for Enneagram fours, is to be content, equanimous. This literally means “even mind” in Latin. Equanimous means to be calm, independent of circumstances. To grow in equanimity is to grow in ordinariness.
Now ordinariness is far from ordinary. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts, has a conversation about the troubling character of one of his students, Tom Riddle (who later become Lord Voldemort, the strongest Dark Wizard of all time), as evidenced in their first meeting: “I hope you noticed Riddle’s reaction when I mentioned that another shared his first name, ‘Tom.’ Harry nodded. There he showed his contempt for anything that tied him to other people, anything that made him ordinary.” In other words, Tom Riddle’s desire to be unique and his disdain of being ordinary lead him down the path of destruction.
There are three dimensions of growing in equanimity, and therefore beauty: heart, mind, and body.
To become content or equanimous in your heart, normalize your feelings. Name them as you feel them. Receive them as signs that you are an ordinary human being, and you share these feelings with the rest of the human race.
To become content or equanimous in your mind, meditate on the mantra: “I am beautiful and whole, & I belong to God.” There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with you, no missing part, no fatal flaw preventing you from connecting with others and God. You are beautiful and whole, and you belong to God—just like everyone else.
Finally, to become content or equanimous in your body, lovingly care for your body by attending to your basic needs of sleep, eating, and exercise. These ordinary habits are life-giving and essential. Also, do something to reconnect your body with your heart and mind: yoga, walking, a moving meditation of some sort. Your ordinary body is worthy of love and mindful care.
These three paths of equanimity in heart, mind, and body will lead you to yourself, the truth about your identity and worth. You are utterly ordinary. And you are precious in the eyes of God. You don’t need to cultivate your uniqueness or compensate for missing pieces—you are loved completely by Jesus just as you are.
And then you can then begin to ask yourself the question: “where can I share a little of God’s beauty today?” Growing in beauty happens through the backdoor of growing in equanimity.
As we turn to God in prayer, we’ll use an occasional prayer from the Book of Common Worship.
Let us pray.
Grant us, O Lord, an appreciation of beauty
And things that are lovely.
Increase our reverence for them;
Help us to see in them a part of your revelation of yourself,
That beauty becomes you no less than truth and righteousness;
Through Christ our Lord,
Who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
One God, now and forever, Amen.
Until next week,
Remember that you are beautiful,
Remember that you are whole,
You belong to God. (And so does all of humanity!)
The turbulence of life, even the waves of a pandemic, cannot wash these truths away.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, world without end, Amen.