Almost two years ago, I was feeling very sensitive to the materialism so pervasive in my culture as well as the entitlement we are so shaped by (for example: each family member is supposed to have their own room, bathroom and phone line) that I wanted to run to the other extreme. Why do we need a bigger house when so many people in the world live in extremely cramped quarters without the expectation that they are entitled to more? To survive, we “need” so much less than I had come to believe I was “supposed” to have. So, I decided that all of my “fine” china, silver and crystal which I had received as wedding gifts was not something that we really needed. I researched the value, was horrified that I had asked people to spend so much per plate and for so many, and thought this would be a redemptive act – purging these things both from our house and then also from their hold on my heart.
I was making two assumptions about “stuff” and “appearance”: 1) It was all superficial and self-glorifying and 2) the most basic, pragmatic possessions (like dishes and furniture that could be trashed without causing much stress for their loss) would be the more godly approach to living with my heart set on His Kingdom rather than my own. Avoid superficiality and be practical and a life of freedom for Jesus’ glory would follow!
One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple. Psalm 27:4
Fast forward almost two years to our time in Uganda. After nearly two weeks of living with very few hot showers and often no running water, eating mostly Cliff bars and granola bars for meals as we sat on twin beds, often eating this kind of meal in the dark because Uganda is forced to ration power, breathing in the smoke of burning trash, collecting the dirt and exhaust of other motorists as we traveled to and from appointments, using public bathrooms which were often a porcelain hole in the floor with marked out places to set your feet…my romanticized view of the simplicity of poverty was dashed a bit. Clean, drinkable running water is actually a very good thing. Reliable power with which to keep milk cold and with which to cook, bathe and simply see at night time is a good thing. Warm showers and clean clothes are good. Sitting at a table for a meal is a good thing.
Then a new friend invited us out to this resort on the other side of Lake Victoria which I think I wrote about back in September. What I won’t ever forget and can’t retell enough was the feeling of stepping into a magical land, much like arriving in a Narnian banquet hall straight from some ordinary attic crawling in London. Stepping out of the boat onto this beautifully landscaped property didn’t make me think, “frivolous!”. It made me smile, exhale, relax my shoulders while simultaneously wanting to run around in celebration. Then, entering into the main building and seeing a singular long table, set with flowers in vases, a table cloth, beautiful dishes and real glasses – all waiting for us to enjoy a meal compliments of this new friend and the resort owner – I wanted to cry. If it was a cartoon, I would have shed a visible wild goat exterior and a clean little girl in a party dress would have been revealed. I felt humanized after feeling more like an animal just happy to be surviving. A beautiful setting is in fact a good thing.
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. Is. 61:1-3
Beauty and joy and garments of praise reflect God as ashes, mourning and despair do not. Jesus took on a servant’s nature, did not have beauty that men would we drawn to that and made Himself nothing because that was the means of rescuing of a broken world, taking it on and restoring it to wholeness, beauty and strength. Such beauty is not merely superficial but can be life giving. Impoverished conditions are not the goal of redemption nor are they a holier state. There is a restfulness in a clean and beautiful room that does not exist in a cluttered, mildewy and grimy space. Having a whole family in a 10×10 lean to structure with a corrugated tin roof does not necessarily better reflect the servant heart of Jesus than the American home occupied by only one individual. Because luxurious spaces bring out an entitlement in those who enjoy them and begin to demand them, does not mean that those environments are evil in themselves but quite the opposite. The Garden was surely such a place of exotic beauty and deep comfort.
They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving…1 Tim. 4:3-4
Practically, what this means for me is that because of the work of Jesus, selflessness and beauty are perfectly compatible. Because a paper plate would be more practical, it does not need to be the only means by which I offer my guests food. There is a good place for the fine china, which thankfully I was not able to resell after all. God did not make decisions based on pragmatism when creating the enormous number of varieties of flowers, trees, birds, tropical fish, colors in a sunrise or sunset, rainbows, people’s eye colors, skin shades, facial features, voice tones and so on. There is a place for beauty in place of mere pragmatism.
The person and work of Jesus is restoring beauty to creation and inviting me to enjoy it as yet another sign of life and redemption. He also challenges me to stop rejecting things because they are abused by our sin, as if the problem were with the gifts themselves. It is my heart which responds to fancy dishes sinfully, but the dishes themselves are not to blame. By faith, Jesus can conquer the pride, idolatries and self-glorification with which my heart often responds so that His good and beautiful gifts direct my heart and attention to His beauty and glory as they did in the beginning. Redemption and freedom do not come by isolating myself from all things that I might abuse for my own glory, because that is impossible. Redemption and freedom will be evidenced when I can enjoy a five course meal at The Cloister as a taste of His graciousness and beauty but feel no more self-important than when enjoying hot dogs in the park in my neighborhood.
Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. James 1:16-18