I once led an austere Bible study for college girls.
The small groups in our campus fellowship usually provided snacks and social time for their attendees. But in this particular season, my little leadership team decided we’d “feast” solely on the Word of God for a semester. It would be our primary reason for gathering.
We were intent and we were earnest, and out of those spartan conditions — or in spite of them, who can say? — came many sweet friendships and seasons of growth.
The vision behind that small group was a fair snapshot of my understanding of the kingdom of God at that time.
There was Matthew 10:37-38: a hard, hard word for me as a Christian in an agnostic family, and one that I returned to repeatedly as I grew by fits and starts into womanhood:
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. (NIV)
There was Jim Elliot, whose faith was often mentioned, whose life burned bright and brief:
” ‘[He makes] His ministers a flame of fire,’ ” he wrote. “Am I ignitible? God deliver me from the dread asbestos of ‘other things.’ Saturate me with the oil of the Spirit that I may be aflame. But flame is transient, often short-lived. Canst thou bear this, my soul–short life? In me there dwells the Spirit of the Great Short-Lived, whose zeal for God’s house consumed Him. And he has promised baptism with the Spirit and with Fire. ‘Make me Thy fuel, Flame of God.’ ”
That prayer was answered immediately and also ultimately.
– Elisabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty, 58-59.
And there were, among many other sacrificial lives around me, the mothers of dear friends who gave up sleep and sustenance to pray. Night after night, often going on only two or three hours of rest, they interceded and fasted for their children, for the welfare of others, for the faith of the church. These stalwart women reminded me — and remind me still — of the saints who “did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Rev. 12:11, NIV), by their willingness to pour their bodily strength into the pursuit of lasting life.
All of these spurred me toward a single-minded pursuit to spend this life well for Christ. The essentials were to know Him and to make Him known. Pray with urgency. Travel light. I walked, face upturned and wondering, in the shadow of giants: women who did not shy away from the threat of Communist imprisonment but who set themselves to memorize as much of the Bible as they could, so that they could circulate invisible Scriptures in whispers between jail cells; men who decided in World War II to house, feed, and protect anyone who sought a refuge. I saw sacrificial love in a thousand contexts. All that was lasting seemed to blaze out bright and golden next to all that was temporary.
These convictions haven’t changed over the years. I know my life is but a breath, and with it I uphold the sovereignty of God, the infallible authority of Scripture, and the faith detailed in the Nicene Creed. I believe that the greatest story any one of us can tell is the real-life tale of redemption that broke history at Calvary.
But two summers ago I had a breakdown of sorts, one that left my mind and my courage splintered in fragments that demanded reexamination. After several years of unrelenting adrenaline, fear, and new medical problems in motherhood, everything gave way at once, and I landed in the emergency room with a savage panic attack.
In the months that followed, I walked around learning how to breathe and to sleep again without breaking into a constant sweat; I had to place boundaries on the things I could watch and speak of and read, to keep my heart rate from galloping away into an uncontrollable range; I tested nerves in my hands and feet that seemed to have blown a fuse, wondering if the odd tingling would ever ebb away.
Most of all, and hardest of all for me, I had to lay each of my fears down beside what I believed about God. Those worst-case scenarios that seemed a hair trigger away from detonation — what if they did happen? How do the jagged edges of suffering fit into the framework of trusting my Father? With all there is to see and weep over in our lives, how do we fix our eyes on Christ?
The breakdown didn’t change the bedrock of my faith — He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8) — but it gave me time to notice things that had sped by me before. One of them surprised me above the rest.
As I slowly pieced back together all that I held to be true, I saw that I had long overlooked the importance of one aspect of faith: the aspect of beauty.
Beauty in nature, beauty in story and song, beauty in the Word, beauty in the moments that strike one’s tongue dumb with awe. Beauty in the velvet mouths of snapdragons and in tables set for weekday dinners with friends, and in books that bring us the air of higher and clearer climes.
Beauty that comes to us as a gift, like being led to lie down in green pastures and walk beside still waters.
I’ve loved beautiful things since I was a little girl, I think, but somewhere along the pilgrim way my enjoyment of them began to come with an apologetic nod to my stauncher fellows-in-arms. Blessings upon your work, friend — with an inward blush — why yes, I’ve stopped to smell the roses, but I’ll be up on the road again soon. This life, crucified as it is with Christ, ought to soldier on past temporary vistas, no matter how fragrant or pleasant to the eyes.
Last summer, I couldn’t “get up and go” immediately, despite the constant alarm bells sounded by Responsibility and Duty. And out of that season I recognized, perhaps for the first time, three defenses for beauty in the sacrificial, Christ-ward life.
Continued in Part 2.