The Daily Help of Simple Wonders
On a workaday scale, paying attention to beauty can seem small and irrelevant when worries are great. I still stumble into anxiety, still catch myself raising a hand to check a speeding pulse.
But in the looping fall of the year’s first snowflakes, and the gently lowering cotton of gray fog on an autumn afternoon, my myopic sight widens. I watch through the window and remember that even greater mysteries are being sustained than the ones I worry about.
J. B. Phillips felt this way about the salt spray of the ocean:
To be beside the sea is not only to provide a breath of fresh air for the body but a draught of peace for the mind, a reminder that the feverish activity of human beings is not everything.
There is a hint of the everlasting in the vastness of the sea.
– For This Day, 137-138 (July 5)
Beauty can give us an awareness of eternity that cups our downcast chins and lifts our heads. We may find it in a pensive moment on the shore — and we may find it under our very noses.
One afternoon, I kept a careful watch on a small daughter’s symptoms, praying under my breath that her illness wouldn’t reprise past complications. Then, suddenly, I thought of her lungs. I wasn’t worried about them at all at that moment. But they were working away, marvelous in their sturdiness, drawing in and expelling air in a perfect rhythm untouched by my effort.
How often, I wondered at that moment, do I consider the multitude of processes that are in the hand of my Father? The heart, the brain, the synapses, the three tiny ossicles of the middle ear, the sunset, the appetite of the spider spinning a web on my front stoop, the turning of the earth, the fluid motion of tendons and ligaments and bones in the foot, the nightly passage we take through five phases of sleep. If a million marvels like these pass unseen in and around me from the hour of my rising to the end of the day — ah, perhaps it is no great leap to trust Him wholeheartedly with the things that go “awry.” Perhaps it is the most common-sense thing of all.
Noting everything that goes (curiously) well in a world of increasing entropy allows me to track the enduring goodness of God.
I’m learning, therefore, not to dismiss the ordinary wonders before me.
This Fresh Manna
Laura Ingalls Wilder, an expert observer of the details of daily life, wrote: “I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life that are the real ones after all” (The Missouri Ruralist, 20 July 1917).
It is frighteningly easy to believe that our “reality” is made up of days no different from the last. I’m convinced it’s a favorite weapon of the Enemy in our generation. Tomorrow will bring no change in your challenges, he loves to whisper. Even if this problem is resolved, it will simply be replaced by another, and you are already spent. An inescapable noose of hopelessness tightens about our throats.
But the writer of Lamentations gives a blessedly direct counter-blow to this lie. He reminds us that our Father sends fresh mercies with each dawn out of His steadfast love. What does this mean?
It means, to my continual astonishment, that I may take things personally.
My own back garden holds a wealth of sights and sounds and textures that no human eye beholds but mine. Today I crouched in the garden to see if I could spy any fruiting flowers on the spaghetti squash vines. All at once I became aware of a whirring sound above my head, like the sound of a battery-powered pocket fan. When I looked up, I saw a hummingbird gazing down at me, looking for all the world like a tiny iridescent mermaid treading the fluid air.
If I believe that God is the creator and sustainer of everything, then I must concede that He knows where I will stand and what sights I will see, and chooses to bring them into being. He chooses to give us not only bare sustenance, but beauty.
What can we make of this, but that we are loved?
The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell.
– Frederick M. Lehman, “The Love of God,” 1917
Why should the sun rise out of folds of amber and rose? Why should the wind conduct the softest of symphonies in the trees just as you pass under them? Why should men and women and children possess the skill to help us see and taste and hear the wonder of the created world, and make us ache for the greater wonders to come?
Why, on this day, at this hour, should we have the life-breath to take any of this in?
You and I are, to a degree that it seems almost embarrassing to suggest, personally remembered by the Maker of the heavens and the earth.
Today’s gifts, therefore, can be freely taken up with thanksgiving — even delight — today. In this His provision is not unlike the manna of the Israelites. If I choose to receive them, they will keep my heart soft and my eyes keen to the great goodness of God. “If you believe in goodness and if you value the approval of God, fix your minds on the things which are holy and right and pure and beautiful and good” (Phil. 4:8, Phillips, emphasis mine). Can you hear the weight of these words, quavering soul of mine? The small acts of following slender threads of beauty, of naming and noticing His goodness, matter.
Beauty and Goodness to Combat the Fear of Death
Make no mistake, the whole Word tells us: training your eyes upon what is beautiful is no simple-minded diversion. Every effort we make toward this end, especially when we are wounded in spirit, is a bright flash of a sword in encroaching darkness, each concrete detail a new inch upon the belt of truth.
Christ partook of flesh and blood for us, “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14-15, ESV, emphasis mine).
I know what it is to fear death, and to be enslaved by that fear in body and mind. But in moving the focus of my vision toward the beauty of Christ, I’ve found that I can now look this deadweight of anxiety squarely in the eye.
We are held securely, all those who trust our journey to Him. Though we are hard-pressed and bruised from battle, and our faces washed with tears at times, we are not crushed, and we shall never be abandoned.
What can the Enemy do? No accident or illness or tragedy can sever the love that binds us to Christ, or unravel the deep, deep goodness that surrounds our every coming and going. Not even death — for the healing I needed most in this life has already been procured for me. And when I am finished with all that He has granted me to do in this ransomed life, Home I will go, and not a moment earlier.
I fear no foe with Thee at hand to bless
Ills have no weight, tears lose their bitterness
Where is thy sting, death? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still; abide with me.
– Henry Francis Lyte, “Abide With Me”
Earlier I said that walking in perfect love drives out fear. Despite my wayward footfalls, and passages through valleys dim, it’s proving true as He leads the way.
On my clearest days now I seem to see death right side up. I glimpse the rejoicing on the distant shore, and I see how the rescued are making their way Home. Sometimes I laugh to think of it, a laugh past all fear, though it is lanced through with yearning. “[A]ll who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12, ESV). The hurt and the vulnerable, the weary and the valiant come into the “serried ranks of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1, Phillips), into the company of saints who will never taste pain or worry or cold or hunger or loneliness or insecurity again.
They know a gladness that our best feasts, stories, and comforts have only managed to foretell wisps at a time.
“Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
– C.S. Lewis, letter to Mary Willis Shelburne, 17 June 1963
I am grateful that the fullness of beauty is yet to come; I am grateful, too, for the traces of it that bring the reality of eternity and the goodness of its King into this fractured earth, day after day, hour by hour.
I know seasons may come when I falter and will need to hear again how the story ends — perhaps even tomorrow, if not earlier. But the holy damage is done.
I’m beginning to see the world with mended eyes.
Continued in Part 5: A Hollow Invitation