Friday, April 10, 2009

Unexpected beauty

Just days ago, I was given the opportunity to see Arizona’s desert up close for the first time in years. Many people imagine the desert as a harsh environment, with rocks and sand (check!), spiny cacti (check!), strong sun (check, but just after vernal equinox, so it was very pleasant), and venomous insects and reptiles drooling for tender human flesh (none this time). Artist conceptions of heaven should depict it from other perspectives than tall conifers, ferns, and grassy meadows!

For those who look for beauty, beauty abounds. In the desert, tiny purple flowers and blue lupine, yellow brittlebush daisies, jewel-toned petals of the hedgehog cactus, gold-blooming palo verde trees, and long-stemmed scarlet ocotillos compete for space with sage-green saguaro cactus, which are budding for a creamy-white flowering in June. Brushing the tiny creosote leaves reminds one of the sweet scent of rain on the thirsty desert. A seasonal creek trickles through a tiny canyon of concreted multicolored gravel, 12 feet beneath the trail. A flower grows among sharp stones. The sky is brilliant blue with a white half-moon rising over the violet mountains to the east, and a breeze carries a floral scent. In the distance, a waterway gleams silver. Unexpected beauty.

In Egypt, ten massive, deadly disasters have struck all civilization from the animals and servants to the rulers. But on a clear night with a gigantic full moon and millions of stars, the numberless descendants of Abraham walked away from years of misery and marched triumphantly into the trackless desert – with relief and joy that they’d been passed over by death. In the Promised Land centuries later, Israel, again trapped by foreign domination and slavery, saw the Messiah slain as their Passover Lamb, and experienced His resurrection that conquered death and set the prisoners free. Unexpected beauty.

A woman hears an ambulance siren in the distance, but instead of going on with what she is doing, she stops and asks the Lord to bless the victims of illness or accident who require the emergency service. A group of recently-divorced people, instead of repeating their misery and intense pain to each other, volunteer at a kitchen for the homeless and find fellowship, fulfillment, and unexpected joy by selflessly serving the addicted, mentally ill, and indigent who live on the streets.

Unexpected beauty. A strong arm steadies the weak and embraces the lonely. A friend stays by your side in a crowd of strangers. A handshake is denied – because a hug is offered instead! Speaking words of support and comfort in the face of deception or disloyalty. Practicing humility and vulnerability so others can experience God’s power and Presence working through them to bless and encourage. Words of friendship and appreciation in an email. A shared treat brought home from the party. Passing along a compliment. Each of these actions is a blessing and an unforgettably gracious gift to the receiver.

Unexpected beauty. We don’t see it often enough, which is why it’s unexpected! But it has its rewards, both now and in eternity. A compliment or encouraging hug has an immediate payback when you see eyes light up or a bent back straighten. And when your target is recharged with that electricity, he or she now has the wherewithal to repeat the action to others in unending ripples.

“Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” Hebrews 10:24 NIV. A spur is a projection that goads or impels to action, speed, or achievement. Imagine “sticking out your neck” to be the change in someone’s life today. Imagine inspiring one person to complete a task with distinction because he or she has been encouraged to add that extra jolt of adrenaline or the finishing touch.

To overcome the negativity of criticism and judgment, psychologists estimate that it takes as many as 15 compliments or “atta-boy/atta-girl” encouragements to overcome the hurt and frustration. How efficient or “green” would it be to never state the criticism in the first place, but instead to uplift, empower, and “spur one another on toward love and good deeds”?

Yes, we know that God is love, and that He gave every molecule of heaven’s resources to reconcile with us and bring us home. But we forget so easily and must be reminded so often because we don’t truly believe it ourselves. We don’t own it. The fact is, we cannot be told or shown often enough that we are loved! We don’t hear often enough: “I love you.” (Full stop. No “buts.”)

“God's Son, eyes pouring fire-blaze, standing on feet of furnace-fired bronze, says this: ’I see everything you're doing for me. Impressive! The love and the faith, the service and persistence. Yes, very impressive! You get better at it every day.’” Revelation 2:18-19 MSG.

I need that. You need that. And because Christ lives in us, we can BE that to the people around us. We can BE the unexpected beauty in someone’s day of frustration or overwork. It’s no more labor on our part!

“A mean person gets paid back in meanness, a gracious person in grace.” Proverbs 14:14 MSG. And think of this proverb in terms of relationship, not material goods: “It's criminal to ignore a neighbor in need, but compassion for the poor—what a blessing!” Proverbs 14:21 MSG.

No matter your appearance or reputation, your community or church standing: you can BE the unexpected beauty in someone’s day. Let this be your challenge: go and shock someone by a compliment or encouraging word. Don’t qualify or explain it. Just do a hit and run! That one act will lift both of you and will resonate in many unseen lives. Who doesn’t want to be as beautiful and contrasty as a magenta cactus flower that matures into sweet, nourishing fruit? This world needs a lot less prickles and a lot more blooms!

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