Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Beautiful Choices

This week I’m at the Lilly Endowment’s Transition into Ministry Conference. I used to go to this Conference when I was a Clergy Resident at Christ Church in Alexandria, VA. This year, I’ve been invited to return to serve as a small group leader. So I get to spend the majority of this week reflecting with young people just entering ministry about the shape of ministry in this day and age.

And what I’m particularly delighted about is the theme for this year’s conference… beauty.

At our opening plenary, the keynote speaker told the story of a women’s group in the church that wanted to raise money for the church in Haiti. They worked and worked and raised $1,000 to send to Haiti, to a women’s group in a church there. When the American group told the Haitian group that the money was ready and that it could be sent at any time, the Haitian ladies told the American group what they wanted to do with the money.

The Haitian women’s group wanted to use the money to take a flower arranging class so they could arrange flowers for their church’s altar. They wanted to use the money and make blue satin hats to match the blue robes that had been given to them awhile ago by another church.

And, apparently, it took a long time to convince the American women’s group that this was a good idea.

The American group wanted to do something “serious,” like dig a well. A flower-arranging task seemed… frivolous. And so they had to be convinced to still send the money.

We’re basing our conversations this morning around Psalm 27:4, “One thing I have asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; to behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.”

The Haitian women wanted beauty, they wanted to create beauty in their worship. The American women didn’t think that was serious enough, they had to be convinced that these Haitian women knew what they really needed. And what the Haitian women believed they really needed was the ability to create beauty in their worship, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek God in the temple.

We live in such a binary world, a world that is always insisting that there are choices that must be made. We’re always being pushed to these false choices and one of the big ones is the false choice between “beauty” and the seemingly more serious need for “mission.”

What if the two are actually inter-related?

I remember when I was living in Tennessee. My wife and I were having dinner with Dan and Paul, a couple who had befriended us when we started attending the cathedral in Nashville. I was talking about a discussion we’d had in seminary about the possible decision to spend millions on a new building when there were hungry and poor people in need in a community. It seemed like an obvious answer to me—taking care of the poor came first. Who cares about a building?

Paul looked at me and said, “But Jared, if you take care of the poor today and don’t build the magnificent building, where will the poor tomorrow go to pray? Where will they go to experience the beauty of holiness that could have been found in that church?”

This is the thing about a false choice. It assumes that a need is singular and clear. The need is only feeding the hungry or caring for the poor… this misses the possibility that the poor may need an experience of God in a beautiful place.

The need is only to build a well… this misses the possibility that they might really need to learn how to arrange some magnificent flowers.

False choices are limiting, they only see part of the truth, part of the need, part of the way that God is breaking out, part of the way that God is working out redemption.

And so at my parish we do feed the hungry. We absolutely are committed to feeding the hungry. But we also gratefully accept a gift from a parishioner who wants to spend a significant amount of money to put in a prayer and meditation garden, complete with brick paths, gorgeous plants and flower, a statue of St. Francis in the middle… so that perhaps on your way to be fed, you might experience God in the garden as well as in the kitchen.

Beauty, I sometimes fear, does not have enough advocates in the church today.

Because in the end, after every belly is filled, after every oppressed person is set free, after creation is breathed into and restored and renewed and recreated, after all this glorious redemption is done… there is one more thing that I know I’ll want. There is one more thing that I seek.

To behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.


  1. another aspect of this comes to mind. When we give a gift with strings attached is it really a gift? It is easy for others to determine what we need most while they do not live in our souls and our hearts. This can be a hard lesson to learn. Beauty too is a human need which is so often taken for granted.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Jared. They are beautiful. I hope your day with the new ministers went well.