Spirituality of Beauty

Typically our first reaction to the word beauty” has to do with physical attractiveness. I googled beauty to see what would come up and it was all about beauty products, makeup, fashion trends and hair salons. When I clicked on images for beauty all that came up was screen after screen of female models. So, for the sake of discussion, let’s label this type of beauty glamour, and move on to a deeper spiritual meaning.

Krista Tippett, in her insightful book “Becoming Wise,” re-framed beauty in a whole new light for me. I was especially fascinated by a conversation she had with a Muslim law professor at UCLA and a Jewish rabbi. Professor Khaled Abou el Fadl linked spirituality intimately with beauty and insisted “that the future of Islam lies in recovering its core moral value of beauty.” Rabbi Harold Schulweis, spoke of the Hebrew scripture (our OT) and “the beauty of Holiness.”

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But what does it mean to have a moral value of beauty? And what does the passage from 1 Chronicles 16 that talks “the beauty of Holiness” mean? I’ve found that the Bible itself doesn’t offer much direction with these questions; however, many spiritual writers have fleshed it out clearly for us in a way that makes sense and is meaningful.

Khaled explains that, “Beauty is in creation, not destruction, and in balance. It is in the human intellect and the human heart and to apply sacred text and knowledge toward creating things that edify and enliven.” Beauty is experienced in those things that build up and are life-giving.

And Schulweis explains that the beauty of holiness is actually the beauty of “wholeness… not just of forms and shapes, but of relationships.” Relationships that are loving, healing, compassionate, supportive and giving.beauty 2

Celtic theologian John O’Donohue says that, “beauty is that in the presence of which we feel more alive.” In other words, it feeds our souls. “[B]eauty isn’t all about just niceness and loveliness. Beauty is about more rounded substantial becoming.” Beauty is “about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth, and also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life.”

When we expand the understanding of beauty in this way it becomes so much more than glamour. Now it brings to mind images of poetry, music and art. I picture parents and kids building sandcastles on the beach, food cooked with love and care, weddings, baptisms and, yes, even funerals. I think of relationships that are based on equality, compassion and love, gifts given without attachment, and volunteering. Beauty brings to mind the healing of body, mind, and spirit after someone has experienced abuse or trauma.

So, does beauty work as a moral value? Can we use it as a guiding principle in determining right and wrong, good and bad? Using this understanding of beauty, would it now make sense to critique and measure our words and actions  by the question: “is it beautiful or is it ugly?”

I believe the answer is yes, beauty does work as a moral value. Is it beautiful or ugly? Is it creative or destructive? Is it helpful or hindering? Is it life-giving? Does it bring us to a greater sense of depth and grace? Does it feed souls? Does it help us to become more whole? I don’t think this has to do with easy or not. A path to healing can be very difficult, and actually downright painful and ugly sometimes, but often going through it is necessary to experience greater wholeness. That makes the process beautiful.

JoAnn Dodgson wrote, “Beauty is a celebration of is-ness.” It is a celebration of being-ness in that we experience it in the now. In the moment it occurs and we are aware of it, our souls are fed.

Have you ever said to someone, “What a beautiful day it is!” Only to have them respond, “Maybe, but we’ve gotten too much rain, and it’s supposed to rain again tomorrow.” They weren’t able to enjoy the actual presence of beauty because their mind was already negative about the next day.  How much beauty do we miss because we neglect to be present to the moment, to nature, to faces and smiles, music and art, and actions of beauty around us?

We have much to learn from a spirituality of beauty.

Let me leave you with a closing quote by Kahlil Gibran: “Kneel only to truth, follow only beauty, and obey only love.”

Love & Light!


Raising a Pastor

All the big changes in life seems to ask us to step back and take in the big picture, survey the landscape of our lives from beginning to end. Our move into a new house, coinciding with the anniversary of 20 years in ministry, has prompted me to take a look back and say to myself (in the words of an old ad campaign), “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

But I didn’t come a long way alone. I’m grateful to have been surrounded by amazing people who were instrumental in my growth and learning. No, I haven’t “arrived.” And, no, I haven’t figured it all out. In fact, I’m fairly suspicious of folks who think they have. I simply thought that perhaps all of  us could benefit by me taking inventory.

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The Book of Proverbs exhorts us to learn, to discern the truth, to devote oneself to wisdomWisdom, Sophia (in Greek), Hokmah (in Hebrew). Even if it costs you everything (which it may at times, because wisdom tends to show up when everything has crashed and burned), devote yourself to getting Understanding (which The Inclusive Bible capitalizes as another name for Wisdom). Eventually, Proverbs says, this wisdom will serve you, bring you honor and glory… or at least, perhaps, help you to serve others and keep yourself out of more trouble.

In a poem by Cynthia Langston Kirk called “Stripped by God,” she talks about pursuing God in a way that reminded me of myself when I was entering my first church appointment: “I filled my pockets with openness and grabbed a thermos half full of fortitude.” I was ready to dive in, young, idealistic, full of the love of God, compassion, and a deep desire to serve and change the world.

But wisdom doesn’t come until you roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty, stub your toes a few times, and occasionally fall flat on your face. I’ve done plenty of all of this in the last 20 year and though it was tough, I’ve distilled what I’ve learned into my top four:

4 – Develop an Alligator Skin.  I’m afraid I’ve always been prone to taking things personally. And my naïve, idealistic, young self was even worse than I am today. I wanted to be able to reach everyone in my congregations, and felt like I’d personally failed if I didn’t. Now, my theology has always been more progressive than not, and when I got to my first lead pastor appointment there were a few very strong fundamentalists in positions of power and authority in the church. While I couldn’t agree with them theologically, I felt horrible that one by one they were leaving “because of me.” It literally brought me to tears and I just didn’t know how to handle it. My goal had not been to run people off, but to make connections and build relationships with God. Then the Chairman of our Board came to my office and said, “Kaye, you need to develop an alligator skin. You can’t take everything personally. And you can’t reach everyone.” He said those folks probably didn’t belong in the United Methodist Church in the first place and that they’d find somewhere else to worship and we would be just fine, too. This was all true in the end.

But it didn’t just apply in that situation; it applied over and over again when I did or said something others didn’t agree with. I’ve tried very hard to learn that a disagreement does not have to be taken as a personal attack (and I’m still better some days at this than others.) Perhaps I’ve simply gained more confidence in myself, my beliefs, and my experience, and am able to take a step back to try to approach things more objectively, and less catastrophically. It’s ok if we don’t always agree. The world is a more interesting place with different points of view. And most days the things we disagree on really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

3 – Everyone suffers. Sure, some people look like they’ve got it all together, but everyone has something in their lives that they struggle with or that causes them pain. Some are just more private than others.

One of the biggest honors of being a pastor is that people have been more apt to trust me with their vulnerable side. That is a huge gift that I have not taken lightly. Ultimately, it has reminded me to always err on the side of love because we can’t know what someone else is going through. Over the years I’ve met with folks who, in regular interactions, seemed like all was just fine, only to find out that they’d been raped by their husband, dealt with depression and psychological issues because of their time in Vietnam, been sexually abused as a child, were estranged from their child or parent or sibling, had a family member who was gay but they were afraid to tell anyone, were in an unhappy, unfulfilling marriage, had a child or family member who was dealing with substance abuse… the list goes on and on. People are afraid to talk about these things because we’re afraid people will think less of us. We’re afraid of being judged. We’re afraid of becoming the subject of gossip or pity.

Everyone suffers, so hold judgment and err on the side of love.

2 –  You can’t wrap your own arms. The first month I in my appointment to Franksville UMC, I had one wedding and three funerals. Somewhere in the middle of that my husband (at the time) and I took our kids to his mother’s house to swim – she had a great pool and hot tub in the backyard. As we were sitting in the hot tub, I noticed how overgrown it was with vines and weeds, and I decided it would be really nice of me to clean that out for my mother-in-law. So, I climbed out, dripping wet in my bikini, and proceeded to pull and bag weeds for an hour or more. Come to find out (the hard way) that much of what I was pulling out was poison oak. By evening I had broken out in a rash nearly everywhere! It got so bad that it became systemic and I had to have a shot of prednisone. My arms were a blistering, oozing mess… and, of course, I had a funeral. It was then that I discovered that I couldn’t wrap my own arms in gauze! I took the roll back to the kitchen and found one of the women of the church wrap my arms and help me slip into my jacket to cover it all up.

We can’t always handle everything alone, nor are we meant to.

I’ve always been a pretty independent sort, wanting to prove that I could do whatever needed to be done. I didn’t need anyone’s help. Plus the hierarchy of the church impressed upon us that we were there to be served. We weren’t supposed to make friends, ask for support, or basically show any vulnerability. After all, the pastor is supposed to be the rock and how can they be if they have struggles? To some extent I get this. But we all need help at times and it is not a crime, or anything to be ashamed of, to ask for help. Being vulnerable is not a weakness.

And, yes, while I learned this a long time ago, I’m still practicing at getting it right.

1 – Trust in the Spirit. Twenty years of preaching is a LOT of sermons. There have been more times than I care to admit when I haven’t known what to preach, or it just wasn’t coming together. And then there were the times when it felt like what I did say didn’t quite click, or that I wasn’t as clear as I wanted to be, or I left something out that I’d really wanted to say, and I’d stew over it.

But the truth is that somehow, amazingly, I have never stood up on Sunday morning with nothing to say. So, on a weekly basis, I’ve taken up reminding myself that the Spirit hasn’t let me down yet! And, on top of that, invariably when I feel at my lowest because I wasn’t happy with my preaching, or I screwed up (yes, it happens), or I’m simply not feeling like I’m making that idealistic difference I thought I’d make, someone reaches out to let me know that something I said or did helped them.

I guess the lesson for me has been that the Spirit reaches people despite me. All I need to do is follow where the energy is leading me to speak, and then speak/preach from the heart.

The Divine moves through all of us, even when we’re not operating at our peak, even when our lives are messed up, and even when we’re not trying. We can trust the Spirit to use what we offer. That is the best thing ever to have learned!

Love & Light!





Chaos Theory & Spirituality

I’d heard about Chaos Theory, but really hadn’t done much study of it until the whole concept popped into my head last week when I was trying valiantly to focus enough to come up with a sermon while packing and getting ready to move at the same time.

According to the Fractal Foundation, “Chaos Theory is the science of surprises, of the nonlinear and the unpredictable. It teaches us to expect the unexpected. While most traditional science deals with supposedly predictable phenomena like gravity, electricity, or chemical reactions, Chaos Theory deals with nonlinear things that are effectively impossible to predict or control, like turbulence, weather, the stock market, our brain states, and so on.

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Linear systems have one cause and one effect. Non-linear systems are evident when one cause can have many different outcomes, or one outcomes may be the result of many different causes. These non-linear systems are also known as complex systems because they can’t be broken down into smaller pieces, analyzed and then reassembled with a full knowledge of the system. As Cheryl Chattfield, Phd, states,  “A non-linear system requires a holistic approach in which the pattern of the behavior of the whole, not the individual parts, is significant. This is similar to the spiritual concept that everything is connected.”

One of the Principles of Chaos Theory is the Butterfly Effect. This gets its name from themoonlight-blue-butterfly concept that a butterfly flapping its wings at the right time and in the right place can start off a chain reaction that could result in a hurricane across the globe. It seems a little crazy, but it expresses the potential that unpredictable small changes could have in the big picture.

Unpredictablility is another principle of Chaos Theory that holds that complex systems have so many variables, that it is impossible to predict an absolute outcome.

Another principle states that this pattern of Order/Disorder is natural and expected. What feels like chaos, or disorder, will eventually return to a new order. We can’t predict what it is going to be, but we know that eventually something new will emerge.

So, I think there are two important spiritual lessons here:

ONE… yes, we are all connected! And even the smallest of actions can make a difference. While we like to apply this only to acts of kindness, or paying it forward, we need to recognize that unkind acts also have the ability to set off a chain of reactions. So, walking through our days with awareness is exceedingly important. When we cultivate awareness that the Divine is in, around and through all things I believe we’ll be more apt to respond to the chaos in the world with compassion, gratitude, generosity and kindness. Maybe it is as simple as asking ourselves if we can give people the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they’ve acted poorly because they’re stressed out and having a bad day. Maybe their life is in chaos and they can’t see a way out. Our one kind act may help them to breathe again, it may help them to be kinder to the people around them. But a negative attitude, or judgmental comment might just push them over the edge and they’ll end up going home and taking it out on their kid or partner.

There is a story of a teenage boy who was carrying a huge pile of books home from school one day when he got bumped around and all the books went flying. Another boy stopped to make sure he was OK, helped him pick up the books, then asked him where he lived and offered to help carry them home when he found out they lived close to each other. Come to find out the boy had so many books because he’d emptied his locker and was planning on killing himself. That one kind act caused him to think again and he didn’t do it.

TWO… we will get through the storm. In the story of Jesus stilling the storm, most folks get caught up in the supernatural power Jesus is said to have had over the weather. But taken as a metaphor for our lives, what does it say?  Jesus isn’t worried about a little rough patch, he rests in the knowledge that he’ll come through it. The disciples are getting wet, they’re scared, they’re tossed and thrown about, maybe they are even getting sick. Plus they are probably angry at Jesus for sleeping through it and not helping them bail! But there is an implied assurance from Jesus in his comment, “ Where is your faith?” that suggests to us that the disciples are not alone, the Divine is seeing them through this rough time… and yes, they might get sick and wet, but they will make it.

It sort of reminds me of when my daughter was young and we’d go to see the latest Disney movie at the theater. Almost every time a scary part would come… the snake in Aladdin, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, Scar and the hyenas in the Lion King… and she would get scared and anxious and want to be taken out of the theater. No amount of persuading could convince her that everything would be OK in the end and to just wait it out.

Chaos theory says that it is natural for there to be order, then disorder, then order and disorder. This is what happens. Relax and expect the unexpected. Life is a system too complex to predict. The assurance of chaos theory is that eventually things will right themselves again and a new order will arise. We will get through. In an odd way, we can trust in this instability, because somehow within even the chaos, there will be forward movement to something new. And that is the way of the Divine… transformation and new life. It won’t necessarily be what we were planning or expecting, but we can find peace in surrendering to the process and trusting that we’ll come out the other side most likely wiser and with more character!

Love & Light!