Celebrating Beauty

Thursday, June 22, 2023

From Michael Anthony Howard, Minister of Faith in Action,
Living Water Association, Ohio North East, UCC

Tags: Streams of Connection | From Our Association Ministers | Faith in Action

Lately, I sense God challenging me to learn to appreciate the beauty around me. There is something within me that longs to celebrate it. I am discovering, however, that I tend more faithfully to my to-do list than I do my soul. So I am learning, albeit slowly, that faith can be a celebration of what is beautiful.

Jesus taught that worrying is a poor use of our spiritual energy. Instead, he called his followers to go “consider the birds of the air” and “the lilies of the field” (Mt. 6:26-30). Perhaps the antidote to our spiritual angst is the awareness of beauty.

There is a story in Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist about a merchant who sent his son on a journey to learn the Secret of Happiness. The merchant’s son, the story goes, journeyed through the desert for forty days to learn the Secret of Happiness from the wisest of sages. The sage lived in an elaborately decorated palace filled with merchants and dignitaries eating exotic foods while waiting to be seen. After a two hour wait, the sage explained that he did not have time to teach the pilgrim the Secret of Happiness. Instead, he instructed the merchant’s son to take a two-hour stroll around the palace while carrying a teaspoon with two drops of oil.

Two hours later, the boy returned with the oil unspilled. The sage then asked what he thought about the tapestries, the gardens, and the parchments in the library. The boy was embarrassed at all he had missed, having fixed his eyes only on the oil in the spoon. The sage then instructed the boy: “Go and explore my world.”

Of course, we know what happens next. The boy comes back and reports all that he had seen, but he had forgotten all about the oil. The sage then said, “The Secret of Happiness lies in looking at all the wonders of the world and never forgetting the two drops of oil in the spoon.”

In this story, the first two tours of the palace are convicting. The story is like a parable for two approaches to ministry I often find myself operating in. I can easily get caught up in spending my energy on how to maintain what we have and the problems we need to solve, always watching for the threats approaching just over the horizon. At other times, I get overwhelmed by it all become careless. What I am discovering for myself is the call to care in a new way, to shift away from a faith that functions as a fetish for problem solving to a faith that experiences the beauty of God. I am learning that the act of intentionally focusing my energy on celebrating beauty can be a profound spiritual practice.

Earlier this week, I was walking slowly down Detroit Avenue with another pastor trying to make sense of post-pandemic church life in America. My daughter was following close behind, examining every leaf on every tree, turning our four-block return from lunch into a half-hour nature walk. While I was problem solving and talking shop, my daughter was tending to the beauty of the neighborhood.

We have all been in countless conversations about rethinking ministry. There will always be a list of problems to solve, especially when we realize that the communities we are called to care for are sacred. But I find faith carrying me beyond that. God is at work in the beautiful ministry of our congregations, and the beauty of community is there when the pews are full and when they are not. My prayer is for God to teach us to carry the sacred we have been entrusted with, without losing sight of what is beautiful.