The Contemplation of Beauty{8}


Picasso - The Old GuitaristSorry for the brief hiatus.  I don’t quite know what happened.  Probably just getting used to work and a new schedule and everything.  I have a few “lighter” articles in the works for the next couple of days, plus I’m working on more substantial things for other sites.  I’ll let you all know.  But now, back to beauty.

Last we left the Beauty series, we were discussing the proper way in which to respond to it.  Though there’s no absolute “most proper” way to respond, I used our main Biblical text that we’ve been looking at, and an idea developed by C.S. Lewis to break down our response into two useful categories: contemplation and enjoyment.  Before we enjoy, we contemplate.  This is not to say we can’t enjoy anything apart from comprehensively knowing it, but it does say that a contemplation and exploration of things helps us enjoy them more fully; and to be enjoyed to the fullest is the ultimate desire of Beauty itself.  But what does this contemplation look like in real life?

Let’s recall our defintion of Beauty as the attribute of something that expresses complexity, simply.  It’s what takes the complex unwoven strands out there in reality and weaves them into a tapestry that we can perceive with our spiritual and physical sense.  The more strands are woven more simply, the more beautiful that tapestry is. So in its most basic form, the contemplation of Beauty is thinking through what “strands” or what “complexity” is being represented in the thing in front of you.  So what does it look like? Well, formally, in philosophy, this endeavor is called “Aesthetics” or “Metaphysics”. It’s the philosophical study of Beauty and Beautiful things.

In the real world, for the rest of us, I thought of two ways this could look. First, when presented with something that your senses find beautiful, ask yourself, “What is it that’s actually being stirred in me?” Is it romance? Sorrow? Reminders of childhood joys? That stirring is your soul resonating with the strands that are in the tapestry in front of you. This is what art critics are really good at doing: teasing apart the strands that make up any given piece of art. The second way I could see this look is when you are encountered with something or someone that everyone seems to think is so beautiful but you just don’t get it. Maybe it’s the Mona Lisa. You may think: “Yeah, it’s a good painting, but what’s the big deal?” Maybe it’s some piece of abstract art that everyone else is swooning over but you. Maybe it’s a book, poem, or song you just don’t understand. In this case, I would encourage you to do research, read criticism, and try and understand the complexity behind the tapestry that others are noticing, but not you. It seems like people that know Music theory really well seem to like Jazz and Classical more than others. It seems like trained poets like weird abnormal poetry. The better you can understand the complexity in something, the easier it is for you to appreciate and ultimately enjoy the fullness of its beauty. This is why I would encourage all of you to be very curious about as many topics as possible. It’s not for the sake of more knowledge, but so that you can better enjoy the world around you and see it’s Beauty in everything.

Now, what I just went through is more for our everyday use and understanding of subjective, created Beauty. But more importantly, we must learn what it means to contemplate the Beauty of God. In Christianity this endeavor is called “Theology”. If Theology is (as most people know) “the study of God”, then it by definition is the study of Beauty Itself. This is what Theology was meant to be. It’s the kind of theology God calls us to do. Theology is the contemplation of the various complexities and revealed “strands” of God in order to better enjoy Him. John Calvin talks about this in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He says that if your quote-on-quote “theological study” isn’t leading you to greater praise and enjoyment in God, then you’re not really studying theology! At that point it’s just studying literature – getting a better idea of this “character” named God in this “novel” called “The Bible”. This is why I had to leave seminary. I was in the midst of such beauty and I was numb to it! I was too immature. I didn’t have the spiritual infrastructure to see it for how beautiful it was! This infinite complexity being placed in front of me day in and day out was not leading me to enjoy Him. How many of us live day in and day out surrounded by the objective beauty of Christ and it does nothing to us? This contemplation of the Beauty of God can help us. Just yesterday our brother Marc Savage sent that group text (I have no idea how many of you got it) with this quote from Charles Spurgeon: “There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. No subject of contemplation will tend to more humble the mind, than thoughts of God.”

May I challenge all of us to press in and seek the complexities of Who this God is and how He has revealed Himself? Understanding the beauty of God is of the utmost importance to the Christian, because His beauty is completely pointless. It can’t be manipulated, used, or abused. It can only be enjoyed. Something I’ve learned over time: whenever spirituality of any kind goes awry and goes off track, the Beauty of God is one of the first things to go. The inability to accept the mysterious complexities of God is the beginning of all heresy. You can’t have a right enjoyment of the Beauty of God and be a legalist, libertine (someone who abuses grace), or a hypocrite. Seeking to enjoy the Beauty of God is a guard against all these things. In my reading, one of my favorite things I came across was from a Catholic theologian named John Navone. He says in his book Toward a Theology of Beauty that Christian theologians (which I would argue should be all of us) are people given the task of articulating and putting into words how everything in life is given to us by God. Navone calls this the “givenness” of life and selfhood. This means that all of life is grace – unmerited favor; and that even things that are usually seen as secular (types of visual art, media, culture, jobs, and types of “non-Christian” music) are actually things that “mediate the mystery of the dawn of Christ’s Kingdom, as epiphanies or manifestations of grace. We as theologians [(and I would argue as artists and beholders of beautiful things)] are charged with the task of ushering in and articulating the mysteries of beauty which we will rest in forever.” That’s amazing. He goes on to say that “Theologians [(and I’d say even Christian artists)] are engaged in a dialogue, not only with their public, but with the object of their contemplation.” This should be one of the distinguishing factors between artists that are Christians, compared to those that are not: non-Christian artists can only use their art to dialogue with other people (speaking horizontally) and other art (speaking down). Only the Christian can make art with the confidence and hope that it also speaks and dialogues upwards to a God pleased to see, hear, or watch it.

Now what if you’re hearing all this, but you wouldn’t say you’re a Christian. First, if your interest has been piqued, but you just don’t get it, I’d give you the same encouragement I gave to those earlier that don’t understand the Beauty of things that others find beautiful. Learn about this God. Stick around. Ask questions. Seek answers. Try to see the infinite complexity of this God and how simply he has revealed Himself. Look into how He has revealed Himself and start to pick apart the strands of the incredible tapestry he has revealed Himself as. Secondly, let me encourage you: there is objective Beauty. You heart yearns for it and longs for it, and it is out there. Objective beauty is when the fullest possible complexity is expressed to us. So God – infinite complexity – is that objective Beauty Itself. But people don’t know full objective beauty before they know God. This complexity cannot be comprehended until God changes someone to comprehend it. If you’re not there yet, that’s fine. Pray. Ask God to change you as He has changed many of us. Contemplate this God. Contemplate His world. Contemplate all Beauty.

Why?  So we can enjoy Beauty.  I’ll see you next time.

Here are the manuscript and lecture that this series is based off of.

Click for Manuscript Pdf

Manucscript

Click here for sermon audio

Audio

How Do We Respond to Beauty{7}?


Klimt - Music 1

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Wow. We have covered a lot of ground so far. We’ve discussed what beauty is, what things are actually beautiful (God, Nature, Humans, Art), and why they are beautiful. But there’s one more very important thing left to discuss (that will take a while to unpack): how are we meant to respond to Beauty? We used our text (Ecclesiastes 3:11-15) to give us a context to figure out a definition of Beauty, and then we applied that definition to different things, so let’s go back to it and see how we are supposed to respond to this beauty.

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.”[Ecclesiastes 3:12-15]

The ultimate response, the final goal, of seeing all the Beauty God has put in our hearts, put in the world, and is doing in and around us, is joy and doing good. But the writer did something before he could declare this: he thought about it and “perceived” this to be the case. You see this in the final verses of this section as well. After declaring the joy that should come from seeing Beauty, he then steps back and sees the bigger picture. He tells us what first must be true about God if we are going to ultimately respond to beauty the way we should.

Reading this reminded me of something C.S. Lewis once said. In one of his philosophical works (I honestly don’t remember which one) he says that humans interact with things by contemplating and enjoying. He says that they cannot do these things at the same time though they can rapidly move back and forth between the two. I think this is a great way of saying what the author in Ecclesiastes is saying. We first must “perceive” (or contemplate) Beauty and then we enjoy the Beauty that God is making all things into and that he has placed into our hearts and world. Often, this distinction between contemplating and enjoying happens so rapidly that it seems like it is happening at the same time, so don’t worry, I’m not necessarily saying that you can’t enjoy beauty before sitting down and thinking about it, researching it, and writing out some paper something. Even before contemplating something and learning its complexities you can enjoy the Beauty of something. But this is the same way that a husband can enjoy his wife on the first day they’re married, but he must spend time and effort after that contemplating and getting to know his wife, so he can enjoy her more fully and more comprehensively. Contemplation is not necessary to enjoy at first, but it is necessary to enjoy fully.

I know this was a brief post. It’s just because the next several sections are substantial enough to deserve their own posts. So, mull on this for a while, read some other new posts of mine at Reform & Revive and GoingToSeminary.com, and Monday we’ll go really in depth into the contemplation of Beauty and beautiful things.

Click for Manuscript Pdf

Manucscript

Click here for sermon audio

Audio

Review: John Navone’s “Toward a Theology of Beauty”


In my attempt at writing shorter and more frequent posts (rather than feeling the burden to produce daily meaty posts), I thought I’d put up this little review of a little book (91 pages) I just finished called Toward a Theology of Beauty by John Navone (1996, The Liturgical Press).  I had originally started reading it for the Beauty message I gave, but I never finished it.  As time went by, though, the things I had read in this book began creeping back into my thoughts, so I decided to finish it, and let me tell you, that was a good call.

This is an incredible book. I’m still in awe of it. It seizes your soul and takes it to the highest realms of the mind and heart of the Beautiful Triune God. I have almost an entire journal filled with notes I have taken form this book.  I will look over these notes often for years to come, to let myself get swept away by the ideas present here.  Navone doesn’t have progressive outline, so it’s difficult to lay out exactly everything he talks about.  The best thing one could do is shoot over to the Amazon.com page for the book and “Look inside” to peer at the Table of Contents for his topics.  Suffice it to say, the book is theologically comprehensive.  It doesn’t answer many of the more practical questions we may have about art, human beauty, and such, but it does help in a much greater understanding of the more ethereal and abstract realities of Beauty, especially as it originates in and delights God Himself.

I guess my only critique is a common one I had with most things I read during my preparation.  It assumes the validity, and authority of ancient Greek philosophy, especially the distinction between the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.  He uses this Hellenistic concept throughout.  Many things I read used this “trinitarian” framework to shape and organize their thoughts.  I don’t know how valid this is and I would argue this limits us in many ways.  but this is minor, and doesn’t really take away from the wonder and awe of this book.

Navone is a Catholic theologian, and if I learned one thing from reading this book, it’s that Catholics understand Beauty in a way that only 2,000 years of thought and reflection can provide. We Protestants can learn a lot from our Catholic brothers and sisters. Heck, after reading this, I’m practically Catholic now myself.

Navone’s writing is beautiful, his thoughts profound, and theology rich. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to increase their worship of a Beautiful Transcendent God.

Ah, the Beauty{6} of Art


Caravaggio - NarcissusThis is the next installment in the Beauty series (for the complete series, click here).  This is based on the manuscript I wrote for a message I gave at Epiphany Fellowship in Philadelphia (links to both the manuscript and the audio are at the bottom).  We’ve gone through a lot so far, including a discussion of why we long for Beauty, a definition of Beauty, and how science and nature are beautiful.  This series has received great feedback from people (and it’s only about half done!).  So feel free to jump in and comment and keep the discussion going.  Today’s post is on the beauty of Art.

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Humanity’s creations are beautiful.This is where we get to talk about art.

For some reason (I have no idea why) this was actually the very last section I worked on.Whether that means it’s a lot better or a lot worse, I don’t know.Anyway, art is a really tough thing to talk about.Its a huge topic that everyone has an opinion on, and as time has gone on, the conventions of art and what it is have broken down and definitions have broadened almost to the point of not really being definitions at all.Not only this, but you also seem to have people forgetting some very important things that we all must be reminded of.

First off, we are too quick to call God the “Supreme Artist”.That’s taking a description of humans and describing God with it.We’re right in starting with him in trying to understand art, but seeing Him as the “Supreme Artist” generally makes us picture in our minds the type of artistry we like best, and then begin thinking that God values that kind the most.This ends up being a bottom-up kind of description of art rather than top-down.Before God is Artist, He is a Creator, so we must start thinking of art creative-ly.This means that the way God is an artist is by making things that are not him and weren’t around before.So when I refer to God as Artist, that’s what I have in mind.

Secondly, we must keep in mind that God Himself was the first abstract artist.I kept reading all these books and articles written by Christians about art and so many of them seemed to not have room in their “theologies of art” for the abstract.The opposite of “abstract” art is “representational” art – art that “re-presents” something we know exists.When God did His artistry, it was all abstract.There was nothing to “re-present”So that being the case, I can’t think that God isn’t glorified in even the most abstract of art.There may even be an argument that abstract art is closer to the heart of God than representational.I’m not making that argument, but someone could.

Thirdly, as most Christians recognize, we create things because God does.In the first passage in the Bible that talks about people being made in the “Image of God” in Genesis 1:27, the logical question that follows is: what exactly does that mean?Now, theologians and philosophers have argued about this for thousands of years, and I’m not going to try and finish that fight right now, but I will say that it’s interesting that at this particular time in Scripture that this verse shows up, there’s only one thing we know about this God that humans are apparently in the “image of”: that He has the desire and ability to make things.I imagine that’s where we get our desire and ability.As G.K. Chesterton points out in his book “The Everlasting Man”, whatever role evolution may have played in the development of this world, it can’t by itself explain art.You don’t see monkeys in caves making bad art and humans now making good art.There’s something about art that reflects what makes us unique among all created things.

So when we do create and we do make, what does this have to do with beauty?Everything.I really do believe that art, like science, is a necessary endeavor in furthering God’s plan in History.God’s creation merely points to God’s Beauty.It doesn’t make beauty itself.Humans, on the other hand, actually make beauty and play an integral part in God “making all things beautiful in their time“.Let’s go back to our definition of “Beauty”:Complexity expressed simply - many complex strands woven into a sensually perceived simple tapestry.  The more complexity of “strands” that are represented in a piece of art, the more beautiful it is.And remember- different people, due to many factors, will find and feel different “strands” running through different pieces of art, leading to different personal aesthetic standards for each of us.

So imagine every strand in the universe is there before an artist preparing to do a piece.You have suffering over here, hope here, joy here, God, evil, life, humanity, death, birth, redemption, pain – all there before the artist.In art, the artist grabs as many of those strands as they can and crams and weaves them into the piece.And the more there are, the more beautiful it is.That’s why many people don’t like Postmodern art.There’s no complexity.It’s too simple and says nothing.There are not enough strands in it to strike the heart of a person so they can actually call it beautiful.A complexity of ideas makes art beautiful.In the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde writes out his thoughts on Beauty and art.He writes: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.”Though I disagree with Wilde on some of what he’s saying, nevertheless he is noticing that different strands in any piece should resonate with different people.Some people will be offended.Others will praise it.It’s just the way beautiful things are. After all, it’s how God and the Gospel are.

I’ll end this oh-too-brief section on art with a few comments on the distinction between “Christian” art and “secular” art.As Phil Ryken, just down the street at Tenth Pres writes in his book Art for God’s Sake: Bad Christian art “ultimately dishonors God because it is not in keeping with the truth and beauty of His character.It also undermines the church’s gospel message of salvation in Christ.”How? Well, the kind of modern art that most Christians scoff at is art that is completely void of goodness, light, and truth.But Christian art tends to do the same thing by being void of other very real things in this world: depravity, pain, and sin.When our art shies away from these things, in effect, we’re avoiding showing the world what they need salvation from.Jesus didn’t come to save some cute coffee mug or bumper sticker kind of world.He came and suffered, bled, and died an ugly death that we celebrate as the most beautiful event in all of history.We must make room in our art to explore the darkness and pain of this world so we can show them that Christ can and does engage and enter into brokenness to see it redeemed.

To conclude, recall what I said a couple of posts ago on the structure and nature of history and time?  History is not the story of the present hurtling through time towards some future endpoint we call “heaven”.  Rather, it is the beauty of that future world invading the present, even as we sit and read this.  If “Beauty” is the end goal for which God is making all things in their time (Ecclesiastes 3:11), then whatever floods the world with Beauty is actually furthering this process of redemption.  Artists, both saved and secular, are actually missionaries of sorts, as they help reweave the fabric of the universe with the beauty of their creations.

Are you all starting to see why we need artists?Good artists doing good and beautiful work; and not trite, kitschy, cute things that keep us away from the real world out of fear that we might “catch it” or something?A creation always reveals something about its creator.If you are a Christian reading this right now, may I urge you to show the world through your creations that you have been saved by a Gospel that makes you care about excellence engaging darkness, beauty engaging filth, order engaging chaos, and redemption conquering sin?Let our art, our creations, speak of a beautiful work that a beautiful God has done in us, whether or not it is an explicitly “religious” piece.

Art is beautiful, and necessary for the redemption of this world.

Resources for this series:

Human Beauty{5} | (Anthropological Aesthetics)


Sandorfi - Ange-smallerOkay, I’ve realized that I’m only about half-way done with this series on Beauty, so after this week, I’m going to make this into a once-a-week series for the rest of its duration. After Wednesday, after we talk about art, the theoretical foundation will be laid and the rest of the series is merely application. So every Monday, I’ll post the next part. I want to do this so people don’t get tired of it, so I can talk about the many other things rolling around in my head, and lastly, I want to do this so that people will actually engage the material and have time to digest it.

With that being said, this is the next section in the series on the Beauty of humanity. You will not find the usual bold/regular font distinction I’ve had to make in the other parts of this series because pretty much all of this is new material I didn’t get to cover in the message. I know this is all very inadequate. If I ever turn this message into a book or something, I’ll be fleshing this out a whole lot more. A few nights after I gave the message this whole manuscript was based on, I ended up talking to my roommate for about an hour further unpacking these ideas about physical beauty to him. He pretty much received an hour long lecture full of material that was in neither the message nor the manuscript. All that to say: there’s far more application of our working definition of beauty that could be made concerning human beauty, and far more questions that can be answered. Maybe someday I’ll engage some of those, but for now, I’ll just put this up and answer any specific questions as they come. I hope this is helpful. You can find the whole series here. Once more, links to the full manuscript and audio of the message are below.

Humans are Beautiful.

Humans are the crown of God’s creation. In the opening chapters of Genesis you see that with each day of creation, what God creates grows increasingly complex and nearer to the heart of God, until you reach that final creative act, where God intimately makes humans in his very own image. We can’t lose this. All humans have dignity, worth, and beauty, no matter where they end up eternally. God loves all humanity, and so should we. Being image-bearers gives us all innate worth and innate objective beauty. But, as we are all very aware of, humans also have a very subjective sense of beauty as well. This is where we get to talk about physical beauty briefly. Though I can’t do full justice to this topic here, I’ll try to give you some tools to better think through these things on your own. I know there’s a lot of brokenness over this issue in this room. Lots of pain and baggage that I wish I could deal with more. People who’s beauty has been abused or insulted. People who have used their own beauty to fill that eternity in our hearts, but to know avail.

Though I can’t hit every issue involved in this, I do want to say two main things that I hope are helpful. First, remember our definition of Beauty? Beauty is complexity expressed simply. Everything about us is always expressing the almost infinite complexity that comes from being human. Physical unattractiveness, it seems to me then, is when this human complexity is not physically expressed very simply, orderly, or harmoniously. Does this make sense? Is it not true that the ideas of “ugliness”, “grotesqueness”, and similar descriptors carry with them a sense of “busyness”, “disarray”, and “too much going on”- the opposite of simplicity and order? I say this not only to give an understanding of physical unattractiveness, but to to remind us that our physicality expresses parts of our humanity. In the tapestry of being human, our physicality – how we carry, dress, make-up, and build-up ourselves – emphasizes and expresses different strands within that tapestry. What parts of the beautiful artwork you are are you trying to accentuate and emphasize with your physical beauty? Your own strength? Your ability to draw eyes to yourself? Or do you use your beauty to point others away from yourself to the one of whom your beauty is but a shadow of? There’s a difference between True Beauty and Seductive Beauty. True Beauty is whatever attracts us towards our ultimate fulfillment and happiness. It draws us towards higher, more complex joys, excellencies, and goods. Seductive Beauty on the other had is beauty that tries and draw us away from our highest good and draws us towards lower things- baser pleasures, compromises, and harms that will eventually be our ultimate unhappiness and destruction. If you are not trying to draw people to their greatest good, then you’re drawing them to destruction.

Secondly, remember earlier, where I said that some people, because of culture, experiences, and such value different “strands” of that tapestry of the world differently? This is a complex way of saying that different people find different things beautiful, and that’s okay. That’s good. Humans were made to make value judgments. This is so that we who have been changed by God can look at him and rightfully and freely declare him as all Beauty. We were made this way so that we could assign true value to true things. But this good purpose of assigning value to things has become distorted because of sin and we often give the wrong value to wrong things. We long for Beauty, so we often (especially when we are not joined with God who is Beauty Itself) try to fill things with more meaning, more complexity, more “strands” in order to make them seem more beautiful, but it’s a false beauty that will never really deliver. It’s imposed on things and not recognized from within things. So, I think physical beauty is an outward reminder of the original goodness, order, and “complexity-expressed-simply” that people were made for, just like deformities are outward reminders of the fallenness of this world. We are supposed to be drawn to physical beauty. That’s okay. But sin takes that one strand of the tapestry of what makes someone completely beautiful as simply a human, and makes it more valuable than all the other strands. The problem is not when we recognize and enjoy physical beauty, it’s when we prioritize it above other things. So, feel free to pursue romance with someone you are physically attracted to (amen) and feel free to acknowledge when you see physical beauty. But, the encouragement I’ll give you is this: as you do so, make sure you are spending plenty of time enjoying and rightfully calling “beautiful” the God Who’s Beauty overshadows all others. Practicing right value judgments with the One of highest value helps us see ourselves and the rest of the world more properly.

Humanity is beautiful.

Art by Istvan Sandorfi.

Here are the links to the audio of the message, and the full manuscript.

Click for Manuscript Pdf

Manucscript

Click here for sermon audio

Audio

Nature, Science, and the Structure of Time |Beauty{4}


Van Gogh - Wheat Field with Cloud-smallerWe’ve been doing a little series here at the blog on Beauty. I recently gave a talk on it and I’m taking excerpts of the full manuscript, the fruit of several months of labor, and posting them online for all to enjoy and engage with. In this post, I break some of the order in the original manuscript to talk about both space and time. My point is simple: nature and history are beautiful. I’m applying a definition of beauty I discuss here, that says that Beauty is the attribute of something that expresses complexity, simply. To help explain that, I’ve been using the imagery of complexity represented as the strands that make up everything in the universe. Beauty is when these strands are woven together into a tapestry we can perceive with our senses (physical or spiritual). We’ve already discussed how God Himself is beautiful. Next week we’ll talk about the beauty of humans and then art. Should be good. The links to the full manuscript and the message audio are at the bottom. [Bold: things I had time to say in the talk// Regular: things I didn’t have time for]

God’s creation is beautiful.

The Bible clearly tells us in several places that nature proclaims God’s Glory, and that many of God’s invisible attributes are made plain to us by Creation. Thomas Aquinas, in his book Divine Names, in the section on God being called “Beauty” says that divine beauty is the motive for God creating all of this. God loves his own divine beauty so much that he wants to share it as much as possible. So, he creates creatures and mysteriously communicates this likeness of Beauty to them. God intends everything in creation to become beautiful in the fullness of His divine Beauty so, just like he has placed a deposit of eternity into our hearts, He has placed a deposit of that beauty in creation. Modern science was birthed out of an awe for this beauty. People looked out on the earth and saw that it worked on ordered processes, and these people determined to find out what those laws and processes were. Science and medicine is humanity accomplishing what theologians call the “Dominion Mandate” – when God commands the first humans to “subdue the earth”. Science is the process of looking deeply into the tapestry of the created world and seeing what strands comprise it. They get to stare into the inner workings of the beauty of God in this world. It’s sad that the Church has so divorced itself from this endeavor of worship. The comedian Steve Martin is also a novelist and playwright. He wrote one of my favorite plays called “Picasso at the Lapin Agile“. The premise is pretty simple: what would happen if Pablo Picasso, five years before he painted his definitive painting Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon met a young scientist named Albert Einstein in a small cafe a year before he published a little book called “The Theory of Relativity”? It’s one of the smartest and funniest plays I’ve ever seen. There’s a scene about halfway through where Picasso lays out his creative process and then looks at Einstein and says, “But what do you know about it anyway? You’re just a scientist. You just want theories”. Einstein replies with, “Yes, but like you, the theories must be beautiful. Do you know why the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth? Because the idea is not beautiful!” He further explains this and then Picasso says, “So you bring a beautiful idea into being.” God’s creation, and the laws that run it, are beautiful.

History is beautiful.

As our text says, History is the context in which all things are being made beautiful. This is where the Beauty of God, His creation, humans, and their creations all collide and interact in order to bring about this beauty and peace in the world. It is the ultimate tapestry in which all these strands are being woven together. One of the best understandings of history I’ve ever heard came from Harold Best, dean of Wheaton College’s Conservatory of Music and author of the incredible book that everyone should read before they die “Unceasing Worship” in a message he gave called “Continuous Worship: Is “Worship” the Only Word for Worship?” In it, he points out that the Eastern mind sees time as circular. Life repeats itself and moves in consistent cycles. The Western mind, on the other hand, sees time as linear, with a definite beginning and a definite ending. Now most of us have heard this before and then were told the various reasons why the Western idea was right.

Best, in the message, and our text tonight, both point out how our modern Western bias is misguided. Our text tells us some of the ingredients God uses to make all things beautiful in their time. And God employs these same list of things over and over and over again through time. In fact, one of the consistent themes of the book of Ecclesiastes is the vain repetitions and cycles that seem to make up life. In Best’s message, he points out that time is in fact neither linear nor circular. It’s helical – in the shape of helix. That shape, so essential to the creation and sustenance of life is actually woven into time. Life moves in circularly as it linearly moves through time. Assuming that’s true, let’s apply our definition of Beauty and see what happens. History is the story of God liberating all of creation from its bondage to decay and ugliness into participation in the glory and Beauty of God. If this is true, then every moment that goes by means the further Beautifying of the world. Imagine, then, time as moving in this circular fashion towards the glory and Beauty of God, the earlier parts being made of less woven strands and slowly, over the years, through time, God employs people, situations, art, Jesus, and the Cross to weave these strands ever and ever more securely together into the Image of Heaven.

What this means then is that time isn’t merely moving forward toward some point in the future we call “Heaven” or “the end of time”, Heaven is actually invading the present as we speak, as we sit here, as art is made, as people are seen as beautiful – we are actually ushering in heaven on earth as those strands are pulled tighter and tighter together to form this epic tapestry of history. In Marilynne Robinson’s book Gilead, she writes from the perspective of an old Congregationalist preacher about to die. This man, reflecting on life and heaven says this as he thinks about this very topic we’re talking about: “I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know names for and then has to close his eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety {and a love for God has done on this earth] forbids me to try.” Jonathan Edwards described history flowing into the Beauty and Glory of Heaven like this: As time moves forward now and on through eternity, God’s people are ever steadily rising higher and higher into the Glory of God, perhaps with an increasing velocity towards a height to which they will never attain. This history is beautiful. Don’t waste it on trivial, lower, ugly things.

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The Triune God is Beauty{3}


Caravaggio - The Conversion of Saint Paul 3bThis is the third part in what will end up being a fairly long and comprehensive series on Beauty. It’s based on a recent message I gave on the topic. You can find the full audio and full manuscript below. [Bold: things I had time to say // Regular: things I didn’t have time for] So far, we’ve seen why we long for Beauty, we’ve discussed what it is, now let’s apply this definition.

What is beautiful?

First and foremost, the Triune God is beautiful.

He is Three Persons (complexity) existing in One Deity (simplicity). Just think of that word God. That is the human term that he has chosen to be acceptable for us to call him. Those three letters contain the simplest expression of the Sovereign Creator God of the Universe. Most old school systematic theologies are structured the same basic way: the first actual section of theology is reserved for “the Doctrine of God”, and the first thing you learn about God is his “unknowability”. This is the fact that God is infinite, inexhaustible, holy, and completely separate from all things we could ever conceive or understand. We cannot know him. Any pursuit we go on to know him will always be futile. Just the fact that the Infinite God has revealed anything to us in a way that we can actually understand is beauty itself. He is the perfect and complete tapestry within which all things are woven together in the first place. He is peace. He is shalom. He is Beauty. But let’s look at His distinct persons as well.

God the Father is beautiful.

In Exodus 3, Moses is talking to this God who is showing Himself through a burning bush and he asks this God “Who are you?” The huge transcendent God simply says “I am that I am”. So, in the Bible and in the creation, God the Father reveals Himself clearly enough that we can know who we should worship. Think about it. The infinite God who is outside of time and space uses finite things within time and space to communicate himself. This Infinite Head of the Godhead reveals the Infinite strands of who He is in one of the simplest of tapestries: “I AM”. This is beautiful.

God the Holy Spirit is beautiful.

1 Corinthians 2 says, “As it is written, ‘what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’” We often stop there. We talk about all those infinite promises God has made that no one has seen and no one can know. But this isn’t the case. Read on. Paul writes that all these things that no one has seen, all these infinite and glorious promises that would blow our minds “God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.” The Infinite complex Spirit of the Infinite complex God dwells within finite simple believers and what’s more, he communicates the previously unspoken thoughts of God Himself. So through the mediator of the Holy Spirit, God weaves his thoughts into the tapestry of our souls.

God the Son is beautiful.

Of course, we go to John 1 for this: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. . . For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” He is the ultimate earthly reflection of beauty. He is the living word of God. He is God of God in the flesh of man. The ultimate, infinite, precious, all-consuming, King of Kings and Lord of Lords takes on the form of a child born in a manger. Oh the humility. Oh the beauty in this act we call the Incarnation, where the infinite God takes on finite humanity.

Though much more could be said (and maybe should be) I feel I’ll stop there. This is an all too-brief picture of why/how God is beautiful, but this is because most people acknowledge that if there is a God, He is in fact what we would think of as beautiful. Otherwise He wouldn’t be worthy to worship. Most would agree with what I’ve written if in fact this was the God that existed. We’ll discuss that more next week. On Wednesday, though, we’ll talk about worship, nature, science and how all those things connect. It’s one of my favorite sections. Here are the links I mentioned earlier:

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May I Offer a Definition of | Beauty{2} ?


Caravaggio - Saint Jerome2This is Part 2 of an ongoing series based on the paper I wrote on Beauty and the subsequent sermon I gave on it. [Bold: things I had time to say // Regular: things I didn’t have time for]

__________

Whenever you go to study a particular topic in the Bible, the first place you go is the concordance. You go online, or you look in a book, and you search for every time that word is used. If you’re lucky, you’ll find some place in the Bible where the the writer gives you a direct definition for that topic. You look for statements like “This is love” or “Faith is” or “This is the will of God”. The Bible never gives a definition of Beauty. It calls God, creation, and people all beautiful. It says some people are beautiful. It says some people do beautiful things. It calls both good things and evil things beautiful. It calls for us to seek after certain beautiful things. It tells to avoid certain other beautiful things. So, just simply looking at the whenever the Bible uses the word “beautiful” doesn’t help us tremendously, but it’s a start. We can start to see that beauty is a bit more complex than we’re sometimes told. We start to see how a lot of common definitions we hear some times aren’t true Biblically. We see that:

  • it’s not perfection.
  • it’s not just when something reflects God.
  • it’s not just order or symmetry. We all know there can be beauty in chaos sometimes.
  • it’s not just in the eye of the beholder. There is some objective sense of beauty.
  • it’s not just an attribute of things or people.

The next step in studying something topically is to look at the original language to see what the English translation “beauty” meant in the Greek and Hebrew. When you do this, things get nuts. In the ESV alone, there are over 20 very different Hebrew and Greek words all translated as “beauty” or “beautiful”, but we can still learn a few things. First off, we see that the Hebrew mindset is a lot richer than the Greek one. The Hebrew words range in literal meanings such as pleasant, dignified, adorned, sweet, delightful, precious, boastful, arrogant, glorious, vigorous – one word used only once even means “scraped of all impurity”. The Greek words mean simply good and beautiful. But there is some depth here. The most common NT word used for “beautiful”, but most often translated as “good”, originally comes from a verb which means “to call”, speaking to the attractive nature of beauty. The other word used comes from the word for “hour” which describes beauty as being “within one’s hour”. By the way, in the attached manuscript, you can find a full breakdown of every instance these words appear in the Bible, their form, their frequency, and what each of those Greek or Hebrew words most literally mean.

So now we have a fuller idea of beauty, but still no working definition. At this point you just have to pray, read, and think a lot while looking at the broader context of theology. We use the things we clearly know about the nature of God, humankind, and reality to shed light on the ambiguous things and help us get closer to a definition. When you do that, some things come up that we need to keep in mind.

First, our definition needs to make God the most beautiful Person in the universe, it needs to make the cross the most beautiful event in history, it needs to make Jesus the most beautiful man who lived the most beautiful life this world has ever known, and lastly, it needs to make the Gospel (or the message of Christianity) the most beautiful thing anyone could ever hear or believe.

Secondly, we see that there is a tension that has to be held when it comes to talking about Beauty. It seems like Christians throughout history have fallen into one of two errors when thinking about it: either a pantheistic view or deistic view of beauty. The pantheistic view would say that God is beauty so only things that join him in His beauty can be beautiful. Nothing can have beauty in and of itself. It’s only beautiful as much as God shines through it. This definition would say that bad music made by Christians will always be more beautiful than really good music made by non-Christians. Now we all know that’s not true, because we’ve all heard really bad Christian music. This is the over-objective view of of beauty. The other view, the deistic view would say that God is beautiful, so He put beauty on earth that’s completely separate from Him so we can have a beauty that’s all our own, and it doesn’t relate to God in any way. God is beautiful. Humans are beautiful. There’s no connection. We don’t share in God’s beauty. This view would say that there is absolutely nothing more beautiful about one song that talks about the depths of who God is as opposed to another that doesn’t. They’re just songs. This view is an over-subjective view of beauty.

The Biblical view is different from both of these. The Bible teaches that God is separate from His creation, but He’s still present. God is not in created things, but those things can and do preach about who God is. Man is not God, but God has become a man so that He might communicate Himself to us and accomplish for us what we could not do for ourselves. So God is completely other, but He’s near. So, our definition of beauty has to reflect this. It has to be something that is connected to the nature of God but is still something humans can possess, but not in the same way. It has to objective for God, but subjective for us.

After doing all that, are you ready for an actual definition? The best definition that my arrogant, immature, and prideful 23-year old mind has been able to come up with for beauty is this:

Beauty is the attribute of something that expresses complexity, simply.

That’s it. Beauty is what makes infinity, finite; it makes transcendent things seem near. So the more “stuff” that is represented more “simply”, the more beautiful something is. The best image I’ve been able to think of to explain beauty is the Hebrew word shalom. Many people know that this word is usually translated as “peace” but it has a much richer meaning than this. The Old Testament uses this word to describe the ultimate goal and end of history and all that God is doing–peace. Now, when we think of peace, we usually define it negatively- no fighting, no war, no hunger, no pain. But this word in the Hebrew carries with it the connotation of reknitting the very fabric of the universe. It paints a picture of a world that is made up of an infinite number of “strands” of sorts, and shalom is when these strands are re-woven together into a sort of tapestry. Beauty, therefore, is when some or many of these complex strands are woven together into a tapestry that we can perceive with our senses, both physical and spiritual. The more complex strands contained in one simple “tapestry”, the more beautiful that thing is.

This is the objective idea of beauty. But, this definition also has the benefit of having an appropriate subjective component as well. You see, we as individuals over time become more sensitive to certain ones of those strands of the universe and less sensitive to to others. Our culture, experiences, natural make-up, and ultimately our spiritual state all cause us to sense and value various strands differently, making us value different “tapestries” differently.

Next time, we’ll begin applying this definition to other things to (a) better explain it, (b) see if it works, (c) explain why we find somethings beautiful. The first thing we’ll talk about being beautiful? God. Until then . . .

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Why We Long (Setting the Stage) [Eccl.2+3] |Beauty{1}


Scotland-Summer 2006-Edinburgh-Calton Hill-040This is the first part in my series going through the different ideas in the manuscript I wrote for a recent message I gave at Epiphany Fellowship’s monthly ministry “First Friday Fundamentals”. Upcoming topics include what Beauty is, how science reveals Beauty, why we find some things/people unattractive, and the nature of physical beauty. This first part lays out a theological and psychological understanding for why we long for beauty in the first place and how even that longing can get derailed because of our fallenness, finitude, and sinfulness. Also, I made a Web Album of pictures I took from Calton Hill.  They can never do it justice, and they look really anticlimactic, I know, but just trust me, God met me there.  I also linked relevant references in the manuscript to their appropriate pictures.

[Bold: things I had time to say // Regular: things I didn’t have time for]

___________________

In the Summer of 2006 I spent some time studying Creative Writing abroad at the Glasgow School of Art in Glasgow, Scotland. It was amazing in many ways. It was the first time I’d ever been out of the country. I saw things, met people, and went places I only could have dreamt of seeing, meeting, or going. One particularly memorable highlight: I had my first beer ever in a Scottish pub, July 4th, during the World Cup. The third week or so into the program, we had a free weekend so I decided to spend the weekend in Scotland’s capitol, Edinburgh. On Sunday I found a church and attended this amazing service. Afterwards, I just started walking around the city. I ended up following my map to this place called “Calton Hill. I walked in the shade of the tress around the base of the hill and found these little stairs to my right. I followed those stairs and as I reached the top, the trees broke just right, and the light fell so precisely, and I turned at just the right angle that I suddenly found myself standing above the entire city of Edinburgh looking out for miles. As I turned around 360 degrees, I could see the ocean on one side, the city on the other, and the giant hill to my left a mile or so away called Arthur’s seat that they say figures into the King Arthur legend.  [Click Here for the Web Album]

I began to cry almost immediately. One thing you’ll realize about me over time: I’m either the most rational romantic or the most romantic rational. To the charismatics in an old church of mine in Richmond I was the cold, dead theologian. To the seminarians up here I was the feely, emotional charismatic. They’re probably both right. But regardless, I broke down on top of this hill because I was staring at the most beauty I’ve ever seen. I felt small, I felt sinful, I felt worshipful, and I felt the presence of God more tangibly in those few hours I spent on top of that hill than at any other moment of my life. At the very same time I felt the most complexity and simplicity of emotions. I was so at peace, yet I wanted to scream.

So why is it that beauty draws those sorts of things from us? What is it anyway? How do we know what is beautiful and how to respond to it? We live in a world of such paradox. Pain and ugliness are the primary soundtrack of our lives, it seems, and yet most of us don’t live in a constant state of despair. We seem to live off those little oases of beauty in life. So how do we understand what beauty is and how it works in the midst of the seeming vanity of all life? Well, there was another man in history that pondered these things and recorded them in the book of the Bible we know as “Ecclesiastes”. He looked out on his own existence and the nature of life and saw it for what it was: full of useless strivings and the vain repetitions of repeated history as all reality just keeps turning, turning, turning. We know him today by the Hebrew word for “Speaker” or “Preacher” and that is what he does. In the text we’ll be in he tells us about life and beauty and how these things relate.

The Text (Ecclesiastes 2:22-3:15)

Read 2:22-24 | verse 24, as the Hebrew literally says it, and how it can legitimately be translated, reads: Nothing is better unto mankind than that he should eat and drink and see his soul as beautiful in the midst of his toil.

Read 2:25-26 | The “toil and striving of the heart” the writer talks about here is the work that we do in light of our deepest desires. It’s the pursuits to fulfill all we want and all we long for. It is those pursuits that can never be accomplished, those longings that can never be fulfilled. It’s the deepest drives within us that motivate everything we do. The writer says that these desires, these strivings can never be satisfied. We can try all we want, but no matter what, that pain and vanity will always be the constant state of our lives. But why? Why is it so vain to work so hard at this?

Read 3:1-8 | You see, it’s vain because all things already have their proper predetermined season. Everything you work to accomplish will only come in it’s appointed season for you, and everything you work to avoid will always come in its appointed season for you. That is why our toil is all in vain. But yet we strive anyway. So why do we still strive in this life? The Preacher asks this very same question: What gain has the worker from his toil? He then tells us that he thinks that God has given him a special perspective to give us some insight on why we do (and should do) the strivings that we do. He says: I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He says that he thinks he sees it. He has looked out over history and life and he thinks he sees why it is we strive. Though it’s in vain, God still births something in us to toil. The Preacher has seen the proper striving that God has given humans to do. So what is it? Well, his answer to that is our main text tonight.

Read 3:9-15 | The writer says I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end. Does anyone else see how weird this sounds? The writer says this is the business of man and then goes on to talk about God doing things and what we can’t do. So what’s going on? This is what I think the writer is saying: God has a picture of what a good and beautiful world looks like and He is forming this world into that picture as he is making all things beautiful. This beautiful world is an Infinite, eternal one. So, He has put eternity into our hearts, or in other words, put a deposit of this eternal beautiful world in our hearts, causing us to long for it. This seems to be so we can recognize the beauty that God is making while not seeing the exact mechanisms that God is using to do it. It forces us to enjoy what God is doing while still having to trust Him rather than trying to predict Him. Apparently the business of man, then, is to see, recognize, and enjoy the beauty God is doing. But, in our sinfulness, we don’t like not being able to find out what God is doing from the beginning to the end, so we like to form our own pictures in our heads of what a good and beautiful world looks like. So every action of every human being is to make the world out there match the world in their head. The task of the Christian, then, is to make the world they want in their head match the world the God has placed a longing for in their heart. The rest of our text describes what this looks like, so we’ll get to that later when we talk about how we respond to beauty. But let’s first get down a definition of Beauty.

And that, my friends, is for next time . . . Here are the audio and manuscript links, as promised:

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Eternity in Our Hearts: The God of Beauty, the Beauty of God


Sargent - Madame Errazuriz-smallThis message was seven months in the making, and this past Friday I finally delivered it.  So, as promised, I’m posting both the audio and the manuscript here.  You can also find a general outline on my Sermon site, and you can also find it at my Podcast.

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Click for FULL Manuscript

This is the message I gave at Epiphany Fellowship. The topic was Beauty. The attached manuscript is the full manuscript. It is 43 pages long and contains far more information than I was able to give in a 40 minute message. It includes an appendix where every form of every word in the Greek and Hebrew translated as “Beauty” or “Beautiful” in the English Standard Version of the Bible is ordered by frequency and includes the literal meanings and lexical range of each word.

I really cannot stress how much more is in the manuscript than was preached.  Every section has huge amounts of thought and prayer in it that was not able to be included in the final message.  That’s why throughout the next week or more, I’ll be blogging about every section of this manuscript.  Each post will focus and discuss the fuller version of each section.  If it gets to be too much I’ll spread it out as need be, but we’ll see.  This is where your thoughts and insights will be so helpful and needed, but if you have a question now, don’t feel like you have to wait for that blog post to come to ask.  Engage with any and everything now.

I hope this blesses all of you as much as it did me.  The feedback that evening was more than I knew how to handle and perhaps I’m still processing it.  Thank you all for your grace and affirmation.  For those that came out, I thank you. I very much enjoyed both preparing and delivering this message, and I look forward to further chances to do so.  If you’re interested in giving me such a chance, feel free to use the contact email on the sidebar to the right (or just click here).

Enjoy, and feel free to let me know what you think, and please at least look through some of the manuscript.  Until next time . . .

One small final note: on most every site and post I’ve used to discuss this message I’ve used the attached piece of art.  It is a piece called “Madame Erraruriz” and it is by my favorite American painter John Singer Sargent.  I got to see this painting in an exhibit of his at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and ever since seeing the brushstrokes in this simple painting and seeing the nuances and the subtleties that don’t quite come across from this digital shot, I have long found it to be one of the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen.  It is for that reason I have chosen it as the picture that has constantly been up for all these posts.  A few years back I even wrote a poem based on the piece called “Extended Engagement”.  I ended up writing two versions, one less structured than the other to better mirror the feel of the piece, but on this blog you can read both Version 1 and Version 2.  Let me know which you prefer.

I’m preaching in Philadelphia.


As the title clearly says, I will be giving the message tomorrow at Epiphany Fellowship‘s monthly event called “First Friday Fundamentals“.  Each month we take a topic and see how the culture, media, and world at large views this topic.  We look at various forms of media, art, film clips, and music to observe the predominant worldviews.  Then someone gives a message on a Biblical perspective on that topic.

This month’s topic is Beauty.

If you can make it, should be a great evening.  The info is below.  If you can’t make it, please pray for me (I’m not very experienced at this stuff).  And also know that I’ll be posting the audio, full manuscript (almost 40 pages long!) and other resources on the topic on this very blog you’re reading, my sermon site, and my podcast.  I’ll also be blogging about it all next week to let people discuss it further.  Here’s the info for the night:

First Friday Fundamentals @ Epiphany Fellowship

Friday, August 6, 2009

17th & Diamond, Philadelphia, PA

8-10:30pm, Free

I hope to see many of you there.  Below is the trailer for the evening:

Speak your mind: What is Beauty? (A Survey)


Sargent - Madame Errazuriz-small

For those that might run across this post in the future, the message mentioned in this post was written, given, and walked through part-by-part on this blog.  You can see all these posts by clicking here.

So . . . I’m giving a talk in a few weeks on the topic of Beauty.  The first section of the talk will be a discussion attempting to answer the question “What is Beauty?”  To aid me in this I’d like to extend this question to the world at large.  So, I’m asking all of you out there: what do you think beauty is?

Feel free to take your time or just give me the first thing that pops into your head, or even give me more than one idea if you want. This is totally open.  Leave a comment.  Email me.  Facebook me.  Whatever you want.

Or, leave a joke if you want – but only if it’s a good one.  Here’s the dictionary definition for “Beauty” to get you started thinking:

the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest).

So, that’s what Dictionary.com thinks.  What do you think Beauty is?

(art: “Madame Errazuriz” by John Singer Sargent)

A Coffee Gospel & the Beauty of Christ


mosaicThis is a snippet from an Easter Service by Erwin McManus of Mosaic Church in Los Angeles.  His coffee story pretty much sums up my life.  I love it.  The rest is a freebie.  Enjoy!

Let me know if the audio doesn’t work.  It’s about 9 minutes long, so if you have a few minutes to spare, take full advantage of it.

“Beauty: Easter Service” by Erwin McManus (click here for download)