Thursday, December 29, 2016

Letters to my Dear Sophia: Finding Beauty in an Ugly World

This is a series entitled "Letters to My Dear Sophia," which I intend as a compilation both for my daughter when she grows up, but for you as you raise your children, and think about yourselves in the oft-parental relationship to your heavenly parent. My intent is that, through reading these letters to my daughter and the intense love I have poured into them, you might hear an echo of the kind of love and hope that God has for all of us.

It is December 29th, and it is cold and dark. Last week we celebrated your first Christmas, and it was everything I could have hoped it would be. Your dad was too sick to go, so you and I stood in church and sang Christmas carols and watched as we passed flames to one another during Silent Night, breaking the winter darkness with light and hope. It was so profoundly meaningful to me to share this moment with you, because for me, Christmas has always been a reminder of how to find beauty in the midst of the grimmest, darkest part of the year. Especially this year, with the horrible suffering in Aleppo and the many deaths of beloved celebrities, and the surge of white supremacy and hate crimes, the symbolism of this light, of Christ sweeping through the darkness like tiny flames that could not be overcome by the deep night soothes my weary soul.

But now Christmas is over, and we have entered what I consider the ugly part of winter. In November we have Thanksgiving, and in December we light candles through Advent, joyfully anticipating Christ's coming and coming again. In a few days we'll ring in the new year and celebrate Epiphany, and then it will be January and we'll enter not the darkest, but the coldest and gloomiest time of year. Although the days will be longer, the Christmas lights will come down and the tree will be brown and shed its needles all over the living room as I wrestle it out the door. We will commence the long slog of subzero temperatures, snow, ice, and an even more frustrating wait as the days get longer, but slushier. It's an ugly time of year, especially around late February or early march, when it's still dark outside at 5 pm, but now instead of pristine flakes, we have dirty half-melted snow piled eight feet high everywhere, and the weather teases us as it temporarily reaches habitable temperatures and then plummets again, leaving us six more weeks of snow boots and long underwear.

There's a lot of ugliness in the world, and it becomes readily apparent. Every day, news reports another horrible thing a politician said, or another terrible tragedy like mass shootings, hate crimes, poverty, destruction, and more. Every day we come face to face with callous people who would rather buy a new pair of shoes than give a quarter to a person in need, or who say disgusting, ugly things about women, immigrants, LGBT folks, or certain ethnic groups. So shocked are we in the face of this ugliness that it can be hard to know how to respond. It is overwhelming. Because I have raised you to have a soft, kind heart, I know you will see it, and that it will overwhelm you too at times. I have cried more tears than stars in the sky over so many tragedies that my fellow humans face.

Fred Rogers, one of my personal theological heroes, once explained how his mother instructed him to handle scary situations by saying: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." This is a beautiful example of how we can begin to respond to the ugliness of the world. Although it can sometimes feel like the darkness is more powerful than the light, looking for those helping demonstrates that there are glimmers of light even in the most deep, scary night. But to take it further, I would say it's important to spiritually feed yourself by seeking out beauty. Our brains are hardwired to look for the negative and scary. This is how we adapted to dangerous environments; learning from others' mistakes and paying attention to threads helped us survive as a species. But in our news-saturated, hyper-connected world, this tendency to look for the dangers can turn us from action and preparation to a terror which freezes us, and a hopelessness that is hard to overcome.

One of my favorite passages from the epistles says: "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (Philippians 4:8) This is actually fantastic advice for how we can keep ourselves sane when things get really ugly. It's not to say that we ignore what's ugly, but that we cultivate in ourselves the ability to notice God's presence and God's kingdom in our midst so that we are not overwhelmed when things get really rough. If you notice the beauty in our ugly world when things are okay, it will give you strength and determination when it's harder to find those beautiful things. When you see how strangers contributed money to buy a car for a down-on-his-luck dad, or a child comforting a friend, or experience a warming hug in the midst of loss, you are reminded that we are not alone, and the darkness is not impermeable. Even the darkest night cannot overcome the smallest flame.

So choose beauty, little one. Choose to see with eyes oriented not at now, but at not yet. Choose not to see a terrified young woman with a frail baby in a manger, but the beginning of a story that changed everything. Choose to look at where light has broken into darkness so that you may see that the truth of light, and hope, and healing, and peace, and joy, and lions and lambs and a city where it is never night and the gate is always open is only a hair's breadth away from you at any given moment. When you look with those eyes oriented toward that promise, you will be emboldened and strengthened to bring that reality a little nearer. Your fears will be answered with an overwhelming word of peace and comfort, and you will begin to see the beauty which overwhelmingly renews and restores all that was once ugly, broken, or evil. You will see Easter lilies blooming in brown slush, and know that spring was actually waiting for you the whole time.