Surprised by Beauty
By Andrew Goins
“From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth.” ~ Psalm 50:2
It was a normal day, like any other day full of wool, sunshine, and low-grade boredom. Predictable. Secure. Smothered by monotony and driven by escape, Moses guided the flock to Mt. Horeb. It was a majestic mountain that struck awe like lightning into the heart of the onlooker. It was one of Moses’ favorite places to meander because the mountain always surprised him; the God-carved crevices creeping up the mountain like kudzu up a home, Moses’ home; the wind whistling like an illusive hobo—no one knows where he has been or where he is going; the mountains dry skin ceaselessly pleading to be trudged upon. This mountain commanded to be looked at as gravity commands the rain to fall down. It was awesome.
Walking up the mountain, Moses saw a bush blushing, burning bright red yet not consumed by flame. In this bush the world of predictability was consumed by the flickering flames, burned up, and offered as an ascension offering, marking the boundaries between night and day. Day and night. The incipient rays of dawn crawl up the firmament, marking something new: A vocation to announce the coming salvation. To command the people of God’s liberation. Moses was shocked out of the humdrum sleepy life by the surprise of beauty. God used the beauty of a burning bush to speak. To reveal heaven on earth. It is in surprise that God met with Moses, and it is in surprise that Jesus shocked His disciples with a shalom and a glowing glorified body.
Sometimes God shocks us awake like He did with Moses; we see something beautiful, God calls us by name through that beauty, and we leave transformed with a trajectory and vocation. Other times beauty hides in obscure places, whispering quietly for our attention, but we pass by flustered by all of the bent beauties. Such as pornography which has become America’s iconography. Lust cultivates greed, and greed distorts wonder because the beauty that wonder inspires becomes contingent on ownership. These beauties obscure the truth in their extravagance, conceal eternity by cultivating greed, and transform us into baneful beasts always famished and never full. There are whispering beauties all around us. In the poem, “Auguries of Innocence”, William Blake writes “To see a world in a grain of sand | And a heaven in a wild flower | Hold infinity in the palm of your hand | And eternity in an hour.” This is the holy Christian task: pay attention. To see a world in the smallest of things. Pay attention to the creation, and you will find yourself awake in the dream of angels ascending and descending on the rocks and ridges, trees, and bridges. In fall you will see the blushing bush, burning without being consumed: a place where God calls you by name and you will take off your shoes because it is holy ground. If you pay attention you will find yourself treading through the world with naked feet, because it is all, now holy ground.
“From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth.” Zion became the shorthand for Jerusalem, which is where the temple was built. Some believe that Mt. Zion was the Mountain that the temple was built on. The temple was extravagantly decorated. It was ineffable. The beauty of Zion in the temple was to remind the Israelite worshipers that they were in a heavenly place, a place where God dwells. It’s important to note that heaven is above all, in Hebrew conception, a place where God dwells. The temple, then, is a place where heaven and earth overlap. Its extravagance ignited the worshipers’ imagination so that they could know they were entering a heavenly place. Juxtapose this verse with John 4 where Jesus meets a woman of Samaria who says that the Jews believe the only way to worship Yahweh is by worshiping in Jerusalem, presumably in the temple on Mt. Zion. Jesus responds by saying “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” The Spirit of God inspires true worship. The time has come when worship is not constrained to Jerusalem because the Spirit of God makes every place a Jerusalem.
Beauty is the engine of wonder. Wonder is the vehicle of heavenly things. It was in the beauty of the blushing bush Moses was seduced in wonder, and into that wonder God spoke. The blushing bush can be metaphorically burned up by the enemy of wonder: predictability. When I assume the world is predictable I will close off my heart to surprise. Kill predictability by paying attention, because in paying attention you will inevitably be surprised. Be surprised by the monarch butterfly burning in the sunlight, yet is not consumed. Be surprised by the singing of the cedar waxwing flinging her song in the waxing morning. Be surprised by the naked trees undressed by the cold, exposing their rough and patterned skin that tenderly whispers of Eden.
Andrew Goins is on staff for a campus ministry at Appalachian State University called Ratio Christi. He also works as a youth leader and worship leader at Arbor Dale Presbyterian Church in Banner Elk.
Andrew is committed to simply and thoroughly loving his wife Bethany, growing in his bible nerdiness, delighting in good books (theology, poetry, and select fiction), music, photography, creation, and in gathering people together for bible studies, a shared meal, or making music.
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