The heart is the symbol for Valentine’s Day, which makes what happened Wednesday, in a southern Florida high school, all the more shattering—our hearts are broken and broken again by what feels like an endless parade of violence. I was with youth workers and survivors of the Columbine massacre hours after this cycle of copycat destruction was kicked off in our culture, and four years ago I was trying to help my own daughter recover from the trauma she experienced in her own school shooting. Last night and this morning, less than 24 hours after this horror was lived out again in a Parkland, Florida school, I couldn’t escape the shadow that descended over my heart. Despair is a relentless enemy…
And so, this morning, as I got into my car for my long commute to work, I knew I just couldn’t stomach an hour of NPR news updates about this tragedy, and all the other tragedies that flow into our heads in a 24-hour news cycle. My soul couldn’t handle that diet today. So as I pulled out of my driveway I turned on the old-school jazz station that’s on in my home all day long, and I cranked it. And then I knew that I had to soak myself in the beauty of this music in order to find my footing again. I mean, we all live in a narrative that makes sense to us, and sometimes those narratives lead us down false paths. We can start to believe that evil and darkness have free reign to assault and abuse us. We forget about beauty, because we can’t find it in our narrative. Music reminds us of beauty. And, therefore, it reminds us of Jesus…
The day after the July 2016 ambush of policemen in Dallas, when a black, former Army reservist targeted and killed five white officers and wounded seven others, I was sitting in church as our African-American worship pastor led a mostly white, suburban congregation through our normal litany of praise songs. But then he lowered his guitar and paused, looking out over the congregation, and launched into a raw account of the grief and horror and fear we all felt at that moment. He used this emotional and poetic reflection as an on-ramp into the last worship song of the morning: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“This song,” he explained, “was written more than 150 years ago during a time of great racial strife in the U.S.—the Civil War. The violence fueled by racial division during this time is still the worst in American history. And in the midst of this wrenching moment in our journey, Julia Ward Howe writes a song of conviction and hope that helps redirect the nation’s focus.” And then he led his worship band into the song, starting with the rat-a-tat-tat marching rhythm of the snare drum. This song is best known for its crescendo—the “Glory, glory hallelujah!” chorus. But a lyric in the first stanza of the song, a phrase that’s always been something of a mystery to me, caught my attention: “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”
All my life, I’d heard this lyric but never really understood its meaning. So I stopped to ask Jesus to unravel it for me. And then he tore back the veil: Howe, a ghost voice from our dark past, was capturing the transforming heart of Jesus in the face of the relentless advance of hatred. Our storehouse of wrath is overflowing in Western culture, but Jesus is determined to make vintage-quality wine out of these terrible “grapes.”
Jesus will make beauty out of ugliness, no matter how much ugliness we throw at him, because it’s the default setting of his heart. And he is, right now, stomping on whatever ugly grapes we offer up to him, preparing them for his latest vintage. He is not absent in the midst of the unconscionable things we do to each other—he is weaving himself into the fabric of our horrors, transforming what is tattered into something whole and beautiful.
Jesus, who works his redemption through the “shrewdness of a serpent” and the “innocence of a dove,” is always looking for opportunities to bring hope out of hopelessness. It’s like breathing to him, because hope defines his heart. The Gospel accounts of his three-year ministry are a relentless drumbeat of ugliness-into-beauty, including these examples from the first five chapters of Matthew:
- The story begins with an unwed mother giving birth to the Messiah in an ugly little stable. The baby is wrapped in a rough cloth (swaddled) and laid in a food trough for farm animals—the Beauty that created the world takes his first gasps of air in a nasty, smelly, dirty cave.
- His birth motivates a paranoid King Herod to wipe out all the young male Jews in the vicinity of Bethlehem. The slaughter of the innocents is one of the ugliest acts in human history, and it frames the invasion of Beauty into the world.
- Soon in his ministry, Jesus’ miraculous ability to heal spreads his fame around the ancient world, attracting the mangled and diseased wherever he goes. And “whatever their sickness or disease, or if they were demon possessed or epileptic or paralyzed—he healed them all” (Matthew 4:24). Turning ugliness into beauty becomes his calling card.
- In his first, and still most famous, recorded teaching (the Beatitudes), Jesus insists that ugly things in our human experience open the door to beauty, including:
- the poor, who are blessed with the kingdom of heaven (meaning, they’re invited as beloved children into God’s royal family) because they recognize their need for God;
- the mournful, who are blessed with the direct and overshadowing comfort of God;
- the humble, who are blessed with the inheritance of the earth;
- the wronged, who are blessed with justice;
- the persecuted, who are also blessed with the kingdom of heaven; and
- the mocked and slandered, who are blessed with a great reward.
The world is full of ugliness and always will be, but Jesus uses ugliness like molding clay. He takes what we offer him—what is repellent and destructive and heartbreaking—and refashions it into a work of art in us. Musician Michael Gungor captures this reality in the opening lines of his poetic song “Beautiful Things”:
All this pain..
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change, at all.
All this earth…
Could all that is lost ever be found?
Could a garden come out from this ground, at all?
You make beautiful things,
You make beautiful things out of the dust.
You make beautiful things.
You make beautiful things out of us.
Today, our “protest of beauty” means we lean into our role as pastors with the determination of those who work in the Trinity’s “family business”—we partner with Jesus to set captives free. That’s what we do. So do the work you’ve been given to do today, lean into the beauty Jesus is weaving into your life, and bring light into the darkness… Below you’ll find links to helpful articles and resources that can fuel your efforts…