You will be a crown of splendour in the Lord’s hand, a royal diadem in
The hand of your God.
Spring and summer gift us a profusion of delight as flowers display their crowning glory in a proud splurge of colour and delicate form. Wordsworth’s iconic phrase “when all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils, beside the lake, beneath the trees.” comes to mind, a reminder that the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge directed their creative energies to counter the possibility of the objective-rational eliminating the subjective-emotional. Of course, each of us needs a healthy balance of both if we are to be a fully functioning person.
There truly is something captivating, and sometimes even overwhelming, in the vista of a mass of beautiful blooms. We might refer to it as ‘Beauty in the Many’. It is the colourful togetherness that captures, visually and emotionally, our full attention. Indeed, we seem to have little choice as our vision is extravagantly flooded by an invasion of loveliness.
But there is another dimension of floral beauty. To look closely at a single flower reveals not just colour and shape, but a vital and delicate internal structure, formed in its deep centre, essentially the beating heart of its existence. We could call this the ‘Beauty in the One’. This was first emphasised to me when on my first teaching practice, at a village school in 1963. I accompanied a class of 8-year-olds and their skilled teacher on a nature walk. The edges of the fields were alive with a variety of wild flowers, together with a few immigrant tulips that had either somehow seeded themselves or had been planted by a thoughtful nature lover. The purpose of the lesson was to develop the children’s vocabulary through responding to what they could see around them. At one point they were asked to look closely at a single flower, especially into its deep centre, and allow words to come into their minds. Magnifying glasses were available to help. Of course, they knew nothing about stigma, style, ovary, stamens, filaments, pistils, anthers, and such like, but they did see pretty petticoats, soldiers standing to attention, people dancing in a ring, aliens, thickly buttered bread, and such like. The imaginative mind of the young child is quite extraordinary, something that can be sadly masked in adulthood. Probably, for most of them, it was the first time they had looked that closely at a flower. From an adult perspective we could say that the children experienced ‘focused beauty’, an intriguing perspective of strange detail, shape and colour, but unseen unless close attention and effort is applied.
So, we have these two aspects of beauty – beauty in the collective, and beauty in the singular. In the former our senses are flooded involuntarily by the extravagance of visual impact, demanding attention that we cannot fail to give. In the latter we need to consciously focus our attention, as an act of the will, before the inner complexity and beauty is revealed.
This entity we call ‘church’ exhibits both kinds of beauty. We can readily identify with the beauty of the collective church - in corporate worship, common interest, reciprocal care, friendship, fellowship, spiritual formation and much more. It has dimensions infinitely greater than a mere social grouping. It is, or should be, nothing less than the creative work of the Holy Spirit. And Christ-centeredness is the generative hub of its shaping, nurture and growth. But this ‘beauty in the many’ co-exists with a focused ‘Beauty in the One’. Every individual life is a creative centre of Divine Movement. All that we are, and all that we are becoming, is held in the active eternal love of God. Yes, even the bits we don’t like! Even the bits that we cannot see, but others might! When Jesus reached out to touch the leper, and when he desisted from condemning unmercifully the woman accused of adultery, he surely must have seen beneath the surface of things, to the depths. I imagine He must have discerned something of the precious value, and therefore intrinsic beauty, in the deep inner soul of those who were judged, despised and rejected. That was His ministry, that is the Divine nature. Both the leper and the woman were subsequently freed to continue life’s journey, gifted a freedom encased in the healing and reforming warmth of an encounter with the love of Jesus. It was surely now to be a very different journey.
There is a well-known prayer-song that captivates the essence of the shaping of individual lives through Divine Movement:-
Jesus take me as I am,
I can come no other way.
Take me deeper into You,
Make my flesh life melt away.
Make me like a precious stone,
Crystal clear and finely honed,
Life of Jesus shining through,
Giving glory back to You. (Dave Bryant)
For us Christians, the Incarnation, is the ultimate expression of Beauty in the One, God’s infinite love focused in a solitary life, gracing humankind with the very depths of Divine mystery, a focus that takes us down into ourselves but also out of ourselves too. At Bethlehem God gifted humanity the greatest honour imaginable ; the Creator takes the form of the created, in order that we might see and understand.
May we never take our church for granted. May we honour it as the space where we encounter the focused beauty of the divine in Christ, the individual beauty in one another, and the beauty manifest in the faithful gathering of those who call Him Lord.