Why We Need Beauty: Ideal

Beauty has value because people will pay for it, and yet beauty in our culture is generally perceived to be superficial and insignificant. Within this oxymoron, we’ve seen how beauty evokes substantial responses from people with the attention people give to beauty, the esteem people attach to it, and the price people pay for it. There seems to be a contradiction in claiming beauty to be superficial with the kinds of responses our society gives toward it. Perhaps our responses toward superficial beauty are really symbolic of us grasping for a substantial beauty we sincerely long for. Beauty is an essential quality of reality the human soul needs. Without beauty, the soul dissolves into despair.

Can you imagine a world without beauty? There are places that have been ravaged and abandoned, characterized by devastation, destitution, and pollution. There are conditions of lives where very little beauty is seen because of the atrocities rendered on people. The absence of beauty on a substantial level is real in some parts of the world and in some people’s lives. But imagine beauty infiltrating such places and people, from the beauty of smiles on faces and songs sung in communities to the beauty of art, architecture and arboretums. How would beauty affect societies and souls? I’ve seen how painting three large murals at a low-income, inner-city school enlivens the spirits of the children who attend it. I’ve seen how brand, new textbooks touch children’s hearts. Beauty nurtures the human soul.

One reason for why we need beauty is it expresses an ideal – an ideal hair, skin tone, voice, life, artwork, or character quality. In some cases, sociologically, the perceived ideal can be oppressive, making people feel as though they live in substandard means and need to be like others with more money, wealth, power, and fame. Aside from socially twisted standards that belittle people, ideals can convey noble tenets under a healthy definition of beauty, giving people a vision of something truly great to look towards and strive for. The ideal portrays perfection and pulls people out of complacency and stimulates change. The ideal stirs in people an appetite to be more than what they are presently, to recognize flaws and ugliness that should be recognized and to grasp for greater wholeness. While we hold in the one hand a healthy acceptance of ourselves, meaning we exercise self-forgiveness, self-love and not self-flagellation for not meeting a standard, we also maintain a proper view of the ideal that sets us in motion to better our lives, better ourselves, and better our world. Acceptance alone is flawed if it is a settling for brokenness that should be healed and transcended. The ideal calls for change to the good.

I know it may seem fleeting, because can the ideal ever be attained? Theologically, on this side of heaven, the answer is no. But we’d be moving in the right direction, rather than the wrong direction or no direction at all. We’d be on God’s redemptive, re-creative plan to fulfill his vision of beauty for the world. If we make progress towards the perfect although never arriving, we will still be better than we were before. In the absence of beauty and a view of the ideal, there would be no appetite, no striving, and no movement.

However, considering the ideal brings us back to the question of definition. A person’s definition of beauty defines the ideal in that person’s eyes. Most accept the implied definition of beauty formed by ever-changing currents of commercialism and consumerism. Commercialism and consumerism is influenced by the masses and largely steered by those in power. Those who have more means, resources, social status, and access to prominent figures have also greater ability to influence people’s perception of what is beautiful. Our definition of beauty defines our ideal, which influences what we have an appetite for and determines the direction we move in. But what if beauty, and the ideal, were not socially constructed?

What is objectively real began in creation when God conceived it and manifested it. In creation, God intentionally created the universe to contain beauty, as we can see from His repeated declaration of “it was good” in Genesis 1. So, beauty and an ideal was formulated from the mind of God to be an actual part of our reality. God’s creation and definition of beauty stems from his own character and nature. Everything he created is in harmony with who he is. The universe is ordered because God is ordered and not chaotic. The universe is whole because God is harmonious and complete in his character and nature. The universe is a sensible place, where 2+2 always equals 4, because God is a being of reason. The universe is largely a good, loving, and just place, because God is good, loving and just. The Fall has thrown some of these aspects off balance, but we can still see the universe as largely being good. In fact, the effects of the Fall prods us to strive for beauty because we know that this is not the way things are supposed to be. The world God made is still lovely but we are also far from the ideal. Beauty reminds us that we cannot stay where we are. Since an objective definition of beauty and the ideal is based in God, the journey of discovering beauty is discovering the wonder of God. The quest in becoming more beautiful is a quest in becoming more like God. The appetite for beauty then is a holy appetite, a genuine yearning of our souls. As we wade through various social perceptions of beauty, the ideal beauty we strive for is God’s intended beauty for people and the world.

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Why a Birthday is Important

As I am in between celebratory events, between the family picnic at the LA zoo and the dinner with friends at Universal City Walk, I decided to share my thoughts about the significance of a birthday. It’s true for most of us that there comes a point when we don’t see our birthdays the same way anymore. At first they’re about parties with hats, pizza, presents, and friends coming over to play with us. Then somewhere down the line it became about aging. With each birthday, it marks us getting older – greyer, wrinklier, maybe saggier, and for many sadder. I know aging is tough because it gets us closer to our last day on earth, we don’t look the same, and parts of us start to creak.

But a birthday is celebrating the day of our birth. The day we had no choice in the matter, but was a miracle that it happened. It was the day we came into the world. The day we took our first breaths. A birthday celebrates the beginning, not the ending. It celebrates when our journeys began. Because of that day, I am here. Because Someone loved me enough to form me, I am here and I am on this journey. Our birthdays celebrate the miracle of life. When we’re young, we think we’re invincible. As we get older, the fragileness of life and, therefore, the miracle of life becomes more apparent. My birthday celebrates the 20,000 breaths I take a day and the 100,000 times my heart beats a day. I can’t even count that high without losing track, but somehow my body is capable of doing it and I’m certain it does it with God’s help. My birthday celebrates the miracle of my life. On this birthday, it means that I’m still here and my heart will beat at least one more time and I’ll take at least one more breath. I celebrate the opportunity for my soul to take in God’s goodness on this earth, and I accept the charge to enact redemption where I can in a flawed world. My birthday celebrates being able to love my wife, be a father to my foster son, and serve my God on this earth.

I didn’t always have this view. But as I approach the dawn of 40, this view has encompassed me. I approach 40 with peace and excitement, because I celebrate the faithfulness of God in carrying me these past four decades through the heartaches and heartbreaks and yet my heart still beats 100,000 times a day. I celebrate the goodness of God in being the great I AM of my life, in whom I find my source of strength and being. And because I can celebrate this day, today, I can for sure face tomorrow.

Thank you, God, for my birthday – for all our birthdays. As the apostle Paul quoted a great poet, “In Him we live and move and have our being,” so it is that we are here. (Acts 17:28)

Designed for More Than Ourselves

Yesterday, the owner (Judd) of one of my favorite comic stores, Blastoff Comics, in North Hollywood told me why he sells comics. Every month he donates a percentage of his profits to a charity that’s announced on their FB page.  We got into the importance of generosity.  I said generosity not only impacts others but is also good for our souls. He nodded his head emphatically and said, “We were designed for more than ourselves.”  When our ultimate goal is to live for ourselves, our lives are only as big as our flawed, limited beings. Our vision for our lives remains small.  When we live with others in mind, out of generosity, or for a calling that’s greater than us, then our lives extend beyond ourselves.  He and I acknowledged that there is something built in us that is meant for more than ourselves.  We were meant to think beyond ourselves, beyond what we gain or get out of life.  We were meant for higher callings.  We sense that in us, and we’re always reaching for something greater than us.  When we’re not living for more, our souls suffer.  When we settle for self-satisfaction, our bellies may be full but our souls starve.

The generosity that we give creates beauty out of brokenness within us, because we become more selfless, less self-centered, and more sacrificial.  Self-sacrifice is the stuff of heroes.  But worries, stress, and insecurities suffocate the virtue of generosity.  If you find yourself over worrying about your personal circumstances, try exercising generosity toward someone.  Giving can be a remedy for worrying.  It shifts your perspective.  Worrying eats away at your soul.  Giving feeds your soul, because we were designed for more than ourselves.

15th Anniversary Advice on Marriage

My wife and I celebrated our 15th Anniversary a few days ago with a dozen close friends. They enjoyed asking us a bunch of questions and one of them was after 15 years of marriage, what advice do we have. After thinking about it, here are my seven.

Men honor your wives. While you may be king in your home, she is also queen. She rules with you at your side. Treat her with dignity. It’s easy to put the other person down, downplay the other person’s comments or simply not pay attention. If a queen speaks, she warrants attention.

Women appreciate your husbands. We’re a lot softer than we pose ourselves to be. Inside I think we have as many insecurities as women do. Our society has just acculturated us to show them in different, hidden or more socially acceptable ways. Men’s spirits can actually be worn down easily and we need to know we’re appreciated.

Love and Respect. The two go together like columns that hold up the ends of a supporting beam. To love sacrificially means you care for the other person as you would care for yourself at the least or better than yourself at the most. Respect means treating them with dignity and honor in speech and action. It means valuing the other for who he or she is and not looking down on the other person in your eyes. It’s hard to say you love someone you don’t respect, since love demonstrates how much you value the other person and respect inherently affirms value.

Apologize readily, Forgive generously. Be ready to apologize, which requires a humble predisposition. Don’t be flippant with apologies, because they still have to mean something. But be ready to give it. Learn the true meaning of forgiveness and the virtue of giving it. The reason apologies and forgiveness are needed is neither of you are perfect.  Where apologies and forgiveness is absent, humility will be absent also. Apologies and forgiveness turn fighting into peace talks. Where apologies and forgiveness is scarce, hurt prevails and anger will soon follow.

Learn the Art of War. You’re ultimately fighting together, not with each other. She is not your enemy. He is not your enemy. Too often couples get into mindsets of needing to prove the other person wrong or at fault. Blame is the weapon of choice. We fight for who’s right, rather fighting for a healthy marriage. To fight together means you recognize the great obstacle is not the other person; it’s all the stuff that impedes on your marriage – stress, financial problems, family baggage, miscommunications… Whatever it is, you’re fighting together to overcome these things. Fight for the relationship not against the other person.

An Old Book with New Chapters. You can be familiar with your spouse like she’s a good classic book, like a story you’re basically familiar with. But he or she can also be a book in which you have not yet reached the end. Approach your spouse as someone you know the best and as someone you’re still getting to know. There’s a richness in knowing the other person well. But don’t take the other person for granted, thinking you know everything there is to know and falling into a familiarity that lacks sensitivity. My wife and I finish each others’ sentences, and we blow away those couples boardgames. But my wife and I still discover things about each other we never knew. My wife is a good, old book with new chapters to me. I know her well, but I still get excited in getting to know her.

Play Well. Marriage can turn into a job, something you work at or something that’s just sort of there. Intentionally create big occasions and small occasions for play. Have a favorite fun thing to do. Give yourselves something fun to look forward to. On those occasions, vow to not talk about finances, mortgages, in-laws, the leaky faucet, the parent-teacher conference, and household chores. Give yourselves the permission to enjoy being with one another. Create space for laughter. You’ll see that laughing together does wonders. Make play a pattern.

Thinking Deeply about Santa Claus

I like the character, story and decorative theme of Santa Claus, but you may hate me for writing this (or you may give me an amen).  Our culture celebrates Santa Claus as the benevolent gift giver of children around the world during Christmas, spreading a message of warmth and jolly.  But if you were to think about the principles of Santa he is quite the opposite of warmth and jolly.

Let’s see how the story goes.  He’s making a list and he’s checking it twice.  He has a list that is based on an omniscient quality of knowing every person.  This list, however, is not just a gift-list.  It is a cut-list, because he’s going to find out who’s naughty or nice.  He’s determining who are good children and bad children – not simply who are the children that did good or bad deeds.  Santa’s worldview is moralism because he judges and accepts people purely on the moral or immoral things they have done.  It’s vague though as far as whether his moralistic standard includes thoughts, attitudes, and desires, the internal aspects of a person versus just the external factors of actions.  Since the lyrics say he’s determining who is naughty or nice, I would assume that Santa evaluates the whole person and not just the deeds performed.  That’s a pretty tough standard.  It’s also vague as far as what the standard is in terms making the cut off of being considered “nice.”  Would a child had three temper tantrums, hit his sister twice and accidentally blurted out one curse word when he stubbed his toe during the whole year be considered naughty or nice?  Or is two tantrums the maximum limit?  In fact, the lyrics tell us, “You better not pout.  You better not cry.”  So, a child who has pouted and cried is considered naughty.   That’s pretty rough if you ask me.  On the basis of moralism, the acceptance and implied worth of a person is based on how good he or she is.

What may surprise us, then, is that Santa does not actually give out gifts according to his moralistic worldviews.  Because, gifts by definition are free, unconditional and unearned.  But according to Santa, his “gifts” are earned by the moral disposition of a person.  If you performed enough good deeds and had enough of the right kind of thinking and attitudes (whatever “enough” means), then you were tagged by Santa as “nice,” and he would drop off presents for you.  So what Santa actually gives are rewards.  They are rewards for not only doing the right things but being a right person.  Those who are considered “naughty,” having done too many wrong things in Santa’s eyes, are not given presents or perhaps are given lesser presents.  Santa gives you something if you deserve it – that’s what we call a reward.  This kind of present is earned and not gifted.  Gifts however carry the message that you may not deserve what is given to you but you’re given this because you are loved and you’re inherently a worthwhile person.

In our culture, we popularly teach about Santa in one sense to emphasize the gift giving side and sometimes as parents/teachers to enforce good behavior among children.  “If you’re not a good boy, Santa won’t bring you anything this year,” is a common threat we may hear.  Do we then orient our children to a worldview of moralism, teaching them that their self-worth is based on the good they are and have done which is a subjective standard of judgment at best since no one can be absolutely perfect?  Do we teach children that their worth to us is based on moralistic measures and they must earn our favor (like they earn Santa’s)?  Or, instead, should they be taught a message of acceptance and unconditional love that forms the basis of their self-identity and, therefore, the measures of good they can be and do emerges out of being accepted and loved?  And, should they be taught about forgiveness – forgiveness for self because we all mess up and, in turn, forgiveness for others because others will mess up?  In Santa’s moralistic basis, forgiveness is not a key theme of his.  He’s more of a judge.

I grew up with the impression that Santa and Jesus were best friends, because I thought of Jesus as judge more than savior.  The other icon of Christmas is Jesus.  In Jesus’ story, it is about a benevolent gift giver who doesn’t descend down a chimney but down from heaven.  The wrapped present he brought was himself, swaddled in cloths as a baby.  The gift he gives is not a thing but eternal life paid for with his own life upon the cross of calvary.  On Santa’s list, some are marked “naughty” or “nice” and the nice ones get rewards.  On Jesus’ list, everyone is marked “naughty,” because we’re all flawed and imperfect, and he offers a gift to every one of them.  That’s the big difference.  Santa comes down the chimney for the nice.  Jesus comes down from heaven for the naughty.  Christmas can be made into a holiday of moralism or celebrated as a holiday of grace.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not a Santa hater.  Just thinking deeply about the implications of elements in our culture.

The Thing About Aging

Aging is one of those things people dread most about life.  When we think of aging, we naturally picture progressively wrinkling skin, sagging parts, greying hair, and aching joints.  Beyond the physical though is also the spiritual side of aging—the feeling of weariness, regrets over unfulfilled dreams and the sense that time has moved forward.  With each birthday, we age.  It’s a bittersweet occasion because we celebrate but also desire desperately to put on the breaks of aging.  If only 30 didn’t come so quickly, because we haven’t accomplished our career objectives yet.  If only 40 could wait until the next year, because we haven’t gotten married or had children yet.  If only 45 could hold off, because we’re still finding ourselves.  If only 50 could slow its arrival, because there are things we’d like to do over.  But we can’t stop it.  We can only try to find meaning in each birthday that arrives.

Birthdays are independent of us from the day we were born so I believe the meaning of birthdays has to be independent of us.  What does that mean?  It means we can’t just simply contrive our own meanings for our birthdays and feel that will substantially satisfy the very core of our being.  Being born happened without our choosing and every year a birthday arrives without our choosing.  The meaning behind our birthdays has to come from outside of us.  I know there’s a lot of talk about us making our own destinies, and I hold to the importance of the choices we make.  But I think we’re more like characters actively journeying in a story that is being written by a master author.  The book doesn’t choose to be written anymore than we chose to be born and have birthdays.  Each birthday is a chapter.  The arrival of a birthday is the turning of a chapter.  Where does the meaning for the birthdays come from then?  It comes from the author.  This could be a frightening notion, feeling as though you are ultimately at the hands of a maker.  Or it could be a wondrous reality if you knew the maker to be wise, benevolent and incredibly gifted at what he does.

But unlike a regular book, we do possess a will where we can choose to subscribe to the author’s masterwork or attempt to find our own meaning outside of the author.  So here’s where choice does matter.  The most basic choice we have is to discover the story that God desires to write of our lives or attempt to entirely make our own story.  While will gives us the power of choice, I believe wisdom must accompany will.  Otherwise, we will simply make poor choices.  Wisdom would tell me that while it was not my will to be born and have birthdays, it’s also true then that the meaning of my birthdays—the ultimately meaning of my story—is also not originating from my will but from God, the author.  Each birthday reminds me about the intricate balance between making and discovering in life.  If I try to make what I’m supposed to discover, I would be lost.  But if I discover that which is made in me, then I receive something wonderful that each birthday ushers to me.  Then of course, the ultimate birthday is that one we never get to—at least not here on this earth.  That birthday is important because it tells us how the story ends.  And as we know, how a story ends of is everything.

Foster Dad 11: What Do You Do When You Loved And Lost?

About 7 weeks ago our county social worker warned us about losing our lil guy to the biological parents.  Then the social worker asked us if we would foster again.  She told us that we did such a good job that she wants to see us do this again.  Our initial response was not an outright yes.  We hesitated because of the heart-wrenching drama and the holes in the system we’ve seen.  Since that conversation we have been emotionally and mentally preparing ourselves to surrender this child that we have loved, nurtured and raised as our own.  No one could tell that he was not our child because we treated him like he was ours; and he needed to feel like he belonged to a family.  We haven’t lost our lil guy yet, but we’ve emotionally prepared ourselves for that loss.  We already cried, told him how much we’ll miss him and started the process of preparing for his transition, because once the judge or the Department gives the green light to return the child to the biological parent(s) it will take effect immediately (as in that day).  So we’ve been cherishing him, caring for him and saying our good-byes to him all at the same time.

But over the last several weeks, my wife and I have been talking about whether we would do this again.  Our foster social worker suggested we should join a support group.  I kiddingly said, “Just give us a rebound baby.”  My wife and I considered the future, what we’re up for and if we want to go through this drama again.  Our conclusion for the past few weeks was we would do this again.  My answer to the question “What do you do when you loved and lost?” is “Love again.”

I don’t know anyone who has not loved and lost.  The big question on the other side of that experience is will you and can you proceed from there to experience love and give love.  Many who get burned in one experience will fearfully avoid another experience or at least be very guarded about entering into it.  But I think one of the greatest strengths in life is to love and love again.  Yes, you may get burned.  But I think the risk also qualifies the genuineness of that love.  It’s because I have something to lose that makes my voluntary love for someone that much stronger and purer.  Love without cost is convenient and easy.  Loving and losing is not a regret of the past but a mark of your capacity to love.  Love then is not simply a reaction given to the object of your affections but it is a quality coming from within you.  1 Corinthians 13:7 says love always perseveres, that is it endures.  My wife and I will choose to endure in love.  To love and lose will be part of our story but it will not be our defeat, for to love again is our triumph.

So just two days ago, my wife calls our foster social worker to ask if we qualify to take in another foster baby while our current one is likely transitioning out of our care.  We were simply inquiring.  Then the matching social worker called us yesterday afternoon, saying there was a 10-day old infant needing a family.  His issues and needs were pretty much the same as our lil guy but his circumstances were much more severe and dire.  So we said, “Yes!”  We drove an hour and a half to the hospital with Lil Guy, where a good friend met us there with a new car seat she helped us purchase from Target, spent over two hours at the hospital to consult with the nurse and sign papers with the emergency social worker, and came home with a 5 lb little boy whom we have affectionately nicknamed, “Peanut.”  Call us crazy, but we chose to love again.