From The Good of Giving Up
You Are Beautiful.
This simple message has blanketed the city of Chicago through murals, graffiti, large installations, and tiny stickers on lampposts. As you get on the “L,” exit Lake Shore Drive, or walk through the Loop, you will eventually be reminded that you are beautiful. When I walk my kids to the local park, we see “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL” displayed in life-sized letters draped on the side of the gate.
I cannot believe people went through all that trouble for me, and I’m flattered every time I see the message. I appreciate the intention of the artists behind this campaign: “We want to make life a little better by grabbing strangers unexpectedly in the grind of their daily life, and unapologetically saying it’s OK to be human.” It’s true that people everywhere are burdened by a sense of their own worthlessness. I’m sure some have been encouraged for a moment by this announcement, but at the end of the day, self-affirmations cannot heal self-hatred.
But it’s not from a lack of trying.
Beyond its use as a public art campaign, “You are beautiful” can also be seen as a creed for our cultural moment. The full text of the creed might read something like:
You are beautiful.
You are spectacular.
You are a rock star.
Your dreams are sacred,
The universe is trying to help you
And the universe is inside you.
So stop hating yourself
And show the world who you are.
Believing this creed is the same thing
As believing in yourself.
I don’t know which is heavier: the burden of self-hatred or that of self-blessing. It seems that our churches are filled with people who are crushed by both. On one shoulder, they carry shame that their dreams haven’t come true. They hoped for something and got burned. They have failed to change the world and gain glory in the process. And as they age, they feel less attractive, less invincible. Morality and gravity start pulling them down – slowly. Whereas previous generations felt guilty, many of us are wallowing in shame, feeling unworthy of love.
On the other shoulder, they carry the responsibility to affirm themselves. “I’m beautiful, even if I’m balding.” “My life plan is sacred, even though it has left me bankrupt.” “I must assert myself, express myself, mustering confidence from deep within.” But what happens when the confidence runs out?
It’s strange, really. Building people up in the wrong way can end up crushing them. Yes, we need encouragement, love, and empathy our whole lives. Most people don’t get enough of that. But we don’t need to be the epicenter of reality, worshiping ourselves and demanding others to join in. That will only make us self-involved. We will be ill-equipped to suffer well, to grow from negative feedback, and to put others ahead of ourselves. That is no way to live.
If everyone is awesome, who does the dishes? Who goes last in the grocery store line? Who among us is strong enough to spend our best years caring for the elderly and disabled? Who has the security to offer a gentle answer in response to an angry insult? We are epic, amazing, beautiful people who throw fits when our will is crossed. We brag “humbly” on social media, and avoid menial tasks. All this self-worship detracts from the greater good. Families, institutions, and communities by nature challenge us to lay aside our individual pursuits for the common good. All three require humble self-sacrifice and an honest perception of reality. And all three are disintegrating before our eyes.
Lent is good medicine for individuals and the communities they inhabit. It is a season for us to receive the humility of Christ in such a way that frees us to pour ourselves out in love toward others. This happens in three ways: (1) The ashes of Lent reorient us to reality; (2) the limits of Lent diminish our power; and (3) the Lord of Lent displays the true beauty of downward mobility.
The Ashes of Lent
For thousands of years, the human race operated under the assumption that the Earth was the center of the universe. Though a delusion, it must have felt like a wonderful compliment. The sun dutifully encircles us with its light. The planets waltz for the delight of the human race. The stars and Heavenly bodies align themselves in just the right way so that we could receive special messages about reality. The universe was about us, and we were flattered.
In the 1500s, Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus started making some troubling observations. Celestial bodies don’t exactly revolve around a single point. The Earth seems to be the one spinning and rotating around the sun, not the other way around. The Earth appears to be a lot closer to the sun than it is to the stars. At some point the penny drops for Copernicus: We aren’t at the center of the universe – not even close. Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei would eventually confirm and refine his observations. Their discoveries were sobering. The idea that the Earth and sun were switching places made people angry and depressed. Seventeenth-century Anglican poet John Donne channeled the anguish of the day in his poem, “Anatomy of the World”:
A new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.
The Copernican Revolution was a humbling reality check. But who would want to go back? It’s better for the human race to be in touch with reality. While emotionally disorienting, the revolution helped redirect our awe away from ourselves to the grandeur of God, where it belongs. We may not be at the center of the universe, but we exist for the pleasure of a loving God who holds together all things by the word of his power, (Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrews 1:3).
Lent is like an annual Copernican Revolution. The season begins with the Ash Wednesday service, which is designed to reorient us to reality. The minister smears ashes in the shape of a cross on the forehead of every man, woman, and child, and says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” (see Genesis 3:19). To reinforce the point further, it is customary to receive these ashes while kneeling.
We are not invincible. We are not self-sufficient. And we are not at the center of the universe – not even close. As the ashes are pressed onto our foreheads, we remember that apart from grace we are but dust, not demigods. The ancients may have been mistaken about the Earth’s place in the universe, but they were rightly aware of our finitude. Here is a sample reading from the Ash Wednesday service as prescribed by The Book of Common Prayer:
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
On one level, our days are numbered, and we will surrender everything we have spent a lifetime accumulating: our careers, possessions, freedoms, closest relationships, and our body. The ashes of Lent won’t let us forget this. On another level, however, our lives are hidden with Christ in God, (Colossians 3:1-4). God “knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust,” (Psalm 103:14). By God’s mercy, we have a great future in his Kingdom long after our bodies fail us. God has everything, God is everything, and in Christ we are forever united with God! This hope is symbolized by the fact that the ashes take the shape of the cross. The Anglican prayer for Ash Wednesday captures wonderfully this tension:
Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the Earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
Being at the center of the universe is a burden too heavy for our shoulders. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, Lent opens us up to the divine blessing that we can receive only when our hands are empty and we no longer see ourselves at the center. We might be dust, but we have the Cross, and that is more than enough.
The Limits of Lent
The practices of Lent limit our Earthly power. I feel this every time I fast. How am I supposed to lead a staff meeting when I have a headache? How does a sermon get written when my stomach is growling? Generosity leaves us with fewer resources, especially money, which we often use strictly for ourselves. Prayer requires attention and time we would normally give toward controlling situations. In short, the arm of our will is shortened in Lent, and that is good.
My friend Megan discovered this firsthand. She was four days into a familiar Lenten fast of sweets, which was, by her own admission, “more to whittle my waistline than to draw near to my Savior.” She was surprised on the fifth day by a strong conviction from the Lord to give up her makeup. “At that point in my life (I was twenty) it was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. It was a time when I was very appearance-focused, and I obsessed all day long about how I looked.” Megan realized that while makeup itself was not bad, her relationship to makeup had become a tool for securing her identity in the eyes of others.
As Megan put away all her powders and brushes and “walked into the world bare-faced for the rest of Lent,” she was confronted with her diminished power. The arm of her will was shortened as she surrendered the power that came with a perfect appearance. “I hated it at first,” she admits, “as people kept saying, ‘You look different,’ and ‘You look so tired.’” But as Megan offered up this state of weakness to Jesus, “He began to cultivate in me an inner beauty through growth in him. If my hands were clutching lip gloss or mascara, I couldn’t have received that Heavenly gift.”
As Megan’s Earthly power diminished, her spiritual freedom increased and her relationship to makeup was reordered. She told me, “This process of focusing on Christ and cultivating my inner beauty over my outward appearance is a countercultural endeavor, especially for a woman in our airbrushed, Photoshop-obsessed Western society. Because of that, it is still a journey and something I have to work at almost every day.”
What do you use to control situations, to feel accepted, and to have your will accomplished? In Lent, you may sense a call, like Megan did, to give up something that makes you feel powerful. If so, pursue it with prayer, fasting, and generosity. Limiting our food, purchases, and other things dear to us will give the Lord ample opportunity to be strong in our weakness.
But for many of us who have additional powers unknown to other generations, we might add other items to the list: social media, gaming, shopping for luxuries, or screens altogether. You might even choose to give away business to a competitor. When Jesus fasted and prayed for forty days, the Father gave him the strength to resist the temptation to gain power, (Matthew 4:1-11).
The Lord of Lent
Roger Brandt is a lifelong family friend. We used to live down the street from Roger and his family in Kettering, Ohio. A veteran of the Air Force, Roger was the closest thing to a rocket scientist I ever met. He held advanced degrees in electrical engineering, taught astrodynamics at the Air Force Academy, and tested GPS technology for the Air Force before the technology was mainstream. But I didn’t know any of that until doing research for this book, because Roger never mentioned it. He was too busy taking my sisters and me out for ice cream, letting us run around his house, or helping my dad with household repairs. He was like a big brother to my parents and a grandfather to us kids.
One fateful day, our 1971 Volkswagen Squareback was inadvertently filled with diesel fuel instead of regular. We didn’t have the tools we needed, so my parents called Roger. With an encouraging smile on his face, Roger attached an old-fashioned siphoning hose to the fuel tank, bent down, and sucked the diesel fuel out of the engine. As you can imagine, some of the diesel got in his mouth as he initiated the reverse flow of the fuel.
What would compel one of the most accomplished men we knew to take fuel into his mouth with no angle other than to serve? Simply put, Roger loved our family. And Roger loved us because he knew he was loved by God. It was as if Roger was loaded up with so much love that he couldn’t help but descend. Love sinks us down to the place where we can serve.
An eighteenth-century French mystic likened humility to a sea vessel being weighed down by a stabilizing mass:
As when we load a vessel, the more ballast we put in, the lower it sinks; so the more love we have in the soul, the lower we are abased in self. Let its depths be made known by our readiness to bear the cross.
Ships without a load are too flimsy to last on the open waters. Without enough ballast – heavy material like sandbags or lead – weighing the vessel down, the choppy waters and stormy weather would make quick work of any ship. The more ballast, the lower the ship sinks into the water. The lower the ship sinks into the water, the more secure it becomes, and the farther it is able to travel.
Such is the humility of Jesus. The more of his Father’s love that he took on board, the lower he sank into the water. No one was more full of God’s love, no one was more willing to become a servant of all, and no one was more secured for his mission.
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:3-5)
Can you see Jesus sinking down to wash feet, full of his Father’s blessing? When we seek to bless ourselves, we avoid anything but promotions. But when we read passages like John 13 and Philippians 2, we see that experiencing the love of God, and knowing who we are in Christ, drives us downwards. Jesus’s stature before the Father freed him to descend to self-emptying, servanthood, humiliation, and death.
Orthodox pastor and writer Alexander Schmemann reminds us that “God himself is humble!” After inhaling the smog of obnoxious celebrities for so long, it’s refreshing to ponder the beautiful humility of Jesus. He didn’t push, pretend, or throw fits to fulfill his mission. He was always gracious under pressure, took on menial tasks, and even forgave his enemies. The Lord of glory was and is humble. He’s praying without ceasing for us right now, and he’s weeping, rejoicing, and serving with his saints around the world.
Jesus didn’t come to be served, and he still doesn’t.
Would you like to exchange the burden of self-obsession for the easy yoke of Jesus’s humility? This is one of the chief reasons to observe Lent. It’s a humbling experience in the best sense. Jesus is waiting for you to sink down with him.
When I see the King of Glory
advantages I’ve wanted my whole life,
from infancy to carpentry
washed by John
filled with a Spirit
speaking my language—
Father’s love in his eyes, descending
to the depths,
touching boils and heels
plunged into a Lake of Horrors
held under by that tenderness
for daughters and sons
he does not despise,
raised to rule
raised to serve
always a Gardener
I can only say in response,
You Are Beautiful.