Beauty from ashes. The hopeful thought that something good can emerge from trials, or that something ugly can be transformed into something beautiful.
The phrase belies itself. “Ashes” are kind of a pretty image. Picture a humble muted-green bowl on a homey wooden kitchen table neatly filled with a casual pile of gray ashes lit by the natural sunlight of a wooden window with garden flowers in bottles on the ledge which looks out on sprawling farmland.
We women have a tick, a habit, a default behavior. It is to turn every disagreeable thing into a pretty thing. We must make all ashes into beauty ASAP. Every ugly thing must be subjected to a makeover. If it’s beautiful we can live with it.
But ashes aren’t really ugly. There are much uglier and messier things than ashes. Everyday life presents us with the mundane forms of ugly: dirt, grime, disorder. Endless little urgent tasks which seem to add up to a pointless waste of time. Tending other people’s sicknesses. Tending other people’s felt needs til multitasking is an understatement. Futile wastes of our precious effort.
The woman who has suffered tragic loss knows that there are things that come into our lives without our permission which are irredeemably ugly. There is no reconciliation with the sudden death of someone you can’t live without. You cannot put a happy face over the long, slow suffering which ends relationship in death. As hard as we try, we cannot make it right.
But someone always tells us to try.
In book studies, ministry gatherings, and all sorts of supportive gatherings for our mutual womanhood, we are constantly asked to expose our pain, replay our disappointments and hurts for one another. I wonder about the wisdom of these exercises. But the next step is where it gets really puzzling.
Poetic language is used to pretty up the tragic. Generic but hokey prettiness papers over the truly ugly. “Christ is transforming all….” we are told. We are clearly asked to live with the ugly by seeing something beautiful in it. Christ is changing ugliness into beauty? Scripture reference please?
Do we not realize that art can turn the evil into the picturesque? The snow-like ashes floating down from the smokestack of the concentration camp crematorium in the black-and white film. The twisted motorcycle on the ground and the shattered lens of the glasses. These images are symbols, substitutes for the horrible destruction because to see the real thing would make us gasp, shrink and scream.
But life is not art. We have to live with the real tragedy which nothing can redeem as beautiful. We have to look at the death, the cruelty, the crushing loss, usually without being able to comprehend the reasons. Some things are ugly and no mind game is going to change that. We must call ugly ugly, tragic tragic, and evil evil. We cannot confront them and resolve our attitude toward them if we fool ourselves about what they are.
How does that prettifying advice sound to the Rwandan women who watched their neighbors go insane one day and pull out machetes to kill everyone in their neighborhood? To the victim of childhood abuse? To any woman in the third world whose life is eaten up simply getting enough food for her family to get through another day?
I’ll tell you how: silly, privileged. Even I don’t have time to sit and worry about whether things are pretty.
Alright, I’ll play. We’ll skip over the Scripture search and allow that Jesus can change something ugly (we won’t define what we mean by ugly here) into something beautiful (we won’t define that either). I’m sure He can. But maybe a better question would be: how does Christ change ugly into beautiful?
The question is asked: when did Christ see something as beautiful when everyone else saw a mess? The answers are given: the woman at well, the woman about to be stoned. Everyone else saw an ugly sinner, but Jesus saw the real person and how valuable and beautiful she was. He affirmed her.
But that’s not what happened. He loved and valued her; that’s true. He loved her better than anyone ever had. He saw her infinitely intrinsic value, broken and marred. Her beauty flawed because of the choices she had embraced. It grieved him.
Then, because he loved her, He did the only loving thing. He saw her sin, and named it sin. In order for transformation to happen, the woman had to agree that she was ugly and sinful. She had to want to disown her sin. She had to humble herself under his judgment and accept His remedy. Then there could be forgiveness, reconciliation, transformation. These women were told to leave their ugliness behind and sin no more. Then there was real beauty.
He did not dress ugly up and call it beautiful. He told her that He and sin could never be reconciled, and asked her to choose. He changed the truly ugly into something beautiful, as only He can. There is an important difference.
If there is beauty, we find it in spite of the ugliness. One doesn’t replace the other, or the distinction is lost.
The sloppy definition of “beauty” is a problem here. At first it means pretty, then it means popular or desirable. Then it means intrinsically valuable. Then it means righteous. Then it means an ugly thing in which I can somehow find some value anyway. Or something.
Should we value things on the basis of their beauty? We are called to something much better: discernment as to whether things are righteous, true, and holy; or evil, unrighteous and polluted. Discerning between the two poles, and all grades between, is absolutely essential. We are to answer the call to use the two weapons we have against deception: our critical thinking, and the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Then we are called to agree with God’s evaluation.
We are responsible to discern, prove, think. We are nowhere called to evaluate beauty. I’m afraid we are favoring the one over the other. Discernment requires us to apply intelligence, wisdom, and whether we honor God. Evaluation of beauty makes our feelings of first importance.
So bring on the upbeat alternative Christian-ish music, but instead of the sunlight dancing across the floor, the homey garden flowers on the breakfast table, the healthy people running up the picturesque hill, or the down-to-earth rock stars surfing, their hair wet, their eyes laughing; show me the very unpretty things we really do all our days. Don’t show me the rarefied, or even the sadly poetic.
Because I’m listening to the music while I look down at my hands washing the 134th dish of the day. I’m reaching my hand into some slimy garbage so the water can go down the drain. I’m cleaning up someone’s vomit who didn’t make the toilet. I’m sitting in an office waiting way too long for an appointment. I’m taking an unexpected drive to pick someone up who still doesn’t understand that I can’t say no, no matter how much I need sleep. I’m reeling from a mutual failure of understanding between me and one of my kids, wiped out from another emotional clash.
I’m waking up at 4 a.m. and lying there thinking about what the relentless future is likely to accomplish upon my children. I’m besieged with the Things I Have Failed to Teach Them and wondering if I still have time, or whether they’ll still listen.
If the video makes sense to the devastated woman whose whole family has been murdered; to the young girl who’s been sold by her parents to spend her youth working at a loom, a defacto slave; or to anyone else whose life seems to have become nightmare, then it makes real sense.
If we claim to have Biblically-inspired advice to give, it must work for everyone everywhere, or it’s worthless. Worse yet, it’s a lie. If it’s only true when my problems aren’t so bad, but it’s silly when I meet tragedy, it doesn’t work at all. Because really awful things usually reveal what remains steadfast when the pretty pictures become ironic.