I think it was Duckwall’s, if you don’t remember, it was a precursor to the big box discount stores. I think it was in that store, next to Hall’s Clothing and Moffet drug in Norton, Kansas, where I purchased my first classical music ALBUM. If you don’t remember, albums were the precursor to 8-track tapes, which were precursors to cassettes, which were precursors to CDs, which were precursors to iPods, which were precursors to social media music. So anyway, I was in the 5th or 6th grade and had seen a 60 Minutes episode featuring pianist Arthur Rubenstein. The way he played classical piano mesmerized me. He didn’t have music in front of him and yet could play as long as he wanted, most particularly the works of Chopin. It was as if he and the piano were a single entity. I wondered what it would be like to be so gifted that what you did seemed almost like breathing.
That first intrigue turned into what I now would cite as a deep and wide curiosity for what beauty is and how foundational it is to life itself. Beauty has no small amount of complexity because a) it’s in the eye of the beholder, right? And b) how do you measure its impact and is it even possible to? And c) we Kansans are a particularly practical people so if it’s not efficient, effective, and economical we’re not certain it’s worth our time. But can I tell you something as someone who resembles those remarks? *snort* As a rather over-the-top task-oriented person, what brings me back in balance, deepens my compassion, and sharpens my gratefulness at this world and God’s people is…beauty. I find when I practice, yes I believe it takes practice, when I practice keeping my senses open to the beauty that is around me – I am more human, and maybe more specifically, more “me”. And I’ve found that, rather than it leading toward a self-focus, when we’re all our most essential selves, we are far more generous, giving, expressive of deep joy, and accepting of the uniqueness of whomever we’re around. Do I truly believe beauty is evocative of all that?!? Absolutely, without question.
This time of year I often think of the first time I ever witnessed the hymn, Silent Night, interpreted for persons who are deaf or hearing-impaired. Mariellen Sawada, a name many of you will remember as a staff member when we were First United Methodist in south Olathe, had graduated from Johnson County Community College as an interpreter, took a job working with our youth, and started seminary the same year I did. The seminary was having a late-evening pre-Christmas quiet and meditative worship and the planning team invited Mariellen to interpret Silent Night as it was sung quite beautifully a capella by one of our classmates. Mariellen always wore a thick silver solid plain bracelet around her right wrist, and the only time she took it off was to interpret. The beauty of the song and Mariellen’s interpretation felt like they were one entity. Again and still, so many years after Arthur Rubenstein, I found myself mesmerized by the beauty that was happening that somehow gave meaning beyond measure. In the days after, I wrote the following to honor the beauty of those moments, those who gave themselves to it, and the deep meaning that the gift of beauty brought to the world:
a clear voice rings
throughout a darkened room,
but for how many is the night still silent?
but not unmoved.
In the wavering light of the candles,
become the dance
seemingly suspended in time
the rhythmic movements of her instrument
are slow and placid and drawn out in smoothness of motion.
with blinding quickness.
Rhythm and music
sound and silence are
In her face,
reflected in the play of candles,
of salvation in a manger.
the movements of the dance,
every subtle change,
The familiar flash of silver band
encircling the wrist of a known friend
now across the room
It cannot be part of the dance
and suddenly it is over.
But the reflection in her eyes,
and the gentleness
with which her hands now hold
show the story still alive
within this interpreter
on her own,
who has left traces of silence
For those of us in her presence,
a silent night
is not so
I wasn’t certain how else to try and capture it. Somehow part of what defines beauty is the intricate connections that are paradoxically both unique and common to the givers, the receivers, and perhaps, the remember-ers.
This is such an odd chapter we’re walking through as a people. So many of the things bombarding our senses are abrasive and polarizing and fear-filled and divisive – I think today I simply long for beauty. I long for our senses to be enamored by signs and wonders and gifts and tones and hues and sounds and silences. I have no doubt that God’s sacred presence is in all and through all – the times of great beauty and the times that are not so much so. I simply invite us to balance those times and to open ourselves to the moments that mesmerize, move, and perhaps create in us our best gifts for the world.