Earlier this year I attended a workshop during a conference where we were encouraged to think about our strengths and passions through a series of activities. One exercise involved looking at a range of postcards, each of which named a strength, and picking the one that resonated most with us and then reflecting on some questions. I selected ‘appreciation of excellence and beauty’ and sat down to ponder – and it’s something I’ve been mulling ever since. How is this a strength? What is it good for? Encouragement for people who have done something excellent or beautiful? I hope so. But is there more to it than that?
Recently I was reminded of some verses that I love, but have now come to see with fresh eyes. “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” Philippians 4
The surprising and joyful thing that I found afresh in theses verses is the second half of the list. Things that are true, noble, right and pure would seem to be obvious exhortations for us as God’s people, because those seem holy, righteous and all very Christian. But the fact that we are also encouraged to focus on what is lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy, with equal measure to the first half of the list, means that there must be some holiness and righteousness baked right in to those things too, right?
Maybe it seems very obvious to you reading this, and I am just thoroughly dense, but until recently I hadn’t fully appreciated the true value in loveliness. I knew that God was the creator who made all things good and beautiful and so of course, seeing his creation made me feel connected to him and brought worship to my soul. But there’s something more to it than that. When I see something lovely or excellent, not just in nature but also man-made, there is a specific type of joy that rises in me, a declaration of ‘yes’ that waters my parched being in a particular way. Admiring an extraordinary painting, an exquisitely made dress or a beautiful building evokes an awe-filled wonder. Somehow, however, I had the impression that this reaction was, dare I say, shallow and that appreciating something simply because of its loveliness was not very worthy, indeed perhaps a little too worldly.
I’ve started to realise how wrong I was. If I’m made in the image of a creator God, who took delight in all kinds of creativity, who did everything with excellence, why would I not be wired to find joy and wonder in what’s around me? Why would those things not bring me incredible pleasure? Setting my attention on what is praiseworthy unlocks something of the Father’s heart in me and for me.
Sunday brought a specific moment of clarity in this. I was exhausted from a busy week and a working weekend and I had a half hour meltdown. Just one of those moments of being overwhelmed and tearful for no one reason that I could put my finger on, but feeling all at sea. I came into our little conservatory and sat looking out to the garden. We have a shrub with beautiful purple flowers just outside the window, and the branches were swaying gently in the wind. I looked at the glorious colour, even more radiant in the sunshine, watched as a bee trundled his way around the circumference of the bloom and noticed the contrast of the fir green and sky blue behind this picture.
And peace descended.
In a matter of moments there was calm and a restoration of joy. A simple act of setting my attention on what was lovely had extraordinary impact.
Beauty has a gentle power all of its own. In the midst of a world that can feel dark and dangerous, in the middle of a day that is full of confusion, in a moment that is heartbreakingly empty or impossibly full, taking time to appreciate something that is beautiful can restore some equilibrium.
And so I am making a pledge.
At a time when the loudest voices seem to draw our attention to all that is wrong, I will instead be one who praises that which is excellent. When people draw my attention to the ugly side of life, I will seek out the loveliness. And when I see something that is worthy of praise and admiration, I will call attention to it, draw a crowd around it and together we will take off our shoes and stand on holy ground.