Beauty in Unexpected Places:
For many years I had the strange blessing of making a living by travelling around the country, and even the world, to play music. I saw majestic scenery while driving along the Salmon River in Idaho or through the Smoky Mountains on the way to Asheville. There were also slightly harrowing encounters like an ill-timed winter tour through the Canadian Rockies in a van that was barely street legal. Our travels also brought us through the great cities of America and Europe with their soaring works of architecture. But despite the beauty we may have passed by along the way, we usually ended up in a dark and dingy music venue. A dark bar in Chicago looks surprisingly like a dark bar in London or even Miami. For my own sanity, I devised a plan: I purchased a folding bike and, when time permitted, I would set off to take in each town, in hopes of escaping the clutches of the dreary and mundane.
This period in my life was also when God began stirring within me an attraction to theology and to the life of the Church. Before long, I was jetting off after sound-check to say evening prayer at some random church, or waking up early to attend a weekday eucharist at a venerable outpost of glory. This was an exciting time in my life. I was raised in an evangelical family in the knowledge and love of the Lord, but without any knowledge of the liturgy and with little love for Christ’s Church. As I began to devour works of theology, I discovered the necessity of common prayer, which flows from the corporate nature of the Christian life. I hungered to sit in a chapel and say the office with one or two sisters or brothers in Christ and to feed at God’s Board.
These experiences of the simple and homely beauty of the liturgy were part of what led me to explore a call to holy orders, but the liturgy is not just for the clergy, it is the gift of the Church to all believers, an embodied expression of our theology in time and space, and a school of right desire. Because of the fall, our lives are fractured by sin and death. We all like sheep have gone astray, each one has turned to his own way (Is. 53:6). Our many and various desires and goals are in conflict with each other. The liturgy is where we come to be reoriented to a common end: life in God, with each other, through Christ.
Each eucharist begins with these piercing words: Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name. We may be so used to these words that all they signal to us is that the service has begun. But there is a real drama to them, violence even. Before we may see God, we must recognize that we have been seen by God. Our secret desires, our fractious hearts are not disguisable to him as they might be to others. Therefore, we pray that he might rend open our hearts and make them clean by his Holy Spirit so that we might see what we were made for: not our private lusts and interests, but life in him.
The liturgy of the eucharist inevitably leads us to the cross: the strangest of all places. It is the place of ultimate paradox. On account of our disobedience and hardheartedness the incarnate Son of God is hung naked on a tree. It was a repulsive and degrading sight intended to instill fear of the powers of this world. And yet for us who believe, the sign of the cross has become the sweetest sight, full of comfort and healing. It is where we see most clearly the extent of God’s love and the depths to which he will go to find his lost sheep.
As much as I may have preferred to stay in some of those churches that I visited, my job was to head back to a dreary bar and to play some music. But there is a wonderful side effect of learning to find beauty in the paradox of the cross. If God can redeem a horrific instrument of torture, if the cross can become a point of transcendence, then where else might God make himself known? Might we encounter our Savior’s face in the office? in the grocery store? in our homes? in a dreary bar? Might we even find God present in the unlikeliest of places? Even in the places that are detestable to us and in the people that we least expect? As we allow God to cleanse our hard hearts, as we repent and turn to him, we can begin to see each other as he sees us—as beloved and sinful creatures in need of a Savior—and to trust in his redeeming love. Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This essay by Associate Rector, Jonathan Jameson was published in the St. John’s Parish Paper for Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022.