Sacred Beauty

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns.”   Isaiah 52:7

Sweet Sylvia stands in my life as the grandmother that I never had. In her upper 70’s, or maybe early 80’s, she represents unquestionable beauty. We spend Friday mornings together, as she picks me up at eight AM for my weekly doctor’s appointment and subsequent infusion at the local hospital. She has “adopted” me and loved me through a season of uncertainty and suffering. She tells me of God’s work in her life, and mirrors back where she sees God working in my life. She is the most beautiful woman I know.

Before I really knew what beauty was, long before I met Sylvia, I was brainwashed regarding beauty. At 11 years old, I was recovering from having my tonsils removed. I hadn’t been able to eat solid food for a little over a week, and I had just returned to school as a newly tonsil-free sixth grader. I walked into my math class, and my teacher greeted me with a smile. “Wow, Megan! You lost a lot of weight. You look just like a princess.” I beamed. My false narrative of beauty was confirmed. With the lies of my childhood further validated, I marched forward into adolescence with a commitment to “beauty” that would involve relentless weight-loss leading to a severe eating disorder. As a result, I would be hospitalized so many times that I lost count of treatment stays. I would break five bones before the age of 30, and spend about 5,250 hours at the gym or pounding the pavement in a span of seven years. I thought that this was the road to beauty.

For the vast majority of my early life, I believed whole-heartedly that beauty was rooted in thinness. I knelt at the altar of “skinny” for 20 solid years, sacrificing my entire life for the number on the scale. Please understand, eating disorders are much more complex than simply worshipping thinness.   My eating disorder encompassed many levels of brokenness, from chemical imbalances, reenactment of childhood abuse and trauma, to deep self-hatred. In the midst of the broken terrain of my life, beauty did, however, become synonymous with thinness.

The echoes of those deeply ingrained stories still bounce off the walls of my soul at times, and I search the mirror for signs of thinness that the ghost-voices still whisper to be beauty.   A new concept of beauty is slowly emerging, however, and the Holy Spirit is whispering a new story into my heart as I engage in relationship with God and with others. This beauty has nothing to do with a number sewn onto my pants or bouncing around on a scale. It is irrelevant to prominent cheek-bones or thigh gaps.

This beauty is etched in laugh-lines, gray hairs, sparkling eyes, and stretch marks. This is the beauty where the image of Christ radiates through the cracks in surrendered, broken veneers. This is the beauty that evokes the statement, “When I am with you, I feel the presence of God.” This is the beauty that draws others into a warm embrace when they feel isolated and lonely. This is the beauty of self-giving, pouring out the overflow of the abundance of Christ. This beauty is the opposite of exclusivity; it is a welcoming, warm, comforting beauty that makes those around it feel profoundly valuable. This beauty is found in unlikely places, in the eyes of the weathered and elderly, in the hands of the sick and feeble, in the words of the vulnerable and unmasked.

Just as it has done with so many sacred, God-authored elements of life, culture through the power of the enemy has obscured, perverted, and reversed beauty. We almost cannot even remember what beauty truly means. C.S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory (1965), says:

We do not merely want to see beauty, thought, even God knows, that is beauty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.

This beauty is true beauty, as we are formed into “little Christs,” as Lewis frequently calls Christians through the process of sanctification.

I am 34. I have found a few grey hairs over the past year. Childbirth and illness have weathered my visage. It has also formed me more into the image of my true love, Christ. According to my understanding of beauty, this has only made me more beautiful. I am not excellent at make-up application. I don’t always have the energy to fix my hair or the resources to maintain freshly shaped eyebrows, but God has assured me of this truth:

“You are altogether beautiful my darling. There is no flaw in you.” (Song of Solomon 4:7).

No matter how I manipulate my appearance, there is no assurance that the mirror will reflect cultural standards of beauty. What I do know without a doubt, however, is that when I enter into communion with my Lord, He shows me His beauty. I am able to enter into that beauty, to embody it, and as Lewis so elegantly states, to bathe in it, and to carry it into the world. In the presence of the Beautiful One, I can become part of the beauty of Christ, and I can draw others into true beauty.

And here is the sacred secret of beauty: The more the beauty of Christ shines upon us, the more we can see Christ’s beauty in others. As we incarnate Christ and we see His incarnation in others, we do what Lewis alludes to. We allow others to see the beauty of Christ and see themselves as truly beautiful. We become beautiful and spread beauty to the rest of the world, just as my precious friend Sylvia does. As I see Jesus in her face, I see beauty, am set free from the lies of what I once believed beauty to be, and I realize how truly beautiful I am.

My friends, we are beautiful because we represent the image of Christ. We draw others into that beauty when they see Christ in us. There is no greater beauty than the Imago Dei, and praise the Lord, we can all stand in the truth that we bear this beauty.

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Pastor Al Gilbert

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