I was born in Huntington, WV, which, for several years in a row, was ranked by Business Insider as “The Most Miserable City in America“, as well as “America’s Most Depressed, Unhealthy And Lethargic City“. I saw that in 2019 we jumped from #1 to #24, which is exciting considering the 20,000ish incorporated cities in the country.
All of this obviously has a psychological effect–not the rating (though of course that too)–but the being there. And, in fact, there is a term used in some disciplines to describe it. “Appalachian Fatalism.” And I definitely sense it in my family, in the people I grew up with and in myself. Hopelessness somehow defines authentic living, like we have a true grip on reality if we see everything as abandonment or a dead-end. We look around and make statements like “It doesn’t matter.” or “What’s the point.”
But then, as a believer, we come to a verse like Ephesians 1:18
Having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.Ephesians 1:18
Or more pointedly,
Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoicePhilippians 4:4
Well, like some might do with an accountability group for other sins, in order to combat the dual sins of hopelessness and joylessness in my own life, I like to make a practice of gathering around me works of art that offer a more beautiful and true vision than I can consistently muster up. Pieces that challenge the falsehoods of hopelessness. As it turns out, a few verses after the Philippians passage above, as if to offer a starting point for “rejoicing always,” we have the following prescription.
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, or of good report; if there be any praise, think on these things.Philippians 4:8
Let’s start with Normal Rockwell.
This is a painting called “Lift up Thine Eyes.” New Yorkers pass by St. Thomas Church staring at their feet. We know that if this were painted in recent times, they’d be looking at their phones–which I’ve come to believe would be a far more despairing view. But we can be sure that they are dealing in nature with the same types of fears and uncertainties we are. Doubt, hopelessness, and fear are not modern phenomena.
Toward the end of “The Magician’s Nephew” in The Chronicles of Narnia, there’s a scene in which the two main characters appear in Narnia just as Aslan is creating it. There happens to be a London Cabby who, through a series of events, was sucked into Narnia with them, and as Aslan literally sings the stars into place above them, the Cabby looks up and declares.
And I think there’s theological truth to his statement. Of course his mistake was to assume the same vision wasn’t available to him in London, since he hadn’t made a practice of “Looking up.” If he had, he would have been faced some of God’s Invisible Qualities – as Romans tells us – and how could an encounter like that not make you a better person?
But we have to start by looking up! And I don’t think just directly to God, but also to the amazing testimony of His Grace and Love which surrounds us. Whether or not we have the staggering architectural beauty of St. Thomas Church to look up to, we still have Creation. In the Institutes of Christian Religion, John Calvin wrote,
When it comes to the structure of the whole wide world, how many of us lift our eyes heavenward?
Whichever way we turn, there is no part of the world, however small, in which at least some spark of God’s glory does not shine. In particular, we cannot gaze upon this beautiful masterpiece of the world, in all its length and breadth, without being completely dazzled, as it were, by an endless flood of light.“The Institutes of Christian Religion”, Chapter 1 – John Calvin
One of the great blessings I have as a film teacher is that one of my classrooms is a movie theater. Sometimes I will go in there during a prep period, stand in the middle of the room and watch the opening few minutes Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life”, in which Calvin’s idea is echoed.
The films begins with a monologue from a young girl growing into a married woman:
“The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”“The Tree of Life”, Terrence Malick
Upon hearing something like this –“Love is smiling through all things.”– I want to cry “BS” and go back to saying, “What’s the point?” But I have to face the likelihood that that impulse is a defect in me.
The writer/philosopher/theologian Peter Kreeft wrote a book called “The Sea Within” all about his love of surfing and the ocean. He talks about how he suspects that waves have a language, and while he’s not exactly sure what they’re saying, he thinks it’s something like this: “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you,” and so on until the end of the time. Every piece of land surrounded by the creation chanting, echoing their Creator.
Finally, as if creation weren’t enough, we have to face the miracle of other people. To hold my hand through that task, I turn to Marilynne Robinson and her book “Gilead.” This is the sort of book that if I finish reading and go down to my children screaming at one another, I’d find it beautiful because of Robinson’s unrelenting appreciation and praise for the wonder of Creation and other people. The book, which by all rights should be either sappy or depressing, is a series of letters from a 70 old pastor with a fatal heart condition to his 7 year old son who he will never see grow up.
In one passage the old man writes to the boy –
There’s a shimmer on a child’s hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. They’re in the petals of flowers, and they’re on a child’s skin. Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is very fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children. You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined….
I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle.“Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson
There should be joy in mere existence, that God chose you over not you. But even then you don’t just exist, but are surrounded by such an astounding creation that screams God’s Love and Grace for you.
Lift Up Thine Eyes.
But the true glory is that what I have been describing is what we call “Common Grace”–Grace equally available to the believing and non-believing. But we believers know of a special grace–that because God loves us for our mere existence, he sent his Son to die to undo our centuries of looking down, of looking inward, of looking everywhere but to the Giver of All Good Things.
May you look up, may you see God’s grace shining through the world he called good, his love shining through others who he has loved