Deliciously Off-Center

Recently, my wife and I celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary with a weekend trip to Aspen. Neither of us had been before and we were floored by its beauty--not that of the celebrities, mind you, but that of the Roaring Fork valley. In particular, we were stunned, breathless really, at the gorgeous Maroon Bells (left). I'm a bit embarrassed to admit it, but upon seeing them, I blubbered like a baby. I was overcome with emotion at such unspoiled, pristine beauty. For me, it was a direct hit of divinity, a tangible sign of God's handiwork, a delicious (though at the same time painful) arrow into my soul. I tell you, I enjoyed more unselfconscious worship and praise in that moment than I've had in many church services. Somehow, struck with God's artistry and goodness, I was transported delightedly off-center: off the center of my self-absorption, off the center of anthropocentric living, off the center of all that's wrong in the world. I think, in some respects, this is biblical worship: the joy of moving off-center and becoming absorbed by a good and loving God. As N.T. Wright describes it in his very good new book, Simply Christian, beauty is the echo of God's voice, a haunting and delightful ache that can lead us to the heart of our Creator, who is also our loving Father. Off-center...eccentric...not such a bad thing!

Angelina, Brad...and a New Kind of Beauty

Maybe you caught the Anderson Cooper interview with Angelina Jolie recently. I did...and I was the interview, that is. Here was this icon of beauty, the voluminously-lipped lovely voted by most men in North America and Europe as the woman they'd most like to date, speaking of things unrelated to the red carpet, to films, to new releases, or to glamor of any kind. Instead, she waxed eloquent and passionate about the plight of poor children in Africa. That thud is the sound of my jaw hitting the floor. Where I've come to expect vapid expressions of stunning superficiality, I was getting schooled in justice, poverty issues, compassion, and the like. I was hearing the voice of Jesus and the gospels through an unlikely prophet. I was impressed and amazed. How wonderful that in our world of botox and surgical enhancement, of ephemeral fashion, gossip magazines, and the revolving door of musical-chairs celebrity pairings, here was a gorgeous couple, Angelina and Brad, whose beauty seemed increasingly eternal and spiritual. They were using their celebrity to point to a cause much greater than themselves. And this was not the fashionable Hollywood political posturing we've come to expect: it seemed deeper and more sincere. Thank goodness--thank God--for moments and for people like these. I have much to learn, it turns out, from Branjolie and the new beauty they evince.

Success, Significance, and the Soul

Have you followed the news lately? Bill Gates steps down from directing the everyday affairs of Microsoft to devote time to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the wealthiest philanthropy of our day. Warren Buffett gives the vast majority of his multibillion dollar stock options to the Gates Foundation to further their charitable endeavors. A Denver Presbyterian layman gives over $150 million to his foundering denomination...all of these news headlines appear in the space of two weeks. Interesting, isn't it? Something is going on; something different from business as usual. We're watching some of the pillars of industry lead the way--not in more acquisitiveness and accumulation of wealth, but in distributing wealth to the less fortunate, making investments in the poor, the sick, those on the margins of society. Could there be a lesson for us here? Having reached the pinnacle of financial success, these leaders are searching for something more. It reminds me of an adage that seems increasingly true: most people tend to spend the first half of their lives searching for "success"; but in the second half of their lives, many search instead for significance, for ways to make a lasting investment in the betterment of our world. There's a midlife shift toward what I might call "soulishness"--toward things of eternal value. I wonder if the recent example of these tycoons and their new style of investment in significance is a living parable of the ancient words of Jesus:

"For what will it profit people if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?"

Gates, Buffett, the Presbyterian--they are making a turn, it seems, toward life, toward the soul, toward a signficance not achieved by the accumulation of wealth. Can we learn from them?