At a recent commencement at Messiah College, I told a story. I am going to repeat that story here, in addressing you about matters that weigh upon my heart, at this important gathering.
A girl in northern Iraq ran toward a bunker with her father. A Japanese photographer was capturing this unfolding drama on the front lines of the war, and he followed the girl with his camera until she was safely behind the bunker. But as he put his camera down, he noticed a look of horror on her face.
She realized that as she was running away from the bullets, she had stepped on a flower.
Before anyone could say or do anything to stop her, she let go of her hand, and she ran back to the flower, knelt down, and she tried, in vain, to restore the flower by holding it up in her little hands.
As she tried to resurrect beauty, a cruel stray bullet pieced her body.
She fell, crumpling on top of the flower.
Bear with me, if you would, while I continue with a bit more of that speech I delivered at Messiah, which I called “Would you give your life for Beauty?”
In Iraq, a flower is a rare, esteemed emanation, a gift to cherish.
This girl valued a flower so much so that she risked her life, and lost her life, for a single flower.
In a desert culture, a flower represents life itself. In a war-stricken land, a flower may even be a cruel reminder of beauty in the midst of human brokenness―an ephemeral vision that is ever-Present, being trampled by us as we try desperately to save our lives.
What does it mean to “graduate”?
“Graduate” can mean to “rise above.”
We are to rise above the darkened realities, the confounding problems of our time.
We are to rise above the rancor of discord, above our ideological warfare―Culture Wars―above civil wars and World Wars. We are to rise above ourselves, our selfishness, our own drive to master the world, our desire to map out our own destiny apart from God.
This girl, by turning back toward the path of danger, rather than running into safety, graduated. She graduated from the horror-stricken world full of bullet holes.
She graduated toward beauty and sacrifice.
Now, you might say that what she did was foolish―that her sacrifice was unnecessary. But you cannot say that what she did was not genuine.
It is my humble opinion that authenticity counts more than pragmatic performance and survival. Authentic self runs toward beauty. By losing ourselves, we can finally find ourselves.
I contend that this girl was not foolish. No. She recognized in the world something to cherish, something worth risking her life for.
Her small act―which would have disappeared from the world unnoticed, just like the flower, had it not been for a witness of a Japanese photographer―is an antidote to those who desire to pave the path to expand the Ground Zeros of the world―to those who see violence as the only means to an end.
Her life represents a refusal to live without beauty. So she graduated toward beauty.
And she left the world of violence, the world of discord, behind her.
What are we graduating towards? What are we educating towards? To what end do your students, and do we here today, strive?
Do we need beauty that badly?
In his novel The Idiot, the 19th century Russian writer Dostoevsky wrote a line that people have been puzzling over ever since: “Beauty will save the world.”
But in this story, in this account, we must ponder the flip side of that equation: Would we give our lives for beauty?
As we consider these questions, I want to suggest that what this girl resisted was not just her war, but ours as well. The battle zone of our lives sees us running away in fear.
Today, as we hold this image of this girl as a backdrop, I want to dive deeper into theological territory that a short Commencement speech did not allow me to develop.
This Lenten season, I will once again spend much time in John 11. When Crossway commissioned me to illumine the Four Holy Gospels for the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, I was so intimidated, I began to think of ways to contain the project in my thoughts and try create out of those limitations.
I was so intimidated by the challenge of illuminating the Four Holy Gospels that I chose the shortest verse in the Bible to focus on as my main aesthetic theme. John 11:35 “Jesus Wept.”
For the past five Lenten Seasons, I have meditated on this particular passage. I can’t seem to escape these two words. “Jesus Wept.”
Here’s a little context for this passage that you will no doubt know very well. It takes place in Bethany as Jesus’ path toward the Cross is being revealed. Martha, the CEO and a pragmatic activist, and her sister Mary the Contemplative artist, and Lazarus, their passive brother, all await Jesus. Lazarus is sick; his sisters send for Jesus, convinced that their friend and “miracle worker” will come to the rescue once again. He does not. He chooses not. He waits until their beloved brother passes, and then tells his disciples that this is done so “the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Jesus meets Martha and she tells him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus immediately gives her an analytical question: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” Martha acknowledges Jesus by giving one of the most faith-filled statements recorded in the Bible. “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” Her rationality leads to her faith.
But, Mary, the contemplative artist, is not there. She is not there, I think, because she is upset―perhaps even angry with Jesus. Jesus betrayed her confidence. Her faith is shaken. But even in her anger, she intuits that something is being revealed. Martha has to go to Mary and tell her to go to Jesus in private.
Mary, word for word, states exactly what Martha stated earlier, which indicates the level of intimacy that the two sisters share. But I imagine Mary’s statement is filled with emotion: “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The same statement to Jesus can lead down the analytical path of Martha, or the intuitive path of Mary.
Upon seeing Mary, Jesus does not respond with the analytical words he spoke to Martha. He does not say a word. “Jesus wept.” When Richard Hayes, the famed theologian at Duke, responded to one of my lectures, he put it this way: “At Bethany, the Incarnate Word of God stood wordless.”
Upon seeing Mary’s tears, Jesus wept.
Why did he weep? All he had to do is to take Mary by her hand, go to the tomb and call to Lazarus to rise from the grave. He could have told her, “see, ye of little faith!”
Why did Jesus waste his time weeping? His tears served no rational purpose, gained no pragmatic results.
My friend Steve Garber told me, standing in front of Charis-Kairos (The Tears of Christ) that he would not be a Christian apart from those tears. Jesus’ wasteful tears.
Was the girl’s death in northern Iraq wasteful, too?
Or did Jesus weep then, seeing her little body crumple on top of the ephemeral emanation?
Jesus’ tears are still with us.
Physically in the air.
We breathe them every day.
Therefore, no accomplishments, no gains in this world will outlast what was wasted on Mary that day. Martha, the analytical and pragmatic sister, saw the value of the intuitive. The rational and the intuitive are not at odds with each under Jesus. They are sisters―one supporting the other. As we grow in Christ, we find that the rational/ analytical needs the intuitive to perceive the ontological core of our journey. The one who seeks mystery at the feet of Jesus, and pours the extravagant, wasteful nard to anoint Jesus―those intuitive acts open up to the rationality of salvation.
Mary, the artist, knew what those tears meant. She did not need to articulate them in a rational way; but she knew. Jesus was not just her Savior; Jesus was her friend. This kind of knowing is not just rational; it is relational and covenantal.
Education should befriend, not just save us from ignorance. Education should grow our hearts, not just prepare us for pragmatism.
Thus, in my studio, I paint with Jesus’ tears. I pretend that the very waters I use in my Nihonga technique are literally Jesus’ tears. All of us should be connected deeply to the mysteries of the tears of Christ. So I do not mean that we should weep because things are not right, or because our students are not learning (although we may do that, too). I mean that the chief end of education should be to embody the tears of Christ, to learn the Presence of God in the midst of the inquiries we make, both analytical and intuitive. When the intuitive is required, we should be like Martha; we should go fetch Mary to inform her that the Master is here and waiting. When a student is suffering, we should be there to weep, and not to rationalize, or explain away that student’s sorrow and pain. When we admit that we fall short, that we are unable to be Christ-like, our weeping will make us Christ-like. That is a great paradox of our limitations, of our ephemeral realities.
Archaeologists have discovered that in biblical times, there were things that we now call “tear jars.” Tears were so coveted that people kept them, in a jar. Jesus’ tears were not collected. They dropped one by one onto the hardened ground of Bethany. They evaporated into the air, and they are still with us today. We can collect them by faith today. Our institutions, and our lives, should be made up of these jars of tears. This is the miracle of the intuitive, to invoke the mystery which no analysis can tap into.
William Blake wrote: “To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.”
I submit to you today, that represented in that single flower that the girl tried to save, is the world in a grain of sand: I reckon today that as she gazed into that flower, just for a moment, she gazed into a “heaven in a wildflower.” Christ came because we are that flower.
I told the graduates of Messiah College that they are graduating into a world full of bullet holes.
In such a world, what is beauty worth?
Christ came to tend that flower, and he resurrected it, just like he resurrected Lazarus.
But just like the girl, he took those cruel bullets of hatred and discord into his body. He suffered and died full of holes, too.
Jesus wept, for those holes that will tear him apart, tears were for his cross to bear, and his tears and his blood co-mingled for us.
Education should make us more aware, more sensitized to the cracks in the hardened ground of Bethany that the tears of Christ seeped into. Beauty does matter, as it is in those cracks that the “small resurrections” can be seen. Beauty points to a place where sacrifice has been made. Beauty requires sacrifice. Every sunset signifies a sun that is dying. In every meal, we eat what has been sacrificed, for us. In that sense, beauty is the manifestation of sacrifice, collectively and individually, that is in every one of us, inside every student.
So perhaps instead of asking students for success, we may want to ask for beauty. Not the superficial kind of beauty that the world desires, but the kind that this girl in Iraq exhibited. That kind of willingness, an innocence revealed in the most traumatic of times. To seek the depth of beauty, the beauty of being…that is what we should become, to rise to. That is our charge as leaders, as Martha’s and Mary’s of the world. Yes, to instruct, to ask analytical questions of the Martha’s of the world. But those questions do not become Present unless we stand, and waste time, with the Mary’s of the world, unless we weep with those who intuit the darker path toward suffering, and rejoice with those who intuit the feast to come.
Education based in Christ’s befriending of us should invoke. Our education should invoke Martha’s rational activism and inquiry to invite the contemplative creative Mary.
In the battle zones of culture there are delicate flowers that we have trampled upon, in our rush to protect ourselves. We have told Jesus that the pragmatic decisions we made are important. We even implore him to get our artistic and philosophical sisters to rise and help us in our pragmatism. We have made decisions that truncate and dehumanize education, and leave the Mary’s of our educational system orphaned in the world. “Martha, Martha,” our Lord tells us in Luke10:41, “you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” We can run away from the ideological bullets flying over us, and continue to fight back to protect our terrain. But who among us will dare to run back to protect that one emanation of beauty? Who will care for those who can intuit a greater and deeper knowledge of things to come, things which Christ states definitively “shall not be taken away”?
Christians can be, and should be, the most integrated community in the world, our institutions that bear Christ’s Name should be an oasis of tears; we should be the Martha’s, Mary’s, and Lazarus’s, a “still point of the turning world.” Christians can dare to rush into the storms and plagues of life, because we have already seen the resurrection, and our intuition to anoint the King has been commended by the King himself. Christians therefore should move with unbridled compassion, gratuitous empathy and abiding care, to collaborate with each other to move into the world, even to the extent of loving our enemies. Christians should have the same impulsiveness, and freedom, that this little girl in Iraq had. But we have become fear-filled automatons of utilitarian pragmatism. We can lose our souls of education, if we continue to be concerned only with the bottom line of survival.
“What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” Matthew 16:26
What is the “soul” of education; what is our “fragile emanation”?
“Knowing is transformation, not mere information.”
She speaks of Covenantal epistemology, and teaches a class on “epistemological therapy” that I believe every liberal arts college and university (not just Christian colleges, but every college) should be teaching incoming freshmen. She tells us that our default mode in decision-making is often outmoded, based in western utilitarian pragmatism. We use knowledge as a way to create dichotomies― setting up reason against belief, facts against values, rationality against emotion and intuition. In our present epistemology, everything this girl in Iraq did in her “impulsiveness” appears to be irrational, illogical and ill-advised, and Jesus’s tears do not make sense. In her book Loving to Know, she notes how we might get to our “fragile emanation,” and we should do well to heed to her advice. She writes:
Covenant epistemology challenges the default epistemic mode, re-forms students and teachers to seek transformation, and offers a positive account of wisdom as the goal of study. Its model of knowing, shared as it is by all disciplines, reunites the sciences and the humanities. For Christian liberal arts institutions, it offers the way also to integrate biblical studies at the center of the curriculum, tapping the biblical message for the very paradigm of transformative knowing. (pg. 131)
This “positive account of wisdom” cannot be gotten to by running away from bullets; we must have a radical new path to knowledge that is based in love, or covenantal love, and sacrifice. We must learn to value reason and intuition, to value beauty with survival, and we must develop an integration that challenges the notion that Darwinian survival is the only bottom line. Someone like Esther Meek is a great treasure in higher education: but I am afraid we no longer have the ears to hear and eyes to see what she is offering. The arts and philosophy, as “fragile emanations” of our education, will not have a fighting chance in the stampede of pragmatism.
As an artist, I swim directly against the current of utilitarian pragmatism, and have been sensitized to its dehumanizing effects. The bottom line of efficiency, the bottom line of survival, has taken over culture. I smell them in every church, in every institution. You might wonder “boy it’s a miracle that someone like you exist.” Precisely. It IS a miracle. I believe I am here as an ultimate proof that God exists. An artist who makes a living, supporting his family, raising his children in New York City, even through the dark and traumatic times of 9/11, as a Ground Zero resident; an artist who has had the privilege of sharing his resources with many others through International Arts Movement and has been blessed to mentor many. YES, it is a miracle: but should not every life be an evidence of God’s existence? Should not every journey the substance of things hoped for? What proof will we be to the world, if we can explain away what we do in pragmatic terms? No, in this Present Darkness, we must raise up the next generations of miracles.
Whether you are a Martha, a Mary or a Lazarus, we need to be a family of the miraculous, touched by the very breath and tears of Christ. The rational, the analytical can lead the way: not toward fear, but toward love, toward integration that invites the intuitive, the emotive and the creative. Human creativity, redemption and resurrection depend on Martha, Mary and Lazarus together.
I am Mary, the one who requires the silence of God to move my heart. This God is a God of fragile emanations, a God of tears. This God did turn back, and did face our bullets, and did resurrect the little flower. That little flower, stepped over and ignored, remember, is us. Without the arts and philosophy, which define us, we will lose our souls.
You see, the poison of utilitarian pragmatism is to forget who we were before God intervened and saved us. Pragmatism forces us to make decisions by having an default epistemological base that says “we have to make this decision to survive…we have no choice.”
Have we forgotten that God has already saved us from our limited resource reality? Have we forgotten the dead brother in the grave, now standing fully alive in front of us? Have we forgotten that God has already provided for us the miraculous path out of our tombs? We live on the other side of resurrection. Without God intervening, we would not even have the opportunity to have an institution dedicated to Christ. But because God intervened, we can be confident of God’s preservation of us, and even of our fragile emanations. So why are we on the defensive, thinking only in terms of survival, if the ontology of Creation is unlimited and all-powerful? What are we trying to preserve by running away? Can we turn back?―which, by the way, is what the word “repentance” means in Greek - “metanoia.” In that metanoia, we are returning to our source of that fragile emanation, the greatest resource for integration that the world has ever known: the Bible. We have THE resource that the world longs to have: and yet we cower in fear, ducking from the ideological bullets flying all about us, all holed up in our bunkers.
Our confidence lies not in the safety of our bunkers, but in the Biblical flowering that will open up generatively into the world. To pragmatic bottom-line thinkers, the Mary’s of the world should be the first to be jettisoned. Such a decision will cut off not only Mary, but our only access to the world that the Gospel creates. Remember that Mary “has chosen the better way” and her devotion leads to the essential, relational path, a direct gaze of the Savior. Remember that, in response to Jesus’ tears and her brother Lazarus’ resurrection she chooses even an even higher way: She rushes home to grab―with Martha’s permission, I am sure―the most important treasure in her home, her jar of nard that she was to save for her wedding day. When she radically, even transgressively, poured out the nard to anoint the King, what did Jesus say? How did Jesus respond when Judas pragmatically said, “this nard could have been sold to help the poor”? Here’s the world that the Gospel creates:
“Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Mark 14:6-9
Jesus gave the greatest commendation to Mary, the artist. But it was also an affirmation of the path that Martha had taken, to support her sister, moved by devotion.
But is that true of us, and our institutions? “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
Do we in, every room of our institutions, take in the aroma of Mary’s nard, the beauty of her sacrifice?
The Word of God is a breath that resounded in Creation and echoed in Jesus’ commendation of Mary: “she has done a beautiful (good) thing.” The Spirit hovers over her nard, and Christ points to Mary as a fragile emanation met in tears. Because Christ was willing to make himself vulnerable, and became fragile himself to our violence, we can stand now on this rock of Salvation. Because Christ chose to also be an ephemeral emanation himself on this earth, our salvation is now permanent and secured.
In John 12, it is written that “Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.” A post-resurrection reality is one of relaxed confidence. The religious authorities wanted to arrest Lazarus; Lazarus could care less about that threat - remember he was dead, and now is alive.
We, too, can be just as confident; spiritually, we have today everything that Lazarus had after his temporary resurrection - the knowledge of the power of our Savior and friend. We have even a deeper knowledge, of the true and lasting resurrection of Christ to push beyond our fears. We need to let the active, analytical Martha lead the way for the contemplative Mary, toward a deeper unfolding of the Gospel for all of us, toward the confidence of Lazarus. In order to do that, we need to lay down our weapons based on fear. Weapons of culture war will only lead to a Darwinian victory, if that. Instead, let us become nurturers of lasting beauty, tending to our culture with care, and with tears.
Culture is not a territory to be won; it is instead a resource we are called to steward. Culture that produced da Vinci’s The Last Supper, or Bach’s Goldberg variations, all float about in the aroma of Mary’s nard, in that closed room in Bethany.
That aroma woos us to turn back to care for fragile emanations in the world.
Will you and I care? Will we dare to turn back? Will we allow our children to lead the way? Will we return to the still point our deeper knowing, and give our lives away for beauty?