Beauty for Ashes
Beauty for ashes. It’s a good deal. So is oil of joy instead of mourning, a garment of praise exchanged for a spirit of heaviness. The assurance of restoration from the year of the locust. Promises are a wonderful thing especially when they prevail, over time.
Time is the necessary ingredient to really know someone, and it is also the requisite condition for testing truth. The truth will out, they say, but it takes a passage of days. There are times in between when things look pretty bleak, when we drink a cup of despair and don’t understand what all this is supposed to be teaching us. We lose faith. We close the book without the hero saving the fair maiden and the kingdom restored, and we are poorer for it. Like Job’s wife demanded of him, “curse God and die”. It’s the revenge human beings take on God when they experience hard luck. They pull up stakes early and look for more immediate gratification, or worse, declare to the world that there IS nothing better. It’s how nihilism works. It is less an intellectual proposition than a stubborn unwillingness of the heart to wait things out.
I woke up in the night and started to read over some of my favourite Psalms, letting the beauty of their ancient truths wash over my soul. They were mostly written by people in trouble, with little respite to hang onto. But unlike the nihilists, they refused to capitulate to despair. They tossed out phrases like “ I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help” and “My refuge and my fortress; my God in whom I trust” and “Your faithfulness endures to all generations”, invoking the truth that how God was, is how he will be, despite those times when it seems that he is hiding.
That is also how some of our greatest lessons are absorbed - alone. Alone makes us sift through the ashes for what does not stand the test of time, because the passage of time is the ultimate judgement on what is worthy.
Many have gone through tough times, and have questioned God. That’s ok. God is big enough to absorb the inevitable questions. The prophet Habakkuk was so incensed at the world around him that he challenged God to stand up and winnow out the evil from human affairs. He wanted a quick answer. He planted himself on the gates of Jerusalem, and said, “I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what he will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved.” He was testing God. He wanted God to reprove him, to tell him that he was wrong. God’s answer is to hang tight, redress will appear in due time. “Though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come.” It is the right answer, but waiting can be hard on the nerves.
Beauty for ashes. I keep seeing in the Psalms and in the Prophets, the word beauty. I re-read Psalm 90, the ONLY psalm in the Bible by Moses. He wrote it in old age, which is appropriate, looking back on it all when enough time had passed. And what he says is worth paying attention to because it is the observations of an old man who has seen a lot of life come and go.
Moses was the father of the roving Tabernacle in a tent - he understand that our dwelling is not really a place. It is housed in a person. “Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.” The condition that makes a house a home is the same truth that turns a tent into a cathedral. Moses, who led the wandering tribes through the wilderness for a generation and lived to see a few more, knew about the seasons of Man. He calls them little more than a watch in the night. They rise up and then wither like the grass. The dwelling place however, remains. It is the eternal communion of God with his people. The temporal exchanged for the timeless, no matter what else the world may dish up.
Moses looking back over the passage of time, says, “Teach us to number our days, that we might apply our hearts unto wisdom.” and further on, “let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands.” I want the beauty of God to do some work on me. When our hearts are fixed on the abiding quality of things like beauty, we will weather whatever falsehood came in between. It’s a simple resting in God’s goodness that the Psalmists established as part of their own life patterns, even when the chips were down. It’s the “fallback” position, where our conscious default is one of faith, choosing to wait for the good things to come back.
Beauty for ashes. I like the ring of that. The testimony of others over a long passage of time is inspiring. It makes me want to do what the Psalmists call for, to take the long view, and to abide in the shadow of the Almighty. There too will I wait, and also proclaim His goodness.