Acknowledging Beauty in the Embers

 

“I cannot escape the fact that the burden of memory is rarely light in a corrupted world where fear inevitably threatens the things we love most.”

When I sit down to count my blessings these days—something that seems to happen more often as I get older, though still not often enough—I have a hard time believing that my share in the beauty of life didn’t somehow get doubled without the permission of the person cutting the checks. Of course, true gratitude tends to have a similar effect on most of us, and of course, God makes no such accounting errors. But even in a world where I have beheld as much sadness and sorrow as the next pilgrim, I cannot help but wonder if all the beauty I have encountered is still somewhat out of proportion. In my short lifetime, I have watched the sun set over the Pacific and rise in the heart of many a despairing friend. My ears have caught the triumph of Beethoven’s Ninth and the giddy chorus of a hundred laughing children. I have borne witness to two-score weddings and I have beheld the Scripture through the flaming devotion of the church fathers. Finally, more precious to me than anything save the Word himself, I have loved and lived among saints.

 

In his song “Ulysses,” Josh Garrels sings that True love is the burden that will carry me back Home / Carry me with the memories of the beauty I have known. I dearly love this line, yet I cannot escape the fact that the burden of memory is rarely light in a corrupted world where fear inevitably threatens the things we love most. Christian fellowship has long been for me the most deeply treasured of blessings, yet I have only recently realized the intensity with which I fear that this gift will fade away.

 

I say “fade away” intentionally. Separation by death or some related tragedy is not, for some reason, the most paralyzing of fears when it comes to losing this fellowship. Perhaps this sounds a bit morbid, but I find it far harder to argue with the reality of death than to argue with the fact that very few friends enter our lives never to leave them again; the ever-shifting divergences in vocation, responsibility, and locality make it rare for any relationship to march through every season of life in a parade of unbroken intimacy. Life forces each of us into new and different seasons, whether we like it or not, and the staggeringly beautiful fellowship that has defined the most precious seasons in my life makes this reality a tough pill for me to swallow. It seems almost unconscionable that the ashes of memory might one day be all that is left of those fellowships which have birthed the very fires of my life, illuminating and sanctifying my entire consciousness.

 

But even if the changing of seasons and the distancing of friendships are, in the most loathsome sense, unavoidable “facts of life,” I still cannot shake the belief that seasons of beautiful fellowship, once received, must never be allowed to be forgotten amidst the new phases of our lives. It seems that such beauty demands the erecting of monuments and the establishing of shrines and that to do anything less would be a tacit declaration that the original gift of fellowship was actually less transcendent than it was.

 

Marilynne Robinson describes the heart of this tension far better than I can. Toward the very end of Gilead, the dying Reverend Ames observes that we must “acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.” I would submit that Christian fellowship is one of those precious things, and that there is therefore an inescapable claim upon us to honor the lives that we live—if only for a time—with one another.

 

But how in the world can we, in our laughable frailty, honor the miracle that occurs when the bearers of the imago Dei face the Light together? We are incapable of beholding any demonstration of beauty in all of its true fullness, much less that which emanates from brothers dwelling together in unity. It is impossible to pay homage to the beauty of an immortal soul in the same way that a painter captures alpenglow at dawn or a photographer that nanosecond when the thought of her beloved tugs a smile on the lips of a woman. Likewise, writers reveal with words those scenes that cannot be photographed, and composers’ notes evoke those scenes that cannot be written. But what can friends do to capture, preserve, or honor the singular, cosmos-shaking beauty that springs out of the love given by one Image Bearer to another? Surely no portrait or book or symphony could ever be enough. Furthermore, is there any hope for reviving the ashes of memory that remain long after the sands of time have passed us in and out of each other’s lives?

 

I think there is a single answer to both questions, and its simplicity is comforting and confounding: we need build no monument nor erect any shrine, for the Church is herself the ultimate testimony of the Love which binds us together. It is God who has laid her foundations and preserved her in fellowship across the millennia, and we honor this fellowship best by building the kneelers from which we say together, “We give thanks to Thee for Thy great Glory.”

 

It is no wonder that the joys which we share with one another might seem especially fleeting, for they reach out to us from an entirely different dimension. They are joys for which gratitude is the only response, joys created for a Better Country which will endure long after our current heavens have passed away. Even the ashes of our most cherished memories are not truly ashes at all, but faintly glowing embers that will be fanned into flame once again—never to fade—by the Renewer of all good things. In the words of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 3:15, “God seeks out that which has gone by.” And as my wise and undaunted sister once said to me, “His ways never end in ashes.”

 

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  1. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Picador, 2004), 246.
Stephen Williams
​​​​Stephen Williams was raised in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and received a B.A. in Government from Patrick Henry College in 2012. Stephen lives in Phoenix, Arizona, teaching fifth-graders and pursuing his lifelong dream of living in the American West. In his spare time, you’ll likely find him reading, chasing the sunset with his camera in tow, or enjoying the beautiful game of baseball.

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