Beauty walk

Rev. Chris Jimmerson
February 5, 2017
First UU Church of Austin
4700 Grover Ave., Austin, TX 78756

We are surrounded by beauty, so why do we so often fail to notice it?

Our Unitarian Universalist 4th principle says that we “affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I add beauty to that search. I add beauty, because I think sometimes to find or make meaning, we need it. Sometimes the truth is a hard truth, it is a difficult reality, and so we also need to be able to still experience beauty in order to make meaning in our lives, to be able to continue to see the divine within ourselves and all around us.

Here is a video I would like to share with you.

VIDEO (Music and images with no dialog)

I made that video several years ago for a class in seminary from photos taken on several of our local nature trails and in one of our neighborhoods that at the time was what we might call, “transitional”. Now, I would call it, “unaffordable.”

Anyway, I wanted to transpose those images from that neighborhood and the images from the nature trails to show that the duality that we so often set up between nature and humans along our creations is a false duality – that we are within and a part of nature. Beauty can be found everywhere.

And I loved the delicious incongruity of the cross that appeared to be rising from out of the recycling trashcan, as well as the “Ready or not, Jesus is coming” sign that was in the same lot as the bright red fence with the “Moneyland” sign on it. It seems perhaps that our separation between the sacred and the secular is also a false duality.

Human rights and environmental activist, poet and scholar Carol Lee Sanchez is of Lakota native American heritage. In her article, “Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral: The Sacred Connection”, she writes of how most Native American tribes do not have a concept for these distinctions between humans and nature, the sacred and the material world. Instead, they understand humans and animals, plants and all of the elements of our universe to be related to and a part of each other. So, for traditional native Americans, to be spiritual, to be a good person, humans must extend good intentions and good behavior toward not just other people but toward creatures, plants and the elements. They call doing this, “to walk in Beauty” and it allows for seeing beauty in all.

Here is a sampling of how she describes walking in beauty, “When Native Americans refer to themselves as spiritual people, they are saying they believe that everything in the universe is imbued with spirit and they embrace, acknowledge, and respect the animating force within/surrounding/beyond all things-including humans. The idea of “the Sacred” held by traditional Indians is all-inclusive, and to be spiritual is to be ‘in communion’ with the Great Mystery.”

I wonder how our world might change for the betters if all people adopted this perspective.

I’ll share a couple of experiences that have helped move me at least a little closer toward it.

The first opened me to this idea that there is no separation between humans and nature and that therefore beauty may be found anywhere.

It was after my grandmother’s funeral. My family had gathered in the home where my grandparents had raised their children and then helped raise many of their grandchildren, including me. My grandfather had died a few years earlier.

Now, I loved my grandparents dearly, but I didn’t love so much the Beaumont-Port Arthur area where they lived and where I grew up. It is flat, swampy, hot, humid and filled with chemical refineries that from time to time fill the air with strange odors and light up the night sky with these giant torch towers where they bum off waste gases.

All of this just did not fit with my concept of beauty.

Later that evening though, I excused myself and walked out into the yard where I had played so often as a child. Lit by the flame of one of those torch towers, the night sky was glowing with an orange-red light much like an amazing sunrise. And suddenly, I found that I could see and experience this odd sort of beauty.

And dwelling in that beauty, I was also finally able to truly feel the loss – the loss over realizing that I would soon never again be connected with this place, this home where I had felt such warmth and safety and love.

The other experience was of that of “being in communion with the Great mystery” of which Carol Lee Sanchez writes. I was walking to a seminary class one cold morning in Chicago. To my left rose tall buildings of stone and glass. To my right, across Michigan Avenue, was a large park area and beyond it was a partially frozen over Lake Michigan. The sidewalk was filled with people. I was meditating as I made my way through the crowd, and I suddenly had this overwhelming sense that I was a part of all of that throng of humanity, as well as the buildings, the side walks, the lake and everything else and that all of it was a part of me. It was such a beautiful, transcendent yet overwhelming feeling, that I had to duck into a doorway for a moment before I could go on.

I truly had been “walking in beauty” – connected to the great mystery.

The challenge is, though, it can be particularly hard to walk in beauty during difficult times. And for many of us, these are proving to be very difficult times. Yet, these may be the very times we need to be able to see beauty the most.

I know that for me personally, it can sometimes be hard to see beauty at all- it feels oppressive when I see my deepest values and principles being threatened like never before by things like:

  • A five year old being detained separate from his family for hours on his birthday and another young child handcuffed.
  • People across the world being prevented from entering the U.S. and detained at our airports even when they have legal visas or are legal permanent residents.
  • A white supremacist at the center of national security decision making.
  • A very small group within the White House systematically dismantling or neutering our institutions that are supposed to serve as checks and balances.
  • The groundwork being laid for what I fear will be even greater human rights abuses.

And the list could go on and on.

And yet, we are also seeing the largest protests in our history, activist groups that had formerly worked in silos joining together and more people engaging in III ore types of political activity and resistance than I can remember seeing in my lifetime.

This all reminds me of what the wonderful liberation theologian, James Cone calls “terrible beauty”. Terrible beauty is when that situation I mentioned earlier happens – truth, reality is difficult or even tragic and so we need beauty to make meaning. For Cone, it is when an oppressed people starkly acknowledge the reality of their hurt and loss and yet refuse to let it define them, claiming their own sense of humanity instead.

I want to let you hear him describe it himself, as he finds it in blues.


(Excerpt from James Cone on The Cross and the Lynching Tree

BILL MOYERS: In all of this, you turn your attention in the course of your long career, to this– to The Spirituals And The Blues, which is my favorite of your books. I mean, it’s not the most theological. But it is I think the most vivid in its description of how music was theology. Tell me about that.

JAMES CONE: Well, I grew up with the spirituals and the blues. I heard the spirituals every Sunday morning in Macedonia AME Church. And that’s where I received the sense that I was somebody. I was a child of God. But the blues was heard on Saturday night. Now, my mother wouldn’t let me go to the place where the blues was played. But you can hear it.

BILL MOYERS: From your house?

JAMES CONE: From my house. Yes. You can hear it in all the community, ’cause there were several juke joints.

JAMES CONE: And that’s where the people played the blues. That– now, the blues was for people who did not receive the same kind of– transcendence that people received on Sunday morning.

BILL MOYERS: What kind of transcendence did they receive?

JAMES CONE: And I– see, on Sunday morning, you could– you could know that your humanity was not defined by what happened to you during the week. Now, on Saturday night is when the blues people found that out.

BILL MOYERS: What’d they find out?

JAMES CONE: They found out that they had a humanity that nobody could take away from them.

My beloveds, I fear we are going to have to find terrible beauty in solidarity with our Muslim human family members; with immigrants; with people of color; with women and their allies who dare to demand equality.

And, yes, I fear that I and my fellow lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people are going to need our allies to find terrible beauty with us, as attempts get made to legalize discrimination against LGBTQ folks across the country. We are going to need that ironic tenacity that Dr. Cone mentions.

We are going to need each other.

And that’s where one more source of beauty I want to discuss with you comes in. This religious community is a thing of beauty. It is a place that sustains and nourishes so many folks. We have been experiencing high levels of wonderful visitors. Just last week, 28 new members joined the church, some of whom you got to meet earlier.

Friday before last, a terrific group of our church members put together a moving and healing “People’s Inauguration” worship service.

And it’s beautiful that this church is becoming a place of both comfort and challenge toward doing justice for more and more people.

During times like these though, we can easily become very stressed out. No matter what our political persuasion, there is so much coming at us right now. There is such a greater than usual sense of uncertainty in our world.

And when we are stressed out, at the very times when we need one another most, we can behave in ways we normally would not. I know I have found myself having to be careful to take a step back, take three or four deep breaths and check myself from responding to another’s words or actions that I would normally just let go. I have found myself having to take that step back to keep from assigning intentions that might or might not be true.

And all of that’s just with my spouse, Wayne, poor guy.

We need to know that these types of reactions under stress are normal. They are actually neurologically hardwired – our brains kind of shift into a different mode.

The great thing is though, we are capable of interrupting ourselves when this starts happening by recognizing these negative feelings and reactions when they are coming up in us, taking that step back, those four deep breaths. By doing so, we reengage our brain’s more rational mode.

So in this time where so many of us need this, our beautiful, beloved community, let’s try to move even beyond the promises we have made to one another in our covenant of healthy relations. Let’s not only try to interrupt stress-related reactions that may try to come up in us, let’s ask ourselves how we can offer each other more kindness, more humor, more fun, more compassion, more support.

We are in life’s struggle together, and there is much beauty to be found within the struggle itself – with and through each other.

If we walk in beauty together, and we invite more and more people to walk with us and we join in solidarity with more and more other groups of folks also walking in beauty together, I believe we can create something greater than resistance.

I think we can create a revolution that will move hearts and influence minds.

And wouldn’t that be terribly beautiful.

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