Beauty and the Beast
Many years ago, as a young priest at St. John's in Knoxville, Tennessee, I went to visit a lovely couple who had been a part of the parish forever. I went into their lovely home and sat down and visited with them for a half-hour or so. I was about to leave when Mrs. Adams reached over out of her wheelchair and took my two hands in hers, leaned right up to me and looked me in the face and said, "I wish you had known me when I was your age. You would have liked me."
I've thought of that a hundred times. Here I was in my late 30s, looking at the woman in her late 80s, not seeing anything but a woman in a wheelchair; not seeing anything but a woman who was quite elderly. She could tell as I looked at her that I really didn't see her. I really just saw the age that had come to her. I discovered later that she had been a Miss Tennessee. Now that I'm a little bit older, I know exactly how she felt. When I see a young person, I realize that young person has no idea who I really am inside. All they see is my age and the weathering that's taken place as a result of it. But that's not who I really am. Oh, no. "If they could only know, they would like me." Interesting, isn't it?
I've tried through the years to learn from Mrs. Adams, and see beneath and beyond the finite--that which is the given--to the infinite, the true nature and reality of the person behind what we see on the surface. It's not easy to do sometimes. We immediately look at each other and make the value judgment on the finite rather than the infinite. The reality of the real person behind that which is superficial on the surface is often missed in our culture.
Many years ago an event happened to me that probably has happened to some of you, if you happen to have a daughter. One evening I was sitting in the living room reading the newspaper, and our daughter, who maybe was fifteen or sixteen at the time was about to go out on a date. The bell rang, she bounced down the steps and opened the door, and there was the young man who was taking her out on a date. I pulled the newspaper down to say good night, and when I looked at her, something happened to me. In an instant, she was no longer my little girl. She was suddenly a woman. She said, "What's wrong, Daddy?" "Nothing's wrong. Nothing at all." And I couldn't tell her. I couldn't even say to her, "You're no longer my little girl." I saw her in that instant, in that moment, transformed. Never again could I ever again see her as that innocent young child.
There's a famous incident in Jesus' life just like this. It happened almost exactly the same way. Jesus took his three best friends--Peter, James and John--and he went up to a mountain top for a kind of retreat. I'm sure they were sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening. You can imagine the kinds of things he was telling them about the nature of Yahweh, of Abba, Father. I'm going to change scripture right now. I'm going to change it to be what I think actually happened but now is recorded slightly differently. What the scripture says is that Jesus changed and was transformed. That's the moment of the Transfiguration. I don't believe Jesus actually changed. I believe their vision of who he was changed. They suddenly went from the finite Jesus--the teacher, the Rabbi, their dear best friend--to this man who was no longer just Jesus. He was the infinite--the Messiah, the called-out one, the anointed one, the One sent from God. As they saw him so differently, the tears probably came down their cheeks.
Suddenly, the whole of the history of their people came before them. They saw Moses and the whole law right there in front of them on that mountaintop. They saw Elijah and all of the prophets, transforming themselves, right before their eyes. It all was right there. Jesus didn't change. They changed as they saw him in a brand new way. And they did all sorts of things. They said, "Let's stop right here and build some special booths. Let's make a memorial spot."
That's what happens to you when you move from the finite-- the superficial, that which you only observe on the outside--to the infinite. Everything changes. It did for them at that moment on that holy mountain that we now call the Transfiguration. You and I are changed by such things. We have some words in the church we use: conversion, salvation, the moment I was saved... those are "churchy" words. Fine. Perfectly appropriate. But those moments happen to us in many ways in many times in our lives, and when they do, everything is different.
I've had the blessing of a consultant in New York for many years helping me move from being an ordained clergyman to being an ordained CEO (whatever that means). I had no experience in running a large organization, running a large real estate corporation. When I took the job I was, as we used to say when I was a boy, "a lost ball in high weeds." I needed help.
I got the assistance of a man named Dr. Richard Beckhart, author of maybe twenty books on organizational development, and considered in America the father of OD (Organizational Development). He was Dean of Sloan School of Management at MIT for many years. He'd retired to New York and came and helped me. We spent one morning a month just talking about how I was doing and what I was doing (he died about a year and a half ago). Dr. Beckhart would sit back in the chair, after I'd described some particular management problem or issue or direction, and he would say something like this: "Now that you've described this issue to me, describe the music of that issue."
You see what he was doing? He was saying, "You've told me the nuts and bolts. You've told me the ins and outs, the complications, the personalities, the monies, now tell me about the infinite, not the finite--the music." I always got discouraged. I wanted him to fix the thing. I didn't want to get over in the music, but the music is where we always wound up, talking about the bigger issues.
It's what music does to you, isn't it? When we go to a concert, the music lifts you from the nuts and bolts, the kind of given-ness of your life, the sort of natural things you put up with day after day, and it lifts you. So does art. A novel can do it. A good movie can do it. (I always think it takes about two hours for a movie because the first hour is to help you understand the finite relationship of the characters, and then in the second hour you begin to take the audience beneath the surface to allow them to understand who the people really are in the infinite, not just on the surface.)
You and I spend so much time just on the surface that we usually tend to miss the deeper part. You and I live in a world that says, "Trust the finite. The infinite is over there-- that's soft. It's fantasy. It's not the real thing." After ten years of Dr. Beckhart once a month, I know that the infinite world is where it really is "lived." That's where you really make decisions that last. That's where you really make decisions that turn the organization around. That's where value is created.
You and I use the word "love" usually in this way. There is something out there beyond me that is worthy of my love. It might be a person. It might be an automobile. It might be a double-decker ice cream cone. But it's so attractive and alluring that I give myself to that, and I bond myself with that because of its beauty, its worthiness of my love. That's exactly the opposite of the gospel. Absolutely the opposite. That's the reason Beauty and the Beast is so profound, it is the gospel. It's not a fairy tale. It's the gospel.
What is the love that the scripture talks about? This love that says "I love that which is unlovable." That's the kind of love the gospel talks about. It's talking about loving the beast. It's hard to admit this, but there's a lot of beastliness in you and me. As a matter of fact, if you and I are honest, there's a lot more than anybody around us knows about. As a matter of fact, some of us "live lives of quiet desperation" because we're afraid somebody will really find out what a beast I really am inside. But God knows that, and God adores you and embraces you in your beastliness just the way you are. That's what it's all about. And if you don't own your beastliness, if you don't claim it and get in touch with it, you're living in a fantasyland. You're not yet real about who you are or the enormous love God has for you. All of that beastliness that dwells beneath the surface is unknown to anyone but you.
A funny little fairy tale, I know. But what you and I are called to do is to own that love that is so transforming when you claim it, when you own it. When you know it, a tear comes in your eye just like that, and then you can turn and love the beast and the other person. But you can only do that when you know the beastly part of you has been redeemed and loved and adored and, if you will, embraced by God. That gift to you is the gift that creates all of the good news of the gospel.
You see what our culture does? You know what it is, don't you? He's a beast; she's a beast. Don't you love that beast? It's a beast. You can look at it and see it's a beast. And so in order to combat the beast, we become a beast. And, pretty soon, it's beast against beast. We turn into beasts in order to defeat the beast.
It's what happened to the Roman Empire. You remember that. The Roman Empire, magnificent creator of all sorts of art, they began to fight the beast. They got so beastly that they turned into a beast that destroyed not only the beast, but themselves. Sound familiar?
Those of us who call ourselves by Jesus' holy name are people who are called out to embrace the beast in each other so that we might, like the beast in the fairy tale, be able to have our beautiful selves reborn. They're there. The beautiful self is right there in you. And it's in that person that you're thinking of right this moment who doesn't deserve your love.
Fairy tale? No. It's no wonder it's the most popular story for women or men or Broadway or anywhere else.
Copyright 2003 The Rev. Dr. Daniel P. Matthews
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