Collateral Beauty: Generated from the Midst of Chaos
By Jacob David
The last week of July was a horrible week in the political arena in our country. The conversations that took place between some of the highest officials of our country and members of the press simply cannot be repeated to our children as the language and words used in communication left much to be desired. I have seen plenty of animosity and hatred in the past. But I have not heard such obscene and unacceptable language used at the highest level of the political hierarchy.
And now, we are here in this sanctuary to worship a Holy and Righteous God. We come from such a chaotic world and we see ourselves worshipping and listening to the holy word and singing and praising a holy and loving God. Here in this sanctuary we do have a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. People from East and West, North and South, come together at this heavenly banquet. And what we do here has profound significance and there is beauty in what we do.
This is deeply profound.
And here is where I find this beauty generated in the midst of chaos. Remember, Jesus was born also in a chaotic world at a time when there was so much political upheaval, movement, and migration of peoples around the world. He himself was part of a family that was moving – in that sense of the word, unsettled. He came into this world in that context. Yet, at Christmas time, we celebrate the beauty of his coming into the world.
So, I like to think of this beauty that Jesus embodies as a collateral beauty, where there is a sense of beauty that is coming out of unexpected places, in the midst of events that were pretty chaotic.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God as a search for fine pearls, on finding one pearl of great value, and a merchant goes and sells all that he had to buy it. A pearl is a thing of beauty (Matt. 13:45-46). It is fascinating how oysters make pearls.
Unlike diamonds and other gems, as well as gold, a pearl is the product of a living creature. It is also the result of suffering. Down in the depths of the ocean there lives a little animal encased in a shell; we call it an oyster. One day a foreign substance, a grain of sand, intrudes, and pierces its side.
Now, God has endowed that animal with the faculty of self-preservation, like He has with all others of His creatures, and it exudes, a slimy substance called nacre and covers the wound, repeating the process again and again. One layer after another of that nacre, or mother-of-pearl, is cast out by that little animal on the wound in its side, until ultimately there is built-up what eventuates in a pearl. How wonderful and accurate is this symbol for the church.
The church, the saints of this age, are the fruit of the suffering of Christ. The pearl, we may say, is the answer to the injury that was inflicted upon the animal. In other words, it is the offending particle that ultimately becomes the object of beauty: that which injured the oyster becomes the precious gem. The very thing that injured the animal, the little grain of sand that intruded, is ultimately clothed with a beauty that is breathtaking.
Thus you see behind the beauty of a pearl is pain, irritability and discomfort. This is what we call collateral beauty. Collateral beauty can be defined in many ways:
It’s the beauty on the inside
Collateral beauty could refer to the beauty on the inside. It can refer to the hidden beauty in something that can’t be seen directly. It’s the meaning behind something.
Collateral beauty could also be used to describe the meaning behind something. For example, when something bad happens to a person, they might want to check for the collateral beauty or the hidden meaning behind the event, which could a beautiful thing.
It could refer to the bright side
The words collateral beauty could be used to refer to the bright side of something. During an unfortunate event, a person could look for the collateral beauty or the bright side of the situation.
The meaning behind a tragedy
In the recent movie, “Collateral Beauty,” starring Will Smith, the words referred to the meaning behind death, heartbreak and tragedies in general. Collateral beauty in such a case referred to the good, hidden meaning behind a serious tragedy.
The hidden bliss
Collateral beauty could also refer to the hidden bliss behind something. A good thing can happen but might seem to someone as a bad thing. Because the bliss was disguised as a bad thing, the person should look for the collateral beauty.
It could refer to personality
Collateral beauty could also refer to personality since personality is a hidden thing and can’t be seen directly by the eye.
It’s the lesson learned
Collateral beauty could refer to the good lesson learned from a certain bad event. In the movie “Collateral Beauty,” it is also referred to as the good things a person can come up with after experiencing pain.
This beauty is truly explained theologically and spiritually by St. Paul in today’s lesson. Our salvation history is punctuated with pain, suffering and self-giving. Listen again what St. Paul says to the church:
God who did not withhold his own son, but he gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything us. (Romans 8:32)
Paul sees beauty in self-giving and in the crucifixion. Though we have a tradition of talking about the cross in negative and unpleasant terms, St. Paul sees simple beauty in the cross. I agree the cross is an emblem of torture, pain and shame. But the beauty becomes very clear when the man who was unjustifiably nailed, tortured and shamed, says triumphantly, “It is finished.” A better translation would be, “It is accomplished.”
Again Paul, after seeing this beauty, says:
If God is for us, who is against us? Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword? We are more than conquerors through whom him who loved us. (Romans 8:31-35)
God works through chaos. God works through the turmoil going on not only in the United States, but also in the world. There are millions of refugees in the world. There are millions who are slaughtered in the name of religion. In and through all these, God works His purposes out.
Stephen Covey, in discussing paradigms in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, tells a story (pp. 30-31) about one of his experiences. One Sunday morning, he was riding a subway in New York City. People were sitting quietly, reading newspapers, resting or lost in thought. It was a calm, peaceful scene. A man and his four children entered the car and soon they were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s newspapers. But their father sat there and did nothing.
Covey was getting irritated. He couldn’t believe that a parent would let his children run wild. Others were getting irritated as well, so Covey decided to confront the man. He said, “Sir, your children are disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more.” The man slowly looked up as though he was coming out of an unconscious state of mind. He replied, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”
Suddenly, Covey writes, his paradigm shifted: he saw things differently and therefore he could think differently, feel differently and behave differently. His compassion and sympathy flowed freely; everything changed in an instant.
There is a wonderful word, ubuntu, from the Zulu and Xhosa languages in Africa. This word became popular in South Africa during their freedom struggle. It is rich in meaning and invites us to participate and be engaged in the lives of others. Ubuntu means “My humanity is caught up, inextricably bound up, in what is yours.” It means in simple language, “humanity to others.” It also means, “I am what I am because of who we all are.”
We are called to find the hidden bliss behind all chaotic experiences. In the film “Collateral Beauty,” the term referred to the acts of selfless kindness that result from tragedies. Tragedies can change people and make them kinder since they will develop more empathy for those who suffer. Those who have seen the beauty of self-giving are called upon to create a kinder and gentler world.♦
The Rev. Dr. Jacob David is Director of Field Education and Assistant Professor of Ministerial Studies and Homiletics at UTS. He received his Ph.D. in Liturgics and Homiletics from Drew University. This article is adapted from his Sunday Sermon delivered on July 30, 2017 at St. David’s Episcopal Church, Cranbury, NJ.