It was Christmas. Lights were sparkling. Stores were bright. And there was my family, rushing downtown to get a good look. That’s how we managed. Life gave hurts and hard knocks. Yet if something was gorgeous to see, we took a gold minute to look past the problem and gaze at the pretty. Freezing weather? It didn’t matter.
“Wear your big scarves,” Mama told my sister and me. “Your big gloves, too.”
Then off we went to gaze in the nighttime cold at glittery wonders — sparkly stuff my thrifty parents wouldn’t buy and we kids would never own.
“Ooooh,” my sister and I crooned, sounding young and maybe silly. But in God’s ear, our awe must’ve sounded holy. “Out of Zion God shines forth,” says Psalm 50:2 (ESV), describing the perfection of its beauty.
Maybe that’s why when it came to the beautiful Mama always made us turn from foolishness and grow our awe. Not because she was a perfect mother. Not because our family was without fault. Not because the times were lovely and kind. Those times were anything but. That was a Jim Crow world, and to our “colored” family, those times often were a nightmare.
But Mama loved beauty, and despite life’s troubles, she lived her life looking up. She saw the bright side, deciding to laugh not cry, turning to godly nature not naysayers. Thus, on summer evenings after a rain, she led us outdoors to marvel at fireflies.
“Count the seconds!” Mama urged, showing us how to count by thousandths between bursts of firefly light. So, we counted, “One one-thousand! Two one-thousand!” We were too young to understand the numbers or the game, but we loved the counting. After sundown, the inky sky and firefly lights were a simple, natural spectacle, and our Mama taught us to look, to see it as good, and to exchange life’s ashes for God’s beauty.
Those were her marching orders for living and giving. She had a deep understanding that life, with its potential for messy hurt and complicated pain, can be conquered by focusing instead on its beauty. Daffodils peeking through snow. Ruddy leaves turning in fall. She pressed the prettiest between wax paper, taping them to our kitchen wall. Then by winter, when the wax paper was drying and the leaves started to crumble, ready for the dustbin, she turned us to the next thing: making ice cream out of snow.
We scooped frosty mounds into our kid-sized cereal bowls, stirring in evaporated milk, and calling it ice cream. It wasn’t, of course. It was melting snow in cracked bowls. But Mama called it beautiful, which it was. Besides, it was then almost Christmas, promising more frosty glory and wonder.
Why recall this in June? Because my mother’s tactics are timeless. Outside it’s hot and sultry, and inside trouble can fester. Friendships can falter. Families can crumble. Even cable news can wear us to a frazzle.
But a puffy white cloud rises over the horizon and, taking time to enjoy the sweet sight, we can remember what my mother taught me: life may feel stormy and cold, yet behind any gloom, the sun insists on shining.
Augustine puts it like this: “My Father, supremely good, beauty of all things beautiful.” God is the creator and source of beauty, grace, awe. He’s our glory and wonder — even when bills are due. Or we argue with our spouse. Or our children whine. Or we have a cavity and need a root canal, says the dentist. And it’s just Monday.
Fixing our eyes on Him, we see hope. Then we can head outdoors to admire the lilacs or grapevines or sweet-faced pansies — the ones we planted on a tough day when we could’ve given up, sat in the mud, and cried. Instead, we took a deep breath, dried our eyes, dug in the dirt, and, in His name, planted something beautiful. And now it’s blooming, leading us to whisper one saving thought: “Thank you.”
Seeing life with awe, we recall God, so look to the stars and remember Christmas. Or stand in summer twilight and watch fireflies. When we look for His beauty, trouble can’t last or win. Instead, we see God, and our teary eyes smile. And then? God smiles back.