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Appalachian Spirituality: “Simple Beauty”

Perp

Gary Owen “Perp” Barnhart
1944-2008
My great-uncle and a gifted mountain musician.

This blog series on Appalachian Spirituality is a mixture of my personal religious upbringing tethered to reflections made on Appalachian culture in Loyal Jones’ book, Appalachian Values (1994).


Every summer the hot air balloons come to Ashland for Balloonfest. My children are in awe as the balloon gods descend from the skies in all their splendor. My son Miles, when he was three years old, decalred, “Dad, isn’t it so bootiful?” Something ordinary like a hot air balloon had mesmerized him. The regular evening sky became a kaleidoscope of colors.

  • Beauty causes us stop, stare, and to lose track of time.
  • Beauty begs for us to experience it.
  • Beauty mesmerizes us.

We cannot explain it.  Pictures don’t do it justice.  Beauty cannot be contained or controlled. We’re left saying, “I guess you had to be there.” Miles can draw you a picture but the experience—the essence of the moment—transcends words.

I’ve always been drawn to Ecclesiastes partly because it doesn’t fit within the canon of scripture. We love talks about purpose and meaning. Ecclesiastes begins with the anti-thesis…meaningless!

But Ecclesiastes is actually a quest for meaning and purpose. From the beginning words of “Meaningless, meaningless,” there is this hope that something beautiful can rise from the ashes of human toil and existence. Tell me you don’t relate to the moving questions of the Teacher:

  • How do we get ahead in a world of give and take?
  • What’s the overarching story of life?
  • Why do we live?
  • Why do the evil prosper?
  • Why do bad things happen to good people?
  • Why does life seem so fleeting and haphazard?
  • Is there a plan?

Then we read 1:11, “Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end” (NIV).

The word “beautiful” here means suitable. Beauty becomes the way the world ought to be. Tragedy and grief will release their grip and give way to God’s good plan. Meanwhile, we should enjoy the present. Something happens in the present that does not happen as we look forward or behind us.

Beautiful and sacred become synonymous in the wisdom literature. Wise ones discern the infusion of sacred amid the secular. The work, toil, sorrow and happiness of life in general is common to all people of all time. Every generation has felt the routine and monotony of life.

The sun rises and the sun sets. Tides ebb and flow. Seasons comes and go.

What is unique? The Teacher of Ecclesiastes answers, “The invasion of the sacred through the ordinary and common around us in the present.”

Beauty provides transcendence.

I think we recognize that beauty is miraculous. We live in a world of war, sickness, violence, despair. Beauty stands out. Deep within us, when we see something beautiful, we recognize it is not merely a personal preference. Both Christians and atheists alike get perturbed when you relegate something deemed beautiful by them, or important to them, as merely being a personal preference.

In his book, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton writes that if Christians must always be on guard as to the problem of evil, might atheists have to answer for the problem of beauty and pleasure in the world? Why do we even experience beauty if the world is simply defined by naturalistic definitions relegating us all to natural, uncontrollable rhythms?

Our ability to label something as beautiful is the imprint of a beautiful God. The Scriptures declare that God is beautiful, majestic, and full of splendor! Beauty becomes the reminder of our God’s suitable time/rhythm for our lives. If the beauty we behold on earth has its origin in God, there must have been beauty in God from all eternity.

Beauty is part of God’s essence.

We find beauty/sacredness in the most ordinary of experiences because, Ecclesiastes tells us, and the choir of scripture resounds, God is in our very present. Beauty really becomes God’s activity in our midst.

Therefore, when we look at something beautiful we don’t just see a beautiful thing.  We see the world as it was intended to be. Beauty is a world made right—a world made suitable.

Beauty is restoration revealing that the world is straight out of the mind and heart of God. God is beautiful and only creates beautiful things. Jones writes:

Great pride was taken in their handicrafts, in the beauty of the wood. There was also fine craftsmanship in the items that were beyond functional necessities, such as fiddles, banjos, and dulcimers that were played with skill. Appalachian people have created or perpetuated some of the most beautiful songs in folk music, have preserved the great British ballads and made new ones based on local tragedies…We have re-told the Old-World tales about Jack and giants, witches and dragons and made up new tales. (Jones 1994, Kindle Location 269-273)

Beauty is the handiwork of God all around us. It is the hand carved essence of our lives. Each one is distinct and somehow recognizable as part of the whole. Beauty takes bar tunes and makes them hymns. It takes a dying tree and makes it a mandolin. Beauty shows us that God has made a suitable time for everything.

Beauty is extravagant. It doesn’t make sense in a world of routine, monotony, and gray. Beauty shows us that in a world of endless cycles that a small ember of eternity remains aglow in the human heart. In a world of practical…status quo…decaying…ugliness. Beauty stands out.

Beauty simply doesn’t make sense.

My great-uncle met every Friday with a band of fellow bluegrass players in his barn for years (perhaps decades). They wrote music together. Yes, friends, they drank together. They were not interested in pious platitudes or in being like Jesus but they all held a deep regard for the “man upstairs.” They shared from their hearts. Where words failed, the wailing of a slide guitar stepped in.

After my great-uncle passed away to cancer, my grandfather would sit on the back deck of his home and weep as he listened to recordings of their music. The music was beautiful in that it brought to mind the life of his late brother. As tears streamed down his face, you could witness the exact moment where hope of a loved one’s embrace gave way to the reality of their absence. But, for a brief moment, hope won out and the loved one was present. Music made him present. Time stopped. Death entered as a violation of the ultimate reality that occurred on the deck that evening. Beauty has a way of haunting us with its departure.

As Ecclesiastes writes, “We do not understand God’s scope.” In other words, we don’t control the world. Beauty creates a stark contrast between what we’re seeing and what we know as reality.

God’s beauty is the answer to the writer of Ecclesiastes, what is meaningful, good, right? To recognize the sacredness of relationships, time, space—the present.

And so, at the end of this quest we call Ecclesiastes, the Teacher sums up the good life in 12:13: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind” (NIV).

In other words, allow God’s plan to be beautiful and suitable in your life:

  • Cease your striving.
  • Stop your whining.
  • Come out from hiding.
  • Desist from complaining.
  • STOP and listen to the mandolin.

May you find God in the small details of creation. Cherish friendships. Sip good coffee. Hug a little longer. Listen to the birds sing. Smell freshly cut grass.

When you do, you will find your heart, in which God has planted eternity.

Next (Final) Post: Humor as Therapy

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