Frank lives catty-corner from my house and has been drawing pictures and writing inspirational messages with chalk on his driveway since March. I have a perfect view of his driveway from my living room window and, thanks to weeks of state-sanctioned time at home, I have spent a lot of time watching him at work.
He draws about twice a week and always starts back at it the day after rain has washed his canvas clean. As I write, I can see three children from the neighborhood running through the giant Pac-Man maze he has drawn, where Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man are chasing down COVID-19 cells instead of blinking ghosts. A few weeks ago, he drew a picture of a giant bear with the messages “We’ll get through this!” and “Better days ahead!” scrawled beneath its face. My favorite of Frank’s creations is his broad-jump station where passersby could stop and see how far they can jump from a standing position. Almost everyone I saw walk by the house gave it a go, no matter how they were dressed.
Frank told me that he draws mostly for the neighborhood children, to lift their spirits and hopefully make them laugh. But I know he also does it for himself. He needs to inject some beauty into his neighborhood to feel a little bit more alive and connected to the world beyond his head. I think he knows that beauty, like survival, is a matter of staying aware.
In his book The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Farrar Cappon writes, “Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness, ordained for a continual remembrance that the world will always be more delicious than it is useful.” Cappon’s contrast between a delicious world and a primarily useful one has nothing to do with advocating for wanton consumption and everything to do with the humble practice of paying attention.
Gluttony is, in some respects, the most utilitarian thing in the world. A world that is primarily “useful” is a world that is ready to be consumed then discarded for personal pleasure or advancement; it is a world where I don’t have to linger over questions of “beauty” and “righteousness,” or sit still long enough to be awestruck by the mystery of why a particular thing is delicious. “Man’s real work is to look at the things of the world and to love them for what they are,” Cappon writes. “A man can do worse than be poor. He can miss altogether the greatness of small things.” A primarily useful world doesn’t care about the details.
Cappon notes that inattention is the seedbed of idolatry: “Only a daily renewed astonishment at things as they are can save us from idols; it is our loves of real processes and actual beings that keeps us sane.” These “real processes and actual beings” can only be loved when our attention has been arrested. Only then can we see things for what they are and love them truly. The story of Scripture and the story of our lives show that idolatry—gluttonous inattention, we might call it—only leads to the plundering of our world and our souls as we turn our back on God and the world he loves. Consider the words of the late John Prine from his classic song “Paradise”:
Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man
The kind of relational detachment from the world that Prine bemoans is at the heart of a society that prizes utility over everything else. Blind “usefulness” destroys our world and robs us of our joy and our humanity. But a beautiful life is a life of “daily renewed astonishment,” one where attention has been sharpened even in the midst of fear and confusion and loss, during those times when distraction would most like to take hold of us. Contemplating the beauty of good art and the natural world helps deepen within us the kind of astonishment that leads us to the one who never tires of knowing and loving his world.
What God Sees
God calls us to wrest ourselves from the idols of mere “usefulness” and follow him in knowing his world and choosing to delight in it. It is a call to slow down and rejoice in monotony. A call to humbly pay attention to the work he is still doing in the world, even though what is wrong seems visible so often. Many things change, but this truth never does: God will always be in the business of renewing all things to himself. He is tirelessly attentive to his world, and he invites us to follow him in that work of attention.
It is not safe or easy work, but it is the work we have been given. Following God in being lovingly attentive to him and his world does not save us from a broken heart—quite the contrary. But it opens us up to the possibility of seeing truly, to loving deeply, to experiencing wonder and astonishment and a faith that says, “God is the ruler yet.”
Take heart. This is our father’s world. He is still paying attention.
Cover image by Pierre Châtel-Innocenti.
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