It’s been a study in contrasts, to say the least.
Friday evening, I spent immersed in breathtaking beauty. Saturday noon, I stepped into a world distinguished by scallops of razor wire.
The evening excursion involved the Lantern Festival, nearing the end of its three-month run at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. I was a reluctant participant initially – a bit tired and grumpy after a work-week that had presented an extra measure of challenge – but my mood was transformed by the silk and porcelain sculptures we encountered in the garden: Exotic creatures, larger than life, evoking awe and wonder at the delightful pointlessness of art.
And that was before the lights came on.
As daylight ebbed, colorful lanterns conquered the gloaming with such extraordinary splendor that I barely noticed how we’d been engulfed in a human hoard.
After dark, the headcount easily doubled inside the garden, so that it left no choice but for us to be ferried along with the flood.
Still, it diminished my enjoyment of the evening not a whit, so beautiful and dramatic was the setting all around me.
* * *
With that pleasant memory still fresh, I ventured less than 12 hours later into the harsh environs of a maximum security prison: Menard.
We were there, my Kairos teammates and I, for a reunion with inmates who had taken part in a Weekend retreat in months gone by. As we entered the prison, I noticed there were ‘Wet Paint’ signs on the first several doors.
Fresh paint, but virtually no color: White, sandstone and gray are the dominant palette inside this institution. And there’s an obvious functionality to virtually everything you see: Locks, bars, razor-wire, handcuffs. Nothing pointless about the place. Nothing particularly beautiful, either.
Even so, I encountered a measure of beauty inside the walls.
One of my teammates, rejoining us after a long and debilitating illness, gave a powerful witness about God’s steadfast companionship during his time of affliction. He’s now sporting a full beard (the product of a lengthy hospital stay). And as he thundered on, speaking with great energy and conviction about the Lord’s might and mercy, I could have sworn that I was hearing testimony from the lips of Moses or one of the prophets. What a blessing that man is to everyone with ears to hear!
I noticed, too, the beaming face of one of the inmates at my table. David suffered a stroke a few years back, so speech is difficult for him today. But he did share his smile with us – and his eyes, gleaming with affection and gratitude. Even with little to give, David held nothing back.
* * *
A study in contrasts, Friday night and Saturday afternoon.
Beauty beyond measure: Simple and extraordinary, side by side.
Which is not unlike the promise we hear Jesus make in the gospel today, a promise of profound nourishment…hidden in the most ordinary of foods:
I am the bread of life… the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat it and not die.
Fill us, Lord, with this Bread of Life. Transform our murmuring. Help us to find You in unexpected places – and to feast always on the life that You offer to the world!
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy One.