The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;
To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.
For too long, I coveted those believers I knew whose parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents were believers. Their lives seemed to fit the “godly” characteristics and patterns of life that I’d learned to believe meant something real and tangible. I’d drawn the picture in my mind’s eye. I thought: these fortunate folks go to the same church, sit in the same seats for generations and seem to have it all worked out in this regard. They all seem to get baptized, attend bible studies, lead youth groups and bake some really great pies! I couldn’t imitate that kind of family. No use trying. Yet, that fantasy portrait faded a while back. I’m glad it did. The Lord formed new ground.
I don’t care to relate to God from that frame of reference in any way. I left behind the need to somehow try to insert that fantasy scene into the painted picture of my own life. Trying to take in the lives of others seemed right at the time. But, there’s no real benefit to vicarious living, especially when the Norman Rockwell painted scenes fail to match reality for anyone. Surrendering these false ideas allowed a bit of maturity to set in as my eyes looked elsewhere – where God Almighty alone is the point of reference – the proverbial plumb line of life. Who wants to ride off anyone else’s coattails? So, it is solitary movement for some. I believe Aiden Tozer said something like, “The life of the saint is lonely.”
From Isaiah 61:1-3, I like a couple of elements of this scripture phrase. First, Beauty for ashes. Not beauty from ashes. I guess I mean what others might call The Exchanged Life. Not the fleshly self-improvement program represented by the pull-yourself-up-by-your bootstraps philosophy I accepted as my only reality. That practice of independence failed to produce even a short blade of grass. My journey to Christ was more of a scorched earth project. I did not journey to Him, but He reached deeply into my soul and spirit. He did all of the drawing, the pulling and, far along on my walk with him, burning down of a great deal of false beliefs and Christian fantasies.
Ashes consist of once tangible, organic objects –visible to our eyes and larger than life. Maybe the tangible was once a forest of pines and aspens, now barely recognizable sticks balancing precariously in ash piles. Where’s the beauty there? The potential? I see a panoramic view of the Big Horn National Forest out of the windows of my home. Up close and personal. That view never grows old. Several years ago, numerous gigantic fire balls, seemingly tossed from heaven, quickly struck fire on the mountainous forest and nearby meadows right up to the deck of our home, scarring a slice of this beautiful area. That magnificent living, organic visual reality was there one minute and gone the next. Giant rugged cliffs suddenly revealed themselves after years hiding under cover of pines and shrubs. There’s been a change. A different beauty now appears in the form of thousands of acres of untouched wildflowers of every color. Deer, elk, moose and bunnies sing praises for the rich, greasy grasses horses long for and on which ranchers wean calves. But seven years ago, all was ash and sadness for the loss of that beauty –what generations of local families looked upon daily for centuries past.
The grief over this loss took on the “pull yourself up…” shade of reality for me. The shock quickly turned to easy acceptance and simple resolve as firefighters spared lives and homes in our small mountain enclave. We moved back in and tried not to look too hard up on that mountain. As a few who dare to live up here, we’re elated to experience the new look of spring on the terrain and want to hold onto those jewels on the ground, even as summer and fall become its drier versions of the altered visuals.
So, as I see it, beauty for ashes is an exchange. Jesus made a way. Simple enough. I truly believe that He works more powerfully when we stop looking to others for the example of the Christian life. Even great families of the faith can’t provide the fuel. The beauty we once sought or believed we held dear died in the ash pile of the very life Christ died to raise up again. He is the Beauty in the ashes. Only Jesus, Our Father God, Holy Spirit Who, working in perfection, provide that kind of change. Nothing is left of the “original matter” if there’s truly a handful of ash He can set aside for Himself. The LORD can pop a seed in there. Not a seed from the original life. No, the seed that rooted the wildflower in the newly burned meadow came from elsewhere, perhaps blown downwind from a more heavenly site, far from the burned out landscape. We don’t even see it. We don’t see the seed in the wind or how God makes sure it happens. It’s nothing short of a miracle that life can spring from the death and destruction of a major fire. The miracles God places within nature to ensure another round of beauty barely rests on the head of a pin. That He performs this kind of transformation in the fleshy heart of a human being willing to submit to His plan contains the consummation of all miracles ever performed by Him. No religion or spiritual path offers what Christ gives us. A new life. Beauty for ashes.
He does all of this for us doesn’t he? IF we see Him as All Beauty doing it in us. We look to Him to accomplish process of changing, and we can experience something much more than a generational claim to the godly life. Let me say: I love to see families who are rich in believers from frost-top grandmas to babies held by parents for dedication at the front of the church. That’s there for some — fine and good. Yet, we all need this beauty for ashes process in our lives regardless of our roots. Don’t we? Those roots cannot supply the new life.
The second element of this scripture that I love shows what we individually contain in our new life. THE miracle of miracles as far as I’m concerned: “they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD.” I grew up in Northern California, surrounded by peach, pear, and apricot orchards where vineyards butted up against fields of sweet alfalfa. Though idyllic in setting, pain constantly battered my family in a series of death. Over a three-year period, first my grandfather, my older brother and then my mother died. The loss left a giant dark hole for a me as a girl under age 10. To say there were ashes flying everywhere is an understatement. The cinders took a long time to settle to pose even a decent offering for new life to take root. For years, the good ol’ pick yourself up philosophy kept my father, my older sister and I going. No GOD. No family to support us through the hard years. We held on for dear life to whatever we saw organically still existing in the ashes.
The scorched earth process continued to clear its path into my 30s. I gave stellar performances on the job, raked in successes, worked hard on enjoying adventures and fought battles I thought worthy. I continued in the way I was taught to survive and did it well. Then, out of more ashes, I met the Lord. That’s not entirely true. He met me first, and I responded to that first encounter. He slowly brought life to the ash heap that had grown so high as to seem insurmountable. Now I see how Jesus rakes over the ground, bringing in a seed of faith from heaven, even with continued times of trial. Our response to that means plugging in His character and that’s our hope. “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Romans 5:4-5
The barren ash pile standing alone must first exist for God to plant the seed. He cannot bring life from life. And, the seed must die. He did this for me. It was entirely Him. Then I trusted that alone. He waits for us to want Him and we can decide to take Him as our life. So it goes in nature. The pine cones lying in the cinder burst open seeds which die in the ground and bring up a tree in few years. Sadly, I haven’t seen any new trees on our meadow yet! I think those seeds are dying to open.
I’d like to believe this is where most of us begin with Christ. Sadly, many never know this process. They may trust their own hall of fame, even that gained through Christianity’s many offerings. Other believers see this clearly, know His Beauty and enjoy a relationship with Him along these lines. I hope this blog encourages anyone to look on His beauty. His beauty only counts. The Beauty of The Lord. Even as a single day brings only a glimpse of His beauty as I busily bust through moments and hours, I’m hoping that Christ keeps me looking to Him for that Beauty. It’s easy for me to slip off the narrow path. He keeps holding us up. We are His “trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD.”
How about you? I welcome you to share in the comments section as the LORD leads you.