One morning when I had to go to the store very early. Thankfully our Harris Teeter grocery store opens at six o’clock. I pulled into the parking lot about 6:45. As I got out of the car, I looked up to see the dawn sky displayed in a delicate beauty. It was not one of those overwhelming sunrises, just a subtle yet elegant display of purples, grays, rose hues and amber tones. Just lovely. And it made me think, so many of the best things in life are beautiful—yet impractical. They serve no utilitarian purpose, but who would want to live without them?
I remember once being given a choice and wonderful gift. While we were still living in Pennsylvania, friends of ours from Virginia, Jim and Darlene Temple, sent us a beautiful e-card. It was actually a short video displaying some lovely winter scenes—leaves edged with frost, billowy snow-laden trees, and the stark beauty of ice crystals. I was fascinated. My heart was struck with a pang of utter joy. My spirits were lifted by the sheer beauty and grace of nature’s wintry glory. What a delight! Thanks, Jim and Darlene.
As I reflected on these marvelous scenes, and my reaction to them, it occurred to me that some people would not appreciate such a presentation. Again there was no practical value in it. My work load was not made easier, or more efficient, by viewing these scenes, tranquil though they were. This video offered me no explanations, no advice, no plans for achieving greater success. It gave no instruction about time management, financial responsibility, or business ethics. It didn’t solve the ministry concerns that I was dealing with. It filled no open positions nor were any new workers recruited. I was not inspired to work harder, smarter, or faster. I was just inspired.
Now, mind you, I have nothing against videos, tapes, books, seminars, or classes that teach you these kinds of things. I read these materials myself. I believe in hard labor, smart work and efficiency in production. As a Christian I am committed to the idea that work is a God-given gift, and a godly vocation. We are enjoined to labor on this earth, and we should do it well, and do it joyfully. Learning practical methods and techniques to do our best in life is righteous. There is virtue in practicality and efficiency.
All that is good in life is not practical. Does a sunset give instruction in efficiency? Did God have to make rainbows so beautiful to have them fulfill their purpose? Why do babies smell so good (most of the time)—is that really necessary? We could live our productive and practical lives all day without the fragrance of a rose or the loveliness of a leaf. Life would continue its competent course in office and operating room, on the construction site or on the railroad, driving a taxi or driving a golf ball—all without such impractical things as frosted windows lacy with ice, or starlings raising a chorus of joy in the early morning sun. In some ways these things are almost unnecessary. They are definitely not practical.
These kinds of things are impractical in our work-a-day world—the world where we too often approach life only with the “bottom line” in view. They are impractical in the world of high finance and big business. Wall Street doesn’t thrive on birdsong and baby smells. Madison Avenue is more concerned with glitz and sex and glamour than it is with simple things like lilac blossoms and kitten’s fur. In the rarefied atmosphere of penthouses and office suites, such matters are time wasters—the desired objects of those possessed by sloth and dreams. Only fools and lazy people (and children) give heed to the smell of new mown hay or the sound of a stream tinkling in shaded luxury. Only impractical people pay attention to such unnecessary matters.
But wait, isn’t that just the wonder and joy of such things! They are, indeed, unnecessary. I can make money, earn a living, and take care of myself and my family without hearing the trill of a child laughing or a seeing a brief flash of brilliance as a cardinal flies past my window. Yet, just because I don’t need these brief encounters with the impractical doesn’t mean they have no value. Indeed, these blatantly unnecessary things are the very experiences that sometimes encourage me to go on in life. They cause moments of such utter rapture in our mundane and necessary existences that they make life worth living.
These things are unnecessary like birthday presents are unnecessary. They are unnecessary like smiles and congratulations and surprises are unnecessary. They are gifts of grace. They are extraordinary divine interruptions in our ordinary lives. They are the warm embraces of a heavenly Father who loves each of us individually and personally, and wants to let us know it. They are love letters from a Lord who cares about our worldly, too frequently dreary existence on this planet—and Who desires to perk up our lives with epiphanies of pure delight.
I believe that such impractical matters as we are discussing here are actually some of the most valuable and precious things we possess in this life. Some people approach life with such a practical perspective that only what aids them in making money, working more efficiently, or achieving success (whatever that is) is truly valuable. But I reject such an approach to life. Worldly success and practical efficiency are not the only goals in life. They are not the only things we should strive for. There are other purposes, and I would suggest even greater purposes, to be sought after in life.
For instance, consider beauty. The seeking for, and enjoying of beauty is an end all by itself. Something that is beautiful has value just because it is beautiful. It needs nothing else to make it worthy or desirable. Beauty itself is an end in itself. Allow me to illustrate.
Suppose that you are passing through a forest in mid-January. You stop and take notice of a maple tree, starkly bare in the harsh splendor of winter. And there, at the tip of one branch, you spy a solitary leaf clinging tenaciously to the naked tree. It is a splash of dazzling red in a landscape white with snow and ice. Its leafy edge sparkles with frost. What a cheery sight on a snowy day. Now, you must understand that such an experience requires no other purpose. To see (and delight in) a lovely, delicately beautiful red maple leaf, trimmed in icy silver frost—like a sugary-edged candy sculpture—is not an experience that demands any other expectation. Its beauty is its own purpose. The joy of the moment is its own reason for being. If you take a minute out of your busyness and just enjoy the fragile beauty of such a sight, you have done all that you need to do for that moment. And for that moment, you have truly lived.