A girl in northern Iraq ran toward a bunker with her father. A Japanese photographer was capturing this unfolding drama on the front lines of the war, and he followed the girl with his camera until she was safely behind the bunker. But as he put his camera down, he noticed a look of horror on her face.
She realized that as she was running away from the bullets, she had stepped on a flower.
Before anyone could say or do anything to stop her, she let go of her father’s hand, and she ran back to the flower, knelt down, and she tried, in vain, to restore the flower by holding it up in her little hands.
As she tried to resurrect beauty, a cruel stray bullet pieced her body.
She fell, crumpling on top of the flower.*
In Iraq, a flower is a rare, esteemed emanation, a gift to cherish.
This girl valued a flower so much so that she risked her life, and lost her life, for a single flower.
In a desert culture, a flower represents life itself. In a war-stricken land, a flower may even be a cruel reminder of beauty in the midst of human brokenness—an ephemeral vision that is ever-Present, being trampled by us as we try desperately to save our lives.
In his novel The Idiot, the 19th century Russian writer Dostoevsky wrote a line that people have been puzzling over every since: “Beauty will save the world.”
But in this story, in this account, we must ponder the flip side of that equation: Would we give our lives for beauty?
This Japanese photographer, shaken by being a witness to this incalculable loss, could not shoot any more photos.
He began to ask himself, “What am I doing?!”
Instead of continuing to take photographs, could he instead have stopped her from taking a path toward danger? What is the worth of taking photographs at such cost—the waste of a human life?
Beauty will save the world.
In that enigmatic statement, we must understand that beauty is also sacrifice.
Every beauty is sacrifice. The sun is dying. Cherry blossoms fall.
With every meal we eat, we give thanks to God for sacrifices given so that we may live, and for someone’s hands and time to raise this food we eat. We are eating Time invested, labor and life given toward our welfare. Everything we eat is being sacrificed for our well-being.
For the beauty of this graduation day, you have made many sacrifices; your parents, and your grandparents, as well as people that impacted your lives here at Messiah, have also sacrificed.
We live spiritually—every breath— by God’s sacrifice, the labor of Christ, the cost of Grace for our journeys.
In thinking of this girl’s sacrifice, we might ultimately dismiss her act as a horrid “war story.” Iraq is far away, a Wasteland of a war-torn nation.
We are here, after all, in the middle of Pennsylvania—secluded as far away from the danger of that overseas war as is humanly possible.
But today, we do not have the luxury of objectivity, nor the perception of safety. We, too, are running away from bullets, and bombs. Bullet holes are all about our schools,
from the sleepy Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County to Columbine, from Blacksburg to Newtown. And now nail-marks etch the Boylston Street in Boston
The world that this girl ran away from, and turned back towards, is the same world we face, punctuated by the violence of our times.
You are graduating toward a world full of bullet holes.
What should we, then, turn our attention to?
What should we run toward?
Can we, too, turn back to the flowers we have trampled upon?
What does it mean to “graduate”?
“Graduate” can mean to “rise above.”
We are to rise above the darkened realities, the confounding problems of our time.
We are to rise above the rancor of discord, above our ideological warfare, above civil wars and World Wars. We are to rise above ourselves, our selfishness, our own drive to master the world, our desire to map out our own destiny apart from God.
This girl, by turning back toward the path of danger, rather than running into safety,
graduated. She graduated from the horror-stricken world full of bullet holes.
She graduated toward beauty and sacrifice.
Now, you might say that what she did was foolish—that her sacrifice was unnecessary. But you cannot say that what she did was not genuine.
It is my humble opinion that authenticity counts more than pragmatic performance and survival. Authentic self runs toward beauty. By losing ourselves, we can finally find ourselves.
I contend that this girl was not foolish. No. She recognized in the world something to cherish, something worth risking her life for.
Her small act,—which would have disappeared from the world unnoticed, had it not been for a witness of a Japanese photographer—is an antidote to those who desire to pave the path to expand the Ground Zeros of the world—to those who see violence as the only means to an end.
Her life represents a refusal to live without beauty. So she graduated toward beauty.
And she left the world of violence, the world of discord, behind her.
As we celebrate your graduation, it would be meaningful to ponder and ask yourself, “What am I graduating towards?”
When Alexandr Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel Prize in 1970, in his Nobel Speech he quoted that line I mentioned earlier of Dostoevsky's -- "Beauty will save the world."
Here is what Solzhenitsyn said about it: "What sort of a statement is that?!"
But being a great Russian writer, he didn't leave it at that. You should read the whole speech some day -- but here is just a bit of what he said:
Another artist, recognizing a higher power above, gladly works as a humble apprentice beneath God's heaven;
then, however, his responsibility for everything that is written or drawn, for the souls which perceive his work, is more exacting than ever.
But, in return, it is not he who has created this world, not he who directs it,
there is no doubt as to its foundations;
the artist has merely to be more keenly aware than others of the harmony of the world, of the beauty and ugliness of the human contribution to it, and to communicate this acutely to his fellow-men.
And in misfortune, and even at the depths of existence —in destitution, in prison, in sickness— his sense of stable harmony never deserts him.
Let me repeat that last phrase. Solzhenitsyn said an artist’s task is to never let go of “the sense of stable harmony.”
The girl in Iraq was that kind of artist. I don’t mean a professional artist, like me.
I mean an artist who provides a vision of beauty and authenticity in the world full of bullet holes. Whether you are a nurse, a scientist, a writer or a stay-at-home father, can you move toward the flower germinating in the hell holes,the “Ground Zeros,” of our lives? Can you move forward toward beauty?
As you do, you will recognize something. That flower that you seek to protect, to preserve and to resurrect is connected to your soul. And because beauty is connected to our souls, beauty is sacrifice.
The word “sacrifice” is made up of two Latin words—sacer and facere, which combine to mean “to make holy.” ( from Diogenes Allen, “Steps Along the Way,” Church Publishing, New York, 2002)
God sacrifices to “make holy.”
From God’s vantage point, what is the flower that God desires to protect, what is God, in the Holy of Holies, desire to make holy?
God desires to make us holy. Thus, he sent Jesus. Instead of running away from hatred, discord and anger, Jesus ran toward the face of death. Our hearts are just as parched, desolate and dry as an Iraqi desert.
The flower is us—
ephemeral, beautiful and precious to God.
Christ found us, the ephemeral emanation, infinitely valuable.
So for a precious flower, Christ turned back to us from Agony into Agony—and unlike the story of this girl, his power did heal the flower. But by doing so he also took on the bullets of cruelty, of incalculable injustice.Through the bullet holes—His stigmata, now holes cleansed by his own Blood—a new light is shed, a Divine Light into our dark school-rooms of life.
God makes holy, and he sacrifices, and he runs toward the beautiful. And now God bathes us in that sacred, beautiful light.
Thus, through the bullet holes, through the wounds of our “Ground Zero” conditions, God chooses to shine his light. The wounds represents not just our Fallen conditions, but the possibility toward the Generative.
“By His Wounds, we are healed,” and set apart to create generatively.
To live for beauty means to die for beauty. Every work of art requires sacrifice.
So as you “graduate,” as you “rise above,” be generative. Create toward that light, through the bullet holes full of light. Move toward the beautiful, shining through our woundings.
May you find the Countenance of God in this Moses’s prayer for the exiles in Numbers 6:24 through 26—a prayer for those who dare to challenge the enslaved conditions of our culture—for those who dare to see the fragile emanation as so beautiful as to even lose your life for it:
“The Lord bless you
and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace.”
and God Bless you.
*This story was told to me by an anonymous source, a musician friend in Japan.