Why looking up tells us who we are, where we are, and why and how to get where we’re going.
At an outdoor art installation Friday night, I noticed a pattern–a meaning–that some others did not. That’s not to congratulate myself; I simply can’t bring myself to walk away from things I haven’t even begun to understand, often to my own detriment. I move slowly.
Outside, at eye level, large and moving light fixtures sent silver beams upward into the fog. In seemingly random intervals, one light or several would flash golden, then a deep, but muted, bell would chime and the lights would disappear momentarily to return again moving in their white light phase.
Many children, and adults following their lead, moved their hands over the lights: this seemed occasionally to work, but that was only chance. The idea that it was motion activated was an innovative one, which is probably why the children, so used to new technologies, attempted this first.
The answer lay in looking up. Some genius, whoever put this together, had mathematically calculated when the beams–about ten of them–would cross each other a hundred feet in the air. Each time two crossed, they would both turn golden, chime, and disappear. They looked like huge steel beams falling from different directions upon one another. It took a minute’s observation to find the pattern, but it was very impressive. The lights were always crossing from different directions at different speeds–all changing, but all perfectly coordinated.
It is a principle known to every movie spy who needs to hide quickly: people rarely look up. We like our feet on the ground, stable. We like a measure of control over our lives, even those who purposely lead what seem to be reckless lives. We want to coordinate our jobs, our families, even our beliefs, in order to balance the desire for some shelter from chaos and that for what happiness we can manage to get after all that energy spent fighting back the storms.
Many of us never look up, or at least do so rarely. Despite great pain and tragedy, we internalize it all. Or we look left and right to find the guilty party. We look for a cause we can see with our eyes, and, when we find it (and we usually find something close enough to a cause), we are satisfied enough to move on. Or not. Or never.
In my thinking, a person in the midst of some tragedy who looks up toward God and says, “How could you let this happen? Why did this happen?” is in a much healthier place than the person to whom that thought never occurs. Now, a person who looks up during joys as well as tragedies is doubly blessed; however, it usually takes catastrophe, or what we perceive as catastrophe, for us to look up from our morning oatmeal. This says nothing about God, but a great deal about us.
Why do we not look up? Perhaps it is because we know we cannot control God. We cannot get enough distance from God to gain the perspective needed to manipulate him, like we can with physical objects, and like we attempt to do with people. That is what is so terribly frustrating. Even when any mature sense of faith knows it is simply impossible, religion for us so often becomes a means to control God, a series of actions we can perform to con God into giving us what we desire. “Look, God, how I’ve been obeying you!” “Look, God, at how much I’ve denied myself!” “Look, God, at how many times I’ve been to a religious service, and how much I’ve forgiven people, and how much I have given to the poor; now, how many wishes do I get for this?”
What has happened? There has been a horrible dichotomy put into our minds. Largely because we live in a society which rewards work with money or monetary goods, we have separated act from natural reward. When you go to work and get paid money, that money is a work-value assigned arbitrarily by agreement, though in the midst of constant negotiation, within society, with a little input between you and your employer. The value of a certain job done for a certain amount of time changes depending on the month, the employer, the location, etc., even for the exact same work. This is no necessary connection between working in a recycling factory and receiving money; someone has to choose to give you that money.
Natural rewards are fundamentally different. Here’s an example: Psalm 1 is less a hymn, and more a meditation on Psalms, the entryway to the book of Psalms. It is considered Wisdom literature, much like the book of Proverbs, in which two distinct lifestyles are compared. The first three verses read, in prose form:
Blessed is the man who has not walked by the counsel of the wicked / and has not stood in the way of the sinful, / and has not sat in the gathering of scoffers. / But in the Lord’s Instruction is his delight / and in his Instruction will he muse by day and night. / So shall he be like a tree / transplanted by running waters, / which yields its fruit in its season / and its foliage shall not wither. / So, in all that he shall do, he shall prosper.
The wise man does not imitate the lifestyles of those who are evil. That makes sense. Then comes the great simile: He will be like a tree transplanted by streams of running waters. This means that unlike a tree planted where streams come and go (remember, the Psalms were written in a culture which knew both coast and desert), this tree is planted where water is always plentiful and nutrients continual. So what’s the result? He is rewarded. How? He is transformed by the way he lives.
C.S. Lewis explained it this way. Marriage is a natural reward of love. Enjoying very good Greek poetry is a natural reward of spending the life-hours learning Greek well.
The point is that, whereas arbitrary rewards leave us fundamentally the same (except for when we become greedy for them, which leaves us, in that case, worse), natural rewards leave us transformed automatically. What we get from serving God is not monetary rewards. We do not receive literal “crowns,” anymore than the invisible, immortal God is sitting on a literal “throne.” These are images meant to convey a reality beyond themselves.
The reward for doing good things is becoming a good person. A good person is not a two-dimensional concept, a person who simply does what he or she is told what to do and always asks politely. A good person is a person who is healthy, especially emotionally and spiritually, who is able to love even the most difficult, is faithful to friends, is willing to stand up for the oppressed, who seeks the Truth no matter the opposition, who engages his or her mind so that he or she can think clearly and communicate truths in helpful ways, who works diligently, can handle responsibility and power without abuse, is more concerned with others than with him or herself, et cetera, i.e. a good person is a person whose whole paradigm for how to live is centered on the love of God, a love beyond him or herself but which energizes and shapes every act and thought.
We don’t look up because above us is not what we think we want. We all fear doing things which leave us vulnerable, even vulnerable to a good change. Why is God concerned far more with natural reward than arbitrary rewards? Because God is concerned not with power structures or any possessions, but with transformative relationship. God wants people who love well; specifically, which love him with everything and love others more than themselves, the first being necessary to enable the latter.
God wants us to know him, not as an abstract fact, but as a person. That is the fundamental paradigm of Christian life: knowing God as a person, rather than a force. Relationships change people; good relationships make us better people, happier, wiser, more apt to care about what we and others are actually doing and learning rather than simply working perfunctorily; bad relationships make us worse people, people who are irritable, bored with our work, who do not understand the meaning behind caring about people or giving energy to learning.
Knowing God is the ultimate good relationship, but it is two-way. Our transformation necessitates our moving toward God: this means knowing more about God, but always as a means to know God more in a personal and transformative manner. Of course, all of this is predicated upon God revealing himself and having already moved toward and into us as a teacher, lover, and transformer.
So, as you go about your day: Look up. As you wash your dishes, as I am about to, or as you ask your children about their days at school, as you love your wife or husband, as you study physics, as you do your math problems, as you struggle through cancer or with loving your spouse through his or her cancer, as you work through a broken heart, as you feel life is simply turning into routine, or as you experience fulfilling joy for the first or thousandth time: Look up. Ask, “Why am I doing this? Is this changing me? Can I do it in a way that I not only put more in my head, but I become a better person through it? God, can you reorient my life to where these questions start to make sense?”
Please: Look up!