Monday, June 30, 2014

Pelicans – and Beauty Contests

We live in a culture obsessed with outward appearances. Magazines annually declare the “most beautiful woman” and “most gorgeous man.” Celebrities strut the red carpets prior to awards events, eager to display how incredible they can look, whether dressed conservatively and tastefully, garishly and outrageously, or somewhere in between.

Proud moms trot out their little darlings at mini-beauty pageants, teaching them early the strategies for leveraging a pleasing look to achieve recognition and success. And each spring, as another summer approaches, advertisements and commercials exhort women to utilize various products and services to achieve that “perfect bikini body.”

When I was an adolescent, one of my friends enjoyed repeating, “Beauty is only skin deep – but ugliness goes clear to the bone!” But that’s not true. Striking outward appearances can deceive, and an unattractive exterior may belie great quality within.

Up close and personal, this pelican
wasn't much to look at.
I was reminded of this during a recent beach vacation – and it didn’t involve a shapely young woman in a swimsuit. My reminder was a lone pelican bobbing in the water at a marina near a restaurant where we were eating.

This feathered fellow apparently was accustomed to being gawked at by strangers. In fact, he maneuvered toward us in case we wanted to get a better look. This creature with overly extended beak and beady eyes would never win an avian beauty contest. In fact, he would have made a humble sparrow look downright regal by comparison.

But later in the week I observed a flock of pelicans – the solitary bird I had seen earlier might have been among them. As they soared overhead in formation, fluidly riding the wind currents, or skimmed the waves just offshore, hovering just inches above the water’s surface, they looked majestic – and beautiful. They demonstrated aerodynamic synchronicity pilots in the Navy’s Blue Angels or the Air Force’s Thunderbirds would admire.

That same day I read a description of William Wilberforce, the British statesman in the late 1700s and early 1800s who campaigned for decades, relentless in his determination to abolish the slave trade in Great Britain. He was widely described as “an ugly little man with too long a nose.” Not the kind of guy who’d catch people’s eye at a social event, I suppose. Yet, as a white man, he merits special honor and appreciation in black history books.

The Bible makes clear our fascination with superficiality is contrary to God’s perspective. When the prophet Samuel was sent by the Lord to identify the successor to Saul as king of Israel, the prophet inspected Jesse’s sons and believed several passed “the eye test.” But each time Samuel asked, “Is it this one, Lord?” he received the answer,  “No, not him…. No, not him either.”

Finally the lowly shepherd boy, David, who hadn’t been voted most likely to succeed in his high school yearbook, was ushered onto the scene. This unlikely tender of sheep was God’s chosen one. Then Samuel was informed, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

Elsewhere, David’s son Solomon, who succeeded him as king, affirmed that truth: “All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart” (Proverbs 21:2). What’s going on inside is what matters to God.

These pelicans could soar with as much
precision as trained jet pilots.
So it’s interesting that the homely pelican, one of God’s bountiful array of curious creatures, was designed to display a marvelous grandeur in flight, especially in the company of other pelicans. And without possessing outward handsomeness by any measure, the inner winsomeness of William Wilberforce – largely the outworking of profound devotion to Jesus Christ – was manifested in his resolve to extricate a noble race of people from the horrendous, dehumanizing institution of slavery.

From God’s perspective, looks really aren’t everything! In fact, it seems He doesn’t place much stock in externals at all. Jesus made that clear when He addressed the religious leaders of the day: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27).

So next time you find yourself preening a bit too much in front of a mirror, or feel the temptation to pass judgment on someone based on their outward appearance, remember the pelican. Not much to look at, but wow, can he soar!


Mike Paterson said...

I don't believe beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

It pre-exists us and it's a human responsibility, as well as a unique gift, to discern it. When we can delight in unlikely beauty, we're led to a greater wholeness of being.

Beauty is, if you like, god's language of love: when we disfigure our World, we harm ourselves and others, but it's rare to hear a politician or economist trying to persuade us how badly we need the wealth of being that unique beauty affords us rather than, say, another billion indistinguishable barrels of oil to burn.

Bob Tamasy said...

Interesting observations, Mike. Yes, we fail to appreciate and value the beauty that is inherent in this world God created. But I do think that to some extent beauty remains in the beholder's eye - some people love cats and see them beautiful; others prefer dogs. I used to have aquariums with colorful tropical fish that brought me much delight. Music is similar: I love classical music, but others prefer hip-hop and rap. (I fail to see the beauty in those.) My point is anything, in its proper setting and use, can offer much beauty.

Mike Paterson said...

Yes, Bob. We certainly have preferences… some of this arises from our social conditioning, some from self-entitlement, some from attitudinal biases… and a lot from levels of attention. Our travels amongst beauty can be instructive about our selfhood and a very important part of growing into fullness of being. It's pushing the boundaries within, every bit as much as testing the horizons that surround us, that draws us towards fulfilment, help us grow into responsibility towards others as well as ourselves, and a enrich our repertoire of response that's topped by delight (rather than the consternation with which "real" issues and self-entitlement can gnaw us away to nothing).