Good and Beautiful Gifts

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During a memorable episode of his long-running radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor recounts a quarrel in his fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota.
It isn’t a garden variety disagreement.  The local pastors have had a serious falling out.  The very souls entrusted with bringing peace, unity, and purity to the Body of Christ are finding it hard just to be in the same room. 
That’s when each of them receives an invitation to a Sunday afternoon meal at the home of one of Lake Wobegon’s homemakers.  At first, the atmosphere is chilly.  They can’t lightly surrender their theological principles, after all.
But then the food is served. 
It’s fried chicken.  And not just any fried chicken.  It’s the kind of extraordinary fried chicken that generates a shared experience of deep happiness – the sort of sensory gladness that helps pastors climb down off their ecclesiastical high horses and rediscover each other’s humanity.  The joy of the kingdom comes rushing back by means by golden, crisp drumsticks.    
The acid-tongued skeptic H.L. Mencken once said that puritanism may be defined as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be having a good time.”
We can only guess that Mencken never had the privilege of dining at a pot luck supper hosted by a congregation blessed with some serious cooks.  The Way of Jesus, it turns out, may be the most hedonistic – that is, the most pleasure-seeking and pleasure-enjoying – of all the world’s religious movements.  That’s because, at its very center, the spotlight shines on a good God who has showered humanity with the good gifts of summer warmth, family gatherings, watermelon, and approaching harvests.  Not to mention fried chicken. 
Over the centuries, however, a number of zealous Christians – eager to separate themselves from a world they imagine to be beyond repair or redemption – have made up their minds not to let the good times get out of hand.  They’ve resolved not to drink, dance, feast, play cards, watch movies, or tap their feet to syncopated music. 
It’s hard to align that perspective with the apostle Paul’s words in I Timothy 4:4-5: “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” 
That doesn’t mean anything goes.  Just as Paul ministered within the Mediterranean world of classic paganism, we live and move and have our being within the secular culture of the modern West.  Pleasure is not for its own sake, but for God’s sake.  Note Paul’s counsel in Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”
Despite those half dozen “whatevers,” which seem to beckon us to open our lives to a whole host of beautiful things, a number of church traditions have resisted stained glass windows, square dancing, romance novels, and any movie that isn’t centered on biblical characters or the historic exploits of Jesus’ followers. 
It seems likely that those who advocate such restrictions have never heard what Martin Luther had to say about music.
During Luther’s time – which was 500 years ago – it was widely agreed that music fell into two categories.  There was music that glorified God in the context of sacred worship.  And then there was everything else.  Purists believed that “everything else” could never rise to the level of the church’s holy chords and cadences. 
Luther, the German monk, earnestly disagreed.    
Music wasn’t glorious simply because it was heard in a sanctuary, or merely because the lyrics sprang from Scripture.  According to Luther, all beautiful music was glorious.  Period. 
Music historian Robert Greenberg notes that Luther attributed an almost supernatural power to notes and melodies.  Music could educate minds, stir hearts, and lift spirits, drawing people into a deeper experience of God’s love.  “I give, after theology, music the greatest educational importance and the highest honor.”
He boldly declared, “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise,” adding, “As long as we live, there is never enough singing.” 
And then, as if to drive home the point in the strongest possible way, “I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God.  Music drives away the Devil and makes people joyful.”
The impact of this perspective cannot be overstated.  A new conviction began to take hold across Europe: Art of all kinds can be in God’s service
A painter’s exquisite still life, a landscaper’s carefully crafted garden, a ballet dancer’s exuberant solo, and a child’s first watercolor all point to God, the giver of all good gifts. 
On this national holiday – a word that owes its very origin to the church’s “holy days” – may you enjoy the common grace of good and beautiful gifts that reveal the character of a good and beautiful God: great food, great music, great conversation, and great laughter.
And, if you’re truly blessed, some great fried chicken.