I never liked that old saying, the one about finding beauty from ashes.
I always thought it meant I had to see the ashes differently. I thought it meant we should look at destruction and ruin and all the things that have been flattened in our lives and find a way to call them beautiful.
Sometimes that works, but sometimes ashes are just ashes. Pretending they’re not feels like lying. I can’t do it. When I’m standing in a pile of my own ashes—my unmet expectations, my failure, my sadness, my sickness, my loneliness, my brokenness—I don’t have the strength to pretend.
But what if I misunderstood what it means?
I heard my friend Colby give a sermon about actual real-life ashes, and it changed my mind. See, there was an earthquake that shook Lisbon, Portugal on All Saints Day in 1755. The old city wasn’t built for quakes, so the buildings just crumbled. The city was flattened. Turned to ashes.
No one looked at that and called it beautiful.
No, the builders of the city looked at those ashes and decided to get rid of what was left. They cleared it all away. They took what they had learned and rebuilt, creating a stronger, more resilient city. They started from the foundation of those ashes, and they made something new and beautiful.
They didn’t pretend the disaster wasn’t disastrous. They didn’t pretend not to see it. They didn’t tell each other to carry on, to just look harder for the beauty in their half-standing homes and their crumbling streets and their hurting hearts.
They said: this is our reality.
What we had in the past didn’t work. Let’s get to work building the next thing. They built beauty right up out of the ashes.
The ashes weren’t the beautiful thing. The beautiful thing was what came next.
I can do that in my own life, or at least I can try.
We can try together. We can look around at the world some days and say: well, this is a mess. Let’s clear that away. What have we learned? What do we know now that we didn’t before? And what are we going to build next?
Let’s make it something beautiful.