It was my 7th hour in Iraq and the smell of death and dust simmered in my nostrils through the thickness of the heat. What was this place I was in? And where was God? The land was desolate and a heaviness was in the air. A few date palms occasionally interrupted the lack of elevation and the eerie way the sand met the sky in a mirage of undulated waves. Everything appeared as if I were looking through a lens of grayscale or sepia.
I made a phone call to let my family know I was in country. I described the scene to my mom. It just felt, looked, and smelled war-torn and evil.
“Find one beautiful thing around you every day and focus on that,” she said.
What could she possibly be talking about? There was nothing beautiful. Even the birds looked ragged and the noise they made was just, well, noise. Distressed, sad, ugly noise. But I knew she was right. So, I began to look everywhere for that one thing that brought a little beauty into my day. I found that the date palms produced the sweetest fruits. I found a CD that I enjoyed listening to over and over. I had a friend that sent me some oil paint and brushes and I began to create my own beauty. I had never painted before and I enjoyed it.
I began to paint, learning how to work the oil and with it create patterns and textures. I would get half way through one and start another. One day, I created my favorite piece while I was there. It was a single, pink gerbera daisy. Each petal had depth and texture, and the pink ranged from pale and soft, to dark and warm. I had created my very own daisy in a desert.
Painting gave me a different perspective and taught me how to think about my situation differently. In Iraq, I got to witness some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. The hues of red and orange were brilliant and energetic. They somehow made you feel more alive. The stars at night, because of the broad, open skies and little light pollution, numbered in the billions. It was easy to track traveling satellites and find 5 or 10 shooting stars on any given night.
Something beautiful can happen in the ugliest of places if you’re willing to look at things from a different perspective. Maybe this is why we are given these words in Philippians 4:8 (MSG). “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.” In these words, God gave us a beautiful recipe for finding hope in the hard, ugly, desolate situations.
Stop. Pause and take a moment to find that one thing that you can find joy in. Seek out the tiny piece of color in the midst of the chaotic grayscale of shadows and nothingness. Find your hues of red and orange and feel the textures of various pinks. Look up at the blues that He put in the sky and the brilliant purples He painted His flowers with. Slowly, your dark spots will brighten and you will see the face of the One that you were having difficulty finding. He is always there, sometimes you just have to look for Him.