God Takes Ugly and Makes Beautiful

I work in a fairly ugly place: downtown Grand Rapids–where one finds cafes, specialty shops, and restaurants next to convenience stores to buy smokes, condoms, and booze. The doorways smell like urine; the sidewalks are littered with trash. And the people aren’t so beautiful either: the homeless, the diseased, the mentally ill, the prostitutes, the addicts, the drunks, the hungry, the thirsty. I carry this place within my heart and these people who know nothing but ugliness–iniquity, disease, death, rejection, cruelty, and a worn-out, tattered existence.

In the face of ugliness, it is sometimes hard for us to say, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name. . .do not forget all of God’s benefits.” But I still do say it; because at the Lord’s table God takes ugly and makes beautiful.

God takes us–all that is within us–and gives benefits. To us, “benefits” means 401k’s, health insurance, or vacation time. But there is a rich Hebraic concept of benefits: what is reciprocated for what one’s hands have done. As the psalm reveals, what we have done is not done to us in return. We receive truth, goodness, and beauty in return for our sin–this is God’s payback.

We bring to the Table our own iniquity, disease, death, rejection, cruelty, and a worn-out, tattered existence. And God takes it all from us. In the sacrament, God works forgiveness, healing, redemption, love, and good, within our lives and within our selves. God takes ugly and makes beautiful.

Because of this beautiful Table, John Calvin declares: “We cannot be condemned for our sins, since Christ willed to take them as if they were his own.” By God’s own self-giving love, Christ “was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Is. 53:5). Calvin simply names it the “wonderful exchange.” Death for life.

In the Lord’s Supper, we remember that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection were for us and our salvation–an outpouring of Godself in order to change our selves and our lives. By the desire and power of the Spirit, it is a means of grace by which we receive the benefits of God’s own Self: a wonderful exchange. God takes ugly and makes beautiful.

When confronted with such beauty, sometimes it is hard not to say, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name!” Psalm 103 is a bursting forth of praise and thanksgiving because salvation is hard to keep quiet about–God’s benefits are hard to keep contained merely within our own souls. As naturally as this song of worship moves from “my” to “your,” so surely we, too, must follow this impulse to tell others the good news.

Say it aloud to yourself–say it over and over so as to never forget. Say it in the ugly places. Say it to those whom you carry. Say it to the ones who know nothing but ugliness, to the oppressed and needy, to neighbors nearby and far away.

Say it because the Table declares to you and to me and to everyone else that change is possible. The Table announces the reality that change happens. Sin does not have the final word. Jesus Christ, who was made flesh for us and for our salvation, is the Eternal Word. God takes us–all that is within us–and gives benefits.

God takes ugly and makes beautiful.

Pamela J. Henshell is a student at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.