Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Ruined Painting

The Lord will accomplish what concerns me;
Your lovingkindness, O Lord, is everlasting.
You will not forsake the works of Your hands.
Psalm 138

Note:  I carried this lesson around with me for almost two years before I was ready to put it into words.  Thanks to Mara for letting us enjoy and learn from her art.

I would like to share with you a parable of sorts.

I have a friend in Sheridan named Mara Schasteen.  Among other things, Mara is a painter who creates still-lifes, landscapes, and portraits.  Her most magnificent work, in my opinion, involves aspen trees and chickens.  Yes, I said chickens.  Now, anyone who can make a chicken look magnificent (Really.  I mean it.  Stop that snickering.) has some phenomenal talent and dedication.  Mara is becoming "kind of a big deal" in the art world.  She is also a wife and the mother of four children; her youngest, Emme, loves to play in the studio and watch Mom work.

And finally, Mara is a teacher.  As such, she often shares in-progress photos of her paintings so the rest of us can observe her process.  I would like to share one of her paintings with you.

This is the beginning of a still-life.  I am not a painter myself, but thanks to Mara I am starting to understand the the amazing depth I see in good oil paintings is a result of many layers of color, one blended into the other.  It seems to be much like composing music, that way:  One layer on top of another to create texture and depth.  Here, she starts to sketch in the shapes, and the beginnings of color, all of which only gives only the vaguest hint of what the finished painting will be.

Filling in some shadows now.  Some of the shapes are starting to look three-dimensional.

Adding color; softening edges.  Do you recognize any of the objects yet?

Hey, there's an artichoke!

Almost finished, now.

At this point, Mara had invested several hours in this painting, and she was loving the way it was turning out.

And then, disaster struck.  Mara stepped out to take a break.  When she returned, this is what she found:

Anyone want to guess what happened here?

Emme, the two year old, decided to make a few improvements on mom's painting.  And boom, a beautiful painting was ruined, just like that.

OK, time to get metaphorical.  Life is sort of like that sometimes, isn't it?  We put our heart and soul into something:  A project, a career, a marriage, a lifestyle, our very identity.  And then something happens, and all our work, our invested love, our skill comes to nothing.

Why is there ugliness in the world?  The most honest answer I have is "I don't know."  I don't know why my son died.  I don't know why a young friend's husband left her.  I don't know why so many people I know are dealing with ongoing, devastating health problems.  Those of us who have gone through tragedy know that most people's attempts to explain it away are annoying at best.  I am glad that I don't have to understand.  Knowing the reason wouldn't make it hurt any less anyway.  So I can leave it to God.

Still, there are a couple things worth keeping in mind when the worst happens.  Apologies in advance if my efforts here prove to be annoying.  Please bear with me.

Not from God
First, it is important to know that bad things do not come from God.  We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works... Ephesians 2:10  God is the Artist, and he does not destroy his own workmanship.  I may be oversimplifying a bit, but it is safe to say the bad things, the destructive things, the things that threaten to wipe us out are not from God.

We have an Enemy.
In his book, "Reaching for an Invisible God," Philip Yancy shares an interview with a Confederate general shortly after the Civil War.  Asked why he thought the South lost, the old man chuckled and said, "Well, I reckon the Yankees had something to do with it."

Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  1 Peter 5:8

He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.  John 8:44

The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom.  The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil.  Matthew 13:38-39

Satan is real.  The more I see of the world the more I believe that.  God did not originally create the world to be the place it is now.  It has been corrupted.

Sometimes the ugliness comes from within.
When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate ; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. Genesis 3:6

Each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin ; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.  James 1:14-15

The Snake put the idea in Eve's head, but he could not force her to sin.  It was her own desire--for power, for pleasure--that made her eat the fruit.  Have you ever had your life's work destroyed by your own selfishness?  The selfishness of others?  I have.  Much of mankind's worst pain is self-inflicted.

The result of all this is destruction where there should be only beauty.
 Tragedy.  Pain.  Disaster.  It is almost a cliche, but it's worth saying:  We live in a fallen world.  As Paul says, we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.  Romans 8:22  The world is not supposed to be this way, and creation itself groans under its weight of violence and selfishness.  And so, for many of us, life is like that painting:  A thing of beauty, marred beyond repair, ruined and ugly. 

So, what do we do? 

How do we deal with it, when the beautiful painting that God intended for life to be is smeared by tragedy, selfishness, and loss?

Do we throw out the painting, scrape the canvas? 

That is what Judas did:
Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood." But they said, "What is that to us? See to that yourself !" And he threw the pieces of silver into the temple sanctuary and departed ; and he went away and hanged himself. Matthew 27:3-5
Judas' greatest sin was not betraying the Son of God.  He could have been forgiven for that.  His greatest sin was ending his life before his time, depriving God the chance to show him mercy, and himself the chance of accepting it.

Do we try to rub out the imperfection, erase it, pretend it never happened? 

That is what King David did:
David sent messengers and took her, and when she came to him, he lay with her; and when she had purified herself from her uncleanness, she returned to her house. The woman conceived ; and she sent and told David, and said, "I am pregnant." Then David sent to Joab, saying, "Send me Uriah the Hittite." So Joab sent Uriah to David.  2 Samuel 11:4-6

Most of us know what happened next:  David sent the man to his wife so he would sleep with her and think the child was his.  Uriah, an officer in David's army, refused, knowing that he belonged with his men in the field.  David got him drunk and tried again, but even under the influence Uriah's integrity won out.  Finally, David had the man killed, which set off its own tragic chain of events.

It isn't just our own sins we deal with this way.  When faced with ugliness too great to bear, some simply try to forget it happened.  Psychology types call this emotional cover-up "denial."   Old timers call it "keeping a stiff upper lip."  The trouble is, ugliness always finds its way out, and when it does, it often leads to despair.

Do we give up and accept the ruin?

That is what Job did:
After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.  And Job said..."Why is light given to him who suffers, and life to the bitter of soul, who long for death, but there is none, and dig for it more than hidden treasures, who rejoice greatly and exult when they find the grave?  Why is light given to a man whose way is hidden, and whom God has hedged in?" Job 3

Job resigned himself to being a marred painting, tried to make peace with it, to find reasons, to make sense of it.  I read that story again recently, and I was struck by the hopelessness of Job.  Even as he clung to his integrity, he had no thought of good coming from his suffering, no thought of a better future.  The best he could hope for was vindication, then death:  He knew things were bad, things were always going to be bad, and by God, he wanted some answers!  We remember how things worked out for him.  He had much to learn about God.

The real problem with despair is that
, at its heart, it is just a resigned selfishness:  It's still all about me.  And selfishness, in any form, just adds to the ugliness.

Here is some good news:  God has a better way.  Let's go back to the painting. 

When Mara first posted this picture on Facebook, she said she felt sick.  She was ready to scrape it and start over.

But Mara has many wise friends, and soon the support started coming in:  Don't wipe it out yet.  Wait a while.

Oil painting is a bit like life, it seems:  It takes a while for changes to set up and become permanent.  In the meantime, they can be worked.  And before long, the artist got out her brush and began to sketch.

See what she is doing?  Some of the splotches start to become stems, others shadows, and still others blossoms...

...and the splotch on the left simply disappears into the texture of the painting.  It is still there; they all are.  But they are being transformed into something breathtaking.

Notice what is happening in the background.  Inspired by the blossoms, which in turn were inspired by destruction, the artist begins to repeat that theme in the background, adding beauty in a place where before there was little of interest.

And it is finished.  I believe the apple was Emme's idea, too.  Mara and her daughter signed it together.

Pretty much everyone agrees that it is an even more beautiful painting now.

So, what is the lesson for us?

Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison... 2 Corinthians 4:16-17

Look at that last part, verse 17, again.  Momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory...  I've read this passage many times, and always assumed it was talking about what would some day happen in heaven.  But no.  It is written in present tense.  It is happening now.  God doesn't send the ugliness, but he does use it to create something eternal and glorious in us.  Right now.  Even as we suffer through it.
That must give Satan fits.

And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. Romans 5:3-5

God's love, and the hope that comes from it, overcomes all the troubles.  We can keep our heads high, knowing God will make it work.

Consider it all joy, brothers, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let its endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.  James 1:2-4

Or to put it in more modern language:  Hang in there.  This is going to be worth it.  Because just like the painter, God does not simply wipe out the ugliness.  He uses it.  He weaves it into the texture of who you are, creating something of depth, of beauty, of strength, of substance.  Something eternal.

The  things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.  2 Cor. 4:18
There have been times that I have looked at my life and seen only ruin.

But ruin is temporary.  God, with his eternal perspective, sees the end product.

Is your life a ruined painting?  Sometimes it takes a lot of faith to see how truly beautiful you are.  He sees it.  Don't be afraid to see it in yourself.  Trust the Artist.  Romans 8:28 says ...we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.

That promise is conditional, like many of God's promises.  We can not truly see the beauty in our suffering if we do not choose to love God, to trust him, to accept his purpose for our lives.  That is when the Master Painter can go to work.  Trust Him.  If a very human painter can turn a disaster into something this beautiful, what can the God of the universe do? 

For I am confident of this very thing:  That He who began a good work in you will continue to perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.  Philippians 1:6

Hang in there.  It's going to be worth it.