My Black Canvas

“There is something about life that is infinitely deeper than all the expectations and roles and performance stuff of my outer life.”

– John Ortberg

It’s April 2020. Life has changed completely in the last month because of the virus. So many things have come to a dead stop. Conveniences dry up, isolation runs rampant, and uncertainty has blown in like a sand storm that coats everything. So — I don’t know — it feels a little like a desert. And something in me wants to grow things and make them beautiful. My friend gives me seeds and I plant vegetable and herb seeds in tiny containers, all herded into a larger Tupperware container that sits on a low windowsill in my condo. I buy a mail-order live plant. I am planted deep in God’s Word every day.

And I join an on-line art club that celebrates the colorful and joyful. I’m just a wannabe artist, but I order paints and canvases. To my surprise, our artist teacher tells us to start off by painting our canvases solid black. We then learn how to spread bright white thick over the black and layer color with abandon. Mine is so far from perfect. But I learn that the darkness underneath adds a secret depth and richness to the canvas. I will come to think of it as redemption.  

And so when I find this quote about God: “He paints Himself in the depths of our souls,” I like to visualize it. God pouring His beauty and spilling His light out over my black canvas.

I can’t understand how, in the darkest of times, the aftermath of my own life explosion, the beginning of an unprecedented world pandemic, I feel such joy.

Now it’s a year later – April 2021. I am at my sister-in-law’s funeral service. I walk down the long gravel parking lot and I sit on the fourth pew back in a small Baptist church in a small Ohio town. After I’m seated a bit, I notice the sanctuary is a white rectangular box with dim rows of fluorescent lights overhead and not a window in sight. The one decorative element keeps catching my eye — a large dove painted above the baptismal. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I wonder how the boxed-in dove will fly out. And I think about Lynn, just 59 years old. She struggled with poor health, but still, death was unexpected. Unwelcome. During the visiting before the service, I catch up with my ex-husband’s family. And part of the time, I sit alone and pray. I tell God (as if He doesn’t know) how time eventually gets us. How hard the years can be. How hard — the letting go of loved ones and long-held expectations. Life in a long room where it sometimes seems there’s no window to fly out and up. 

The funeral service starts and the preacher must not have known Lynn much because he says he doesn’t know if she’s in heaven. Then he holds up the words that point to salvation — for those who think about flying. I watch the face of her grieving daughter … my daughter’s age … and, to be honest, I’m restless. I want to get up and ask if we can talk about how there’s something more beautiful than anything else in this room. Something astounding and precious. Something that far outshines the bright splash of flowers around the empty body and the painted dove on the wall: it’s the beauty painted in my sister-in-law’s soul. Her deep love for her family and how she treasured being a mom and wife. Her kindness and compassion. Her big heart for taking in foster children, mothering her “babies.” Her courage in the face of heart problems, losing a leg to diabetes, going on disability. Her heart-coming to God in recent years and her readiness to praise Him. Her giving spirit. Her quickness to message me, “I love you,” when I was no longer family. A life pointing to salvation more beautifully than any words. An open window for Lynn, flown free of life’s pain. Before she left, she invested her true worth – the extensive love she had to give — in her family and friends. It’s not gone.

He paints himself in the depths of our souls.

These last few years, it has become so obvious to me …

God is all about the heart.

Here’s something crucial and life-changing:

“The most important thing in your life is not what you do; it’s who you become. That’s what you will take into eternity.” (Dallas Willard)

This has become a persistent and much-needed whisper for a girl who heard grace preached her whole life, who didn’t even know she still thought she was earning her salvation and worth. For those of us who have spent much time in the Bible, we know it’s an unearned gift, given out of love. But still, the temptation is to strive and achieve and in whatever way impress … who? God? Ourselves? Someone.

It’s way back in the year 1637. A young French man named Nicolas Herman enters a Carmelite monastery in Paris. He has had a revelation after simply observing how a tree, bare in the deep of winter, will soon turn green, flower, and bear fruit in the Master’s hands. I guess Nicholas sees himself in the winter tree. And so he goes all in and gives everything to God. Because of his permanent limp, he is assigned to cleaning the kitchen at the monastery. Nicolas spends the next 50+ years cleaning the kitchen and repairing sandals for the other monks to walk in. Then he dies in 1691. That’s it. An unremarkable life by any human standard. Seems like his tree never greened up, never bore fruit.

Except that it did. Today, better known as Brother Lawrence, Nicolas Herman is one of the most widely read authors in history. Because Nicolas gave his life to one pursuit: every day, in the middle of his mundane daily life, he practiced God’s presence. His sparse writings (just one essay, 16 letters, and four recorded conversations) were published by friends as “The Practice of the Presence of God” after his death. Brother Lawrence had no idea that anyone would read his words, let alone that you and I would be reading them centuries later. Brother Lawrence didn’t strive to change the world or have a best-seller or the perfect family or an easy, comfortable life. Instead, he directed his life purpose toward knowing and loving God. And it’s Brother Lawrence who said this phrase — said it often:

“He paints Himself in the depths of our souls.”

We know that our God, of course, is the master artist. I’ve seen dew glittering like a field of diamonds on black night-grass. Stood on a cliff on the edge of a continent in awe of a hazy sapphire band where the impossibly blue sea melts into the blue sky.

But the idea that He paints Himself deep down in our dark souls? Where it can’t be seen? Where we’re too busy to look? Where our grimy secrets hide? Do we even want Him there? Because that’s not the dressed-up version we present to the world and, often, ourselves.

Here’s a weird thought: If we could somehow cut open Brother Lawrence’s soul and examine it, what would we find? My opinion? We would unwrap a beautiful masterpiece that God painted with great love throughout the years that Brother Lawrence walked with Him. Through joy and through suffering and a lifelong disability that never hampered his real journey.  Through the endless days of cleaning kitchens. Through sacrifice. Through the prayers and the pain that no one but God heard. The Artist painting first a foundation, then nuances on Brother Lawrence’s soul. Light over darkness for depth. Lots of color. One of a kind masterpiece. Redemption. Anyway, I really, really want Him to paint up those beautiful layers in me.

If He dissected my soul today, what would He find? Uncomfortable to think about – yes, but I’d rather know the truth now. If His knife dove past my image, went deeper than my justifications, slid through this world’s positions, all the way down to the bottom of my soul, then what?

“And how does a man benefit if he gains the whole world and loses his soul in the process?

For is anything worth more than his soul?” — Jesus (Mark 8:36)

And I hope it slowly soaks into you like it has to me – God is all about the heart.

Unlike us,

God looks from the inside-out.

He is no stranger to my soul. Or yours. He knows our souls better than we do.

“We all have two worlds, an outer world that is visible and public and obvious, and an inner world that may be chaotic and dark or may be gloriously beautiful. In the end, the outer world fades. We are left with the inner world. It is what we will take with us.” John Ortberg

“You learned Christ! … Everything connected with that old way of life has to go. It’s rotten through and through. Get rid of it! And then take on an entirely new way of life – a God-fashioned life, a life renewed from the inside and working itself into your conduct as God accurately reproduces his character in you.” – Paul (Ephesians 4:20-24)

Unfortunately, we tend to get it backward. We look outside-in.

We’re concerned with the external, with the temporary. Without really meaning to, we focus on things like: What do people at school or work or church think of me? How can I demonstrate that I’m a good person (without looking at my deepest thoughts and attitudes)? I need to live up to my parents’ expectations. And speaking of parents, I absolutely have to be a perfect parent for my kids’ sake. I sure do try hard. Surely my kids will be happy and successful if I’m a good parent. (But there are so many things I can’t control.) I worry about the future. Will I be okay financially? Health-wise? What if I end up alone? I look back and see so many things I should’ve done differently. Wow, my life isn’t turning out like I thought. Why is it so hard to be happy? Will a nicer house or car or job make me happy? Why can’t things just go smoothly for a change? Will our world still be an okay place for me and my kids and grandkids? Have I done enough? Am I doing enough?

Meanwhile, God is looking in deeper and out farther than us. In to the internal and out to the eternal. A few years ago, in the middle of the divorce I never thought would happen, one of my million concerns was money/retirement. When I talked to God about it, here’s how that conversation went.

God: “Terri, you’re not planning far enough out.” Me (puzzled): “Farther than retirement? Wait — death?” God: “How about eternity?” Me: Oh. Yeah.

Based on God’s Word, I imagine He thinks things like this: This one genuinely seeks to know Me with all her heart. She meets Me every morning. * I love how he’s learning to be humble like my Son. He’s growing so much. * This daughter loves Me apart from my gifts. She believes in Me so much that she drinks the cup of suffering with Me. She’s beautiful. * Look at his love showing – how he’s choosing to serve – what a difference he’ll make, even though he doesn’t see it yet. He’s becoming a man after My own heart. * Now this child has the courage to confront old wounds, to see how they’ve hurt her, to ask for forgiveness and freedom. * Ah, this one wants to be near Me at every opportunity. To be shaped and painted with inner beauty. * I’m patiently working toward bringing this lost one back home – I’m waiting at the door so eagerly. I long for her to see Me as I Am. * How I want them to really know Me! How I want them to know me!       

First, let me say that the thoughts I attributed to us are not necessarily wrong — just human — sometimes they help us function well here on earth. But listen:

We have given most of our attention to polishing up our external self and planning for this life, while our internal self and soul – the only things that will last – have wasted away.

And I’ll just say it: I think we’d better wake up. And pay attention to a God-painted soul more than an impressive or easy life.

Counselor Rick Thomas says, “Every person has a representative – a carefully crafted image of ourselves, hoping others will find that person more acceptable than the real person we know ourselves to be.”

Well, ouch. That’s too accurate. What does your representative look like? And how does it compare to who you really are, down deep in your soul?  

Reminds me of the TV show “What Not to Wear” where two style experts would make over a woman nominated by family or friends as someone who needed help with her appearance. But first, she had to put on a few of her signature outfits and look at herself in a 360-degree mirror. When faced with the unforgiving reflection, often the woman would say with embarrassment, “I didn’t know I looked like that.” She had to have a realistic picture before she could get the $5,000 for a new wardrobe.

 And, according to psychiatrist Curt Thompson, a critical first step in transformation of the soul is to pay attention to what you pay attention to. Because friends, if God isn’t painting your soul, someone or something else is. I’ve been fascinated to read a lot about the brain and how it works lately. You may have already figured out this finding that neuroscience confirms: We do not see things in a completely clinical, objective lens: rather, we see things in the context of our influences and our memories. We have formed neural pathways that keep leading us to think the same way and do the same things. (This is a wonderfully hope-filled subject that I’ll write more about.) Theologian Dallas Willard says that our minds are the funnel for what goes into our souls (my paraphrase). So what’s your mind set on most of the time?

I love how my credit card company provides me with an end-of-year summary of my total charges for the year by category. (OK, I do not love this.) If God handed you a pie chart showing the categories you think of each day, which slices would make up most of your pie chart? Like it or not, these are the things that are shaping your soul.  

Brother Lawrence wanted his biggest slice of the pie to be God. He disciplined His mind and heart every single day. He chose the one slice that will last. And here is his secret, “Neither finesse nor learning is required to approach God, only a heart resolved to devote itself exclusively to him.

And so it really just comes down to devotion. Devoting ourselves to knowing Him. We turn away from distractions. We stop assuming we know everything and we humbly ask God for truth. We saturate in His Word and we talk to Him. We practice His presence. We start actually imitating His ways, even though it isn’t comfortable or easy. We have growth leaps and steady times and backward times. But God is worthy of a lifetime of study. And sure, we make mistakes, get hurt, and suffer. We get knocked down, and we get back up again. We measure truth by learning the context of His whole Word, not selected parts of it. We stop getting tricked and blinded. We find people who know Him well and we spend time with them. We learn that He paints us the most beautifully during our most painful times. And maybe we start this way: Tomorrow morning we set our alarm 30 minutes early to go meet with Him first thing.

My friends, God is not a burden. He is a relief.

Relief from striving, earning, and perfection. Freedom from deception and wondering if you’ve done enough. A heart where beauty-layers are painted and where His image begins to appear. A character that grows more like Him and begins to spill out onto others because He’s become your role model. Because the outer goodness isn’t the first thing. It is important, but only because of this: it’s a symptom of a heart that knows and loves God. In fact, if we focus on outer “doing” without a heart filled up with God, it’s an easy slide into becoming a Pharisee, no matter whether to the right or left.

So here we are. Seen. Known by God. Limping kitchen cleaner or on disability. Divorced. Lonely in a relationship. Grieving. Filled with regret. Stuck. Holding it together. Fearful. Wondering why nothing ever feels quite right inside. Battling old demons. No matter where you find yourself today, God loves you and is ready to take your black canvas, exactly as it is, and paint beauty.

And so as I finish writing this, I pray these things for each of us: That we will have spiritual eyes to see and ears to hear Him. That we’ll sit with Him when we find ourselves in the darkness. Bring our tangled threads to Him to be sorted and woven into beauty. Understand the depth of His winter-tree promises. Be painted into a unique masterpiece. Drenched in the Holy Spirit, excess spilling over. And we’ll learn how to fly up and out.

It’s August 2021. Or maybe later. But not too late. It’s the perfect time.

“One need not cry out to Him very loudly;
He is nearer to us than we think.”
– Brother Lawrence

“In those days when you pray, I will listen. You will find me when you seek me, If you look for me in earnest.” Jeremiah 29:13

“Stop imitating the ideals and opinions of the culture around you, and be inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit through a total reformation of how you think. This will empower you to discern God’s will as you live a beautiful life, satisfying and perfect in his eyes.” Romans 12:2

Recommended RESOURCES for pursuing God:

  • The Holy Bible
  • Youversion Bible App – use The Bible Recap plan (with accompanying daily podcast) to read through the Bible daily
  • “Soul Keeping,” by John Ortberg
  • “Life Without Lack,” by Dallas Willard
  • “The Practice of the Presence of God,” by Brother Lawrence
  • “Get Out of Your Head,” by Jennie Allen
  • “Anatomy of the Soul,” by Curt Thompson, MD

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