THE CANVAS OF GRACE
I believe grace was illustrated and demonstrated rather than merely defined by Jesus, the fountainhead of all things gracious. The distinction of legendary artists such as, Rembrandt, Picasso and Van Gogh, is not limited to the scenes or subjects they chose, but also their signature brush strokes, shading and the use of colors. The connoisseurs of fine art are known for having an eye to perceive the unique signature brush strokes of the Great Ones. Collectors of this caliber attend exclusive auctions such as Christie’s Auction House in New York City; shelling out as much as one hundred million dollars for just one piece. The works of the aforementioned artistic geniuses are truly amazing, but pale in comparison; looking like the crayon scribbling of a preschooler compared to the gospel's gallery of grace. Heretofore, you may have not considered the narrative of the gospels to be a painting, but simply pages of print chronicling the life of Jesus, an ancient text without any texture. This is due in part to centuries of religion giving us a drab black and white Jesus. However, when the gospels are read through the lens of grace, we see Jesus in high definition and living color. The canvas of scripture does not portray pallid, religiously correct principles, as some would assume.
Grace was and is not found in principles, but in the person of Jesus. Jesus was not some new radical theologian or a theorist; He was truth made tangible; truth with a pulse, if you will. Jesus, the consummate painter, His pallet, words full of grace and truth, His canvas was not pristine personalities, but imperfect people like you and me. This masterpiece of grace is a painting that has been drying now for over 2,000 years continuing to reveal hues of undiscovered truth. Maybe like me, you have returned to passages that you’ve underlined, highlighted and notated to the point they are no longer legible only to discover subtle nuances you had missed. The time worn statement, “A picture is worth a thousand words” is true, or as the singer-songwriter Christopher Cross puts it, “The canvas can do miracles.”
Do you remember your first experience with books as a child? As a toddler, your parents probably sat you on their lap and read books with pages, not dominated by printed words, but with pictures. You didn’t know the alphabet, vowels, consonants or parts of speech. Your young, fertile mind was prewired to be stimulated through pictures. As a child you were more visual than verbal, more intuitive and imaginative. It was the pictures not the print that captivated your attention. To a great degree I think the innocence of learning has been tainted by the technical. The secular as well as religious educational systems, for the most part, do not foster the innate curiosity we arrived with as infants. The “system” rewards the ability to give the “right answer”; the one expected by the authority, your teacher. Rather than being taught how to think, you were taught what to think. As a result, the “answers” became more important than the questions. Consider what happened to the disciples who apparently thought they were advanced in their understanding of Jesus teaching. These men who had a front row seat for every teaching Jesus had ever given had a rude awakening to their presumption when they ask, “Who gets the highest rank in God’s kingdom?” For an answer Jesus called over a child, whom he stood in the middle of the room and said, “I’m telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you’re not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s kingdom. What’s more, when you receive the childlike on my account, it’s the same as receiving me” (Matthew 18:1-5 Message Bible).
Jesus thanked his father for “hiding these things from the wise and learned and revealing them to little children.” I have often wondered if in that moment with the disciples bewildered by His actions if Jesus might have cupped the child’s tiny face in His hands, looked into his eyes and remembered how He Himself had come into the world. This child, unlike us, had nothing to unlearn. This, in part, is what Jesus was trying to get Nicodemus to understand. Jesus tells Nicodemus, a respected Pharisee and teacher, that if he was going to understand His teaching he was going to have to go back to his infancy and unlearn everything he thought he knew so well. The kingdom belonged to little children because they are dependent, asking questions of the people they trust for understanding.
My own grandchildren are uninhibited question asking machines, a constant reminder that the system tried to program me to mindlessly accept their answers. I absolutely love their fertile inquisitive imaginations. I never tire of hearing them describe something they have seen. Through their eyes, I can leave the mundane, monotonous world of black and white and enter their world of unbounded imagination. Time and time again they provide a reality check reminding me that in all my learning I’ve become clueless. As adults, we remember well people and places we saw as a child that seemed so big and now they seem so small. Maybe the problem is we got too big and our imaginations became too small. I think Einstein was right when he said, “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, chances are you don’t understand it yourself” or when he said, “the only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”
Modern English, which is more abstract, communicates in words not pictures. On the other hand, the ancient language of scripture is more concrete. My dear friend, Don Milam and author of Discovering the Ancient Language of Eden, says it this way; “I felt like a baby, newly emerged from the womb, incapable of speech. The language of religion that I had spoken for so long had proved to be a false language, a dead language. It had failed me and had to be discarded. I had discovered the original native tongue of every child of God.”
Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet is a symbol, called a pictograph or a picture within the words. It’s easy to see then how so much has been lost in translation. Symbolism is a language concealed within the margins, tucked between the lines; like the game of hide and seek we played as children, which is actually the brainchild of our heavenly father. I’m not saying that God is trying to frustrate us by concealing truth from us, but He does conceal it for us. “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings” (Proverbs 25:2 NIV).
How many times have you stared at the pages of scripture and the pictures you might otherwise have seen were obscured by the maze of print? The strange sounding names, places and phrases leave you feeling illiterate. The black letters on a white page seem to run together obscuring the kaleidoscope of grace. The brilliant apostle Paul responsible for two-thirds of the New Testament said, “The plan wasn’t written out with ink on paper, with pages and pages of legal footnotes, killing your spirit. It’s written with Spirit on spirit, his life on our lives” (2 Corinthians 3:6 Message Bible)!
I have met so many people over the years that struggle to understand the language of scripture in their quest to know God, not realizing He has given us the visible creation; truth hidden in plain sight as a tutor.
“For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God” (Romans 1:20 New Living Testament).
Martin Luther said it this way, “God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars.” The opening pages of scripture let us know that nature is God’s first teacher. Where there is no scripture, there are sparkling stars. Where there are no preachers, there is the panorama of the Rockies, Alps, and Himalayas. Where there are no four gospels, there is four changing seasons. Consider for a moment the blazing sunrises and sunsets you’ve seen against the backdrop of a blue sky, splashed with brilliant red, orange and purple; or, when the fall arrives, the air that has been heavy with humidity during the summer becomes cool and crisp. The foliage that had been emerald during the growing season is now being colored with earth tones of mauve, red and gold. Within weeks the leaves begin to fall and the once ornamented trees will look like gray skeletons silhouetted against the sky. God created the seasons and the change they bring not just to regulate the climate, but also to reveal how things grow around and within us. Seldom do we realize how much color surrounds us speaking volumes in a world of gray; vivid colors that evoke emotions and spiritual awareness.
I wonder if David, the shepherd boy, was inspired to write these words lying on his back on some hill staring up at stars that looked like diamonds sprinkled across an inky sky. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the end of the world” (Psalm 19:1-4 NIV).
Many years ago, I had the awe-inspiring experience of visiting Niagara Falls. While there I had an encounter with the Lord I will never forget that further illustrates the all-encompassing nature of grace in nature. I remember, before I was close enough to see the falls, that I could hear the thundering torrents of water. When I finally arrived at the observation area, I stood mesmerized by the river racing over the precipice, plummeting 176 feet to the gorge below. I was told that 750,000 gallons of water flow over the falls on the Canadian and American side every second 24/7. All of my senses were seized by this experience. The sound of many waters drowned out all the voices around and within me. Within minutes I was enveloped by the mist arising from the rushing river, soaked from my hair to my socks. Then, I had the strangest urge; I wanted to jump in! The urge was not some subliminal suicidal desire, but a primal prompting not just to look, but to leap. At that moment I realized that is the way God’s grace is. When you encounter it, you are not content to merely be a tourist having your picture taken by it…you want in.