Thursday, April 15, 2010

The color of my paint brush

I was reading today in the sunshine, overlooking the water and the mountains, enjoying what felt like an afternoon out with Jesus. In the book I’m reading, Searching for God knows what, by Donald Miller, I came across these words, which Don paraphrased as being part of the message of Jesus: “Follow Me,” He said. “I have no opinion about what color the paints should be in this prison. Follow Me.” These words stopped me, and I just sat there, chewing on this picture as a cow chews on cud, wanting to digest it. I found myself thinking about all the colors that have been on my paintbrush throughout my life and how they’ve changed and how, regardless of the color, it’s all just murals painted on the walls of a prison. Let me explain.

I feel that, when people ask me “What do you do?” it’s their way of asking, “What color is on your paintbrush?” For years, I dipped my paintbrush in the colors of refugees and Africa, the poor and oppressed, social justice and counseling. Now don’t get me wrong, I have a passion, to some degree, for all these people and ideas and principles. But I painted with a desperation fueled by a need for redemption. I needed something to paint that redeemed my time, that gave meaning to my life, something that expressed to the world, “I am doing something with my life, and therefore, I am valuable.” As if the culture, or the world, were my court of peers, approving of my life or casting their vote of disapproval. I know it sounds like it was something blatant, but it was actually quite subtle, and I would have denied (and did deny) for a long time that this was actually in play. So you see, it was not these things themselves that were amiss - such as caring for justice for the oppressed - but the way they were strangely twisted into a form of validation in my life.

I used to get a lot of satisfaction from telling people who asked what I wanted to do in life, what I was studying and what I cared about. I felt like it was a little advertisement for myself, something that would either capture their interest or not. Since losing my dad and being employed in a job that is largely viewed as a setback for me or a last resort or a detour from my career path, I have on more than one occasion written about how strange and at times frustrating it is to find a new kind of language for authentically communicating with people who I am and what I’m about. To separate myself from my old vocabulary has been very difficult, especially in a culture that places so much value on what people do for a living. And when you have an "advanced degree,” you are seen as a sort of peculiar person, or a person lacking direction or ambition, if you are not pursuing a career path in your field of study. You will receive some sympathy if you have fallen on some hard times, financially or personally, things outside your control. But at some point, that sympathy turns to something else, perhaps even a form of judgment. Why don’t you get off your duff and do something worthwhile with your life, stop wasting your talents?

The realization I’ve come to, however, is that, while I do desire my life to be lived fully and meaningfully, I'm really not as picky about the color on my paintbrush. It’s true, this life, this world, is like one big prison groaning for redemption. The Bible talks about this in its story, woven throughout the entire narrative. Yet this prison is not one without hope, but with the promise of a loving Creator and Savior Who has and will redeem it. And we can paint it a bunch of beautiful colors, but until it is fully redeemed, it will still remain a beautifully painted prison. So rather than obsessing about the color on my paintbrush, I’d rather obsess about Jesus, the One who left His kingdom and gave up His throne to come live within our prison walls, to set us free so we can know Him and love Him and experience life again in unbroken relationship with Him. If I’m painting a mural on any wall, I want it to be love. I want it to be expressive of the beauty of Jesus. I want it to stir in people a longing to fall in love with this Jesus.

I can’t adequately put into words what I’m about by simply answering what I do for work or how I want to use (or not use) my degree. I’m thankful for my education, and I don’t take that lightly. But whether or not I ever pursue a career of it no longer ranks very high on my list of priorities. I feel less “lost” now, not knowing what I want to do for a career, than I did when I thought I had a clear direction, a clear passion and sense of calling. I guess a better way of putting it is that I don’t feel that sense of desperation to prove my worth in life - to God or others or myself. I feel quite content and fulfilled in loving the people I am with at my job. I am far from perfect at this, at loving people. But if I could be good at anything, that’s what I’d want to be good at. For in loving people, I want them to see Jesus. Not the American version of Jesus, or the evangelical version of Jesus, or the religious Right version of Jesus, or the liberal version of Jesus, or the privileged White version of Jesus, but the real Jesus. And to be frank, I guess I’m still finding out who that is, because He’s so much more than (and in some regards, so very different from) who He’s been painted as in our world and who I’ve thought Him to be. This Jesus that I love, He’s just too good to keep to myself, and to do so would not be very loving of me.

All that to say, I don’t know what color is on my paintbrush. But the One who supplies the paint, He’s much more interesting than whatever it is I’m painting. I’d take a look at Him, because you might not be able to tear your eyes away once you really catch sight of Him. I just want to follow Him.

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