Getting to know a breaking-off-the-canvas God

She is almost a teenager, but when she looked up at me with eyes hooded by fear, I wanted to scoop her up into my arms and cradle her like a newborn babe. “My brain feels crazy,” she whispered to me. She is pushing through a darkness that feels insurmountable from the other side. But then again, sometimes my darkness feels insurmountable too. She has lived more brokenness and pain in her short life than most people will experience in a lifetime. The weight she carries—the darkness, the “craziness” that overwhelms her brain—is certainly more than I bear. But in that moment, I wanted to curl up next to her and cradle our unique and individual darkness together. I wanted to say, “Ahhh, sweet girl, my brain feels crazy too.”

There are days when I crave the easy answers of my childhood, when I long for the concrete, black-and-white thinking that defined my faith for so long. It is hard to imagine now, but there was a day when I could not fathom any shade of grey in my understanding of the Divine.

That was before I watched my dad shudder his last breath.

Before I crumbled, listening to my brother wail over the loss of his best friend.

Before my dreams were shattered and a deep well of longing was left empty.

Before relationships exploded and prayers were greeted by silence.

Before I was confronted by expansive need and the deliberately chosen ignorance and greed that continue to ensure the gaping lack remains for some.

Before I smoothed the brow of little children traumatized and assaulted, many of whom will likely become the “they” that are so quickly judged and dismissed by even the most religiously pious.

That was before. 

There are many days, now, that are defined by grey space. And honestly, it can feel far easier to sit down next to someone else with a paintbrush full of grey, to swirl our questions and doubts and greys together, than to engage with the black-and-white painters with whom I used to feel at home. That sweet little girl? I can sit down next to her with my “crazy” and feel known, accepted. There seems to be many a black-and-white gallery where the greys are not invited. The questions, the doubts are covered over with a splat of black paint. Even still, I do sometimes miss those days of black-and-white.

You know what has been deeply comforting for me in the last several days, though? Some words, crafted by someone centuries ago…someone who, far as I can tell, was also swirling paint on a canvas and trying to understand the God who had defied his black-and-white too.

“You hem me in, behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me…Where shall I go from your Spirit? Where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” —From Psalm 139

I imagine this God, the God I tried to paint with black-and-white for far too many years, the God who I’ve now been trying to understand in shades of grey…THIS God is an expansive, brilliantly colorful God. A God I cannot flee…or contain. 

“If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” Even in the depths of darkness…in chaos and the swirling, scary unknown…even there, God resides. Other painters may be put off by the shades I am throwing on the canvas, but I can never scare God away. In fact, I think so many of us are trying so hard to contain this God on a canvas that we can see and understand and whose edges we can define, and yet God is continually trying to break free. I wield my paintbrush with a new shade of grey—a new question, a doubt I have been too afraid to name—and I imagine God handing me a pallet of exquisite new colors carefully stirred and mixed and crafted. “Try these,” comes the whispered encouragement. Other painters beside me may snicker behind their hands, may give me the side eye that silently says “you’ve stepped too far outside the lines,” but I will take the pallet handed me and dip my paintbrush anew.

There have been days when I have longed for the black-and-white, but the reality is, paint-by-number would never satisfy me anymore. I can’t look at that sweet little girl, a precious child who has trusted and been harmed, and give her the black-and-white. The black-and-white could never contain or tend to her gaping and bloody wounds. Instead, I want to bring her a breaking-off-the-canvas God, a God who took on the colorful costume of humanity and who put on brokenness because of Love. I want to bring her the brilliant shades of a God who cannot be contained by the black-and-white canvas, the God who is somehow present no matter how far I wander or fall. I want to bring her the God who can cradle her pain, who can take her yelling and hitting and “how could yous” and not try to convince her to dismiss or forget the shittiness of it all. I want to bring her the God who loves her deeply and unabashedly with a no-ifs-ands-or-buts kind of love.

Yeah, my canvas is changing. And sometimes I look around the room at all the black-and-white canvases and think it would be so much easier to forget the colors and shades I’ve learned and added to my canvas. But really? As often as I say I wish I could go back, I really don’t. I want to know the breaking-off-the-canvas God who is present no matter where I fall or land. If that means I have to find new galleries and work rooms to practice this painting craft, so be it. I will press on, apron splattered with new shades of the breaking-free God who is finding me in the spaces and places I never knew I could wander.

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