God’s Grace in the Muse, and a Coaster.

I am not a good man. Sure, I appear to love my family, love God, obey the law, and do my work well. But I am not good. I am inherently incapable of doing any of these things well, let alone perfectly. In fact, it seems that the harder I try to exert control over myself and to live rightly, the more I screw everything up. It’s like holding a blob of radioactive-green GAK from Nickelodeon: the tighter your grip on it, the more it squeezes through your fingers. I have anger problems. I have lust problems. Motivation problems, faith problems, and ninety-four other problems. Am I even a Christian? The past month has been full of circumstances and situations that were . . . uh, trying. My attempts to control everything (control problems) not only compounded the unpleasantness of the last five weeks of life, they made me feel more hopeless, alone, and impotent. The GAK was flowing everywhere. Aside from the rage filled screaming for God’s help in the midst of my selfishness, did I turn to Him? Did I actually wait for an answer—to hear His voice? No. No, I turned to my habitual sins—my dirty little medicine cabinet of spiritual hallucinogens. Need to feel powerful? Got one for that! Desired? Lots of that. Validated, significant, valued, in control? There’s something in that medicine cabinet for anything. Of course, none of it lasts. All those sins I turn to over and over again become idols—sometimes literally—that I serve and worship instead of the living, loving God of my salvation. And rather than the life and joy that God gives, my idols had taken from me all I was truly searching for. At the end of a month of me trying to “fix things myself,” I was left unfulfilled, depressed, and hollow.

Enter God. And a blank drink coaster. 

A local brew pub gives out plain white coasters for patrons to decorate, which are then used in the restaurant. Somewhere, my wife had picked up a huge stack of them for our family to embellish. One night last week, I picked one up. Feeling depressed and listless, I drew an outline around a stain about the size of a piece of aquarium gravel. Then I began working concentrically outwards from there, occasionally making a foray into the great expanse of white. What started out as an organically shaped outline quickly turned into something patterned and rigid. The longer I followed the previous path, the more structured the image became. And with the increased structure came less excitement, less to capture the eye. And so, another excursion away from the repetition of following what lay before.

As I worked on filling this coaster with a single line, I began to see it as a metaphor for my life. I didn’t choose the placement or shape of the stain on the coaster that determined those first organic lines, just as I didn’t choose the lineage that informed who I would be from the womb. And just as that organic line quickly became rigid and structured, my personality and idiosyncrasies quickly solidified. My attempts to break away from the pattern and be more interesting ended up only subtly altering the overall pattern. And when I’m done? A maze that doubles back on itself and has so many blind corners and dead ends that I’m not sure I’ll actually reach the end. How fitting! How often in life am I just tracing along a path that I traced before—sometimes pushing out into the unknown—never knowing that I’m only overconfidently creating a labyrinthine ethos so confusing I can’t hope to decipher it? All the difficulty in tracing a path in red are my own doing! Every frustration, every misleading trail can be attributed to my will.

This is a damned coaster! This was supposed to be just some doodle, not a commentary on my freaking life! But maybe it’s about more than just “my freaking life” (self-centered problem).

Here’s where we get to the Muse. See, I don’t think this maze is just about me. It’s about everybody. We’re all blithely going along on auto-pilot making our lives and identities so convoluted we don’t know why we do what we do. As the Apostle Paul lamented in his letter to the Romans, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Yet, looking at the finished image on the coaster, I saw something beautiful, and it gave me an idea. I thought, “What if I painted a portrait over this? What if I painted a series of portraits like that?” The beauty I see in the confusion of that spiraling, meandering line was that it is a representation of an identity. People cannot be reduced to or represented by straight lines. We are complex, confusing, beautiful beings created in the image of a loving God. Yes, we are hopelessly sinful and make huge messes of our lives, but God still loves us. He redeems all that by making something even more complex and perplexing and beautiful out of our mess. That’s what I want to show. That’s what the Muse whispered in my unsuspecting ear. But why me?

And this is God’s grace. In spite of my willful sinfulness—often in the midst of my sinfulness—He chooses to use me. He speaks seeds of His truth to me in ideas and inspiration for works of art. More often than not, I don’t even grasp the full significance of the message until I’m done painting. This is God’s grace: He uses ungainly and unworthy vessels and implements to perform splendid and wondrous feats!

And the coaster? I was going to take it to the pub. Someone would have put a drink on it. Maybe they would have flipped it over and saw my website. But it got bent in half in my computer bag. Broken by my carelessness. Oh well. It’s just a coaster.

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