Living Masterpieces

The inspiration for our message this morning comes courtesy of Jean Ann, who earlier this week sent me a couple of texts with stunning pictures of beautiful birds. The colors of their feathers were remarkable—so amazing they didn’t seem possible—and exquisitely detailed. One fancy chicken had feathers with what appeared to be scalloped edges. Just amazing. I responded with, “Wow, living masterpieces,” acknowledging the unmistakable artistry of God. And then I laughed and texted, “I’m sure that will be the topic of a message someday.” And here we are.

I continued to think about this idea of God’s artistry as I went through the week. Not only do we see the magnificence of natural beauty all around us right now in the gorgeous fall colors, but each of our lives, in their own unique ways, are living masterpieces of God’s creating—we are because God is—and each day, with our presence, thoughts, choices, and actions, we are the canvas of God’s hope, God’s vision, God’s possibility. Most of us live up to this divine potential unevenly, sometimes feeling confident about God’s leading, sometimes not; sometimes feeling we’re living up to the potential of our faith, sometimes not.

But in spite of the ups and downs of human moods and perspectives, most of us do our best, trying to listen to those inner nudges, trying to keep in mind Jesus’ teachings and example of true compassion, equal justice, and above all, devotion to and trust in God. Jesus knew that staying close to God was the key to a true life of faith. It’s where peace begins; where inspiration starts; where love arises to inspire hearts and minds and lives.

And we don’t have to look far to find examples of how God can use something small and quiet to start a big and beautiful effort that blesses everyone involved. Two examples happened right here in our own meeting in recent weeks: First when Julia felt God stirring her heart to offer help as we tried to discern what to do about the parsonage. Think for a moment about how that unfolded. From a quiet nudge in Julia’s heart that idea grew to include first Sherry and then Janice and then our meeting as a whole. As she and Gary worked on loving the parsonage into shape, a friend of Gary’s who renovates homes saw his truck and stopped by. That person felt a connection to the house and wanted to see it restored to the beauty of its earlier days. There was respect and light and love in that.

As our meeting considered the choices before us, Charlotte felt led to volunteer to serve as a trustee. The energy and effort was building. What I hope we’ll see is that that was all God, leading, inspiring, and working through us, individually and as a meeting. We faithfully followed our Quaker tradition as we weighed our choices; we listened to each other and respected what arose; we took the necessary discerning steps, and Sherry, Janice, and Charlotte led us through the successful sale of the parsonage to someone who cares about it—and us—and will rehabilitate it in a respectful and loving way. Can’t you just see God’s divine fingerprints all over that? It was a good and nurturing answer for the good of our meeting, with respect for those who over the years have put in many, many hours of care and contact as they managed and oversaw the property. God led us to the right answer for who we are today and brought something beautiful out of a situation that at times felt anything but. And everyone involved was blessed. That’s a hallmark of the solutions God brings—peace, harmony, goodness for all.

The second example unfolded this week. You all know that we recently lost Gwen, who was a beloved member of this meeting for many years. Gwen’s daughter called Barb to tell her about services, and after Barb hung up, she realized she hadn’t asked whether it would be helpful for our meeting to provide food for the family. There’s that little glimmer of inspiration. So she called back and asked the question, and they said yes, that really would help because many people were coming into town for the service. So Barb, following that nudge in her heart started texting the ladies of our meeting to see whether they could help prepare food in very short order. I was so touched by this—and I didn’t even know about it until after it had happened—because we are still living with the effects of the pandemic, which has limited the way we do things like share meals and get together and comfort one another in times of loss. We haven’t even had a shared meal at our meeting—something we used to do each month, right before monthly meeting for business—since probably January of 2020. But Barb followed that inspiration to ask the question, and the ladies responded promptly and faithfully. A few hours before people were due to arrive, Barb and Tom dropped off beef and noodles, shaved ham and buns, chicken casserole, corn pudding casserole, green bean casserole, 7-layer salad, pumpkin bread, brownies, and pie. What an amazing and delicious labor of love! I’ll bet all of those dishes spread out on a serving table were a beautiful sight. In fact we can be sure of that, because God is an artist, and God’s medium is love. And God paints these masterpieces not with paintbrushes or pens or spray cans, but with the hands and hearts of loving and listening people doing their best to live their faith. We are so blessed to be part of God’s love in action.

I love that the inspiration starts so small and normal. Just a little nudge, a good idea, a caring thought, maybe the impulse to add a bit of kindness to someone’s day. When we pay attention to that leading—however tiny it might be—and begin to put it into action, other people come alongside us with the gifts and talents we need to make it happen. Like Gary’s friend David, seeing his truck and stopping by. God works out the details when we’re in the right place with listening hearts.

I like the way one person I follow on Twitter—a monk in England—describes the way we help God build goodness in this world. He says,

Every craftsman searches for what’s not there to practice his craft.
A builder looks for the rotten hole where the roof caved in.
A water-carrier picks the empty pot.
A carpenter stops at the house with no door.
                                                                         @TheCarceri

Each one, with a different gift, is led to contribute what he or she can, what comes naturally. In this way, God brings just what we need for the task at hand. People with different recipes all contribute what they can to make a full and filling meal. People with the expertise we need show up to help us through our stuck places, like the men who did such a great job fixing the plaster in this meeting room a couple of weeks ago. Some who feel a concern, get involved with its solution—I’m thinking of Sherri Bonham and how she faithfully continues to provide supplies the township trustees need for people in our community. It’s all part of the bigger unfolding work of Love we’re part of, whether we can yet see it clearly or not.

If you’ve ever watched an artist paint, you’ve noticed that a new creation begins with a blank canvas. To our eyes, it may look like a big rectangle of white stretched fabric, but the artist sees with eyes of imagination and knows what the finished masterpiece will look like–a beautiful sky and far-away hills and maybe a cabin or a stream or ducks in the foreground. The picture won’t make any sense to us until he or she picks up the paintbrush and starts painting, and even then, at first, what we see will be hard to decipher. The artist will likely start with background color—maybe sky or sea—and then begin to add more and more detail, layer by layer. Gradually the image becomes clearer and the picture comes to life. By the time it’s finished, it almost feels like a work of magic, which you know if you’ve ever watched a Bob Ross video online. With a vision, some talent, and a little time—all gifts of God—we, too, can create a masterpiece, as a painting or in real life, part of God’s landscape with happy little trees and clouds.

In very much the same way, God works slowly—and maybe largely unseen—as a good work is in process. That’s an important thing to remember which helps us keep our hope alive. Just because we don’t yet see it, doesn’t mean God isn’t working. One person has an idea, another follows a leading, a third picks up on the suggestion of a friend. Something in their hearts resonate, and they feel led to act on it—maybe just by asking a question, or making a phone call, or sending a text. But as God’s idea takes root and grows, it draws to itself the people needed for its fulfillment. That’s what happened for us recently, with the parsonage and the meal, but who knows what else God might be stirring in our hearts even now. I think of all the good ideas I’ve heard over the years and all the loving and faithful service so many of you already provide in the care of our meeting, the work of our committees, our outreach to other Friends organizations and community programs. What might God be doing next with our hearts and as a result, our meeting? The picture is still coming into view. But we can be certain that whatever the Master Artist is creating in us, it will be beautiful and needed and a blessing for all.

Dag Hammarskjold, Swedish economist and the second General Secretary of the United Nations, wrote in his spiritual biography Markings,

Thou takest the pen
and the lines dance.
Thou takest the flute
and the notes shimmer.
Thou takest the brush
and the colours sing.
So all things have meaning and beauty
in that space beyond time where Thou art.
How, then, can I hold anything back
from Thee?

Our Old Testament reading today is a celebration of God’s goodness and artistry, talking about how God brings goodness and beauty, strength and wisdom to those who stay close to the Lord. The psalmist begins with the exclamation, “How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord almighty!” And he goes on to say that God’s tender love extends even to sparrows, who are allowed to nest near the altar. Those of us who love God, he says, also stay close, finding strength and direction for our lives. Even in the difficult parts of our journeys, we discover places of refreshment and beauty. If we stay close to God, we will “go from strength to strength,” the psalmist says, “till (we) each appear before God in Zion.”

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he says something similar in the different way. “Whenever anyone turns to the Lord,” he writes, “the veil is taken away,” and our hearts can understand what God is saying to us and what we’re being invited to do in the name of Love. “Now the Lord is Spirit,” Paul writes, “and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image.”

And there’s your living masterpiece of Love right there. As we let our hearts be open to God, whatever separates us falls away, and we grow more and more beautiful, more and more giving, like the Source of Love and Life. The secret—which Jesus, and the psalmist, and Paul all knew—was closeness to God, close enough that we hear and recognize and act on God’s tiny promptings of love–for God’s glory, not our own. I think that is what God is doing in our meeting right now—leading us to shine a bit brighter, reach a bit farther, be open to new ideas about how we might make a loving difference in our world. God has already shown us He is leading us. The great blessing is that with no veil shrouding our understanding, we get to witness God at work, blessing and helping and encouraging others through us, however that might take shape.

St. Clare of Assisi was one of the first followers of Saint Francis. She became a nun when she was only a teen, after hearing Francis preach. More than anything, she wanted to live a simple and humble life of love in accord with the Gospel. She wrote,

“We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God's compassionate love for others.”

This is what happens to us naturally when we stay close to God, close enough to hear how God is nudging us to act on the promptings of our hearts. When we do—no matter how small and simple that nudge may be—a seed of love is planted, the idea builds, people come to help us, and ultimately God’s goodness is achieved. What a blessing to be part of that—and know it! The kingdom of God, here and now, appearing on the canvas of this world, a living masterpiece of Love that includes us all.

RESOURCES

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