Look what I’ve drawn, Mum!” There on the table is a multicoloured scribble that has not managed to stay in the confines of the sheet of paper and it looks like a…
“Oh, that’s fantastic darling and what is... no, tell me about it.”
The child beams up and a detailed description cascading out about the splodge of chaotic colour that is now proudly stuck to the fridge. You may have seen the Mona Lisa and the Monet masterpieces, but to a Mum, her two-year-old’s first composition is truly priceless.
The picture that sticks on the fridge somehow represents the essence of the two-year-old that is rampaging around the house. There on paper is a taste of their creativity, their fun, their emotions and how they see the world. If a child’s home life is in chaos, it’s not difficult for professionals to pick this up in their early pictures.
Pictures can speak louder than words. From the moment the first foundation stone of the church was laid, the people of God were given the task to paint the texture of good news of Jesus Christ. How? By being self-portraits of his grace. Not copies.
So together we are God’s grace painters.
By God’s favour and immeasurable risk he gave us the responsibility to hold the paintbrushes. From age to age, the church has responded to the call to paint the gospel of God’s love, mercy and amazing grace.
A study of church history makes for fascinating viewing if we saw it through the means of the pictures that have been hung on the ancient walls of times gone by. Let’s look at recent additions to the National Gallery of the church. Some pictures are set in a background of tears such as the ones painted by those who serve the people of Soham, as families and friends journey through the tragic loss of Holly and Jessica or those by people serving the dying, starving and desperate people of this world.
And there are a myriad of pictures that aren’t on public view. In these pictures, grace is painted in small ways where no one knows or sees the sacrifice of love one to another.
There’s the time when the housebound elderly lady writes to the tired church leader and reassures him of her prayers for him each day. Her affirming words see him on through the bitter battle of change.
The picture cameo of the conversations at the school gate bringing a lonely mum in touch with people who care more about her than which SATS level her children have achieved or failed.
The courage of the young mum who has to escape to the refuge with the help of friends or the jigsaw club for the recently bereaved that brings grace-filled hours to grief-stricken days.
All these are beautiful paintings of God’s grace touching the lives of his people. But it’s important for the church to remember that Grace painting is about what’s on view as well as what isn’t.
Being in a church you can find yourself in the place that also has bickering and backstabbing, the telling cry of “that’s the way we’ve always done it” or “everyone is so out of touch apart from me!” Our desperate need for grace can often be perceived by its absence in the way people deal with each other.
This is what people see when they look at in the National Gallery of the church. The World Christian Encyclopaedia compiled by David Barrett calculates that worldwide 7,600 people are leaving the church each day. Although this is for many reasons, there has never been a more critical time when grace needs to be painted on the faces of church members. The world needs grace. So does the church. Without it we die.
Now is the time for the church to rediscover grace, grasp the brushes and get painting!
What’s so amazing about grace for the church?
‘What grace is given me, let it pass to him and let him be spared’, whispers Arwen, the Elf King’s daughter, to Frodo as he is passing to the downside in
The Lord of the Rings.
This powerful scene paints for us the amazing truth that grace is all about giving away. It must be passed on. By its very nature it’s impossible to keep for yourself. And the only way we can paint grace is when we know that we ourselves have been painted by God with his grace. Jesus was grace personified. The cry of our world is “What’s in it for me?” The cry of Jesus was “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” Grace always points outwards.
So people touched by the finger of God’s grace cannot remain the same. We are changing, being made new. Grasping grace in the church does not mean that we become more articulate in our arguments, not smarter at alienating the opposition, not bigger, richer and more powerful. Grace makes us more Christlike, more willing to serve and more humble in that service. Once redrawn by his grace we are called to paint grace colours with all its pain and beauty.
And grace is always given for a reason. As Paul said, “Grace is given to me to preach the unsearchable riches to the Gentiles” (Ephesians 3:8). You’ve been given grace? What for?
Mind the mess
Whatever the specific task it will be messy. Painting is a messy business with spillages, mixing and lots of creative risks! Even the most accomplished artists have false starts and make mistakes. Does your church life feel frustrating? Well in the best sense of the word it should be. Church life is messy.
Grace in action is costly, and rarely happens without effort, energy and courage. As church we are not here to devise a smooth running business or an effective marketing firm, but to paint into people’s lives the grace that brings definition and shape.
We need to get our hands dirty. Grace painting is a risky thing for the church to be into. It leads to having to ask difficult questions and assess our priorities. We can no longer justify keeping open pretty churches for the sake of a few. We should not be caught up in preserving a church-shaped museum for future generations but a grace filled living church that has as part of its legacy the good deeds that it has done and the grace it has passed on. We can’t expect all our structures, whatever church denomination we are part of, to remain sacred. Christianity is not conservation but revolution. But let’s not become predictable. God’s grace can cause a revolution in a 17th century building and a church that is only two years old can quickly become traditionally bound! But wherever we are, when we get our hands dirty we see God doing a new thing in people’s lives and in his world.
Painting by numbers
Painting by numbers makes fantastic paintings. But they’re not original. How many people do you know who’ve finished a picture like that? It gets boring. And it doesn’t teach you to paint. Church at its best is not about conforming to one fixed picture. God’s creativity has never taught us that we all need to be the same.
Christian communities all have the unique opportunities to paint grace given to them. The gallery needs to expand and be full of as many different masterpieces the world can create. Ultimately the whole thing will be a mosaic of grace that captures the totality of God’s love for his creation.
Sometimes pooling resources in projects with other local churches works well but not always. Christians working together can be more precarious. But partnerships of all kinds between Christian and secular groups can demonstrate grace. In our last church there was an early years partnership between the playgroup, school and the church and it worked.
There is a great strength in doing things in different ways whether it is worship or work. The key is that the church in all its different forms must be grace painting not law making or power broking.
Brian McLaren, an American church leader, thinker and author wrote that he was ‘struck far more by the similarities than the differences in spite of our different doctrines, histories, polity, liturgy, architecture and constituencies we experience common sociologies and common systems.’ (The Church on the Other Side, published by Zondervan)
So, whether a church is charismatic or conservative, anglo-catholic or calvinist there are certain signs and wonders that make great Grace Pictures. It could be a breathtaking moment in a choral anthem or an emotional rush of warmth as a new believer shares her testimony and gets baptised. Maybe it’s a miraculous answer to a prayer or a homeless man is given a bed for the night. Whether it’s a person speaking in tongues or intimacy in a front room among a few friends discovering God in person as they read together the truths from the Bibles on their laps, all are grace paintings of the church and all are beautiful.
The favourite pictures in any family album will be those taken on wedding days. Any gallery you visit will contain paintings of a big family wedding. There will be the one that shows the radiant bride filling the picture with her smile and gown. The dress will be the dress of her dreams. In Paul’s evocative imagery, he talks of the church being the Bride of Christ.
Grace makes the best dress. It is the wedding gown for the church. We want a church that wears the dress of her dreams.
As a church what are our dreams?
We don’t want a faddish revival – or to become a preserved fossil – or prideourselves in our commitment to march on to the end with our head in the sand but to have performed it all properly. We are not a church that will use grace as God’s weapon of mass destruction but as his instrument of mass redemption.
We want a church that is strong on grace, creative grace, dynamic grace and compassionate grace. We want a church to bring the unchanging gospel of grace to a rapidly changing world. Grace that gives us patience with the present and together a real vision for the future. A church that is overflowing with grace.
We want to be the bride that is more beautiful, more enticing, more attractive, more captivating and strident. This will be the painting of all paintings.
Our calling is to be the bride that is irresistible. So much that Christ can’t take his eyes off her and others can’t take their eyes off the church.Now is the time for the church to rediscover grace, grasp the brushes and get painting!
- What is your church doing that is messy at the moment?
- What ways have you responded to a need? Or served others?
- Or are you in danger of being too safe and sorted?