It’s that time of year again, when many people reflect on what redemption means. For those who practice Lent, this may mean taking part in fasting or giving something up. For many who don’t religiously participate, the Lenten season may still be a time of reflection. These challenging times are especially focused on what it means to be set free, both literally and spiritually.
Last night I had a nightmare that my husband, oldest daughter and I were in a car that was flung off a cliff. As the car descended, I told both of them that I loved them, and I reflected that I had a good life, if this should be the end. But I prayed frantically for a miracle. Then we landed- onto a thick black mat that seemed made of melted rubber, like children’s indoor commercial play-area flooring. The mat was floating on foamy water, as part of a landfill. Our car was nearly on the center of the mat. We had survived! My dream self said, (because we are alive) “We must be here for a reason.” Then, my awake self thought the same thing: We are alive. We must be here for a reason.
I spent the day doing more than I usually do. I am grateful to be here. Let every moment we’re here be heavy with purpose. May we treasure our time and our energy, lest our purpose be frittered away by the manufactured realities that others push on us. We were made for so much more than this. This Lenten season, let us reflect on what mercy is, and know that we are loved by God.
I finally finished my leftover project from before Christmas! Now you see why I was comparing having this painting on my easel in late January to taking down the Christmas tree late. It literally is a Christmas tree that, in canvas form, was sitting on my easel- which is in the kitchen of this small house- and staring at me every day! So, I thought by the time I got this done, I’d no longer care about it and neither would you, but the video is surprisingly cathartic to watch.
As I see the painting come alive in the magical time lapse fashion, it feels like a story. The music was rather random, but fit the emotion of the art perfectly- at least from the perspective I have at the moment. At first the music and the painting starts off as a pretty little thing, without much story to it. But then the music gets kind of odd and chaotic at the same time my video does too! What was happening during that part is that I was trying out my new tripod and my first attempt was a shambles. My head blocked a lot of the session. So, only parts of that session were usable (not a big deal, it wasn’t that important to skip ahead).
But it feels like the parts of Christmas that don’t live up to expectations, don’t go as planned, or maybe are a total disaster and are completely cut from the holiday. This year, we had plans to cook Cornish hens for Christmas dinner, but the refrigerator in the house we’re renting broke- completely dead. We had no refrigeration for weeks, as the process of getting management to send someone out, then having the repair guys say that it’s dead, and then getting approval for a new refrigerator, and then waiting for delivery people to bring it- well, it all takes time.
So for the entire Christmas week and all the way up to New Year’s, we had no place to thaw out the Cornish hens that were in our personally owned chest freezer we bought the LAST time the refrigerator went out (they repaired it that time but I knew it would simply die again later and I didn’t want to lose all our food again when it did!). The investment in the chest freezer was looking pretty wise, I must say! I froze everything I could, even raw eggs in baggies. Our food loss was very minimal.
We did buy a small refrigerator to get through this ordeal, otherwise we’d have had no refrigeration for the holidays (just the freezer). The mini fridge is too small for thawing Cornish hens, so that carefully laid plan for Christmas dinner fell apart. Because of this, I came up with Plan B, which was better than Plan A and will now be a regular thing, a new family tradition. I went with a Christmas morning breakfast that becomes a brunch as the morning turns into afternoon.
I had purchased a warming server to use over Thanksgiving and I realized it would be perfect for using on Christmas. So, here we have an example of how everything fell into place, but only after the frustration and stress of the broken refrigerator, which brought unpleasant emotions forward. I’m weary of living in a small rental house, but our life circumstances will keep us here for at least another Christmas, probably two.
I’ve had much worse cancellations of Christmas. It would take much more than a broken refrigerator to stop me from celebrating. There was the Christmas when Dad was terminally ill from cancer and I was dropped off at another family’s Christmas gathering while my parents were in the hospital for Dad’s chemo treatment.
I was fifteen years old and I remember feeling such awkwardness and humiliation to be the unexpected guest, sitting there while the family was exchanging presents (a large extended family gathering, most didn’t know who I was). The hosts (the only people I knew, friends of my parents) apparently felt compelled to wrap something up for me, and this was worse than if they didn’t. Or maybe not. That would have been horrible too, if sitting there overlooked and ignored. There was really no way to make things better. While strangers smiled at me while their eyes were filled with pity, I fumbled to unwrap whatever it is that they gave me as a token present. I don’t remember what it was.
Dad was hairless then and vomiting during meals. Mom wanted us to pretend we didn’t notice, so I was expected to eat normally even though vomiting noises were only a few feet away, as Dad was hurling into the kitchen sink while we ate. Nerves of steel, that’s what I had. Sometimes it makes me appear cold and detached, but that’s only how I get through a crisis.
We can never guarantee how we’d act in a situation, but in my own family- the one I’ve built as an adult- we are open and honest. I cannot imagine the dysfunction of expecting my children to eat normally while something that traumatic is happening. That’s just a snippet of course of what it was like to grow up while Dad was dying. Mom’s gone now. Otherwise I’d not feel comfortable saying even this much.
So, that’s Christmas for some of us. There are seasons of grief, dysfunction, anxiety, stress, and feeling alone even around others. I am always mindful of this when Christmas rolls around, and I try to help others see the beauty that I do- Christmas is a time marker. We are only asked to “be”. When we do this, we greet Christmas with the hope of the new year to come, regardless of whether or not the current year was good, bad, or in-between.
Back to the video… the music then changes to a calm, sentimental rhythm. And that’s how I feel about Christmas. As it unfolds, whatever stress and expectations we had start to ease up. When it does, we may feel depleted, depressed, tired, or simply relieved. We may feel content. The pace has shifted. The world is no longer running full speed ahead, pushing us to feel something, pushing us to honor our traditions, pushing us to take time off from our regular routine. Everything’s getting back to normal. It will soon be a new year, and an ordinary day.
It may be then that we truly feel Christmas for the first time, when we see it as a pretty picture, cozy and warm with memories of the past- comforted that the past is behind us and the present is here. There is a moment of reflection, and perhaps a recommitment to our faith . We want to be safe, protected, successful, and loved. We want the same for our loved ones. And that’s what we try to express with our Christmas trees and dessert coffees. The desire for Christmas doesn’t go away when Christmas ends.
I last shared this painting here with you in August, in a post called “Protected and Loved“. Today I’m thinking of the concept of safety, and what it means to be “safe”. Who decides what is safe for us, what protects us, and what we must do to be protected? Is this protection motivated by love, or by something else?
A sovereign human seeks of their own free will: love and protection, safety from harm. No one needs a propaganda campaign, threats, or enforcement to be compelled to move toward safety. So if those methods are used to force humanity to comply, one must question the motive. Goodwill and benevolence have no profit or power motive; therefore, coercion is not an act of kindness or virtue.
What does it mean to be “safe”? Is enslavement safe? For whom? True deliverance is like this Guardian Angel leading a child out of a city on fire. She is not pulling, pushing, or threatening the child. The child recognizes this angel as a source of help, and intuitively, willingly, gratefully takes her hand.
Watch me paint “Penguins” in 2 minutes (time lapse)
I hope this brightens your day! Here in the United States, we are past the dreary days of winter. I’d lived in snowy areas most of my life, but now I’m in the Deep South, where it seldom snows (it snowed the first season we moved down here, leading me to think that I brought it with me!). But even though I don’t have to shovel snow anymore or worry about freezing temperatures as low as -25 Fahrenheit, like when I lived in Minnesota (-31.6 Celsius), I still appreciate when the flowers bloom again, leaves return to the trees, and the sun warms up the land.
This lovable baby penguin still cheers me, even though I’m embracing spring as I share this new painting. Joy is never out of season. May you feel as free and loved as this little penguin, no matter whether you stand in snow or atop warm dry land.
First, the oil painting, then the story behind it… make sure you don’t miss the update below.
Watch me paint “Road Unseen” in under 2 minutes (time lapse)
“This was my view while driving the van with my three kids in it. They were young at the time. I was on my way home, on a country road in rural Minnesota, where we once had a hobby farm. I didn’t hear a voice, like some people say that they do. It was more like very strong intuition, but was ‘like’ a voice because the thoughts felt like God talking to me. Saying something like, “Slow down- it’s just over the hill. You are needed.”
I couldn’t see what was over the hill- that part of the road was unseen to me at the time. If I hadn’t slowed down when ‘asked’, I would have passed right by the car alongside the road, probably without noticing the woman standing beside it, who was looking distressed. It wasn’t a car accident, just a breakdown, but something felt very wrong. I stopped, put my window down and asked if she was OK. She was an older woman, who looked me over, and noticed my young kids- apparently she realized I was just a mom, and no threat to her. I saw she was a person in trouble, and my gut said she was not a threat either, but a person in need. Mayo clinic was about 45 minutes’ drive from where we were, and many clinics that offered specialized medicine were much closer, about 15 miles away. She was headed for an appointment at such a clinic, and she was agitated about missing it. Neither of us had a cell phone and she wanted to ring her daughter. So I offered her a ride back to my house to call her. Her daughter came to get her, but I didn’t see her- she was in a hurry to get to her doctor appointment or she’d have to reschedule, which would probably not be easy/fast to do. I thought of that woman the whole day, and wished I’d gotten her contact info. I worried about her getting to her appointment and I hoped she made it. She was a total stranger though, and had only been passing through via the rural stretch from town to town/city. The odds of ever seeing her again were near nothing. Or… Divine intervention…. serendipity… fate…. Just a few hours later, my family decided to go to dinner in the next town over (NOT the town where the woman had gone to her appointment, but in the opposite direction). We ate out seldomly, yet we went out on that particular day… I walked in and couldn’t believe it! The woman I’d found by the side of the road was sitting right there! I did a double take, thinking that maybe I’d imagined this recognition, and she was someone else, but no…. she too was doing an astonished double take. It really was her! She then told her family, “See… she’s not dangerous”. Her family had given her grief about riding with a stranger back to her house, and my family had given me grief about picking up a stranger with my kids in the car, and taking her back to my house. But, both families were instantly reassured…and I found out that she made it to her appointment! She was very relieved about that. It was for medical tests and I didn’t pry. I felt my role in this was over. I was only meant to help her get where she needed to go. Sometimes our ‘road unseen’ is a very small part to play, but important. Sometimes taking a leap of faith is necessary when the symbolic/metaphorical road is ‘unseen’. When we feel strong intuition to make a certain decision, go somewhere, do something, call someone, say yes, or say no, reflecting on these times can remind us of synchronicity. When feeling disillusioned, we can remember what God’s done before and feel hope, certain of God’s personal invention in our lives.”
- from book "50 Oil Paintings Inspired by my Christian Faith" by Natalie Buske Thomas
Update to the above story…
Years later, my husband and I had moved to a new city in a different state. He was scheduled to have surgery and was anxious. I tried to be a reassuring force for him, but what he really needed was to see a familiar face. But that was impossible. We were living in one city, while the hospital was in another one, and we were new to the state in general. The odds of seeing anyone my husband knew were near nothing.
We checked in and went through all of the stations. Finally we were in the room where he would await surgery. It was time for me to leave him there alone. But before I left, the nurse assigned to him came in to introduce herself.
Both my husband and his nurse laughed in astonishment. How could this be? She was one of his regular customers from work- located several cities away from the hospital, where it turned out she also lived. She was commuting for a while. The nurse told everyone on the floor about the bizarre coincidence, but I knew it was our “road unseen”.
When they wheeled my husband off to surgery, he was in animated conversation with the nurse, laughing with the staff, and completely distracted from his fears. The surgery went well, and his results were typical. One familiar face at the right place, at the right time, made all the difference.
Sometimes we’re strangers, sometimes we know each other, but if we’re open to being or receiving a traveler on roads unseen, we may be overwhelmed to realize how loved we are. Science and math cannot account for how the laws of probability are broken when we are afraid. When help serendipitously finds us against all odds, perhaps it is sent to us.