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The Architect & Me – Part 6: The Cardinal Painting

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You have that thing don’t you? That thing that speaks God’s love? For my mom it’s the sunsets. He painted that just for me, she always says. Now my niece will send me pictures of sunsets and we both know we are thinking the same thing. “Mom thinks that’s just for her.” Maybe for you it’s dolphins or horses or the ocean or the mountains. But something, whether you know it is God’s wooing of you or not, just settles on your soul like the first spring breeze and makes you feel something. Something real. Something holy. That’s what cardinals do for me.

Since my divorce cardinals have spoken God’s love to me. They have a canny ability to show up when my heart is flailing. The car drive when my mind is racing with anxious thoughts, and one starts flying by my car. Seriously, one has done that. When I was up in my former office, staring out the large windows, one would just come sit in the large Cryptomeria as if it were looking at me. Then, for a marker birthday my younger brother bought me the most beautiful copper bird feeder. I had never had a bird feeder. Can I just tell you cardinals love my bird feeder!? Now, we have this small courtyard instead of the larger yard we used to, and it is hidden by Arborvitaes. Tucked away inside of it is my copper feeder. Know who found it? These two adorable lovebird cardinals. And with their arrival it is as if God just settles on me. I’m right here with you.

I know, I respond.

So, it truly was no surprise when He used cardinals to reveal something to my heart about what was on the inside still hidden by uncertainty and skepticism.

I never fully appreciated artwork until I married my first husband. Growing up we didn’t have “artwork.” We had framed pictures. Home Interiors didn’t sell paintings, so I had no appreciation. None. Zilch. Nada. I only remember one picture that hung in our home, and I remembered it because we always thought it had a malfunction. It was a picture of a girl and a dog, and you could never figure out if the dog’s leg was broken or not because of how distortedly it hung. This was the depth of my love affair with art. It would be a few years after my first marriage that my uncle, a talented closet artist, would paint the famous Rainbow Row street in Charleston that now hangs in my parent’s dining room. This would be their first piece of original art.

At a young age, my first husband began to invest in original artwork. Through the years I learned to appreciate not only the outward beauty of art but also what it did to me on the inside. The creative power of God, no matter the form (music, the written word, or even a Harley Davidson), is going to make our hearts feel something. That is just how powerful He is. So, as I encountered more and more art, went to art shows, walked through galleries, I realized that there were certain things my heart gravitated towards. The thing about art is there could have been another hundred people who had passed by that same piece and thought it was the ugliest thing they had ever seen, but something in it connected with you and you knew it would be at home in your home.

Like so many things, you can learn how to appreciate something. So, after we got married, he introduced me to a lovely, locally owned gallery with a kind, soft spoken owner named Christine. Her small gallery held regional artists as well as offered custom framing. As we entered, a large piece of art with a moody setting of a white farmhouse in the background caught my husband’s eye. I went to stand by him to take it in myself. It’s interesting how you study art. One sees one thing. One sees another. But we both saw enough and for the next thirteen years of our marriage that painting would hang over our mantel in each of our homes.

However, an experience with art also shut off something in me. For our entire marriage I had never walked into a gallery and purchased a piece of art myself. I was so uncertain. So insecure. But I decided that for his birthday I wanted to surprise him with a piece of art. I’m not even sure what prompted this idea. I don’t know how I worked up enough confidence to think I could. But, I knew good art galleries, so I guess somewhere inside of me I figured if I got it at one of those, I was golden. Plus, I wanted to purchase him something that I knew mattered to him. As I sauntered through a gallery like I would a bookstore, I found this perfect little piece hanging at the stairwell. It made me happy. It was this impressionist piece of an alive street where people walked and sat, and the color was vibrant and life-giving. It was priced at something I knew we could afford and framed and matted beautifully. When I paid for it and tucked the now paper-wrapped piece under my arm and headed home, it’s hard to describe what I felt. This rushed pulse. This quickened step. This lightness. This joy. I knew I had a treasure for his heart and mine.

I can’t tell you the holiday I gave it to him. Christmas. His birthday. Anniversary. I have no idea. I can tell you he was kind when he opened it. Yet, at some point, it could have been shortly after or days later, he came to me and said, “Did you think this was an older piece of art?” I looked at him like Sophie often looks at me. Cocked head. What are you saying? look.

“I just thought it was pretty.”

“Well, I just want to show you something.” He picked up the piece and pointed to an object in the background. “It’s best when you buy a piece not to buy one that has any kind of automobiles in it. Because then it dates the piece.”

Until that moment I had never noticed the blurred image of a double decker bus in the background of the painting. I felt the crack on the inside. Something broke off. All of the confidence I had mustered to purchase it, all the joy I had felt walking out of the store with it, just broke off. Even now I can see it. Feel it. That’s what happens to shut-down hearts. There are just the moments that the enemy settles in on us. And in John Eldredge’s words, I made an agreement. I will never buy art again.

He wasn’t ugly. I truly believe he was trying to teach me something about art, but he missed me in it. He completely missed me. And even though we’d share the story with friends through the years and I would laugh as if it were no big deal, it lodged a lie in the soul of me. Then one day shortly after I purchased it I walked into the house and it was hanging over the toilet in the bathroom. That silent statement said more than any words could have screamed. The lie lodged.

So, is there any surprise that God would use art to heal me? The process had already begun. After my divorce and in my marriage to Philly, the enjoyment of many buried things came back to life. Music and taking in beautiful art. So one perfect summer day I was strolling the streets in the quaint town of Greenville, in my home of South Carolina.

I was scheduled to be the evening speaker at an FCA cheerleading camp at Furman University, Philly’s alma-mater. I had lived in South Carolina almost my entire life and had never seen the stately campus. It also had been years since I had been to Greenville, and I was discovering an entirely new Greenville. In 2004 they built their suspension bridge and completed the renovation of their downtown, and a new breath of life had come to the college town.

I arrived in Greenville early and decided to take a stroll along Main Street and grab a bite of lunch, when I happened upon the most inviting art gallery. I walked inside. It housed multiple local artists and styles as eclectic as names. But caught my attention were the three individual 12×12 paintings that made up this continuous flow of a solid branch, upon two of which were perched beautiful red cardinals. I loved it for so many reasons. The colors, the creativity, the subject. Yet, it wasn’t my love for it that shocked me. It was that as soon as I saw it, I knew exactly where it should hang. I could see it perfectly in my mind. In our recently painted kitchen I had accented it with red, and underneath one of the cabinets there was this blank space and I could just see them hanging there.

This moment was monumental! Knowing a piece is beautiful, and knowing it will look great in your home are wonderful things. But looking at a piece and knowing exactly where it should go felt so holy to me. So, unearthing. So big girl. It felt like this seismic shift in my soul. I had just gone from knowing something was beautiful to knowing where that beautiful something should go. I called Philly to make sure we could afford it. He said we could. They wrapped it in the same kind of paper that painting had been wrapped up in for me years earlier. I picked up the bag and placed it under my arm like I had years earlier. And I felt the same excitement and joy that I had assured myself I’d never allow my heart to feel again. But, a couple little cardinals were obliterating a lie.

I loved the cheer camp but all I could think about was getting home. When I arrived, I paid no attention to anything else packed in my car but that bag that held my artwork. I went straight to the kitchen with them and as I unwrapped each piece and sat them on my kitchen counter my pulse quickened. I laid the pieces out below where they would hang, and there was no denying. They were perfect. I hung them and stood back from the counter. If I hadn’t been so happy, I would have cried. The piece of me that had broken off, that I would have thought had gone missing by now, came rushing back to its place. It extricated the lie. And it would not be the last time.

Now, when I see a piece of art or furniture, virtually every time, I know exactly where it should go. And it does. Each and every time. The large mirror in Ebby’s room. The hammock swing in Hattie’s room. The large cow painting for the family room. The perfectly petite and vibrant blue hydrangea paintings that hang behind the sofa. And each time it has happened something inside of me fastens in like tongue and groove. Solid. Lasting. Whole.

When we come to Christ and the Holy Spirit takes up residence on the inside of us, we can see with Spirit eyes. I don’t say this to be hokey, I say it because it’s true. We are supernatural beings living in a natural world. Though most of the time we live that inside out. But inside of our hearts all of the creativity and glory that exists in our Heavenly Father lives in us. We get His characteristics, and they are more real than the genes of our earthly family. And He expresses those characteristics in each of us in different ways, but they are His and they are holy. And I am grateful that even when we try to keep them hidden, He loves us enough, even if it takes breaking us wide open through some of the most disheartening moments in life, to make sure they don’t stay hidden. Hard to believe three little paintings of cardinals could reveal all of that. Wonder what it will be for you?