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17
Jun

"Living Upside Down" by Lorraine Montanari

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A few months ago, I was walking alone on a sidewalk in Occoquan headed toward my car, after my friend Barb and I had just enjoyed a two-hour lunch at Madigan’s. But before I reached my car, suddenly a white, open topped jeep, sped directly up to that brick-laden sidewalk, inches from where I was walking.   A tall gentleman, in sunglasses, emerged quickly from his jeep and approached me abruptly. Oh, no, I thought-- I’m going to be robbed, as I held more tightly onto my long-strapped purse.

Then the unexpected happened: “Mrs. Montanari”? He asked. “Yes,” I blurted out as I chuckled in relief that he obviously knew me and my purse would remain untouched.  The young man then removed his sunglasses, extended his long-armed hand to shake mine, and said verbatim: “You may not remember me (got that one right) but I just wanted to thank you for failing me in senior English in 1999.” Say what? I thought. Fifteen years later, this now thirty-two-year-old man, whose name was Justin, continued and I quote: “You were the only teacher, who ever made me work, but I was too lazy and immature to do your work back then, but I have since appreciated what you taught me and learned that hard work does pay off and I just wanted to say thank you.” Wow…what a portrait of academic redemption in Justin’s life: he learned that failure does not need to be the final brush stroke on his painting….  

 

Now, that was a first for me in my almost three-decade teaching career at Woodbridge High: a former student thanked me for failing him, in his senior year no less, but what he learned--something like how we should all be living out our Christian sojourn when we also see failure on our paintings as well.  But how very few of us ever realize the fullness of appreciating the power of failure or living upside down….

 

As believers, we all basically crave the same desires and strive for the same goals in living out our lives in almost picture-perfect content: for who does not yearn for a canvas depicting cotton candy-eating and butterfly-chasing children, a golden panoramic background shadowing our faith, families, and professions, and a warm, wooded border framing it all in living color--in short: a pacific and idyllic portrayal similar to a Thomas Kinkade painting. With a non-believing world perusing our painting and checking to see if there is a better difference from their own, we stand ram-rod straight, even as we sing enthusiastically, On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand, hoping andbelieving sincerely that our painting, if broad-stroked by biblical values, should reflect a passing grade on the tests and challenges of life.  

 

More than reasonable, but that belief in reality, does not depict the entire biblical picture. For more times than we would want to admit, our painting will be marred by black clouds and blotches and that is when the depth and reality of our spirituality will show its true colors. Especially in the Baptist tradition, where we emphasize ourselves as biblical literalists, we boldly declare: “Brother, if it’s written in the Word, we believe it, no questions asked.” Really now…. Let’s just take a few tests reflecting that thought and see if there is a blotch on our painting or if it does stand out brilliantly in the maddening crowd.

 

Ah, those beautifully written “The Beatitudes,” formatted in parallel and lyrical language, recorded in Matthew 5. Theoretically, the thoughts read and sound, as if they’re enveloped in white-clouded, silver-lined melodious sentiments, but in reality, the message that is taught is harsh and biting. For who does not want to be happy and blessed? But that requires us, as taught by the Master, to be poor in spirit, mournful, meek, pure in heart, -hold the tune for here comes the biggie- and persecuted, criticized, gossiped and lied about, confronted, and blasted all for our faith in Jesus. Yes, sir, bring it all on. Experientially, however, that is usually not our reaction, especially when persecuted, as a totally different picture emerges: the clouds are now rendering black turbulence and the blotches have just emerged and have been smeared generously over our canvas by our angry brush strokes in response to such unjustifiable evil splattered against our persona in and outside the church. Yet, we are told to rejoice, but our pontificating harangues drip from our outraged paint-brushes, as we attempt to defend ourselves. And that once ram-rod straight posture that we projected?  It now begins to sag under the weight of our hurt, humiliation, and harm done to our psyche. Guess we failed that test. Let’s see if we do any better on the next few ones as we turn a couple of pages over to Matthew 10.

 

Now, it is becoming really personal as the tests zero in on our families and professions—that cotton-candy eating child, whom we dote upon and adore, could perhaps become an enemy in our own household, especially when he matures and possibly rejects the faith of his parents. Scripture clearly states that Christ is poised to use a sword, like a devastating broad brush stroke on our painting, to reflect division even within our own family. Furthermore, those people, whom we love the most in this world--father, mother, son, and daughter--must henceforth become secondary if we are honest enough to admit that we do love them, in practice, more than Him. Sold-out and singular discipleship will surely exact a price from us. Christ demands that He must be everything and primary in our lives lest we become vomit that He must spew out because our commitment to Him, in contrast to that given to our families, is lukewarm and pales in comparison. Such scripture, if we are to take it all literally, could be viewed as inscrutable, unrealistic, and unnatural. However, we have no choice but to accept scripture as written and to live out the same as our painting must now reflect perspective in our family life, even as our knees have just given way as we have been floored by the severity of Christ’s strong dictum.

 

Finally, we are told if ever we want to find our lives, we must lose them. We all have been given gifts to imbue our personal, ecclesiastical, and professional worlds with a brighter color, a more inspiring image, a distinctive hue, which conveys an unmistakable devotion to Christ and a consistent encouragement to others to find and to grow deeper in their faith. Our painting forfeits definition, though, when the lines become blurred between our own personal ambitions and again with the demands of Christ. Especially for those of us, who may be considered strong, there is even more potential to become self-centered, smug, and self-sufficient particularly in our professions. As we climb that proverbial ladder of success,   we rarely depend upon the Spirit of God, or offer Him a paint-brush, to apply direction and definition on our canvas.  Have we not been told, it is not in our own strength, where we experience true success, but only in our weakness, when the empowerment of the Spirit, if given the brush, then maximizes His strength?   When we thus abandon or lose our lives for His sake, we will then most assuredly find them. And with those fuzzy lines now noted on our painting, we have been completely upended, where everything that seemed to be right side up in our thinking and practiced in our daily living, regardless of stark biblical truth, seems to be upside down-precisely where He would have us positioned….

 

For we can look nowhere now but upward to a Christ, who loves us supremely enough, not to give us an easy pass, but desires to conform us, above all, to what it takes to pass the tests with flying colors indeed. How else would we ever learn to forgive until we have been persecuted and still can smile? How else would we ever learn how committed to and in love we are first with Him and His cause, until we are willing to place our family second? How else would we ever learn total dependence upon the Spirit of God, especially on the job, until we’re willing to admit weakness? For just as Justin, my former student, learned that failure ultimately breeds appreciation and clarity, we too then can be grateful that our personal canvas, complete with its black clouds, blotches, and badly applied brush strokes, will still garner His undying support, as long as we are clearly learning to paint on it aright. Because, for however long it takes, our Lord, whose own paint-brush drips abundantly with grace, will surely turn the failing blotches of our lives into beauty and our messy paintings into masterpieces, even as we continue to look ultimately upward to the Master Artist…..Until we share again, a most relaxing summer to you all….

 

 

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Contact Address: 13600 Minnieville Road Woodbridge, VA 22193                         Phone: 703-730-9009
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