wife. mother. teacher. recovering scaredy cat
I pressed the button on the garage door opener above my head and stared blankly as the white sheet of aluminum before me began to slowly ascend. The delay felt all too familiar in this season of quarantine as I sat in my car, waiting patiently for the pulley system to painfully finish its job. I slowly put my foot on the gas, and unenthusiastically eased my car through the lifted passage and into the dimly lit space. The heaviness overwhelmed me as I processed the last several hours of rummaging through the desks of my fourth grade students and bagging their items for a final parent pick up. In the midst of reports of more COVID-19 cases on the rise and the uncertainty of large gatherings still on hold, I fought to hold back tears as I realized that in addition to our church that my husband pastors, my teaching career would also be one of the last places to receive the baton to open its doors in this seemingly never ending race to gather again. I meandered my way out of my vehicle and glanced at my husband unloading groceries, his sanitizing wipes in hand. Overwhelmed with the disarray of plastic bags and bulk item purchases, I swept past him, kissed him gently on the cheek, and wandered upstairs to somehow arrange the tangled circumstances of life into some assembly of order.
The gravity of unending lessons to be learned during quarantine were not lost on me. What had once been a lifestyle at breakneck speed had quickly come to a screeching halt. My otherwise frantic mornings of wrangling teens from beds and pouring coffee into travel mugs was now replaced with quiet walks in my wooded backyard while the rest of the world lie sleeping. I could seek God in new ways that my former frantic rhythms of life did not make room for. I was now free to linger and abide, ask hard questions and wait for answers, and truly contemplate life as I knew it. Perhaps the quarantined cries of my heart compounded with the reality of rulers and pencils removed too early from desks was just too much for me to bear that morning. Or perhaps God was preparing my heart for the unexpected moment that I was about to encounter.
Dropping my teacher bag at the top of the stairs, my hands searched inside for my ringing connection to the outside world. The familiar voice on the other end brought a comfort and familiarity to my otherwise feeble mindset as my dear friend, Kelly, explained that she had a surprise for me and was going to put me on a three way call. Desperate for good news, I clung anxiously to the end of the line. Little did I know that the prayers I had been praying over the last few weeks... prayers for insight and understanding...were about to be answered.
Over the course of the next thirty minutes, a conversation transpired as Kelly and her artist friend, Karen Benitez explained how Karen saw a photo that I had posted on social media months before, and had been quietly bringing it to life on a canvas. I remembered the photo immediately; the one that my daughter took of me staring at a massively unyielding painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We had toured the museum with family friends that day and having been temporarily separated by the rest of the group, I entered a gallery to find the immense piece of art hanging in front of me. I'm not sure how long I stood there, examining its various fragments and pondering what the artist's purpose for creating it might have been, but it was long enough for my teenage daughter to retrace her steps to find me there pontificating. She snapped the pic and gently walked over to tap me on the shoulder, rousing me back to my senses. Later that evening, she showed me the photo on her phone as we feasted on pizza and chatted with friends. Touched by the sentiment of the image that she had captured, I posted it to my page and went about the rest of my evening.
I'm not sure when Karen scrolled by the image, but it caught here eye from an artist's perspective. She describes that moment on in an IG post (@karenbenitezart) that says...
"I have never been interested in making a painting of a person viewing art . . . until I saw a photo posted by @jen.redmon. I don't know who took the photo and I didn't ask Jen if it was ok for me to paint it. I did ask our mutual friend @kellylagaras. She gave me an enthusiastic "yes!" and we decided to surprise Jen with it."
Unaware of any of the issues of my spiritual condition that this quarantine had been revealing to me, Karen researched the painting in the photo in an effort to bring meaning to the piece that she herself would be bringing to life. One article in particular that she found about an interpretation of its meaning was in regards to perfectionism. She shared her findings with Kelly who, without divulging my deepest secrets to her about my need to constantly get it right, encouraged Karen to continue to work on the piece.
The tears rolled down my face as my mind recounted the months leading up to this phone call. The struggle that this pandemic had forced me to face about my desire to make sense of every circumstance and somehow bring all of the pieces together into some sort of an assembly of perfection had done its necessary work of bringing me to my knees in an outcry of confession to God. Every prayer, every tear, every ounce of energy that I poured into seeking Him for wisdom into this situation and crying out to Him for understanding had in some supernatural way, culminated in this moment as I stood staring at a photo on my phone of Karen's painting, a visual representation of my inner struggle that was being explained to me by two women from four hours away.
And just when I thought I couldn't possibly be laid anymore exposed before God in that moment, Karen gave one final insight into what was already shaping up to be one of the most defining moments of my life.
"Jen, I'm not sure if you noticed, but there are no ropes in the painting as there are in the photo." she explained. "I didn't want to add them because I wanted there to be a sense of freedom for you in this painting."
Freedom from perfection. Without even realizing the depths of my heart, I understood in that moment that it was the very thing I had been praying for. Karen could never have known all of that and yet God used the incredible artistic gifting that He had placed in her to speak so clearly to the greatest cry of my heart at the exact moment I needed to hear it most.
These pieces are never all going to make sense this side of heaven. It's not my job to put them together into some sort of perfect masterpiece that is not mine to create. My frame was not hidden from my creator in the secret place (Psalm 139:15.) The same place that he beckons me to moment by moment to abide with Him and seek His perfect peace alone. I am not bound by the enormity of circumstances beyond my control that cause me to stand, head tilted, bewildered, and confused. There are no barriers to the depths of wisdom and understanding that are found in Christ and He promises to give generously to those who ask (James 1:5.) I am free to explore and create and experience without having to fit all of life's pieces together into some sort of system or false sense of security. I am not bound, held back, or restricted from accessing all that God has for me (Hebrews 4:16.) And I'm not called to figure it out on my own. He is leading, He is guiding, He is drawing me close.
The title of the painting in the photo that I posted so many months ago is called "According to What" by Jasper Johns. I believe that is the question I've been asking my entire life as I bounce back and forth between my own experiences to the opinions of others and back to God again. How can I not be anything but bewildered when I look to my circumstances and my own strength instead of Him and His perfection? The irony of the name of the piece is not lost on me.
Nor is the one that Karen gave hers... "According to What, Jen Redmon?"
Perhaps that is the question that God has been asking me all along as he watches me stand before the unknowns of life and contemplate my need for perfection. And now, for the first time, I am truly able to confidently answer....
"According to You, God. According to You."