On a recent Wednesday evening I drove to a building that was just a few towns away, but the moment I stepped in the door, I felt like I’d walked into another world.
My husband, Daniel, was the “visiting artist” for mentally ill adults who live at various group homes in the area, and I was going along as his assistant. (For the record, I can’t even draw stick figures, but I figured at the very least I was qualified to wash out the paintbrushes.)
Having had limited exposure to individuals with mental illness of this severity, I was a little nervous, unsure what to expect. Daniel told me all I needed to do was be there, that showing up would be enough. But still I worried.
As the participants finished dinner, I joined them around the table and tried desperately to come up with conversation topics we could connect on. What common ground would I be able to find with people whose lives looked so different from mine—many of whom had been dealt the harsh blows of homelessness, unemployment, and addiction, some of whom had been abandoned by family members and shunned by society at large?
Fortunately for my tongue-tied self, Daniel is a master at breaking the ice. “What do you like to do for fun?” he asked the group, making eye contact with each person who would meet his gaze. And with that simple question, the table launched from awkward silence into animated conversation.
I found out that Jim is a diehard darts player, that Steven has a passion for his motorized kayak (who knew such a thing existed?), that Betty Ann loves anything yellow, and that Gene could cite every statistic about the Chicago Bears from 1986 on.
Before I knew it, it was time to start the art project, so I distributed the scissors, glue, and paint. As the participants got to work, I realized that we had not only creative talent but also some quick wit represented in the group.
Before we began, Chris had told me that using scissors wasn’t his forte. But once we got going, I noticed he was doing a meticulous job, and I told him as much.
“Hey, you’re good at cutting,” I said.
Without missing a beat, he responded, “I’m good at cutting the cheese, maybe!”
And when I saw Jon mixing the paint colors to create beautiful shades of chartreuse and burnt orange, I told him I was impressed with how artistic he was.
With a wry grin and a self-deprecating chuckle, Jon shot back, “Wait…did you say artistic or autistic?”
As the evening progressed and our hands gradually became kaleidoscopes of tempera paint, I had a sudden realization: I was having fun. And I had a lot more in common with these new friends than I thought I would. Daniel was right: there was power in simply showing up.
Somehow the chasm that had once loomed so large in my mind was shrinking once it was removed from the realm of the theoretical. Now that we were sitting at the same table, face to face, our differences didn’t seem so unbroachable.
It got me to thinking about the Incarnation—how God himself showed up in our world in human form. How he narrowed the huge gap between us and him—a gap infinitely more yawning than any perceived gap between me and another equally valuable human being.
Zephaniah prophesied about the Incarnation, when God would span that divine gap and make his dwelling with the likes of us:
The Lord your God is living among you.
He is a mighty savior.
He will take delight in you with gladness.
With his love, he will calm all your fears.
He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.
No doubt there are profound aspects to the Incarnation, theological conundrums that scholars could devote a lifetime to. But as I sat there with my hands covered in paint, I was struck by a rawer side of the Incarnation. A God who showed up. A God who didn’t grit his teeth to make small talk with us but instead delighted in us. A God whose Incarnation was birthed out of gladness and love.
Jesus showed up. He bridged the gap. And he did so with delight.
May I never think I’m above doing the same.
I’ve taken the challenge of reading the Bible chronologically this year and tracing the thread of grace through it. These musings are prompted by my reading. I’d love to have you join me: One Year Bible reading plan.