Every October, the downtown area of our city turns into a giant art exhibit, which we call “ArtPrize“. For eighteen days, you can wander around and see art displayed everywhere you turn. The public gets to vote on their favorite pieces, and the winners get cash prizes. It’s one of the many reasons I love living in Grand Rapids, MI.

One memory of Artprize stands out–not because of the art I saw, but because of what I failed to see.

My son and I were downtown on a sunny Sunday afternoon, enjoying the festivities. As we wandered about, we were pleasantly surprised to find many of the artists on site, available to discuss their art and answer questions. As they told us about their work and gave us the background, their displays took on new meaning. I began to get comfortable with talking to artists and hearing their stories. Perhaps I got a bit too comfortable.

I should also mention that I am not an overly artsy person. Sometimes I look at ‘art’ and don’t realize that it is art. To me (though I would never say this), it just looks like a pile of junk or a heap of metal. At least at first. I have to stare at it for a while, to get my bearings.

That’s how I felt as I stared at a piece of art along side a row of buildings that day. I didn’t see the art. But it was obviously there. A whole crowd had gathered, and was pressing in to get a better look. All I saw were two cars with their hoods up that had wires hooked to their batteries, and a paint covered platform that seemed to be part of the display. I looked carefully, but I just couldn’t find the art. So I decided to ask.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said with a sunny smile to the man standing on the other side of the rope barricade. “Would you explain this art to me?”

The man glanced behind him at the display and said, “Explain what?”

Well this made me feel a bit uneasy. All of the other artists had been so generous with their explanations. Apparently this artist had no people skills. But I couldn’t turn back now, so I pointed in the general direction of the hood-propped cars and the paint covered platform, and said, “Just help me understand what this is all about.”

The man stabbed his finger in the direction of the paint dribbled wooden structure and said, “That? That’s the artist’s paint can.” He made it sound like no one had ever asked him what a paint can was before.

At that point, I panicked, trying to find the ‘art’ before me. What did he mean, “the artist’s paint can“? So he wasn’t the artist? Then who was? And what was the meaning of all of this dribbled paint?

Just then it dawned on me that the structure (which did indeed hold a paint can) might be a lift. Perhaps it was powered by the car batteries? And that’s when I noticed that I was the only one looking straight ahead. Everyone else was looking up!

About 10 feet up was a mural, being gradually painted (over the weeks of ArtPrize) onto the side of a building. It was a beautiful picture, bursting with color and expression. And it made me feel very foolish for focusing on the random drips of paint and rusty cars on the ground below. The art was up! 

On the edge of that cluster of people, I think I got a little taste of what it must feel like to be an outsider looking in on a Jesus community. The crowd has gathered, and you’re trying to figure out what everyone is admiring and appreciating. Yet all you see is the rusted junky-ness of life, with all of its splattered randomness. You see no artist’s expression or design.

Maybe you’re brave enough to ask a random Christian to explain it to you, but the person says, “Explain what?” and act like it’s all so obvious.  What you need is for someone to help you look up!

If you only look straight on, into the brokenness of cancer, divorce, alcoholism, and mental illness, you might wonder, “Where’s the art? I see nothing beautiful here.” But if you do learn to look up, you’ll find an Artist who is gradually–over the centuries–painting a mural that is bursting with expression of Himself.  If you lift your eyes to see beyond the physical, you’ll find a God so merciful, just, powerful, and caring that He’ll make you want to join the worshipers nearby, and revel in His displayed glory.

Do you know someone who is at the edge of your cluster of worshipers? Won’t you graciously help them look up?

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