Drawing the Eye

tulip poplar 11 10 08How often do we look up?  How many times do we find ourselves gazing into the beauty of the sky?  Especially during times when our hearts are heavy with pain and confusion, looking down just seems to come naturally.  The more troubled we are, the more downward our focus.  I can think of times when my whole posture collapsed inward: back bent, shoulders drawn forward, my neck bowed until my chin nearly rested on my chest.  It’s nearly impossible to draw a full, deep breath in a position like that.

But, look upward and our lungs expand, filled with fresh breath.  When we lift our eyes to the heavens the rest of our body will follow suit.  The chin raises.  The neck uncurls.  Shoulders are drawn into proper alignment, and backs straighten to bring the whole body into a healthier, stronger stance.  Look upward and everything changes, including our outlook.  Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  The problem is that it doesn’t come naturally for us.  We need something to cause us to look upward.  We need something to draw our eyes.

Drawing the eye.  It’s not an art assignment or a study in anatomy.  Drawing the eye is a term used in landscape design.  It refers to the intentional act of developing certain parts of the landscape to cause the viewer to look from one area to another.  Drawing the eye leads the one looking at the garden to gradually transfer their gaze from one part to another, taking in the beauty of the whole garden rather than just focusing on one segment.  Without the ability to draw the eye to another area or another level, a landscape can appear fairly flat and one-dimensional.

As I began to study landscape design I learned about under-plantings, particularly in the form of vines and smaller, ornamental trees like dogwoods or Japanese maples.  Without under-plantings, I discovered we have a tendency to keep our focus at ground level.  Even if a landscape is blessed with majestic oaks or other towering trees, their canopies are raised so high above us that we rarely look up to enjoy their beauty… unless our eyes are drawn in that direction.

So, what causes us to look up?  If our natural tendency is to focus downward, what does it take to lift up our eyes in the spiritual sense?  As I began writing this post more than two weeks ago, I was stumped when I came to that question.  I wasn’t sure I had the answer.   But God knew, and He showed me through the post of a writer I have begun to follow – Sarah Bessey.

In one of her blog posts, Sarah made a statement that God used to reveal Himself to me, and to answer that question I kept asking: What draws our eyes to Him?

The beautiful thing about goodness, like any gift from heaven, is that it opens eyes and draws the hearts of people towards the source of that goodness: our God. — Sarah Bessey

There was the answer to the question I kept asking God.  Goodness is the under-planting that draws the downcast eyes of the hurting heavenward.

clematis-henryii-05-08-08-bThe kind acts that the Holy Spirit leads us to do for others are the things that cause them to look up.  Why?  Because kind acts or kind words are so out-of-the-ordinary.  Those good works, good acts and good deeds are attention-getters.  They’re like the stunning blooms of a vine that winds its way heavenward, punctuating the void of the unplanted spaces between ground level and treetop canopy.

That’s exactly what we’ve been planted to be and to do.  We are to be under-plantings, bearing the beautiful blooms of good acts and good words that draw the eyes of others upward to the Source of all goodness.  And during those times when we are the weary and hurting ones whose eyes need to be lifted up, we can trust God to send an under-planting of goodness our way.  Especially during this Thanksgiving season, let’s make a point to thank them for blooming where they’ve been planted.

In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your Heavenly Father.  (Matthew 5:16, NLT)

I lift up my eyes to the mountains — where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.  (Psalm 121:1-2, NIV)

Still in the Garden

15-week-mums-red-camina-yellow-urano-10-11-10-aGardening is work.  Lots of hard work.  Anyone who has ever had much experience in gardening can tell you that no matter what time of year, there are almost always chores to be done in order to keep a garden beautiful and vibrant.  In spite of all this, I’ve found that gardening is one of the easiest ways for me to be still.

It’s not being still in a physical sense, of course.  My time spent in the garden is the time when its usually easier for me to still my mind.

Garden work can be pretty methodical.  Pulling weeds requires very little thought.  I just go through the motions I’ve been through hundreds, if not thousands of times.  So, in spite of the fact that my body is in almost constant motion, my mind is on vacation.  Those can be the times when I hear God speak to me most clearly; when I am better able to obey His command to “be still”.  I still my mind.

Sure, I believe God expects us to still our bodies on occasion in order to rest physically.  In fact, He commanded us to do that.  But, sometimes when God tells us to be still, I can’t help but think He might be speaking of stilling our minds.  Maybe He wants us to quiet our fears and stop trying to devise ways to solve our problems.

Be still and know that I am God.  (Psalm 46:10)

When I read Psalm 46:10 in my Bible, the study notes for that verse say “cease from warlike activities and acknowledge God’s supremacy”.  So, when my mind feels like a battlefield of emotions I sometimes retreat to my garden in search of stillness.  Most days I find it.  Some days, even with my best attempts at stilling my mind, I struggle.  Like the day of the barking dog.

One particular day when the weather was ideal for outdoor work, I sat myself down in the middle of a bed that desperately needed weeding, and I sought out that time of stillness in my mind and in my soul.  I had looked forward so much to this time when I would remove myself from the phone calls and the texts and the television, just to listen for God’s voice.  Instead, what I got was the relentless barking of a small dog.

Our neighbors were dog-sitting for one of their children.  This dog just beyond our fence, was very unhappy in its strange environment.  It began its barking just as I began my gardening.  The barking never stopped, not even for a minute, the whole time I was in the garden.  The more the dog barked, the more irritated I got.  My teeth clenched.  My head began to pound.   Try as I may, it was nearly impossible for me to block out the constant sound that had begun to grate on every nerve of my being.  I couldn’t hear God’s voice because of the barking.

It wasn’t that God’s voice couldn’t be heard over the barking of a small dog.  I couldn’t hear God’s voice because I let myself focus on the distraction.  My effort to hear from God had to shift from passive to active.   God taught me that sometimes seeking Him can require some effort on my part.  He taught me that it’s fine to be still and to rest in Him and take in His Word and soak in His presence, but sometimes He wants me to strive for Him… to truly work at seeking Him.

15-week-mums-red-camina-yellow-urano-10-11-10-aThose distracting, barking dogs in our lives… well, they typically don’t show up just by chance.  Many times they’re placed there intentionally.  We have an Enemy who wants to stand in the way of a still soul.  That Enemy doesn’t want us to hear from God.  He has lots of barking dogs that he’ll let loose right outside our fences the minute he sees us get serious about “being still and knowing that God is God.”

God commands us to seek Him.  He has some wonderful promises for those who seek Him.  But sometimes we have to make every effort to look past the distractions and to hear beyond those barking dogs.

But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and all your soul.  (Deuteronomy 4:29)

Blessed are those who keep His statues and seek Him with all their heart — (Psalm 119:2)

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6)

This post is a modified excerpt from Janet Benson’s book Break Up Your Unplowed Ground: Unearthing God’s Desires for Your Life.

“Before” Pictures

Some of the most enjoyable experiences of my days spent working in landscape design were those times when I met with landscape clients to show them their “After” pictures. Through the use of my computer software I could take a photo of their existing landscape and transform it into a representation of how their finished landscape would look after the plan I created for them had been completed. The “ooh’s” and “aah’s” those “After” pictures elicited were priceless. But, I never started the revelation process with the “After” picture. I always began with their “Before” pictures.

Did my clients really want to take a good look at their “Before” pictures? Of course not. They weren’t paying me to show them what they already had. They had asked for my design services to give them something better: something new and improved. They knew what they had, or so they thought.

When looking at a picture of something we’re familiar with, we are sometimes brought face-to-face with some uncomfortable realizations. We sometimes see some fairly ugly sights that we choose otherwise to overlook. When looking at their “Before” pictures, I heard more than one client comment on something unattractive in their current landscape that they had never noticed. A fresh set of eyes or the lens of a camera often points out ugliness that we’ve become accustomed to (like an ugly piece of irrigation tubing exposed to a pretty bunch of hyacinth).

Clients often would ask me if they could keep their “After” pictures as something to hold on to and to look to in anticipation of their soon to be completed landscape transformation. I never had a single client ask me for their “Before” pictures.

Why would they? Who wants to look over and over at something that needs work – something that just doesn’t quite measure up to what it should be?

I’ve had many of my own “Before” pictures, especially of my back yard. It has seen more changes than you can imagine. Where are those pictures? They’re buried somewhere. I can’t quite recall where. I know I came across a few of them recently while I was looking for some other old photos. I certainly didn’t want to save them as jpeg files in my computer so I could always have easy access to them. Nobody enjoys looking back at their “Before” pictures. But here’s the thing about our “Before” pictures; they make our “After” pictures look even more astonishing.

For a better example, let me shift gears a little and move from the horticultural world to the world of physical appearance. A few years back I was blessed to meet a charming young lady with a captivating smile and a sparkling personality. Her name is Abby Rike. You may know her story, especially if you have ever been a fan of the television show “The Biggest Loser”. She was a contestant on that show. As a result, she lost 100 pounds. When I first met her I was taken with her enthusiasm, her love for life and her eternally optimistic outlook. And although she had a cute figure in an average sort of way, I can’t honestly say I was blown away by her small size. Nice? Yes. Impressive? No. At least not until I saw her “Before” picture.

Let’s consider something about our “Before” pictures. As much as we’d like to hide them, or even try to destroy them completely, it would probably behoove us to hang on to them for future reference. You see, here’s the thing about our “Before” pictures: at some point in our lives, someone else may need to see them.

Everyone’s “Before” pictures look different. Some may include things like divorce. Some may show addiction of one type or another. Some may indicate a temporary turning away from our faith in God. Whatever they look like, they are not unique to us. Someone else has that same picture. The difference may be that their picture isn’t only a “Before” picture that has been transformed into something beautiful and useful. It may be their “Now” picture.

Many times we, as believers, would like to appear as if we have it all together. Speaking only for myself, I can say that I’d often like to appear as if I always have had it all together. I’d like to forget about all my past failures, and I certainly would prefer that others not be aware of them. But those unbelievers who know their lives are anything but “all together” need to know that we were once just like them. In almost every single aspect, we are still just like them. The main difference is that our “Before” pictures have been transformed, and every single time we have something ugly pop back up in our lives, the Father transforms it and redeems it all over again for us. Those unbelievers who see us as “together” need to know the hope we found. They need to know that hope is available for them, too.

As much as we’d like to hide our “Before” pictures, let’s be honest with the world as the Holy Spirit leads us to be. Someone needs to know there is hope for them. Someone, someday, is going to need to see your “Before” picture. Share your transformation with them. Your “After” is always much more astonishingly beautiful when you begin with the “Before”.

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.   (2 Corinthians 3:18, NIV)