nancy williams

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Archive for February, 2010

Life Lessons from a Painter’s Brush

I once took a series of paint-along classes with some friends. Our collective painting experience was limited to walls, furniture and our fingernails, but we were eager students with a willing artist to guide us. We set our easels alongside hers and watched as she turned a blank canvas into a beautiful landscape. “Just watch me and do what I do,” she would tell us. And we did. Or, at least we tried.

As we struggled to copy her technique, she would walk around to view our handiwork. “That’s not quite right,” she would gently whisper when she saw us struggle, so as not to embarrass us. “Let me show you.” Then she would take our brush and work her magic on our canvas. We were relieved she fixed our problem so we could go home with something that was fit for the wall and not the trash bin. Week after week we went, we watched, we tried and she repaired. I sometimes wondered if my painting needed to have her signature as well as mine. I’m not quite sure how much we learned but we did have a great time.

Then one afternoon we arrived at the studio and were greeted by another artist who was filling in as our instructor. She introduced herself and we began our session. As she worked her artist’s magic, we carefully observed and tried to follow along. Then she paused to walk around and watch us in action.

“I can’t seem to get this tree to look quite right,” I admitted somewhat apologetically, as if she couldn’t see the obvious. Assuming she would take my brush and fix the problem, I stepped aside as she came over. She looked at the canvas and responded, “Why don’t you try holding your brush at a different angle?” I looked at her and she looked at me with one of those I’m-not-going-to-do-it-for-you smiles.

I tried to follow her suggestion. “It feels a little awkward,” I announced, certain she would just fix the problem so we could move on. “Try it a few times on your practice canvas. You’ll catch on.” Then she smiled and walked away. I felt abandoned and frustrated but I wanted to finish the painting so I continued working. Funny thing, after practicing a bit, I got the hang of it and went on to complete a painting I was quite proud of. I learned so much from her as we worked together. My confidence soared as she taught and then gave me opportunity to practice. I realized I could best learn by doing it myself—all under her watchful eye and encouraging spirit.

Both teachers cared about me and wanted things to go well. Both showed me what to do and encouraged me to try, but when problems arose, their goals differed. One put my happiness above my education and would quickly come to the rescue when something was difficult. Her approach met immediate needs—to solve problems and keep me happy—but it hindered me from learning how to do it myself and fostered my dependency on her. The other teacher pushed me to take charge of solving the problem, at the risk of my frustration, even possible failure. She believed I would learn and grow as an artist best by taking ownership of the challenge.

Little did I know that a few years later I would become a mother and would face many times with my own children where I would have to choose how to guide without interfering, how to help without hindering. Even today, as they are grown men and our roles have shifted, I have to remember they’re in charge of their choices and consequences. I’m not. My role is to come alongside with encouragement, offer instruction if they ask, then step back and let them decide how they want to paint the canvas of their lives—even when their pictures don’t look as I think they should. I can’t jump in and grab the brush to paint for them, and I can’t be too quick to take the brush if they ask me to. After all, I have my own picture to paint!

Responding to Another Storm

While organizing some files recently, I came across a column I wrote in January 2005 – five years ago almost to the month – and noticed an unexpected coincidence. That column titled “Responding to life’s storms” dealt with the tragic tsunami storm that hit Southeast Asia. As I read the article, my thoughts wandered back to the tragic pictures of devastation, the gripping stories of loss and the amazing narratives of survival.

Now, five years later, we are once again witnessing the devastation caused by forces of nature. This time, it was an earthquake and numerous aftershocks in Haiti. While many of us have experienced destruction caused by hurricanes, floods, fires, tornadoes, even the recent mudslides in California, it is hard to grasp the extent of the losses these people are experiencing in Haiti. The toll of victims has been staggering and there are still countless numbers of people missing. So many families and friends have been torn apart across that island and the losses have even extended into our own country.

In what must have been a terrifying moment, life, as those people knew it, was shattered as their homes were smashed and their businesses destroyed. At first, Haitians wandered around the streets in shock, trying to comprehend what had taken place and trying desperately to find loved ones. Aftershocks stirred their fears further as they tried to take the first basic steps toward survival. They searched for food and shelter, tended to wounds in any way they could, all while searching their hearts for a thread of hope and a spirit of determination to cling to in the face of their fears and their grief.

I recall an early report from a woman from Texas who was serving as a missionary in Haiti. She had survived the quake with minimal injuries and was living in a makeshift shelter on a street near the place where she ministered. With a somewhat shaken voice but determined spirit, she shared how her effort to cling to her faith was strengthened by the prayers and songs of the Haitian people she had been working alongside. The earthquake met them with a powerful force, but they quickly began to face the forces of nature with an even more powerful force: the will to survive and a faith in God.

Nature can strike with all its wrath; yet it is being met once again with a generosity of spirit that’s present in our country and throughout the world as relief pours into the region. People of faith have been lifting up the survivors as well as the families and friends of the victims in prayer, and we’re sharing out of the bounty of our own blessings ‑ putting hands and feet to the faith we claim. The journey to recovery will be a long one and support will be needed along the way; but we’ve taken those important first steps in joining our hearts and hands with those in need.

Perhaps as we reach out to help, we’ll remember that storms of many kinds come into our own lives. Some expected, while others catching us off guard; some causing minor interruptions in the flow of our lives, while others turning us upside down. We may not know the cause and we may not know just how we’ll weather those storms, but we do know God has promised to care for us each step of the way. Let’s encourage the people of Haiti, those around us, and even ourselves as we face life’s storms, to draw close to Him with hopeful spirits and peaceful hearts.

“ The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me like down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me…surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:1-4; 6 – The Bible).