Last Saturday afternoon I took myself to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in town. I feel things should happen during my weekend afternoon free time – it’s rare after all, and treasured, when I lose some of them to work. I’m dying to get out and about. The winter is long. Cabin fever is real.
I’m not an expert in art. Also, I am not one for sitting on a bench staring at a painting. I look for a moment, maybe a few more moments if I really like a piece, but then I’m on to the next. It’s the same in museums. I don’t usually read all the blurb at every exhibit – I scan it. I rush on to the next thing, and end up waiting for everyone else at the end. In contrast, take me to a beach or the top of a hill or a mountain and I can stare at the view for hours.
This time, alone, I didn’t have anyone to tell me to slow down or hurry up. So I wandered around the gallery by myself trying to look like I’m genuinely appreciating the art, trying not to look lonely, and trying to spend a respectable amount of time in there. I even read some of the blurbs.
There was purpose to my visit. I had a free pass and I hadn’t been in since the new wing was built. I went to see an exhibition of photographs of Saint John in the 1960s…and I went to lay down in front of Santiago El Grande by Salvador Dalí.
Last time I visited, because I don’t pay much attention to descriptions, I stood in front of the Santiago El Grande, which is the centrepiece of the collection at the Beaverbrook. Someone later told me the 3D effect of St James on his rearing horse is better seen from below the painting, laying down with your feet to the wall. The sign does actually say, ‘Feel free to enjoy the painting this way’, or something to that effect. I can’t remember whether it actually said to lay down or just to sit (I read through the info then forgot the exact wording once I was out of there).
There were very few people in the whole gallery on this wintery afternoon. No one was around when I was in front of the Dalí. Still I deliberated. First, I didn’t want to look stupid if someone did wander round the corner. Second, I didn’t want to be caught unawares if someone did come in. I startle easily. It comes from living in London as a student – I’m hyper-vigilant. Crazy fears.
I did want to see the 3D effect though, so I thought, Who cares anyway? It does say ‘feel free’, and laid down. It’s true, it is an even more spectacular painting, and the 3D is much better, from below. I managed to stay there for maybe a minute.
In the few days since, the phrase ‘Feel free to lay down’ has rolled around in my mind. Laying down is all to do with surrender. To surrender means to yield to the power or control of another. It’s not something we naturally like to do. It’s not something I naturally like to do. I have some things in mind while I think about this.
I laid down in front of the painting because I knew there was more to see if I did. I knew there was something to gain from surrendering to the suggestion to get down low and look up.
I wonder if this has something to say to us about laying ourselves before God. It said something to me about laying everything down. Jesus said,
‘”If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”‘ Matthew 16:24,25
Of course, Jesus himself is the example of laying down. He laid down his life at the cross, so we could be free. The Bible tells us,
‘…for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.’ Hebrews 12:2
Jesus knew the pain ahead, yet he knew the joy of what it would accomplish. His joy in the prospect of seeing what he desired come to pass enabled him to lay everything down, even his own life, surrendering his will to the Father. He saw something more beautiful ahead. God laying down his life for us is a mind-blowing thing to get hold of and such a demonstration of his amazing love for us.
Instead of feeling free to lay down, Jesus tells us to lay down to be free – to surrender all of our mess and look up to Him. It’s in laying down our whole lives down before him we receive forgiveness and find what true freedom is. It’s how we find ourselves – in Him. Life is transformed from living for our own pleasures here on earth to living for his glory and for the joy set before us in eternity. It’s great news to know when there is pain and struggle in this life. By laying ourselves down we see the beauty of this.
He calls us to lay down our lives in love for others (1 John 3:16), to lay aside sin that entangles in order to run the race he has called us to (Hebrews 12:1). Again, Jesus’ words from Matthew echo, ‘whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’
How much do I trust those words? Sometimes I think I’ve surrendered, but then I find I’ve unsurrendered. Everything in the world tells us to hold on to who we are, to not let go, to be whoever we want to be, to do whatever makes us happy. Sometimes there’s all out war inside me as I try to cling on to things out of fear, and get entangled once again. I’m not even standing, I’m running away. Fearing what I will lose if I let go, fearing being vulnerable and repenting once again. Ultimately, doubting God and his promises.
At these times when I remember the truth, the only place to end up is the place of surrender. I know he’s waiting for me to just give it up, to yield again. I lay myself down, me and all my mess, at the foot of the cross, looking up at the most beautiful Saviour who is not a picture, but the real, living God, able to help me…and there I find freedom once again.