What the View of Delft and the Shepherds at Night Teach me about Watching

Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 9.07.24 AM A few months ago a friend who had moved recently and was living in yet another temporary place, with not so beautiful views, posted an image on social media. As I scrolled through, it caught my eye and reminded me of another image, one I love and have looked at often. It was painted by Johannes Vermeer, who, cliche as it may be, is one of my favorite artists. He was called the artist of light for many reasons, not the least of which was his use of the camera obscura. Vermeer's command of light, shadows, and color was unparalleled in his time.

View of Delft has always been one of my favorites of his, though I don't know why. I can tell you a hundred things I love about The Milkmaid or The Lacemaker or The Girl with a Pearl Earring, but it's harder to explain why I love the View of Delft. I think it's the sky. It always reminds me of a scene from the film adapted from Tracy Chevalier's fiction work based on The Girl with a Pearl Earring. In it, Vermeer asks Griet what color the clouds are. She at first answers white, but quickly changes her answer to grey, yellow, blue, as she looks at the clouds with the eye of an artist instead of a bystander.

When my friend posted her image from a dorm room in Chicago, recently moved from across the other side of the country, in a new place, a new rhythm, new everything, she was trying to see the beauty in a downtown scape where beauty seemed hard to find. I messaged her and showed her the image from Vermeer, noting their similarity, and the similarity of our lives at present. Change is hard and what locals find beautiful can seem ugly to newcomers. The only antidotes for this are either perpetual optimism or time. Few of us are gifted with perpetual optimism, and so most of us must settle for the latter: time.

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Yesterday Nate and I drove 40 minutes to a church many have recommended to us since we moved here. We could see why, we felt at home there almost immediately. After the service Nate engaged the older couple sitting in front of us and we talked for a few minutes. As we were about to put our coats on to leave, the wife said, "Could I pray for you first?" And she did. And tears pooled in the corners of my eyes. It was the first time since we've moved here that someone has prayed for us with us. It held the faint resemblance to something I loved—and missed.

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One of the things I love about Vermeer's painting is that to us, it is still, a moment captured. But to Vermeer, it was in motion, perpetual motion. The water moving, the people walking, the ships docking, the scents smelling, the noise bustling. It was alive and not at all clean or probably very beautiful to the bystander. It was life being lived, thinking the clouds were white and the water was blue. But they aren't at all, are they? There are myriads of color here. Nothing is quite what it seems. It takes time and love to make this painting beautiful, just as it takes time and love to make life beautiful.

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I could stare at this painting for hours, but I rarely stare at my life here for hours. I want to get through it, move on, settle down, live in a home, adopt children, start our lives. Yesterday we had a taste of what life might be and what has felt plain white, turned grey, and yellow, and blue for a moment, a taste of what is actually happening in our todays.

My reading is in Luke 2 this morning, "And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night." I have been to those fields in Israel and they do not look like much. It is a rocky region, set low in a valley, covered in scrub. There was little beautiful about the field, and even less, I would guess, at night. But these shepherds faithfully kept watch, not on the field, not on the night, but on their sheep. They did what they were meant to do, undistracted by the field or the night in which they did it. I want to be like this. The shepherds and Vermeer and my friend's photo reminds me that I can.

God is doing something with today. He is not wasting it. I remind myself of this often, every day, every hour. There is more than meets the eye today, and much more still waiting to meet my eye today if I will look for it.