Few things in life rival the beauty and mystery of a long-term relationship, whether it be a 60-year marriage or a life-long bond rooted in childhood. There’s just something about the chemistry that binds these rarities together that rivets our attention and demands our honor. Inevitably, anniversary celebrations will provoke the question “What’s the secret of your success?”.
That’s a highly legitimate question. What is the secret of success when it comes to relationships? Many will say good communication, honesty, transparency, respect or sharing a sense of humor, and we can agree that those components are foundationally important, but we’ve all experienced relationships that had all those elements and still didn’t survive! They didn’t make them the best connections we’ve ever had, either.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature”. It’s lovely to think that a common, ordinary joe could participate in one of life’s grand anomalies. When you consider the horde of enemies arrayed against intimacy and integrity, two people able to beat the odds achieve something exceptional represents the truly heroic. For the pursuit of true connection is costly; it exacts a high price from us in self-examination, submission and sacrifice.
When I think of masterpieces, the artists that comes immediately to mind is Rembrandt. A Dutch master, he was an etcher, print-maker and painter who set standards of artistic innovation. One of his primary distinctions as an artist was mastering the skill of Chiaroscuro; a use of bold contrasts in light and dark to create a sense of volume and depth, creating a dominant focal point in a composition. Rembrandt perfected the use of a limited color palette to create dramatic portraits or capture profound moments in Scripture. His purity of style was his true stroke of genius.
Maybe, a great relationship should be considered in the light of Rembrandt’s virtuosity. Friendship accrues with the volume of time, layer on layer, wash on wash, graduated in the sepia tones of ordinary days. With life’s unending challenges, the canvas is seamed in radiant brightness against somber dark; the saga of happiness juxtaposed beside sorrow’s solemn depths. It is fashioned in concord and conflict, with the divine brushwork of the Master mercifully smoothing and blending. Slowly, the strength of the composition asserts itself; a brilliant climax holding the attention and telling its own story. Like all remarkable things, the epic is forged in patience; fits and starts interspersed with frustrated erasure and re-working. Maybe, for a while, it stalls entirely. As participants, we learn to be undeterred by the mess of pigments, fluctuating light or recalcitrant models, keeping our eye on the vision and understanding that in the world of the creative, the whole is most often greater than the sum of the parts.
Just as much as any artistic endeavor the union between two people is a culmination of skill mixed with unflinching commitment. Two souls forge the unknown together, dealing with the inevitable misunderstandings, disputes, heart-aches and reconciliations as they unfold. Those committed to the long-term learn not to get too entangled in each struggle, but consider the entire perspective. Working through grudges, offenses, open disagreement and even differing values, they soften themselves and each other in the process. In the end, what they forge together is far more significant than all the testing along the way. Let’s not forget, even for a moment, that “what the Lord has joined together” always has an over-riding, eternal purpose.
‘Masterpiece’ will demand a mettle of character that tests everything we are, everything we believe, in the fiercest of crucibles. It will necessitate tenacity, self-sacrifice, long-suffering and faithfulness, to name just a few of the steeliest components that survive the trenches. A heart fundamentally mired in hatred, both of self and others, will never be able to achieve such a victorious tour de force. We must be rooted in love; not simply the sappy, sensational or sentimental anything-goes assortment paraded on Instagram feeds, but the real blood and guts variety. If we have any hope of succeeding at all, it’s because “the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5). We will have allowed Jesus, the Great High Priest, to guard our hearts, temper our emotion with self-control, and provide us with protection. Rooted in love, we will be able to fulfill the masterpiece we were created for.
…that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height— to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:16-19
I remember a moment in my youth, standing in the Louvre in Paris, waiting for my turn to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s incomparable Mona Lisa. The masterpiece is constantly surrounded by swarm of people longing to glimpse the iconic work. It’s actually quite a bit smaller than you'd think, so you have to get as close as the velvet rope will allow! The enigmatic lady is at least 500 years old, and at last valuation, was worth a whopping 800 million dollars. When you consider that this work was neither a grand secular commission, nor a significant religious theme but instead, simple portraiture of an unknown woman, its popularity is almost inexplicable.
Almost. However, there’s no mistaking a masterpiece, because it has the touch of the Master upon it. It can't be duplicated. We may feel insignificant in ourselves, but our relationships have lasting eternal value, and they need our passionate attention. What beauty are you forming as you travail and muddle your way through the significant relationships of your life? What will your legacy of love and faithfulness be?
It matters who, and how, you love.