Is there anything under the paint?
“What am I doing up here?”
This was running through the head of an actor in the middle of a Broadway musical. He was a soft-she dancer — good enough to make a living in the highly competitive world of New York theater. The producers of a Broadway musical had hired him because they had planned on a big moment that would feature his dance. During the rehearsals and early tryouts, it became clear that his soft shoe “signature” dance — the one that always got ovations from the crowd — would have to be cut, but, to the dancer’s surprise, the director and producers did not cut him from their play.
When the musical opened, he felt awkward and out-of-place on stage. What would he do if he couldn’t dance? Then he delivered his lines and got a roar of laughter out of the crowd.
He discovered something in himself that he didn’t know he had. Underneath the paint of “dancer” he found a comedian.
The surprise of discovery
My mother, who loved refinishing chairs, used to marvel at what she found underneath the paint She said it was always a surprise – a surprise that clearly delighted her.
The chair in the photo used to be covered in red tractor paint. You can see what it looks like now. To find the character of that more-than-a-100 year old chair, we had to brush a harsh liquid onto the paint, let it work and then wipe the softened paint off with rags.
I’ve been using that chair as a metaphor for finding our true selves in the second half of life — the grain of our lives — after we have spent a lifetime getting painted with the roles we have played in our families, our jobs and our communities.
We can remember who we were before we were painted. We can trace the grain under the paint. Or we can see, as in the case of this chair, what we look like when the paint that has constituted our identity for so long is dissolved.
The actor thought he was a dancer, but when the dancer-paint was dissolved, he discovered a comedian underneath.
The pain of paint removal
If you remember who you were before you were painted or you can trace the grain of your life under the paint, removing the paint may be liberating. But if you think of yourself as a red chair, then watching the red paint dissolve may feel like a devastating loss.
I was a pretty successful pastor for most of my ministry. I always left congregations with more people (and more money) than they had when I arrived — until the last five years of my career.
The world changed around 2010.The things I knew how to do didn’t work anymore. I used to joke that I felt like a highly trained typewriter repairman trying to fix a PC. The things that seemed to be working for other pastors were not only things I didn’t know how to do but, to be honest, I didn’t want to learn how to do. For the first time in my life, I began to experience the congregational decline that the vast majority of my colleagues had been experiencing for a generation.
I was well aware of the dangers of pastor-paint. As a young man, I had run across the French epitaph: “Born a man – died a grocer”, and I had seen too many of my colleagues snap a clerical collar around their necks and never take it off again.
For that reason I worked to maintain a distance between my self and the very seductive role of clergy. I resisted titles like “Reverend” and “Pastor”. If I called you by your first name, you should be able to call me by my first name.
What I didn’t realize is that, while I refused to identify with the role of pastor, I had embraced the identity of “success”. When the successful pastor-paint dissolved around me, I was disoriented – and disheartened. I survived the last half-decade of church leadership by discovering strengths that I did not know I had – resilience being one of them.
Finding true character
I have been using the grain in the wood of that refinished chair as a metaphor for character – and to some extent I have equated character with “passion” or “calling”. But sometimes, when the paint dissolves, we find something even more important than our vocation. We discover that we, in fact, have character.
My maternal grandfather was a kind of small-town Donald Trump. He invested in real estate and, to hear him tell it, he was a huge success although, for some reason, he never had much to show for his efforts. He was also pretty self-centered. Toward the end of his life, he battled with several different forms of cancer, and during the last two years of his life, he lived in a lot of pain from bone cancer. Oddly, that experience brought out of him unsuspected (by his family and friends) reserves of courage, compassion and self-awareness. He became an admirable person while lying in bed suffering and watching his very life dissolve.
I never had an in-depth conversation with my mother about what it was like for her to help her mother care for my grandfather as he was dying. I wonder if, as his true character emerged from a lifetime of bluster, she felt the same surprise and wonder and delight that she said she always felt when she dissolved the paint on a chair.