The Other Side of the Fence
Sometimes images can transport us back in memory to seemingly ordinary events that were nevertheless significant at the time. They have the capacity to bring to the fore things that reside in the deep recesses of the mind. They can reach into our inner world and make connections that surprise us. Every time I look at this painting by L S Lowry, one of his less well-known works, I inevitably find myself transported back in time to a boyhood experience that was so ordinary yet must have been impressive and formative at the time. Why else can I explain its readiness to be recalled?
The man looking through the small hole in the fence suggests a playful, childlike act which is, I suppose, why Lowry set it in this particular composition. We don’t know what the man he is seeing but we surmise that he just could not resist responding to the opportunity offered. The thing about Lowry is that his art arose from direct observation as he walked the streets as a rent collector. It is therefore most probable that he witnessed this very scene. I think this is what makes him special – he did not set out to romanticise the ordinary through embellishment. He painted and thus celebrated the ordinary as he saw it.
So, why does this particular painting take me back to my childhood? In the 1950s I lived on a newly constructed post-war council estate, just on the outer edge of Tunbridge Wells. Its position was perfect for a young boy, giving easy access to both the town centre and the surrounding countryside. We loved to walk or cycle the lanes, explore the woods and fields, and a special interest was the discovery of bird’s nests and the recording of their location and details in a notebook. We often returned to see if the eggs had hatched. One particular lane was lined on one side, for a surprising distance, by an exceptionally tall fence. Even standing on our cycles didn’t allow us to see over the top, and the incongruence of the fence in an otherwise pretty hedge-lined country lane rendered it most uninteresting and we hurried on to better places. However, one day I noticed that a small hole had appeared in the fence due to the falling away of a knot in the wood. I duly pressed an eye to the aperture and my breath was suspended in awe and wonder, for there before me was the most wonderful garden, masses of colourful flowers, large at the back, small at the front, competing to be seen, and a glorious verdant lawn that stretched into the distance. And to cap it all, at the far end, was a swimming pool complete with diving board. A vibrant, colourful space so close yet not easily discerned. I had no idea that such gardens existed! On our estate people grew vegetables rather than flowers. My Dad grew potatoes in the front garden!
There is a fairly common perception in our society today that Christianity and Church define a narrowing of perception, over-seriousness about belief and behaviour, and illiberal constraint in realising the potential in life. Indeed, it is often thought, it is an outdated ideology that has no place in the twenty-first century, having been rendered redundant in the wake of modern science and modernity. Yes, Jesus did indicate that being a Christian is akin to passing through a narrow gate, an act that is necessarily performed by faith in Christ. We could say it is a ‘focused entry.” But like the hole-in-the-fence this seemingly narrow opening reveals a landscape that is expansive, novel, challenging but also spiritually beautiful. Christ is the aperture through which we perceive this landscape, a landscape so close at hand, yet only perceived through the revelation of Divine grace and the eye of faith. ( we could say‘ hidden in plain sight’). A landscape where divine love permeates everything, where we are challenged to seek the best for others before ourselves, where the richness of fellowship and togetherness abides in extravagance, where reality is eased into a new perspective, a liberating perspective. A bit far-fetched? Fanciful? A gross exaggeration? Well, of course, it is fundamentally a landscape to be discovered, walked and explored. To walk this landscape requires exercise of our intellect, emotions, and the heart. It is a landscape which needs eternity to be fully explored and understood. However, it is definitely not a landscape exempt from the usual human difficulties, frailties or pain, but it is one infused with the love of God. It is above all a ‘colourful’ space of grace, forgiveness, healing and Divine acceptance. The Apostle Paul proposed that our citizenship is not truly of this world. We are citizens of a spiritual kingdom, we traverse a spiritual landscape, one that we can explore in companionship with one another and the abiding Holy Spirit. Yes, unlike the hole-in-the-fence, which allows us to see but not enter, God invites us to both see and embrace all that is freely offered in this space , a space created by the very fact of Divine presence.
“For the Spirit explores everything,
even the deep things of God.” 1 Corinthians 2:10