Into the Light

Creativity, home, Meditation, Ministry, poverty, Prayer, purpose, renewal, sleep, Spirituality, Stress, Uncategorized, vision

Light & Shadow

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,    in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you  out of darkness into his marvelous light.” ~~ 1 Peter 2:9


Darkness and light are what make an object appear three-dimensional on a flat surface. The object in the shadows is more hidden and the light reveals more of its true nature. Likewise, we are not our true selves when we are in the darkness. When we are in the light, we are more like who we were born to be: the image of the living God whom we know in Jesus Christ.  We are called out of the darkness of ordinary life into the life and light of Christ when Christ claims us in our professing of faith in his life, death and resurrection for our salvation.  When we give up trying to save ourselves, we proclaim his mighty deeds with our walk, our witness, and our service to the body of Christ we know both as “the church” and “the poor.”  Jesus said to those who were faithful, “I was hungry and you gave me food…” (Matt 25:35).

The beginning artist sometimes has difficulty getting either enough light or enough shadow in their painting or drawings. The values all tend toward the middle range; there’s not enough contrast to emphasize any area of their work. Rembrandt knew how to make his works sing! He always had enough darkness to make the lights seem very bright indeed. Even this unfinished painting has enough contrasts of light and dark to define the light from the shadows.

Our faith lives sometimes lack contrast because they aren’t different from the lives the world leads. We don’t “shine like stars in the world” which is in darkness (Phil 2:15). We aren’t the contrast that the world is looking for, and so our lives aren’t attractive to them.  We live “gray lives” when instead our lives should be full of the light of Christ!

Perhaps we don’t hear the call of God clearly enough, for the sound of “sheer silence” or the still small voice of God that Elijah heard in the wilderness isn’t very often heard in the midst of the rush and busyness of human life. (1 Kings 19:12).  God’s voice is more often heard when we are ourselves still, silent, apart and waiting expectantly and often. This alone is reason enough to find the appointed place and time for each of us to “meet God,” to be found waiting faithfully for his appearance and his affirmation by his calling our name, “God’s own people,” “My Beloved.”

Just as I have my appointed place to work—my studio—I also have my appointed places to meet God.  My easy chair has a nest of books beside it: Bible, journal, pens, concordance and some books by other spiritual writers that encourage me.  It awaits me each morning at 6:30. Sometimes I sit with my coffee in the quiet for a while, other times I am ready to write in my journal. Sometimes I need to check my friends on Facebook when I know they are going through a rough patch. Mostly I need this quiet time with God and no one else. Afterwards, I am ready for the world, ready for work, ready for my day.  I used to be an extrovert, always on the go, always on, always with other people. Now I confess to needing my quiet time with God as much as I need my work time, and my people time! In fact, I enjoy my time with others more because I have had my time with God. I work with more passion and strength because I have had the quiet and the silence to focus my life on what is beautiful and what is true.

My other appointed place to meet God is at my Church. I found a place of worship that centered on God, not a minister or the people. The purpose of our church is to “Connect people to God, to one another, and to the community” around us.  We are a downtown church, so we do a lot of mission work with the poor and we have teams that go abroad also.  We can be taught all the history of the Bible and all the facts of our faith, but if our hands don’t lift to help a neighbor in need, we aren’t living our faith in the light of Christ.

But God in his wisdom finds ways to meet us any place and any time.  God is the master of the unexpected, for when we least expect to see him, he’ll find a way to come to us!  We might be washing dishes or pumping gas into the truck or buying groceries. Unless we are prepared and receptive however, we will most likely miss this moment.  To prepare our hearts and minds for the chance encounters, the practice of sitting still before God is worthwhile. This week set a time aside for a quiet time: make it an appointment in your Day Timer, or iCal or write it on your hand and look at the clock.  Show up in this place and put on the “I’m invisible hat” and just breathe deep for thirty minutes. If you sleep through it, God knows you need that nap! Remember, God can work in you to restore you even when you aren’t working. Maybe to be a light, your battery needs charging.  Spend this week on “being present to God,” and let God be present to you.

Getting our Groove Back

Creativity, Holy Spirity, Love, Ministry, Prayer, purpose, Spirituality, Uncategorized

“I saw the Spirit descending from heaven

like a dove and it remained on him.”

~~ John 1:32

Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. When he came out of the water, the descent of the Spirit of God was visible and its presence was visible and its presence in the person was noticeable. Maybe he had a new strut, a confidence in his manner, a look in his eye, or a set to his jaw that said, “I know who I am and I know my purpose.” Maybe he was like the infamous Stella, who got her groove back, when she discovered what brought the most meaning to her life.

When we are in the midst of our passion and our calling, the Spirit seems to be upon us. We are in a “zone,” as the athletes say.  We are unaware of trying to achieve or produce, but energy seems to flow through us. We are “on target,” we hit the “sweet spot,” and move without straining. We are at the height of our powers, maybe even beyond our best! We are unstoppable! This might be a record setting crowd-pleasing day!

When preachers are “bringing the word” or “telling it like it is,” a power from above seems to fall upon us, for we lose ourselves in the stream of words that flow unbidden and unsought from the inner depths of our hearts, minds and souls.  This isn’t to say that we don’t prepare our texts, study our lessons, or spend time contemplating our scripture verses.  An unprepared preacher is a bad preacher, or at best, on who repeats the same sermon over and over.  We may carry an outline up to the lectern, podium or stage, but this merely serves to keep us on track and on the idea we are emphasizing that day.

People worry that crying babies will disturb their pastor:  more likely it disturbs the congregation.  When I preached, I was never aware of any sounds. I could see faces and their response to the message, so I knew when to elaborate a point and when to move on.  I was in a “zone” when the Spirit fell on me.  My voice changed, my posture changed, and I wasn’t the person I was from day to day.  My ordinary self notices noises, movements, and changes of light, as if I were hypersensitive to each alteration in my environment.  When I preach, I forget all about those things and focus only on the word God has given me for this time and place. From my personal experience, I would say, there is a visible change when the Spirit falls upon someone.

In our studios, we would like to have the Spirit fall upon us from the moment we walk in and remain upon us during the whole of our working time. We would like to be in that “zone of creative fervor” in which time and space does not exist for us, but only the conversation and interaction with our art matters at the moment.  We want to be with our paints, our clay, our wood, our fiber, or any other medium as if they are our beloved who has returned after a long journey.  We want to be at one with them and enjoy them so deeply that we fall together in a unified whole in a single burst of ecstasy, after which is birthed a creation of great beauty, an inspired work of art.

Why does this not happen? For that matter, why do we seem to lumber at our labors, both artistically and spiritually? We sleepwalk through our studios and doze in our faith lives. When I say faith life, I don’t mean the one hour we segment for weekly worship, but the 24/7/365 life we live as human beings before God.  If we want to live with purpose and passion, both as a spiritual person and as an artist, we need “outside help.”

“I can do it myself!” How many times have I said this since I was two years old? I seem to have raised my arm and stubbornly made time stand still, because my mantra is still “I can do it my self!” I don’t like to ask for help, not from other people, and not even from God.  I would save myself if I could, inspire myself if I could, do it all by myself if I could, but then I hit the wall. A task is too big, a goal unobtainable, I lack all the necessary skills, or illness strikes me down.  I discover that my “Lone Ranger” personality isn’t fully human and never will be divine. Even Jesus had the twelve disciples as friends and co-workers. Our one God has the fellowship of the Holy Trinity for comfort and shared work. We all need power in our lives, a power that falls on us from heaven and stays with us to unite us to God and God’s purpose for our lives: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared before hand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10).

Today, give your life over to a higher power than yourself.  Let God be at work in you through his Spirit for good works, both inside and outside your studio. When the “I want to do it myself” words rise up, ask God for help instead. It will not make you less, it will make you more human and more in touch with the divine.  You may even “get your groove back!”

Fresh Breezes

Creativity, Holy Spirity, home, Love, Ministry, New Year, Prayer, renewal, Spirituality, Stress, Uncategorized

“Jesus answered Nicodemus, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’” ~~ John 3:3

The new year is still young, fresh and full of promises, but already one of my Facebook friends has posted her first Wednesday status as “Take names & Kick butt.” I commented she needed to add, “Take no prisoners.” Sometimes my wickedly dry humor puts a bad day into perspective—if she didn’t feel like killing anyone, it wasn’t really all that terrible a day. We can always enjoy a worse time.

This is what stress feels like to us. Our inner warrior is ready to break forth and do some serious damage or we just want to run away to a desert island and escape the whole crazy business of STRESS—our jobs, our families, our politics, our health problems, our economy. Recently I’ve talked with folks who would give anything to change careers because they are so burnt out from the emotional drain of caring for wounded people or they are tired of being unappreciated for their loyalty and their service by their bosses. Then there are those who aren’t employed and they’re stressed trying to pay the bills and find a job that that is meaningful and pays enough to keep their family afloat. Some just want a living wage! I also think of my friends who love their ministries and pour their heart, soul, mind, and bodies into serving God and neighbor, but don’t have the support of their church members or the people in their communities. These end up being physically ill or not working at peak performance because they are worn down not only by the stress of leadership, but also by working until they collapse.

We can’t see the kingdom of God unless we are “born from above” or “born again,” as the phrase is sometimes translated. Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, asked Jesus, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” (John 3:4). We get set in our ways, both in our spiritual habits and in our creative endeavors. It’s hard to break old habits, for we’ve been doing the same routines so often that it feels comfortable, like a well broken in old pair of shoes. Changing our golf swing feels wrong, but if the pros will do it to make more money and win more tournaments, what keeps us duffers from making the change? We aren’t focused on the reward or we think the reward is too distant or unobtainable.

In the studio, as in life, stress kills creativity. Put a time limit on the product, put a committee together to produce it, or put a non-art person in charge of the artist and the creative expression will plummet. Something “OK” will come forth, but not something great. Most of us settle for OK, and don’t seek the great in our spiritual or our creative lives. I think we are afraid to break away from the comfort of the group and the security of sameness. Great art, however, stands outside of the ordinary, just as the saints are recognized as being persons who bear extraordinary evidence of God’s Spirit working in their lives.

Yet we are all meant for greatness, for that is our spiritual goal, the recovery of the image of God in which we were first created. By being born again by the Spirit, we have a divine helper who works within us to bring us closer to God. Our desire to be closer to God increases as we practice our spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, Christian community, fasting, and Holy Communion. It grows when we also practice our works of mercy—feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and the prisoners, clothing the naked and caring for the widows, orphans and strangers among us. These inner and outer works bring us closer to God and neighbor until our hearts are so full of love that nothing else exists. Then we will see the kingdom of God, if not in this world by God’s grace, then in the next, as the Spirit fulfills the promise God gave us.

In our creative lives we want to be “born again.” Picasso was famous for reinventing himself—his blue, rose, and African periods; cubism; and neo-expressionism. He worked in many media, even painting his own furniture and pottery. Jesus told Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (3:8).

For us, the Spirit of creativity blows into our hearts and minds like a fresh breeze in the spring, bringing along the promise of new life and new hope. Ideas may lie buried under the soil, but the warm breeze will awaken them and soon they will poke through. A cold snow may quickly bury them again, but they have arrived and they will not be denied! New life and new hope have broken through—the old has passed away and the new has sprung forth!

If your heart and mind feel like a walled garden into which no breeze can blow, it may be because you are too stressed. Take a “fasting break” for a week—turn off the TV, the computer, and the radio at home. Listen to the quiet. If this is “too loud” for you, put the TV or Pandora on a “tranquility station” that doesn’t require the mind to follow a tune or pay attention. Cook a real meal and eat at the table, even if you have to clean it off! Read a book, put your thoughts in a journal or a spiral notebook. Take a walk around the block after dinner or before. Cut back on caffeine. Give a space for the gate to open up, and let the breeze of the Spirit refresh your lives!

See and Live

Creativity, Fear, Imagination, New Year, renewal, Spirituality

“In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you will also live.” ~~ John 14:19

Descartes the philosopher said, “I think, therefore I am.” We who are artists say, “I create, therefore I am.” Creating is what makes us feel alive because we connect to the God who created all things and to his Word through whom all things were created (John 1:1-3). “What came into being was live, and the life was the light of all people” (1:4).

No work of art can exist without light: a photograph needs light or it won’t change the film (old school) or register digitally in the camera. A sculpture needs light to display its curves and shapes; the wrong lighting can destroy its forms, but the right light can emphasize its shapes and turns. The artists of the 17th century used a technique called chiaroscuro in which they placed portions of their paintings into deep shadows, but brightly lit the important areas as if the canvas were a small stage and their subject was a moment plucked from a larger drama.  To render a three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional surface, the artist must use the techniques of light and shadow to give the illusion of form even though the surface is truly flat.

Our spiritual life is what brings our flat, ordinary lives into a new reality, a third dimension if you will.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). Just as a painter must control the light source and take care not to hides his/her whole painting in the shadows, we need to seek out the light in our lives. Sometimes the world can be too overwhelming: the lists of the things we want to do keep getting pushed aside for the lists everyone else wants us to do for them, we too often say “yes” when we should say “no” or “later,” our work no longer excites us but our volunteering lifts us up, our family dramas are like non stop reality TV shows or soap operas, or we have a long-term challenge to deal with  (health, retirement, grief, disability, bankruptcy, job loss, etc.).

We can let our painting muddy out until there is only grays and no contrasts of dark and light.  We can overwork our painting so that we lose focus on what the main theme was that called us to our easel in the first place.  We can forget to cleanse our brushes completely so that our colors begin to look the same.  We fail to step back and let the wet areas dry but continue to work over and over the same places until the whole has lost any freshness and spirit.  Indeed, it looks as dead as we feel inside.

This is a new year, and we can make a new beginning, a fresh start.  When I’ve sat with one of my old paintings, I have a chance to really see it. After a year, it might fall apart. There might be an area that is good enough to keep, but not the whole. It was a learning experience, but not good enough to keep in my body of work.  It isn’t representative of my best efforts.  It might take two or three years to fall apart, but the end result is the same: I will take that canvas off the stretcher strips and put a new one on. Time to try again, try better, since I know more I have the opportunity to fail better!  I’ll cut up the best parts of the old canvases and recycle them into another painting to make them worthwhile.  When a painting doesn’t show signs of life, it’s time to recycle it.

Why are we so afraid to let something we have produced in our studio be destroyed? Why do we hang onto it? For that matter, why are we afraid to let our past go and set out afresh and forgiven? If we have faith in the one who is Light and Life, we can be assured that if we give ourselves to him, the darkness cannot overcome us. We will create in beauty and we will walk in beauty.