I carry my phone when I walk, so I always have a camera for the scenes of beauty which catch my eye. Since light is ephemeral and these moments are fleeting, catching them as they occur is important. When I come home, I often photoshop the image on my computer or in Instagram to get the emotions, which I experienced when I took the photo.
Winter Lake Reflections
Several winters ago, I took this photo. By the time I painted it this year, I was feeling more optimistic. Back then, I didn’t know if my daughter was alive or dead. I lived in hope, but I also was holding onto some fear, for I knew her drug addiction was going to be difficult to overcome.
The Cloud Rising
This is my most recent landscape. The cloud always reminds me of God’s appearance! Then I think of this verse in Job 38:34, when God asks Job, who’s been questioning God’s intentions and reasons—
“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
so that a flood of waters may cover you?”
Poor Job, he’s not God. And neither are any of us. We’d like to make sense of the senseless, right all the wrongs, put order to all the chaos, and make things the way they should be. Of course, if we were in charge, the world would have gone to hell in a hand basket much sooner than it has already.
Maybe we should reread Job 42:3—
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
In our world today, many changes are happening. Some of us want things to be “the way they used to be.” This would make us feel better and be more comfortable with a known world, but God is always recreating God’s new world–
“For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind” (Isaiah 65:17).
If we are people of faith, we can trust in our God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). If Christ is the same, then God is the same, and so is the Holy Spirit. Does this mean our understanding of the Holy Trinity never changes? No, this means God’s love and mercy for us never changes! We think we can fall outside the bounds of God’s love, but this is only because we have short arms and can’t include all others within our embrace. Just as the water reflects the sky and earth above it, so we’re to reflect the attributes of the holy image in which we’re created and demonstrate the qualities of the heart and the same mind that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).
Job, who was well respected and honored in his community, was enamored of his ability to assist others with their needs. He was a big man who used the blessings from God for good purposes. When he lost this status, he was upset. Once he met God face to face, he realized he’d been giving lip service to God, but didn’t actually know God. Many of us today know about God, but haven’t had an encounter or experience with the living God. We can’t reflect a love which we’ve never received, and we can’t share a forgiveness we’ve not known. Perhaps our first work is to seek God’s generosity for our own lives, so we can reflect it outward in the world toward others.
Most of us separate our lives into doing and being: we are creatures of comfort at times, and then we expend energy doing chores or work at different times. We live bifurcated lives, even if we’ve heard the admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), we work without prayer and pray without working. Then again, some of us have little connection with the spiritual at all, so we miss the mystery and the awe of the dimensions beyond this mundane world. We’re unable to see even the glory and beauty of the creation, since we aren’t connected spirituality to a life beyond this world.
Christ Overcomes the World
The iconographer is more than a painter or a writer: he or she is one who connects this material world with the spiritual world beyond. The icon is a window through which the heavenly and the earthly worlds communicate. It’s like a wormhole, of sorts, in sci-fi language, or a portal passage for direct communication. Of course, we can directly communicate with the Holy Spirit, but not being able to see the Spirit, we can see the icon’s representation of the image of Christ or a saint, and this helps us to focus our thoughts and prayers.
Some say a candle would suffice, or a text from Scripture, and I agree. Yet not everyone is able to live such a spare life, reduced of images, color, and beauty. Minimalism isn’t for everyone! This is why we have zen gardens as well as romantic English gardens. Some of us need architectural modernism and others like quaint country clutter. The icon tradition comes from the ancient church, for Luke was traditionally ascribed to be the first iconographer, as well as one of the first gospel writers. He painted Mary “the God-bearer” and Jesus.
Our art class is moving out of its comfort zone in the painting of icons. We can learn about the spiritual life in the art class every time we meet. In fact, every time we try something new or challenging, we learn about ourselves and the spiritual life. A close inspection of the gospels shows a Jesus who was always challenging the status quo. The only time he was comforting people was when they were dispossessed, marginalized, or disrespected. “Blessed are the poor…” was his first choice, not blessed are the rich or powerful!
When we are weak and powerless, when we struggle and fall short of success, and that will be. Every. Single. Day. In. Art—We are then most able to lean on the one who for our sakes became weak so we can become strong. Then we’ll come back and fail again and remember the times Christ stumbled on the rocky road to the crucifixion. What seemed like a failure to everyone gathered about, and didn’t make logical sense to wisdom seeking people, nevertheless served a higher purpose. By uniting all of our human failures and faults in one person, God could experience all of them in God’s own image, the icon we know as Jesus Christ.
If there’s any reason to attempt a Holy Icon in this modern world, we paint and pray to unite our work and spiritual into one. Usually only the clergy have this privilege, and they can too easily burn out if they do too much and pray too little. Lay people underestimate the amount of prayers necessary for effective work. The older I get, the more prayer time I need. Of course, work takes more out of me now, but I’m a refugee from the dinosaur age. I used to be an energizer bunny back in my fifties, but working thirty hours a week painting and writing is enough for me today.
Any art work, whether a landscape, portrait, or an icon, can be alive or dead, depending on how the artist approaches the work. If we draw the lines, fill in the colors, and never pay attention to the energy of the art itself, we’re just filling up time. If we’re thinking about our grocery list, what to make for dinner, or the errands we have to run, we aren’t on speaking terms with our artwork. On the other hand, if we’re paying attention, sharing in the conversation, listening to what our work is telling us, we can respond to the push and pull of the conversation. Our work will tell us what it needs if we’ll only listen to it. If we trust and listen to the Holy Spirit, we’ll paint a true icon, and the window into heaven will open for all who want to listen.
Making Found Object Icons is an art project that evolved out of the Great Macaroni Multimedia Traveling Artandicon Show. In seminary during Art Week our fellow students were horrified we were making sacred images out of edible products, such as macaroni, lentils, peas, and beans.
Jesus is the Bread of Life
“Jesus is the bread of life, and macaroni is just another form of wheat,” we replied.
“But it’s so ordinary!”
“Clay is ordinary, and so is stone. Can an object only be worthy of God if it’s made of expensive materials?”
“The value of all the chemicals in a human body is about $5.18, but we’re worth far more than that in the eyes of God. Some say God doesn’t make junk, yet too many people of faith despise and debase the body. I’ve always wondered why this was so, since the Son of God came to earth in human form, and as the great hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 (NRSV) says—
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
When we meet Christ at Christmas, we can get all warm and fuzzy because who doesn’t like a warm, cuddly baby? Maybe I have a soft spot for babies, but I really don’t trust people who don’t get a little ga-ga when the little ones coo and smile. I can understand folks getting squeamish at Good Friday and the cross. Most of us avoid as much pain as possible. Humility and obedience to God are not high priorities these days for many people.
Flight into Egypt
Many tend to ignore this wonderful call to the Christ-like life, preferring instead the cop out of “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak,” (Mark 14:38, NRSV). “Forgive us,” we say, but we hold others up to high standards.
We make a distinction between our dual natures of the flesh and the spirit, a concept inherited from the Greco-Roman culture. It’s notable that the often quoted verse, “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit,” is found in Galatians 6:8 (NRSV), for this was a Roman province.
The ancient Mediterranean area had a knowledge/mystery tradition. The Greeks had their cult of Bacchus, the Egyptians the cult of Isis, and the Jewish had their mystical Kabbalah. The Romans had their dying and rising god cult of Mithras, the bull. Entry into all of these groups was by word of mouth only, given to a special few, and all had secret rites known to the members only. Most promised salvation through secret knowledge, and the true world for them was spiritual rather than the physical world in which we live today. Ecstatic worship separated the believer from the body and the ordinary world.
You might recognize these traits in your own church or worship community today, except for the ecstatic and enthusiastic worship brought about by mood altering substances. That’s not my church anyway! How do we come close to God? Across the centuries, the tradition has discovered contemplative prayer, singing, searching the scriptures, serving the poor, attending the sacraments, and creating art for God or the Holy Icons.
Making an object for the glory of God, to enhance the worship experience, and to honor God is a gift of the artist’s time and talent. No artist is ever paid what their training and talent is worth, for it’s a treasure from God to begin with—it can’t be valued. Artists have learned over the centuries to live simply, accept fame if it comes, and put a fair price on their work.
They get value in the spiritual real from the work they do, for the icon opens a window into heaven. As they arrange the jewels and found objects, and move them to a better position, the icon comes alive under their hands and begins to breathe. Only the person, who will be still long enough to hear the silence from beyond the open window, can hear the voice of God in this world. For this person, the icon is a treasure, and a place of holy focus, no matter how small or how simple the materials.
This is the reason the artist makes an icon—to have a moment of mystery, a time of intersection, and a communion with the holy. In today’s hurried world, each of us wants a place in which we can experience for a moment the timelessness of heaven.
When we return in the New Year, we’ll begin painting our own holy icons. The process is a spiritual journey, more than a destination or the attempt to reach perfection. We only need to “go toward perfection” each day!
My latest icon of the face of Christ is based on the Napkin of Christ or The Image Not Made by Human Hands. The tradition tells us the Lord washed his face on a cloth and the image of his face transferred directly to it. King Abgar took the image bearing cloth to Edessa and hung it above the city’s entrance, where the people venerated it.
For many years afterwards, the inhabitants kept a pious custom to bow down before the Icon Not-Made-by-Hands, when they went forth from the gates. When one of the great-grandsons of Abgar, who later ruled Edessa, fell into idolatry, he decided to take down the icon from the city wall. In a vision the Lord ordered the Bishop of Edessa to hide His icon. The bishop, coming by night with his clergy, lit a lamp before it and walled it up with a board and with bricks.
Years later, when the city was under siege, the Virgin Mary appeared to the presiding bishop with the instruction to reveal the old icon. Not only was it found, but also the lamp, and a copy etched into the wall itself! This miracle saved the city.
We know “that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21), for Christ came not to save only humankind, but to redeem all creation. Sometimes when hurricanes, floods, fires, and other natural disasters make the news, we might think nature is disordered, dysfunctional, and we can despair for any harmonious sensitivity to the only planet we can call our home.
For some people of faith, because their “citizenship is not of this world,” they see no reason to care for our world, yet God created this place for us and our children and their children. We don’t own it, we merely care for it, as good stewards for the generations to come and as servants of our creator. If our world is to be lush and green, as well as clean and blue, we must love it as if it were the body of Christ, even though the world isn’t divine.
God is still going to “make a new heaven and a new earth,” but we don’t have to destroy the one we already have just to get God to prove God’s powers over our stupidity. We could choose to participate in the recreation of the new earth and let God finish the task at the right time. Then we’d enjoy the fruits of this better world and share it with all our neighbors around the earth.
As Paul reminds us, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (Romans 8:22-24)
Some things I take for granted, since I had the great privilege of knowing my great grandmother in her last years. I knew all but one of my grandparents, since my daddy’s father died when I was only a year old. Even my daughter knew both her Nana and all four of her grandparents. Growing up we attended family reunions or homecomings every summer without fail. We renewed ties with the distant or “kissing cousins” who also showed up for the food and fellowship. I also have family members who care about genealogy, especially if this gets them into exclusive organizations, but I’ve never joined these.
The Mexican festival for the Day of the Dead pays respects to the ancestors. In truth, we don’t need to know who they are, or to have had an intimate relationship with them. After all, I certainly didn’t know my great great ancestors! I can appreciate I wouldn’t be here without their gift of life to my more proximate relatives. This is what the writer of Hebrews means by, “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1).
The Day of the Dead is celebrated on or around All Saints Day, and sometimes for several days on either side of it. It began with an Aztec custom, and blended into the Catholic tradition. This is a time for feasting, celebrations, and joy, to make memorable the experience of recalling the lives of the ancestors. Sweet foods shaped like skulls are one of the traditions.
Michael worked on a pyramid of foam core boards, which he painted to look like stones. He decorated it with store bought skulls and a photo of his deceased brother. He has more nuts and bolts from a found object stash to add to it. Telling the story of his beloved one is part of the project. Art is part therapy and part project. We may work with our hands, but our hearts and minds are also involved.
Gail worked on a tombstone painting with images of her ancestors and their pets. She figured our how to transfer photos to cloth via the printer! Technology! I was impressed! Plus Gail made coffee for my sake, and it was a means of grace, since I’ve had a serious sinus infection that won’t go away. Coffee really is a blessing.
I’m slowly working on a new box for my daughter’s memory. This is the third anniversary of her death. When we think of the Dead, we remember
we believe “he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive” (Luke 20:38). So we don’t grieve like others do, for our loved ones aren’t lost to us. Since God is close to us, and our loved ones are with God, this means our loved ones are always as close to us as God is.
In these past three years, grief has roiled not only our nation, but the nations of the world. Since 2015, more than 33,000 Americans have died as a result of the opioid epidemic, but drug overdose deaths overall are even larger. In 2015 alone, 52,404 people died from a drug overdose and 64,070 died in the year ending in January, 2017. Across the world, 2015 was remarkable for forcibly displaced persons: 21.3 million refugees, 40.8 million internally displaced persons, and 3.2 million asylum seekers. The photo of the drowned Syrian boy, who washed up on a Turkish beach, helped open Europe’s doors to people fleeing the war torn country they once called home. Now we have neighbors from the south fleeing gangs and corruption in the hope of a place to work and give their families a better life.
Perhaps we’ve had so much of our own grief, we can’t deal with any more. We’ve become numb to the pain of others. If this is the case, we are dead inside, and others need to grieve for us. The fancy name for our condition is “compassion fatigue,” for we hear folks saying, “We should take care of our own first,” but our own go hungry and sleep in the bushes behind our churches or on our city streets.
To live with joy isn’t easy in the early days after the death of a loved one, but as our journey progresses toward recovery, we come to remember who we are and whose we are. Making a scrapbook, writing a journal, or building an altar are all physical means to engage the senses. Once we tap these, we can open the floodgates to our emotions and thoughts, and then healing can begin. We aren’t healed in a moment, but by a process over time.
“Hear, LORD, and be merciful to me; LORD, be my help.
You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy”
~~ Psalms 30:10-11
NEXT WEEK: We begin a new still life painting series—Ornamental Gourds.
No, we aren’t painting ON the gourds…Bring paints and a canvas!
After all is said and done, the taste of victory will not be sweet for the winning side. They will be eating a roast beast cooked to ashes. It will feed them, but it won’t nourish them for the long haul.
The agony of this latest defeat for the survivors, who came out of hiding to share their stories of pain in solidarity with others, is just a minor setback, for their bravery has been honed by years of struggle. One skirmish doesn’t make a battle, anymore than one person can make or break our spirits. We know our worth and identify is located in our being loved by God and loved into the image of God.
Yet, if we listen to the news feed of any political persuasion, either “the kingdom has come according to God’s will,” or “the apocalypse is upon us now!” I admit to being one of the latter, but even I can put on my drama queen crown for a day. Television, social media, and our instant society push us in this direction. We are seduced into overconsumption of media during times of high drama, especially when an unusual event occurs, such as a natural disaster or a Supreme Court appointment.
Why would we even care, as people of faith, about a political appointee? While this government position is technically separate from the church, the people who rule make decisions affecting God’s people and God’s world–especially the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed. We want to know that all 114 of the justices since 1789 not only are well qualified in matters of the law, but have the “temperament suitable for the highest court of the land.”
This is like the classic “sorting hat” of Harry Potter fame—or the Southerner’s expression “couth”—you either have it or you don’t. If you have to ask what it is, you don’t have it. Mostly down South, we easily recognize “uncouth.” That is plain as the nose on you face or people screaming at you to listen when your mind is already made up.
So the vote to confirm the 114th was close, but affirmative, and we now have a new Associate Justice on the Supreme Court. People think Justice Kavanaugh will tilt the Court to the right, since there’s no swing vote currently among the nine. Since I’m afflicted by the dread disease of chronic optimism, and infected by family systems thinking, I don’t believe in static systems. After all, every place I’ve ever been and every job ever had, both secular and sacred, all had the same people and conditions, but when you replace one key person (or change the way the key person relates to the others), change happens.
I observed an interesting effect of Family Systems behavior patterns when an extroverted clergy pal, who led youth groups, and I were part of a leadership training seminar. Our normally reserved group leader began to toss the dinner rolls across our restaurant table as he called out our names. The more he “acted out,” the straighter and quieter my friend became! I was dying laughing inside, but I couldn’t laugh out loud at her expense.
DELEE—Ripples in Water of Lake Hamilton
When we throw a rock into a lake, it creates a ripple. We may think these waves dissipate after a few feet, but under the water are small fish who felt the water’s expansion, so they moved to another part of the lake. Perhaps the fisherman, whose luck was poor all day long, made one final cast and caught the bigger fish that had moved over to seek the small fish from our tossed pebble area. We may have given him a meal for his family or just made his day glad. We’ll never know the results of the small acts or decisions we make.
Likewise, when a new Justice arrives into the very small pond—there’s only nine of them—it’s bound to make a ripple. If we believe “God is working for good in all things, for those who love God and are called according to God’s purposes,” then by faith we’d trust God will work in this small pond to move the hearts and minds of these justices. In their discussions and interactions, they would affect one another. They don’t make decisions in an ivory tower, for they’re not like a judge in an individual court, but colleagues who come to a consensus opinion, even if one may write a dissent on the side.
As a stone sharpens a blade, we can hope and pray for the light of God’s love to illumine both the mind and heart of all who serve on our high court. They’ll have many important questions to come before them. Our hope is they and we always remember psychologist Ellen Langer’s advice for making tough choices: “Don’t make the right decision. Make the decision right.” Since we never have enough information to make the best choice, all we can do is make the best of the choice we’ve made.
If we remember we’re all children of God and all of God’s children are well loved, then we can go forward without rancor to recreate the world anew. If the current occupants of political office aren’t responding to this transformative calling, we should run, organize, vote, and elect others who will work together for the good of all, not just for a few. This takes vision, planning, and a long term view.
Most of us will only think about as long as it takes our double shot white mocha latte with soy to come over the counter at our favorite cafe spot, if that long. Plan for a major holiday? Five year plan? Plan out the church year in advance? No wonder we don’t even know what we’re doing this weekend. Most of us are just trying to get through the day. No wonder we live moment to moment and crisis to crisis. We don’t ever pull back and reflect on where the ripples go when the stone drops. All we do is keep throwing stones. This isn’t evidence of a life of faith and purpose. Calendars are going on sale now. It might be time to make some prayers and plans.
I haven’t read this book, but the New York Times gives it a rave review.
“Farsighted,” Steven Johnson’s riveting new book on how we make tough long-term decisions, uses compelling stories that reveal surprising insights, and explains how we can most effectively approach the choices that can chart the course of a life, an organization, or a civilization. “Farsighted” will help you imagine your possible futures and appreciate the subtle intelligence of the choices that shaped our broader social history.
One of the most difficult struggles in art, sports, faith, or anything else in life is knowing what you want to achieve, but finding yourself lacking the skills to accomplish it. Some people give up right away, since they can’t master it well. Art takes a lifetime to master, so even the best of us will be struggling to get better until our last breath. Perfection is highly overrated! All artists are their own worst critics! At least in faith we have God as our coworker.
In art a beginner can set aside this quandary and say, “Well, I just need more practice and I’ll get there soon enough.” The intermediate practitioner contends with a little more skill, and could push his or her technique over the edge attempting to discover the heart and soul of their expressions as they seek their own way to speak of the beautiful and the true in color and forms.
Sometimes a seasoned artist comes to a growth point. Even one who, perhaps from their past work in a certain style, has some following and financial success, when they come to the daily search for truth and beauty, will discover the old beauty no longer attracts them. So while they may have all the technical ability to continue creating their old works, they find this no longer is their truth and they can’t in good conscience continue to produce in the same vein.
Our Still Life
The search for truth and beauty is like the search for God and our inner truth as artists and people of faith. If we’re only working for fame and gain, maybe we should have listened to those who said, “Don’t quit your day job.” Or thought of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, who found both success and poverty, but at different times. Our inner search for truth and beauty is just as fraught.
Will we take the risk and try something new? This week l brought the class a shade of my former self, no inspirational paintings of old masters, and only a variation on last week’s still life. Afterwards I was traveling up to the doctor‘s poffice for “the cure to end my misery.” After a few days on sinus medications, I can hold two thoughts together again.
To really look at life and look inside oneself is the best way to discover truth and beauty. Some folks don’t want to look inside for fear they’ll see ugly things, long buried secrets, pains, and memories best forgotten. We need to see these, recognize them, and let Jesus take them into his already redeemed life. If we can let these painful parts be transformed by his graceful healing mercy, then we can use his renewing power in our own lives to bring truth and beauty to the life of others.
Some people look out and only see ugliness, decay, and despair. I imagine if they look inside, they also see the same things. They need to remember the nature of all things is not in itself beautiful or ugly, just as they themselves aren’t ugly or beautiful. Beauty is a standard, like a Virtue, which is an ideal characteristic, and it’s beyond anything here on this world. We’ll probably understand Truth and Beauty in the eternal world, when we have the opportunity to participate with God in the fullness of time.
Gail—Day of the Dead image in process
If beauty were only to exist in the eye of each and every beholder, and each one of us could determine our own standards of beauty according to our own experience and criteria, then all the plains would be level and no mountains would exist. Yet, we know this isn’t so, for my icebox door may be decorated with my grandchildren’s crayon drawings, but they wouldn’t be hanging in an art gallery in any creative district anywhere.
Mike—Basket of Veggies against a Yellow Wall
If art isn’t a challenge, if life isn’t a pursuit of excellence, and if we are content to rest at the foot of the mountains, then I really wonder why God created the heights, if not for us to aspire to them? If there’s mountains in this world, why are so many content to climb just the hills, but call them mountains? Most of the struggles we have in life are actually molehills, but we blow them out of proportion and call them mountains! The biggest successes come from the accumulation of many small failures. We’re just training until we hone our muscle memory to a fine edge. This is why we say works can’t save you in faith, but art is all about the work ethic.
DeLee—Work in Progress
Our biggest challenge this week in class was the woven basket. Some of us had never woven anything in youth groups, so experiences I took for granted as a child growing up (weaving situpons and potholders) weren’t in some people’s backgrounds. Learning to look, follow the weave, see the play of light along the wave of the reeds, and the shadows as they dip under the warp bands took a bit of doing. We’re also beginning some Day of the Dead related works. We’ll work in these in October. I was so sick, I failed to photo everyone’s work. I should be in better shape next week!
Joy and Peace, Cornelia
For now we remember, as the apostle Paul sighed,
“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
~~ Romans 7:19
And he leaves us with these words of hope,
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
~~ Romans 8:28
As a gal who loves her spa days, few and far between though they are, I enjoy the pampering these small forays into indulgence involve. The friendly staff, the luxurious soft robes, the warm scented tubs, the cold needled showers, and even the brief stints in the steam box. Most of all, I live for the white terrycloth towels soaked in the hot spring waters, but cooled enough to put onto tender human flesh. The attendant who wraps my knees and back also puts an ice cold towel on my face before she leaves me alone to the quiet. Then I succumb to the ecstasy of this melting experience for about fifteen minutes.
Afterward, she wraps me back into my white robe to walk me over to the massage therapy room. She walks, but I sort of flow, for my feet don’t really feel connected to my legs or knees or hips. The heat can make a person feel giddy for a time, or perhaps the lack of pain is such a relief, I feel euphoric.
I notice the other women waiting for their massages have similar beatific smiles on their faces. The magic of the spa day outing is at work. After our massages, we seem to glow from the inside out. This effect lasts for a few hours at best, until the experience wears off, and we return to normal. I understand now why my grandparents would come to Hot Springs for “the waters” on their vacations. They did the baths daily, for their supposedly medicinal cure, even if it served to merely relax then and distress them. “Take as needed” is a medical prescription we can all understand.
This brings me to my real subject: Faith and Righteousness. Of late in the public realm we’ve been treated to curious definitions of faith and righteousness by groups in powerful places and those who want to ascend to positions of power. “I go to church” is their definition of faith and “I got into the best college and law school “ has been their definition of righteousness. Evidently attendance in these places didn’t include a passing acquaintance with the dictionary or intensive study, much less convincing evidence.
Imputed righteousness and the Faith of Acceptance
Righteousness and faith for the average church going person is like the robe I wear at the spa for a while. I don’t own it, but I use it. It belongs to Christ, who imputes his right relationship with God to me while I wear it. I accept this idea by faith—the faith Christ had in God’s love for humankind as well as Christ’s faith God would raise him from the dead. I don’t own this faith with any depth of conviction, so my outward life isn’t changed in any way from a nonbeliever ‘s life.
As the writer of Ephesians says in 5:12-14–
For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
“Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Imparted righteousness and the Faith of Assurance
One day we wake from our sleep and come to the conviction our surface appearances have failed us. We see our outward professions of faith and righteousness are a mere mask for the carefully constructed False Self we’ve been presenting to the world. We see our own righteousness is weak beside the true righteousness of Christ. We no longer see our Self, but Christ. We depend only on Christ, and not on any strength of our own Self.
When we cast aside this False Self, we can finally “buy the robe of Christ,” which he purchased with his own life, death, and resurrection. We buy into the whole life of Christ when we let our False Self die, and let our New/True Self rise with Christ. We can wear this robe of righteousness everywhere we go, for it changes us from within. The evidence shows on the outside by our words, deeds, and temperament. Our attitude changes our behavior and the consequences follow suit. The inner person shows through in the outer person, for better or worse, depending on whether we merely borrow or buy the robe of Christ.
The question for all of us remains: Do we trust our goodness to our ethnicity, our deeds, our social status, our religious heritage, our political group, our wealth, our zip code, our strength, our beauty, or any other transient thing? Or do we trust the unchanging and eternal love of God in Christ Jesus, who gave his son so all of creation could be redeemed to its original perfection?
DeLee—Christ, The Good Shepherd Saves All the Lost
John Wesley has a famous sermon called “The Almost Christian.” He suggests we need to go farther and become an “Altogether Christian.”
You can read his sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Oxford, before the University, on July 25, 1741 at the link below:
If we do the same thing over and over again, we’ll get the same results. Most of us will take the same road to our favorite restaurant, choose the same menu items, and call it a night at about the same hour. We are that predictable. A certain structure in our lives is necessary to keep us on an even keel. Mass marketing depends on people like us, since we have reliable and time tested tastes. Great art is different from the decorative arts, however, and it’s unlike the mass produced pieces which are good for covering a section of a wall in an office or residence.
Likewise, if we want to break through from the ordinary to the better, or if we want to improve upon our former work, we have to break our old habits and train ourselves in new habits. Why do world champion golfers reconstruct their swings in the middle of their careers? Their bodies are aging and changing. They can no longer swing with the abandon of younger and more limber persons. To continue playing at a high level, they must learn anew. This learning, forgetting and learning again is related to John 12:24–“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
DIANA—Painting with a Bell Pepper
In art classes, we’re always unlearning our yesterdays and starting over with fresh eyes and a renewed spirit in the morning. The day we start repeating ourselves, we’ve decided we’re good enough. We’ve settled, rather than continuing to push on to see how far we can go. Some of us will do this because we’re finally making a living. No one can fault this. Taking care of our families is important.
GAIL—Painting wit an Okra Pod
Yet if we fail to care for the artist within us, if we aren’t reaching deep within to wrestle with the challenge to risk trembling on the edges of beauty and chaos, we won’t be happy coloring canvases to satisfy the needs of those who see our art as an appendage to their furnishings rather than an object in its own right.
MIKE—Trees Painted with a Sweet Potato
The art class was somewhat nonplussed when I suggested we use sweet potato slices to print or paint with, as well as the big pretzel rods. Gail brought some large okra from her garden too, so we added this to the equation. If we always draw with the pencil and fill in with the paint brush, we get paintings which resemble coloring books. Then they came up with some original solutions. I knew they had it in them!
DUSTIN—Bowling Pins shaped like Sweet Potatoes
Mike used the actual potato as a paint tool, while Diana used the cut okras as textures and patterns. Dustin took the shape for bowling pins, and Gail doubled up sweet potatoes for mountains. I discovered the woven surface I was using wasn’t really conducive to the printing process, whereas the flat papers the class used worked fine. I got enough paint on it to get started and finished it at home.
CORNELIA—(Sweet Potato) Cloud on the Horizon
In Richard Rhor’s book, Immortal Diamond, he says, “Your True Self is that part of you that knows who you are and whose you are, although largely unconsciously. Your False Self is just who you think you are—but thinking doesn’t make it so.”
In art, we practice over and over again, until we can drop all the artifices of the False Self (the constructs which the world rewards) and work freely for the rewards which are pleasing to God. To do this, we need to allow ourselves to be freely loved by God and let ourselves freely love God’s entire creation. If nothing is outside God’s love and providence, then we too are called to love and care for God’s creation. This attitude will show in our art and heart.
In faith and art, we’re always dying to our old self and rising to our new self. Therefore we won’t be imitators of others, but we’ll be conformed instead to the image of God.
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.
In art, beginners can get so caught up with drawing the forms and representing reality, they lose sight of the emotions and meaning of their work. Small children, on the other hand, will take an idea such as a snowman in a snowstorm, and completely obliterate their surface with white swirls until all sight of the ground, the snowman, the house and the children who built it are covered up. Their work is more about the experience of the falling, swirling snow than it is about the distinctive parts. We hang this on our refrigerators and exclaimed with amazement when they tell us the story.
In a year, they’ll be interested in the separate objects and have a well defined ground and sky, even if their objects aren’t in realistic proportions. The proportions are sized according to the child’s interest, and by age 12 most children want to create drawings with realistic perspective and images. Sometimes as they age, they begin to lose their sense of magic and mystery, and need their imagination primed more, but this isn’t impossible.
Adults often have difficulty using their imaginations, for they’ve had too many years of completing to do lists, getting things done, and unfortunately, much work is mind numbing. Some of them also are products of schools that taught to the test and to the “right answer,” rather than teaching thinking or logic skills or creativity.
The disciples asked, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4)
For us as artists or as people of faith, to enter into the humility of a child is a counter cultural act, both today and in ancient times. We don’t find self help gurus preaching simplicity or poverty, but we do find plenty selling the siren call of prosperity and power. Jesus always speaks of the least of all as being the most of all, which is why the smallest child has more honor and greatness in the kingdom of heaven than the most important citizens of this world.
Some of us hear this text as a call to never question the faith we learned as a child. Unfortunately when we hit the stumbling blocks of adulthood, we find our simple faith’s pillars of belief are on shaky foundations. We can either crash and burn, or we can ask the questions of trusted and learned guides who have gone on the path before. Then we can shore up our foundations with mature understandings, or remodel our understanding so we can live with joy anew.
In art, we can either repeat the same forms over and over, or we can critique our work. In the school I attended, we had a routine—the first three comments had to be positive, then the next had to be those which needed improvement. Since we never called anything “bad” or “wrong,” the person on the hot seat never felt diminished. “You could have darkened the background more, so your foreground objects would have been more prominent.” This is better than saying, “You didn’t make the objects in front stand out,” since it doesn’t offer a solution.
It’s humbling to receive criticism, even positive feedback, because we want to be accepted just as we are, especially in faith. Yet Jesus didn’t die on the cross to leave us just as we are (justifying grace), but rose from the dead to perfect us and make us holy, just as he is (sanctifying grace). In faith, we come as humble children to grow in grace before God and to come to full perfection of love of God and neighbor that is entire sanctification. In art, we work each day to join our hand, our hearts, and our vision into one spiritually inspired whole. The more we know ourselves and can connect with the spirit of the creating God, the better we’ll make art with an inner life.
Sometimes in art, we decide to repeat a certain set of forms because we get approval from others for our work. We do this to the danger of our very lives. While we may continue to sell our work and earn the acclaim of critics, if we aren’t pushing the boundaries of artistic creativity, we are stagnating and not growing. The greatest artists–Picasso, Rembrandt, Matisse, and Michaelagelo–never quit growing. In faith, we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, knowing “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).