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!
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).
The life of one who pursues Art and Faith has many overlapping points. One of these is the search for perfection. The French artist Marcel Duchamp quit painting to play chess, saying he couldn’t create a greater work. However, he was still working on one last piece in secret in his studio. Artists are driven toward this ultimate prize, just as people of faith are called to grow towards perfection in faith and love.
The difference between perfectionism and Christian perfection is huge! The first seeks flawlessness in self, others, and in all things. I know people who get up in the middle of the night to rearrange the shoes in their closets. Shoes must not dance! While I do alphabetize my spice rack, I can leave my closet’s contents to party at will while I sleep all night. I learned from experience early on not to concentrate in any one area of my artwork, since all my many teachers drilled this lesson into my head. Overworked areas of wet paint also get muddy, for the colors blend together into a sad grey. Experience is a good teacher.
Christian perfection is a heart so full of love of God and neighbor nothing else exists. By definition, our hearts would be also full of love for our own selves, since we are made in God’s image. This is why in art class we use ABC: attitude, behavior, and consequences. Positive ABC gets praise, and negative ABC gets redirected to a better place. If we can reframe our attitudes, we can change our behaviors, and then we’ll have different consequences. Sometimes we need an attitude adjustment.
Art classes aren’t easy, but neither is the Christian life. We need to face our limitations, and this is humbling. We aren’t strong or powerful, nor have we achieved anything close to perfection in any part of our own life. This doesn’t make us bad people, but it does make us drop the false mask we’ve been wearing in the world. The best art will come from an open heart, or from transparency to God and others. We’re so used to hiding our true self from others, we think we can hide it from God also. Art will reveal our true self, however.
In Philippians 3:12-16, Paul talks about Christian perfection, so I’ll add some notes about the search for artistic perfection. In class we drew the negative or empty spaces of a wooden dowel construction I rigged up for the center of the table. I tossed in an extension cord for good measure.
Drawing the negative space is a new concept. Most of the time we’re outlining the object itself, but not focusing on the empty space. Then we wonder why our object looks cattywumpus. By drawing the emptiness, we end up with the positive figure. This is a backwards thought process. We’re so trained to look at the object, we forget the empty spaces are a design element also. Drawing the negative space helps us to find the true object in its actual location in three dimensions and translate this into a two dimensional space. This is a complex form of thinking, which is why age 9 or the ability to write in cursive has been the usual cutoff age for formal art training.
MIKE, negative image & DUFY, GATE
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal—by this Paul means Christian perfection, or having the full love of God and neighbor within our hearts. We artists will work all our lifetimes to achieve perfection. If we’re truly growing as artists, rather than just repeating variations on a theme, our style will change. Monet once destroyed multiple Waterlily canvases right before an exhibition, having deemed them inadequate for the show. We artists are our greatest critic. The day we’re satisfied is the day we begin to repeat ourselves.
GAIL, negative image & DUFY, Room with Window
but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own—of course, the Holy Spirit empowers this spiritual quest for complete love, or we’d never achieve this goal alone. I believe all persons have a creative spirit within them. If we’re made in the image of God, who is the creator and is creating all things new again, we must share this attribute in part. Moreover, I think of it as a spiritual gift, for we enter into the mystery of God when we let go of our ego’s organizational skills and allow a greater hand to move our own as we create.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own—the mark of a spiritually mature person is recognizing how far from the perfection of God all of creation will always be. Yet God can refine and renew any imperfection in our spiritual and physical lives. The consequences of our acts will stay with us, however.
At the end of a studio session, I sometimes tell myself, “I’ve learned all I can from this one. It’s time to go onto the next piece and do better.” I don’t expect a masterpiece every time. I do expect to learn from my mistakes. I own my mistakes! I’ll keep the work around for several months. If it doesn’t fall apart, I let it out to show. If it doesn’t sell in three years, I destroy it and move on. I can’t stay attached to it, although I once did. Now I see my work as an opportunity to share the beauty and joy of God’s inspiration with others. I’d be selfish to hoard it all to myself.
but this one thing I do—Paul stays focused on the ultimate prize, not just on the easy gains. “We have stress enough in our daily world, so why can’t we just come and be comfortable in our sanctuary or in our art class?”
If we were hot house tomatoes being prepared for the salsa factory, this might be an acceptable choice, but we’re human beings who’ll be tested and tried in the world beyond the security of our sacred spaces and quiet studios. We need controlled challenges, just beyond our reach, to strengthen us for the days ahead. Even the most famous artists will struggle with success, so having a goal beyond this world is important. The rest of us will struggle with failure and rejection, so we need to learn resilience and fortitude, and the strength of power available to us from on high.
forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead—most of us carry baggage from our earlier days when we made poor choices and did dumb stuff. If we don’t have several suitcases, we at least have a closet full of T-shirts from Been There Done That Land. In art, we eventually will make enough work to break out of our old patterns, or we can enter into a studio teaching environment and accelerate the process. The trained teacher gives positive criticism and guidance, just as we can give the keys to a novice driver with a licensed driver in the car. We could let the novice driver out on their own, but a cow pasture would be a safer choice for this unsupervised driving experience than a city street.
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the “heavenly” call of God in Christ Jesus.—the Greek word is “upward” call, or “higher” call. This call is more important than any other in our lives. If our only goal is to be a good person, but not loving person, we need a higher goal! Why are we satisfied with less when God is so much more of everything?
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind;—just as our challenge in faith is to always grow in grace and love, so our goal in life is to always grow and learn. What we fail to use will atrophy and die. If we don’t love from the depths of God’s inpouring and abundant love, our own ability to love will wither and die. Burnout is a spiritual condition first, then it becomes a physical problem. The ancient icon painters prayed as they “wrote” the images of Christ. If we offer up our time in the studio as a prayer to God, we will better connect to God’s deep well of hope and compassion, which can recreate our lives and the world.
and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you.—I happen to be a slow learner, but better a slow learner than one who never learns at all. Some of us need repeated lessons before the scales drop from our eyes, but once we see clearly, we’re zealous to convert the rest of the world. Once the flame of love burns brightly, it wants to spread and replicate itself. One light wants to set the other coals aflame. Still not everyone wants to set themselves on fire! They’re perfectly willing to watch someone else burn brightly and bask in their glow.
Price’s Law is a good example in real life. Price’s law describes unequal distribution of productivity in most domains of creativity. The square root of the number of people in a domain do 50% of the work. In a group of 100, 10 do 50% of the work and 90 do the other 50%. This seems to hold true in business and in volunteer groups. Some Elijahs love to work, but don’t know how to replicate their Elishas. They rob the future Elishas of the blessings of service.
In art everyone has to do their own work, and some have difficulty if the work doesn’t look as good as their neighbor’s efforts. Since everyone begins at a different point, each person improves from that beginning. Each has to be considered as an individual. No one is compared to anyone else, even in a graded system. Art is the best class of all, for if you work the whole class, turn in all your work on time, and meet the criteria of the project, you get an A. There is a “works righteousness” in the studio, even if we’re saved by grace in faith.
Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.—I find many folks want to quote this verse only, but not the whole of the Philippians text. They use it as an excuse to stand still without reflecting on their faith, which they inherited from their ancestors. Worse, they don’t read the Bible with a heart or mind open to the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit. Then they wonder why joy and peace are merely limited gifts in their lives. We prosper, not by material wealth, but in our relationships with one another and with God.
In art, we’d rather copy our teacher’s example and match it to the best of our ability, instead of coming up with solutions unique and personal to our own spirit. Thinking uses energy, but it also builds resourcefulness and new cognitive pathways, as well as increasing confidence.
The former is the standard teaching technique in most departments of education, but it has nothing to do with engaging creativity. Instead it assumes a single right answer, but the history of art is replete with multitudes of many answers and solutions to the questions of the moment. When we ask, “What is beauty, truth, and good in art,” we answer, “Across the years and with different artists in different cultures, it varies.”
With this in mind, as artists and people of faith, we can hold certain truths across all the years, artists, and cultures, but other truths may be variable. Certainly overworking the person and the painting hold true everywhere. Many of us hunger for approval from human sources, and work ourselves sick trying to please too many masters.
In art school I had several master teachers. One day I was drawing in an empty classroom. The department head came by and asked, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
“I’m drawing,” was my noncommittal answer.
He returned a short while later to ask the same question and I gave the same answer. Not long after that, he popped his head into the door, pointed his pipe at me, and asked again, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
By this time I was irritated to no end. I’d been polite twice, but this third time was too much! I snapped around on the stool and snarled, “ I’m working for myself, thank you! Now quit bothering me so I can draw in peace!”
He laughed as if I’d finally passed some rite of passage. “That’s what I wanted to hear you say the first time!” Some art lessons aren’t given in a class, and they aren’t about design and color, but about your calling and your purpose.
Who are you working for in this world: the praises of ordinary people, or the eternal voice of the master, who paints the dawn and sunset from a palette of glorious colors?
The snow arrived overnight, as promised! Just enough to change the landscape of winter on the lake in Arkansas. The trees, mountain, and grey sky are just shades of black and white. Snow changes our perception of the landscape, so it is an epiphany of its own kind.
On the twelfth day of Christmas, or the night before Epiphany, folks used to take down their decorations and trees. They gave each other the last of the Christmas gifts, though I’m sure no one ever got “twelve drummers drumming ” as the old song goes, unless they were a rented band who went about drumming for hire.
Today we celebrate National Take Down the Christmas Tree Day on the same day as Epiphany, for folks who aren’t in a rush and have lost the connection to the spiritual reason for the season. Epiphany celebrates the visit of the wise men at the birth of Jesus. The word means “reveal,” so God revealed the divine presence in Jesus to the nations of the world when the wise men visited the rude accommodations of the savior’s birth. The poor shepherds had already seen his glory in the manger, as well as the creation, represented by the animals in the stable.
Who was missing from the Twelve Days of Christmas and Epiphany? The extended families of Mary and Joseph aren’t ever mentioned, yet our modern celebration of this revelation of god to the world is celebrated primarily in the home, not amongst the poor or the outsiders. We focus on the giving of gifts to our families and friends. Shoppers around America planned on spending an average $929 on gifts in 2016. Religious organizations had average donations of $1,703 (secular households donate $863 on average to other causes) (2012).
I mention this, since nowhere in scripture can we find a proof text to affirm going into debt to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. We can find multiple texts in which God forgives debt, but Mastercard does not forgive debt. John Wesley asked his clergy, “Are you so in debt as to embarrass yourself?” The wags among us answer, “I’m not embarrassed if you’re not embarrassed!” The correct answer is “NO.”
Sometimes it takes an epiphany, a revelation of divine insight, if you will, to realize Christmas isn’t a day, but an emotion. Even if we take down the decorations, put away the carols and stockings, and return our homes to “ordinary time,” we can always live in the season of welcoming Christ into the world. If we look upon the face of the poor, or the least of these my brothers and sisters, we are seeing Christ. If we look upon the natural world, we are seeing representatives of those who first saw his glory. If we see our families, we see those who failed to attend this miracle, and we give them the gift of grace, for we too were off doing other more important things those twelve days of Christmas long ago. We can gift ourselves a little grace also.
Today is Epiphany. We can have the revelation anew because God is always inbreaking into our world of grey, or black and white. I see the world in shades of grey, rather than strictly either/or, but an epiphany will light up the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome this light.
Happy New Year to everyone! May you keep Christmas in your heart every day! May an epiphany be yours at the right time. (God’s time is the right time, so be open!)
This is on my easel right now. Last autumn on a warm and sunny day, I took an Instagram photo below of the woods near my home. Maybe we’ll have one ofthose days again, with no rain!
The photo above is my most recent painting. I’m letting it set overnight, to see if I need to work it some more. A fresh eye will see better tomorrow. I’ve spent 4 hours on it today.
Notice I didn’t paint all the trees in the foreground. Photographic truth is different from artistic truth. We know this is the same place by the line of the hill, the placement of the bushes in the background and the staggered line of trees in the foreground. If details are omitted, we don’t worry. If the colors are varied, we understand the artist is responding to the emotions of the landscape, rather than to the facts of the site.
photo edited in instagram
In the same way, biblical truths may be operating in the parables and stories Jesus told us. For some people, the miracles themselves are mere “truth stories” which serve to open up the mysteries of God. For these people, science is how they understand their world, but God’s word is the way they understand how to relate to God and God’s creation.
If they can hold this creative tension in their minds, it isn’t any different than seeing this painting as a true image of the place it represents.
After all, as Jacob said when he woke from his sleep, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”
And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” — Genesis 28:16-17
The gates of heaven are all about us, if only we have the eyes to see them. We are always within the house of God. I find this awesome, life changing, and spirit filling. Recognizing God’s presence everywhere should change how we pursue our lives, our work and our relationships also.
Most of us have grown up on the teaching that Jesus is “The Lamb that takes away the sins of the world,” this is known as the Substitution or Atonement of Christ. He is the sacrifice instead of us, that sets us free from the bondage to sin and death.
What if instead, Jesus were “The Bread of Life?” If he were the ancient scythe harvesting the weeds from our fields so that our grains could grow strong and provide us with the food for our rolls, our muffins, our flat breads and our pizzas, then he would be our provider of nourishment and strength.
He would be feeding us, making us stronger day by day and building us up to be protectors of the weak, the needy, and the defeated of this world. If we hold to the substitution theory, we stay on the weak position always.
We will always need God, for it is in Christ that we have our victories. As Romans 8:37 reads, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Because we have the victories, we are called to go out in power to defend the cause of the marginalized, the ones who have not found the power of God for themselves. We aren’t given this power to build our own mansions, enlarge our own kingdoms, or build up our own wealth.
God gives us this victory to secure food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, and care for the lonely. When we meet their needs, we meet the needs of the Christ who said,
I should never begin working with power tools without caffeine. Having said this, I’m glad to report that I still have all the fingers on each hand and no body parts remain glued to a flat surface, unlike Tim “The Tool Man” Allen. My only error was to put my battery pack backwards into the charging unit. This meant I needed an extra hand to help me pull it loose. God provides, for my young neighbor was handy to pull the charger away while I held the battery’s release mechanism. Two minds are better than one, and two efforts double the power.
My friends at the Canvas Community Church in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas, work with the homeless folks there. Street people are made in the image of God, just as you and I are. They have broken lives, just as you and I do. Their brokenness is out on view for all to see, whereas ours is often hidden behind elegant facades or ordinary tract homes. Canvas will host a Good Friday Stations of the Cross worship service for their community. Their art outreach program with the homeless produces some of the art, but other artists offer their works for exhibition and sale also. A portion of the proceeds befits the church’s outreach ministry.
Icons are such sacred objects that they have acquired a sense of holiness all their own. This attribution of holiness to the icon itself, rather than to the person or subject represented, led to the Iconoclast Controversy. Some destroyed many precious works of art because they thought the image was being worshiped, rather than God or Jesus. We do this today, of course, when we worship our “litmus test issues,” such as which Bible translation is the only sacred cow, what age the earth is (a cover for the Creation science or evidential science debate), or picking a Christian candidate to support (by virtue of the proof texting quotes with which we agree, of course).
My thought is that we still worship the image, but fail to worship God or Jesus. If we were to go beyond the icon/image, we might see more of us meeting the Christ who lives on the streets, in the prisons, and in the sickbeds of our nation:
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matthew 25:34-36)
In the ten hours I was in my studio assembling this icon, I had time to remember where I found all these items that make up this altarpiece. The two red supporting decorative brackets are from a home decorating project that never got off the ground because I decided to tear out the old counter space rather than to make a mosaic there. I hauled the wood shelf back from a walk. It was once a scrap piece of a fence that kept someone out or in. I pick up sticks that feel right, and scraps of wood or crushed soda cans that call out my name. The debris of this world has a beauty of its own kind, just as the acknowledged fine materials of our convention have value. If one day we found a way to manufacture gold, the metal would become base in a heartbeat.
That Chrysler hubcap was a real find! I may have found that on vacation when I stopped along a quiet roadside to snap a photo. The old crosses are from my days of living in large homes, rather than a small condo. The green glass cross broke in a move, but I couldn’t give it up. Most of us can’t give up our brokenness to the Christ who said, “This is my body, broken for you.” This is why we share our broken lives with all who are broken by sorrow, illness, pain, or hurts. We may wind up rusted on the side of the road, like the windshield wiper or we may end up painted over and stashed away in a garage like the board on which this icon exists. I also used beads and old pieces of jewelry that needed to be recycled and repurposed, in the great icon making tradition.
The power of the icon isn’t in the materials. I’ve made icons of macaroni and plastic jewels that read “holiness” as much as any ancient icon. I’ve had people make icons from their grandmother’s jewelry boxes. These too read as holy icons, even if they are nonrepresentational. The power comes through the Holy Spirit into the artist and then into the work. When I make a work such as this, my hands are steady, my pace is slow, and I lose all track of time. I enter into another realm, so to speak, that of the icon itself. The ancients believed that the icons were a window into heaven. I believe this is true, for the power of such an object is to take us out of our ordinary experiences and into a world where there is no more hunger, pain, or grief.
The icon’s great mystery and power is to remind us that ordinary materials can open us up to the truth and beauty of the holy. When our eyes are jaded by the ugliness of the world about us: wars, beheadings, poverty, injustice, economic destabilization, and human insensitivity, look upon the icons and enter into the power of the one who makes all things holy:
“He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” (Philippians 3:21)
Sometimes we bind our wounds with bandages that don’t quite cover the scars. Then these scrapes and cuts don’t heal properly, but stay open and never mend. The doctors among us may be concerned that these wounds are sites for a new infection, but the healers know that suchwounds are given to us for the healing of others. Our visible scars make us accessible to the woundedness of others. If we hide our woundedness and weakness under the bandages of strength, then they may be afraid to seek us out for comfort or support.
if we hide ourselves behind our well placed bandages, then we have missed the opportunity to pour out our experience of God’s love and hope in our lives into their lives. Perhaps that is why the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion were visible on his resurrection body. Most people think after they die, they will have a perfect body, but if we get a body like our Lord’s, surely we will have the evidence of the scars of this world, even if we no longer feel the pain.
Those of us who are bearing the pains of the world in our hearts, minds, and bodies will show those scars on our outer selves. We can’t wrap ourselves up like an Egyptian mummy! Even if we did, these bandages would fall away and expose our woundedness. Only then can we be best used by God.
Psalms 147:3–He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.
A few months ago, I woke up with this Franz Marc blue horse in my mind. Clouds were overhanging the Rocky Mountains in the distance. On the high plains stood a solitary tree that had several Spirit feathers attached to the limbs. Red threads fluttered in the breeze. This horse, which I knew by now was my own self in a spirit animal form, was coming close to this tree.
So, is it a Tree of Life? An Ancestor Tree (burial site)? A Good Luck Tree for Travelers and Wayfarers? Or is it a Marker Tree that says “Killroy was here”? Maybe it’s just my brain “taking out the trash of the previous weeks and days,” so that I can deal with my waking life more easily!
I’m still pondering the meaning. I had to paint this image to get it out of my mind and into the real world. Maybe here I will discover its truth for me.
I also needed to work on something that I could finish quickly and feel the joy of immediate accomplishment. I’m involved in a number of long term projects in my creative life right now. I’m on the third draft of THE WANDERING SOUL, my first installment novel, which I’m posting as weekly chapters at http://www.souljournieswordpress.wordpress.com. I’m also writing a second novel, THE ACCIDENTAL VACATION, which is in the journal or handwritten stage just now.
I have been painting butterflies, but have a commission for an icon. With my own work, I can go crazy and push the paint wherever the Spirit moves me. The icon, however, falls within boundaries and rules. I have to have my mind and heart still in order to submit to that discipline. It’s not my first nature! I do it, however, because this focused work allows me more power and freedom when I return to my own creative process. It’s a mystery, but sometimes we go left to turn right.