Leonardo da Vinci said, “There are three classes of people: Those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.” The task of the teacher is to help the student to see more clearly, not just in art, but also in life.
When I was in seminary, I realized the search for beauty was similar to the search for truth, and each generation had its own notions of what was beautiful and true. When I made this connection, a light came on in my mind and I could see what my professors were showing me. Before this, I was stumbling about in a dark room, banging my toes against unseen couches and table legs. I had the sense of the objects, but not the full understanding of them. Once the light came on, I could see these pieces of furniture for what they were–the color, design, embellishments, and placement in the space were easy to define. They were no longer obstacles, but resting points on the way to the next room on an historic journey.
PAINTING FASTER ALL THE TIME
Some of my compatriots struggled because one philosopher would define truth a certain way and his famous student then would describe it differently. These modern day students didn’t have art backgrounds, but thought of truth as what we know only as true today. Perhaps they also didn’t have much of an historic worldview either.
When Leonardo speaks of those categories of people who see, I think first of children, who seem naturally to see. If we give a child some art tools and a jumping off idea, they’ll run with it. Children love the experience of the materials and get excited when they can use their imagination. They feel empowered when they bring an image to life with their own hands.
SUN, MOON, AND SEASHELL
Older teens and adults are more concerned about what other people think of their work, so they often won’t even begin. Other times they start and can’t deal with the disconcert between their conception and execution. Every artist who aspires to do quality work is always unsatisfied with either the concept or execution! As Leonardo once remarked, “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.”
I brought seashells to class for our painting experience, but before we began our work, I had the students experience a guided meditation. The seashells were hidden underneath a cloth. This is an opportunity to know the shell personally, rather than to see it as a mere form. This “seeing” involves the inner emotions, which affect the energy and spirit with which we create our art. As the master says, “Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.”
1. Study all the surfaces under the cloth before you begin to put marks on your canvas.
2. Are the edges round, rough, sharp, jagged?
3. Do you recognize this object from experience?.
4. What memories or emotions does it evoke in you?
5. What colors do these experiences bring to mind?
6. Is there a person or place connected with this object?
7. What age were you? Would you want to visit this place again at your present age?
8. Remove the cover and look at the object.
9. Does it look different now from an ordinary object?
10. Does entering into an emotional give and take open your eyes to more of the possibilities of the object?
11. Choose a “pose” for your subject and compose a portrait of its personality.
The creative life and the faith life are not just about following a set of rules, although rules exist in both worlds. These two lives are more about what is good, beautiful, and true, and how we artists as people of faith can be a blessing in the world in which we live. As in art and philosophy, the good, beautiful, and the true may be different in different times and ages, but “one can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.”
“I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” ~~ Job 42:3-4
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?
Famous artists throughout the ages have chosen apples for their still life paintings. Apples are known for sitting still, they have a long shelf life, and they work for cheap. Moreover, when the painting is done, they make an excellent pie. We can’t do this with our human models, since this involves non ethical principles such as “Do not take a human life or do not murder.” So, apples are good for starving artists everywhere.
In art class last Friday, the adult students learned even a simple apple and its shadows can be challenging, but the fruit of the quest is worth it. Integration of the object and the ground isn’t easy! If we focus only on the form, it’ll float like a butterfly above the ground. The shadow ties the form to the ground and tells us more about object’s shape and location in space. The line behind the objects determines the point of view. It becomes our horizon line, so we know if we’re looking above or below the objects.
We can use our brushstrokes can to shape the apple’s form too. Then if we use the same brush technique for our ground, we haven’t separated the object from the ground. We end up with the famous magic “cloak of invisibility,” which is great in a Harry Potter novel, but not so great if we want to separate our apple from the ground.
These are all areas of growth, however. As my old teachers all said, “There are no mistakes–only attempts to gain mastery over the techniques until you find your own voice.”
Next week we’ll look at negative space. So far we’ve been drawing the objects, but now we’ll look at the space in between them! Oh–who knew we’d pay attention to the empty spaces or they’d have so much meaning!
“Guard me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings…”.
Flowers please us because of their colors and forms, but also because of their fleeting beauty. While the class was painting, I threw some colors on an old canvas. It is a sketch, since never got to the dark accents of the petals. The paint was wet, so I would have had mud, not two distinct colors!
In our weekly adult painting class at church, we talked about Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Gauguin’s friendship with him, and how other artists have approached the subject of flowers. Not painting every petal or detail, but capturing the energy and emotion of the flowers is more important.
This requires a leap of faith! Of course, if we aren’t sure of how to mix a color, or how to draw a shape or make a form, a student is loathe to move off a safe path. Van Gogh had this struggle also. His early paintings were dark and lacking the energy of his late works.
Still Life with Earthenware, Bottle, and Clogs
Van Gogh, Sunflowers
Unfortunately some of Van Gogh’s most iconic floral artworks in the Van Gogh Museum, painted in 1888 and 1889, are now facing the test of time.
Vincent Van Gogh painted his iconic Sunflowers in vibrant yellows and golds, but after 130 years, his bright lemon-yellow hues have begun to wilt into a brown muddle. A new X-ray study confirms what researchers and art lovers have long suspected: Van Gogh’s paints are fading over time. In 2011, Sarah Zielinski at Smithsonian.com reported that chemists were looking into how the old colors were holding up. They found exposure to UV light—both from sunlight and the halogen lamps used to illuminate paintings in some museum galleries—had led to oxidation of some paint pigments, causing them to change color.
A 2016 study looked deeper into the matter to find one of the bright yellow paints Van Gogh liked, a mix between yellow lead chromate and white lead sulfate, was particularly unstable. Under UV light, the unstable chromate changed states and the sulfates began to clump together, dulling the color. Unfortunately, the process is not currently preventable. Currently, the darkening of the paint and the wilting of the sunflowers is not visible to the naked eye.
As the book of James (1:11) reminds us about impermanence:
“For the sun rises with its scorching heat
and withers the field;
its flower falls, and its beauty perishes.”
In class, we talked about light permanence and pigment choice. If we want to make works of art for posterity, we should choose pigments able to stand up to the test of time. I choose lightfastness I when I work. Likewise, if we are going to be in business or relationships, we want to use the highest ethical principles so we can have long lasting interactions and high quality products. Cutting corners with people or resources will always come home to roost eventually.
The rest of the verse in James continues,
“It is the same way with the rich;
in the midst of a busy life,
they will wither away.”
Of course, if we put God first in our lives, rather than our own priorities, we will pay attention to the “first things,” and fading away like a sunflower will be the least of our worries.
Joy and Peace,
To read the whole discussion on paint discoloration and how museums are conserving art works to prevent further damage from light read:
Danaë was a princess of Argos in Greek mythology. Argos was an island kingdom ruled by Danae’s father, who had no sons to inherit his throne, but a prophecy foretold his fate: his grandson would kill him and rule in his place.
To defy the gods, Danae’s father sealed her up in a prison so she’d never get pregnant, but Zeus, the king of the gods, transformed into a rain cloud, came to her in a shower of gold. As a result, she bore a son, Perseus. The king put his daughter and grandson into a chest, set them adrift upon the open sea, and left them to their fate. They would either drown in the sea, or drift so far away, they couldn’t harm his kingdom.
As fate would have it, Danaë and her son washed up on a far land, where a fisherman took care of them. It’s at this point I chose to enter Danaë’s story and combine it with images from my travels and imagination. This seascape is from a photo from a journey to the Oregon coast. The sunset’s crepuscular rays reminded me of the golden rain of Zeus’s disguise. Magritte has a famous painting of a “merfish” (a Fish headed body) on a beach with a seascape similar to this one, but Picasso’s beach paintings are more like the figure itself. All artists owe a debt to the images from our culture and history. We can trace our artistic DNA from the masters who went before us, just as we can see the influence of our forebears on the faces and health of our children.
While Danaë already had given birth when she washed up on the beach, this is a dream construction of her memories prior to that time. The stress of losing her parents, her home, and her support system must have been overwhelming. Add to this the burden of knowing her own child will kill her father. On top of this, she had conceived by unusual means, which portends ill for those who attempted to circumvent their fates. The giant sea shell is a reminder of her sexual union with the god, as well as her openness to the power of the gods. Danaë doesn’t resist her fate, but surrenders to it.
In the ancient world, the Greeks believed humans were foolish if they attempted to manipulate fate, for the gods had their own designs in mind. In the Greek myths, you can run, but you can’t hide. Destinies are fixed and immutable, due to fate. The three fates wore white robes and were incarnations of destiny. One spun the thread of life, another wove the cloth, and the third snipped the cord to determine the length. They controlled every mortal from birth to death.
Happiness comes from accepting one’s lot in life, for the gods will prevail. Today, we are more likely to believe we can change our destiny by our own efforts and will. Gone are the days when women submitted to powerful men, whether they were fathers, husbands, employers, or “gods.” In the context of the #MeToo movement, women today read this myth and say, “I reject a destiny of submission to another’s power over my own body. I claim the right to my own body, not only for the sake of love, but for the power it represents when I give it to another. No one takes it from me.”
Today women are more likely to chose the hero route, to take on the role of Perseus. As Perseus grew up, the king of the place sent him on a quest for the head of Medusa. While he was gone, the king tried to marry Danaë, but Perseus returned, just in time, and froze the wedding guests into stone with the dread head.
With his mother free, Perseus and Danaë returned to Argos. His grandfather had fled to Thessaly to avoid his fate, but while Perseus was competing in athletic games there, his wayward throw of a quoit, an iron ring, struck his grandfather in the head, killing him instantly. He couldn’t bear to rule Argos, so he swapped city states with another king, and ruled there instead.
If this story sounds familiar to you, perhaps you’re thinking of Jason and the Argonauts, a hero of later myth. He and his hero pals sailed in the Argo, a ship built by Argus, who was from Thespiae, the city of the Muses. His hero story shares many similarities with that of Perseus, but that’s for another day. For each of us today, the ancient myth calls us to reconsider how we relate to one another, from the most toxic evils of date rape and sexual harassment in the workplace to the commonplace demeaning behavior known as “mansplaining.”
If men need to rethink their behaviors, women need to choose to speak up and risk public humiliation, rather than staying silent with private shame. Silence only enables bad actors by giving them continued cover. The heroic women, who take on the quests to defeat the monsters they fear, redeem their mother’s shame and silence. They also make a better world possible for the next generation. The DNA of gods and heroes flows through the veins of Danae’s descendants.
How to do it as an artist or any other professional.
Or lollygagger in the workplace.
I personally like #8—Why don’t you ever paint landscapes in normal colors?
I get this question all the time. How do we know our greens and blues of today are “normal?” We live in creation after the fall, not in God’s original creation, as God’s hand first formed it and God’s mind first imagined it. What if all the rainbow of colors was God’s Plan A for the earth?
Of course, I get a blank stare from almost everyone, since most aren’t used to thinking about the created order and our relationship to it. Even fewer think of the fall, or what that means, for this world is all they know.
If they press me on it, I tell them, “I like colors and the emotional joy they express. And I’m not fond of wide swaths of green.”
They nod. I nod. They walk away. They probably haven’t quit talking about me. A voice comes into my head, “These are not the patrons you seek. Move along now. The Force will be with you.”
We hear that same word from the Apostle Paul, spoken long ago to the people in Galatia:
“Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10)
At some point in time, we each have to hear the inner voice and make the choice to take the well trod path or the path less travelled. Each one has its own consequences, both for ill and for good. If we make fame or prosperity into a god, we might start churning out well pleasing pieces for our market, but our creative inspiration might begin to suffer, to the detriment of our souls. This can lead to various self medicating behaviors, none of which are good. It also leads to depression or anxiety, as 1, 3, 7, and 10 incite these conditions.
We can develop the good qualities needed for our futures. Independence is a character trait of leaders. An artist spends a good amount of solitary work inside the studio, and faces rejection for many years. Cold calling for Insurance might be the only worse occupation for rejection. I’ve done both.
My old teachers used to egg me on when I was studying in art school. “Who are you working for, me or the other class?” I’d be bothered, but I’d answer, “I’m working in my sketchbook.”
About the third time he passed by to interrupt my work, I’d had enough of his gruff. “I’m working for myself–go away and leave me alone!”
“That’s what I was waiting to hear you say,” he smiled and stuck his pipe back in his mouth as he strode off. I didn’t see him anymore except when I was in class with him.
Doing art in solitude is preferable to cold calling because the rejection is at the end of the process and you have beautiful work to appreciate, whereas with cold calling, all you get is a list of numbers crossed out and the hope 3% of the people will give you a reason to call back. In all this we remember,
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
How long does a new and unusual aspect of our environment need to be in place before we notice it? On the other hand, how long does it have to persist before we treat it as the new normal and begin to ignore it?
My mom and dad were married right after World War II, so they’d lived together for nearly forty six years when I came home for a visit from seminary one weekend. Right off the bat, I noticed something differ about my dad.
“You’ve gone and grown a mustache.”
“You like it?” He asked, as he smoothed the unruly hairs into place.
“Oh yeah! You look like a perfect Southern gentleman.”
He smiled. Perfect and gentleman was his aim.
My mother, who was sitting in the identical chair next to his, separated only by a small table with a lamp and magazines, craned her head around that lamp to look at him.
“When did you grow this mustache?”
“Mother! You’ve slept in the same bed with daddy every single night of your entire life. You always kiss each other good night. I can’t believe you haven’t noticed the hair on his upper lip!”
A little rattled, she replied, “It’s always dark when we go to sleep.”
I laughed. My daddy smiled. My mother always had an answer for every thing. I noticed his mustache because I hadn’t seen him in a while, whereas mother had watched the slow progression of the hiding of his upper lip. I should say, it’s been my experience the husband usually fails to notice his wife’s new haircut, an act which causes much family drama.
When I travel, I don’t go from point to point with the goal of arriving as soon as possible. If that were the case, I’d fly. In my car, if I see an interesting place, I’ll go visit, since the journey is more important than the destination. Once I’ve arrived, I even make side trips, just for a little exercise. I was walking around Lake Bridgeport, in the town of Runaway Bay, Texas, when I stumbled upon these grasses, flowers, and small trees. The afternoon light caught the center stalk so it glowed its reds and golds. The few leaves left from autumn’s color, which hadn’t been blown away by the seasonal rains quivered in the light breeze. A few flowers added color to a rather grey afternoon.
Why would ordinary weeds catch my eye? There’s nothing remarkable or heroic about weeds. Most people spend good money to rid their lawns of ugly and invasive weeds. Here around the lake is a wild place, however, and the weed is in its natural state. This red weed is unique among the other natural grasses, for its not a single blade, but a stem with alternating leaves. I had to pick my way through some underbrush to find an opening from which I could take a good photo. I felt as if this weed had called to me.
I’ve often wondered how long the bush burned in the wilderness before Moses looked up from counting his father in law’s sheep and said, “What is this? I must go see it!” Extraordinary events happen all the time, yet we’re too consumed with our day to day busyness to see the glories of God’s hand at work in the world. Or we come to a watershed moment, when the bush would burn brightly for us, and throw water to quench its fire, for “it’s never been done, it can’t be done, it’s always been this way, and people will never change.”
If Moses believed this, he’d have never followed God’s call back to Egypt. The Hebrew children would still be slaves in Egypt. But Moses trusted God. This is called a sea change, or a transformation. We don’t do this just on our own, but by a power at work greater than our own. We might resist, but God persists.
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh,
and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you:
when you have brought the people out of Egypt,
you shall worship God on this mountain.”
~~ Genesis 3:11-12
What sea change is happening in our world today? Are people finally fed up with treating human life as a cheap commodity? We do this if we treat people as objects to be used and then thrown away when they’re worn out or too sick to be worked hard. When we fail to fund schools and health care for all, we don’t get the best people for our citizens or our employees. If only the wealthy can afford health care and a quality education, then our democracy suffers, for we will have a permanent underclass and a qualified few. This bifurcation doesn’t bode well for the future. Does a bush burn in the wilderness for any of my readers?
Are we tired of exchanging precious human lives for a shibboleth? The word means “stream” in Hebrew and was used as a sorting test to distinguish warriors of Gilead from those of Ephraim. Today, the 2nd Amendment serves the same purpose, because the National Rifle Association gives politicians large amounts of money for their campaign coffers and spends extra money on their behalf also. The NRA is the front for gun manufacturers, who profit if they sell more guns. They never want any restrictions on any freedom, but we don’t live in an anarchy, so a democracy can restrict certain aspects of gun ownership and use.
Public mass shootings have occurred on average every 172 days since 1982. Since September 6, 2011, there’s been 14 mass shootings at an average interval of less than 172 days. These don’t include domestic violence or criminal activity. Seven of the deadliest mass shootings in modern US history have taken place in a school, including Sandy Hook elementary and Virginia Tech University. The deaths at Stoneman Douglas HS in Florida were the 180th mass shooting since 2009 and the third mass shooting in 2018. By Valentine’s Day in 2018, 17 school shootings had been reported, and in the week after, even more.
Schools now receive an average of 50 threats of violence daily, compared with 10 per day at the end of 2017, NPR reported. Since I began this blog in 2011, mass killings in public spaces have snuffed out the lives of 270 persons in grocery stores, church sanctuaries, schools, post offices, and restaurants. In seven years, an average of 38.6 individuals did not celebrate with cake and ice cream on their next circuit of the earth around the sun. I didn’t know any of these personally, but we may have lost the next Steve Jobs or the next Mother Theresa, or someone who would have fought happiness to their small corner of the world.
Some want to arm the schools, but what about the other places of mass shootings? Why not just ban the weapon which enables the taking of mass casualties? Or are the lives of grocery shoppers less valued than school children? Ask an orphan if a parent is valued. We don’t want to become an armed state in America, or at least I’m not for it. Perhaps the NRA wants this, for the gunmakers would boost their bottom lines. They make enough money off the rest of their product lines.
Some would say, opioids take MORE lives, as does tobacco use (1,300 deaths per day). These substances are legal and on the market we expect people to use them responsibly. They’re also addictive and controlled. The largest incidents are mostly since 2004 when the ban on semiautomatic weapons lapsed. These weapons, civilian equivalents to military type issue, are meant for mass killing, not for sport, hunting, or target shooting. Their high velocity ammunition doesn’t just pierce flesh, but obliterates it. Survival rates are slim and none.
I wonder if this moment in our nation’s life is our burning bush, our opportunity to hear the voice of God calling to us, and we rise up to set our people free from this pain and insanity.
“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt;
I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.
Indeed, I know their sufferings,
and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians,
and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land,
Most of us try to put our best foot forward every day. If we have the means, we want to wear nice clothes for work and put on our “game face.” In private, we might “let it all hang out” and put on our sloppy clothes, but only if we’re staying inside. This is why the pajamas at Walmart memes persist as the walk of shame from sea to shining sea.
We like our art “pretty” also. Indeed, if it doesn’t match our current decorating theme, we don’t buy it. We want our art to fade into the wall and not interact with us. If this is our attitude, we aren’t candidates for an icon in our space. The icon is meant to open up a conversation with the viewer and with the Holy Spirit. The icon opens a window into the world beyond this reality, into eternity, in which the Holy Trinity and the communion of saints live forever. While the image itself isn’t Holy, what it represents is Holy. Therefore the icon is venerated, but not worshipped. Only God is worshipped.
Because most of us like our images beautiful, we prefer gold and silver over fading and flaking. We also like polished and pleasant more than brutal and broken. This is why most of us like Christmas more than Good Friday, even though both are necessary to understand at-one-ment and atonement.
The oldest icons often show the ravages of age. Centuries of use, with smoking candle soot and oils from many hands, have worn their surfaces raw. Many of us also show the scars of Time, but we also are the image of God, just as Christ is the living image of God. We are like the ancient icons, worn and weathered. If we were given an ancient holy icon, damaged by circumstances or desecrated by human hands, we would treat it with tenderness, reverence, and compassion. We wouldn’t pay attention to the damaged parts, or to the tragedy of the act of damage, but we’d focus on what is left of its beauty, not what was lost.
Only those who are rapidly aging may be able to understand this concept, or those who’ve suffered. Yet, the Man of Sorrows icon exists for those who know life isn’t always a bowl of cherries and even the best people will suffer. The suffering servant contradicts the promises of prosperity gospel, but the icon reminds us we aren’t alone when hard times strike.
The Virgin Hodegetria and the Man of Sorrows
This double-sided icon in the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D. C., depicts two of the most influential images in Byzantine art. On the front, the Virgin Hodegetria (“she who points the way”) gestures toward the Christ child as the path to salvation.
The image derives from a venerated model, which was legendary. Saint Luke was the purported artist who painted the original from life in Jerusalem and others brought it to Constantinople in the fifth century. Pilgrims flocked to the Monastery of the Hodegon to revere the original icon, which was paraded weekly through the streets of the capital. Widely copied, it’s one of the most common types of images of the Virgin.
On the other side is the icon of Christ after the Crucifixion, laid out for burial with his arms at his sides. This is the earliest known panel painting of the Man of Sorrows, a name taken from an Old Testament description of the Messiah: “He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).”
Called Akra Tapaneiosis (Ultimate Humiliation) in the Greek Orthodox Church, the subject originated in Byzantium in the 11th century in response to liturgical changes and became widespread in the medieval West. This icon dates from the last quarter of the 12th century.
The Kastoria icon imbues the traditional Virgin Hodegetria with heightened emotion found also in hymns and sermons, especially after Iconoclasm. Her sorrowful expression and furrowed brow suggest that she foresees her son’s death. On Mary’s grief at the Crucifixion, the ninth-century bishop George of Nicomedia wrote,“Who will enumerate the arrows that penetrated her heart? Who will recount in words her pains that are beyond words?” His sermon served as the lesson on Good Friday when this icon was displayed during the church service commemorating Christ’s Crucifixion.
Today is an official snow day here in our town. While other parts of our state got up to 5 inches of the fluffy white stuff, we got a mere dusting. However, our temperatures fell into the low teens with wind chills in the single digits. Those of you from our northern states might think we’re silly, but our schools don’t have heating systems adequate for these temperatures and our school buses don’t have special tires for icy back roads. I’m not leaving for nothing!
Today is a good studio day, since the sunshine is bright here in my sixth floor home overlooking the lake. I’m working on a new icon of the entombed Christ. These take a common form of the figure in repose, with the eyes closed as if in sleep, but the viewer reads the image as the sleep of death. The compact body lacks all physical power, so the truth of death is real. Christ doesn’t pretend to die, but suffers death for all creation.
We in the western world have limited the new creation to humanity, but scripture speaks of a renewal of this world at the Great Day of the Lord:
“But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” ~~ 2 Peter 3:13
Too many today are waiting for God’s destruction of this world so they can get on to the better world beyond. Instead, the icon of the entombment calls us to grieve over this world and hear the Easter call to make it new and fresh again.
When Good Friday’s sadness leads us to the joy of Easter’s resurrection, we discover the same cycle works out in our own life also. Most of us want only to go from joy to joy, but we forget the power of suffering. The prophets saw suffering as an opportunity for change and transformation, as well as hope. If we meditate on the entombment icon, we’ll hear the call to bring hope to the poor, justice to the marginalized, and joy to the suffering.
If we go from Christmas to Easter, we’ll always celebrate the festivities and parades. If we never look at the flight into Egypt, we miss the refugee holy family bearing the gifts from the three kings. If we only eat the hot cross buns, we dismiss the suffering servants of every age and every continent. If we only celebrate our success and prosperity in Christ, we are complicit in the suffering of our world and our failure to be God’s co-creators in the New and better world.
As an artist, I’m always creating a “new thing,” so perhaps this is why God’s message about humanity’s role in caring for the world and our neighbors, no matter where they are, is important to me. This painting will look different when I put the blues and greens on it, but right now it looks like a blaze of sunshine! I hope you will be a ray of sunshine in your corner of the world today.
When I was young, I thought I had to be Wonder Woman in order to please my parents. You know, the perfect daughter, the smartest child, the best artist, and the best behaved of all their progeny. After all, I was the first born and the only girl, so I’d had my parents’ undivided attention for those crucial early years. I thought if I worked hard, I could overcome any obstacle, and make any situation better, just by my force of will.
This is magical thinking, however. It works for comic book heroes who live in hard edge black and white moral worlds, but we live in the real world of fuzzy grays and complex moral choices. My family history of long marriages wasn’t going to extend to my generation, for I could no longer live with my alcoholic husband. I felt less like Wonder Woman and more like a failure. I told my mother I thought she and daddy always wanted me to be “perfect to earn their love.”
She looked dumbfounded at me, paused a moment and spoke, “Honey, we only wanted you to do your very best at all times. We knew you had more in you that you hadn’t tapped yet!”
This is the moment I forgave my parents for my Wonder Woman complex and learned to live with her. Not every person has had my parents. Some parents have no dreams for their children, so we must dream for them and encourage them to be superheroes in our classrooms, in our neighborhoods and wherever we meet them.
Other parents lack imagination. They see their children repeating their own lives as good enough. Yet, they too only want the best for their children so if they can only imagine their life repeated for them, we shouldn’t fault these parents for their lack of imagination. They never lived in our age or times, nor in our bodies or minds! We children can become the best we can be, for our world is far grander than theirs ever was! We won’t always live up to the expectations of our parents or the plans they imagined for us, but we will be superheroes anyway.
My daddy once told me I was learning in high school chemistry what he studied in college chemistry classes. This is why your six year old nephew or niece can work your smart phone faster than you can! The world’s knowledge explodes now, doubling every year, but with the internet it will soon double every 12 HOURS!
We won’t need to learn all this information, or keep it stored in our minds, but we will need to know how to access it. Asking the best questions, knowing what is necessary, and the sense of discernment to winnow the good from the chaff will be what separates the best answers from the better, the good, and the ordinary ones.
My latest painting is a self portrait as “Wonder Woman during the Great American Eclipse.” I traveled to Kentucky to see this wonderful event at Land Between the Lakes. We can all be superheroes at every age and in every body shape. Just as the eclipse united all of America in the joy of celebrating a coast to coast mass experience provided by nature, we each have a divine image within us that unifies all of humanity as one, for we’re each made in the image of God. As the Jewish queen in scripture was reminded, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14)
How we become the best persons is a matter of becoming a superhero or “coming to royal dignity for such a time as this!” We’ll always be fine tuning our spiritual lives, our education, and our professional achievements. Even when we retire, we’ll find engaging opportunities for service to others and self improvement both. Most likely our spiritual lives will deepen and our family and friendships will take on more importance. I hope you all seek your best life possible, beginning today.
Join me in being a Superhero! You can be a hero for someone who needs you today.