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.
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?
Nine years ago…how time flies when you’re having fun! I was at a crossroads in my life, however, with a preexisting health condition I’d managed to live with successfully through three high stress careers since 1977. Accumulated stress isn’t good for the body, so my seizure disorder began to make itself visible.
When my neurologist told me I’d never be able to do the work of a full time church pastor again, I had to revision and rehear my calling from God. If we define a role so strictly it’s a one way highway, it can become “my way or the highway.” This extreme dividing drives clergy and laity into producers and consumers, instead of encouraging shared ministry experiences.
If being a “source of all blessings for everyone” is a short term good for a pastor’s ego, it can also lead to a long term harm in health costs or emotional burnout. For the laity, losing the opportunity to live out their shared witness to the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ means they don’t fulfill their roles as the priesthood of all believers.
ARTANDICON in 2009: Bravely Smiling
The basic teaching of “make disciples of all nations” doesn’t have much effectiveness if we first are not disciples ourselves. So the old saw is true, we may be saved by the grace of God, and not by our good works, but if we want to become learners or disciples, our spiritual life takes some work, just as doing good for others is a hands on job.
I count myself fortunate to have a creative and curious mind, for I’ve always been the child who asked, “Why,” or went, ”Oh, I need to look that up and learn more about it!” Learning for the test, only to forget it later, has never been my strong suit.
The system as a whole also interests me more than the individual parts (I confess this is my shortcoming in relationships, since I have a few deep friendships, many good friends, and lots of friendly folks I like, and many people I know. Not enough people to count on one hand to say I totally dislike, although some I’ve set boundaries for their presence in my life because of their addiction issues).
When I set my preconceived notions of my ordination aside, I listened for a new calling from God. If I couldn’t serve IN the church BUILDING , perhaps I could still serve in the church as the BODY OF CHRIST. The body of Christ exists everywhere, both within and without the edifice we call the sanctuary, for we come and go.
In fact, we have people without churches, people who believe in god, or who are merely spiritual, all around us. Most of us are too busy dealing with our own congregations to reach out to these people. They don’t need traditional stories or sermons. I started a science fiction journal on faith.
Why not? Who else is doing it? Will it make money? Who cares? Do I get feedback? Not often. If we’re in this for the affirmation from human beings, we’re worshiping a false god. Idolatry. I can say things like this and not worry about ruffling the big givers. The taste of freedom is sweet.
Of course, I said this type of thing anyhow my entire ministry career, so I moved a lot, but the churches had good stewardship while I was there and repaired all their unmet facility needs. I left it better than I found it because the people came together to make it happen.
In the solitude of your own studio, writing room, or hangout, there’s no people to gather together to make it happen. A person only has the thoughts of what once was, what has been lost, and what will never be again. It’s the first stage of grief, a shock. It can turn into despair or depression, for everything is overwhelming.
Medication, or “better living through chemistry” can help lift the brain fog so a person can get their ducks in a row. This is no easy task, if you’ve ever tried to herd ducks. Worse than herding cats. Ducks will turn around and peck you. Trust me on this. Childhood memory.
Some people think a prescription is a faith cop out, since they should trust God’s grace alone to sustain them in a difficult time. I think God’s providing grace gave us the knowledge to create the medicine to help us heal our bodies. God can heal by ordinary means, such as health providers or medicines; or extraordinary means, such as miracles. More often God’s working in the ordinary, or we wouldn’t use the exclamation point after miracle!
I also returned to my art, for I find painting the holy icons and natural landscapes both bring me closer to God. As I got more used to being on the computer, I taught myself how to set up WordPress blogs and Facebook Pages for my special interests in health, spirituality, and art. Actually all of these get combined together, because of “systems thinking,” since we can’t lop off art from spirituality, or health from cooking, or any other combination thereabouts.
Antique Aluminum Jello Mold
Now nine years later, I’m in a good place, enjoying my new callings, and in much better health. I will always have my condition, but my condition does not have me. Of course, I have to maintain a disciplined lifestyle, unlike the rest of the world, which runs at pellmell pace until it runs out of gas and crashes. But of course, you wouldn’t do that—you have too much good sense for that, I’m sure.
For some reason facebook decided that my 7 pages of art, cooking & spiritual formation seemed unconnected. They thought that my Page Manager App perhaps wasn’t really run by one person. How indeed, could one person have so many varied interests? How could they find all the ordinary aspects of this life relating to faith? Oh, I guess, only those who grew up reading that one good book and hearing the stories of everyday life spoken in the ancient parables and metaphors of a distant age and land would understand how to translate this way of speaking into a modern language.
I guess our world today is too one dimensional and too targeted, or perhaps facebook has fallen victim to its own splicing & dicing. We too often only share that part of ourselves that we think others want to see, or we hide that part that we think is not approved by others.
We forget that our weakness is often the key to opening the pain of others so that can begin to heal, or that our struggles are what help others to have the courage to try one more time when the going gets tough. Our world is so sold on the outward appearance of success that the inner self can be falling apart at the seams.
This is why we go through the motions of life, but the fire no longer burns inside. This is why we acquire many things, but have no satisfaction in their holding. This is why we yearn sometimes to have only a small garden, or just a backpack, or to be in a deer stand alone to see the sun come up through the pines. We may make a living, but we may not be making a life.
Once we lived under one umbrella and sought to find one large tent or tree to shelter as many as we could, but now we each seek a tiny pup tent for each person’s own comfort and solace. How many of us have progressively cleaned our facebook friends until we find just those who vote like us, eat like us, think like us, and are like us?
Soon we will no longer feel the fire, no longer want to burn up in the flames of power, and we will be content to watch the Hunger Games on our TV sets. The young will burn and catch on fire and we will be content to pass commentary upon it.
I hope I never get that old. I plan to always be hungry at CORNIE’S KITCHEN, making art at ARTANDICON & CORNELIA DELEE & celebrating faith at ART AND SOUL FUMC HS, ARKANSAS SPIRITUAL FORMATION ACADEMY, & TRIBE OF DAN.
Recently a male acquaintance of mine had the temerity to suggest that perhaps I might need one of those buttons that calls for help to a distant monitoring site. I had told him I’d been sick and he knew I lived alone. I was feeling much better by then and retorted, “As long as I can walk the around the 1.5 miles of Mercy Hospital, I don’t need a button that says I’ve fallen and can’t get up!” He escaped my wrath by a quick exit into the elevator. Indeed!
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” Paul said of Christ to the Philippians (4:13). Isaiah reminds us that God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young fall exhausted; but those that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.” (40:29-31).
With verses like these ringing in our ears, well meaning people of faith do great harm to God’s gift, which is God’s own image, whether male or female (Genesis1:27). We run our precious images into the ground until they are flat exhausted, burnt out, overwhelmed, physically sick or plain old addicted to either the work, the adulation, or some other less desirable habit. We forget that the one person who is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15) is also the same one of whom was said, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). John’s gospel alone mentions that “Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well” (4:6). No other gospel author speaks of the Lord’s humanness as does John. If Jesus can get tired and need rest, why is it we who follow him cannot do the same thing?
We think we are being good shepherds by being always at work, always on call, always at work. I have clergy pals who feel they have to justify their exercise time as “prayer time or sermon preparation.” I have other friends that have worked themselves into the hospital with exhaustion, yet tried to leave against medical advice just to do someone’s funeral because they were jealous of another pastor coming into their church. The stress of disaster relief efforts in addition to all our other responsibilities can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Hurricane Gustave in 2008 put several of us in lower Arkansas into the hospital with stress related heart events. Fainting into your spaghetti at the community meal gets you a free ride to the local hospital, even if you go under protest!
I won’t begin to list the side effects of all this stress on our precious bodies, other than to say that when we put ourselves under this much stress, we eat more comfort foods, we exercise less and we sleep less. All these acts cause us to eat more comfort foods. If we really want to live a Jesus lifestyle, start walking! Give up your need to be a Ken or Barbie doll perfect person and tell your people you are going out to find the lost sheep.
The lost sheep is your identity as a child of God, not your calling as a pastor or your ministry in the church or the world. It isn’t how you make your money as a banker, a mechanic, a coder, or a salesperson. This isn’t you as a mom or a dad, but you as God’s own child. If you are feeling lost in the role of what you do, you are a lost sheep. This icon (image) of the Good Shepherd should point you to the only one who can find you and bring you home safely from the wilderness. If you are with him, you stand under the tree of life, whose leaves are used for healing. Your wounds will be healed and you will heal the wounds of others also.
For further reading, a classic spiritual text is Henri Nouwen’s THE WOUNDED HEALER