“Only when he no longer knows what he is doing, does the painter do good things.”
Edgar Degas, the French artist known for his ballerina paintings, is a good teacher from whom to learn. A true artist learns something new every day and isn’t afraid of failure. Failure is just another word for discovering what won’t work. As artists and as Christian believers, we are a people of hope. In fact, one might say we’re afflicted with chronic optimism. Even when our work fails to satisfy us, we can say, “Look at what I learned on this, and what I can carry over to my next work.”
North Carolina Sunlit Path
This little landscape is the second stage of a previous painting, one which I began while I was ill with a sinus infection. If I wasn’t at my best, I also wasn’t at my worst, so I was painting at my easel. I knew I wasn’t happy with it, but I thought I’d live with the painting until I heard it tell me what was needed.
The trees of the finished work are more slender, more shaped by the wind of the Carolina coastline. The bush masses are larger and have more contrast, while the sky is more evenly colored. Even the path has more sunlight and less shade.
Artistic license is the ticket to drive we all got as children with crayons and poster paint. We could paint the sky red if we took a notion to do so, give our dogs blue tongues, or paint the grass orange. Only the grownups among us squelched our creative spirits. Sometimes we have to learn to forget ourselves on purpose to learn art, faith, love, compassion, or joy.
I’m going to teach Friday morning art classes again at Oaklawn UMC. You bring your materials, I volunteer my years of experience teaching K-12 and adults. You get to learn real art:
Shading in Value & Color
Drawing & Painting from Life
One thing you’ll never do is copy anything I’ve already done or come home with a work that looks similar to one of your classmates. Art is about expression of your inner truth. You get to do you, and have a safe place to grow and struggle.
As G. K. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy:
“Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.”
We artists will not go mad, but we will stretch our minds, deepen our souls, and gain a greater appreciation for the creative struggle.
The first class will begin Friday, September 6 at 10 am, and meet on Fridays afterwards. We’ll break for thanksgiving and Christmas. I’ll get a material list to the church office soon.
When I was a child, my mother’s friends were sure I was the spitting image of little Martha. Likewise, my daddy’s friends thought I was a chip off the old block of Stew-boy. I suppose I had enough of the parental DNA to be claimed by both sides of the family, as long as I wasn’t in the dog house for some juvenile infraction. Even today, folks are just gaga over who the newest royal baby favors, whether it’s our beautiful American Megan’s face or the handsome English Prince Harry’s mug. Since baby Andrew is a boy, hopefully he inherits Harry’s beard and the good health of both parents.
This odd phrase, the “spitting image,” was known in its earliest form in the 17th century, and has come down in its modern meaning today through literature and the theater. I heard it growing up from all the old folks in town and from all my out of town relatives when they pinched my cheeks at the summer camp meetings and family reunions. If you read some internet sites, they’ll even claim it has a biblical source, since God used spit and mud to create the first human beings. Of course, these sites don’t bother to attach the texts, but just repeat the claim. Let’s see if you can spot which text is the “proof” for this “spitting image” claim.
The first chapter of Genesis is the most recent biblical account of creation, known as the Priestly account: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” ~~ Genesis 1.26-27
We don’t see the mud and spit claim here, so we turn to the older account of creation, found in Genesis 2:4-7—
“In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”
Here we have water from streams or mists rising from the face of the earth and dust from the ground, which God used to form the first human person. However, God doesn’t use spit.
Where do people get the idea God uses spit and mud to create human beings? They must be thinking of Jesus, who cured the blind beggar with a poultice of dust and saliva, as recorded in the book of John:
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’
Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’
When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent).
Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
~~ John 9:1-7
If some folks confuse Jesus with God, we can forgive them, since Colossians 1:15 reminds us, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”
As the ancient creeds remind us, God has One nature, but Three Persons; and is one in unity of work, wisdom, energy, and love. We who were created in this divine image “and have clothed (ourselves) with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator,” are daily recovering the image of God. Colossians 3:10 is one of the most precious promises of the faith, for it testifies to God’s work in us, as the passive voice in scripture so often denotes.
So, what exactly is this divine image? If we look around us, we see a variety of faces and bodies, if we count the physical types of human beings. While some have tried to claim a perfect racial image in the past, or to eliminate all but their own tribal relations, today we have difficulty holding this thought together with “firstborn of all creation.” If we believe God created all things, all people, and all of us humans share in the divine image, then we’re all part of God’s family and we all share the DNA of the image.
Is that image physical? It’s not the DNA of genetics, although we all share 99.9% of our DNA if we have common ancestry from any of the great continents. For those of European ancestry, everyone has a common ancestor from 3,400 years ago. Yet we still have enough variety in our DNA to make us unique persons. Because God’s creation of human beings in God’s image isn’t a physical imitation of God’s spiritual body, we have to understand the IMAGE as an incorporeal form more than a bodily form.
If we’re made in the spiritual image of God, then we must be more aligned to the wisdom of God, the energy, work, love of God, and look to our need to acquire the divine nature, as we put off our human nature bit by bit. If we keep yearning for the human nature, or the mortal flesh, then we’ll never grow into the higher and finer image. We often make the excuse, “I only human,” but fail to ask for God’s help to grow beyond our human nature into the divine nature of love for all creation.
Moreover, if we’re made in the spiritual image of God, our physical attributes mean less than our spiritual attributes. This isn’t to discount our humanity, but it’s to say our human differences mean less to God than they do to us. We look for reasons to separate us into tribes, but God looks for reasons to include us into incorporate us into God’s family, “for those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” ~~ Romans 8.29
Then it matters not who we are, what we look like, or where we’ve been on our journey to our faith in the Christ who saves us. Just as the Son has the image of God, and all persons have the image of God, all can be saved by the faith of the Son who trusted in the Father for his life, death, and resurrection. Too often people of faith focus wrongly on the requirements for a good life in order to be saved, but the only true necessity for salvation is unconditional faith in the one whose faith rested in the God who both creates and saves God’s people and world. This is why his family called him Jesus, or “God Saves.”
This is why the most unlikely people can claim the faith of Christ, and why their faith drives “good people” to distraction. But as it was even in the days of the Lord himself, as he reminded those who wanted to keep the smallest of laws, but ignore the greater meaning and spirit of the whole law. The whole of the law was summed up in two commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” ~~ Matthew 22:37-39
I admit it’s hard to love my neighbors, since it’s sometimes difficult to love even some of the members of my extended family. If I’m honest, I often need a little breathing room from some of my immediate family, but I admit I have stress issues after a lifetime of ministry and helping people with their myriad family crises.
If we can learn to include in our lives and in our worship places more people who have hearts full of love of God and neighbor, we might find ourselves enriched by their joy and talents, as well as their fresh outlooks on life. The more alike we all are, the fewer creative ideas are lifted for the unknown future. We need a variety of viewpoints and visions to meet the challenges of the future, which by definition will not be a repeat of yesterday. We cannot pour new wine into old wineskins, or the vessel won’t hold. We are a people inspired by the Holy Spirit and meant to change.
As the scripture tells us in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18—
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
I’ve included various paintings from my studio of the icons of Christ. Many people have their own image of Jesus which appeals to them, and it’s usually one that is created in a human image. By this I mean, the Jesus is sympathetic, prayerful, strong, otherworldly, calm, friendly, or some other attribute common to the relevant age. The Japanese Jesus has Orientalized features, the Native American Jesus looks like one of the people, the African Jesus is black, and the European American Jesus favors Mediterranean origins more than the Holy Land. The Icons of the early church have their own imagery, which is as much theological as artistic. I hope you enjoy the post, and focus on one question per day to consider:
Do you see the image of God in others?
How is your own image of God is recovering?
Do the acts or behaviors of others diminish the image of God in them?
How can you find common cause with people you disagree with?
Spend a day looking for the good in others.
Use today to reflect in words, art, or music on your experience with the image of God.
INTERNET REFERENCES TO SPITTING IMAGE IN THE BIBLE
This is a Landscape from Garvan Woodland Gardens, a work in progress, on a recycled woven canvas. I didn’t like the other two paintings I destroyed to make this canvas, and the work I put on the intermediate stage also didn’t satisfy me long term.
Work in Progress
The great joy about art is we can destroy our lower quality efforts and the world is the better for it. In real life, our words and deeds have ramifications which reverberate and intensify from the moment we speak or do them. We may have the freedom to say or do what we wish, but we always need to ask, “Is this the best choice? Will I do harm or good? Will I lift up or tear down?”
Garvan Woodland Gardens
Some folks seem to ask only, “Can I get away with it?” as they push the boundaries of the law, morals, and common decency. Once they were found only underground or in the shadow worlds, but now they feel comfortable walking boldly out in the light of day. Those of us who still believe in beauty and a divine hand in creation, no matter how long the universe has existed, must raise our voices and lend our hands to care for the earth and the oppressed peoples who live upon it
If we speak in one voice, “Care for the only home we all have,” and “Protect the weak of our world from the cruelty visited upon them,” then we truly are the inheritors of the divine image, the ones with whom God once walked in the garden.
Today I’ve been alive for a grand total of 25,976 days. That’s a big number for an old gal. Of course, if I really wanted to feel old, I could count all the minutes I’ve been alive—just think about being 37,406,345 minutes old! I’m a millionaire in minutes. Don’t multiply that number by 60 to get the accumulated seconds, or you’ll go crazy thinking about 2,244,380,700.
Of course, none of us are as old as the estimated age of the universe, which is 4.32 × 10 to the 17th power in seconds, assuming 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang. Of course, God preexisted long before God created the universe, but no one was around to count birthdays. These anniversaries are irrelevant to an eternal being who has always existed, and will have no demise, just as the markings of a nonexistent birthday are. We finite beings hold all these ritual days to be ripe with sentiment, for we know how fragile the thread of life can be.
My thread has been spinning quite a long time now, with over two billion seconds accumulated. I may not be wealthy, but at least I can be a billionaire in a life well lived. Some folks think when you get to a certain age, your best days are behind you. They’re the ones who continually talk about how great life was back when they were young and full of it. Now they’re old and full of it, but they’re out to pasture and don’t get to make things happen. They long for the days that were, when they made life happen.
Life goes on, of course, with or without us. The old, who stay young at heart, find a new passion in their later years. They either pick up an earlier hobby or begin a new one. They attempt new challenges, even if they seem uncomfortable at first. They mentor younger leaders and encourage the next generation rather than complain how they don’t do the work the same way we did, back in our day. Those well worn paths are now ruts, which is why the young want to try a new route.
We can take a page from their book, even at our billionaire age. Yet we have to admit, setting off on a new path is difficult, for we leave our familiar landmarks behind. We also aren’t certain of our destination, since it’s somewhere “yonder” and “where (God) will show (us).” Sometimes the path isn’t even well marked. The worst thing about starting over is being a novice. We have to swallow our pride, for while we might be highly accomplished in our day job, we’ll be only a rank beginner in our new hobby.
When I went on medical leave about a dozen years ago, I started painting again. I didn’t have time for art for over two decades while in seminary or serving a church as a pastor. My mind could envision an image, but my hand lagged behind in the skill to execute it. Now I can tell when I’m well—the work flows—but when I’m under the weather—my hand and mind aren’t coordinated at all. We have to have faith that “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)
Of course, Paul was speaking of the total transformation of our lives into the complete image of Christ, but we could also speak of God uniting the body, mind, and spirit into one complete whole, so that we’re able to be at one with our creative energy and what we create. We can only do this by being in one accord with the Creator of all creation.
If I had given up in despair because my early works didn’t match my vision of what I wanted them to be, I would have been as faithless as the church that turns away the people who aren’t yet perfect in faith. God doesn’t call the church to be a gathering of already perfect people waiting for Jesus to return. God does call all of us to go onto perfection and love for our God and our neighbors . So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
Providence of God, 2009
“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4:11-12, 16-18)
My newest painting is from a photo I took of a church in downtown Hot Springs on one cloudy spring day. It wasn’t much to look at as a photo, but I was called to stop and snap its image at that moment. I learned long ago in ministry to listen to those promptings of the spirit, for a greater power was working beneath my poor powers of discernment and knowledge. If I listened, I’d show up when people needed me, even when they were unable to contact me. God has a mysterious power to do unlikely works, or things we ordinary folks would call minor miracles.
THE INSPIRED CHURCH
Most of us see our churches as ordinary places, maybe even “our places,” rather than God’s holy place. This is why we say “my church,” but if we were truthful, we’d admit, no church ever belongs to any human being, for the church is the body of Christ. We also aren’t just one congregation either, for all these buildings comprise a greater Body of the greater Church, which is the Body of Christ. Plus, we who look to our membership rolls forget about the ones who are outside our doorsteps: the hungry, lonely, poor, wandering, naked, or the prisoners and infirm who are confined. They too are part of Christ’s body, which yearns to be made whole.
In my painting, this ordinary, grounded church now rises as a golden, ethereal structure striving toward the heavens. As a Inspired Church, it’s “going on to perfection.” While it won’t get there on its on account, God’s energies are there to help it, just as the spirit will help each of our churches to grow in faith and witness to the world. As I consider the pre Easter fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, I think of the cycles of spiritual growth both we and the bodies of Christ undergo. We all have times of growth and lying fallow, and some even seem to have seasons of rot. Yet God’s renewing spirit can make the dead bones live again.
Notre Dame de Paris
A Christian church has been in Paris since the 3rd century of the CE. This site has a history of both blight and renewal. Two ancient churches were destroyed to build the new gothic cathedral. These were built on the site of an old Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. The work on the cathedral began in 1163 and was completed 203 years later. In 1789, French revolutionaries caused major damage to the building, especially the statuary. Nearly a half century later, publication of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831 sparked a campaign to restore the cathedral.
Although Notre Dame de Paris is a Catholic Church, it’s also a historic building. As such, the cathedral belongs to the state, which is responsible for its maintenance. Nevertheless, the day-to-day maintenance of churches and cathedrals in France often falls to cultural and religious associations. And just because the state is responsible for funding large infrastructure projects doesn’t necessarily mean it has the money to do it.
When the world watched the spire fall and the wooden roof collapse, a great sadness fell across people’s hearts. Immediately large financial pledges poured in to rebuild this architectural treasure. One of the blowbacks in the days of grief after the fire and the generous outpouring of pledges to rebuild this cathedral of hope, which is over 850 years old, was the reality of human needs. Soon folks said, “If we can raise this much money for a building, why can’t we raise it for the homeless, the hungry, the war refugees, and all the other human causes of need?”
Yes, these are important, and we should always provide relief for human distress. Great buildings, which have seen over eight centuries upon this earth, are a special case. They carry the hopes, dreams, and memories of each person who has ever entered their doors. With the advent of television and social media, they now carry the memories and dreams of everyone around the world who watched this great sanctuary burn and all their hopes for what it will become in the future.
When we cast a vision for our own churches, most of us aren’t facing a burned down edifice. Instead, we usually find a burned out congregation or a barely burning membership. Not many of us will stay in our appointments long enough to make “cosmic changes,” so we work to improve what we can, with the hope the next pastor will build on our work. In truth, it’s easier to redesign or renovate a building than it is to restore a congregation to health.
Currently architects are designing their best proposals for this spiritual heart of Paris and France. Some will “go big or go home,” while others will bring a more simple vision. Paris firm Vincent Callebaut Architectures’ vision for the cathedral is an innovative and eco-friendly design that supports the local population and produces more energy than it uses. Its vision of the rebuilt Notre Dame features a futuristic glass design, solar power, and an urban farm to support vulnerable and homeless Parisians.
Proposal for Interior of Notre Dame de Paris
Four years ago, an art historian used lasers to digitally map Notre Dame Cathedral. His work now could help save it. The Vincent Callebaut project is titled “Palingenesis,” a Greek concept of rebirth or recreation. The firm proposes a new roof made of glass, oak and carbon fiber, which connects “in one single curved stroke of pencil” to the sloping spire. The rooster which topped the original spire and retrieved from the rubble after the fire, will resume its watch from the new glass design, while the cathedral’s choir will be bathed in natural light.
Vincent Callebaut Architectures
Beneath the spire, the roof will host a fruit and vegetable farm run by charities and volunteers, in order to produce free food for vulnerable local people. “Up to 21 tons of fruits and vegetables could be harvested and directly redistributed for free each year,” the firm said in a press release. “To that end, a farmers’ market would be held every week on the forecourt of Notre Dame.”
Notre Dame de Paris
Vincent Callebaut Architectures
The roof and spire will also produce electricity, heat and ventilation for the cathedral: an “organic active layer” within the glass will provide solar power, while the roof’s diamond-shaped “scales” will open to offer natural ventilation — a design inspired by termite mounds. The spire will act as a “thermal buffer space” in which hot air accumulates in winter.
The cathedral could host an urban farm which produces food for local people. Credit: Vincent Callebaut Architectures
“How can we write the contemporary history of our country, but also that of science, art and spirituality together?” the firm said in a press release. “We seek to present a transcendent project, a symbol of a resilient and ecological future.”
If the Vincent Callebaut design is selected, the firm said, the reborn Notre Dame will define “the new face of the Church in the 21st century,” presenting “a fairer symbiotic relationship between humans and nature.”
This is so amazing, yet I wonder if the religious community will feel elbowed out of their worship space. I know one of the difficult challenges in church leadership is adopting new ideas because “we’ve never done it that way before.” On the other hand, helping this 14th century gothic cathedral rise from the ashes to a new birth is the perfect moment to claim an extraordinary vision for a forward looking future, not only for the church, but also for Paris, the French, and even the people of the world.
When we think about a new vision for our own church, are we willing to destroy the pagan temple and the god of its age?
When we build a church for an earlier time, do we have the faith to tear it down and build it anew for the age in which we live?
Do we hold on to an old form of church until it burns down and we need to create a new one from the ashes?
Will we have the courage to reconfigure our “idea of church” so it’s not a separation from the world, but an incorporation of the world, as in the Wedding Banquet parable?
Are we ready to entertain new visions and dream new dreams for our churches and our ministries?
How many colors exist in creation? Many more than we can buy in a tube at the art supply store and even more than the number of paint chips at our local building supply store. Recently I gave my adult art class an assignment to use their primary colors and white only to mix new colors, since I noticed they were not getting middle values in their paintings. I too enjoy the brightness of the primary colors, so this was also a challenge for me.
Power of the Cross
The following week I needed to do less geometry and more nature, but I came back to the cross theme once again, for these flowers are from a photo of the Easter “Living Cross” at my church. While we can’t see the arms of the cross, anymore than we can see Jesus today, we know the cross is there, just as we know Jesus is present for us in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This makes Christ alive, not only in our hearts, but also in the lives of all who suffer: the poor, the immigrant or stranger in our land, and the oppressed. Even the land itself, which suffers from human caused climate change, can be a place where we meet the living Christ.
The Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem is a powerful place, for it was where Christ was handed over to his captors by a former friend. From there he went to death on the cross and resurrection for our salvation. This garden retains this energy of struggle: Jesus prayed to get his will in line with God’s will.
If the story ended here, we’d have no living crosses full of beautiful flowers on Easter Sunday. Out of pain and struggle comes great beauty. Most of us will avoid any challenge in our lives, thinking the easy way is the best way. Intentionally causing others to suffer pain isn’t acceptable for moral reasons: “do no harm” is a good adage, as is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Setting achievable goals and challenges are different. These cause us to grow. They may also cause us discomfort, but this isn’t pain.
On this canvas, Spring Flowers, I had to overpaint and scumble to create the textured grays of the background. I even had to repaint the wispy border flowers several times to get their petals colored and straight, plus to get the ground varied enough to make them stand out.
One of the artists I most admire is Picasso, for he was always reinventing his style. Today artists pick a style and stick with it. Perhaps this is lucrative and makes economic sense. Still, I wonder what happens to the creative spirit when it’s not nurtured, challenged, and expressed. Of course, this may be the difference between a great artist and a good artist, and only the centuries will tell which among us now will be great.
We had a bright taste of spring in last Friday’s art class with the yellow daffodils from Gail’s yard. She and Mike have come a long way in their powers of observation and rendering. They take their time to see, study, and really observe intentionally whatever objects are before them. These two students have been to most of the 26 classes to date, beginning back in June 2018. They’ve come a long way.
We can get lost in the busyness of the world with all the competing claims for our attention, but if we take our time, breathe, look for the most important things first, and then deal with the details, we’ll usually have a better outcome. This is an art studio principle we can carry over into life.
I happen to be doing something entirely different. It’s a woven painting, from two old works I’m no longer keeping. As part of my recycled/resurrection series, it belongs to a theme of change. In Luke 9:51, we hear
“When the days drew near for him to be taken up,
he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
Sometimes we have to set our minds on what God wants for us and deal with the consequences. As we head into Lent, I recognize as a teacher most students today don’t want to suffer, but want the prize of achievement without the sweat of practice. Some say 10,000 hours is the mythical threshold to acquire competency.
Will we then all be Leonardo’s, Picasso’s, or Monet’s? Some of us will work 100,000 hours and still be ourselves, but we’ll be so much more than we were when we began! It’s like the Christian life: if we aren’t intentional about giving ourselves into God’s service, we won’t practice it often enough to grow in love and grace.
I had a dream about this image I’m working on now. Jesus knows the cross is before him. He’s already seen it in his mind. When he goes down to Jerusalem for the Passover, things won’t go well for him. He can go to fulfill his mission or turn tail and run. The prelude to his ministry was the temptation in the desert, which we remember during Lent. He goes forward to the certainty of his ministry and also his death and resurrection.
DeLee—Face Set Towards Jerusalem”
Those of us who like Easter, but not Good Friday, will one day have to deal with suffering: our own, someone’s we love, or the suffering of humanity. We can’t escape suffering, for it’s part of the human condition. Some of it we choose, like training for sports, but some is visited upon us unkindly, such as the dread illnesses and wars of our world. Some were born into suffering by geographic location, and this causes mass refugee populations to move across national borders in search of hope and opportunity.
When we’re painting these pretty pictures of flowers, we can think of those who have put their hope in God’s hands and remember we are Christ’s hands in God’s world.
My weaving is a dream image of a transformational point in time when you see what is both before you and behind you. You choose to go ahead anyway, even knowing the consequences. Both the hero and the artist have to risk the danger. Otherwise we’ll paint pretty canvases for nice homes and be the Christians who wear our decorative crosses, but we’ll never bear the cross for the sake of Christ, his kingdom, and the better world God calls us to recreate.
The Christian life calls each of us to be a hero, one who suffers on behalf of another. If our lives are too easy, we aren’t walking like Christ. We aren’t called to suffer at the hands of another, or to be harmed by others, but there’s a real need in our lives for “structured and guided suffering in a safe environment,” such as learning a new skill or getting outside of our comfort zone.
I carry my phone when I walk, so I always have a camera for the scenes of beauty which catch my eye. Since light is ephemeral and these moments are fleeting, catching them as they occur is important. When I come home, I often photoshop the image on my computer or in Instagram to get the emotions, which I experienced when I took the photo.
Winter Lake Reflections
Several winters ago, I took this photo. By the time I painted it this year, I was feeling more optimistic. Back then, I didn’t know if my daughter was alive or dead. I lived in hope, but I also was holding onto some fear, for I knew her drug addiction was going to be difficult to overcome.
The Cloud Rising
This is my most recent landscape. The cloud always reminds me of God’s appearance! Then I think of this verse in Job 38:34, when God asks Job, who’s been questioning God’s intentions and reasons—
“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
so that a flood of waters may cover you?”
Poor Job, he’s not God. And neither are any of us. We’d like to make sense of the senseless, right all the wrongs, put order to all the chaos, and make things the way they should be. Of course, if we were in charge, the world would have gone to hell in a hand basket much sooner than it has already.
Maybe we should reread Job 42:3—
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
In our world today, many changes are happening. Some of us want things to be “the way they used to be.” This would make us feel better and be more comfortable with a known world, but God is always recreating God’s new world–
“For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind” (Isaiah 65:17).
If we are people of faith, we can trust in our God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). If Christ is the same, then God is the same, and so is the Holy Spirit. Does this mean our understanding of the Holy Trinity never changes? No, this means God’s love and mercy for us never changes! We think we can fall outside the bounds of God’s love, but this is only because we have short arms and can’t include all others within our embrace. Just as the water reflects the sky and earth above it, so we’re to reflect the attributes of the holy image in which we’re created and demonstrate the qualities of the heart and the same mind that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).
Job, who was well respected and honored in his community, was enamored of his ability to assist others with their needs. He was a big man who used the blessings from God for good purposes. When he lost this status, he was upset. Once he met God face to face, he realized he’d been giving lip service to God, but didn’t actually know God. Many of us today know about God, but haven’t had an encounter or experience with the living God. We can’t reflect a love which we’ve never received, and we can’t share a forgiveness we’ve not known. Perhaps our first work is to seek God’s generosity for our own lives, so we can reflect it outward in the world toward others.
Most of us separate our lives into doing and being: we are creatures of comfort at times, and then we expend energy doing chores or work at different times. We live bifurcated lives, even if we’ve heard the admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), we work without prayer and pray without working. Then again, some of us have little connection with the spiritual at all, so we miss the mystery and the awe of the dimensions beyond this mundane world. We’re unable to see even the glory and beauty of the creation, since we aren’t connected spirituality to a life beyond this world.
Christ Overcomes the World
The iconographer is more than a painter or a writer: he or she is one who connects this material world with the spiritual world beyond. The icon is a window through which the heavenly and the earthly worlds communicate. It’s like a wormhole, of sorts, in sci-fi language, or a portal passage for direct communication. Of course, we can directly communicate with the Holy Spirit, but not being able to see the Spirit, we can see the icon’s representation of the image of Christ or a saint, and this helps us to focus our thoughts and prayers.
Some say a candle would suffice, or a text from Scripture, and I agree. Yet not everyone is able to live such a spare life, reduced of images, color, and beauty. Minimalism isn’t for everyone! This is why we have zen gardens as well as romantic English gardens. Some of us need architectural modernism and others like quaint country clutter. The icon tradition comes from the ancient church, for Luke was traditionally ascribed to be the first iconographer, as well as one of the first gospel writers. He painted Mary “the God-bearer” and Jesus.
Our art class is moving out of its comfort zone in the painting of icons. We can learn about the spiritual life in the art class every time we meet. In fact, every time we try something new or challenging, we learn about ourselves and the spiritual life. A close inspection of the gospels shows a Jesus who was always challenging the status quo. The only time he was comforting people was when they were dispossessed, marginalized, or disrespected. “Blessed are the poor…” was his first choice, not blessed are the rich or powerful!
When we are weak and powerless, when we struggle and fall short of success, and that will be. Every. Single. Day. In. Art—We are then most able to lean on the one who for our sakes became weak so we can become strong. Then we’ll come back and fail again and remember the times Christ stumbled on the rocky road to the crucifixion. What seemed like a failure to everyone gathered about, and didn’t make logical sense to wisdom seeking people, nevertheless served a higher purpose. By uniting all of our human failures and faults in one person, God could experience all of them in God’s own image, the icon we know as Jesus Christ.
If there’s any reason to attempt a Holy Icon in this modern world, we paint and pray to unite our work and spiritual into one. Usually only the clergy have this privilege, and they can too easily burn out if they do too much and pray too little. Lay people underestimate the amount of prayers necessary for effective work. The older I get, the more prayer time I need. Of course, work takes more out of me now, but I’m a refugee from the dinosaur age. I used to be an energizer bunny back in my fifties, but working thirty hours a week painting and writing is enough for me today.
Any art work, whether a landscape, portrait, or an icon, can be alive or dead, depending on how the artist approaches the work. If we draw the lines, fill in the colors, and never pay attention to the energy of the art itself, we’re just filling up time. If we’re thinking about our grocery list, what to make for dinner, or the errands we have to run, we aren’t on speaking terms with our artwork. On the other hand, if we’re paying attention, sharing in the conversation, listening to what our work is telling us, we can respond to the push and pull of the conversation. Our work will tell us what it needs if we’ll only listen to it. If we trust and listen to the Holy Spirit, we’ll paint a true icon, and the window into heaven will open for all who want to listen.
Making Found Object Icons is an art project that evolved out of the Great Macaroni Multimedia Traveling Artandicon Show. In seminary during Art Week our fellow students were horrified we were making sacred images out of edible products, such as macaroni, lentils, peas, and beans.
Jesus is the Bread of Life
“Jesus is the bread of life, and macaroni is just another form of wheat,” we replied.
“But it’s so ordinary!”
“Clay is ordinary, and so is stone. Can an object only be worthy of God if it’s made of expensive materials?”
“The value of all the chemicals in a human body is about $5.18, but we’re worth far more than that in the eyes of God. Some say God doesn’t make junk, yet too many people of faith despise and debase the body. I’ve always wondered why this was so, since the Son of God came to earth in human form, and as the great hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 (NRSV) says—
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
When we meet Christ at Christmas, we can get all warm and fuzzy because who doesn’t like a warm, cuddly baby? Maybe I have a soft spot for babies, but I really don’t trust people who don’t get a little ga-ga when the little ones coo and smile. I can understand folks getting squeamish at Good Friday and the cross. Most of us avoid as much pain as possible. Humility and obedience to God are not high priorities these days for many people.
Flight into Egypt
Many tend to ignore this wonderful call to the Christ-like life, preferring instead the cop out of “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak,” (Mark 14:38, NRSV). “Forgive us,” we say, but we hold others up to high standards.
We make a distinction between our dual natures of the flesh and the spirit, a concept inherited from the Greco-Roman culture. It’s notable that the often quoted verse, “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit,” is found in Galatians 6:8 (NRSV), for this was a Roman province.
The ancient Mediterranean area had a knowledge/mystery tradition. The Greeks had their cult of Bacchus, the Egyptians the cult of Isis, and the Jewish had their mystical Kabbalah. The Romans had their dying and rising god cult of Mithras, the bull. Entry into all of these groups was by word of mouth only, given to a special few, and all had secret rites known to the members only. Most promised salvation through secret knowledge, and the true world for them was spiritual rather than the physical world in which we live today. Ecstatic worship separated the believer from the body and the ordinary world.
You might recognize these traits in your own church or worship community today, except for the ecstatic and enthusiastic worship brought about by mood altering substances. That’s not my church anyway! How do we come close to God? Across the centuries, the tradition has discovered contemplative prayer, singing, searching the scriptures, serving the poor, attending the sacraments, and creating art for God or the Holy Icons.
Making an object for the glory of God, to enhance the worship experience, and to honor God is a gift of the artist’s time and talent. No artist is ever paid what their training and talent is worth, for it’s a treasure from God to begin with—it can’t be valued. Artists have learned over the centuries to live simply, accept fame if it comes, and put a fair price on their work.
They get value in the spiritual real from the work they do, for the icon opens a window into heaven. As they arrange the jewels and found objects, and move them to a better position, the icon comes alive under their hands and begins to breathe. Only the person, who will be still long enough to hear the silence from beyond the open window, can hear the voice of God in this world. For this person, the icon is a treasure, and a place of holy focus, no matter how small or how simple the materials.
This is the reason the artist makes an icon—to have a moment of mystery, a time of intersection, and a communion with the holy. In today’s hurried world, each of us wants a place in which we can experience for a moment the timelessness of heaven.
When we return in the New Year, we’ll begin painting our own holy icons. The process is a spiritual journey, more than a destination or the attempt to reach perfection. We only need to “go toward perfection” each day!