“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.
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.
As a gal who loves her spa days, few and far between though they are, I enjoy the pampering these small forays into indulgence involve. The friendly staff, the luxurious soft robes, the warm scented tubs, the cold needled showers, and even the brief stints in the steam box. Most of all, I live for the white terrycloth towels soaked in the hot spring waters, but cooled enough to put onto tender human flesh. The attendant who wraps my knees and back also puts an ice cold towel on my face before she leaves me alone to the quiet. Then I succumb to the ecstasy of this melting experience for about fifteen minutes.
Afterward, she wraps me back into my white robe to walk me over to the massage therapy room. She walks, but I sort of flow, for my feet don’t really feel connected to my legs or knees or hips. The heat can make a person feel giddy for a time, or perhaps the lack of pain is such a relief, I feel euphoric.
I notice the other women waiting for their massages have similar beatific smiles on their faces. The magic of the spa day outing is at work. After our massages, we seem to glow from the inside out. This effect lasts for a few hours at best, until the experience wears off, and we return to normal. I understand now why my grandparents would come to Hot Springs for “the waters” on their vacations. They did the baths daily, for their supposedly medicinal cure, even if it served to merely relax then and distress them. “Take as needed” is a medical prescription we can all understand.
This brings me to my real subject: Faith and Righteousness. Of late in the public realm we’ve been treated to curious definitions of faith and righteousness by groups in powerful places and those who want to ascend to positions of power. “I go to church” is their definition of faith and “I got into the best college and law school “ has been their definition of righteousness. Evidently attendance in these places didn’t include a passing acquaintance with the dictionary or intensive study, much less convincing evidence.
Imputed righteousness and the Faith of Acceptance
Righteousness and faith for the average church going person is like the robe I wear at the spa for a while. I don’t own it, but I use it. It belongs to Christ, who imputes his right relationship with God to me while I wear it. I accept this idea by faith—the faith Christ had in God’s love for humankind as well as Christ’s faith God would raise him from the dead. I don’t own this faith with any depth of conviction, so my outward life isn’t changed in any way from a nonbeliever ‘s life.
As the writer of Ephesians says in 5:12-14–
For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
“Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Imparted righteousness and the Faith of Assurance
One day we wake from our sleep and come to the conviction our surface appearances have failed us. We see our outward professions of faith and righteousness are a mere mask for the carefully constructed False Self we’ve been presenting to the world. We see our own righteousness is weak beside the true righteousness of Christ. We no longer see our Self, but Christ. We depend only on Christ, and not on any strength of our own Self.
When we cast aside this False Self, we can finally “buy the robe of Christ,” which he purchased with his own life, death, and resurrection. We buy into the whole life of Christ when we let our False Self die, and let our New/True Self rise with Christ. We can wear this robe of righteousness everywhere we go, for it changes us from within. The evidence shows on the outside by our words, deeds, and temperament. Our attitude changes our behavior and the consequences follow suit. The inner person shows through in the outer person, for better or worse, depending on whether we merely borrow or buy the robe of Christ.
The question for all of us remains: Do we trust our goodness to our ethnicity, our deeds, our social status, our religious heritage, our political group, our wealth, our zip code, our strength, our beauty, or any other transient thing? Or do we trust the unchanging and eternal love of God in Christ Jesus, who gave his son so all of creation could be redeemed to its original perfection?
DeLee—Christ, The Good Shepherd Saves All the Lost
John Wesley has a famous sermon called “The Almost Christian.” He suggests we need to go farther and become an “Altogether Christian.”
You can read his sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Oxford, before the University, on July 25, 1741 at the link below:
Context is everything. In the real world of my daily hikes, the objects in this artwork are pieces of trash that I’ve found lying near the path that I walk. Put together with a fresh eye to shape and color, they become instead a nativity scene. I live in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a place known for its healing waters to the native peoples who once roamed these lands and now known as our nation’s first National Park. We have two large hospitals, a rarity for a town of only 35,500 people, but we also serve outlying rural counties. If you want healing, this is the place to come, for we have spas, bathhouses, great food, a beautiful lake and mountains.
The local YMCA is just down the road from the Mercy Hospital campus. If I leave the Y, I can get a 1.5 mile hike with varying grades and enough level spots to recover my wind and get the whole done in about 30 minutes. I’ve about trained the courtesy cart lady to wave at me and pass me by. At first I think I struggled enough that she would stop to offer me a lift.
When we speak about context in a work of art or context in a biblical verse, we mean that we need to look at the surroundings. The surroundings in an art work include the artist’s life experiences, as well as the image they were viewing. We artists pour the sum of who we are into the whole of the world as we see it.
Likewise with the biblical context, we ask: what was the writer’s intent, what do we know of his life experience, what seems to be his goal in writing as he does, what does his choice of words or images suggest, why are some stories unique and not repeated by other writers, and to what do the stories before and immediately after point?
In the New Testament, Luke is the only writer to mention that the birth of Jesus took place outside of an established lodging place. He uses the Greek word Kataluma, which means “lodging, inn, or guest room,” depending on the context. He is also the only one to mention the parable of the Good Samaritan. Healing takes place for the victim of bandits at the inn and for the whole world at the no room inn.
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” –Luke 2:7
“He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him” –Luke 10:34
The No Room Inn Nativity has the standard imagery of the Holy Family: Joseph is the tall, blue, flattened paint can with the radiator head; Mary is is the crushed coca-cola can with the tin can head and screws for eyes; the angel on the left is a rain washed McDonald’s French fry container with a tin can lid for a head; and the baby Jesus is an orange plastic cross/halo resting in a VIP parking ticket from a NASCAR race I attended in November. Alone, these are just pieces of trash, but together on a gold background, this collage becomes an icon worthy of reminding us that the King of this world began his life in a No Room Inn.
This Jesus who came to heal the rift between God and humanity, began his human life on the outside. Those of us who feel like we aren’t meant for the inside need to realize that Jesus spent his whole life on the margins, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and casting out demons, while at the same time afflicting the comfortable insiders who came for the show. Context is everything. Take your ministry out into the streets, find the broken bits of “trash” that have the potential to become new. Begin a healing ministry, not for those inside your comfortable inn, but for those who are told, “No room!”
I took the back way home. Even though I was using the GPS, I deviated from her well intentioned directions. Perhaps I was just intent on exploring, or perhaps I had “authority issues” I needed to work out on leadership, since no one in our country’s Capitol seemed to care for the the poor and the weak any more. “It doesn’t affect me, so why should I worry? Most people won’t notice anything amiss in their daily lives.” How easily we discount “the other.” We think so often only of ourselves: of me, myself, and my. My exploration, as I call the GPS recalculating mode, led me to an island of peace in the heart of the industrial zone of Hot Springs National Park.
Because of the current government shutdown, the park spa, museum, and natural spaces are shut down. We can still walk up to the fountains of the ever flowing springs and fill our water bottles for free, but hiking the trails are forbidden until the money flows from DC. The City of Hot Springs National Park belongs to the state of Arkansas, so it was Wednesday as usual. Our schools had lunch and adults went to work (unless they were federal employees or national guardsmen).
I ended my exploration at Sanders Plumbing Supply. There I found an old wooden railroad trestle bridge crossing both the road and the creek that runs beside it. I parked in the business lot, took my iPhone and crossed the street. The slope down into the creek was gentle and dry, for we haven’t had much rain in these parts. As I clambered into the shallow stream, I walked on an extruded basalt flow. That this old volcanic rock had coursed across the earth in an ancient time and still persisted reminded me that life is more than just today. Even the years of water had not worn it down. I made a short instamatic video of the rippling water, the waving weeds, and the sunlight touching the water. I was finding my peace again.
These black basalt beds were big enough to stretch out on, so I took advantage of this position. Folks in Arkansas aren’t much used to seeing a gray haired lady dressed in bright yellow and red lying in the middle of a creek bed and taking photos. I got a lot of friendly honks & waves from the passing cars. Then again, a person of any age doing something out of the ordinary is apt to get encouragement from the folks who aren’t quite up to stepping out of the safe path themselves.
When I came home, I made this little drawing in a Strathmore watercolor sketchbook. It’s no bigger than an iPad mini. I used an ordinary ink pen, the same tool with which I journal on most days. To focus on the antiquity of the natural elements and the constancy of God’s divine providence for God’s creation reminded me that this day’s problems are being handled by a higher power. As I drew the old railroad trestle bridge, I realized that “this train is bound for glory” (Woody Guthry). We may not see the train right now, but it won’t carry the self-righteous anymore than the hustlers or the sinners. It will carry the humble, the ones who put their trust in God, and care for all of God’s people, not just for the ones who can return the favor.
“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11).