I consider my paintings to be a form of visual prayer, and as I quiet myself in my studio, my heart longs for peace at our borders where today there are still hundreds of undocumented migrant children separated from their parents.
I can’t stop thinking about it. Perhaps this is a good thing. I think only the privileged are able to think of justice issues as something which one “deals with” and then “takes a break” from as if justice can be switched on and off like a light switch.
So, my visual prayer today makes visual the prayer I helped write for my church this past weekend. These are the words that could accompany this portrait of our land, a prayer from the borderlands:
PRAYER OF CONFESSION and LAMENT FOR THE NATION
We come to you as your church, a divided and sinful people, asking for your forgiveness for ourselves and our nation.
God, we have not loved our neighbors as much as we love ourselves–as individuals and as a nation. Help us get sober from this.
God, forgive us for our self-interest, for wanting to hold on to what we think we deserve, without thinking much about those who have less.
Forgive us for thinking that we can judge between the worthy and the unworthy. We know that judgement is yours alone, as you have clearly instructed us to care for the vulnerable and voiceless, both near and far, to whatever extent we are able.
Give us compassion, Lord, to have your eyes when looking at our brothers and sisters in society who seem different from us, or who do not behave in ways we deem appropriate. God, help us to remember the forgiveness you show us in all the times we behave in sinful ways. Help us to continually learn from you.
God Forgive us for whatever ways we have reinforced economic policies that create more distance between those among us who have much, and those among us who have little. God, forgive us when we are not generous, knowing that poverty and the fear of it is at the root of so many desperate acts that plague our world.
God, forgive us for whatever ways we allow for the damage of both the natural environment and the environment of our cities, making them less livable. Forgive us for making excuses and telling stories that make it easier not to care for the common good.
God, we lament policies and practices around the world that do not support the health and safety of our neighbors. God, help us to care for clean water, healthy, accessible, and sustainable food, and access to care and medicine so all of us, your children, can nurture the bodies you blessed us with.
God, we lament the divisions within our churches and our nation. We confess the divisions within our own hearts that have distracted us from seeking the right way to live from your words in scripture. God forgive us for caring more about some lives than other lives. Forgive us for our hypocrisy, for our calloused indifference, and for our self-righteousness when we are not rightly advocating for your justice on earth.
God, turn our hearts to follow your plan for showing your heart to the world by caring for the vulnerable and the voiceless, the hungry, the thirsty, those without a social safety net like widows and orphans, caring for prisoners, and welcoming the stranger and the foreigner. God, help us to give grace to others, as you have poured out grace on all of us through the death of your son on the cross.
Thank you, that you promise to us that if we confess our sins, you are faithful and just to remove our sins and make us righteous.
Today I spent a good portion of the day painting. It has been a while since I posted anything on my blog, mainly because if I am honest, I often feel like I am not living up to my potential as an artist. I don’t have the hunger to strive for greater and greater gallery representation, probably because I fear being rejected as much as fearing being too busy from the contractual obligation to create a certain number of pieces every year. I know I need to be a father during this time in my life, a Dad that drives his kids to places so that they can try out different things, and see what life has to offer THEM.
But I do question if by choosing to invest in other people with my time if I am thereby also choosing not to live up to my potential.
That phrase, “live up to your potential” is something of a millstone hanging in my neck. I was raised to think (correctly, I would say) that my gifts and talents are not my own. I get to carry them to serve others… but not at the expense of others. So, when I create lately, I realize that I’m not in my studio as often as I used to be just a few years ago. I notice that I produce less, and to be honest, I do a lot less of pretty much everything because I am tired a lot. I’m getting older, I am starting to see poorly, my body hurting more often, and I feel mentally exhausted and can’t concentrate like I used to
But, I have some great relationships in my life. I love my wife, my kids, and people in my church. I sometimes wonder if living up to my potential isn’t so much about achieving a lot with the gifts and talents I have as much as investing myself in the people I’ve been given.
If that is the case, I can be a happy man.
“I’m all alone because all my friends have died. I’m not doing anything because I don’t have anyone to do them with anymore. I’m just waiting to die.”
I have a variation of this conversation every few weeks with my grandfather each time I come to visit him at my parent’s home, where he has been living since my grandmother died a couple of years ago. Each time I hear those words, I both sympathize with the sentiment, and in the back of my heart I sense a small uprising of protest. The fibers of my heart rebel against the idea that my grandfather is a worthless man, even if he is continually confronted by the sense of abandonment which waves of deaths must bring. Even yesterday afternoon, after having another of these conversations, we received a phone call that my grandfather’s sister had died. He retreated to his room after getting the news, understandably shaken again.
The day before, I played the piano for a funeral of a friend from church who was four years older than I am. He died unexpectedly from a heart attack. The morning of the funeral, I learned that another friend’s husband was just diagnosed with cancer. And when I went to church, I spoke with a friend whose family is in Liberia, West Africa, living near the center of the city where the Ebola outbreak is exponentially killing thousands of people. I come home, and turn on my computer to catch up on the news from my second home in Hong Kong, where students and citizens are protesting the Chinese government, fighting for open elections and the ability to chose their own leaders. I fear that many there will die for their efforts fighting for justice. All the while, another close friend lies in bed from a curable, but painful illness which takes months to heal from. In my circle of relationships, the world is groaning right now. I know I am not unique.
Lately, my art has taken a rather surprisingly abstract turn as I am drawn to create colorful, but undefined imagery, leaving my geometric, linear figurative work for this time. It is as if God is allowing me to explore in my devotional imagination what it would be like to create as if the things of this world are less and less my home. However, in many respects, the more I am drawn to be close to God, the more the world seems to be more vibrant, more important, more full of possibility in a spiritual sense. I am catching glimmers of the spiritual reality immersing our world, which often is just out of sight. It is as if God is calling to each of us to become more and more holy, shedding the things we cling to for control, and allowing ourselves to freely float as He holds us in the waters of His love. He is washing us clean, helping us to stop clinging to all those things which we think give us security, identity, and meaning and focus more and more on enjoying the sensation of floating in God’s mercy and grace.
God, my cravings for control is the debris on the river bottom of my life. Burn these waterlogged sin-tendencies up, so that what flows out of me, while you keep me on this earth, is clean, pure, life-giving … so much more like You.
I am 41 years old, and am starting to know who I am. I think a lot of people don’t need to think about this to find strength for their lives, because life is busy and full of the daily tasks of surviving day-to-day. But I lost three jobs in three years, jobs which I had unknowingly taken pride in and defined my worth by. I thought I was somebody, and I am, but not for the reasons I previously thought.
Losing my job over and over again pried loose the death-grip I had on my identity one stubborn finger at a time. I believed my job was a way to prove to everyone that I was noble, doing difficult things for society and helping people whom the world had turned its back on. I took a lot of pride in this, and it is a little embarrassing to see these words on a page. But while I was making art all along the way – both with music and paint – I was not doing what I needed to do to live my life in a sustainable way. I was willing to sap all my energy into causes, and ignore the people around me – and my own health.
Losing my job made me face things I was unable, or unwilling to face. Here are a few of them that come to mind here:
– I cannot do everything I set my mind to. That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try to do things, or give up easily. It does mean that I need to be wise about what is good for me to do in the sense of being well equipped to do them. In my case, it means being 100% committed to doing work that does not routinely put myself in physical danger, or in jobs where dealing with threatening situations is part of the work. With a resume that makes me look well-suited for this kind of work, this is a hard thing to do.
– My wife loves me. I really struggle with the idea that my wife can love me when I feel like less. I don’t want to define what “less” is, because it is a shifting thing in my mind. It is pretty easy for me to beat up on myself for being less of this thing or that, comparing my present self with who I idealize my past self to be. But a couple of weeks ago, on vacation, we were having tea-time in this little Singaporean eatery in Hong Kong and talking. I really heard her tell me that she loved me even though I was – in this case – working and earning less. It is two weeks later, and I still can remember her saying this – and that I wanted to cry pretty badly afterwards. Maybe she said this before, but this time, I heard it. I can remember it. I feel fortunate, because I couldn’t accept this before … and now I can.
I need to be around nurturing and supportive people. I am really lucky to have found several part time jobs to string together to make money last year and this coming year. Two of them are working for incredibly encouraging supervisors. I’ve never had a boss or supervisor who wanted to invest in me, and the feeling is often emotionally overwhelming to the point of tears. Oh, that’s another thing – tears. Tears for me are the sign that my heart is still working. When I was in my other jobs, I stopped feeling things that deeply. I developed depression and anxiety, and still need to be diligent about taking my medications, though I no longer need weekly therapy.
I also have a family of friends who care about me, who listen to me, and who know my shadow-side. It is humbling to know that they still choose to be part of my life.
Art is the fruit of my newly pruned life. For a while, while my depression was strong, I stopped making art. Painting is the time where I feel closest to God, in the silence of my studio. I just couldn’t stand being in that quiet place with all the rage and panic I felt swirling in my stomach. The thing is, in the past couple of months, I’ve wanted to paint again, and I’m just happy each day that I feel that urge again. For now, I’m just going to take it as it comes, and try not to force myself to create.
Because I was drowning, and now, for the first time in a long time, I’ve surfaced above the water, and know that I can keep my head up while I paddle towards shore.
Tonight I realized that I am beginning the long journey back to being an artist. A lot has happened since I started this blog a number of years ago. A patient tried to kill me in the psychiatric hospital I was working in, which led me to a lengthy decline into a period of depression that eventually cost me my position. After being on leave, I was allowed to return to work at another site, and eventually was given a position as a therapist. But I had stopped making art altogether, and only in the past few months have I been able to draw in the presence of God again. I still cannot create the kinds of images like I used to, but the small sketchy paintings I am able to create with watercolor seem to speak to people. So I am learning to accept a number of things:
1.) I am only afraid of the things I keep a secret. I was afraid to tell people that I had lost my job, afraid to tell people that I struggled with depression and trauma, and afraid to say that I was now intensely fearful of being hurt again. But the good thing is, that I am learning to say and paint these things… and I have for the most part (apart from a few notable exceptions) been accepted and loved in spite of these fears.
2.) I am learning to accept that I cannot be who I thought I was … and I really was not who I thought I was anyway. I thought I could handle everything: violence, intense emotional tsunamis, threats, screaming, and seeing bloody people who had hurt themselves. I found that I could not, and that the prolonged exposure to these things was eating away at my soul. I was not strong in the sense that nothing bothered me. I am learning that strength is actually acknowledging, and being knowledgeable of, my weaknesses – because I can step to the side of those pits I used to fall into again and again. I am not taking as many pitfalls by realizing I can’t do anything.
3.) I can be an artist in many ways, even the small ways. I am learning that these little paintings, these sketches painted with colored teardrops, are able to move hearts like my large paintings formerly did. This I take as an unexpected form of grace – a true blessing.
I have fallen apart, but what God is making from these shards of my former self is something I am grateful for so many days. I hurt a lot yet, but I am becoming.
This piece was created shortly after I began working as a social worker at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services. Working on an inpatient unit, I was in a place where I witnessed the harsh reality of the intense ways that mental illness ravaged the minds of those people whose illness is the strongest. I was struck by this, and it made an impression on me.