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.
I keep having the goldfish dreams … it seems to be pressing on me, tugging at me, eating away at me. I have this sense that God is wanting me to go ahead and explore this composition, but I am not clear on the reason for this. I suppose that the journey is in the making.
I had so many frustrations today that it was really hard to proceed with preparing for my show this weekend. I am really nervous about how this show will go over for some reason. I think part of it is that this show is so totally honest about my own recent struggles that I really fear being honest. I know that my own brokenness will be exposed, and I am trying to come to grips with this but it is hard. I also had quite a number of frustrating things happen today that were frustrating that I am trying to release to God. But God, I need your help to do it!
Maybe this is part of the image of the fish that I keep seeing in my mind. I need to allow myself to sink into the waters of God’s embrace to experience what it is like to have these burdens lifted from me to float to the surface and away from my heart. God, take my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh. Let me learn how to cry again without being weighed down with my brokenness. Let me fly from this cage that holds me, God.
I have been moved tremendously by grace this year. This has been a year I would not want to repeat, but one for which I am sure I will look back on as a year I grew tremendously.
This was a year that I struggled with depression, culminating in surviving unharmed from a patient who tried to attack me and broke through a door, leaving me shaken but unharmed. I needed some months to heal from this. But through the healing process, I rediscovered my longing to write about and publish one of my manuscripts on creativity and faith. It is my plan to begin work on the editing and submission process after putting together a show at Bethlehem Lutheran Church here in January 2010.Â In rediscovering this dream (to write and hopefully publish), I have rediscovered aÂ joy and a new purpose, which is giving me renewed energy.Â I can’t wait to work on the manuscript for Art as Prayer.
This was my second year that I sold no artwork, though I believe that my work has grown in spite of it all. I am learning to be faith-full while being faithful to create art when there is no evidence to validate me for making it.Â I am continuing to press on and create in spite of what is going on around me economically.Â The local economy here in Michigan rose to 15%, and I feel fortunate to be working and not trying to make a living from painting sales. Galleries are closing in the city, and things are rough. We will see who survives this period.
This was a year in which I found a new passion: leading drum circles.Â Â While I am no dancer, the pulse of making music with strangers is somehow incrediby appealing to me.Â Drawing drum songs out of people is an art form I am just starting to see the potential for.Â I am beginning to experiment with and explore how to take this music making format and use it in a worship context. I have people who mentor me now. My wife, children, and parents give me their support and encouragement, and I am blessed because of this.
My life has not been easy this year, but I have much to be thankful for. God has been good to me, and I experience his beautiful grace in my life. I am truly rich.
This entire month I have been seriously moved by my experiences drumming and painting in the presence of God. I am preparing for a show in January at Bethlehem Lutheran Church and am somewhat stressed about this as I always am preparing for a show. I am also quite interested in the way these shows always come together. I am already thinking of who will be in the space there, where their hearts will be, and what God may communicate to them through the pieces I have there. I am working on a quite sizeable piece on freedom in Christ that is taken from a story I heard about a dancing concubine who danced for a Chinese emperor on Lotus blossoms … which became the impetus for bound feet in time. I use the lotus as a symbol of resurrection, and am playing with the double meanings between the brokenness and the image of restoration there.
I also was quite taken by a man who came to the hostpial drum circle today. He is Native American and has told me on more than one occassion that he really connects with the drumming that I do in the hospital. He wants some day to be able to play the “honor beats” on the large drum at the pow wows he attends. Today, he selected a large frame drum and was beating the thing nearly to death. He was loud, and kept changing the beat up. I pulled the group to a halt, and in the assessment of what was going on in the circle, asked him how he was doing inside today. He was called out of the room a few minutes later, but he came up to me later and asked about this. I told him that I very much wanted him in the circle again, and that I wanted him to play that same drum. I told him that I was concerned, however, with the kind of energy that he was emitting through his drumming. I wondered where the state of his heart was today. The drumming is opening up opportunities for me to talk about real things with people … and I am becomming more comfortable with taking the step of faith to talk about these things with people.
God, what are you up to? I don’t know where I am going, but I know you are with me. Thank you for changing my heart to make me more like you want me to be.
I am becomming interested in seeing how the structure of the “Tabernacle Progression” we use at church to structure the worship portion of the sermon could be adapted for a drum circle format of worship. I think this is an idea that has some currency, and I want to pursue this and see if I can develop a protocol that would embody the ideas to create a method of non-verbal worship that connects people creatively to God.
If there was one thing I could do with my life, it would be to help people find creative connections to God, to be the people God designed them to be, expressing themselves in their own unique way to the God who made them each so differently.
God, please … grant me this desire if it is your desire too.
Tonight as I write I have realized that my heart is in a new place. I am changing, and I think it is for the better.
I brought drums to church again today. Whereas before people needed to be called up to play along with the worship team, this time, all the footed drums were snatched up before the service even began. It was not long before all the frame drums were also taken. Something good is coming from this experiment in worship. Again, I had the privilage of seeing people from all walks of life playing together. My mother and my daughter came forward to play. There were two young children – a boy and a girl, and two men as well. Three of the church staff, including two of the pastors, came to play … and I get the sense that they enjoy this for what it is and not because they are doing it purely to be a support to me.
Tomorrow, I am preparing to lead another drum circle at church in the basement. I am ready to accept whomever comes – regardless of their age – and am looking forward to seeing who God brings into the circle. My job is to be there and serve the group. It is God’s job to bring whomever is supposed to be there.
God, thank you for shaping my heart.
This new space in my heart is manifesting itself in my artwork as well – as I have a new painting that I have begun which is a composition that is so exciting to me.Â I can’t wait to begin the journey.
I was asked by a friend to bring drums to church again on Sunday to play during worship. I told her some of the stories that I had about bringing drums to worship. She told me that I was being a blessing to others by continuing to bring these instruments every few weeks. It is a very humbling thing to bless others with something so typically foreign to worship as a drum.
But I think she may be right.
She told me that her husband, who was in a shoe store the other day, ran into a man who has been coming to my drum circle at church. He asked if the drums would be available during worship on Sunday. I thought this was wonderful, and quite moving in a quiet way.
God, help me to do what you want, and not what I want.
Today I had something happen to me that I just felt I needed to write down.Â Maybe I am writing this down more for me than for anyone (I have no idea if people even read this blog) …
… and I know this has been a blog about visual art, but I may need to have a moment to make an exception and talk about creativity and following God.Â Because something very small and yet very profound happened to me that I do not want to fall outside my consciousness.Â God is teaching me, leading me, and I almost would have missed it if I had been able to have my own way.
I started a drum circle at my church, intending to start an intergenerational drum circle.Â We have met three times, and up until this week, it was a mix of both adults and children.Â About 50/50.Â And then this last week, I had a lot of parents drop off their children, using me as a babysitting service.Â
Initially I was resentful, thinking that people were misusing me.Â I wanted to be a part of an intergenerational music making experience, not a place for people to drop off their little ones.Â And then I looked.Â I was in a room of mostly 5-8 year-old children who really wanted to be right there in the circle.Â They wanted to be a part of this.Â They were quiet, attentive, and wanted to play drums.Â I realized that my core group, the people who most wanted to make the drum circle a meaningful ministry were not the adults my heart craved to play with … they were little ones.Â
I went home initially frustrated.Â Then I felt ashamed that I did not appreciate those children for being there.Â This has touched my heart more deeply this week than anything I have done in the past few years in volunteering at church.Â I was moved by recognizing my own ingratitude and convicted that maybe God’s plan for me was not my plan, but something different and more meaningful than I had hoped to achieve by my plan.Â My job is to show up with drums, an open heart, a loose plan and love.Â I am recognizing, though I was nearly blind to it, that IÂ Â am actuallyÂ a seed planter in fertile soil that will certainly grow … though it may be many years in coming to fruit.Â Or maybe that is another thing I need to recognize – that the fruit may just be a different variety of fruit than the one I thought I was going to harvest.Â I have so much to learn to see.
This morning, while dropping off my own girls for children’s church, I was greeted by the smiles of three of the children whom I now recognize from the drum circle.Â They each greeted me, and one of them ran up to me to tell me that today was his birthday.Â He was 8.Â
I could have missed this if I had had my way.
Happy birthday, little man.
I did not set out to minister to children.Â I intended to allow kids to participate as an afterthought, a way to get the adults to come if they could bring their kids along with them and have it “be ok.”Â Now I am getting a little glimmer of insight that maybe this whole ministry, and my heart, may need to be open to being led in an entirely different direction.
I was playing drums with two friends tonight at a wedding.Â We were making up rhythms and having a great time.Â A little guy, only 2 years old, the son of a friend came up and wanted to play.Â My heart is starting to see things differently now.Â I knealt down so he could play on my djembe with me.Â He too is a drummer.Â I need to be open to being a role model for little ones, not a facilitator only to the adults.
God, help me to sense your guiding.Â Light my path.Â Guide my feet.Â Touch my heart … and my hands.
Every Thursday I lead a drum circle in the hospital where I work.Â Participating in this form of guided spontaneous music-making is probably as theraputic for me as it is for my patients.Â How often do you get to pound something for joy?Â To take the tension of life and transform it into a dancable beat is a wonderful thing.
I think of drumming as the prelude to being quiet in the presence of God.Â The silence seems so much more profound followingÂ a joyful sonic rumble.Â It is only after this kind of full-body activity that I can hear the beating of my own internal drum.
So I found this symbol on the internet from the site “oracle bone characters” by artist Vikki Quill : oraclebonecharacters.com/detail.php?prod=GCHa…
The site read as follows:
Ancient Chinese character for Happiness, (Ch:Xi,Jap:yorokobu)showing a large drum on a stand with decorations reaching up. The lower element may represent either a singing/laughing mouth or a vessel for holding ritual prayers.
For me, this character captures my sentiments for drumming as a form of prayer exactly.
I wrote this for the meeting of the Grand Rapids affiliate of Christians in the Visual Arts which we had last evening.Â This is the text of the small talk that I gave before we had a hand blessing for all the artists gathered at our monthly meeting.Â Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â // Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â —Â Â Â
ÂA few words before we begin the blessing of the hands ceremony.Â Â
ÂÂ Â //Â Â Â Â As Christians, we are called by God to live as lights in a dark world â€“ a world that sometimes does not even seem to notice anymore that it is in darkness.Â To the world, the darkness has become normal.Â Light, it seems, has become irrelevant, or something optional.Â It no longer is seen as something needed to live the good life.Â In fact, the very definition of what the good life is understood to be has changed from who we are, to what we have or are associated with.Â The darkness has been re-imagined to be a complex, intriguing world, and the world revealed by the light has been stereotyped as sentimental and inapplicable to those who are accustomed to the excitement of the dark.
Â Â //Â Â ÂAs artists, we are called by God to responsibly handle one of the more curious gifts given out by God.Â Whereas many children find joy in creating, as we mature, society discourages many people from pursuing their creative gifts into adulthood.Â Those who do, find themselves embracing their own inner sense of playfulness, wonder, and expressivity that may at times give them great pleasure, and at other times, a sense of isolation.Â For some of us, our church homes have been places where these gifts have been encouraged to grow, and for others, our church homes may be places were we are discouraged in using these gifts.Â Often, as with any relationship, there are times of both understanding and misunderstanding, calling us to reply to others with patience, grace, and humility when our culture may encourage us to respond out of indignation or heated anger.Â But if we persist, we come to find that our creative voice becomes our private aesthetic language with which some of us preach, teach, and pray.Â Many of us create works or art which aesthetically companion those walking in our dark world, reminding them of the light of life.
Â Â //Â Â ÂTo be a Christian and an artist is to balance these twin callings â€“ to be light bearers in a dark world while being faithful in learning to use a sometimes mysterious and unwieldy gift with increasing elegance and skill.Â We each speak an aesthetic language, and many of us speak with divergent visual accents.Â We speak with these visual languages at times in the community of light-bearers, hoping to touch some, and at other times take this language of the eyes to add our visual voice to the babble of competing ideas in the dark places of our greater communities, hoping to touch some.
Â Â //Â Â Â ÂWe are called by God to touch some by being sensitive representatives of His teachings.Â We are called not to have the same values of the world â€“ to be known, to be wealthy, to be loved, or to be powerful â€“ but to be faithful, humble, loved by God, and to be servants of the weak and powerless.Â We are to be kind to those whom society has rejected, to take our visual language not only to the places where that language is understood, spoken and rewarded â€¦ but also to those places where the visual is forgotten, misunderstood, or seen as irrelevant.Â We are called to be aesthetically generous to our neighbors.Â We are challenged to find ways to honor God with our aesthetic â€œfirst fruitsâ€, to tithe from our gifts to benefit others.Â We are asked to serve â€œthe least of theseâ€ with our art, and to be â€œlike childrenâ€ in the ways children try to please us with their own creations of crayons, finger-paint, and popsicle sticks.Â Â Â //Â Â Â We are called to stay involved in our church communities, even when these people hurt us as artists.Â We are not to run away and hide our talents, our light, under a basket or stone the moment our feelings are hurt once again.Â We are called to be a different kind of artist in this world, not only in the content of our art, but similarly in our character.
Â Â //Â Â ÂSo we are called to speak visually to those around us who share our faith, who share our love of art, and even to those who share neither our faith nor our love of art.Â We are especially called to love those whom the world, and sometimes even the church, has turned their backs on: those who may make us uncomfortable, those who are very different from us because of class, culture, or faith.Â We are called to the poor, the helpless, and the strangers among us.Â We are called to love with the language of art, the speech of our mouths, and the service of our hands.Â We are called to do this in spite of the financial storms that whirl about us and have captured so much of our attention and anxiety.Â Â
Â Â //Â Â ÂAnd when these storms hit us, may we be mindful that we have a God who never leaves us.Â He walks with us even when we do not feel Him near us.Â May we be the tangible representatives of Godâ€™s love to each other as we are each others creative companions on this sometimes lonely road.Â May we encourage each other to press on, to continue the race, and to persevere.Â
ÂÂ Â //Â Â Â May we each have aÂ sense of Godâ€™s presence as we create.
Â Â //Â Â ÂMay we sense Him smiling on us as we prepare to work.
Â Â // Â ÂMay we feel the joy of creating when we begin to get sparks of ideas that light our imagination while we work.
Â Â //Â Â ÂMay we have more moments in Godâ€™s presence when we lose track of time and are enfolded in the rapture of creation.
Â Â //Â Â ÂMay we have a sense of Godâ€™s peace when we stand back from a finished work of art that brings a contented smile to our face.
Â Â //Â Â ÂMay we remember to thank God for these times.
Â Â //Â Â ÂMay we remember God, and not just think of ourselves.
Â Â //Â Â ÂMay we remember God.
Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â(pause)
Â Â //Â Â ÂAs we prepare to anoint each otherâ€™s hands, do so by repeating these words while making the sign of the cross in each otherâ€™s outstretched palms:Â Â —Â Â â€œMay God bless you, as you go and create.â€
Â Â Â —Â Â
So I am struggling with trying to figure out what God wants me to do with my art.Â In the past week, I have come to the conviction that God is definitely moving me away from the things that typically are motivations for artists: to sell well, to be known, or to get bigger or better shows.Â This is not to say that I don’t appreciate those things … I do.Â I don’t look down on any artists who strive for these things, particularly as these are tools that people who need to live off of the proceeds of their art need in order to have commercial success.Â
But I have a job… and there are other kinds of success besides commercial success.Â
I am starting to believe that God is challenging me to not just give up the desire toÂ seek commercial success, but to explore what it would mean to give all my artwork away – making art as a way to pray for others while I was painting, then giving the art to whomever I was painting (praying) for.Â Maybe I should call it “prainting”.
So in starting on this journey, the following questions have come up in my mind:
1. How do I give away these praintings wihtout calling too much attention to myself?
2. How do I talk with other artists about what I am doing without sounding pretentious?Â Or if I am trying to “do my giving in secret”, do I talk about this at all???
3. If I am “successful” at giving away my art, this will cut into what I can devote to the galleries I work with.Â If I have to choose between this art-ministry or gallery sales, which would I choose?
There are so many dimensions to this that I spent some time this morning after church to talk with some trusted and wise friends about what I was thinking.Â They encouraged me not to hesitate because I don’t have answers to these questions, but to press forward – even imperfectly – to do what I sense God wants me to do.
Â So, I am moving forward.