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
I have been struggling lately with depression.Â I see things at my job in the psychiatric hospital that have impacted me emotionally more than I let myself realize.Â Some people knew and prayed for me, but I have not been able to paint as much as I would have liked.Â I have started again, with a notable change resulting.
Lately, I have found that once again I cannot sleep at night.Â Some people may wonder if it is insomnia, and to be honest, I don’t think that is the case.Â Often, I assume that it is quite possibly the only time that I am still enough to reflect on God, which is quite a shame.Â I think I could really do much better for myself if I only took the time I needed to spend some regular time with God.
It is when I can’t sleep that I get up, walk down the hallway to my art studio, sit on the mat and open my Bible in the dim light of a small lamp which hardly lights the room.Â But I love the atmosphere.Â Tonight, in the darkness, I can hear the wind …Â
I just need to sit in God’s presence and ask, “God, what do you want?”
Maybe I don’t even need to ask anything at all … maybe it is just beingÂ aware ofÂ God’s presence which is enough.
As I sit here, I am filled with as sense of being sure that it is.
It has been some time since I have written anything.Â I have been working on getting a piece ready for the Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco.Â IÂ shipped out 6 pieces for their exhibition “Afterlife” and finished printing a block print for my church’s production of “God’s Trombones” which we will be putting on this spring.Â
I have been struggling with feeling depressed again, and these overwhelming feelings have been draining me.Â To distract myself, I have been learning about making African drums and finding the topic quite interesting.Â My father and I are making a few Ashiko drums and possibly will be making a number of other conical, cylindrical, and compound conical drums in the next few months.Â I am hoping to use these drums to facilitate a number of drum circles in my community, bringing drums that people can play.Â Drum circles remind me so much of grace … a gift of rhythm that cannot be possessed and only grows if itÂ is added to by joining with others.Â Rhythm is a gift that is freely given to everyone who listens to the beating of their own heart.
I have been trying to figure out again what it means for me to pursue art making in a humble, little way – a way that gets away from the kinds of rewards that society tells us that we need to have to measure our worth.Â I am coming back to this.
Â I heard a friend this weekend who plays in a gospel-rock-blues band who is doing a two-week tour this summer of homeless shelters between Denver and Grand Rapids.Â I have never heard of such a thing – people who want to play music specifically for the homeless … and it seemed like the kind of thing that would make God smile.Â
I want to make art in a similar spirit.
Â God, move me.
Once, someone told me not to continue working as a social worker because they thought I was “too sensative” to deal with all the pain that I would encounter in this line of work.Â They thought that it would destroy my art.Â Well, this person is right and wrong.Â I am still creating art, but I have to say that I do lug around a pretty thick crust of defensiveness at times to protect myself from feeling “too deeply” the pain of the people whom I work with.
But lately, though, I have been pretty burdened by the kinds of problems that I am encountering here in the hospital.Â More homeless people who are suicidal and have no place to go.Â People who can’t get their psychiatric medications becuase their counties have no more indigent funds to pay for the medications these people need to stay psychiatrically stable.Â People who drink and drug themselves to numb the pain of their problems, and end up wishing that they were dead when they clear.Â
So, I walk among people who have these kinds of problems for 8 hours every weekday.Â With the economy at 10.6% unemployment, the resources I need to help people are becomming scarce.Â I can’t depend on the social service system to help me get resources to people like it did before.Â It breaks my heart.Â I ask myself every day that I am here if I will be able to help people … and this kind of dispair seems to hang over me.Â
I sometimes worry that I am getting depressed … and it is possible that I am.Â Making art, playing with my kids and talking with my wife are the things that give me temporary distraction from the burden of watching people suffer.Â I feel like the waters of a flood are backing up to the door of our hospital … and it is slowly squeezing out my breath.Â I paint, I drum, I play and I pray for the people who would gladly change places with me because they are worried that they will drown under the waters as opposed to being a spectator.
I have been working for the past two weeks on a large painting again.Â This piece is about resurrection, and I am thinking about calling it “Lotus Resurrection”, but I am not sure yet.Â As I paint it, I am becomming saddened by the fact that I hope that the suffering on this earth will end soon and that things will get better.Â My fear is that they will not.
At this point, discontinuing my role as a social worker would only be like poking out my eyes or turning my head – it would not actually end poverty and helplessness.Â No, being aware is necessary, I only need to find a way to continue to release my own pain to God so that I can enter the flood each day and try to pull more people from the storm.
I am trying to pray Psalm 13 this week.Â I often pray this when I feel so distant from God like I do right now:
“How long, O LORD?Â Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and every day have sorrow in my heart? …
… But I trust, in your unfailing love.”
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.
I hate doing that.
Just seeing everything, my creative clutter – gone – I hate it.
… and now I can move in there again.Â Everything that was behind me is gone.Â I am in many senses starting over.
The economy has hit 10% unemployment in Michigan, and the art market is taking a major hit.Â I don’t know what this year will hold.Â
But I have this scripture that keeps coming back and back and back … like my mantra for the new year.Â Matthew 6:1 “Be careful not ot do your ‘acts of righeousness’ in front of others, to be seen by them.”Â So maybe having the art market tank will force me, like I needed to be forced to clean my studio, to find other ways to use my art.Â Maybe in hidden ways.Â
I think God likes us to get good at being little.Â
For me to be little is a big thing because I live for recognition.Â And I need to throw all that kind of stuff away, like the junk in my studio.Â God, sometimes I don’t understand, because to be a “success” means to be known, at least down here!Â I hope this is one of these things where we don’t get what we ask for, but we get what we desire most … only we don’t realize that until the very end.Â
So I am working on throwing out my junk to get a new beginning.
On days like today when the winter snow washes the earth in a dim monochrome, I tend to get really reflective.Â Today I was thinking about what I actually do with my time, and what I would actually like to do with my time.Â We only get to walk the earth for a few short breaths.Â I wonder how I am spending mine.
If I could do anything with my life, I would want to help people develop a sense of the presence of God in their lives.Â I would want to do that with art, though that would not have to be the only way.Â My art is only a little part of my life anyway.Â My wife and kids will certainly not care if I was a great artist as much as if I was a caring person who showed them my love as they needed it.Â I need to keep that kind of perspective.Â I think it is a humble way to think.
On the wall of my office, taped to the heater, is a handwrittenÂ note that I wrote once when I was in therapy.Â It is a reminder to myself.Â It reads:
Doing one thing well is enough.
Doing one thing well is honoring to God.
So often I try to be so many things to so many people.Â I try to be a great therapist, a great artist, a leader, a musician at church … and I run myself ragged doing so many things.Â In trying so many ways to accomplish my goal of helping people experience God in their life I end up filling all of my time and running up my stress level that I rarely take the kind of time I need to spend time with God myself.
So I am trying to work on that.
I know that the two things I totally lack in my life are regular time spent with God and exercise.Â I have gained 35 pounds in the past two years, partly because of anti-depressants that I started taking, but also partly becuse I eat when I get anxous and I am anxious often.Â My social work job is very intense, and my family life is also packed with expectations.Â My baseline anxiety level is probably pretty high.Â
So, recently I started Weight Watchers and so far have lost 8 pounds.Â I am happy with this.Â I also received a TNIV Bible as an early Christmas present and started reading it again.Â I love how the font of the letters pairs so nicely with the language choices of this new translation.Â I am just starting to go back to being who I want to be.Â I wonder if I will ever get there.Â
The one thing I love about winter, which is just starting, is that after these two weeks of busy time, is around 80 days of brooding, overcast, cloudly days that make you want to snuggle up under a blanket with a book, a cup of coffee, and a fire in the fireplace.Â It is a good time to reflect on life.Â I hope that I get a chance to actually live mine the way I want instead of passivly being a passenger on the road of life.Â
This weekend I had a revelation in church following our family trip to Hong Kong.Â I have struggled for some time with trying to figure out what God wants me to do with my life, particularly my art.Â I do not have the stomach for risk needed to be a full-time artist, and quite honestly, I don’t think that my familyÂ would be well-served if I attempted this.Â With the present economy right now, many galleries are closing while others are seeing their worst sales in years at present.Â I received a call from one of my friends who said that the gallery she is with has sales that have dropped 70% from last year.Â No, that is not the road I am to travel at this time.Â
I have always felt that one way to tell if my work is good is to be accepted, and sell, in a gallery.Â While this is a good thing, I think too much of my own self-esteem is tied up in being a gallery artist.Â But my heart, if I am honest with myself, is not completely in this arena.Â I think God has something more in mind for me.
Â So while in church this past Sunday, it struck me that what I found fulfilling recently was making the “Breath Prayer” series that I have been working on.Â My Breath Prayer series is a number of small portraits of Chinese women, praying while holding symbolic objects or making prayerful gestures.Â Each painting was created either for a person, or to pray about an idea or issue while I worked.Â The results have been a series of paintings that have had the most prayerful quality that I have been able to muster in ages.Â I love these small pieces.
Maybe my calling is to create visual prayers for people … and give them away – divorcing myself from the idea of being paid for my work.Â Just making art for people whom I have a direct sense that God wants me to create for, to pray for while I work.Â Giving these pieces to people afterwards and sharing with them what it is that God put on my heart while I worked on the piece for them.Â Maybe this would be a way that I could serve God with my art.
Â I always have said to people that if I could do one thing with my life it would be to help people sense the presence of God in their lives with my art.Â Maybe this is the way.
Â I am going to prayerfully go a little way down this road and see what happens,Â taking with me my Bible, my paintbrush, and myÂ open heart.Â IÂ want to see what this journey will bring.Â
I have been exhausting myself the past few days – going to work, coming home, painting, going to bed and then starting all over again.Â I have been consumed with creating little visual prayers for various family members I will see in 6 days!!! (I can’t believe I will finally be in Hong Kong again after 4 years away!)Â I have four done, and have two more to go.Â I think I will make it.
In the past month when I began, I was mostly concerned with just making paintings, but within a few hours of starting, I realized that this in many ways was what I “really” want to do when I create: I want to create for a purpose.Â I want to create “for” someone.
I pray when I paint.Â So when I am creating an image for someone I know, their story influences me heavily.Â I am praying with words of paint, using the grammer of design.Â I am finding that each composition speaks to the unique joys and struggles that I am aware of for each of the people I am creating for.
It is what I would love to do – to be an aesthetic prayer servant.Â If there was one thing that I could do with my life, it would be to help people experience the presence of God, to know and long for intimacy with God.Â It is my firm conviction that the arts (verbal and non-verbal) would be primary channels for this to happen.Â It is my hope that my own creations each can be little pieces of the way that this can happen for people – each painting likeÂ one grain of sand that makes up the beach of the presence of God.
SoÂ IÂ am busy making art, and just praying that it will be used for the people that I am making the art for.