Posts in Category: grace

Live Out Your Time as Foreigners

devotional sketch "Perishable Things" from 1 Peter 1:13-25

devotional sketch “Perishable Things” from 1 Peter 1:13-25

“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.

Surfacing

Your Name Is Known

Your Name Is Known – this is the first portrait-type sketch I have created in some time. I drew this of a woman’s face who was worshiping God so beautifully at St. Andrew’s Church in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong. I am hoping to create a large painting from this image at some point in the near future. For me, returning to symbolic portraiture again is a sign that I am beginning to heal at a deeper level in my life.

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.

 

 

 

Joy is another way to say the dancing of the heart.

This has been a week of emotional ups and downs for me. I still remember that about a year ago I struggled with the beginning of a long period of depression that I am no longer swallowed by. I was talking about this with a friend this weekend, saying that I am noticing that my artwork is happy now – something that was not the case for a long, long time. He said to me, “I think it is the drum circles.” I thought about this and had to agree. Drumming has helped me to more frequently encounter a sense of joy. Yesterday, I saw a young woman who was quite distraught for many weeks in the hospital get up and dance twice during the drum circle I led in the hospital. She was jumping up and down, grinning broadly … it caused me to feel her happiness in my heart. I know that my heart is changed, and for the better. I am just bursting with joy that I want to share with everyone! God has brought me through depression, kept me safe when I was attacked, and gave me a reason to dance. But this is so much more elegant to express through paint.

God, I love you.

Beautiful Grace

Mei Yun 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.  In rediscovering this dream (to write and hopefully publish), I have rediscovered a joy and a new purpose, which is giving me renewed energy.  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.  I am continuing to press on and create in spite of what is going on around me economically.  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.   While I am no dancer, the pulse of making music with strangers is somehow incrediby appealing to me.  Drawing drum songs out of people is an art form I am just starting to see the potential for.  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.

Conviction

 Drummer and children bw

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today I had something happen to me that I just felt I needed to write down.  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.  Because something very small and yet very profound happened to me that I do not want to fall outside my consciousness.  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.  We have met three times, and up until this week, it was a mix of both adults and children.  About 50/50.  And then this last week, I had a lot of parents drop off their children, using me as a babysitting service. 

Initially I was resentful, thinking that people were misusing me.  I wanted to be a part of an intergenerational music making experience, not a place for people to drop off their little ones.  And then I looked.  I was in a room of mostly 5-8 year-old children who really wanted to be right there in the circle.  They wanted to be a part of this.  They were quiet, attentive, and wanted to play drums.  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. 

I went home initially frustrated.  Then I felt ashamed that I did not appreciate those children for being there.  This has touched my heart more deeply this week than anything I have done in the past few years in volunteering at church.  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.  My job is to show up with drums, an open heart, a loose plan and love.  I am recognizing, though I was nearly blind to it, that I  am actually a seed planter in fertile soil that will certainly grow … though it may be many years in coming to fruit.  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.  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.  They each greeted me, and one of them ran up to me to tell me that today was his birthday.  He was 8. 

I could have missed this if I had had my way.

Happy birthday, little man.

I did not set out to minister to children.  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.”  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.  We were making up rhythms and having a great time.  A little guy, only 2 years old, the son of a friend came up and wanted to play.  My heart is starting to see things differently now.  I knealt down so he could play on my djembe with me.  He too is a drummer.  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.  Light my path.  Guide my feet.  Touch my heart … and my hands.

Mei Yun (Beautiful Grace)

 

marybong[1]I have been truly touched by a fellow artist, Nicole France-Coe, whose work is presently in the Leep Art Gallery at the Postema Center on the Pine Rest campus where I work. Her work is about prayer, and has a sense of whimsical reverence to it. Bright colors, and mixes of photo clippings, beads, paint, stiching and fabric. It is like looking into a visual prayer journal. I love it.

It has been a place where I go daily for a sense of visual rest from the pressures of my inpatient psychiatric ward.

And I am resting.

As I have returned to my art studio, I feel a new sense of life returning to my work. It has been a heavy summer, and as the leaves are beginning to burst into vibrant color here in the woodland around my home, I am sensing God breathing life back into me.

I sense God’s graciousness to me. I have not been left in the darkness of my depression which has lingered off and on since January … He has lifted my head.

So I am painting again. I have been focussing on tiny, intimate canvasses recently, which I love doing. But I felt a yearning to paint large again. This past summer I purchased two wonderful books on the material culture of China, and have been pouring through the photos of one in particular: Chinese Dress by Valery Garrett. Whereas most books on the material culture of China focus heavily on the dress customs of the Imperial Court, she has a lengthy section on both the dress of women and working-class people. There are some wonderful reproductions of women’s clothing whose detail and coloring moved me profoundly. They remind me of visual graciousness that pair tastefully with my inner sense of God’s movement in my own heart. So I have begun painting a woman on a tall, narrow canvas. She is wearing a pale blue robe and reaching tenderly upward, her head tilted slighly back, reaching towards a dove which is flying above her head. The dove in my sketch is dropping a blossom from a flowering twig, but I have yet to see how God moves me to create this detail in the final painting. The background is gold, but a tarnished, and in places distressed. Yet what draws me into this painting is the face of the woman which to me captures a content and open quality that I so wish for myself. It excites me to create this piece … and I can’t wait to see how it comes out.

Blessing of the Hands: for GR CIVA

hand1.jpgI wrote this for the meeting of the Grand Rapids affiliate of Christians in the Visual Arts which we had last evening.  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.  

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  A few words before we begin the blessing of the hands ceremony.       //      As Christians, we are called by God to live as lights in a dark world – a world that sometimes does not even seem to notice anymore that it is in darkness.  To the world, the darkness has become normal.  Light, it seems, has become irrelevant, or something optional.  It no longer is seen as something needed to live the good life.  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.  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.    //     As artists, we are called by God to responsibly handle one of the more curious gifts given out by God.  Whereas many children find joy in creating, as we mature, society discourages many people from pursuing their creative gifts into adulthood.  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.  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.  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.  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.  Many of us create works or art which aesthetically companion those walking in our dark world, reminding them of the light of life.    //     To be a Christian and an artist is to balance these twin callings – 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.  We each speak an aesthetic language, and many of us speak with divergent visual accents.  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.    //      We are called by God to touch some by being sensitive representatives of His teachings.  We are called not to have the same values of the world – to be known, to be wealthy, to be loved, or to be powerful – but to be faithful, humble, loved by God, and to be servants of the weak and powerless.  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 … but also to those places where the visual is forgotten, misunderstood, or seen as irrelevant.  We are called to be aesthetically generous to our neighbors.  We are challenged to find ways to honor God with our aesthetic “first fruits”, to tithe from our gifts to benefit others.  We are asked to serve “the least of these” with our art, and to be “like children” in the ways children try to please us with their own creations of crayons, finger-paint, and popsicle sticks.     //     We are called to stay involved in our church communities, even when these people hurt us as artists.  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.  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.    //     So 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.  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.  We are called to the poor, the helpless, and the strangers among us.  We are called to love with the language of art, the speech of our mouths, and the service of our hands.  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.      //     And when these storms hit us, may we be mindful that we have a God who never leaves us.  He walks with us even when we do not feel Him near us.  May we be the tangible representatives of God’s love to each other as we are each others creative companions on this sometimes lonely road.  May we encourage each other to press on, to continue the race, and to persevere.     //     May we each have a  sense of God’s presence as we create.    //     May we sense Him smiling on us as we prepare to work.    //    May we feel the joy of creating when we begin to get sparks of ideas that light our imagination while we work.    //     May we have more moments in God’s presence when we lose track of time and are enfolded in the rapture of creation.    //     May we have a sense of God’s peace when we stand back from a finished work of art that brings a contented smile to our face.   //     May we remember to thank God for these times.    //     May we remember God, and not just think of ourselves.    //     May we remember God.        //     (pause)     //     As we prepare to anoint each other’s hands, do so by repeating these words while making the sign of the cross in each other’s outstretched palms:   —   “May God bless you, as you go and create.”    —    

New Light

smiling-chinese-woman.jpgIt has been some time since I have written anything.  I have been working on getting a piece ready for the Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco.  I 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. 

I have been struggling with feeling depressed again, and these overwhelming feelings have been draining me.  To distract myself, I have been learning about making African drums and finding the topic quite interesting.  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.  I am hoping to use these drums to facilitate a number of drum circles in my community, bringing drums that people can play.  Drum circles remind me so much of grace … a gift of rhythm that cannot be possessed and only grows if it  is added to by joining with others.  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.  I am coming back to this.

 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.  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. 

I want to make art in a similar spirit.

 God, move me.