“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 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.
The last few days I have been seeing this idea in my head over and over again. In my imagingings, I see a large goldfish gracefully swimming, swirling, and eventually encircling a woman wearing a long Qing Dynasty robe. I heard this sermon this past weekend on suffering which really spoke to me. It was about God knowing our tears. In my dream, God is the fish, and I am the sinking woman. God is catching me, in spite of my tears. I want to be able to open myself up to God to be able to cry freely without becomming depressed. I want to be able to be completely transparent and vulnerable in the presence of God, but sometimes it just seems like I hold everything back just too much. I think this could be an amazing painting if I could just see the image more clearly in my mind. I love this daydream.Â I have started to collect photos of Ryukin goldfish, and other double fantail goldfish as this is the kind of fish I am seeing in my mind.Â The photo here shoes the kind of pose the fish is striking in my mind.Â I only wish I had a goldfish I could watch so as to learn how to paint the slow, graceful sense of the fish more clearly.
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.
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.
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.
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.