“I’m all alone because all my friends have died. I’m not doing anything because I don’t have anyone to do them with anymore. I’m just waiting to die.”
I have a variation of this conversation every few weeks with my grandfather each time I come to visit him at my parent’s home, where he has been living since my grandmother died a couple of years ago. Each time I hear those words, I both sympathize with the sentiment, and in the back of my heart I sense a small uprising of protest. The fibers of my heart rebel against the idea that my grandfather is a worthless man, even if he is continually confronted by the sense of abandonment which waves of deaths must bring. Even yesterday afternoon, after having another of these conversations, we received a phone call that my grandfather’s sister had died. He retreated to his room after getting the news, understandably shaken again.
The day before, I played the piano for a funeral of a friend from church who was four years older than I am. He died unexpectedly from a heart attack. The morning of the funeral, I learned that another friend’s husband was just diagnosed with cancer. And when I went to church, I spoke with a friend whose family is in Liberia, West Africa, living near the center of the city where the Ebola outbreak is exponentially killing thousands of people. I come home, and turn on my computer to catch up on the news from my second home in Hong Kong, where students and citizens are protesting the Chinese government, fighting for open elections and the ability to chose their own leaders. I fear that many there will die for their efforts fighting for justice. All the while, another close friend lies in bed from a curable, but painful illness which takes months to heal from. In my circle of relationships, the world is groaning right now. I know I am not unique.
Lately, my art has taken a rather surprisingly abstract turn as I am drawn to create colorful, but undefined imagery, leaving my geometric, linear figurative work for this time. It is as if God is allowing me to explore in my devotional imagination what it would be like to create as if the things of this world are less and less my home. However, in many respects, the more I am drawn to be close to God, the more the world seems to be more vibrant, more important, more full of possibility in a spiritual sense. I am catching glimmers of the spiritual reality immersing our world, which often is just out of sight. It is as if God is calling to each of us to become more and more holy, shedding the things we cling to for control, and allowing ourselves to freely float as He holds us in the waters of His love. He is washing us clean, helping us to stop clinging to all those things which we think give us security, identity, and meaning and focus more and more on enjoying the sensation of floating in God’s mercy and grace.
God, my cravings for control is the debris on the river bottom of my life. Burn these waterlogged sin-tendencies up, so that what flows out of me, while you keep me on this earth, is clean, pure, life-giving … so much more like You.
I am 41 years old, and am starting to know who I am. I think a lot of people don’t need to think about this to find strength for their lives, because life is busy and full of the daily tasks of surviving day-to-day. But I lost three jobs in three years, jobs which I had unknowingly taken pride in and defined my worth by. I thought I was somebody, and I am, but not for the reasons I previously thought.
Losing my job over and over again pried loose the death-grip I had on my identity one stubborn finger at a time. I believed my job was a way to prove to everyone that I was noble, doing difficult things for society and helping people whom the world had turned its back on. I took a lot of pride in this, and it is a little embarrassing to see these words on a page. But while I was making art all along the way – both with music and paint – I was not doing what I needed to do to live my life in a sustainable way. I was willing to sap all my energy into causes, and ignore the people around me – and my own health.
Losing my job made me face things I was unable, or unwilling to face. Here are a few of them that come to mind here:
– I cannot do everything I set my mind to. That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try to do things, or give up easily. It does mean that I need to be wise about what is good for me to do in the sense of being well equipped to do them. In my case, it means being 100% committed to doing work that does not routinely put myself in physical danger, or in jobs where dealing with threatening situations is part of the work. With a resume that makes me look well-suited for this kind of work, this is a hard thing to do.
– My wife loves me. I really struggle with the idea that my wife can love me when I feel like less. I don’t want to define what “less” is, because it is a shifting thing in my mind. It is pretty easy for me to beat up on myself for being less of this thing or that, comparing my present self with who I idealize my past self to be. But a couple of weeks ago, on vacation, we were having tea-time in this little Singaporean eatery in Hong Kong and talking. I really heard her tell me that she loved me even though I was – in this case – working and earning less. It is two weeks later, and I still can remember her saying this – and that I wanted to cry pretty badly afterwards. Maybe she said this before, but this time, I heard it. I can remember it. I feel fortunate, because I couldn’t accept this before … and now I can.
I need to be around nurturing and supportive people. I am really lucky to have found several part time jobs to string together to make money last year and this coming year. Two of them are working for incredibly encouraging supervisors. I’ve never had a boss or supervisor who wanted to invest in me, and the feeling is often emotionally overwhelming to the point of tears. Oh, that’s another thing – tears. Tears for me are the sign that my heart is still working. When I was in my other jobs, I stopped feeling things that deeply. I developed depression and anxiety, and still need to be diligent about taking my medications, though I no longer need weekly therapy.
I also have a family of friends who care about me, who listen to me, and who know my shadow-side. It is humbling to know that they still choose to be part of my life.
Art is the fruit of my newly pruned life. For a while, while my depression was strong, I stopped making art. Painting is the time where I feel closest to God, in the silence of my studio. I just couldn’t stand being in that quiet place with all the rage and panic I felt swirling in my stomach. The thing is, in the past couple of months, I’ve wanted to paint again, and I’m just happy each day that I feel that urge again. For now, I’m just going to take it as it comes, and try not to force myself to create.
Because I was drowning, and now, for the first time in a long time, I’ve surfaced above the water, and know that I can keep my head up while I paddle towards shore.
I Corinthians 1:18-31
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised thingsâ€”and the things that are notâ€”to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from Godâ€”that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”
Today is one of those days when I am just feeling so powerless.Â There are things at work that are so frustrating sometimes that I have no power to do anything about.Â I want to advocate for justice with my patients, but it is hard to make things happen for people with complex and profound needs.Â I just need to remember that God can use me, in my broken state.Â I think it matters to God that we try to live our lives the best we can, and leave the results up to Him.Â I just can’t do it myself, God.
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.
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 have not written in a long time. I have been struggling a lot … wondering what to do with my life. I had been attacked in May by a patient who broke through a wooden door to attack me. It threw me into an emotional tailspin that has taken me up until now to pull out of. I have been wrestling with my thoughts and many days had sorrow in my heart.
I have no idea where my life is going, but I am beginning to have faith that there is an answer somewhere. Tomorrow I have a performance evaluation at work, which I am so nervous about. I have been having struggles at work since my attack, and only recently have been able to find interest in painting again.
I just want to be in front of my easel again.
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