I don’t know the man.

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

I had my first Peter moment when I was about 13 years old I would guess. This was the first time I can remember denying Christ, that is, and it’s not a pleasant memory. Prior to this I remember being bold and even reckless in my faith conversations. I remember asking neighborhood kids if they believed in Jesus. I remember being on vacation and asking strangers. Maybe I lost that spirit long before 13 years old, but it was at 13 years old that I distinctly noticed its absence.

I was at Art Camp at the local university. I was taking a photography course and there were a handful of kids I felt the need to impress. Looking back I’m not even sure why. One girl, a few years older than me, lived in my neighborhood. Another girl had, at age 13, already chosen her wedding dress, not to mention the boy she was going to marry. There must have been other kids, a crowd, enough to make me feel threatened, although I’m sure in reality they wouldn’t have cared one way or the other. We were all sitting around the courtyard eating our lunches in the shade. I was cross-legged on the paved ground with some of my camp-mates, and someone started a conversation about God. I was used to conversations about God–I attended a Christian school and we talked about God every day, it was curriculum. But here I was out in the world, unprotected. Here I was among artists and poets and philosophers, and they made it very clear how they felt about any Divine Being.

“I don’t really believe in God,” announced Ashley, the girl with the wedding dress, who was perched casually atop the brick half-wall. Noted, I thought in my head and continued to munch on my sandwich. “What about you?” Ashley asked, and all eyes were on me. It was the question I had been quietly dreading. “Are you a very religious person?” My heart began to race and I thought about a million different ways I could deflect the question, or answer with something “cool” like, “I have a soul and I know it’s connected to something greater, so yeah, sure, what’s it to ya?” In actuality I believe I took the world’s longest swallow on my peanut butter and gawked stupidly at my shoes for a few moments before muttering some embarassed answer. Maybe it wasn’t even a denial, I can’t remember my exact words. Isn’t an ashamed, “Yeah,” as bad as an outright, “Absolutely not!”? Maybe I said something about believing in God but not being religious (it’s always religion that is truly unpopular, rarely God), maybe I said something about my parents making me go to church (they have never made me), maybe I was simply noncommital: “I don’t know. Maybe, sort of, sometimes.” I don’t remember. I remember feeling a little sick afterward, I remember feeling guilty. The point is, I was not proud to align myself with God.

I think I heard a rooster crow that day.

Since then my life has been a series of denials and half-hearted admissions of my faith. It’s really sad to type that out. I would like to be bold again. I guess you could argue that this is bold, writing this here, on the World Wide Web, but really it’s not. This is easy. I want to be bold in my neighborhood, in my workplace, in my every day. I want to be that kid again, the one who bumps into another kid at the campground swimming pool and shares a laugh and then just puts it all out there. Or at least answers a question with confidence. I could be that kid. But it takes time.

Everything takes time.

Maunday Thursday.

The Monday after Palms.

Monday, March 17th, 2008

I didn’t write yesterday, but now I will write about yesterday. Palm Sunday is probably my third, maybe even second favorite holiday. There is something so lovely about it, after an already somber five weeks of Lent have passed, to have a day of celebration before the darkest days of the passion set in. Even though this celebration was based largely on a misunderstanding (that Christ was about to liberate the Jews from Roman persecution) I still like to imagine that at least for one day during his life on earth Jesus was recognized as a champion. Maybe this has always been more exciting for me than it ever was for Jesus. As a child I would imagine Jesus riding in on a donkey and beaming, delighted by the praise and adoration being lavished on him. But how happy could he have been really, knowing full well of the torture and eventual death that awaited him at the end of the week? How happy could he have been to know that these people who were waving palms so elated before him were completely missing the point? That these people were looking for a savior that would fall far short of what they truly needed? Maybe for Jesus Palm Sunday was a little depressing.

Regardless, I can’t help but love it, along with the pale reenactment that inevitably constitutes most church services on the day. Our service featured jubilant songs of “Hosanna to the King!” and a procession of children waving palm fronds. Adults in the congregation also got to wave palm fronds. I waved a palm frond. What is it about the palms that I love? To those of you reading this from Hawaii (ahem) or anywhere tropical, try not to take them for granted. To a congregation in Wisconsin who has just endured a seemingly endless gray winter there is nothing so promising as a bunch of green palm leaves being waved about. There is life, after all, in this dead world. There is hope! Great, green life, with even greater life to come. Palm Sunday may have originated out of a misunderstanding, but for the life of me I can’t get myself to focus on that. Palm Sunday is a taste, I think, of what is to come. There will be a real celebration. We will wave palms. And we’ll trade “Hosanna”s for “Hallelujah”s!

On the edge of the waste bin, precariously – Part Two.

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

I didn’t mean to let a week go by before I continued with this post. Maybe you thought I forgot about it. Maybe you even hoped I did! But alas, here I am on another Sunday evening and I fully intend to finish my thought. To refresh our memories (read Part One here), I am the kind of painter who will abandon a project once it has moved out of my control. I will begin to create something, and if it is too slow to get in line with my vision I will scrap it with little remorse. I do not lose sleep over this, generally, that is to say that I am quite at peace with the power I wield as a creator to cease and dismantle any creation that displeases me. Writing that makes me sound like a quitter, but even if that were true about me (I could argue that I’m not, perhaps another day, another post) I would think that even the most steadfast and persevering artist would, at some point when his creation has reached a dark and unforgiving dead-end, give up. Cut our losses, cut and run. It’s expected.

The question I posed in Part One was would God, the Creator, when faced with the same frustrating rebellions of his creation, similarly give up? Setting aside the story of The Great Flood for now (which, like the battlefields of Joshua, is a difficult one to understand) it’s a pretty simple answer. But sometimes simple answers take us by surprise. Such was the case as I was first considering this, some time towards the end of February, after my canvas had disappointed me and I had thrown it away and I thought, “Is this how God operates?”

And a verse crept up on me, kind of toeing shyly at the edge of my consciousness at first, but doing so persistently, and then I had to search around a bit to locate it. In Philippians 1:6 Paul writes, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Anyway, there is the answer. But I didn’t start writing this to give you a single verse and a pat on the back. I want to make you imagine that, to consider what that means. God. In his studio. Creating.

He’s started this one painting but the framework is a little bit warped. He takes the time to correct it. He is stapling the canvas down but notices it buckles in some places. He carefully removes the staples, pulls the buckled cloth taut, and restaples them. He begins to apply gesso with his wide bristled brush but notices there is dirt and hair collecting on its surface, mixing with the white acrylic and causing the surface an unsightly texture. He waits patiently for it to dry, then sands away the imperfections and applies another coat. He begins to paint, lines of delicately varying weight, arching and dipping gracefully across the canvas, and the subject begins to emerge. It is me. He is continuing to form me with shapes and colors when I make my first ugly mistake. With hardly a blink he corrects it and continues painting. I jerk again, almost involuntarily (but of course it is always voluntarily) and something is smeared. He sighs this time and dutifully he corrects his painting once again, but almost before his brush meets the surface of the canvas his subject has begun her outright rebellion. Every color is garish and unsightly, every line revolts against its intended path and black and gray tangle with muddied pinks and oranges and browns and yellows and the Creator, realizing that the subject has every intention of running its own life, steps back and lets it do so for a time. It becomes increasingly vile, increasingly hideous, and it is painful. It is a crime against the art world, against creation. The Creator, after a time, steps back to his painting and begins to wrestle with it, fighting color with color, texture with texture, and after much effort he has reworked the piece into something lovely, something much closer to what he had intended. The artwork revolts yet again. It threatens to become something putrid, something truly abhorrent, but the Creator had made up his mind before he even began: this was his painting, he would see it through to completion.

And so it goes in God’s studio. We who are creations of a diligent and faithful Creator can be assured that we will not be discarded at the first sign of failure, not even after the tenth or twentieth or ten thousandth mistake. The reason why, I think, is also aided by an art metaphor, that the final work, the masterpiece, is priceless. It will hang in a museum for all to see and it will be a light shining, reflecting the Creator’s glory. There is nothing more valuable to a creator than his masterpiece; it is, without a doubt, worth every drop of sweat, every hour spent toiling. God has given us this promise, that he will sweat over us and toil over us and will not give up on us, no, not ever. I will throw away a canvas because I have failed it, but God will never fail us, and never throw us away. God is faithful. He who began a good work in us will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

So there, your sermon for today. If you’re reading from Wisconsin, go make yourself a mango smoothie and enjoy the last few days of winter. The great melt is coming!

Prince of Peace in a war-torn world.

Monday, December 24th, 2007

I thought I’d write a little bit more about Mary and Joseph this Advent and in the end I didn’t write a thing about them.  Guessers may suggest it was a Protestant reaction against the virgin Mary (which is not true) or a skeptical mistrust of the earthly father of Jesus, who is barely mentioned after the Nativity story (Did he even stick around?).  But the truth is, I have all kinds of respect and devotion when I think about the parents who raised Christ in this world, I just didn’t have the time to write much about them.  In my private thoughts I did consider what it would have meant for a scared fifteen year old virgin to learn she was pregnant with the son of God, and why her fiance would stand by her in a time in history when it was not only acceptable but even expected that men put women in their place.  I know there was a lot of divine intervention through all of this to make sure that things went on as planned, but even considering that it is pretty evident that Mary and Joseph were some incredible human beings.  Those are the things I didn’t have time to write about this Advent, I apologize.

I have a little time today though, on this Christmas Eve of 2007, and I wanted to just say a few things about the Prince of Peace whose arrival we will celebrate tomorrow.  Something I have been wondering this season is, “Where is the peace?”  Since the birth and life and death and resurrection and ascension of Christ there have been countless wars and holocausts, genocides and massacres, and what’s worse, many of those were exacted in his name.  (My grade school mascot was the Crusader, for crying out loud!) Jesus may have been a pacifist himself, but we don’t go around calling every kind-hearted soul the Prince of Peace.  Even Ghandi didn’t get that kind of a title.  I don’t pretend to know history–I have no idea if the cummulative blood shed was greater in the time before his life or after his life, but I know that this post-Christ era is seemingly infinite and the body-count is growing.  How can we call Jesus the Prince of Peace when there is no end in sight, where violence is concerned?  Jesus may have saved the souls of this world, but he left us here on earth in no better condition than when he came.  Right?  So why the “Prince of Peace”?

I don’t really like to admit that my Advent meditation was, at times, less than adoring.  We’re supposed to focus on the savior, after all, and didn’t I even write a few words about that, about our expectations being horribly misaligned from God’s?  So I continued to ponder it and slowly my skepticism was clouded by a realization.  In Advent we are not only remembering what it is to anticipate a savior–a savior who has already come, as those of us in the A.D. know–but we are waiting this very day for his return, when he will bring peace!  This is one of those ideas that I’ve heard a thousand times–the second meaning of Advent–but I guess I needed to come to realize it on my own for it to fully sink in.  We celebrate the birth of a savior who presently brings peace and quietness to our troubled souls, but we also await a prince of peace who will return and obliterate the suffering of this world!  This is something to get excited about, this Advent.  Peace is coming!  And that name bears all relevance: we await the Prince of Peace.

What were we expecting?

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

As chores go, there are a few which I absolutely dread. Doing laundry. Scraping ice off of my car. Updating my website. I’m not talking about this blog, which is relatively maintenance-free, I’m talking about my painting website which I haven’t touched since January, almost a year ago. I have new paintings that I haven’t posted or even photographed. I have other projects that I am neglecting to highlight. And even if it were up-to-date, the overall design is just sloppy. As a painter I am average. As a webmaster I am awful. I just don’t enjoy it! But this whole marketing thing is something I plan to work on in 2008, even if it means paying someone to do my website. Graphic designers, place your bids.

Anyway, today is the third Sunday of Advent and after a wonderful service at church I was really hoping to write a post about it. But it’s not easily coming to me. Which is frustrating, because for the first Advent in my life I feel like I am actually approaching an understanding of this season, what it means to anticipate the Messiah and wait patiently for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Yesterday I did a small amount of Christmas shopping. I’ve been trying to stay at smaller, independent shops this year, partly to avoid the crowd and also to support local businesses. Well, for a reason that is unimportant here, yesterday it became necessary for me to brave not just one but two major shopping malls. By some Advent miracle I was able to find parking spaces with ease and keep narrowly avoided car accidents to a minimum. And when the wave of industrious holiday shoppers hit me inside the doors of Barnes and Noble I was able to smile to myself and think, “This is not what Christmas is about.” It’s not about buying things, but it’s not about admonishing consumerism either. In Girl Meets God, Lauren Winner writes:

“Christmastime may be the hardest season for churches. We are inured not only to the Christmas story itself, but also to our pastors’ annual rants against consumerism. Every creative attempt to make the season meaningful, to steal it back inside the church, away from the shopping malls and cheesy radio stations, has been tried, and most of those creative attempts have proved wanting. Perhaps the problem is that we don’t know what the meaning of this holiday, of Jesus’ pushing into the world, is. If we did, we wouldn’t have to worry about consumerism; if we knew what the Incarnation meant, we’d be so preoccupied with awe that we wouldn’t notice all the shopping.”

Right, so if it’s all about the pending Incarnation and not about anti-consumerism, then what does the Incarnation mean? Surely God could have found a way to save us without getting dirty down here in the business of being human. God Incarnate spent nine months holed up in the womb of a girl–that was his advent. We look at that and say, “How nice that God would make himself relatable to us!” And, “How humble, to be born in a stable!” Of course, that’s what it means, but is that all it means? In the sermon today it was suggested that God had another motive for writing his story this way. The Israelites were expecting a mighty King to deliver them from Roman oppression, to bring justice and peace in that order. And along came a baby, and it’s as if God said, “No, we’ll do this my way, thank you.” We were reminded this morning that Jesus didn’t come to meet our expectations, but to shatter those expectations and make room for God to do things the way he knew best. When Jesus came we didn’t need the swift administration of justice. In fact, if justice had come before the crucifixion we would all be a lot worse off. The Gentiles would be condemned and the Jews would forever need priestly intercession. I can’t imagine we would rush to the shopping malls to celebrate such disappointment. I don’t think we would even sing carols. No, it had to be in this order. First we needed a savior. Justice will come, I’m sure, but in its rightful time. I think that’s what we are waiting for on this side of the Incarnation.

Anyway, I realize this has been a mostly incoherent post which is what I meant when I said it’s not coming easily. I have plenty of thoughts about this stuff but it’s tough to articulate in a concise couple of paragraphs. You indulge me so by reading this far, really.  Here is where I should say something light and witty to remind you that I do occasionally offer something entertaining here, and that’s why you’re not about to delete me from your bookmarks, right?