Air and Water: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Alli Rogers

I have this friend.

She is fascinated by the ordinary. She inhabits the earth, the wind, the Real Things that we miss. She notices breath and notices clouds. She feels the tremors beneath our words. Because she embraces what is true, she elevates the ordinary. Her noticing makes it sacred and she invites us to see through her eyes, to feel through her heart.

I wanted to share her poet-soul with you. She said yes. Alli Rogers is visiting with us today, talking about writing and inspiration:

Alli Rogers

Michelle: Are there metaphors or symbols that are particularly meaningful to you that show up often in your work?

Alli Rogers: I am constantly writing about water. As a child growing up in Iowa, we spent a lot of time in the summer at my grandparents cabin near the Mississippi river. That was probably where my fascination with water began. It was just so mysterious and powerful. Why was the water moving so fast and where was it going? Why were the sandbars constantly changing? Why was my grandmother so scared of the current? I later became acquainted with the ocean and its overwhelming beauty that still calms and terrifies me all at once. Water represents a longing often in my writing, it remains for me an image of our journey through life, and it illustrates a unique take on the biblical truth of weakness being strength.

Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better;
It has no equal.
— Tao Te Ching

I also tend to come back to the moon and stars in my writing. I find it interesting that these two things are sources of peace as well as fear for me. I suppose I write about that which confounds me, in my attempt to make sense of it, as well as to remember that God is God and I am not. The fact that there is so much out of my control or understanding is in fact proof that God exists, and the beauty of it all is  proof that He is good. That is how I see it. 

M: Can you let us into your process a little bit?

AR: My process has changed with different life seasons but a couple of principals have been good guideposts for me. First, the idea of working regardless of inspiration has been something I come back to. Inspiration is wonderful and every artist and poet depends on it, but you cannot wait for it to hit before you pick up your pen. That kind of thinking also negates the value of the learning that happens through writing many bad poems and songs. Each throw away is part of the process, or at least that makes me feel better! It helps to work regularly to get your creative muscles in shape so you are ready when the inspiration does come. Madeline L’Engle says it like this: “One must write every day. Otherwise when it comes time to get out of the way and listen to the work, you will not be able to heed it”.

The truth is that I have gone long stretches where I’ve let my creative self get lazy and I have paid for it. So this is my ideal process, one that I thrive in, but it has been hard to implement in these years of raising young kids. 

Write to pray, write to process life, write to remember, write to apologize, write to understand, write to grieve, write to celebrate, write to give thanks, write to notice.
— Alli Rogers

The second principal which I picked up from a songwriter friend is that when inspiration does hit, just write and edit later.  if you’ve experienced it you know it is like riding a wave. When you are on it you don’t think about having perfect form or balance, you just go. It is the same with writing. Editing comes later. Editing can be painful but that is another topic of discussion that I could talk about at length! 

My process is essentially: Write as often as I can, about everything I can. Write to pray, write to process life, write to remember, write to apologize, write to understand, write to grieve, write to celebrate, write to give thanks, write to notice. And then after that, edit if needed (it usually is) and decide if it’s purpose is to share or not. Sometimes songs never get shared and that can often feel like food spoiling on the counter. Little deaths. But I think there is something essential there also. Even a discarded apple core can become food for the earth and maybe it is like this with songs.

I sure hope so.

Thank you Alli!

This is one of my favorite things: to open all the blinds on a Thursday morning and fill my space with the sound of Alli's voice singing the things I didn't even know were in my heart. You can listen to her music here: 

Alli’s latest release Breathe is on iTunes click here.

Her website is AlliRogers.com

And here is a gift for you from her generous heart. A song to listen to while looking out the window:

Playing With Opposites

I love paradox. I love seeming contradiction. I love putting them side by side. Just like complementary colors when placed side by side, create an edge that seems to shimmer, paradox expands our knowing into understanding.

This week I have been playing with those ideas in poem form. This is an unfinished poem, but I wanted to share where I am in the journey. I decided to write about the autumnal equinox because it is one of two days in the year when day and night are the exact same length. That equality of contradiction was exactly what I wanted to explore.

Autumnal Equinox
I stand
in dry weeds
               hip high
and in short
               damp grass
at the edge of the vegetable garden
between the spent blue lake beans
               gone to seed
and the pregnant yellow-blush tomatoes
The air from the pasture
rises warm alfalfa sweet
leaving the ground beneath it cold and sharp
And that sound
the scream that masquerades as silence
               at the insect changing of the guard
               half the swarm readies for rest
               half charges the dusk
Attacking my ankles
               I am become a bistro to the miniscule
               I know better
                              but I refuse to wear long pants
                                                                           or socks
                                                                           or shoes
I bite into a warm tomato
               juice crawls down my arms
               drips onto my cold feet
I am 37.

Poetry for Healing

I talked about how I stumbled into leading arts-based groups here. I still love poetry as an avenue into healing. Often survivors of trauma or loss are not quite sure how to make sense of what happened. Trauma memories are stored on the right side of the brain as fragments of image, sound or smell. Playing with imagery blurs the walls between our compartmentalization of senses and meaning, allowing us to experience a more holistic way of knowing. It allows us to access our imaginations through our senses and connect them to meaning or verbal expression, which is housed on the left side of the brain, in a non-threatening way.

Trauma and loss explode us into fragments, separate and divide us from ourselves and others. God invites us to bring our bits to Him and He will make something beautiful from them. Art is one of His gifts to us. Art collects the pieces and helps us to hold the shrapnel in God's Presence.

When we read poems that resonate with our experience, we feel less isolated. Those poems can help us to name what was unnamed. They can help us find our voice. We when speak words we know deep in our bones, but didn't write, we join ourselves to others who have experienced something similar--and survived. Those words can become a catalyst for releasing our own writing.

When we write poems we have to examine our experience from many angles. We make meaning where there was none, or worse, where there was wrong meaning. We enter into shared humanity with our own stories told in our own voices and in our own ways.

These are two of my favorite resources for poetry and healing:

Finding What You Didn't Lose by John Fox

Poetic Medicine by John Fox

A Listening Poem

This William Stafford poem is about authenticity and listening closely for each other's hearts. There is so much here that reminds me of the parables of Christ: the call to awake people to be awake, the call to care deeply for The Other. May we be challenged to alert attention, to recognize what is sacred in the persons around us.

You can listen to William Stafford reading this poem here.

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give - yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
~William Stafford
 

Streams of Themes

Though we might be different in the details, we are all so similar in the broad strokes. We all have interior structures that help us to understand new information, to navigate the world and absorb fresh perspectives. We all have streams of recurring themes in our lives: something we never learn, topics that always fascinate, mistakes we always make, concepts that we always struggle to understand.

When I was working on building a relationship with my father he became a common topic in my work. It wasn't conscious initially, I just had him on my mind. Frequently. I sent him every poem I wrote about him except the last two that I wrote when he died. Those poems became portals for us to reach each other. Here is one of them:

A Visit With Grandpa

My kids surround my father

They’ve grown, he’s lost, 3 inches

Photographs pass back and forth

My father’s stories hover over and underneath

Soak into them

A gift of belonging

I pluck at the pictures, hopeful

“He loves me, He loves me not, He loves me…”

He walked with giants and ran with horses

And weathered the ebb and flow of me

Courage passes easily

between them, these people

who bookend me

Things I should say

And questions—unanswerable

Slip back down my throat

And since I cannot do the words

I make a lemon pie.

                              —Michelle Winter

Do you see it? I didn't at first.

The bridge between us, the portal towards one another?

It's in the lemon pie.

Contradictions

This morning I think about gratitude, attending, noticing. These things all imply a posture that leans forward, that bends towards. At the same time I am cultivating an attitude of receiving rather than taking and that implies pulling back, resting, lowering. Just trying to walk through life this week has turned into a workout. How far can I lean into something before it becomes a chase? How far do I pull back before I become absent?

This is Wednesday of Holy Week. The week starts with shouts of joy, and ends with shouts of hate. It starts with a triumphal entry and ends in a disgracing execution. How quickly things turn around completely. 

Contradiction floats over everything right now. Perhaps this is always true. I wrote the poem below during a sermon one Sunday. The Bible uses metaphors and symbols to explain concepts, but sometimes the ancient agricultural symbols can get lost on a modern urban audience. This particular Sunday the sermon explained threshing, the removal of chaff, the papery and insubstantial husk, from grain. All that's important is in the grain. During threshing the seeds were shaken or beaten so as to loosen the husks, then tossed into the air. The wind carried away the chaff, the grain was caught and saved. You can imagine what we were meant to glean from the sermon. However, I found I identified more closely with chaff than grain.

I Am Chaff
I am chaff
A flibberty-gibbet
Whim-minded
Wind guided
Insubstantial
As I tumble in the eddies,
I am dancing on God’s warm sigh.
Joy.
               —Michelle Winter

Perhaps stepping forward and stepping back can become dancing. Perhaps shouting emotionally can become singing. Perhaps contradiction can become poetry.

Poems About Noticing: People

We think we know the people we love just because we love them. The truth is that people carry entire worlds within themselves that we have yet to discover and appreciate. Each person is complex, beautiful and endlessly fascinating. I think that is what God thinks of us as well. One of my favorite moments in the gospels is when Jesus is surprised by the faith of the person in front of him (the centurion). To think that we can surprise God makes me happy.

Here is another poem on noticing. This one is about how we so easily miss what is happening inside the people around us.

On Being Three and Waiting in a Lunch Line
“Pizza-pizza-pizza-pizza-pizza,”
he chants
savoring the sounds with his lips
bouncing the syllables bodily.
“Don’t you want a hot dog?”
asks his wispy mother.
“Um-hmm,” he smiles.
“Two hot dogs,” she orders
from Ted
the hot dog man.
“Pizzapizzapizzapizzapizza,”
the little boy sings
And she wails
as her purse slips off her shoulder
“but this is a hot dog stand
there isn’t any pizza here . . .”
while her joyous boy dances to his own music
          —Michelle Winter

Poems About Noticing: Nature

I am constantly surprised by how little I notice. Perhaps that is why I am so fascinated by the topic. This poem is about mistaking the ordinary for being . . . ordinary.

The Web
It appeared one morning
Knit into the upper left corner
Of the backdoor frame
Pine needle tassels along the side
Preserves hanging like ball fringe from the top
“Why did you knock down the spider web?
It was so beautiful!”
“Oh!” he said, wide-eyed
Examining the loose threads
Body bending into the mystery
 “I didn’t know
that it was beautiful.”
          -Michelle Winter

Holy Hour

A week of noticing. A week of paying attention. Holy ground, holy people, holy moments. Parts of my list are starting to look like poems. Here is one:

Holy Hour
In the calm of night
After the heaviness lifts
And the sounds widen
When everything breathes deep and wise
Dreams no longer hover threateningly,
               but permeate like healing ointment,
I rise and
Barefoot, make pilgrimage to holy ground
There I sit
among the relics of my domestic church
               cracked boots still warm by the woodstove
               a pink oval hula hoop
               a snail shell
               And a smooth rock
I wait
And poems find me.
              ~Michelle Winter

Is there something on your list that wants to become a poem?

The Breath Giver

God breathed Life into me, and yet I know His Presence by the way He steals my breath: 

  • at the beach
  • during a sunset
  • beside a waterfall
  • during a meteor shower
  • at the birth of a lamb
  • when my husband puts his arm around me
  • when my kids laugh

Evidence of the Breath Giver is breath-taking.

You know those moments, you stop for them. You allow yourself to experience the wonder. You receive the gift. These are moments we can't control or command, we can't take them. They are moments that are given and we receive them. This is the foundation of faith--wonder. This is the heart of the psalms, and the heart of so much poetry. We notice the ordinary and we wonder at it.

And that impulse to stop, to breathe it in, to write it down? Another name for that is worship.

I looked up the definition for wonder and it is this:

to be surprised by beauty

And that is exactly what wonder feels like isn't it?

We have been keeping a list of what we notice to be sacred. We started it on the first day of this month, and it is good, right? To unclench ourselves and open our hearts and eyes? To receive the gifts already given? The practice alone is good.

But perhaps we might use our list to write some poetry. Ummmmm, won't that be good too?

Being Lost

Sometimes, for me, getting lost is a spiritual practice. When I start to notice that I am holding things too tightly, overly concerned about order, control, or doing things "right," then I know I need to get lost. The name for this spiritual practice is "Wandering." Centuries ago, Celtic Christians took their wandering very seriously. Today I do this on a much smaller scale. I turn left instead of right, I take paths that are unfamiliar to me. I walk until I don't know where I am anymore.

And yes, sometimes I feel afraid.

It is an opportunity to trust that God never loses me, He always knows where I am and what I need. It is a reminder that I am not in control and that God is never out of control.

Lost
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
                          ~by David Wagoner

Noticing the Way Marks

Before I left for the pilgrimage in Spain I had heard that the way would be clearly marked. No one said exactly what those marks would look like, just that they would be obvious. It turns out that every district along The Way keeps its own way marks, so they all look different. And yet they were similar enough to easily recognize and follow.

After the resurrection, Mary Magdalene went back and looked into the tomb. Just as trauma survivors do, she had to look again at the place of intense trauma. And the tomb was empty.

But, wait.

No, it wasn't empty. It was filled with memories of the horror and grief of the past few days, but it also housed the sacred. What she found there were way markers pointing to evidence of God's presence, Christ Himself.

Today I hold my tender places in God's gaze and ask Him to reveal for me the way marks hidden in my memories. Lord, where were you in those times of trial? Show me where the tomb of grief houses what is sacred.

Today I add to my Sacred List: The hospice room where my father died two years ago. It was truly a place of grief touching the sacred.

Poetry For Saying Stuff

What is a poem? When I was in college I had an entire textbook dedicated to answering that question. Honestly, I still can't answer it. Not reliably. My answer changes with the weather . . . or the tides.

But ultimately, one of the reasons poetry is relevant in every age is because it is a curated voice. We are respectful of the form, careful with the genre. We want to use it to say stuff, but after we have placed our guts neatly onto the page we always ask each other timidly, "Did I write a good poem?" Which means that we are curating the way we shape the invisible. We want to speak the underlying Truth of Things.

Here Andrea Gibson has given voice to a girl bullied on the playground. This voice is graceful and strong, not the voice of a victim. The poet reads her poem in the clip below and the sound gives shape to courage. The video is of 13 year old dancer, Nataly Santiago, who embodies the poem. The words, sound and movement speak the underlying Truth of Things. From the outside it might look like we are in opposition on the playground, but actually, we are two persons. Write back soon.

Here is the transcript from the clip:

A LETTER TO THE PLAYGROUND BULLY, FROM ANDREA, AGE 8 ½
maybe there are cartwheels in your mouth
maybe your words will grow up to be gymnasts
maybe you have been kicking people with them by accident
I know some people get a whole lot of rocking in the rocking chair
and the ones who don't sometimes get rocks in their voice boxes,
and their voice boxes become slingshots.
maybe you think my heart looks like a baby squirrel.
but guess what? you absolutely missed when you told the class I have head lice
because guess what? I one hundred percent absolutely do not have head lice
and even if I do
it is a fact that head lice prefer clean heads over dirty ones
so I am clean as a whistle on a tea pot.
my mother says it is totally fine if I blow off steam
as long as i speak in an octave my kindness can still reach.
my kindness knows mermaids never ever miss their legs in the water
cause there are better ways to move through an ocean than kicking.
so guess what,
if I ever have my own team
I am picking everyone first
even the worst kid
and the kid with the stutter like a skipping record
cause I know all of us are scratched,
even if you can't hear it when we speak.
my mother says most people have heartbeats
that are knocking on doors that will never ever open,
and I know my heart is a broken freezer chest
that's why I can't keep anything frozen.
so no, I am not always crying.
I am just thawing outside of the lines.
and even if I am always crying
it is a fact
that salt is the only reason
everything floats so good in the dead sea.
and just cause no one ever passes notes to me
doesn't mean I am not super duper.
in fact, my super duper might be a buoy or a paper boat
the next time your nose is stuck up the river
'cause it is a fact
that our hearts stop for a mili-second every time we sneeze
and some people's houses have too much dust.
so maybe sometime if somebody would sit beside me on the bus
and I could say,
guess what, it is a fact that manatees have vocal chords
but do not have ears.
just like Beethoven made music
even when he could no longer hear.
and I know every belt that has hit someone's back
is still a belt that was built to hold something up.
and it is fact that Egyptians slept on pillows made of stone
but it's not hard for me to dream
that maybe one day you'll write me back
like the day I wrote the lightening bug to say,
I smashed my mason jar and I threw away the lid.
I didn't want to take a chance that I'd grow up to be a war.
I want to be a belly dance or an accordion or a pogo stick
or the fingerprints the mason left
in the mortar between the bricks
to prove that he was here,
that he built a roof over someone's head
to keep the storm from their faith,
my mother says that's why we all were born.
and I think she's right.
so write back soon.
sincerely yours.
~Andrea Gibson, 2010

Sacred Sounds

A few years ago I started listening for the silence between sounds. It is an interesting exercise to listen for the pause in birdsong, or the space between waves coming and going at the beach. There is an intimacy in it, almost like hearing the earth breathe, like sitting next to someone while he sleeps. There is a sacred immensity to it, like being invited into someone's vulnerability.

Poetry sounds. If poetry and prayer are about paying attention with my whole self, then what would I hear if I listened with my entirety? What is a holy sound?

This morning as I walk I listen. I listen for the sound of the sacred. I wonder what it will be, what might stand out as holy noise. No place is truly silent and today there is much to hear.

I listen hard, I listen intentionally . . . until I forget I am listening. I'm not sure when it happens. I was so determined to listen well, but there are smells and sights and the chilly air is invigorating and . . . my concentration evaporates completely.

And then, when I am not listening at all, I hear it. And it shocks me.

It is the sound of my breath. My own breathing.

Part of me can't accept it and I wrestle with the idea as I walk. Is it ok to put myself on my Sacred List? Am I really holy? Though it is not difficult for me to see some one else as sacred, the thought of seeing myself that way is somehow terrifying.

It's not until I'm home, fumbling with my pen, slowly printing my name on my list, that I realize my cheeks are wet.

How is your Sacred List coming along? Each day for the month of April I am looking for the holy in my life. Join me?

The Hundred Names of Love

We are celebrating National Poetry Month and today I get to introduce you to one of my favorite contemporary poets.

I had the immense pleasure of meeting Annie Lighthart several years ago. She is a generous and genuine soul. I love all of her poetry, but I wanted to share this one with you because it illustrates "Noticing the Sacred" which is where my heart is right now. I remember those exhausting early days of parenting, waking up in the middle of the night to the cry of a child. These moments become luminescent when Annie shines a light on them, helping us to notice the sacred in the ordinary.

The Hundred Names of Love
The children have gone to bed.
We are so tired we could fold ourselves neatly
behind our eyes and sleep mid-word, sleep standing
warm among the creatures in the barn, lean together
and sleep, forgetting each other completely in the velvet,
the forgiveness of that sleep.
Then the one small cry:
one strike of the match-head of sound:
one child’s voice:
and the hundred names of love are lit
as we rise and walk down the hall.
One hundred nights we wake like this,
wake out of our nowhere
to kneel by small beds in darkness.
One hundred flowers open in our hands,
a name for love written in each one.
~Annie Lighthart

Want more? She has a beautiful book of poems here.

And her website is here.

Noticing the Sacred

I went for a walk in September last year. I walked and prayed for over 200 miles.

And I wondered, What if Jesus Christ really is The Way?

Not just the goal. No. What if He is the road we walk? What if He carries us continuously? Wouldn't that mean that everywhere I step is Holy Ground? What would my life look like if I lived that way?

Today is the first day of National Poetry Month. I challenge you, and I challenge myself, to notice the sacred in today. The essence of poetry is the same as the essence of prayer--paying attention with your entirety. What if you are standing, right now, on Holy Ground? What if you treated the person in front of you as Holy? What if this moment, this object, this...This was sacred?

My Sacred List for the month of April begins with these:

1. Warmth and the smell of applewood just beginning to push back the cold in the morning, thanks to the hands of my beloved who rose before me and braved the cold floor to make a fire.

2. A text--a smiley emoticon from my 19 year old son away at college.

3. My yoga mat. It used to belong to my father, now I use it to connect my spirit to my body and to pray for the people with whom God populates my heart while I'm stretching.

What's on your list? I would love a glimpse into your sacred life if you are willing to share in the comments.

Thank you. And. Happy National Poetry Month!

The Visitation: An Interview with Artist James Janknegt

This Advent I have been captivated by Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary. I am drawn to her circumstances, but also very much to the wisdom and mystery of her. I know what it is to struggle with infertility and then to be surprised by Life. The other things? The patience, kindness, and strength...they elude me. I have spent this season asking God how to lean into Elizabethness, and the asking brought a delightful gift.

I discovered this painting by James Janknegt aptly titled The Visitation. Every time I look at it I make a new discovery and I find that this story is settling into my bones. The painter describes his work as "contemporary icons," scriptural truth in a modern setting. I asked him if I could interview him for this blog. I wanted to share his work with you. It is my deep pleasure to invite you into my conversation with James Janknegt:

The Visitation by James B. Janknegt • oil/canvas • 18”x36” • 2008

The Visitation by James B. Janknegt • oil/canvas • 18”x36” • 2008

Michelle: Why do you paint?

James Janknegt: I always wanted to be an artist. I feel like being a painter is my vocation. I originally struggled with the idea when I first became a Christian when I was 17. I didn’t know of any contemporary artists who were Christians and I wasn’t sure that being a painter was a valid pursuit. I had a mystical experience while browsing through a Salvador Dali book in a mall bookstore. I opened the book to his painting of St. John of the Cross and I felt God speak to me in that clear, inaudible voice that to be a painter was my vocation. Ever since then I have pursued that with all my heart.

M: Why paint icons?

JJ: I don’t think to be a Christian and an artist one must paint religious work. Any kind of expression of creativity is a participation in the creative work of God. But around 2000 I decided that I would only paint religious work. I think it was a bit like, “If you were going to die and could only paint one painting what would you paint?”  I admitted that my faith was the center of my life that everything else revolved around, so why wasn’t I making paintings about that? I mean, it is the “greatest story every told” and I think every generation deserves to have that story told in the vernacular of their own time. So that is what I set out to do: paint religious paintings in the spirit of the great religious painters of the medieval world but in a contemporary way.

Art is about incarnating ideas, putting flesh and bones on stories.
— James Janknegt

M: I think that was what first captured me about this painting, the story is told in the vernacular of my time. The personalities are recognizable but made even more familiar by the setting. I notice that you have several different pieces on the topic of The Visitation. What is it about this event that continues to captivate you? 

JJ: The visitation is one of the first powerful windows looking into the incarnation. As soon as Jesus is conceived, Mary goes to her cousin Elizabeth who is already six months pregnant with John. Both John and Elizabeth acknowledge the presence of Jesus as the Messiah, John by jumping in the womb of Elizabeth and Elizabeth by prophesying full of the Holy Spirit, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” That the Creator of the universe consents to spend nine months in the womb of a woman is mind boggling. It reminds me of the passage in Philippians 2:

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

M: Your work is so impacted by your faith, do you find the reverse to be true? How does art impact your faith?

JJ: I love art history and love going to museums. I also love looking at art books. I used to go to the art library when I was in school and just roam up and down the aisles pulling out art books and looking at them. I particularly am drawn to religious art. Just as the visitation speaks so powerfully about the incarnation, likewise art is about incarnating ideas, putting flesh and bones on stories. When I see a work of art that takes the abstract forms: lines, colors, shapes and values and weaves them into a composition that visually speaks the same thing that the story is telling, I am deeply moved. One of my favorite artists is Ben Shahn who wrote a book called The Shape of Content. His point is that the formal elements of a work of art are what tells the story. The shapes, lines, color and composition are what speak on a deep level to the viewer. If the artist is just concerned with “ telling the story,” without telling the story through the visual elements what you end up with is bad Sunday School illustrations.

M: What role does contemplation, observation or paying attention play in your work?

JJ: I hope that my work is a combination of deep study of the scripture, informed by the teaching of the Church along with a deep visual understanding of the world around me. I am not trying to recreate 1st century Jerusalem in my paintings. I try, through prayerful study of the scripture, to understand it in the context of the original culture in which it was written. Then I attempt to translate that into contemporary visual American life. So, the paintings end up being a blend of the objective truth of scripture and the subjective experience of my life.

Thank you James!

James Janknegt is a prolific painter! Many of his paintings (including the one above) are available as prints. Do visit his website: www.bcartfarm.com


If you would like to use James' work as a starting point for worship, choose a time and place free of distractions. It can be helpful to some people to journal during this exercise. If you are one of these people, be ready with paper and pen (but also be willing to put your pen down when needed). Scroll through his various pieces (click here to find them) and notice which one you are drawn to. Click on it to enlarge and then prayerfully consider the piece. Use the following questions as a guide as long as they serve you:

Why am I drawn to this piece?

Consider/journal what it is about this work that draws you to it at this moment.

Ask the Holy Spirit to make connections for you, to form a prayer in you.

Listen. If you find that your mind has wandered, take a moment to offer that stray thought to the Lord, and then settle back into a listening posture.

Give yourself some time to ponder the experience. Give yourself at least 24 hours. Then consider these questions:

Was this a new experience for you?

Did you notice any resistance to the exercise? Where do you think that came from?

In what ways were you called?

Can you use this technique of noticing what draws your attention, asking the Holy Spirit what He might have for you, in another context during your day?

Once you start to practice noticing and listening, it will become a habit. It will become a way of "praying without ceasing."

Homing Instinct

Is it faith
In the stories
Passed through generations,
One freckled butterfly
To the next
That carries them brave
Over seething seas?
Is it hope
In the fragrant fields or
The promise of nectar
Sweet for their children
That steers their purposeful wanderings?
 
Is it devotion
That tethers the bee to her hive,
That enables her to carry
Four miles of heathered hills,
lilac and clover
inside her brain the size
of a grass seed?
 
How do Jews always know where Jerusalem is?
How do Muslims know which way to turn
To face Mecca?
Most of the time, I don’t even know where I am or
Where I’m going
Let alone the direction of
My hidden home.
                              —Michelle Winter

Shimmering Contrasts, India Part 9

Speeding through the streets of colorful metropolitan Kolkata, we slow down and stop near the hippodrome to let a small flock of about fifty goats cross the street. Through the car window I watch a man in a bright orange tunic and pants, wearing a turban and carrying a mat under his right arm walk out onto a nearby soccer field. He is not bothered by the two dozen men chasing a ball up and down the green. He walks into their midst, opens his mat and sits. He is an orange beacon in a green sea and the soccer game parts around him, continues almost uninterrupted, different cultures occupying the same space.

This week we take two mornings to visit freedom businesses. These are businesses that exist to give people work, choices, and dignity. The two businesses we visit are specifically aimed at releasing women caught in the sex trade.

The first one we visit partly because we are considering using them for t-shirts. Shandra wants me to make a logo that can be used on t-shirts that will be sold to raise funds. To do this I need to understand what this company can and cannot do. The company is called FreeSet and you can find them online here: http://freesetglobal.com/

I meet the art-prepareres, the color-mixers (with their rings of Pantone color cards!), the fabric cutters and shirt-assemblers, and then I buy several t-shirts. I want to know how much drape there is in the cloth after it is printed. I am delighted to say that these shirts become personal favorites. They are soft and maintain their hand.

The logo I dream for the House of Light Project incorporates these things: a flame in an Indian-like pattern because their word for light is the same as their word for flame, a house within the flame and the word jyoti (flame) in Hindi inside the house. The house is filled with light and it emanates light. Beneath the flame is the website address where people can donate to the project. It is a little website I set up for them that they will maintain as they grow. The donation portal goes through Cru, which is the established and highly regarded non-profit that employs the feisty Shandra. The address is: houseoflightindia.com

The second freedom business we visit is Sari Bari. I have loved their products for many years, and we think it might be a good connection for the nuns at the House of Light. Sari Bari creates products--mostly blankets and bags--from used saris and straight stitching called kantha embroidery. The atmosphere among the women in the workplace is one of easy camaraderie and dedication to the work. There is something light and beautiful about the place. It feels like an oasis. You can find them online here: http://saribari.com/

Sister Dorothy, the smallest, youngest and newest sister in the house, comes with us to our meeting with the president of the company. One day I will create art to honor this most amazing woman. She does everything with her whole heart. This earnest woman, speaks to a tall, quiet earnest man with a heart for justice, peace and healing. I watch God stitch the ends of their fabrics together as they speak and I still don't know how He does it. Words are insufficient to describe that afternoon as we sit cross-legged together, grateful for the mats beneath us and the kindred spirits before us.

Sacred ground in the middle of the largest sex trade district in India.

Different cultures occupying the same space.