Art for Personal Devotion

Where Are You?

In October, I invited artists in the area to an Art and Soul Challenge:

The first question God asks of man in the Bible is found in Genesis. He asks, "Where are you?" For this Art and Soul Challenge, I invite you to consider how you would answer this question right now, and how you could depict your answer visually. Use any medium you like, as long as your piece arrives to me ready to hang.

I was reading Trevor Hudson's Questions God Asks Us and it felt like an invitation to walk with God. I thought that a group show would be more effective than a solo show because a variety of answers, methods and viewpoints might make it more likely that a viewer would feel drawn into the conversation. I wanted people to go home thinking about how they might answer God's question themselves.  

The show was up October 20th to December 1st. It was such an interesting mix of new and practiced artists.

I want to share two emails (of many) I received from participating artists because they illustrate what I consider to be the goal of art in the church. I reprint them here with permission. The first email is from DN, a practiced artist, who I am just getting to know and love:

I had fun and it did open some things for me. I "got" the picture in my head.  Hiding in the Garden of Eden....The cross....No longer needing to hide.  But my plan was to put little bandaids or black strips across my figure in several places to symbolize that there are things that I take back, things that I still try to hide from God.  Sins.  But when I put them on the figure, they marred it. The truth was that in my eyes I am marred but in God's eyes he sees me whole and beautiful, His bride.  I made the figure out of paper I marbled.  When I looked at the finished figure, I saw a person full of this gorgeous and flowing creativity and, for the first time, I felt like I saw myself as God saw me and as how He designed/created me.  I saw myself dancing, worshipping.  When God asks, "Where are you?" I heard myself answer.  "I am here Lord.  Speak -- for your servant is listening." This ended up being a profound experience for me.

This second email is from a new artist, MS, who wrote up her experience with this process. Her honesty and vulnerability touch me:

I paint watercolors. Most people don’t know that about me. Well, technically I try to paint watercolors. I dream of painting, but it is a struggle for me. I know many people who are so talented and can lay down these beautiful strokes of a brush with fabulous hues and create these amazing paintings. I find it crazy stressful! Staring at a quarter sheet of 140lb Arches paper, better known as a thick piece of 15x22 paper, can bring such fear. The wonderful lady I have taken some classes from says to herself each time she starts, ‘Going in.’ I tend to think, ‘Oh crap, time to start.’

For me, painting brings up a mix of emotions. I love part of it and hate part of it. I love the colors and interaction of the paint when it hits the paper--how it can swirl and create these patterns that are amazing. The outcome will be different if you put it down on a dry sheet of paper or if you get the sheet wet first. But the imaginative things I see in my head die a quick and sudden death when I try to put them on paper. My brain and my hand are definitely not creatively attached. Heaven forbid I actually do paint a section I like because then I am frozen thinking at any moment I could do something that will ruin the little bit of good I have done. I don’t finish many paintings. I can’t get past the roadblocks in my head.

Life can be kind of like that though. Some of us struggle day after day, trying to do what is right and often failing. But every once in a while, we have a moment where everything comes together. What follows is the fear that our next step could undo all the positive we have done.

Recently, I was included in an email that went out asking people if they wanted to contribute to an art display we were going to have here at the church. We were to answer the question, ‘Where are you?’ in response to God asking that of Adam and Eve in the garden. Where are you right now and how would you depict your answer visually? Better yet, how on earth had I got on that email list?! It had to be a mistake. Well- turns out it wasn’t. After much tossing and turning and turmoil I decided to try. I only told one other person who also paints. That way if I chickened out, only she would know.

Fail, fail, fail. I tried going with the idea that I am still trying to find my wings. I tried a little hummingbird and a dragonfly but I just got stuck. I even tried a little koi fish thinking I could go with a fish out of water theme. Kinda fitting, right? Fail again. That little voice in my head that always says "you are not good enough" was throwing a party. As the days drew closer, I had already decided to quit about 20 times. How could I turn something in when I was so terrible at it? No one would want to see it. Trust me on that one.

A couple days before I needed to turn it in, I was chatting with a friend. We were laughing about how great it is that God isn’t finished with us. We are a work in progress.  Then it clicked. My paintings are like me. Unfinished. So I closed my eyes and turned in all three that I had struggled with.

Unfinished
By Melissa Skeels
Watercolor
'I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.’ Philippians 1:6 NRSV
I am a beautiful work of art in process by God’s grace as He continues to add to my palette with new hues of color while softening my edges, adjusting my perspective, and allowing me to take shape.

It was done, I was done, and I was never going to go through all that ‘turning in a painting’ stress again. Oh- and to make it even better, everyone else’s that were now hanging in the church were these beautiful paintings.

Well, it turns out I was wrong. Today I received an email, “Hi Melissa— your hummingbird blessed my friend today. She talked about going to an aviary in Arizona where hummingbirds fly freely. She plans to go there this week as a treat to remind her about God’s love. We talked about it in the hallway. Then when she was leaving she noticed your bird and said, “isn’t God so good— here I was just talking about hummingbirds and here is a beautiful painting of one.” Thought you would like that and I was thinking...I would love to give your painting to her. Would you be willing to sell it? I know you talked about doing more to it but I think it is lovely just as it is.”

So yeah, that made my cry. My hours of struggle were used in some little way by God. I know that shouldn’t be surprising since God uses people all the time. But I work behind the scenes so I don’t usually get to see my involvement in it. But God is working in us and through us every day. Whether we notice it or feel it or even get to hear about it, He is still there. Shaping and molding. Best of all He promises to keep doing a good work in us until Jesus returns. Thank goodness, right?!

Yes, I plan to keep struggling and painting. Maybe one day it will start getting easier. But maybe it isn’t supposed to get easier. Maybe striving is the point.

Maybe. I think for me, engagement is the point, and I think all the artists who participated gave us that gift. Their willingness to engage their strengths and weaknesses, fears and faith, with God and people through art blessed them, blessed the congregation and blessed me. And, I'm pretty sure God was smiling too.

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?

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.

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."

All That Is Seen

I live in rural Oregon. Everyone out here has a dog. Most have several. We have herding dogs, leading dogs, guardians, hunters, nannies and friends. The commands we use to train them are all different, reflecting both the dog's job and the owner's personality. Except for one command. And we use it often, for all sorts of reasons. We all have taught our dogs this one command, "Go home."

That one command, "Go home," resets everything. The dog calms down and turns towards home. It is almost magical. This week's verse is from Matthew:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. ~Matthew 11:28-30

There are so many ways to rest in God. I have spent much of the past two months working on a fiber art piece. I first mentioned it here. A lot of soul work went into this piece. By the time I was ready to finish piecing the eyes, I was ready to be seen. Wanted to be seen. Knew I was seen. And loved anyways. I worked slowly on the face, but this week I was suddenly impatient to do the eyes. I finished the piecing today:

Art Quilt All That is Seen

Now it's time to sew it all down and embroider the eyebrows and eyelashes. I don't know how it looks to anyone else, but what I see in this piece is acceptance, kindness, gentleness, Home.

House of Prayer

A few years ago, after reading in the book of Mark, I became fascinated with the cleansing of the Temple.

Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a den of thieves. ~Mark 11:17

I have long been fascinated by this passage because it is the only recorded instance of violence by the Prince of Peace. Jesus was certainly controversial, He didn’t shrink from telling the truth. There were so many things he spoke for and against, taught about good and evil; but the situation in the Temple incited righteous anger. This was not a spontaneous outburst of rage, it was a methodical vandalism, a purposeful cleansing. It seems so incongruous, doesn't it? And yet, this moment has been a bridge for me between God in the Old Testament and God in the New Testament. It has helped me to see that God's concern for His people is deep and wild.

There is so much I don’t understand about this passage, but I do know that in this moment, I am His House. I know that I am to be called a house of prayer.

I entered this project with these questions: Am I a house of prayer? Or am I a den of thieves? How can my body be a den of thieves? Am I self-seeking? Am I a life-giver by my words and actions? Or a life-stealer in word and deed? What qualifies a temple to be called a “house of prayer?

I created this piece a few years ago, but it seemed appropriate to share it here now as we have been exploring the concept of Sanctuary over at His Kingdom Come this month.

I wanted to connect the stone House of Prayer to the corporeal House of Prayer, so I tried to incorporate components reminiscent of construction materials. The fabric print is "stoney."

I found the central image online. This was the first time I used a photo reference that was not my own. I spoke here about the only other time I have used some one else's photo as a reference. This is how I learned that I am not happy with the results when I do that. I feel I am not speaking my own story, which is the only story I really know. It is a great photo. The information attached to the photograph says the photographer's name is Peter Brutsch. Her posture says "house of prayer." I enlarged the photo and traced it onto the back of some contact paper. I cut it out and applied it to a large screen. The paint is Golden heavy body acrylics in burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw umber and fabric medium. I completely mixed the fabric medium with the raw umber and burnt sienna, but left some blobs of burnt umber unmixed. This produced a kind of striated effect when I pulled the paint through the screen that almost gives the impression of wood grain. 

Then I screen-printed some gold dots in the space above and around the figure (I've added arrows to help you see them as they are hard to see in this photo). These dots represent God's voice in the prayerful conversation.

Next, I added some free motion quilted stones for her to kneel upon.

Here I've added her portion of the conversation with God as hand embroidered random straight stitch that raises up from her spirit. I used different colors (red, tan and white) for different types of communication. I've sewn frayed organza (in Bordeaux, I believe) to either side of the space above the figure. This symbolizes the torn veil from the Temple. Because the veil is torn, the flow of communication is open. 

I layered various fabric prints that had a construction material-feel to them.

And here (sorry for the poor picture) is the completed piece. I sewed across the strips and caught some of the layers into the horizontal stitching to reveal other layers below. I did this for several reasons: I wanted more texture, more visual interest, I wanted to think about the many layers of the Veil, how my body has become a House of Prayer and the wild ways God guards this temple. The edges are unfinished and the piece is sewn to a section of copper pipe using thin wire.


Remembering Sanctuary

The week before Easter I started a small fiber piece that I titled "He Is Alive!" I knew what I wanted to do and I thought I could be done by Easter. That was five weeks ago. Every time I work on this piece time slows. I spend hours working and when I look up, I have made almost no progress. This piece refuses to be hurried, and I have finally surrendered to it. Here is the picture I took of it two weeks ago:

 

Here is what it looks like today:

 

See? Slow going.

More confessions:

  1. I knew what I wanted the piece to be. Eyes are such a metaphor for Life. I didn't want an entire face. That would be entering territory I wasn't prepared to enter. I don't know what Jesus looked like and I don't want to speculate at this time. I just wanted eyes. But, once I got started I was afraid of them. As you can see here, I have saved the eyes for last. Honestly, I did everything else first because I felt vulnerable under that gaze. In fact, the thought made me so uncomfortable that I was forced to really consider what I might be trying to hide from God. I worked on the piece with this question hovering near. It has been an interesting month.
  2. I wanted to do this piece using solid cottons because I didn't want the skin color to be obvious--Christ belongs to us all-- and because I wanted to do some hand embroidering. I couldn't pull this off. Turns out I am so addicted to printed cottons that I cannot get through a project without them. [Sigh]. This is going to seriously limit the hand stitching fun I was hoping to have.
  3. This stubborn little piece has reminded me why I love to do this. I am so enjoying every minute spent on it. This is worship for me. This is play. This is healing. This is good.

A friend asked me not too long ago how I manage to "do it all" (which I don't, by the way). This quiet making, this is Sanctuary. God is here. We meet. Talk. Argue. Lean in. Rest. Renew. Here. Sanctuary.

Studies for The Garden: Sketch for the Left Panel

This week, I have been reading and studying. In addition to reading commentaries on this pivotal moment, I have been looking for symbolism that will underscore what is happening in the Garden. Below is a working sketch:

 
 The tangle of branches in the sky is a symbol for struggle. I am going to enlarge that section and write Christ's prayer for unity into the sky. I'll slide the sleeping guy up about an inch (he symbolizes those who don't see the point in being watchful and make themselves comfortable while they wait) and slide the guy on the far left down and to the left about 2 inches so that the disciples form more of a curved line (the seated guys tried to stay awake but could not). This sketch will form the top 3 feet of a 10 foot panel. The rest of the panel will be stones. The stones are symbols of the Temple. The wall is crumbly as the old is giving way to the new. There will be deep browns and greens peeking out from underneath and between the stones because there is Life in God's way whether it is old or new.  I am also going to slide the drooping brome grass (isn't that a great name, especially for those drooping disciples?!) down to about the halfway mark of the length of the panel so it appears to be closer to the viewer and lighter. That will let me make it more colorful.

The tangle of branches in the sky is a symbol for struggle. I am going to enlarge that section and write Christ's prayer for unity into the sky. I'll slide the sleeping guy up about an inch (he symbolizes those who don't see the point in being watchful and make themselves comfortable while they wait) and slide the guy on the far left down and to the left about 2 inches so that the disciples form more of a curved line (the seated guys tried to stay awake but could not). This sketch will form the top 3 feet of a 10 foot panel. The rest of the panel will be stones. The stones are symbols of the Temple. The wall is crumbly as the old is giving way to the new. There will be deep browns and greens peeking out from underneath and between the stones because there is Life in God's way whether it is old or new.  I am also going to slide the drooping brome grass (isn't that a great name, especially for those drooping disciples?!) down to about the halfway mark of the length of the panel so it appears to be closer to the viewer and lighter. That will let me make it more colorful.

 

My library had a dozen or so interesting books on the events of Holy Week. The two most enlightening books so far are Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week by Pope Benedict XVI and Tell It Slant by Eugene Peterson. Here is an excerpt from Peterson's chapter on the Garden of Gethsemane:

A few hours before Jesus is hanging on the cross in agony, he is in agony praying in Gethsemane, The two agonies are the same Agony. The agony is given a name: "this cup." A cup holds liquid that is drunk. The peculiar property of the cup is that we hold it with our hands, put it to our lips, tip it into our mouths, and swallow the contents. It requires taking the contents into our entire digestive system, distributing them throughout the muscles and bones, red blood cells and nerve ganglia. The cup is a container from which we take something that is not us into our lives so that it becomes us, enters into our living.

The cup that Jesus holds in his hand in Gethsemane that night is God's will--God's will to save the world in a final act of sacrificial love. The cup that Jesus drinks is a sacrificial death in which Jesus freely takes sin and evil into himself, absorbs it in his soul, and makes salvation out of it--drinks it down as if from a cup. Jesus' name is, translated into English, "Yahweh saves." As Jesus drinks the cup, he becomes his name.

I am struck by the deliberateness in Christ's choice. He very consciously chooses surrender and all that it entails. Pope Benedict discusses Jesus' humanity and struggle and says this: Just as Jesus will take all of our sin onto/into himself to redeem us, at this moment in the garden the totality of our "resistance to God is present within Jesus himself. The obstinacy of us all, the whole of our opposition to God is present, and in his struggle, Jesus elevates our recalcitrant nature to become its real self." Essentially, Jesus is wrestling not just his own very human battle with fear, but also he has begun to take on our sin and he is wrestling with our collective NO to God. His obedience "draws us all into sonship."

One of my stretching disciplines is a prayer of surrender. I have been intentionally choosing surrender the past five weeks. I can't really claim success. It's hard. Very hard. I am a fighter. I want my way. I want control. This week, I choose to stop looking at (and judging) the disciples and turn my gaze fully on Christ surrendering in the garden. I want to look with my eyes wide open. With my hands open. With my heart open.

Take Me Deeper: Journey to the Cross and Studies for the Garden

I am taking some liberties with the study at His Kingdom Come's Take Me Deeper Project. The theme for the month of March is Journey to the Cross, and I have decided to focus on that broad theme rather than work on each week's individual verse. I want to give myself some space to work on the Garden of Gethsemane piece (which I introduced here)

Much of this week was spent pondering. Jesus went a stone's throw away from the disciples. Exactly how far away is a stone's throw? We threw a lot of stones this week. I also consulted google. The question still plagues me. A stone's throw is mostly used as a metaphorical distance to mean not very far. The same person can say, "The grocery store is a stone's throw away from the house," and mean 6+ blocks away, and then in the same conversation say, "My sister was only a stone's throw away from me when she was mugged," and mean about 2-3 feet away. So, how far away from Jesus were the disciples, and more importantly, could they see and hear Him clearly? 

I played around with where to put the disciples in relation to Christ and the viewer. I thought about putting them in the foreground because they are us. How many times has He asked us to stay with Him? To remain with Him? To watch and pray? And yet we fall asleep, just like the disciples did. But, I decided to put them in the background to give the viewer a chance to say yes to God. If I leave the foreground empty, with nothing between Christ and the viewer, then we are invited into the moment. We can listen to His request for our companionship, and we have the opportunity to engage. So, I am now planning 3 panels for this piece, a large center panel with Christ in the mid-ground, a skinny left panel with the disciples in the background and a skinny right panel that is empty of figures and invites the viewer to step into the story. 

I also did some rust dyeing experiments. I want to use cloth dyed with rusty nails somewhere in this series, so I played around with it. It wasn't about the rust, so much as the nails. I only used nails (ok, there might have been a couple of screws in the pile). I asked my son to bring me some rusty nails from the barn (barns are good for rusting things):

 
 To wash or not to wash, that is the question. I ended up just blowing the big dust and leaves off and leaving the rest of the dirt alone.

To wash or not to wash, that is the question. I ended up just blowing the big dust and leaves off and leaving the rest of the dirt alone.

 
 I rolled rusty nails into bundles, wrapped a piece of rusty fence wire around one of them and soaked them in vinegar. This is stage one, less than 24 hours after dousing in vinegar.

I rolled rusty nails into bundles, wrapped a piece of rusty fence wire around one of them and soaked them in vinegar. This is stage one, less than 24 hours after dousing in vinegar.

 A few days later, the fabric is almost ready!

A few days later, the fabric is almost ready!

 Isn't this great?! I love how it turned out! It is slightly more brown in real life.

Isn't this great?! I love how it turned out! It is slightly more brown in real life.

 I think I will use this one as part of Christ's robe in a later Station. I love the folds and wrinkles.

I think I will use this one as part of Christ's robe in a later Station. I love the folds and wrinkles.

The rust dyeing project was simple and satisfying. I can see lots of rust dyeing in my future. I usually limit my dyeing projects to the summertime when I can work outside. This project was easily manageable indoors.

I still have a few more details to audition before I launch into building the quilt. A little more studying, a little more pondering, a little more experimenting...

Take Me Deeper: Love Yourself and Studies for the Garden

This week at His Kingdom Come the verse is about loving yourself. We are supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves, so how do we love ourselves?

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away;
behold, new things have come. ~ 2 Cor 2:17

But how do I draw out this new creation? How do I participate in uncovering me? Years ago I took a class called Equipping Caregivers. The first trimester the focus was on learning about yourself so that you could get out of the way of the Holy Spirit working through you to encourage and love the person in front of you. I learned a bit about my weaknesses and the areas of particular temptation. Lately, I have been reading about specific spiritual disciplines that stretch and nurture my personality type. I decided to spend the week loving myself by encouraging myself to stretch and grow.

One of my nurturing disciplines is to worship through creativity (surprise!). I have been wanting to explore the Scriptural Stations of the Cross more deeply and took advantage of this week to do so. The first station is Jesus Prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. My plan is to create a piece that, when hung at eye level, will pile onto the floor, and is wide enough that the viewer can imagine participating in the scene.

I love Christ's prayer recorded in John chapter 17 because He is praying for unity of all believers. Unity is what I have actively prayed for the past 15 years. It is a deep heart desire. I know I need to include the words of the prayer in the air around the central figure.

 
 

I found this hymn and have been playing it over and over this week. These are Christ's words to his disciples: Stay with me, wait with me, watch and pray.

In the Garden in Genesis, God walks with Adam. And when Adam sins, God goes to him. He calls to him, "Where have you gone?" In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ asks his friends to walk with Him, to keep Him company. God desires our companionship. Singing this hymn all week has torn at my heart. God desires my companionship. He wants me to stay with Him and that is my deepest desire as well.

It is this moment in the Garden, when He asks his friends to stay with Him and they fall asleep, that has always made me sad. We just don't get it. We can't see what's coming. We don't understand him. We don't--we can't--understand what's at stake. It feels so very lonely. His Father has already started to withdraw Himself from His Son...and yet, he sends a sacred presence to comfort Him. I want to show that Presence as wind. My friend Valerie is smiling right now because she knows that wind is hard for me to depict. I can show some movement of his hair, perhaps some movement in the grass; but, what I really want is to create leaves that rustle. I tried several different materials, and I am not sure I've made a decision, but I like these leaves:

 They are cut from fabric, soaked in GAC-400, and dried. I left them on the rim of a coated paper plate as they dried so they would have some shape. I tried embossing the leaves on the left with copper embossing powder and I don't think I like those as well as the plain ones.

They are cut from fabric, soaked in GAC-400, and dried. I left them on the rim of a coated paper plate as they dried so they would have some shape. I tried embossing the leaves on the left with copper embossing powder and I don't think I like those as well as the plain ones.

 Here are my crispy leaves on the fabric I've chosen for "dusk." I will build a palette around this gray-blue to depict early evening.

Here are my crispy leaves on the fabric I've chosen for "dusk." I will build a palette around this gray-blue to depict early evening.

This is a long project, but I'm not in a hurry. Immersing myself in this study is nurturing to me. When I come up for air, I feel healthier, filled up, better equipped to love.

Take Me Deeper: Love Your Neighbor

This week at His Kingdom Come, the study is about loving your neighbor. There are many verses about this in the Bible. All of them are commands, not suggestions. That's how they are framed--as commands or commandments. It's interesting isn't it? Why would it be so important to both repeat and command us to LOVE each other? We are told to forgive, to love our neighbors, to love our enemies and to love one another over and over again. Here are the verses for this week:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. ~John 13:34-35

I find that I am particularly bad at this. When my feelings are hurt I tend to withdraw. Forgiving is hard work. Repetitive work. My memory is long and I have to continually forgive and re-forgive before the hurt works it's way out of me. This makes me hesitant to engage with others. I am afraid. There. I said it.

But, this is a command. Loving. Engaging.

I prayed about this on my daily walk this week. The Lord had mercy on me. He started me out small. He brought people to mind. People I know and love already and people I don't know yet, but find I love through Him. Each day I asked Him to show me my "neighbor" and to speak to my heart. I made several fabric postcards this week. This week the Holy Spirit brought to mind people who are pursuing Him, people who are struggling, people who are sorrowing, people who fear, and people who are courageous. And as He brought them to my mind, He embedded them in my heart.

He taught me about surrender again this week. In order to get so many little fiber projects out I had to surrender my perfectionism and my ideal vision. That is difficult for me, and so I had to constantly think about surrendering while I was working. Thinking hard about surrender while at the same time praying for the people in my heart was a connection too close to be coincidental. I listened, but I think this is going to be a long lesson. There is much for me to learn.

Here are some of my fabric postcards:

 The yellow one behind is fused, stitched, hand embroidered and embellished with some size 6 beads and a button. The brown one is fused, stitched and oil painted. The green one is oil painted.and stitched.

The yellow one behind is fused, stitched, hand embroidered and embellished with some size 6 beads and a button. The brown one is fused, stitched and oil painted. The green one is oil painted.and stitched.

 I also used some handmade paper fused and hand embroidered it to a fabric background. The weather isn't right for making paper right now, but I had some in my stash. These pieces were made with cotton lint, grasses and ferns.

I also used some handmade paper fused and hand embroidered it to a fabric background. The weather isn't right for making paper right now, but I had some in my stash. These pieces were made with cotton lint, grasses and ferns.

 This is a hand drawn pattern I made, cut, fused and stitched. The verse was printed on an ink jet printer.

This is a hand drawn pattern I made, cut, fused and stitched. The verse was printed on an ink jet printer.

 This is a detail of the oil painted bottle. I used Shiva paintsticks which I love. I'm always looking for more reasons to use them.

This is a detail of the oil painted bottle. I used Shiva paintsticks which I love. I'm always looking for more reasons to use them.

 Here is a little leaf embedded in the handmade paper.

Here is a little leaf embedded in the handmade paper.

I think it's interesting that the studies on love have been so much more difficult for me than the studies in January on transformation. I wonder if I've always just assumed I knew what love meant and so I hadn't delved deeply into these verses. Or perhaps it's that the topic is truly vast and deep and so hard to pin down. 

Take Me Deeper: Love God

This week at the His Kingdom Come website, the study is on a verse fragment:

Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of you soul,
with all of your mind and with all of your strength. ~Matthew 22:37

I don't think we really know what these verses mean. I think we live into them, but I don't think we really understand them. This makes it difficult to accomplish. Perhaps that is the point. We can never cross this command off our to-do lists.

I started by trying to plumb the depths of the first part: Love the Lord your God with all of your heart. I remembered another verse, Matthew 6:21, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be." Loving with all our hearts means that we treasure God above all else. I decided to embroider a treasure map, and purchased these coins for embellishment:

Then I changed my mind and decided to embroider a compass rose as a pendant. It was a plan that seemed easy enough, so I set it aside for later.

Next I tackled "with all your mind," because it seemed like an easier section than the others. Our brains have an analytical side and a creative side. We are to love God with both. I found a brilliant mathematician-beader named Gwen Fisher whose bead patterns are based on mathematical and scientific principles. I purchased one of her spiral patterns (she referred to it as an Archimedean spiral, but named her pattern "Slugs in Love" --gotta love that analytical mind!) and set to work beading what I intended to be the spiral dangle for this pendant.

17 hours and three attempts later, I had learned a lot. But, I failed to produce anything usable. The pattern is for an earring. It says to make a larger pendant "just do the same thing only bigger." I wanted a pretty large pendant, but I started with the earring to try to learn the technique:

 
    So far, so good. Yes, it took me four hours, but now I've totally got this!

 

So far, so good. Yes, it took me four hours, but now I've totally got this!

 

I got started on the large pendant:

 This is the second attempt. It took me six hours to get this far. I realized I had made a mistake that I couldn't fix so I abandoned this one too and started a third time.

This is the second attempt. It took me six hours to get this far. I realized I had made a mistake that I couldn't fix so I abandoned this one too and started a third time.

 Third attempt! This one I finished in seven hours. The problem? It looks like a bejeweled appendix instead of the spiral seashell I was going for.

Third attempt! This one I finished in seven hours. The problem? It looks like a bejeweled appendix instead of the spiral seashell I was going for.

Artists need lots of time and space to experiment and try again. That's part of "it." The tools in our toolbox get there through lots of playing. Some might call this trial and error, but I think that puts the emphasis on the wrong part. The point is to learn how a medium behaves and how a technique works so that in the future it can be used effectively.

At this point in the project I decided that this particular piece wasn't going to happen in time to meet the deadline. However, I enjoyed the study, I enjoyed the time spent creating and time spent silently with the Holy Spirit. I needed that quiet of just being in His Presence and working with my hands. This week doesn't feel like a failure even though I have nothing tangible that is beautiful to show for it. Instead, there is much that is beautifully intangible here right now. I might dissect that weird bejeweled appendix looking thing and try again this weekend. I am fascinated by the pattern and I would like to conquer it.

Or, I might do something else....

Take Me Deeper: Transform Purposefully

This was a tough one. I admit that this one took me significantly longer than one week. Most of that time was spent wrestling. Here are the verses for the week:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. ~Phi 2:12-13

I wanted to show that transformation is a partnership, God has a part and I have a part. But, it is a grossly unequal partnership. I considered many, many possibilities, but struggled to find something that highlighted the inequality while also highlighting the connection. Until I remembered this photo I took of my daughter when she was a toddler, dancing on her papa's feet:

I love this photo. I used have used it in various ways in my work, and I used it in this blog post. Olivia was a delighted and willing partner, but she wasn't really walking yet. Todd had to hold her from above and below for the dancing partnership to work. The verses for this week reminded me of  this: I have a part in working out my salvation, but God carries me from above and below.

Then, I got stuck. I couldn't move forward, couldn't decide on colors, size, anything. Finally, I realized that this photo reminded me a lot of my relationship with my dad. We had a complicated and often difficult relationship. For a long time, I thought he was the villain in my story. Then I chose love and our relationship began to heal. Last year, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. I packed up the kids and our school books and spent a few months with him. He blew my world apart. I prayed Life for him, and instead he gave Life to me. He healed every hurt. It turns out that I knew nothing of the man he was, that I had made judgments that only a self-righteous teenager can make. The whole time I thought I was building a bridge to him, he had been the one building bridges to me. He was doing the heavy lifting, I was just doing the walking. And just when I was getting to know him, he died.

This father-thing, this carrying, this is what God does for me. This is what my husband does for my son. This is what my dad did for me. I wanted to honor this effort in some way. I decided I wanted to write into the quilt the text of some of the letters my father and I had exchanged. I sat down and read through those letters. For the first time, I saw. I saw him loving me. I saw his humor, his values, his bridge-building. It was a hard week. A good week.

 The quilt before adding text.

The quilt before adding text.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I wanted to write his words on my quilt. I tried photocopying, but his script was so spidery it didn't come through. I tried making it into a font. I tried out various fabric markers and dye/paint applicators. I ended up writing my father's words in my hand. I mixed white acrylic paint with fabric medium and used a squeeze bottle to apply it.

I pieced this quilt in oranges. I had intended to do it in blues and I'm not sure what happened. The last quilt I posted here was also in oranges and yellows. Maybe I'm in an orange period. In the color symbolism I use, orange is a symbol for mercy. Perhaps that best describes this unequal partnership. It's all mercy.

Take Me Deeper: Transform Submissively

This week at His Kingdom Come, the verses for the Take Me Deeper Project are again from 2nd Corinthians:

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.       ~2nd Corinthians 3:18

The image for this art quilt clicked for me immediately. I know that where my eyes point, my feet walk. How can I expect transformation if I don't discipline my eyes and point them in God's direction?

I recruited my dear, long-suffering family who are always willing to pose for photo references for me:

 It was cold outside, so here is my farmer-man keeping his arms warm in a dirty sweatshirt.   

It was cold outside, so here is my farmer-man keeping his arms warm in a dirty sweatshirt.

 

 We tried various poses. I like this one of her eyes. Her gaze is clearly on her papa.

We tried various poses. I like this one of her eyes. Her gaze is clearly on her papa.

 We took many pictures, trying different poses. I settled on this one because: I wanted more of the bare arm with its shadows and highlights; I wanted the reference for the strands of hair; her gaze is still clearly on her papa while giving me more room to play with the hair (easy) but less room to try to define the face in fabric (hard).

We took many pictures, trying different poses. I settled on this one because: I wanted more of the bare arm with its shadows and highlights; I wanted the reference for the strands of hair; her gaze is still clearly on her papa while giving me more room to play with the hair (easy) but less room to try to define the face in fabric (hard).

Keeping my eyes on Christ is a truly difficult thing, but also the only true humility and therefore the only antidote to pride. Every one struggles with pride. It is such an internal thing that I don't think anyone can judge whether or not someone is suffering from it. So what is it? I believe that pride is taking my eyes off of God and placing them anywhere else. Only I know when I have done that. I can look "holy" on the outside, but God knows I have lost my focus. I can look arrogant on the outside, but God knows I am gazing at Him. This is an issue that requires self-monitoring. This posture is the only one that leads to real transformation. These beliefs influenced my design decisions. I usually put more into my backgrounds, but I wanted to minimize distractions and really emphasize the gazing. I enjoy analogous palettes, and I decided to go with yellows for Grace. Every time I blink or turn my head, it is a "leaving home moment," and, like the prodigal, I need to find my way back. Each time, God the Father runs to meet me and welcomes me Home. Grace.

One of my personal rules when working on this type of quilt, is that I do not "edit" my fabric pieces once they are cut. I make a pattern, cut my pieces, and however the pattern lands in the cut piece is how it goes into the quilt. This is one of the reasons I like commercial cottons. The way the print displays on a cut piece can be unpredictable. There is a gray mark on the face. It bothered me at first, but I kept to my own self-imposed rule because it is often these little spontaneous blips that the Holy Spirit uses later. I still don't love it, but I don't know its story yet.

My Lord, I want to keep my eyes on You alone. I beg you to open my ears to Your Voice calling me back when I get distracted. Thank You for Grace.

Amen.

Take Me Deeper: Transform Vulnerably

This week at His Kingdom Come, the verses for the Take Me Deeper Project are from 2nd Corinthians:

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. ~2 Corinthians 12:7-10

I do love these verses. I have leaned into them many times in my life, and yet this week as I pondered them again I realized I had a "thorn" of my own that I had never offered to God. I have struggled with poor health for almost two decades. God uses the weak, the weary and the not (1 Cor 1:27) and I have been each of those things at some point--weak, weary and not--and it's true, God gives us a special strength in weakness. But if I want Him to transform my heart, why would I withhold any part of me from Him? I realized that I never considered my physical well-being important to my spiritual well-being. I have fought my spiritual battles with Him, but my physical battles alone.

A new friend told me, "The idea that we have control over our bodies is the great illusion of our time. We have stewardship, not control." His words helped me to see that I was struggling without inviting the Lord into my struggle. This led to this week's art response. I realized that I needed to fall into God's arms, not to collapse in despair, not to quit, but to fall rightly, to let go and trust Him completely in the area of my health. I need to fall rightly in order to SOAR. I wanted to capture this feeling of trusting surrender and I thought of Hildegaard of Bingen's ancient hymn, "A feather floating on the breath of God."

This is a "journal" quilt. That means it is a small size (it's 9x12 inches). Journal quilts are often used for trying out new techniques on a small scale. In my case, I hadn't used my sewing machine for 7 months since I broke my foot. In fact, I hadn't done anything that required me to leave my bed, where I was keeping my foot elevated, for a very long time. I made so many mistakes on this quilt as I struggled to relearn how to push a sewing machine pedal while at the same time move other parts of my body.

Since I was still barely hobbling around, I decided to find a photo reference online instead of making my own. This is only the second time I have ever done that, but I have regretted it each time. Even though I always make sure that the photo is being used legally, there is something in me that chafes with the thought that the finished piece rests on someone else's image. This bothers me in particular when I see the image used in another piece. I settled on this beautiful photo of a floating feather, and after I finished quilting it found that a dear friend of mine had used the same photo reference and painted it in watercolor. That was frustrating on one level, but I have to admit that it was kind of lovely on another. It felt like we had unwittingly collaborated to convey the same image in two different mediums. For this piece, I am happy with that. For the future, I need to stick to my own images!

The colors I chose purposefully. Here is a brief color symbolism dictionary for this piece:
Light blues=Breath of God, inviting us higher/deeper
Dark blues=Peace, justice
Oranges=Mercy
Yellows=Grace
Purple=Royalty
White-Resurrection

All pieces are sewn using a 1/4 inch seam, zigzagged on top. Then I thinned white acrylic paint with fabric medium and stamped the circles (meant to represent light). I machine embroidered over the feather, then added hand embroidered white swirls (for breath/wind movement). I assembled the quilt, machine quilted it, and bound it.

Here it is in my project journal. See? Small.

My Lord, I am weak and weary and "not." I offer You my body over which I relinquish what I thought was control. Only You have control. I simply have stewardship. I want to be a good steward of this gift. Help me to steward while leaving control in Your Hands. 

Thank you for the thorns You have used and will use to transform me. It scares me to say that, but it scares me more to stay where I am. I let go. I trust You.

Amen.

Take Me Deeper: Beginning the Journey

I am one of the moderators over at His Kingdom Come, a social site for Christian artists. One of the on-going projects for 2015 titled Take Me Deeper, is a weekly Bible study with artistic response. There are various and varied groups of artists using different mediums to respond to what they hear God speaking in them. My task is to create sample projects for the Textile and Fiber Art group. The theme for January is Transformation and the verse for Week 1 is:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. ~Romans 12:1-2

As I started to pray through this, the very first thing I thought of was that I wanted to portray transformation as gradual using an ombre pattern in some way.

Next I got caught up in a (not so tangential) tangent: transformation is possible because Christ broke our chains. We are no longer slaves to sin and death, but can choose to make ourselves available to Him. We offer ourselves as living sacrifices and He changes us, right? If my shackles have been broken--all of them--then why am I still wearing some of them? What is keeping me from shaking them off? Exploring this question in prayer this week has been really quite eye-opening.

I wanted to portray the broken shackles/chains in some way and making a cuff seemed like the best visual. The problem was that the shackles had to be broken. I considered various options for a "broken" cuff that was sufficiently intact that it could be worn. I settled on a loom beaded cuff using a broken warp technique. Here is my project page:

 
 

I applied the ombre-like effect to the broken warp sections on the cuff. The beads start brown at the bottom (from the miry clay), transition to topaz, then a matte metal, silver and eventually gold to symbolize how we are washed and refined. Each section on the broken warp has 40 beads on it for the 40's of transformation (40 days and nights of rain to transform the earth, 40 years of wandering in the desert to transform the hearts of God's people, etc.) The solid sections (representing the old shackles) are woven using a confetti mix of the brown, topaz and matte metal with RED mixed in (for Christ's blood that set us free) and GOLD to represent God With Us through it all.

I like the result and it reminds me to question those shackles I needlessly carry. I also love wearable art that is spiritually symbolic. It reminds me of all those verses in the Bible about wearing the Word of God (on your head, on your wrist, as a garment, as armor, etc.).

I wrote out the pattern with a confidant beginner in mind. It is available on my etsy shop for $6.50.

Transform Bracelet on Creator Spiritus Shop on Etsy

 

Lectio Divina

It is my practice to prepare for Advent by reading through the beginning of Luke, specifically everything leading up to and including the birth of Christ, before Advent actually begins. The kind of reading that I do is called Lectio Divina. I thought this might be the time and place to discuss it.

There are so many books written about this ancient practice. Theologians of many denominations and God-followers for well over 2,000 years have engaged in and attempted to teach lectio divina. I suspect that might be the problem. Lectio Divina is very simple but it is remarkably deep and I think that theologians with over 2,000 years on their hands have perhaps given the impression that this technique is either difficult or irrelevant. It is neither.

So here it is, all you need to know about lectio divina:

In order to successfully engage in lectio divina it is necessary to believe these things:

  1. The Word of God is alive.
  2. God has something to say to you.

And it is necessary to do these things:

  1. Read with alert attention.
  2. Listen for God's heart speaking to your heart through His Words.

This type of reading is different from studying in that the goal is not to pick apart the text, to analyze or explain it. The goal is to listen. When I start, I settle myself prayerfully. I let go of distractions so that I can listen with alert attention. I bow my heart and whisper, "Speak Lord, your servant is listening." Then I begin to read. I am reading with alert attention, looking for something that jumps out at me. Christine Valters Paintner says, "listen for a word or phrase that beckons you, addresses you, unnerves you, disturbs you, stirs you or seems especially ripe with meaning--what I describe as a word or phrase that 'shimmers.'"  I am asking the Lord to teach me this Advent by giving me some aspect of the season on which to focus, meditate and grow.

When I am finished reading, I usually sit silently before the Lord waiting for Him to make connections for me. Then I read the text a second time and tuck the stirrings into my heart to ponder throughout the season. Henri Nouwen says, "A listening heart therefore means a heart in which we stand open to God with all we are and have." This is how I want to spend my Advent, standing open to God with all I am and have so that on Christmas Day my heart will be a manger-throne.

At this point, I commit myself to learning the lesson I am asking the Lord to teach. Throughout the season I will go back often to that part of the story that called to me to see if I notice anything new. I will live alert to any lessons He might have for me. I will also consider ways to incorporate what God is teaching me into Christmas this year (as decor? family devotions? gift­ giving? in interactions with family?).

Everything else written about lectio divina is extra stuff meant to help define the experience, or help you to enter in and process the experience more fully. It's all good stuff. St. Benedict organized the practice into 4 steps that basically emphasize the give and take of divine conversation. He (and many theologians after him) recommend reading the text 4 times and listening in a different way each time. Perhaps we will look at those in the future.

For now, the bottom line is that:

  1. Lectio divina=reading with a listening heart.
  2. Advent=readying my heart to receive God-With-Us.

The Remembering Time

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Hebrews 12:1

November is the Remembering Time. These early days in particular are dedicated to reflecting on the "great cloud of witnesses." For me, this is valuable as a reminder that I have never been left to take this journey alone. God has provided persons for every step. I have been mentored by the faithful lives of those mentioned in the Bible: Joseph forgave great betrayals; Eve's pro and con list often looks a lot like mine; Elijah spent himself to exhaustion in service; Moses gave up his life and then gave up his life and then did it again...and again. I have been accompanied by the lives and writings of St. Teresa, St. Francis, George Mueller, Henri Nouwen and so many others. I have been taught by faithful family members and members of my husband's family, by people I have only met for a few minutes and a couple of people who know me well and still call me "friend."

And what do these witnesses do? They inspire us to continue to move forward. They remind us to be. Today I am myopic. I can't see far and deep into the story, but I don't have to. God has placed witnesses close by. And standing on either side of me are some beautiful examples. The people who bookend me--my children and my father--inspire me. Here are two creations inspired by them.

"Braving the Tides" is an art quilt I did of my boys. My oldest son, Gabe, is a special needs kid. Every time he encounters a new situation he slips his hand into his younger brother Nick's hand. On the first day of Junior High group at church, Nick walked into the room full of excitement that he was going to make new friends. He is a very social kid and he loves people. He is also very socially aware. Just as he was approaching a group of 7th grade boys, Gabe slipped his hand into his. I watched them from the door. Nick never let go of Gabe's hand, even though I am sure he knew it could be social suicide. I watched them for a long time. Later, when I came back for them, they were still holding hands. That night I told Nick how proud I was of him for holding onto Gabe for as long as Gabe needed him. Nick said, "Why wouldn't I? He is my brother." I thought about how much Gabe trusts Nick. How he knows he can lean on him when he is scared. And I thought about how much Nick is willing to sacrifice for Gabe.

 "Braving The Tides" ©2008 Michelle Winter. In this interpretation, the boys are golden, almost glowing in the twilight, while the tides swirl around them. The waters are at once beautiful and unpredictable.

"Braving The Tides" ©2008 Michelle Winter. In this interpretation, the boys are golden, almost glowing in the twilight, while the tides swirl around them. The waters are at once beautiful and unpredictable.

Several years ago, I took a picture of my little boys at the beach not long after Gabe recovered from a stroke. That picture captured a moment of gratitude for me. Gratitude for the lives of those boys and for the plan God has for them. In that moment I realized that He was not just my Father, but also the Father of each one of my children. That photograph took on new meaning for me on that first day of Junior High, and I wanted to revisit the image more symbolically. The quilt, "Braving the Tides," was the result. My sons were pre-teens with all the pressures that implies. And yet, they continued to face Life together—one brother leaning on the other with a trusting love, the other holding him up with a patient and enduring love. They were brought together and are held together by the Holy Spirit—their love for one another an example to me.

My father was a diplomat by vocation. His perseverance was another great example to me. Below is the first poem I wrote that he didn't see. It is about the unique value of each person and it is about doing the task God has given you, two things my father lived.

No More

The bridge builder put down his tools,
"No one thanks the bridge builders,
I will build bridges no more."
At first few took notice
They did not care to know peoples on islands they had never visited.
But then the old bridges crumbled
And brothers were stranded apart.

The peacemaker closed his door
"No one is interested in peace,
I will fight for peace no more."
And things continued as before
But the injustices, wounds and offenses piled high
And the walls became a fortress
And the only word was War.

The poet put down his pen
"No one reads poetry
I will write poems no more."
The noisy world did not miss the voice that stopped speaking
But no one called attention to the wonders, no one knew when to stop and marvel.
No one tried to catch the wind while the world struggled to breathe
And then it's heart stopped.

by Michelle Winter

And so, let us run.

 

Going on a Treasure Hunt

On a gray morning a few years ago, Todd and I went into downtown Portland on a breakfast date. We happened to take our cameras with us.

"Have you noticed the doors along this street?" Todd asked, staring out the restaurant window. After breakfast he was all about the doors and door frames. He was so delighted with his treasure. He took photos from every angle, laying on the ground to get some shots of interesting lintels and door knobs. At first, I was entertained just watching him.

 The painted "Forgive" is on the right side of the stand and the yellow "Free" is on the left side of the base.

The painted "Forgive" is on the right side of the stand and the yellow "Free" is on the left side of the base.

After awhile I needed some other entertainment.  I took my lens cap off and prayed. So, Lord, do you have anything for me today? I'm listening. I turned around and it punched me in the stomach. Do you see it? Right there on a cold November street in downtown Portland: "Forgive" in white paint, and "Free" printed in yellow caps. It's the timing that  always amazes me. At that moment, this wasn't just an interesting oddity. This was there for me, and I was listening.

This photograph is not a money picture. It isn't well composed, it's flat, there is nothing arresting about it. I share it here because contemplative photography is most importantly about listening. It is about relationship. It is about being aware of God's Presence and meeting Him with my presence. Contemplative photography is a prayer. Sometimes these prayers will result in a beautiful photograph, but they will always result in a spiritual closeness. Improving your skills as a photographer is an enjoyable and worthy endeavor, but don't let any real or perceived lack of skill keep you from going on a God-seeking treasure hunt with your camera in your hand.

If you would like to use your camera as part of your devotional time this week, prayerfully look for the treasures the Lord has hidden for you. You do not need to limit yourself to quiet places, but you do need to be keenly aware of your surroundings so limit personal distractions if you can. Listen, but also allow yourself to experience wonder and to be delighted.