Asking Questions

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.

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.

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?

1 in 6, India Part 7

The television was always on in the hotel restaurant. The large flatscreen at the far end of the room was most often tuned into the news. The news was (understandably) Indo-centric and skewed slightly in India's favor, so I was shocked one morning when I heard the anchorwoman preface a story with:

One in six girls in India does not survive to reach the age of fifteen.

One in six.

One in six?

And the girls we were working with? They were girls who did survive. They made it to fifteen years of age, but they have endured so much in their little lives.

One in six. I am not a numbers person. I had a hard time understanding the statistic. I needed a visual. How could I wrap my mind around the meaning in those numbers?

One evening some new friends took us to visit various sites around Kolkata. It is truly a beautiful city. We saw civic memorials and religious sites including a Hindu temple and the Anglican cathedral of St. Paul's. We found relief from the Kolkata heat in the cool interior of the cathedral. Behind the baptistry, at the back of the church, was a framed quote from John Donne. The words were so familiar to me, but standing in India with a heavy statistic pressing on my heart I read them, heard them, as if they were brand new:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

We are all a piece of the same cloth, together we make a tapestry. That statistic is not just a number. Because we all participate in humanity, we are all diminished by the death of another, all diminished by the hurt of another--even if we don't know it.

So, here is a piece titled 1 in 6. It is a visual for myself to see what that number means. Two broken eggs from a box of a dozen. When I was finished with this textile piece, I took a sharp blade and tore 6 holes into it in no particular pattern. I was trying to mar the piece without symmetry or beautiful placement of the ripped places. Because our tapestry, our humanity, is marred by the death and misfortune of others.

1 in 6, Michelle Winter ©2016 polyester & rayon thread with cotton print fabrics on natural cotton twill, stitch mounted to 16x20" museum board

Whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we understand it or not, when lives are lost, we all lose.

Stillness and Flurries, India Part 4

Eighteen months ago Shandra slept at the House of Light. The house is an aftercare refuge for girls who have been traumatized. One of the newly rescued girls screamed and sobbed all night, caught between nightmares and restless sleep. The nuns and the girls know these nights. And they know that sometimes all they can do is pray, hold, and be present through the dark until the morning. I think Shandra tried to prepare me as we drove to the house, but there are no words for the anguish caused by this evil.

We were prepared for the tasks of the day. The young members of our team, Girls of Grit and Determination, had sourced and purchased the other items we were taking.

 Halie and Abby, Girls of Grit and Determination at the computer store in Kolkata.

Halie and Abby, Girls of Grit and Determination at the computer store in Kolkata.

 The computer store, street view... (photo credit Abby Mayer, 2016)

The computer store, street view... (photo credit Abby Mayer, 2016)

We had a computer, printer/scanner, embroidery machine, fabric and other items in the trunk. We carried hoops and parts on our laps. I still had the embroidery sample cloth in my hand and was writing and rewriting lessons in my head. I wanted to introduce sewing and embroidery concepts in a way that unfolded logically and was easy to grasp. The rest of the team discussed strategies for setting up the other equipment and plans for the day. We were very prepared for the tasks ahead, but emotions are unpredictable.

We were welcomed with warm greetings and with tea. Shandra asked me to do a short presentation to all the nuns gathered around the table. When I pulled out the sample cloth, Sister Parmila (who is in charge of tailoring and teaching sewing) held it in her hands, shook her head and cried, "God is so kind!" (Definitely a theme for this trip). Soon they were dreaming of the possibilities (another trip theme).

After tea, we unpacked everything. The girls formed an excited throng around us that moved when we moved. One of the girls who couldn't stop smiling, took over the camera and took pictures of everyone. Like a photographer at a wedding, she organized portrait groups and bounced from room to room carrying delight with her. The House of Light was a flurry of activity: sewing lessons, computer lessons, everyone moving loudly, laughing.

Except Shandra.

Shandra smiled sometimes. She hugged sometimes. She nodded sometimes. She was present, but still. She was very still.

Shandra carried this special kind of Stillness born of Wonder.

I heard it in her voice as we drove away. I hear it in her voice even now. "Did you see her?" she asked. "The Girl Who Couldn't Stop Smiling? That was the girl who 18 months ago couldn't even stand. Her spirit was so broken, so crumpled, she was a puddle in the corner during the day and sobbed throughout the night."

There were other stories of healing and growth: a girl trained as a teacher who found work and now lives strong, one finishing her training as a mechanic while we were there, another preparing to take exams that will open up more educational opportunities. The girls and nuns are a family formed by trauma and love.

I think that everyone involved in this project has asked some variation of this question at some point, "Is love enough?" Are we doing enough? Are we moving fast enough? Are the care givers skilled enough? These are important questions, but they are flurry questions. Perhaps the answers are in the stillness.

Pray.

Hold.

Be present.

Through the dark.

Until the morning.

The Girl With the Heart Ring

Scott Erickson is...ah, words fail me.... Let's just say that if you do art and do church, he's someone you need to meet. He has several really good videos (see? words failing again) on his website. Each one is about 10 minutes long, inspirational, and professional. The one video I am sharing below is from a talk he gave at Multnomah University this month. Wisdom tells me this is not the video to share here. I should go with a short, power punch. But, no. I'm sharing this one because he describes how he was called to be a Christian artist and his reaction was so very like mine. It is near the beginning of his talk, the part where he talks about Captain Planet.

Yeah, he's talking about me, the girl with the heart ring. Is that you too? It can be a difficult thing to accept the task God has given you. I guess I see it like this: an airplane needs wings to fly, an engine, etc. These things are pretty much what define a big shiny object as an airplane. The church is the church because of people who care for children and seniors, who run the food pantry and organize friends to mow lawns, serve meals and run support and study groups. Those are the things that make us recognizable as Church. However, I know a few pilots who have told me stories of planes that crash due to a faulty 13 cent O-ring. Not that the O-ring failed and the plane came down, but that the failed O-ring led to other problems, which led to more problems which became catastrophic. Those O-rings are there for a reason and they need to do the job they were made to do.

It's not that I feel like I am worthless. I don't need any emails shoring up my sense of self-worth. It is that I asked the Lord what He was calling me to, and His answer wasn't what I had hoped. His answer was, "I love you too much to give you the jobs you think you want. Just because I didn't assign you to the (insert-any-significant-job-title-here)-Team, doesn't mean I didn't pick you. And besides, people aren't significant because of what they do, but because I AM."

I'm learning that His way is better. Because He IS.

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.

Being the Child

I am a poet. I keep a notebook, several notebooks, going all the time with all manner of observations. This afternoon I was flipping through my Purse Notebook. So thin it is almost a pamphlet with just a light cardboard cover, this is the notebook I carry with me—and it shows. The edges are bent, the creases hold lint from the bottom of my purse. On the second page of this notebook I found these thoughts I had written on Mark 10:13-15 where Jesus tells me that to enter The Kingdom, I must come as a child:

Think about how an adult walks—with clarity of purpose, evenly towards a goal. How does a child walk? A child moves from one delight to another, allowing himself to wonder, allowing himself to notice. To notice tiny things, interesting smells, various textures and how good it feels to skip or hop or twirl or run.

This reminded me of something in my Main Notebook. This is the notebook I use for wrestling with ideas and working through sounds and pace. In February I wrote:

Being the Child—what does a child do? A child asks questions, and the questions of a child so often begin with—why? Why? It isn’t about asking the “right” questions but about coming as a child does, with a lot of questions. Why do children ask so many questions? Is it just to keep the dialogue going? Just to interact with the Father? That’s part of what it was for me. My father loved airplanes, so I leaned in and listened, asked questions, just to extend the time we had together, trying to connect.

I’ve been pondering these things this year. What does it mean to Be the Child? I don’t have answers, but living with the question has made this year lighter. We all have questions, hard questions, and God does not tell us that our questions are not important. In fact, He tells us quite the opposite, “Ask the questions! Bring them to Me! I want to hear what is in your heart! No question is off limits. Come! Come to Me Little One. I am bigger than all your questions, and I don’t find any of your heart questions scary. I am here. Climb into My lap, and ask Me.”

So how do we ask “rightly?” I don’t think this is about the form of the questions at all. I think this is about emphasis. Children often ask questions, and as we adults try to find a perfect answer to satisfy them, the children wander off to the Next Thing. They are often truly satisfied with a response that connects rather than accurately answers. An acceptable response to, “why is the bug doing that?” can be, “that is so interesting! Let's watch it for awhile.” The child has shared an experience and that is often enough. This response does not negate the question. It removes the urgency, the emphasis on the question and places the emphasis on the relationship. If the question continues to linger in the heart of the child, it will be asked again. At this point, parent and child will discover or uncover answers together.

This is an aspect of contemplative prayer: we come to our Lord and wonder. We ask why. But instead of demanding an immediate answer, we lean into His Presence. Living the questions does not negate the questions but it changes our focus so that we can live in companionship with The Comforter. It takes our eyes off of ourselves so that we can look into His Face.