Contemplation

Contradictions

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

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

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

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

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

Poems About Noticing: People

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

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

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

Poems About Noticing: Nature

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

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

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?

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?

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."

Contemplative Photography: God in the Ordinary

A few years ago after a conference, some friends and I were quickly packing the car to return home. I carried the cooler through the garage. One of my friends came running into the garage from the street still holding the bags she had taken out.

"I wouldn't go out there," she said. "There are a couple of ah...a couple of um..."

"Unseemly characters?" I offered.

"That's putting it nicely."

I went out anyways.

There were two large men approaching, one black, one white. As soon as they saw me coming they walked toward me.

"Mama!" yelled the big black man. That made me smile.

"Oh Mama, how you doin'?" He stuck out his hand. I was still carrying the cooler so I offered my pinky. He took it and shook it heartily.

The white man said something I couldn't make out, and his friend said, "No man. It's ok. I know Mama and she loves me." Then he wrapped his arms around me, gave me a big hug and planted a huge kiss on my cheek.

"See?" he said. They began walking away, "You take care now, Mama."

It was so beautiful. I felt anointed. A (perhaps slightly inebriated) angelic kiss from someone who felt safe near me.

On Pentecost, the disciples leave the protection of their rooms. They go out into the streets, into the world filled with the Holy Spirit and the gifts He gives: faith, hope and love among many others. They go out. But God is already in the world. The feasts and fasts, the festivals of celebration and remembrance, the studying, God is in all those things. But He is also in the Ordinary, and it is in the ordinary where our faith is truly experienced. God inside me, is the same God that is outside me. When I go out with my eyes open, I get more of God. Such a good thing.

I've been working for some time on trying to load all the projects I have done with churches and retreat groups onto the Project page. I hope that people looking for resources will find a spark they can use. It has been remarkably slow going, but I have just finished a page for a contemplative photography project we did titled God in the Ordinary. You can find it here.

Other posts on contemplative photography:

Treasure Hunting

Going On a Treasure Hunt

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.


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: 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.

Shhh...

When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and gripped with fear.

Yep. That would be me, too. My stumbling faith, my inconsistent trust, it is hard for me to imagine that I wouldn't be startled at the sight of an angel of the Lord. Hard to imagine being fearless before him. And I don't think I could immediately toss aside my fear when told: "Do not be afraid." No, I'm pretty sure I don't know how to do that.

Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this?"

And there I am again. The angel of the Lord saying that God has heard my impossible prayer and is answering...so many times I have seen God answer impossible prayers, and I find those answers to be terrifying. Terrifying in power. Terrifying in what the answered prayer requires of me. I too prayed for children. For nine years we begged God to send us children. When He answered I was overwhelmed with the gift but also the weight of responsibility. He gave us three children in 18 months and I wasn't sure how I would survive all this blessing. Of course, the only way was on my knees, but I feel for Zechariah. I would have questions too. Questions about details, about outcomes, assurances and I'd wonder what exactly I had just signed up for.

"And now you will be silent and not be able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time."

I used to think that the angel was punishing Zechariah, the way this sentence is constructed seems to imply that silence is a consequence for unbelief. But now I think differently. I think that silence is an antidote for unbelief. Big things come out of silence. In the beginning, Light and Life were born out of silence. Silence is not Nothing. Silence is Presence. Creation was not birthed from Nothing, it was birthed from His Presence. God is giving Zechariah a chance to keep silent, a chance to experience His Presence. He is preparing him for the Gift. The gift of fatherhood, as well as the gift of the coming Messiah. Just like the season of winter is not a season of Nothing, but a season of flickering life deep within the ground, so silence guards that flickering Life, that flickering Faith, and allows the Spirit to breathe it into flame.

Listen to the rest of the song and album here.

To Everything There is a Season

To Everything there is a season, and though the seasons repeat, there is an opening and a closing to each cycle. There is a rhythm, a breathing in and a breathing out. I am grateful for the rhythm and the repetition. Each time through, I learn something new, I grow in a new way.

The Church Calendar begins with Advent--the expectant waiting for the Promised One. It is a time for opening arms wide so that we can hold the Christ Child close when He arrives. The Church Calendar ends in November with the emphasis on remembering those who have come before and gone on ahead. This is the time to think about what we need to let go. The year has been full and now we remember that the striving and the establishing were not the goals--no, they were never the goals--but merely the work of a season. Now we bow to the Mystery, to the One who has a plan we can't yet see clearly, to the One we trust anyway. It is a time for opening hands and arms wide so that we can hold God's Hands as He extends them to us.

Opening arms wide. When we do that we expose our hearts and leave them vulnerable. So, here in this last month of Ordinary Time, at the end of the Church Year, we practice vulnerability and letting go. Then we enter Advent, the beginning of the Church Year and practice waiting with hands and arms open, we ready and expose our tender hearts to receive Him.

Here is a poem for this season:

The Armful by Robert Frost

For every parcel I stoop down to seize
I lose some other off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns,
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once.
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.
With all I have to hold with hand and mind
And heart, if need be, I will do my best.
To keep their building balanced at my breast.
I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;
Then sit down in the middle of them all.
I had to drop the armful in the road
And try to stack them in a better load.

We can't carry it "all." That's not what we were made for. We were not built as beasts of burden but as light and graceful dancers. We can't even hold all the blessings that God pours out upon us. Perhaps it's time to let the Lord carry the hard things, drop some of the material things, thank Him for the good things and then ask Him what things can be released to make room for Him. He is coming. Soon.

Cultivating Alert Attention: A Rationale

Far from a passive receptivity to whatever life throws my way, selfless openness calls for an alert attention to what is going on around me. It demands an awareness of what my five senses are picking up in the present circumstances and requires an active engagement with the world, especially the present moment and the situation in which I find myself.
--Albert Haase, "This Sacred Moment: Becoming Holy Right Where You Are"

There are several old men I admire in the "cloud of witnesses" that surrounds me. One is a man who at seventy-five, an age when he could have expected to rest, to be self-focused, finally spending time doing the things he wanted to do and with plenty of money to rest comfortably, abandoned it all--friends, family, fame, and life on his own terms--to follow God's voice. Who does that? And, really, how loud does that voice have to be to be recognizable at a time in one's life when no one would fault you for staying home and doing your own thing? This kind of listening? This is alert attention. It is familiarity. This listener? I think he had been listening a long time. I think he had practice noticing God's presence, accepting God's presence and engaging God's presence. This kind of response? It is the response of the loved one who loves. He was just a man, of advanced age, when he left everything behind to follow God's voice. I bet many thought he was a crazy old man, since he didn't even know where he was going. But the where didn't matter. What mattered was that God had inclined Himself to whisper, "follow me." The Bible tells me that this man, Abraham, is the "father of us all," and this is the legacy he has left me. I, too, can learn to apply active attention to God's Presence.

My uncle was in his seventies when he heard God call him to China. He was thrilled by the challenge to preach the gospel in a place where it is illegal to do so using words. He loved his students and taught them English. His supervisor told me last month that there is an entire group of Chinese who speak English with their hands just like my Italian-American uncle.

I grew up listening to my uncle's sermons. One of my favorites is on the parable of the talents. The gist of his sermon is this: God uses this parable to teach us about His Kingdom. The talents referred to in the parable are money, but they also represent other things God gives us. This includes wealth and material items, but also giftedness, knowledge and experiences. We are to exercise dominion over every thing that God has given us. We are to steward it and steward it well. This is being alert to active engagement with world in this present moment. Perhaps stewarding wealth and material items are somewhat straightforward, but how do you steward experiences? Have you experienced a miscarriage? Can you come alongside someone enduring that heartbreak today? Have you experienced any kind of loss for which there are no words? Can you offer a wordless presence to someone now? Alongside the hard things, God has made an investment into our lives, He has buried a treasure. The hard things are hard. We are to tell the Truth, and we should call things by their true names. The hard things are hard. Some things are unspeakable. Alert attention assures me God is here. Living with alert attention gives me the opportunity to invest in those around me. This is the same as connecting with Jesus, as He identifies Himself always with "the least of these."

So, this is the race marked out for me: to live noticing God's Presence, and to be alert to the invitation to be with Him whether alone or in a crowd.

In Our Weakness, The Spirit Himself

I have a song replaying in me from my father's funeral last week. It's not the song I thought would accompany me during these grieving days. The funeral was so lovingly planned, and each song chosen for the way it spoke of him. Each song except this one. This was the only song that the church insisted was non-negotiable because the singer did not have time to learn to lead a new psalm. This song was imposed on us and I chafed under the edict. But I bit my tongue, and this is the song God is using now:

Shepherd me O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into Life.

And I have learned that this is often the way my soul groans. There are times when a melody will get stuck in my head, but I have learned to recognize the difference between a stuck melody and an embedded one. This is an embedded prayer, a plea from my soul because I don't know how to pray right now. Once I realized that was what was happening here, that my soul was groaning for me, that the Holy Spirit was praying for me, I turned my attention to the prayer.

We were shepherds for many years. I know a bit about shepherding a flock. Sheep tend to be fearful. We always moved gently among them, speaking softly. We enjoyed them, smiled over them. When we needed to make a change, move them to a better pasture, immunize, shear or clip hooves, do a health check, or transport them, we always planned ahead to minimize their stress. We knew that any change from their normal routine would be scary, and we did what we could to lessen the fear. Asking God to shepherd me feels like an act of submission. It feels like falling into Him, trusting Him. It is different from asking Him to rescue me. That feels more passive on my part. Asking for shepherding feels active and yet acknowledges my weakness and His Compassion, Strength and Mercy--all things I need right now. 

And so I sat yesterday, joining myself to the groaning of my soul, and I noticed the rest of the words. My soul's prayer is that My Shepherd would move me beyond my wants and fears. I want my father back. I want more time. I want a do-over. I fear that I let him down. That I will let him down. These are all included in the feelings of grief I am experiencing right now. Asking God to move me through these things and beyond them from death into Life--yes. I didn't know to pray for these things, but this is the right prayer today. And I feel Him shepherding me through, not pulling or yanking, but allowing me to plod slowly through this field.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.

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.

Treasure Hunting

My dear friend, Lydia Budai, is a gifted photographer. She makes her living capturing beauty in the world. Lydia also uses her camera to worship God. Many years ago she introduced me to contemplative photography. She describes it as hunting for treasure. She takes her camera and goes out into the world with her eyes wide open, looking for God. This is her prayer time. She isn't seeking a perfect photo during these excursions, she is seeking God. 

I asked her to put together a presentation for one of my classes. For this video she married some of her contemplative photos with a journal entry.

I am surrounded by the sacred. Sometimes a viewfinder can help me find it, can help me to sharpen my focus so that I can see it.