Life as Art

Milwaukee Art
Cornelia Parker’s “Edge of England” in the Milwaukee Art Museum

Art, as I would define it, is the creation of something beautiful and/or meaningful through imagination and skill.  This definition is broad enough to encompass everyone as an artist.  Each person mirrors the Divine Artist in some unique or special way through the ways in which they imaginatively and skillfully live their lives.  Where there is no art, there is no hope.  Where art exists, there are possibility and life.  None of us could have made it this far in the process of our jobs, our families, let alone in life, without making great art.  Art is how we make sense of things and form our views of the world.  Art is both subject and object – being both formed and forming us.  Life cannot exist without art because we as people are both created and creative in all we think, feel, and do.

I say all this mostly because recently being at my local art museum helped me to remember how vital it is to be an artist, and that there is no other artist like me (or you).  The museum enabled me to reconnect with the vast imagination within, as I was reminded how large the world of Tim is and how much that inner world has always sought to make beautiful and meaningful connections with others – to make a difference.

I was also reminded of the ways in which art impacts us.  What is beauty to one is disgust in another; and, what is repulsive to one is awe in the other – and everything in between.  Yet, in every work of art we are likely to find both charm and ugliness.  That reminder helps me to reflect on a recent patient visit I had in the hospital.  His story was not too pleasant to me.  I was repulsed by many of the patient’s decisions throughout his life.  Yet, in the moment, I chose to embrace the whole painting in front of me – which included the beauty and awe of his desire for connection, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  At the time, I wasn’t sure I was doing much of anything – my own art seemed rather imperfect and unseemly.  When the visit came to an ending, the patient remarked, “Thank you for reminding me of my God and bringing me closer to him.”  Into the mix all along was the Divine Artist, creating something gracious between us.  If this was to be depicted in an actual art object, that object would include both strange beauty and repugnant representation.  The question is: Will the eye of the beholder see only one, or see both?  The answer to that question is the answer to whether we are willing and able to see the full scope of any person in front of us.  And, like an art object, we could likely sit for hours staring and observing, finding new awareness and insights, and, thus, new meaning – in both of us.

A teaching I appreciate from my Orthodox Christian friends is that every person is a “living icon,” that is, everyone is a hand-crafted image of Christ.  Even more than that, everyone is still being formed by God into a unique and special icon.  In this view of Christianity, a person’s highest calling is to simply cooperate with the Divine Artist – God is the Potter and I am the clay.  I would describe our part as being “actively passive.”  We neither act as we see fit and just trust God will direct us, nor do we sit and simply wait for God to do something.  Rather we are actively passive.  An artist waits for inspiration – and in the meantime he/she intentionally pokes around for ways to be inspired.  And when the inspiration comes, the work ensues – with a rhythm of action coupled with taking time to step back and see the big picture before engaging again.

What I am suggesting is that God has divine actions and divine reflections in a rhythm of formation and transformation of all human creatures.  God has both given us everything we need for life and godliness in this present age and is continuously weaving life-giving grace into the fabric of our everyday lives.  We are icons, and we are being crafted into icons.  To put it another way, we are human beings and are continuously being made into humans.  The care we receive is the care we give.

Psalm 99 – The Holy Helper

20180604_200801

Our ideas of God take shape in the many ways in which we live our lives.  A God who is always right, fair, just, and loving in everything he says and does is a God we can place our complete trust.  A cranky god who is aloof and indifferent doesn’t help anyone.  Yet, with the true God of all creation we can be assured of a strong spiritual support for any and every situation.  When we have as our ally a robust theology which informs how we think and gives shape to how we act, then we can step forward with confidence knowing that God has our backs.

Sound theology doesn’t simply happen; it needs to be identified, nurtured, and expressed in daily life.  Remember, the Old Testament psalms are the church’s prayer book.  Each individual psalm is meant to be an inspiration to prayer, as well as serving as the actual prayers themselves which we can utter to God.  To use the psalms as boots-on-the-ground prayer is essential to providing a firm foundation from which to know and serve God.

As I often do, I’ve provided my own translation of today’s psalm which captures the spirit of the text.  I encourage you to pray it over slowly, several times, and with proper emotional flavor behind the words.

The LORD rules; let all people everywhere who live unjustly, shake in their boots!

            God sits enthroned above all creation; let the earth quake on its foundation!

The LORD is great among his people;

            In fact, He is far above all people.

Let everyone, no matter who they are or where they’re from, praise Your great and awesome name.

            He is holy!

Mighty Ruler, the lover of everything that is just and right,

            You are the One who established what is fair and equitable;

You labored behind the scenes for causes which are just and right,

            and brought harmonious relations to folks at odds with each other.

Magnify the LORD, our God!

            Approach Him with great and mindful humility!

            He is holy!

Godly people of old such as Moses and Aaron were among his devout followers;

            Those like Samuel were among the humble who called on His Name.

People from times long ago have cried out to the LORD, and He has answered them.

            He spoke to the ancient Israelites in a great pillar of cloud.

They sought to keep and entrust His gracious rules given to them.

O LORD our God, you answered them;

            You were a forgiving God to them,

            Yet, you also were the One who held them accountable when they slid off the rails.

Magnify the LORD our God!

            Humble yourselves and worship at His holy mountain,

            because no one is like the LORD our God, a holy Helper!

Amen.

Genesis 16:7-15 – The God Who Sees

20180224_094950

“Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;
you shall call him Ishmael,
for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
He shall be a wild ass of a man,
with his hand against everyone,
and everyone’s hand against him;
and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”

So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.” (New Revised Standard Version)

It wasn’t easy being Hagar.  The servant of Sarah, who was the wife of Abraham, had a tough gig.  Not only was Hagar bound as a servant, she was mistreated.  But God specializes in hard cases.

God sees everything.  He saw Hagar’s adverse living condition.  And God did something about it.  He came alongside Hagar and spoke a promise to her that she could hold onto.  It was a promise that was way beyond what she could have dreamed of, far above her station in life.

Hagar gave a name to God.  “El Roi” means “the God who sees.”  What a great name!  At a low point in Hagar’s life when it seemed that she was a nobody, unseen and only enduring affliction, God showed up and let her know that she is seen by him.

I’m sure there have been times in your life, just like there have been situations in my life, where you wonder if anybody sees you, including God.  You feel if you stepped off the earth today that nobody would even notice.  To not be seen by another is one of the saddest realities of living in this fallen world full of people too busy and too self-immersed to notice another human being.

Conversely, to be seen brings wonder, joy, and awe into life.  To know that God sees you is to be transported into the garden with him, enjoying his presence and his fellowship.

You are not alone.  God sees you.  He knows your every move.  God watches because God loves and adores you.  Our God is not a god who is aloof and distant.  He looks upon you and me with the kind of affection a new parent has standing over the crib of his infant child.  It’s a look of care, protection, joy, pride, and compassion.

One of the most fundamental theological statements we could say about God is: He sees each individual human, and he cares.  Yes, terrible tragedies and gut-wrenching evil exist in this world.  God does have his anger and wrath.  Yet, God’s wrath exists because of his love.  He is not okay with evil, and he will do something about it; and, he will do it in his own good timing.

God is working out his purposes, and he will judge the living and the dead.  But he has not forgotten you.  God sees you, created in his image and likeness, and he will act.

God – The Jilted Lover

 
 
Throughout the Bible, God likens his relationship to his people much like a lover – as if he were married to them.  God’s covenant relationship with his people is at the heart of understanding the whole of Scripture.  Whenever they stray from his promises, God is offended and hurt. 
 
            Yes, God feels pain.  God is an emotional Being, which is why we have emotions as people created in his image.  One way to look at the Bible is that it is a book primarily about a jilted lover – and that lover is God.  He has set his affection and his love upon people, but, for the most part, people have spurned their lover’s advance.  And it pains God.  When the original man and woman decided to find satisfaction outside of God, he was jilted and hurt.  When people went on to have children and raise them, they did so largely apart from the God who loved them.  People strayed so far from God that it hurt. “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.  The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (Genesis 6:5-6).
 
            But God was still gracious, sparing Noah and his family.  He took a group of Noah’s descendants, Abraham’s family, and set his covenant affection on them.  Through the Israelites God hoped to lead the entire world to himself.  Yet, they, too, came to fail God and set their affections on others.  So, we have a large chunk of the Old Testament devoted to communicating God’s hurt and disappointment.  Like a jilted lover, God longed for Israel to remain faithful, and, at the same time, was hurt and angry.  So, then, we have prophecies like Hosea.  Hosea had an unfaithful wife, and throughout the book of Hosea the relationship between him and Gomer mirrored the relationship between God and Israel.  Just as Hosea did not give up on his wife, even though she was brazenly unfaithful, so God looked at Israel as his wife and could not bear to give her up.
 
            But Israel still did not seek God’s love and grace.  And it aroused within God pain and anger because not only did they spurn God’s affectionate advances, they actively sought other lovers, as the prophet Ezekiel communicated in language not suitable for children:
25 At every street corner you built your lofty shrines and degraded your beauty, spreading your legs with increasing promiscuity to anyone who passed by. 26 You engaged in prostitution with the Egyptians, your neighbors with large genitals, and aroused my anger with your increasing promiscuity. 27 So I stretched out my hand against you and reduced your territory; I gave you over to the greed of your enemies, the daughters of the Philistines, who were shocked by your lewd conduct. 28 You engaged in prostitution with the Assyrians too, because you were insatiable; and even after that, you still were not satisfied. 29 Then you increased your promiscuity to include Babylonia, a land of merchants, but even with this you were not satisfied.
30 “‘I am filled with fury against you, declares the Sovereign Lord, when you do all these things, acting like a brazen prostitute! 31 When you built your mounds at every street corner and made your lofty shrines in every public square, you were unlike a prostitute, because you scorned payment.
32 “‘You adulterous wife! You prefer strangers to your own husband! 33 All prostitutes receive gifts, but you give gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from everywhere for your illicit favors. 34 So in your prostitution you are the opposite of others; no one runs after you for your favors. You are the very opposite, for you give payment and none is given to you (Ezekiel 16:25-34).
 
            Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, God could not help but be gracious to his beloved wife (Isaiah 54:5-10):
For your Maker is your husband—
the Lord Almighty is his name—
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer;
he is called the God of all the earth.
The Lord will call you back
as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit—
a wife who married young,
only to be rejected,” says your God.
“For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with deep compassion I will bring you back.
In a surge of anger
I hid my face from you for a moment,
but with everlasting kindness
I will have compassion on you,”
says the Lord your Redeemer.
“To me this is like the days of Noah,
when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.
So now I have sworn not to be angry with you,
never to rebuke you again.
10 Though the mountains be shaken
and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
nor my covenant of peace be removed,”
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.
 
            As the Old Testament comes to a close, God was still longing for his beloved to return.  “This is what the LORD Almighty says:  ‘I am very jealous for Zion; I am burning with jealousy for her.’” (Zechariah 8:2).  All of this was in the heart of the Apostle James when he wrote to the church about their spiritual adultery (James 4:4-6).  He knew that she was flirting with the world, and he wanted them to stop and return to the God who loved them and longed to show them grace, if they only would but humble themselves.  The Apostle John put it this way: Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.  For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17).
 
            Here is the bottom line, my friends:  God does not want us to go somewhere else to have our needs met.  God yearns, passionately, for us to find our pleasure and enjoyment in him.  If and when we adulterate ourselves with the world, it hurts God deeply, like it would any jilted lover.  God waits with loving patience to show his grace and compassion.  But we have to be in an attitude of humility in order to receive grace.  Pride prevents us from receiving God’s good gift. 
 

 

            Seek the Lord while he may be found.  It is through the Lord Jesus Christ that all of God’s good promises and love find their ultimate fulfillment.  Come to Christ.  Receive the forgiveness he offers.  Walk his path of discipleship.  Follow Jesus.  Forsake all to obtain Christ.  He longs to show his affection and love to you.

God Is Good

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers.  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.  He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created (James 1:16-18, NIV).
 
 
 
            God is good – all the time.  And all the time – God is good.  That statement is a bedrock foundation for the Christian faith.  Without a basic affirmation and belief of God’s goodness, our faith will experience cracks and not stand the test of hard circumstances and difficult situations in life.  Without the steadfast conviction that God is good, the alternative is that God is somehow fickle or even mean – that he does not really care about the problems we experience in life.
 
            Last week I had an experience I have not had in twenty years; I bounced a check.  First of all, it’s embarrassing because I didn’t have the resources I thought I did. It’s frustrating because you tack on the charge for your negligence. So, here I walk into the bank where everyone knows the pastor.  And I get to walk up and tell them that the pastor needs to clear up his insufficient funds.  A trial is like a bounced check. You feel stuck with a problem that you don’t have the resources to solve. The temptation is to rant to God: “Do you see me over here, God? Do you see what I’m going through? Are you paying attention? I’m about to bounce a lot of spiritual checks here. I don’t have the resources. I don’t have it emotionally. You’re rattling my faith, God. Don’t leave me in this mess.”
 
Those expressions of desperation you feel so awful about are in fact the exact truth that God has been trying to bring to your attention. You flat out don’t have the resources. He wants you to come to the place where you humbly get before him in a deeper way and tell him what he’s known to be true all along: you are in over your head and you need him.  Your poverty of spirit enables you to receive from God.
 
            When life is good, it is not a stretch to say God is good.  But it might be easy to slide into a belief system that thinks God is the problem when situations take a turn for the worse – that somehow God is the source of our trouble.  And if we have not been working on a relationship with God, we will have scant resources to draw from in a time of trouble.
 
            God is good.  God is not mean.  Every single good gift that there is in this world comes from God.  Nothing evil can come from God.  There would be no good in this world if God was not around.  God’s grace is constantly around us.  If his grace were not here, it would be like living in a dystopian novel.  It would be like a zombie apocalypse where everyone is constantly looking over their shoulders for the next evil thing to happen.  But, although there is evil in this world, it could be a whole lot worse if it were not for God’s goodness.
 
            People will typically question God’s goodness when they do not understand what is happening with something they do not like.  They want answers.  They want justice.  They want stability.  And when it does not come right away, they might question if God really cares.  But you do not need to understand everything about a situation to know that God is good.  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).  Nothing can separate us from God’s love – not trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword – not any adverse circumstance that occurs in your life.
 

 

            God has good plans for his people, the church, because he is a good God – all the time – without changing like shifting shadows.  As long as we believe we have the resources and abilities within ourselves to do church ministry, it will likely either not happen or not occur with the blessing of God.  Only through the humility of dependence in a good God who gives good gifts is there true hope and faith.  World Communion Sunday reminds us that our good God is at work in people from all nations and ethnicities all across the earth, providing spiritual nourishment to us at his hospitably good Table.  Thank you, Jesus.

How Our View of God Influences Us

 
 
            There are many people today who have given up on Christianity.  For all the reasons given (and they are many), the one I encounter most often is the person who comes to the point of believing that Christianity just does not work.  I will say at the outset that I approach Christianity with two major presuppositions:  I believe the Christian life works; and, I believe our view of God largely determines whether Christianity works, or not. I don’t think anyone sets out attempting to live the Christian life in order to fail at it.  No, we fully expect for it to work.  So, then, if we are to live a successful Christian life, we need to keep a few things in mind.
 
One of Satan’s primary objectives is to destroy the believer’s understanding of God (Genesis 3:1-10).
 
A chief way of doing this is through using influential factors from our past.  We can trace much of our contemporary beliefs, values, and actions to the past actors of parents, church, good/bad experiences, place of upbringing, siblings, peer groups, teachers, and friends.  Our earthly relationships in life are often transferred to our relationship with God.  For example, if one’s father was demanding and perfectionistic, it is possible that the person might transfer those same attributes to God. 
 
Sometimes a Christian’s view of God is more like a policeman always watching for us to break the rules; an old man who is aloof and largely uninterested; or, a fickle Being who can never be pleased.
 
But this isn’t how God describes himself in Holy Scripture.  God is the Sovereign Creator, Lord, and Redeemer.  He is our heavenly Father who is absolute in holiness, truth, and love.  Within God himself there is complete self-existence, unity, harmony, love, enjoyment, immensity, and infinite integrity (Psalm 147:5; Malachi 3:6; Deuteronomy 6:4).  When God deals with his creatures he is always observant, powerful, and present (Psalm 39:7-12; Jeremiah 32:17, 27).  What is more, God continually acts with veracity, faithfulness, mercy, goodness, justice and righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:9, 10:13; Psalm 36: 7, 10; Jeremiah 31:3; Hosea 14:9).  God always acts this way because he is love and truth.
 
Who God is determines how he reveals himself in his law and his will (Leviticus 11:44, 19:1-2; 1 Peter 1:16).
 
This is why Jesus is described as “The Word of God” in John 1:1.  In his revelation, God has made himself known to us.  Therefore, the appropriate response to such a God of truth and love is worship (recognizing His sovereign greatness); praise (recognizing His absolute perfection); and, obedience (recognizing His infinite love).  When we gain a view of God as always having our best interests at mind; showing steadfast love to us even when no one else does; redeeming and healing us from past trauma; giving purpose and meaning to us; providing everything we need for life and godliness in the awful muck of this world; then, it is not a stretch to offer worship, praise, and obedience to such a God because our view of him is one of adoration.
 

 

            Church ministry thrives when individual believers have a view of God which is consistent with his infinite grace, love, mercy, and truth.  When there are cracks in the foundation of understanding the basic nature and attributes of God, then the house cannot stand.  This is more than checking off a list of appropriate beliefs in God; it is giving ourselves fully and irrevocably to God because he is the One who loves us perfectly and completely.  One of the prayers that God delights to answer is:  “God, show me your glory, love, and truth.”  Don’t give up quite yet.  Let God reveal His attributes to you and your church as you seek Him with all your hearts.