What do Christianity and the arts have to do with each other?
As many of you know, I've wrestled a lot with this question in recent months, as I work toward commercializing and commodifying my art. Religious art has a long precedent, but in recent centuries (maybe since the puritans, or iconoclasm) we protestants have really let it fall by the wayside. Now it seems to be used mainly as a sermon illustration, or wall art. Nothing against those things but it's just not ... me.
So, I'm starting an experiment; kind of an emotional and spiritual experiment. I'm drawing 150 days of illustrations based on the Psalms. I'm eight days in (the lead picture is number 8). It's a fascinating experience. Some days I'll do twenty different sketches, all of which are just ... insipid. And then I'll step away, think about the passage in a larger scale, and suddenly illumination. Other days, I'll get it right with the first drawing and it's just a matter of polishing.
I'm primarily working off sketches. This has never been my chosen medium in the past, but I love how the final drawings have a wavy quality that you can only get by pen and ink. I'm also bringing in a lot of gold; it seems to be my go-to when trying to capture that glory of God in a way that makes sense to the human eye and heart.
Follow along on Instagram if you're interested.
In the middle of January, with the rest of the country locked in wind and snow and icy rain, we went to a rainforest. Rockport State Park is nestled in the cascades, a lush old-growth forest rich with the tingly smell of greenery.
We wandered for a long time, taking picture after picture, and breathing in deeply of the rich warm air. Desperate to capture the beauty; trees so tall they took your breath away, and a lush bed of moss covering every surface.
I took it home with me, and did some graphic artwork inspired by what I saw there; still desperate to capture it and make it my own. It's always a losing battle to capture beauty, but I feel compelled to try.
Yesterday, someone asked me for a bus fare, and I didn’t give it to him. Today, someone asked me for a bus fare and I did give it to him.
Either way, I feel guilty.
When I don’t give money, I feel like I’m turning my back on the hungry and helpless, failing to care for the “least of these," failing to show mercy. Jesus’ words about the sheep and the goats comes to mind. Am I, who think I am part of the Kingdom of God, merely a goat, because I don’t care for those who are hungry, thirsty, and naked?
When I do give money, I feel guilty because I have heard from enough people in ministry that just giving money is one of the worst things you can do for those on the streets. It perpetuates the cycle. It undermines the work of great organizations that seek to empower rather than enable those on the streets. Buy a bus ticket or a coffee or a meal, but don't just hand out cash.
I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I'm involved with a local organization that serves the homeless. I buy my "Real Change" street vendor newspaper. But it all feels inadequate and impractical in my day-to-day. For the woman with two kids sitting on a blanket on the sidewalk. For the disabled man. For the same two people that I see on 15th Ave day after day, always in the same position of unbroken misery, speaking the same two words over and over again: "Spare change?"
I realize that money is the cheap fix. But I haven’t figured out the long fix, the real fix. I’ve tried to engage in conversation while buying a meal... but usually it’s just the meal that’s wanted, not conversation. Not a life story. I've tried to look people deeply in the eyes, to say those powerful words that will make them know they're loved. But everything I say sounds inadequate.
And so I find my heart growing cold to those in need. I shut them out of my heart and I shut my eyes to their need, because any solution I can provide feels either inadequate or counter-productive.
Let’s be honest, often (not always) people on the streets have something about them that is ugly or difficult, something deformed (and not physically). Past abuse. Trauma. Inadiquate support systems. Something that make it difficult to really help. And I'd like to think that if I just show them a momentary glimpse of kindness, it will change everything. And maybe sometimes it does, but more often than not I see them same people asking for the same help over and over again, no matter how many times I've stopped and talked to them. What’s needed is long-term support, counseling, budgeting help, job support (services that sometimes people will take and sometimes they won't); or even a change to systemic systems of mental health and public services. So it feels like my kindness is unhelpful at best, and at worst might be contributing to a system of dependency.
I'm rattled by my own inability to address all the problems I see. I've never felt more helpless, more lacking in compassion.
And yet... I can't bow out of helping, even if my help feels inadequate. Because while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Came into our weakness. Dwelt in the ugliness of human experience: vomit and poop and illness and hatred and violence. Even when people just took what he had to offer and rejected a relationship with him. Even though I still do that - take gifts from his hand as my right, and blame him when he does not sufficiently meet my wants.
So even if I’m not going to do it perfectly, and they're not going to respond perfectly, maybe it’s worth entering in anyway, doing it all wrong, and feeling guilty, rather than slowly growing cold as I choose not to see or care.
Does art have value?
Since I became a graphic designer, I've always done practical work; catalogs, websites, brochures. Selling tools, for which I am paid by the hour. That work has value, a pre-determined value that I decide with my boss in a meeting every year. I can measure my value in terms of the money I earn and the money I help generate for my company.
But I've begun a series of side projects, just art, flowers, animals and patterns, anything that strikes my fancy; nothing world-changing. My current profit is hovering around $3; and I've begun to think a lot of the value of art.
So much of art is waste. Wasted time spent working on projects that don't end up being as good as I thought they would be. Wasted materials. Throwing out page after page of writing that doesn't fit the story, whole characters and plot lines that don't make the cut. Chipping away at marble until a David emerges.
And even then, after David emerges fully formed, what is Michelangelo left with but a huge pile of valuable marble chipped and wasted, destroyed and unusable, and a massive statue of a naked man that could never have practical value? It wouldn't feed the poor, pay the rent, clothe the cold, or really accomplish anything.
As Christians we can be utilitarian. We know that the time is short. If what we do isn't actively making converts or showing mercy, then why do it? Why make art that doesn't obviously preach the gospel? Why read mystery novels, browse Pinterest, go to art galleries and concerts? Why make pretty but innocuous pictures of cats and pine trees?
Art is inherently waste. Its value is not in what it does but what it is, what is says, and what it shows.
Art pulls us out of a utilitarian view of life. Art shows that we are not mere machines, whose value is solely in our function. Art points to a Creator in whose image we are made. Art points to God's gratuity, the great excesses of beauty that God poured into this world: colors that are unnecessarily vibrant, and sea creatures in the depths that might never be seen by human eye. Art makes us long for another world, a world where beauty reigns, truth is spoken, and our value is not in our contributions to the world but in our created nature.
A woman with expensive alabaster came to Jesus and anointed his feet, pouring out value in pure waste. Expensive. Costly. Pure. Value that could have been sold and spent on the poor. But Christ said, "She has done a beautiful thing to me." And somehow, beauty was enough.
I have been deeply troubled, like many Americans, since oh around last November 8th. Troubled by where I see the country going; troubled by the excuses that Christians have made for certain behaviors that twenty years ago would have been impeachment-worthy; troubled by what might happen in the world as people fight with people and nation fights with nation. Troubled by the attitude of America First and the rest of the world can go burn in hell. I have prayed more deeply in the last year and taken more political action than I ever have before.
But in the midst of that general sense of malaise and deep concern: Eddie got a new job, we sold our house, we moved cross-country, we found an apartment, we furnished that apartment, I began expanding my graphic design presence, I made friends, I started getting involved in a church.
And I have frequently wondered, what’s the point? Why not just hunker down and build myself a fallout shelter? Why go on with an ordinary life that might be disrupted by wars and rumors of wars? If everything’s just waiting to go wrong, then how can I feel excitement for the future? What’s the point of moving to a new city, starting a new job, saving for retirement?
Here’s why: because when Israel had been torn out of their homeland, carried into exile, lost everything they’d worked for, and were living in a new place with just as much uncertainty about their futures, this is what God told them to do:
“Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters, take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Jeremiah 19:5-7
Loosely summarized, live your life. Do good work in your job. Pray for your neighbors. Don’t be so resentful of the past (exile), or so anxious for the future (returning from exile) that you neglect to do good in the place where God has you. As Elizabeth Elliot said, “Let not your longing slay the appetite for your living.”
This is where we are. In a world of turmoil and uncertainty; where picking up the phone might alter the course of your life. Where you feel hopeless and out of control. Plant vineyards anyway, whether you will drink their wine or not. Obey God anyway. Live in the hope of eternity, but live today. This is the day of salvation.
Since I've moved to Seattle, the question I get most frequently from people back home is:
"Does it rain all the time there?"
Well, I'm here to tell you: no. It doesn't rain all the time.
So, no, it doesn't rain here all the time. In fact, I'm anxiously watching the forecast hoping it will show rain somewhere in the next ten days.
Just remind me of this when I'm heading into February with 120 sunless days behind me!
21 candidates for mayor; so many you can hardly figure out who is who.
We don’t have “republican” and “democrat” primaries here, we have non-partisan primaries, so that you are picking not based on political party but by what you can gather of their voting records, statements about themselves, endorsements, and plans. Which can be good, and force more accountability from the voter; but I'm thinking it also leads to "voter fatigue."
One curmudgeon said (when asked in an exit poll who he’d voted for): “I don’t know, I just closed my eyes and pointed. I’m exercising my right to vote.”
A weird thing about Seattle is that they mail out $25 “democracy vouchers” before the election so that even those who don’t have any money can still support a candidate of their choice. It’s meant to keep the people involved and keep money out of politics. Of course, candidates have to opt in and this means that they can’t take money from big donors, but if they opt out, then they can take just as much money as they want from Amazon. It’s a classic example of the silliness of Seattle: raise property taxes (and therefore rents) to fund a program so that everybody can “afford” to support democracy.
Another silly Seattle thing: there was a proposal on the ballot to raise the sales tax to fund arts programs for low-income kids. The thing is, the sales tax in Seattle is already over 10%, and many progressives complain about it being a regressive tax that disproportionately affects those in poverty. So we’re going to fund arts programs for low income kids by making it harder for those same low income kids to buy school supplies, clothes, cars, gasoline, and everything else required for them to be able to survive. Fortunately this ballot measure failed. I’m sorry about arts education. But there has to be a better way of funding it than taxing the very people it’s meant to help.
There was one race in which the four options included a career politician, a protest candidate who wanted to draw attention to the failures of the career politician but had no intention of winning, a perennial candidate who is always entering races to promote causes like a monorail (the Simpson’s monorail episode comes to mind), and a candidate who calls himself Goodspaceguy (which about sums up his candidacy). That’s four candidates for one position, only one of whom seems like a serious candidate (though possibly flawed). I went ahead and didn’t vote in this race, I just couldn’t take it seriously.
And then there are those 21 candidates for mayor. The race swelled after it became apparent that our current mayor would not survive (politically) a sex scandal. How do you tell the difference between 21 candidates who all say that affordable housing is their top priority? Which one of these has a plan for the city that will actually help and not make everything worse? We had the socialist, the activist, the first openly gay attorney general, the idealistic 26-year-old, the former mayor, and a woman whose motto seems to be “US Out of Guantanamo!” Not to discount the man who says, “Stop fascism with idiotic face!” (That is not a mistype. That is actually what he said in his bio, which is rich with similar gems).
Who did I vote for? The former mayor (not the sex scandal one, the one before him). Because he seemed to me to be the only one with actual plans. He didn’t even make it into the top three, so he won’t be on the ballot in November. But that’s democracy in Seattle for you!
As a newcomer in this city, I'm still trying to make sense of Seattle culture, what the people and city are like. This is the second of an ongoing series on my observations of the city. I'm not trying to define anyone, just make sense of what I'm seeing and experiencing.
Willie loves being a city dog.
He loves going for walks, sniffing for other dogs (there are many), and running down the hallways of his apartment building. There's so much to see and smell; he's always sitting at the window watching people pass, nose twitching, waiting for E to get home from work.
I was sitting in a darkened basement living room in our temporary housing; I looked up at the sound of footsteps on the gravel outside the window, and next thing I knew, two bricks were thrown at the window, making an unexpected popping sound. With each pop, I screamed, involuntarily, like this piercing sound was jerked out of me; like being startled at a scary moment in a movie. The would-be burglars must have heard me and run away; I was conscious of nothing but tremblingly trying to dial 911 before they came back.
When you’ve been nearly burgled, have looked into the eyes of a would-be burglar before he throws a brick at your window, there are suddenly things you’ve experienced that your imagination couldn’t dream up. As a writer, I’m always imagining how it would feel to be someone else, to experience different things. But here are the things I didn’t imagine I would feel:
So how did it turn out?
How did the idea board vision turn into reality?
Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not great at envisioning how things will turn out, whether it be a paint color (in my last house, I repainted the living room walls three times until I got it right), a novel I'm writing, or in this case, an apartment layout.
We ended up going with a different rug that better fit the style of the apartment, and sadly the little green file cabinets that I loved so much were no longer being sold at Ikea by the time we got around to buying furniture. The arrangement is slightly different, with our coffee table housing our projector which points at a screen that drops down in front of the bed nook (so we can watch movies from either the couch or the bed).
I'd say overall, it turned out pretty close! Some of the sizes were a bit different, and the layout was different, but the space definitely includes most of the things I originally envisioned.
Here are a few more angles: