Backdrop

RedeemerI’ve spent a significant portion of the past two days sitting in a sanctuary at a church in Nashville which I can only describe as “warm.” It is a building which seems to stretch its arms out in welcome. The older parts of it are made of wood that holds the patina of the years. In the sanctuary itself, a newer section, a deep crimson wall, inset with a large leaded glass window and an unadorned wooden cross has formed the backdrop for words and music that have shaped me in the past two years.

It’s the place where I first heard N. D. Wilson describe the Fall as the man failing to fight the dragon and save the woman, and the Second Adam as the one who rescued His bride by sacrificing Himself in her place.

It’s the place where I saw Eric Peters as a noisy Chewbacca and Jonathan Rogers as a properly electronic R2-D2 in a Shakespearean rendition of Star Wars.

It’s where Ron Block sang the words, “Let there be beauty for beauty is free.” Where Andrew Osenga shouted, “Space!” Where Pete Peterson has wept and Andrew Peterson has geeked out over Rich Mullins.

It’s a place I heard words of healing as Andy Gullahorn sang, “The story isn’t over yet.” And I’ve heard words of challenge from Father Thomas McKenzie. I’ve heard words of encouragement in art, faith, love, community, hope.

And in the past two days it has been the backdrop for moments like Son of Laughter singing “The Meal We Could Not Make” and Jenny and Tyler singing “Skyline Hill.” It has stood behind Rebecca Reynolds talking of the Blue Flower and Russ Ramsey holding up a Vermeer print and Andrew Peterson plugging in his phone to play Marc Cohn’sWalking in Memphis.”

It is a backdrop full of memory for me—and I’ve only visited on yearly occasions. For those who come weekly, it is the backdrop for the breaking of the bread, the drinking of the wine of the new covenant, the truth of the gospel taught, of prayers covering and lifting pain and sorrow to the ear of heaven’s throne.

Rebecca Reynolds said this morning, “Any old church is a familiar friend.” Arms open, they invite us toward the altar of worship.

Stuck in the Middle

“I took one of those online quizzes to see if I’m left-brained or right-brained,” I said to Debbie over coffee earlier this week. She began chuckling even as I continued my thought: “I’m right in the middle! Practically 50-50!”

“I could have told you that,” she said. She laughed a little more, then lowered her voice conspiratorially. “You know it’s your parents’ fault.”

It is. My parents, the artist and the administrator. They complement each other well. It’s only when you try putting those two into one brain that you get a slightly schizophrenic reaction.

Brained-ness

I seem to be perennially stuck in the middle.

I’m always torn, wrestling back and forth between the two sides of myself, the creative side distracting the administrator, the administrator reigning in the creativity and making it orderly.

There are plenty of positive things about being who God made me to be. Just in recent weeks that has been a huge theme in my life—learning to celebrate myself and others exactly as we are made to be. It’s like God took this fantastic chemistry set or cabinet full of spices and mixed and mingled each one of us into a unique blend. I’ve been delighting in the care He took in His creation of us.

And yet, I’m stuck in the middle. I’m torn. I’m always a little lost, trying to find my place. If I settle on one side or the other, I find myself looking over the fence and wishing I could also have some of the grass from there.

There’s a line in Cool Hand Luke, when Luke is in the church talking to God, that always has struck me: “You made me like I am. Now just where am I supposed to fit in?”

I hear ya, Luke. I hear ya.

The Cry of the Artist

“Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost!” –Babette’s Feast

***

Criterion Collection DVD cover for Babette’s Feast

I came to Babette’s Feast eagerly. I’d seen it years before – multiple times. I’d studied it in a course and given a presentation on it. I’d read the short story by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), perhaps even before I first saw the film. I’d read the short story again many times since. I’d taught it in a course. I’d recommended it to friends. I thought a few years back to buy the DVD and discovered to my horror that it would cost me nigh on $50 for a DVD produced in the mid-90s. I bided my time.

Then the word came. The Criterion Collection was releasing a new DVD. They know how to celebrate good art. It was satisfying news. The cost would be reasonable. And I settled in to count the days until I could get my hands on a copy.

***

Early this summer – almost late spring – I sat on my friend Julie’s back porch in Charlotte, North Carolina and we talked about Jeffrey Overstreet’s book Through a Screen Darkly. I was aware of it; I’d followed Jeffrey as a movie reviewer for years. I’d heard good things about the book, but hadn’t yet invested the time or energy to read it.

Jeffrey was on the list of speakers for a conference Julie and I plan to attend this fall called Hutchmoot. I was excited. His book was on the recommended reading list. Julie had begun it.

“I’m loving it,” she said. “I’m wondering if we should think about using it as the next book in our reading group. What do you think?” She sketched out a few ideas of how it could be divided up nicely for discussion. I glanced through the table of contents. I skimmed a few pages. I concurred.

She floated the idea of asking Jeffrey to join the discussion. A book discussion with the author? I encouraged the thought.

***

I got more out of Through a Screen Darkly than I could have imagined getting. It did not just, as the subtitle predicted, look closer at beauty, truth, and evil in the movies; it looked at them in all of art. It challenged me to watch movies differently, to approach art more carefully, to be a better recipient of art, and therefore a better creator of it.

Julie had the brilliant idea of pairing each week’s reading with one of the movies Jeffrey mentions in the section we were discussing. The movies were optional. I did a terrible job of keeping up with them. Interestingly, as I read the book, I found myself watching movies less.

I knew now they deserved my close attention, and the glare of the computer screen and the Facebook alerts coming in on my iPhone should not be constantly present while I experienced them.

But the final week, after we finished all the chapters of the book, I knew I’d watch the movie: Babette’s Feast was planned.

I remember telling Julie when she suggested that we could end with a week discussing Babette’s Feast that the timing would be perfect. The planned week was immediately following the new DVD’s release. Then our discussion got delayed a bit along the way and we ended up with Babette a week later than planned – for me, immediately following a writer’s conference.

***

I keep thinking about art lately. About what it means to create art. About what the role of the artist is. About art in the contemporary culture. About art industries. About the relationship of the artist to the industries.

Ken Gire spoke at the Greater Philadelphia Writer’s Conference where I was on faculty this past week. He reminded us that we as writers are lovers of words. He speculated that there was a time for each one of us when we were reading and something inside of us said, “Follow me.” And now, 20, or 30, or 40 years later, we were there at a conference, pen and sheaf of paper in our hands, in hopes that our words will do for someone else what words did for us.

He called the handing over of a manuscript to an editor a sacred moment. “Something of your heart is mediated in the thin, white, wafer-like paper,” he said. And then he went on to challenge us: “Don’t sell yourself short. Don’t reduce art to paint-by-numbers….Aspire to something true: from the depths of your heart to the depths of another.”

***

wrote recently that the best thing about Joss Whedon’s new Much Ado About Nothing was that it got made at all – “that a group of friends decided they wanted to do this, made the time for it, and did it well. Limited release or no, it’s encouraging to see that something like this movie can still happen [in the contemporary art industry].”

I called Whedon’s choice to make the movie a risk. He had no financial backer when he chose to make the film. He had no method for distributing it. Sure, he had connections, but there was no guarantee that his art would ever see the light of day.

***

Makoto Fujimura uses the ancient Japanese technique of nihonga in his painting. Nihonga uses precious stones and metals to create the pigments with which the artist paints. Mako’s paintings have colors made from lapis lazuli, from gold, from corals, from malachite.

He points to Jesus’ commendation of Mary in John 12 when she brings the costly perfume and anoints him with it. “That is an amazing commendation for someone like me who tends to work from the heart, who tends to work with precious and costly materials. I remember that the extravagance of Christ’s love for me prompted an extravagant response. Eventually, I came to connect what I do as an artist with Mary’s devotional act. Maybe that is the one act we can look to as the centerpiece for a paradigm of creativity.”

***

I asked Christine if we could approach Babette’s Feast without the distractions. We put our computers in other rooms. We turned off, really off, our phones.

She’d never experienced the story. I had.

It has been years since I watched Babette’s Feast. I almost saw it with new eyes. I knew what was coming, but the visual portrayal was dim and faded in my mind. I watched Babette learn how to make bread and ale soup from the sisters, patiently learning words as she went, and I knew that they had no idea that they were teaching Shakespeare how to write plays.

I watched Babette win the lottery, cash the check, and put the money carefully into a wooden box. I watched her carry the box, clutched close to her heart, to her room, then sit down and look at it. I watched her walk the heaths and beaches. I knew the decision she would make. I knew the sacrifice that was coming.

I watched her thrill as she unpacked the ingredients. I watched her eyes alight as she created the dishes. I saw the industry with which she worked to prepare the meal, up to the very moment the platters went to the table. She did not touch the wine until the guests were in the later courses. Her sharp eyes kept all in order.

And then I experienced again the beautiful revelation at the end of the story, that Babette has spent her entire fortune, ten thousand francs, on the meal the sisters and their friends have just consumed. When they protest that she should not have given away all her money for their sake she gently tells them, “It was not just for your sake.” When they ask if she will now be always poor, she says, “A great artist is never poor.”

Philippa understands, to some small extent, the heart of an artist. She comes closer to Babette and continues to press: “Was this the sort of dinner you would prepare at the Café Anglais?” Babette nods, saying she could make the people happy when she did her very best. Then she quotes Achille Papin, the opera singer who once taught Philippa, “Through all the world there goes one cry from the heart of an artist: Give me leave to do my utmost.”

“But this is not the end, Babette,” Philippa says. “I feel sure this is not the end. In Paradise, you will be the great artist God meant you to be.” She walks forward and embraces the cook. “Ah, how you will enchant the angels!”

***

We sang a song in church this morning that struck me anew.

And I will rise when He calls my name
No more sorrow, no more pain
I will rise on eagles’ wings
Before my God fall on my knees
And rise
I will rise

And I hear the voice of many angels sing,
“Worthy is the Lamb”
And I hear the cry of every longing heart,
“Worthy is the Lamb”

***

There is a cry that goes out from the heart of the artist.

It’s the cry that says, “Take the time to experience deeply.”
The cry that says, “Don’t sell yourself short.”
The cry that says, “Take a risk.”
The cry that says, “Extravagant art is worship.”
The cry that says, “It is worth spending everything.”
The cry that says, “Give me leave to do my utmost.”

The cry that says, “Worthy is the Lamb.”

Leaping

In less than two months, I will not be employed full time. It’s a slightly terrifying idea, but a step I’ve seen the Lord clearing the way for over and over as I’ve walked forward.

I talked with a friend about it a few months ago. I said something like, “I’m going to take a leap and leave this job to pursue other things.” He asked what I would be doing. I said I wasn’t quite sure, some things had fallen into place but much hadn’t. He said, “Well, I guess it wouldn’t be leaping if you knew where you were going.”
Photo courtesy of: http://francescakotomski.com/

That’s the thing about leaping. Knowing exactly where and how you’ll land is not guaranteed.

When I took my current job, I gave a handshake commitment to stay in it three years. That was a big deal for me. Since college, I hadn’t been in one place or one job for more than two years. When year 2.5 rolled around, I was getting pretty itchy. I’d been there a long time. I began to do a little bit of looking around to find out what other jobs were out there that I might be qualified for. And then, right about the three-year mark, my boss died and the University decided to change its name. Personally or professionally, it was not a good time to make changes.
So I stayed through year four. And it’s been a good job. I love the team I work on and I believe in the place I work for. What more could you ask for?
The intersection of gladness and hunger.
Frederick Buechner wrote in Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC that, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
I haven’t found that place yet. And the conclusion I’ve come to in the past months is that I’m not going to when I’m working in a full-time job that keeps me insanely busy, creatively depleted, and emotionally over-invested. It’s a good job, but it is not the right one for me in the long run.
So I’m leaping. I’m stepping out and exploring my options. I’m picking up freelance editing and writing work, I’m teaching adjunct, and if need be, I’ll find something part-time to fill in the gaps (one does, after all, have those pesky things called bills).
But for the first time in a long time I’ve ceased striving. When the panic of the unknown rises, I place it into God’s hands and know He will carry it. He’ll make the connections that need to be made – I’ve been watching Him do so already.
As I leap, will you do something for me? Will you pray with me and for me that God would show me the place where my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet? I’m closer to that place than I used to be, but I know I haven’t yet quite found it.
Oh, and if you know somebody looking for an editor or proofreader, would you point them my way? Thanks.☺

Bent Branches, Straight Baselines

It’s been just over a month now since spring began – slowly this year in Philly – coming at us in fits and starts. I think it has actually arrived now, though there are still one or two trees that are only just leafing out. But the azaleas and the dogwoods have bloomed, so I think it’s really spring.
This slow spring has drawn my attention more than once – trees that often bear the bright of yellow-green in March still showed their naked limbs well into April. It was as if they wanted to say, “See, here’s my structure. These are my bones. You may not have noticed them this winter when your eyes were cast to the ground watching for ice patches. Look up now; see my angled boughs.”
At the beginning of April, my friend David posted a short piece on his blog titled simply, “On Baseball.” In it he quickly and poetically examined the architecture of a golf and baseball, finishing with these words:
Baseball unites heaven and earth: it inscribes a pattern of clean lines, orbs, and diamonds upon the dust from which we were formed and in which we toil, and the lush green in which we find rest. Upon that heaven-and-earth field, prodigal sons set out on barren base paths; and we watch and wait to see if they will make it back home.
The words arrested me. I love clean lines. I love the straight, the symmetrical. There is beauty in a ballpark. But as the trees bared themselves, I had the realization that straight lines are a rare thing in nature. The Creator’s beauty meanders more than man’s.
And when we humans create without the assistance of our man-made tools, our creations are meandering things too, the image of God creating in the pattern of God. As I began to think it through, I realized that the straight lines and measured curves of architecture echo the straight lines and measured curves of the heavenly throne room – and our ideals of beauty find their fulfillment in the descriptions of that place.
Somehow, we find ourselves caught in the middle, loving both the bent branches and the straight baselines. Caught between heaven and earth. Redeemed yet human. Prodigal sons looking for home.
My first inspirations on this topic formed themselves into an essay for The Curator, the web publication of the International ArtsMovement for which I am now serving as an Assistant Editor. 

David’s continued thoughts on the topic have been manifested in a second blog post where he says kind things about my Curator essay and much better things of his own.