The Brass Ring

Exhaustion. Physical, spiritual, emotional exhaustion. This is all that remained in me after letting out today’s drawing.

Nehemiah 5

 Tired, discouraged, hungry and broken, Nehemiah and his reconstruction team now stand at an impasse their own design. Famine has struck and the normally lucrative crops have become key to the survival of individual families. With motives ranging from honest empathy, self-preservation, to raw greed; the community has become indebted to each other in order to cover their taxes due to king Artaxerxes. The crops designated to feed families are erased as payments due. Like the modern payday lender, the poor are exploited with exuberant interest rates and unreasonable collection fees. Many are reduced to selling their own children into slavery to begin satisfying their debts. Neighbors are now collectors, the leaders who helped unite a community around this dream of rebuilding a magnificent city now own the children of the men they once led.

Assessing the moral and economic condition of the community, Nehemiah takes charge to right the ship by changing the direction of this small society. In a charge that eerily resembles an ancient Emancipation Proclamation, Nehemiah alters the course of the people by calling out their hypocrisy (and that of himself). In this charge, he enacts a period of Jubilee. This social and economical reset levels the landscape of a society by erasing all outstanding debts and returning property to its original owners, free from liens or dues of any kind. It creates a cultural shift that refocuses a community on serving each other rather than consuming one another.

The Brass Ring

The inspiration for today’s drawing struck hard when it hit my brain. This image encompasses far more than the broken state of an ancient society facing a conflict between quickly separating social classes. It is the very core of Jesus’s message, serve others before yourself. It is the essence of modern society. It is the raw brokenness of world we know.

The end-goal of an individual’s plans and guided efforts is commonly referred to as their “brass ring”. Advertisers and graphic designers exhausted this analogy in the late ’90’s with commercials of people on trampolines stretching to grasp a golden ring, just out of their reach. A brass ring dangles from the top of today’s drawing, the focus of most of the people below.

The Brass Ring - grenade

The ring is suspended from the top of the page with a ribbon. I imagine this ribbon as silky red, like the bow on a new car in holiday commercials bombarded on any regular television watcher. Beyond the focus of the shiny metal object is another item that tags along with the ring. The complete opposite of the smooth, refined, polished circle is a rough, dull, dirty sphere. Tied to the opposite end of the ribbon holding the prize is a live grenade.

Completely ignorant to the impending consequences of accomplishing their goal and securing their future, shadows of you and me relentlessly climb to be the first to take hold of our prize. We scale a mountain of collateral damage to reach our end-goal, leaving a path of broken relationships and people we’ve used in our wake. Pause a minute to take a personal assessment of the relationships in your life. How often has a “Christian” touted their personal success at the hands of another’s misfortune as “God’s will” or God’s blessings”? Who do you genuinely care for and who are you just using to further your own agenda?

Ok, so the world is evil, cynical, selfish and ruthless; what am I supposed to do about it?

The place of the Christian, the follower of Jesus, is counter-cultural. We are the juxtaposition of modern society. God doesn’t use people to make our lives better. He uses us to make people better.

The interaction happening at the bottom of today’s drawing is the place of the Christian in a broken world.

The Brass Ring - give

Two figures form the foundation of the mass of bodies. I drew the figure on the right to appear sick and malnourished as compared to those using him to gain their own footing. He looks down and to the left as a foot presses against his head, shoving him further into the pile of bodies. The figure on the right embodies the compassion of Christians in a cynical world. Kneeling in the position of a servant, he offers a loaf of bread to the oppressed figure on the right. By lowering himself into a position where he can serve another, the compassionate figure becomes a footstool being used by another for personal gain just like the oppressed figure.

The position of these two characters at the bottom of the pile, focused on each other is also a position of safety. Once someone finally captures the ring, the safety pin will pull free from the grenade and destroy everything within its reach. Remaining low and guarded from the attraction of self-centeredness, the servant and the oppressed are protected from destruction.

Jesus does not promise you an easy life with wealth or popularity if you follow Him, He guarantees the opposite. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something. Serve people anyway.

Like a Lion

A certain air of excitement and anticipation filled the atmosphere this morning. The Game Time series we’re working our way through is encouraging and empowering, but something today felt different, it felt charged, like the worship service was primed and ready to ignite. Maybe it was quality time spent in prayer for and by our worship leaders, perhaps it was the next step I’ve been encouraged to take my art in and beginning that effort today, perhaps it was just me. Whatever it was, I loved it, I needed it and I want more of it.

Opposition to the work

Nehemiah 4:1-14

My God’s not dead, He’s surely alive.

and He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion!

Like A Lion, Nehemiah 4, Game Time 3

Discouragement is an adversary faced by everyone who’s ever risked anything. The teenager who risks being themselves in front of their peers faces pressure to conform to social molds. The high school sweethearts who fulfill their mutual commitment to purity to get married at 19  are ridiculed even by those within their family  for being too young and too immature to commit their lives to each other. The college junior who abandons his business major to pursue a degree in missions and worship arts is rejected by his family for “throwing away his future.” The teacher who leaves a decade-long career in secondary education with retirement benefits at a local school and embarks on a journey to  earn a new degree in a different field at a school 85 miles away is told she’d be better off to “hang on a few more years.” The artist working to break down centuries-old barriers between their art, their faith and their community only to have doors closed and ideas delayed. We don’t face opposition because we’re doing something wrong, we face opposition because we’re doing something right.

I’ve heard the same thing said different ways, but the most fundamental way of putting it I have heard is Satan doesn’t waste time or energy on souls who are already his. I believe The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, first published by an Anglican periodical named The Guardian in 1941, most effectively surmises our place in spiritual warfare and the weapon that is discouragement. Many of today’s quotes come from those letters.

Discouragement, at its core, is just a big word for worry. When one talks about being discouraged (or at least when I have felt it myself) I am less concerned with people sharing their opposition to my plans and more concerned with their reactions if I follow through on them anyway. The genius behind the weapon of discouragement (spiritually speaking) is that the opposition never says “don’t do _____”. That would be a futile tactic to use on a soul with any hint of spiritual maturity because it would be immediately written off. Who’s going to stop loving their community because someone approached them and said “stop being compassionate”? Nobody. Approach someone with a scathing indictment of how the consequences of their actions will negatively come back upon them and you’ve got leverage. Our Enemy doesn’t talk in absolutes because he doesn’t want us to think in absolutes. He uses ‘what if’s’ and ‘are you sure’s’ to keep us floundering in uncertainty until we either run out of time or emotional stamina.

“There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human’s mind against the Enemy [God]. He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.”

This logic proves “the devil made me do it” to be a completely unfounded excuse for poor decisions. The devil doesn’t pose questions to you whose answers dictate your actions. It is his plan to make you choose not to complete the mission God entrusts to you. His discouragement comes in indirect questions like “Do you want people to like you? What if no one gets it? Do you think people really want you to do this?” Do you see? Satan doesn’t question the integrity of our mission, doing that would affirm our intentions and only make us stronger. Instead, he brings to light the personal consequences of following through with our plans. Once our minds are filled with enough doubt and anxiety, we most often take the path of least resistance and abort our world-changing ideas before they are released.

Think about your community for a minute. How many people would have a roof over their head, children have families, stomachs be full, addictions be broken, and lives fulfilled if people like you simply turned their ideas into action? How often have you let an opportunity float passed while you protected your reputation?

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at its testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.”

Nehemiah’s plans faced opposition from day one. Requesting approval to start his mission to rebuild Jerusalem was a brazen move in itself! Now he’s faced with the haters on the ground. Hecklers along the wall he’s so ardently convinced is his lone responsibility to  see reconstructed. The very people he’s rebuilding this city for share cynical rumors that his motives are less than pure. Despite it all, Nehemiah presses forward. He is forced to go as far as arming his fellow workers with construction tools in one hand and combat weapons in the other, yet construction is not delayed. 

Nehemiah embraced two things with unwavering loyalty, God and his cause. “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down” became his battle cry (Nehemiah 6:3) Complete the mission God entrusts to you in the shadow of Nehemiah who rebuilt a city in 52 days.

Like A Lion, Nehemiah 4, Game Time 3

Like I said earlier, the atmosphere walking into the service today was an aura inspiring creativity that I had not experienced in some time. My expectations for today’s drawing launched like a pyrotechnic star, slowly slithering its way into the sky. What exposed itself on the page was only limited by the ability of the one maneuvering the pencils.

Lauren did an excellent job arranging the worship set this morning. While many were led in worship by talented musicians today, the worship team effectively lead the body of North Ridge into worship with a strategic progression of music and lyrics.

Like a Lion – adoration

Here for You – confession

How Great is Our God – thankfulness

From the Inside Out – supplication

The subject and progression of today’s drawing is (like many of my pieces) full of intentional layers and dimensions of meaning. I began first by contemplating on the imagery of “oppression”, which is the title of today’s message. My mind flitted between a dark page of charcoal black and an emotional crowd of naysayers. Art (particularly Christian art) cannot remain one-sided, so I had to balance the oppressive emotion with a feeling of freedom and release. The foundational subject of this image is a circular array of dark figures, seemingly trying to suppress the central focus point.

As your eye travels around this circle of figures, you notice the shape extending to the bottom of the page is out of place; it has leaves growing from it! Your mind almost immediately recognizes this combination of shapes; it is the stem of a flower.

Pom pom flower

The negative space between the hands and bodies of the figures now also begins to take shape. While the dark shapes produce a heavy, oppressive emotional atmosphere, a flower comes into bloom in the center of the page against the seemingly insurmountable odds.

Like A Lion detail

Now that you’re focused on the image exposing itself from the negative space on the page, the final and most crucial detail comes back into view; the part of the drawing these surrounding figures are working so hard to suppress. In the center of the flower and at the hands of the oppressors is the face of a lion rearing back to loose an earth-shattering roar.

You are the flower. God places inside you specific passions. Working inside these passions is where you find your greatest joy. As Frederick Beuchner said it, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Find the world’s hunger, then use your passion to satisfy its pangs. As you fulfill your passion, expect opposition to arise. Stand your ground, grow where you’re planted. Leverage your talent and passion to build a city within your city. Loose the lion inside you to roar with such authority that you are exposed to be that city on the hill. Have the courage to say; Here’s the problem. Here’s the solution. Here’s why we need to do something about it. Here’s why we need to do something about it NOW. Make you passion to defeat your enemy bigger than your apathy.

Now for that next step I took my art in today. You may have noticed at the bottom of my posts, the share tabs are tagged with a statement that says “Art comes alive when it’s shared.” That starts with my sketchbook today. Every drawing will be released as soon as it is completed, immediately available somewhere in the coffee lounge at North Ridge. Tagged with a note reading “FREE ART” paper-clipped to the drawing, it is free for the taking by whoever it chooses. My hope is that the cleaning crew finds fewer of these than you!

When your time on this earth draws to a close, my prayer is this phrase, uttered by Wormwood’s “patient”,  is far from your lips and mine; “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.”

You are doing a great work and you cannot come down.

Stamp of Approval

Worship is more than physical action.

This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.  Matthew 15:8-9

God never intended obedience to one command to nullify another. Each command from Him correlates harmoniously with every other. The moment you are faced with an unfamiliar “Biblical command” that prevents you from fulfilling another that you know to be true, you can guarantee the new command is false.

The root of legalism is tradition, adhering to a singular way of doing things for the sake of avoiding change. Legalism is not a recent phenomena, not even in the last century. Legalism has been alive and well since the dawn of religion, it is the loophole around religious Dogma that allows a person to claim a religion without having change themselves. The crowd Jesus was speaking to in these passages is the staple child of religious legalism, the Pharisees. These religious leaders used legalism to manipulate the common public and relive themselves from uncomfortable responsibilities at their convenience. The specific dance here involved what was referred to as the Corban. The Bible commands families to support each other. Specifically, children are to care for their parents when the need arises. Corban law allowed a person to will all of their assets to the church, releasing them from having to use their own money to help anyone (including their folks) by the religious excuse “I’ve committed everything I have to God, so giving to you would be stealing from God.” Naturally, their religious propriety would not apply when the individual was personally in need. Using “God’s money” on themselves would then be example of God’s provision. The hypocrisy is blatantly obvious.

Today’s culture is no less hypocritical, regardless of religious profession. We are an intrinsically driven culture, that is to say we are out to gain the world for ourselves at the expense of whomever gets in our way. This attitude has slowly infiltrated through our personal lives, into our social lives and business personas. We are at the point now selfishness is even promoted from church pulpits. Self-called “preachers” allot entire sermons to promoting man-invented, legalistic rules while completely ignoring the truth of the Gospel.

Stamp of Approval

 

Interpreting today’s message, I drew this in the style of a political cartoon. The stamp engraved with the word “tradition” has marked the Bible VOID with a single swipe. In the background, a stereotypical traditional preacher standing in a pulpit (a modern day golden calf), arm raised in a shout of legalistic condemnation for outsiders. I can almost hear the the “amens” echoing off the page! In a twist of irony (you all know how I love irony) a Peace Lily is placed on either side of the pulpit. Flowers that represent peace surrounding a platform of bondage.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not condemning all forms of tradition. I take issue when tradition contradicts the gospel. Do not be afraid to question tradition. When questioning the norm results in anger and opposition, you know it’s time to move on.

God is concerned about your heart and He wants your only concern to be His.

A City on a Hill

A City on a Hill

 

Newly finished because planting season is here, check out the painting inspired by our series ‘A City on a Hill’ from earlier this spring!

Matthew 5:14-16

I’m pretty sure this is the riskiest painting I’ve ever completed. For starters, I stretched this canvas myself, the first time I’ve built my canvas since high school! Since I’ve been working with upholstered furniture for the last ten years, the art of stretching fabric is very familiar. Next came the risk of different materials and methods. I chose to paint directly on the raw canvas, no Gesso or under-painting.

A common thread in my work is deep symbolism, ‘A City on a Hill’ is no different. Each detail in the painting is meticulously chosen to represent something specific.

North Ridge Church

 

The first image  created in this piece was the ‘hill’. At first, I was hesitant to use a mountain landscape in a painting I’d call ‘A City on a Hill’ because the reference seemed cliché’ and too easy. In the end, I stuck with the mountains to directly reference the family of believers with whom I worship and serve together; North Ridge Church.

 

With the ‘hill’ resolved, my next step was to tackle the ‘city’.

A couple of summers ago, I drew during a series we called ‘Planted’ at North Ridge. One particular message focused on how God places us in a specific place with a specific purpose, to build a city within a city. With that in mind, I could have allowed the mountain range to be both the hill and the city, but that interpretation would have been lost to people unfamiliar with that series.

Instead, I chose to incorporate another re-occurring theme in my work, the use of foreign language that literally translates into the word or idea I aim to convey. This time I stretched my use of  linguistics to include Japanese, selecting the symbol that communicates ‘light’. Referencing ‘light’ instead of ‘city’ captures both analogies in the words of Matthew, the city on a hill and the lamp on a pedestal.

These first details; the hill, the city, and the light are all God-designed and God-established entities so I wanted to create them in a way that acknowledged His hand. At the time I was developing this composition I was also starting a vegetable garden from seed; and that’s when the inspiration hit, dirt. Dirt; the original earthen material, one of God’s first creations. Dirt naturally connects our minds with God’s hand in creation so it became the ideal material to use as paint in ‘A City on a Hill’. This was my first attempt at using dirt as paint, so I was nervous from the start. I mixed a saturated paste from leftover potting soil in a plastic dish and used a bamboo brush to apply a thick layer on the canvas. After a couple days drying time, the majority of the dirt held, so I excitedly moved forward with the piece!

I dry-brushed the blue mountain and foggy-looking landscape, then complimented the blue with a red-orange, sunset sky before inspiration struck once again. At this point, I had one step left in the piece as I had it conceived. After seeing the dirt and color as it stood, I felt it was lacking. Bring on risk number three, a white Gesso wash. I often use an ink wash with India ink on mounting board in my work. My hypothesis was that mixing Gesso in the same method would bring similar results on raw canvas. The risk paid off. Using the wash, I dabbed heavy brushes full on the top edge of the canvas frame, allowing the fluid white to stream down the face of the piece and create organic white lines. A “happy accident” (to quote Bob Ross) was that, since the blue mountain had not dried, the white drips pulled some of the blue color into itself. Some drips mixed into a lighter blue, others pulled blue down with it while keeping some of the white hue separate. The result (which I am very happy with) took me to the scripture that inspired my name, James 1:17-18.

Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of Heavenly lights who does not change like shifting shadows.

The Gesso wash created a white rim (the heavens) along the top and runs down to infiltrate the dirt and acrylic paint on the canvas, solidifying the dirt and enhancing the flat blue so that it becomes a very interesting focal point int he piece.

One last detail to add, this one the riskiest of all but the one that makes this piece work. Using a serrated steak knife, I stabbed a hole in the top right of the  canvas and sawed at the threads until I exposed a jagged hole. Cutting this hole did not loosen the canvas as much as I expected. The areas I thought I’d have to go back and tighten up remained flat and rigid. The piece was now complete.

As you take in the piece, your eye is drawn to the grossly damaged corner. I image this detail will capture eyes from across the room and make people ask themselves “What is going on there?” or “Did someone vandalize that painting?”. Whatever the question, it is one they can’t escape. Therein lies the point. The frayed cut will capture your eye and refuse to let it free. You must force yourself to look at the rest of the composition instead of its wound.

A city on a hill………..cannot be hidden.

Receive and Apply

Receive and Apply

par-a-ble

noun

1. a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson.

2. a statement or comment that conveys a meaning indirectly by the use of comparison, analogy or the like.

Jesus lays on the parables thick in Matthew 13, comparing the kingdom of heaven to a farmer planting seeds, a single mustard seed, leaven that refines flour, a hidden treasure, a merchant and a fishing net. Each of these comparisons accurately describes heaven, each also delivered to connect with a specific mind. When Jesus spoke, he was speaking to common citizens, farmers, bakers, and fishermen; his words were strategically directed to those lifestyles. While using a language that most of his audience would understand, Jesus also utilized a catch phrase familiar to the modern professional educator,  he inspired “higher order thinking”. By using analogies and symbolism, the listener has to discern what each character and detail represents in order to apply to the kingdom of heaven and in their daily lives. Making the situation familiar while also making the listener think results in the person actually hearing the message and downloading it into their long-term memory.

I have to make confession, I’m a nerd. I love watching all the brainy, educational shows on Discovery channel and National Geographic. I caught a show on NatGeo recently that was all about how our brains operate. One segment caught my attention in particular, the one about memory. During this portion of the show, the producers interviewed a man who competes in memory competitions professionally. They tested his abilities by sending his to a bar and assigning him the task of learning and remembering a set of twenty people’s names throughout the night. At the end of the evening, he flawlessly recalled the names of each stranger, along with some additional details about their lives and character traits. Then the producers had him reveal his secret to super-memory. As each person introduced themselves, this guy would focus on something specific about the person; a facial feature, scent of their cologne or perfume, anything that makes that individual unique. In his mind, he would then take that detail and assign it an object (an apple, for instance). He would then take the object and place it in a specific place in his intellectual living room. Every face has a name, each name would be associated with an object, each object a story behind it’s placement in the room. This recipe of association ultimately ensured the person’s name was locked into the memory of this “professional recollector”. Sounds a whole lot like a parable, doesn’t it?

That show really served as affirmation for what I do, spontaneously translating the auditory into visual. I essentially am fostering the same process of memory  by associating the day’s message with a visual image, then recording the back-story of the image by explaining the symbolism on the blog.

Today’s drawing is a lounge chair sitting in the middle of a plowed field with an apple resting on the seat. I planted my tomatoes yesterday and checked over the rest of our crop sprouting for this year before rain moved in today, so I already had gardening on the brain. The plowed field is a reference to the parables Jesus used with the audience in Matthew 13, the homesteaders of that day. I then added my own familiar association with the ancient parables, placing a lounge chair in the middle of the field. I am a furniture engineer by day, so upholstered seating is my life and leisure! Last, I added the apple. The purpose of parables is to convey knowledge. Among the associations of the apple is education, the apple on the teacher’s desk. Whatever knowledge you are aiming to grasp is encompassed by this apple, resting in the cultivated field.

Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

 

Outside Your Window

Outside Your Window

 

Today started a new series entitled ‘Multiply’ as we continue in our study of Matthew.  The text for today is Matthew 9:35 through 10:42; the meat o these verses being Jesus commissioning his twelve disciples to expand his ministry by serving people following the example he’s given them.

To start today’s message in context, we took a detailed look at Matthew 9:35-38. The word ‘compassion’ being used here is more than just feeling sorry for another. When we look at the original language, this word is describing an emotional and physical reaction Jesus has to seeing the lost state of the people around him as they grope for something to complete their spiritual selves. This is a gut-wrenching sorrow for humanity.

Second is the word ‘harvest’. As an amateur vegetable gardener, I understand too well the urgency or harvesting your crop before (1) another mammal does or (2) it over-ripens and is ruined. The harvest is ripe, the harvest is urgent.

Our main emphasis as  a church was a prayer that I have prayed many times; Abba, let me see people through your eyes. Brandon Heath recorded a song in 2009 that accurately captures this desire, “Give Me Your Eyes”.

Jesus approached the unapproachable, touched the untouchable, and embraced every sector of society without hesitation or remorse. He broke down walls with complete disregard for his own safety. Now he’s turning to his inner circle and telling them, “It’s your turn.” As followers of Jesus, we are included in that call. Go and make disciples of the people right outside our windows. Jesus does not warn the disciples away from adversity, he tells them to expect it and embrace it. “Do not fear those who can kill your body but cannot kill your soul. Rather, fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell. (Matthew 10:28).

The theme of today’s message and resulting drawing brought back an image created for our ‘Bold’ series last year. A figure, representing you as an individual and the church as a whole, being faced with a decision; step out in faith or play it safe? In both images, the figure has taken down the warning labels members of society (many who are inside church walls) set in place to keep themselves safe and is stepping out into the perceived danger in faith. It is important to note the figure walks alone. Stepping out in faith is not a movement, it’s a decision we make as individuals that risks no one following.

Who do you see outside your own window who needs someone reach out to them? Take a bold step, introduce yourself then introduce them to Jesus.

A Prayer for Boldness

Prayer for Boldness