Wednesday, April 15, 2009

How Art Helps You be You!

Do you remember times as a child when you became lost in wonder? Minutes, even hours, passed as you immersed yourself in play, mesmerized, as you dabbled in the palettes of the colorful world around you.

My childhood memories of those magical moments include sitting in the tall grass on a hillside next to our yard and watching preying mantises preening. Or standing over gurgling creek water, listening to its sparkling sounds while watching for tadpoles or a school of minnows. I lost myself in a world that enchanted me. And in the process, I found myself.

These activities nurtured my soul and helped me live from a richer, deeper, uninhibited place of being—a place that I return to even now, though not as often or for as long as I would like.

In adulthood, we live much of life separated from our souls. We live out of our “externalized self”—the public “me” that I extend to others in order to win their approval, succeed in some way, or make life work. In the process, we lose a sense of our true self—the person God created us to be. That’s where art comes in.

Art has a way of repairing the split between the superficial self we have constructed and extend to the world, and the real, true self whom God created. When we meditate on or contemplate beautiful, provocative art, we lose ourselves once again, just like in childhood. To “see” the painting, we have to see it with the eyes of our soul. In the process, we become reacquainted with or engage our true self.

I observe this over and over again when I use art during presentations. Often the participants turn into a class of second graders, eagerly raising their hands, anxious to share what they “see.” I always marvel at the depth, insight, and intricacies of what others notice that I have missed. Individual art contemplation is great! Art contemplation in community is grand!!

For those who are reading or are familiar with my most recent book, Picturing the Face of Jesus, you know something of how I look at art as a means for spiritual transformation. This book includes eight color images of Jesus with guided reflections. When the reader takes in each image and becomes lost in the wordless message of Jesus’ face, he or she responds from that place of wonder again. And when that happens, I imagine Jesus saying, “Welcome home!”

Monday, April 13, 2009

"For the God who resurrects, nothing is the end." Miroslav Volf

Every Easter, I observe myself and other Christians searching in the Easter vigil for current meaning and significance. I hear pastors preach sermons, trying something new, a fresh angle on the Easter story, to engage and arrest our attention. Christians, alike, want to feel the wonder of the resurrection. We want the splendor of Jesus’ death-to-life drama to impact us.

It is necessary and invaluable to retell the historical events, each stage of the passion of Christ. But it seems we long to know, “What does this mean for us today?” This morning, when I read this statement by Miroslav Volf, my heart responded with affirmation and gratitude—the sense that this is what the resurrection means for me today.

For the God who resurrects, nothing is an end! There is no grim verdict that has the final say. No death that can ultimately steal the potential for life. There is nothing unredeemable. There is no trap that cannot be sprung—no pathway whose final destination leads nowhere. If God resurrected Jesus, then He can resurrect anyone, anything, any pain, and any dream. The resurrection implants hope that God brings life out of death.

Miroslav Volf goes on to tell of his experience with infertility. “Poison and curse—that’s how an unexplained infertility of ours felt to me for what seemed like an eternity. Nine years of trying to have a child of our own was like having to drink bitter waters from a poisoned well, month after month.”

Finally, after an agonizing nine years, he and his wife were given the gift of two incredible sons through adoption. Volf reflects: “Fertility would have robbed me of my boys. From my present vantage point, that would have been a disaster—the disaster of not having what I so passionately love….Since it gave me what I now can’t imagine living without, poison transmuted into a gift, God’s strange gift. The pain of it remains. But the poison is gone.”

I know what it is like to see God transmute poison into a gift. I think of a life situation from my recent past. The pain of that experience remains, but the poison has been mostly drained out. Through the pain of letting go, God has freed us. What had been a toxic compilation of circumstances has now become our release. That’s one of the ways I see my story connect with the hope in a God who resurrects!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Slow Reader

I’ve often found myself lamenting that I am a slow reader. I don’t plow through a book but rather saunter along in it. And I suppose I’ve thought of that pace as inferior and a sign of a sluggish mind.

However, this morning, I thought about being a slow reader from a different perspective. I received an email from a friend who is reading my book, Picturing the Face of Jesus. She stopped, in the middle of reading it and spending time with God, to tell me about an experience she had.

She said that she was reading my book “very slowly, a page or two at a time” and read the section in The Face of Welcome about Jesus welcoming everyone—children, misfits, and all.” Suddenly, she saw in her mind a picture of Jesus welcoming a host of hurting people, all with a myriad of illnesses, emotional pain and mental disorders. It was a beautiful, profound, healing picture, and one that touched her heart.

Now, I am fairly certain that my friend would have missed that experience with Jesus had she been in a hurry. Being a slow reader paid off.

So, I’d like to champion the virtues of being a slow reader and offer a few tips on how, by doing so, you can take far more into your heart. This applies to reading any book, but especially the Bible or books that nurture you spiritually.

1. Don’t cram yourself till your stuffed: When you read a chapter in a book, approach it like you are enjoying a fine meal with several courses. Don’t cram yourself on the appetizers! Always leave room for the dessert! In other words, take the chapter in by sections. If you are full after the first section, then take a break. Come back to it later. In Picturing the Face of Jesus, each chapter begins with an exercise of meditating on an image of Jesus. It may be enough to stop after the meditation and savor it before you move into the rest of the chapter.

2. Read from your heart: As you read slowly, don’t merely “think” your way through the paragraph, but read it from your heart, engaging your affections, deliberating on it’s meaning. Much of what we receive spiritually never makes it past our heads. As my mentor, Dr. Terry Wardle says, “We are over informed and under transformed.” Let the message of what you are reading sink into your deeper soul.

3. Stop and ponder what arrests your attention: So often, because we have an unnecessary goal of “getting through” something we are reading (as if there is a prize at the end for finishing), we don’t stop and ponder the ideas or questions that surface as we read. By doing so, we miss the Spirit speaking to us, whispering to our hearts, when something we read piques our interest or raises pivotal questions. When you find a statement or story that resonates, stop and ponder it; ask God to tell you more about what it means for you.

4. Return to passages or paragraphs, again and again: In the past several years, I have found myself staying put in a passage of Scripture for a week or more, if I feel that God has something for me in it. The same goes with books you read. Don’t hesitate to re-read portions that speak to you, or stay put when you sense that something is there but aren’t sure what.

I hope these suggests help you engage more richly with what you are reading and engage more deeply with God. And, by the way, don't apologize for being a slow reader!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Using the Imagination Isn't the Same as Pretending

Many who read my book, Picturing the Face of Jesus, may discover the final exercise at the end of each chapter a bit awkward, at first. I guide the reader through an exercise of envisioning himself or herself in the gospel story and imagining Jesus offering him or her the same expressive emotion as He did the main character(s) in the story. Some readers might question, “Is it okay to use the imagination? Isn’t that making things up?” My response, not surprisingly, is “No.”

Using the imagination isn’t the same as pretending. Imagination is a tool God has given us to bring the spiritual and temporal worlds together. Paul said, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” In other words, we can’t begin to imagine all the wonderful things that God has in store for those who love him. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try!

Jesus used his imagination as a spiritual lens through which to view the temporal world. One day he sent his disciples out, two by two, to heal and cast out demons. When his disciples returned, they were flabbergasted by God's display of power! They saw lives restored and demons demoralized. But Jesus saw something else. He told his disciples: “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning!” (Luke 10:18) Did he literally “see” or did he envision, in the heavenly realm, what was really happening? Did he imagine the forces of evil experiencing a profound setback as his disciples ministered with power in Christ’s name?

When we employ our imagination in order to understand what God has for us, who God is, and what God is doing, we bring the two realities of life together--the spiritual and the tangible. Like the dial on a pair of binoculars, the imagination brings the focus of both lenses together and reality into sharper view.

I hope that you will read my book, give it your best, and practice the imagining prayer exercises. Take your time, as you move through each instruction slowly. Pause and engage your imagination. Ask the Spirit to help you encounter the eternal and living Christ who is present today, in your sacred moment of prayer. Please write and tell me how's it going!

To give you a taste, here is an excerpt from Chapter 1: The Face of Welcome

Imagining Prayer: Letting Jesus Welcome You

When you picture Jesus’ face, do you imagine it as an inviting one? When you pray, do you feel a sense of warmth in his presence? Do you long to experience him as the receptive, open, and responsive person whom Zacchaeus experienced?

If so, begin by imagining and meditating on the story of Zacchaeus. Thoughtfully read the story in Luke 19:1-10 a few times.

• In prayer, picture yourself crouched on the limb of that tree. Why is it important for you to see Jesus?
• Imagine the crowd parting, and Jesus looking up at you with an expression of openness and delight. What does it feel like to be greeted by Jesus’ welcoming face?
• Allow the goodness of his warmth toward you, the smile on his face, to warm your heart. Respond in whatever way feels natural to you.
• Meditate on the sensation of Jesus’ welcoming face as he greets you. You may not picture an actual face, but rather feel the gladness embodied in his expression.
• Have a conversation with Jesus. Stay in the tree as long as you need to be there. When you are ready, accept his request to come home with you. Open your heart to his welcoming presence and simply be with him.