Tag Archives: Artist

The Depressed Prophet

Cursed be the day I was born!
    May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought my father the news,
    who made him very glad, saying,
    “A child is born to you—a son!”
May that man be like the towns
    the Lord overthrew without pity.
May he hear wailing in the morning,
    a battle cry at noon.
For he did not kill me in the womb,
    with my mother as my grave,
    her womb enlarged forever.
Why did I ever come out of the womb
    to see trouble and sorrow
    and to end my days in shame?
Jeremiah 20:13-18 (NIV)

Across the ages, the ancient prophet Jeremiah has been labeled with  the moniker “The Weeping Prophet.” In our bedroom at the lake Wendy and I have a copy of Rembrandt’s portrait of Jeremiah looking depressed and sullen as he sits amidst the ruins of Jerusalem. It reminds me that the lake is a thin place where any who are burdened can find rest for their souls. Alas, it would seem that Jeremiah had no such place.

In today’s chapter we read of a confrontation between Jeremiah and a priest named Pashur, who was “the official in charge of the Temple of the Lord.” The fact that the one “in charge” was out to get Jeremiah is a good indication of just how corrupt the system had become in Jeremiah’s day. The priest in charge of the Temple was overseeing all of the pagan rituals and cults operating out of the Temple. The Temple had become a religious corporation, a powerful money-maker for those in charge (not unlike the way Jesus’ found the Temple in His day).

While Jeremiah had been protected from the death-threats that had already been made against him, Pashur decided to at least punish the prophet for his inflammatory prophesies of doom and destruction. I’m quite sure they were bad for business. In fact, I can almost hear Pashur saying, “This isn’t personal, Jer. It’s strictly business.” Once again, this is not unlike Jesus who, after His repeated rants against their corruption and His stirring up of the people, pressured the Temple leaders to plot His death .

After his time in the stocks, Jeremiah immediately confronts Pashur with a stubborn and willful repeating of his prophetic message: Jerusalem will be destroyed and its people led into captivity at the hands of Babylon. Obviously the prophet wanted Pashur to know his punishment did not have the desired effect. In fact, it simply appears to have pissed Jeremiah off.

What comes next is fascinating. The weeping prophet goes into a depression and pens a dark poem that graphically expresses his wish that he’d never been born. Obviously, the burden of his role, his prophecies, and the steady threats and persecution were getting to him. Of course they were. It would get to me too.

This morning I’m thinking about how common it is for humans to go through periods of depression. If you were privy to my medical records you’d find that I’ve had a few bouts with the blues along my life journey, and I never faced anything like what Jeremiah was dealing with. I’m also thinking about how common it is for individuals in history (artists, musicians, writers, thinkers) who saw and expressed things no one else could see were given to depression, madness, mental illness, and even suicide. I’d certainly put Jeremiah alongside the likes of Van Gogh, Hemingway, and Parker.

I’m struck by the contrast this morning between the spit-shined image I believe we often have of a “godly” person or a “servant of God.” We demand so much, expect so much, and are so quick to scapegoat individuals for their weaknesses and shortcomings. Jeremiah reminds me this morning that God’s servants were fully human, carried human flaws and weaknesses, were susceptible to all the shortcomings known to humanity, and were even given to deep depression and suicidal thoughts. Jeremiah reminds me to cut others a break. He even reminds me to be a bit more gracious with myself.

Wendy and I were at the lake late last week opening it up for the coming summer season. Once again, I saw and pondered Jeremiah’s portrait as I lay in bed.

I’m looking forward to getting back there.

(FWIW: My latest message was added to the Messages page.)

Prophets, Poets and a Touch of Madness

“Cut off your hair and throw it away; take up a lament on the barren heights, for the Lord has rejected and abandoned this generation that is under his wrath.”
Jeremiah 7:29 (NIV)

There was a fascinating story on CBS Sunday Morning yesterday talking about the connection between creativity and mental illness. There is no doubt that there is a disproportionate number of genius artists, writers, and musicians who struggled with some form of mental condition. Observations of the connection between genius and madness date back to Aristotle, though it’s only been in recent years that the connection has been seriously studied.

As we watched the story Wendy wondered aloud if there isn’t also a disproportionate number of creatives who would be considered Type Four on the enneagram. I would bet that she is right. Creativity often springs from the inherent individuality and expression  natural to Fours.

These thoughts were swimming in my head as I read this morning’s chapter. It begins the transcription of a message God gave to Jeremiah in order that he stand at the gate of the Temple in Jerusalem and proclaim the message. The ancient prophets were often standing in the crowds shouting messages from God.

Amidst the message Jeremiah reports God telling him to shave off his hair and take up the wailing songs and prayers of lament on the “barren heights.” This was another mark of the ancient prophets: acts that today we would call “performance art” (some simple and others quite complex) that God regularly prescribed the prophets to act out in public.

I find that most modern believers approach the prophets with a certain amount of reverence that translates into a white-washed perception of them. Just as Van Gogh sold just one painting in his lifetime, so the prophets were not particularly well received in their day. Only in 20/20 hindsight have their words and reputations been scrubbed clean by institutional religion. As I said before, they were an odd lot. They were often despised and marginalized. They were the sketchy characters from whom parents likely shielded their children:

Mommy? Who’s that strange man over there walking naked and tied to an ox yoke?

Pay no attention, sweetie. Stay away from him. He’s just a crazy old man.”

The prophets were hated, especially by the political-religious class who were commonly the targets of their public, prophetic tirades. The prophets were targeted for assassination and killed by the power brokers of their day. Even Jesus testified to this truth when He confronted the political-religious leaders of His day:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you….”

This morning I’m thinking about creativity and its connection to oddity. I’m thinking about God’s use of those odd, strange, mad individuals among us who see what the mainstream doesn’t and express what the mainstream can’t, won’t, and/or doesn’t desire to hear. Prophets, artists, and poets stand as reminders what God said through the prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways.”

Out With the Old; Embracing the New

See, I will create
    new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
    nor will they come to mind.
Isaiah 65:17 (NIV)

This past weekend Wendy and I began a large clean-up campaign in our basement storage room. It’s time go through all of our stuff, and I mean really go through it. So it was that I found a number of large boxes of financial records, taxes, mortgage documents, and receipts. Many of these were much older than the recommended seven years you’re supposed to hang on to things in case of an IRS issue. It felt so good to be rid of them.

I have found on my spiritual journey that there is a continual process of recreation. In yesterday’s chapter we unpacked the word picture of God as a master Potter, constantly molding us, shaping us, fashioning us. If you’ve ever watched a potter at work you find that when one thing doesn’t work out the Potter goes back to the lump and begins again. But what is fashioned out of the same lump may look very different the next time the Potter goes to work on it.

God is an artist, and artists are always creating. You can’t stop the flow of ideas. It is quite common for artists to take a canvas with one image and cover it with an altogether new illustration. A media piece that was meant for one creative urge will be suddenly be used on another. Those who dare tap into the flow of creation know that it is a river that never stops running and those who dip into it are constantly being swept away in new directions.

If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation. Old things pass away; Behold, new things come. 2 Corinthians 5:17

And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Revelation 21:5

In today’s chapter, Isaiah has a vision of Creator re-creating things on a grand scale. It’s the same vision that John is given at the end of his Revelation. Things are made new. The Creator is at work recreating. Old ways are gone. New ways have come.

This morning I am so grateful for the places following Jesus has led me. As I disposed of all those old receipts I felt such gratitude for the ways God has continually molded and shaped my life, constantly creating new in me. I literally felt old things passing away. As a student of history I appreciate the past and what it can teach me about my present, but appreciating the past and being mired in personal, spiritual stagnation are two completely different things.

Drop me in the deep waters of the Creator’s artistic flow. I can’t wait to see where it leads me, and what continually recreated life looks like downstream.

Unexpected Events in the Narrative

…after having heard that Lazarus was ill, [Jesus] stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
John 11:6 (NRSV)

One of the things that has always fascinated me about Jesus’ story, is the way in which Jesus is aware of the bigger picture of all that is happening in and around Him. There is a master plan that is being carried out. The conflict between Jesus and the religious powers-that-be has been growing for some time, but it is all part of the Great Story narrative that God has been authoring since Genesis. Jesus continually speaks and acts in a way to move the narrative toward its prescribed conclusion.

Life and death, death and resurrection are the grand themes of the Great Story. Jesus knows that events are falling into place. Characters are in their places and the cues are being called. Jesus will soon play His part in the grand climax of the story. He will die and then rise again to life in three days. For those who had ears to hear it, Jesus has been saying it all along…

“I will destroy this temple and raise it in three days.”

“Just as Jonah was three days in the belly of the fish, so for three days the Son of Man will lie in the earth.”

In today’s chapter, Jesus hears of Lazarus’ illness and chooses to stay right where He is. He is waiting for Lazarus to die. This is part of the story, though for Mary and Martha their brothers sudden illness and Jesus’ subsequent refusal to act must be both unexpected and frustrating. Jesus must allow Mary and Martha to suffer the grief and sorrow of their brother’s death, knowing the eucatastrophe that will ultimately allow them to experience the power of Life. The author of creation is a master artist and writer, and He is calling the shots. One dramatic miracle, the resurrection of Lazarus, will accomplish multiple layers of purpose:

  • Lazarus’ resurrection will foreshadow Jesus’ resurrection.
  • Jesus’ miracle will up the ante. He has revealed power of sickness and nature, but now He raises the stakes and will publicly reveal His power over death itself.
  • In upping the ante, He will force the hand of His enemies. They will feel compelled to go all in.

Over this past week, Wendy and I have experienced a small handful of unexpected life events that have us scratching our heads. We can’t see clearly where circumstance is leading for us or our loved ones, nor do we have focus regarding how these small events fit in the bigger narrative of our stories. This morning I am reminded, and encouraged, that the author of creation is a master story-teller, and I can trust that He is writing our own stories to fit perfectly into the Great Story narrative.

 

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The Language of God

Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
John 10:6 (NRSV)

I taught a class a year ago called The Language of God,  and in the class I and my classmates walked through the Great Story, unpacking evidence that metaphor (something that represents something else) is the medium God incessantly uses to communicate Himself to us. God is Creator. God is an artist. God reveals Himself in creation and in word pictures.

John understood this better than Matthew, Mark, or Luke. In his biography of Jesus, John begins by revealing Jesus as “The Word.” Since then, John has communicated different metaphors that both John the Baptist and Jesus used to communicate who He was…

Lamb of God
Water of Life
Bread of Life
Light of the World
The Gate
The Good Shepherd

John isn’t done. There are more metaphors, more word pictures, to come in the remaining chapters.

I find it fascinating that John records that Jesus used “this figure of speech” or way of speaking, “but they didn’t understand what he was saying to them.” Later in the chapter the religious lawyers even make it more blunt, “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus response: “I have told you.” And indeed, Jesus has been telling them all along. They were so myopically focused on the scribes’ ink on the papyrus of their precious scrolls that they couldn’t interpret the language of metaphor, the living Word, that was being communicated in front of their eyes and in their very own ears.

“Those who have the ears to hear,” Jesus said. Those who can interpret the word pictures Jesus is verbally painting, those who can understand the language of metaphor, they get what He is saying.

Understanding God’s Message is deeper than being able to read the ink on the page. You have to understand the language of metaphor our Creator/Artist God is using in His works of creation and the Great Story He authors.

 

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Artist’s Date

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Romans 1:20 (NIV)

Wendy and I will sometimes go on an artist’s date with friends. Often it’s just another couple, though we have done it with slightly larger groups. We typically go to the Des Moines Art Center because it’s close, it’s free, and it has an amazing collection of 19th and 20th century artwork. Here’s how the artist’s date works:

First, we wander together through the Art Center quickly browsing through each gallery. Each person is to be open  and mindful to pay attention to what particular piece of artwork strikes them for whatever reason.

Once we’ve made it through the Art Center, we then spread out, each person to the one piece that struck them the most as we browsed. This time, we stand or sit in front of that piece of artwork and look at it for 30 minutes.  There are no particular rules. You might look at it from different angles. You might get in close to inspect the brushwork. You might just sit in one spot and stare at it. I personally like to bring a journal (and a pencil, the Art Center doesn’t like you using a pen!) and write my thoughts.

When the 30 minutes are up, everyone meets back at the lobby. We go to a nice restaurant, order some good food and drink, and then take turns sharing what art work we looked at and what we gleaned from our 30 minutes with it. It’s always fascinating to hear others share.

When you look at an artist’s work, really look at it, you eventually begin to catch a glimpse of that artist. The painting, the photograph, the drawings, the sculpture are an expression of what’s inside the heart and mind of the artist.

We often forget that God first reveals Himself to us as Creator. “In the beginning, God created….” God is an artist, and the universe is an ongoing work of art as the heavens expand out into the seemingly endless canvas of space and time. When you look at creation, really look at it, you begin to catch a glimpse of the Artist. Detailed, ordered, and infinitely particular while at the same time infinitely playful and diverse in subject, composition, line, color, and form.

Today, I have the fortune of driving for several hours through forecasted rain and snow as I make my way home. My artist’s date today is in the Art Center of nature and I will focus my attention on God’s artwork: Prairie Winter. I can’t wait to see what new things there are for me to glean as I study the landscape.

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Green God

If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you? You may destroy only the trees that you know do not produce food; you may cut them down for use in building siegeworks against the town that makes war with you, until it falls.
Deuteronomy 20:19-20 (NRSV)

One of the things that I have quietly gained as a life long fan and student of J.R.R. Tolkien is an appreciation for trees. Tolkien loved trees and his expression of love is woven throughout his works. In his creation story, there are two trees, gold and silver, which produced light. When evil destroys the trees their fruit become the sun and moon.

Throughout the Lord of the Rings you find Tolkien’s love of trees expressed through Old Man Willow, the ents, and through the elves who dwell in the forests and carry the blessings of all things that grow. Those who are evil, like the wizard Saruman and his minions, fell the trees and destroy the forests to fuel their war machine and generally tear down that which is good. As a result, it is the trees embodied by the Ents and the mysterious forest of Huorns who rise up against evil and help usher in an unexpected victory in The Two Towers.

So it is that I read with keen interest God’s command to the ancient Hebrew in today’s chapter. The army was not to fell any tree that was living and bearing fruit. When laying siege to an enemy city, they could eat the fruit of the surrounding trees but were forbidden from cutting them down to use in building siege engines and utensils of war. Only trees which were already dead could be used for such purposes.

I am reminded this morning that our Creator and artist God began His work on earth with a garden, and at the center of the garden He placed a very special tree. The vision of the end given to us in John’s revelation likewise makes special mention of a tree:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Revelation 22:1-2

I am not much of a gardener and I often joke of having a “brown thumb.” Yet, along life’s journey I have grown to appreciate that God, like Tolkien, is a gardner and a lover of trees. If I am to be like Him, then I must grow to love, appreciate, and protect gardens and trees and the living things that grow in His creation.

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featured image: The Tree of Life , Gustav Klimt