Modern Art, Makoto Fujimura, and My Inability To Write My Own Name

“Art taps into the reality of the transcendent” – Makoto Fujimura

Legibility has escaped me since a child. Writing my name in a way in which others could actually make out the letters is a skill I never developed. This lack carried over into my inability to draw anything resembling anything. So I’m certainly no artist. As a matter of fact if I think back to Mrs. Whitmire’s art classes, I made pretty poor grades. Yep, in art. Translating what I saw in my mind’s eye onto the paper was what I wanted to do. Really, I did. I loved to draw but could not do it in a way that expressed what was there. So a young life full of dreams of drawing spilling over onto sketch books was displaced. Thankfully poetry and prose did it. But I never really tried to draw again. Still don’t.

Though not sure where I picked it up, any affection for the painting and drawing others had done, was always proportional to how representational it was. So, I was more than willing to see the genius and beauty of Carvaggio and Rembrandt. However, all modern art which was the opposite of representational was out of bounds. It was weird. I couldn’t understand it. It had the feel (or lack of feeling) of inaccessibility. So I ignored it when I was not making fun of it.

All of this was the furniture of my mind when I began seeing the work of Makoto Fujimura on the internet. Having never heard of Nihonga – the ancient method of Japanese artists using particular mediums, setting it apart from Western art – I was drawn in by it’s long history and distinctive techniques. But my curiosity did not square with my convictions, firmly held about art, which was not representational. Would it be weird to say, “I had a kind of guilt about beginning to love his art?”

All this changed on a plane. A few years ago my wife and I were flying to Wichita to interview for a job. Sitting by the window, like a kid, I was wide-eyed with wonderment. And then I saw it. I saw “modern art” created by farmers. I saw a patchwork of squares, full of browns and greens of different shades. Some of these squares contained triangles and circles which certainly made sense to those who placed them there but they seemed haphazard from above. Thousands upon thousands of these squares stretched in every direction. And it was absolutely beautiful.

This God’s eye view provided me with me a glimpse of something which has often been right in front of me but I had never seen.

As a result, a kind of conversion happened, and the burden I carried, which supplied me with guilt, had fallen away and the scales fell off so that I saw beauty I had missed. There is a mundane quality to the shapes and drips of the modern paintings which we pass over all too quickly, mainly because we never stop and step back or hover over the smallest of details in our lives.

I now pore over the work of Fujimura. I am neither qualified nor desire to give a fully informed professional opinion on his work. However, I do know this, his work never ceases to move. Perhaps, it’s because I cannot get my head around it. Or maybe because it is more like poetry, expressing the inexpressible parts of life.  Then again, maybe it is because I am seeing something new and old at the same time. Fixed and Fluid. Regardless, I am thankful for his use of materials which in their glory, move me to consider the immaterial.

Is Every Christian A "Missionary?"

“Every Christian is either a missionary or an impostor.” – Charles Spurgeon

The above quote by Charles Spurgeon has been making the rounds on Twitter and facebook recently. I have benefited from Spurgeon’s sermons and writings and life story for a number of years. But at the risk of killing a sacred cow here, I must say, “I disagree.”

Let me start by saying, I am fine with saying every Christian is to be salt and light where they find themselves. And I agree that our speech should be appropriately seasoned with words which betray our faith sooner or later. And contrary to popular opinion on what I have previously written, I am not against missions or evangelism.

If it is true, that every christian is a missionary, then the word really has no meaning beyond what a Christian should be doing, missions. There is no point in calling missionaries to Eritrea, “missionaries” because accountants in Meridian are doing the same thing. The word becomes nearly meaningless. And while most missionaries, who have have cast off the comforts of ours for foreign lands, would be too gracious to be bothered by the idea, it would be understandable if they were just a little put-off by such an idea. Of course, then we would criticize them for pride. “Oh you are a Nurse! Me too! I just told my sister to take some Ibuprofen.”

Nursing your children back to health does not make you a Nurse.

My guess is people love the quote because they are still mired in the paradigm of elevating misionary work as the height of spirituality. Ordinary work that is not vocational ministry is not valuable enough in the kingdom if we are not using it as a vehicle for witnessing to people. It is not dignified by itself as kingdom work, something more is needed. So we call ourselves missionaries to justify our taking up of spiritual space.

However, I think most people mean well. Their thinking about Christianity is primarily defined by evangelism and missions. This is not merely part of the Christian experience, it defines it.

All of this seems to support a paradigm of thinking foreign to the New Testament writers. In other words, the quote demands we see ourselves as missionaries. If we do not, then we are impostors. Also, we must see others the same way. “Are they living like missionaries? Well they are impostors, if not.” The problem with this is that the writers of the NT do not ever talk like this. No one is ever called out for the sin of not being a missionary or witnessing or evangelizing. No one’s salvation is ever questioned for anything of the sort.

So while I understand the need for all Christians to be salt and light I disagree with Spurgeon on this. It confuses the difference between those who go and those who stay. And also it evaluates someone’s faith based on a variable of the christian life which almost goes entirely unmentioned in the New Testament letters to the churches.

Taking Long Looks

“People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything…” – Flannery O’Connor

Having read this quote for the first time about 12 years ago, I am surprised it is just now getting under my skin. But the very fact it has is perhaps proof of it’s truthfulness. Though I read novels, I am prone to not take long looks at most things. Like most Christians, I am quick to judge. Well, I am just quick period. I am quick to decide on the goodness or badness of something. I make rash judgments on people and books and everything. I want everything done quick. Food. Stories. Conversations. Trips. Blog posts. Downloads. Uploads. Health. Answered prayer.

So, I’m part of that elite evangelical group known as “Everyone.” We don’t take long looks at anything because it requires a reigning in of ego. The long look asks us to submit ourselves to the fact we have limited knowledge. We can guess and speculate but really we are just ignoramuses.

The BP oil spill is a good example. We were right to be concerned. But we were wrong to talk and act as if we knew the ending. We spoke about the spill as if we knew for certain what all the effects would be. And we knew, of course, they would be catastrophic. And so we handed out judgment diffused with anger like those without hope. In other words we freaked out and acted as if the Gulf Coast would be irreparably harmed. And we did all of this at the beginning of the story. But now? The oil cannot even be found. The beaches are pristine. And little microbes are “eating” up the oil that is below the surface. We should not have been so quick to think we knew the end of the story before we finished the first chapter.

Novels, of course are stories. And they should teach us something here. All the stories we love seem to have a crisis moment where we are forced to either have hope or dispense with it. And then as the story moves along, the characters change and the drama takes on a redemptive form. Hope emerges from the ashes of crisis. Our heart soars. Thankfully, we have looked long into the reaches of the final pages.

Our stories are similar. Not only have we as believers emerged from the slavery of sin and death and crossed the river on dry land into life and love with God, our Redeemer. But we continue on into a story that never ends. We move “further up and further in” as Lewis showed us in one of his novels. The story has not yet ended. We not only want others to take the long look into our lives, we naturally fall in this direction when thinking about ourselves. The cliché rings true. God isn’t finished yet. The story is not over. That is, unless you are without hope and cannot look long into the stories about and around you.

Grace For Me. Law For You.

Though our senses begin the long process of failure as we age, there are some things we can only see as we grow older. The reckless zeal of young faith yields to a seasoned wisdom. For this very reason I am thankful I am moving further away from my youth. Maybe their are others who could be called ‘wise’ and still be young. However, you could not number me among them.

In the last year, I have seen something I hear little about and something I am sure I could not have seen as a young man. And it has cut me to the core. It could be summed up in just a few words, “Grace for me. Law for you.”

I love how the gospel of grace gives me hope and tells me I have freedom from the guilt and power of sin. I love its comfort. I love how it changes me. I love to simply think about it. And when I sin, I love going to the gospel to be reminded of the forgiveness I have in Christ. But I must confess I love to exact obedience to the law in the lives of others.

My own life is coddled in the bosom of graciousness. For there, nurturing affection can be found. But for everyone else I have traded in the sword of the Spirit preferring the the cleaver of the killing floor. Self-righteous insecurity is the order of the day. My own sins are covered. I want other’s to be revealed and seen for all their horror. I want to be outraged by them and just as well as misery, my outrage needs to draw others in.

There are no excuses for this. But it is the very air we breathe in the land of evangelicals. Actually, no one, regardless of religious orientation, is immune. But my world is populated by a majority of those who define themselves by the ‘evangel.’ The gospel. Good News. And we love it for ourselves but we have the hardest time in doling it out to everyone else. We want our relationships down here and our relationship with God characterized by grace and mercy. But we cannot find it in our heart to be merciful to people and we sure as heck think their desire for grace and mercy is presumptuous.  It’s like some kind of sick spiritual sadism that groans for grace for ourselves and then wants to lower the weight of the law upon others. We crave the velvet touch of grace for our own battered lives but instinctively we want to hammer the struggling lives around us with law.

And I live in this reality. I reside here. And have for some time. The mantle has accrued the dust of years living this way. The furniture has permanently marred the carpet from a lack of movement form this position. I have maneuvered through this space without light for decades. So I do not want to simply wield the very weapon I am just now recognizing and beat anyone and everyone over the head with it. I have seen too much of this life before God to now come down on others with a lesson I have only recently learned.

But it is a lesson we must learn. We are commanded as believers to love one another as we have been loved by Christ: grace, mercy, kindness, love, patience…all these must needs be a part of how we deal with others. These define how we have been dealt with. So we must enjoy the freedom of the grace of God and at the same time long to extend grace to each other and bring the grace of the gospel to bear in the lives of others.

The God of the Mundane

(This post in it’s original form is here . It has grown a little.)

Perhaps I am missing something. It is possible.

Most of life seems to be pretty ordinary, mundane even. Mundane tasks liter our days and swallow our hours. We open our eyes, close them again, rub our faces and look in the mirror. Shower. We then shave our faces or legs. We all dress every morning, undress every evening. And throughout the day, regardless of sun shining or rain drenching, we must do mundane things over and over. Usually without thought we take on these tasks.

And I have not even mentioned the decisions, moral and practical coming our way in every lane we drive in and cubicle in which we answer the phone. None are earth shattering. Telling the truth here, a kind word there and on any given day not losing your patience with spouse, children, boss, teacher, and neighbor gets no press. No one will notice the steadiness – the victory over the rebellion we all know lies within. More than likely after not losing your temper, you will look out the window of your kitchen/cubicle/office/drive-through teller window and long for something beyond the mundane.

It is hard to imagine you are being spiritual in the midst of all this mundane stuff life throws your way. How do you feel spiritual when you are scrubbing grape juice out of your 6 year-old son’s white shirt? My guess is you prayed God would give you super-human mom strength so you would not have to return to target to replace the only unstained shirt he has.

Brewing coffee and writing legal briefs and making change are what you get paid for but it feels terribly unspectacular and never spiritual. In fact, it feels small, mundane and far afield from the radical lives of the missionary biographies you started to read.

The church may not be helping.

It appears the current religious climate is one of faithfulness and spirituality measured by the eventful and the big – the bombastic. If the waves are not huge and the shifts are not seismic then we assume a kind of carnality. We have redefined radical to the point where the only radical people in the church are those who have sold everything and gone…well, anywhere. But for everyone who does not sell everything, you know, those who shop at Target, go to the beach for vacation and grab some sushi (or Cracker Barrel) weekly – is there a spirituality for them that can be called “radical?” What of homemakers and tellers, clerks and customer service representatives, doctors and lawyers – is there a spirituality for them in the midst of just living a mundane life? Is there a God for them?

We know there is a God for those who are missionaries, pastors and ministry leader; they are living lives of obvious spiritual and eternal consequence. But what about everybody else? What about those who are not pastors and do not want to be?

Am I alone in worrying there is no God for the mundane? You know for those who, in the name of Jesus, are simply faithful spouses, honest in business, love their children well and enjoy the world they live in while waiting for the next – is there a God for them?

I think we have gone awry somewhere along the way. It is no longer not enough for a husband to love his wife as Christ loved the church, he must now agonize over whether to sell everything to go overseas as a missionary. We think someone who does not want to do ministry is unspiritual. Sure, not everyone can be a vocational missionary. But according to the popular wisdom we should all want to. The only acceptable excuse is ability. Lets face it, this sounds really good and spiritual. But it’s not. It is the very opposite.

It is the very opposite because it says to those are not missionaries and pastors, “If you had the ability, you would be doing something really spiritual, like be a pastor or missionary.” The implication is of course, you are not spiritual and not doing something spiritual…unless you are supporting those people and listening to those people.

In fact, in many ways it is really hard to stay where you are. It is hard because no one celebrates the day-in and day-out faithfulness that goes unseen by the wider world by those who toil in obscurity. No one puts pictures of a mom in Tacoma on their refrigerator so they can pray for her – unless she is in ministry. It is hard because life is not easy anywhere, there is no idyllic paradise in America where sin is not pervasive and the devil is not crouching outside of custom-made doors. And it is probably hard for a few because of the guilt heaped up on them who stay and are made to think they are unspiritual/carnal/unfaithful for doing so.

Right now, someone is questioning whether I care about missions/ministry/etc. at all. You see, that is the problem. We have elevated what is seen as being spiritual and what is radical to the point where all other activity (or seeming lack of activity) leads people to think one may not care. That may be damnable. We must assume there are untold numbers of men and women spreading the gospel of grace quietly throughout their community and making it possible financially for others to go without making a big deal about it and telling everyone on facebook they are doing it.

Part of the problem may be we have made Paul our only hero and not the nameless recipients of his letters. Who would want to be like one of the unknowns when you can be like Paul? What pastor would want to be simply one of Timothy’s appointed elders, never known and never mentioned? What man would want to be simply a day laborer, who has believed the gospel and against the trends of the day treats his wife and children with dignity and affection, dealing honestly with his neighbors? What woman would want to be a nameless mother who at the risk of ridicule and inconvenience, huddles with other brothers and sisters in The Way and listens to a nameless teacher about Jesus? It is all so mundane.

It is almost like a new legalism is emerging. “Quit your job. Do something crazy. Pick up and move. If you do not or are not thinking about doing it then you are suspiciously lacking in the necessary requirements of what we deem ‘spiritual.’

The rock-star preacher thing isn’t helping either. Life seems so mundane after watching them, reading about them and then listening to them. Changing diapers and paying bills on time and being generous and holding the hand of your spouse and caring about your aging parents and having deep friendships and being committed to the church and crying with those who hurt – well, its just not crazy enough. It is so absolutely mundane. And I fear that for most, they do not worship a God who can be glorified in the mundane.

They worship a God who acknowledges only those lives described as crazy, radical, extreme and extraordinary. So not only is there no God for the mundane parts of their lives but there is no God for ninety-percent of their life. He works in the great deeds of great lives alone.  No wonder we try to buy his affection with our acts of sacrifice and the forfeiture of our dreams. Or just give up on him altogether.

Is there a God of the mundane? Is there a God who can give meaning to the mundane duties of moms, the mundane tasks of those who clock in and clock out? Is there a God in heaven giving meaning to the mundane lives most everyone leads?

I think there is.