On Tiptoe

child on tiptoe

When my daughter was a toddler, she would stand on tiptoe beside the kitchen counter. Eyes twinkling with expectation and chubby fingers gripping the edge, she would strain to see what culinary adventure was unfolding. Her habit developed through time. It was reinforced with every loaf of bread kneaded, cake baked, and carrot chopped. She didn’t want to miss out on the action. Or the leftover cake batter on the beater.

Time passed, and the plump toddler legs grew long and thin. Words were spoken more clearly. Clumsy waddles were replaced by graceful pirouettes. One bright spring day, I was preparing dinner and felt a warm arm wrap around my waist. Beside me stood my girl. Tall enough to easily see the surface of the counter, yet still standing on tiptoe. The gesture had become habit. Expectation had become a posture.

Next week, our brood will be making the journey to Duke to attend Engaging Eliot: Four Quartets in Word, Sound, and Color. The exhibition will be a combination of music, art, and poetry – a perfect storm of the best kind. I’ve been a fan of T.S. Eliot since high school and have more recently become an admirer of the writings and artwork of Makoto Fujimura.  Despite my anticipation of the event, I’m very aware that I’ll be in a bit “over my head.” My degree is in business, not English. My experience of fine art was one of dancing on stage, not of painting on canvas. Although I’ve been reading The Art of T.S. Eliot with a group of folks, I’m probably in the bottom quarter of the class in regard to poetic experience and knowledge.  Or more likely the remedial group. Yet I look forward to gleaning what I can during the exhibition – even if it’s a stretch for me. You might say I’m standing on my tiptoes.

Just as the evening will stretch me, it is even more true for my children. They will most likely “understand” only a fraction of what they will see and hear – just a sliver of the goodness that will be present. Yet a sliver of beauty refracts as it passes through the eyes and finds its way to the human soul. It may seem foolish to take those so young to an evening that is “out of their reach.” But they are learning to stand on their tiptoes. To strain and catch a glimpse of something wonderful and worthy of experiencing. My deep hope is that through time, the gesture of standing on tiptoe will become more deeply ingrained. That the gesture of expectation will become a more permanent posture.

Beauty and truth surround us. At times, we see it clearly without effort.

But if we’re willing to stretch,
To live with an expectant and teachable heart,
To believe that more goodness exists than that which is directly in front of us,

We may be surprised
By the joy discovered
While living life on tiptoe.

**************************

In discussing the exhibition with my children, I found myself struggling to convey the beauty and power of collaboration between the artists, musician, and (unbeknownst to him) poet. I floundered while attempting to describe the complementary nature of abstract and realistic art.  On a whim, I asked the children to listen to one of my favorite pieces of music and paint in response. The only parameter given was that they were to paint what they felt. What stirred in their imaginations and emotions. More abstract and less concrete. I was asking them to stretch beyond their comfort zone.

Last Train Home by Pat Metheny

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No doubt,
We’ll be surprised
By the joy discovered
While living life on tiptoe.



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Sketchings

sketching monticello

This piece was originally posted in Story Warren, a project in which I’m delighted to play a small part. Drop by and visit. They’re great folks.

— — —

It had been a long day. We were exhausted. But we had traveled a long way, and the trip wouldn’t be complete until we found it.

In the prior week, our family had roamed the fields at Gettysburg, floated down the Charles River, cycled the picturesque trails of Nantucket, and skipped stones across Walden Pond.  We had endured long-winded tour guides on the Freedom Trail, haunted the House of Seven Gables, and foraged through Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in search of Alcott, Emerson and Thoreau. Our family had gorged on history with the zeal of Templeton at the fair. I was full.

But not my daughter. She was on a mission. With quickened step and unshakable resolve, she scanned the horizon searching for her destination. No, not toward the crimson dappled Virginian mountains. No, not behind the gardens where slaves had toiled for decades. Where could it be?

Suddenly, she stopped. Her pause was not due to uncertainty or confusion, rather it resulted from her being absorbed in a moment of delight. Her gaze was fixed beyond the flowerbeds at the end of the meandering brick path.  There it was. The Reflecting Pool. She sprinted with abandon toward this, her final destination. Knowing the significance of her discovery, I dug the camera from my bag and prepared to capture the moment. “Not there,” I was instructed. “You have to take it from the other side – where the house is reflected in the pond.” The angle had to be just right. We were finally at her pond. It was perfect.

In preparation for our trip to New England, my children sketched landmarks which were included on our itinerary. They had taken a great deal of time and effort in selecting and recreating their building (or pond) of choice. A clever tactic, I thought. They would have exposure to the historical icons prior to experiencing them. We would optimize our time and financial investment in the trip.

The goal was indeed achieved. They did learn much about American history. Yet I was unaware of a deeper working in their hearts. What had started as a simple sketch had taken on dimension. As my daughter had considered angle, perspective, depth and shading of the Reflecting Pool, she had grown in attachment to it. She became intimately aware of each curve, shadow, and line. Through each stroke of pen on paper, the picture in her mind became more clear. As we roamed the grounds of that stately home, she knew exactly what she was looking for.  A similar pond wouldn’t do. She longed to see the real thing.

When our children experience goodness, glimpses of eternity are etched onto their hearts.

Each great story engraves lines of truth.
Each work of art imprints ultimate beauty.
Each symphony resonates loveliness.

They all leave their mark, their imprints reflecting the image of the Master Artist. Their effect, to woo His children to himself.

Our children’s lives will be full of adventure, detours, landmark moments and wrong turns. They will travel long distances and lose their way. I can think of no greater honor than to present a rich array of goodness from which they can choose. Goodness that will find its place in their souls. Goodness that will mark the way toward Home.

 

Monticello



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Back to School: Poetry 101

My alma mater. Where my soul and mind were well fed.

I’m going back to school.  Wanna come?

Don’t you remember the excitement of the new year?  A legion of sharpened pencils.  A carefully-selected notebook with neatly arranged folders.  A stark calendar awaiting the scribbled adornment of activities, assignments, and football games. But at the heart of all the frenzy is the promise of a new beginning.  A fresh start. The potential of the unknown.

As we grow older, the line between seasons begins to blur. The workplace rarely closes for summer vacation, and new starts are far less definitive.  We become pragmatic and resolved.  Too often, we trade in curiosity and imagination for practicality and security.  We deny an invaluable portion of our inheritance – the part of our souls that was designed to create.  Why?

“Children are more creative (than are adults) and are natural inventors.  Their worldview is incomplete and demands discovery. They prosper because they embrace their ignorance instead of ignoring it. And they are willing to explore, investigate, and put their ideas to the test because they are willing to fail.” (Sam McNerney. Killing Creativity: Why Kids Draw Pictures of Monsters & Adults Don’t )

 

We’re too busy.  Our schedules are packed with “have-tos” and we rarely venture to consider the “dream-ofs.”  I’d suggest, however, that under the emperor’s fine purple garments of busy schedules often exists the exposing, naked reality of our own fear. Fear of failure.  Fear of looking silly or impractical.  Or fear of wanting more.

My friend, John, is a gifted therapist who spends his days talking with folks as they struggle to make sense of the hard things in life.  John recently discovered that he has quite a talent for sculpting.  In writing about his journey, John notes that “Sometimes, the riskiest thing for us to do is to trust and try.”

So how about it?  You don’t have to step on the yellow school bus or move into a college dorm this fall in order to try something new.  If you could go back to school, what classes would you take that you missed the first time around?  What activities?  Why not trust and try?

I’ve always been a lover of the well-written word.  I enjoy discovering and reading poetry with my children, and have a special place in my heart for the prose of Emily Dickinson and T.S. Eliot. I dabbled in poetry in high school and college, yet I’ve settled comfortably into the role of a distanced appreciator.

This fall, Chris Yokel (who you may remember from Redeeming the Fall) will be offering two 4-week sessions for folks who have limited or no experience with poetry, but who’d like to learn more.  In a nutshell:

The Basics of Poetry (Sept.17 – Oct. 7): Basic literary elements of poetry.  Teaching videos will be posted on Youtube.

Poetry Writing Workshop (Oct. 15 – Nov.11): Poetry workshop including exercises to help challenge and prod you along.

The class has been designed for those who need flexibility and can commit varying degrees of time. You can find out more detail and sign up for the class at chrisyokel.com.

Whether it’s daring to venture into a poetry class or a pottery studio, exploring a new genre of music or learning the art of cooking Thai cuisine, take a chance. Excitement is drifting through the early autumn air. Breathe in deeply. Let it inspire you.

And if you’re afraid of trying something new, well, I’ll embarrass myself first on the world wide web, so whatever you choose to do may feel a bit less vulnerable. Here goes my first, timid, awkward attempt at haiku:

no more excuses
keyboard strokes dash through veiled pride
to create brings life

 
Shared with…



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Join Us – Refractions by Makoto Fujimura

Please consider joining a group of like-hearted folks as we read Makoto Fujimura’s Refractions.  Mako is an internationally acclaimed artist, speaker, and writer, and is the founder of the International Arts Movement.  For more on his life and works, you can visit his website.

Through a series of essays, Mako makes a compelling case for the crucial role of creativity in a culture that is consistently dehumanizing.  He is leading a revolution of reconciliation in the midst of a hostile world.  The thread running throughout the essays in Refractions is one of hope:

“We need to see ways to be not just ‘peacekeepers’ but to be ‘engaged peacekeepers.’ In such a definition, peace (or the Hebrew word shalom) is not simply an absence of war but a thriving of our lives, where God uses our creativity as a vehicle to create the world that ought to be.”  Makoto Fujimura

 

Regardless of our education, occupation, or prior experience with the arts, we all have much to gain from reading Refractions.  We have an opportunity to help shift the climate of this generation from one of “Culture Wars” to one of “Culture Care.”

“The goal of arts education is not to create artists, although that is a fine by-product: the goal of arts education is to create better doctors, engineers, politicians, teachers, fathers and mothers.”   Dana Gioia, Former Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts

The Schedule:

Week of August 20th: Introduction, Chp 1-3
Week of August 27th: Chp 4-8
Week of September 3rd: Chp 9-12
Week of September 10th: Chp 13-16
Week of September 17th: Chp 17-20
Week of September 24th: Chp 21-23

Refractions is available for purchase in book form, or you can find the individual essays here. For many of us, the fall brings with it increased demands on our schedules. The reading plan allows for flexibility.  Each chapter is only a few pages long and can stand alone. If your week is particularly busy and you’re only able to read one essay, you’ll still be able to join in the discussion.

The Plan:

For those on Facebook, we have formed a private Greener Trees Reads group for all who are interested.  I’ll be posting an invitation, and you just need to request approval to join.  Once you’re a member, you’re welcome to invite and approve your friends.

For those who are in Charlotte, we will offer an opportunity to meet and discuss in person sometime in September or October.

For those of you who just want to read along, consider asking a friend to join you so you can discuss.

I won’t be hijacking the blog for the fall as I did with The Mind of the Maker, but the reading and subsequent churning of ideas will undoubtedly seep through into whatever I share.  The impact of Mako’s vision has permeated much of my everyday life – my view of family and friendships, how we spend our time, the value of the seemingly mundane, and the privilege and responsibility with which we have been entrusted.  I am grateful.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Our reading group just finished a rich conversation about Dorothy Sayers’s book The Mind of the Maker.  Many of her insights are directly applicable to the ideas found in Refractions.  For pieces written in response to The Mind of the Maker, you can read:

DNA
Hope Restored
On Limitations and Lemonade Stands, Free Will and Miracle
Redeeming the Fall
An Unfinished Work
And It Was Good



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The Art of the Picture Frame

Museums pay thousands of dollars for artisans to restore, recreate, and preserve them. They can substantially transform our experience of beauty.  We pass by them multiple times a day, but rarely give them any thought.  Frames.

~ A frame draws out the hidden beauty of a painting that would otherwise go unnoticed.

~ A frame sets the artwork apart from its environment.

~ A frame draws the viewer’s eye to that which is important.

Rembrandt’s home was cluttered with props – costumes, animal skins, armor and ornate jewelry.  To the passerby, there was nothing outstanding about the collection (other than its eclectic nature).  Rembrandt, however, saw the potential in each item.  Rather than scanning the landscape and seeing only clutter, he saw endless possibilities that could be captured and worthy of  framing.  The ordinary, when set apart from its environment, became extraordinary.

At any given time, my home is filled a variety of nondescript objects.   Some on display, some in piles, and some tucked away in hopes that visitors won’t see.  Yet if I pause to consider one small section of a room, each isolated item represents a novel’s worth of story.  (More on that here.)  The ordinary, when set apart from its environment, becomes extraordinary.

Imagine going about your day carrying an empty frame.  As you look around your office, home, or community, there are limitless opportunities to pause and examine more intently.  Take out your frame and choose one.  What had been part of the landscape becomes set apart.  It now has your focused attention.  The trash can overflowing with crumpled papers.  The shiny new bike filled with promise of adventure. The bird salvaging bits of yesterday’s discarded craft project to be woven into tomorrow’s home.   The frame draws out that which would otherwise go unnoticed.

The same is true of our inner lives.  Now imagine carrying an empty frame through which you look at life’s circumstances, the soul of another, or your own heart.  Nothing in the environment changes, yet where you place your frame will significantly alter your perspective.  You get to choose.

When my child, husband, friend, (or fill in your own blank) becomes difficult or frustrating, I can choose.  Where will I place my frame?  Will I focus on the inconvenience caused to me, pain inflicted upon me, or cost paid by me in order to love?  I can become quite comfortable, even entranced, while inspecting closely  the harm that has been done.  The longer I gaze, the more I see.  The more I see, the more locked into place my frame becomes.

Yet I have a choice.  In that same situation, I can move the frame.  I can shift the focus from myself to another.   Although the pain inflicted is still present, it loses its power when I refuse to make it the focal point of my thoughts.  My attention is shifted.  A  frame has the ability to draw out beauty which was already present, yet would otherwise go unnoticed.  By shifting my gaze, I can train my eye to refocus.  I can learn to see the world from a different vantage point.

~The frustrating child becomes the child who needs affirmation

~The spouse who has disappointed becomes the partner who is overwhelmed with life and needs support

~The hurtful friend becomes the friend who is hurting and in need of grace

It’s all in where we place the frame.  In that choice, we hold the power of bestowing blessing or curses upon another, and ultimately, in bringing blessing or curses upon ourselves.

So pick up your invisible frame and explore the familiar landscape with new eyes – Great works of art are awaiting your discovery.

“Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.”

G.K. Chesterton

 



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Wedding Planners

We’ve been wedding planning, my eight year old and I. The flowers were the perfect shades of pink, the dessert carefully chosen (not too sweet, but with a hint of almond), the music just right, and then there were the words. Beautiful, powerful words that snuck up on me and made me cry through my smile. It was a perfect moment in time, when all was right with the world. The agenda that had seemed so important earlier in the day had evaporated as vapor. The list of to-dos and waiting laundry, so recently weighing down my soul, were  briskly plucked from their unrightful place of power. The urgency of that which is temporal had been replaced, if only for a moment, with that which is beautiful, truthful, and eternal.

We conspired together, my beautiful girl and I, on the back porch. The boys were away and the house was quiet. With excited anticipation, we had talked of this moment for the last several weeks. The time had finally come to finish our book, and it was bittersweet. As we read the last chapter, I was surprised by my tears. I had been touched down deep in a place that was typically reserved for grown-up, real-life situations. But this little girls’ book, so full of life and laughter, struck a tender spot in my heart, and I could hardly finish.

We sipped our tea and nibbled our scones, my sweet girl smiling her toothy grin and chuckling at her mom. We ate, we drank, we listened, we felt deeply.  We experienced a taste of joy. It was sacred ground. For this, we were made.  We are wedding planners.

“What would happen if we did invite our children into our theology, to dance, to improvise, to play and to draw beautifully?  You see, it does have to do with the Gospel, in our true identity as the heirs of Christ, as princes and princesses of the Great King.  The Feast is to come, the Wedding about to start.

A wedding is planned:  and it will require all of our senses, and all of the arts.  What wedding have you attended that did not include all of the arts:  dance, poetry, design, fashion, culinary crafts?  By advocating for the arts, we are planning for the Cosmic Wedding to come.  Christians are wedding planners.”       Makoto Fujimura

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Lessons from the Master: A Study in Contrast

The grande marble halls were lined with majestic columns standing guard.  Although my steps were steady and dignified, I had to work hard to contain my right-before-present-opening-Christmas-morning giddiness.  Then it finally happened.  After months of anticipation, a budding (albeit one-sided) friendship was culminated.  I found myself face to face with my first Rembrandt.

I knew that the collection would be focused on the life of Jesus, but didn’t know what specific paintings we would be viewing.  As we finally turned the corner and entered the exhibit,  The Woman Taken in Adultery commanded center stage.  I’m not generally quick to become teary-eyed, but in that particular moment, I found myself struggling to appear only appropriately, moderately interested.

The Woman Taken in Adultery by Rembrandt

So much about the painting is captivating.  The richness of color, diverse cast of characters, anachronistic costumes, and barely distinguishable shapes lurking in the darkness create a scene steeped in tension and drama.  But perhaps the most startling artistic element, that which is so very Rembrantesque, is the way in which light and composition are used to guide the viewer’s eye methodically through the story.  We’re drawn immediately to the woman… then to the Source of Light…. and eventually back through the crowd ultimately leading to the Jewish officials.

I know enough about art (very little) to be dangerous.  But this is what I do know…

Oil paint applied to a simple 3 ft X 2 ft  oak canvas 367 years ago brilliantly summarizes the ministry of Jesus, as well as the world that he came to rescue.

Take a long look into the painting.  You’ll be touched in different places of the heart than am I.  I wish we could stroll through the gallery together, pause, reflect, and process our experience over a hot cup of Starbucks.  As you’d share with me, I’d be given the gift of seeing the painting with different eyes.  Here are a few of my own observations that in turn, I’d share with you:

~Light is experienced most intensely in the presence of darkness.

~We labor to hide our deepest, darkest selves from others.  But look into the painting.  Ultimate rest and blessing are a result of stepping into the light.

~Those lurking in the shadows “have it all together” in the eyes of their world – they are the bankers, lawyers, board members, elders of the church.  They spend their lives grateful that they aren’t needy.  They have figured out how to make life work, and aren’t about to let their hard-earned stability be disrupted.

~The folks “in charge” have colluded to trap the woman… in order to trap Jesus… yet he turns the tables.  The people or circumstances which seem to have control over our lives serve merely as a backdrop for real life.  There is only one who holds the position of ultimate authority.  And he is good..

~The woman caught has no defense.  She is guilty.  Blame shifting isn’t an option.  All pretense, social standing, worldly security is doomed, and she has absolutely no control over the situation.   She is at the mercy of another.

The Woman Taken in Adultery is a study of contrasts:

Between pride and humility

Between judgment and grace

Between self-sufficiency and dependency

Between control and brokenness

The Woman Taken in Adultery summarizes the entire ministry of Jesus:

“He disturbs the comfortable, and comforts the disturbed.” Tim Keller

Daily, we’re given the choice of where we insert ourselves into the painting.  If we’re really honest, most of us spend more time lurking in the shadows rather than giving up the control required to bask in the warmth of life and grace.

Are you willing to look into the painting?

Where would you place yourself?

Where do you want to be?

Yes, my new friend, Rembrandt, has given me a new perspective from which I can hope to see myself a bit more accurately.  As I discover dark areas in my life of which I’ve been previously unaware, I find that I’m guilty as well – of pride, judgment, self-sufficiency and control.  And I can’t shift the blame.  Yet when I’m willing to risk exposure and emerge from the shadows, I’m grateful to find grace, not judgment.  From the one who is ultimately in charge.  Who has all authority.  Who is good.  Who came to earth to rescue his children from the darkness of despair, sickness, broken relationships, and loneliness.  Who came to shatter the dark with light, rescue the lost, and redeem the broken.

Sometimes we need friends to point us in the right direction… and sometimes a work of art does the trick.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Although we weren’t allowed to take pictures during our visit to the Rembrandt exhibit, we were able to bring home some beautiful sketches from three different portraits of Jesus.


by Caroline – age 7


by Sam – age 10


by Will – age 12

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A few resources to consider if you’d like to begin your own adventure with Rembrandt:




The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri Nouwen
.  Highly recommended.  This was my introduction to Rembrandt, and one of the few books I own that I’ve read more than once.




How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful, Imperfect Self by Roger Housden
.  Worth a read.  I’m at the end of this book, and it’s given me much about which to think.




The Night Watch: Adventure with Rembrandt by Isabelle Lawrence
.  This is a piece of historical fiction which takes place in Rembrandt’s home and studio while he is commissioned to paint the Night Watch – a fun read with children). This book is out of print, but fairly easily found on Amazon or addall.com used books.




Art Museums for the Uninitiated by Russ Ramsey.
  A great article about venturing into the world of art.

Picture Study Portfolios by Emily Cottrill.  A practical, easy to use method of becoming familiar with great artists and their work. Each portfolio comes with a portrait and biography of the artist, eight laminated full-color works by the artist, step-by-step instructions for doing a picture study and recommended books for additional learning.  This methodology and information are equally applicable for adults and children.





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Lessons from the Master: Freedom from Ties that Bind

“The Painter in His Studio” by Rembrandt

Rembrandt van Rijn is undoubtedly considered one of the Great Masters of painting and etching.  As with all of us, his life was marked by both success and tragedy.  He suffered the death of his wife and 3 of his 4 children, and endured significant scandal and bankruptcy. It would be reckless to hold Rembrandt up as the standard for which we should strive, yet there is merit to gleaming insights from his remarkable life.

During his career, Rembrandt received a fair degree of criticism for his unconventional methodologies. Ironically, it was often this deviation from the norm that resulted in the extraordinary nature of his artwork.  Some say he was intentionally “bucking the system.”  I’d suggest that his motivation was not externally motivated defiance.  Rather, he was intensely determined to be true to self.

“Instead of being commissioned, the subjects for most of his works were chosen by Rembrandt himself.  Other contemporary portrait painters, like Van Dyck, Velazquez, or Hals, worked almost exclusively on commission, which meant they had to abide by the narrow restrictions on the form imposed by the expectations of the sitter.  Make me look good, whatever you do.”    Roger Housden

Rather than painting in order to please patrons, Rembrandt honored his sense of creative expression.  He chose artistic integrity over financial security.  Some of his most moving and memorable works were produced as a result of the resulting creative freedom.  He painted in order to reveal souls, not capture images.  Holland was a magnet for refugees, and many of his subjects were poor Jewish neighbors (he was the first of his time to paint Jesus as a young Jewish man).  He captured the moods of everyday people as they went about in ordinary life – teaching a toddler to walk, cleaning, and sleeping.   All because he was free from the ties that come with needing to please others.

I’d imagine that if Rembrandt had restricted his artwork to the parameters set by patrons, his paintings still would have been remarkable.  We simply would have never  known that we missed the best part of him.  The same is true of our lives – although seemingly fruitful from the outside, we often don’t experience the fullness of life that we were intended to live.  We too, miss the best part.

I’m challenged by the contrast of Rembrandt’s freedom with my frequent bondage to the opinion of others, and to the commitment to make life work on my terms.  I want a life freedom, yet find myself bowing down to the idols of approval and control.  The struggle is revealed daily…

~ When I find myself angry with my older children for making poor choices, or with my young children when they exhibit less-than-expected manners.  Not always because I want what is honoring to God, but at times because I want affirmation that we’re good parents.  Rather than live a life marked by patience and encouragement, I become a slave to approval.

~ When I’m not willing to go to my husband and ask for forgiveness after an argument, even when I know  that I was in the wrong.  Rather than living a life marked by love and freedom, I become a slave to the illusion of control.

~ When I maintain a safe distance from friends instead of entering into the messiness of relationship.  Rather than living a life marked by integrity and long-suffering, I become a slave to the attainment of safety and acceptance.

I want to live a life marked by peace, integrity, humility, and vibrancy.

Yet I also want to win the approval of others, control of my life, and experience safety in relationships – all which come with strings attached.  Ties that bind.  Chains that enslave.   By my own hand.

We see the cycle of bondage as it played out in Israel’s history.  Until they were delivered.

We are still in need.

I am still in need…

 Our enemy, our captor is no pharaoh on the Nile

Our toil is neither mud nor brick nor sand

Our ankles bear no calluses from chains, yet Lord, we’re bound

Imprisoned here, we dwell in our own land

 Deliver us, deliver us

Oh Yahweh, hear our cry

And gather us beneath your wings tonight

 Our sins they are more numerous than all the lambs we slay

These shackles they were made with our own hands

Our toil is our atonement and our freedom yours to give

So Yahweh, break your silence if you can

 Andrew Peterson “Deliver Us”

The majority of us will not leave a portfolio of priceless artwork for which we will be remembered.  Our legacy will be more subtle, yet no less significant than that of Rembrandt’s.  We’ve each been given a unique palette of talents, experiences, and predispositions with which we paint upon the canvas of the world.  We leave our mark on those we meet, indelibly altering the composition and tone of their lives.

Daily, we choose for whom we are painting.

Do I take the talents and abilities that I’ve been given to fulfill the expectations of others (or myself)? In doing so, I become a slave to that which I hope to attain.

Or do I choose to live life as a student of the Master?  Trusting his guidance, studying his ways, and painting to please him alone…  and as a result, leaving behind a legacy that bears a resemblance to the Master himself.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then and do not let yourselves be burdened by a yoke of slavery.”  Galatians 5:1


 



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Lessons from the Master: Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits and Me

Art was one of those classes I took to offset my load of “real” course work. The teacher was straight out of the textbook.  Perhaps my memory is tainted, but he really did look like Van Gogh, minus the bandaged ear.  He was a quirky, melancholy, disheveled man who became highly animated when he talked about artwork.  I don’t remember much from class other than sketching leaves, a tennis shoe, and shadowed 3-dimensional blocks.  The most lasting instruction I received from Van Gogh was:  “Don’t ever say that a painting is pretty.”  The humble beginnings of my art appreciation education.

One of the perks of our homeschooling lifestyle is the freedom, flexibility, and capacity to step out of the mainstream pace of life and delve deeply into whatever we’re studying.  We’ve begun a (one-sided) relationship with Rembrandt Van Rijn.  As with any relationship, we’re in the early stages of turning over various pieces of the puzzle of his life and artwork, and studying them individually.  Each gives a glimpse of the larger, finished project.  As a side note, I’m struck that even if we had lived down the street from him, shared dinners and holidays, and had the ability to talk with him over a hot cup of Dutch koffie, we’d still limited in how well we could know him.  That’s just the way we’re created – as a bottomless box of puzzle pieces.  No matter how many are plucked out, studied, and meticulously rearranged, only the Creator has the vision to see us in our entirety.  I find it somewhat humorous that we think we have each other “figured out.”

But back to Rembrandt… One of the puzzle pieces we’ve pulled out of the box is his uncanny use of light and shadow.  Another is his tendency to buck the convention of the time when painting groups of people.  Rather than paint a series of portraits all on the same canvas, he created a storyline of characters.  His paintings evoke emotion and questions:  “What were they talking about?”  “Who was the man in the shadows?”  “What was she feeling?”  The famous Night Watch was one of those controversial paintings in which Rembrandt created a compelling scene rather than a string of flat portraits.  Not all of his subjects were pleased. Some actually demanded their money back.

Personally, one of the most compelling pieces of the Rembrandt puzzle has been his remarkable insight into human emotion.  His paintings draw you to the souls of the subject.  This unique characteristic of his artwork leaves us with an obvious question:  How did he know so much about the nature of people?

In the 50 years of Rembrandt’s career, he produced more than 90 self-portraits.  He became a student of himself  – not only studying the detail of his physical being, but also exploring the complexities and diversity of human emotion. His discovery of self was not rooted in self-absorption.  Artists who were narcissistic tended to paint themselves repeatedly in their best form.  Rembrandt, however, exposed his heart as both kind and enraged, his mind as both theatrical and analytical, and his disposition as both carefree and pensive.  He used self-study as a tool to gain insight into the full range of the human condition.  And the result was his remarkable ability to capture an extensive range emotional and psychological aspects on canvas.  He deliberately explored and discovered self for the purpose of gaining in-depth insight into others.

So what lesson can we learn from the master?

We live in a society that has written reams of self-help books, booming syndication of Dr. Phil and Oprah, and promises fulfillment if only you can identify and achieve  whatever it is that makes you happy.  Self-examination and self-help are in vogue.  However, I’d argue that the motivation and methodology behind most of today’s approaches to self-exploration differ greatly from Rembrandt’s.  And from the Master’s as well.

How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Matthew 7:4-5

Having an accurate self-assessment is one of the first steps to loving others well.  We all have some form of plank that blocks our view.  The plank can take the form of arrogance or shame. It can masquerade as intellect, discernment, religion, or volunteer service.  It’s anything that distorts the Truth of who we are,  and it in turn distorts our view of others.  If we’re willing to acknowledge the plank, then to have it removed bit by bit, the process is painful yet the result is freeing.  I’ve shared a bit of my own journey here, and I hope to continue undergoing the process of log-extraction as long as I have breath. Although there will always be remnants of the log this side of heaven, our eyesight can be greatly restored.  

As we begin to see more clearly, we are enabled to love others in a way that more closely resembles the love of the Father.   We can begin to get ourselves out the way, and let Him love others through us.  



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