Faith, Frailty, and Loss: Reflections from Christian Medical Professionals

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Recently, we were asked to help lead a discussion with a group of Christian healthcare professionals using the book Reclaiming the Body by Brian Volck MD and Joel Shuman. Among the wisdom we gleaned from this inspiring read was the concept of frailty, grief, and loss through the lens of healthcare and faith.

As the discussion progressed, each healthcare professional recounted moments when they experienced loss in their respective fields. Discussing the idea of mortality amongst healthcare professionals can be uncomfortable and often avoided. But, as Christians we are not only called to consider our mortality, but also to live out the hope of Christ in the face of such reality.

“For the truth of Christianity is not ultimately an idea or a set of propositions to be assented to, but a life to be lived…it is a life that must be lived in constancy in the face of unanswered questions and in spite of sometimes significant uncertainty, and it is a life about which the full truth cannot be known until it is ended” (Shuman & Volk, 2006, P.123).

Medicine and the interventions of medicine are often unquestioned by patients, especially in the United States. Accepting our mortality should not be a difficult philosophical step for Christians, “for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

Yet the language of our faith belies a quiet allegiance to a culture of curative medicine. We sing hymns ascribing the sovereignty of God on Sunday, and anxiously await a doctors’ prognosis in hopes of a cure on Monday.

It’s not that cures cannot or should not be sought, but the base anxiety that underlies so many of those conversations often pose unnecessary problems. This anxiety is born out of the ultimate failure of medicine to conquer death.

Despite the fact that many are living longer lives because of medical interventions, our science and research has yet to discover immorality. In conversations around medicine we procrastinate death. “We fear dying, to be sure, but we also prefer not to be present to death, to be reminded of the inevitability of death, or even to talk about death, for such reminders are offenses to our unspoken hope that, with the help of an increasingly able medicine, we might be able to avoid death—at least for a long, long time” (Shuman & Volk, 2006, P.124).

One of the commandments in the bible that is repeated more than any other is “do not fear.” As Christians, we know that we are not spared from death on this earth, but we are told that the sting of death is gone and resurrection is guaranteed through the redemption given to us by Jesus.

If the promise of Christ is true, which it is, then how we treat the dying process should be a direct reflection of this promise. Even though grief and frailty may be ever present, God has overcome true demise through the gift of hope. “Hope suggests that our grief is temporary and this offers us the possibility of being free to live and to die and to care for each other as we face dying, even though we are not in control” (Shuman & Volk, 2006, P.133).

We work in hospice care and we have had the privilege of being present with others at the last moments of their lives. The most beautiful moments have been when a patient has come to a moment of acceptance and hope in the process of dying. Individuals who once resisted care from others, embrace love and nurturing from their community.

As Christ draws His people together and encourages us to live life in community, how then should we help incorporate community into the death and dying process? “It requires faithful participation in the practices of the gathered body of Christ, and the help of the entire Christian community, both to help us discern what to do in particular situations and, just as important, to make possible by our life together, appropriate and possibly atypical ways of caring for one another as we approach life’s end” (Shuman & Volk, 2006, P.126).

The Church at large would be served well to engage in an honest conversation about the inevitability of death and the limitations of medicine; engaging people who work in healthcare industries, and those who care for people at different life stages in other industries.

As we engage this conversation with the community of faith we believe that Christ will transform latent anxieties deeply felt in our culture through the power of His Spirit and the love of His people. The peace that passes all understanding offers our world something that no medical intervention can, and that is a hope worth pointing people towards.

 

Stumbling Towards Beauty: A Reflection on Christian Design Work

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As an interior designer and architect, I help design work places. I don’t just see it as a job, but as a unique opportunity to influence how others can experience God in their workplaces.

I see my specific role as God’s ambassador in the ability to share His love with others by designing beautiful and functional spaces for them to work.

As a designer, one of my first jobs is to get to know the company I’m designing for. I seek to really pay attention to what truly matters to the company and those who work within it. What are they passionate about? What is this company bringing to the marketplace that is unique and different from any other company? How are the people in this company fearfully and wonderfully made?

Every company has a culture. I try and understand that culture, seeking to know what makes them flourish. And then I ask: How can I align their uniqueness with a design that represents them well?I then take what I’ve found and throughout the process, ask myself as I’m designing: How can their space reflect their core values and ideas?

I believe deeply that God cares about each company I design for, and God cares about the people who work there. So, through my work with them, I try to express even an ounce of God’s passion for them and who they are.

What has been surprising to me is how similar this is to showing my brothers and sisters in Christ love. By paying attention to them, I’m able to love them by aligning with what matters to them most; creating a space that will serve them and their constituents well.

The level of detail involved is usually astonishing for those new to the process, and by the end of the process it can feel like overload on many levels. Usually, this is all done while my clients are still trying to continue doing their usual job.

Talk about stressful.

As a designer, I see my job not only as understanding spatial and aesthetic needs, but also emotional and personal needs. I try to emulate Christ by easing the burden, navigating around any pitfalls and providing additional support as necessary. I want my clients to feel that they are heard and understood, so I also focus on making the design process as smooth as possible.

Countless decisions have to be made regarding the space itself, and those in charge of making those decisions must represent their coworkers and try to navigate what they think will work best for the collective group. It’s a privilege to help them serve their co-workers in a helpful and sustainable way.

The field of architecture and interior design holds great possibility and limitless potential. But, if I’m honest, my work really scares me.

It’s a really hard job and, usually, I don’t think I’m very good at it. I fear that I’m not a great designer; that the things I create are ordinary, if not sub-par. The process is not all smooth sailing. Budgets are constraining, clients don’t know what they want, and we’re often asked to deliver designs in short amounts of time. Often, I fail at communicating design ideas, working through ideas with clients, avoiding pitfalls and simply getting a design right.

While many days, I do see myself as God’s ambassador in my field, I often feel like a failure. I’m trying to create sanctuaries where the people God loves can do their fulfilling work, but, when I remember to view it that way, I’m often just trying to make all the pieces fit together, by myself.

The Cascade Fellows journey is all about learning to see God in the workplace. So I’m learning, slowly, that what it means for God to be with me in the workplace, and to experience His unconditional love and encouragement, in that space as well. What has been most exciting is seeing how God really cares about the work that I do. When I’m reminded of how much God really cares about the work itself, I realize what it means for God to transform me, including helping me become a better designer and coworker.

Slowly, God is helping me improve my design skills. God is helping me with my visual communication with clients. God is giving me patience with difficult coworkers. It’s not up to me to struggle through and be the perfect Christian for God in the work place. My job is to surrender to His love and let Him take the lead, even at work.

This is really, really hard. Work is not an area where I want to surrender control. And it’s deeply counter-cultural to see my work this way. According to my work culture, isn’t my career supposed to all be up to me? Aren’t I the captain of my own success- or some other clique quote hanging on the poster in the break room?

But, God is gracious, He’s helping me see that work is my mission field, a mission field where I’m partnering with God, It’s not all up to me. God is the one at work. For indeed, God is making all things beautiful, including the work I do as a designer. He is making me beautiful, as his disciple and ambassador. And He is making me into someone who designs beautifully, with craftsmanship, creativity, and deep sense of calling. One I’m privileged to have and accept with joy.

 

 

 

Walking, Art-Making, and Seeing God

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In the text Art and Soul, the authors devote a chapter to ways of seeing. They conclude by encouraging readers to develop a “Christian” way of seeing, as it pertains to understanding and participating in culture. This pursuit of seeing requires disciplines through which we achieve a deep and meaningful engagement with life. In engaging life this way, we find ourselves “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”[1] This seems like a worthy pursuit, but I find myself asking: How does one use cultivated seeing as a means be “filled to the measure” of God? What are the units of measurement? And further, how do I know if I’m full or being filled?

If “seeing” is to be linked to “fullness”, then this kind of seeing must involve more than just use of the eyes. To “taste and see that the Lord is good” requires multiple senses engaged in a practice of curiosity and gratefulness for the everyday, in which the risen Christ is incarnated. So how do I reorient myself to the mundane, ordinary circumstances of my life, so that I approach them fully awake, fully present, and ready to receive God in it and not in spite of it?

The best way I have found to do this is to go for walks. As the Apostle Paul writes, “If we live in the Spirit, then let us also walk by the Spirit.”[2] I have found Paul’s metaphor not to just be a metaphor, but also a practical encouragement. Walking gets me moving – getting from point A to point B. Movement is also occurring in between point A and point B – inside the path of a line. I do a lot of thinking while walking – about conversations I’ve had with others, things I’ve read, errands that need running, problems that needs solving. So walking is not just physically moving from place to place, but moving mentally and soulfully from place to place as well. In the walk, I am drawing lines between physical spaces, everyday spaces, and spiritual spaces, one step at a time.

A walk is, at its essence, movement. You place one foot in front of your body, shift your weight onto that foot, then bring the rear foot forward until it is placed in the front position. Thus your legs have moved, but by a single step your body has moved from one physical space to another. You find your body occupying a new space. Repeat this process a few thousand times in rapid succession, and your body is now in a very different space, perhaps another neighborhood or on the other side of a mountain.

You have moved. You can tell because everything looks different. The houses are different, the street numbers have changed, there is an Ethiopian restaurant in front of you instead of a Greek one. The other side of the mountain looks very different. Anyone who has hiked the Wonderland trail around Mt Rainier has witnessed this phenomenon – though “The Mountain” may be ever-present, from your rapidly changing viewpoint the position of glaciers move, or Little Tahoma is now on the right side instead of the left. You have moved, and your perspective has changed.

Our experience walking is a lot like how much of life is experienced. My relationship to my wife, or to my son, or to a friend, does not remain static over time. Rather it changes as we experience life together, learn about one another, and grow into shared wisdom. I think relationship with God must work similarly; that is if it is truly to be a relationship and not a set of rules. What is a relationship, but to consider oneself in relation to someone else or some other object, with the in-between being a physical position, a feeling, an understanding, a form of communication, or an action. These, for example, can be attraction or avoidance, love or loathing, excitement or indifference. Relationships are processes of movement.

So walking draws me out of the crusted shell of sedentary distraction and back into freer movement with the day. It reunites me with the relationships all around me, and I sense again a position within of the cosmos, a tiny particle in orchestra with the rising and setting of the sun, the comings and goings of others, the flittering of birds, the cacophony of automobiles. God, in the form of the Spirit, becomes present in the in-betweens. Becoming mindful of these in-betweens generates a form of seeing for me, which might be understood as fully existing; as my legs slide in sync across pavement, my lungs fill to that rhythm, and the chatterbox that is my inner monologue quiets. I enter a process of movement in which my own body, and the spaces it occupies, somehow makes sense.

John Berger wondered where heaven may lie in relation to us. Is God far away in the clouds, or across the galaxy? His conclusion was that no, heaven is not far away, but heaven is actually “infinitely close.” He says, “There is nothing baroque about it, no swirling infinite space or stunning foreshortening. To find it – if one had the grace – it would only be necessary to lift up something as small and at hand as a pebble or a salt-shaker on the table.”[3] The small and mundane point us to the way things are supposed to be, as God created them. Though heaven is certainly not found in and of these things, these things are arrows pointing us to Jesus’ rule and reign, as they are to be, here and now.

God reveals himself to Elijah not in the noisy earthquake, nor in the devouring fire, but in the gentle whisper[4]. I believe gentle whispers can be discerned from pebbles and salt-shakers, from the leaf on the ground and the crack in the sidewalk. To taste and see God means to taste the beauty in the everyday, noticing and appreciating what’s under my own feet, what my eyes take in, what I hear, what I feel and what I think. Walking connects and reconnects me to these truths so central to our faith, and central to experiencing God as he is heaven, in the here and now.

My recent artworks consider these relationships, between the steps I take, the process of movement, and the listening to whispers, within the urban grid of the city. Walking becomes like writing or drawing. The actual ink or graphite drawings I make are documentations, or illuminations, of these walks. If the walk is the line being drawn or written, then instead of making a line, I illustrate the things around the line, those buildings, trees, and street intersections that appear in my visual halo. Making these drawings is a way of seeing these walks in a different way. I take every split second of what is seen on a walk, and present them all at once. They become like cartography of my own phenomenology, a roadmap of a practice of prayer.

The processes of walking, drawing, writing, and noticing equip me with some of the discipline, alertness, and play that Brand and Chaplin outline as necessary to “Christian” seeing. Not that art-making has any kind of exclusive domain over these, nor do I think walking universally acts as a magic key to unlocking spiritual transcendence.

Perhaps seeing means bringing my own self out of hiding (or sensory distraction), into the everyday presence of the invisible and seemingly silent, but ever-present God. For Paul’s journey on the road to Damascus, that meant the removal of sight,. Without his sight, Paul then knew that God had called him. Maybe I don’t walk to see God, so much as I walk that God would see me, that I might then know the meaning of the word blessed, and to see glimpses of God’s heavenly presence here. I’m coming to see that to know oneself blessed, then, may be the measurement of fullness all along.

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[1] Hilary Brand and Adrienne Chaplin, Art and Soul, pg. 109.

[2] Galatians 5:25

[3] John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket, pg. 11.

[4] 1 Kings 19

Special Invitation – Bellevue, May 28th

A Special Invitation


Callings and Careers: 

Making Sense of Who We Are and What We Do

 

 Dr. Steven Garber. 

Bellevue Presbyterian Church. 5/28/15. 7:00- 8:30pm. 

What is your calling? steven-garber (1)Where is your career taking you? You are invited for a rich evening of discussion on the intersection faith, career, and calling.

The evening will feature an opening address from Dr. Steven Garber, a nationally-recognized speaker and author on the topic of faith, work, and vocation. Dr. Garber’s latest book Visions of Vocation charts the ways in which ordinary people in a wide variety of careers seek to serve their neighbors and the kingdom of God in and through their work

Dr. Garber’s address will be followed by reflections from some of Seattle leading voices on the question of faith and work including:

–       Denise Daniels from Seattle Pacific University

–       Al Erisman from KIROS

–       Jessica Hsieh from Cascade Fellows.

–       Jon Sharpe from C3Leaders

This public event is hosted by Cascade Fellows and is sponsored by C3Leaders, KIROS, and Bellevue Presbyterian Church. There is no registration required and no cost for this event. All are welcome to join the conversation!

 

Kiros logo       C3 

Bel Pres

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Faithfulness Over Balance: When Your Various Vocations Collide

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It’s a tug of war, sometimes. It’s a juggling act other times. These various calls we have, at times, tend to be at odds with each other. The board meeting is during our son or daughter’s sports play offs. We are asked to serve at church, but have just gotten back into town after a long week of travelling for work. Spouses see each other late at night or early in the morning like ships passing – going through the highlight reel of the last few days only to return again to the fullness of life the next day.

We all have these various vocations we are called into, to embody in love. These are the places we’re called to serve, the people we are to influence and be influenced by, the spaces where God places us to experience him, and worship him for all his goodness. But what happens when these callings are seemingly in opposition to each other? What happens when what we’re called to doesn’t seem to fit with our other callings?

Some have gone about talking about this through the language of work/life or work/family balance. I’m not sure that balance is a helpful word for the Christian. Balance ensues that all our time, our efforts, and our energy will be poured out in equal amounts, and that somehow we will reach a place where all these roles and calls are working in harmony with each other as a result of giving ourselves equally to them. One could chase after balance, could seek to find balance their whole lives, and never achieve it.

The language which may be more helpful to seek to embody is that of faithfulness. Asking not, how can I juggle or balance my various callings? But, how can I be faithful to God, as a reflection of his faithfulness to me, in the work God has called me to, in the passions he’s placed in my heart, in the church God has placed me in, in the family God has blessed me with, and in the friendships God has orchestrated in my life?

 

Faithfulness in our various callings can be embodied through honing in on several things.

  1. Recognize your first call is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

We each have been called out of our sin, our selfishness, our narcissism, and called into the self- sacrifice, love, and care of Jesus. Our primary calling is to enjoy, deepen, and embody the relationship that Jesus is cultivating in our lives with HIMSELF.

This will happen in and through your other vocations, certainly, but the call first and foremost for the Christian is to follow Jesus’ example of love, service, and building of God’s kingdom on the earth. All other callings must fit under this call to Jesus himself, or our lives will be out of faithful alignment with what God has in mind for us.

How are you answering the call of Jesus to follow him today? This week? This year?

 

  1. Vocations are seasonal.

We may be called to serve in a various workplace or industry for a time. For some this may be a long time, like those who work in a company for 25+ years. For others it may be a few months or years. However and whatever that season is in length, we are called to be faithful for the season.

Even the retiree who leaves after 25+ years will be called by God to another calling, even if their paid work experience is over. Every season of call, things look differently. While at the beginning of your career you may have had young kids, as you get into the middle or late part of life, those children will require less of you, and you will be released to serve (time wise) in different ways. While in the middle of your career you may be travelling a lot, later on you may be able to stay more centralized, opening up your life to new avenues in that time and space. What we are called is to, is to be faithful in the season God has us in.

Thinking seasonally about our vocations releases us to be present where we are. Thinking seasonally about our vocations also helps us narrow down what we are ACTUALLY called to, and not just what would just be a ‘good’ thing for us to do.

What does it look like for you to be faithful at work in this season? What does it look like for you to be faithful at church in this season? What does it look like to be faithful to your family, spouse, children, or friends during this season?

 

  1. Enlist help.

We can’t all do it all and have it all. This is a lie our culture has enticed us to believe. When we follow the call of Christ in faithfulness, he doesn’t ask us to do everything, but he does ask us to do some things well and in the spirit of faithfulness. This may mean that you need to ask for help in order to fulfill the call God has placed on your life.

This can be hard, but maybe thinking of it this way will help: Asking for help may allow someone else to fulfill one of his or her vocations. Serving you or your family may be a call God places on someone’s life. Someone may be gifted by God with the love of children and can faithfully serve him through loving your kids while you are working or serving the church or giving to your marriage. Someone may be gifted with the joy of making meals- feeding you or your family may be a practical way for someone to use their gifts, giving you the extra time you need to be faithful in the ways God is calling you. Someone may have expertise in an area that you are lacking in at work. Enlisting their help, support, or advice may enable you to work in your calling in a faithful way that you couldn’t have otherwise.

What do you need right now to faithfully fulfill the call God has placed on your life? Who can you enlist to help?

 

  1. Give up the ‘shoulds’ and discern what you are actually called to.

Sometimes our vocations collide because life has schedule conflicts. But other times our vocations collide because we have said yes to too many things. Where we are called, God provides for us to fulfill those callings. Where God doesn’t call, we may find ourselves striving to make things work or for the pieces to fit into holes they never were meant to fit into.

When we say yes to something, we are always saying no to something else. If you are finding yourself saying yes to things out of obligation rather than out of a sense of God’s call, this may be why your vocations are colliding. Doing something because you ‘should’ do it shouldn’t be confused with God calling you to do it. Discerning these things can be tricky, but if you are finding more conflicts in your schedule and you are having to say no to the things and the people you are called to first, maybe it’s time to take an inventory of your calls and see which are from God and which are being done out of sheer obligation or guilt.

What in your life do you feel you ‘should’ be doing? Is it bringing you a sense of God’s provision, peace and joy? Or is it a weight you’re trying to make fit into the rest of your life?

 

  1. Live joyfully within the constraints you’re given

Each season we are called to be faithful in will come with, what Kate Harris has aptly described as, constraints. We can’t do it all. We aren’t called to do it all. But when we accept the limitations of the season we are in, this frees us up to live in joyful presence of God and those he’s called us to.

Some may see constraints as something to overcome, something to break out of, and something that holds us back. But Harris describes constraints as boundaries that hold the capacity for us to be creative within. When we don’t have all the time in the world, we are more focused. When we know we won’t be with our kids or roommates or spouses the next day, due to work commitments, we are able to live within that constraint and be truly ‘with’ them today. When we know our limits we can delegate and call on other’s resources to collaborate on projects with. Constraints hold the power of God to release us to embody the love and grace of our Savior in specific, pointed, and placed ways.

What constraints do you have in this season? How are those helpful to you? How could they be transformed to become creative outlets for your faithfulness in vocation?

 

Thinking through, praying through, and talking through these things can clarify your calls in the current season you find yourself in; enabling you to live freely and embody the love of Christ with the endeavors and people God wants you to be present with- now.

What will help you clarify the most now?

A Workplace Prayer- A Benedicite for Human Work

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A Benedicite for Human Work by Jim Cotter and Paul Payton from

Out of Silence…Prayers Daily Round*

Let the sowers of seed bless you, great God, the gardeners and farmers sing your praise.

May the fishers and foresters bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Let the bread from grain bless you, great God, the wine from the grape sing your praise.

May the transformations from cooks bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Let the spinners and weavers bless you, great God, the designers of clothes sing your praise.

May the potters and silversmiths bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Let the sounds and silences of music bless you, great God, the great composers sing your praise.

May the improvisors of jazz bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Let the cellos and trumpets bless you, great God, the echoing horns sing your praise.

May the clarinets and pianos bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Let the actors and mime artists bless you, great God, the singers and musicians sing your praise.

May the dancers and clowns bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Let the novelists bless you, great God, the poets and critics sing your praise.

May the essayists and playwrights bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Let the sculptor and scientists bless you, great God, the portrait painters and photographers sing your praise.

May the artists and architects bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

 

* The Cascade Fellows are deeply grateful to Dr. Gideon Strauss for introducing us to this work in particular, and this body of work in general. The prayers offered in this book, based on the Psalms, have been embodied by him, and we continue to be moved by his faith and example to us.

Finding Meaning in All the Right Places

 

model-650791_1280“I really wish I could be involved in more meaningful work. You guys are doing great things.” I was sitting at happy hour across from a very talented fashion designer. She’d heard the kind of work my friend and I had been involved in. My work didn’t involve going to any country in Africa, which are 53 in total, by the way. But, in many ways, the company I worked for here in Seattle enables organizations to make strategic investments in projects making a difference in a number of countries in Africa.

This wasn’t the first time those two words were used synonymously. I’d heard “meaning” and “Africa” used this way, so many times, even if, for most people, “going to Africa”, means visiting one country. You’ve probably seen so many people talk with so much excitement about the opportunity they had to work with “poor” people in this and that village, and how much “meaning” they found.

I’m by no means discrediting those experiences. I grew up “poor” in Uganda, although I never felt poor until I went to school- but that’s a story for another day. Throughout my career, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to work in some of the most rural places, working with people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. Most of my work has involved some form of advocacy for the poor and marginalized in Eastern Africa. I loved what I did, every single day of my work, knowing I was making a difference in the lives of real people. My work was meaningful, but to say, I found a sense of “meaning” in it would be to overly credit my work.

I think people find perspective in traveling to a different country and culture and yes, working with the poor. It allows us the opportunity to reflect on our own lives or even feel better about ourselves for doing something good. What we consider important suddenly becomes negligible in the face of the reality of others. And that’s a good thing. My outlook towards life has been shaped by these experiences, and I’m thankful for them. But “meaning” and “poor” are not prerequisites of each other.

Over the years, I worked with friends who never enjoyed working with the “poor” in rural areas. The emotional exhaustion quickly took a toll, and they couldn’t wait to leave and find something else, while I truly enjoyed that season of my life. But, our differing perspectives, didn’t make their work any less important.

What I found, though, was working with the “poor” did not answer my question for meaning. Instead, it gave me an opportunity to express what I know about whose I am. Kate Harris, during her talk at Bethany Community church recently said, ”Calling is about knowing whose we are and to whom we belong.” I found happiness in what I did, because I’d found a sense of meaning in knowing whose I am and to whom I belong; a sense of meaning that I’ll continue to discover for the rest of my life.

My career has changed over time. I currently work in management consulting, so far a way from my home in Uganda. Since my meaning in life is not derived from the work itself, I’ve come to see that for this season of my life, I can still take this same sense of purpose to my work.

I think this is the thread that runs through the Cascade Fellows program. Work is an expression of our worship, because all of life is a sacred act of worship. But, even if what we do changes, who we are and to whom we belong doesn’t. In all our endeavors, whether it ministry and service related, a work assignment or the ways in which we live out our relationships, whose we are and to whom we belong, namely Christ himself, doesn’t change. Christ is the one in whom we can find all meaning and purpose, and to whom we can offer ourselves fully for the sake of what he calls us to.

So next time you pack your bags to go to a developing country, let it be an opportunity to share the sense of meaning you feel in whatever you do. Or if you just want to find perspective, that’s okay too. If your calling is to work with the poor, that’s wonderful. But if, for this season, you are a stay at home mom, a fashion designer, or love technology, engineering or law, let the same sense of purpose you feel in knowing whose you are and to whom you belong, be expressed in what you do.

As I sat there across from that talented fashion designer who invoked these thoughts, I almost said, “join Cascade Fellows.” But then I remembered, I’m in Seattle, and I still didn’t know how to talk about God and purpose, without sounding awkward at happy hour. So I shared about my sister, a fashion designer, who knew what she wanted to do since she was young. My sister admires what I do, but has no desire or interest in doing any of it. With fashion, she can use her hands and creativity to make beautiful clothing, and that is no less meaningful than my work.

Though I didn’t say this to the wonderful woman at the happy hour, I wanted to: “Whatever may be your task, work at it heartily (from the soul), as [something done] for the Lord and not for men.” Colossians 3: 23, Amplified Bible

It seems to me, the task doesn’t give the man or woman meaning, but rather the man or woman gives the task, the job, the position, whatever it is, meaning.

 

 

 

 

 

The Fallacy of Being “Just”

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Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and imagine almost nothing.— Walter Brueggemann

About four years ago, I really disliked introductions. There was nothing wrong with the people whose hands I’d shake, though I dreaded the question they were sure to ask. What do you do? In answering honestly, my sense of identity and self became usurped by expectations and stereotypes that surrounded my new, post-college name: nice to meet you, I’m Just A Nanny. I used the word just subconsciously; it gave me freedom and space from reality, affirming to myself, more than others, that this kind of job was temporary, lesser-than, an in-between thing. There was hesitation in giving my professional vocation validity and respect, dignity and value, because I wasn’t sure it held any. Nannying didn’t correlate with my notions of success, identity, or professional aspiration. Nor did it occur to me in the early years of raising two children who were not my own that something great could come of a humbling vocation, and in getting out of my preconceived ideas of professional “success,” I was getting into the marrow of joy, life and work redefined.

• • •

Entering the post-college workplace as a full-time nanny, or more accurately, a single mom by day, was difficult. Other words that come to mind are ego-bruising, ego-crushing, dream-snuffing, and pity-inducing. In truth, raising children is not those things—it is actually far from it—but it can look that way. Any profession can look that way when reality does not match one’s ideology. Within the first year of introducing myself as I’m Just A Nanny, life had been reduced to tedious, purpose-lacking labor by fulfilling a role that had little to do with my English degree, let alone dreams. I craved the ideology of post-college success—an editorial position, business cards, all expenses paid trips—anything apart from actual life. Choosing to keep a firm grasp on this ideology was to reject reality, dread work, become entitled, and ultimately unhappy. Like C.S. Lewis writes in The Great Divorce, “There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy—that is, to reality.”

When corporately employed friends described the global impact of their work, dialoguing with diplomats, or a youth-at-risk’s success story, I felt the smallness of my victories. Tallying the number of diapers changed, noses wiped, meals prepared, tantrums conquered, miles walked pushing the stroller, trips driven to preschool, shoes tied and stories read, I wondered what it all amounted to, what this had to do with me and the world’s real needs. How had work become so challenging, frustratingly selfless, socially isolating and fear-inducing? How had it become so removed from my post-college ideologies, that now, when I introduced myself, I couldn’t get away from pigeonholing my identity or emphasizing where I failed? I’m just a nanny. After all, I was magnificently qualified—overqualified! Just take a look at me on paper: focused student, active volunteer, teen mentor, campus leader, a stint at Oxford, and I even read an original poem aloud at a gathering of tweed-wearing English profs. How glorious! How employable!

How disillusioned and ideological.

• • •

After nearly four years of raising children, I now see what I missed at the outset: I stood as a human being with more potential than actualization, entangled with an ego unaware of the intensity at which it would be broken. Moving from college in sunny Los Angeles to Seattle with bills to pay, independence to defend, and options lacking, there was little choice. Uninterested in copywriting, the one apply-my-English-degree option, nannying fit the bill. Only temporarily of course. It wasn’t something professionals did. Strangers, too, were happy to verbalize this.

Flying home from Washington D.C. last year, a white-haired man with the United Nations emblem embroidered on his blue blazer sat next to me and began the small talk. After covering his childhood of traveling, the nine languages he spoke, and diplomatic adventures that polished his repute to a fine shine, he then asked the question.

“So what do you do?”

“I’m a full-time nanny,” I answered.

He stared, baffled. “You don’t want to be a nanny, do you?”

“Well, I really love the kids. They’re —”

“Love, that’s completely irrelevant,” he interjected. “What you should do, you wanna know? Find and marry a man who makes, eh, $200,000, enough to cover all the expenses. You can dedicate your time and efforts to charity work. You know can marry a poor man or a rich man. You have a choice. Really, I’m serious.”

I smiled, half amused, half angered, at the audacity of a stranger’s judgment, bewildered by the irony that a foreign diplomat could possess so little diplomacy. Mr. U.N. saw only the white collar, Ivy League ideology of making it, arriving, becoming someone—whatever that meant. Like Dr. Anthony Bradley highlighted in his talk on Economic Personalism, I was no longer human to Mr. U.N., merely a walking ideology, a lesser one at that. In addition to being I’m Just A Nanny, Mr. U.N. also christened me the Unapplied College Degree, You Fell Short of Real Success, Do Something With Your Life Already, Girl.

Nevertheless, Mr. U.N. had a point. I did have choices, and I was ready to move beyond the ones he proposed in order to seek a higher, far more substantial alternative. What if I exiled the notion of anything, anyone, being just—being another label subjugated to the bottom of the social status ladder? What if there was joy to be had, and immeasurable growth, valleys of humility and peaks of wisdom, laughter and life-altering experiences in raising two children that was unlike any other profession in the known universe? What if the two kids I now loved, eternally, were a meaningful career, and not a means to my end, but an end within themselves? What if nannying wasn’t just a stepping stone to a much improved future life, but held dignity, purpose, transformation, and worth all of its own? What if my being, and not just my job, held those things, too?

• • •

And so, from the trenches of a beaten ego striving for ideological success, rose something resembling a humbled spirit, a keener mind, a broader sense of humor, and a lasting revelation. Maybe God’s work in the world involved me, but wasn’t about me. To be so totally submersed in others’ needs at every given moment altered my beliefs regarding work, particularly service. Since choosing to live into my present vocation, no matter circumstance or duration, life and work are best summarized by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. / I awoke and saw that life was service. / I acted and behold, service was joy.”

There was a time I thought meeting the world’s needs—my egotistical needs—amounted to skyscrapers, titles beneath my name, big cities, and college degrees to support the lifestyle. Otherwise, a voice whispered, what will you amount to? Today, I have plunked such questions like stones into a river, letting a stronger current of Truth carry them downstream. Now there are the verbs of Christ—go, be, know, come to me—and what inevitably follows—peace, joy, providence, reconciliation, freedom, a new way of seeing the world, life. How disheartening then, in light of this, to miss out on moments with two engaging, hilarious, compassionate kids because I insist my life must look different. I am finished with preferring my ideology of work over the joy of my reality. I am finished promoting the deceitful notion that work ought to serve my ego, and am ready to accept what is not always easy, though nonetheless true. Maybe in being stripped away from my insufficient ideologies, I can better recognize Christ’s imagining of my short human life.

Christ knows my circumstances and sorrows, my pain and frustration, the cultural pressures I sling on my back, my internal anxiety and the applesauce flung on my shirt. He sees my humanness laid bare, and in spite of it, through it, or even because of it, Christ is able to reveal dignity, identity and potential for my life—your life, too—in a way I cannot dream up. It’s more freeing than a week’s paid vacation, more multidimensional than a kaleidoscope, and as real as the wind that cannot be held, only experienced. He liberates all from the notion of just and infuses us with the Truth of who we are, where we are. Key moments in human history are made because of Christ’s intervention in our lives, when we reject the just of the world and embrace an otherworldly Truth.

When Frederick Douglass recognized the fallacy of the oppressive culture in which he lived and rejected the notion of being just a slave, a new man emerged, one who took great risks to fight the physical and ideological shackles of his time, changing not only the course of his life, but that of a nation. When marine biologist Rachel Carson penned The Sea Around Us and Silent Spring, highlighting our lack of stewardship for and destruction of nature in the ’50s and ’60s, Carson’s imagination, like Douglass’s, was alive. Not only did Carson reject the ideology of consumerism and America’s exploitation of natural resources, but she started a global conservation movement. Though I am neither a brilliant 19th century abolitionist like Douglass nor the mother of an environmental legacy like Carson, I am beginning to see life with renewed imagination. I am beginning to understand, and more significantly believe, that there is infinitely more to a human being than meets the eye, and that Christ, all along, has seen—sees—us this way. The question is no longer whether we have 20/20 vision, but whether we have the audacity of Christ, choosing to see through the life-giving lense of imagination. As Albert Einstein understood it, “Knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be.”

 

Their Work Matters, Too

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“Thank you for working today.” I look her in the eye and smile. Genuinely, I’m thankful for her service. We’re all off work and gallivanting around town with family and friends, while she is there, scanning items over the check stand.

Boop, boop, boop… go my items as she finds each label and places the items in a bag.

My comment stops her in her tracks. She looks up and smiles, and almost laughs.

“You’re the first person to thank me for working today. I’ve been here working since midnight.” I look at my watch. She started at that check stand 10 hours ago. She must have checked out hundreds of people in the course of the Black Friday rush; no one noticing her, or at least acknowledging that she gave a day that most Americans have off of work- to work, serving the rest of us.

I leave clutching my bag, great deals at the bottom, but with a sense of frustrating wonder.

Why was I the first person to thank her?

Has our society become so commoditized that we expect people who check us out at the store to do so with no acknowledgement on our part of their dignity, their worth, and the fact that their work can be service to the Lord as well?

And even if they don’t know or acknowledge their work as such, we who are called by the Lord have a different vantage point. Maybe they are common grace to us. But we often don’t see it that way; even when we’re greeted with a smile, and a genuine ask of “How’s your day going?”

I don’t think we see other’s service and work this way often. I certainly didn’t see it this way for so long. There remains a hierarchy of vocation in our society. We aspire for our children and ourselves to go into certain industries and not others. We except certain service from those we pay- a person to clean the house or car, our barista who makes the coffee, the man or woman who drives our garbage truck.

There are those jobs, those industries, that remain almost invisible- and yet, even without our acknowledgment, their work remains dignified by the Lord. The custodians, the woman who cleans the bathroom at the mall, the man who works in the factory, placing the same part on the same product for 8, 9, 10 hours a day. Their work matters deeply to the Lord.

We who work in the world of words, or rhetoric, or arguments for justice and those who may work to keep others alive as doctors or nurses; those who watch the markets to see where our dollars may end up at the end of a given day, and those who pass on knowledge to others as teachers, or artists who work in their minds manipulating imagination to bring ideas to reality- For we who are called to these types of vocations, it’s easy to see those in other industries as there for our service.

I hate even seeing those words written- because while it’s reality, it’s the antithesis of everything that God has called good in work. Work as an offering of service, rather than a demand of it. Work as an offering back of worship, rather than a place where our egos are stroked and our successes racked up on a scoreboard.

Maybe it ‘s the conundrum of privilege- we don’t see, we don’t acknowledge certain types of work, because we don’t have to. We don’t see, we don’t acknowledge what another has done for us because we expect it, and are too busy in our own worlds, working on our more intellectual jobs on our smart phones, as we wait for another to finish their job working for us- making our coffee, checking us out at the grocery store, driving the bus we ride on to get to our ‘more worthy’ job- or so we think…

But if God is the author of work, ALL WORK, which He is, then we need to rethink the ways in which we, often unknowingly, brush off another’s vocation. In God’s economy, everyone has a place at the table.

In God’s economy all work is valid. All work is important. Whether you’re a landscaper, or a chef; a mathematician or a pastor. Whether your work is technical or creative, whether you work with numbers or paint, with people or chemicals. Whether you work with nature or work to enforce the law. Whether you are selling something or cooking something- your job, your vocation, your work is valid.

And I would venture to say, not just YOUR work, but THEIR work as well. The ‘other.’ The one who is so diametrically apposed to you and your life, THEIR WORK MATTERS, too.

You see it’s not just that our work is our melting pot and conduit of worship, but that theirs is too. And when we dismiss them or think they are lower than us because of their given vocation at a certain time, or gloss over when they ask us how our day is, we devalue that which God has given to them to do to contribute to the flourishing of our city.

Your work is valid because it’s through your work, that the work of God is manifested. Your work is valid because it’s through your work that you can participate in the work God is already doing in the world. Your work is valid because it’s through your work that you can reflect and reveal God. Your work is valid because it’s through your ordinary work that the power of God can be ushered into your life and the lives of those around you.

And that is just as much true for you as it is for those in service industries, retail industries, and as it is for those of us who work differently than we do. In God’s economy there IS NO HIERARCHY OF VOCATION.

The irony that I, a white middle-upper class female is writing this piece, is not lost on me. I do realize that I don’t know the struggle much of our city and country and world have as they work two and three jobs just to put food on the table and keep the lights on. But maybe, it’s precisely from this particular milieu that I can be transformed by God to see things differently, and speak to those in my similar situation.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know the first thing about driving a bus for twenty five years- day in and day out like my next door neighbor, or what it’s like to keep a marriage together when both husband and wife are working seven days a week, ten hours a day- three service jobs between the two of them- with two little boys to care for in the in between times, like a woman I met yesterday. I don’t get that. And maybe that’s why God is waking me up to the fact that I have much to learn about the depth and breadth of his common grace through hard working people and vocations that are so far away from my experience.

It’s almost like God is saying, “But, please, oh, please…don’t forget. You too are dust, and the work I’ve given you is not better or worse than the work I’ve given to the next guy or gal… but it’s YOUR work to do. So do it well, and to the best of your ability. And don’t forget the other, the ones who are doing THEIR work well and to the best of their abilities.”

When we first moved to Bellevue, our garbage woman stopped and got off of her truck. She walked around it, and put her hand out to introduce herself to us. She pulled out a lollipop from her vest pocket and handed it to my very wide-eyed one and half year old. It was a two-minute interchange, before she was off and back on the job. But its impact has remained now, almost two years later in my mind.

We had more than just trashcans for her to pick up. We were more than just ‘one more house’ on her route. We were people, with dignity and worth. Value enough to stop and learn a name, and smile at a little boy whose house she would visit the outside of once a week. To her, work was about more than just doing a job. It was about PEOPLE and serving the people whose trash she took, well.

God has used this instance to teach me, again and again: Our work is for the blessing of the nations; our work is for the flourishing of the city. And when we don’t give another the opportunity to bless, to speak kindness, to serve well- we handicap their ability to live out their vocations as well as they can.

You see, our lives become deeply richer when we reach across vocations and get to know people who do work very different than ours. Because all work holds dignity and the power to reveal God in the world. When I keep with the value of society holding hierarchy in vocation, I miss out completely on the ways in which God is revealing himself to the world through my garbage truck driver. When I stay with the hierarchy of society I miss out on the diversity of God revealed through the barista and the PhD.

I know it’s hard to break down the barriers of the hierarchy of vocation, because that’s just not how the world works, but God has always been above the social moray of society. I know it’s easy to stay within our comfort zones of economic and educational status. But, life in the kingdom of God has a deeply rich education in the use of the poor, in the use of the day laborer, in the nannies and stay at home mom or dad. Life in the kingdom of God can be revealed in a wider and deeper way through the doctor and the software developer.

Because we need you, you who work in intellectual terms. And we also need them, who care for children. We need you, you who work with chemicals and steel. We also need them, you who design and craft. We need you, you who drive and build. And we need them, who cook and clean. Your work is revealing to us, the world, who God is, and man oh, man do we so deeply need to know God through the ways you, and they, work.

The Artist as Intercessor (revisited)

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***The following is a talk from the recent Transformation: Worship and the Arts Conference put on by Fuller Northwest.***

Good morning. I am not Bette Midler. However, if it amuses you to imagine her saying what I’m about to say, then feel free. Whatever it takes.

When my two nephews were young, we went to the first three Star Wars movies together. For each episode, we planned special days, we stood in a line that circled the block, watched the film and got back into the line—sometimes over and over again. For months, years, they pretended to be Jedi knights until they grew too old to do that, and then we talked about being Jedi knights instead. It was our thing.

And oh man, when we found out about Luke and Darth Vader? I still can’t talk about that.

A few years ago, there was a woman in my church who asked me to mentor her. A successful screenwriter, she quickly clarified it was not her film career but her spiritual life where she craved an older voice. Over the years since, her art and her spirituality intwined as, of course, they are meant to do. We weathered the cycles of success and failure in her filmmaking as they swirled in and around questions about church, marriage, infertility, pregnancy (God be praised), childbirth, childcare. And then there was the day she was offered the job at Lucasfilm. It was a hyperspace jump. Now she is responsible for story development for all things Star Wars. Last fall she asked me if I’d come to the Presidio in San Francisco for a visit, adding that if I was interested, she’d arrange a VIP tour. I asked if I could bring two guests.

My two new nephews are grown adults in grown adult businesses, are in their late thirties, married with five children between them. One flew from Oklahoma and the other from Los Angeles. We saw matte paintings of Tattooine, models of the Millineum Falcon, R2-D2, the cyrogenic frieze of Han Solo in carbonite, and—in their state-of-the-art-screening room we saw—well, I can’t say, now, can I. That’s what those non-disclosure agreements are probably for.

My nephews stopped workers in the hallways and thanked them, tears in their eyes. The employees kindly tolerated us; their expressions said, yea, this happens a lot. I had stopped at a thrift store in Haight-Ashbury and bought a jacket and a black scarf on our way there because I’d forgotten to take a coat. To San Francisco. (Don’t judge me.) Anyway, when my friend came out to meet us after her assistant dropped us off, she was wearing the same jacket and a black scarf. We found this amusing.

At the gift shop on their way out of town, the guys bought things for their wives and kids meant to try to contain all the enthusiasm that was awakened by that visit. I bought a patch for the arm of my jacket which I showed later to my friend as an “inside joke.” Then I forgot about it.

Our conversations about the trip since then have been rich with reflection on what it means to remember the passions of youth, lots of late night talks about their own children, about the future, about what it feels like to be fully alive. Are we living the lives we dreamed of, are we growing, are we part of the resistance or have we become part of the Empire without realizing. Because people, it happens. Oh Anakin! Months went by, and the weather grew a little colder back home in Pasadena, and I began to notice a strange phenomenon. My gravitational pull on a wide variety of people suddenly shifted. I was greeted with head tips, winks, thumbs up while on the street, in restaurants, pumping gas—from people I didn’t know. One discerning waiter realized I was not receiving the message he was throwing down, so he spoke slowly “love your jacket” and nodded to the patch. I figured I ought to google what the patch actually means. Turns out I am now a member of the rebel alliance. In a moment of colliding worlds, one guy said under his breath as he passed me on the sidewalk, “may the Force be with you,” and I replied, “and also with you.”

This has become more than an amusing story. It is a phenomenon. I imagine what an early Christian might have felt marking half an IXOYE in the sand: the response to this rebel patch is ubiquitous and serious. I no longer treat it as a joke: I try to see the person who comments, I try to hear what they asking for, craving. I imagine Yoda’s voice: “Adventure. Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things.”

The artist who is also an intercessor has goals that are often in conflict with those of the Empire—by which I mean the world presided over by Darth Vader. We know a great deal about this Empire because the zeitgeist of the last 20 years or so has overplayed it to excess. “Edgy”—was there ever a more tired word—is no longer the sordid, shocking, existential angst of the human condition: the dark underbelly is so lustfully over investigated that it now merely perpetuates the dark underbelly. What is hidden to us now are the forgotten characteristics of the resistance—the power of patience, the sweeping transformative dynamism of kindness, a love so potent it is capable of believing, hoping, and enduring all things. A love that never fails. I mean, of course, a life abandoned to the Force.

I work at Fuller Seminary. My job is to be the corporate storyteller—that’s my title: “Storyteller.” Now, being a “storyteller” at an institution of very serious graduate theological study is like being a court jester. When my new role was announced, an exec in the Office of Finance and Accounting asked “was the title ‘Dreamweaver’ already taken?” There are some who find it hard to take me seriously, and I try to have mercy on them. On the other hand, it’s a senior leadership role. That speaks volumes about the commitment of the Executive Office to knowing Fuller’s narrative, to knowing who we are. My job partly entails being editor-in-chief of a magazine cleverly called FULLER. (I know, right? It’s meta.) Like the court jester, I have little authority except to say whatever I feel I should say, and only the President can kill me.

I am an artist, specifically, a filmmaker. For the first decade at Fuller it was a mystery why God had me logging 10,000 hours getting better at something other than my calling, which is filmmaking—did I mention. Recently I have come to see that my outlier job as an artist at a graduate academy for the study of theology is not unlike the role required of me as an artist in the world. It is my job to be off the grid and to speak with candor about things that others will not or cannot say. This work, done in obedience to God is, I believe, a form of intercession.

I am not here just to talk about the rare and beautiful breed of artists who give their lives to their work the way you do, like monks who pray around the clock anonymously for the sake of the world. I am here to intercede, right now, for all of you. That is my work. I see you. I bring good news, that you are seen by your father in heaven—your deepest wounds and desires, your twitchy energetic passions and your bone-weariness, your paralyzing fears and your untapped capacities for joy. Here is the core message I bring today: you are loved.

First, let me define what I mean by “artist.” You have heard it said: “he’s a master of the deal, he’s an artist. She is a phenomenal preacher—she’s an artist. What that plumber can do with PVC—it’s an art.” This is exactly what I do not mean. I do not mean that someone is an artist merely by doing any work exceptionally well. I mean artist as maker of art. Someone on a lifelong continuum stretching from raw talent to apprentice to craftsman to—possibly but not necessarily—“artist.” Filmmaking is my discipline for bringing the story of the invisible into the light of the real: it is my role in the resistance.

Storytelling is how we become, how we take shape: as my friend Bobette Buster says, it has been ever thus. Contadoras around the campfire, Indian story dancers, Wayang shadow puppets, scapegoats, African tribal elders dressed as evil spirits—every culture tells its stories, enacts its plays, sings its songs, cultivates its legends, poems and metaphors. By story we re-member the past as a means of understanding the present. Story defines us because story is what we understand, what we retain, and what we repeat. Art is also the raw material from which archeologists and historians reconstruct the past: so much of what we understand about civilization comes from story—in the form of pictographs on a cave wall, papyrus texts hidden in earthenware pots, or tales that survive for centuries by word of mouth. Art is even the physical evidence of humanity that outlasts all others. Customs and mores, families and dynasties, laws and political movements emerge and disappear—but art endures to inform future generations, “this is who we were. Therefore, this is who you are.”

As our sister Nancy Beach reminded us last night, even God chose storytellers, poets, philosophers, dramatists and prophets to pen the Holy Scriptures, calling upon artists to articulate the mysteries where reason fails, calling upon artists to design and build the temple to hold his presence. King David sang when he was too vile to pray. In dialogue with the suffering Job, God spoke in poetry. If you are familiar with our good brother Mako Fujimura’s work, then you know that art is a means by which we are afforded access to the sacred—much as Moses was allowed to glimpse the glory of God without vaporizing. Art is the peripheral vision of faith.

So what does it mean to be an artist-intercessor? It means that your talent has not been given to you but rather to others through you. Scholar Jim Street writes, “the individual no more possesses the gift than a pipe possesses the water that moves through it.” What a paradigm shift from the way of the Empire! Your films are not about you being understood, admired, or known as someone who has meaningful things to say. It’s not about your identity at all.

This is the realization to which the artist-intercessor must come: that the work is not about or for you. Whether you are consumed with money or purpose, whether you are cool or dorky, whether you make a great living as an artist or whether you struggle through a day job to pay for your camera equipment—success is not judged by any of these things. Your purpose is to be the pipe through which the water moves.

“I cannot cause light;” author Annie Dillard says. “the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.” In Holy the Firm Dillard writes of watching a candle flame consume a female moth. The moth’s abdomen caught in the wet wax and her wings “ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing.” Her antennae crackled, her legs disappeared and her body was reduced to a glowing shell. “And then,” relates Dillard, “this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick . . . She burned for two hours, until I blew her out.”

I first read that when I was 20 or so, and oh, I wanted nothing more than to be that wick, to burn and increase the circle of light in the clearing until I was blown out! What has happened that the world is so suspicious of us, that our art is so banal, our voices so faint? We are offering our lives just to increase the circle of light. If we found a recipe to relieve arthritis, or get red wine stains out of linen, we’d be heroes. So why has communicating the gospel, the good news, become so anathema? How did we become so universally mistrusted?

Some of the answer lies in the fact that we have become dis-acquainted with grief, using the Good News not as the undeserved grace that it is but rather as religious self-defense. Not attempts to alleviate another’s suffering. Not commitments to call all men brothers and all women sisters, but to prove ourselves not to blame.

No wonder people feel adrift in a dark sea when we offer such dim lights to illuminate them. When the Empire has succeeded in an epic misalliance of art and disbelief. Instead of risking ourselves to light a candle in that darkness, we criticize, we boycott, we grow powerless and afraid. We abdicate our leadership in the arts, or worse, we mimic the Empire’s lead. The bad art that is companion to this bad faith is more than sloppy craftsmanship. The church fearfully restricts artists from the exploration that is their divine calling. Consequently, the extreme borders of the Soul—from torment to ecstasy—are often without adventurers of faith.

It was not that long ago that faith and art were enemies, at least in many Western cultures. Many people did not even think to connect them. It was not always this way, and in some branches of the faith—such as Catholicism—art and the artist have not been anathema to the sacred environment. However, even as far back as the 18th century, German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher said, “Religion and art stand beside each other like two friendly souls whose inner relationship…is still unknown to them.”

I grew up in a world where you had to make a decision between being a minister and being an artist. A very narrow definition of what it meant to be a minister prevailed: Ministers were men, who stood behind podiums, and gave Sunday morning sermons. Choosing was easy for me because, as a woman, I was not invited to be that minister anyway. It is hard to imagine now, but the first people who said that ministry could take other forms were viewed askance—to say the least. It was one of those weird territorial divides that a generation breaks its back over only for the next generation to wonder what the heck.

It was more than a lack of imagination. It wasn’t that benign. It was fear. Fear—the enemy of perfect love. Persons of faith were scared to death of what persons of art might do, persons of art were scared to death of how persons of faith might judge. Gustave Flaubert is responsible for my favorite quote, which I first read carved into the doorway over the office of filmmaker David Puttnam when he was briefly the president of Columbia Pictures: be calm and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work. Well, up until recently, persons of faith stood off as though they were the calm and orderly, and persons of art the violent and original. Neither is of much use without the other.

I began to believe that the church would suffer a great schism from the world unless we were able to reconcile these two estranged soul-callings, so I set out on what I realize now was really a personal pilgrimage. I talked first with artists in DC and New York. The next step in my journey took me to what was then Eastern Europe and on to the then USSR, and I interviewed artists who were totally confused when I asked about a possible relationship between faith and art. I encountered people who were angered by the question, and people who were surprised. I know this all sounds so historical now that everyone rolls their eyes about spirituality and art, but honestly, it was like trying to describe the internet to someone back in the 70s—like I was speaking in code.

I ended that series of conversations in Washington DC again with painter Ed Knippers. Ed paints monumental sized paintings, only biblical themes, and only nudes. He had one foot in the world and one in the church, where he has lived in limbo ever since. Even that long ago, he was resolved to being rejected by both sides. He has been told time and again by curators that his work would be in more museums if it just weren’t for the biblical themes. He has been told by clergy that his work would hang in churches if it just weren’t for the nudity.

Ed became for me the patron saint of intercession, or “standing in the gap.” I was in Russia with Ed and Bruce Herman when Leningrad had just become St. Petersburg again, and they went to visit the world famous Hermitage museum. They saw epic paintings of old masters never before seen by Westerners. Paintings, nevertheless, that were all biblical themes. The young docents were deeply educated in all ways except story—they had no idea what the paintings were about. Imagine Ed and Bruce standing there while their young docent Yulia (who happened to be a friend of mine) explained the painting process and technique and the life of the painter, while she had no idea why a man was standing calmly in the center of a golden pool of light surrounded by a drowsy pride of lions. When she realized that they knew the stories, one by one she called her colleagues over for Ed and Bruce to tell the stories of Daniel in the lion’s den, and David and Goliath, Salome dancing for the head of John the Baptist, and Ezekiel bringing the dry bones to life. Ed, who had been painting these themes all his artistic life and garnering the contempt of the art world for it, told these young men and women the Bible stories behind the paintings that they loved so much, and their good Russian faces were bathed in tears. Like my nephews in the halls of Industrial Light and Magic. Rembrandt AND Knippers, Titian AND Herman: they are the bearers of the story.

So, friends, not so long ago artists and ministers were not just unacquainted, they were hostile to one another. It is important for us to understand the deep history of division that still runs like a riptide under the surface of our lives as artists in the church.

Let me say a little more of what I mean by intercession. My mother, who took prayer very seriously, called intercession “standing in the gap,” by which she meant the one between earth and heaven. There is a story, probably apocryphal, of ancient Rhodes, and the statue of Colossus that stood at the entrance to the port. The story goes that the great Colossus spanned the mouth of the bay so that boats had to sail through his legs to enter port. Shakespeare referred to this idea in Julius Caesar. The statue did exist, though disappointingly on a single shore. Still it was one of the wonders of the ancient world.

We are tempted to imagine the artist-intercessor as the Colossus spanning the gap, towering grandly. But that’s not the right image at all, is it? That’s the Empire’s idea of being an artist. Look at Colossus, wonder of the world. Look upon him and marvel. But he did not stand in the gap for anyone. He, like so many, was simply a man on a pedestal.

Standing in the gap means to act on behalf of someone in difficulty or trouble; to attempt to reconcile differences between two people or groups; to mediate. In this way, the artist whose work is intercessory is analogous to Walter Brueggmann’s prophetic imagination. In his book on the subject he says, “The task of prophetic imagination is … to speak neither in rage nor with cheap grace, but with the candor born of anguish and passion.” Poet and writer Scott Cairns, in an issue of our good brother Gregory Wolfe’s IMAGE journal says “afflictions . . . get our attention. They wake us up. They help us to see more clearly than we saw before their occasion . . . the hard way is pretty much the only way we seem to learn anything.”

Here is my favorite poem—by Mizuta Masahide:

The barn burned down

Now I can see the moon

The Artist-intercessor stands in the gap between those two lines—in the ashes of “the barn burned down.” From there, she points to the moon. We are expected to live there, in that tension. Not to simply define the gap, or leave a warning sign, or fill it—but to bridge it so people can cross over. Brueggmann says that it is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the Empire wants to urge as the only thinkable story. The poetic imagination is the last way left in which to challenge and conflict the dominant reality, he says. That is why every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist.

He goes on to identify why we avoid all this lovely, noble-sounding work in the first place: “bringing hurt to public expression is an important first step in . . . permitting a new reality, theological and social, to emerge. . . . As long as the Empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be no real grieving and no serious criticism.”

Here, again, the church follows right in line behind the Empire. We don’t like suffering either. We avoid violent, grief-filled psalms in our liturgies and stick to uplifting ones. Which aren’t so uplifting to people who are in pain or whose lives have been fractured by grief. Maybe that’s why the world doesn’t trust us. Maybe the world avoids hope because the church avoids suffering.

Romans 5:3–5 says, “but we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”

Listen to how this resonates with Yoda’s warning to Luke Skywalker: Fear, Yoda says, “fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Romans gives us a path back from suffering again: “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” It’s not a list, it’s instructions: Plant your foot in suffering, plant it deep. Persevere. Build character, and then—one day—hope. Plant your other foot there, plant it deep. Then hold. Because your job is to bridge the gap between suffering and hope, and let the world cross over the bridge of you. Now we begin to see why it is so hard to live in the tension of intercession. Your work is not the bridge. You are.

Do you wonder or grieve over the idea that you are off the grid, as I did for so many years? That you don’t fit in—as I have felt for so long? What if that is our job? What if our greatest mistake is trying to fix what is actually our purpose in the world? To live in the tension?

Years ago, in pre-revolutionary Russia, a hermit lived on the outskirts of each village, and this hermit’s work was to pray, to help with the harvest, to listen and give counsel—but daily to pray. It was important that the hermit lived on the outskirts. It reminds me of Hebrews 13:11–13 “For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate.” There is a reason we are supposed to be outside the gate. That’s where the suffering is.

The other day as I was leaving a restaurant, the waiter said loudly enough for me to hear, “is that a rebel alliance patch?” I stopped and turned around. Yes, it is, I replied. Are you loyal to the resistance? I asked him smiling and not smiling, are you living up to the Jedi code? And quite respectfully he replied, I’m trying.

If you are called as an artist to be an intercessor, you must be willing to be a living sacrifice, to go all in and you will be deeply miserable if you do not. I am not certain this applies to everyone, I’m just saying if it’s true for you, then you must join the alliance. Ever so gently and lovingly I say to you: Do or do not do, there is no try.

Thank you.