Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Thomas Kinkade and the Disturbing Absence of Reality

Judith Hougen (author of Transformed Into Fire) has written some intriguing reflections on the passing of artist Thomas Kinkade. Kinkade is famous for his depictions of a “world without the fall,” full of soft glows and pastoral scenes. It has been shocking to find out (at least for me) that Kinkade’s life shared little resemblance to these peaceful scenes. His own life was apparently full of addiction and relational failures.

Hougen’s recent blog entitled, “The Problem with Light: Reflections on the Life, Death, and Art of Thomas Kinkade,” has this telling observation:

The media has well covered Kinkade’s death last month: his alcoholism and drug use, financial woes, ruined marriage. Understand: there’s no stone in my hands. May none of our lives be summarized by our frailest moments. These details simply juxtapose with his work in an instructive way: here’s a man who scrubbed from his art the mess of life to reach for a world that never was, while his own sank further and further away from his idealistic vision. Perhaps, he was desperate to separate himself from his own fall. Perhaps, the Painter of Light hoped the happy glow of that wintry porch would somehow, someday, receive him.

Hougen then goes on to comment how she encourages her students to write both light and shadow, else their writing possess a shallowness that does not reflect life.

Much of contemporary “Christian culture” fits nicely in Kinkade’s pastoral scene, full of chubby angels and soft light. Perhaps that is why I find so little in these scenes to actually relate to; my own scene is full of both light and shadow, sharp edges and hurricanes as well as gentle slopes and quiet waters.

I find no encouragement from his paintings, since they are an assault on reality as I know it (Maybe these paintings could be fixed simply by adding a guy in the center of every painting with a bloody hatchet. Photoshop anyone??)

We need artists, poets and writers who provide believable worlds for real people to inhabit, like Narnia or Middle Earth!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Do You Like Your Smile?

I heard a story recently that has gripped my heart. A young girl (age 9) was talking to her Mommy about the possibility of needing braces, something that could be very troubling to a pre-adolescent. She said, “I don’t know if I want braces, Mama; I like my smile and Daddy says I have the most beautiful smile in the world.”

It’s beautiful to me that the words of her Daddy had penetrated her so deeply that she was re-interpreting the idea of having braces; What could have been a shame and anxiety producer (how will I look ???) was turned into a kind of self-confidence that can only come through being loved. The words of her Daddy carried great weight for good in her soul, to the glory of the God who made her and her smile.

I long to be penetrated that way by the love of God, my Father. I wish I could say, “I like who I am, because my Abba declares me good, beautiful and strong.”

I’ve been trapped in a deep cycle (well, deeper than normal) of self-hatred and depression for just over two weeks now; I just can’t seem to shake myself out of it. I hear the Lord’s whispers through this story though, that it’s possible for me to trust God in this way. At least that is his heart for me (and all his kids). May it be, Lord.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Coming Down from the Mountain: Some thoughts on Transitioning to the Valley of the Everyday

[I recently submitted this article to the newsletter for the Society for Christian Psychology.]

Recently I attended a powerful men’s retreat (Men at the Cross with the Cross Ministry group, see www.crossmg.org) which I highly recommend. By the grace of God, I experienced newfound freedom in at least two places in my life that had long been dominated by dark and painful shame. I think of this time as a “mountaintop” experience, and I’m fairly sure all of us can relate to such an experience. If we have lived long enough, we know that we cannot live long on the mountaintop; we must eventually make our way down to the valley and slay the dragons that dwell there.

As I prepared to come home, the inevitable questions came: “How will I apply this freedom to my daily life? Will it be lost? How can I maintain this momentum?” Obviously there was some anxiety with these questions. I’m sure many of us have had similar thoughts. We want to honor God for the gifts he has given us during these times by being good stewards of them and seeking to apply them as deeply as we can. We also would like to see them reproduced in others.

The transition from the mountaintop to the “mundane” of our day to day is important to think through. Unfortunately, I have not had much help in the form of teaching in this matter, so I’ve had to figure out a few things on my own. Maybe these thoughts will help a few others too.

The two dynamics I am most aware of in this transition is 1) thinking through what would be “realistic expectations” and 2) being committed to seeing how far I can, with God’s help, take this newfound freedom into other areas still in chains. When I was younger, I expected my day to day to conform to the mountaintop; all I had to do was simply apply enough pressure. Repeated failure rooted out this assumption pretty quickly! As I have aged (in my early 40s now, which is pretty old in my book), I have relaxed quite a bit in these expectations. I appreciate the mountaintop for what it is: a special, unique gift of grace and relationship between my Creator and me. I have learned that I can let go of the experience, let go of the pressure to foolishly try to sustain what has been so clearly given me by grace (Gal 3:3). Indeed, if momentum is to be continued, I must let this go. One idea I have found particularly helpful is to recommit the gift back to Jesus, the giver of all good things.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 1:3 ESV)

It is not up to me (or you) to maintain the gifts that Jesus gives; they reside with Jesus in the heavenly places, guarded by God Himself. Isn’t that freeing? Blessings received on retreat are precious gifts, but the great thing about these gifts is that they can’t be lost. They reside with the Giver - indeed they are part of Him - and every time we draw near to Him we have access to them again, along with their power and freedom. This frees me to let go of the pressure of performance while at the same time giving myself to relationally seeking the Lord.

That leads me to my second point. I am not passive in the transition. Free of the pressure to sustain what God has birthed, I work hard to apply these new insights, new tools and new power to other areas of my life. I work alongside the Lord, trying to knead the stuff into every corner of my life, knowing that in Him I cannot fail! As Paul told Timothy, I can “fan into flame the gift of God” (2 Timothy 1:6 ESV). The best way to do this is to draw near to God Himself, the all-consuming fire.

Another way that I have found helpful in getting back in touch with God’s grace-gifts from the mountaintop is by witness testimony. When I tell others about what God has done, I am brought back into the reality of the new creation I experienced (very much like the dynamics of the Psalms). It could be argued that the reality of God experienced in these moments is, in some sense, brought back into daily experience through testimony and worship. I have met with several friends since the retreat and though the freedom seemed far away, I felt closer to it (and God) as I shared what God did and said. It has also blessed these friends to hear it. The new reality brushed them too.

Lastly, the day to day “mundane” life I live is full of routine that can be harvested for ritual symbolism. The Old Testament Wisdom Literature (esp. Job, Ecclesiastes and Proverbs) teaches us that the created order is full of signs pointing to the reality of God who made it all. Jesus, the wisest of all, used creation this way (see Matthew 6, “look at the birds . . . look at the lilies”, etc.). Using our imagination, we can use the symbols of creation and redemption all around us as tools for thinking through the ways God works. For example, the simple act of taking a walk can be infused with meaning as I reflect on what my life would look like walking in freedom with God and others. Turning on a light switch can be an opportunity for staying in the light of God. Washing the dishes can be a powerful symbol of serving another as I reflect on how our Savior serves me. Watching birds and flowers can teach us that God is a trustworthy Father. Taking communion (one of the strongest symbols we have!) is powerful in reminding me of the cost required for my freedom, as well as the fact that Jesus has finished the work and I don’t need to sustain what he began.

These are some of the tools I have found helpful in the transition from the mountaintop to the valley. Lord willing, I can retain what is best from the mountaintop and clothe it in the garments of the everyday.