Recently on a trip to Ozark Natural Foods, I noticed a new art display in their café featuring local artists. As I was admiring the art, an older couple started a conversation with me. She was a lifelong artist and upon discovering that I’m a beginning artist, they both gave me some advice. Her advice was “Don’t compare your work to others. Don’t compare your place in the journey to anyone else.” Such a good reminder.
His advice: “Finish your paintings. Push yourself to see what you can do. You won’t know what you can do unless you finish.” I thought that was great advice. I was happy to take it. If you are older and wiser, you can offer unsolicited advice to me anytime.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but later his advice came back to me in a deeper way. Finish your paintings. See what you can do. You won’t know unless you push yourself. Oh yeah – I have a lot of unfinished paintings and a lot of unfinished blog posts. I mean – a lot. Maybe it’s time to finish some. Push myself to finish. Ugh.
I’m not known for pushing myself physically. My husband, an Ironman – speaking of the ultimate way to push your physical limits – has mentioned a time or two at the gym – “I think you’re supposed to sweat when you work out. Isn’t that the point?” The last 5K I signed up for was a November race, and it was very cold that morning. Too cold – so I picked up my T-shirt, got back in my car and drove home. There’s just no need to push yourself to run in that kind of weather. Or to run at all really.
Also ever since I started to understand this whole grace thing – God’s love for me is not dependent on my achievements – other people can love me for who I am, not what I do – I have been set free from pushing myself constantly to achieve. I got off the performance treadmill! Which has been SO good for me.
However there is a need for balance. There are times to push. To finish strong. It’s called discipline. The difference is the reason. Push yourself to see what’s in there. To see what you can do. Not to gain love or out of fear of rejection. Just out of freedom and fun and for the challenge.
Of course there is fear. What if it hurts? What if I fail? What will people think? What if it’s not good? Well I won’t know unless I push myself. And finish. I wish I could thank them again for their advice. It was more profound than I realized at the time.
I recently finished a couple paintings that have been hanging around for over a year now. I think I’ll finish a few other things too.
Spectra is part of the creative arts ministry at Fellowship Bible Church of Northwest Arkansas. A few times a year an art challenge is given to artists who want to participate based on a particular theme or Bible passage. I participated this time and want to share my painting and my process.
The Sermon on the Mount was the topic for this series, paralleling the current sermon series. Participating artists were given a section of scripture to paint their interpretation of that passage. I thought this sounded fun, so I decided to participate.
Then I got my scripture section – Matthew 5:17-32 – which is about Jesus not abolishing the law but fulfilling the law (which I don’t really understand), and about murder, adultery and divorce. Ummm…
Immediately the feeling of overwhelmed came and the related negative thoughts: Oh forget this. How in the world would I ever paint that? I can’t. It would have to be something abstract. I’m not good at abstracts. I quit. I’m not that good of an artist. I’m not even a real artist. The other people in the group are probably real artists. I’m so not ready to participate in something like this. I’ll just quit. Make up some lame excuse.
So even though I was planning to quit, I would occasionally come back to the passage and try to think of something, jot down some notes, try to understand it more. I would even pray for understanding and inspiration from God because my art teacher Nadine often encouraged us to do this. Still nothing was coming.
I finally shared all of this with one of my very cool artist friends, Brandi, and through our conversation the inspiration struck. I started to see that this was all about love. I went back to the drawing board.
I was really confused by Jesus saying he did not come to abolish the law but fulfill the law. I thought he got rid of the law by dying for our sins because we couldn’t keep the law. Through deeper study, I discovered that the Old Testament law contained many rituals designed to foreshadow Christ, which would ultimately fulfill the law.
In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is bringing up parts of the law to show that the law is deeper than just following rules, it’s about what is in our hearts. The goals are love, reconciliation, forgiveness, honor. Later in Matthew, Jesus said these are the greatest commands: Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Later in Romans, Paul brings up the same commands and says “all the commands are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
So in my art piece “Fulfillment,” I created the top portion to represent God, the bottom portion to represent us trying to keep the law with mixed media paper containing scriptures from Old Testament law, and the thick gel medium line the barrier between us and God. The purple represents Jesus covering the law with layers of love and crossing the barrier, leading to other colors and reflections in the focal point of the painting.
It wasn’t until later that I started to see the parallels for this piece in my art journey. Throughout my life I have struggled with legalism and perfectionism. Thinking I had to perform and achieve to get love and acceptance, which leads to a lot of control and lack of love. My art journey has provided such a tangible way to “see” my growth in letting go of control. Learning to rest in God’s love so I can relax and just play. This piece was fun for me. I experimented with a lot of layers and new techniques. So much progress! And I love the end result. A beautiful representation of the depth of God’s love.
I guess I’m a Spectra artist now. A “real” artist. I’m really thankful for this ministry. We got to share our pieces on Thursday night. It was really cool to hear everyone’s process and see the final pieces. I wonder what the next challenge will be.
The mystery of the cross. How can the cross simultaneously represent such contrasts? Shame and grace. Bondage and freedom. Pain and beauty. Death and life. Do we really even know what this means?
Understanding the simultaneous nature of the cross leads to truly living in the freedom provided by the cross.
I have been fascinated with the concept of shame for about 15 years. I love how Brene Brown has brought this issue to light and made it a topic of conversation. Her research has exposed the idea that instead of trying to hide and manage our shame, the courageous acts of vulnerability are what bring healing to our shame and freedom to our lives.
Shame is what we feel when we think “something is wrong with me.” At the cross we realize this is actually true. There is something wrong with us. We are not perfect. We can never be good enough to save ourselves.
The cross is the ultimate answer to healing shame. The courageous act of bringing our shame to the cross allows us to stop hiding. We can finally stop trying to manage something that can never be managed.
When we are honest about our sin and bring our shame to the cross, Jesus exchanges our shame for grace. Then – automatically – we are Enough. There. Arrived. Forgiven. Free. Forever.
It sounds so simple – Jesus died to pay for our sin. His death exchanges our shame for life. We take our sin there and walk away with freedom. So simple – yet so complicated.
It does require humility. It also requires death.
So complicated. This death – the letting go – the loss of our selves – is actually really hard. It’s not that easy for our sin nature to die. We still try to do it ourselves. We hate not being in control. We try to control others so we don’t have to change. We cannot wrap our heads around the freedom of the cross or our identity in Christ, so we constantly go back to trying to save ourselves.
Death always requires a grieving process. I’m often in denial that I need the cross. I desperately try to hide my shame. I try to bargain my way into being able to save myself and not need God. I constantly want to blame others or make excuses for my behavior. I’m angry that I have to die to myself and surrender. I feel depressed that I’m not good enough and can’t achieve the perfection of not needing God.
Yet if I can turn and face my shame – and expose it on the cross, I simultaneously get the freedom and identity of Christ. I am free. I am enough. I have nothing to prove. Nothing to lose. And it’s not a balancing act. It’s all of my shame. For all of his grace.
Back to the contrast. Living in the simultaneous nature of the cross every day. Surrendering shame. Accepting grace. Facing the pain. Knowing it deepens beauty.
It’s a daily thing. The cross was a one time thing in that Jesus did it once and for all. Accepting it is a one time thing. But living it is not – I have to die daily. And it seems that the older I get the death gets deeper.
Yet the life gets brighter. The freedom more expansive. The cross daily transforms my soul. How this is possible it is still a mystery I’ll be forever pondering.
And I will be forever grateful.
This is the hard part. The middle.
When you can’t tell what it’s going to be. How it’s going to turn out. Things haven’t taken shape yet. It’s blurry. Undefined.
The parts aren’t yet connected to the whole piece. You can’t see the big picture. Because it’s not even there yet. It’s going to change a lot before we even get to the final picture.
It’s where I want to quit. It seems too hard. Too overwhelming. I don’t know what to do next. I start in one area and think I’m making progress. Then I step back, and it looks like no progress at all. I don’t know what I’m doing. All of my insecurities and negative messages come up. Why am I even doing this??
It’s so hard to push through. To keep going. This learning to paint as an adult is for the birds!
Then we’re back to the parallels between counseling and art. I have so much hope for my clients when they are in this hard middle place because I know it’s a necessary part of the process. I know this is the only way to the breakthrough. No one gets to skip the middle part.
But the middle part is hard. It feels awful. It’s so frustrating. It’s overwhelming. There are so many things to fix. You think you’re really making progress on one thing. Then you go home and see all the other problems, and it seems like no progress at all.
It’s so hard to stay there when you’re in it. It doesn’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. It seems pointless. Shouldn’t there be a quicker fix? Does this counselor even know what she is doing? Ha! I came here to get these problems solved. Fast. Move on. Not think about them more. Not sit with them in the middle of the process and struggle. Ugh. Hate the middle.
But the middle is so necessary. God could have created an easier healing process. But he didn’t. There’s a purpose for the middle. That’s where change happens. The growth that comes from digging deep. Deeper than you thought you could go.
We have to face the middle. We have to look at our imperfections and stay with them long enough to accept them. Until we start to let go of trying to control everything and see the beauty in the mess.
And while this might not be true of paintings – we can then finally see – that in Christ – our value is the same in the middle as it is in the beautiful finished product.
And now that I think about it… While the areas of light and dark really make a painting, the areas of gray are also a necessary component. If a painting were only light and dark, it would be too much, too intense. The areas of gray, combined with light and shadow, make the piece interesting.
I talked in Light and Shadow about wanting to stay in the medium range, that I struggle with getting out of my comfort zone into the light or the shadow. However, although I think I want to live in the neutral zone, I often don’t like that either. Can I just live in the light all the time?
Areas of gray are difficult. Unclear. Undefined. Murky. Actually nobody likes gray. No one’s favorite color is gray.
The gray is frustrating. It’s confusing. A lot of anxiety comes up there. We want to know where things are going. What it’s going to look like. What our lives are going to look like. We want to see the finished picture. We get really impatient with the gray.
Especially when we compare ourselves to people we think are in the light.
Seems like we spend a lot of life here – in the gray. Where things aren’t clear. When we’re waiting for an answer. Waiting for something to change. …Or someone to change. Waiting for something to heal – physically or emotionally. Waiting for a breakthrough. Or just waiting for a break.
In fact – a whole lot of life is spent in the gray. It’s actually where life is. The darkness leads us there. The light areas come after the gray. But the gray is where we spend the majority of our time.
And the gray is a necessary part of the process. Our bodies need the areas of gray. We were made to need a slow change process. It would be too overwhelming to change fast. We need a slow progression into and out of the darkness. The gray is actually where change happens.
So instead of fighting the gray, can we learn to accept it? Can we accept that we are just waiting? Just in process? Can we trust that the gray is a necessary part of the whole picture? Can we learn to rest and be content?
Can we begin to see that there is immense beauty in shades of gray?
Life is full of light and shadow
O the joy and O the sorrow
O the sorrow
And yet will He bring
Dark to light
And yet will He bring
Day from night
I’ve always loved the song Shadows, by David Crowder Band. It spoke a lot to me when I was grieving. It was a really dark time for me, and I really identified with just resting in the shadow of the cross. Now as I’m learning to paint, the depth of meaning in this song has intensified.
One of the many hard things for me to learn as an artist has been light and shadow. My paintings often end up in the medium range of color. My art teachers are constantly pushing me to “add more light” and “add more dark.” I can look at the painting and agree with them, but still really struggle to push outside my boundaries of color. My tendency is to stay in the middle, stay in my comfort zone. But if I stay there, the painting ends up being flat.
Light and shadow transform a painting. They create movement, leading the eye around the painting. They create a focal point, guiding to the most important part of the piece. They create depth. And depth is what makes a painting beautiful, real. Artists can make subjects pop off the canvas by increasing the light in that area and putting areas of dark right nearby.
It’s the same with life. Light and shadow create depth in us. Dark areas really highlight the light areas. And the darker the dark areas, the lighter the light areas. The deeper the pain, the higher the joy. After recovering from grief, I have often felt like I am floating as I walk around. I just feel so much lighter. After experiencing a deeper pain than I ever could have imagined, I am experiencing a higher joy than my mind could have ever conceived.
Light and shadow make the scene on the canvas of our lives deep and beautiful. The more depth that is created, the more the light and glory of God can pop out through our lives.
Oh but we so desperately want to keep our lives in the medium zone. We try so hard to grip tightly with control and avoid the darkness. We know it adds beauty to our lives, makes us stronger, etc. But we want to get there by avoiding the pain.
The bad news is life is going to bring pain. The good news is we can rest and grieve in the shadow of the cross. The even better news is – there is so much hope there. There is a purpose for it. A beauty that is not possible without the darkness. A joy unspeakable on the other side of the pain.
When shadows fall on us
We will not fear
We will remember
When darkness falls on us
We will not fear
We will remember
When all seems lost
When we’re thrown and we’re tossed
We remember the cost
We rest in Him
Shadow of the cross
David Crowder Band, Shadows
I think one of the best things about being a girl is showers. I really really LOVE showers. I love: the girl time, going to someone’s house, the details, the invitations, the decorations, the flowers, buying and wrapping the gifts, watching her open the gifts, the fun food, the cake, and even the silly games.
When I was grieving, this obviously became increasingly difficult and then completely overwhelming and nearly impossible for me. Not only was it difficult for the obvious reason that I really wanted a baby – and no matter how much I loved my friends and was so happy for them – it was so hard to celebrate God giving out so many babies and withholding from us. See My Cabbage Patch Kid. I also felt The Ache of Desire so much more intensely at baby showers.
And even harder, I grieved the gap widening between other women and me. I really wanted to get away from my pain and just connect with the things I loved about being women, but the conversation at showers usually surrounded babies, pregnancy, delivery, nursing, and diapers. Because that’s what most of the women were experiencing at the time. I do appreciate the times they asked me about my dogs. I tried to throw in anecdotes about nieces and nephews. But mostly – has anyone read any good books lately? didn’t go very far. No one had time to read anymore!
So when I volunteered to host at my house, it was a bit surprising to all of us. Not only does it represent so much emotional healing and redemption of the pain of our story. There are several other physical reasons this was such a big deal!
- I can think! I could plan! I could organize it! When I was grieving, it was so difficult to think. The details became so overwhelming. The emails. I just could not handle all the emails. It was hard to make decisions. The fog and heaviness of grief make it really hard to focus and process information.
- I had the energy to host! Grief is just so exhausting. It is a lot of work. It decreases your normal capacity to function in day-to-day tasks. It also depresses your energy level and makes social interaction more taxing. I was just so tired all the time. I remember several social occasions where I was actually fantasizing about laying down on the floor in the middle of everything because I was just so tired and sad.
- I could shop for supplies! I could go to Wal-Mart! Going to Wal-Mart became extremely overwhelming while I was grieving (even more than just the regular Wal-Mart is always overwhelming) I could become overwhelmed in the parking lot before I even went in. I nearly had a meltdown over traffic or packed aisles several times – and again started fantasizing about ramming other cars or shopping carts. Grief consumes a lot of energy, so minor irritations can often feel really major!
- I could go the extra mile! I could go down the baby aisle! I remember the point when I could no longer go into the baby aisle. It was just too painful. It was probably around the same time that I could no longer handle looking up a registry and tracking things down. Because of my exhaustion, my patience with machines became very limited. (And yes – fantasies about breaking them became involved.) From that point, I just decided gift cards would be better for everyone. This was the first time in a long time that I entered the baby aisle, enjoyed it, and bought an actual gift for a shower!
- I have decorated my house! Before grief I was motivated to clean my house, decorate my house, have people over. As the depression and exhaustion took over during grief, it was very difficult to clean, cook, care…. Even a load of laundry was a big deal. Hosting was out of the question. And as I mentioned in Christmas 2013, color had slowly snuck out of my life. But it’s back! I may have gone a little overboard in decorating my house with my paintings from art class, but color is back in the Henry house! And it is again open to the public! Well the invited public. You still might want to call first.
- I could get up early to get ready and prepare! I even went to the Farmers Market to get flowers. For all the reasons mentioned above, the exhaustion of grief made it really difficult to get up in the morning and face another day. I really enjoyed the beauty and quietness of the early morning that day.
So for all these reasons, this was a really big deal! Another marker of the healing God has brought into my life. Thank you to all of you who were so supportive during my season of grief and the multitude of baby showers. I’m so thankful to be at this new place and that it was so much fun to host!!