Sunday, June 11, 2017

Alabaster Jars- worshipping with the abstract

"I think this story-writing business is the foolishest yet, " scoffed Marilla. "You'll get a pack of nonsense into your heads and waste time that should be put on your lessons. Reading stories is bad enough but writing them is worse."- Marilla Cuthbert, Anne of Green Gables



This passage was written in 1908, yet it reveals the timeless challenge belonging to writers and artists of proving that the work they do is worth the time and energy invested into it. 

The latest fiction book I am reading is Anne of Green Gables. I grew up watching the movie during long car trips to Zion or The Redwoods, on which my dad would take my two sisters and I on. Between stopping for routine geological lectures about the sedimentary rocks, my dad would put in the movie into a small VHS player to keep us from fighting with each other. I must have watched that film at least 10 times, but had never read the book.

I picked the book up only a few days ago, but I've already reached the half way point This is to the credit of its author, L.M. Montgomery. Her writing is full of lively dialogue, her characters are full of personality and history, and her imagery indulges the senses. There is a real pleasure as a writer to fully be immersed in somebody else's book. 

When I came across this passage where Marilla expresses her scorn for storywriting,  I smiled at Montgomery's satire.  Anne has just revealed her newly created outlet for her insatiable imagination- a story club. Marilla, who is the embodiment of practical Edwardian values, shows not an ounce of frivolity, and quickly dismisses Anne's ventures as a "waste of time." No doubt Montgomery must have felt the same scrutiny in her era as Anne did. 

Although written over 100 years ago, I feel Anne and I are kindred spirits. And my hunch is that most artists feel the same criticism. We have at least all heard the familiar story artist or musician, who to the dismay of his parents, has not gotten a "real job". Have you ever experienced the same shame when people ask what your dreams are? 

Maybe it's in our American blood, but the artist story highlights our culture's desire for hard work and  productivity. When we come across a new thing, we poke at it, saying "but...what does it... DO?" The nature of art is nailing the abstract, the unspoken problems and social changes of our society. We often don't have statistics of lives saved, or mouths fed, or buildings built. It is difficult to measure the way a person's heart and soul are affected. 

And that is the question the world ask us- What is it that you really do? Or rather, How can we justify you spending your efforts making things that are simply pretty to look at? Are your paintings, films, or music worth investing in? Are you simply just taking up space in our lives?  If it is present in the world, it is unfortunately even more present in the Christian world. In fairness, the world has embraced the arts comparatively well. In certain pockets, the world has welcomed the eccentric artists with open arms, and, unfortunately, the mainstream church has pushed it away. The church wants to do things for the Lord, and artists often find themselves labeled rather...unspiritual. 

Just as there is a hierarchy of careers in the world, there also is an elevation of certain positions in the church. It is relatively easy to find a place in church community if you are an intercessor, children's church teacher, or pastor. If the church is musically inclined, musicians and song writers get by just by the skin of their teeth by joining the worship team. Meanwhile, the writers, dancers, painters and other artists often fill these positions out of duty, leaving something to be desired in their souls.  These former callings are crucial to a healthy church community and are due honor, but as people called to create things, we often feel marginalized and insecure about our position in the Kingdom. 


I remember hearing a message by Kris Vallotton one time. He said that one night, the Lord asked him "Do you know why I made flowers?"
And Kris responded, "No...but I bet you're going to tell me."
The Lord said, "Because I think they are pretty."

Why would God make things simply because they are "pretty"? If He does it, we know it must be of some purpose. So what purpose do pretty things serve?

Remember the story of the woman and Jesus with the alabaster jar?

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.
When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”
Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

The disciples were astonished at the "waste" of this expensive perfume. Judas was so offended by this display of waste that it propelled him into betraying Jesus. But Jesus said, "She has done a beautiful thing to me." Why was it beautiful? She was taking something extremely expensive and lavishing Jesus with it to show her love towards him. Just from looking, we can't measure what was happening in Jesus' heart. But he sees that the woman had put herself in a position of ridicule and scorn by doing such a "foolish" thing, all so she could express her love towards him. Jesus recognized this sacrifice and called it beautiful.   


The alabaster jar of an artist's life is his time and energy, or perhaps other people's invested money. As believers, we all recognize our sojourner status and our purchased lives. We desire to spend our time wisely, not where moth and rust destroy. Because we love God, we inspect our time investments to see if they measure up to eternal value. Canvases, books, and film reels will be burnt up, so are they eternally valuable? 

It goes back to the question above, Why would God make things because they are simply pretty? Is it valuable if it doesn't do anything? We know there is really know such thing as happenstance with God. In my experience, the purpose that beautiful things serve is the liaison between body, soul and spirit. The jar of perfume was physical, but the story above shows how its worth tapped into Jesus' heart. The flower is physical, but it awakens the spirit. Think about the most beautiful landscape you have ever seen. How did it make you feel? What about when you drive through a beautifully landscaped neighborhood? How have certain fictional characters influenced your experience of life? Perhaps they put you in "what if" situations you never had considered, and you confronted fears or hopes you never knew still existed. Maybe it is a piece of art or a song lyric that somehow says something to you that no preacher could have ever delivered. 

God wants to use your creations to speak! You are uniquely made, and nobody can translate what God wants to say to the world like you can. Your creations are vessels for communicating God's love to the world. As a believer, you have the mind of Christ. And as we hang out with God more, we become more and more like Him and His voice will be more clearly heard. In fact, people will be drawn to your work because they subconsciously are experiencing God. 


 So in the eyes of the practical Marillas of the world, we may be viewed as stewarding our time poorly. These differences of opinion will always exist, but don't let it stop you from flowing in what you have. Sometimes people need to be gently informed of this perspective. As we cultivate respect for ourselves and  our fellow creators, let's also give due honor to the practical positions in the Kingdom. We are all parts of one Body, and cannot thrive without each other.   

What about you? What have been your experiences as an artist?

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