Saturday, April 30, 2016

Silence: Endo's Masterpiece & Fujimura's Meditation

While in graduate school I read Shusaku Endo's spare and elegant novel Silence for the first time. This masterpiece had a profound impact on me that would last all these years as I wrestled with the questions that this work asked and it was unsettling how inconclusive I was in asking them of myself. 

For those who've never read Silence, Endo's story centers on a young Jesuit who's sent to Japan to investigate whether or not his mentor committed apostasy. What Rodrigues, the young Jesuit, learns is the truth of the Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians)  whom officials root out and take anyone suspected of being a believer out in front of their village. There, they force them into stepping on a fumi-e (the bronze image of Christ) as a way of not only renouncing their faith but to shame them so that others will not believe. Those who refuse are either imprisoned or killed by anazuri (hanging them upside down over a pit and slowly burned alive).  

This is a real fumi-e worn smooth by all the many who had stepped on it

The illusion of the glory of martyrdom is stripped from Rodrigues as he witnesses this. Worse, he learns that Ferreira, his mentor, and other priests were told to either renounce their faith or watch as those believers were tortured and killed before them. The novel wrestles with doubt, shame, betrayal, and traumas' effects on faith. 

This was one of those great masterpieces that made me ask myself, "What would I do in that situation? Would I renounce my faith in Christ to end the torture and suffering of others?" 

These questions haunted me long after I had read this book. The more I ruminated on the painful, difficult questions of what am I willing to endure or have those around me endure for faith, the more I had to look at my own heart. To face the darkness of my own doubts. This came at a time when, having grown up in extremely conservative and fundamentalist churches, I had been taught that to doubt was to sin and so I wrestled with doubts in fear of what they meant.  

In his new meditation on Shusaku Endo's masterpiece, Makoto Fujimura writes how Endo exposes the flaw in this line of thinking. "It does not express faith in God but instead faith in clarity and, as one of my friends puts it, 'our lust for certainty.' Faith can be rational, but only after a deeper journey toward mystery and transcendence."

Most of us do not like to sit with our doubt and want only to dismiss it, but both Endo's novel and Fujimura's new work make us face truths we don't like facing. Fujimura, who lived only a few blocks from the Twin Towers, writes of the trauma 9/11 had on his own faith. How it drove him to wrestle and try to come to grips with other horrors, such as Hiroshima. As he writes, "People experiencing trauma often do not dare to ask, because we know no answer will come back, only silence."

We don't like silence. We like to have the answers. It unsettles and unnerves us not have them. 

As Endo writes in his novel:

I suppose I should simply cast from my mind these meaningless words of the coward; yet why does his plaintive voice pierce my breast with tall the pain of a sharp needle? Why has Our Lord imposed this torture and this persecution on poor Japanese peasants? No, Kichijiro was trying to express something different, something even more sickening. The silence of God. Already twenty years have passed since the persecution broke out; the black soil of Japan has been filled with the lament of so many Christians; the red blood of priests has flowed profusely; the walls of churches have fallen down; and in the face of this terrible and merciless sacrifice offered up to Him, God has remained silent.

Both Shusaku Endo and Makoto Fujimura are outsiders who do not fit in within their cultures (Endo was a Christian in Japan and Fujimura is a Christian in the art world. Both cultures are unwelcoming towards faith). Yet in both men, this being the outsider has given them a wider perspective to objectively assess and address the cultures they're alienated from. It gives both "a language of hiddenness, of empathy, and visual beauty" they would not have otherwise.

Too often, in our consumer culture we only want mere entertainment. Entertainment comes from the Greek words meaning "to come between." Our entertainment is used not to enlighten or to cause us to question and think more deeply, but to keep us from doing exactly that. I have heard it said, "When I watch a movie, I don't want to have to think. I just want to be entertained." It is very much a fast-food approach to art and culture. But art should reveal "the power of the intuitive, capturing the reality hiding beneath the culture" (Fujimura). That's why, when we read a book like Silence, it strikes us so hard and shatters the illusions we like to hide behind in our entertainment. 

In reading Silence, I am confronted by my own duplicity, my own weaknesses, my own doubts and fears. I am caused to question, "What would I do?" It's one thing to read a verse like Romans 8:18, "I consider our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us," but it's another to live that out when believing could cost not only your lives, but the lives of others. This is a very real fact of believers in many countries around the world where martyrdom is a cold, brutal reality. 

To witness just such actions, such as these beheadings of believers by Islamic terrorists, makes me read Endo's words with a better understanding:

I do not believe that God has given us this trial to not purpose. I know that the day will come when we will clearly understand why this persecution with all it's sufferings has been bestowed upon us -- for everything that Our Lord does is for our good. And yet, even as I write these words I feel the oppressive weight in my heart of those last stammering words of Kichijiro in the morning of his departure: "Why has Deus Sama imposed this suffering on us?" and then the resentment in those eyes that he turned upon me. "Father", he had said "what evil have we done?"

Makoto Fujimura grapples with these questions as he makes a pilgrimage back to the what is now known as Martyr's Hill in Japan. In so doing, he begins to confront his own identity as an artist, as someone who struggles with belonging and with culture, with expressing his faith in Christ-hidden cultures, whether they be Japan or the art world. 

His book is beautiful and thought-provoking. It moves through both Japanese culture and aesthetics masterfully, all the while wrestling with the underpinnings of belief and what does that mean for someone who wants to create meaningful art that has an impact on those who encounter it. One of my favorite lines in his book says, "Deep communication can only take place through a path of vulnerability." This is exactly what he is doing in this book. Fujimura's vulnerability in writing of his own painful experiences allows the beauty to come through of how he had "studied the arts of unbelief" (as William Blake wrote of Albion in his poem Jerusalem) and how it was that very poem which led Fujimura to the reality of Christ.  

By having encountered Silence, Fujimura understands that a "willingness to spend time truly seeing can change how we view the world, how moving us away from "superficially scanning what we see" so that we can begin to "delve below the surface." That is where great art is born and that is where faith truly begins to mature and grow. We must confront the silence that we so fear. As Henri Nouwen wrote, " . . . it is precisely in silence that we confront our true selves." That is what Endo exposes in his novel, that is what Fujimura ruminates on his work. 

Both Shusaku Endo and Makoto Fujimura are more concerned with going deeper, understanding that to contemplate the very things most of us try to ignore, are what lead to wisdom.  

I came away from Endo's novel with questions that made me confront myself and my faith. I came away from Fujimura's Silence and Beauty realizing that I was not the only one. He helped me to see more than just another perspective on Silence but something much larger, richer and a wider perspective on Endo the man and artist, on Fujimura the man and artist, but Japanese culture and art, the hidden shame of those who are the "children of failed faith," and of the "paradoxes and the mystery of suffering," and ultimately of the light that is there even in the darkness, the beauty in the brokenness. 

Silence and Beauty is a profound book that asks us to confront suffering and at the same time be confronted with the sublime beauty of grace.  

Makoto Fujimura's "Silence Kairos"

Here's Makoto Fujimura talking about Beauty and Silence:

Academy Award winning director Martin Scorsese has adapted Endo's novel into a film to be released in late 2016. It stars Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield, and Adam Driver.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Note To My Sons On What I've Learned So Far

Yesterday was my birthday. While working in one of my stores, someone I know wished me "Happy Birthday" and, as we were talking, asked me, "What have you learned from the years you've lived so far that you want to pass on to your sons?" Not the usual conversation one has with co-workers, but then I never have the usual conversation with anyone. My first thought on hearing this was, "HEY! I only turned 48, I'm not Joseph on his deathbed offering sage advice to his loved ones." But the more I thought about what she'd asked, the more I paused to reflect on what exactly would I pass on to my boys.

It was only as I sat in the car line at school to pick up Cava that I began to put words to paper.  While this is hardly King Solomon writing down his Proverbs, here is what I came up with:

- God made us creators, not consumers. Live in that.

- Never lose your sense of wonder.

- Delight in play no matter how old you are.

- You are not a failure if you fail but only if you quit.

- You were fearfully and wonderfully made. This means you should celebrate your quirks and your uniqueness as they are a gift from God not a curse.

- Pursue joy and contentment over happiness and pleasure.

- Think beyond the moment. Consider your choices in terms of generational thinking.

- Your purpose is to praise, not popularity. Seek God's glory, not your fame.  Character is more important than celebrity. Wealth and fame only deepen insecurities they don't erase them.

- Spend more time praying for others' needs than your wants.

- All honesty should be tempered with compassion. Offer your hand more than your opinion.

- Gentleness is not weakness.

- There is no such thing as a "real man." Focus on being a "godly man." The "real" in that is called authenticity. We need more of those and less of the world's "real men."

- Be mindful of the grace God has shown you that you might extend that same grace to others. This means choosing the path of peace over power, mercy over might, and humility over hubris.

- Be hopeful, not hurtful. You may be the difference in another's life.

- Our culture objectifies women. You should edify them. When looking for a girl to date and, even more so, to marry, look for one who is able to make you think, who challenges you by her own intelligence and gifts, who balances you out.

- Know that real love (not the kind in movies and TV) is sacrifice. View that as a gift, not a hardship.

- Don't be afraid to be vulnurable. To be vulnerable with another person is a spiritual act.

- Be guided by Christ and not culture.

- Seek real community. Real connection comes over deep conversations, not likes on social media. One of the greatest gifts you can give someone is your presence. Be present. Be a good listener.

- Choose hospitality over hatred.

- See the holy in the daily. There is no act too small that you can't do it to the glory of God.

- Attend to place. Pay attention to the world around you or else you might miss the miraculous beauty God has created for those who take the time to notice it.

- Be still. Find moments of solitude.

- Find patience. Patience is a fruit of the Spirit and, like all fruits, does not grow overnight. It must be tended and nurtured first. Have patience for yourself as well as for others.

- Your biography will always reveal your theology.

- Don't be afraid to doubt or question. Doubt is not unbelief, it is just trusting even when one doesn't have the answer.

- Know that hurts are going to come along in life. That's a given. But use them, use your brokenness to have empathy and compassion for others. Remember every one has their own stories and their own struggles. When we stop and listen, we begin to understand.

- Live a thoughtful life.

- Lastly, if someone offers you a paper crown: Put it on! Immediately! Don't think about it, just put that crown on! Yes, you will look silly but so what? Looking silly may put the smile on the face of someone who desperately needs it.

That is what I would offer my sons from my forty-eight years.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Happy Birthday Papa!

Today my dad is turning 48 years old (but doesn't look a day over 30) and I wanted to wish him a happy birthday. Even though I have only lived with this man for 1/3 of his life, I have always looked up to you from day 1. You are smart, handsome, and funny and i'm glad to get these traits from you (especially the handsome part). You have been the biggest role model in my life teaching me whats right and wrong and you have always been there for me. From birthdays to award ceremonies you have always been there for me and to take a picture. Every,single,time. You have helped me to follow my dreams in software development and engineering,even when you don't understand what i'm talking about, you have encouraged me to continue and work hard. Through my life I have cherished the times we have had together, through watching Good Mythical Morning, going on walks, to just sitting on the couch and making fun of old, bad sci-fi and horror movies, like MST3K. I love you and I am glad to call you my papa. Happy birthday dad, and here's a birthday tip for you: Always remember to sign out of your blogger account, someone could get write a blog while you're at work you know.

Love your son Benjamin.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

On Natural Beauty

It is Spring, my favorite season of the year (along with Fall). Spring always reminds me that, after the cold, hardness of winter, is rebirth and resurrection. God has subtly reminding us of birth and life and death and rebirth throughout the year. He does the same through sunrise, noonday, evening, and night. Rising and setting. Inhaling and exhaling.

I love it when the daffodils bloom because it reminds me that Spring is near and, of course, gives me a chance to trot out my recitation of Wordsworth's poem. I love how this poem deals with nature and time in such simplicity as having the poet walking along the shores of a lake when he discovers the daffodils in glorious bloom. At that moment, the poet feels such unity. If you've never read this poem, read it and see if you don't think of its lines whenever you see a daffodil in bloom.

Springtime is one of the many ways that I find that I  "hunger after the beautiful and the good," as George Eliot puts it. Seeing dogwoods and azaleas in bloom, I discover that I am stopping more to savor and feast on beauty of my surroundings. Because of Cava, I notice the birds and the loveliness of their birdsong.  I stop to notice the baby Cardinal just outside its nest in one of our azalea bushes.

How fragile and small it was. This nestling has not yet found the glory of its deep, rich brilliantly red feathers yet. I could not wait until it did, as I love to see them in our yard as they remind me of my mother, whose favorite bird was the Cardinal.

One morning, as I was doing my centering prayer in silence, I heard their calls and it only reiterated the attribute of God that I was meditating on: joy.

Webster's defines joy as "a feeling of great pleasure or happiness." In the Greek, joy is a source or origin. It's also closely linked with grace and favor.

As I heard the trilling of the birds, I could not help but think of the laughter and pleasure of God who called such things "good." Yet if I had not been in that moment would I have noticed or made that connection? Too often I am so busy that I do not hold it within myself such beauty without hurriedly moving on.  How often do I let art or nature penetrate myself so that it effects me beyond just a cursory glance or moving quickly on to "more important things?"

The German poet Goethe wrote, "A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul."

Do I take time daily to do this?

Do I listen to the words of Christ who bids me, "Consider the lilies of the field?" Or the daffodils, or the irises, or the tulips, or the chrysanthemum? The word chrysanthemum comes from the Greek words "chrysos" (gold) and anthemon (flower). I cannot help but wonder if the streets of "gold" in heaven aren't flowers. I know I would prefer it to be so. It's easier to delight in them.

One of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, would have agreed. For her, the world was her garden. Nature revealed her theology of God and death and beauty.  One can see in her poetry her daily communing with flowers, birds, and even insects.

"Nature" is what we see - 
The hill - the Afternoon -
Squirrel - Eclipse - the Bumble bee -
Nay - nature is Heaven -
Nature is what we hear -
The Bobolink - the Sea -
Thunder -  the Cricket -
Nay - Nature is Harmony -
Nature is what we know -
Yet have no art to say -
So impotent our Wisdom is
To Her Simplicity.

Those who would read this poem might ask, "Why all the dashes?" There have been many theories on why she did this, but it causes one to pause in the reading and not hurry through, perhaps pausing with each dash instead of dashing on, as the words and the poet are so connected. The dashes give each part emphasis and ask us to reflect on them, as parts and parts of the whole. To her, all of these elements of nature are connected and she wants to illuminate each one. Each is holy. Each is sacred. Like Jesus, she is telling us, "Pay attention. Notice."

I love Emily Dickinson's poetry. Her faith and her doubt. Dashes: interruptions and connections. Like the dashes in her poetry, she moves between both, but ultimately settles on the beauty and belief.

The language of faith is the language of creation and in that is the ability to appreciate and hold beauty deep within ourselves because we understand that all of it was an act of divine love. I cannot gaze on our irises without seeing that "Christ-artist" William Blake spoke of. This iris, with it's rich plicata purple against  the white, with its lines and splatters makes me see the artistry of its beauty. This is the work of a God who delights in His creation: its variations and differences. When I take the time to notice it is then that I am truly being still, and noticing that He is God.

And this happens when I see a beautiful painting. One of my professors once told me that she was fortunate enough to be in the room of The Musée de l'Orangerie in which Monet's cycle of water lilies known are hung when no one else was. The eight paintings are hung in two large oval rooms so that the water lilies and the pond surround the visitor.  I envied that experience if being able to sit by oneself with these gorgeous images all around you, overwhelming the senses with their beauty. That is a moment of prayer. To be there in the silence with only those paintings. How could one not feel gratitude and appreciation for Monet's creation?

Monet once said of his gardens, "Every day I discover more and more beautiful things. It's enough to drive one mad. I have such a desire to do everything, my head is bursting with it." He was overwhelmed but the beauty of his garden that, like Dickinson, it became the world to him. "I would love to paint the way a bird sings,'' he stated and, listening to the joy of the birdsong during my prayer, made me more fully understand what he meant.

The artist Andy Goldsworthy also sees art in the natural world and takes objects that many would not stop to consider and makes them stop and reconsider them. Just look at what he did with small stones:

Or these leaves:

How many of us would stop to create such momentary and ephemeral art? 

Yet there is such beauty and grandeur in the natural world around us. Just look at these warm colors and amazing blues and purples from a fossilized tree? Those sea like rings are the growth rings of the tree. How did that happen? Water filled in the cracks and empty spaces of the fossil and, when the silica content of the water hardened, it turned into opal. This shows how, even in death, there is great beauty. 

Is there not wonder all around us? But to notice and appreciate it, we must stop, see it, meditate upon it, and allow it to transform us. When we do, we become grateful that God is a God who loves us enough to offer up such opportunities to catch glimpses of transcendence. When I look at creation, I see the splendid extravagance of God who delights in variations and richness of seasons, the beauty and love contained in creation flows from the veins of our Creator. 

Is it any wonder then that Julian of Norwich used to carry a hazelnut around with her? Most would consider this tiny brown nut to be insignificant, but she saw that this was the entire universe encapsulated and that it was nothing in comparison to the Creator. As she wrote in The Revelations of Divine Love, "It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it; and so everything has its beginning by the love of God."

How differently would we all view the world if we saw it as full of His eternal passion? How differently would we treat this world and nature if we did? 

When I encounter such beauty in nature I cannot help but be reminded of the book of James, "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father . . ." (1:17). Or of Romans 1:20, "From since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities  - his eternal and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made . . ."

I see nature as the seen of an unseen God. Why? Because all of these things give Him glory and are ways for us to do likewise. When we see the beauty of the natural world, I first thought should be a moment of holy gratitude. A simple prayer of "Thank you" should utter from our lips. 

But we have to show up and have a willingness to truly see the world. It must be more than a fast-food viewing  we so often give to all that comes at us in our hurried lives. We have to be present. For when we contemplate and reflect on the handiwork of God, we can also ponder and be in awe of His greatness, His wisdom, and the very reality of Him in all that is around us.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Lifting Up A Prayer For Syrian Believers

In honor of our brothers and sisters in Christ who are in Syria at the cost of their lives, I am praying and posting a traditional Syrian Orthodox prayer for today.

Glory to you, O my Lord, who created us even though there was no cause
for you to do so at any time; glory to you, O my Lord, who called us your
living image and likeness; glory to you, my Lord, who nurtured us in
freedom as rational beings; glory to you, O just Father, whose love was
pleased to fashion us; glory to you, O holy Son, who put on our flesh and
saved us; glory to you, O living Spirit, who enriched us with your gifts;
glory to you, O hidden nature, who revealed yourself in our manhood;
glory to you, O my Lord, who brought us to knowledge of your
Godhead; glory to you, O my Lord, who made us rational instruments for
your service; glory to you, O my Lord, who invited us to the exalted
habitation of heaven; glory to you, O my Lord, who held us
worthy to glorify you together with the angels; glory to you from every 
mouth, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, from those above and those below;
glory to your Trinity; in both worlds glory to you, from both spiritual
beings and from those in the body, from everlasting unto everlasting.

Please join me in praying this prayer today and in praying for them during a time of violent persecution when many may become martyrs for the faith. They are living out what Christ said in Matthew 16:24-25, "Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Prince: Purple Rain, Sign O The Times, & The Cross

To say I was stunned to hear that Prince had died would be an understatement. His music was part of the soundtrack to my growing up. His album Purple Rain is considered to be one of the greatest records ever made and, like Michael Jackson's Thriller, made a huge impact on my generation. Prince was not only great a crafting R&B, funk and pop but also the sacred and the profane all in one song. 

One cannot even say the word "party" without someone saying that they're going to party like its 1999. His mark on culture, fashion and music are tremendous. He also performed one of the best Super Bowl half-time shows defiantly in the rain. The pouring rain felt like it was a part of the act, as if he had planned it. 

Along with Madonna's Like a Virgin, Prince's Purple Rain was the album my mother hated the most that I had spent my money on. Yet there they were next to Amy Grant's Age to Age, Keith Green, 2nd Chapter of Acts and Rich Mullins. I definitely preferred Prince to Carman. It was a friend of mine who even explained that "I Would Die 4 U" is about Christ. The lyrics go:

I'm not your lover
I'm not your friend
I am something that you'll never comprehend
No need 2 worry
No need 2 cry
I'm your messiah and you're the reason why
I would die 4 u

Yet as big as his Purple Rain was on culture and the collective conscious, it was his album Sign O The Times that made the deepest impression on me. From the title track  to the hit "U Got The Look" to my favorite song and the one that probably surprised most Prince fans, "The Cross."

When I found out that he had died, it was this song that came to my mind.  I couldn't meditate on the spiritual truth found in those lyrics:

Don't cry, he is coming
Don't die without knowing the cross

We all have our problems
Some Big, some are small
Soon all our problems
Will be taken by the cross

He would even go on to record the song "What If" by Christian singer/songwriter Nichole Nordeman. What many didn't realize about this artist was that he believed strongly that Jesus is the way. Those who knew him understood that Prince was constantly striving after God and that he had a deep faith in Christ.  He read his Bible daily. 

While I, like most of my generation, will be mourning this deep loss to music, I can't help thank Prince for helping us "get through this thing called life."

He will be dearly missed.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Four Quartets: Eliot, Fujimura, & The Gift Of Culture

"Still Point" by Makoto Fujimura

"Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable."
- T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton," Four Quartets

In undergraduate school I signed up to take a poetry writing class with Susan Ludvigson. Coming into that class my idea of poetry was stuck in the Romantics (Byron, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth), so my feeble first attempts resembled that outdated style of writing. This class, while breaking me of that habit, would never magically make me into a poet since I struggled to distill my thoughts to the very essence needed to create a poem. During the class, however, I managed to write one that reminded my professor of "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock." Never having read T.S. Eliot, this was my doorway into the most celebrated poet of the 20th century. From that poem, I slogged my way through The Wasteland (if only Google existed then so I could research all of the literary and historical references made in that poem), on to "The Hollow Men," "Ash Wednesday," and, ultimately to my favorite, Four Quartets. Never had I encountered poetry like this before and it made a huge impression on me. What I've discovered with Four Quartets is that the older I get, the more I bring to this poem and can connect with its themes of time, memory, and mortality.

"Fire and Rose are One"

From 1941 to 1942, towards the end of his career, T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets was published. Written over the course of eight years, Eliot wrote these poems to give hope during a time of war and to inspire a religious revival in England. 

Shortly after 9/11, the artist Makoto Fujimura began to read Four Quartets. He did so because a friend, George Wolfe, gave him a copy, telling him, "If ever you find yourself disoriented or lost in a dark woods, read this poem." Fujimura would reflect on these four poems for ten years before using them to inspire his paintings, which then led to a collaboration with painter Bruce Herman, composer Christopher Theofanidis, and theologian Jeremy Begbie entitled "QU4RTETS." When asked why they chose Eliot's Four Quartets and why at this moment in time, their response was:

Four Quartets is relevant to our own cultural moment because of its powerful testimony
of grace and vision of the Gospel message in a multicultural milieu. In Eliot's vision all
hinges upon the "still point" where the human experience of time evokes wonder, fear,
and longing for continuance and redemption, and where Christ's presence is the pivotal
point for the entire Creation.

Both artists, Eliot and Fujimura, created great beauty out of a time of terror.

T. S. Eliot is considered one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. Makoto Fujimura is one of the most important modern artists painting today. Both men have taken their craft and their faith as integral, important, and not disconnected. Their faith impacts their work and their work impacts the culture. 

Born in Saint Louis, he would emigrate to England where he would spend the rest of his life. T. S. Eliot struggled with religious belief. He was raised Unitarian, but while he was at Harvard he began to study Buddhism, later he would investigate both Hinduism and Confucianism before converting to Christianity. Along with being a trained philosopher, he studied a wide range of subjects from Sanskrit to advanced mathematics to Greek. He was friends with the Bloomsbury Group (such as Virginia Woolf whose writing he would influence), English painter and writer Wyndham Lewis, and philosopher Bertrand Russell. In 1948, he would go on to win the Nobel Prize.

Makoto Fujimura is one of the foremost modern painters in the world today. His painting is a mix of fine art, abstract expressionism, and the traditional Japanese art of Nihonga. Along with the numerous awards and honorary doctorates he's received, Fujimura was appointed to the National Council for the Arts in 2003. Fujimura would go on to help create the International Arts Movement to address faith in the arts. It's mission is, "Caring for culture through wrestling deeply with issues of art, faith, and humanity." 

What both Eliot and Fujimura have understood is that Christians cannot impact a culture they are not a part of. Both men view their art as a calling. Eliot once said:

It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe have been rooted. It is a background of Christianity that all of our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning . . . I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the compete disappearance of the Christian faith. And I am convinced of that, not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology. If Christianity goes, the whole culture goes.

During the same time that Four Quartets was published, C.S. Lewis, a friend of Eliot's, was giving a series of talks on the BBC radio on his defense of Christianity that would not only impact England but would become, when published, one of the most important influential Christian books of all time: Mere Christianity.

Both Eliot and Lewis were highly educated men with a wide and varied intellectual interests, yet they both fundamentally came to understand, as Fujimura later would, that as much as they could appreciate beauty, they could not hold that beauty deep within them until they began to understand that it was all contained within Christ. To reach past the beauty to Jesus is, as Eliot writes, to "think anything out to a conclusion." That's why, in his Four Quartets, he writes interlinked meditations on man's relationship to time, the universe, and to God. This is the principal of great art.

All great art should work on three different levels:
1. personal
2. societal
3 spiritual

"Zero Summer"

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
- T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding," Four Quartets

Through these poems, Eliot was transforming his real world into a spiritual one. Like Julian of Norwich, he was reflecting and meditating on the nature of time and of his own, both past, present and future. As he wrote, "all time is eternally present" and "in my end is my beginning." He did not shy away from spiritual awareness, transformation, and incarnation. Yet he does not write in a way that bludgeons one with theology or dogma, but rather through beauty one reaches a transcendence. Artists should not give all the answers but merely provide the right questions that causes someone to wonder and ponder on the nature of reality and of God. Great artists do not tell, they show and by doing this, cause the viewer or listener or reader to assess for themselves the meaning.

Another such artist who blended his art with his faith was the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. Deeply religious, Tarkovsky made films that were embraced by great filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman (another director who wrestled greatly with God) who considered Tarkovsky the "greatest" filmmaker.  His films (Andrei Rublev, Solaris, The Mirror, Stalker, The Sacrifice) are considered some of the greatest movies ever made. The son of a poet, Tarkovsky presented his faith through imagery, metaphor and paradox. "Modern mass culture aimed at the 'consumer'," he wrote in Sculpting in Time (his masterpiece on art, faith and culture), "the civilization of prosthetics, is crippling people's souls, setting up barriers between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being." This sentence reminds me of one written by Saint Augustine in his Confessions in which he writes that people suffer from "a famine of that inward food . . . God."  Tarkovsky believed that art should encompass the fullness of our beings and, to do that, one could not ignore the soul.

Andrei Tarkovsky saw so much of culture as shallow and that "people cease to feel any need for the beautiful or the spiritual, and consume films like bottles of Coca-Cola." His films are ruminations on God, Christ and scripture. His journals are filled with prayers like this one:

Lord! I feel You drawing near, I can feel Your hand upon the back of my head.
Because I want to see Your world as You made it, and Your people as You would
have them be. I love You, Lord, and want nothing else from You.

In what is considered one of the greatest films, Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky recreates 15th century Russia as he tells the tale of the famous icon painter as he deals with artistic freedom, faith, and political oppression. In it, Tarkovsky presented his belief that, "Art affirms all that is best in man - hope, faith, love, beauty, prayer . . . What he dreams of and what he hopes for . . . What is art? A confession. An unconscious act that none the less reflects the true meaning of life - love and sacrifice." He saw that in Christ and translated it to his films.

"Between Two Waves Of The Sea"

"The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire."
- T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding," Four Quartets

When artists join in the act of creation it is a form of "on earth as it is in heaven." Even Aristotle understood that, "The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things but their inward significance." Art is more than mere transaction, it's transformation. It is not about pragmatism and utility but as Fujimura states, "wasteful extravagance."

What does he mean by that?

"God somehow demands of us so much more than this transactional nature. It is really about the gift we've been given, and the only response we can give back is with extravagance, with gratuitous beauty."

It's about using our talents to glorify God through our very acts of creation. Faith provides a deeper context for our art because we understand that we are joining in a form of communion with the "artist-Christ," as William Blake called him.  This is an expression of both our humanity and the divinity that created us, called us "good," and as the Spirit hovered above the waters, so, too, does the Spirit over the artist as he or she expresses themselves through painting, music, dance, or writing. Certainly Christ spoke to his own culture through the use of story. And why wouldn't he? "In the beginning was the Word..." that is a poetic God; a God who speaks creation into being, who values the meaning of words and the desire to create simply as an act of love. From chaos, form. From nothingness, the universe. From brokenness, beauty. From pain, grace. This is God as artist.


There are many who would deride an artist from expressing their faith, but why shouldn't they? The mere act of creating is sacred and is a form of communion with God. Certainly novelist Marilynne Robinson does not shy away from writing novels that believe the vocabulary of faith is a rich, diverse one as she "tracks the movements of grace" (The Atlantic).  She sees the sacredness of things and said that prayer often leads to thinking and thinking to writing. All are an act of faith. All are a form of vocation or ministry. She articulates what the culture fails to do so in their inarticulateness about the things of faith. In novels like Gilead, Home and Lila, Robinson deftly writes stories that show the beauty and largeness of faith. 

"People say to me, 'I'm religious. I'd like to write about religion but . . . everybody would hate it, nobody would read it.' You're a coward, is what you feel like saying . . . Faith is one of the great structuring elements in civilization. It has fascinated the best minds of many centuries. If it happens to fascinate yours also, there is no reason to be afraid. Of what, a bad review?"

She has not faced that. Her novels have not only got glowing reviews but she has also won most of the major literary awards (including the Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker Prize, and the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction). All of her novels have made the "best of" lists each year that they came out. Diane Johnson, of The New York Times, wrote of her, "It's courageous of Robinson to write about faith at a time when associations with religion are so often negative and violent."

Yet Robinson does and does so with great artistry, even loosely basing her novel Lila on Ezekiel. She is part of a long line of authors of faith: from Dante and Milton, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, to more modern writers like Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, John Updike, Madeleine L'Engle, Wendell Berry and Leif Enger.

All of these people are artists who are Christians. Notice I did not write "Christian artist." As Makoto Fujimura has said, "Christian is a noun, not an adjective." All of them strive to a full understanding of the meaning of existence, of God, of faith, and doubt. The creative act in all of its forms is sacred because they are intentional in their desire to present a beauty and truth that connects us to God. Each of these artists are devoted to God and their craft. The spiritual awakening that artists like Eliot and Fujimura have experienced through grace has led them to a richer, fuller and more productive creative life. From that starting point, they all find in art a way to express that which is deepest and most permanent about humanity. All of them honor beauty in their lives, their work and their faith. 

In both art and faith one must practice the art of active surrender. It is vulnerability and opening oneself up to the both the visible and invisible, the secular and the sacred, the salvation from the darkness. Epiphany, transfiguration, transcendence, grace, and resurrection are all apart of the Creation and our own minor creations. All is parable. It is Jesus telling hearers, "Pay attention. Notice. Listen." These are the gifts and skills an artist needs to create and then portray in their own works to the culture around them. It is an offering of the sublime and the eternal. Even the Eucharist, itself, is art, is poetry, is metaphor. "This is my body. This is my blood." Making the ordinary (bread, wine) into the extraordinary, causing all to "Do this in remembrance." Be a witness.

As Madeleine L'Engle wrote in her classic Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, "In art we are once again able to do all things we have forgotten, we are able to walk on water, we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars."

Christians need to engage the culture through the arts. They need to present what is significant, what is beyond us, to symbols of the Spirit, and to that which is wider than the world we occupy, towards the ultimate measure of significance.  As Wendell Berry suggests, we should, in our lives and our art, "Practice resurrection." 

How would the world be transformed if we truly did this?

Or the Church itself?

That is the work of the artist who embraces both Christ and craft. We make the invisible, visible. Art is the process to wholeness, a pointing toward the glorious God who invites us to join Him in creation.

Makoto Fujimura's official site:

To learn more about International Arts Movement:

To purchase Qu4rtets: 

To read his article "From Culture War to Culture Care":

Monday, April 18, 2016

Accomplishments & Blessings

Last week, Benjamin went to state competitions for TSA (Technology Students Association). He was competing in software development and animatronics. On the morning that he was leaving, he paced around the house nervously. I tried to calm his anxiousness as best I could, including praying for him. At one point he said, "If I win, then you will be really proud of me."  

I then had to remind him, "Benjamin, I will be happy for you if you win because I know how many hours of work you put into your computer programming, but I'm proud of you no matter what. Neither my love for you nor my pride in you is based on accomplishments. I am proud of who you are not what you win."

It is important for any child to understand that love is not based on grades, awards, or recognitions. Too many parents are so focused on their children's "success" that their kids cannot separate winning trophies from earning their parents' love and attention. 

I am proud of Benjamin. He is a really smart kid, but that's not why. It's not that he makes good grades in school. It wasn't even that he came in first in software development and that he will now go to nationals for TSA. 

I love Benjamin and am proud of him because he's my son. Period. I am proud of the strong character he's developing. I'm proud that he is kind and compassionate. As I have always told him, "Your choices determine your character," and, overall, he's made wise choices. 

Benjamin's heard repeatedly that he will grow up to be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. I tell him, "Your material success does not matter nearly as much to me as your moral and spiritual success does." I'd rather he be a great husband and father than to turn out like Steve Jobs, who was neither. I want him to be humble and give God, not himself, the glory for all that he does in life. 

Yes, awards, recognition, and validation are nice to receive, but that should never be what he lives his life for, Often the right choice will get none of these things and may even cost you them. But I would rather he have an empty shelf than an empty heart and soul. 

Am I proud of Benjamin for winning at his competition? 

Yes, but I was proud of him before and would be even if he hadn't won. I am proud of him because of who he is and who he's becoming. My respect for him is not just in his talents, or his intelligence, but in his character, his faith, and in his love for others. 

I believe God has great plans for Benjamin's life and my job, as his father is to encourage him to seek God first and foremost. Wherever and however God leads Benjamin is what I want for him. I have no expectations on where he goes to college or the direction he takes. Instead, I pray that he is open to God's direction and that I will trust God enough to let Benjamin follow that path. Not an easy prayer to pray, but one that I do daily. I want my son to be who God wants him to be and to do what God places in his heart. I want him to do as Proverbs 16:3 tells him, "Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed."

When it's time for Benjamin to leave our house, he will do so with my blessing over him and his life. This is biblical. One that goes all the way from the Old Testament (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all offered blessings on their sons) to the New Testament where  God even does this over His own son's life, "This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased." Every child wants to hear their father tell them that. Christ needed to hear that because he went from this baptism experience to the desert where Satan immediately questioned Jesus' identity, "If you are the son of God then . . ." Before our sons go out into the world, we need to affirm who they are in Christ, as well as that we love and are proud of who they are and what they can become. This is critical to any child's identity and self-worth. I like what former NFL pro Bill Glass said in an interview with Christianity Today, "The blessing is unconditional and continuous. If it's conditional, it's not love: it's negotiation."

More than hearing me tell him, "Great job, son," I want Benjamin to hear, "Well done, good and faithful servant" when he stands before the Father who loves him far more than I ever could. That is my ultimate goal as an earthly parent. 

I Corinthians 2:9 states, "But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him."

I cannot wait to see what God has prepared for Benjamin's life.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Pilgrimage In The Age Of Google

"Faith is not a clinging to a shrine but an
endless pilgrimage of the heart."
- Abraham Heschel

Years ago, while reading my favorite J.D. Salinger book Franny and Zooey, I first heard of The Way of a Pilgrim. Franny Glass is obsessed with this book written by an anonymous young man in 1860's Russia, it is his path to understanding the verse in 1st Thessalonians 5:16-18 that says, "Pray without ceasing." When I came across a copy in a Goodwill, I snatched it up. During the Lenten Season, I decided to undertake reading the great classics of the faith over the next year. This was one of them.

What struck me upon reading this book is how it would not be the same if it were written today. If the young man wanted to find out how to pray without ceasing, he would no longer have to trek across Russia and Ukraine going from holy figure to spiritual leader to priest to pilgrim. No, today he would simply Google the subject. Yet how much is lost by not having to physically search?

Christian pilgrimages began as early as the 3rd and 4th centuries with believers wanting to, as Origen wrote to go "in search of the traces of Jesus, the disciples and prophets.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola took a pilgrimage that was 340 miles long in Spain after his conversion. Many today still take that same pilgrimage on what is now called Camino Ignaciano. Many make pilgrimages to the Holy Land, to Lourdes, to El Camino de Santiago.

One of the most famous tales of pilgrimage was began in 1386 by a Controller of Customs and Justice of the Peace, Geoffrey Chaucer. When finished The Canterbury Tales was over 24 stories and 17,000 lines long and tells the story of pilgrims on the way from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral. This work is now regarded as one of the most important classics of English literature.

Ever since then, pilgrimages have been the subject of art, literature and films (including the 2010 film The Way starring Martin Sheen).

In 1986, English author Jennifer Lash (mother to actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes) was diagnosed with cancer. While the cancer was in remission, she found within herself the desire that is within all of us which "seeks and stirs, hides and yearns" that compelled her to:

Make a pilgrimage. Go to ancient places. Go wherever there are 
contemporary seekers. Go in whatever way it works out. Just go!

Jini, as her friends called her, decided to undertake a pilgrimage to Lourdes, Lisieux, Taize, Saintes Maries de la Mer, and Santiago de Campostella. Her book became about both her physical, mental, and spiritual journey as she explored places, myths and legends, as well as encountered the natural elements, new places and experiences, along with the people and pilgrims she met along her journey. As she wrote:

As they talked together of The Way, the obstacles, the people, the signs . . . you felt the
great importance of the physicality of the quest. All of them stressed the power of silence:
the need to be alone and find oneself in the silence. Moving, with silence as the single companion,
seems a most profound means to register the natural balance of the world without, and world within.

Yet pilgrimages aren't just relegated to Christianity, as other religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism all have holy places their followers make yearly pilgrimages to.  For pilgrims of any faith it is a journey that takes on metaphorical significance as this is both an outward, physical journey to a place but also an inward journey as one wrestles with self in an effort to draw closer to the Divine.

There are also secular pilgrimages that people undertake to places like Elvis' Graceland.

The naturalist John Muir also writes about how many go to nature as a form of pilgrimage, about how even in places like the mountains or the forests one can go out to go in. "The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness."

Each year over 60 - 70 million people take pilgrimages.

There are many who would ask, "So what is the point of a pilgrimage? Isn't it just spiritual tourism?"

In The Way of a Pilgrim, the young Russian man is trying to understand how one is able to "pray without ceasing." As he encounters priests, starets (or spiritual fathers), and other believers, he is taught to pray what is the Eastern prayer of the heart or the "Jesus prayer" which goes, "O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of  God, have mercy on me a sinner." The narrative recounts his struggles and his spiritual development as he takes this physical and spiritual path across Russia and Ukraine.

I know there have been times in my spiritual walk when I found myself praying only "Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy" over and over again, including inwardly while I was at work or driving somewhere. It was one I especially prayed when stuck in morning traffic commuting to work. It was a prayer that helped me be at peace as I let the words and my breath and heart beat flow together so that they were all one and each breath I took or the beating of my heart became intentional with the words of this simple and profound prayer.  In researching how one can "pray without ceasing" or "pray always" I learned that it literally translates into "come to rest."  

The pilgrim is seeking wisdom or enlightenment. His desire led to a pilgrimage of prayer, as Colossians 4:2 tells us to devote ourselves to it. This is one of the many reasons that pilgrims undertake such a journey. This ancient tradition has many modern applications to those who enter upon the pilgrimage. It is a time and act of letting go of material things (technology among them) to draw inward as a way to find healing, forgiveness, and to draw closer to God. As one walks, one prays. This provides opportunity to seek God's will for one's life, to get direction and clarity. It is a time of purification as one prays and meditates on the things of God. It is as much internal as external. 

It is also a rigorous physical act where one walks long distances in a contemplative frame of mind. It is replacing chaos with contemplation. A pilgrimage is not just about the travel, it's about the journey. By putting oneself in an unfamiliar landscape, one is also seeking out the unknown. It's about encountering God and finding transformation in that encounter. This is an act that is both physical and metaphysical. 

Pilgrimages offer renewal and connection to those pilgrims who came before us. This is a deliberate and intentional act of spiritual growth where a person steps out of the busy, hurried lives and a refuge from the cares of this world. A time of surrender. It offers the opportunity  for a thousand small moments touched by grace. 

Pilgrimages also offers opportunities to journey along with others, to learn their stories, and to find relationships with others of the faith. This is communion of the saints as they are united in the expression of seeking out God through pilgrimage. Often its these interactions that can change us the most, as one opens oneself to how the Spirit moves among us on our different paths of life and yet have brought each one together on this single way. One sees this clearly in The Way of the Pilgrim where his development is often impacted the most by those who he spends time with, listens to and as they share in each other's stories. Pilgrimage is both a solitary and communal act of faith.

A pilgrimage is a time to find a sense of wonder and awe at the beauty of the natural world as one walks paths trod by many who came before us. As Thomas a Kempis wrote in his monumental The Imitation of Christ, "It is only the pilgrims who in the travails of their earthly voyage do not lose their way . . . they are guided by the prayers . . . "

Coming out of the Evangelical tradition, I couldn't help but notice that in the Protestant tradition there isn't any kind of importance placed on pilgrimages. Unlike priests, pastors don't undertake an extensive pilgrimage as part of their spiritual formation. In 1520, Martin Luther wrote, "All pilgrimages should be done away for there is no good in them, no commandment, but countless causes of sin and contempt of God's commandment. These pilgrimages are the reason for there being so many beggars, who commit numberless villainies." How would he have reacted to the fact that one can now go on a pilgrimage of his very steps from his childhood home of Mansfield to Wittenberg (now called the Luther Trail)? Or of millions of people who visit Billy Graham's childhood home and the library with his own personal artifacts?

It's more than going to a place just to see it, but going to a sacred site to experience that place and, more importantly, the Spirit so that all of the pilgrimage becomes a part of ourselves. Doesn't visiting a battle site help a person understand that part of history even more? This also draws pilgrims to such holy sites as the Garden of Gethsemane or Golgotha. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote, "The human community yearns for a home, for place, for a 'storied space' because of the history lodged there." A pilgrimage is more than just understanding history it is a desire to be transformed by God in it.  

Pilgrimage is biblical. It stems from Abram being told by God, "Leave your country and go to the land I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). This was the verse medieval pilgrims used to base their pilgrimages on. 

This is not about tourism. 

This is not a vacation. 

A true pilgrimage is not about activity but spiritual disciplines. It's not about getting photographs or souvenirs. It's about obedience and sacrifice. 

Pilgrimage is an act of faith. and, like all of faith, it is not about us but about God. He is why one goes on a pilgrimage, He is what one encounters along the road of the pilgrimage and He is the destination. As Boethius wrote, "Thou art the journey, and the journey's end." If this is what gives a pilgrimage meaning then how could one not be transformed and why would anyone not want to undertake one?