on immovability

made|new|immovable
“All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.” – Benjamin Franklin

Commuters on the whole are flexible people, while maintaining inflexible schedules. It’s partially a necessity – we are all at the mercy of the machines we ride back and forth on the schedules they set.

All commuters will at some point have bad days, but there are always a few who choose to have bad days.

I met one the other day.  I was attempting to walk on the inner side of the sidewalk past a woman in a camel-colored coat approaching from the opposite direction. She aimed for a door in a building we were both walking by. I didn’t correct soon enough and anticipated that she would flex. We ended up facing each other.  You know the situation. Awkward but easily worked out with a laugh and a sidestep.

Except this wiry lady stopped stock-still in front of me. She looked straight through my collar bone at the door she couldn’t get to, steely-eyed and aggressive, for approximately two or three seconds.  I recovered, said something like “I’m sorry, excuse me,” and side-stepped around her just in time to hear a triumphant “uh-huh!” as I walked on.

She was astonishingly, palpably immovable. Not just because I’m certain it would have taken a crane and a forklift to detach her from the sidewalk. This lady was a force of nature.  Must have eaten her Wheaties this morning.

I grew up thinking of immovability as a Christian virtue.  Now I consider it more or less a true vice. Let me explain; it’s obviously more nuanced than that.

We often equate immovability with faithfulness. Our kid-selves sang “I shall not be moved” in Awana growing up and our adult-selves never forgot the tune. The difference between the two is vast, though.

See, the Pharisees were immovable. Mary Magdalene was faithful.

Adherents to law are immovable. Followers of Grace Himself are faithful.

What I’m getting at is that because we are complex and wonder-full human beings, and as Christians we worship a complex and wonder-full Creator, our interactions are more nuanced than following a formula.

We live in a world where compromise is a watchword and tolerance a requirement.  Both of these resonate with fearfulness, not faithfulness.  We live for a Savior in whom love and truth coexist. That coexistence is where faithfulness comes into play. We say yes to Truth.  We say yes to Love.  And within those action-agreements is faith.

So why am I writing about immovability on an art blog?

Aside from finally getting the opportunity to tell a story from my commute (of which I honestly have very few), here’s why: conviction can easily become immovability in all areas of life. In the arts, this may take the form of turning our aesthetic preferences into law or formula, instead of striving to see beauty and truth in all things.

We all tout our pet passions and ascend our stylistic soapboxes.  The trick is distinguishing a truth from an opinion, and couching it in kindness instead of bludgeoning people into disinterest. Choosing our battles wisely, adjusting our expectations, championing the Beauty-Amid-Brokenness that is Humanity – imitating Christ… all take faithfulness to our Lord and the ability to be moved, deeply.

And of course, the ability to see a human in front of you instead of an obstacle.

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excellence | identity

made|new|excellence

Bear with me, folks: this train of thought is a long one, with more than the normal amount of baggage.

All I really remember about my first few years of lessons is that I wanted to play.   My brother and sister both played, and it looked like fun.  When I started it was the pure joy of creating something beautiful and meaningful out of nothing.  Poof – Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.”  Just by pressing down white and black keys, I could make tears come to my mom’s eyes.  How cool is that?

During my teen years, I got serious.  As a teenager and college student, I entered wholeheartedly into my craft.  I was good at piano, people liked it when I played, and I had fun doing it.  Everybody told me I should pursue it as far as I could go, educationally and otherwise; that I had a career ahead of me.  So I pushed ahead.  Possibly due to the trauma of puberty (or something more inherent), I began placing higher and higher value on the affirmation and criticism of others.  I began to fear performing.  I began to stress out about recitals and competitions and master classes.

To avoid what I perceived as the cardinal sin of the musician – messing up in performance – I pushed myself harder, practiced more, made sure every note was as perfect as possible, every page memorized.  I Christianized this concoction of pride and fear by labeling it “pursuing excellence”.  That somehow rang better in my ears than “self-aggrandizing” or “wildly afraid of failing”.  In fact, I think that’s where it all intersected – concurrently in my teenage Christian life,  I was struggling deeply with the shame of sins I couldn’t shake, and the desire to be admired for my holiness in front of my peers.  Naturally, this spilled into my musical life.

As a young pianist, if I didn’t do well on a performance I blamed it on everything from letting my pride get in the way to not practicing hard enough.  It most certainly would have been wiser to memorize Bach than memorize the Lost Woods maze sequence from Ocarina of Time (a hypothetical situation, of course… but if you’re interested: right, left, right, left, straight, left, right). The point is that it came down, somehow, to not loving the Lord enough to discipline myself and work hard.  Because after all, He’s the one who gave me my abilities, and wouldn’t it be a waste of those God-given gifts to not work hard(er) on them?  And isn’t that what God wants – for us to hone our talents for His glory?

We are given such good gifts in the arts.  The ability to manipulate sound into exquisite sonic patterns that can rip a soul apart or mend it.  The opportunity to mix and match colors, lines, textures and shapes to represent something of profound meaning.  Communicating depth of feeling and truth with little black lines and arcs on a blank page.  These are neither small nor simple gifts, and therefore not easily mastered, if ever.  Thus, we have a joyous responsibility to play skillfully, to seek excellence in our craft, because honestly – such truth and beauty are worth pursuing.

But my heart in this matter was centering my pursuit of excellence on who I was and hoped to someday be, rather than being made new (shameless, I know) in Jesus Christ.

Fast-forward to my first few years of college, and I was optimistically wrapping my dreams for the future around my craft, like overstuffing a flimsy flour tortilla with taco ingredients (something I still struggle with).

I think the breaking point was when I performed rather abysmally during a master class for a visiting pianist my senior year.  I remember vividly the anger and disillusionment I felt afterward.  I felt that I was simply not good enough, to make a living, to get noticed, to be famous, whatever it was I was searching for – I didn’t really know what that was anyway.  At that moment I just felt lost.  If I didn’t have my musical ability, what did I have?  I had poured my heart and soul into every aspect of this artistic endeavor, seeking to make it the best it could be, and then (cue sad violin music) tossed it out into a cold, cruel world, where critics and misunderstandings and the mediocrity of mass culture at large ripped it apart.

Obviously,  I’m poking fun at my younger self and how devastatingly serious I was about this moment.  I even wrote a blog post shortly thereafter entitled: “The Moulder of Dreams” which was meant to be a broodingly brilliant pun.  The editors changed it to “Molder of Dreams” because they didn’t think anyone would catch the British spelling.  How primitive of them.  But I’m thankful for the angst because it pushed me to a living truth; I’m not sure how else I would have received it.

I associated doing the best that I could at my craft with who I was.  In this vein, my struggle to perfect my art mirrored my struggle to perfect myself.

This slowly became evident to me.  Accumulated shame, disillusionment, and a class about unity with Christ converged and I realized what I had been avoiding all along – that in Christ, my identity is not mine to form or control (thank God!), but in Him, through Him, and because of Him.  I remember actually crying from the relief of this truth finally penetrating my heart.

It’s often difficult to put feet to this.  I can realize I’m out of shape, but until I get up off the couch and exercise, there will not be a transformation.  Again, hypothetical.  And that is where I am now – ironically, sitting on the couch typing this post, but that’s not what I mean.  I am struggling to relinquish control while striving to live a holy life.  Seems like an oxymoron, but mostly what it’s done is to bring this moron to his knees a lot.

So, with all of that said, what about excellence in art?

I speak this to my forgetful self:

Excellence is not beating myself up until I get it right.

Excellence is not what defines the success of my art.

Excellence is not an indicator of how much I love God.

Excellence is not designed to impress Christ enough that He loves me.

Choosing to pursue that which excels – the joyous, the peaceful, the living, the holy, the viscerally true – is a real thing, motivated by real love.  That all-too-familiar maxim of the apostle Paul takes on an identity focus:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Excellence denotes that which excels, is above, is high and lifted up, lofty and beyond our understanding.  Paul placed it in a litany of words such as true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy.  We know of only one Artist deserving of such language.  And that Artist has chosen to reflect His excellence in His Art.  He has created, on and in and around this world, things breathtaking, arresting, terrifying, beyond comprehension in their power, beyond understanding in their delicacy.

And in this, true excellence in [anything] is linked, finally, to identity – not to a what or a how, but a Who. Excellence in art-life should be an outpouring of worship to Him, crafted thoughtfully and with truly high standards because of who we are in Christ.

Oof.  Now to get up off the couch and, trusting Christ for the results, see it through.

three impressions | a beginner’s guide to the art institute

made|new|artinstitute

For my 27th birthday I received a member’s pass to the Art Institute.

To my shame, I’d only visited the Art Institute once in my entire life.  Bear in mind – that’s eight years of living in downtown Chicago, let alone only two hours east in Indiana, where I lived the rest of my life.  That one time was (arg this is embarrassing) for a class project, and I only saw the pieces I needed to check off.

In my defense… I actually don’t have any defense.  I have no clue what I was thinking.

But now I have not only the means but the opportunity to head on down to Michigan Ave and explore every nook and cranny of that magnificent place.  I’ve done so thrice so far, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.  I decided that it was only right to record my first impressions for posterity, with the hope that they may actually be interesting to someone besides me.

1. “There’s a whole lot of tourists here.”

On further reflection, I remembered that the Art Institute is a tourist attraction and it’s Chicago, for goodness sake, so of course there are going to be a ton of non-commuters swarming the place, gawking, and in general getting in the way.  Why can’t everyone be like us urbane city-dwellers who have the cultural and spatial sensitivity not to stand in the way of the main flow of traffic?  God help us all.

You know, I never used to feel this way about tourists.  I think becoming a commuter hasn’t been all good.  It’s the kind of thing where, whenever there is a traffic jam or a rude motorist, I immediately blame it on the fact that they’re not from around here.  As if merely stepping into a new place automatically grants you insider knowledge about its culture.

Long and short of it – I ended up finding the tourists refreshing.  They were there (for the most part) to see something awesome in Chicago.  Many of them had a true appreciation of beauty and an honesty about the stuff outside of their experience (“I still don’t get it”).  They were way better than the posers, yuckies, and pharisees that also populated the Art Institute.  They compelled me to consider what kind of visitor I want to be.  I kind of came down on their side – hoping that as I weave my way through the variegated halls that I too would wonder, exclaim over the beauty I find especially meaningful, and go away feeling like, gee, I got my money’s worth.

2. “Is it okay to laugh at modern art?”

So I visited this one section in the modern art wing that was… just kind of unexplainable in writing – you would have had to be there, I suppose.  And I, as serious about art as I consider myself to be (take that however you want to), found myself stifling laughter.  I think my behavior mostly consisted of glancing around at other people to see if they were as serious about this stuff as the artist apparently was, and hiding my grin with my hand.

Yes, I still have no idea what this particular artist was trying to say (it was equal parts phallic and utterly esoteric).  But I still couldn’t help mentally poking fun at them for all their seriousness, probably because I’m still in middle school, but mostly because I believe art communicates.  If what it communicates is ridiculous, laughter seems appropriate.  Laughter should be more acceptable at the Institute – or at least amusement.  There should be room for the public’s gut reaction.  But then, there should definitely be respect for the artist too.  Unless all they can think about is penises.  Than maybe they need to take a break from communicating that obsession to the general public.

3. “Art is so alive.”

My second trip was with a friend of mine who has had a fuller experience than mine given the fact that her parents took her to the institute throughout her childhood.  She grew up going to the AI.  So I asked her: “What are your favorite parts?”  She guided me through the sculpture garden, the portrait hallway, the Ando gallery and the Thorne miniatures, guided by her impressions as a child and her favorites as an adult.  Perhaps it was the personality behind her choices or hearing her explain why they stuck with her all these years, but it reminded me why I got this year pass.

It’s easy to gloss over this most important idea, perhaps given the sheer multitude of art in the building, or the stunning variety of aesthetic standards – but these objects aren’t simply objects.  That’s not just framed canvas, or stone, or copper, or wood.  And even if it is just a block of wood, or a single-colored shape, for goodness sake, look again and realize how amazing something that simple actually is.  These items are taken by mankind and pressed, molded, shaken, stroked into living, breathing examples of the length and breadth of humanity.  These are capable of communicating depths of meaning that words cannot.  These are alive.

black mirrors | commodifying the wondrous

made|new|blackmirror

Technology is necessary, potent, and ubiquitous.  A large amount of way more qualified people than myself have talked about technology and it’s effects – positive and negative – on the flesh-and-blood constructs that use it.  But recently and ironically, a TV show brought to mind some very necessary, potent, and ubiquitous (if not easily recognized) ideas related to technology, and I wanted to share it with you.  Because that’s what we do here.

Black Mirror, created by Charlie Brooker, is an exploration of the darker side of man’s relationship with technology.  Each of the two seasons features three episodes of about an hour’s length, exploring everything from manipulating crowd-mentality to numbing grief with the aid of social media.  Brooker is a gifted creator, and this show is generally top-notch – writing, acting, cinematography, etc. (although some episodes are definitely more convincing then others).  It delivers the complex and dissatisfying punchlines, for the most part, breathtakingly.  Fair warning – the content is very raw, though not unnecessary in communicating the point.

Brooker’s holiday interview of 2014 is enlightening as to what exactly he’s getting at with these cautionary tales.  Besides being interested in actively unsettling people due to a lack of that in modern television (??), Brooker, a writer and producer, notably of comedic commentary, points out that “a lot of the stories… are about a lack of perceived control in today’s world.”  Why the title?  “When a screen is off, it looks like a black mirror; there is something cold and horrifying about that… I quite like the fact that people are watching it on [their TV or smart phone; that] when the end credits start running and the screen turns to black, they see themselves reflected.”

Speculative fiction such as this, set in a near-modern world, is just far enough from our everyday that we can look at it objectively.  The most disturbing part of Black Mirror, though, is that in viewing the thoughtless, brutal, ravenous interactions of the characters you find yourself looking at yourself objectively.  Like most influential art, it turns the question back to us.  As Brooker points out, “the villain is never technology.”  In each episode, we see the truth of humanity enslaved, not by technology, but by themselves.  I found myself sobered and deeply saddened (in the right way) after watching.

One of the most stunning episodes is “Fifteen Million Merits”, in which talent, beauty, and truth are packaged and sold to the highest bidder for the entertainment of the masses.  In this episode, Brooker chose to very directly relate this to pornography.  The wondrous becomes a commodity.

Whether our use of technology is redeemed or not is worth asking.   A more important question is whether our use of our creative abilities is redeemed or not.  Why are we creating?  Who are we creating for?  What motivates us to interact with art, beauty, and truth in destructive or creative ways?  The answers to these questions reveal our inner life in relation to our art.  What are we reflecting to the world – darkness, or light?

Brooker’s characters do not die sensationally.  Rather, they go on living lifelessly, which I find to be terrifyingly truthful of our day and age.  We have a decision to make daily – what will we do with the wondrous?

Turning it back on ourselves: how do we see commodifying the wondrous happening in our own lives?

en-courage the fearful artist

made|new|lion

Like many creators, I have a lot of trouble coming up with a convincing response to people when they praise my art.  One part of me (the oh-so-holy part) is all like:

“I am but an unworthy musical urchin.  Begone, ye tempter of my inflated ego!”

And the other part of me wants to say,

“Heck yeah it was amazing.  BOW BEFORE ME.”

I haven’t yet reconciled these parts of me, and there’s usually no time in the split second between compliment and socially-acceptable response to promote reconciliation.  #socialinteractionsucks

So I usually mumble a quick thank-you as sincerely as I can and then try to deflect.  “No, thank YOU for thanking me.  What a genuinely grateful person you are.”

Difficulty with this is par for the course in my creative endeavors.

Side note: I’m currently speaking for myself here, but if you’d like me to feel less neurotic (this is all about me anyway), drop me a note in the comments about your social awkwardness.  Maybe we’ll form a club.  #whee

As I’ve dedicated more brain bandwidth to the problem, I think it’s related to a larger issue – that of fear, or perhaps, lack of courage.  Or perhaps, an unwillingness to be en-couraged by others.

It’s cool in society to be real right now about our problems, fears, addictions, you name it.  I believe it’s not only cool, but right.  However, I also believe that our follow-through sucks.  We need to nail the landing.

For instance, we let ourselves hear these truths:

  1. You are not strong enough.
  2. What you’ve created could definitely be better.
  3. Your pain is real and deep.
  4. Going out on that stage, taking that risk, speaking the so long unspoken – these are terrifying and difficult things.
  5. The world is broken and is going to hell.

And forget to hear these trump truths:

  1. Christ is your strength.
  2. You and your creations are lovely to your Creator, no matter the flaws.
  3. Christ will wipe away all tears and heal all wounds.
  4. Courage, dear heart.  The Lord is with you.
  5. This world has a Savior who bled and died to redeem it, and will come again to claim it fully.

In other words: be honest.  Just be MORE honest.

How does this relate to accepting encouragement?  I need to allow myself to hear those words and fully accept them.  That’s what thankfulness is.  I do this when someone buys me cheese curds, very willingly.  Is it that different, besides being better for my waistline, to delight in a kind word?  Besides that, I need to intentionally en-courage others with trump truths.

Soak in the truths of Scripture that fill you with courage this year, because as true as Genesis 3 is, a single verse totally trumps it:

John 1:14 – The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

What are some trump truths that you come back to time and time again? Also, do you have any stories or tips on responding to compliments or en-couraging others?