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A Valuable Workmanship

David Hockney is best known as being the artist who sold the most expensive painting to date: his “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” sold for $90.3 million dollars (USD). The portrait initially sold for $18,000 back in 1982.

Hockney Painting

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) David Hockney

 

Granted, I’m not really an art critic; I’m an observer of human behavior, a teacher, counselor and pastor.  Yet as I looked over Hockney’s portfolio I noticed there are inconsistencies which I would have thought would have caused rancor in our egalitarian and politically sensitive culture.

There exist many themes in Hockney’s paintings.  Homoeroticism reoccurs often.  Yet just as often the portrayal of women has a perceptual twist.  With only a very few exceptions over the course of Hockney’s 81-year lifetime, the portrayal of women is minimally Cubist-leaning and his perceptions reveal an inability to come to terms with the female form.  His depictions of women are misshapen, as if M. C. Escher chose to paint portraits.

His depictions of men are clear, detailed, vivid and exhibit proof of their importance to the eye of the painter.  Yet Hockney’s rendering of women is nothing like his perception of men.  Women are either vague in detail and appearance or they are horribly distorted.  Some may say, “As with his depiction of men, Hockney is merely reproducing what he sees.” So, are we to believe Hockney purposely chooses beautiful men yet he seeks out women who possess no innate beauty and lack humanizing attributes?

This is much more than seeing a glass that is, “half-empty” or “half-full.”  Those who applaud the beauty of simplicity, the vividness of color which exists in Hockney’s works, should also observe an inability to see the beauty extant in both sexes equally.  Hockney routinely mars the mouths and noses of the women he portrays; symmetry is exchanged for twisted asymmetry.  When Hockney deigns to sketch a female subject, they are just that: a sketch, lacking detail, life, reality and color.

Again, this is not a judgment of Hockney as a person but rather his work.  No one in this world is above either the influence or the distortion experienced in the circumstances of life.  The art world loves to pile approbation and applause on Hockney and his work.  Hockney exhibits a clear eye, colored with his unique perspective of his perception of light, color, space, depth and subject.  Yet as the critics exhaust their adjectives on the product of his mind, they overlook the lack of clarity he selectively uses on female subjects.

The person who purchased “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),” made a choice to buy this work yet passed by so many others of this artist.  The questions regarding why Hockney chooses to depict his female subjects as he does should not cause us to judge him and to demean the genius of his work. Yet it is legitimate to query his raison d’etre.

All humanity is art. True, the canvas has been ripped, ablated by time and circumstance.  Poor choices and lifestyles also affect who we are.  To a degree, there exists a truth in the beholders ability to perceive beauty; yet we cannot overlook the innate, intrinsic value extant in all human life.

How is this possible? If a picture, a photograph, is worth a thousand words, who chooses the words?  The words which are chosen, what do they reflect?  Are not the words of description, the adjectival efforts put forth to describe the perceived reality, are they not also affected by the person doing the describing?

The Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  What is fascinating, is the word translated “workmanship” comes from the Greek word poiema, where we get our English word poem.

Those of us who know Jesus Christ as our Lord because we have accepted salvation by the faith given to us, we are the “poem God created us in Christ Jesus to accomplish good works.” The poem itself did nothing; it is a creation of the mind of the author.  Its beauty, its meter, the rhyme and the measure are all reflections of the author.  The poem didn’t create itself; it became a poem when it was written.

Hockney’s paintings received no applause, no accolades until he set them on canvas or whatever medium he chose.  His perceptions demonstrate the flaws extant in all of humanity.  Yet within those flaws, we can understand the need for correction.  God, through Jesus Christ, provides the correction to all of our flaws—and He is available to whoever desires Him to fix their plight.

Our value was determined by the price paid.  Jesus Christ died for those who accept the gift of God.  What kind of value could we—a finite, sinful and rebellious creature—put on the life of the Son of God?

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In Seeing Yet not Of Sight

One of those phrases which are said far too often and almost flippantly, are believers, Christians, are “to be in the world but not of the world.”  Usually it is a teacher or someone who is attempting to make a point through the use of this phrase, but no real, concrete explanation is ever given which would give meaning to the aphorism.

The listener is somewhat perplexed and unsure how to alter their behavior, so they can then avoid being “of the world.”  I’m sure, in many instances, the frustration builds, and no attempt is made to alter their life.  Thoughts of finding some kind of camouflage may even immediately be considered to avoid being detected . . . .by anyone!

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While this saying usually sounds so much wiser than the wisdom actually imparted, the Apostle Paul, in the letter to the Romans, wrote to them saying, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect(Romans 12:2 ESV).

The saying, “being in but not of the world,” is not in the Bible, but the principle is.  The Apostle Paul, after spending eleven chapters informing the church in Rome of God’s plan, of how God chose people to be His in spite of the fact every single person had rejected Him and had chosen to worship the inferiority of creation rather than Him; He made a decision to choose some of us anyway.

Paul then demonstrated how on our own, no one would be able to come to Him through His Son.  He then gave the example of Israel’s rejection of the Messiah—and how God will stillsave a remnant who will accept His Messiah Jesus.  Then Paul concludes by telling the Roman Christians they should, as an act of worship, “present [their] bodies as a living sacrifice” which is their natural, spiritual worship response as a saved, redeemed people.

Okay, so far so good. Yet just as the saying of “we’re in the world but not of the world” sounds really cool in concept, how exactly does this occur?  Paul doesn’t hesitate, but quickly adds the way, the mechanics which will allow this to occur: through “the renewal of our minds.”

When computers first started to become the ubiquitous necessity they are now, there image001was an aphorism that was immediately recognizable and understood: “Garbage in, garbage out!” If you enter bad data, you will never—and have no hope of ever—get good data from the computer.

Paul understood this was true of people as well.  We are created beings and the One who created us knows how we are made and what is needed for us to function well. While Paul is writing to Christians, this principle is true of all of humanity.  If you eat junk food, if you consume violent or risqué media, do not be shocked when the cigarettes you smoke make you wheeze, the donuts keep you from seeing your toes and the media you allow in your mind affects your ability to think clearly and function normally.

One other note: the Greek word translated as conformed gives us the ability to understand this conformity with the world that literally “fashions us together with” the world so we cannot be separated from it.  This is the same idea in camouflage.  Regardless of who you are, you have made the choice to “blend in” so well, you cannot and will not be distinguishable from your surroundings.

So, let’s return to our confusing little homily: “in the world yet not of the world.”  As believers in Jesus Christ, as those who Paul says have been “recreated” by the Spirit, we are literally “no longer of this world.”  Just as a diver must wear an air tank, a mask and flippers to propel him through the water and to keep him alive, believers must breath faith, consume God’s Word, and we must depend on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Christians are to be different.  “Different” does not mean weird!  Different means we exist through our faith, we are sustained by God’s Word and we find our energy, our power through the Holy Spirit.  As we use our faith, consume God’s Word and live by the Spirit’s power, we will find our conformity will be to Jesus Christ.  Paul even said this clearly that every believer is “to be conformed to the image of His Son.”

We are “in” not “of.” The only way we can exist “in” is for us to “look like” Jesus Christ—literally, for people to “see Jesus,” when they see us.

Now that’s some great camouflage!

Keep Cold

Robert Frost is the quintessential American poet.  Because of Frost’s work, and the masterful way in which he found words to bring to life rural America, there is no shortage of commentary regarding his poetry.  I believe I was in Junior High (about seventh or eighth grade) when I first read Frost’s poem, Good Bye and Keep Cold.jb_modern_frost_2_e

 

Good Bye, Keep Cold seems to have as many meanings as there are commentators.  In the poem, Frost is telling an orchard which was planted “on a northerly slope” near a farm house good-bye for the winter season.  Frost laments as his imagination considers all the possible injuries which could occur to the orchard while he is away.

 

The hill which obscures the view of those in the house, could possibly allow the buds on the trees and the tender limbs to be eaten by rabbit, mouse, deer and grouse.  He wishes the orchard would call out for his help when he writes, “If certain it wouldn’t be idle to call I’d summon the grouse, rabbit and deer to the wall and warn them away with a stick for a gun.”  Frost’s desire to protect his orchard is evident in his desire to see its protection from the coming hungry wildlife.

368px-robert_frost_nywtsFrost ends his poem by giving anthropological voice to his beloved orchard when he says, “I wish I could promise to lie in the night and think of an orchards arboreal plight when slowly (and nobody comes with a light) its heart sinks lower in the sod.”  In this, Frost is exhibiting a fatherly empathy for the feelings he envisions his orchard may have in the dark of winter’s night.  Yet in the equivalent of an audible sigh, Frost pens, “But something has to be left to God.”

 

As a pastor, I cannot find anything which would allow me to assume Robert Frost knew God intimately and personally; yet I cannot ascertain that he did not.  Yet Frost’s life is filled with a gentility and sensitivity which allowed him to exhibit great empathy.  In the case of Good Bye Keep Cold, Frost could expand this rapport to even nature itself.

 

Yet the crux of this poem, its main warning, to an unsuspecting and vulnerable orchard facing wildlife and oncoming winter, is this: “No orchard’s the worse for the wintriest storm; but one thing about it, it mustn’t get warm.”  The very thing most would associate with vitality and growth and all that makes springtime and harvest possible, our poet warns against.  But why?

 

The greatest danger to an orchard is an early spring followed by a late freeze.  The buds, dormant on the limb, are waiting, indeed anticipating the coming warmth of spring.  For temperature to advance too quickly could end up killing the potential of the harvest and perhaps even kill the trees themselves.  This is why Frost advises, “How often already you’ve had to be told, keep cold, young orchard.  Good bye, keep cold.  Dread fifty above more than fifty below.”

 

While some paint Frost’s work with a brush depicting the sadness of his words as a reaction to the bleakness of the world around him, this is not what I see.  Frost understood that while in its dormant state, no sub-zero temperature could cause any damage to his orchard; it was asleep and safe until it was awoken.  Yet he was not providing mere “arboreal” insight in this poem; there is also great truth regarding the human condition.

 

Our society seems to desire great acceleration in many areas while at the same time it consistently retards and hinders natural growth in others.  Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the Western proclivity to stimulate sexual and physical maturation of its children while simultaneously discouraging mental maturity.

 

While many reject God as Creator and designer of humanity, I embrace this as an absolute truth.  Humanity is separate from all other creation due to the fact we are created imago dei, in the very image of God.  God, in His wisdom, chose a timeline for humanity to follow spiritually, physically and mentally.  Humanity has uniformly rejected its spiritual heritage, but it cannot seem to overcome the physical changes which are inevitable in healthy people.

 

Parents today, while protecting their children from maturing and even discouraging responsibility, seem to quicken the physical appearance of their children—especially girls—through either proactive choice or willingly being held captive to the latest cultural style.  Now for those without a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ, this is to be expected.

 

Yet for those who profess to have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, this is nothing less than willful rebellion and the offering up of their children (permanent, enduring people with souls) on the altar of the immediate and passé.

 

This brings us back to Frost’s Good Bye Keep Cold.  Humans are beings with appetites.  These appetites are God-given and for them to work appropriately, they must be exercised according to God’s principles.  For children especially, to awaken the appetites God has reserved for those who are mature in body and spirit is the equivalent to exposing them to the dangers of which Frost warned; the “fifty above” rather than keeping them in the proverbial “winter of their content” and prematurely exposing them to discontent.

 

The writer of Ecclesiastes informs humanity, “There is an occasion for everything, and a time for every activity under heaven….and a wise heart knows the right time and procedure” (3:1; 8:5).  The rights and autonomy of humanity has not been infringed on by taking away our rights and freedom to choose.  The problem with humanity is we have lost both the discipline and patience to wait for the right time.

 

And the wisdom to keep cold.

Imagining Imagination

Are All Imaginations Created Equal?

 

Why is it some people are so much more “imaginative” than others?  Why do we value people with imagination?  Is imagination a learned behavior or a developed one?  Can “concrete” thinkers have great imaginations or does this belong only to those who are more “abstract” in their thinking?iceberg_imagination-e1337491928514

 

 

Maybe the question should be, “Does God give imagination as a gift?”

 

If you take the time to do a search of “Where does imagination come from/originate?” you will find a plethora of information ranging from opinion to scientific study.  Though, admittedly, even many in the science community communicate the elusive nature of the origin of one’s imagination.

 

Regarding the well-being and progress of humanity, we owe much to men and women over the years who have shared their “imaginings” with the rest of us.  Steve Jobs gave us the iPhone, Isaac Newton the Laws of Gravity, and The Eagles gave us one of the most recognizable guitar riffs at the beginning of their hit song, Life in the Fast Lane!

 

Well, there was the guy who gave us the Pet Rock of the late 1970’s.gty_pet_rock_150401_4x3_992

 

I used to wonder what kind of mind thought of putting a rock in a wooden cage, selling it for seven bucks and calling it a pet.

 

Oh!  Wait!  Maybe he was related to the guy who shared “Gopher Eggs” with the people of the world!

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The elusive “Gopher Egg.”

 

People without imagination only saw a golf ball sitting in green, Easter-basket grass; some guy figured out non-imaginative people would actually buy them—even if for a prank joke!

 

 

Yet I believe God encourages believers to exercise their imaginations as well.  The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the churches in the city of Rome, asks his readers to imagine what it will be like when those God has chosen recognize the Messiah Jesus for who He truly is!

 

Paul, referencing his fellow Israelites God chose through their founder Abraham, makes this statement about the Jews: “Now if their stumbling brings riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full number bring” (Romans 11:12 HCSB)!

 

Here is Paul’s point: The Jews rejected Jesus during His earthly ministry 2000 years ago and the vast majority of them have rejected Him since—yet all of humanity has also rejected Messiah Jesus!  Yet Rabbi Paul was reminding his readers about the prophecy of the Old Testament—The Torah—that prophesied the Gentiles (everyone not a Jew) and the Israelites as a group will eventually accept who Messiah Jesus is!

 

So, Paul is telling his readers, “The rejection of Messiah Jesus by the Jewish people has caused me to tell those who are not Jews about Messiah Jesus!”  The result means Gentiles, non-Jews, can now enjoy a relationship with God because of the rejection by the Jews.

 

Paul could have been bitter.  He could have even been vindictive.  Instead Paul pointed out the obvious.  Gentiles are now being saved, being brought into a relationship with Messiah Jesus!  But wait!  Can you imagine this?  If people are now being brought into a relationship with God because the Jewish people rejected Messiah Jesus, can you even imagine what will happen to humanity when the Jews accept Messiah Jesus as the Old Testament prophets affirm?

 

Paul continues in this passage it will mean “life from the dead” and blessings beyond imagination on all of those who recognize Messiah Jesus!  There will come a day where the Middle East will not be a source and central location of human strife.  There is coming a day when government corruption will be unknown, justice and integrity will reign supreme and the earth will be healed ecologically!

 

If God, through His grace given to humanity, can allow our dysfunctional selves to light homes and cool them, to have cars, phones, and anti-biotics, can we ever imagine a day when war is no more, when death is not proud and where justice and righteousness is du jour and de facto?

 

Imagination is indeed a “good” thing.  Yet the right kind of imagination requires a mind made new by God.

Who?

 

Those familiar with American television most likely are also familiar with the television series CSI which appears on the CBS television network.  The show premiered in October 2000 and has enjoyed incredible ratings success ever since.

CSI: The Main Show!

CSI: The Main Show!

One of the most recognizable aspects of the show is its theme song Who Are You performed by The Who, a powerful rock band which formed in London, England in 1964.

The Who circa 1975

The Who circa 1975

The Who, by any measurable standard, is considered one of the quintessential rock bands of the 20th century.  Even using the term quintessential adds to the already loaded measurement of this group.  The Greeks acknowledged there were four essences in their observation of humanity: earth, fire, air and water.  Yet to describe something as possessing a quintessence acknowledges an experience which is beyond our observable senses.  This is a great description of the music of The Who.

The song Who Are You begs the question of comparative meaning of one woman compared to any other.  The singer bemoans his inability to ever again find satisfaction in any other love after such an existential experience.  The song as a whole depicts the devastation left behind in the wake of such immeasurable love.

I realize there are real people (not that Roger Daltrey isn’t real, but we must recognize the song is a performance for an audience) who longingly wish for an experience of love like Daltrey describes.  While the song is directed outwardly (who are you?), it accurately communicates the raw despair we feel as people when we have lost something we did not know we had; when we have not realized the value of the relationship we have been given.

In our culture, our society, living in the world in 2015, the question isn’t really “Who are you?” nearly as much as it is “Who are we?”

Some of you who are perhaps much more introspective may think, “I do not really struggle with this question in my life.”  Yet if we really examine our lives and our lifestyle, we do struggle with who we are!

For the vast majority, we define ourselves through comparison with others things or people.  While we may be suave enough to not directly reference another person, our self-definition is shaped through our desires and interaction with others.  There are many people who define themselves by external things—clothes, cars, houses, jobs and jewelry!  Yet do we really grasp the fact we are defining ourselves by the temporary and the transient rather than the eternal and the permanent?

At no moment in time do we as a people gain an immediate, visceral understanding of our situation than when we are sitting at a funeral.  At that moment we find ourselves struggling with a deep longing for the eternal; we crave, hunger and long for another moment or a touch from the person who has died.  We find ourselves wishing we could have told them again (to reassure ourselves more than the one who has passed) how much we loved them and enjoyed their presence.  All of the “things” in this world become meaningless and worthless because we would trade everything for another brief moment or touch.

It is then we wonder who we really are.  We are sobered by the fact life is so short.  We long for the relationship which at that moment we may have felt we have squandered foolishly.  What is it that gives us value and meaning?  Is it the material goods of this world?  Is it a designer’s name written on our clothes and jewelry?

At that moment when the world has seemingly stopped and we struggle to breathe again, we come to the shocking conclusion it is not reality which gives us meaning but rather relationships!  A person who knew us, who understood our idiosyncrasies and our obsessions, they were familiar with our pettiness and shallowness, yet they extended friendship and love to us anyway.

In that same moment, we struggle with the longing for eternity, for a time without time, where what is begun will never end.  It is in times exactly like these the philosopher and theologian C. S. Lewis observed, “God often whispers during the times of enjoyment, but He shouts through the times of difficulty.”

I realize there may be some who read this and have no concept of the experiences I am describing; yet there are others who have experienced these very same feelings and they continue to resonate in your life.

What gives humanity value is not what we do (pragmatism) nor what we wear or own (mercantilism, commercialism) and it’s not even what we think (philosophy); what gives us value is who we are.

The Bible says we are “made in the image of God.”  Because God has shared some of His characteristics with us, we have value.  God then chose to demonstrate His care for us and our intrinsic value by sending His very Son to give each of us the opportunity to live with Him forever, eternally.

The very thing we long for—eternity and unbroken relationships—is available to us because “God loved this world so very much.”  And for us to realize our true value we merely have to accept the gift He freely gives!