When God Speaks Through His Word and Our Art

The bold black ink on white canvas caught my eye.  As I walked under the shaded outdoor patio of Elevate coffee, I noticed a girl tracing the penciled words with a thin brush; “Wow, that’s beautiful,” I said.  I took a closer look; the canvas read, “For I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content”.

“Can I take a picture of it?” I asked.IMG_0644

She said yes and I clarified, “I’d like to show it to my husband.”  The phrase sounded pleasant though unfamiliar and I smiled.  I stretched out my hand and introduced myself.  My new friend’s name is Jasmin.  I promised her I would return to see the finished product.

God has done this before.  Once before Asa and I started dating, I was looking at his pottery on the shelves at Desert Dragon.  He had carved around his vessel the words: “Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”  The Lord had been speaking these words same words to my heart.  He was using them to make me desire holiness and freedom from sin.  Now, Asa and I had barely talked at this point.  In fact, I had seen him throw and had not appreciated his work.  It wasn’t until I saw his carved pottery that I realized how talented he is.  A couple days later, I apologized to him, “I’m sorry, but I totally underestimated you,” I said.  He smiled and proceeded to win my heart and marry me months later.

But the point of my story is that God speaks to us often through His Word and moreover, through art, which I love.  When I saw Jasmin’s canvas, I saw God’s faithfulness.  I know I can trust him.  Despite the fact that, last night, my husband and I talked about silence, uncertainty and money, I know I cannot falter in my heart when it comes to God.  Because he told me, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me”.  He reminded me of his Word last night.  And then, there it was today in black and white: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content”.

Inside of elevate, I found a friend from the ceramics studio.   “I just saw Asa last night at the studio!”  Heather hugged me and congratulated us.  We sat on the couches near the window.  On the other side friend continued working on her lettered canvas.  I felt in my heart something/someone say, “That canvas is yours.”  I continued to share pictures from the wedding.  My friend and I chatted for a while until I finished my Mocha Frappuccino and she needed to leave to pick up her kids from school.

I returned to my new friend Jasmin on the other side of the glass.  She was sitting with her finished canvas and her boyfriend, Washington.  I asked her why she picked that verse in particular.  “Sometimes God speaks a verse into my heart for that particular season of my life.  This is a time of transition for me and I felt like this verse spoke to that.”

“I love it,” I said.

Washington handed me the canvas, “It’s yours.”

Dear Lord Jesus, I always underestimate you.  I pray you continue to show me your faithfulness through your people, your Word and our art.  Thank you because you are not silent.  Give me ears to hear and eyes to see.  In your name, Jesus, Amen.

“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.  I know how to be brought low and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:11-13IMG_0648

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Metamorphosis: a gift, a new life and a very hungry caterpillar

To the optimists whose hearts are willing to listen to good news

My sister Karina has always had a knack for gift giving, but this time she hit the nail right on the head. Before we left for the airport Saturday morning she handed me a small blue bag and instructed me, “Don’t open until you’re in Phoenix.”  I tucked it into the picnic basket that I had found in salvation army.  Her gift did not go through security undetected.  An officer pulled me aside and checked the basket.
“Any explosives or fire arms in here?” he joked.  He sifted through my beat up NIV, pulled out my chopsticks and shin ramen cup noodles.  “What’s this?” he held Karina’s present. 
“No idea, Sir,” I said, “My sister gave it to me as a going away present.  I can open it if you like.” 
“I’ll put it through the machine and see.  If I need to I’ll open it.  Haha, hope your sister isn’t one for practical jokes.”  He took away the blue gift bag.  My curiosity was fueled.  The officer came back. 
“Hahaha, that would have been a good one.  You would have been so mad.  Here, you’re all clear.  Have good holiday, Miss.” 
I smiled and took my basked away and made my way to gate F10 and took a seat near a window where I could see the sun rising.  Immediately I tore into the little present.

photo (1)A week prior, we had taken a trip to Mitsuwa Mart in Arlington Heights and I had debated buying a Japanese translation of The Very Hungry Caterpillar from the bookstore.  But I ended up putting it back on the shelf.  Karina seized the opportunity and recruited our kid brother and our friend Victor to distract me while she made the purchase.  She tucked the book inside her purse and returned to us, cool as a cucumber and just in time for green tea ice cream.  Those sneaky ninjas were so careful not to spill the beans that I never suspected a thing.

I read through Harapeko Aomushi on the plane and was surprised I fully understood it.  Of course the book is written for children and completely in hiragana the most basic characters of Japanese writing.  And it does help that I know the story in English by heart: “In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on the leaf…”

I’ve been holding back on writing about my obsession with butterflies because it seems a little childish.  But as I make this new transition I feel that it’s important to recognize what God has been teaching me since last August.  At the end of the summer of 2013, I was offered a part-time position in Grand Rapids, but I turned it down because in my heart I knew God was asking me to go home.  I found Christ as a freshmen at Hope College and knew that going back meant trusting that God would provide Christian community and a job.  Not only that but I learned that going back to Steger meant coming to terms with my old self.  My house alone is filled with relics from 18 years lived without knowledge of Jesus’ love and grace.  It was during this period that God began speaking to me through butterflies.  I can’t pin point when it began.  But suddenly I saw them every where.  On the cover of a devotional that my Japanese professor gave to me for my graduation.  Printed on the inside of a mug at my Tia Jessie’s house.  At the museum of science and industry, My friend Lauren and I watched a the Flight of the Butterflies in the Omnimax theater. For Christmas my mom gave me a butterfly necklace and for months it served as a reminder of the familiar verse: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17).

IMG_20131222_205457  IMG_20140107_162033  IMG_20131109_193638 (2)

But I didn’t feel new.  I was working at an incredibly challenging alternative school (ironically called RISE) and the tough work environment made me irritable toward the people I loved.  I asked myself, what the heck? you’re supposed to be representing Jesus Christ and look at you now!  And the butterflies kept coming along with temptations to return to my old self.  On the worst days, the butterflies were more like mosquitoes that I swatted away. On the best days, they were a reminder to step into the life that God has called me to live in Christ.

So as I read through this simple children’s book on my way to a new life in Phoenix, AZ, I remembered the complex reality of being born again in Christ.  I remembered the hunger.  How nothing would satisfy me though on Monday I ate through a whole apple and on Tuesday through two pears and on Wednesday through three plums and on Thursday through four strawberries and on Friday through five oranges and on Saturday ate through a plethora of things that I was never created to eat and made me sick.  And finally I ate through a green leaf.  This leaf to me represents God’s word.  And when I ate of it, I was transformed into something entirely new.  Everyday, I must accept this new life and choose to rise and fly.

Those pesky butterflies still follow me wherever I go.  But I feel like I’ve stepped into a different season and the metaphor has been etched into my heart. I am grateful to God for his patience and grace.  He has lead me into this desert land and I am eager to meet him here in a brand-new way.

Relevant verses (click link to view in context):

1. Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst” (John 6:35).

2. Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3).

3. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).

Hey! Expect an update with pictures from AZ and reflections from induction and job training with Teach for America coming soon! Peace!

A Simple Story about Sakura Petals and Physical Contact

Urayasu, Chiba Japan 2012

“We’re going on a walk,” My host mother says in Japanese, not the same day I arrive but on an afternoon when the sakura are in full bloom.  “Cherry Blossoms,” she says in English as if I can’t understand.  Because usually I can’t.

“Watashi mo!” I say and tag along down the concrete ramp.  She pushes my host father’s wheelchair in front of her.  We cross the street to the canal.  I walk beside my host father.  A white sheet covers his thin legs.  The wind is strong today.  It flaps and folds it over.  He struggles to pull the cloth back into place with his good hand.  I cover his knees but the wind keeps blowing.  Sakura petals fall like pink snowflakes.  My host mother wheels over the flowers on the sidewalk.

“My father was a fisherman,” she tells me simple stories in Japanese, “Once I went to Disney Sea.  They gave out free passes to all the people of Urayasu when it first opened.”

We pass a white cherry blossom tree.  “Beautiful, don’t you think?” She tilts her head over the chair to see the face of her silent husband who smiles and nods.  “Don’t you think?” She asks me.  I nod, too.

“I take a picture.”  She parks the wheel chair and pulls out her magenta camera.  “For your mother,” she says, “So she can see how beautiful they are.  How beautiful you are.”

I lean against the fragile frame of the tree.  Cheese.

“Now one with Masaki san,” she says and tucks me beside her husband’s chair.

Hope, I thought my hands could heal.  I though perhaps if I could rest a hand over the man’s shoulder he could rise dancing.  I didn’t want to do the Mexican hat dance over Japanese cultural boundaries.  I wanted to restore.

I place my hand on this man’s shoulder.  Before the camera snaps, I pull away.  I blush into the lens.

The next morning I watch Moko’s Kitchen like usual before class.  My mouth full of French toast made by my Japanese host mother.  I sprinkle more cinnamon over the yellow/brown bread.

“Deiji san,” she calls from the room, “Come here, please.”

She’s sitting on the edge of Masaki san’s bed.  “Come here,” she urges again. She faces him.  “He asked for you.”  But I have few words and he has none.

Instead he holds out his hand.  I take it.   I look at my Japanese father’s moistened eyes wishing I could tell him about the One who healed me.  But if I flew 13 hours for this moment alone, it was well worth it.

I know Christ healed two people that day: a tired stranger and a beautiful man, both longing for contact.  I have yet to see my host father rise from his chair and dance for the Lord.  But I am certain of this, God restores.  He has restored and he will continue to do his work in us and through us until the day of Jesus Christ.  To Him be the glory forever and ever.

Hunger for Glory: Beowulf Dies on an Empty Stomach

Aside

“‘If more of us valued food, cheer and song above hoarded gold it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!'”
Thorin’s last words from The Hobbit J.R.R. Tolkien

While the writer of Beowulf, a classic epic poem, intertwines heroic values and Christian values, the tension that these often contradictory values create does not threaten the overall integrity of the story. Although the Christian writer illustrates heroic values of glory, treasure and pride, he equally illustrates the ephemeral nature of life and thus questions the significance of these values.

The last three lines of the poem glorify Beowulf as a “man most gracious and fair-minded kindest to his people and keenest to win fame” (lines 3180-2). Beowulf had generously given to his subjects both kindness and riches which is clearly a Christian value. On the other hand, the later trait, his hunger for fame, taints the first. Humility would be the more Christian of traits for a king, but Beowulf does not appear to have a humble bone in his body.

Well, even if he did have one, all his bones were burned on his funeral pyre. Every battle in Beowulf’s past had climaxed to the final one with the dragon, a symbol of Beowulf’s burning hunger for glory.

Beowulf and the Dragon (J.R. Skelton, 1908)

Perhaps this hunger, this greed, points to something bigger.  Perhaps, like all humans, Beowulf longs for the eternal.   To quote C.S. Lewis, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”  Yet, Beowulf would die without the satisfaction of the knowledge of Christ.  Beowulf would sacrifice his life for earthly treasure  and afterward would be consumed by fire.  What use to man is a pile of gold and a chorus of exaltations once he is dead?  Can riches and respect defer the judgement of the Almighty?   All the ashes that were left were buried with the treasure “as useless to men now as it ever was” (line 3167).  With these words, the writer laments that the treasure was unworthy of Beowulf’s life.

Which brings us to another character from familiar story of a rich fool.  Jesus tells us about him in the 12th chapter of Luke.  The man can be commended for his shrewdness.  How many people could benefit from storing up treasure for many years to “relax, eat, drink and be merry”?  But God calls this man out, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you and the things you have prepared whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20).  In the same way, Beowulf faces death on an empty stomach.  “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (12:21).

Similar to The Hobbit’s hero Thorin, Beowulf is a noble character with both admirable qualities and tragic vices.  The integrity of the writer of Beowulf lies in the fact that he neither undermines the importance of heroic values to the protagonist nor does he neglect the futility behind the objects of his pursuit.  Let these men be like parables to all of us.  That we (myself included) may learn to give our lives for true gold that doesn’t perish.

Prison, College, and the Circle of Life: God’s Purposes for the Here and Now

“I wish I was at home in my nice hole by the fire, with the kettle just beginning to sing!” It was not the last time that [Bilbo Baggins] wished that!
The Hobbit J.R.R. Tolkien

For the past three and a half years, I have called Michigan my home. While other college freshmen counted down days until break, I made my nest on the third floor of my dorm and forgot to phone my mother. I stayed in Michigan over the summer and avoided going back to Illinois as much as possible.  As I prepare to graduate, however, I can see how God is preparing a place for me. I know I should temporarily return to my father’s house, and I actually look forward to it.

This Christmas break left me longing for the comforts of home. The food, the family, the freedom to do whatever I wanted, when I wanted. Now, I’m weighed down with assignments. I am like a maple tree, and creativity is being drained out of me like syrup. Things I love like reading and writing have suddenly become mandatory. I woke up the first Friday of my last semester at Hope muttering, Why can’t I just go home?

Paul, two thousand years ago, must have asked himself the same thing. In fact, his letter to the Philippians shows a sort of homesick longing.

For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account (Philippians 1:21-4).

I must sound completely absurd to compare my experience in College to Paul’s experience in prison. After all, I await graduation not execution.  I won’t disagree that the accommodations here are much nicer, but I think it is of some value to draw this parallel.  Our desire for home-cooked comfort ultimately points to our desire for God.

Perhaps the biggest comfort of home is to be known. To not have to explain oneself. And who knows us better than our Father? As the psalmist says in the 139, “Your eyes saw me before I was put together, and all the days of my life were written in Your book before any of them came to be.”  As a senior, I find myself fading into a crowd of unfamiliar faces. New students that will soon replace the old ones. This is the cycle that characterizes a four year college. This is a cycle that characterizes life as a whole. I don’t mean to sound morbid. I’m simply observing that this isn’t our permanent home and homesickness is completely understandable.

On the other hand, we must not neglect that God’s purpose for us here on earth.  As my college career winds down,  I must remember, first of all, that this is not a prison cell, and second that God has a plan for me here and now.   There’s a reason why we are not home yet.  We have a church to build.

Splinters for Splendor

for Thomas
Moonlight gathers us around the stage.
Forecast-ed rain decides that it won’t fall.
We sing for a hero worthy of praise.
“Come down!” we call to him “and heal us all.

We bring only worries, shame and mistakes.
Please trade us,” we beg, “our burdens for joy.
We’re dead tired of the pain. Who will break
down darkness and our enemy destroy?

“He’s heard us!” a girl shouts and points. Eyebrows
raised, we spot our hero covered in filth.
“It’s finished.” A last breath. A spear plowed
through the dead man clothed in blood and our guilt.

Now what? More than a week has passed. We’re doomed.
Risen? I doubt it. He walks in the room.