The Beauty of Lent: Art and Bible Pairings

For Lent this year I’m doing a new thing: the devotional, Vincent Van Gogh and the Beauty of Lent. I feel so worn down by the state of the world, by constant flux and big changes at my church, by my car being in the shop for over a month after a small fender-bender, that I couldn’t bear to give anything up for Lent. Instead, I’m adding a practice that involves looking at light and color and the gorgeous art of Van Gogh.

One of the most intriguing questions so far is:

If you were to depict the idea that the Holy Spirit moves through both Scripture and the arts, how would you compose the picture? To what page would the Bible be opened? And what work of art would you place beside it?

The Van Gogh painting that week was Still Life with Bible (above). The Van Gogh family Bible is open to Isaiah 53, which talks about salvation coming through a suffering servant. The book near the Bible (Vincent’s own copy of Emile Zola’s Joie de Vivre) is about a woman who was orphaned and undergoes adversity and harm–a modern-day suffering servant. While some see this painting as Van Gogh contrasting the heavy religion of his father with his own faith. Others (including the devotional writers) as Van Gogh pointing out two strains of the same idea: the raising up of a suffering servant.

This activity captured my imagination. Here are a couple of pairings of artwork and the Bible passage I’ve thought of (note, these will not be beautiful, and probably not even visually interesting, I am a word person, not a visual artist).


I’d pair Colossians 2:6 with Fire Keeper’s Daughter, by Angeline Boulley. The main character, Daunis, is the most striking fictional practitioner of the spiritual discipline of gratitude I’ve ever read. She has a Native American father and a white mother, and while she grapples with her sense of belonging in both communities, she embraces and lives out the Anishinaabe spirituality she has learned. She is grounded by her practices and she overflows with gratitude, even while facing traumatic events.

Colossians 2:7 NLT

Let your roots grow down into [Christ Jesus, your Lord], and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness.


In February, my father turned 80. After his cancer diagnosis last year, right as they were moving and downsizing from their house of 20 years, and the subsequent removal of his bladder, we would’ve done anything he wanted for his birthday — including watching a 2-hour-38 minute-long serious movie. So he finally got us to watch the 2012 film of Les Miserables. As the last gorgeous strains of the music played, he said, “That film sums up my theology.” In the line: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Yes. It is beautiful theology. And the songs are still running through my head, over two weeks later.

I’ve paired it here with 1 John 4:12, 16-17:

No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us…. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. 


I’m thinking about this pairing, but I don’t have anything solid yet.

Last month, I asked God to strengthen my hope muscle. It had gone flabby due to disuse. He’s done it by throwing article after article, meme after meme, poem after poem, photo after photo at me, all about hope. It’s starting to work.

Your turn. Are there any Bible verses and art expressions you’d pair as expressing the same spirit? Do you have something to share that could strengthen my hope muscle?

My help comes from Adonai

An image of the Calder sculpture in downtown Grand Rapids Michigan with a sign held up in front of it that says Hate Has No Home Here in several languages.
Last night, I (and a few hundred other people) went to a candlelight vigil sponsored by Temple Emanuel, Congregation Ahavas Israel, Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids, and Chabad House of Western Michigan in response to the murder of 11 people at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh last week. As with the other outdoor candlelight vigil I went to this past summer, it was too breezy to keep my candle lit. But unlike the last time, I was prepared: I’d downloaded a flashlight app on my phone so I held the candle next to that light. One intrepid boy had brought a battery-powered candle. Some in the crowd passed out tin foil squares to put around the candles to protect them from the breeze, but they interfered with the sound system, creating feedback and causing it to go out for several minutes after the speakers began, so those had to go away. I watched Grand Rapids Police Chief David Rahinsky try to fix the speakers, with no luck. By the fourth speaker, the microphones were working, but I know I missed some good words. On the one hand, it was a beautiful event. Any time people come together to support one another in mourning and try to reach for hope is a good thing. But people are, well, people. There were mutterings about not being able to hear. The Jewish women I stood near had varying opinions about the speakers and what they had to say. I was impressed that each speaker spoke fully out of their religious tradition: the Imam told the story of Cain and Abel using names from the Koran (different from the Torah and Bible names), and the Hindu woman prayed to God as Mother and omm-ed (which echoed around Calder Square). Rabbi Michael Schadick of Temple Emanuel was the first to speak, his first words very simple: “We are here for shalom.” Shalom is one of those words that we can’t unpack with only one English word: peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, wellbeing, and tranquility. He spoke about the man who murdered 11 worshippers at Tree of Life Temple in Pittsburgh:
“He hoped to kill our spirit, but he strengthened it.”
The cantor of Temple Emanuel lead the crowd in a song of Psalm 133 (CJB). Read the words while you listen to the song:

Oh, how good, how pleasant it is for brothers to live together in harmony.

It is like fragrant oil on the head that runs down over the beard, over the beard of Aharon, and flows down on the collar of his robes.

It is like the dew of Hermon that settles on the mountains of Tziyon. For it was there that Adonai ordained the blessing of everlasting life.

Rev. David Baak, executive pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church was the next to speak, and after him was Rev. Joe Jones, Second Ward City Commissioner. Jones quoted George Washington Carver:
Fear of something is at the root of hate for others, and hate within will eventually destroy the hater.
Jones also spoke about forgiveness being integral to the ability to love, which is true, but the women around me were not ready to hear that. I’ve certainly had seasons when I was not ready to talk forgiveness, when I had to ask God to make me even want to want to forgive. But how do you forgive a man who hates your people enough to murder them in their place of worship? To scream his hatred of Jews while being cared for by Jewish medical professionals? How do you forgive a murderer when you know that there are others out there like him, and because of that, you have to have armed guards at your synagogue? It feels like forgiving the ideology and culture that spawned those beliefs and that hatred. Imam Morsy Salem of PLACE spoke next. It was such an interesting experience to listen to him unpack the story of Cain and Abel, aka Qābīl and Hābīl, but his message was clear: do not hate each other, do not kill each other. Rabbi Yosef Weingarten of Chabad House said about prayer that it isn’t merely an opportunity to ask for what you need:
Prayer provides us with the opportunity to align our body and our soul with the…God above. In these moments of unspeakable pain, as we search for answers, we take refuge in our traditions–[in our Jewish tradition, mourning is not just about pain], but hope and conviction.”
He encouraged all of us to add just one small act of kindness in our daily lives to build each other up. In honor of the members and police officers who were injured in the shooting at Tree of Life, Rabbi Weingarten and Chief Rahinsky read Psalm 121 (CJB) as a prayer, the Rabbi in Hebrew and the Chief in English:

If I raise my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from Adonai, the maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip — your guardian is not asleep. No, the guardian of Isra’el never slumbers or sleeps.

Adonai is your guardian; at your right hand Adonai provides you with shade — the sun can’t strike you during the day or even the moon at night.

Adonai will guard you against all harm; he will guard your life. Adonai will guard your coming and going from now on and forever.

Following him were Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute and Rev. Colleen Squires of All Souls Community Church. Rev. Squires is a regular attender at Grand Rapids Association of Pastor meetings, so I know her a little bit. I was moved by the emotion in her voice as she talked about the hospitality of Congregation Ahavas Israel, which has given All Souls the space to worship for the last 13 years, and how it was both right and weighty to walk into their mutual building for services the day after the shooting. Then came Teresa Thome of Self-Realization Fellowship (representing the Hindu faith) and Dr. Doug Kinshi of GVSU’s Kaufman Interfaith Center. Rabbi David Krishev of Congregation Ahavas put it in stark words:
The question, ‘Am I willing to give up my life for my faith,’ is a question we don’t want to hear, and don’t want to answer. It is a question we thought we’d left behind.
He went on to list the people of various faiths who are being killed due to their beliefs. His desire was simple: “We, as people who believe in the power of religious community, want to continue to gather at our places of worship openly…and safely.” Rabbi Schadick closed the event with a song from the end of the mourner’s Kaddish, lead by a soloist from Temple Emanuel:
He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
It was a wonderful event, full of talk of love and respect and standing together against hate. I loved the use of Adonai instead of “the Lord” in the passages read; if felt so intimate. My favorite part was the singing–listening to those ancient words being sung all around me, all known by heart, was powerful. Those words have been said and sung in that form for many thousands of years. Those words and those messages have survived. They’ve survived many attempts to eradicate them and those who speak them, and they’ll survive this one, too. I’ll add a few more from Psalm 95:7-8 (NLT) as my prayer for my fellow Christians who are consumed with fear and hate:
If only you would listen to his voice today! The Lord says, “Don’t harden your hearts…” 

an unexpected overcoming

On Monday, I saw a friend in the parking lot at Meijer and in the course of chatting, I started crying. There in the parking lot, with all the people doing their errands streaming past me, I couldn’t pretend I was handling it all anymore.

Now, nobody I love is dying (although people I love have cancer). My husband is still employed. I’ve even got work for which I’ll get paid. Eventually. I won’t even say the thing I was going to say, something about not missing the E.R., but that would be tempting fate, so I won’t.

But in every area of my life that is important to me — kids, marriage, writing, finances, church work — I’m overwhelmed by failure and fear. And fear of failure. Things that I thought would be manageable, became huge, looming problems that won’t untangle themselves quickly or easily. Things I thought were positive have taken their pound of flesh instead, but not surgically, more like the flesh-eating bacteria kind of thing where the wound must remain open for a long time. Issues I thought we were past…. You get the idea.

My throat on fire barely registered, because at least it was understandable.

I’ve been waking in the middle of the night, heart pounding and unable to fall back asleep, which certainly doesn’t help me deal with any of this more rationally. I’ve spent my days trying to convince myself, “These symptoms of stress are helping me. Body, thank you for preparing me to deal with these challenges,” after hearing this great TED talk on how to make stress my friend. But that never helped for long.

And I’ve prayed. Oh, how I’ve prayed. Mostly that most basic of prayers: Help. No specifics. Just, Help. I’m overwhelmed. I don’t have the imagination to see how this will get any better. Help.

On top of that I’m in the thick of the prophets in my Bible reading. All that doom and gloom and punishment and exile and “you brought this on yourselves.” Even though most books are tempered by a little bit of “on that day when the Lord thinks you’ve had enough punishment and he restores you, everything will be perfect and amazing,” it’s not exactly the most uplifting reading I could be doing.

Yesterday morning, I read this from Hezekiah 3:16-17 (NLT):

“Cheer up, Zion! Don’t be afraid! For the Lord your God has arrived to live among you. He is a mighty savior. He will rejoice over you with great gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will exult over you by singing a happy song.”

Did I sigh with relief? Did I hand over all my fears to God? Nope.

I liked the bit about rejoicing and exulting over us. How great is it that we can made God so happy that he can’t help singing?

But God’s love calming all my fears? All my fears? Even those ones that have nothing to do with my behavior but with other peoples’? How does that work? I may have even added a tweenish, “I don’t think so.” And a curmudgeonly, “Hmph.”

That same day, I had a kid home sick, which I responded to the night before (when I saw the writing on the wall) by yelling at her. Classy.

This school year has my head spinning, trying to keep track of two kids in two different schools with entirely different academic calendars. In the 7 weeks I’ve had one or both kids in school, I’ve only had one 5-day stretch with both of them gone. Truth time: I love it when my kids go back to school. After a summer of togetherness and putting aside my plans so their plans can happen, I relish the fall. We always do better when we have a little time apart. But this year, I’m still scrambling, still trying to find purchase and focus.

Instead of resenting her, I embraced the kid at home. After all, we have the same symptoms, so I knew exactly how she felt.

(My selfish “somebody give me a medal for that” side wants me to add that I managed to make breakfast and lunches and pick up kids from school and sit and cheer at a soccer game and do the dishes and give some lectures about my expectations regarding making up missing work on that same “first day of illness” that she sat on the couch and had a bath.)

I was warm and sympathetic. I scrubbed the tub for her.

Then the other child came home from school and practice. We had a good dinner all together, and then that child buckled down and got the missing work completed.

And I was flooded with love for my children. My husband was gone for bedtime, so I got to pray with both of them. By the end, I was overwhelmed with love and tenderness. To the point of tears. I’m still a little weepy about it.

This is not normal for me. I love them, yes, but I’m rarely swamped by it. They are, after all, 12 and 14. And I’m not a super-gushy mother.

Right before I went to bed, I remembered: “With his love, he will calm all your fears.”

Not one single issue was solved. But doggone it if love didn’t calm my fears. God wins again. And despite my skepticism, too.

All I’ve got to say to that is, Thank you.


Flipping the servant worship switch

[My point here is probably better made in the children’s message at the bottom of this post. I understand if you’d rather skip ahead to it.]

I have a confession to make: I have been a moody worshipper, grumbling and getting upset if two songs in a row left me cold. We’ve been at our new church for about a year, but even this winter, I could be in tears about music selection — and my husband was one of the people picking and leading music. I sometimes desperately missed the music at our previous church and that got in the way of my appreciation of other parts of the service. The music at the new church was (and is) good, and I love singing old hymns again, but I was wrapped up in my own sense of what “proper” worship was.

Something needed to change and, conveniently, and predictably, I didn’t think it was me.

And then this past spring I interviewed over a dozen ministers in order to write profiles on their churches (for this project). I asked each one the same five questions, one of which was, “What are your strengths as a congregation?” One of the answers changed my experience of worship — changed it utterly.

Bob Boersma of Providence Christian Reformed Church said that servant worship was one of their strengths. He characterized servant worship like this: “We ask our people to sing along [with songs they may not like] because someone else may need to sing it.” So the act of worship is not just personal, and it isn’t just communal — that is, we’re not each doing our own personal worship all in the same place. Worship as an act of service to the other people in the congregation is more intimate. It requires me to give up (some of) my fussiness about worship, to modify my need to get something out of every moment of the service and my right to be upset if every moment of the service doesn’t speak to me.

I found this glorious. And freeing. But also grounding. Even better, it helped connect me to the church that still felt foreign to me after seven months of involved membership.

It’s not like the servant worship switch being flipped made everything about worship wonderful. It didn’t. There are still songs I don’t like, songs that don’t feel particularly worshipful to me. But now I think to myself, “here’s a servant worship moment,” and I sing with my eyes open (otherwise, I close my eyes), looking around for those people who are getting their worship on, looking for the people singing with their eyes closed, or raising their hands, or bouncing their clapping baby. I listen for the voices of the older women singing their hearts out or the “Amen” from someone in the back. And in those moments, I can be glad that we’re singing that song I don’t like.

This explanation has been pretty good, but I think I said it best yesterday in my children’s message:

I’ve been thinking about children’s worship starting up again soon, and thinking about the songs we sing. Songs like the walls of Jericho song [to the adults, I noted that it was one of our crazier songs]. Some of you love, love, love it. And some of you are kind of scared by the craziness of it. And I was thinking about my 3 versions of Jesus Loves Me. Some of you love the sweet and quiet regular version and some kids love the louder rock and roll version. That happens in grown-up church, too.

I have a confession to make. Can we keep it just between us? That song we did two songs ago, [name of song], I don’t like it very much. I don’t.

But I sang it anyway.

Why do we sing songs that some people don’t like?

Let’s do an experiment. Grownups and kids, I’ll need your help on this. If you loved that song, if it made you joyful, it you felt the love of God for you or your love for God while you sang, raise your hand.

[a couple dozen hands went up]

Look at that. Look at all those hands of people who loved that song, who were really worshipping while they sang it.

So that’s why. But it’s only part of why we sing songs not everyone loves. Here’s the bigger reason.

[did the sign language for love and made the kids tell me what it meant]

That’s right. Love. We are all God’s family here, and because God loves us, we love each other and we want to serve each other. Jesus served the people he loved. Even though he was God, he washed his friends’ dirty, smelly, sweaty, disgusting feet. Serving someone by singing a song I don’t like is a lot more fun than washing their smelly feet.

So that’s why we sing a lot of different songs in children’s worship and in grown-up church: we’re a lot of different kinds of people who love a lot of different kinds of songs who feel and express the love of God in all kids of different ways — and because we love each other, we serve each other by sometimes singing things we don’t personally like. It’s servant worship, and it’s a lot more fun than washing smelly feet.

Let me note here that I am not suggesting that you stay in a church even when God is nudging you out just so you can be of service to the people there by participating in worship you can’t stand. And I’m not saying that all churches need to sing a variety of music — I’ve never met anyone whose spirit soared during every single song that was sung in their church.

I am suggesting that changing how you think about worship — in particular, changing how you think about singing songs you don’t like — can help you feel more connected to your fellow congregants, can give you joy even in the midst of songs you don’t like, can utterly change your experience of worship for the better. It did for me.

And now, because I’m talking about worship, you may commence yelling at me.


What Is And Is Not A Tool

Does this happen to you? You’re going along, just living your life, and then, BLAM, a cluster of seemingly unrelated things come to your attention that each address something you really need to hear. I call that God, others might call it the universe, or synchronicity, or coincidence. Whatever you call it, it just happened to me in less than 24 hours.

1. The Artist’s Way by Julia Campbell: Week 6, Recovering a Sense of Abundance

“All too often, we become blocked and blame it on our lack of money. This is never an authentic block. The actual block is our feeling of constriction, our sense of powerlessness. Art requires us to empower ourselves with choice.”

2. Seth Godin’s blog: Thinking About Money

“If money is an emotional issue for you, you’ve just put your finger on a big part of the problem. No one who is good at building houses has an emotional problem with hammers. Place your emotional problems where they belong, and focus on seeing money as a tool.”

3. Brain Pickings: How to Worry Less About Money, about a book by John Armstrong:

“The crucial developmental step in the economic lives of individuals and societies is their ability to cross from the pursuit of middle-order goods to higher-order goods. Sometimes we need to lessen our attachment to the middle needs like status and glamor in order to concentrate on higher things. This doesn’t take more money; it takes more independence of mind.”

4. Brain Pickings again, an article about Milton Glaser (graphic artist):

“Do you perceive you live your life through love or fear? They are very different manifestations. My favorite quote is by the English novelist Iris Murdoch. She said, ‘Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.’ I like the idea that all that love is, is acknowledging another’s reality.

Acknowledging that the world exists, and that you are not the only participant in it, is a profound step. The impulse towards narcissism or self-interest is so profound, particularly when you have a worry of injury or fear. It’s very hard to move beyond the idea that there is not enough to go around, to move beyond that sense of “I better get mine before anybody else takes it away from me.”

5. Writer Unboxed post by Jeanne Kisacky: What Not to Think About When You’re Writing, in particular the advice not to “indulge in endless fantasies” about how a piece of writing is going to change your way of life:

“A good story is like a dream brought into momentary focus. It is ephemeral, fleeting, perhaps even surreal, but whole and perfect unto itself. During its crystallization (the process of writing) prosaic thoughts that take the writer outside of that coherent whole turn the writing from a story into a tool. This makes the work simply a step towards something mundane (a better life for the author) not an otherworldly destination of its own (a shining jewel of believable characters, delightful interactions, and gripping tensions).”

6. Sermon on how we often come to God with a list of things we’d like him to make happen for us, and, in return, we will praise him, thereby making God a tool for making our dreams come true.

Some themes I pull out of these quotes:

  • making the wrong things into tools
  • making tools into things to get emotionally twisted about
  • living out of fear rather than love

The idea from the sermon that stuck with me was, “A tool is at its best when it’s being used for what it was designed for”;  God is not the tool, I am the tool, designed for love and worship and service. A story is not a tool to make my fabulous life happen; I am the tool for bringing a transportive story into the world.

Money is not a tool for happiness, but it is a tool for food, clothes, housing, transportation, entertainment, doing good (aka, giving), but also for facilitating creative expression, even mine; I need to stop feeling guilty when I spend money on my creative expression and stop finding excuses not to spend on my creative expression.

Twitter and blogs are tools for exploration and connection. Are they also marketing/networking tools that will be important to my writing career? Yes. But I need to stop getting myself emotionally twisted up and discouraged because they are netting me limited marketing/networking opportunities (not to mention the puniness of my numbers) now. I need to stop projecting the scarcity of now into the future, because that makes me anxious and doesn’t help me use Twitter and my blog for their proper uses. I have enough Twitter followers and blog readers for now, and there are enough in the world that there will be more in the future (aka the time in which I will actually have something to trumpet via marketing and networking). In fact, using Twitter and my blog as tools for exploration and connection will be the thing that will get my numbers higher and make future networking/marketing possible.

But the thing all of those articles above spoke to me most about wasn’t writing, storytelling, publishing, money, or God. It was dance.

I want to dance on stage again, in a group, doing choreography that is not my own. I want to be in class again. Which costs money, and means that I will have a schedule that other family members will have to work around. I’ve been making every excuse for why it wouldn’t work for years. But I can’t do that much longer. I’ve still got a reasonable amount of flexibility and strength, so I think now might be the time. This might be the year it will not denied. That I will not deny myself.

Wonderful: The Moment of Being Seen

I love it when a character who’s been presented as mean, tactless, heartless, or downright cruel reveals that he or she sees the main character with perfect and loving clarity.

This often happens in historical romance novels, particularly between noble sons and their cold, distant fathers. I’m a sucker for it every time. And it happened in the mystery I finished yesterday.

In Alan Bradley’s novel series, Flavia de Luce is an 11-year-old chemistry buff and poisons expert living in a big pile of a house in 1950s rural England with her father and two older sisters. In the second book, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, her father’s sister comes to visit. Aunt Felicity is a blowhard of the first order. Every word out of her mouth is an insult to someone, especially to her brother about his house, his finances, and how he’s raising his daughters. She’s bossy, controlling, and Always Right.

But one day, she makes Flavia carry her painting equipment to the island of the ornamental lake behind the house so she can paint the folly (fake Roman ruins). Once there, she tells Flavia tales of her own childhood at that house, playing with Flavia’s mother. Harriet had died the year after Flavia was born, and her older sisters had always told her that she had, through being so disappointing that she’d driven their mother to go all the way to Tibet to escape her, killed their mother. And her father is constantly present, yet too absent to correct this impression.

So Aunt Felicity’s words change Flavia’s beliefs about herself in a heartbeat. “Good heavens, child! If you want to see your mother, you have no more than to look in the glass. If you want to know her character, look inside yourself. You’re so much like her, it gives me the willies.”

Aunt Felicity goes into detail, particularly about their mutual love for chemistry. But then she, who is presented as aggressively conventional, talks to Flavia about her passion for ferreting out information, particularly about murders. Because, really, what good would it be to be an under-supervised 11-year-old poisons expert if you couldn’t run around the village solving murders.

“You must listen to your inspiration. You must let your inner vision be your Pole Star…. You must never be deflected by unpleasantness…. Although it may not be apparent to others, your duty will become as clear to you as if it were a white line painted down the middle of the road. You much follow it, Flavia…. Even when it leads to murder.”

And then this, which is amazing advice to anyone: “If you remember nothing else, remember this: Inspiration from outside one’s self is like the heat in an oven. It makes passable Bath buns. But inspiration from within is like a volcano: It changes the face of the world.”

Stuff like that gets me every time. It does in love songs, too. The chorus of Alanis Morisette’s “Everything” sums up why:

“You see everything, you see every part
You see all my light and you love my dark
You dig everything of which I’m ashamed
There’s not anything to which you can’t relate
And you’re still here”

So it isn’t just the moment of being seen, it’s being seen and also loved, appreciated, embraced.

That changes a person, gives them courage to be who they always wanted to be, but were afraid of what others would think. So even though the moments are just that, momentary — Aunt Felicity goes back to being a bossy blowhard. Spouses drift around each other. Friends take each other for granted. We repeat lines in the liturgy unthinkingly — what we believe about ourselves has been changed. And hopefully our actions will follow.

That moment of being seen can be pretty momentous. And now I’m getting as sappy as if I’d just read one of those scenes.