Friday, July 29, 2016

compelled to create: art and faith

What must you do?
I'm not referring to your to-do list.
What are you compelled to do?
(besides eat chocolate)
What can you not help doing?

Asher Lev could not help but draw. His eyes would follow the contours of windows, of trees, of faces and their bodies. His fingers would trace shapes over and over, practicing. He filled reams of paper and acres of canvas. He dulled pencils and emptied tubes of paint. When he should have been studying Torah or mathematics, Asher drew. When he should have been listening, he absorbed himself in shadow and light, wondering how the effect could be achieved on paper.

What is it for you?
What were you born to do?

Asher's poor father could not understand him. He called drawing "foolishness" and chided his son repeatedly, angered by his distraction. But Asher could not shut off his fount of creativity. He even drew in his sleep (on the wall! with red crayon!). Asher's Hasidic Jewish community could not understand him. His classmates jeered at him, calling him "Picasso."

A dear friend of mine is an artist. After years of chronic pain, she's made a profound discovery—art is a form of praise. Pain has become the crucible for some of the best art she's ever birthed, more original and more meaningful, and therefore a part of her healing journey. Somehow her finger-gripped pencil bypasses the toxic cesspool of her own complaints, words that only drag her down. It liberates the praise-filled perspective she longs to have. She reminded me that the same has been true of my writing.

Enter the Rabbi—the most powerful figure in Asher's world. As his father's boss, the Rabbi's word was canon. He was never disobeyed. I expected him to come crashing down on the young artist, to forbid him to draw or paint. But in a remarkable plot twist, he doesn't. I won't spoil the rest of the story. If you haven't read the book yourself, put it on your list right now: My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok.

The friend I mentioned took a risk yesterday, showing her drawings to her parents. One brusque comment could have destroyed her, but by the magnificent grace of God, they gushed, awed by what she had created.

Providentially, after finishing the novel, I picked up the summer magazine of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, my alma mater. The theme? "Arts in the Church"—page after page of beautiful reflections on the place of art in our faith journey. Truly refreshing.

One article in particular struck me as appropriate: "Made by a Maker to be a Maker," by Bruce Herman, an artist and professor of art at Gordon College in Massachusetts. Herman's reflections mimic Asher's journey as an artist into adulthood. He says, "the child creates art from a place of fearlessness and natural freedom. Art and fear are not good bedfellows." (Fear makes a lousy bedfellow for dissertations, too, by the way.)

Night by Bruce Herman (1991)
According to Herman, "The artistic act is one that can only be wholehearted."As soon as Asher Lev discovers this, when he gives himself fully to the artistic process, he creates his greatest masterpiece. But it may cost him everything. Art is not easy. It is a massive risk.

In some cases, so is a blog post. Or a meal for honored guests. Or an academic paper. Or a remodeled kitchen. Or a counseling session. Or a sermon.

Quoting Tolkien, Herman says, "we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make." As I contemplate my next major writing project, I hesitate, but only for a moment. Just as Asher must paint, so I must write. I have no other option. All that I love will find expression on the pages of my next book. Fear has no place, only a complete devotion to the craft of writing until the project is birthed.

Herman insists, "The kind of makers we are to become involves echoing God's own character in our creative process." That involves self-sacrifice and risk, the possibility that it won't be well-received, or that we'll be misunderstood. But we were created to create. And so I must. And so must you. Let's make something good.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

quilted hearts: mentoring for the long haul

Dear Hazel,

I wasn't ready yet for you to go.
In your own unassuming way, you "held the ropes" for us.

It's not just that I loved you. You loved me back, too.

I bumbled into your sewing circle in the church basement, a young mom full of zeal. Mentoring was what I wanted most, advice for how to raise children, how to make my way in the world. Since I was 40 years younger than the next youngest member of the group, I thought it an ideal place to learn. I prodded, asking questions, seeking wisdom. The women hunched over the quilt looked at each other and shrugged. I think you answered first, Hazel. You said something like "Don't ask us! We're no experts!"

It bothered me then, your reticence to pass along what you had learned. I didn't realize that your answer really was an answer, the answer I needed most—that all of us muddle through the best we can and figure things out as we go, and that what we discover along the way is that there's no single right way of doing things, and no guarantees that what worked for you will work for me.

When I was silent long enough, swallowing my questions and slowing my pace, the conversation drifted back to its natural cadences—TV shows and recipes, small town news and medical reports and silences. These conversations held no instant magic, but I see now that each was another quilting thread, connecting hearts as thread joins layers of fabric stitch after stitch.

Hazel (center), the last time I saw her (photo: C Imes)
Now that you're gone, the fabric is torn and so is my heart.

Quilting is slow work, and so are relationships. Your faithfulness over the long haul created something beautiful. We could always count on you to keep the conversation moving. Although you stopped short of giving advice, you gave me something even more important—you genuinely cared about me and my journey. I know because your face would light up when I entered the room. This, too, was a kind of mentoring.

You were there when Eliana cruised around underneath the quilt frame, her bald head a traveling bump. You were there when we sold our things and said our farewells, headed to the Philippines. You were there when we returned, broken and bleeding. You said farewell again when we moved across the country. And you were always there when we came home and I showed up unannounced at sewing. Every time the group was smaller, as friends went on ahead -- Elizabeth, Vesta, Edna, Ruth, Bertha, Alice -- but I could count on you to be there.

How I wish your chair didn't stand empty now! I'm afraid if I take my place around the quilt again my tears will make a mess of it. I didn't realize how much you meant to me until it was too late to tell you.

I'd like to know how many quilts you stitched, how many dollars they fetched for the cause of world mission, how many lives were changed as a result. As meticulous as they are, the minutes of the Women's Missionary Society won't be able to tell me that. But I know that your faithful giving and serving has brought light and life to many others around the world, including mine.

So Thank You, Hazel.
You'll be sorely missed.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

preventing the holocaust: three things that went wrong

Are you like me? Do you have the same perennially nagging questions about WWII: How could the holocaust have been allowed to happen? And how can we prevent it from happening again? If so, read on. I've found a few answers this summer.

However, before I share this list I offer a disclaimer: I am not an expert in WWII. I have not engaged in academic research on these matters. I am, like most of you, simply curious, with a long-standing uneasiness regarding this part of human history. Even now similar narratives are playing out in other parts of the world. Will we look back in 60 years and wonder how we could have stood idly by while whole people groups are slaughtered?

1. Insidious Propaganda

The first reason I encountered for the holocaust (or Shoah) is explored in John Boyne's young adult novel, The Boy in the Striped PyjamasIn my opinion, the movie is even more achingly powerful than the book. You simply must watch it.

Although this is a work of historical fiction, it goes a long way toward answering my questions about the German populace during WWII. In this story, even the Commandant's family, living next door to a concentration camp, are unaware of its inhumane conditions. They don't realize the acrid smoke comes from burning bodies and that their own father is responsible for the daily murder of countless humans. They are shown videos that depict happy Jews, well-fed and grateful for a place to live. For the average German, it was less psychologically taxing to believe the propaganda than to push for answers, especially when those who did so risked personal harm.

2. Incredulity

I encountered another reason for the widespread devastation of the holocaust in Elie Wiesel's Night. This one gave me chills. Wiesel describes how a member of their Jewish community in Poland had been deported to a prison camp, escaped, and returned to warn the community. But nobody believed him. The horrors he described were so unthinkable that the other Jews decided he must have gone crazy. They had plenty of time to escape before they were rounded up, but they stayed put, confident that the war would soon be won and the Nazis would go home to Germany.

Ironically, I finished Wiesel's autobiography of the war years on the very day he died, old and full of years. What a gift he gave us all with his unflinching description of Nazi brutality. What a wonder he survived it! Self-deception can run very, very deep and animate the most egregious behavior imaginable. Let us not forget it.

3. Insufficient Sympathy

The final, nauseating insight is from Chaim Potok, author of My Name is Asher Lev and also of The Chosen, a fantastic novel about Jews in Brooklyn in the 1950's. He explains, "There had been public meetings in England, protests, petitions, letters—the whole machinery of democratic expression had been set in motion to impress upon the British Government the need for action [during WWII]—and not a thing was done. Everyone was sympathetic, but no one was sympathetic enough. The British let some few Jews in, and then closed their doors. America hadn't cared enough, either. No one had cared enough. The world closed its doors, and six million Jews were slaughtered. What a world! What an insane world!" (197, emphasis added)

If Potok is correct, immigration policy played a role in the mass devastation. Jews who had nowhere to go were left vulnerable to Nazi occupation, deportation, and death in a concentration camp.

Closer to home . . .

Are we believing lies about the true status of refugees?
     These are moms and dads with children who are desperate for a safe place to call home, not dangerous criminals.

Are we believing the truth when it is told? Or do we dismiss the stories as highly unlikely?
     Entire villages are being destroyed. Women are being sold as sex slaves to ISIS militants. Entire museums and ancient monuments are being blown to smithereens.

Are we sympathetic enough to do something about it?
"If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn't do it, it is sin for them." (James 4:17 NIV)

The solutions are complex because the problems are complex, but let's not turn and look away. These are our brothers and sisters.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

a granddaughter of immigrants speaks up

In 1949, my Oma and Opa were among the first European immigrants to fly to the Americas after WWII. They left behind a country ravaged by war, where the land had been raped and pillaged by years of fear and poverty. They determined to put as many miles as possible between themselves and the memory of war. They were not well educated. They were not highly skilled workers. They were young farmers, newly married, who hated farming and wanted to begin a new life. They were not "white"; they were Dutch, and their only ticket to Canada was (ironically) through the sponsorship of a Canadian farmer who gave them work. The little English they spoke was hampered by a thick brogue. They brought little wealth to contribute to the economy. Just two pair of calloused hands and a willingness to try again to build a better life for themselves and the son they would bear.

They looked no different than Germans. I wonder whether their accents ever aroused suspicion among their new neighbors. They had been victims of war brutality, risking life and limb to subvert the German advance, but only a thin border separated them from Nazi headquarters. With the same light skin and big noses, did people wonder? Did all Europeans look the same? After all, they shared a religion with Nazi Germany — Protestant Christianity.

How soon we forget.

My father crossed the Canadian border into the United States to attend Calvin College. He met and married my mother in Grand Rapids, Michigan, beginning life as a U.S. Citizen.

That makes me the granddaughter of immigrants — immigrants who fled a war-torn country to make a new beginning. They followed their married son to Colorado so they could watch me grow up. I was nurtured and raised in a close-knit Denver community whose shared origins defined us (even today, the children of my Dutch cousins and Dutch classmates are dropping off their children at Calvin Camp, the same camp we attended almost 30 years ago, and my other grandparents are living out the remainder of their years in a retirement home populated mostly by people of Dutch descent). My community successfully integrated. No one my age that I know of actually spoke Dutch. We were Americans.

But roll back the clock just a few generations and most of our families were not in the United States.

How grateful I am that my grandparents were allowed to move here — that they were not turned back at the border on the outside chance that they were Nazi sympathizers.

I'd like to extend that opportunity to others fleeing war-torn lands.
Every human being deserves a place to live and raise a family without fear for their safety.
Let's work together to make it happen.
There's a sea of refugees out there who are just as afraid of ISIS as we are.
We can start by opening our hearts to them.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Ta-Nehisi Coates: On Being Black in America

Between the World and Me is sweeping across America. When both Time magazine and Christianity Today urged me to read it, I figured I should listen! Coates frames his incisive prose as an extended letter to his teenage son on growing up black in America. Though much has changed since his own childhood, still the black body seems fragile -- dispensable to those who think they are white

Coates is a gifted writer, and his vision is clear. 

He writes, "And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us [as blacks] but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us [i.e., whites], intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do. In America, the injury is not in being born with darker skin, with fuller lips, with a broader nose, but in everything that happens after." (120)

He describes the effect of Black History month, and the emphasis on non-violent resistance as model black behavior — a behavior that to him ensures that white power continues unabated. The only authorized black heroes are the meek: "All those old photographs from the 1960s, all those films I beheld of black people prostrate before clubs and dogs, were not simply shameful, indeed were not shameful at all—they were just true. We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world." (146, emphasis added)

He leaves readers with this call to action: "And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. . . . Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all." (151, emphasis added)

Perhaps you think this is overstated. That we really are white, and that whiteness matters. 

I'll admit that until I read Coates' book, it had never occurred to me that I was anything but white. Now I find it strange that I didn't see before what a misleading term it is, a label that has drawn a line between us and them and has ushered me into privilege while others wait outside. I'm ready to move on. Ready to go full color.

Let's be clear. Humanity matters. Every one of us, no matter our skin color, our country of origin, or our religion. And as long as this doesn't translate into equitable treatment, then we must raise our voices and work for a better world.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

so you think you're white

What does that mean exactly?

If you're referring to the color of your skin, let's be honest — "white" is not the most accurate descriptor. White stands at one extreme of the color spectrum, and black at the other. Yet every human being I know falls somewhere in the middle — a rainbow of rich hues: peach and olive and tan and brown, which my set of 24 colored pencils cannot adequately represent. By labeling ourselves "black and white," we polarize, forcing everyone to one side or the other.

White is not a skin color (even for albinos).
White is not an ethnicity.
It's a way of organizing society, and it's so pervasive that it has changed what we think we are seeing.
A month ago this had not yet occurred to me.
But I'm over being white.

If it matters to you, I'm an American of Dutch descent. What little skin pigment I have has gathered itself into a thousand freckles on my arms and legs and face, defying categorization.
Above all, I'm human. Made as the image of God.
And so are my brothers and sisters across the pigment spectrum.
Every one of them is his image.

Language matters.
When we assign a label to something we place it in relation to other things.
We say what it is not.
In these challenging times, where emotions run high, let's choose our words carefully.
A word aptly spoken can open up new avenues for dialogue or it can dig trenches and build walls.

From now on, I'm human.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

an open letter to people who think they're white

Dear "White" America,

(That includes me.)

We have two options.

Option 1:

Go ahead, tell yourself you can be silent because "all lives matter."
Keep imagining that this is a fictional problem, created by the media to divide our country and boost ratings.
Excuse yourself from the conversation because Black Lives Matter is not inherently "gospel centered."
Assume that this is someone else's problem because you have no black neighbors and no black friends.

Option 2:

Resolve to understand what others call injustice.
Determine to listen to their cries so you can be part of the solution in some small way.
Decide that you are not content to carry on without friends of other colors.
Develop empathy by trying on other shoes.

Above all, look deeply into your own soul and be brutally honest — racism starts with me. It starts when I cross the street to avoid close proximity with someone who is not part of my "tribe." It starts when I value the lives lost in Paris more than the lives lost in South Sudan or Syria or New Orleans. It starts when I assume that someone has nothing to offer me that I need, simply because our skin tones don't match.

It's time to wake up.
It's time to listen to the urgent cries of our brothers and sisters.
It's time to recognize that there is no such thing as "white." White is no more an ethnicity than yellow or red or blue. "Caucasian" is no more scientifically defensible than "Aryan." Both terms (now abandoned by anthropologists) served Hitler's eugenics project nicely to separate "us" from "them," while a simple DNA test would reveal our common humanity. We are cousins, each created as God's image.

American history should make all of us wary of our own rationalizations and good intentions. Abolishing slavery, as important as that was, did little to rectify the disparaging attitudes toward those of African descent. When those in power decide that the exploitation of another human being is essential to the smooth operation of our economy, that certain people are better suited to menial labor and that they aren't worth educating, then it will take generations to undo the damage. Generations. The damage is still not undone.

When we consistently define people as either "white," "black," "Asian," "Muslim," or "Mexican," we betray our cultural blindness. When we perpetuate stereotypes rather than cultivate sensitivity, we compound the problem. When we speak of immigration as "infiltration" and refugees as dangerous, we foster the very fear that creates the hostile environment in which extremism takes root among the isolated and victimized. Let me say it plainly. Our extremism fosters theirs.

Can we move beyond this?
Let's not turn our backs now, when we're needed most, and assume there's nothing we can do about it.
We can all do something.
We can start by caring.

By reading this far, you've shown that you're open to option 2.
May I suggest a next step?

Read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me. I suspect it is the Uncle Tom's Cabin of our generation — the book that will awaken all of us who think we're white (he calls us "the Dreamers") to the plight of blacks in America. He didn't write it for us. He wrote it for his son. But if we want to be part of the solution, we need to listen in, too.

I'm no expert on dissolving racial tension or resolving the immigration crisis, but from my vantage point both are heart issues that can no longer be ignored.

A Fellow "White" American

Monday, July 4, 2016

perspective on cape perpetua

We had clamored over the volcanic rocks along with many others, their skin tones a wide range of hues and their languages sharply distinct — Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian, Japanese. Surely others, too. We were united in our fascination with the coastline and our awe as the pounding surf was thrown back by the sharp black rocks on which we stood.

Cape Perpetua (Phtoto: C Imes)
Every dozen yards or so the water had prevailed, with its persistent pounding, slicing a trench that progressively narrowed into stubborn rock. Here the waves picked up speed with a kind of focused frenzy, hurling themselves at the obsidian walls that taunted and restricted their progress.

The surge, the deep boom, the spray, and then the clatter of droplets, thrown helpless on the solid barrier, only to slide back down and drip into the churning sea.

Innumerable mussels clung fast to the hardened lava, daring the waves to pry them free, depending on the moisture and food delivered with each flailing attempt to carve stone.

Emma on the edge (Photo: C Imes)
We—my family and I, along with at least a dozen others—took our places around a deep bowl, hollowed out by the sea, which rushed to fill it through some unseen tunnel. Again and again the water would flood the enormous bowl and then be sucked out, leaving a gaping chasm encrusted with dripping mussels. Then, just as suddenly it would swell again with seawater, splashing and churning, lapping at the toes of the most foolhardy among us, eliciting gasps and shouts from all. Flush, fill, flush, fill. We watched, awestruck, as the sun slipped toward the horizon.

A few hours in the presence of such raw, unbridled power and my life feels very small indeed.
Cape Perpetua (Photo: C Imes)

Then, like the rapidly receding ocean water, we hurried to retrace our steps and climb the path to our parked car. We had just a few minutes to make it to the top of the cape for a birds' eye view of the sunset. The road wound up and up and up for two full miles, ending at the top of a coastal mountain. We rushed to the edge of the trail to look out across the expanse. I was dumbstruck.

View of the Coastline from Cape Perpetua (Photo: C Imes)
The powerful, churning waves were so far below us now that their pounding produced little more than a whisper. The sharp black rocks that held the waves at bay—merely a fringe for the heaped blanket of coastal mountains that towered above. The endless sea lay quiet and glistening beneath us as the sun slipped at last beyond the horizon.

The lesson in the crashing surf was merely a foretaste. If my life shrank beside the surge of seawater, it nearly vanished from the tip of Cape Perpetua.

And yet—

the incomprehensible mystery—

I, though infinitesimally small, have been invited to contribute, to partner with the One who designed all this.

Cape Perpetua 2016 (Photo: C Imes)
I am to cherish and share this creation with others. Still more—I get to participate in its ongoing development. I get to speak to it, engage with it, and shape it (for good or for ill).

The Creator shares with me the joy of co-creation, the dignity of service, the delight of influence.

And so I write, hoping to capture the brilliancy of a single evening in typed words so you can join me there on the cape, awestruck. You, too, are changing the world.