An Invented Life
CCS grad Terrie Chedore reflects on her calling as a diaconal artist…
“What are you doing these days?” That was the question everyone was asking at World DIAKONIA 2017. What an amazing event! About 450 women and men from over 31 countries! I wasn’t sure how well I would fit in because I am one of those diaconal folk who serve on the edge of the church. That was not a problem. I met other diaconal folk who are also doing new things and describing themselves with titles like ‘spiritual animator,’ ‘arts and environment coordinator,’ and ‘healing facilitator.’ I call myself a ‘diaconal artist.’ When I explained what that meant to me, one woman suggested that I live ‘an invented life.’ Yes, perhaps that is true.
For the past two years I have been working with a book by Troy Bronsink called “Drawn In: A creative Process for Artists, Activists and Jesus Followers.” He says:
“Consider how time, space, and matter are gifts to be invested in this creative enterprise as God’s commissioned artist. Trust what resonates. Scrap what seems ill fitting for your time or context. Listen for how the whole is part of God’s All-in-All. Make a studio of your life!” (Bronsink, Kindle location 2311).
Bronsink’s call to, ‘make a studio of your life as God’s commissioned artist’ has become my mantra. I have let go of things that no longer fit in my life and am investing daily in the gifts of time, space and matter. Stepping out in faith, trusting that something will come requires living within a balance of ambiguity and serendipity. When asked what a diaconal artist does, I used to say, “I don’t know. I’m making it up as I go along.” Now, as I make my life a studio for God’s work, I use every opportunity to utilize art activities as I engage with people both inside and outside the church.
One of my current practices is to create a new piece of artwork whenever I am invited to lead worship. During the process of gathering the readings, prayers and hymns for the bulletin, an image or idea arises fairly quickly. The artwork and the sermon develop simultaneously. As the bulletin comes together, I begin to paint, pausing to do research on both the artwork and the scripture. In this way, the painting informs the sermon; and the sermon informs the artwork. The two evolve together.
Alternating between the two creative acts of writing and painting keeps the work flowing. When I find myself struggling for words, I leave my notes and begin to paint. When the painting hits a snag and I’m unsure what to do next, I turn back to the written word. The process of creating the artwork helps me to articulate my understanding of the scripture while the practice of meditating on the word allows the painting to emerge. When the meaning of the reading collides with the evolving artwork, there is mystery and wonder and awe. The result is a unique image for the congregation to use as a meditative piece during worship.
Here is one example of how that works. The scripture readings for the week were Genesis 21:8-21 — the story of Hagar and Ishmael, and Matthew 10:24-39 — Jesus’ challenging message of discipleship.
I began the process with this verse:
Genesis 21:14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. (NRSV)
I have always struggled with the story of Hagar and Ishmael. Read from a Postcolonial perspective, the passage is ripe with issues of infertility, spousal abuse, polygamy, infidelity, patriarchy, child abuse, and human rights, to name a few. There is opportunity for discussion around the treatment of foreigners, refugees, sanctuary, etc. One might ask, Why is this child meaningless, a throw-away? And yet I am well aware that, in today’s world, there are still those who are willing to toss aside the “other.” In the Genesis Passage, the defining verse for me was 17, “God heard the cries of the child.”
I usually create my own artwork but in this case I chose to copy Michelangelo’s painting of the Prophet Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Copying a master artist is a good way to grow artistically, but the exercise also stretches my imagination as I journey with the scriptures. Michelangelo understood God through the human body and was on a lifelong search for the perfection of God in the human form. He found the act of creating to be a form of salvation – a way to heal and connect with God. Seeking God in this way is a source of deep satisfaction. And so, in my process of ‘painting for sermon,’ both Michelangelo and the prophet Isaiah were nudging me.
Michelangelo’s painting depicts Isaiah meditating on the word when he hears the cry of the omnipresent ‘God child.’ He turns his head to listen. His right hand marks the page in the book while his left hand points toward the God child. This image, frozen in time, is a constant reminder for us to reflect on the meaning of the word while we open our ears to hear the cries of the world.
Although the Isaiah text was not part of the readings for the week, his words, echoed in my mind. “Therefore the Lord God will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son,’ (Isaiah 7:14). ‘For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us’ (9:6); and the promise, ‘Do not fear, for I am with you (41:10).’
The story of Hagar and Ishmael hold these words in tension with the Christian story: two different children — both sons, both born of a virgin, both given specific names . . . one rejected by his father, the other embraced … and both were raised up by God.
The author of Genesis tells us that God heard the voice of the boy. The focus is not on the mother; the focus is on the child. Although an angel of God speaks to Hagar, it is only to give her courage to save the child. The angel asks what is troubling her, saying, “Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for [God] will make a great nation of him (17;18).”
The lectionary pairs the story of Hagar and Ishmael with the jarring message from Jesus that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34-36). This is a troubling passage for us because it challenges our understanding of Jesus as a peacemaker. The author of Matthew is writing about the predicament and problems of his own community. Tensions are high following the destruction of the Temple. Families are pitted one against the other amid the conflict and instability over which laws and whose interpretation they should follow. We only need to look at what is happening in the United States to recognize how quickly differing Christian perspectives can disrupt society.
Our identity as disciples of Christ means we share a calling and a purpose not always welcomed by this world. Sometimes it may bring us into conflict with those in our homes, congregations, or neighbourhoods. Nevertheless, it is our task to listen for and respond to the voices of the weakest in our society. Jesus calls all Christians to a ministry of hospitality and welcome, a ministry of caring and compassion, a ministry of wisdom and education, and a ministry of sharing of food and water and wealth despite all the turmoil this might create in our lives, Jesus’ message to his disciples – in his time and in ours – is clear: stay strong; do not be afraid. Herein lies the light of the Christian journey, the promise that God is always with us. We are not alone if we put God first.
About halfway through the process, the parallels between the painting and the sermon became apparent. The highlights of the painting (the bright white areas) were already on the canvas. The middle tones were beginning to suggest fullness in the fabric. It was only as I applied the darkest darks that the body of Isaiah took form beneath the colourful tunic. In a similar way, the sermon highlights the scripture by considering how those words were used in the past and how they relate to us today. The light and promise of the Good News only come to fullness when we explore the darkest areas of our lives.
Without the darkness of the shadows, we would not be able to see the shape of the legs in this painting. In the same way, without looking into the darkness of society and of our own life stories, we would not be able to understand the power of the gospel message.
As I ponder the process from the perspective of the diaconal artist, I am aware that the painting isn’t the point; nor is the sermon. It is both/and. Together the words and the artwork point toward the power of the light and the importance of trusting that Spirit will be present.
Painting for sermons is only a small part of my “invented life” as a diaconal artist. Besides leading monthly worship services, I teach art classes, create banners, offer live demos, facilitate ‘Art in An Hour’ events, and participate in numerous art exhibits. Although practice pieces like the Prophet Isaiah are not eligible for public display because they are not originals, most of my worship paintings have been entered into juried exhibits for galleries and art shows. These activities provide a secular venue for the images where conversations about Spirit and God happen spontaneously. I am freed to talk with people about diakonia and my work as God’s commissioned artist.
Terrie is a visual artist, a 2010 CCS grad, and a Licensed lay Worship Leader in Seaway Valley Presbytery (M&O Conference). She lives and works in the community of Iroquois, Ontario as a ‘diaconal artist.’ Her work can be viewed here: www.tjchedore.ca