A Million Little Ways

a million little ways  A Million Little Ways
by Emily P. Freeman

Sometimes a book wakes you up.  This was my experience reading Emily P. Freeman’s ‘A Million Little Ways’ subtitled, ‘Uncover the art you were made to live’.  It’s a book that touches a longing that’s hidden inside many but which can easily die at the hands of cynicism or mid-life fatigue.

Uncover the art you were made to live?  The child inside says, ‘I want to do that!’ and the adult replies ‘You’ll fail.  You won’t  manage it.  Give up.  You don’t  have the discipline or the talent or the courage’.  But as you read this book, you may find, as I did, that your heart lifts just a little bit.  Maybe I could get the paintbrush out again after all.

In her early chapter entitled ‘Desire’, Freeman put words to a feeling I’ve had countless times and am sure is shared by other Christians, particularly women:

I tend to assume if it’s something I really want, then it isn’t something I should be allowed to have.  Am I just being selfish? Greedy? Crazy?

Doesn’t that resonate?  If I’m drawn to play the piano or arrange flowers or redecorate the kitchen, aren’t I just wasting my time which could be better spent doing something more obviously servant-like?  Yes, scripture reminds us of the deceitfulness of our hearts (Jer 17:9), but Freeman dares to suggest a challenge which, rightly understood, we need to hear:

If we continue to live as though our hearts are desperately wicked, we have tragically misunderstood the work of Christ.

She invites the reader, as God does, to move with the rhythm of His Holy Spirit so that ‘maybe we don’t have to be so suspicious of desire’.

Pursuing desire is only toxic when we demand our desires be satisfied on our terms and in our timing.  As recipients of the new heart of the Spirit, our deepest desire, when honestly realised, will always lead us to God [who has] left room for creativity, innovation, and personality.  He left room in his creation for desire.

The reader is encouraged to ‘explore with abandon those things that make you come alive’ trusting that we’ll never be truly satisfied by reaching after secondary things.

There are frank sections dealing with discouragement as an artist; how to respond to the critic without and within and knowing how to recognise the pernicious drive of self-glorification but always with the balancing and biblical reminder that ‘You are God’s art’ (cf Eph 2:10) made in His image and being remade in the likeness of Christ.

Freeman recognises artistic possibility in countless ways.  It’s not just painters and writers and musicians that make art. Roadsweepers and mothers and bankers too can live out with  wholeheartedness and thankfulness the person God has made them to be to the Father’s greater glory.

I haven’t written any reviews for a couple of months.  I started telling myself that there wasn’t any point.  Everyone writes a blog these days.  ‘Vanity publishing’ I think it’s called.  Who wants to be accused of being vain?  There’s the point.   I am not to write for the opinion of any reader out there, nor because I’m any good at it, nor because it’s not yet been done, but because it’s what I have to offer; it’s me and not to share it with you really would be selfish.  So what if someone else has already written a better review.  As Freeman rather unflatteringly puts it, ‘Being a mess doesn’t disqualify you from having an influence.  And it doesn’t make you any less of a poem.’

In her last chapter ‘Create’, we read:

‘You are an image bearer and that is not about you becoming famous or important or promoted but about you becoming more fully yourself for the glory of God.  And when you are fully yourself, everyone benefits.’

If this subject touches your heart too; if you’re struggling away with your own insistent instinct towards creativity,  I would encourage you to read this affirming and honest book and to make your art too.

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‘Words, words, words!’

It’s easy to get into trouble these days, especially for what you say.  Political correctness has gone frankly bonkers to the point that if you believe that something is right or wrong you’d better not say it or you’ll get labelled  with the ‘f’ word – ‘fundamentalist’ and ostracised accordingly.

One of the things that you really can’t say any more without making people nervous is that, the Bible, that great work of 66 books of historic narrative, wisdom, letters, poetry and prophecy, is inspired.  By God.

The word ‘inspired’ is in itself inoffensive.  We’re happy to use it to praise a person’s writing or affirm his or her ideas but say that another work of literature, the Bible, is inspired, and by God to boot, and we get very jumpy and nervous.  I suppose we just don’t like what it says.

The verbal inspiration of Scripture is a doctrine I struggled with for a long time, partly because I somehow got the idea that if the Bible was the most important book in the world then I shouldn’t spend any more time reading other books, which, for a book addict was a real problem.  I’ve got over that now.

Strangely, help with this verbal inspiration thing came from the world of art – another closet passion.  The following works of art illustrate the doctrine and also shed light on its truth.

Caravaggio

Caravaggio St Matthew and the Angel

This is a painting by Caravaggio, called St Matthew and the Angel which dates around 1602. I love how humble the gospel writer, Matthew, is here in this painting, needing the Spirit to move his very hand. I think the artist found it easier to paint an angel than the Holy Spirit but the point is clear! God is inspiring the words Matthew writes.

Caravaggio

Caravaggio The Inspiration of St Matthew

This is another by Caravaggio entitled, The Inspiration of St Matthew.  Here he comes across as more confident with his pen poised in his left hand but no less attentive to God’s voice as he turns his ear to what the Spirit is saying. There’s a sense of urgency in his writing. He hasn’t even taken the trouble to sit down properly on his stool so eager is he to get God’s words down on paper.

2 Timothy 3:16 puts it like this: ‘All Scripture is God-breathed’ literally breathed out by God and 2 Peter 1:20 and 21 makes the same point:

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Peter is saying that the writers of Scripture, referred to here as ‘prophets’ which included all the Old Testament prophets, didn’t make up what they wrote themselves. ‘Prophecy never had its origin in the human will.’ Rather, God was the initiating author, speaking through what the men were writing. ‘They spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’.

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‘Out of the ordinary every day’

Eric Ravilious
An Exhibition at The Dulwich Picture Gallery

Eric  Ravilious, (‘tweed clad, fair-haired and hesitant in speech’) was a lesser known British artist and designer whose short life (1903 to 1942) ended aged 39 on active service during the height of the Second World War.     Ravilious joined the Royal Navy as one of the first Official War Artists during which time his watercolour technique blossomed.  I came across his work for the first time during a recent visit to The Dulwich Picture Gallery in London where an exhibition of his watercolours was in full swing. A previous exhibition in 2003 at the Imperial War Museum was a turning point in appreciation of the artist.

The Waterwheel

The Waterwheel

His life and works are covered in a beautifully produced catalogue of the current exhibition.  (It runs until the end of August 2015).  Written by James Russell who has already published works on Ravilious, we learn about his background, his brief career and his relationships with fellow war artists such as  Paul Nash with whose style Ravilious has much in common.

Dangerous Work at Low Tide

Dangerous Work at Low Tide

Previously known for his book illustrations, wood engravings,  murals and his designs for Wedgwood ceramics he is now attracting attention with his depictions of the more tangential activities of war and his nostalgic portrayals of an England that the war changed for ever.

The Causeway, Wiltshire Downs

The Causeway, Wiltshire Downs

In an article in The Observer on 14 May 1939, journalist Jan Gordon commented that each work ‘appear[ed] as something magic, almost mystic, distilled out of the ordinary every day.’  His ability to perceive the beauty and significance of individual moments in time is hinted at in a remark made by art critic and writer John Rothenstein.  ‘From time to time he would smile as though at something distant.’

In Eric Ravilious we find an example of how the artist perceives beauty in the seemingly mundane.  This is a gift but it is also a discipline.  The discipline of ‘standing and staring’  instead of rushing about so ‘full of care’ that we miss the visual delights laid before us.

Train Landscape

Train Landscape

In the 1940 watercolour Train Landscape there is one such example how Ravilious notices his surroundings with an almost ‘mindful’ immediacy, an achievement in itself given that the view from the window could have been missed in a moment.  The fabric of the seats is vivid enough to feel as is the leather window strap and the wooden panelling.  Outside the window the chalk figure of the white horse is almost lost from view before the rest of the wintry English landscape fills the carriage windows.  How often do I barely notice my surroundings preoccupied with the invasive lens of distracted thoughts?  A painting like this one makes me envious of the beauty that Ravilious could find in such an un-astonishing scene.  He seems to be inviting us to wake up and notice the beauty of the ordinary that surrounds us.

This beauty that Ravilious perceived and shares with us points to a greater and more perfect reality, one unmarred by the horrors of war or damaged by change.  The beauty of heaven.  Might it be that artists are experiencing a longing for this perfection whether consciously or unconsciously?

C.S. Lewis speaks powerfully of the desires that such beauty stirs in us in his essay The Weight of Glory:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located
will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.
These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.
For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
I think this is why I always feel so full of ache after leaving such exhibitions.  The longing for heaven has been stirred again, if I could only recognise it.   What I need to do is to remember not to fall into the trap of worshipping what I’ve just experienced but to remember that it is not the thing itself; only ‘news from a country’ I have yet to inhabit.

A Portrait of Nina Hamnett, The Courtauld Gallery, London

220px-Roger_Fry_Nina_Hamnett

Roger Fry (1866-1934)

This painting caught my eye on a recent visit to The Courtauld Gallery.  I was drawn by the elegance of this serious and intelligent looking person.  With her dated roll neck sweater and a-line skirt sporting what would today be considered a ‘bad’ hair cut, she nevertheless carried a beauty despite the almost skeletal bone structure of her cheekbones and wrists and the self-protective posture. Born in Wales in 1890, a Bohemian artist and writer, Nina Hamnett was not exactly what you’d call an example of godliness.  She was a flamboyantly unconventional, sexually liberal divorcee who suffered from alcoholism and died after falling out of her apartment window and being impaled on the railings below.  Her last words are said to have been: ‘Why don’t they let me die?’ To discover that this woman endured such a painful life makes the portrait that much more moving.   But what is it that makes it beautiful?  Might it be that Nina Hamnett was, as the bible puts it,  made in the image of God; was ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ and was one of the Creator’s ‘wonderful works’ (Psalm 139)? Perhaps this is what Roger Fry has unwittingly captured in this portrait.   How much more does God see in us the potential for beauty that lies behind our brokenness and shame.  How might our portrait appear the hands of the Divine Artist?