Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Pure, Innocent Love in the Darkest Places

I have served as a volunteer chaplain at a jail in Boston for 6 years. During that time I have seen, beyond a doubt, that the qualities of God are alive and well, living and being lived in these places which would otherwise be very dark. Lots of people, when they go to jail, find themselves face to face with the mistakes they have made and the problems they have, and want very badly to get past them.

A couple of months ago I was talking with a man, we'll call him William, who had had a very sad life so far. He described being raped at the age of 13, drug abuse, friends lost to murder, and the list truly goes on and on. He was relating to me how now that he is in jail, where he can't get any drugs, all the feelings he had been pushing away by using drugs, are coming out. He speaks sincerely, calmly, soberly.

His basic question to me was, "With all these terrible things that have happened to me, how can I be free from these intense feelings of sadness, loss, and grief?" It is easy to see, when you hear him talk, what an honest, kind man this is. So, I began to speak to him about knowing himself as God's creation, not the creation of a human history. We spoke about knowing ourselves as spiritual creations who are defined, not by what we've done humanly, but by God's love for us. I also mentioned that it is useful, when we feel miserable, to turn outward instead of inward – to seek to love and serve someone else, instead of getting stuck on ourselves.

He seemed to a little confused about what I meant, and said, "Oh, do you mean like this?" He went on to tell me this story, without pride. There is another man in this unit – call him Joe. Joe is older and had really let himself go. He was not taking care of himself – long scraggly hair, not showering, finger and toenails long and curling. He was a mess and obviously unhappy. William, feeling sorry for him, asked Joe if he could help him, clean him up. Joe said no, he didn't want to be touched. Rather than take no for an answer, William tried bargaining. In jail each detainee has their "canteen" which is extra food and supplies that one has to buy using their own, usually very limited, money. William asked Joe if he would let him clean him up, cut his finger and toenails, etc., at the cost of a certain number of food items in his canteen. At this Joe said sure.

When William told me this story, I looked over to the couch and saw Joe there, hair and nails cut, shaved, clean face, and a smile on it too. William said, "Is that what you mean by serving others?" honestly wanting to know if that's what I meant.

Tears nearly rolled from my eyes as I said "Yes, William, that's is just what I'm talking about." I quickly told him also that he was teaching me. That is riches of the heart. To desire so much to do an act of kindness to another that one buys the privilege of cleaning up a messy, smelly, surly brother.

In the following weeks as we do our Bible study it is easy to feel the calm respect that exists between Joe and William. Joe's physical cleanliness (which has been maintained!) is a testament to William's tenderness of heart – the compassion of Christ. Also, where he had been surly, Joe now joins us, timidly asking questions about passages in the Bible.

Jesus counseled us to wash one another's feet. Sometimes we think that is for "saints" to do. Seeing this story play out (and many others like it) has shown me that it isn't. Tender acts of forgiveness, generosity, and mercy are happening anywhere someone is willing. I can't imagine someone with a darker human history than William's. Yet, he has demonstrated, beyond doubting, that darkness and human history cannot overcome the desire to love, and to feel the blessing of loving another.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Making Friends with Ideas

Several years into my adventure with art I began to make pictures of a man lying on his back. The image came to me the way images most often do. The images simply comes into thought, or even feels its way into my thought. A good image comes with a feeling of fascination or love or deep meaning. Very often the image comes without my really understanding why I should make it, but with a feeling that I should.

This is what happened with this image of the man lying on his back. When it first came into my thought it came with a feeling of such love and depth that I immediately began to follow that path. Usually when this happens, I explore the image for a while, make a few paintings to figure out what it is and what it means – to learn what it has come to tell me. Then after a while it usually transforms into a different idea or peters out and a new idea takes its place.

In this case, however, the image became stronger and stronger to me as I worked on it. My fascination with it grew and my desire to explore it was undiminished. After a year I found myself just as in love with this image as I was when it first came. In that time though, I had discovered some of its identity. It told me some stories about itself, what it meant, and what it was saying. The paintings continued to come out. For another year, and then another, and even another! It was so clear to me that he was teaching me about things very spiritual - things that were beyond my knowledge. He didn’t come speaking in words, but just in feelings and ideas. And those were things I could understand way down deep.

For about 4 years I worked with this image. The man lying on his back became to me the sleeper, the dreamer, the soul, the innocent – on and on! My understanding and love for him grew. At one point I was struck by the fact that I was having a relationship with an idea. This idea had come unsolicited. Then, when I was interested in it and explored, the idea shared new ideas with me. There was back and forth, like a conversation.

This was like a bolt of lightning. Don't friends need to be… people? But here, I have a friend and it is not a person. It is an idea. From this friendship I am being made stronger, more sensitive. My life is richer for it. I feel actual real love because of it. Yet, this is relationship is not with a person.

But, as I let the idea unfold in me further, I came to the resolution that made me thank God. It was this: in fact, all my friendships are with ideas! There is not a difference between my friendship with this idea and my friendship with a person! I am simply surrounded by ideas. My interaction with ideas is what creates my life, gives me joy, causes me to progress.

So, the gift of the man lying on his back is a spiritual gift from the Infinite Good just as are my many friendships with people. They all are surprising to me. They all cause me to grow, force me to get better, show me my need of God, show me His glory, color, fascination.

We are surrounded by ideas!