“Under the Surface” – A Painting

Jesus teaching at Lake Gennesaret

“Under the Surface” by Scott Freeman, 1×3 ft, latex paint on canvas.

A couple of weeks ago I was reading a passage from the gospel of Luke. Though I’d read it many times before, I felt as though God encouraged me with some new thoughts around the passage.

Luke 5:1-11 tells the story of Jesus calling His first disciples. He’s by a lake and the crowd is pressing in around Him. He sees a couple of boats lying on the shore. He gets into Simon’s boat and asks him to put out a little way from the shore. Then He sits down and begins teaching the people from the boat.

When Jesus had finished speaking, He says to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Simon replies, “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but I will do as You say and let down the nets.”

It says they then enclosed so many fish that their nets began to break. They called their partners in the other boat to help, and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. Simon is amazed and falls at Jesus’s feet, confessing his unworthiness. Jesus tells him, “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men.”

After getting to shore, Simon and his partners leave everything and follow Jesus.

What came to mind
After I read this I was struck with the thought of what must’ve been going on under the surface of the water while Jesus was teaching. As fantastical as it sounds, it must be that the fish in the lake were gathering around the boat where Jesus was sitting. Unseen and unsuspected by everyone above the surface, God was preparing to do something amazing.

Sometimes I feel as though I’ve “labored all night and caught nothing.” Simon and friends had labored all night, on the very same lake but without Jesus, and caught nothing. For myself, my takeaway is that I need to be with Jesus, abiding in Him, listening to Him, and being like Him. I want to hold Jesus up – not my hard work, not my personal awesomeness, not my politics, not even a religion called “Christianity,” but the person of Jesus.

Jesus, the person, said He would draw humanity to Himself. The apostles speak of God’s ultimate plan to unite things in heaven and on earth in Jesus (Eph 1:9,10; Col 1:19,20). We have each been given the unspeakable opportunity to begin walking in relational unity with Jesus right now, even in this broken age, as we look forward to seeing Him bring ultimate unity to completion in the age to come.

What matters most
Simon made no income the night before he met Jesus. Then Jesus, presumably a stranger to Simon, took up much of his morning, monopolizing his time and equipment. But Jesus paid him back, far beyond what Simon could’ve imagined. Ironically, Simon apparently then left his physical repayment lying on the beach in order to follow the transcendent call of Jesus:

…seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these [material] things will be added to you (Mt 6:33 ESV).

Much later, after the resurrection and departure of Jesus, the book of Acts describes how Simon, now called Peter, is very effectively engaged in His new occupation of “catching men.” The religious leaders are puzzled as to what to do with these fishermen:

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition (Acts 4:13,14 ESV).

May it become apparent that we, also, have been with Jesus.

The painting
I love the idea of God being at work under the surface. I was intrigued by the idea of an image depicting the crowd of people coming to Jesus on the lake shore, mirrored by the crowd of fish gathering around Jesus under the surface. The only way for me to see how it would look was to paint it.

I joined my wife and a couple of other artists, and made this painting during a worship event; the first Northern Colorado Worship and Prayer night of this new school year. These monthly worship nights are inter-church events, and everyone is welcome. You can follow this year’s schedule HERE. Live worship-painting is always a part of each event.

Jesus teaching the crowds-Scott Freeman

This painting has been sold. Thank you for your support!

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A Story About God & Art

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Last weekend, for our first time, Mollie and I attended the Resound conference in Boulder, Colorado. For us the experience was very rich, but I want to tell you about one incident in particular having to do with God, art, and community.

The Resound website describes the conference as a “gathering designed for worshippers, artisans, creatives, and God lovers.” As a worship conference emphasizing the arts, there were opportunities for expressive worshippers to participate in outside-of-the-box ways. Mollie and I both had artwork in the gallery, and there were people painting up front throughout worship sets the entire weekend. And lots of spontaneous dancing!

On the second night, I noticed something new.

Organizers had set up a couple of tables at a station in back, with sketch pads and art supplies, and there was a sign that said that people were welcome to create art. My heart and head were very excited about some ideas that had gelled for me that day and I really felt the urge to try to express them. In particular, that morning, a couple by the name of Tim and Laurie Thornton had vividly amplified the concept of slavery versus sonship, regarding our relationship to God. Initially I wanted to create an image from the Prodigal Son parable, but then felt compelled to do an image that would include a woman. I finally decided to do a version of a composition I had worked out last year, but had never painted.

The gospel of Luke describes an incident where Jesus heals a woman who had a sickness that had caused her to be bent over for eighteen years, unable to straighten up. I love the idea of this woman looking up, into the face of Jesus for the first time; of Him gently lifting her head.

When the music began, no one was at the art tables, so I took a seat and started sketching. The problem was, the light was so dim that I couldn’t really make out the colors of the pastels and pencils. I kept holding up pencils, squinting and comparing them. I was pretty sure I had a couple of dark browns, which was what I wanted, so I set to work. At least I could get the values (darks and lights) right. I didn’t like the smooth texture of the paper in the sketchbook, so I used the back of the sketchbook cover, which was heavier and had a pretty pronounced texture. I set to work as the first band played their worship set, and then I worked through the entire teaching.

Eventually, I started to feel a bit out of place, but I was too into my drawing to stop. A couple of moms had brought several small children to the other table to make art. This was a great idea as it gave them something fun to do; I just wondered if I should vacate my spot. A couple of kids started watching me so I asked them what they thought was going on in my picture.  (I seek the unpretentious feedback of children about my art whenever possible. I generally care less what adults think.) I whispered to a boy, pointing at the figure of Jesus, and asked, “do you think he looks angry?” He looked shocked that I would ask, and shook his head “no.” Score. Now I liked my drawing better. I made friends with a ridiculously cute little girl next to me with a smear of paint on her cheek. I finished my drawing and left it on the table, surrounded by several pieces of drying children’s art, and went off to worship for the second worship set, which eventually grew into a big party. Like a message in a bottle, my picture would now belong to someone else.

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This is a black and white rough of the drawing I made at the conference,
a painting I had conceived for Beggars’ Gate, but never executed.

 

At the end of the night I walked by the table and noticed that the picture was gone.

As everyone was packing up their stuff, a lovely young lady came up to me. She asked my name, and when I told her, she thanked me for leaving my drawing out on the table. She said that earlier that morning, during the worship time she had been praying and crying, bowed down under the weight of some things which she left unexplained to me. Then she told me that she felt like God had come to her, His daughter, and lifted up her head. Exactly like in my picture.

“…But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy mountain…” (Psalm 3:3,4.)

In her hand I recognized the front cover of the sketchbook. The house lights were now up, so I asked her if I could see the drawing as I was curious to see how the colors had come out. I had to smile at the picture she showed me. The colors I had thought were dark browns, earth tones, and black were actually vibrant purples, pinks, oranges, and magentas – colors I had eventually looked for, but simply could not find in the dim light. And had I known they were there, I would not have used them in the way that I did.

Don’t we often have to feel our way along in this dim half-light? We have to choose, so we do the best we can with what we have been given. If our lives are an offering to our heavenly Father, I’m guessing that at the end, when the houselights come up, we may all be pleasantly surprised by the colors we were working with all along.

Worship as Romance

This post is written to the church, but I think that non-church-goers will find it interesting and provocative as well. If you’re a person who has wondered what is the point of worship, or why some worshipers behave the way they do in worship, this may help your understanding. Personally, it has been helpful for me to understand worship in terms of romance.

What is Romance?
Of course we must start the conversation here. I make no claims to be an expert on romance, but when I got married, I thought a lot about romance because I wanted to keep my marriage from ever growing stale. As a guy, I found the whole subject to be pretty confusing. Yet I noticed that all women everywhere automatically seemed be experts on the subject. If any woman declared something to be romantic, it was so. Furthermore, women seemed to expect romance from their partners even though none of the guys I asked had a clue about how to deliver what was expected. We guessed it must have something to do with flowers. We hoped it might have something to do with sex.

Was there some secret body of knowledge on romance out there…somewhere?

I thought of a list of things that are considered to be stereotypically romantic:

Flowers…chocolate…dressing up…music…slow dancing…a candlelight dinner with a white tablecloth…poetry. But there seemed to be no consistent rules. Early in our marriage Mollie once told me that she thought a picnic we’d had was romantic. But it wasn’t even a very nice picnic. I was actually kind of embarrassed the whole time. First of all, we were poor art students. Then, it started raining, so we had to have our picnic under an overpass in midtown Kansas City. There was a big graffiti scrawl on the concrete wall behind us that said, ”CAROL IS A LESBIAN,” and I was concerned that we might get mugged at any moment. I guess I was pretty stoked that I had a wife who thought this was romantic, but what was the common thread? From the picnic I learned that it didn’t necessarily have to do with money, or sunshine and bunnies, or an exotic location. (But romance could involve an exotic location.) What’s a clueless guy to do?

Well…I have the answer! Go ahead – test my definition! Tell me any romantic act you have ever heard of, and it will fit my definition; everything from hiring a skywriter to write a lover’s name in the sky, to a simple candlelit meal at home without the kids. There is a common thread. Here it is:

Romance is an expression of loving, thoughtful, focused attention on one’s lover. Within those parameters, almost anything can be romantic.

(My female readers are now saying, “Duh.”)

Do you see how every example listed above fits? If you go out of your way to unexpectedly pick up flowers for your lover, (assuming your lover likes flowers,) do you see how this says, “I thought about you, and I cared enough to do something about it”? Our lame picnic, poor and simple though it was, began with thoughtful preparation and culminated in an afternoon of focused attention, (with a little spontaneity thrown in.) Romance has less to do with the specific material gift or activity than with the thought and intentionality of expressing one’s love.

Allow me to elaborate on the definition:

“Romance is an expression…
If it is not expressed, it’s not romantic. It might be a great idea, it might be loving feelings, but it mustn’t stop there. If you write your lover a note expressing your love, but you never give her the note, that’s not romantic. This means that romance involves making oneself vulnerable; but that’s part of the adventure of love.

…of loving, thoughtful, focused attention…
Romance is about transcendence, meaning, going beyond the everyday, ordinary, busyness of life. Yes, nice restaurants do in fact have electricity; the white tablecloths and candles are there to help to create a transcendent atmosphere. Romantic restaurants do not have a big freaking TV screen with a football game playing. It’s the same with dressing up; it says, “You are worth taking the time to get cleaned up for.” Dressing beyond the ordinary makes the statement that your lover is special to you. The point is focused attention. Therefore, talking to a third party or playing games on your phone during a date is not romantic.

Mollie inadvertently brought the idea of focused attention into focus for me early in our marriage. One Saturday, we’d been running errands together for a couple of hours, doing our necessary stuff. On the way home she said something like, “We should spend some time together. I feel like I haven’t seen you in a while.” I cocked my head, puzzled, seeing as we’d just spent 3 hours together. But we had been focused together on our errands. She was talking about set-apart, focused attention on each other. Running errands together is better than nothing, but a romantic relationship must at times transcend the daily stuff of life.

…on one’s lover.
At the risk of stating the obvious, romantic expression demonstrates an intimate knowledge of one’s lover, and that’s part of what makes it romantic. It stems from thoughts of the specific person, not generic techniques from a book, or a demonstration of how cool you are. If your lover is allergic to flowers, it’s not romantic to give her flowers. If she’s trying to lose weight, she might not consider a big box of chocolates to be a thoughtful gift. If the skywriter (who is really a proxy for you,) misspells her name in the sky, that’s not ideal. Love, romantic or otherwise, by definition is selflessness. Narcissism is at odds with romance. The power of love is selflessness.

What does any of this have to do with worship?
Possibly nothing, especially if you have a conception of Christianity that stems from religious tradition. However, if you place the authority of the Bible above human religious tradition, you will see parallels between romance and worship. To begin with, the Bible describes a relational Creator who desires relationship with us, and who has demonstrated His love for us by restoring communion through Jesus. In fact both Israel and the church are described as a bride (Isa 61:10; 62:4,5; Eph 5:31,32.) Jesus referred to Himself as a Bridegroom (Mat 9:15; Mk 2:19; Lk 5:34.)

Consider again the idea of transcendence – meaning, that which goes beyond our everyday, ordinary experience. I’ve previously written about how the arts speak the language of transcendence. I would now add that worship is an area of transcendence in exactly the same ways that romance is, and we see this transcendence created through the arts in exactly the same ways.

Consider our same list of stereotypical romantic trappings: flowers…chocolate…dressing up… dancing…music…a candlelight dinner with a white tablecloth…poetry. Excluding chocolate, can we not all say we’ve seen all of these things in a church? Can we not think of the communion table as the candlelit dinner with a white tablecloth – especially if we recall Jesus the Bridegroom’s words, “Do this in remembrance of me”? As a younger man, in my search for pure authenticity in my pursuit of God, I tended to reject these things as “religious trappings.” I saw the candles, the darkened sanctuary, incense, robes, dressing up, stained glass, and music as an attempt to “conjure up” God; perhaps even a substitute for the Real Thing. I still suppose this may be true for some people.

But now I see that these things can also be romantic expressions of love toward God.

In the same way that a lover makes himself presentable, and sets the table and lights the candles in anticipation of a set-apart, transcendent evening with the object of his affection, so the church can approach God in worship in this way. As with a romantic human relationship, such expression toward God begins with a singularly devoted heart. In fact, any romantic expression, be it directed toward God or people, is empty without a loving heart behind it. God has never valued religion over relationship:

“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings” ( – the prophet Hosea 6:6.)

“You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” ( – Jesus, Matt 15:8,9.)

In the same way that one’s loving, romantic expression must aim to satisfy the desires of a specific lover, so our worship must aim to satisfy the desires of our Creator, who is the lover of our souls. Whether we worship underground, in a humble house of worship, or in a lavish cathedral; whether our worship is private, corporate, spontaneous, or liturgical and ritualistic, Jesus has told us what the Father desires in worship:

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I say to you, ‘You must be born again’…The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 3:6,7; 4:23, 24.)

I suspect that God created the unity in diversity of monogamous marriage, not only to reflect His nature, but also to give us a concrete help in understanding our “marriage relationship” with Him. This relationship, after all, must be the primary one, since it is eternal, while our human marriages will come to an end (Eph 5:31,32; Matt 22:29-32.)

Did I Mention That My Wife is a Great Painter?

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“All About the Ladder”
36×36 inches, Mollie Walker Freeman

Living an unconventional life has little merit in and of itself; for example, choosing to measure your wealth by the number of cats in your house. But my wife is unconventional in all the right ways. She has the ability to look at the world and see options that are outside of the box. If such an option seems right to her she is willing and strong enough to run with it, even though it may go against cultural (or sub-cultural) expectations.

After moving from Iowa to Georgia as a teen, she tested out of high school 2 years early after dropping out, because she found conditions at her new school to be regressive, both in terms of academics and race relations. Then she enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute. She started out majoring in the ceramics department, but her instructors urged her to transfer to painting, since she kept making platters and painting on them. Eventually Mollie and I studied under the same painting instructor, Wilbur Niewald, who was a big influence on both of us. Of course, over the years our work has taken divergent directions, though we generally like the same artists, and in many ways share a similar artistic vision.

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Mollie is perhaps best known for her paintings of dancers in motion. Some of my favs:
Left – “Awake My Soul”, 24×36 inches; Middle – “Exult”, 36×48 inches; Right – “Joy Dance”, 24×36 inches

We’ve had five children together, which caused both of us to mostly shelve painting for a number of years. I pursued graphic design and illustration work in an attempt to bring in a regular income. Eventually I landed a decent job as an artist at Hallmark Cards. Mollie, in her usual outside-of-the-box way, home schooled our kids for several years, which we believe was a great investment in our children. However our inner city neighborhood seemed like a war zone at times, and we began praying and looking for an opportunity to relocate. Also, Independently of each other, we both eventually felt it was time to start painting again. During our last couple of years in Kansas City, several other interests crystallized for both of us as well, including a great interest in the Hebrew roots of our faith, dance as an art form, and a desire to incorporate the arts into worship. When Hallmark went through a restructuring, I was downsized, and we leapt at the chance to move to Colorado to attempt a living as full time artists.

We’ve been here some 12 years now, and it has been a wild roller coaster ride. In many ways, everything we had hoped to do when we moved here has come to pass, except that we didn’t intend to live in grinding poverty for so long. Many dear friends have helped us through the many low spots, for which we are very grateful. Mollie became quite adept at stretching money, squeezing water from a stone, and keeping several plates in the air without dropping any. Most recently, at nearly age 50, she went back to school and received certification as a holistic health coach from the Institute of Integrated Nutrition (IIN) based in Manhattan, New York. This coincides with another longstanding interest of hers, though she plans to continue her painting as well.

A few years ago, outside-of-the-box Mollie developed a process and technique using re-purposed house paint, and this is now her primary medium. She doesn’t like the stiffness of acrylic paint, and she likes the fact that she can get leftover house paint for free at the recycle center. So it’s actually a very green medium, (even when it’s red, yellow, or blue.) She works on a surface heavily textured with prior layers of paint. When our kids were smaller, at times she would have one of them painting next to her with the understanding that she would paint over their painting later. This was cuter than snot, and I wish I had gotten a picture of it.

People sometimes ask if we ever work on paintings together. Not really. Since we each approach painting quite differently now, that would probably be an exercise in frustration. We definitely critique each other’s work though, which makes us both better painters, and we are often in the studio together. She drives me crazy because she leaves her brushes standing in the paint water overnight, and she sings over the music; and I drive her crazy because I take over the whole studio so that there’s no place to even sit. She has this idea that she wants to paint enormous canvases, and I apparently have a practical bent that wants to know how we will transport them since they won’t fit in our van.

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Worship Painting: Left – “Tree of Life”, 36×36 inches; Right – “Storm”, 18×24 inches

A couple of weekends a month Mollie does something called “worship painting” at Rez Church, a local church known for its expressive worship. This means that she shows up with a blank canvas, (in her case a heavily textured one.) Then she executes a painting during the worship time. This is simply one more avenue by which worshipers may connect with God. Sometimes Mollie doesn’t know what she will paint before she arrives. Sometimes she prays for inspiration beforehand, and arrives with an image in mind, or perhaps a color feel. Often she is pleased to find that her painting speaks to someone in the congregation quite specifically.

Mollie is a lover of God above all else, and I love that about her. She has read the Bible completely through each year for the past 17 years or so. It has been sheer joy to have a life partner who is so in sync with me on so many levels, yet, like all good friends, she doesn’t tell me only what I want to hear. She is full of wisdom, insight, and character. She’s a disciplined, hard worker without being an unrelenting psycho.  It has not been easy for us to remain committed to work as fine artists in a prolonged economic downturn, but she has “learned the secrets of the Fire Swamp.” (Not that we prefer to live there.) We’ve often said things would’ve been easier had one of us been a doctor or a lawyer; except that neither of us wanted to be the doctor or lawyer. So my guess is we’ll keep doing this for as long as we can.

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Commissioned work by Molle Walker Freeman
Left – “Much Forgiven”, 16×20 inches; Right – “One Thing”, 16×20 inches

Mollie has a better grasp of the English language than I do. Sometimes when she unexpectedly does something I like, I’ll say, “Wow. You’re, like, a dream wife!” She will always smile and correct me, “No, I am a dream wife.” So she is.

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Left – Mollie’s painting of me: “My Painter”, 24×24 inches,oil
Right – My painting of Mollie: “Dread Head”, 12×16 inches, oil

You can read Mollie’s blogs, (which are less lengthy than mine,) at:
http://www.MollieSong.wordpress.com  (health)
http://www.repurposefulpainter.com (art)