Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Leap of Faith: Who We Become, From Small Beginnings

"Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin."
 -Zechariah 4:10

I sometimes have a hard time with small beginnings. 

When it comes to creative ideas, visual ideas for paintings, they happen pretty fully-formed and in a flash: I sit down to paint when inspiration has struck and I know what I'm going to create. Maybe not what it looks like exactly from start to finish, but I know the scene, in general. Enough to get me going and see the process through to the end, because I see what that end will look like before I embark on the process.
I'll see a scene: a little cabin the woods. In the foreground, the ferns and plants that I just saw on my trip to Washington. The little pines behind the cabin I stayed in. An image that mimics something I just experienced- but also hints at something more idyllic that I want in the future and am working towards, meditating on, not forgetting.

In this way art is a little like a diary: if I look back on what I painted years ago and compare it to now, I see such huge change. Content, style, composition, theme- it's all different. I'm all different.

In this way art is a little like a metaphor for life, too: only when I reflect, look back, do I see the progress, the change. Sometimes in the moment, we forget that we actually are going somewhere, being formed into something, perhaps. That this moment is like an act in a play or a scene in a story, really: it's advancing the plot to something next. Time is inevitably always moving forward and we are always changing, and things are always connecting- even if we never think about it. 

And sometimes we go through seasons where we look back and we say, 'where did I go? What happened?' Maybe we've become lost or sad, and we've gotten far from ourselves, forgotten ourselves, in a way. Maybe looking back brings us feelings of disappointment, failure, anxiety, fear, or chaos.

And sometimes we go though seasons were we look back and we say, 'I can't believe how far I've come.' Here we feel feelings of a humble sense of accomplishment, happiness, wholeness, and love. Maybe we stand peacefully in the reality that a storm we never thought would pass has passed, or a victory we never thought would be ours finally is.
Like everybody, I've gone through both of these seasons (and fully anticipate life to continue in this way): in peaks and valleys. I see this, when I reflect: that what we see- of ourselves and anything or any one else- in this particular moment is but a glimpse of who we are becoming, and we will at various times either meet the task of moving forward with fear or excitement, depending on what we learn from our failures and our successes.

But sometimes, even knowing this, I still have a hard time with small beginnings. 

With a painting on a 9x11 inch piece of paper, they're not so bad: I know what I'm going to make, I know I'll make a hundred easily fixable mistakes and correct them with more paint or a different line. I know if I do get stuck I can step away, nothing at stake, and try again later. I know that the worst thing that can happen (and it happens pretty often) is that I work on something for a few hours or days that I just don't like or can't get to be what I want it to be, and I throw it away.

A minor defeat in the big scheme of things.
But what about small beginnings outside of a 9x11 inch piece of paper? The beginning, maybe, of starting to build what I want to be an entire life of making art. 

The ratio of 'my ability to paint for a few hours' to 'the size of a piece of paper' feels a lot more balanced (and conquerable) than the ratio of 'my ability to trust myself as an artist over a lifetime' to 'the size of my life.'

And that's kind of how it is with every decision that challenges us and changes us for the better. In the words of C.S. Lewis, 'faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.' You kind of feel what you want, or who you want to be, but you need something like faith to get it, because it simply isn't yours yet.

Maybe it's moving to a new city. Maybe we're interested in pursuing a new relationship. Maybe it's changing careers, starting a business, entering a marriage, redirecting the ultimate course of our life, changing our values, wants, or ultimate desires. Maybe we're just dropping old habits and focusing on new ones, or getting re-acquainted with a part of our hearts, our true selves, that we haven't seen in a while.

These are all small beginnings- and it's been my experience that they all (after the struggle, the fear, the chaos, the doubt, and the desire to give up completely, of course) birth beautiful things.

This is what I love about faith: it is a mentality that tells us 'you know you want more - more security, more knowing, more safety net, more certainty- from small beginnings than they can ever possibly give you. That's a given. 

So start anyway.
Start- and commit- despite fear, doubt, worry, what-ifs. Don't want all your proofs and your answers before the right questions have even been asked. See what it means to live in possibility, in creativity. See what it means to build a life that doesn't depend on you thinking you can work out your whole story from beginning to end. Learn what it means- every single day you wake up- to surrender, and actually be fully alive to the possibility that your life is being guided if you trust and reach out for that hand more than you trust and reach out to your own ability to figure out things that haven't even happened to you yet.'

I have seen time and time again (only in looking back, of course) that every time I was most terrified to do something new, something risky, something brave, I was also- at a time much later than I, in my limited human perception of time and gratification, could see- most greatly rewarded.

Sometimes it looked like going to something: a new adventure, a new experience. And sometimes it even looked like going away: stepping back from a relationship, or a long-lived friendship. In either case, the pull in a new, unfamiliar direction often feels like terror. 

But it also, somewhere, somehow, feels like rebirth, like something new is about to emerge.

And that push-and-pull between 'I want to do this' and 'I don't know how to do this' is re-emerging theme in all of our lives all of the time. Without a sense of faith, it is experience that tends to dictate, for many people, what can and can't be done, what is and isn't possible.
It's common. I never wanted to get married because my parents' marriage didn't work. I never wanted to travel because I was never allowed to be independent. I never wanted children because I didn't have perfect childhood. We hear these things a lot. 

I never wanted to be expressive or open (or honest, genuine, free, myself) because the adults around me growing up didn't either, and I sensed that. I learned innately, almost 'without learning,' that image was more valuable- for acceptance, for survival, for 'love'- than authenticity, than just being whoever you really and truly were. And this isn't an uncommon message to see reinforced around us every day.

But today, none of these things are truths for me at all. I have learned to recognize them as merely things I have believed.

These are all over-simplifications of deeper, longer stories, of course, but they point to something we all know well: fear. We get told, in many ways, that the world is a certain way- and we believe it. And we often seek ways to justify or explain why that is, which isn't necessarily the same thing as seeking truth. I look at myself today and I almost laugh at the short-sightedness and negativity of these 'truths' I believed about the world I was worthy of, and capable of. 
Living in faith is about living beyond the mind, the self; trusting that my experiences at the hands of others will not be my experiences in the hands of God. 

Which means it's up to me to continually place myself in the hands of God.

Faith leads me on that journey all the time. Our Maker delights to see us conform to the mold He made us in- and I have found that the way to know what that mold looks like is to let yourself feel it. What do you want to do? What does your heart crave? What can you not live without? 

What do you feel to be true about yourself if the voices of no one else were crowding those feelings out?

Authentic faith, in my experience, has been equal parts finding Christ and finding myself- and then discovering that Christ is much, much, much bigger. If true egoless-ness is what we're after, and true selflessness is what we want spiritually and literally, then why have an aversion to the possibility of a bigger-than-myself God whose Son and Word- if I study them diligently and question them humbly-may offer some insight as to what meaning my life is supposed to have, and what purpose I am supposed to fill? 

If I don't even know what I am creatively capable of, why would I be proud enough to deny reliance on a God who is capable of infinitely more? The more deeply I began (however slowly) to believe in Him, the more deeply I began to believe in myself.
In faith, as in life, I'm comfortable saying, 'I don't know.' But that's because I'm also comfortable with the idea that knowing is a closed system. We can't actually progress when all we want is to know something for sure- the very desire, whether it's pointed at God or something else, comes from a need for control, and that is the opposite of faith, and creativity. 

Faith isn't a practice we have to be vocal about, it's a practice we have to practice. Being a Christian is not something I do, it's something I am. It is a set of principles, the underlying reason, behind every other action I take in this world: a love and hunger primarily for knowing God.

It's not a journey I'd be embarking on if I expected an immediate answer to the question, 'is there a God?' From what I had heard about God from religion, I said, for a long time, no. From what I have learned about God from experience and faith, my answer is obviously different. Love doesn't ask for proof, and faith is an experience of love. 

There are a lot of metaphors in life that could serve as an example of what it means to watch something small grow into something bigger: spiritual faith is one of them, but so is faith in myself and my capabilities. And my faith in others too, in people I've seen grow, change, and heal. 

Big things like a body of art work, certain relationships, and setting and achieving goals; little things like deepening a yoga pose or running a half marathon- all these things have begun as tiny seeds, little ideas that needed a first step, and grown to bear fruit and end results. And when I look at it all, I realize that a concept of faith is probably one of the most helpful and innovative things a person could have. It takes time, and so it takes patience- but in the end anything we do that begins as a leap of faith teaches us about who really we are.

And when we start to know that, we may be inspired to learn who God is. 
And even before that, the leaps of faith in our lives always wind up becoming departure points for better things we never saw coming. I think the reality is that if we sense we need a change, no matter what it looks like to other people, it's probably our heart's way of telling us, very simply, we do

I sometimes have a hard time with small beginnings. 

Hard, but not impossible.

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