Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Above all Rewards

Lately I've had little time to make much personal art because of so many projects in the pipeline (mostly illustrations that will accompany a Christmas devotional due this Fall, which I am super excited and by no means complaining about!).

But I'm wanting to make sure that I try to take some personal time to write, process, and create out of love and observation. Being an artist is a funny phenomenon to me: it is (or has finally finally finally become) a means by which to make a living, but also something that is more like a perspective, or a lens, or part of who I am. 

A have to. Something that keeps my soul alive.

Not my ultimate identity, by any means, but definitely a way. A way of perceiving. Something I was doing long before I got paid, commissioned, or in any other way acknowledged for doing it, because it pertains not only to what I 'do,' but who I 'am.'

And a thing only lives as long as we're feeding it. Bad habits and good ones; who want to be, and who we don't. I create- write, draw, think, express- because it really is important.

I remember during previous seasons of my life- where creating wasn't something I did with any notoriety (or much intense passion, or confidence)- feeling (I guess I should be frank) absolutely horrible about myself. And my life. It was just hard in beginning. Very hard.
We tend to keep track of things in years, don't we? "It's been a year since such-and-such happened." "That was five years ago." etc. etc. I started to really listen to the voice that told me to be an artist once I returned from a volunteer trip to Peru in June of 2013- that's when I started really realizing how lucky I was to have this life, and I wanted to make the most of it (in a nutshell). 

And I remember in April of 2014, precisely one year after the date I left for that life-changing trip, sitting in the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant with my mom, in her car, crying my eyes out because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

That was two years ago. It seems like another lifetime.

I had chosen at that point to focus a lot on making art and a little (maybe 20-30 hours a week) making a conventional living: spending time in a place of work and making a steady paycheck. I had just found a second job at that point- out of necessity, not necessarily love- although it did turn out to be a huge growth period and stepping stone for me, in hindsight, of course.

But if it were up to me, I wouldn't have been crying in my mom's car in the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant at 26, in need of a second job to pay my rent, wondering how- or if- I was going to be able to reconcile 'the very strong pull I felt to follow a dream and become an artist' and 'the necessity of paying rent and living a stable life.'

If it were up to me, I would have had the artistic ability, groundwork, confidence, vision, and money to be an artist right then and there. Of course. I had no idea how a year before that point, life could go from feeling so awesome, purposeful, and full of adventure- to me being so defeated and feeling so aimless and empty.  

But sometimes, that is how life goes.
I couldn't tell then, but here's what I've learned was really happening: I was breaking. 

Or God was breaking me, taking my every security- a dependence on money, the relationship I was most recently in which had since dissolved, the family structure (aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents) that I had grown up with which had by then also dissolved because of unresolved conflict. 

Two years ago, these were the worst things that could possibly have been happening. Now, they are apologetically and totally non-regrettably the greatest gifts of a lifetime. Funny how God works like that. 

A the time, the weight of loss felt literally impossibly heavy. Everything I thought was for sure, actually wasn't. I had none of the familiarity I used to have. I think I was anxious and absorbed almost every day of my life back then, worried about how things were going to work out because so much seemed to be changing. Weirdly and silently, I was actually living in a state of grief, mourning. 

(And yet, something new was being born.)

Many, many times I wanted to run back to security, however unhealthy. Bad relationships. Bad coping mechanisms. Bad thoughts that yielded bad self-perception, even. I even felt bad- and mostly stupid, really- for making art. I went back and forth between the thoughts, 'feed this dream, and keep believing, and chase it,' and 'put it away, lock it up, pretend it doesn't exist, and start building a normal existence, where you're comfortable.' I felt a never-before-felt sense of love and peace when I was making art- it felt so right. But then outside of those moments, it felt impossible: I felt anger and discontent because I didn't see then how that life could sustain me- and how and if art would love me that much back. 

It is truly strange that pure, simple, uncalculated love for and of something feels- to our fleshly, modern, human minds- so odd. And yet also like the greatest peace in the world.
I wish I could say I've always been the hopeful dreamer and romantic I am today, and that the decision to make art, share it, and let it take me places was a totally easy and comfortable choice. But it wasn't. It was actually probably the hardest, most counter-intuitive decision of my life. Day by day- hour by hour, even- it sometimes actually hurt to choose.

Something happens at the end of your rope though, I learned. God began where I ended. I never understood what people meant when they said things like, 'you never know that God is all you need until God is all you have'- because I had other things. Despite some things seeming to fall apart or be cloudy and unsure at that time in my life, I did have a very centering, healthy yoga practice. I meditated. I had my great college education, and enough intelligence to read, learn, be self-aware, and try to evolve, try to get better.

Because so much was changing and unsure at that time, because I was trying to embark on a new, better life, looking for answers and change, I was actively looking for some sense of happiness.

And while I was busy pursuing my happiness, God was pursuing me. 

And something different happens to your life when you realize this happening. Nothing I could have found or done on my own was as valuable as learning to see- and tune obediently into- a higher-than-all-that sense of purpose and love.

Life with God isn't about what you have or what you can do or how smart you are. Life with God is about God. Which sometimes doesn't turn out to be an awesome idea until yours isn't going so well.
Even though life felt really downright hurtful at some points; and even though I felt thrown for a loop, unsuccessful, and unstable at certain points; even though I felt like giving up a lot; even though I sometimes felt angry when I knew in my heart I wanted to feel healed- and I didn't yet have the patience to surrender and let it happen- I felt, as I sought God back (however timidly I could feel Him, way back in the beginning of faith), that if the dream was in my heart, then the dream would come to be. It was a truth. I knew, I just needed to trust.

I've since learned that the Bible is full of stories and virtues like this: stories of people waiting, waiting for a purpose to be fulfilled and a dream- goal, character trait, even life- to come to fruition. These virtues feel like truth because they are, in a very real way: we all know what it feels like to feel that voice within that says, 'leave comfort for glory. Don't settle. Love something more than you love your self, your own safe, comfortable little life. You can't love that the most in this world: your comfort and your happiness- even to have it wouldn't be enough.

Seek more. Loosen the grip on your the life you have now so you can step into the one that's waiting for you. Love higher.'

It is truly strange that pure, simple, uncalculated love for and of something feels- to our fleshly, modern, human minds- so odd. And yet also like the greatest peace in the world.

I learned in the timid, I-can't-believe-I'm-trusting-this moments of life two years ago, embarking on faith, that patience- supplemented by prayer and seeking God as fiercely back as He was seeking me- would be more essential than anything going forward. I admit: I failed a lot. I fell short of consistent faithfulness to God. It was and still is difficult to say the opposite of what we've so often been told: thy will be donenot my ego's.

It's hard to leave comfort, pleasure, habit; hard to imagine a better way when you only know the habitual one. Hard to say, 'I'm giving up what feels most satisfying now for what I know- out of conviction and vision- will increase ultimate peace and satisfaction in my future. For me and those I have the opportunity to love.' Hard, but worth it.

To become an artist, I needed a path. For a better life than I could see, a needed a brighter light leading the way than I had.
It's something I hadn't thought to look for before. I'd heard of self-love of course- and I was working on that. I do think we all should work on that. But I have also learned that there is something (and it is nothing short of miraculous) about being loved: being seen, being valued, being pursued.

This is the template for the way God loves us. It's pure, it's eternal, and it's not going anywhere- it never did, even for all those years when I failed to run to it. That consistency we're all looking for? I missed it at first. That anchor in the storm that we sense we should have? 

That firm ground to stand on. That authentic path in life. That reason we were born, that we're here at all. That peace I was trying to get from circumstance, from doing things, from thinking certain things- it turns out that peace is not in me at all.

It is in God. It is God. 

It is truly strange that pure, simple, uncalculated love for and of something feels- to our fleshly, modern, human mind- so odd. And yet also like the greatest peace in the world.

Tolkien said, "the praise of the praiseworthy is above all rewards." There is something undeniably powerful about knowing you are loved, wanted, and desired- by someone with a character of respect, love, wisdom, integrity, pure beauty, and brilliance. 

It gives you a humble strength that nothing else in the world- or in you- does. It is not a sense of your own greatness, but a sense of intimacy with greatness. It is relational.
And God is all these things. The character of Christ is all these things. Anything in the world can validate you: your own good deeds, the love- often closer to attachment or infatuation- of other people, your own intellect, wisdom, or ability. But love, love is something different. To know that you are loved and have been sacrificed for: this is what we need, this is what we are meant to run on, more than anything. 

Sometimes you only know it when it happens, when it's the only solution left. Maybe when you've tried everything else to no real avail, no real inner change. When you're at the end of your rope. I've learned that God isn't some concept that requires us to forgo our independence in the sense that we can't think for ourselves anymore- what He is really asking is for us to forgo the idea that our own self-governance is ultimate. 

You can forgive yourself- but it's not the same as being forgiven. You can love yourself - but it's not the same as being loved. You can imagine that your life is made for some purpose- but it's not the same as knowing that that call has been put on you for a specific reason, by a specific hand, who desires to use you for a purpose higher than you can even imagine. 

It's not impossible that I'll find myself crying in a parking again at some point in my life. I expect what feels like loss, fear, failure, and sadness to shake me to the core all over again; you never know. But it won't be because I've learned who I am (though I have, in many ways) that I feel love and peace regardless. It will be because I've learned who God is. It will be because consistency comes from Him: not from me, and certainly not from life.

It will be because the praise of the praiseworthy is above all rewards. And I learned that the hard way the first time.


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