Sing the Laughter of God

The communion table pictured here was collaboratively created in December 2012 by the community at Emmaus Way Church: Durham, NC. 

You're afraid. I know that's a bold statement, but I fear I'm right. The discovery that most people are deeply -- perhaps even fundamentally -- motivated by fear has been the single biggest epiphany of my adult life. I see it everywhere now. Behind my even-tempered, rational approach to conflict: abject fright at the possibility of being considered illogical, unworthy, gender-stereotypical, dramatic. At the core of the more free-spirited folk I know: a terror of commitment, of mediocrity, of conformity, of failing to conform to the surprisingly narrow definition of "free spirit." I could go on. Pick your poison; it picked you a long time ago.

I'm being ominous for ironic effect, of course -- a sort of homeopathic hair-of-the-dog. Gallows humor can be sword as well as shield. Besides, conflict management skills and free spirits are wonderful. Sometimes I wonder if we'd really do anything outside of amusing ourselves if fear's motivational properties evaporated along with fear itself. But maybe that's just it. Maybe fear isn't itself so much the problem; rather, the problem resides in how we so often fail to filter fear. Unprocessed fear might make us fight or flight, but it inevitably makes our inner selves curl up like a pillbug poked by a child, at once protecting who we are now and crippling our progress toward where we should be tomorrow. Acknowledged fear, on the other hand, is the raw material for freedom.

The idea that artists channel their negative emotions into the process of creation would be totally cliche if it didn't also feel utterly profound. I know; it happened to me this year, and I'm still trying to sort out why my response to anger, pain, and fear has been an almost overwhelming rediscovery of creativity. Bono once wrote that "the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty." I find that compelling not only for the refinement of perspective it invites, but also for the implicit hint that part of finding freedom is determining which of our binaries are false. What is the opposite of fear?  One would not be wrong to say courage, but what of love, joy, faith, artistry, community? Apart from these there is no courage. 

My church, Emmaus Way in Durham, NC, delights in celebrating creativity within community. During Advent, a season of waiting in sober reflection before the angel says "be not afraid," we collaboratively painted a new communion table. The original design featured concentric circles embracing a point of light. The circles were purple because that color of both mourning and royalty represents the season. It was a lovely concept, yet early in the process something interesting happened that sent us on a new direction. Someone painted a little circle off on its own. I was so impressed with how generously the table's original designer, Katrina Williams, relinquished control and encouraged others to join in casting the vision. Soon the scene was laced with rings in interlocking orbit. Many of us see planets in a great solar system, and for me it calls to mind the old hymn that revels in "the music of the spheres." Together we painted the paradox of a universe that is characterized by darkness and yet bears all the light in existence. One could see that without ever knowing the table's origin story, but those of us who were lucky enough to wield brushes know that sealed in its very genesis is the truth that love and trust freed us all to make something new.

Last Sunday was the first time I got to see the finished table, and Pastor Tim Conder read a prayer that expressed much of how I feel about it. It was originally written in the eighteenth century by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (how's that for a title?), but Tim altered it from first person "I" to second person "we." 

Let us be weary of the dark voices crying doom;
let us be weary of the fearful voices crying only for their nation;
let us weary of the disinherited voices crying in hopelessness;
let our voices sing the laughter of God;
let our voices sing good news to the poor;
let our voices sing restitution of the oppressed;
let our voices sing healing of the violated;
let our voices sing the return of the banned;
let our voices be the laughter of God. Amen.

Praising the Mutilated World

Photographs of oil slicks grace both my SLR gallery and my iPhoneography collection. "Grace" may seem like a strange word for pollution, but it is precisely what I mean. With a flick and a click in an image editor, spilled oil is shockingly beautiful.

I feared for awhile that if, by finding beauty in even these small degradations, I was ratifying them. Art often glorifies destruction, but I'm not sure it ever should. An exception might be in catharsis. I don't think it is actually destruction that is glorified in destructive catharsis, however. At any rate, spilled oil reminds me of the paradox that keeps me happily rooted to my Christian tradition: the notion that grace takes something broken and makes it stronger and more beautiful than it was before. This is the concept of felix culpa I've written about elsewhere. But it goes even deeper. Look at these two versions

Unsharp mask applied:

Original lens blur:

I could fix the softness of the pavement, but in doing so, I lost the glow, the light, the gentle gradations of color. This edit actually looks marred by pixelation, though it isn't. Even if there had been no lens blur to remove, I'm not sure sharpness would have enriched the image. In this case, "perfect" isn't perfect. Of course you may prefer the sharp edit, or you may have good advice for me on how to restore the positive attributes of light and color while keeping the unsharp mask, or you just might think I'm crazy for photographing and (over)saturating spilled oil at all. That's not really the point. Regardless of the relative merits of either image, my concept of perfection itself needed to change. Most photographers would consider overprocessing to be the mark of a rookie editor, but perhaps there is another, deeper case against it. Overprocessing is an assertion of control. It leaves no room for happy accidents or movements of a spirit outside of the artist. There's no humility in it.

When it comes to control, I'm guilty as charged. Yet here's another happy accident, whether you call it subconscious association, synchronicity, or the still, small voice of a Creator guiding the creativity of the created. I just realized that in cropping the oil slick into four bars, I'd echoed two great traditions of religious art: stained glass and mosaic. All this is grace: things broken and spilled, set together like gems in a new, unexpected, and more glorious whole.

"Try to Praise the Mutilated World"
by Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world. 
Remember June's long days, 
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew. 
The nettles that methodically overgrow 
the abandoned homesteads of exiles. 
You must praise the mutilated world. 
You watched the stylish yachts and ships; 
one of them had a long trip ahead of it, 
while salty oblivion awaited others. 
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere, 
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully. 
You should praise the mutilated world. 
Remember the moments when we were together 
in a white room and the curtain fluttered. 
Return in thought to the concert where music flared. 
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn 
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars. 
Praise the mutilated world 
and the grey feather a thrush lost, 
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes 
and returns. 

Chattanooga

I'm prone to falling in love with places I've never been, and I'm rarely disappointed upon arrival. I sure hope that is true about Chattanooga, because at 40 minutes from my new home, it will be my source for arts, dining, and maybe even church in less than six months. If this nationally award-winning film bears any accuracy whatsoever, I'm about to be seduced.

P.S. I wonder how long this tilt-shift trend will wield so much influence. It is fascinating that such an old technology could suddenly spring to the fore, thanks mostly to iPhone app developers.

+ Video produced by the Johnson Group, in partnership with Atomic Films and Jack Parker Photography. Song by Allen DiCenzo and Roger Vaughn.

iPhoneography

The rumors are true. iPhone photography is the most addictive legal pursuit in the world. I've been doing it for one delightful week, having begun in the wake of the Great Instagram Fiasco of 2012, and I've already become a total hypocrite by twiddling my phone in social settings. Apologies to both those I've reprimanded for it in the past and those I've offended by it in the present. Perhaps one day soon we'll edit via hologram so that our conversation partners can see what we're doing and not be bothered -- sort of like knitting while talking. In the mean time, I have to tear myself away.

If you'd like to see what I was doing when I was supposed to be sleeping on a redeye, cooking a balanced meal, or making eye contact in a  l o n g  discussion about agripolitics, visit my new gallery or my Instagram page. I'm still learning the ropes -- that's why there is a rectangular picture in there that will doubtless lose the trust of the purists -- but my creative ambitions are reaching intoxicated heights. Now if I can just turn down that danged competitive streak . . .