When Negative is Positive
Saturday, September 29, 2007
Negative space is in your life, whether you know it or not. Is that a negative thing? It depends on whether you use it, or it uses you. Negative can be positive. To explore what I mean, let's think like artists.
In the visual arts, “negative space” is sometimes thought of as the background in a painting, or the empty air within and around a sculpture, but it can also be the foreground, or a blank area within the subject itself. It is any portion of the work that stands back or does not immediately call attention to itself, in order to define the primary subject in some way. Although casual observers of art rarely give negative space much thought, one of the first things one learns in art school is how vital it is to the success of the work. You can easily see why by looking at the painting, “Joseph Accused of Potiphar’s Wife” by Rembrandt, pictured here:
Negative space is hard at work in several areas of this image, but the most obvious example is the looming darkness in the upper half. See how Rembrandt uses it to sharply define the central figure’s much lighter head in silhouetted contrast, making it immediately clear that Joseph is the focus of these events. Notice also how that mass of vague darkness seems to press down upon him with a heavy weight, the utter lack of detail lending a psychological sense of impending doom. Then over on the right, see how Rembrandt partially absorbs Potiphar into the blackness of that negative space by painting him in darker tones, as if to tell us he is part of the impending doom. Note how Potiphar seems unaware of this looming darkness, how it seems to draw him in.
But also consider how Rembrandt uses negative space within the central details of the scene, on the bed, which he has washed with the lightest tones of the entire painting. There is only slightly more visual information here than in the looming darkness above, yet the effect is completely different. Thinking of the meaning of this scene, the action taking place, consider what that lack of detail implies, the emptiness of it in that particular place on the painting. Notice also how that stark clean whiteness defines Joseph’s hand, which points to it. Consider the implications of the way this white negative space acts upon that gesture, in comparison to the way the black negative space acts upon Joseph’s foe, how one character both acknowledges and is defined against the negative space, while the other ignores it and is absorbed. Finally, consider what Rembrandt might be trying to tell us with the fact that Joseph is defined by both the darkness around his head, and the brightness around his hand.
Holy: adjective. To be sanctified; set apart.
All of us experience the unknown, the unexplained and unexplainable, and every life includes moments, spaces and experiences that seem to have no understandable form or detail. Negative space for some might be a person. For others, it might be a job. Some might find it in their loneliness or boredom, others in the endless demands of many people or the frantic pace of life. A problem that appears to have no solution, a loss, an illness, an addiction, an inescapable commitment: the ways it comes upon us are as countless as the people in the world. Some of us fade into it, becoming more and more a part of it. Others stand out much more clearly because of it.
How do you encounter the “negative space” in your life?
Do you try to focus only on the central subjects, ignoring the negative space, pretending it is not there? Do you let it loom above you like a heavy weight, acting on you in ways you have not noticed? Are you fading into it?
Or do you gesture toward it somehow? Do you let the formlessness accentuate the details of your life? Be it dark around your head or bright around your hand, do you give it adequate attention, and in so doing, find your proper definition in this life?
Every true artist knows negative space must not be avoided or ignored. It is not a waste of canvas. On the contrary, negative space is absolutely essential to the work. How can the subject be set apart unless there is something to be set apart from? It must be acknowledged and considered well. It must be used, or it will use you.
But Joseph said to them, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children." And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:19-21)
Posted byAthol Dickson at 9:24 AM
Labels: The Jesus Way
What is Excellence?
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
I’m thinking about excellence these days. Some time ago I posted the opinion over at Charis Connection, which I still hold, that some Christian authors should slow down a little, in order to pay more attention to craftsmanship and creativity, or to put it another way, in order to do more excellent work. This advice applies to every Christian who rushes through life unnecessarily.
The quality of our work reflects on Christ; it’s just that simple.
Paul makes this clear in several places, such as here and here. Our work, like our lives, must be excellent, so unbelievers will see it and praise our Father in heaven.
But excellence in some kinds of work demands speed. In fact, wherever profit is considered, work is usually gauged not only on the elegance or consistency or correctness of our work, but also on how quickly it is done. “Time is money” as they say. Other work must be done quickly because the nature of the work demands split second decisions. This means we can’t say slowing down to pay attention to craftsmanship and creativity is a certain path to excellence. Often excellence is achieved through a proper compromise between quality and other important considerations. So what exactly do we mean by that word, "excellence"?
According to the Bible, the answer has to do with results. More than anything, that is how God judges excellence. We see this in the parable of the talents. We see it in the numerous exhortations to “bear fruit.” When Paul compares a life well lived to an Olympic athlete racing for the prize, it is fair to assume he means first prize. God cares about results.
If a senior pastor of a church felt called to start more new outreaches and ministries than anyone else in town, how would his work be judged? By the effectiveness of those outreaches and ministries, right? Did unbelievers move closer to Christ? Did unbelievers trust in Christ? Did Christians grow in Christ? Those are the kinds of results-oriented questions one would ask to determine if a pastor is doing his work with excellence, or not. As Christians, all of us are called to minister among the people God has placed in our lives just as surely as any pastor ever was, so we should gauge the excellence of our lives by asking similar results-oriented questions.
We are not always allowed to know the results of our lives, but the results still matter to God. There is a famous story about a person who served as a missionary all of his life in a small village somewhere (China, I think) and died, believing he had failed because few if any of the people in his field had trusted Christ. But when his replacement came, people trusted Christ by the hundreds because of the example this “failure” set, both through the excellent way he served as a missionary (which got the people watching) and just as importantly, through the way he died. So while this missionary never knew his excellent work yielded results, it was still measured in results. Again, many of us will never know the full results of our work in this life, but we must still live with the ever-present knowledge that our results will be judged by a Master who has invested a gift in us, who expects a return on His investment, and who knows exactly what our results were. If we grant that idea the serious attention it warrants, we will not fail to do our very best in all that is required of us.
This does not mean God views excellence as a matter of big numbers. He does not. Notice in the parable of the talents that there are two servants who fail to earn as much as the one who gains a five talent return on the Master’s investment, but only the servant who does not put his talent to work is called “wicked”. The other servant, who gained only two talents instead of five, is given exactly the same praise as the one who gained five, because in the Master’s eyes he did just as well. The servant who was given five talents doubled the Master’s investment, and so it was with the servant who was only given two, and whether the gain was five or only two, in the Master’s eyes, both were equally praiseworthy. From this we learn that excellence is defined as getting the best results within the circumstances God has given.
There is another kind of result to consider. That is the result in us. We’ve all seen high profile pastors lately who showed impressive results in terms of the numbers, led thousands to Christ and enriched the spiritual lives of thousands of believers, but ended up as failures spiritually. It’s hard to believe God would call their efforts “excellent.” Imagine how Jesus’ parable would go if we added a fourth servant, who used his talents to return a hundred times the Master’s investment instead of only double, but did that by investing in some dishonest scheme. God expects his people to work the fields for the right reason, and in the right way. Many people care about the excellence of their work mainly because they want bragging rights. God wants us to care because of Him, and Him alone. Then He will have the bragging rights, about us. This means another hallmark of excellence in God’s eyes is the spiritual growth and prosperity of those who do the work, because in God’s eyes, we too are a result.
So…should some of us slow down to do better work, or not? It seems very possible God wants many Christians to give more conscious attention to the craftsmanship and creativity in what we do, be it a job, a life role as a parent or spouse, or even just while enjoying a hobby. But if so, surely it is not for the sake of craftsmanship or creativity, since those are merely means to an end, and are not results in themselves. The real issue when we think about the pursuit of excellence in any part of our lives is better addressed by prayerful reflection on questions like these:
- Have I balanced this thing I want to do properly to accommodate my other obligations?
- Have I balanced my other obligations properly to accommodate this thing I must do?
- Am I focused on delivering the kind of results the Lord demands from me in particular?
- Have I fully used every gift and resource God has given me in pursuit of the results He demands?
- Does this part of life draw me closer to the Lord, or push me further away?
- And above all: am I focused on results for the Lord’s sake, alone?
Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:56 AM
Labels: The Jesus Way
WINTER HAVEN - Trapped
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
The novel is in the editor's hands now, so I had time to post another Winter Haven scene for you. Look for more between now and when the book is published in the spring.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 11:05 AM
Labels: Winter Haven
Matthew 2:1-8 CAREFUL WHAT YOU WORSHIP
Saturday, September 15, 2007
It seems strange, in this portion of the story, that the Magi and Herod both say they wish to “worship” Jesus. In them we have a master politician sold out to the Romans while pretending to be a Jew, and a group of gentiles with a foreign religion who share the Jewish hope of a messiah. What exactly would such people mean by "worship"?
The word they use is proskuneo in the Greek, from pros, meaning “forward to” and kuon, meaning “dog,” and carries the meaning “to fawn,” as a dog licking his master’s hand. Note the similarity in sound and meaning to the English word “prostrate”. Proskuneo is also the word used when Satan offers “all the kingdoms in the world” if Jesus will only worship him, and when Jesus replies by quoting the Torah’s warning not to worship anything but God. One of the Ten Commandments makes the point as well, saying, “You shall not bow down to…or worship” idols. The Hebrew for “bow down” here, shachah, means “to lie prostrate” and is closest to the word used by the Magi, Herod and Satan. But “worship” here is abad, which is translated elsewhere as “serve.” And in the original Hebrew version of the Torah passage Jesus quotes to Satan, the word “worship” is yare, meaning, “fear.”
Our “worship services” in church tend to define how we think about this subject. Yet for the most part, what we do in church has very little to do with fawning, lying prostrate, serving and fearing God. To get an idea of what the Bible really means by “worship,” we might start by looking outside the church, to the parking lot, where a car awaits that someone can barely afford, yet they are willing to give up almost anything if that’s what it takes to make the payments for that latest model. Or we might look around us in the pews, to our spouses or our children, for whom we will give anything, endure anything, and forgive anything. We might love careers that occupy our every waking thought. We might pin our hopes and joy on a win by our favorite football team.
Note how passionately we worship these created things. Consider how instinctively it comes to us, how natural it feels. Human beings were born to worship, just as we were born to breathe. We all worship something with all of our heart and soul and strength, even if that something is only ourselves. And when Jesus responds to Satan’s offer with the Torah quote mentioned above, his answer is not limited to that single verse; he is referring to that entire passage, which is a fine description of the way we worship. We love these things with all that we are. They stay in our hearts day and night. We think and talk about them constantly. We surround ourselves with them, or with symbols of them, in everything from the clothes we wear to the things we keep in our homes. We are constantly aware that they are not completely under our control, and that makes us careful to respect their importance in our lives. And at the bottom of everything, we do all this because we fear the emptiness that would remain without them. This is what it means to worship.
Herod, of course, means to do no such thing. He intends to kill this newborn king, because he deems the child a threat. But carefully note how he will rid himself of Jesus: he will do it by professing worship. How many of us do the same? How many of us strike out at the Lord by merely acting the Sunday morning Christian, when really all our heart and mind and strength are given to something else?
The Magi are less obvious. It may well be they are sincere. We know they came a long distance “from the east” to adore this child. They are “overjoyed” at the prospect of finding Jesus. And they risk their lives to protect him from King Herod, by failing to report his whereabouts as commanded. It seems the Magi’s intentions are good, but how many of us claim to worship Jesus when in our heart of hearts we merely hope to gain a favor? We are like the millionaire’s relations, only interested in him because of his money. It may be no coincidence that we derive our word, “magic” from the Magi’s title. Magic is our use of the supernatural. Miracles are the supernatural’s use of us. One difference lies in our intentions. The miracles of peace and true contentment will always come from sincere worship of the Lord, but magic yields only disappointment.
For example, Jesus promised that we could ask for anything in his name, and it would be given. Some see magic in this promise, as if by adding, “in Jesus’ name I pray,” to a list of requests, we cause the Almighty to comply. But Jesus’ name is not a magic word, of course. When we speak about a man’s “good name” we mean his reputation, or the things he stands for. It is the same with Jesus. When he says “the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name,” he means, “ask for what I would ask for, and it will be yours.” He means, “Align your wishes with the Lord’s, and He will satisfy.” He means, “Give me the full use of you, and miracles will come.”
Everything on earth ends, all of it is meaningless in comparison to the glory of the Lord. How ironic it is—how insane, really—to resist complete dependance upon God, when He alone will last. Yet all the fleeting world around us argues on its own behalf every single moment. We are so immersed in the lies we often do not even see them in ourselves. How can we resist the crazy impulse to bow down to created things? How can we find wholehearted love of God?
True worship cannot be entered through the power of positive thinking. There is no formula, no incantation to shift our heart’s truest desire from mere idols to the one true God. The solution is not magic; it is miraculous. The heartfelt love that leads to miracles is itself a miracle. It is given, not obtained. If you want to worship God more wholeheartedly, you must ask the Lord to make it possible, and He will begin a change in you, He will draw you, and He will free you from all those lesser gods. Then you will be free, indeed.
Next time we will move on in Matthew’s story to explore hidden links between the Hebrew scriptures and Jesus’ way of entering the world. We will find guidance for our daily lives in those connections.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:37 AM
Labels: Bible Studies
Monday, September 10, 2007
I'm out of the weeds! Or I'm not swamped anymore, or whatever cliche applies when your next novel is almost ready for the editors and you finally have time to catch up on recently released novels by several friends. I haven't read these books yet, (I've been swamped in the weeds, remember?) but I know these authors well and you can be sure these are compelling stories about important themes. If they're working in a genre you enjoy, be sure to get a copy. And hey, even if you don't usually read their kind of novels, why not look them over anyway? It's good to try new things!
3rd book in the Michigan Island Series
by Gail Gaymer Martin
Escape to beautiful Beaver Island could be the answer to Marsha Sullivan's need for a fresh start. Since her husband's death four years ago, Marsha had lost her way, but on Beaver Island, she had good memories to help guide her. Running into Jeff, her brother-in-law, in this paradise turned out to be a blessing. Not only did they share grief in losing their spouses, but also a warm bond began to form between them. Did God want her to love again? The only thing she knew for sure was that being with Jeff and his daughter felt like family.
Review: "In His Dreams touches on sensitive issues, including the problems of an emotionally handicapped child. But Gail Gaymer Martin outdoes herself with the romance she threads throughout." (Top Pick! - 4-1/2 stars)
Gail Gaymer Martin is an award-winning novelist with over one million books in print and forty fiction novels or novellas. The second book in the Michigan Island Series, With Christmas In His Heart, was recently honored with the 2007 National Readers Choice Award.
Purchase In His Dreams directly from the publisher or from Amazon.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:24 AM
Labels: Other People's Novels
Matthew 2:1-8 WORTH THE WAIT
Thursday, September 6, 2007
Consider why God chose this moment in human history for the incarnation. You may recall that Matthew mentions four people or people groups at the outset of the nativity story: Herod the Great, the Sadducees, the Pharisees (or rabbis), and the Magi. Each of them provides some insight into God’s timing of the incarnation.
In Herod the Great, we find a remarkable intersection of the ancient world’s most powerful cultures. His mother was the daughter of an Arab sheik. His father was an Edomite (one of the Canaanite peoples) from a family forcibly converted to Judaism several generations before by the Maccabees, when they defeated the remnants of Alexander the Great’s Greek empire. Herod’s father had backed Julius Caesar in Rome’s civil war and thus became a Roman citizen with the title of “procurator” (or epitropos, the same title held later by Pontius Pilate). Through a process involving royal intrigue and a Roman war against the Parthians (who controlled the former Mesopotamia) Herod eventually attained authority over the former land of Israel, and assumed the Greek title basileus, or sovereign, of the Jews. He expanded his power through a carefully nurtured relationship with Mark Anthony (a co-ruler of the Roman Empire) and Cleopatra (Queen of Egypt), and later, thru similar patronage from Caesar Augustus. So in this one man, Herod the Great, we find connections to the Canaanites and Arabs, and the ancient empires of Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Rome. Herod symbolized a unique moment in history: not since the days of Solomon had the Jewish homeland been so connected with so much of the known world. For centuries, the Promised Land had been a cultural dead end, but Palestine at the birth of Jesus was a well traveled crossroads from which news and ideas could spread throughout the western world. Thus, one reason “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us” at this particular moment in human history is because it was uniquely possible for the gospel to travel from the lips of an itinerant Jewish rabbi to so many other peoples and lands.
Matthew’s “people’s chief priests” were probably Sadducees, as we saw last time. These were aristocratic temple priests, possibly ideological descendants of the Hasmoneans, who strictly adhered to the Mosaic sacrificial rituals and believed they alone practiced the religion of Moses as taught in the Torah. They rejected the “traditions” or oral Torah, which later became Rabbinic Judaism’s Talmud, and insisted that Jewish religious life be governed only by the written Hebrew Scriptures, or Tanakh. Unfortunately, they also aligned themselves more closely with Rome and Herod than any other mainstream Jewish group, and they may have used their authority to enforce such Mosaic teachings as “an eye for an eye” literally. For those reasons they were not well liked by the typical Jew on the street at the time of Jesus. On the other hand, the “teachers of the law” mentioned in Matthew, were probably the Pharisees, who interpreted the Torah in light of their traditions, often in ways that seemed (to the Sadducees and to Jesus at any rate) to contradict the Torah’s p’shat, or plain sense meaning. While the New Testament usually portrays Pharisees as highly legalistic, in fact they were probably more humane than the Sadducees in their interpretations of the Law, and were almost certainly better liked. The only other major Jewish sect at this time was the Essenes, famous for leaving us the Dead Sea Scrolls. They are not mentioned in the New Testament, probably because they cloistered themselves in isolated communes where their brand of Judaism played little or no role in the daily life of their Jewish neighbors. So whether through political compromise, through the addition of a large canon of “traditions,” or through withdrawal from the everyday life of neighboring Jews, each of the three main forms of Judaism extant at the nativity had moved far from the form of religion described in the books of Moses. It seems likely God also chose this moment for the incarnation because his chosen people’s dysfunctional spiritual condition provided a good illustration of humanity’s need for the gospel.
The magi Matthew mentions were probably citizens of the mighty Parthian Empire, a foe even the Romans were unable to conquer in spite of many wars and conflicts. Parthia was one of the strongest and largest civilizations outside the Roman world. Like Rome, it incorporated many people groups and former nations. Generally speaking, Rome controlled the west and Parthia dominated the east. The magi were most likely believers in Zoroastrianism, a religion so ancient it even predates Mosaic Judaism, as we learned last time. Like their Jewish neighbors, Zoroastrians believed in a coming messiah, and Zoroastrianism was a monotheistic religion. In fact, since it predated Moses it may be the world’s first monotheistic religion. We should not be surprised when we encounter other cultures and religions with ideas and traditions that closely parallel Biblical truths. Skeptics sometimes say this is evidence that the Bible borrowed existing “myths”, but the New Testament tells us all creation speaks the truth, and the Hebrew Scriptures agree that God has placed a seed of the eternal truth within the heart of every man. In view of this, we should expect to find parallels to God’s Word in every culture and religion. But the more removed a culture is from the one true God, the more deformed the seed of truth becomes. Compare, for example, the righteousness achieved by the cross, versus its horrible perversion in the human sacrifices of the Aztec religion. The Torah says justice for sinfulness requires the shedding of blood. This idea has been shared by most of the world’s cultures since the Bronze Age and before. Parallels between ancient Greco/Roman and Hebrew sacrifices are particularly telling. Both religious systems allowed for one form of blood sacrifice to be consumed by man and God together, while another kind of sacrifice was totally destroyed, or given to the divine. Although much closer to the Lord’s intention than the Aztecs, the Greco/Roman instincts were exactly backwards. They believed the offerings shared by gods and men signified fellowship, while the Torah requires mutual participation only in the case of atonement for sin. Even now, human intuition would seem to argue for the Greek perspective, (after all, is fellowship not better represented by something shared?) but Jesus revealed the reason for the Torah’s counterintuitive command, as Matthew will later record. First however, Matthew directs our attention to the presence of the magi to help us understand God’s perfect timing, entering His creation in a moment when the eastern world stood poised to receive the gospel revelation.
In the setting Matthew presents, the Promised Land becomes an international crossroads, the chosen people illustrate all humanity’s crying need for a savior, and even magi from the east are eager for good news. At last all is ready. All is perfect. All the Hebrew scriptures are the story of God’s creation of the universe, and creation’s long wait for this particular moment, when “God so loved the world, he sent his only begotten son.”
Like the first century Jews, many Christians today wonder why the Messiah tarries. In this, as in so many other parts of life, we are impatient. Jesus said he would return when least expected. We will not know the day or hour, but afterwards we will look back and see it was the perfect moment.
In daily life as well, we often beg God to take action now, and yet He waits. Trust the Lord. He waits for a reason, and His reason is always love.
Note that the Magi and Herod both say they wish to “worship” this child. This, of course, is how we ought to fill our time while waiting on the Lord. Next time we will look at the words these men use and consider what it really means to worship God.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 8:42 AM
Labels: Bible Studies