Thoughts on ‘art’ as ‘ministry’

michelangelo

When churched people learn I’m a stained glass artisan who also writes fiction, after they recover from the initial surprise, they often spin my vocation as some form of ministry. (After all, it’s artistic, not practical. Not ‘real’ work, eh) So my windows must be for churches and my stories about Jesus or theology. Or maybe the End Times – that’s OK too.

If I have the time and enough of a relationship with the individual, I try to explain my “Christian” testimony in these contexts actually consists of me treating my client well, doing the work honestly, on time, on budget, and meeting or exceeding expectations in terms of design, execution, and craft. It does not mean I incorporate the shape of a Cross in the window or hide the face of Jesus somewhere in the pattern. And when it comes to writing, well my speculative fiction pieces are most definitely NOT dramatized sermons with Chapter and Verse cross references. In fact, I caution some people against reading my stuff because I sense they’re looking for moralistic parables or family-friendly entertainment. My stuff will only confuse them.

Over the years I’ve encountered various reactions that range from relief through perplexity to downright distrust. Some people understand. Others simply aren’t wired for it. Some are in different  places in their faith, and a few are so locked in to a particular mindset about religion, that any derivation is deviation and immediately suspect. Even though I’ve run this gauntlet many times, I’m on edge whenever it comes up; I’m not looking to argue or persuade someone against their convictions. I’m simply doing what God has set before me – however clumsily.

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After this morning’s devotions, my eye caught the spine of a book on one of my overflowing shelves: Dorothy Sayer’s ‘Letters to a Diminished Church’. Opening it, it fell to a dog-eared page.

“The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours and to come to church on Sundays. What the church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.

   Church by all means and decent forms of amusement certainly – but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. Not, if they did, could anyone believe they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth. No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie.

   Yet in Her own buildings, in Her own ecclesiastical art and music, in Her hymns and prayers, in Her sermons and in Her little books of devotion, the Church will tolerate or permit a pious intention to excuse work so ugly, so pretentious, so tawdry and twaddling, so insincere and insipid, so bad as to shock and horrify any decent draftsman.

   And why? Simply because She has lost all sense of the fact that the living and eternal truth is expressed in work only so far as that work is true in itself, to itself, to the standards of its own technique. She has forgotten that the secular vocation is sacred. Forgotten that a building must be good architecture before it can be a good church; that a painting must be well painted before it can be called a good sacred picture; that work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work.”

This absolutely rings true for me. This is what makes me strive to be a better, more creative stained glass artisan and to write more honestly and skillfully. I hold myself against this standard whenever I step up to my worktable or sit down at my desk.

And this principle right here is why I urge any believing artist never to shy away from honing their craft and employing any and all the conventions of their medium and genre to make good work. Excellence should always be the mark of Christian endeavor. Our worldview provides us with a foundation, not a straitjacket. Faith is inherently supernatural. It is wings, not chains. It is a benchmark gauge, not a Procrustean Bed.

Don’t accuse me of advocating gratuitousness here, I’m not. By all means be gracious and aware. But Christian artists must access all the tools available to them so their work – whatever that is – stays true to itself and thus to God.

No, I won’t always thread the tension between my flawed understanding and the reality of God without a hitch. But I have to do the work set before me, tackle each project honestly to the best of my ability, and trust it is God who works in me both to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Phil. 2:13)

Trust God. Go forth and Art hard.

Have a good day.

 

 

  • PS: This is also the reason I’m simultaneously stunned and irritated with ‘Christian’ services like VidAngel that censor naughty language and ‘offensive’ scenes from television/movies like Netflix’ recent “Black Mirror” and “Bright”. As if cuss words were the defining factor in secular content and not hearing them somehow makes me more Christian, or renders the show magically ‘God-fearing’ and acceptable. Those folks are cashing in on a cloistered religious mindset and utter lack of discernment.
  • BTW, ‘Black Mirror’ is a disturbing as it is brilliantly incisive. I wish I had the chops to write those kinds of stories.

 

 

Latest Zombie Six

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Charlie Foxtrot

 

The next chapter in the Zombie 6 novella ‘Enemy of my Enemy’ is now available. Click on the title link above or use the pull down menu in the header. Treachery, reversals, foes all around, the team races to confront the real enemy.

Thanks and enjoy.

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* cover art by J. Penswick Designs. Nice one, eh?

I’ll leave this right here

In discussing cover art for the upcoming Z6 ‘Enemy of my Enemy’ novella, I mentioned to the graphic artist I had a couple more ideas for the team/setting. Not only did he do an excellent job for ‘EomE’, he worked up a quick Z6 team logo – For when Z6 comes around in the fiction queue again.

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Pretty cool, eh?

Have a great weekend.

New fiction on the radar.

MEDEVAC crew trains for emergency response

From the upcoming Mil-SF novella “Enemy of my Enemy”

***

I glanced around at my team, the scientists, Bozan and al-Asiri, the wounded… The chill in the air seemed to drop another ten degrees. “Sahito, where are you?”

“On the Hephaestus, Captain Dante. Where else would I be?”

I let out an exasperated sigh. “Fine. Where is the Fleet?”

“Fast-burning to the Kepler System Fold-Space Transition Point beyond K-186F orbit.”

Approaching the planet’s moon, two-hundred and forty thousand miles away… Sahito gave the answer so casually, at first I thought Zombie Six’s tactical A.I. had just made a joke. The next two seconds were dead silent as I waited for the punch line.

It didn’t come.

“How long to Fold-Space transition?” I asked. I sensed I wasn’t going to like the answer.

“Four minutes and 27 seconds. The jump engines are spooled up,” the A.I. reported crisply.

My reaction split me quicker than atoms in a tactical nuke: white-hot rage in my head and icy despair in my gut. Zombie Six had not just been reported as dead; we’d been left behind.

Writing in a time of funk and strange.

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Writing-wise, 2017 was lackluster – to use a generous term.

Twelve months on, I have one short story released at the last minute, birthed in a spasm of inspiration, and two larger projects stalled 20% from the finish line. So yeah. Not so hot.

Why? (that perennial question) Between real life, studio work, a persistent, low-grade funk, a national pandemic of strangeness and acrimony,  I confess it was a battle to sit down and slog through. Like pulling teeth. Now none of those are valid excuses – I’m responsible to do the work – but they are/were real. And if that was a battle, some kind of test of my creative mettle, I’m afraid I failed.

Maybe there’s something in the air. Maybe this malaise, this inertia is the accretion of my own naiveté and inconsistency. A consequence of laziness and immaturity. It could be put down to what Steven Pressfield termed “Resistance”, or perhaps I’ve hit what Seth Godin calls “The Dip” – that place in the process, the venture, where the initial inspiration and enthusiasm has worn off and the going gets tough. The Dip is re-evaluation time – a prolonged moment to assess whether to push on or be brutally honest and prune a branch that’s taking valuable time and energy that could otherwise be invested in some other, more fruitful way.

I hope it’s just a Dip I can get past, but right now, I honestly don’t know which it is.

That said, I do know that the passing of a year is an occasion to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. I also know I want to be a man of my word; I started those projects and I’m determined to finish them.

item4Now I won’t call this commitment a New Year’s Resolution. Gym memberships soar in Jan/Feb and fall back to regular levels by March. I’m too old and been at this too long to trick myself with slogans and effervescent, self-help sleight-of-hand. Resolutions only work if I’m willing and determined to chop away at them every day after Jan 2nd. However, by God’s grace I’m going to type ‘The End’ on both of those pieces in 2018. Then I’ll take it from there.

 

Here’s wishing you a happy and healthy new year.

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No reason for this picture. It was just too weird to not add.

 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

 

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LET THE STABLE STILL ASTONISH

Let the stable still astonish:
Straw-dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, the child–
Rag-wrapped, laid to cry
In a trough.
Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said,
“Yes, let the God of Heaven and Earth
Be born in this place”?
Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms
Of our hearts
And says,
“Yes, let the God of Heaven and Earth
Be born in this place.”

–  Leslie Leyland Fields
***
I post this every Christmas for lots of reasons, my faith being the main one. 32 years following after Him, I still believe Jesus’ birth was critically important and that despite the dysfunction of organized religion, His  life and words are worth serious consideration.
I also appreciate this little poem because it takes the manger away from being a seasonal Disney-fied religious scene and brings it back to earth. It presents Jesus not as some magical, special ingredient to smooth life’s bitterness and edge – like flavored coffee creamer – but as a real solution to my deepest needs. It speaks of a God who knows and loves me despite myself. It points to transcendent mystery intervening in the sordid particulars of the sad, strange mess of human history. It speaks of intention, of hope, of grace.
And for that, I am truly grateful.
Merry Christmas to you and yours. May the next year be filled with happiness, health, courage, and compassion.
I have come that they may have life, and have it in all its fullness.
 – Jesus of Nazareth Jn. 10:10b
*yes, I know the wise guys weren’t in Bethlehem but showed up quite a bit later with their gifts. I just like the picture.

A Prayer to Saint Strelok

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There is more fiction in the pipeline but my latest short story is now available at Amazon. For those familiar with the STALKER or METRO 2033 video games, this should feel familiar – like the worn stock on your trusty AK-47, or the snug, sweat-soaked bands on your respirator.

Release date is 16 December. You can pre-order now if you like.

Enjoy and Spasibo.

A Prayer to Saint Strelok

New Zombie Six

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Sorry this is late. I’ve been busy with work, locking down work, plus managing assorted real life obligations and commitments, but the next installment of the Mil-S-F piece ‘Zombie Six’ is up. Click on the drop down tab in the top menu or go HERE. 

Thanks and have a happy Thanksgiving.

Twenty Things

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So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”  

– Psalm 90:12

 

Lately, I go over this list whenever I turn on my computer.

***

  1. You’re going to die and you have no idea when.

Stop pretending that you’re invincible. Acknowledge the fact of your own mortality, and then start structuring your life in a more meaningful way.

  1. Everyone you love is going to die, and you don’t know when.

This truth may be saddening at first, but it also gives you permission to make amends with past difficulties and re-establish meaningful relationships with important figures in your life.

  1. Your material wealth won’t make you a better or happier person.

Even if you’re one of the lucky ones who achieves his or her materialistic dreams, money only amplifies that which was already present.

  1. Your obsession with finding happiness is what prevents its attainment.

Happiness is always present in your life–it’s just a matter of connecting to it and allowing it to flow through you that’s challenging.

  1. Donating money does less than donating time.

Giving your time is a way to change your perception and create a memory for yourself and others that will last forever.

  1. You can’t make everyone happy, and if you try, you’ll lose yourself.

Stop trying to please, and start respecting your values, principles, and autonomy.

  1. You can’t be perfect, and holding yourself to unrealistic standards creates suffering.

Many perfectionists have unrelenting inner critics that are full of so much rage and self-hate that it tears them apart inside. Fight back against that negative voice, amplify your intuition, and start challenging your unrealistic standards.

  1. Your thoughts are less important than your feelings and your feelings need acknowledgment.

Intellectually thinking through your problems isn’t as helpful as expressing the feelings that create your difficulties in the first place.

  1. Your actions speak louder than your words, so you need to hold yourself accountable.

Be responsible and take actions that increase positivity and love.

  1. Your achievements and successes won’t matter on your death bed.

When your time has come to transition from this reality, you won’t be thinking about that raise; you’ll be thinking about the relationships you’ve made–so start acting accordingly.

  1. Your talent means nothing without consistent effort and practice.

Some of the most talented people in the world never move out from their parent’s basement.

  1. Now is the only time that matters, so stop wasting it by ruminating on the past or planning the future.

You can’t control the past, and you can’t predict the future, and trying to do so only removes you from the one thing you can control–the present.

  1. Nobody cares how difficult your life is, and you are the author of your life’s story.

Stop looking for people to give you sympathy and start creating the life story you want to read.

  1. Your words are more important than your thoughts, so start inspiring people.

Words have the power to oppress, hurt, and shame, but they also have the power to liberate and inspire–start using them more wisely.

  1. Investing in yourself isn’t selfish. It’s the most worthwhile thing you can do.

You have to put on your own gas mask to save the person sitting right next to you.

  1. It’s not what happens, it’s how you react that matters.

Train yourself to respond in a way that leads to better outcomes.

  1. You need to improve your relationships to have lasting happiness.

Relationships have a greater impact on your wellbeing and happiness than your income or your occupation, so make sure you give your relationship the attention and work it deserves.

  1. Pleasure is temporary and fleeting, so stop chasing fireworks and start building a constellation.

Don’t settle for an ego boost right now when you can delay gratification and experience deeper fulfillment.

  1. Your ambition means nothing without execution–it’s time to put in the work.

If you want to change the world, then go out there and do it!

  1. Time is your most valuable asset–you need to prioritize how you spend it.

You have the power and responsibility to decide what you do with the time you have, so choose wisely.