Seeing Grace

May 13, 2018

This detail comes from a painting by Frederick Hardy called Try This Pair. It’s a quirky genre painting of a door-to-door eye-glasses salesman. While he offers different pairs to an older gentleman who is testing them with a newspaper, this boy has clearly snitched a pair off the table to try on himself. His expression suggests that he has just discovered what the world really looks like.

I distinctly remember the first time I got glasses as a teenager. Exiting the shore, I looked out over the parking lot and then to the mountains beyond, and I couldn’t believe how clear everything was. Edges were sharp! Trees had leaves! My prescription was slight, but oh what a difference it made.

This post from way back in January came to mind because I’ve been going to an adult forum series on how we experience God and are thus transformed through our senses. I firmly believe that our five senses are avenues for God’s grace. The smell of dinner when I walk through the front door is God’s grace. The sound of birds in the springtime is God’s grace. The sight of blossoming trees and blooming flowers is God’s grace. These things are not earned or deserved, they are gracious gifts.

The forum on Sundays has reminded me of how important it is to pay attention. Be present. Stop and breathe in the smell … listen to the sound … look at what I’m seeing. Really look.

The expression on the boy’s face says it all.

My eyes have gotten worse lately. I should go to the optometrist.

Hardy-Try This Pair

F. D. Hardy, Try This Pair, 1864 (Guildhall Art Gallery, London)


I’m thinking back to the afternoon in August when I took these photos at the Yayoi Kusama show at the Seattle Art Museum. What an experience.

Among Yayoi Kusama’s most famous works are her so-called “infinity rooms”—rooms with mirrors covering walls, ceilings, and sometimes floors so the reflections repeat to … well… infinity. The rooms are populated with forms—glowing pumpkins with black dots, white tuber-like forms with red dots, giant pink balls with black dots suspended from the ceiling. They multiply into a fantasticfield of color and shape and form. Standing in one of these rooms is really, really cool.

Here’s the thing.

At the exhibit, you can only stay in the room for 30 seconds before the guard knocks a warning and opens the door. For one room, it was only 20 seconds! Because you’ve been standing in line for many minutes and you’ve watched the shut-knock-open routine many times, by the time it’s your turn, you are very much aware of how fast your own 30 seconds is going to go. Let me tell you, it’s over way too soon.

Now, the whole exhibit feels like a spectacle, with gobs of people standing in lines that snake and coil through the galleries, so the very short time limit seems like just another part of the spectacle. This way, the exhibit accommodates more people, the museum claims more visitors, and Kusama has more viewers, more fame. Meanwhile the longer looks that lead to deeper analysis and contemplation are impossible.

This could have been deeply frustrating, but I was with my young kids so I rolled with it. We bounded from line to line like we were at an amusement park, thrilled by our 30-second rides on the aesthetic roller coasters. So much for long looks. Woo-wee! I loved it.

It was only later that I thought about what Kusama is up to with her time limits. She’s condensing the interaction with each artwork into a tight, intense experience of color, form, light, presence, space, infinity. She focuses your attention. She invites you to be present.

It goes like this. You wait and wait and wait. Anticipation grows. You turn a corner. You get tantalizing glimpses when the door opens and closes for others. Three steps closer. It’s almost your turn. You get briefed by the docent—no bags, no touching—okay.

NOW. You walk in and it’s your turn. You try to take in as much as you can, very much aware that the seconds are ticking. Look! Look close. Look out. Look up. Look around. Don’t waste a second.


Look close. Look out. Look around.

Don’t waste a second.


Paul Cezanne, The Basket of Apples, c. 1893
(Art Institute of Chicago)

Let’s talk about Cezanne.

I spent a few weeks in Chicago earlier this summer and had a chance to take some long looks at paintings by Cézanne at the Art Institute of Chicago. Visually, these paintings are forceful and deeply satisfying, but what I find to be especially compelling are the ideas they embody.

First, a contrast.

Cézanne followed the Impressionists and absorbed some of their ideas, but ultimately went in a different direction, choosing to pursue substance over surface. The Impressionists wanted to capture the fleeting moment—what something looks like right now rather than an hour ago or a month from now. They focused on the way the light plays off the surfaces, because it’s the surface that changes as the light shifts according to the time of day, the weather, the season.

Cézanne was more interested in that which persisted even while the light changed—the thingy-ness of the thing. Here, it’s the round firmness of the apple, the smooth solidity of the bottle, the dry crispness of the biscuits. The cloth, for example, is not simple a backdrop for the fruit; Cézanne makes it substantive. It has a real presence as it bunches up around the fruit. These things are real, solid objects in a physical space, not just a collection of surfaces for the transitory effects of color and light.

This choice gets at a philosophical difference regarding metaphysics, or what is really real.

What is more real: the way we perceive things from our specific and subjective point of view or the way those things actually are apart from our perception of them? Cézanne seems to assert that truth is found in the thing that persists, not in shifting perceptions. I appreciate the Impressionists’ awareness that modern life is inherently superficial and ephemeral. They capture not only images that are fleeting, but also the “reality” of subjective experience, all in the guise of pretty pictures.

But Cézanne rejects their interest in surfaces, which are ultimately empty, even meaningless. Instead, he tries to convey the substance that exists behind the surfaces. That substance is what is real because it is the thing that persists—it is both consistent and universal. That’s what is true.

This extends beyond how he paints individual objects to how he approaches the overall composition—the structure of the painting itself. The strong diagonal, firmly planted on a broad horizontal base and balanced with the vertical and horizontal elements of the bottle and biscuits. It is both stable and dynamic, precisely because he draws upon the time-honored fundamental principles of composition.

When I look at an Impressionist still-life, I see shimmery, effervescent forms that could dissolve in a moment. But in Cézanne’s I feel as if I can reach into that painting, grab a hold of that fruit, and sink my teeth into it. It’s satisfying.

Perhaps it’s satisfying precisely because I am keenly aware of how subjective experience determines our understanding of truth. We can’t escape our point of view entirely, so knowing objective truth seems virtually impossible.

But at the same time, I long for truth to be objectively known. I want to know. I want others to know.

So Cézanne offers a compelling vision. Forget all the subjective surfaces, and trust that truth—real objective truth—is real, persistent, steady, and compelling. It’s as real as that taut round pear or that starched linen tablecloth. Hold on to that.

And take that, Impressionists. Ha.

I haven’t posted anything here in quite a while. It’s not because I stopped my practice of spectatio divina. I’ve kept looking—closely looking—all the while. But there has been less space in my life these days and writing blog posts took the cut. Some regret with that.

I started another thing, though. Instagram!



Here’s the thing… until very recently, I didn’t see that what I have been doing with Instagram was another form of spectatio divina—it’s close looking, quite literally. I get close. Here, you can check it out:

When I started taking close-up photos of artworks and buildings, I did it because I wanted my friends to see these amazing brushstrokes or to experience this building as if they were standing right beside it. But as time went on, the photos became something I did for myself as much as for anybody else. As I contemplated which detail to focus on, or even which painting in a gallery, my own experience with the artwork became deeper. I noticed things I wouldn’t have otherwise. I was pulled into the artwork, pulled closer to the buildings. Close looking.

Here’s the question: Is looking closely the same as divine looking? Or… When I contemplate a brushstroke or a line, am I drawing closer to God? Am I listening to God? Do I hear his voice?

Obviously, the answers to these questions are not straight-forward. Because I never made the connection between taking close-up photos and my practice of spectatio divina, it seems clear that I was not actively listening to God. God never even crossed my mind as I tried to get my phone as close to a painting as the guards would allow.

In recent days, however, I’m beginning to rethink this.

First of all, I wonder how acknowledging God’s presence and voice prepares one for practicing spectatio divina. My initial thought would be that it is absolutely necessary. That’s part of the prayer. That’s what makes it different from “just thinking” about something. So I believe that centering is a crucial part of the disciplines, but now I wonder if I’m putting limits on the ability for God to speak to me. Couldn’t he have guided my eyes and thoughts even if I didn’t acknowledge him at that moment?

Second, I have been profoundly affected by some of these photos—sometimes by looking at the specific aspect of the artwork that the photo captured, sometimes by the very process of taking the photo. Something shifts, or clicks, or pokes. It hasn’t happened often, but it has happened.

Here’s my idea. What if I try to bridge the gap a bit? I could pull some of the Instagram shots into the blog to invite a more intentional, more prayerful looking. And, I could start inviting God into my close looking through the lens of my phone.

It’s a bit of an experiment. We’ll see…


Annibale Carracci, The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist ('The Montalto Madonna'), about 1600 (National Gallery, London)

Annibale Carracci,
The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist, about 1600
(National Gallery, London)

I’m just back from London, where I spent many delightful hours at the National Gallery. This little painting caught my eye, which is little wonder because Carracci does that.

The motif is the Holy Family—the mother Mary, the baby Jesus, and Saint Joseph. It’s a traditional theme in Christian art, typically used to promote modeling one’s own family after this mostly divine one. Here, though, John the Baptist is included as well. That’s not unusual and he does fit the theme (we was a cousin of Mary and Jesus), but it does shift the meaning of the motif, especially in this painting.

The first thing I notice is how the figures of Mary and Jesus are so tightly tied together. They are turned toward each other and their heads are gently touching. Mary’s arm and Jesus’ arm and leg make a strong rectilinear shape emphasizing their unity, and their garments, particularly Mary’s robe, enclose them. We instantly understand that these two are lovingly bonded.

Both, however, glance to the outside. Jesus looks over his shoulder toward his earthly father, Joseph. What is happening between them is hard to identify—the way Joseph leans in is not playful or even loving exactly, but it’s not threatening either. He looks curious, like he is puzzling over this baby, maybe because of something he just read in that book. Jesus, for his part, looks a little wary.

Mary’s glance is much easier to identify. It seems like the infant John has tugged on her robe, causing her to look back. She is very much aware of what John represents, which is the knowledge that her baby—this Jesus—will be the Messiah. Carracci underscores this by putting the characteristic cruciform staff in John’s hand. Instinctively, Mary turns away from John, shielding Jesus from that message, that cross. Who can blame her?

This pair seems pushed from both sides. The sweet bond between mother and son seems disrupted by indications of what is to come. Both the traditional Jewish scriptures and the soon-to-be prophet John foreshadow how this is all going to end.

Yes, we should all be thrilled that the Messiah is come, but at the moment he’s just a baby. Can’t all the prophecy just wait a little?

But, no. Here’s Ash Wednesday.

Keith Haring, Merry Christmas, 1985

Keith Haring, Merry Christmas, 1985

It’s the day before Christmas. And while I clean and wrap and wipe runny noses (including my own), I’m trying to keep my mind on what I’m really preparing for. Advent. The Coming.

I’m thankful for Keith Haring’s subway drawing, which bypasses the usual schmaltzy iconography to get to the essence of what we’re celebrating. Here is the Son of God come down–miraculously–in the form of baby. It even looks like God is having contractions!

Enough said.

Merry Christmas out there….

The Shifting Image of God

December 7, 2015

Lee Yongbaek, In Between Buddha and Jesus, 2002 (Asian Art Museum, Seattle)

Lee Yongbaek,
In Between Buddha and Jesus, 2002
(Asian Art Museum, Seattle)

In a whirlwind visit to Seattle several weeks ago now, I was able to visit the Contemporary Korean Art exhibit at the Asian Art Museum. This particular work by Lee Yongbaek not only sucked me in at first look, but it drew me back into the exhibit for a second. My son too, as you can see.Lee4

As you stand and look at the mirror, you see images of sculpted heads flicker and morph in the middle of a dark, seemingly three-dimensional space. The heads are easily recognizable as Buddha and Jesus, sculpted by other artists in other times, although they sometimes shift from one to the next so quickly that you can’t see them distinctly.

The work is not hard to understand, at least on a basic level. Here, east meets west. Lee points to the tension between two gods that sometimes exist at the extremes of cultural difference, but by conflating the two, he puts them into a symbiotic relationship, like conjoined twins or some sci-fi double being. In this way, he explores the cultural divide by bringing them intimately close.Lee2

But that’s not what grabbed me. Even as the heads change rapidly from one to the next, there are moments when a head lingers for a few seconds—as if suspended or caught—and then it twitches before finally morphing into the next. It feels like it is trying to hold on, but it just can’t.

In those moments, it seems as if there is some sort of glitch in the system—something is not working—like the smooth flow between the two divine beings has been interrupted, disrupted, obstructed. It reminds me of the holodeck on Star Trek when something in the hologram “twitches” and Captain Picard knows that something is not right. Lee5

Lee seems to be giving away the ruse. Sure, he’s merging these two gods together in order to suggest that perhaps they are not so different after all. But he seems to admit that this vision is just that—a vision. It’s not real. It can never be real. It will only ever be an illusion … like a hologram.

To push this a little further, it’s not just the vision of a harmonious religion that is tenuous here. The images of each god are fundamentally unstable. Even when the image lingers for a few moments, it eventually gets pulled into the next.

Lee3In other words, the images repeatedly lose their integrity—as images of the divine ought to do. An image of a god is not the god they represent. An image is always limited, always contrived. And yet we hang on to those images. Sometimes desperately or even zealously.

This time of year—Advent—I am so aware of the use of images to encapsulate the birth narrative of Jesus. Some images can be powerful, others painfully trite. Either way, it’s all too tempting to let the images be the story. It’s hard enough already to keep from reducing Christmas down to a few lovely sentiments, pictures of Mary, Joseph, and a cute little baby don’t help.

Perhaps this season, I will try to look at images in order to see through them. I don’t mean this in a cynical sense (although my propensity for such things could lead me there…bah, nostalgia, consumerism, and sublimation!). Instead I could look for ways that images point toward the depth and richness of the narrative and the theology of the incarnation, maybe even in spite of themselves.

I’ll keep you posted.








Richard Renaldi, Touching Strangers series, 2007-present

Richard Renaldi, Touching Strangers series, 2007-present

I’m looking backward again. While in Chicago last summer I visited Richard Renaldi’s “Touching Strangers” exhibition at the Loyola University Museum of Art. This series has gotten a lot of attention and I’m still mulling it over.


On the surface, the idea is an easy one: Renaldi asks people who have never met to pose in an intimate way—as if they are a couple, family, or close friends—and then he takes a photograph.

Okay … but there are a lot of (mostly unanswered) questions here. How did he approach them? When the participants are in a private space—like a hotel room—how did he get them there? How did he pick them? What did he say when he first approached them? Did they decide how to touch or was there some coaching? If so, how much?



After a little digging, I did find a answers to the last couple questions. Apparently, Renaldi did make suggestions to the participants—like to flirt or even kiss. This makes sense if you’re a photographer wanting interesting photographs. It makes less sense if you want to really explore the connection between touch and relationship, which was the series’ ostensible reason d’etre.

In fact, after looking at the first half-dozen photographs in the gallery that day in June, I found the basic interpretation of the project to be all wrong. I had read that Renaldi is using touch to make spontaneous and fleeting relationships between strangers. I don’t think so. He’s just asking them to touch, and touching does not necessarily mean a relationship has formed, even a fleeting one.



This demands a little interrogation. For some photos, you could say that the subjects performed relationship because they got into it and acted like they were in a relationship. Or, you could say that the relationship he created was “two people who participated in this artist’s project.” And maybe for a few of the photographs, the brief interaction did lead to a real connection between of the participants. But as a whole, these photographs are not about relationships in any meaningful sense of the term.

Now, despite this criticism, I think this project is fascinating—just not for the reason Renaldi and others have proposed.



As I walked around the gallery, I was struck again and again by how the subjects dealt with the issue of trust. To participate, they had to trust each other and they had to trust Renaldi—and all the more so because they were directed to pose in intimate ways. To shake a hand is one thing, to kiss or even hug is quite another.



For me, each photograph became a study about how different people react when this kind of trust is requested or even demanded of them. For some, they throw themselves at it, as if the best way to trust is to pretend there’s nothing at risk. For others, they tense up and exert their will over any fears. Others seem to be comfortable with the scenario—as if they have a natural trust in people, even strangers.

Maybe this has struck home because I have young children and the idea of “stranger danger” is everywhere. My mama bear instincts flash when someone I don’t know even talks to my children, let alone touches them. And yet, I don’t want my children to grow up always keeping strangers at arm’s-length. I want them to reach out. I want them to practice hospitality.

There are so many passages in the Bible that stress the importance of hospitality—welcoming strangers, into one’s home, trusting them in order to give them a place for refuge or rest. One of my favorites comes from Hebrews: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2).

With the refugee crisis growing around the world right now, we can see the relationship between trust and hospitality playing out. There are millions of strangers who desperately need a place of rest and refuge. Do we have the trust to reach out and welcome them? Where is our trust?

Of course, our trust is in God. God calls us to open our doors, to kindle a fire, to prepare a meal… to touch a stranger as if she is family, as if he is an intimate friend.

And when we reach out, we place our trust in God.

I just wish it were that easy.



Casting Stones

September 30, 2015

Julie Green, Last Supper, 2000-present

Julie Green, Last Supper, 2000-present

After a long hiatus for a whole mess of reasons, I’m returning to the discipline of looking and praying and writing. I never stopped looking, but it’s time to get back to the praying and writing. I need it.

Green-FishJulie Green’s Last Supper has been on my mind since I saw it at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University this summer. The project, I think, is brilliant. In a nutshell, she has painted about 500 (and counting) individual plates to show the meal requests of death row inmates. She includes the state where the execution occurred and the date. Sometimes, when there was no last meal, she has text simply describing situation–a denied request or no request at all, for example.

To stand in a room full of these plates—there were 357 in the exhibition I saw—is haunting. I felt the presence of these individuals. I knew approximately three things about them, but that was enough to make each one a distinct individual. There is something oddly intimate about knowing what someone wanted for their very last meal.

Green-Breakfast2Bagels and coffee. Three eggs, three slices of bacon, three sausages and toast. Fried chicken and watermelon. Grilled fish, oysters, and prawns. Four eggs, four chicken drumsticks, salsa, four jalapeno peppers, lettuce, tortillas, hash browns, garlic bread, two pork chops, white and yellow grated cheese, sliced onions and tomatoes, a pitcher of milk and a vanilla milkshake. A pack of cigarettes.

Green helps us to think about the humanity of these individuals. By showing us something about them that is so basically human, she deters our tendency to view these individuals as “the evil other,” and instead gives us something in common with them. What would you request?

Green-KFCGreen’s choices underscore her message. Because she uses second-hand plates—and each one unique—the plates feel so personal. As objects, they had previous lives in which they held other meals for other people, and now they carry their own last meals as well. At the same time, there is something monumental and unified about the plates because there are so many of them, and all painted in a brushy style with cobalt blue. There is, after all, one thing that unites all the different lives these plates represent.

What makes this particularly brilliant, at least to my mind, is how Green subtly draws a connection between these individuals and Jesus. The title “Last Supper” is not simply a play on a well-established subject matter in art, she uses it to make bigger claims (or ask bigger questions).

After all—Christ, too, was executed. He also had a last meal.

In this, her project takes on a slightly different angle. Can justice ever be fair, true, and impartial? In Jesus’ case, clearly not. Jesus was tried on trumped-up charges and condemned by a judge who was clearly manipulated by a powerful interest group. And our own justice system? How many of these death sentences have been the result of similar circumstances? How can we ever know?

A student who was with me in the exhibition pointed out that Green’s approach completely elides the facts about the crimes these prisoners committed and that, if we knew the charges, our feelings of connection and maybe even sympathy would likely be significantly diminished. I agree.

What Green does, however, is level the field—to emphasize our common humanity—in order to question our right to judge and condemn to death. Even if they have committed heinous crimes and “deserve to die,” do we have the right to kill them? Jesus said it: “You who are without sin cast the first stone.”

The would-be executioners that Jesus confronted that day knew they needed to put down their stones. Do we?

Green-Birthday CakeGreen-None

Green-Reg Prison Fare   Green-Big

A Testimony of Grace

April 27, 2015

Keith Haring, Altar Piece, 1990  (this edition: Grace Cathedral, San Francisco)

Keith Haring, Altar Piece, 1990
(this edition is in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco)

While in Denver for a short trip a couple weeks ago, I spent a few hours at the Denver Art Museum. They have this artwork displayed in a rather odd place—a wide corridor that connects their two main buildings. You could easily miss it, except it’s a Keith Haring, and Keith Haring tends to draw attention.

Haring made nine editions of this cast-bronze sculpture shortly before his death in 1990. A firsthand account of its making, written by Sam Havadtoy, has become the primary way that this artwork is popularly understood. If you’re curious, you can find it here.

Obviously, there is lots of Christian iconography here.

The viewer is immediately drawn to the baby in the middle of the center panel, presumably an infant Jesus in the arms of Mary. But the figure that extends up is also vaguely trinitarian–the many arms suggesting the omnipotence of God. The topmost pair echo the arms of the cross, and the head seems to look down. The short lines surrounding this figure convey a sense of energy.

On the left and right panels, Haring drew four winged creatures. Havadtoy described them as an image of a fallen angel (the Fall) and the resurrection (Christ’s victory). The people crowded below seem to dance, swoon, and reach up to heaven.

So, as far as I can tell, this is usually interpreted as a reflection on—if not an affirmation of—the sacred. I get that. Haring does express Christian theology about salvation in a rather tidy and compelling image.

But, there’s another way to read this—as a personal reflection on his own impending death.

When he drew so-called “radiant babies” before, he was connoting a range of things—sometimes Jesus, but also all of humanity and even himself. The main figure–an all-powerful, loving, tender God– cradles this little baby. Could Haring have imagined himself being held by God as he prepared for his own death? Could he have been contemplating how, despite his own sin, eternal life might be possible because of God’s love for him?

I don’t know. After a protestant upbringing and an affiliation with the Jesus Movement, he spent much of his short adult life being skeptical about religion and the church. He did come back around to Christianity, apparently, so it’s conceivable that he would do such an overtly theological artwork—especially when drawing on a triptych shaped like an altarpiece—but it is less clear if he would have endeavored a personal reflection on his own salvation.

But does it really matter? Haring understood how language and symbolism work. An author/artist uses a series of words/symbols to send a message, but the receiver might hear/read a different message because they understand the words and symbols differently. Ambiguity is part of the game of communication.

So, he carves these symbols into clay and they are cast into bronze. The message is sent.

I am satisfied.