Life As Art
[Editor’s Note: We are pleased to introduce you to the work of Troy Bronsink, who will serve as the keynote speaker and moderator at The BTS Center’s annual January convocation. This year, the theme of Convocation 2016 is “Life as Art: Design Thinking and Mindfulness for Integrating Life and Ministry.” In the following piece, Troy offers a preview of its content.]
What do I hope to accomplish next year? What would I like to learn next year? In what ways do I hope that 2016 will be different than 2015? What beautiful experiences, relationships, or creative ventures would I like to carry over from 2015 and sustain throughout the year?
These sorts of questions arise in the new year as many of us try to reexamine our intentions and better sync up our life and work with our hopes.
In his poem “History,” Wendell Berry writes of a moment in life where he understood his participation in history and in his family farmland as a form of art—his “art of being here.” He compares his farm work to that of a songbird, singing freely in anticipation of a day when his life’s song rings true as a fully articulated vision:
Through my history’s despite
and ruin, I have come
to its remainder, and here
have made the beginning
of a farm intended to become
my art of being here.
By it I would instruct
my wants: they should belong
to each other and to this place.
Until my song comes here
to learn its words, my art
is but the hope of song.
Berry is noting that intention and freedom meet as art. You must have a dream to pick up the plow; yet the land itself will also revise and expand the dream as you go.
So, where do your intentions and freedom meet? Where does the world around you intersect and enlarge even your grandest imaginings?
Personally, I find myself constantly caught in the tension between making things happen and learning what is happening around me. Some days, I drive the program like an obsessed artist, and relationships can suffer for it. Other days, I step back from work to take in the beauty and can struggle to get back to the daily grind. Usually it is a bit of both.
Maybe you can relate. Sometimes, as leaders in faith communities, we find ourselves running high on intention but feeling depleted of freedom and opportunity. Other times, we find ourselves burnt out on intention and unable to focus our work in courageously hope-filled ways. How do we balance the work and vision, the creating and being created?
But we can’t all be artists, can we?
The late poet John O’Donohue liked to say that we are all artists because we are all ex-kids, and we all fashion the environments in which we live. We all have imagination (or at least recall that experience from childhood). And most of us chose what we are wearing today, or the color of our car, or our bedroom wall, or our notebook. So, it’s not a matter of whether you are an artist, it is how your art actually manifests itself.
What is your art-work? What does your life’s work-of-art feel like to you? What has your body been telling you?
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “You are God’s work of art, created within Christ Jesus for a good-working-life which God designed, in advance, to be your way of life” (2:10, my translation). From the Big Bang to this very moment, the poetry of your life is the very vehicle for the incarnation of Christ to show up in the world. God’s love is made manifest in this very moment.
Take a moment to contemplate your day yesterday as an exercise in art appreciation: What did time reveal yesterday? What did my encounters with material, monetary, and spatial resources reveal? What did my thoughts teach me about God, others, and myself?
Art is not about simply asking “What did I make?” or “How does it look/sound?” Art is about process, a dance with time, space, matter, and individuals who are all beyond our control and yet within our responsibility (to varying degrees). In the words of Thomas Merton, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” Thus, in design thinking we learn that everything from iPhones to office chairs to cathedrals comes into being when risks are taken on dreams and lessons are learned from those risks.
Whether you’re an accountant, a painter, or a pastor, your vocation can be a source of discovery. How is your work teaching you about yourself and God’s presence in our world? Are you satisfied (even inspired) by the limits of your materials and space, or driven to wit’s end by limitations? Do you find yourself in flow with time or obsessively racing against it?
Regardless of whether you are a leader in a church struggling to survive, a mid-level manager struggling to keep your paycheck, or a parent struggling to keep on top of kids going in myriad directions, we all struggle to stop and notice this life we are making. And when these struggles are compounded—church member upon church member, neighbor upon neighbor, all trying to navigate life, both individually and collectively—it can produce a cumulative societal effect that is anything but artful.
In a consumerist, scapegoating, hyper-efficient world, the artist is often defamed for “wasting” resources like time or money. But this misunderstanding is rooted in a narrative that wants us to believe that life is scarce, that our hopes are always out of reach, and that the gods are withholding their love and pleasure from those who have to earn it. The abundance of grace that Paul describes to the Ephesians as “God’s workmanship prepared in Christ Jesus” is taking form as you, me, and every precious thing across time. In this view, then, the artist is not “wasting time” but rather “honoring time” by spending it richly, generously, deeply.
In the contemplative life, this means making space to observe and honor your life, and God’s life within you and all that is.
To return to Berry’s own “art of being here” metaphor, is your family farm a place that informs who you are, or do you battle against it and end up despising your art? How will you put your hand to the plow while learning from the farm, this life you’re stewarding?
Maybe try this: As a practice of prayer, grab paper and pencils and give yourself 20 minutes for a visualization exercise. Picture an hourglass filled with grains of sand representing the 168 hours in your last week. Imagine breaking that glass open and sorting through the grains. As you do so, you notice that these are not normal grains of sand! Each grain carries physical characteristics such as color, temperature, or sound. The grains don’t just measure time, they remember the physical sensations of that time. Using your five senses, sort through the last week recalling what your time looked and felt like. Journal or draw what you notice.
Observe God’s presence in your own history and your own dreams in this very moment, as you are reading and observing your journal or sketch. What is your life teaching you? How is your vocation a witness, or a bird song, allowing you to more deeply experience God in this life? And what practices invite your song, your art, to come home to you?
“Now let me feed my song upon this life that is here,” Berry writes at the end of “History,” aware that the work of the artist will also feed the world around it until “this blood has turned to dust and liquefied in stem and vein ten thousand times.” The craft of mindfully participating in your very life entails honoring the art within which you belong, as well as honoring the art you are putting into this world so that it, too, may mingle with all that is. Your life as art is your relationship with God. It is that “good-working” life that the Creator has designed from the beginning and for all time. Life everlasting is, then, our lived prayer: we receive it, we tend it, and we pass it along.
How is your life a work of art?