Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Do something.

It has always been a challenge for me to accept the presumed dichotomy between doing and being. I mean, really, think about it. Being is the thing that takes no effort. Breath in, breath out. And there you are. You are being. You are not asked if you want to be, or not to be. You simply are. No one does it better than someone else. In fact, being is the great leveler

There does seem to be a kind of tension between action and, well, what exactly? There is something of our life that is about choices and actions, and something that is about the mystery of being.

In some of my circles, the narrative in Luke’s Gospel about what Martha and Mary, two friends of Jesus, did while he was teaching, is thought to be all about doing vs. being.

As if Mary, the sister of the hostess who sat listening to the rabbi is the example of someone who is “being” (read:  good) and Martha, the one who opened her home to guests and was busy preparing a meal as the one who is the model of someone who is “doing” (read:  bad).

The issue may have been the scale of preparations that Martha felt necessary. Was it a question of honoring Jesus?  A bit extravagant? A little OCD on the hospitality scale? Jesus said: “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Whatever Martha was doing, Luke says she was distracted.

From listening to Jesus.

But that is not a choice between doing and being. Her sister also made a choice, and she was doing something.

Listening to Jesus.

What are you going to do today, the things that “have to be done”? and the things that ought to be done? Catalysts and dreamers who create things don’t like to sit still for long.  But hopefully today will be one of those days where I get the values right.

A man for whom I had great respect, Pastor Thomas would pray in the morning: “Lord don’t let me miss my assignment today.” As if God wants to have something to say about how the day unrolls.

Lord, have mercy on me. I am listening.

Friday, June 22, 2012


So here I am on the way again.

I love flying in a small plane early in the morning. The angle of the rising sun highlights the contours of fields which otherwise look flat. Now the hills and berms cast their shadows. Alternating green and brown, cut by winding lines and dotted with blue grey ponds. To the right, the slow curves of the Mississippi.

Today I am moving toward a place that was born in conflict, and violence and genocide. Where thousands were killed in the perversion of the name of Christ. Not centuries ago, but about two decades ago. Some of my friends who decide not to be called "Christian," but instead "followers of Christ," do so because of the realities that are a part of places like this. Where the Muslim with whom you speak can only think of the murder of his father and uncle when he hears the word "Christian." How does the movement of those flowing one who led by suffering and crucifixion get things so wrong? And what word can we bring to make him known?

Unlike my recent trip to Haiti, where organizing medical and dental outreach and loving children was simple enough, and everywhere around we saw and heard expressions of faith in Christ, being in Bosnia requires, well, more being and listening. And if my heart was drawn to the Haitians because of their suffering and my years of ministry focused on the French world, it is broken simply by the thought of those who may be justified in their animosity towards people who are called Christian. Christ have mercy on us.

Jim Beise
Creative Catalyst

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Garbage as Art

“The moment when one thing turns into another is the most beautiful moment.”

Thus superstar Brazilian artist Vik Muniz expresses something of his motivation in using unconventional, found materials to create surprising photographic portraits of marginalized people. He once used the sugar from their crops to portray the deprived children of Caribbean plantation workers.

As he was working to create a project using garbage, searching for the subject of the portraits, filmmaker Lucy Walker chronicled the discussions and the process. The journey led Muniz to the catadores who pick through Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. The resulting film, Waste Land, (I watched it on Netflix) shows that after meeting the catadores, Muniz decided to turn the project into a collaboration with them. (Read and see more here.)

Essentially self-designated pickers of recyclable materials, it is difficult to imagine a more marginalized population than the catadores. They pick through the garbage discarded by other Brazilians to find valuable recyclables.

Waste Land
portrays the dignity and suffering of these workers. Muniz decides to give the proceeds from the photographs he creates of the finished pieces to the catadores. The funds, which were significant, were used to improve their lives: the building of a community center, a library, an education center, and to maintain trucks for the pickers union that one of the catadores founded.

Jardim Gramacho is scheduled to be closed this year, and the association of pickers is joining efforts to provide job training so that the catadores can find other employment and betters lives.

The Sundance Film Festival said that Walker’s film offers “stirring evidence of the transformative power of art and the dignity that can be found in personal determination.” But it is Muniz himself who shows us how art can elevate materials and how it can elevate humanity. This is art, and artistic process which produces real change in the world. Transformative. Generative.

There is something amazing about the miracle of one thing becoming another. It is the creative moment. The pickers look at garbage and see things of value. Muniz takes recyclables and makes art.

What are you transforming? What are you generating?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Art as voice

In the rear-view mirror my youngest son’s face was only an outline. But I could make out the shape of his cool new glasses, and see that he was looking out the window as we drove through a Tennessee thunderstorm last night. I wondered what he was thinking about.

I have been reading and thinking about disability a good bit in the last several months, and I ask your indulgence as this entry may veer off the road of art, theology, and culture. Or maybe not.

About two and half years ago, my son, then fifteen years old, was transitioning off of the serotonin reuptake inhibitor that helped him sit in his schoolroom and control his impulses (which others, including me, found disruptive), in preparation for a change of prescription.

It was as if he came briefly out of a fog. The evidence of this was a week during which he began to draw colorful images. They were clearly inspired by a trip to the grocery store and a close encounter with an aquarium of live lobsters and crabs.

Amazing. Detailed. Dynamic. Colorful. No staying inside the lines, because there were no lines. These were original and creative.

Then, as the new medicines had their effect, that creative expression disappeared again.

We have struggled to help him find his voice, and release his expression. His thoughts. His needs. His questions. His opinions. His way of seeing the world.

What he finds happy or sad, beautiful or terrible, just or unjust, tasty or awful. What he imagines and dreams.

Then, yesterday, neither coached nor encouraged to do so, he picked up his colored markers and drew.

An artistic impulse. A creative initiative.

This little drawing is a reminder that he is there.

Perhaps waiting for us to help him out of his box, filled with fog.

Riding in the car, maybe he was thinking about bugs and other crawling creatures. Or about drawing something. Or maybe he was finding the power of the thunderstorm amazing. Or wondering if the wind was cold.

Or maybe he was imagining what it would like to dance with a beautiful girl in the rain.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Gabon, Water, and Choices

Today I went to the public library and checked out the three books they had about Haiti. We are planning a trip there this summer to staff a medical clinic, and serve in whatever way we can. Over the years I have led many short-term teams, and met wonderful people in desperately impoverished places.

On a reconnaissance trip to Gabon years ago, I arrived into Port Gentil. We were warmly received by a pastor, and then driven inland to the small city where the church and the guesthouse were located. We had traveled from the capital by arranging passage on an over-night freighter full of bananas and furniture, and I was covered with black soot. We had packed lightly, so the women who would be cooking for us also offered to wash my clothes. It was a relief to know that I would have something clean to wear.

The next morning the pastor took me out on the lake and away from the main fishing port, back into the smaller coves and inlets, to the neighborhoods where many of the people he served lived.

These were groups of homes built with scavenged wood, all about ten feet above the water, with ladders down to the boats that they used for fishing and transportation. There were footpaths into the city, but no roads. The isolated area was surrounded by marshes and swamps.

It is difficult to describe what the houses looked like, but the tree-house that I once built for my kids was a palace in comparison. Kids were everywhere, playing on the wooden planks and a network of bridges that connected the houses. Some were jumping into the water and swimming, some sitting and playing.

The lake was used for everything: catching fish and cleaning them, transportation, sewer, recreation, cooking and drinking. And laundry.

I saw the ladies from the church, washing my clothes on some boards.

There is something in us that likes to think that most of what happens in life can be controlled. That we can make choices.

There are about a billion people in the world that don’t have clean, safe water available to them. And this is something they cannot control. They either have access to clean water or they don’t.

That trip was in 1986, a distant memory. But I remember thinking that there were probably three or four generations of people living in those shacks, perched over the water which was at once a source of food and of illness. I thought about it as I ate the fish and rice the family had prepared especially for me. And again about six months later when I was under treatment for some kind of parasite that I was hosting.

Today I remember the kids jumping off the docks. I guess they didn’t read Rick Steve’s guidebook, which clearly warns about swimming in fresh water lakes.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A kind of Emptying

The other day some friends were at our house and wanted to see the backyard. So we took a moment away from the grill ("If you're looking it ain't cookin'"). In the back corner, hidden behind some fencing, we discovered what happens to a project left half-finished.

The work that I had done in preparation for a small shed, a place for our bikes and my mower, seemed to have vanished. The hard rains, the fertile soil and persistent weeds and scrub trees had conspired to undo what I had begun.

That image came to my mind today as I was reading about the middle ages. Not the European ones. If I find myself confronted with certain boundaries, certain limits or lines inside of which I live, it is because I realize that there are not just a few projects that have gone a bit wild, reclaimed while I was busy doing other things.
There is something worrisome about that.

Humility is tough to talk about. Don't worry, I don't think I have got it figured out. I may not even be more humble than I was. But I am learning something.

It is hard not to agree with Dave Goetz when he suggests that “self-knowledge and its visible corollary, humility, seem not to be a one-time acquisition like conversion or an urgent sense of call that often marks the beginner years of faith. It’s a slow, agonizing progression as the soul makes it way toward God.” (CT Dec. 2010, p.53) But that does not it make it pleasant.

My eyes are always on the horizon and my heart imagines what is possible and moves me forward to create what should be. I love to catalyze and encourage. I love to dream, and listen to dreams. And then to take action.

The weeds that follow me around are annoying, but I am inspired by T. S. Elliot who wrote: “old men should be explorers, ” and by these words from Isaiah: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” I am not old yet.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The language of transformation

This morning I picked up a book that had been in storage for several years, and quickly remembered why it was one of the voices that shaped my thinking and ricocheted me into a journey different than the one I had imagined.

In his preface to Christ of the Indian Road, E. Stanly Jones wrote: "I do not make a special drive upon you because you are the neediest people of our race, but because you are a member of our race. I am convinced that the only kind of a world worth having is a world patterned after the mind and spirit of Jesus. I am therefore making a drive upon the world as it is, in behalf of the world as it ought to be, and as you are a part of that world, I come to you."

There is plenty of conversation today about the relationship, or lack thereof, between what was Christendom and the movement that Jesus initiated. I will not add to that here.

For most of thirty years Europe has been my primary life focus, and I must admit that living in Paris was wonderful. But my reason for being there had little to do with the remnants of the institution and everything to do with this same idea: that the revolutionary ideas of Jesus, originating not in the West nor in economic or political discussions, show us glimpses of the world as it ought to be, and invite us into it as a reality breaking into what we live right now.

Is that the language of idealists, or of artists? It is certainly a perspective that moves us away from judging and imposing, towards listening and inviting, discovering and celebrating.

In every place, no matter where we are, Christ finds us on our road. He wants to make us human again.
The illusion wanes, and in time we return
to our noisy cities where the blue
appears only in fragments
high up among the towering shapes.
Then rain leaching the earth.
Tedious, winter burdens the roofs,
and light is a miser, the soul bitter.
Yet, one day through an open gate,
among the green luxuriance of a yard,
the yellow lemons fire
and the heart melts,
and golden songs pour
into the breast
from the raised cornets of the sun.

from "The Lemon Trees"
by Eugenio Montale
(Translated by Lee Gerlach)