Archive for the ‘Gospel of Matthew’ Category

Where Two, Where Three

September 1, 2014

Kinfolk
Image: Kinfolk © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Year A, Proper 18/Ordinary 23/Pentecost +13: Matthew 18.15-20

Five years ago, on Labor Day weekend, the love of my life asked me to marry him. I was on Tybee Island, Georgia, with a group of my girlfriends from seminary who get together every year at this time. Gary had booked a concert in nearby Savannah that same weekend, and my friends and I drove over to see him. The concert hall was already packed when we arrived, but we managed to find a few seats near the back. Halfway through the concert, in front of a few hundred people and these dear friends, Gary jumped off the stage, ran the length of the hall to where we were sitting, and asked me to spend my life with him.

I was with these friends again this Labor Day weekend. In the midst of my sorrow, it was sweet beyond measure to be with this circle of women who hold this memory for me. I was thrilled to learn that one of my friends still had photos on her camera from the morning after the proposal, when they invited Gary over to the Tybee house for a celebratory brunch. (You can see one of those treasured photos below.)

In the wake of Gary’s dying, I cannot say I have become any more clear about what Jesus means when he says, in this week’s gospel reading, “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” But I can tell you that when Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” I see this circle of friends who have enfolded me in times of deepest joy and keenest sorrow, bearing the presence of Christ in their midst.

Where Two, Where Three
A Blessing

Take my hand
and you will see
how this blessing
finds its way
to us
not as if
we each held
a piece of
its puzzle

but as if
it cannot resist
this space that opens
between us,
this place that is made
where we two meet,
where we three touch,
where we gather

with our eyes
open
with our hearts
open
with our hands
open
one to another

and on our lips
the name of Love,
all the blessing
we need ever
know.


EngagedEngaged


For a previous reflection on this passage, click the image or title below.

For What Binds Us
For What Binds Us

Using Jan’s artwork…
To use the image “Kinfolk,” please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. (This is also available as an art print. After clicking over to the image’s page on the Jan Richardson Images site, just scroll down to the “Purchase as an Art Print” section.) Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!

Using Jan’s words…
For worship services and related settings, you are welcome to use Jan’s blessings or other words from this blog without requesting permission. All that’s needed is to acknowledge the source. Please include this info in a credit line: “© Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.” For other uses, visit Copyright Permissions.

Stubborn Blessing

August 11, 2014

MercyImage: Mercy © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Year A, Proper 15/Ordinary 20/Pentecost +10: Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28

A Canaanite woman from that region
came out and started shouting,

“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David;
my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
– Matthew 15:22

Clearly Jesus didn’t realize who he was messing with that day. Or did he? Perhaps Jesus knew precisely what he was doing and chose to use this encounter as a teaching moment for his hearers. Or perhaps he was simply in a stubborn mood and found himself facing someone who could match him easily, stubborn for stubborn. Either way, the story shows us that when it comes to saving what needs saving, being merely nice and pliant won’t win the day, or the life. Sometimes we need to dig in our heels and do some hollering.

Stubborn Blessing

Don’t tell me no.
I have seen you
feed the thousands,
seen miracles spill
from your hands
like water, like wine,
seen you with circles
and circles of crowds
pressed around you
and not one soul
turned away.

Don’t start with me.

I am saying
you can close the door
but I will keep knocking.
You can go silent
but I will keep shouting.
You can tighten the circle
but I will trace a bigger one
around you,
around the life of my child
who will tell you
no one surpasses a mother
for stubbornness.

I am saying
I know what you
can do with crumbs
and I am claiming mine,
every morsel and scrap
you have up your sleeve.
Unclench your hand,
your heart.
Let the scraps fall
like manna,
like mercy
for the life
of my child,
the life of
the world.

Don’t you tell me no.


For a previous reflection on this passage, click the image or title below.

The Feast Beneath
The Feast Beneath

Using Jan’s artwork…
To use the image “Mercy,” please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. (This is also available as an art print. After clicking over to the image’s page on the Jan Richardson Images site, just scroll down to the “Purchase as an Art Print” section.) Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!

Using Jan’s words…
For worship services and related settings, you are welcome to use Jan’s blessings or other words from this blog without requesting permission. All that’s needed is to acknowledge the source. Please include this info in a credit line: “© Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.” For other uses, visit Copyright Permissions.

Walk Across That Water

August 5, 2014

Image: Walk Across That Water © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Year A, Proper 14/Ordinary 19/Pentecost +9: Matthew 14.22-33

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.
– Matthew 14.31

Eight months have passed since Gary’s death: a moment, an aching eternity. I can tell you that I know what it means to be borne up when the waters overwhelm. I know the grace of hands that reach out to carry and console and give courage. I am learning—again, anew—what faith is, how this word that we sometimes toss around so casually holds depths within depths that will draw us beyond nearly everything we once believed.

This is some of what I know right now about faith:

That faith is not something I can summon by a sheer act of will.

That it lives and breathes in the community that encompasses us.

That I cannot force faith but can ask for it, can pray that it will make its way to me and bear me up over the next wave, and the next.

That it comes.

That I can lean into it.

That it will propel me not only toward the Christ who calls me, but also back toward the boat that holds my life, incomprehensible in both its pain and its grace.

What are you knowing about faith right now? Where is it bearing you?

Blessing that Bears the Wind, the Wave

That we will risk
the drenching
by which we
are drawn
toward the voice
that calls us,
the love
that catches us,
the faith
that carries us
beyond the wind,
the wave.

Blessing of Song: At the time of his death, Gary had nearly finished recording a wondrous new Song Chapel CD. One song, titled “Let Me Out of This Boat,” was inspired by this passage. I would love to share the song with you; you can listen to it by clicking the arrow on the audio player below. [For my email subscribers: if you don’t see the audio player, click here to go to The Painted Prayerbook site, where you can view the player in this post.]

P.S. For a previous reflection on this passage (which includes “Blessing on the Waves”), click the image or title below:

Night Passage
Blessing on the Waves

Using Jan’s artwork…
To use the image “Walk Across That Water,” please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. (This is also available as an art print. After clicking over to the image’s page on the Jan Richardson Images site, just scroll down to the “Purchase as an Art Print” section.) Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!

Using Jan’s words…
For worship services and related settings, you are welcome to use Jan’s blessings or other words from this blog without requesting permission. All that’s needed is to acknowledge the source. Please include this info in a credit line: “© Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.” For other uses, visit Copyright Permissions.

Transfiguration Sunday: When Glory

February 23, 2014


Image: Transfiguration II © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Transfiguration Sunday, Year A (March 2): Matthew 17.1-9

And he was transfigured before them,
and his face shone like the sun,
and his clothes became dazzling white.
—Matthew 17.1-2

I am painting again. For the first time since Gary went into the hospital—more than three months ago now—I have picked up my brushes and palette knives and paints. It has been a huge threshold to cross; I had to pack up my art supplies and leave town in order to do it.

Gary has been such a part of my creative process that it’s hard to imagine how to create on my own again. Our studios were on opposite sides of the house, and we regularly traveled (or hollered) back and forth between them as we worked. My husband was a remarkable thinking partner, possessed of a keen ability to notice what was happening in a painting or a piece of writing and to help me find my way when I became stuck. He saw everything—every image, every word—before I released it into the world. He sometimes saw things even before I did, pointing toward possibilities that were stirring but I hadn’t yet perceived.

Whether on our individual projects or the ones we collaborated on, our process was deeply intertwined. Having experienced that for years, the prospect of beginning to paint again in my too-empty house felt daunting, so I spent the past week at my parents’ home, where I commandeered the kitchen table and set up a makeshift studio. I wept when I sat down before the blank surface. And then I picked up my paintbrush and began. I hardly knew how to begin, but I began.

The week has provided a powerful reminder of a curious tension that the creative process (and life) asks us to hold: to claim and live into a vision, while at the same time remaining open to the surprises that occur—those moments when, after weeks or months or sometimes years, our faithfulness in showing up and tending the vision suddenly draws us into a dramatic shift, a new way of seeing and working. Even as we lean in the direction of our vision, the process asks us to relax our hold on our fixed ideas and habitual patterns, so that we can recognize what waits to emerge.

I didn’t intentionally time my return to painting to occur in such close proximity to Transfiguration Sunday. Yet I have found myself noticing the resonance, and paying attention to what stirs for me in this story of the three who followed Jesus up the mountain and had to follow him back down again. Life has required me, in a painfully vivid fashion, to release what I have counted on most. As I navigate the new terrain of my life, I am continually faced with choices—in my painting, in my writing, in the agonizing sorting of Gary’s things, in every aspect of every unfolding day—about what to hold onto, and what to let go. In the midst of all this, our story this week asks me, In all the changing, what abides? In the leaving and letting go, what gift still goes with us? How will we allow ourselves to be transformed by the transfigured Christ who accompanies us in every place?

The story of the Transfiguration is not simply about learning to leave the mountaintop, or about releasing what we have grown attached to. It’s not just about resisting our desire to turn moments of transcendence into monuments. The story of the Transfiguration is about opening our eyes to glory, allowing that glory to alter us, and becoming willing to walk where it leads us. The story urges us to trust that what we have seen, what we have known, will go with us. It assures us that the gifts received on the mountaintop will continue to illuminate us not only on level ground but even when we walk in the valley of the shadow.

When Glory
A Blessing for Transfiguration Sunday

That when glory comes
we will open our eyes
to see it.

That when glory shows up
we will let ourselves
be overcome
not by fear
but by the love
it bears.

That when glory shines
we will bring it
back with us
all the way
all the way
all the way down.


BELOVED: An Online Journey into Lent & Easter
Are you hungry for an experience that draws you into Lent without feeling like it’s just one more thing to add to your schedule? Join us for this online retreat that easily fits into the flow (or chaos!) of your days, inviting you into an elegantly simple space to reflect on your journey and find sustenance for your path. Intertwining reflection, art, music, and community, this retreat is a great way to journey toward Easter, from anywhere you are. Click Online Lenten Retreat or the image below for details and registration. Individual, group, and congregational rates are available!

For previous reflections for Transfiguration Sunday, click the images or titles below:


Transfiguration Sunday: Dazzling



Transfiguration: Back to the Drawing Board



Transfiguration Sunday: Show and (Don’t) Tell

Using Jan’s artwork…
To use the image “Transfiguration II,” please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. (This is also available as an art print—just scroll down to the “Purchase as an Art Print” section when you click the link to the image on the JRI site.) Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!

Using Jan’s words…
For worship services and related settings, you are welcome to use Jan’s blessings or other words from this blog without requesting permission. All that’s needed is to acknowledge the source. Please include this info in a credit line: “© Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.” For other uses, visit Copyright Permissions.

 

Epiphany: This Brightness That You Bear

January 2, 2014


Image: This Brightness That You Bear © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Epiphany, Years ABC: Matthew 2.1-12

They set out; and there, ahead of them,
went the star that they had seen at its rising,
until it stopped over the place where the child was.
—Matthew 2.9

Many of you know that my amazing husband, Garrison Doles, died unexpectedly at the beginning of Advent, after experiencing complications during what we had anticipated would be a fairly routine surgery in mid-November. (I invite you to read this remembrance and blessing I wrote for Gary, if you haven’t seen it.) I am so grateful for all those who encircled us from near and far while Gary was in the hospital, and who are continuing to encompass our family during this time of stunning heartbreak. Every prayer, every word, every good thought has been such a tremendous gift in this dark season.

Gary and I are astoundingly fortunate in our families, who in these past weeks have held the light for us in ways that I can barely begin to thank them for. But this Christmas, I wanted to make the attempt, to at least try to offer up some words to honor the extraordinary lengths they have gone to in order to walk this journey with us. I wrote a blessing for them; today’s image is for them as well. I gave these to them on Christmas Day.

On Christmas Day I also shared the blessing and artwork with those who joined me in the online Illuminated Advent Retreat, by way of thanks for how they traveled with me through a season that was so different than I had anticipated. For Epiphany, I want to share this with you. For the light you bear in this world: thank you. If you are in a dark season of your own, or know someone who is, may this come as a gift and a prayer that you will receive the light you need.

Blessings and gratitude to you as Epiphany draws near.

This Brightness That You Bear
A Blessing for My Family

This blessing
hardly knows what to say,
speechless as it is
not simply
from grief
but from the gratitude
that has come with it—

the thankfulness that sits
among the sorrow
and can barely begin
to tell you
what it means
not to be alone.

This blessing
knows the distances
you crossed
in person
in prayer
to enter into
days of waiting,
nights of long vigil.

It knows the paths
you traveled
to be here
in the dark.

Even in the shadows
this blessing
sees more than it can say
and has simply
come to show you
the light
that you have given

not to return it
to you
not to reflect it
back to you
but only to ask you
to open your eyes
and see
the grace of it,
the gift that shines
in this brightness
that you bear.


P.S.
I come bearing a few more Epiphany gifts for you…

CELEBRATING WOMEN’S CHRISTMAS
At my Sanctuary of Women site, you can find a brand-new retreat that I’ve designed for Women’s Christmas, which some folks celebrate on Epiphany. To learn more about Women’s Christmas and download the retreat (at no cost), click the image or link below.


Women’s Christmas: The Shimmering Hours


OTHER EPIPHANIES
For previous reflections for Epiphany, including “Blessing of the Magi,” click these images or the titles below.


Epiphany: Blessing of the Magi



Epiphany: Blessing for Those Who Have Far to Travel



Epiphany: Where the Map Begins



Feast of the Epiphany: Blessing the House


AND A FESTIVE DISCOUNT
In celebration of the season, the Advent discount on annual subscriptions to Jan Richardson Images (the website that makes my work available for use in worship) will be available through Epiphany Day (January 6). For info, visit:


Jan Richardson Images

[To use the image “This Brightness That You Bear,” please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Epiphany: Blessing of the Magi

December 30, 2012


Image: By Another Road © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Epiphany, Years ABC: Matthew 2.1-12

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they left for their own country by another road.
—Matthew 2.12

Blessing of the Magi

There is no reversing
this road.
The path that bore you here
goes in one direction only,
every step drawing you
down a way
by which you will not
return.

You thought arrival
was everything,
that your entire journey
ended with kneeling
in the place
you had spent all
to find.

When you laid down
your gift,
release came with such ease,
your treasure tumbling
from your hands
in awe and
benediction.

Now the knowledge
of your leaving
comes like a stone laid
over your heart,
the familiar path closed
and not even the solace
of a star
to guide your way.

You will set out in fear
you will set out in dream

but you will set out

by that other road
that lies in shadow
and in dark.

We cannot show you
the route that will
take you home;
that way is yours
and will be found
in the walking.

But we tell you
you will wonder
at how the light you thought
you had left behind
goes with you,
spilling from
your empty hands,
shimmering beneath
your homeward feet,
illuminating the road
with every step
you take.

P.S. I have a few more Epiphany treats for you!

First: At my Sanctuary of Women site, you can find a brand-new retreat that I’ve designed for Women’s Christmas, which some folks celebrate on Epiphany. To learn more about Women’s Christmas and download the retreat (at no cost), click the image or link below.

Women’s Christmas: The Map You Make Yourself

Then: For previous reflections for Epiphany, including “Blessing for Those Who Have Far to Travel,” click this image or title:

Epiphany: Blessing for Those Who Have Far to Travel

And for the final treat: The special Advent discount on annual subscriptions to Jan Richardson Images (the website that makes my work available for use in worship) will be available through Epiphany Day (January 6). For info, visit:

Jan Richardson Images

[To use the image “By Another Road,” please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Epiphany: Blessing for Those Who Have Far to Travel

December 31, 2011


Epiphany © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Epiphany, Years ABC: Matthew 2.1-12

Merry Christmas to you, still! Because Advent is always such a wonderfully intense time for me, with offering The Advent Door and being engaged in other holiday happenings, I usually arrive at Christmas Day quite spent and ready for a long winter’s nap. I am grateful that instead of being over on December 25, when I’m finally able to take a breath, Christmas is a season—a short one, to be sure, with only twelve days, but a season nonetheless, with its own rhythm and invitations.

This year, the days of Christmas have been for me a time of resting, connecting with family and friends, long walks in the beautiful Florida sunshine, and doing some dreaming about the year ahead. Though the coming months are sure to be marked by surprises, I want to enter the year with some sense of what I’d like for the path to look like, and where I’m feeling drawn to go.

The Christmas season ends with Epiphany, a feast day in which the early church celebrated Jesus’ brilliant manifestation (epiphaneia in Greek, also translated as “appearing”) not only to the Magi but also to the world through his birth, baptism, and first recorded miracle at the wedding at Cana. Eastern Christianity maintains this multifaceted celebration of Epiphany, while we in the West focus primarily on remembering and celebrating the arrival of the Magi, those mysterious and devoted Wise Men who traveled far to welcome the Christ and offer their gifts.

As we travel toward Epiphany and savor the final days of Christmas, this is a good time to ponder where we are in our journey. As we cross into the coming year, where do you find yourself on the path? Have you been traveling more by intention or by reacting to what’s come your way? What direction do you feel drawn to go in during the coming weeks and months? Is there anything you need to let go of—or to find—in order to take the next step? In the coming months, what gift do you most need to offer, that only you can give?

Blessings and traveling mercies to you as we approach Epiphany and the year to come. I look forward to walking with you.

For Those Who Have Far to Travel
An Epiphany Blessing

If you could see
the journey whole
you might never
undertake it;
might never dare
the first step
that propels you
from the place
you have known
toward the place
you know not.

Call it
one of the mercies
of the road:
that we see it
only by stages
as it opens
before us,
as it comes into
our keeping
step by
single step.

There is nothing
for it
but to go
and by our going
take the vows
the pilgrim takes:

to be faithful to
the next step;
to rely on more
than the map;
to heed the signposts
of intuition and dream;
to follow the star
that only you
will recognize;

to keep an open eye
for the wonders that
attend the path;
to press on
beyond distractions
beyond fatigue
beyond what would
tempt you
from the way.

There are vows
that only you
will know;
the secret promises
for your particular path
and the new ones
you will need to make
when the road
is revealed
by turns
you could not
have foreseen.

Keep them, break them,
make them again:
each promise becomes
part of the path;
each choice creates
the road
that will take you
to the place
where at last
you will kneel

to offer the gift
most needed—
the gift that only you
can give—
before turning to go
home by
another way.

P.S. For previous reflections on Epiphany here at The Painted Prayerbook, click the images or titles below. Also, the special holiday discount on annual subscriptions to Jan Richardson Images (the website that makes my work available for use in worship and education) will be available through Epiphany Day (January 6). For info, visit Jan Richardson Images.

Epiphany: Where the Map Begins

Feast of the Epiphany: Blessing the House

Feast of the Epiphany: A Calendar of Kings

The Feast of the Epiphany: Magi and Mystery

[To use the “Epiphany” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

You Who Bless

November 15, 2011


Christ Among the Scraps © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday, Year A: Matthew 25.31-46

“Come, you who are blessed,” Jesus says; “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

You Who Bless

You
who are
yourselves
a blessing

who know
that to feed
the hungering
is to bless

and to give drink
to those who thirst
is to bless

who know
the blessing
in welcoming
the stranger

and giving clothes
to those
who have none

who know
to care
for the sick
is blessing

and blessing
to visit
the prisoner:

may the blessing
you have offered
now turn itself
toward you

to welcome
and to embrace you
at the feast
of the blessed.

P.S. For a previous reflection on this passage, visit Christ Among the Scraps. And Advent is just around the corner! I’m looking forward to spending the coming season at my blog The Advent Door and would love to have your company there.

I also want to let you know that my book Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas is back in print! Click the cover below to find out more.

[To use the “Christ Among the Scraps” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Blessing the Talents

November 7, 2011


Buried © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Year A, Proper 28/Ordinary 33/Pentecost +22: Matthew 25.14-30

Again and again throughout the gospels we see it in Jesus: a persistent bent toward revelation, a hankering to bring into the open what we might be content to leave hidden. Seeing our brokenness and our sins, Jesus challenges us to offer these to the light of God, that they might not fester in the dark and twist toward evil. Seeing our giftedness and the graces that God plants in each of us, Jesus impels us to uncover these, that the power of God may show forth in the world.

“You are the light of the world,” he tells his hearers in Matthew. “A city on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way,” he urges them, “let your light shine before others” (Matt. 5.14-16). Later he tells them, “Have no fear of them [those who will persecute his followers]; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops” (Matt. 10.26-27).

A lost coin, a lost sheep, a lost son; a bleeding woman seeking a surreptitious healing whom Jesus cannot allow to remain hidden; children whom the disciples seek to dismiss; gifts once enclosed in the earth that Jesus lifts up to point toward the kingdom of God: with constant persistence, Jesus—this incarnate God who took such visible and vulnerable flesh so that we might clearly see the love that God has for us—tugs at what has been hidden or missing or buried in order to show us how the presence of God shines through it.

And so we see this quality again in the gospel reading for this Sunday, in this parable told by the One who will not be content to let us hide what God has given to us, who urges us to uncover the treasure that God has placed within us, who calls us to show forth the presence of God in the way that only we can.

How do you do this in your own life? Is there anything you allow to hinder the gift of God in you? Is there some gift that you have been willing to let lie dormant because others do not value it, or it seems prideful to you to pursue it, or because you don’t know how to use it, or for lack of time or some other reason? How might you allow God to break through these obstacles for you, so that others can see the presence of God in you in the way that only you can reveal it?

Blessing the Talents

There are blessings
meant for you
to hold onto

clutched
like a lifeline

carried
like a candle
for a dark way

tucked into a pocket
like a smooth stone
reminding you
that you do not
go alone.

This blessing
is not those.

This blessing
will find its form
only as you
give it away

only as you
release it
into the keeping
of another

only as you
let it
leave you

bearing the shape
the imprint
the grace
it will take

only for having
passed through
your two
particular
hands.

– Jan Richardson

P.S. For a previous reflection on this text, in which I confess my fondness for the shovel-wielding servant, visit Parabolic Curves.

[To use the “Buried” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Heart of the Matter

October 16, 2011


The Two Commandments © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Year A, Proper 25/Ordinary 30/Pentecost +19: Matthew 22.34-46

I came home from a recent trip to the library with an armload of books from the art department. From Arts & Crafts of Morocco to The Art of Japanese Calligraphy to Medieval and Renaissance Art and beyond, the books are providing savory fare for my hungry eyes in this season of needing some new sustenance in my practice as an artist. Today at teatime, my book of choice was Shaker Design, a catalog from an exhibit cosponsored by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in the 1980s.

June Sprigg, the author of Shaker Design, writes,

The Shakers were not conscious of themselves as “designers” or “artists,” as those terms are understood in modern times. But they clearly worked to create a visible world in harmony with their inner life: simple, excellent, stripped of vanity and excess. Work and worship were not separate in the Shaker world. The line between heaven and earth flickered and danced. “A Man can Show his religion as much in measureing onions as he can in singing glory hal[le]lu[jah],” observed one Believer. Thomas Merton attributed the “peculiar grace” of a Shaker chair to the maker’s belief that “an angel might come and sit on it.”

I am fascinated by the elegant simplicity that the Shakers brought to the work of their hands. The lines of Shaker design seem to emerge directly from their sense of what is most essential; follow the simple curve of a bowl, the uncluttered planes of a cupboard or dresser or table, the weave of a basket, and you can see how it has been created by someone who managed to strip away all that wasn’t necessary, who found the heart of the piece.

As an artist whose work has become increasingly spare the past few years, I am drawn to and challenged by such designs, curious about how others—in a variety of media—have found their way to the lines of their handiwork. Looking at a Shaker chair, a Japanese tea bowl, an Amish quilt, I wonder, What did their makers have to pare away in order to discover what was essential? How did they find their way to the heart of the matter?

It’s these kinds of questions that we see Jesus engaging in this Sunday’s gospel lection. “Teacher,” a lawyer from the religious establishment asks him, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Designed to test him, the question nonetheless prompts Jesus to lay out the lines that lie at the core of his life and teaching: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,'” Jesus says to the lawyer and to the others within earshot. ‘And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Firmly rooted in his Jewish heritage, Jesus gathers up the wisdom of his forebears and distills it into these two commandments that stand at the center of his history and of our own. He has found the heart of the matter, bringing to light what is most important, what is most crucial and essential in our life together.

Jesus knows that arriving at and living into what is essential is rarely easy. With these two commandments, Jesus extends a call that is compelling in its utter directness and seeming simplicity, yet the work of love—loving God and one another and ourselves, with all the artfulness and creativity this asks of us—can be wildly complicated. Jesus’ words this week get at something I continually experience at the drafting table: arriving at something that appears simple and basic is one of the hardest things to do.

Maybe someday, in one of these reflections, I’ll include a picture of the box of scraps from my drafting table—all those pieces that I pared away, that I chose against, that I let go of in order to find the final design, the essential line, the heart of the matter. In the meantime, I am here to ask you: How do you do this in your own life? Where is Christ’s call to love—this call that draws us into the deepest places in our own hearts, the heart of the world, the heart of God—taking you? How do you sort through all that competes for your attention, so that you can find what is most crucial? What are the challenges along the way, and where do you find the presence of beauty and delight in the lines of your emerging life?

May the heart of God draw you in this week, and may you know the grace and power and beauty that come in discovering the design that God desires for you. Blessings!

P.S. For a previous reflection on this passage, see Crossing the Country, Thinking of Love.

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