I am not a runner. In order to get me to run, you have to put a basketball in my hands or a soccer ball at my feet. Then I’ll clock miles up and down court (or the field) without realizing that I’m actually running.
But I know plenty of runners – have cheered on students as they pace through cross-country and track meets; have cheered friends while they push to the finish line in the Chicago marathon; have graciously/carefully avoided hitting runners with my car when die-hards are jogging along our local highways. In my vast experience of watching other people run, here’s what I’ve observed about true runners:
- they’re in the race to pursue their own best time
- it’s often more about finishing the race than winning it
- something in them loves to run and finds the discipline invigorating
- they strip down to the essentials, neither carrying nor wearing anything that drags them down
- true runners don’t cut corners or cheat the race marked out for them
- their focus is forward – not looking back, or stopping to gaze around them, nor looking down
- when a race gets tough, crowds cheering from the sidelines can give the boost needed to persevere to the end
- worn out running shoes can be a trophy in themselves, proof of miles well-run
I’ve no idea whether the writer of Hebrews was a runner. But he must have understood something about the discipline, because his analogy 2,000 years ago is still spot-on today. As Christians, we are called to be true runners, to never give up on the race marked out for us. Whether the path God takes us through is desert, rocky terrain, green pastures, or narrow valleys, He’s placed markers along the way to keep us on track. Often times, these are the guidelines laid out in His Word. They may also be the convicting prodding of the Holy Spirit or words of affirmation and/or correction and accountability from family and friends. In the verses following (Hebrews 12:6), the writer quotes Proverbs 3:11,12 saying: “do not lose heart when He rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those He loves.” In other words, the race markers and corrections we encounter aren’t meant to frustrate or depress us, nor are they meant to be ignored. They are there because we are loved by the God who sees a bigger landscape than we can comprehend…a God who desires to guide us around pitfalls more dangerous than we’d realize.
When I first read Hebrews 12, I pictured familiar faces of friends as the “cloud of witnesses” cheering me on. Those faces certainly are part of the crowd. However, the first verse actually starts with “Therefore” – pointing back to chapter 11, which recounts the lives of several Old Testament men and women. It’s generation upon generation of people who lived by faith and persevered to the end of their race. We aren’t simply cheered on by people like me (people who don’t mind watching a good race but prefer to avoid running whenever possible). We’re cheered on by thousands who endured muscle cramps and shin splints, yet refused to give up. Why did they refuse to give up?…was it sheer stubborn determination, or foolish pride that kept them going? The first verse of chapter 11 tells us why: they refused to give up because they were “sure of what they hoped for and certain of what they could not see.” Having reached their finish-line and found more joy than they could have imagined, they now cheer us on. With those voices shouting encouragement, we can be inspired to strip off everything that slows us down, and keep our eyes on Christ. We can let go of baggage from our past, not looking back. We can ignore temptations around us, not stopping to gaze at the world’s distractions or leave the path to roam “greener pastures”. We can look up at the Son who ran his own race and came out victorious, instead of gazing down at gravel beneath our feet.
Today’s painting was inspired by a young man (Joel) who loves to run. I had the privilege of being one of his middle-school youth leaders many years ago. Then, as he grew up and headed off to college, he came back as a volunteer leader for the same youth group he’d grown up in. Now the race marked out is taking him in an unexpected direction. Feeling a prodding to leave the corporate world, he has started to apply for youth ministry positions. While this is a career shift, it’s not one that surprises those who know him. His knack for teaching, heart for ministry, and rapport with students have been evident for many years. One of the most memorable lessons Joel taught on a Sunday evening included his running shoes. Holding up a pair of worn out sneakers, he told us about all the miles he’d spent talking to God, worshipping, asking questions, listening…just being in relationship with his Heavenly Father. I’ve seen so many of our kids look up to Joel. They see his steady obedience, sense of humor, love and honor. They hear his honesty about ups and downs, struggles and faith and the overwhelming faithfulness of God. Joel doesn’t simply “talk the talk;” he runs the race. And, he’s one of the cloud of witnesses cheering on other runners, saying: “Don’t give up! Keep your eyes on Christ!” I pray he continues to run his race with perseverance, all the way to the finish line. And, I hope he always hears others’ voices around him, encouraging him to look up and finish strong.
Why do we lift our hands? In concerts, people will raise up a hand or two, waving along to the music. Several decades ago, that waving hand might have held a lit lighter. Now, people have the flame app, and will wave their raised phone in sync to the band. At sports games, whole crowds will lift their hands in an undulating wave, cheering their team to victory or simply enjoying the collective experience. At theme parks, those same arms are raised in excitement, with hollers or screams, as the roller coaster zips down hills and around curves. In a classroom setting, we raise our hand to be acknowledged because we want to be heard. In the wild west, you’d hear the command, “Stick ’em up!” and you’d raise those hands immediately in submission, for the sparing of your life. The very tradition of waving hello comes from ancient times when you wanted to show a friend (or stranger) that you weren’t holding weapons when you came to greet them…you came in peace. A child will run to its parent with arms lifted, saying, “Hold me!” The parent swings that baby up into their arms to protect or cuddle or hug. Praise, excitement, acknowledgement, cheering, submission, peace, greeting, desiring comfort – this is why we lift our hands.
The world lifts their hands on a daily basis, for all of these reasons. Yet, I often hear non-Christians say, “That Christian thing of raising your hands in worship is so weird. I don’t get it. You’d never catch me doing that.” Well, all of those reasons listed above are why we Christians lift our hands. We lift them in praise and excitement, cheering for a God who is able to do more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). We lift them in greeting, telling God we come seeking peace between ourselves and Him – especially when we know we’ve done wrong (Psalm 51). We lift our arms like a small child, needing to be held by our Heavenly Father (Psalm 103:13-14; Psalm 46:1-3). And, yes, we lift them in submission – not to a gunman who seeks to harm us, but to the Almighty who knows the best and worst of us and loves us anyway (Psalm 139; Isaiah 55).
A week or so ago, I was at a high school vocal concert featuring an ensemble known for performing gospel music, as well as music from other countries/cultures. They sang a song entitled Total Praise. This song happens to be a favorite of mine! I first sang it in the late 1990s in a vocal ensemble I was part of in college. It’s one of those songs where the harmonies are so tight, and the flats and sharps so difficult, that once you learn them you never forget them. So, I found myself singing along with the high school choir last week. The song lyrics are based off of several themes from the book of Psalms. But the first few lines come directly from Psalm 121:1-2 – “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.” Musically, the notes rise, as though walking up steps, through that entire first line. I’m guessing this is partly because Psalm 121 is known as a Song of Ascents. In Jewish tradition, it would be sung by the people as they made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, up the steps of the temple, on their way to worship. Minor harmonies interplay in the line, “knowing my help is coming from you.” Then, the voices crescendo triumphantly through the line, “Your peace you give me in time of the storm.” And that word storm is an apex – a moment of dissonance, sung full-voice. Unless you’re very familiar with choral music, it’s tough to describe. But, listen to the link below, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. I’ve tried to mimic some of those lifts and harmonies in the visual aspect of the illustration.
This painting is inspired by Elena – one of the young ladies who performed the song Total Praise at the concert I mentioned earlier. She happens to be not only a kid I teach at school, but also someone who helps lead worship at our church youth group each week. Elena relates best to scripture by creating amazing word art of the verses we discuss in youth group on any given Sunday night. She’ll make designs using markers on scraps of paper, emphasizing words or themes through color, style, and font size. Sometimes she’ll create 2 or 3 of these in one evening. After watching her perform, I thought it would be fun to do my own word art with the lyrics from the song. Because Elena likes symmetry, I’ve tried to create a sense of visual symmetry in the artwork, balancing colors and weight of words/shapes throughout the design. The Amens tumbling about at the bottom of the page represent a vocal layering of Amens that build upon each other at the end of the performance. You’ll hear them if you follow the link and listen. There are many versions available on YouTube. I’ve included 2 here for you to choose from. The first one is a goofy group of guys, but once they start singing a cappella, you hear all the tight harmonies I love. The second is a true gospel choir with drums and piano mixed in. Either way, they point you to the God who is worth lifting our hands to in total praise, trust, and submission.
Says the LORD, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine! When you pass through deep waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, you will not drown…For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior.” ~ Isaiah 43:1-3
This painting and post are for Ava – an 8-year-old little girl and her family who have been trudging the deep waters of cancer. I cannot fathom what they are going through. Yet, though I only know them through a mutual friend, their story and faith have brought me to tears and put me on my knees in prayer continually over the past several months. I won’t try here to retell their story. Instead, I encourage you to read it yourselves. Ava’s mom has chronicled much of it through a Facebook page called Team Brighter Days.
Many of us know children or loved-ones who have faced debilitating illness. As we walk with them through the impossibly hard days/weeks/years, we fear drowning…drowning in sorrow, anger, exhaustion. Hope can either die or become a rock to cling to in those times. There is no training manual that prepares parents for talking with their children about the possibility of death. Ava has already had those conversations with her parents. More than most children her age, she understands that this world is not her ultimate home. And, while she continues to fight for her life, she also manages to sing the lyrics to one of her favorite songs: “You can have all this world. Give me Jesus.” While we plead with God to touch her cells, heal each one, and allow her many more years on this earth, we also pray that she and her family feel His arms carrying them in the midst of this.
No matter our walk, be it easy or heavy, we all need a savior who will walk beside us, able to relate to what we’re going through. One of the last words I painted in this illustration was the word “with”. As I filled in the letters with a flesh-tone brown, the name Immanuel, which means God with us, came to mind. God came in the flesh to be one of us. When Jesus was 8 days old, a man named Simeon took the baby in his arms, spoke of what his life would one day be, and said to Jesus’ mother, Mary: “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:21-35) What words to give to a new mother! I’m sure those words came back during the week of Christ’s crucifixion. Beaten, mocked, stripped, and hung on a tree, her boy (age 33 now) would have been barely recognizable. He had the power to heal, walk on water, raise people from the dead – yet he allowed himself to be overcome by death. Did Mary understand that death could only hold him down for 3 days? I think many mothers can relate to Mary, guessing that she wrestled with warring emotions of hope and despair. Michelangelo, in his sculpture Pieta, depicts Mary holding her son after his body’s been retrieved from the cross. While Jesus’ body seems limp and lifeless, his calf-muscle is tense in the sculpture. Michelangelo, who dissected cadavers and knew muscle tone better than any painter or sculptor of his time, would not have accidently carved that muscle in a flexed/tense position. I believe (as others do) that he used it as a foreshadowing of the resurrection. Yes, Mary’s son was dead. But death could not hold him down. He would soon declare permanent victory over the grave. (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)
The man Jesus who walked on water, who walked through Hell, and defeated death itself, now walks with us through the deepest waters. Rivers cannot overwhelm us. The grave cannot swallow us. Because when we lack the strength to stand, he carries us. And when we’ve lost even the will to hold on, he won’t let us go.
“Arrival” is a word steeped in anticipation. It’s the long sigh when you hadn’t even realized you were holding your breath. It’s a first breath, followed by the unmistakable newborn cry, proclaiming: “I’m here, and it’s been a traumatic few hours! So, wrap me snuggly and hold me close.” It is awed joy as you stare at the tiny creation in your arms. It’s nearly imperceptible toenails and invisible eyelashes, a trusting fist gripping your finger. It’s the fluff of silky hair. It’s the expanding walls of your heart as you suddenly love in a new and deeper way.
And this arrival is actually the beginning of a journey.
I saw this month’s prompt for SCBWI – “Arrival” – and thought, “my new niece just might make it in time for me to base a painting on her!” My sister-in-law’s due date was the 27th, my illustration deadline was the 20th, and baby girl arrived on the 13th. Perfect timing! Needless to say, this is the youngest model I’ve ever photographed and painted. She was both cooperative and photogenic, which made my job easy!
The calligraphy verse is a line from a Michael Card lullaby. Twenty-something years ago, I rocked my baby brother to sleep while singing that song. Perhaps that’s why it came to mind when I started this painting. The full chorus says, “I would wander weary miles, would welcome ridicule my child, to simply see the sunrise of your smile. To see the light behind your eyes, the happy thought that makes you fly. Yes, I would wander weary miles, if I could see the sunrise of your smile.” (Poiema, Sparrow Records, 1994) That moment when a smile first quirks the corners of a child’s mouth – that is the sunrise. And as their face lights up with humor or happiness, the glow warms those of us who love them. It is partly why I love teaching and working with kids. And it’s definitely something I love about being an aunt! So, as my brother and sister-in-law start on this new journey of baby #2, I enjoy watching and being a part of it all.
“You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made…when I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.” What imagery!! Who thinks of this stuff or has the writing voice to capture the thought with such poeticism?! David does. As a shepherd, he had way too much alone-time on his hands, hanging out with sheep and talking with God. Psalm 139 is a relational psalm – a conversation with the creator who knows us intimately. The God who knows every word we’ll say before it’s on our tongue (v. 4) knits us together using threads of DNA. Going even deeper than that, He designs our very inmost being, our soul…what makes us “us”. As no two fingerprints are alike (even between identical twins), so no two souls are the same. There will never be another me or you.
While that knowledge is amazing, the idea that we are fearfully and wonderfully made falls short in this broken world. If God knits us, why does He seem to drop a stitch here or there? How do we reconcile David’s psalm with the realities of Down’s Syndrome, Autism, malformed hearts, or other birth defects?
I have no perfect answer for the tough questions that come when you face raising children born with challenges. But the people I know who face these challenges are known for their strong character and many abilities…not for any “dis”ability. It comes down to something God said about David, when He chose David as a gawky teenage shepherd to be anointed as future king: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
This painting was inspired by all of my students whom God knit wonderfully. The image is specifically inspired by a young lady I had the privilege of teaching for both 6th-grade and senior year of high school in Drawing 1. I’ve always admired her character, her beauty, her gentleness tempered with strength and stubborn determination. While issues with her hand have helped to develop her into the young woman she is now, they by no means define her or slow her down. God made her purposefully and had a plan for her life while He was still weaving her in the secret place.
This blog post is dedicated to so many students who have enriched my life over the past decade. I can think of a young lady with Down’s Syndrome who struggled to draw realistically, but she would sit and compose scenes of stick-figure characters – all part of a cheer or volleyball or gymnastics team and each doing some cool trick or flip. I think of a 6th-grade boy who spoke only through a computerized voice box, but he loved paper mache. He built and painted a zebra with yarn for tail and mane. That zebra was so cool I wanted to keep it for myself; and the boy was always smiling, always joyful. I think of multiple students with ADHD who warn me as they come into class, “Miss Bozarth, I didn’t take my meds this morning.” Yet, watching those kids draw is like watching a high-speed computer process information: hand and pencil whiz across the page, analyzing shapes, adjusting proportions with a beautifully active line-stroke. They finish in 30 minutes what it takes others 3 days to do; and they do it well. I think of a young man with Asperger’s who can’t make eye contact with me in the hallway and struggles in social situations. But he loves drawing; his enthusiasm is contagious; his humility is humbling; and I’ll be very surprised if he doesn’t one day achieve his goal of becoming an animator. I am blessed to teach these kids.
Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians says it better than I can: “Think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of the world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” (1 Cor. 1:26-27) In over a decade of teaching, there are countless students like the few I’ve highlighted here. They have encouraged, challenged, humbled, and entertained me. More than that, they’ve taught me the beauty of imperfection. They’ve made me a better teacher (a better person) along the way.
Note: I realize Paul’s verse in Corinthians may rub people the wrong way. We all feel weak, in the minority, maybe even despised at times, but we don’t like the feeling and hate it when others think of us that way. Hold on! Many of our favorite heroes fall into just that category! Look at movies and TV shows from the past decades: Wicked (2003 musical), Underdog (1960s cartoon), Despicable Me (2010 movie), Get Smart (1960s TV show), Charlie Brown (1950s comic strip). We love a hero we can relate to whose weaknesses often become their strengths. Isaiah wrote about the ultimate hero who would be “despised and rejected; a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:2-4). “God chose the weak things” should fill us with relief, reminding us that even our weaknesses can have a purpose and be used for great things.
“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” Such a simple statement. Yet, in a few words, Aristotle sums up an expansive truth. What is it about the perfect sunset that will cause us to pull off on the side of the road, stop our car and stand in awe? Even lightning storms, their jagged electricity radiating the night, will keep our faces pressed against windows…watching heaven’s firework show. There is something about nature that leaves us breathless, enchanted by its beauty, its power, its intricacy. And this is no new phenomenon. King David, in Psalm 19 wrote: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.” (v. 1-3) That voice is more than the rumble of thunder in a storm, more than the rustle of leaves on a breezy day; it’s also in the silent moments of sunrise, calling out in crimson and coral, beams of light breaking through clouds. According to David, that voice declares God’s glory. It points to the author, artist, scientist who first put this globe into orbit. 3,100 years before Discovery Channel would enable us to observe wild animals in their natural habitats, God unfolded for Job a rich, panoramic tapestry of nature. From shutting the sea behind doors, to journeying to the springs of the sea. From binding the Pleiades and loosing the cords of Orion, to counting clouds and tipping the water jars of the heavens. From knowing when the mountain goat gives birth, to commanding eagles to soar. 125 verses, spread through 4 chapters (38-41) in the book of Job consist of a documentary account of the marvels of nature.
The painting above stems from an illustration prompt given by SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators). Each month, members have the opportunity to submit a piece that will be posted to SCBWI’s online illustration gallery. The piece you see here will go live in that gallery on October 1st. The prompt was “Enchanted,” and my initial ideas headed toward the fairy tale realm. As a big fan of Trina Schart Hyman, I would love to illustrate fairy tales. Perhaps some day I will. Before I’d settled on any solid idea, I came across a photo that my cousin had posted to Facebook. It’s a shot of her granddaughter who appears to have stopped mid-spin, her attention captured by something off-screen. My first thought was, “I love the rim lighting, and I want to paint that expression on her face!” My next thought was of the Aristotle quote, which is on my favorite stationery at home. That took me to the question: “What is she looking at? What causes children to stop, stare, and study? For me, as a child, it would have been a cicada, caterpillar, or butterfly. And, so the illustration came to be.
I sketched out the quote in calligraphy format. Having pieced together photo references in Photoshop, I transferred my reference to watercolor paper. Then I could project my calligraphy onto the paper, playing with placement and size. The child’s face and hair, being the focal point, were the first things I painted. Moving to the background, I blocked in dark green foliage behind her, then faded down to a basic wash of grass. From there I jumped over to the caterpillar and his flowers. Her dress pattern was daunting, and I honestly planned to replace it with a simple pale blue. However, I needed the rich blue to complement her reddish-orange hair. As I worked, the pattern came together, warping as it hit each fold in her skirt. One key to this illustration was to keep everything (except her face and the caterpillar) in soft-focus. This meant a loose, soft background behind the caterpillar, fading out completely where the calligraphy would begin. Calligraphy came last. Marvelous was an easy choice…the color needed to pop as it tied in with the lighting around her hair. To balance that coral tone, blue became the thin letters of there is something. Earth tones made sense for of nature, though I pulled a few strokes of coral into that as well to tie in with the other lettering. Finally, I chose yellow for In all things, knowing it would be enough contrast to the white sky behind it without drawing attention away from my focal point word.
Need I say it?…I love watercolor! Yes, the piece was inspired by an SCBWI prompt. But I painted it for me; for fun; as a personal illustration challenge. I know I’ve mentioned it before on this blog…there is something about the story-lined wrinkles in the old, and the innocent expressiveness of the young, that pulls me right in. I enjoyed every moment of this painting.
As a side note for those who haven’t heard already: my blog was chosen to be featured for the month of September on SCBWI’s homepage! If you look on the left-hand side, in their BlogRoll section, you’ll see a link to this blog there. Mine is the 6th one down – they feature a few blogs each month, from members across the nation.
“If you’re worried and you can’t sleep, count your blessings instead of sheep, and you’ll fall asleep counting your blessings.” Irving Berlin hit it right on the money with this lyric in the movie/musical White Christmas. Counting our blessings takes our mind off the focus of current circumstances. It replaces lists of mounting anxieties with reminders of everything that’s going well in our lives, reminders of loved-ones who are there to support us, and provision of daily needs. Do you need those reminders? I definitely do! Personally, I’ve found it helps not merely to mentally count blessings but to write them down. My prayer journal has several pages of blessing lists. They’re written on nights when I’ve fought the Eeyore syndrome all day (depressed, ho-hum, unhappy with my life). They’re written when life’s circumstances are overwhelming, my brain racing as I roll over for the umpteenth time, unable to sleep. They’re written when fears and shifting shadows loom. Writing them does refocus my thoughts as well as my heart. And, looking back at lists from long ago enables me to see a line of faithful provision year by year. God does not leave me to struggle on my own. He never abandons me. My attention span for counting blessings is much shorter than the actual number of ways He blesses my life!
The friend who commissioned this piece for his 10th wedding anniversary, understands the significance of its message. The script comes from a stanza in their wedding processional. Walking down the aisle 10 years ago, they couldn’t have imagined some of the difficulties and heartache the decade would bring. But there is joy now. There is song and laughter. There is a strength that comes from walking thru the trenches together, leaning on one another and on their heavenly Father. And there are countless blessings they can look back on, seeing 10 years of God’s faithfulness.
About the artwork:
This is the first wood-burning commission I’ve had! The husband wanted this as a surprise gift for his wife, so I worked with him in the design process. He chose the stanza, color-scheme, and told me his wife’s favorite flowers to include. It was a fun piece to work on because it combined my graphic-design skills with painting and wood-working. I’ve always enjoyed carpentry (I cut the curved top on a scroll saw in my garage) and have done several wood-burning projects for myself over the years. I chose a pale stain, almost creamy white, to finish off the wood, so that it would contrast the medium purple paint and dark burned lettering. For my client’s privacy, I’ve blocked out the names on this photo of the artwork. In the original, their names and wedding date are above the “10 Years”.