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Total Praise

Total Praise web

copyright 2017 Mollie Bozarth

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 AscentsIn 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.

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Portraits of Scotland – Tobermory Fisherman

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copyright 2017 Mollie Bozarth

I’m finally back with another in the Portraits of Scotland series! While in Scotland, we spent several weeks on isles, with the sea visible or within easy drive of where we stayed. Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull, was no exception. We stayed in Harbour Guest House on Tobermory High Street, which is the main street that curves around, hugging Tobermory harbour. Tobermory is the capital of Mull because, with a population of 700, it’s one of the few places large enough to be considered a town rather than a village. You may remember mention of it in my post about the Leather Artisan. Well, having spent so much time around the sea, and having eaten fish and chips to our heart’s delight, I hoped to find a fisherman who would let me paint his portrait.

Our very last day on Mull (even as we were packed up and ready to drive back to the mainland), I stopped in at a shop to pick up a glass fusing piece I’d made the day before. When I came back to the car, my mom said, “Mollie, weren’t you hoping to paint a fisherman? I’ve been watching this man climb nimbly down a narrow metal ladder to his boat. I can’t believe his agility! He must be nearly 70, but he’s up and down that ladder in the blink of an eye! This is your chance! Ask him whether he’d mind if you take his photograph.” So, I approached the fisherman. It was a quiet morning, still fairly early, and he was alone – no crew with him. I figured he had simply been checking on something in the boat, and I was right. Funnily enough, his first response when I asked about taking his photo was, “Does my hair look alright?” This is the same question Alan (the Leather Artisan) asked before I photographed him!…must be a Tobermory thing. Well, the fisherman’s white hair was blowing in a harbour breeze, so I laughed and said it looked fine. Like several of the people I approached, he was surprised anyone would want to paint his portrait. Perhaps the tourist-painter intrigued him. Perhaps he was merely complying with an odd request. Whatever the motivation, he agreed. And, while I took a few photos, we chatted.

I asked about his work. We’d eaten fresh lobster the night before. Had he caught those lobsters? He said that all of the lobsters his crew catch are actually shipped overseas…makes more money than selling it locally. I asked whether he had children who’ve followed in his footsteps career-wise. He said he has no sons. But his two daughters married fishermen, and his sons-in-law work with him. It was a short conversation, a brief glance into his life. But each of these portraits has opened doors for me to learn something of the people of Scotland. They are humble, yet proud; hospitable and friendly; they work hard and value tradition; they highly value family and community. Possibly because their towns and villages are so small, a sense of community is inevitible…for better or worse, everyone seems to know everyone else. I asked whether he knew Alan, and he said, “Aye, of course! I know him well.” My favorite part of this particular portrait is the fisherman’s stance. Hands are jammed solidly into his pockets. Weatherbeaten and ruddy, his face holds the wrinkles of sunshine and wind, laughter and life. His eyes are used to peering out across the water, whether through glaring sun, storm, or fog. No fancy airs or moment taken to brush his hair…the wind would blow it again anyway. He is a man’s man, a working man, a provider for his family, comfortable in his own skin. The stance says, “Here I am! If you want to paint a portrait, you’re welcome. Just make sure my boat is included. For my boat is part of who I am.”

This illustration is actually a compilation of several photos taken during our days on Mull. The jetty where the fisherman stood was lined with lobster cages. Beyond those you could see the panoramic view of iconic Tobermory shops. The red, yellow, and blue group of shops in particular is well-known. Apparently, they appear in a BBC children’s show called Balamory. I’m a little old to watch the show now, but the Scottish accents are fun! In designing this scene, I took the photo of the fisherman with his boat, combined it with photos of the panorama and lobster cages, then added in a couple seagulls for good measure. Huge seagulls are the other “fishermen” of Tobermory. Whether swooping and diving below the water’s crest, or scavenging bits of fish left by the pros, they’re always interested in the day’s catch. Just a few feet from this scene (kind of behind and to the left) was the fresh fish-&-chips vendor. This tiny trailer sold fish that had been caught fresh that morning. You’d tell them what kind of fish you wanted (halibut, cod, etc.), they’d pull it out of the fridge, dip it in batter, and fry it right there in front of you. Then they’d toss it onto a bed of hot chips, and you could add vinegar or ketchup before carrying your treasure home to feast. It was so good, Mom and I literally ate there 3 out of 4 nights on Mull! If you look above the Tobermory shops, you’ll see one more iconic building. The Western Isles Hotel, up on the hill, is one of the filming locations for the 1945 Wendy Hiller movie, I Know Where I’m Going. Wonderful film! If you’ve never seen it, check it out!

Well, this concludes our tour of Tobermory. Of all the places we visited, this is a top one on my list to visit again. If you’re ever there yourself, keep an eye out for my friend Alan and for his neighbor, the fisherman.

Puppy Love

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copyright 2017 Mollie Bozarth

I remember the day we got our first family dog. I was 6 and my younger brother was 4. We drove up to my grandparents’ house in Virginia, and as we piled out of the station wagon, a Golden Retriever bounded up to greet us. This was not my grandparents’ dog. They lived in the country, and this retriever liked to break away from his owners and come hang out at my grandpa’s place. Grandpa is a dog person in that all dogs love and respect him…and many strays have found their way to him over the years. The dog’s name was Beauregard (a proper southern name, but way too fancy for the countryside). Everyone called him “Bo-jack” or “Bo.” Golden Retrievers are one of the most family friendly breeds, and Bo lived up to that. We fell in love with him at once (including Jonathan, who had always cried or been scared around dogs in the past). When asked where he came from, Grandpa told us that Bo belonged to a farm nearby. The farmer had several dogs, most of them very aggressive. Being gentle, Bo didn’t like the other dogs. So, he’d break free every chance he got, and would come to visit Grandpa’s house.

Needless to say, we begged our dad to let us keep him. Bo obviously didn’t like his home. Maybe the farmer would sell him! Better than that, the owner actually GAVE the dog to us, saying he was too much trouble to keep since he ran away all the time. With Bo now part of the family, we took a long walk while discussing a new name for him. My older brother, Jeremy, said, “He looks like a lion with that orange mane of fur around his collar. What if we name him ‘Aslan’ like the lion in the Chronicles of Narnia?” So, Aslan he became!

Aslan was my puppy love as a child. Childhood memories are full of him: building a fence on a muddy/rainy day to give him a safe area in our backyard; plucking slugs off of his dogfood bowl before feeding him each evening; being dragged down the street when he’d practically pull us off our feet on a walk; tennis balls chomped in half that would get caught on low tree branches when we tried to toss them for him; Aslan digging holes in the yard to lay in the cool dirt on a summer afternoon; and (best of all) the retriever tendency to lay his head on your foot so that he knew you were close by. I wouldn’t trade those memories (even possibly the gross slug memories) for anything.

Today’s illustration is from a candid moment of my niece with my Golden Doodle, Jack. Jack leaned in to sniff her, and her hands went instinctively up under her chin, with an expression of pure glee on her face. I can’t believe we caught that on camera! The photo has been hanging next to my desk at work for several months. When I saw that the SCBWI drawing prompt for February was love, I thought, “What a perfect chance to paint that portrait!” I also happened to need a portrait to demo for my Painting 2 class. So, timing worked out well. My niece has known Jack her entire life. His name was one of her first words. And, when she and I took Jack for a walk yesterday, she enjoyed repeating his name at an obnoxious volume all the way down my street (she’s 2, so she can pull off “loud and repetitive” without driving the neighbors crazy). She tried to “help” me walk him by holding part of his leash. Like Aslan, Jack likes to pull hard on a walk. I made sure that her attempts to “help” didn’t get her pulled off her feet.

Watercolor Portrait Tips: when demonstrating to my painting class, I reiterated several tips that any of my “old” students reading this will recognize. 1. White paint is a “no-no” in my classroom. Watercolor paper is white. Simply leave the white paper where you want highlights or bright whites. Do not mix white with red to make pink. Instead, water down the red to let more of the white paper show through…thus, pink. 2. Most white areas aren’t a pure white. Example: the shorts and the chair. For the shorts and chair, I mixed a cream or a pale grey, building up subtle shadows. 3. Shadows in skin should be blue-violet or red-violet. Using too much brown in skin shadows makes the skin tone look cold or lifeless. Think of the red blood flowing through our veins…there should be a pink tone, even in the shadows. My student had a good question: “What if the person you’re painting is brown or black skin tone?” Well, still use a peachy pink or pale yellow for the lightest highlights. Then mix red-violet and blue-violet with your browns in the midtones and shadows. 4. Textures like dog fur should be done by layering different tones, creating a haphazard pattern of fur and shadow shapes. You still need to pay attention to the bone structure and the way the light hits the body (even if he looks like a ball of fur). Several layers of small strokes, following the direction and flow of the fur, will give the desired effect. 5. It’s always about contrast. Darken tones behind lighter objects to help the lighter object stand out. 6. The pen & ink (if used) should highlight lines and details you want to accentuate or tighten. But I’d stay away from a full outline in ink. Particularly, facial features and highlighted fur should have very little ink added. Too much ink, or too solid an outline, can make soft features look harsh. The way my masters’ profs put it: “Either the ink or the watercolor should take center-stage. Fun ink outline with very basic color washes. Or, detailed watercolor with very little ink.” 7. Last but not least: do not be a slave to your reference! In this illustration, I eliminated several distracting objects from the background. I also changed the colors in her shirt and hat to better match the room where this will hang. Use artistic license to decide what to keep and what to tweak, change, or eliminate from your reference image.

I Have A Dream

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copyright 1987 Mollie Bozarth

30 years ago today, I drew my first portrait. I know the exact date because it’s written in large, tidy letters, on that lined manilla paper you use to practice writing in elementary school. With carefully rounded “o”s, curved “r”s, and very straight “t”s, the 6-year-old Mollie wrote: “A Special Birthday Today is January 15, 1987. It is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.” MLK has had more of an effect on my life than I’ll ever really know. My mom’s high school was desegregated in the 1960s. Her brother was bused off to another school, while kids from the black school came to join her high school. Because of that desegregation, she gained a lifelong friend named Keith.We still keep in touch with Keith and his family. I got to meet his wife for the first time last summer when we were all at my grandparents’ house in Virginia. Keith is a joyful, honorable, faith-filled man. I’ve gotten to visit with him many times through the years and have always looked up to him.

Growing up in suburban Virginia, skin color wasn’t something I really thought about. The friends that I ate lunch with, played basketball with at recess, sat next to in class, invited to my birthday parties…were a mix of black and white. Schooltime memories are filled with color. I accidentally hit my friend Jackie in the back of the head with my flying loose tooth in kindergarten. Naomi was the quirky friend who loved to crush her potato chips before eating them at lunch. We all prayed for my friend J.J.’s family when his dad died tragically in a fire, trying to save the family dog. Elisabeth was the first friend my dad threatened to take home in the middle of a sleepover birthday party…she was a bit on the noisy, rambunctious side. Tharrin was a big and tough kid, (my hero) who was always standing up for me if boys tried to exclude me from playing basketball. These friendships, and countless memories, would never have been mine if not for MLK and others like him.

mrs-spence-1-webThe drawing above was done in Mrs. Spence’s 1st-grade class. Even Mrs. Spence is someone I can thank MLK for. She wasn’t tall in stature (perhaps that’s why 1st-grade was a good fit for her), but she taught us respect and honor. And, I can think of at least one major instance where she showed me great grace. A few weeks before this drawing was completed (Christmas holidays of 1986), she gave each kid in class a hand-made ornament to take home and put on their tree. Mine was a styrofoam mouse with a curled pipe-cleaner tail, beady black eyes, whiskers, and red plaid ears. He has hung on my Christmas tree every year for 30 years and is still one of my favorites to hang on the tree today. Now, I teach in a fairly diverse district, where kids of every color, race, and religion come together to learn on a daily basis. As a teacher, I look back on the example set by Mrs. Spence and the classroom atmosphere she created, endeavoring to foster a similar environment of respect and grace with my students.

The same week that I drew the portrait of MLK, we used his “I have a dream” me-1987-webtheme as a springboard for discussions on what we’d like to become or accomplish when we grew up. I’m only slightly surprised that at the age of 6 my life’s goal was already set in concrete (or crayon). Notice that the portrait of MLK was much more realistic than the proportions/accuracy of my hands, feet, and table legs. Students, this is why we always tell you to work from a reference photo rather than drawing out of your head/imagination! It was true when I was 6, and it’s true today. Anyway, the point is that MLK’s portrait was an intriguing foreshadowing of my life now. I have always been interested in faces. Shapes of ear and nose and eyes are puzzle pieces that (when fit together properly) can tell the visual story of a life…or if the subject has passed away, trigger memories of a life well-lived. In his famous speech, Martin Luther King Jr. stated: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I’m neither ignorant enough nor idealistic enough to say that MLK’s dream has completely come true. Unless the world becomes colorblind, I’m afraid there will always be undercurrents of racial tension this side of Heaven. Newspapers, TV shows, and other media remind us of the broken ideals on a regular basis. But I am ever thankful that he dared to dream. That dream trickled down into the cracks of society, crumbling walls, shifting courses, and expanding into a river whose current continues to erode racism. The more you and I cultivate classrooms, hallways, lunch rooms, office spaces, churches, and neighborhoods where people are not “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” the more his dream becomes a reality. Each doing our part in the process of erosion, we can help fulfill another lesser-known line from his speech: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

From my 3rd-grade yearbook, here is part of the crew I hung out with growing up. Note: my older sister liked to circle faces with pencil…

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A Bit of Carpentry

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For the most part, I’m a “mama’s” girl. My mom and I spend quality time together on a weekly basis. With similar interest in movies, books, shopping, and cable TV shows, we can talk and hang out easily for hours. In some ways, I’m also a “daddy’s” girl. But Dad’s favorite TV station is the Weather Channel. His interest in reading extends mainly to the newspaper. And “shopping” generally refers to picking up bananas at Walmart. So, quality time with my dad has been more purposeful through the years. Sailing is definitely on the list of things we do together. Also on that list is carpentry.

My dad worked for a cabinet-maker before I was born. As far back as I can remember, he’s had a workshop set up in the garage. There are photos of me as a kid wearing overalls, safety goggles, baseball cap, a tool belt, and wielding a hand saw. I’ve always loved the smells of fresh sawdust, stain, and lacquer. He’d patiently show me safety with everything from hammer to drill press to table saw…while I’d impatiently watch, waiting for my turn to try it on my own. While we don’t often build things together any more, he is the first person I call when things break down around my house. He’ll diagnose the issue and tell me how to fix it, or help me fix it…or warn me it’s one for the pros to tackle. He has often bravely lent me his tools (not brave because I’ll misuse them, but brave because he has 5 kids and keeping track of his tools can require phone calls to several people). He loves it when we put tools on our Christmas or birthday lists, partly because it means we won’t borrow his, and partly because it gives him an excuse to shop at the hardware store (his favorite shopping apart from Walmart bananas). This Christmas I was honored to receive his 1970s True Temper claw hammer with fiberglass handle. I’ve borrowed this hammer many times and love the feel of the swing, the weight and power of its head. He’s seen me hunting for its replica (unsuccessfully) on Ebay. So, he says he’ll use his dad’s old hammer, and the one I’ve borrowed is now permanently mine. YAY!carpentry-collage-webToday’s featured work is a product of quality time with both of my parents. Mom and I are HGTV junkies, constantly watching shows like Flea Market Flip. When I was at the flea market this past November with friends, I came across an old painter’s extension ladder. Then I found a vendor selling live-edge wood boards. Falling in love with a long board of dark walnut wood, I decided to build a bookshelf. My many hours of practice with hand saws as a kid paid off. I measured and cut the ladder in half (a very straight cut with a steady hand, if I say so myself). Old stakes from Dad’s scrap wood collection worked well as braces. These I cut to length on a jig saw, forming rounded notches to rest one brace over the ladder rungs. The vendor had already sawn the walnut board into 3 sections for me. Rounded brackets designed to attach metal pipes to ceiling joists worked well for holding shelves in place. I decided to keep the old paint spatters as well as cool extension clamps on the ladder. After a bit of sanding, I put 2 colors of stain on the ladder sections and support braces. The first coat was a dark mahogany stain, followed by a thin coat of ebony, and finished off with beeswax to seal it. The shelves had their own innate beauty. All they needed was a natural stain and 2 coats of clear lacquer to bring out rich colors and wood grain patterns.

At the moment, this gorgeous piece of furniture is housing my niece’s Lego village, including a tree-house, dinosaurs, Lego fruits growing in a Lego garden, and Lego people drinking orange juice. She has agreed to share the space with some of my books…eventually. More importantly, she spent quality time “helping” me yesterday. She placed her toddler hand on the shelf, “holding” it for me, as I screwed in a bracket. Earlier, while pre-drilling holes, I wasn’t paying close enough attention to my left hand and nicked a knuckle with the drill bit. She consoled me over the “hurt dinger (finger)” and inspected my Band-Aid. Maybe a few years from now she’ll look back on fun memories of doing carpentry with me. And, perhaps she’ll build similar memories with her daddy down the road.

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Time-Lapse Nativity

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copyright 2016 Mollie Bozarth

To view the video, click here.

A couple weeks ago I had an opportunity to do something I’ve never tried before: a time-lapse video of painting! I’ve seen videos of sand art that morphs and changes from one scene to the next. I wanted to try that with a series of 3-4 scenes, painted in acrylics. I chose acrylic because it dries quickly. Once finished filming one scene, I could move right on to the next, painting directly overtop of the first scene. When the project was complete, only 1 painting would exist…the other 3 scenes being buried in layers of paint. This concept intrigued me as an artist. Artists usually create with the intent of longevity. It’s rather freeing to paint something that will only exist for 2 minutes. In fact, the snapshot shown above is only a screen-shot of the paused video. I took only footage (no photos) of each completed piece. Thus, this artwork is all about the process and the story that unfolds from scene to scene.

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Though nothing was sketched out on canvas (I did what we artists call “drawing with a brush”), the process began with an evening of brainstorming and sketching. Looking at reference images from online, I chose 4 traditional nativity scenes and planned the layouts in pencil on computer paper. These pencil sketches were placed in front of me while painting, as a guideline for proportions. A friend helped me set up lights for filming. We used my camera, set on a tripod in front of my workspace. The footage is actually filmed upside-down and flipped during the editing process. This allowed a straight camera shot without trying to film over my shoulder or above my head. The scenes are simple, with stylized characters, partly for the sake of time and partly for the sake of children who would be in the audience. Color was also simplified down to monochromatic blues, white, greys. You’ll see me adjust to a brighter blue or darker grey as I’m painting characters, always working toward a balance of light-on-dark or dark-on-light. This way, forms and details stand out against the surrounding colors.

This project was done for my church’s Christmas choir presentation. Our worship leader planned a Chris Tomlin song (Noel, performed by Lauren Daigle) as the background music. Though I’d heard it on the radio before, I hadn’t noticed the lyrics until now. The 2nd verse says:

Son of God and Son of man
There before the world began
Born to suffer, born to save
Born to raise us from the grave
Christ the everlasting Lord
He shall reign forevermore

Noel, Noel
Come and see what God has done
Noel, Noel
The story of amazing love!
The light of the world, given for us
Noel

Personally, I’ve often pictured in my mind that transition from Creator to creation. Few books or songs talk about it. Christ was there with God, helping to create stars and moon and earth. Now, he slips into fragile human skin: sleepy eyes, tiny toes, and wholly relying on human parents. Meanwhile, his Father sets a new star in the heavens to proclaim the royal birth. “Noel” is from the French for natal – literally: birth. “Born to suffer, born to save” – you’ll see a momentary foreshadowing of this in the final manger scene, though I wasn’t thinking of the song’s lyrics when I painted it. Here, I’ll give a shout out to Jose, who edited footage for me: cropping, adjusting exposure, and timing it all to the music. Watching this video, I hope you’ll enjoy the transformation from scene to scene. More than that, I hope you’ll enjoy the story as a whole: a story woven from before time, when the “light of the world” first made plans to come to earth.

for Alex

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copyright 2016 Mollie Bozarth

How do we process grief? With words? In silence? With anger, action, inactivity? At some point these have all applied to me. Sometimes…I process grief through painting.

As a teacher, there have been times where people asked me what I dislike about my job. I may flippantly reply that I hate when students are lazy, or (when piles of papers loom over my desk) that I dislike grading. But there is really only one thing I hate about teaching, and that is losing students. In 12 years of teaching, I’ve already buried more than I can count on one hand. Four of those were within the past 2 years, and time/experience don’t make that aspect of teaching easier. I still see the back of someone’s head in school or out shopping and think (for a split second) that it’s this or that student I lost years ago. Particularly when they’ve graduated, and I wouldn’t be seeing them often anyway…it’s hard to believe they’re really gone.

A student once interviewed me for a sociology paper about faith and its positive (or negative) effect on modern teens. At some point during our discussion, I remember asking her why death always feels wrong. Whether we’re burying my 100-year-old great-grandmother, a miscarried baby, or a child of any age, the loss pierces straight to the heart. When asked, my student was thoughtful for a few moments and had no response. I told her I think the reason death always feels wrong is that we were not created for death. Before Genesis chapter 3, it wasn’t part of the human equation. And ever since then we’ve fought it with every fiber of our being. We cannot cheat or stop it. And, whether we know the person is going to a better place or not, we mourn it. At night, as tears slide down my cheek, into my ear, and dampen the pillow beneath, I cry out: “Papa, WHY!?” The silence echoes no audible answer. Though, peace descends slowly with the softness of sleep.

Alex Kierstead was one of those kids who brightens a room. Friendly, easy-going, a twinkle in his eye; I’ve seen posts on Twitter and Facebook of everyone saying how he genuinely loved people and would do anything for them. I first met Alex in 6th-grade and had him in various art classes throughout middle and high school. When he wasn’t in my class, he was one of those kids who would catch me in the hallway and check in…ask how my classes were going, fill me in on what he was up to. It was his goal senior year to gather enough students to finally make our Printmaking class run. (For many years no one had signed up for the class, and people practically forgot it existed.) Alex rallied friends and strangers together, spreading word , and encouraging them to sign up. I think about 13 did sign up for it…still not enough to run the class. So, he never got his Printmaking at Waubonsie. But the fact that he had the gumption to try, and the charisma to bring others along for the ride, was typical Alex. I can’t stand to rehash the details of his death here. There are news articles online I’d encourage you to read. They speak of creativity, a love of hiking and outdoors. They speak of a life well-lived and a young man dearly loved.

This is the first time in my life where the advent season and mourning have gone hand-in-hand. This is a hard Christmas. I am not used to crying this much or this often. And, as difficult as this is for his teachers and friends to process, it must be infinitely harder for his family. As I talked with my grandpa on the phone this evening, I asked him to pray for me…and he did, right then and there on the phone. Hanging up after that call, I was reminded of John 1:5, “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” That night in Bethlehem a new star appeared – bright enough for astrologers to follow it hundreds of miles. That star pointed to a tiny life which could not be extinguished. Emmanuel was here. God was finally physically with us. The darkness could fight, but it could not win. I will wrestle. I will mourn. I will cry out and question why. But darkness and mourning do not have the final word. In tears again this Sunday at church, the words of a familiar carol had new meaning for me: “Mild he lays his glory by. Born that man no more may die. Born to raise the lost of earth. Born to give them second birth. Hark! The herald angels sing: glory to the newborn king.” …Born that man no more may die. Lord, help us. Show us you’re here right now. God with us.