I tried to settle into my body, my legs straddling the wooden bench of a lakeside picnic table, hands dangling at my sides and then finding a resting place on top of my thighs. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes in expectation. The sun was falling into the west and the shade of the trees was cool on my bare sun-soaked shoulders. I heard a small splash of water, the quiet breath of another body, and then felt the soft smooth tip of a brush caress along my forehead and sweep beneath my eye. It left a trail of wet color that seeped into my pores, embellishing my face.
“Are you an artist?” I asked the slight, willowy blonde sitting across from me.
“Oh, no, not really,” she replied.
But she was. And in that moment I was a part of her artwork. I was a project, a creation. I was becoming something.
Yesterday I listened to a teaching on work–its purpose and challenge and what it means to discern the difference between a job and a vocation, which comes from the Latin vocātiō meaning a call or summons. Vocation has been described by Frederick Buechner as “the place where your deepest gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
I did my undergrad at a Christian liberal arts college with an entire program committed to the concept of vocation and calling, so the idea of “listening to my life” and figuring out “what I was made to do” is not new to me. It has, in fact, consumed me at various times in the past, leading to the fear that I might choose the wrong college or select the wrong major, date the wrong person or accept the wrong internship. Essentially, it led to the fear that I would miss my calling and purpose and end up living a life other than the one I was “meant” to pursue. I still ask those questions sometimes, but I’m learning to see life a little differently.
The teaching ended with a meditation on a verse from the book of Ephesians: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (NIV)
I spent the first 22 years of my life going to Christian schools and churches and immersed in those communities. While this has provided me with a wealth of Biblical knowledge and a pretty strong sense of morality among other things, it also left me desensitized to some of the profound and meaningful truths that lie in the Biblical narrative and the literature of scripture. One of which is in the aforementioned verse from Ephesians.
The word here that is translated as “handiwork” is the Greek word poema, which means “something that has been made.” The origin of our word “poem,” poema often refers to a work of art. I believe that human beings (of which I am one) were created to do work, that work is good and necessary and that in addition to contributing to the needs of others and the good of society, it can give us a sense of meaning and purpose. I think of myself as one who works and who makes work. But I rarely think of myself as poema, something that has been made, and is in fact still being made each day. I am not a finished project, but a living work.
“Being made” and “being made new” are phrases that have taken on new meaning for me in the past year or so of my life, a year in which I have been broken and built up, molded and altered in character and heart. I have felt like a work–clay being kneaded and thrown, glass being heated and blown, marble being chiseled. I have felt like every cryptic and cliche metaphor I have ever heard for the process of God’s intervention in human transformation, and I have come to understand why we use those word pictures. Because our descriptions for everyday living and doing and making do not account for what is being done to us, what we are being made into. We work and create. But we also are a work and a creation. We are being made.
There were bubbles and crayons and face painting present at Ali’s birthday barbecue. After seeing the intricate details that graced the face of my friend Helene, I decided that I also wanted to participate, not as a creator, but as a canvas.
“No,” I replied. “Whatever you want.”
It wasn’t difficult for me to say this. I’d seen the results on the faces of others. I knew that was what I wanted–to give my face freely and let her do what she would. Even so, I was tempted to peak, to slit my eyes and look at the colors she was choosing, make a suggestion that maybe the teal wasn’t the best choice, that my olive-green eyes paired well with purple. But I had watched her as she worked on others. Had seen how peacefully pleased she was with what she was doing, how sure she was that it would turn out. And so I had to trust in the artist, to believe that in the end it and I would be something beautiful.