Principles of Design 3: Dominance

This is the third post in an ongoing series on the principles of design that God, our Designer and Creator used and invites us to use in designing and “creating” our lives. Whether intentional or not, we are always creating—memories, impressions, relationships, patterns of thinking and feeling, and legacies. We discussed previously how God made us to receive, return, and share the overflowing love within the Trinity. Also, as His image-bearers and His redeemed sons and daughters in Christ, we glorify God by shining the Family resemblance.

So, how do we bear God’s image and reflect the Family resemblance when creating, using His principles of design? To answer this question, let us start where the Bible starts, with “In the beginning was the Word…” (Jn 1:1) and “Seek first the Kingdom of God…” (Mt 6:33). Both illustrate the design principle of Dominance. John 1 continues, “…without him nothing was made that has been made.” God dominates, meaning He is first (before and pre-eminent) in all of Creation. All Creation points to God. And as Jesus teaches in Matthew 6, if we make God dominant in our lives, “…all these things will be added onto you.” When God is given full dominance in our lives, our worries fade; we have all we need.

What exactly is this design principle of Dominance? Before a brush is ever dipped in paint, the artist must have an idea, objective, or message to convey. Usually, this message is carried by the dominant feature in the artwork. Dominance is about the focal point, what is first seen, where the eyes and attention are most drawn. The dominant feature is the doorway to the entire work.

What dominates and draws you in?

Dominance implies pre-eminence, authority, sway, influence and control. In art, dominance is emphasis or visual weight, which is often dependent upon contrast. The dominant feature may be larger and darker. Or, it may be unique in shape, color or texture. A dominant feature may also be set apart by surrounding emptiness or whitespace. If nothing is dominant in a piece of art, the viewer may become confused about what is being conveyed; or bored by monotony; or overwhelmed by lots of different elements “yelling” for attention at once.

Too much…

What dominates in your life? Consider the main message you want your life to communicate. What is your focal point or emphasis? What catches and keeps your attention in life? To what dominant feature would a viewer of your life be drawn first? Or, are so many different interests and activities competing for attention that nothing dominates?

Yahweh commanded, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Our triune God is always to be dominant. God Himself is our focal point, the meaning, goal and message of our lives. As Christians, our lives draw attention to God and are the doorway for others to find God. As in the parable of the pearl of great price, we give all we have to live in His Kingdom and dwell in His House. Our entire identity is as God’s children and as living, moving, growing members of the Body of Christ.

God models this concept of dominance. God’s long-suffering love dominates redemption history. Since the beginning, He has loved us. And He seeks always our good, even at the expense of His Son. Jesus told the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son to illustrate God’s intent, loving focus on us. God’s covenant promises and plans for bringing us back into relationship with Himself and each other dominate Scripture. And Jesus showed how to live fully focused on the Father—“The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (Jn 5:19).

From the life and teaching of Christ, we learn that the key to giving God dominance in our lives is keeping our eyes on Him and doing what He does. We give God “visual weight” by giving Him all that we have and are—love, time, and attention. We create “whitespace” around Him by clearing out His competition—money and possessions, addictions and attachments, relationships, and worldly honor and security.

May we emphasize God more and more and let Him dominate our lives more and more. May we turn to God again and again and give Him more attention and more control. Ask God to empower you and lead you in giving Him dominance. Begin to pray and journal with the design principle of Balance, which we will discuss next.

Principles of Design 2: Why Create Humanity?

Last week, we started a discussion of what it means to join God as artists and creators. We are always creating, whether or not we mean to be. At the very least, we are creating memories, impressions, relationships, patterns of thinking/feeling/acting; and we are creating legacies.

We began by addressing why God made the world. Not out of lack or need, but out of completeness and overflow, the Trinity made the world in keeping with Their own nature—beautiful, good, orderly. Why, then, did God make us, God’s image-bearers? Take time now to consider how to answer this age-old question.

Some say God made us to serve Him. I doubt it. In Acts 17:25, we are reminded that God “is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything, because He himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.” Though we are to serve obediently, God didn’t make us because He needed billions of slaves to till His Garden.

Some say God made us to love Him. Maybe. The greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Lk 10:27). All of Scripture is the story of God’s patient, persistent pursuit to make us His beloved children, complete with a Family resemblance and an inheritance. Yet, even we as imperfect parents know not to “create” a child because we want to get love. God, the perfect Parent, wants us to love Him, but God did not make us in order to get love.

My soul is like a weaned child with its mother (Psalm 131).

God’s love was already complete in the Trinity. God was never lacking love. Our triune God’s very nature is love (1 Jn 4:8). Please be clear that in speaking of God as Love, I am not limiting “love” to a sweet, comforting sensation. Sometimes God’s love is fierce and powerful, unpredictable, like a refining fire, a whirlwind, an avalanche, or a flood. And sometimes God’s love is a refuge, a fortress, or a shield. God’s love is active, sometimes instructing, disciplining, and setting boundaries. God’s love also forgives, holds, comforts, and soothes. May we never make the mistake of believing we have captured the essence of God as Love by even beginning to comprehend it.

The love flowing in the Trinity overflowed into the creation of a new recipient of God’s love—Adam and Eve, you and me. God made us to be receivers of His abundant love and forgiveness. The more we receive God’s love, the more we give back to Him and to others.

Some say the “chief end” of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. Yes, at last! This does not mean we were made just to worship God. Jesus said “even the rocks” would cry out if humans did not worship him (Lk 19:40). God does not need worshipers or admirers. God is not on a cosmic ego trip.

What, then, does it mean that we were made to glorify God? As image-bearers, we reflect our Maker, which brings God honor. In addition, we sons and daughters were “created for [God’s] glory” (Is 43:7). The word “glory” here means the manifestation of God, displaying in material form a spiritual Reality. The Trinity made us to share in and display Their goodness, holiness, creativity, beauty and love. As we receive God and His love through the Son, we are transformed and begin to shine with the Family resemblance, which in turn glorifies God.

So, why did God make us? To actively, continuously, daily receive and surrender to His love, which changes our hearts and lives in ways that display the reality, character and intent of God for all humanity and for all the world. In this way we glorify God and will enjoy Him forever.

How then can we shine the Family resemblance and glorify God as artists or creators? Think, pray, and journal about this. In particular, how might we integrate the eight principles of design—Dominance, Balance, Contrast, Gradation, Variation, Alternation, Harmony and Unity—into the lives we are creating with God? We will begin by discussing Dominance.

Principles of Design: Introduction

Our pastor recently preached on the “unrelenting power” of art. He reminded us that our Creator God has invited us as God’s image-bearers to be creators too. I discussed with painter Merrill Freed afterward how it felt as an artist to hear this invitation of God to join Him in creating. Later in the conversation, Merrill noted that he keeps in mind eight principles of design when painting—Dominance, Balance, Contrast, Gradation, Variation, Alternation, Harmony and Unity.

A stirring realization took hold as I considered this list. If God is the Designer, He is the source and perfect practitioner of these principles. And, if we are called and invited to join God in creating, these design principles are for each of us also. We may not all be artists with our hands, but with God’s sustaining and life-breathing power, we are designing and creating [in] our own lives here on earth.

Indeed, we are always creating. Whether we mean to or not, we are creating memories for ourselves and others. Whether we mean to or not, we are creating impressions. We are creating relationships. We are creating patterns of thinking and feeling and acting. We are creating some type of legacy.
How “artistic” are our creations? How much do our creations reflect our Creator? To answer these questions, we need to dig deeper still—What is God’s desire in Creation and in our creations? Over the next months, we will explore together both these questions and the ways God’s principles of design can be incorporated more fully into our lives.

Let us begin with the foundational question, “What was God’s desire in Creation, particularly in making us humans?” If you have never asked yourself these questions, pause to consider and jot down all the answers you can. The array of answers Christians through the centuries have “jotted down” are many.

Why did God make the world? Before Creation, God was complete in the Trinity—three Persons in an eternal dance of mutual honor and love. Yet, God desired to make the world. Why?

God created the cosmos not from a sense of need or lack but from His own fullness and completeness. God created from His own nature, from Who God Is. After all, God is “I AM” (Ex 3:14). God is a Creator, a Maker, an Artist. A Creator creates—creates in keeping with His own being and character. God is beautiful, so He created beauty. God is good, so He created all things good. God is beyond human understanding, so He created a huge, intricate, complex, orderly cosmos beyond our comprehension.

Long before humans understood science, they knew that contemplating the natural world told them about God. God’s fingerprints are all over His creation. As Paul states in Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made…”

What can we learn about God from looking at His creation? Take time this month to look, really look, around you. Where do you see the fingerprints of God? The ongoing presence of God? How does God express Himself in nature, in humanity, in you? And start to think about next week’s question—What was God’s desire in creating humans, His image-bearers?

Child of Our Sorrows

Praying with the Crucifixion at Christmas birthed this drawing and poem. Our Savior was born to die; took on flesh to free our spirits; and emptied himself of sovereignty to bear our shame and sorrow. According to G. K. Chesterton, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.” Yes. Only God could imagine this kind of solution.

Living a Still Life

“Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10).

This verse has become a banner, a justification, a reminder, a rich basis for silence and contemplation. But what do the words really mean? Dare we do exegesis and engage our heads with a verse that so often and so meaningfully has been appropriated by our hearts?

The first section of Psalm 46 is, quite literally, earth-shattering. Although this passage is still frightening in its imagery for us today, to the ancient Hebrews the thought of the earth giving way and mountains falling into the heart of the sea (v. 2) was an unimaginable terror. Not only was the sea representative of chaos, but the land once again disappearing into the waters represented un-creation, a reversal of the good order God created in the beginning (Gen 1:9-10).

Yet, even in the midst of quaking mountains and surging seas (v. 3), the psalmist boldly declares that God is our “refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (v. 1). This same message, that “God is our fortress” (vv. 7 and 11) bookends the psalm and holds it together at the center, often the focal or main point in Hebrew poetry. So, we can be sure that in some way, “being still” and “knowing that [YHWH] is God” are related to safety, security, shelter and sanctuary in the midst of danger and uncertainty.

So, does “being still” mean retreating into God as our protection? Is God alone our unshakable foundation in the midst of chaos, attack, and change? When it feels like our world is being destroyed or un-created, is God our safe haven and source of strength? Yes, and more…

Sheep with their shepherd

The “more” is found in several additional understandings. First, in the place of refuge and retreat referred to in Psalm 46, we are not alone, nor even alone with God. God is with us in the midst of His people. As verse 4 declares, “the holy place where the Most High dwells” is “the city of God.” One person alone in a fortress is not safe for long.

Secondly, the Hebrew word (rapa) translated “be still” in Psalm 46:10 is only once assigned this specific meaning. Elsewhere, the word is translated “let go,” “abandon,” “subside,” “disarm” and “refrain.” But the translation of rapa that fits best here is “go limp.” Not just are we to be still because our shaking and quaking ceases as we trust in God. Not just are we to desist from fortifying our defenses. Not just are we to stop preparing our weapons for the next foray out from our fortress to attack our enemies. No. Instead, we are to “go limp.”

Have you ever tried to go limp? It takes an incredible amount of careful, sustained concentration. And trust. The only time we as humans are naturally limp is when we are sound asleep or unconscious. How then, can we ever in full awareness go limp, as God instructs?

We can go limp in the way God desires only by “knowing” God. The Hebrew word (yada), translated “know” here, is common in the Old Testament. Additional translations include “lay with,” “have sex with,” “be aware,” “find out,” and “realize.” But the translation of yada that fits best in this text is “experience.” Only by experiencing God’s presence, goodness, love, power, faithfulness, attentiveness, and sufficiency can we go limp in the face of impending danger and looming destruction.

Most of us stiffen up when threatened. Often, the stiffening itself increases our injury since taut muscles tear more. Trees that don’t bend in the wind, break. So, God may be saying, “Relax into me. Rest among my people. Be silent in response to taunts and threats. Know me so well by experience that in the midst of danger you are surrendered and abandoned into my care.” Or, God may be saying, “As you trust me and are helpless in my arms, you will come to know me by experience.”

This verse, “Be still and know that I am God,” can be used to call us to silence, solitude, rest, and retreat. But it is so much more. This psalm is about surrender and trust in the middle of great danger, stress, and attack. God’s invitation in this verse is to be completely at rest, experiencing His fierce and tender care even as we are surrounded on all sides by unimaginable destruction. Instead of stiffening up, making a plan, gathering our weapons, or withdrawing alone, may we “go limp” together and experience God. He is more than enough.

Forgiveness

Christianity is all about forgiveness. Through the self-giving, self-emptying sacrifice of Jesus, we can receive God’s forgiveness. And like God, we are to offer forgiveness to others, at least 70 x 7 times (Mt 18:22). Jesus even teaches us a scary way to pray: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Mt 6:12).

Yet forgiving is so very HARD to do! Clearly, they don’t deserve our forgiveness, or there would be no insult, injury, or debt to forgive at all! And what if they have never apologized or are not even sorry for what they did? And what if they were sorry yet keep doing the same thing again and again?

For me, forgiveness is a struggle, both giving and receiving forgiveness. Yet my persistent prayer is that my love for God would increase. And Jesus told Simon the Pharisee (who thought he had little to be forgiven), “Whoever is forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:47b)

So, God, I choose forgiveness, whether I feel like it or not. I choose to forgive again and again. I choose to apologize to others.  I choose to repent, confess, and receive your forgiveness. I want to love more.

His Tears

A directee was praying. I waited in the silence and prayed for her. Obviously moved, she said, “I was with Jesus as he was looking from some high place down onto our broken world. He was crying.”

I waited a bit, then asked, “How did you respond to the tears of Christ?”

Looking back, I don’t remember her response. What I do remember is that I knew exactly how I was responding to Christ’s tears. I wanted to touch them. I wanted to touch the tears on his face.

After she left, this image came to me, as did the poem. Yes, Jesus is the source of living water–flowing from his eyes and from his pierced side.

You Are My Shield

I had been in unrelenting pain for months. Listening to Bethel Music’s song “It is Well” brought some peace:  So let go, my soul, and trust in Him / The waves and wind still know His name. 

Yes, Lord, you are my shield. Only in You am I secure.

Space Between Us

The 4C charge nurses crack me up. Like a pair of loud mother hens, they cluck and cackle, quick and loud, holding back nothing to care for their aging brood. Yelling back and forth to each other down the long hall, they are a high-decibel combo of sideline coach and obnoxious parent.

This wing of Cedar Haven, our county nursing home, is high-energy, fast-moving, full of suggestions. The desk stacked with waiting charts and the long shiny hallway of white heads in wheelchairs is a silent backdrop to these two full-throated, opinionated voices. They take turns throwing out orders like a pitching machine tossing sliders and fastballs.

A deep protective devotion to their residents holds these two young mothers here, enduring losing skirmishes with administration. Though both LPNs do battle for all their charges, they take special care of the crotchety old men, the crankier the better. Affectionate terms of endearment (“Hey there, Snookems!”) are applied even to the ones who routinely bellow expletives and pinch those who carelessly come too close.

Sometimes I wonder why I work. I clearly felt God’s call into medicine, and I love science and people. I love to understand the ways things work. The human body is truly a fascinating masterpiece. Yet, my thoughts scatter and dodge. I am forever reigning them in to give careful attention to the task. What should I do about this sodium level? Could his anti-depressant dose be dropped safely? Which drug is decreasing her white count? Might an autoimmune disease or splenic sequestration be contributing? Where is that lab result that should have been on the chart by now? What can I help and how can I keep from hurting? In the background, adding further distraction to an already buzzing brain, aides push residents to therapy, to whirlpools, to the toilet; chair and bed alarms sound; overhead announcements break in with the date, the weather, and words of wisdom for today.

Lately, too, I have been struggling with wondering what lasts. Of what eternal value is my daily struggle to prolong life and to lessen pain? I hear a familiar voice in my mind, “You know, pastors are the ones who really make a difference. The lives they affect are eternal. The pain they address actually bears fruit.”

I know my doctor’s wages help pay for college and weddings. I know the love I feel for the staff and residents shows up in my words, my laughter, the many times my hand somehow ends up on someone’s shoulder. I know too the incredible value of the Incarnation, of human flesh inhabited by God. But should I move on to a better way, a way of the spirit? Should I move on from caring for what is limited by time and matter to tending what lasts forever?
For days, I have been struggling with these thoughts. My prayer life has been full of these questions. But for now, I must concentrate. I smile and shake my head at these crazy, busy 4C nurses and purposefully head into a resident’s room.

Out of the blue, while I am still coming to a slowing stop at the side of one of these beloved old ladies, something happens. The resident sits turned to the side in her wheelchair in the middle of a four-bed room. Her head is down, bowed temporarily by fatigue and permanently by the dowager’s hump of osteoporotic bone. Looking at her, right before I reach for her, I strongly sense something between us.

A radiance fills the space between us. Just two feet in diameter, the opening feels infinitely broad. The space between us shimmers–not in my eyes with light, not on my skin with warmth. No sound. Just a vast yet intimate place. Holy ground. Holy ground shimmers between us. Timelessly.

I hesitate to enter. To move, to limit this moment. Yet the space draws me in and envelopes us both, skin to skin, spirit to spirit. Love made flesh once again.

Yes, but

Believing and receiving the unconditional, unearned love of God for me is terribly difficult sometimes. Earning God’s love seems safer, more controllable,  more sure.

After all, I hold myself to very high standards of not just acting right but being right; of not just acting in loving ways, but being loving. Why would God expect any less of me than I do of myself?! I am often not right, and I am often not loving. Why would God not be disappointed in my human imperfections? Why would God not love me less because I continue to sin?

My husband tells me when he says I am beautiful, I roll my eyes. My husband tells me when he says he loves me, I wince. What is that? Do I do the same to God?

When I think of receiving God’s unconditional, unearned love, I feel rising in me a “Yes, but…” Yes, God, You say I am beautiful in Your sight, but do You really see who I am? Yes, God, You say You love me, but do You really see my heart?  Are you just loving who You hope I will someday become? Can You really, fully love me? Can You whole-heartedly, covenantally love me nowAlready?

This sketch and poem flow from the “Yes, but” place in me, the place where I roll my eyes at You, God, and wince. I block Your love. I am afraid You will one day wake up and see that I am not beautiful and that I do not deserve Your perfect love. I am afraid that if I open my heart to receive Your love freely, I will be rejected and my shame will deepen.

Sometimes I am afraid I am too much for You–too headstrong, too scattered and distractible, too talkative, too quiet. Sometimes I am afraid I am not enough for you–not worthy enough, not feminine enough, not lovable enough, not attentive enough, not trusting enough.

Yet, You say You love me as I am. You say I am Your beloved child. You say You will never leave me or forsake me. In the gospels, I watch how you love people like me, Lord Jesus. So I choose to believe, “Jesus loves me, this I know.”

Instead of blocking You out with my “Yes, but…,” I choose to receive Your love, God. I choose to offer You an unqualified, “Yes!”  I choose to surrender to Your love. Please help me. Only You can take away the “but” and infuse the “Yes” with power.