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?

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.

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.