by Makoto Fujimura
Matt. 6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Matt. 6:26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Matt. 6:27 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?Matt. 6:28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the ﬁeld grow. They do not labor or spin. Matt. 6:29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. Matt. 6:30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the ﬁeld, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the ﬁre, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Matt. 6:31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ Matt. 6:32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Matt. 6:33 But seek ﬁrst his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Matt. 6:34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
The image shown is part of my current commission by Crossway publishing for the Four Gospels project, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the publishing of the King James Bible.
This image of the lilies will illumine the gospel pages of Matthew. In each large image, I am responding to a particular passage of scripture that stood out to me from each of the Gospels. I paint with multiple layers of precious minerals, such as azurite and malachite, mixed with hide glue, and layered over 60 times onto Kumohada, Japanese rag paper.
My purpose in speaking today is to help you to understand why the arts are important, if not crucial, for education and theology. I want to make a case that the arts are not a peripheral luxury, but a central necessity. Of course, listening to an artist, you would be expecting this; to defend the arts, to be persuasive in the arts’ importance. I intend to do more: Here, in Matthew six, is what I consider to be a command by Jesus to make central what we deem peripheral, an essential step before we can “seek God’s Kingdom ﬁrst.”
Often when these passages are read, we take note of the reality of our anxiety. We think of our current reality imposed upon us, even as we sit here in chapel, of the illness of our loved ones or of our own fragile bodies, of not knowing how we are to pay next month’s rent, our restlessness over our future paths. We take comfort in, and are challenged by, Jesus’ words to “not worry about life.” We might say that we are here focused on “seeking God’s Kingdom ﬁrst” at Regent and trust that “all these things will be added unto you.” This interpretation is quite correct, but I want to exhort you to not skip the middle part of “see the lilies.”
Jesus is giving us the antidote to worry; he is commanding us not to worry, AND giving us a path to ﬁght against our hearts prone to fear. What is his antidote? Is it “to seek God’s Kingdom”? When you read these passages carefully, we need to note that there is a progression. Between the command to "not to worry" and "seek God's Kingdom," there is another command to "consider the lilies." The antidote to worry is to ﬁrst “See (consider) the lilies.”
If we proclaim the gospel without “considering the lilies,” our preaching and teaching will have an activist’s urgency and edge, but ﬁlled with fear. Right information, but devoid of observation, lacking empathy, and without poetry. We will lack love. Love observes. Love empathizes. Love sings poetry over our lives. We need to love through our fears. Therefore, consider the lilies. Only when we learn to truly see, can we seek (God’s Kingdom.)
“Considering the lilies,” Emily Dickinson once stated, “is the only Commandment I have ever obeyed.” A poet’s job is to consider the lilies. An artist’s task is to see the lilies. Not just look at them, but see, as in seeing through something.
A poet and an artist have much to be anxious about. We have chosen the path of a greater resistance. But we have also been given the gift, to see, to listen well to the world around us. Emily Dickinson took the antidote of Matthew 6 fully into her imaginative journey, the healing power of seeing and listening. Through her observation, she created a world of vast, generative reality, composing 1100 poems on her tiny, 18 inches by 18 inches square desk in Amherst.
The arts are like Emily’s table; small and spindly, in the outer rooms of our lives, in the peripheral corners of our homes.
It is easy to dismiss the arts as a luxury, as the frivolous decorations of our lives. According to these verses, frivolous decorations actually turn out to be essential for our growth.
Think of it this way. The arts are the cup that carry the cold water to rejuvenate the thirsty. Though it is not the water itself, the arts are essential to bringing the water of life onto dry, parched lips. Without the arts, we will not be able to quench our thirst fully as the waters slip past our ﬁngers. How much of the gospel have we not been able to communicate because we lack the language, sophistication and beauty of the arts; oh how much our churches suffer because we neglect to value that tiny desk of a poet. Arts are luxury and wasteful? It will be far more wasteful if we did not cultivate the arts. The gospel water will slip through our ﬁngers, and we will not be able to fully quench our thirst.
The arts are Mary’s nard that anointed Jesus in Bethany; the expensive perfume that ﬁlled the air as Mary fearfully and wonderfully gave herself to him. The only earthly possession that Jesus wore to the cross was the aroma that Mary was saving up for her wedding; and that aroma communicated to the soldiers piercing his side that this is not ultimately going to end in a funeral, but this is pointing toward a wedding.
We see later on in Revelation a cosmic wedding feast to come. Have you ever been to a wedding without music, poetry, fashion, delectable food, even dance? A wedding without the arts is impossible. We are wedding planners, and we had better get prepared.
The arts bring this aroma of Mary into our contemporary days ﬁlled with anxiety and worry. Jesus tells us to “consider the lilies,” to “see the birds of the air.” To use our senses. So this exercise in botany and ornithology has more to do with understanding ourselves, and our world through Jesus’ gaze of nature.
“If you want to ‘understand’ something,” said my friend Bruce Herman, quoting C.S. Lewis, “you have to be willing to ‘stand under’ it.”
Instead of standing over something, we stand under; instead of standing over God, we stand under the Cross. C.S. Lewis suggests this for us to ponder about the arts: "We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The ﬁrst demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way." An Experiment in Criticism, pg. 18, 19 (Cambridge University Press) We need training to see, to listen, to stand under. We need the arts to understand. So the purpose of arts in education is not to make more artists, though that is one of the fruits. The purpose of arts in education is to make us better engineers, accountants, professors, doctors and theologians. The purpose of the arts in life, is to make people long to be fully human. Jesus makes us fully human, and he commands us to consider the lilies. The arts are vessels to carry the gospel to fully capture our humanity, brimming with life.
So we consider: the Lilies of Jesus’ day were of the buttercup family, not like the Easter Lilies that I depicted here with Sumi ink, Gold and Platinum.
They were small, dainty ﬂowers, that sprung up in the morning dew, and shriveled up at night. They were like weeds. “They do not spin or toil” because they grow uncultivated anywhere, and everywhere.
These lilies were used to light ﬁres with because they were so spindly. Jesus is telling us that these things we use, and take for granted, like the arts, can have the most central place in our conversation of the eternal. Because it is ephemeral and spindly, it ignites. Because it is a throwaway, it serves a greater purpose. Precisely because the arts are useless, peripheral and ephemeral, they are signiﬁcant, essential and permanent for God's Kingdom. The arts are a gift, not a commodity. To the extent that we commoditize art, and value art as the price dictates, to that extent, we will devalue ourselves. To the extent that the arts are devalued in the church, to that extent we will dehumanize and devalue the gospel. We will end up “selling” the gospel as cheap, utilitarian merchandize, ﬁlling our mall-like churches with trinkets worthy only of 15 seconds of fame and attention.
Instead, the Gospel is Life itself, generative and extravagant. Our God calls us through the humility of a beautiful weed, the multiplying powers of our senses , if only we would take in (“stand under”) God’s message and pay attention to his world.
Looking at this image, you might be thinking “So why did you paint ordinary, American, Easter lilies if the original is a buttercup?” Artistic license. Our Easter lilies look better, visually, ﬁlling the large paintings with the Trinitarian ﬂower buds. But then, you might also begin to notice, that the way I painted these ordinary Easter lilies is very peculiar. No lilies really look like this. There are things happening, funky things, growing out of the lilies.
I am taking artistic license to imagine our post-Resurrection reality. I want these lilies to experience what N.T. Wright called the “Life after Life after Death.” A point at which Heaven invades our fragile Earth, and everything is transformed into a New Reality. A Wedding is to take place then, and I am considering what the lilies at the altar would look like, where the bridegroom (Christ) kisses his bride (the Church).
Jesus stated, when Mary made a mess at Bethany:
Mark 14:6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. Mark 14:9 I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
The question is: are we continuing to tell what she had done as we preach the Good News? What is our ephemeral, extravagant aroma? Where is our art?
Consider the lilies.