“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward … promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea. We are far too easily pleased.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
In the 5th century BC, a student of Socrates began teaching the pursuit of pleasure as the goal of life. Happiness. Your own happiness! Consider for a moment the momentous challenge this teaching represented—a personal, individualistic philosophy—to a culture steeped in communal worship and servitude to the gods. And while the philosopher, Aristippus, isn’t exactly a household name, the philosophy he founded not only managed to survive, but has woven itself throughout contemporary culture: Hedonism. It’s not hard to imagine why; celebrating pleasure while attempting to eliminate suffering was bound to be popular! But what IS pleasure? Where does one find it? Many things seem pleasurable from a distance, only to dissolve like a mirage when possessed. Is there anything solid on which to build a philosophy of pleasure? A century later, the philosopher Epicurus attempted to do just that, teaching that while pleasure was the greatest good, it was best achieved through living a modest life, seeking knowledge, and limiting desires.
When we say . . . that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not by an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not by sexual lust, nor the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul. — Epicurus, "Letter to Menoeceus"
For Epicurus, happiness was never to be found in the latest entertainment or newest technology, a frantic sex life or globe-trotting Instagram feed. In our media-saturated culture, the very things for which we clamber to achieve happiness are, for the Epicureans, those things “through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.”
Ouch. At this point, you may be asking yourself if possibly this whole enterprise of seeking after pleasure may be wrong footed. Perhaps pleasure isn’t life’s goal. Fair point. In which case, what could we set above pleasure? How much pleasure ought we deny ourselves and for what purpose? Following questions down this road we find ourselves in the community of the Ascetics.
Asceticism (from the Greek word for “exercise”), is a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from sensual pleasures, usually for the purpose of seeking spiritual goals, and is found throughout a broad range of religious traditions. Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians (among others) all practice various forms of asceticism, most notably fasting, which I think we can agree, is decidedly NOT hedonistic. True. But does it follow that fasting, like other ascetic practices, is devoid of pleasure? In fact, upon closer examination we may find that what dives the practitioner to fast is the hope of a GREATER pleasure beyond a temporary period of suffering. A severe asceticism may be required of the Buddhist, but the indescribable pleasure of nirvana—union with the divine—remains the driving impetus. Let that soak in. What does it mean that in denying pleasure, we only seek… MORE pleasure?
A bit of semantics may prove useful in parsing-out pleasure; let’s talk about the difference between happiness and joy. While both are commonly used in conversation, (“I’m so happy that pumpkin spice latte is available again”; “that car is his pride and joy”), we don’t use either with much specificity. Even the dictionary isn’t much help. Happiness is defined as “pleasure or contentment”, and Joy as simply “great happiness.” I think we can do better.
Let’s consider “happy” as the simple-carbohydrate of emotion. It’s always good for a quick fix, but after the initial spike, it falls off hard, often leading to an emotional crash. This is because happiness is incompatible with any amount of suffering, difficulty, or challenge, meaning it can only be formed through the simplest and most immediate of sources. In order to stave off emotional cravings, happiness must be continually ingested, leading to a lifestyle we could characterize as hedonistic. And that hamster-wheel is a real taskmaster.
Thankfully not all pleasure is of the quick and easy variety; let’s consider joy. Joy is pleasure that has gained interest in the bank of waiting, challenge, and/or suffering. Unlike happiness, joy is never immediate, never painless, always comes at a cost and therefore possesses much more value. Joy relishes the long-game, it steeps in flavor like a marinating stew. Joy is known in the labor of the artist chipping away on the marble, the banged-knuckles and greasy-stains of the mechanic contorted beneath his engine. Ironically, the strongest experiences of joy are linked to words like “fortitude”, “endurance”, and even “long suffering.”
We are here miles from “happy.”
Work with me: let’s build a happiness continuum. Far to one side, we’ll situate Hedonism’s “happy”, the quick, sugary concoctions that spike emotion and just as quickly fizzle. And while there’s nothing terribly wrong with these experiences, we’ve noted that filling one’s diet with a constant need for such fluff could be seriously detrimental to health. One can not live on happy alone. So let’s move towards the other side of our graph, where we’ll locate Epicurean “joy.” Unafraid of struggle, this joy is earned in the crucible of prolonged effort and is therefore far richer and more nuanced—a taste developed by more discriminating palettes. A good meal can make you happy; joy can be found in the effort of cooking it. Here we’ve learned to limit our consumption of media-driven fads as a path to happiness, showing constraint and possibly even contentment. And yet, these are still passing emotions. The effort is achieved, the goal possessed. In the end we are still left hungry. In order to locate a lasting happiness, we’ll need to track to the far edge of the continuum opposite where we began. Here too is joy, but it is far more like the joy of the Ascetics. This most subtle of joys incorporates the struggle of the Epicureans and adds to it an acceptance of suffering rather than avoidance. In short, it “hacks” the happiness deflating power of suffering and repurposes it in a way that builds a joy on the time-table of eternity.
And it is this form of joy that is found throughout the pages of the Bible, describing the reality of God’s nature and the state of man in relationship with his creator.
…. For the joy set before him he (Jesus) endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:2
Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. John 16:20-22
Pain, suffering, “exercise” has its place, but with eternity in view, it is temporary and passing. As in a picture where the source of light only becomes visible through shadow, the parable of creation requires the ineffectual possibility of happiness in order to contrast the brilliant spectacle of true joy. Less we incessantly wander from shallow happiness to shallow happiness, or grow tempted to disregard pleasure altogether (if that was even possible) simply because so many of its springs prove dry, let’s instead seek the true fountainhead. The sustaining, eternal truth at the heart of God is a boundless joy, a ceaseless rejoicing into which we are called. This never-ending joy is ours to dwell within, here and now, as we live in connection to its creator. “You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Psalm 16:11. “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him!” Psalm 34:8 . “He who heeds the word wisely will find good, and whoever trusts in the LORD, happy is he.” Proverbs 16:20
Happiness? Sometimes, ephemeral and passing, but welcome. Suffering? Assuredly, but not without promise. Joy, experienced here and now, moment by moment as a light dawning from the horizon of God’s promised fulfillment of new heavens and new earth, a new creation of which we are already and not yet a part.
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. Mark 12:32-34
There is a moment universally experienced by travelers to a foreign country when, after having exchanged familiar currency into the local denominations, a first purchase is attempted. Did I hear that right, $300 for a bottle of water? Or was it $3,000? And what exactly does that look like? The multicolored bills splaying from the wallet are handed over with the care one generally reserves for Monopoly-money. “There goes a pretty orange one. Oh, I quite liked the portrait on that other.”
Meaningless. The bills will only later take on significance after repeated purchases. The large silver coin stamped with the national seal can be exchanged for a cup of tea; The orange paper bill emblazoned with a mustached-man can buy a basket of groceries. Meaning is found in what the currency can do.
Or think of it this way: after 15 minutes of circling the same congested city block, you spot an opening and with a flash of speed, elegantly maneuver into place beside the menacing red pulse of a parking meter. It will need to be fed. And it is at this point you realize you are completely without change. You dig through the all the usual hiding places, shoving hands down folds of dusty upholstery, and still nothing. You exit the car, hoping the machine might take a bank card, but no such luck. In frustration, about to leave and chance a parking ticket, a stranger passes on the sidewalk and seeing your distress, gives you a handful of coins. The emotion comes fast: shock, then happiness, followed again by shock: you’ve been given a handful of foreign coins. Meaning is found by what a currency can not do.
Money is like that; it’s always location specific. In fact, a nation’s currency, which is in no way insignificant to its overall economy, could rightly be considered one of its defining characteristics. Think Yen. Rupee. Dollar.
Love is a foreign currency, the denomination of a kingdom not of our making, a coinage impossible for us to mint, incomprehensible and incompatible for our normal systems of exchange. Sure, we occasionally rub shoulders with it, passing with polite acceptance. But if we ever truly come face to the face the genuine article, love in the rawness of its expression, it is as indecipherable as a foreign bank note and as incompatible as a handful of foreign coin. Love will never buy you a loaf of bread, but neither could you with all the wealth of the world purchase an ounce of love. These two economies do not interface. It is other, outside, beyond the systems of our world, an alien concept invading this planet and challenging its structures for control. Love is the currency of the kingdom of God.
Which is why all our human adjectives fall flat against the impenetrable distinctness of love. We would make of love a comfortable hodgepodge of good-feelings and admiration. “I love” becomes nothing more than a momentary preference, as in, “I love these drapes”, “I love this salad”, “I love you.” More questionable still is the way this preference is purchased (has been made into commodity!) by the feelings given to us by the other; we love only in relation to how the other makes us feel. Our love for the drapes is dependent upon current styles, our love for the salad upon current appetite, our love for another human upon current happiness. Love is poorly counterfeited by humans.
God loves. This is the language scripture uses to depict the eternal creator continually giving himself for the good of the other. It is the echoing theme from cover to cover, from Garden of Eden to Garden of Gethsemane to new heavens and new earth. As love is forged in the infinite freedom of God, we are therefore powerless to create, control, or limit his choice. The world is already loved. Our choice is to reflect the reality of his love, a love as bright and broad as creation itself. This love cannot be directed around sinners, cannot skirt the edges of the unchurched or narrowly focused within the confines of the safe and similar. His love is a hand-grenade; we would make it a laser. Thus is written the peculiar language of loving enemies and other non sequiturs from human culture. But it is only there, in stepping out in the faith of another kingdom, another possible economy just outside of human understanding, that we glimpse the incomparable image of divine love, of life lived without fear for the good of all.
Now, it follows that those who are initiated into the Jesus story, who have glimpsed the immense dimensions of divine love and have claimed the Christ as the mode and model of their lives should be those who best reflect this love into the world. Churches would operate as the great prisms of our age, temples of love, penetrating and filling all the dark corners of human ugliness with prismatic radiance. And while Christ followers would generally be seen as social outcasts due to their currency’s incompatibility with the global economy of power, many would be drawn to this alternative view of existence which claims a richness and plenty in place of scarcity and ugliness.
And wouldn’t that be a nice world to live in? It could happen, and it has and is happening in various embassies of that foreign kingdom. But let’s also be clear: those who hold Christ’s name do not hold a monopoly on his love. God loves. Where his love makes its presence known in this world, no matter the vehicle or voice, it is his, originating in his infinite freedom, his ongoing, eternal choice. This is love, not the saccharine veneered emotionalism of pop-culture‘s "love", but the sacrificial gift of self for the betterment of the other, the image of the divine in flesh, a systemic incarnation.
Pen in hand, still, I wait
And await some distant wave of inspiration
Exploded across the cosmos
One-hundred-and-thirty-million lifetimes ago
Crystalized in those years through the void,
An ever yawning silence, never arriving
Trembling through the ink in my palm
Scribbling into jots and tittles of a new tongue
Did you see me? Did you know me then,
The future inheritor of your death?
Life springs forth from the scattered remains
Of heavy metals and precious gems alike
Each treacherous and treasures to be sifted
Through the quill I now hold.
I wish for you I was more. Less an imperfect craft
Childlike before the Ancient of Days.
Words drip - spoon fed - from my chin
In rivulets into puddles of shimmering reflection.
Oh Beauty! But beauty not within my power to create.
Best not to know this inadequacy
Nor to plum the shallowness of my reservoir
For you are enough,
Your presence sufficient to fill whatever vessel
Is present and presented to your purpose.
More than a little influenced by my third (or forth) trip through Pressfield's War of Art, the following is my own adaptation of the Invocation of the Muse. If you find it helpful, adapt your own or appropriate with my blessing.
Father God send your Muse, servant of The Creator and spirit of fire to ignite the work of these humble hands.
I pledge to you my service in the fight against Resistance and offer up these moments for you to shape and to guide.
Fill this place with your presence leaving no room for doubt or fear.
Come, and let the work begin.
SAVING JESUS. 36x84" oil on canvas; 2016
Joyful, joyful we call to arms
sound bells of warning and cries of alarm
broadcast what fears of ‘morrow may bring
and with one voice to war we sing
Rouse ye sleeper and rise to defend
the glory of Christ is ours to win
What they did in ignorance we do in spite
They may be forgiven but we will get right
Our power advances as his' retreats
A requisite tactic; grace would require defeat
Peace we preach at the end of our gun
Or else there’s the exit and you better run
For once they're defeated and he is ours
Secured within doctrinal walls and towers
Affirmed by tradition we will never more fear
Those from without will not again come near
Yes we will own him - Yes! - we’ll possess
and not in humility - No! - in success
His was to lose as ours is to win
We’ve come to save Jesus, let’s save him again
Cleaning out my nightstand drawer, I stumbled across a folded scrap of paper, dated 11/14/09. Enjoy.
To my children, a gift of words
Naively homespun in common hours
Dyed in life, stipped of pride, content to serve
With hopes that in some night of biting cold
We all in season must move through
The knitting here will return once more
To comfort and still a troubled soul
For I stood once where you stand now
Your worries are yours and yet also my own
And so our love is ours as one
Gleaned as it is from His above
For the stitching here of grammar hopes
To weave together something more
Than the sum produced of feeble parts
Does nothing less than bind our hearts
ONLY THE MIRACLE of writing can cut through the haphazard inner-space of churning ideas and so filter and condense as to produce something solid, something true. Often the end product of these "exorcisms" are more a surprise to the author than to anyone else. Such is the case with this quick "Artist Statement." Having agreed to be a part of a local arts event for foster families in which some of my work would be displayed, I was asked to send an artist statement to accompany the pieces. But... something about "leveraging the inherent historical context of the medium", or "confronting issues of social interactivity and digital simulacra" didn't seem altogether right for this audience. So, a re-write: Keep it quick, stick to the important, and be broad. Oh, and no graduate-school speak. What follows may not be great, (hey, it WAS quick), but it's true. And that's really saying something for an artist statement.
"Making art provides a means to map out ideas, express emotion, and refine creative abilities. For me, this has taken shape in oil painting, a medium I have come to love both for its substance (you can do SO much with it) and symbolism (how cool is it to work with a medium that so many other artists have used before me?). And MOST of the time I really enjoy it. Like, during those times when it feels magical, as if I’m sailing with a full wind at my back that could carry the work on forever. But then there are those other moments of inevitable struggle, when the work stalls and progress seemingly grinds to a halt. But here’s the deal: you can’t have one without the other. If you’re willing to struggle enough, you will experience success. And likewise, success has never come to anyone without at least an equivalence of difficulty. There’s no getting around it. This is art making, a practice as old and as vital as humanity itself. I hope you enjoy my small contribution. Even better, I hope you find the courage to add your own.” -AG
To this thought and the next
And the sum forever hence
Absent now as a letter unwritten
Blank, clean, and heavy
With the weight of all future tomorrows
Dolled out moment by moment
On the scale of this brain
Solid as stone, secreted like sludge
Sinks to unfathomable depths
Layer by ribboned layer
Run! Flee feathered fish of noble birth
And the righteous anemone, blind as death
To be scattered or entombed like Pompea
The inscription reads: Here lies my memories
And what of it?
These are mine, or were
Get your own to lose, or secure
For what angler would dare fish this inky sea
For thoughts once forgotten once belonging to me?
The sound of birds
Tires on pavement
The cool breath of mid April
Through the window
My lungs too fill with this life
As all creation wipes sleep from crusty eyes
And yawns, stretching frozen ligaments
Toes sprout from beneath winter quilts
Touching cool floor to tender skin
My lungs and this house too exhale
With white steam from black coffee
And melting butter on warm toast
As somewhere a radio speaks
Of real problems in imaginary lands
Are the birds aware?
Do they see my movement
As a response to their own
Through the window?
Ohio in winter a tent of grey pitched
on vacant blue limbs curling like smoke
Stinging cheeks, nostrils
Stiff ground, stiff knees, both unyielding
Ohio in winter sticks to your eyelashes,
runs down the inside of your glasses
The naked beauty of ohio in winter
overwhelms the shallow spring nest of my heart
I can not take you in as you would have me,
as peers meeting on the road
Soft flesh barricaded in strata of wool and down
To protect whom, you or me?