|off the page, Pat Mayer|
Pat works with mixed media. She has a gift for seeing the value in things that most of us would discount or discard: a wilted flower, a coin in the gutter, a rusty nail in the corner of the garage, tattered papers in the recycle bin. I believe the term of art is “found objects,” also known as other people’s trash!
What is fascinating to me about Pat’s art is the way she creatively integrates the pieces of our lives that we’d rather hide or ignore into a larger whole that is both profoundly meaningful and simply beautiful. From her perspective, what seems like just plain garbage is a uniquely creative possibility that has something to reveal to us about our life and our world. To hide it or ignore it is to diminish us.
Our lives, too, are a kind of mixed media, a work of art that includes all too many pieces of junk. When seen in isolation, some of the materials can appear pretty ugly; not something we’d really like mom to post on the refrigerator or show the neighbors. But when woven into the whole tapestry of life, what looks like garbage in isolation appears as part of a thing of great beauty and value. It is all a matter of how you frame it – pun intended.
Lent is a time set apart to remind us that from the perspective of God, the garbage of our lives is really a set of precious found objects. They are part and parcel of the ongoing creative work whereby the Master Artist is making something absolutely beloved out of the materials of our lives – all of the materials. To paraphrase today’s Collect, “God hates nothing she has made”; no matter what anybody else says.
Now here is the problem: sometimes, we care a great deal about what everybody else says. Rather than seeing ourselves as reflected in the eyes of God, we see our value and identity as reflected in the eyes of others, and we come to value and desire what they value and desire – first parents, then family, friends, our neighbors, school, church, and culture. This “social other” may seem nice and shiny on the outside, but it hypocritically condemns in others what it secretly struggles with itself.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus warns us to be careful of imitating the desire of others, of seeking the reward that comes when we allow the culture to determine our value. Jesus reveals how the culture’s way of framing meaning and value is determined by fear, greed, rivalry and violence. When we buy into the socially constructed markers of success, we become anxious to hide or repress the parts of ourselves that others judge garbage, and quick to see the garbage in others.
We split our selves and our world into treasure and trash – this part, those people are OK; this part, those people have to be repressed or ignored – when the truth is that we are all mixed media. The culture rewards us greatly for imitating its values, or punishes us for failing to do so. Either way, if we seek our reward there, we miss the genuine reward that the One Jesus calls “Father” – a term of loving intimacy – desires to give us.
That reward is to see ourselves whole – rusty nails and all – and see that whole held in the gaze of God like a doting Mother absolutely in love with her newborn child. Now, it is important to acknowledge the rusty nails as rusty nails. If we don’t, we will continue to puncture ourselves on them and scratch and scrape others along the way.
That is what Ash Wednesday is for – to see the trash as trash and to see it as worthy of our attention. By bringing sin into the light, we can share it with God in loving trust that the Master Artist will redeem the beauty within even the coarsest material we have to offer. As we do so, the rusty nails of our lives no long define us; rather, they become integrated into a larger pattern that comprehends them without denying them. They are what they are; a part of our lives, but by no means the whole story.
The work of Lent – let’s face it, a lifetime of Lents – is to integrate the garbage of our lives in such a way as to transform it into found pieces. It is the work of prayer, of going into a place of solitude so that we can detox from the rewards of the world, the identity we see reflected in the eyes of the social other, and instead receive the reward that comes when we see ourselves as beloved of the “Father” – rusty nails and all. This is the true treasure that the world cannot take away from us.
So, pay attention to the rusty nails, the cancelled checks, the broken, jagged pieces of your life that cut deep and wide. But don’t stop there. Share them with the Master Artist. She has an eye for such things, and can see the value in them – in you – when nobody else does.