Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Letter from An Artist

"After I started to get to know the others going on my placement at Incarnate, and began to realize just how different we were (and began to stress about it), I made an effort to pay attention to the ways you all got along and balanced the leadership. Over and over, you all kept mentioning the importance of praying for unity, and the power of unity, and how this one quality can really distinguish Christians from others. 

"Unity requires such a dying to the self sometimes. It requires treating all members of the body of Christ equally....in fact, it requires identifying oneself with the weakest member of the body of Christ. I realized that this was often lacking in overseas service, which makes it so trying at times. And I thought, "Never again, God." If I prayed for one thing and one thing only, it was going to be unity, because I saw that it WORKED among the Incarnate leaders. And not just once or twice, but every day, and every time I started to feel the team fracture under pressure. I knew it didn't mean I had to be best friends, or even like everyone on the team.....there was just something more important at stake. Our unity was perhaps our most powerful testimony.

“I believe God confirmed that unity as well by placing us in circumstances where, as I think back on it, we actually couldn't have functioned without each one of us. The projects would have been impossible without the efforts of every member. We had so much to do, and we truly had to rely on each other. Praise God for His grace.

“I mentioned to Bill once that when he and Teri [OM Arts Director and his wife] had to leave for the conference, something changed in the spiritual atmosphere around Incarnate. Two of my fellow students also felt a kind of spiritual heaviness descend on the group. That was the beginning of the spiritual flu season for many of us. Without Bill's leadership, there was almost a chink in the armor, so to speak.....but I believe that had ANY of the leadership left, the effects probably would have been the same. Even when one of you was sick, the atmosphere changed. So I truly believe that one of the greatest lessons for me coming out of Incarnate--one of several “elixirs"*--was this importance of unity in diversity as a defining characteristic not only of the body of believers, but of God Himself. And this particular placement, with this particular team, drove that point home for me in a very real way..."

From this same student as the internship came to an end:

“Little tidbit of news we received a few days ago: the people from the village where we painted the mural told us that news spread among the children of the village about the newly-constructed playground and the mural at the church, and attendance at the day care jumped from 14 kids to 70 in just one week! 70 kids! Thank you Jesus! Safe travels everyone!” 

Psalm 133

A song of ascents. Of David.

How good and pleasant it is
    when God’s people live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head,
    running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
    down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
    were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
    even life forevermore.

* Elixir = a term we introduced in the final spiritual formation teaching module, signifying a transformational lesson learned during Incarnate, which the student would return with, and that would be healing for their community at home.  The term comes from a writer’s device known as the Hero’s Journey.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

House of Healing, House of Joy

One of the highlights of Incarnate is to walk with a student through a deep spiritual journey—a journey deeper perhaps than either the student or me expected.  An unexpected journey.  It might be healing, reconciliation, a bondage of some type, an unrecognized lie believed as truth, or an identity crisis.  Maybe it’s a creative block, which almost always signifies a spiritual or emotional block. 

Erica was such a one.  Let me tell you her story (with permission).

Our first few weeks showed us the playful Erica: a gifted illustrator, who drew whimsical characters, an ironic sense of humor, a runner, voracious reader, and lover of country dance.  Erica gave us a much-needed diversion one evening by teaching us dance, which helped forge community in those critical first weeks.  As leaders we were grateful; as human beings, we had fun!   

To see this delightful young woman begin to sink then, saddened me.  I noticed her shedding tears with increasing frequency, not unusual in itself at Incarnate, but this usually led to a request for a conversation, which was not forthcoming.  We watched and prayed; as a rule, we encouraged students to seek God in these times, and come for help if necessary.  We don’t probe until the student is ready to ask for help, ever conscious of the sacred line between short circuiting a work God might be doing in a heart and bearing one another’s burdens.  But Erica was clearly in a tailspin; was it time for an intervention?

Finally, at the insistent prodding of another student in our small group, Erica asked to meet me, and I quickly agreed. 

A torrent of words and tears spilled out, and I got a glimpse into Erica’s complex world.  One issue after another tumbled out, as I pulled tissue after tissue out and handed them to her.  But then it was dinner time; and Erica, an athlete, needed to eat.  We scheduled another time to meet and walked into the cafeteria together.  Erica seemed well able to reel in her emotions and socialize; I didn’t know if those were good coping skills or good masking skills.

The days rolled on, and Erica’s tailspin—what she called a ‘spiritual flu’—continued.  It was as if everything she had ever believed was collapsing, every emotion running erratically through her.  Her creativity blocked and she needed time off from the studio.  We continued to work with her and pray. 

One Saturday afternoon, when most of the community was away on outreach, I invited Erica and the rest of our small group over for coffee.  Only Erica showed up.  It became a God-appointment as more of Erica’s story unfolded, and we ate, prayed and talked together. 

Still Erica didn’t seem to be making any progress; she was caught in despair.  I asked one of my partners, then another, to join us; perhaps as a team we could diagnose this spiritual flu, and at least Erica would have more helping hands than just me. 

And then—imperceptible to Erica, but obvious to all in the community—her face and eyes brightened.  She began smiling more.  We were delighted the day Erica stepped up before the entire student body, and confessed her lack of hope.  Deeply touched by the bravery of other students in confessing sin, making choices, reconciling, speaking out where voices had been stolen, she had decided, in her words, “to keep going” in her Hero’s Journey of faith because of the Hope we have.  A small, but critical choice.  I could have leapt for joy, but probably would have embarrassed Erica :)

Erica went back to the studio.  She produced two paintings for her final exhibit, depicting the restoration of two houses in ruins, and entitled them, “House of Healing” and “House of Joy.”  She shared how God had been wooing her, with words from Isaiah: “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” (Isa.a 58:12)  Giving visual expression to an interior process, they couldn’t have been more accurate to her spiritual process—or more beautiful.  One of our staff bought one on sight. 

As Erica gave her Artist Talk during the festival week, she startled me again: “I didn’t know they were self-portraits.”  Yes they were, and I’m glad Erica didn’t miss it! 

Erica is currently in Moldova, pursuing her passion for missions, art and faith.  Last time I checked Facebook, there was a fantastic mural being painted in a new church being built.  Although she is not sure how to go forward, Erica learned at Incarnate that she cannot go back to the place of despair.  Pray with us that she can find the deep joy and healing she can so beautifully visualize.

“The Lord will perfect that which concerns me.”—Psalm 138:8

Saturday, May 7, 2016


Another of our debrief exercises was called Start/Stop.  It goes like this: 

"Finish these two statements:

"When I return home I want to START doing…

"When I return home I want to STOP doing…"


The caveat is: “The thing(s) you list should be specific and able to be done where you are right now, not ‘someday.'"

For our students, we are hoping they can find their way into vocational choices, maintain spiritual practices, implement theoretical teachings.  For staff, the answers might look a bit different.  Like: “I want to start emptying my inbox…stop eating so much pasta…start my exercise routine again…stop sleeping on a hard bed." As for me, a clutter of thoughts emerge immediately: 

I’m quite happy to STOP the packed schedule, crazy busy-ness, intense concentration, and endless preparation of power points. I’m ready to STOP living in intense community (much as I loved so many parts of it) and regain some privacy and solitude.  I want to STOP being task-driven and spend more time cultivating relationships.  I want to stop fighting with intermittent internet, but not trolling Facebook to see how our students are doing now, post-Incarnate. 

I want to START a normal life and schedule.  I want to start revisions on my book; start the publication schedule and marketing process of my new poetry book.  Start contacting publishers for my completed contemplative photography book.  Start fleshing out a new idea for a book, or at least outline the idea and hold it till I get settled into more of a routine. 

I want to START walking into the next transition, START looking for a new home, and develop stability in the next season.  I want to STOP the itinerant lifestyle and ministry as it’s been, and START ministry as it’s being revealed. 

Now that I’ve been back almost a week, it’s interesting to START cooking again, after relying on the cafeteria.  I’m looking forward to getting my car back—to STOP relying on others for a ride, or my legs for a long walk.  I can START catching up on so many phone calls, now that I have STOPPED “Airplane mode” on my phone! 

As the weeks and months roll on, I expect a few more starts and stops.  The Road Back is a roller coaster, but I have STARTED and will not STOP till I’m adjusted! 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016


It begins.  I am writing from Fiumicino Airport, which sounds idyllic enough if you discount the hour ride in traffic and the athleticism of navigating with four pieces of luggage through two shuttle buses, two escalators, two check-in counters, and (with two pieces left) one security gate.  I won’t talk about the bathroom stops, or keeping track of the passport and boarding pass (one does not always have enough pockets).

Mission accomplished, I arrived at my gate well in time for a toast to success: a parting shot of the Italian elixir known as coffee.  I didn’t lose my documents, found the bathroom in time, and no fingernail died in the process.  Bonus: a seat next to the coveted tech chargers; I could unfurl my technology without fear of running out of power on the 8 hr. return flight.

In an hour or so I would know if flying standby would work or leave me scrambling for a hotel (Lord have mercy).  An hour to begin to decant the experience of 3.5 months in this crazy culture, lived with 50 people of 12 nationalities (nuanced by multiplied layers of personal, family and religious cultures).  3.5 months does not seem sufficient to unpack all that happened, but one can make a beginning.  This is the Road Back. 

About a month ago, I taught our students about this stage in the Hero’s Journey.  A threshold time, a vulnerable time, it requires a death to self.  It tests the Hero: did he or she truly transform, or just have an adventure?  Did we transform, or just have some fun in Italy?  Did I?  What did I need to die to?  Can the Hero (me) return home with the lessons learned, or will those lessons get swallowed up in the challenges of re-entry?

What did I need to die to?  I pondered the questions I had so recently asked others, and started jotting down lessons learned:

  • Community: I discovered its power in a new way, with its invitation to trust it to accomplish what I can’t accomplish alone—an old lesson, newly absorbed.  Countless times, concerned about reaching a particular person in difficulty, I learned that others in the community got there first, and all was well.  I marveled to watch the synchronicity of gifts in action, each one helping to meet the needs of another.  The community thrived;
  • Limits: some new, discouraging ones were generally related to the aging process; others, also related to the aging process, were more positive.  Fierce even--to protect new horizons and freedoms gained by experience and ‘mileage.’ I want to ‘act my age’ and not try to keep up with younger ones; but I also have some work to do.  How do I re-pace myself to do that work, and finish the race set before me?  There are things I could do 5 years ago that I can no longer do; but I can also do things now that I couldn’t have done 5 years ago. How can I leverage and protect what I know now for a new season of ministry?
  • Enlarging: related to the above, I felt a new call to  “enlarge the place of my tent” (Isa. 54:3) and think bigger. There is more to Incarnate than Incarnate, which includes reproducing a model of community, leadership and spiritual life that is becoming increasingly rare, and much needed.  We are not just teaching artists how to be missionaries, how to articulate their faith in a foreign context, deepen their spiritual life, or understand the theological underpinnings of their call and gift. We are teaching them (and the Italians) about community, worship, revival; about transformation, the renewing of the mind, and healing for the wounded heart. 

But my hour is up and my name is called—I'm on!  I swiftly pack up my technology, and claim the coveted boarding pass.  I didn’t score business class, and haven’t finished compiling my ‘lessons learned,’ but happily settle into Zone 2, seat 21H.  I have 8 more hours aboard Delta’s Flight 445 to New York to decant. 

Monday, April 18, 2016


Today we read the report from the OM Italia communications director, featuring reflections from one of the volunteers at the facility we've been staying at, Centro Evangelico Isola.  I wanted to share it with you all.  Once again, we marvel at the 'collateral goodness' that happens during our Incarnate schools--other than students, we have a sometimes unforeseen impact on others.  Here's the story...as reported by Michel:  

A few days ago, Incarnate 2016, a 3-month school organized by OM Arts for Christian artists, ended. The purpose of the course was to help students explore the concept of art and better understand how it could be used to serve the Lord, the church and the community. Here are the spontaneous reflections of Sara, a volunteer at Centro Evangelico Isola, after the departure of the OM Group:

"I want to say something about these three months spent together. I know it will be difficult to fully express what I experienced, but I try. Before you came to Isola, I felt a little bit discouraged. I thought maybe I would not be well integrated, because English is far from me! But after three days together, I thought already to be part of you, as when one is in the family!

"I understand that the plan that God has for us does not let anything, let alone a language, hinder us from God, who does not spare His blessings!  The smiles, hugs, laughter, silence, gestures, sincerity—so many details have expressed more than 1000 words could!  Many different cultures, but a strength and a common love: God!

"This allowed us to see the best part of the other, to encourage it, appreciate it and encourage it. We knew this time would end and that's why we wanted to give, sparing nothing. Every moment should be lived! It was nice to discover a new way to worship God through art; it was uplifting, feeling stuffed with his Spirit, focused on his resurrection, on its beauty, the joy of victory—in this I heard a cure for my soul!

"It was nice, symbolically, to do what Jesus did: wash the feet of our neighbor, sharing the holy supper. So I understand that I need to live what Jesus lived. I understand that I need to do what God wants.  God spoke to me through you.  He made me feel loved, worthy, accepted, cared for. They have no importance—the pains of life, and no matter what we have ruined.

"I saw the resurrection and power in you when you said, “No longer I, but Christ!”  God gave me people who understood the need for a hug.  He gave me people who reminded me I have to be happy every day because this is life with God: to live in joy.  A new way of seeing, a way that contemplates His presence, contemplates the power of His name, and His victory in everyday life. Thank you all!  This experience at Isola would not be the same without you."

Have a look at some of our students hanging with some of the young Italian volunteers!

Friday, April 1, 2016

Toymaker & Son

It was a special joy to receive Dr. Colin Harbinson as one of our guest lecturers recently, and share another Incarnate experience with him through the week. 

I first met Colin in Paris, during an arts conference that changed my life.  What I thought was me exploring possibilities of art in mission turned into me discovering a global arts movement in church and mission. 

Colin didn’t waste a word during that conference, with such clear vision and intellect—vision that matched my own. 
I found myself longing to work with him, thinking it impossible.

Little did I know that a few years later, shortly after my arrival at OM Artslink, Colin would approach us as artists within OM to see about partnership.  He also offered me a position working with him! (I turned it down, having just arrived at OM Artslink.) 

The partnership was struck.  Colin mentored us as we forged OM Arts Intl.; we hammered out a vision and mission statement, decided on objectives, and came up with tag lines.  We laid out our 5, 10 and 15 year plan--a painful task which yielded much fruit.  Nine years later, here is Colin again, working alongside us at Incarnate, just one of the luscious fruits of this very special partnership.

A pioneer in the Christian arts movement, Colin began life in a church culture that had no room for the arts, and forbade dance and movies.  One weekend Colin was invited to fill in for a drummer in a band (although he didn’t play drums), an experience that opened up the arts world to him, and transformed his life. 

Colin is the author of Toymaker & Son, an award-winning theater piece which presents the gospel through toys.  He went on to become the principal of a school in England, before being called into mission.  That call eventually led to Canada and then the USA—where he accepted an invitation to develop the arts in Jackson, Mississippi, as Dean of School of the Arts for Belhaven University.  While there, he met Bill Drake.  And me in Paris :)  The rest is art in mission history.

Colin shared with our students theology and stories—incredible stories of a lifetime in mission through the arts.  Doors opening through arts festivals in St. Petersburg, Bulgaria and China, as the Communist world was collapsing.  In Communist China, Colin brought a team of artists to share the gospel;  one of those artists, Marge Malwitz, would become my arts mentor. 

Handel’s Messiah was performed.  In spite of strict censorship, the Minister of Culture introduced it, “This is about Jesus!” The next day, the news headline declared “”Messiah touches hearts!” 15 news outlets carried the story, and 7 television stations.

Colin and team spoke at universities, and special needs educators-- about art and play therapy: releasing the potential of the special needs child. 

Now retired in Canada, Colin continues to work as a consultant, including helping us at OM Arts, teaching the power of the arts to touch people’s lives.  What a special joy to work again with him, and know that we carry the torch he passed to us--to mentor the next generation of artists in mission.

“And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.”—2 Tim. 2:2

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Benvenuto a Incarnate!

Lauren, one of our students here, is a writer/ journalists.  Yep, we actually got another writer to this Incarnate--yay!

As part of her homework assignments, Lauren has to interview each student and write an article for OM's website and internal blogs.  You can read her articles to see how she's doing on these assignments; one is entitled Benvenuto a Incarnate about our recent open house; the second describes how Artists Transform Conversations into Creativity.(written after a creative assignment given to the students to go into Isola and have a conversation with an Italian--even if you don't speak Italian!).

Lauren chooses to stay off the FB radar, which is why you won't see her smiling face or get her real name here.  A few of our students are working in, or may work in, secure countries. Keeps it real for us as others happily snap and post to their heart's content. 

And I am taking the shortcut method of blogging--citing her articles to avoid writing my own :)  The schedule is taking every spare second, so my own writing is pretty much restricted to keeping up with curriculum and homework assignments.

Good job, Lauren!  And thanks for providing blogger fuel!