And then my heart exploded…

For most of my life I’ve wondered if God really did indeed keep his promises… I’d heard a thousand sermons. I’d read the entire Bible, but still, I felt that somehow I was being overlooked. Where are you God? It was a question I asked often.

For most of my life I’ve been consumed with myself. I spent hours thinking about me, wallowing ins self-pity and often self-loathing. Insecurity, shame, low self-esteem – these were adjectives that were graffitied on the walls of my life.

But last year I joined a community group and God brought a few other people into my life and I was shown so much love and grace through them that my blinders were removed. God was there all along. He was carefully guiding my steps, growing me, shaping me according to his will and to make me ready for his purposes. For years the very things that I thought were keeping me apart from God were the very things that actually made me see how much he really loves me.

It’s easy as Christians to think that the church and people and even God are going to let you down. It’s easy to find yourself stuck and despairing, but God is always there even when no one else is around. Those lonely moments are quiet opportunities to cry out to him, to listen, to pray, and to wait. Psalm 40:1 says, “I waited patiently for the Lord, He inclined and heard my cry.” I know there is truth in that verse.

This year I have been consumed by the love of God so much so that my heart that was once hardened to the truth – and to the Love of God – has now exploded. I have been shattered by the outpouring of love and grace that has been shown to me by others and by God. I have a new hunger and thirst for righteousness that I never had before and like Paul I boast in my weakness, because it is in my weakness that God is made strong.

For most of my life I was consumed by shame and fear, but now that is all gone. I am consumed by the love of Christ and I pray that you have the opportunity to experience that in your life.

Book Reviews

The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith and the Christian Community by Robin M. Jensen

Where Has All the Art Gone?
Yes, Yes, YES! Kept popping in my head as I read the words of Robin Jensen in her book The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith and the Christian Community. From the first chapter I found myself drawn in as she talked about the place of art in the church – or rather it’s absence altogether. Where has all the art gone? What happened to chapels with painted ceilings? When did beauty and design become frivolous and unnecessary in the church?

As a graphic artist I’ve often felt “hushed” by the church, silenced like a small child that should know when to keep quiet. “Excuse me!” I would say eagerly. If I were in a classroom my hand would be raised and I’d be stretching my fingers wildly and rocking about to get attention, but this isn’t a classroom, just a drab conference room that once again is stripped bare of any personality or design. “What if we added a bit of color to this wall?” I would ask sincerely, my imaginative mind rife and overflowing with possibilities. My question would be met with blank stares and incredulity. “Who is the new kid?” their expressions would say. Then audibly they would respond, “Well, that’s a nice idea (read: bless your heart), but that’s not in the budget.” I quickly learned that the old Japanese Proverb, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”, was indeed quite true. Thwack! I felt the hammer often as my ideas were slammed down. It hurt. It stung on the inside as much, if not more, than a literal pounding on the outside.

At the church where I worked my creative skills were seen as a “nice-to-have” but definitely not a “must-have”. What I thought was just as necessary as a bathroom and chairs; the church thought was superfluous and at times laughable. However, in my experience, budgetary constraints were not the only limitations to church beautification. Even if the artwork could be done for free it was still not valued. Sure it may have looked nice, but did it really function any better? The feeling that I felt most often was dismissed. “Please go away with your creative ideas, we have more important projects to attend to.” While my experiences at this church might have been unique, from what I gathered from Jensen’s book, they were and still are quite common.

Art is Critical, Not an Afterthought
To the artist, art is the foundational element, not an afterthought. It is step one in the planning process, a crucial cornerstone. Art is the heart and soul, the core, not the icing on the cake.

What Jensen seemed to highlight in her book is that Instead of leading with beauty and art, the church has led with form and function. Sterility is a virtue. Boring is synonymous with spiritual. Being forced to worship in a room that is as barren as a cave or a monastery is the only way to truly communicate with God, as if art and beauty are distractions, not something that could incite passion, love, desire or faith. Besides, beauty is not to be elevated or worshipped. No, that is idolatry. Art should know it’s place and it is not in the church, especially not in the sanctuary.

So what has the treatment of art by the church communicated to the artist? That their skills are of limited worth and value – which communicates that they are of limited value. Each artist considers their work part of who they are, a reflection of themselves just as creation is a reflection of God. To not see our art is to not see us.

Art and the church often don’t mesh well because art is controversial. Art elicits a response. It asks a question. It stirs emotion. It causes riots. It causes splits. The church doesn’t have time for that.

Christianity and the arts used to have a great marriage. It was a love affair, a partnership that allowed artists to make a living by doing what God created them to do. But for the most part art and church have been divorced and there seems to be no simple path to reconciliation. Why did church and art become two things that couldn’t coexist in wonderful harmony where each elevated each other? The reasons are many but the most simple are money and then tension that exists between the church and the artist. Art is a form of self-expression; it can be beautiful, abstract, ugly, and awe-inspiring. It is often hated and misinterpreted, but it cannot be ignored. True art speaks. It cannot be silenced. Since the creation of time art has been speaking. “For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.” (Rom 1:20 NLT)

It is through art that the world was created. It is through visual imagery that ideas are reinforced and it may be for this very reason that art has been removed from the church. Art causes us to feel and feelings are complex. Instead of living in a world of logic and fact, art lives in a world of fantasy and “What if?” This can be frightening.
Art and Entertainment
In very recent times there does seem to be a shift toward an entertainment model of church. Big screens and flashy media along with graphic backgrounds and other “art” are often used in large churches. However, even these uses of graphic design are often met with criticism. “Couldn’t that money be spent on missions?” “Shouldn’t we spend that money on the poor?” Where does the church draw the line between sensational production and misappropriation of resources? As a church should we be trying to compete with a rock concert or multimedia conference? The questions are endless and there seems that there needs to be some balance between marketing, creativity and the purpose behind our “art.” As a graphic artist I know that sometimes resources are very limited, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be creative and find other ways of implementing art without spending a lot of money.

Offensive Art
In chapter six of Jensen’s book she mentions some artists whose art can be extremely offensive to some people. An excerpt from the book, which is talking about an art exhibit called Sensation, reads:

One object in the exhibit got special attention in the press, becoming notorious as the “Virgin Mary with Elephant Dung” painting (otherwise known as The Holy Virgin Mary) by African artist Chris Ofili. During the time of the show’s run, the media gave so much attention to discussion of the exhibit in general and this painting in particular that the show became a kind of blockbuster, a result primarily of its deliberate intent to be shocking and even offensive (hence its name).

When we hear about art that is shocking or offensive we have to run it through our own personal and cultural filter. What might induce apoplexy in America may be mundane in Milan. Artists whose work features religious items mixed with feces, blood, or urine, like Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ”, are sure to elicit a response – most likely anger, from anyone who has been raised in a religious household or who loves Christ. However, because art is a form of self-expression it is hard to define what exactly is “true” art and what is just an attempt to infuriate a religious group or organization merely as a publicity stunt. So where does that leave churches and religious organizations that want to incorporate art into their buildings and sanctuaries? It seems that the best approach to this is to create a guide for artists to follow as well as educating their congregation and church members about the purpose of the art in the church. As an artist my clients request specific artwork and while I get to input my own creative stamp on it, I understand that if they ask for a picture of Jesus I better not paint him to look like Satan. When it comes to artwork that is done on commission then there is a balance, a push and pull that happen between the client and the artist. For me, it is in that struggle that some of my most creative work happens. I believe the same is true for the church. There will be conflict, there will be times when we disagree, but we must fight, and fight fair, in order to progress, otherwise we stagnate.


WORK. With a Purpose.

“If you are working 29 hours, it’s 29 hours, it shouldn’t matter what you are doing during that time.”

This was a statement from my boss at a church where I used to work. I was a bit annoyed and exhausted with my position there because I signed up to do ministry and I felt like I was doing manual labor, babysitting and web design. Eventually I quit because I never felt like that role was a good fit for me. It was a good decision for both me and the church.

“They both pay the same, so what’s the difference?” Amy said this to me when I told her that I no longer do computer support. I was working with a client doing a design project and she was like, “My husband needs help setting up his office, some basic computer networking, etc. She was right, the hourly rate was the same. Most guys would love to make $65 an hour to simple tasks as setup a few computers and do a little networking, but I didn’t really have the time or the interest in doing that work, even if it paid more than what I was currently making.

If time is time and money is money, why should it matter what I’m doing?

At the very core of who I am, I am a designer. I don’t care about sports, or construction projects, or programming, or car engines. I care about how uniforms look during sporting events. I care about what a construction project looks like when it is finished and I care about how cars look, but as far as the inner workings, I’m not all that concerned. The reason is that for me the only thing that really matters is how it looks. So what’s my point?

My point is this… even if shoveling dirt paid $100 an hour it is not fulfilling, nor does it make me better at what I love. I love design and every single project I work on is an opportunity to hone my craft. I don’t want to just be good at design, I want to be the best. I spent 33 years of my life not knowing what I wanted to do for a career. I had no real passion. I was a ship without a destination or a captain. But now, I have a course plotted for my life and I am the captain of this ship. I do not have time to stop along the way and learn how to shovel better, or repair a car engine, or re-tile a floor. No. I leave those jobs to people who are passionate about them. That doesn’t mean I’m not self-sufficient taking care of some projects, but if I have the ability to make hourly money doing something I love, then I will gladly work 2 hours and make $130 and then pay someone else to mow my lawn, fix my car or tile my floor. The satisfaction I get from a job well done is not received when I try to do a good job with home projects or something else that I’m not good at and I just don’t have time to learn how to be awesome at everything. No one does.

At the end of the time I’m like Sweet Brown, “I ain’t got no time for bronchitis…” and I ain’t got time to do work that doesn’t make me better at what I love.

Culture Video

Segregated Sundays… Church Diversity.

While at the Echo Conference 2012 we got a chance to hear Scott Williams speak on Church Diversity. It was a great message and as a man of mixed race, I feel it is important to merge our cultures just as seamlessly as I have been merged. When we pool our differences and celebrate them we clothe ourselves in a richer fabric, we see things through different eyes, our songs, our interactions and our way of life becomes better. Instead of losing ourselves or our identity that we cling to, instead we come together united under one identity – Christ.

Enjoy this awesome video and feel free to share your thoughts as to why you think that churches are still segregated.

Diversity’s Symphony from Emanate Media, Samson Varughese on Vimeo.

"Diversity's Symphony" Poem by David Bowden

Video Directed and Edited by Samson Varughese (EMANATE MEDIA)

Based on the Book, "Church Diversity," by Scott Williams

Check out Scott Williams’ book Church Diversity.

Observations Relationships Travel

Nebraska – Corn Huskers, Farmers, Country Folk

When I’d been invited to visit Preferred Popcorn by my buddy Sam, I had this immediate vision of golden fields laden with ears of corn bursting forth with an abundance of soon-to-be buttered bounty. I pictured giant tractors backdropped by cerulean blue skies and big red barns. This was the breadbasket of America right? So why was it so hot and dry? Did I somehow take a wrong turn and land in the oven?

As I made my way through Oklahoma, then Kansas and finally Nebraska, I was underwhelmed. Here the land was stripped of all pretense. There were no large plantation style homes or happy cows sipping from babbling brooks. I didn’t see a single red barn or a cheerful farmer on a rustic tractor wearing overalls and chewing happily on a corn-cob pipe. Instead I found myself bored by the lack of personality, or rather, the lack of life altogether in the bountiful but somehow desolate land. Fields stretched out forever in blankets of green wrapped tightly around the Earth. Cornstalks six to eight feet high and soy beans so green they were almost blue, were watched over by giant sprinkler systems that silently yet mercilessly demanded only one thing – Produce, Produce, Produce.

I finally met up with my buddy Sam and after our initial greeting he immediately took me for a tour of the “estate”. Their home, which I had imagined to be a mansion befitting the third largest popcorn plant in the nation, was nothing more than a 100 year old farm house that had been jazzed up with a new roof, new siding and some river rock. It was modest, humble even, and the inside of it smelled to me not like humans who had been working in the field all day – which is what I expected, but instead it actually smelled of freshly popped popcorn. I don’t know why this surprised me, but it did.

Here in this world I was completely out of my element. There was no internet, my phone registered almost no satellite signal. There were no homes as far as my eye could see and for some reason, I felt that we were alone here, as if God himself had decided that he was much needed someplace else and that he could leave just a handful of rookie angels to watch over things while he was away.

When we went into town I kept expecting to see something more, like any minute now we would round a corner and there would be a Walmart or a shopping mall. I started to get almost desperate for a Walgreens or even a McDonalds but the Golden Arches were not to be found. Here, in Central City, Nebraska, they didn’t have much of a need for large convenience stores, shopping malls, or hamburgers churned out by the hundreds and served alongside piles of deep fried and piping hot sticks of salty bliss. No, here there was no time for that. People got up early and irrigated their fields and when they weren’t irrigating, or planting or harvesting, I’m sure they were praying. Farming is a difficult task that has been honed down to a science, however, science can do nothing without God who ultimately controls the outcome of everything. He provides the sun, the rain, and the grasshoppers and at times he provides bounty and at other times he provides famine. In both we have a lesson to learn.

As Sam and I went about on bumpy dirt trails to open and close pipes and to adjust pivots, I couldn’t help but admire these farmers who actually are the ones that feed America. They literally put food on our table. They labor and toil so I can go to the movies and have a $6 bag of golden goodness popped freshly in coconut oil and then drizzled with delicious artificial butter. I’m thankful for that.

The best part of the trip was getting to spend time with my friend, my brother, Sam, who we lovingly refer to as Popcorn here in Texas. In the last year he has become very dear to me and while we knew a great deal about each other, there is nothing like spending time with someone and their family to really get to know them. Here in his hometown with his parents and sister I saw the hardworking young man that was covered in dirt more than he was clean. His hair was in need of a visit from a pair of scissors, his face and neck an appointment with a razor, but despite this exterior grime I saw Sam more clearly than ever. He was not wearing seminary approved clothing or sporting about in his bright yellow mustang, instead he was working at a task as old as civilization and my estimation of him increased. It was like seeing inside of Mary Poppins’ bag and being surprised at the depth there.

As I drove away from Nebraska and Kansas I had a better appreciation for agriculture, a better understanding of my friend and a gratitude for the fact that I get to work inside in ice cold air conditioning in a town that is close to a Walmart.