As we prepare for new years - new beginnings and a reflection on the past - there's lots to give thanks for, and yet alongside this, are also the things we cling so tightly to that have already slipped away, leaving husks of hurt, the hope having withered away. All this - the good and the bad mixed together - sits uncomfortably in our minds' gut. Nonetheless we get put on our party clothes, make-up and a smile, hoping as the clock strikes midnight our sullied pages will be bleached blank. After all the revelry we head to bed, and eight hours later wake up mulling those same thoughts, hopes, joys & fears, realising that once again, a new year does not mean a new you, and we find ourselves at a loss as to how to move past the past.
The desire to bleach away the scars of hope turned to hurt is deeply corporeal, but it competes with the equal strength of the scars themselves, ingrained deeper the longer they stay, safe, familiar ridges for us to run our fingers along and remind us we're alive. Wisdom tells us that hurt left fester becomes a bitter and toxic root, the only fruits of which are fear, loss, and a cold cruel self-imposed loneliness, but simultaneously, spiritual forces of darkness tell us to turn the pain to blame, caring not whether that works itself out in self-loathing or self-righteousness. The cancer crepitates into malignancy, invading our ego - corroding our self-worth & identity leaving us numb & apathetic.
We lose our grasp on actual righteousness, replacing it with indignant self-righteousness and a nauseating thirst not for reconciliation, but blood. We guard our hearts against hope. I know this because I've done it. From December 2012 to the end of March 2013 I didn't want to hear God's words. They choked me. They hurt, they didn't soothe down the pain, ruthlessly attacking its deep root instead. I had done wrong, and I had gotten it wrong. Instead of surrendering that to God, I focused my entire energy on proving my innocence, blurring, blinding and I spent all that time trying to prove my innocence knowing my guilt, blurring and blinding away the certainty and clarity that God had given me just a year before.
Choking on Grace
And then one night, I walked with my friend Andrew, taking a shortcut through Grand Canal Square, my stomach had already leapt into my throat when I realised that it was a year to the day since that vision, where I had sat and listened both broken and patient, to a God I knew to be real. In that moment, my heart broke under the weight of the inundating reality of God. Numb, I was thirsty to taste fresh hope and joy once again.
Andrew took paper out of his pocket, handed it to me with a pen, fumbling with a box of matches as I spilled out the words that burned me the words that burned me out on the paper - letters and prayers to both God and those I missed, blamed, hated, judged, folding and scrunching the, I wrote letters, and prayers, to God and to those who I missed, who I blamed, who I hated, folding and scrunching up the pages, lighting them on fire and hurling them into the re-awakened sea of Grace.
'Are you littering in that drawing!?', asked my wife Ali when she saw the page. Who's that there? Is that Andrew? Is he littering too?
'Em... Yes actually, I did. I took all my trash, called it out, and threw it in the sea'
Drowning in Enough is enough.
And that's actually what God calls us to do. Drowning is not a dignified death. It hurts, it chokes, you fight & fight, retching & sputtering, but you're powerless against the sea. I've written before about this in previous journals and yet I find it really strange that I'm returning to the sea. The shoreline marks the first piece in 'At The Edge of The World', and I'd already spent years preparing and researching 'Silver Shore', so why was I back in the water? I thought this notebook was to be called 'If not for love'! But putting the déjà vu to rest, having promised myself I'd keep the rules of my journal, I drew what was coming to me, the opening words of Genesis spoke themselves in my mind, reminding me that water came before almost everything else.
The water in the Grand Canal Dock is not God, the water at Cultra's shoreline is not God, and the water that spat me out onto the rocks on the north coast of Antrim that so nearly took me away with it is not God, but God is in the sea - God is in the undignified, the choking freezing churning water, and we can't make sense of that because in that water, so too is all of our fear, and so too should we abandon there all of our fear.
My Journal Rules
- Listen to God, draw what comes from that, seeking his agenda, going where that leads, no matter how circuitous it seams, or hard it hurts.
- Never Censor, don't try to make prettier pictures, draw convenient conclusions, or hide broken thoughts, use pen, share everything.
- Remember it's a notebook, it's about learning, not showing off. It can be frustrating & humbling, but it's about growing, and it's towards something - what will come out of it will be woven into new scarves. It's also my notebook, and while it will be shared, it is also a very private, personal thing.
'When do you do your journalling?' asked my friend Killian, as we met for coffee yesterday, 'All the time I guess' I said, as I opened it on a page I'd started earlier that didn't yet make sense. I didn't know why I was back at the sea, and I didn't know what I was looking at in these four pictures on the page. As I tapped the felt tip of my pen lightly on the page, Killian asked another question, and suddenly all the pictures merged & de-merged, I firmed my grip on the pen as they took form, drawing what I saw in my mind, realising that these four pictures were of the same thing.
Man & Water, Terrified & hoping: Will God turn up?
I remembered people asking, 'Where is God in all of this?' and, 'How can a God of love let this happen?' as the blurred cell-phone images of the 2004 Boxing Day (St. Stephen's Day) Tsunami rotated on Sky News. 230,000 people died. It was the first time I'd heard the word 'Tsunami'. I was 17. Earlier that year, I'd put my trust in God, and between then and Christmas, my cousin had died in the sea, strapped into her wheelchair, she drove herself off Dun Laoghaire pier. I know people tried to save her, but she died.
I don't know the purpose in or of these moments, but as I sketched, I saw that same motif. Someone clinging to a tree as the edge of the world, this killer wave, lurched towards them. In seconds, a river from nowhere would hit them at hundreds of kilometres per hour, continuing for a thousand metres before travelling inland for 2km, destroying almost everything in its wake. I realised I'd drawn this before, almost the opposite picture, where at the edge of a thunderous waterfall, a man clung to a dead stump.
Above the tsunami is Moses parting the sea, invoking God, and I realised that these images too are almost exactly opposite. In Galilee, on the right, Jesus walks on water, and beneath that is a surface of nothing - so many things get lost in the sea, in drawing the 'blank surface' I was mindful of the missing AirAsia plane that as I write, nobody knows what happened to, other than it was lost over the sea, and did not have enough fuel on board to still be in the air.
More than we can manage
All these pictures tell us the same thing. Water in a pool is calm, at times in my life when I struggled with stress, I'd dive under, opening my eyes & relaxing my chest, calm, safe, warm, and still. But that isn't these pictures. These are of the sea, and in the sea nothing is still or calm, and nothing is within our control.
In the concept of 'All things working together for the good of those who love Him', we forget that the constituent ingredients are by themselves unpalatable and hard to swallow, and that sometimes what looks like a sure thing is something else entirely, God's plans as opposed to our plans. But these images do tell us something with certainty, God is in command of the sea, and his apparent inaction as we lose our battles with it is not an easy thought to swallow or serve.
New Year's Eve
I looked up, continuing to fill in the colours, alerted by a casual question, 'What are you hoping to do for New Years?'
A montage of all my New Years' flashed before me, and four stood out - me, all alone in the middle of the Las Vegas strip as fireworks illuminated the sky, and a million strangers hugged in the street, an electricity in the air, and an all-consuming loneliness in my heart as I wished someone I missed would text me. I took pictures, and put them on Instagram, and the irony is that the pictures portray an amazing time, but it was so utterly lonely.
'Tolerant' would be the word that best fits how I feel about the big parties, standing up talking to people through the loud music, as they fidget, distracted by wanting to miss out on nothing, checking their phone to see where their other friends were, checking Twitter to see if it was worth going into town to the public party, and instead miss out on just being where they were. But one time I did actually enjoy the party. It was New Years in Omagh, where the we danced the new year in, until to my shock, the venue closed at 1am. We negotiated our way home over icy pavements, and the cancellation of all public transportation meant I was there for a few extra days of fireside chats and mugs of tea. There was something lovely about the world being a little smaller that week.
One year later, with just a few friends, I skipped the big party, instead we drove up to the Dublin Mountains, looking out over the city, smoking a cigar, and chatting freely about our hopes and plans, as we watched the lights flicker and twinkle over the city - a night that actually inspired a scarf - 'Dublin From The Hills'. We drove back to my new home and sat in the living room on the sofas, talking into the night, as we did on many occasions that year. This is a lovely memory actually, but it's one tinged with sadness at the loss of those friendships, with each of those guys who were there that night, for a variety of reasons, and this brings me back to this weeks' notebook, with that over-arching question, 'If Not For Love'.
If Not For Love
This notebook begins with a picture of a Labrador who lives next door. He's very loved, in fact there are three labradors, but the picture of the dog behind bars looks sad and lonely because you don't see the other dogs or know his story, but the first thing I did was I wrote 'If not for love' on the five two-page spreads, translating as best I could into different languages, developing typography that reflected the language. I wanted this to be a notebook about love, and yet how it arrived there has really surprised me. I wrote in my last journal post about wanting to write about those whose actions demonstrated they loved me, and instead, I'm drawing the broken, the relationships I wanted more from, and the moments of surrender when I suddenly found myself having everything.
It was frustrating to be drawing things that I was scared might look bad, but I persevered because I knew there was something beyond the superficial that I couldn't yet see, and somehow as each page neared completion I could see something hitherto unknown emerge. I went back and began to scribble on the first few pages - I had tried to draw my wife eating a banana, but without really knowing what for - I love her, and seeing her eating away makes me so content, there's nothing there to solve or resolve, and I was challenged again by my struggle to use my notebooks to celebrate, as I've done before in two scarves, 'The Walk' and 'Paris', and in a sense, the whole 'Dark Hedges' composition became a celebration when 'Paris' completed it, but I guess I need to be patient here - I want to show you the perfect 'me', but I also want to be true to what I'm learning and where I feel God is leading, and I'm not there yet.
What is the Currency of Love?
In drawing my dad, I had no particular agenda, but as the drawing took on some elements of the Series C Banknotes, I began to see the question emerge, one that disrupted my own attitude & values in that relationship, and it gave me a chance to draw what it was that I really wanted from him - I want love - and the question this page asks is, 'What is the Currency of love?' I was intentional in changing his colour to make it clear that this was not a bank note, at least not one of any value. I was aware that this page could be seen cynically, as a reference to what people call 'The Bank of Dad', but it's not that - and instead to the right of my dad, you see the banks a river, the Nanny in Co. Meath, at a part where they're lined with rushes.
I was building a caribbean beach hut with Andrew for a camp we were helping at, and I'd rung up basket makers to find out where rushes were sold. It turned out you find them, and she told me of this point in the river, three miles out of Julianstown, where you can harvest them. This was a moment where I really felt loved by my Dad. It wasn't a transaction - it was him working with me, with his hands, as we took turns of hacking the reeds and passing them to the other to bundle and bale. Above this river, I made a nod again to the bank notes, by drawing a house, my first Childhood home, I'm not totally sure why, but I was happy there as I toddled about the garden playing with things I found, or chased the geese, or when I sat in my high chair eating liver as my Mam cooked it in the kitchen. I was silent mostly, observing things, and taking in an infinite world.
For the watermark, I chose to be painstaking, and stabbed the page thousands of times with the tip of the pen, making no strokes, which is really frustrating actually, as you don't capture the same fluid beauty as you can with lines and shade, and instead of a currency, I wrote 'If not for love' put a signature on it that I'd never used before, 'Brendan Joseph', and captioned the signature, 'The Artist'.
'Multumesc Sincere' and Other Scars
In this page we see a haloed figure representing Jesus walking on water [calling us into the sea]; the boat from 'The Brendan Voyage', a man fallen from it drowning, and a girl on the right hand side, forced me to consider the impact of writing & drawing about other people. I considered the idea of using allegorical imagery, which I may do on future pages, but in these ones, I was working very much from my memories, and as the process of drawing allows me to see and to reconsider the past, it was important to me that there was integrity in my exploration of those memories, rather than revisionism.
I found myself challenged by the rules of my notebook, looking uncomfortably at a page that I didn't want to show you, that I didn't know how to finish, and so I came back to the first few page of the notebook, and let thoughts take shape, exploring the motifs of tattoos & memorials, and I realised that what memorial tattoos are, is the physical manifestation of a deep inner scar. On the second page of this notebook, I roughly sketched out my original vision of 'drowning in enough' as it happened, rather than in words, as if it were tattooed my arm, and this is the vision that I drew on the page I'm talking about here.
The concept of externalised scars brought me back to the pet cemetery at Powerscourt Estate in Co. Wicklow, one of the tombstones, a cenotaph, for a dog named Sting, reads bears the inscription 'Faithful beyond Human Fidelity'. Why did they write that? Who hurt them to the point that they had to draw that distinction, or is it just the cathartic inscription of a deep scar at the loss of a companion?
True Beauty Takes Us Out of Our Depths
Even though each of us arrives on this earth the same, we are so much more than the scars that set us apart. I don't want my work to be an inventory of scars, and yet these scars mark beautiful moments - moments of surrender & transformation - I realised that in order to celebrate what I see those moments as being, I have to show them as they were, and acknowledge the context in which they occurred, without turning them into something superficial or tacky. I don't want to create Thomas Kinkade paintings. I've critiqued those before and at the same time, I don't want to denounce them. As an artist, they make me uncomfortable, I don't like that they're not real - the world is actually beautiful, if we look, and those paintings don't paint what is real. They don't go beyond the imagination, they don't convey the truth of truly great beauty having ugly constituents - ingredients that work together for something altogether unexpected.
The Awakening of a Thirst
It had been comparatively easy to share what it physically looked like when I returned to 'Drowning in Enough', but although the original vision can be summed up so simply in just three words, the context in which it occurred is more than a picture of me sitting calmly by that body of water on Grand Canal Dock and watching beads of water fall from the heavens that were only visible to me, hearing his voice say 'Be still', as this invisible visible water rose up around me, overflowing the basin and soaking me. or his voice saying 'wait' as it passed above my mouth and nose and fully submerged me. Even then, when God cleaved away from me all my empty religion, showing me the true reality of his love and grace and what it meant to be drowned in it, to draw that doesn't show you the wholeness of the vision or the context in which it occurred. It doesn't show you me sitting a few weeks before by that same body of water and crying my heart out, begging for it to rise up and engulf me, swallowing all my swirling thoughts and me along with them.
My first experience of 'Drowning in Enough' was the answering of a call to surrender, and not, as I had believed it to be, that surrender, whole in and of itself. That is something I actually have to do every day, and on every page that you see here.
To Be in God's Hands - Drowning as a Work in Progress
I've done and said horrible things to people I love lots of times between the first vision and today, and I've even ignored the voice of God, but I've also listened, loved, been kind, gentle, patient, forgiving and loyal, all of us have to an extent I guess, and I realised the reason why I couldn't finish the page with that original vision - it came as a relationship that mattered greatly to me unravelled, and I was left trying to make sense of it all. It freed me from religious untruths that had been part of my spiritual formation, they slipped away in the course of the vision like meat off a bone after five hours in a slow cooker, and it equipped me to value myself and to value everything I had when I gave it all to God.
To drown is to drink in more water than you can handle, for your lungs to be flooded & deprived of air, and it's undignified, it's terrifying. There's no pedestals on which to preen, pulpets from which to preach, or podiums from which to judge, but there is a contagious terrible beauty that you want to shout from every rooftop, and yet, in the moment of surrender, it's like in one of those dreams, shouting in water, nobody can hear. I've never seen baptism talked about in this way, and my own baptism, while being a special moment, and a chance to share my faith, didn't mark what physically happened. It was scripted, structured, ordered, & safe. I shared my story without a script or notes, but had to submit a script for approval beforehand. We're afraid of mess in churches, and we can't blame leaderships for their censorship & control, because it's what we've mandated. We need to get messy, we need to be real, swapping outrage for compassion.
There Were Words
On that page though, there's a speech bubble, and as I surrendered afresh, I knew God was saying that I did not have the right to fill it in. I struggled with resentment & bitterness in bringing memories of the day I had that vision to the surface. I wanted to write something that had been said before, I was so tempted to find words that had hurt me so much, and to turn them around, but God rebuked me.
He did give me the words that had the cut the deepest, but he showed me how tightly I'd held to them too, and how this had cost me, 'Mulţumesc Sincere'.
I never truly forgave until I made this page, and as this occurred, I wrote out my thoughts, finally arriving at a place where reconciliation with that friend was possible. It was really lovely to see the space around that bubble finally fill up under a wave of grace, to no longer be waiting for them to slip up; no longer wanting to prove, what I had falsely deemed to be their true colours; No longer wanting to re-write history to only contain the parts of them that I could reject & regret, so I could pretend to regret the hopes, dreams & moments I'd shared with them too.
While not exercising censorship over my own work, I do need to exercise discretion and be loving in how I explore and discuss things, gratuitous details don't serve any genuine purpose and aren't part of the process of exploring and resolving, and so on the page after the 'drowning in enough' page, when I teased out some of those conversations, and I realised it was long past time to let them go, I stopped, and turned back to the sea.
Repeating History: To no longer be condemned & no longer condemn.
My mind travelled back to New Years Eve, and I realised how much God wants us to be his ocean of grace, and to call others to it too, and I thought back to those lost friendships, the people I'd shared that New Years' with. Looking at those relationships with the same eyes as I can now see the one I explored on the page with the image of the girl on it, I don't know if there will ever be reconciliation, but I do know that I've let go of attributing blame for the losses. I had been so angry at them for blaming me for the things they had done against me, waiting for me to make a bad move, that I never realised I'd done that to my friend too.
Sometimes when we're hurt, or grieving, or struggling, we affix blame to those who aren't responsible, or if we're the ones blamed, we find ourselves fixating on our former friends' wrongdoing and our suffering of injustice, but it's not about who is to blame, it's moreso that as Christians we should not ascribe blame to one another, let alone adjudge someone's faith to be insincere. We're called to seek reconciliation, and that ultimately means coming to the 'sea' not to ask God to punish our former friends for their wrongs against us, but to ask him to cleave away all remnants of lingering vengeance & retribution, to recalibrate our thirst to be for righteousness in heart and not in wrappings. It's because we're already wrapped in righteousness, that of Christ, that we're able to approach 'the sea'.
Fighting the Sea & Other Stories That Don't Make Sense
I had begun to draw the sea again and written 'It doesn't have to make sense, It's the sea', and then had moved on to the next page with Moses, Jesus and the 2004 South East Asia Tsunami, and these words came into my head, so I turned back a page - deciding to balance the left where I dumped out my hurt from all those years ago, with the right, where I marvelled at the Glory of God, and wrote them down on that side. 'Like Jonah from the deep, I'm coming out of my sleep, like a thirsty animal...' They're from 'Heart Runs' by John Mark McMillan. It's funny how much this composition is resembling his album, 'Borderland'
Drown in Enough, Take Once, Once Daily
The last page in this post is of me taking my medicine. When I found myself flailing powerlessly in the sea off Antrim, my inhaler found itself washed out of my closed pocket. Earlier this year I was diagnosed with asthma, which at first necessitated the taking of an overwhelmingly unmanageable amount of pills and puffs every day, thankfully since then it's become a tiny bit easier, and now I only have to take two different inhalers and two different tablets. If I don't take them, within a few hours I find myself unable to breathe & with my asthma out of control.
In defining what it means to drown, I wanted to juxtapose the missing medicine with the medicine that I can so easily forget to take.
Ironically, one of the things that I have to do occasionally, which I'm actually supposed to do daily, is called a nasal rinse. It involves running a warm saltwater solution up one nostril with a low pressure pump, through your upper respiratory system, and out the other, repeating then in reverse. It's horrible, it's as close as you can get to the simulation of drowning outside of submersion in water. I choke, and it all flows down the back of my neck flooding my lungs, but the relief and the ability to breathe that it gives for the days that follow it is worth the discomfort. The only trouble is when faced with the coughing, spluttering, horror of it, I find the proven results very hard to remember.
Finding Words on the Wavelength
This morning I watched an online sermon, which I haven't done in a very long time. It was by Rick Warren, a pastor and author, and was presented by video to the congregations of Mars Hill Church on their last Sunday as one multi-campus church. It was calm & gentle, delivered to people in the midst of uncertainty & upheaval, and it really resonated with this weeks' journal & what I've learnt & been reminded of.
For those of you who don't know about Mars Hill, it was an ultra conservative church founded by Mark Driscoll in Seattle, one of America's most unchurched cities, and a place where few imagined the ultra conservative message having appeal, and yet it brought thousands to faith, spreading out across 13 different campuses, before imploding in scandal, criticisim, and the resignation of its founding pastor.
The Man Who Stole The Wrapping Paper.
The mention of Mark Driscoll, reminds me of 'the other' Mars Hill church, founded by Rob Bell, which became well known at the same time. It too weathered controversy as Bell, whose exceptional thought provoking teaching materials were used by churches of all denominations across the world, before being widely denounced in the Evangelical movement following the release of his 2011 book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person that Ever Lived.
The awkward thing with the criticism of Rob Bell, though, is that he is denounced for leaving open the question of whether hell exists, and thus supposedly using his exceptional communication skills for bad, but that assumes that leaving open questions of accepted doctrine is bad. I believe personally in challenging everything, and that God's reality is not dependent on our theology, but I do understand why pastors fear Bell's disruption of the 'package' of Christianity, but I'm not sure I agree with them. I strongly believe in questioning things, and while I love and subscribe to the Nicene Creed, I think I only do so because I've dissected and challenged it.
When Rob Bell founded Mars Hill Bible Church, he famously preached through Leviticus, and if you do that, you see the beauty of God in the bad things as well as the good, you see hints of something beyond your own perspective. In August 2011, just opening up Deuteronomy 28, I saw that same beauty, the one that's left out of 'gift-wrapped christianity', and I'm just reminded of it now. But somewhere along the way, the courtship of controversy seems to have taken over, because I know myself, with my own work, how important the gift boxes are to people, how they allow them to see my scarves & bow-ties as something more special. What's needed is not for someone to steal away the packaging, but rather to encourage people to open it, to look at its contents, exploring their construction, their story, their inspiration... I think that those who only accept 'package' religion, carrying their bibles in Thomas Kinkade bible covers are more interested in wrapping themselves in the papers the gift of salvation was received in (churched culture), than in what it contains. It's a little like when small children get gifts and marvel at the beauty of their giftwrap, ribbons and bows, never looking inside at something infinitely better.
I do appreciate that a gift wrapped up is more exciting to receive, and when I started packaging my scarves in boxes that hinted at their quality and story, my sales exploded, and for me too the anticipation of opening the packaging is exciting, unravelling the unknown. My autism infects me with a forensic curiosity, but I've seen many people happy to receive a gift and leave it sit unopened. I know that if you take away everyone's spiritual wrapping paper, they'll feel naked, scared & vulnerable, open to being judged & maligned, gossiped about, and more, but if we're to be real, to be a family, then we do need to use the gift and yes, eventually dump the wrapping.