By: Sybil MacBeth
About seven years ago, Memphis Theological Seminary asked me to be their “artist-in-residence” for the year. Their ironic invitation made me laugh out loud. I am a third-generation Sybil; my mother and grandmother, for whom I am named, were fine artists–oil painters and sculptors. For me visual art has always been a source of deep shame. With my maternal legacy of name and genes, I should be able to draw and paint. The reality is I cannot draw a dog or a cat or anything else for that matter; I never earned more than a C in an art class. But for the past ten years art has formed the cornerstone of my ministry.
My foray into visual arts ministry began with my own desperation. More than a dozen years ago, a dozen friends and family members were diagnosed with an array of nasty cancers. My prayers for them were puny, inadequate one-liners. “Please, God, let Sue live to see her children graduate from high school.” “Keep Peter free from pain.” “Heal Chuck.” I am a lover of words, but when I needed them most they failed me.
Although I cannot paint or draw, I love to doodle. Letting a pen and colored markers take me for a walk across a piece of paper and form abstract shapes feels safe because it doesn’t have to look like anything. One day I was doodling on my back porch and I noticed I had written the name Sue in one of the doodles. Sue was my sister-in-law with stage-four lung cancer. As I continued to draw, add color, and focus on her name, I realized I was praying for her. Each stroke of color, each line and dot was a wordless prayer, offering and releasing her into God’s care. More doodles with more names showed up on the page. The result was a visual prayer list that prompted me to pray for my friends every time I looked at it.
I called my new way to pray praying in color. What started as an intercessory prayer form gradually expanded into a way to pray my thanksgivings, confessions, petitions, adoration, and even scripture—a visual form of lectio divina. Ten years ago I wrote a book about praying in color and began to lead workshops and retreats. I morphed from a community college math professor into an accidental Christian educator. Besides doodling our prayers in my workshop, we sing, write, and dance. I morphed from a visual art-phobic person into an educator who uses many forms of art to explore new ways to pray.
Leading workshops only about prayer is a luxury most Christian educators do not have. I do not have to enter into the tumultuous waters of teaching or crafting programs about doctrine, tradition, and Scripture. Prayer seems to bypass the territorial details and beliefs of a particular denomination or faith tradition.
But after leading dozens of workshops, I understand that my job is not just teaching this particular way to pray but it is to help people find their own way to pray. As a Christian educator my job is to give people some essential tools and instructions, but also to provide a torch and a permission slip to explore uncharted ways to be in relationship with God.
Christian educators are not just teachers, organizers, and program builders but limners. A limner is a person who illuminates a manuscript, who paints and draws. I like the idea that a limner is someone who illuminates the way with painting and drawing as well as with all kinds of visual arts, song, dance, poetry, play, and imagination. Christian educators have a tough job as both instructors and illuminators. They engage our left-brains where we process the rational information, tenets, and stories of the faith. And they also challenge our right-brains to enter into the sometimes scary, untamed artistic part of ourselves and play with the information in a new way.
Jesus was a limner. He told his story and the story of God in pictures and images. “I am the door; I am the gate; I am the way; I am the bread of life….” These images do not say, “That’s it, end of sentence. Period.” Instead Jesus’ words are an invitation to enter the story and to imagine. They send out fireworks and illumine Jesus himself. What makes Jesus so compelling and maybe even dangerous is his mysterious, right-brained invitation to know him and God in unpredictable and surprising ways.
Sybil MacBeth is the author of a series of books called Praying in Color and the stand alone The Season of the Nativity: Confessions and Practices of an Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany Extremist. She is a dancer, doodler, former community college math professor, and unintentional Christian educator. Her website, blog, and handouts are at prayingincolor.com.
During Lent this year we are sharing a series on The Artist as Educator. Look for posts from Theresa Cho, Lisa Hickman, Allison Wehrung, Sybil MacBeth, and Carmel Tinnes.