Speaking about the nature of God, my students will forgive me for inviting you into a recent class. And so will Jon.
My class consists of a small number of Americans who meet in my Ugandan living room once a week to learn what they can about creative writing. They get their formal credit from whatever their U.S.-based university happens to be, but I hope that they get more than just a credit. Because if you’re in it for just the marks, that’s not much better than being in a job for just the money – both will only take you so far.
Consider Jon and our conversation, the one had with children everywhere, really, the one that usually starts out with, say, an adult down on one knee and saying in a somewhat imperious tone, ‘So (fill in the child’s name here), what do you want to be when you grow up?’
In this case, it was Jon who came to me one day with the exciting news that he knew exactly what he wanted to be: an artist. In fact, I have a photo of Jon being just that. There he is — with his smock and paint brush and easel in front of him — painting a masterpiece that, as far as he knew, would eclipse even the finest of van Gogh’s.
‘Oh, so you want to be like a painter, do you, Jon?’ I said. ‘That’s so great. I can see that.’
Jon looked straight at me without blinking and set me straight in a way that only earnest little boys can do with their fathers. ‘No, Daddy,’ he said. ‘I want to be an artist like YOU!’
This, naturally, both surprised and touched me and I’ve been thinking about it ever since my son made this declaration some years ago. (One that, by the way, has been modified slightly since then.)
That any boy would want to be just like Dad is not a terrible shock. That my young son saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, however, is.
And so we – my students and I – unpack this. Just what would any child mean by such a statement? More so, there is a larger paradox. While Jon wants to be just like his old man, I, in fact, want to be just like Jon.
This is because anyone who ever picks up a brush or sculpting blade or musical instrument or, sure, pen, needs to throw all caution to the wind in a way that only a child can. There is, at first anyway, no right or wrong way of doing it all as much there is only the simple act of doing.
And this, it seems to me, is not a bad definition of art. You take something and you do something to it, and then you do something else, and then you do something else, and the next thing you know you have what can be, well, really something.
This is what I told my students after I showed them a photo of Jon in his smock with his paintbrush at that easel. And I exhorted them that if they learn nothing else from me over the next 14 weeks, then this will suffice. Be like my little boy. Let go of your anxieties. Be fearless.
This all gets us a little closer to that notion that the Kingdom of Heaven is made up of little ones such as these. Be like children, is what Jesus told his disciples. Keep that reverence and wonder. For these are the tools of the trade. These are also the tools to find eternal life.
Jesus said as much when he was among us, when he picked up the children and hugged them and laughed with them and spoke to them as people who understood these mysteries much better than the rest of us. And he still does. This is how he does his art. His work. His creating.
‘Christ is more of an artist than the artists,’ is how van Gogh put it. ‘He works in the living spirit and the living flesh. He makes men instead of statues.’
And so we look at it all and, more often than not, don’t see it. Don’t get it. Pass right by it because we have that bus to catch. But sometimes, for one reason or another, we do. We stop. We do see it, that mystery.
And when this happens, we are left to just stand and look. And learn.