Judson University Commencement Address 2019
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” John 10:10
When I saw the image of the spire falling at Notre Dame Cathedral, I was immediately thrust back to 9/11/2001. I felt helpless, trapped in the subway coming home, underneath the towers as the rumbling of what turned out to be the first tower falling on top of us were felt, and the train backtracked several miles to 14th Street station. When I came out of the station, the towers were gone. I did not know where my family was as we lived three blocks from the towers.
I was standing there again, witnessing history, facing the fallen, smoldering towers, having evacuated to my studio eight blocks north from my loft, then fortunately being reunited with my family there. I did not see the first two towers fall. But I did see the third tower, Building 7, come down hours later that afternoon, it tilted slightly, just like how the spire fell in Paris. Post-traumatic flashback loops never cease, and will continue to haunt us.
Yet, as an artist, I know that our imagination and our brain’s neuron pathways give us many generative ways to deal with our past. It matters what we do with these remembered images. The imagination can cause hatred to expand, or create empathy in the world. Create weapons of mass destruction, or beautiful paintings. Imagination can turn gold into an idol of a calf; it can take good gifts of God and warp them into narcissistic snares. It can forgive, or it can be hardened to remain bitter. Our imagination can rewire how we view ourselves and our past.
After 9/11, I had to train my imagination by painting over and over images of fire. I needed to transform haunting memories and images of destructive fire into the fire of sanctification. When I saw the spire fall at Notre Dame last month, yes, I was right back where I started — but I was able, also, to turn my mind and my heart back to my studio near Ground Zero, and again go into my daily practice toward sanctification. These fires do not have to end in destruction. Fire can purify our memory and desire. (“Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain.” T.S Eliot, The Wasteland) A renewed neuron network can form, if we imagine through the darkness.
I just returned from Littleton, Colorado. Littleton may forever be known as the site of a massacre that took our innocence away. On April 20th, the Littleton community held their 20th commemoration of the horrific Columbine High School shooting. This year, the date happened to fall on Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is the darkest day of the church’s liturgical calendar. It comes in-between Good Friday — the day of Christ’s death on the Cross — and Easter Sunday, the Resurrection Day that changed everything. I was invited to speak from my own experience of the trauma of 9/11, and as a person who experienced brokenness resulting from other traumas of our past, to share in that precious time together.
We are in-between times, journeying forward but not knowing what tomorrow will bring. The Columbine massacre was the first of many for your generation. You know too well about gun violence and destruction of human potential — since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, over 187,000 students have been directly affected by gun violence in schools.
In Columbine two weeks ago, some parents told us that they want this year’s commemoration to be the last; they said they need to “move forward.” One of the speakers was a survivor named Patrick Ireland. Patrick was shot once in the leg, and twice in the head, but he managed to escape through a window. “I have been chosen to forgive,” he said. This from a person whose brain was so traumatically wounded that a new network of neurons literally had to form in order for him to even walk again, let alone exhort all of us toward the path of forgiveness.
In the aftermath of the Columbine High School shooting all those years ago, I found out what the high school was named after. It is a flower. I walked in the mountains of Colorado, looking for wild columbines. They grow numerous on the sunny mountain faces in summer — white at the center, surrounded by purple petals, and below the petals, purple tails like tentacles.
I noticed a few of the flowers growing in the deep shade near pine trees. These had no purple petals; they were completely white, ghastly transparent. The delicate flowers symbolized for me perfectly the fragility of lives, so young, haunted by the encroaching darkness of violence.
I learned later from a friend that the columbine was the medieval church’s symbol for the Holy Spirit. When I paint columbines, they come out almost like angels — angels singing in and through our brokenness — a Ground Zero choir.
Two weeks ago in Colorado, I presented to the Columbine community a 17th-century Kintsugi bowl as well as one of my Columbine paintings. The painting is hard to reproduce, as the silver underneath has tarnished over those 20 years, and I finished it last month by accentuating the white columbines with oyster shell white. It’s a painting that took 20 years to complete
In Japan, as you may know, one of the many venerated cultural traditions is the tea ceremony. For centuries, there have been tea masters who perform the tea ceremony to visualize the invisible, as a spiritual and artistic practice. When precious tea bowls break, the families of tea masters will often keep the broken bowls for generations and later have them mended by artisans who use a lavish technique known as Kintsugi. Kintsugi masters mend tea bowls with Japan lacquer and gold. A bowl mended with gold is more valuable than the original tea bowl was before it broke. The Kintsugi tradition is linked to Sen no Rikyu, the 16th-century tea master who defined the Japanese aesthetic — but Kintsugi also offers us a vision for our times in America.
The Japanese word Kin means “gold,” and Tsugi means “mend,” but Tsugi also means “to link the generations together.” I offered this 17th-century Kintsugi bowl to the students of Columbine — remembering also Nickel Mines, Virginia Tech and Newtown, and countless other schools — remembering 187,000 students of the world. This Kintsugi bowl has been broken, and mended, but in the process it also has become a New Creation. A Kintsugi master would behold the fragments of a broken bowl for a long time before mending it. The Columbine community has done the same. Ever since April 20th, 1999, they have been beholding broken fragments, too.
Yours is a traumatized generation, with bullet holes in schools still causing flashbacks every time there is an “active shooter drill.” You are numbed by never-ending terrorist threats and brutalities, and images of destruction all over the news. You grew up with metal detectors at sports games and concerts, and other “new normals” of our fear-filled age.
Jesus speaks in John 10 to remind us of the abundance of God under the Spirit’s guidance. But the world we experience seems to speak of scarcity, more than abundance — of destruction, more than generative promises. Our days are filled with anxiety and fear, marked more by our Darwinian struggle to survive than by the richness of our lives. We see the fire that ravaged Notre Dame, we are numbed by another suicide bomber, perhaps haunted, as I am, of the white sepulchers of coral reefs in precious oceans. We witness the destruction of all ideologies of hope in politics. We roll our eyes at the scandals involving leaders in the world and in the church.
Where is the promised abundance? What is the “Life with a capital L” that Jesus is speaking of?
There will be many 20th commemorations to come. 9/11. Virginia Tech. Nickel Mines. Newtown. Charleston, just to name a few. How do we “move forward” in the days of “20th”? What kind of a cultural language allows us to honor our past, but bring the New into our days?
You see, when you create and make into the fissures of life — when you rebuild from a devastating fire — when you create, despite scarcity — when you “consider the lilies” (Matthew 6), especially when you are afraid — then God chooses those moments to reveal God’s Presence in our lives. We are makers, as our God is our Maker. God did not promise us an easy life, but promised us an abundant one — an abundant life of creativity and imaginative freedom.
It’s hard work to create. Artists know that between an idea, and execution of making, there are thousands of hours of failures. Artists know that there will also be many who tell them that something is impossible, or something is impractical, or that they ought to do something pragmatic. Artists are border-stalkers — they imagine the world beyond, and invoke abundance in their midst, even though the world around them cannot see or believe what they do. Artists acknowledge a limited resource environment, but use the resources given to create into the world of abundance beyond the horizon.
We have failed to cultivate our imagination and to steward our gifts of imagination toward the abundant life. We have, instead, created a culture of fear, in which to some people, no cost seems too high in the contest to win our Darwinian struggle. To fall prey to the destructive powers of our imagination is to be trapped in the scarcity mindset. In other words, if we do not birth generative responses to the world around us, a loss of imagination will cause our hearts to be hijacked by fear. So Jesus was not giving us a wishful thinking scenario when he said to “consider the lilies”; he was giving us a command to not succumb to the fear-based way of living, but instead to stay on the only path that we can follow toward the only true Life there ever was.
Dr, Martin Luther King Jr, stated as much in the last speech he gave on this earth, which is known as the “Mountaintop Speech.” He said, “Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.”
I went to the Columbine remembrance service to share in their continued journey of trauma. I went to consider the columbines, in the midst of horror and anxiety of our days. But I found not only tears. I saw firsthand a Kintsugi Generation at Columbine that has risen above their trauma and pain. The sudden, inexplicable darkness of twenty years ago has driven this community to come together. This is a new era, a river of gold flowing out of the fissures. I heard, first-hand, the survivors of Columbine rise above their dark day to become leading voices of forgiveness and love, to live out Dr. King’s words, and Rikyu’s Kintsugi thoughts. This path toward a renewed, sanctified imagination is not a nice luxury — it is an absolute necessity in our days post-Columbine. It is the only path of existence. The alternative is more tribal wars and culture wars that lead to real wars.
The spirit I witnessed in Columbine brought to my mind a passage from the book of Isaiah, Isaiah 58:12: “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.”
You are a Kintsugi generation.
If you are standing here today, you are part of that Kintsugi generation. Someone has poured gold into your brokenness, and you have endeavored to honor that.
Perhaps I am an optimist who sees the cup half full. But I do not think you would be here if you did not, even in a minute way, think that you can be part of mending a broken world. You are not just here for your resumé, to get a job, or to find a career, as important as these things are.
Because you are a Kintsugi generation.
Your generation will mend, and pour gold into the fissures of our broken times. And you can not only mend; you can create anew, create a world in which an invitation will be given to those who are broken. Those who mourn, those who are persecuted and those who are poor in spirit will be offered a great light. Your lives can be an offering of peace in a divided time — a gesture of hope for those in despair. Your sacrifice will be an aroma of the New.
So go mend. Be the Kintsugi masters of your generation, of your own disciplines, in the workplaces and in your homes. Pour gold into the fissures of the world. May you grow, just like the abundant columbines on the sunny hills of Colorado — waving their tiny purple wings and proclaiming the glorious splendor of the aroma of the New.
And know that your own wounds may be the entry into the Feast of Making. Remember that in Jesus’s post-Resurrection Body, there remains still his nail marks and the spear wound is visible - for Thomas’s of the world to touch. As the ole’ hymn goes, “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee; Let the water and the blood, From Thy riven side which flowed, Be of sin the double cure.” (Thomas Hastings, 1784-1872) Through His wounds, we are healed (Isaiah 53:5), and a river of gold flows into our hearts and culture.