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Painting as a metaphor for ministry


“In your work of ministry do you think of yourself as a big brush filling in the background of a canvas or a finer brush attending to detail? Are you a much-used brush, with old paint stuck to it, or are you a shiny brush that has not been used much at all?” asks Bishop Cam Venables

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Why painting? Why not playing an instrument, or gardening or writing poetry or keeping bees? I think there are some things about painting that uniquely resonate with the work of ministry!

In the first chapter of Genesis there are two things I’d like to highlight and the first of these is that creativity seems to be a fundamental part of God’s nature. We know the story well – the vision is stunning, for God is described as separating light from dark and land from water, and creating vegetation, stars, fish, birds, cattle, and creeping things.

We are fortunate to be more aware than the Genesis writer of the scale and complexity of God’s creativity because physics and astronomy inform us that our galaxy is only one of more than one hundred billion galaxies, and entomology suggests that the “creeping things” mentioned in the text includes more than a million species of insect!

That first chapter of Genesis also suggests that each of us is made in God’s image, which is a startling, but clearly stated assertion:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’

So, God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.”(Genesis 1.26-27)

So if we agree that God is intrinsically creative and that each of us is made in God’s image, is it too much to suggest that each of us is intrinsically creative? In this I mean more than the biological ability to pass on our DNA, but rather something within each of us that can make things – with food and drink; wood and stone; clay and paint; words and music; equations and formulae; and, images and digital code.

Let’s consider three basic elements that we’d need if we were going to paint:

Let’s focus on these three elements – canvas, paint, and brush – and use them to think about three elements of ministry: community, people and leadership.

If in art a canvas is transformed, and enlivened, by the way paint is applied and shaped by a brush, could we similarly say that in ministry the canvas of a community is transformed, and enlivened, by the paint of people using their gifts, and that this can be enabled by the brush of leadership?

I think this is helpful to think about, but it doesn’t acknowledge the significance of ministry in the lives of individuals. If we were to have that focus we could say that the canvas of an individual life is transformed and enlivened, by the paint of another person’s gift, which is applied in the brush of God’s grace.

That gift could be some form of pastoral care or it could be some form of teaching – it could be many expressions of ministry…in the same way that there are many colours.

So our lives, the lives of others, and the community we belong to could be considered as canvases – as in that which is painted upon; that gifts and abilities, time and resources, can each be paint colours; and, that individual and community leaders can be brushes used by God or artists inspired by God.

When a painter uses a canvas there is some preparation necessary before the artwork can be created. It needs to be stretched and primed, and quite possibly have some base layers applied. I don’t think any of us, or any of our communities, are a blank canvas. If you like, we are all works in progress – but, canvas preparation is worth thinking about. How do we prepare ourselves for ministry each day? How is the canvas of our lives stretched and primed so that God can paint upon the canvas of our lives, and paint through us? A bit like thoroughly cleaning paint brushes – canvas preparation is quite unglamorous work…yet vital.

Some sort of rhythm and discipline in daily prayer and Bible reading is important, for this stretches us and orientates us toward God’s Spirit and that’s really where we want to be. It also seems to be where Paul was when he affirmed to the Athenians, ‘…in him we live and move and have our being’ ” (Acts 17.28a). I don’t think these practices are the only ways that God’s Spirit can speak to us, renew us, and empower us, but they are a helpful foundation.

What about the canvas of our community? I think Paul’s advice at the end of his letter to the Philippians is helpful in this, for he wrote:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4.8)

I love this, and yet it also make me uncomfortable…stretching and priming!

If you were a colour, what would you be today? Are you in the red, yellow, orange range? Are you blue, green, brown, or…are you gold? Are you in the background forming part of a blue sky, or green forest, or are you in the foreground like a yellow feather on the wing of a finch?  Sometimes we give much of ourselves in the background and although this is essential to the canvas it can often be taken for granted. Pots and tubes of paint get used up as we paint, in the same way that we can become depleted in the work of ministry. That’s where daily renewal is important trusting, “That the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning…” (Lamentations 3.22-23).

Is it too audacious to think of ourselves as a brush being used by God or an artist inspired by God, blessing through ministry? I don’t think so! When Jesus is remembered saying that he was the Good Shepherd and by inference we were the sheep, I don’t think it precludes us recognising that sometimes we are called to be both shepherds and sheep – people called to lead and care for others, knowing that we are at the same time, led by and cared for by God.  However, I recognise that Jesus did not say “I AM the artist and you are the brushes and paint”, I think there is value in the metaphor.

In your work of ministry do you think of yourself as a big brush filling in the background of a canvas or a finer brush attending to detail? Are you a much-used brush, with old paint stuck to it, or are you a shiny brush that has not been used much at all? Do you make long paint-laden contributions or do you make life-changing dots with a stylus?

What kind of “painting” (ministry) are you currently working on or giving focus to? Is it a landscape that seeks to depict buildings and gardens in a beautiful way? Or, a still life that is sometimes realistic and sometimes romantic? Does your gifting cause you to you specialise in portraits where people are the focus? Who are you currently “painting” (ministering to), and how do you recognise God at work in this, and in them?

Landscapes, still life studies and portraits are easy to recognise, but there are painting styles and ministries that are less easy to understand. I don’t have a good mind for abstract art and have stood beside people in galleries and learnt from them as they’ve talked about a particular canvas, for they have seen things that I could not see – in the same way that there are some forms of ministry used by God to bless, which appear to have come from more “left field” and “right-brained” creativity than I have! Sometimes I look at abstract art and am deeply moved, and at other times it doesn’t connect at all, or even alienates me. What expressions of ministry connect deeply, fail to connect, or even alienate with you, and why?

Sometimes a good painting is spoilt because the painter didn’t know when to stop, and I have a sense that it would be good to conclude this reflection soon! So, I’ll leave you with an affirmation, some questions and a prayer.

In God’s grace, I think we are each called to paint on the canvas of community and be painted upon – that we are each creatively gifted. Through creative activity we can be both a blessing and be blessed.

Similarly, in God’s grace, I think we are each called to minister and be ministered to – that we are each gifted in some way for ministry, and through ministry can be both a blessing and be blessed.

Questions for further individual reflection:

  1. How do you stretch and prime the canvas of your life each day?
  2. In your work of ministry do you think of yourself as a big brush filling in the background or a finer brush attending to detail? How does this find expression in your current context?
  3. What kind of “painting” (ministry) are you currently working on / giving focus to? Why is that?
  4. In your experience, what expressions of ministry connect deeply, fail to connect, or even alienate? And, is there a key element in each of these?

Let us pray:

Creator God, we give thanks for the gift of our lives and your love,
and for the work of your Spirit in the world.
We give thanks for the opportunity to think about ministry in a new way
and offer to you the “canvas” of our life and community,
asking for wisdom in how best to “stretch”, “prime” and “paint”,
so that in your grace, what we chose to do this week
makes the world a better place.
We ask in the name of the one who calls us to follow each day,
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

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