The Greatest in the Kingdom
Stepping into new territory - making a fresh start can be a daunting thing. We can feel like our very worth depends on our performance and we are desperate not to fail. At the beginning of a career, developing a new habit or learning a new skill many voices rise up within us that threaten to paralyse us - tempting us to throw in the towel or to just settle for quiet mediocrity in some dark, hidden place. Those greats who once inspired us with their mastery now rise up in our minds as menacing mountains that seem impassable and out of reach. How many things have we attempted in life that we have dabbled in for a time but later buried because we couldn't get past those inevitable hurdles that every adventurer faces? We can turn out to be the biggest hindrance to our progress when we are focused on "self-image" and its preservation.
When walking through an art gallery, we are generally looking at the greatest artworks achieved by those represented. We do not see the early scribbles, the crumpled-up pages, the mistakes that were painted over, and the years worth of stumbling, refining, practicing and learning that paved the way for the masterpiece that we view in its pristine surroundings. We don't see the internal battles that were fought and the hurdles of the mind that were overcome in the journey towards painting the scene or sculpting the figure that is before us. We may not be aware of the mind-numbing jobs, the poorly paid apprenticeships, the long hours and sacrifices that were made before the artist rose to prominence. Wherever we turn in life, we see that the path to growth and mastery begins in a place of humility. A baby is completely dependant on its parents to begin with. It crawls and climbs, it gurgles and coos. The growing child is determined to walk and talk and perseveres through the falling down and gibberish, giving not a thought to what others might be thinking, and before long they are fully mobile and able to communicate. An acorn isn't embarrassed by its lowly state when it spies the mighty oak nearby. It knows that it too will, after many years, become a mighty oak, though it be laid in the ground first. The acorn knows that the death comes before the rising.
Popular Professor of Psychology, Jordan B. Peterson is quoted as saying, “If you are not willing to be a fool, you can’t become a master.” This echoes a statement made by the greatest Teacher of all time, Jesus Christ, when his disciples were discussing who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
- Matthew 18:1-4 (NIV)
Greatness begins with humility. Those who desire to grow, mature and bear much fruit must be willing to become like a little child that has no significant power of its own and is dependant on others for its nourishment and nurturing. It cries out to stronger arms to hold it and lead it. Clearly, Christ is speaking of faith - of recognising that we have nothing within ourselves that can save us but must instead take the position of a little child that is dependent on our Heavenly Father and His power to save us. And yet, the principle extends its branches into lesser things of life such as the acquiring and mastery of a new school - in our case - picking up a paintbrush or throwing a lump of clay. If we wish to master these things, we must be willing to make a mess, to make mistakes, to appear incompetent, to fall over and get up - ten-thousand times if necessary. From the position of humility we admit that we don't know everything, that we do have blind-spots and areas of weakness to work on. We recognise that we may learn from others - whether they be master or a beginner like us. Our focus shifts away from self to the skill itself and to those who may help us to grow.
As I begin this new chapter of my earthly life - delving into the world of the online artist and teacher - there are many thoughts and emotions pulling me this way and that. There is a great deal of excitement - it's great fun (for the most part) setting up equipment, playing around with logos and gleaning tips from those who have gone before me. But the inevitable fears and insecurities quickly join the mix. Voices from darker places rise up threatening to derail everything. Here is a sampling of the storm clouds that block the sun of my progress:
"What if I fail at this - and everyone sees my fall?"
"Those people on YouTube have it all together. They're perfect! I could never be like them!"
"What was I thinking starting something like this?"
"There's still so much I don't know."
"They can afford to do this...they have a wealthy spouse supporting them...I have no income and no-one around to help share the load."
"Why would anyone want to listen to me when there are so many amazing people already doing this?"
I'm sure the list sounds familiar to many of you and no doubt, you could add your own thought to it. It's an interesting task to look through this storm-cloud list to try and find a common thread. I think the common thread here is "pride". These thoughts are focused on self and comparing self with others or worrying what others will think. They are "self-preservation" thoughts (not to be confused with self-care). These thoughts cause me to wither rather than flourish. But, if I can speak back to those voices and reframe them in a way that shifts the focus away from self then I am shifting into the place of flourishing.
"Maybe I will fail - but I know failure is part of growing. Learning from failure can be very valuable and those new gleanings can lead to even better things. Besides which, what if I succeed? Either way, the best kind of people will applaud the courageous - even if the courageous falter. Ultimately, I can remember that "if God is for me, who can be against me?"
"I cannot see the life behind the glamorous, ever-smiling YouTuber. They may have the same fears and insecurities that I do but are pressing on nonetheless. Christ gave me His perfection at the cross and He is my identity - and that takes the pressure off!"
"If God placed the desire in my heart to do this - if this is His plan for me - then I know that He will give me the grace to continue in it."
"No-one knows everything except God. Learning is for life and it can be one of the joys of being human. Simply press on and invite others to learn with you along the way."
"Sure, some people do seem to have an advantage or head-start. But what does that matter when I have all the riches and strength of heaven available to me if I would simply ask in faith? And I have the greatest Helper of all living within - the Holy Spirit."
"Maybe some people would prefer to listen to someone who is real and honest? Maybe some people are just waiting for a quietly spoken guy to make and teach art who appreciates beauty and loves antiques, cups of tea and most of all - Jesus? What if God has designed me for this very thing and if there are people that He desires to bless through broken, fumbling 'ol me? Maybe this isn't about me but about meeting the needs of the people around me and helping them to flourish?"
If you have heard of the "Heroes of Faith" list in the book of Hebrews, you will be familiar with the phrase "by faith". "By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going." (Hebrews 11:8 NIV) Perhaps as budding artists, we could take on that phrase for our own journey:
"By faith, Jill picked up a paintbrush, even though she did not know what she was doing."
"By faith, Brad endured many hardships, eventually making artworks that brought many people closer to God."
"By faith, Robert refused to let negative circumstances get him down and started teaching art online - refreshing people in hard times."
When we admit our poverty and recognise God's abundance, we can take that leap of faith and step into new territory. By walking the path of humility, greatness will walk alongside us. When our eyes are on our Creator and the people He would bless through us then the time will come when we shall bear much fruit. If we remember that our worth and our work flow from God then we can travel new paths with joy, with peace and with the spirit of a true adventurer. Whatever it is that you are stepping into - or longing to step into - do it by faith, humbling yourself as a little child - ready to receive good things from a loving Father's hand and then see where the journey takes you.
Jesus Christ with the children / Let the little Children come unto Me / Suffer the Children
Painting by Carl Bloch (1834-1890, Danish). Date unknown. Oil on copper.