By / Sep 28

We aren’t all born and bred to become recognizable artists. Few, if any of us, are destined for paintings in the Louvre, concerts at Madison Square Garden, books with a Pulitzer, or Emmys on our shelves. Yet we all were destined for a life of beauty. In fact, all followers of Jesus are called to work out being made in God’s image through the appreciation and creation of beauty. 

Most of humanity is at least somewhat competent in appreciating beauty. We know it in sunsets, mountains, oceans, animals, flowers, and all the rest. But the creation part might stump you. You might think: “I am not the least bit creative, and I definitely can’t create beauty!” Maybe this is true, but if we expand our definition of beauty, if we reduce it down to its very essence, we will see the task of the Christian beauty-maker for what it is—obedience to Jesus. 

Motivated by more than art

This is where the quiet and faithful life of a woman named Lilias Trotter comes to our aid. Trotter was a 19th-century artist-turned-missionary who gave up a promising career as a painter to bring the gospel to the nation of Algeria. When she left for Algeria, she did not abandon painting, but rather used this gift to share gospel truths and stories with the people she met. For 40 years, Trotter plodded along in the dry and unyielding land where the Muslim faith ruled. At times she felt discouraged, but she did not waiver. She emptied herself for the sake of others, and the Lord blessed her ministry. 

Trotter was able to see beauty in the desert. Not just in the purple hues of sunset over the sandy dunes, but in the life that comes through dying. She came from a wealthy family and enjoyed all the comfort a young woman in the Victorian era could want, as well as the mentorship and encouragement of famed artist, John Ruskin. When she learned that people in North Africa had not heard of Jesus, she left all of this for their sake. Her hope and trust was this: “It is the poured-out life that God blesses – the life that heeds not itself, if only other souls may be won.”1I.R. Govan Stewart, The Love That Was Stronger: Lilias Trotter of Algiers, (London: Lutterworth Press, 1958), 15.

In the age of influencers and hunger for fame and recognition, it is rare to find a soul unmarked by envy, selfishness, or deceit. Even those who avoid the tangles of social media may stop short and care only for their own soul, while ignoring the thousands of souls who are headed straight for separation from God for all eternity. It can be easy for us to fall prey to the lie that to really live, we must make much of ourselves and get to others later. 

Trotter had a deep love for flowers and plants and often used these to describe what she knew about the Lord. She says, “A flower that stops short at its flowering misses its purpose. We were created for more than our spiritual development; reproduction, not mere development, is the goal of matured being – reproduction in other lives.”2I. Lilias Trotter, Parables of the Cross, (Fort Myers: Oxvision Books, 2018), 29. It is in this reproduction of the Spirit in us to others that we see new life burst forth in weary hearts. Of course, not all of us are called to move overseas and serve until we die. But we are all called to a life of making disciples, helping others know the ways of Jesus however we can (Matt. 28:18-20). 

This was what motivated Trotter to write of death often: Jesus’ life was marked by dying to himself and for others. “He grew up before him like a young plant and like a root out of dry ground. He didn’t have an impressive form or majesty that we should look at him, no appearance that we should desire him . . . But he was pierced because of our rebellion, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on him, and we are healed by his wounds” (Isa. 53:2,4). Jesus’ outward beauty was not what made him beautiful, but his life. 

Beauty is more than sight 

Trotter understood this and that beauty is not less than what we see, but it is infinitely more than sight. Faith is where we find all the beauty we could fathom. In our obedience to God, in our faithfulness to his commands, in our discipleship and evangelism of others, we see true beauty. There is nothing more beautiful than knowing Jesus and giving all to him. 

Christian, you may not have the mastery of the paintbrush as Trotter did. But because God is the perfect Creator, you too are called to live a beautiful life. “He needs the whole Church to manifest His whole character and accomplish His appointed ministry, and so the individual development must differ widely in everything but the common vital principle.”3I. Lilias Trotter, Parables of the Christ-Life, (Valde Books, 2009), 4.

Your beautiful life may involve art, but it may also involve engineering, technology, raising children, or teaching. Whatever your vocation, your life is worth living and it is a life of beauty. You need only to follow him with open hands. 

Let the words of Lilias Trotter linger with you now: “All that matters is that our part should be done . . . Let the cry be on our hearts, as it was on the heart of Jesus, to ‘finish the work’ that the Father has given us. ‘My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me, and to finish His work.’ On He went with it, though it cost Him the strong crying and tears of Gethsemane to fight through to the end – to live on to the ‘It is finished’ of Calvary.”4Trotter, Parables of the Christ-Life, 19.

  • 1
    I.R. Govan Stewart, The Love That Was Stronger: Lilias Trotter of Algiers, (London: Lutterworth Press, 1958), 15.
  • 2
    I. Lilias Trotter, Parables of the Cross, (Fort Myers: Oxvision Books, 2018), 29.
  • 3
    I. Lilias Trotter, Parables of the Christ-Life, (Valde Books, 2009), 4.
  • 4
    Trotter, Parables of the Christ-Life, 19.
By / Mar 11

Moses was about to die. His 40-year journey in the wilderness with the Israelites had undeniably proven God’s people needed a circumcision much deeper than the flesh. They needed a circumcision of the heart—a fundamental revolution of their innermost being that was resistant to loving God (Deut. 10:16). This need would echo throughout the Old Testament until the Savior came, followed by the powerful indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

As Moses laid before the people of Israel “life and death, blessing and curse” (Deut. 30:19) he made sure to not leave the future generations of Israelites without testimonies of God’s holiness, righteousness, and faithfulness. He promised that the day would come when “the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut. 30:6). But until then, he called three lasting witnesses against Israel’s chronic unfaithfulness: heaven and earth (Deut. 31:28), the Book of the Law (Deut. 31:26), and . . . a song (Deut. 31:19). 

The centrality of God’s Word

The Book of the Law, which Moses wrote down at God’s direction, was to be put alongside God’s very presence—the ark of the covenant (Deut. 31:26). It was to be read aloud by the priests to the whole congregation of Israelites every seven years at the Feast of Booths “that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God” (Deut. 31:12). God also instituted this tradition for the sake of the children who didn’t yet know God’s Word (Deut. 31:13). 

The community commitment to hearing God’s Word wasn’t only a concern every seven years. God had called Israel to “teach them diligently to your children” inside and outside of the home (Deut. 6:7). The Word of God was to be central in the life of his people—“it is no empty word for you, but your very life” (Deut. 32:47). It was vital that God’s people passed down the testimonies of his redemptive work in Egypt and his faithfulness in the wilderness from generation to generation. 

The Song of Moses 

And how would these testimonies get passed down from one generation to the next? The Song of Moses. God told Moses:

Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel. For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring). For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give. (Deut. 31:19–21)

Though this song’s stated purpose was rather bleak, it ended with a triumphant proclamation of God’s future restoration of his people (Deut. 32:43). And this word of warning and judgment and hope would find residence in the mouths of generations of Israelites, carried on by a melody. 

God and the arts

God created the arts. He is, of course, the greatest artist of all time (and before time). Nature—God’s general revelation of himself—undeniably communicates his power and creativity (Ps. 19:1–6). And the Bible—God’s special revelation of himself—undeniably displays even more profound aspects of his creativity and glory (Ps. 19:7–11). 

The Bible is one grand story of God’s incredible redemptive work in history, which centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ. And this grand story is communicated through various text types, from law to discourse to narrative to poetry. Just as God didn’t communicate his Word solely through the Book of the Law but through the Song of Moses, God didn’t communicate the truth of who he is and what he has done through one literary genre. He filled the Bible with various literary masterpieces, which help us to feel, experience, and remember his glory.

The art we create in the Body of Christ, then, isn’t meant to replace Scripture’s centrality in our lives. Rather, the arts are meant to help us emotionally connect to the words of Scripture. Whether visual or poetic or storytelling or musical, the arts help bring color to our imagination as we read the Bible. They help us engage our senses in such a way that we feel we can almost embody the text

Do you remember how you learned the alphabet? I bet it was through a song. By putting melodies or rhythm and rhyme to Scripture, memorization becomes much easier. The Song of Moses illustrates this, as do the Psalms. 

Children and the arts 

But of course, any Sunday School or elementary school teacher could have told you the importance of the arts in their curriculum. When I had the privilege of teaching during Sunday School for four to six year-olds for about five years, I learned that what especially stuck with them were the songs (with a few dance moves thrown in there), the chants, and the storytelling through visuals and crafts. 

Now that I’m a mom of a five-year-old, I’m learning once again that it’s not my lectures about God’s Word that she tends to recite later on. It’s the storybooks and the YouTube animations that retell Bible stories and, of course, the songs. Apparently, children still learn best by singing, as they did in Moses’s day. 

How can we faithfully teach God’s Word to our children and the next generation? Moses tells us, “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut. 6:7–9). 

In other words, make the Word of God your constant meditation, conversation, and yes, song. Utilizing the arts and the gazillion children’s Bible resources out there, share his Word with the little people in your life. 

By / Jun 1

The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation comes at an important time for the church. It reminds us that we stand for something. Our own denominational history, as illuminated well in this issue by essays from Nathan Finn and Jason Duesing, reminds us why we are Baptist. Andrew Walker and Casey Hough remind us that, when it comes to religious liberty, the work of the reformers was largely unfinished and relied on the theology and heroism of our Baptist forefathers.

Russell Moore, offers an important piece on what it means to believe in “Scripture alone.” Steven Smith’s helps us understand how to preach in light of the Reformation. Andrew Walker’s interview with Dr. Robert George sheds light on the contributions evangelical Protestants bring to our co-belligerence on moral and ethical activism. And Chris Castaldo, a former Catholic, helps us think through what it means to be conventionally Protestant and yet work with Catholics for the common good.

By / Aug 25
By / Oct 21

Ministry is not like painting by numbers even though it is often presented as if it is. A pastor grows a large church, writes down his strategy, and markets it as “8 ways to grow any church.” Thus, ministry is envisioned as simply a matter of finding the right formula. Follow the blueprint, paint according to the numbers, and you can produce a beautiful piece of art. Only painting by numbers is not art.

Lest someone think I am over-exaggerating in asserting that ministry is often viewed in a formulaic way, let me tell you a true story. About 15 years ago, I was preaching in Saskatoon Saskatchewan, Canada. I was not preaching on Sunday, and I was invited to attend a Mennonite church. It was frigid outside, just as I had always imagined Canada being in my mind. Having never attended a Mennonite church, I was thankful for the invitation and intrigued about what it would be like. I was stunned when I got there. The first thing I saw upon entering the facility was a huge baseball diamond diagram on the wall, and when I entered the worship area, the pastor came out wearing a Hawaiian shirt. It was not exactly what I had expected in cold, hockey-loving Canada. What was going on?

The pastor had obviously picked up on Rick Warren’s baseball diamond discipleship analogy from The Purpose Driven Church: Knowing Christ (1st base), growing in Christ (2nd base), serving Christ (3rd base), and sharing Christ (home plate). But he also seemed to pick up on Rick Warren’s wardrobe choices without any thought of the difference between living in Southern California and Saskatoon. Why would he do something that seems so absurd? He was painting by numbers. The result was not art but rather cheap mimicry.

If the ministry could be reduced to this kind of generically reproducible formula, then pastors could be churned out with factory-like rapidity. No pastor should see himself simply as an interchangeable cog in an ecclesial industrial complex. We are not merely punching an ecclesiastical time clock for Jesus. Being a faithful shepherd of Christ is not something that can be done in a scientific assembly-line fashion. Knowing a particular flock in a particular geographical place at a particular time in history and faithfully leading, feeding and guiding them demands ministry artists — not automatons.

Of course, this is not simply true for pastors, but for all Christians in their particular sphere of influence. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, in a masterful lecture called, “Individuality, and Its Opposite,” printed in An All-Around Ministry warned, “We must never preach to others with a counterfeit voice." He continued, “Brethren, in connection with our individuality, we ought to feel a great respect for our own sphere of labor." Spurgeon then illustrates his point,

Going through the famous factory at Sèvres, the other day, I noticed an artist painting a very beautiful vase. I looked at him, but he did not look at me; his eyes were better engaged than in staring at a stranger. There were several persons at my heels, and they all looked at him, and made various observations, yet the worker’s eye never moved from his work. He had to paint the picture upon that vase, and what benefit would he get from noticing us, or from our noticing him?

He kept to his work. We would fain see such abstraction and concentration in every man who has the Lord’s work to do. “This one thing I do.” Some frown, some smile, but “this one thing I do.” Some think they could do it better, but “this one thing I do.” How they could do it, may be their business; but it certainly is not mine.

Remember, dear brother, if you give your whole soul to the charge committed to you, it does not matter much about its appearing to be a somewhat small and insignificant affair, for as much skill may be displayed in the manufacture of a very tiny watch as in the construction of the town clock; in fact, a minute article may become the object of greater wonder than another of larger dimensions. Quality is a far more precious thing than quantity.

Of course, you can and should learn from all kinds of people, but you cannot be them for Jesus; you can only be you for Jesus. Spurgeon urges, “Know your work, and bend over it, throwing your heart and soul into it; for, be it great or small, you will have to praise God to all eternity if you are found faithful in it." In other words, we are to be artists to the glory of Christ in the particular ministry he has entrusted to us. Spurgeon explains,

Men are not cast in molds by the thousand; we are each one distinct from his fellow. When each of us was made, the mold was broken;—a very satisfactory circumstance in the case of some men, and I greatly question whether it is not an advantage in the case of us all. . . .  Be yourself, dear brother, for, if you are not yourself, you cannot be anybody else; and so, you see, you must be nobody. The very worst notes in music are those which are untrue; each true sound has its own music.

Is your ministry sounding a true sound? Are you creating ministry art to the glory of Christ, or are you painting by numbers according to someone else’s template? All genuine art is an act of culture-making that reflects time and place. Thus, genuine art cannot be industrialized and mass-produced. Genuine art takes rooted, painstaking, patient and individual effort. Genuine art cannot be severed from time and place. It is only genuine art that possesses qualities that allow it to provide inspiration to others artists in a way that transcends time and place. Great paintings cannot be reproduced with paint by number kits and neither can great ministry. But great paintings can and should inspire others to create their own art, and the same is true in the art of ministry.