The camel, the needle, and me
I had wondered if others within the church had similar preoccupations with material goods and financial status until the story of the rich young ruler came up in an in-depth study of Matthew last year in my Sunday-school class. It caused a healthy, rousing discussion from all sides of the issue. It was clear that those who "had" were as disturbed as those who "had not quite as much." (After reading the camel and the needle's eye warning, we later talked about the Lord's admonition to the disciples not to claim superiority in their poverty either.)

Our teacher pointed out that Jesus noticed the rich young ruler spoke of the kingdom of God in the language of business contracts, as though it were another possession, something he could buy. The young man wanted to be in charge of the transaction and revealed his shallowness in making eternal life something to be achieved. But to his credit, the rich young ruler knew he lacked something. He was just hesitant, and eventually unwilling, to pay the price Jesus asked. Jesus wanted his heart—his allegiance, his whole self. The Lord was not willing merely to sanction the wants of the man; he challenged the source of the young man's trust.

When my own life hit a spot where, for once, I could not know the outcome immediately, or guarantee that the deal would benefit me, a place I could not control, I too wanted to be in charge of how the kingdom would be transacted within me.

The kingdom of God is not something I can mark off my shopping list, like other goods designed to make my life easier. Instead, Jesus tells the rich young ruler to go, to sell, to give, and to follow. All of these involve trust in some unknown outcome and, unlike consumption, involve action.

Although Jesus promised the free gift of salvation, God must know our need for fulfillment is not satisfied in buying, but in doing. Of all the dehumanizing forces of this century, losing a sense of mastery over the earth has been the worst. For me, the closest place to regain that mastery is downstairs in my clay studio.

There, I am not at all a consumer, but a producer. First I imagine a design, then take a formless wad of clay, knead it and shape it to conform to my vision. Then the finished product, after it has completely dried up, gets fired at almost two thousand degrees, twice. This is a process. It cannot be rushed or the artwork will crack.

When I am alert, working in clay gives me just a glimpse into how God sees me. Since I don't want to crack, I do best to yield to the process.

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Jesus is entreated less to forgive sin than to relieve stress.

Most of my work involves making three-dimensional replicas of a person's home. Over the years I have witnessed many emotional responses to them, perhaps not so much for the art, but for the piece as a symbol of the life that was created in the real house. My economics professor friend calls my business a "bilateral monopoly," a case where the buyer, or recipient, first has to offer something to the seller, and the seller (or creator) deals in one-of-a-kinds. Under this setup, a price is very hard to determine. Here, right under my nose, has been another reminder of my relationship with God. I have only my heart to offer God, while he is the only one who can mold me into his vision for my life.

In Romans 12, Paul outlines this very theme. He tells the people first to offer themselves to God. He warns of the conforming power of the world and our need to be transformed and to renew our minds. In a connection I had never before seen, he then talks about the development of individual gifts.

This tells me that contentment, which I recently learned means "self-shielding," not self-indulgence, will come more easily if I plant myself in my studio and keep the car in the driveway. Paul seems to promise that, ironically, the more I am like God, the more I am like myself.

Yet consumerism distracts and dissipates our urges to create, whether they produce tangible or intangible results. Too often the definition of a creative person gets warped only to include someone who paints, sculpts, or writes songs (and eats a lot of macaroni and cheese). I cringe when people come up to my booth at an art show and tell me they do not have any talents. That attitude borders on blasphemy since Jesus seems pretty serious about not only recognizing the gifts he gave us, but using them. The man who was given one talent, and who for fear of failure did not multiply it, got in trouble. The Bible warns against hiding, burying, and veiling.

In a small book titled Art and the Bible, Francis Schaeffer concludes that in the end, the Christian's very life should be a piece of artwork. Turning it into such is the essence of worship.

The challenge in this consumption-mad culture, a culture that places so many layers on my selfhood, is to find out if anything lives underneath all the accessorizing. It takes sheer faith to allow God to peel off the layers and let me see me. In Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Madeleine L'Engle says: "We live under the illusion that if we can acquire complete control, we can understand God. … But the only way we can brush against the hem of the Lord, or hope to be part of the creative process, is to have the courage, the faith, to abandon control."

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Just as one of my teapots, halfway molded, cannot look into the future to see itself daintily pouring Earl Grey into the cups of delighted company, neither can I possibly know all that God has planned for me. It is at these moments of grace that I can almost welcome insecurity and nurture a healthy attitude of abandonment of my will. Then as my creative and spiritual imagination is allowed to flourish without the suffocation of this fleshly world, my work and my very life may reflect something that is beyond me. In L'Engle's words, "faith consists in the awareness that I am more than I know."

I still have my moments of wrestling with God. I wonder why he could not have just left me alone to carry on playing house. But the more I wrestle, the less I need that mask I hide behind. I want a faith that does not fear passion or doubt, or even despair, because those human traits keep me coming back to God.

If I cannot resist the cheap thrills of consumerism and choose an image over an incarnation, I risk becoming less human. As the psalmist warns, I may end up with eyes, but not able to really see, or ears that cannot hear, or worst of all for me, hands that can no longer feel. If I continue to place my heart in my treasures, my heart just might be crushed under the weight of them.

Lee Knapp is an artist from Richmond, Virginia. This essay won third place in CT's "Faith and Consumerism" contest, funded by the Global Consumption project of Pew Charitable Trusts, Inc.

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