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  • Writer's pictureRalph Felzer


Updated: May 16

Art by Charles Ethan Porter


We've all seen still life paintings before.  Kind of boring, right?  Not much going on.  Just a collection of fruit or cut flowers on a table.  And yet….  Why is it that still life is such a common and long-lasting artistic tradition?  They don't force us to do anything.  They are just … there.  But by placing these objects, whatever they are, together in a single scene, we come to see the ordinary quite differently.  What was there all along but unnoticed now finds new meaning.  We don't create it or invent it, we just see it, perhaps for the first time.  

Still life is to art what parables are to Jesus' message of the kingdom.  In Matthew 13 he quotes the prophet Isaiah, saying, "The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand'" (Matthew 13:13 NRSV).  We didn't invent cluelessness, it was present even 2000 years ago.  Jesus has noticed that people don't seem to hear or see what's right in front of them.  It didn't take social media and ubiquitous technology to blind us to reality.

We'll come back to this idea in a minute, but first let's talk about verbs!  (I hear those "woo-hoos"!)  You all know that verbs are action words, right?  So: walk, run, write, create, destroy, attack, rush, bombard, build, burst, scream, the list goes on and on.  And the cool thing about well-chosen verbs is that you can see something happening because they are so descriptive.  

On the other hand, have you ever heard of passive verbs?  I just got done talking about how visual and descriptive good verbs are.  Passive verbs, though, are weak and, well, passive–they just lie there not doing much of anything at all.  So: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been.  See what I mean.  Not much goin' on there.

Now all this has more to do with actually living life than it may appear on the surface (this isn't just an English lesson, after all!).  Ever since Genesis 1 people have had a bias for action (remember last week?).  And most of life is built upon active verbs, vigorous, creative, energetic action.  BUT … unless someone simply exists first, they can't act.  Notice that?  We didn't create ourselves into existence.  God called us into being–we were entirely passive in our creation–God's work was active; ours was passive.  

The beauty of all this shows up wonderfully when passivity and activity meet.  And the secret of this meeting is that God calls us, each moment and every day, to see and hear, to notice and to listen; and these activities are primarily passive.  And since we're so busy being busy, we often miss this.  (Remember last week?  Don't just do something, sit there.)  

Call it The Still Life.  When we actively choose to be passive in God's presence, not insisting on making anything happen, not insisting that God speak in this or that way, or act on our behalf in any particular way, but simply sitting in His presence, listening for His voice, being attentive to what He is doing around us and even in us, remarkable even miraculous things can happen.  THEN we can be active in the world boldly and confidently and effectively, as opposed to frantically trying to make something–anything–happen.

Let's look at two passages to see this Still Life, this passive/active process, at work.  The first is Psalm 103.  You might remember me talking about this before on Sunday morning, but it's worth repeating.  Listen to these first few verses and notice the wonderful active verbs!

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits–

who forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the Pit,

who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies you with good as long as you live,

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.  (vv. 2-5)

It's so beautiful, don't you think?  This delightful, active work of God in the souls of ordinary human beings like you and me?  Unexpected, unearned, unmerited.  And the fruit of all His work?  Renewal.

So now for 10,000 fictional bonus points in Grammar 201:  Did you notice the negative active verb right at the beginning?  Do not forget.  It's a command certainly, but it's as if God is saying to us, "Don't just do something, sit there and remember, do not forget, all these wonderful things that I am doing with and in you, and not just you as a person, you as a community, you as believers, you as the Church, you as the very Body of Christ in the world!"

The second passage I want to look at briefly is Joshua 1:3-9.  Again, this is one you're likely pretty familiar with already, but there's a beautiful mystery woven into the heart of it.  God says to Joshua:

3 Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I

promised to Moses. 4 From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river,

the River Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be

your territory. 5 No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I

was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. 6 Be strong and

courageous, for you shall lead this people to possess the land that I swore to their

ancestors to give them. 7 Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in

accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from

it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go. 8 This

book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and

night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For

then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful. 9 I hereby

command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the

Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

This passage is so wonderful because both God and Joshua are active.  But notice in verses 6, 7, and 9 that God says "Be strong and courageous."  BE is a passive verb.  God is telling Joshua to BE, but not to just sit back and be passive, to exist, but rather to be in such a way that his activity exudes strength and courage.  The strength and courage come forth from his be-ing.  And his being is rooted in verses 7 and 8:  Joshua is to act in accordance with the law that was given to Moses; and God says this to him in both verses!  Three times God says be bold and courageous.  But all of Joshua's boldness and courage needs to spring from acting in accordance with what God has already revealed.  He is to teach God's word, meditate on God's word, and act in accordance with God's word.  Boldness and courage are not the cause of Joshua's success, they are the fruit of his obedience.  And that obedience is about first being passive in God's presence, listening to His direction, and second being active in following His direction.

My wife, Sandy, has cultivated a marvelous garden filled with plants, trees, flowers, herbs, and vegetables.  And my favorite days are those when she goes out to her "cutting garden" and brings in a handful of fragrant, many-colored flowers that she places in a vase on our kitchen table.  The smell of lilacs, of vibrant summersweet, of rosemary and lavender … oh my!  

But this is the beauty of Still Life–in both the art of painting and the art of living:  All that's there is with us all the time.  All we are called upon to do is to really see it and appreciate it, and then act upon what He reveals to us.

The Still Life does not consist entirely of stillness, or passivity, or of sitting back and waiting for God to do everything.  No, the Still Life begins in knowing that all real, lasting, meaningful activity begins with God's initiative, continues with our obedience, and ends with God's majestic, fragrant, and many-colored glory.  Embedded at the very heart of all this is the sure and steadfast promise of the Lord:  I will not fail you or forsake you.... The Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Be encouraged, friend, for God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, who spoke all worlds into being, is both with you and for you.

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