Artist-God in the Garden

 “Gethsemane’s Dolor” by Gloria Ssali

 “Gethsemane’s Dolor” by Gloria Ssali

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28

“CONGRATULATIONS! YOUR GIFT OF A NEW DAY IS HERE!!!!” This is how the daily devotional podcast I’ve been listening to begins. The extreme positivity of it, how it is so unapologetically cheery: well, to put it lightly, it makes me cringe. I am constantly rolling my eyes at this woman’s voice and at this opening, especially. Just to complete your mental picture of the start of the show: those words are shouted in a high-pitched squeal by someone who is clearly AMPED. All the while, music, that sounds like something they’d play during Cross Fit, is blaring. When I first heard this, it took everything I had not to turn it off right then and there. Yet, for some reason, I kept listening.

I mentioned this to a friend, assuming she’d agree with me, (after all, eye-rolling is one of our favorite pastimes) but before she even had a chance to respond, I stopped myself. I heard something in my voice that shocked me. Out of my mouth came a new kind of negativity, laced with cynicism. Why did I find this message so off-putting? Mary Oliver reminded me yesterday in her poem and it didn’t bother me at all. Am I really so gloomy that a couple of minutes of hyped-up inspirational speaking makes me roll my eyes? Was it the message that bothered me or the delivery? If it annoyed me so badly, why did I keep listening, day after day? 

We artists have a tendency to glorify sadness. It’s hard not to when it can lead to so much productivity. During periods of hardship, I’ve seen seeds of inspiration bloom and turn pain into something beautiful to channel into my music. I thought being melancholy was a prerequisite to being artsy. Yet, as I noticed the negativity in my voice discussing the podcast, I’m wondering if maybe this “suffering artist” persona isn’t working for me anymore, that maybe God is calling me into something more joyful. 

When I was thinking about becoming Christian again, after years away from the church in college, I remember worrying that going back would mean giving up my emotional artist self, trading it in for the saccharine-sweet caricature of the Christians in my mind. I remember hearing the verse from Romans above, and resisting the temptation to eye roll. Christianity wasn’t for real people with real problems. It wasn’t for artists who really sought to understand the depths of pain and loss, those of us who used suffering, who turned it into something beautiful.

During that time, I found myself at a “seekers night” at a church in NYC. A famous orchestra conductor was giving a talk about her conversion. I can’t recall her exact words, but it went something like this: “Most people will lead you to believe that becoming a Christian will make you happier. That was not the case for me, at least not in the way I thought at the time. In reality, it was right after I became a Christian that my life fell apart. All I can do now is thank God that I had faith in that moment, because who knows where I would be without it.”

For her, Jesus was not an inspirational speaker or a podcast host, waxing optimistic or pushing self-help advice. The Christianity that she was describing, this Jesus: who would sit with you in your suffering, maybe this was someone I could get behind. This Christianity did not deny suffering and loss, but centered around a man who cried when his friend died, who loved his mother, who understood how pain and joy go hand in hand when you really love someone deeply. I suddenly realized how judgmental I was being, assuming all Christians had been brainwashed to forget their problems or were too naive to see the pain around them.

One of the things that finally led me back to faith in God was the image of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying for those people who were, in that very moment, abandoning him, sentencing him to death. He prayed for those who would kill him. He prayed for us.

Kneeling in the garden, he struck me as a fellow artist—someone who understood the mixture of sorrow and joy that is life, someone who could see the beauty in all the suffering. God, through Jesus, could harness the utter catastrophe of death on a cross and turn it into the most beautiful work of love, one that would literally save the world.

Believing Jesus was an artist, a deep-feeler, lover of my soul, that was what led me back to church.

And what did he pray for us at his last hour? Well, he prayed for us to have joy.  This means that Christianity is a faith that makes room for our suffering and pain, because God suffered. And since, in his deepest moment of pain, he prayed not that we would not suffer but when we would, we would have joy like him—I know I can rest in the truth that God is working all things together for good.

And I do not need to roll my eyes, because it’s complex and painful and real and beautiful and true.

So with a totally reasonable amount of enthusiasm, allow me to remind you again: congratulations, your gift of a new day is here. Maybe it is hard for me to stomach the unabashed positivity of the podcast every morning, but I still listen. I listen because it reminds me that Jesus prayed for me to have joy at his last hour. And maybe my joy doesn’t have to look like a cheerful southern lady screaming the good news at me, and that’s ok. I am working to be less cynical and remember the joy Jesus prayed for, and I will with God’s help.

I listen because it reminds me that we artists do not have to stay in the “suffering artist” narrative, because Jesus himself did not stay there. I know that our faith makes space for all expressions of things that God is working out for good, even when we cannot see the goodness yet.

Christianity can hold your problems, it can hold your pain—having faith in God does not mean pretending they do not exist. 

On this day where we remember God in the garden, I believe more than ever: this Artist-God, creator of all things, can harness our ugliest suffering, as he did Christ’s, and use it to work out exquisitely beautiful forgiveness, justice, hope, and peace....sounds pretty artistic to me.