Colors of Hope by Richard DahlstromBooks, Burnside Sells Out, Featured — By Penny Carothers on May 26, 2011 at 7:30 am
Richard Dahlstrom is the first to admit that his story is not one of those faith-making tales of abuse or addiction and God’s eventual redemption. It’s the story of growing up in the proverbial healthy Christian home where the norm was baseball games, good grades and Saturday night spaghetti. But his new book is anything but saccharine. It’s a call to action, a nudge, and at times (thankfully, I think) a bit of a roadmap for stepping out into the world in the spirit of Micah 6:8 to become people of love, mercy, and intimacy, using the metaphor of the artistic life. As Dahlstrom says, “Colors of Hope calls us back to the conversation that the prophets of the Bible called us to, a conversation that challenges us to make the invisible God visible in this world through acts of mercy, justice, and love. He does so by sharing “stories of people who’ve found their craft and are doing it – faithfully, in the midst of setbacks, slowly over time becoming a voice a hope in their world.” I was moved and challenged, especially by the honest reflections on developing the discipline and stamina to keep coming back to the canvas.
I got the chance to sit down and speak with Richard about some of the themes and big ideas in the book. Richard has been my pastor or nine years (not to mention a contributor to this site), so some of the stories I have heard before. Still, I found hope and clarity in his encouragement to paint beauty onto the canvas that is our world. I hope you do, too, and that you enjoy the conversation.
Penny: You start the book by talking about how you originally thought the walk of faith was a calling to be a lawyer and now you see it as a calling to be an artist. Can you talk more about the identity of a faith artist?
Well, it speaks a little to why I was motivated to write in the first place. I’ve never – and I’m old enough to say this with some authority – lived in such polarized times, in every way: politically, theologically, economically. It feels like middle ground is disappearing, and more concerning than that, that discourse is disappearing . And I think that one of the contributing factors is that if I view the scriptures as a legal document it becomes this grid used to assess guilt and innocence, moral high and low ground. So we end up with people who, I think, are in God’s eyes, on the same team, arguing all the time about nuance, interpretation. Meanwhile, the glaringly obvious message of justice, mercy, and intimacy goes almost unnoticed. There’s this obvious calling that has been historically expressed in every revival in history, that changes cultures, that ends apartheid, that restrores the envoironment, that ended slavery. Tragically, that conversation isn’t happening enough right now. What’s happening instead is, “I’m emergent, and I’m better than you because you’re neo-Calvinist,” or “Oh yeah, well, I”m a neo-Calvinist and I’m here to tell you that you’re going to hell.” And I want to stand up and say, Stop! This is absurd.
Penny: I think this is related to this desire many of us have to “be right,” ostensibly so that we can please God. How does becoming an artist differ from “being right?”
Well, I’ll begin by telling you a story. I write about an artist named Juliette who teaches at the Gage Academy of Art here in Seattle. She teaches all levels at once, in stages, around one central figure that all the students are drawing or painting. They start with a pencil and end with oils and canvas. Well, the analogy here is that I will never get to stage 5, of painting like Rembrandt, unless I start with a pencil. When I draw with a pencil and I end up misrepresenting the figure in the middle of the room, Juliette’s not like, “Wrong! To hell with you!” This is part of the journey. And this is part of why I think polarizing debates are so damaging because it’s as if I’m saying, look, I’m at stage 4 and you’re only at stage 1 and i demand that you be at stage 4 today. But, you also think that you’re at stage 4 and I’m at stage 1. How is God assessing this? He says, “Look, both of you haven’t even reached stage 1 yet, but i’m okay with that. You’re on this journey.” Scripturally, I could reference 2 Corinthians 3:18 – from glory to glory to glory. Our transformation is little by little. At the end of the book I share these profound, epiphany-like moments. And yet, I still would contend that the most important days are not the dramatic days that have a fork in the road; they’re days like today where there’s nothing dramatic, but we’re being shaped. And if we’re not perfect – and we’re not – it’s okay. God’s very, very patient. God recognizes that we are seeking to be the presence of hope and we’re not going to do it perfectly. Keep painting, right? Juliette’s students keep showing up, even if it might take them three years to get there.
This transformation relates to matters of faith and politics, too. Personally, I’ve migrated from right of center to left of center. I was, and am, pr0-life. And yet, as I engage withthe topic, I run into thousands of people who seem zealous about protecting the child in the womb, but silent when it comes to protecting that child once they’re born. My migration to the left came from involvement in a right topic: pro-life. Causing me to ask, “But what happens to this baby – in this world? In this time? Who cares for this child? And if I’m not willing to step into the community of the mother do I really have the right?
Penny: And the crux of the matter is you were physically getting involved, talking to people, learning, building relationships, not just reading about the topic.
Richard: Yes, and I think that’s important because with reading we see caricatures. But we’re not really seeing and this is part of the great problem with the homosexual debate in the church. I have many friends to the right of me who just don’t know anyone who is gay in the “I had lunch with this person” way. They haven’t heard stories. Now, the stories can’t shape my theology, ultimately. I still have to believe that it comes from a higher authority than anyone’s stories, including my own. But those stories better inform how I view the Scripture, and if they don’t my convictions get stuck. If the journey is intended to make my art increasingly representational of Christ, I’ve gotta get better at it. And I only get better at it as I engage.
Penny: And that relates to the consumer aspect that you wrote about. We need to go out and create not just consume.
Richard: Yes, because if i just read about any particular issue it sounds really good, but if I actually engage with people in the real life arena its much more compelx and nuanced. And if I don’t allow the conversations to shape me , I would argue that I’m not walking humbly with God. Because God is revealing through those encounters. We both have friends who are gay and that’s a very important conversation. And we need to have big ears and small mouths, but we still need mouths.
Penny: Many of us are motivated by guilt when it comes to justice-related issues, when we’re talking about race and social class, and especially those of us who have a lot of privilege. Can you talk about being motivated by hope?
Richard: Well, that’s a great question because it’s true that the guilt comes from those words of Jesus, “To whom much is given much is required.” On the other hand – and this won’t sound very philosophical – but, I’d just say: many of the most memorable experiences of my life have been in situations that were initially outside my comfort zone because I was crossing some sort of barrier to be in relationship with people. I think of being in India, in a village in the Himalayas, and this woman asking for prayer. She saw my cross and said, because I have a fish sticker on my little market people aren’t coming in. Praying with her was a very moving experience because there was this realization that we’re in this common family that transcends language, continent, and history and we’ll be again together. It’s not just being with believers either. It’s being on Aurora [a street one block away from Bethany Community Church touched heavily by drug use, prostitution and poverty] where when Karen [a church member] takes flowers to the folks who are hotel managers. That is a profound moment of beauty in our world, to be honest. And there are folks from the street who come here on Sunday nights…there’s just a great sense of joy in crossing these barriers – I don’t want to romanticize it – often the joy is greater retrospectively than in the moment. That’s been enough of my world now that I go: yeah, we’re meant to live this way. I don’t feel motivated much by guilt at all. I feel like, if I don’t simplify my life and live more generously, if I don’t cross social or racial or gender-orientation boudaries I am the poorer. I almost feel greedy, not guilty.
Penny: It’s almost as if guilt is what it takes to get you there, oh well, as long as you can get to the other side.
Richard: And then you get there and think, wow, this is amazing.
Penny: That reminds me of what you said about being a child, and engaging the world as a child would (especially when it comes to art).
Richard: Well, in the real innocence of childhood there’s an absence of comparison. When kids are leanring to walk and they fall they don’t dissolve into a puddle. They say, “By God, I’m going to do this.” And they get up again and again and again. It’s a persistnece, not dogged determination. And I think there’s anotehr aspect to childlikeness as it relates to this hope journey. I talk a fair bit about brokenness in the book and I think it’s a crux moment with intimacy. We either give God the finger and walk away or we go to God – and even if you go and shake your fist – the key is to re-engage God in our brokenness and our failures, and other people’s failures who victimize us. I think that’s a really important message because without it brokenness can end up becoming a barrier to hope. But with that – look at all the great artists…
Penny: [interrupting] They’re all screwed up!
RIchard: Yeah -and I didn’t write much about this, but they’re just like figures in the bible. Peter: arrogant. Judas: sleeping with his daughter-in-law because he thinks she’s a prostituate. David and Bathsheba. Jacob: jealousy, theft. Levi slaughters a whole town of people. There’s no one who doesn’t have blood on their hands in some way. Job didn’t do anything wrong and he still suffered. But they all took that brokenness to God eventually. And that’s what transforms them and enables them to become the presence of hope in some palapable way. There are glaring exceptions: Saul, in the Old Testament. Saul justified his failure; wouldn’t admit his own brokenness. That pride prevented him from fulfilling his own calling. And then, there’s Judas: he had the most emotional intelligence of all the disciples. And yet, he missed the big picture.
Penny: I’m glad you brought that up because I was really struck by how much you talk about your own failure, which I really appreciated. And the reality of brokenness in our world. It’s an essential part of the whole conversation of how to be hope in the world. What you write is not naive.
Richard: Under that big umbrella of brokenness I think there are a couple of things: stuff that happens to us and things we bring on ourselves. My working title for one of those chapters was Pastel Pornography. What I meant by that is that there’s a fantasy Christian view – and I chose Pastel because of the you can see it in the Precious Moments bible and figurines that are always angelic and happy. That was my world until I was twelve. And then there was an automobile accident, my grandparents die, my Dad dies, my aunt dies on the operating table after a minor operation. This kind of stuff was a seven year period of the bottom dropping out of my world. And yet, there were two or three significant moments in the midst of that where I heard God’s voice. And I go – and I don’t know the answer to this – I wonder if I would be sitting here with you right now if everything would have gone swimmingly during those years. My sense is that I wouldn’t have heard because I don’t listen the same way when I’m living with what I’d call an illusion of wholeness. When I really see my brokkenness and the brokenness of the world I listen differently. I wanted to share stories in the book of things I brought on, like my resistance to being a pastor, my racism in an airport in Jersey, because I want people to know that all of us are sharing this journey and these broken moments are part of what’s valuable for our transformation. A complaint I have regarding the pastoral office is it feels like there’s an implied “follow me because I’m done growing” and I go: “follow me because I am still growing.” I want to model growing and I can’t model that unless you see some leprosy.
Penny: Well, I know I really appreciate it, and I think your readers will, too.
Richard: Thanks. I hope so.