Posted by: Caleb Butler | November 21, 2009

The Art Can be Deceptively Different than the Artist

Looking at his artwork after reading a short biography and explanation of his mental disorder, I am fascinated. The elementary-school looking drawings of gas stations and street signs captivate me in wonder of what is going on inside his head. John Philip is homeless. These are images of what he sees every day. John Philip is mentally ill. This is obvious in the repeated writing of his name all across the page. Yet I am fascinated.

Maybe only so because his pictures are in frames, hanging on the wall as part of Homeless: Telling Our Own Stories. Maybe I am only interested because I have just visited a homeless shelter, thus explaining my sympathies for this man and his silly drawings.

That was over 18 months ago, when my sister, Courtney, dragged me along to check out this program called Hope for Louisville. I was too young, only a junior in high school. My sister thought I would be interested, and she didn’t want to go alone. Being the loving brother I am, I had to join her. 🙂 Little did I know how God would work in my heart because of a one-day visit to the Jefferson Street Baptist Center and Sojourn Community Church …

When I first watched the Hope promotional video at home, my heart did a nose dive. The thought of working with homeless people scared the sh-poop out of me. I smiled and told Courtney it seemed great, but the reality? My heart was nervously looking from side to side, eyebrows slightly lowered and sweat dripping off its brow. I knew this whole serving the homeless was a great thing that God desired from people, but from me? chuckle chuckle. I don’t think so. Not so fast. … I was frantically searching for an excuse not to get involved.

But somehow, against all my better wishes – that is, what would make me comfortable – I ended up going to Louisville, KY with bags packed for a year of life serving and living alongside the homeless and urban poor. What was I getting myself into?

“Hi, Father. Thank you, Father. Thank you, Father,” comes the words of a mentally handicapped man. “You’re welcome, sir,” came my disgruntled reply. “Thank you, Father,” he says one more time before finally leaving the storage closet. I say finally because he’s annoying. John Philip is unusual and makes me uncomfortable. I don’t know how to react, so I just want him to leave me alone. I just want John Philip to be gone from my area of activity. Am I making myself clear?

Look again at my first paragraph. It’s the same person! Isn’t that interesting? When he was just a faceless name, I was excited and intrigued about “the homeless.” But when we met face to face, I didn’t want anything to do with him. It’s easy to raise awareness about a social injustice. It’s not so easy to live in the midst of it and experience firsthand the suffering individuals. (Please understand that I’m not trying to call anyone out, I am reflecting only on my personal experience). I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I knew I was getting myself into something. Sometimes, like with John Philip, I don’t even want to be involved. I don’t want to experience it. I’d rather not.

And that’s when the tough reality kicks in. This tension between what I want to do and what God has called me to do. As explained before with my initial feelings toward the Hope program, there is a constant struggle between my selfish nature that desires comfort, pleasure, and power and God’s Spirit that desires love, patience, and self control.

And I am reminded of what I looked like to God before Jesus came into my life. Isaiah explains in chapter 64, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” There is nothing I could do to make myself desirable to God apart from Jesus Christ. That’s the beauty of it all. His love is incomprehensible. And I hope that is truly what I am getting myself into.

Remembering all of that goes a long way in opening my heart up to the “weird, obstinate, and awkward” people I encounter.  With John Philip, I have no idea what is going on inside his head. It’s sad. I feel bad for him. His artwork is fascinating, but meeting him in person is challenging.

{{On the other hand, I recently met a formerly homeless man who now paints pictures for a living. Larry Smothers’ artwork was displayed this past weekend at a local seminary school, and of course he was stoked. This man’s journey to faith in Christ is incredibly inspiring, as is his artwork.

Aside from my ramblings, I want to encourage you to check out the Homeless: Telling Our Own Stories art exhibit. It really is intriguing and eye-opening. Just don’t make the mistake of considering an art gallery as a real encounter with real homeless people. I learned the hard way. Thankfully, God used that curiosity to lead me to where I am now.}}






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