Consider the Lilies
by Mako Fujimura
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing?
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’
For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
Matthew 6:25-34 (ESV)
My purpose in writing is to help you understand why the arts are important, if not crucial, for education and theology. The arts are not a peripheral luxury, but a central necessity. Of course, you would expect this from an artist—to defend the arts, to be persuasive in their importance—but I intend to do more. Here in Matthew 6 is what I consider to be a command by Jesus to make central what we deem peripheral, an essential step before we can “seek God’s Kingdom first.”
Often when these passages are read, we take note of the reality of our anxiety. We think of our current reality imposed upon us, even as we sit here, of the illness of our loved ones or of our own fragile bodies, of not knowing how we are to pay next month’s rent, our restlessness over our future paths. We take comfort in, and are challenged by, Jesus’ words to “not worry about life.” We might say that we are “seeking God’s Kingdom first” and trust that “all these things will be added unto you,” and our intentions are quite correct.
But, Jesus is giving us the antidote to worry. He is not only commanding us to not worry, he is also giving us a path to fight the fear in our hearts. What is his antidote? Is it “to seek God’s Kingdom”? When you read these passages carefully, we need to note that there is a progression. Between the command to “not to worry” and “seek God’s Kingdom,” there is another command—to “consider the lilies.” The antidote to worry then is to first “see (consider) the lilies.”
If we proclaim the gospel without “considering the lilies,” our preaching and teaching will have an activist’s urgency and edge, but it will be filled with fear. We will have the right information, but we’ll be devoid of observation, empathy, and poetry.
We will lack love.
Love sings poetry over our lives.
We need to love through our fears. Therefore, consider the lilies. Only when we learn to truly see, can we seek God’s Kingdom.
“Considering the lilies,” Emily Dickinson once stated, “is the only Commandment I have ever obeyed.” A poet’s job is to consider the lilies. An artist’s task is to see the lilies. Not just look at them, but see—as in seeing through.
A poet and an artist have much to be anxious about. We have chosen the path of great resistance. But we have also been given the gift to see, to listen well to the world around us. Dickinson drank the antidote of Matthew 6 and her imaginative journey was filled with the healing power of seeing and listening. Through her observation, she created a world of vast, generative reality, composing 1100 poems on her tiny, square 18 by 18 inch desk in Amherst.
The arts are like Dickinson’s desk—small and spindly, in the outer rooms of our lives, in the peripheral corners of our homes. It is easy to dismiss them as a luxury, as the frivolous decorations of our lives. But according to Jesus, frivolous decorations turn out to be essential for our growth.
How much of the gospel have we been unable to communicate because we lack the language, sophistication, and beauty of the arts? Oh, how our churches suffer because we neglect the value of the poet’s tiny desk. Arts are luxurious and wasteful? We waste the full power of the gospel if we do not cultivate its beauty and sophistication.
The arts are Mary’s nard that anointed Jesus in Bethany; the expensive perfume that filled the air as Mary fearfully and wonderfully gave herself to him. The only earthly possession that Jesus wore to the cross was the aroma that Mary was saving up for her wedding; and that aroma communicated to the soldiers piercing his side that this is not ultimately going to end in a funeral, but this is pointing toward a wedding.
We see later on in Revelation a cosmic wedding feast to come. Have you ever been to a wedding without music, poetry, fashion, delectable food, even dance? A wedding without the arts is impossible. We are wedding planners, and we had better get prepared.
The arts bring this aroma of Mary into our contemporary days filled with anxiety and worry. Jesus tells us to “consider the lilies,” to “see the birds of the air.” To use our senses. So this exercise in botany and ornithology has more to do with understanding ourselves, and our world through Jesus’ gaze of nature.
So we consider: The lilies of Jesus’ day were of the buttercup family, not like the Easter lilies that I depicted with Sumi ink, gold, and platinum. They were small, dainty flowers, that sprang up in the morning dew, and shriveled at night. They were like weeds. “They do not spin or toil” because they grew uncultivated anywhere and everywhere. These lilies were used to fuel fires because they were so spindly.
Jesus is telling us that these things we use and take for granted, like the arts, can have a central place in our conversation about the eternal. Because they are ephemeral and spindly, they ignite. Because they are throwaways, they serve a greater purpose. Precisely because the arts are useless, peripheral, and ephemeral, they are significant, essential, and permanent for God’s Kingdom. The arts are a gift, not a commodity. To the extent that we commoditize art and value art as the price dictates, to that extent we will devalue ourselves. To the extent that the arts are devalued in the church, to that extent we will dehumanize and devalue the gospel. We will end up “selling” the gospel as cheap, utilitarian merchandise, filling our mall-like churches with trinkets only worthy of 15 seconds of fame and attention.
Reconsider: the Gospel is Life itself, generative and extravagant. Our God calls us through the humility of a beautiful weed, through the multiplying powers of our senses, if only we would take in (“stand under”) God’s message and pay attention to His world.
Looking at this image, you think, “So why did you paint ordinary, American Easter lilies if the original is a buttercup?” Artistic license. Our Easter lilies look better, filling the large painting with Trinitarian flower buds. But then, you might also notice that the way I painted these ordinary Easter lilies is very peculiar. No lilies really look like this. There are things happening, funky things, growing out of the lilies.
I am taking artistic license to imagine our post-Resurrection reality. I want these lilies to experience what N.T. Wright calls the “Life after Life after Death”—the point at which Heaven invades our fragile Earth, and everything is transformed into a New Reality. A Wedding is to take place then, and I am considering what the lilies at the altar would look like, where the bridegroom (Christ) kisses his bride (the Church).
When Mary made a mess at Bethany, Jesus said:
“Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me . . . And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
The question is: Are we following her lead, telling her story as we preach the Good News? What is our ephemeral, extravagant aroma? Where is our art?
Consider the lilies.
Makoto Fujimura is an artist, writer, and speaker recognized worldwide as a cultural influencer by both faith-based and secular media. He was a Presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts (2003-2009), his work is exhibited at galleries around the world, including Dillon Gallery (New York) and The Contemporary Museum of Tokyo, and he is a popular speaker, lecturing at numerous conferences and universities, including the Aspen Institute, the Q Conference, and International Arts Movement’s Encounter 10. Fujimura’s second book, Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art and Culture, is a collection of essays bringing people of all backgrounds together in conversation and meditation on culture, art, and humanity.
The image shown is part of my current commission by Crossway publishing for the Four Gospels project, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. This image of the lilies will illumine the gospel pages of Matthew. In each large image, I am responding to a particular passage of scripture that stood out to me from each of the Gospels. I paint with multiple layers of precious minerals, such as azurite and malachite, mixed with hide glue, and layered over 60 times onto Kumohada, Japanese rag paper.