The Tenacity of Hope

Ronald Kok, The Tenacity of Hope, Markers on paper, 2018

If you’re like me, Hope is something you may have in short supply these days. But with that in mind I want to point out the almost-obvious: You still have a supply.

That’s the funny thing about Hope, there seems to always be some, even in the darkest of times and places. I know that depression and circumstances have driven people to complete despair, but, amazingly, this is not the rule.  It is astounding how much human beings can endure and still cling to Hope. Really, Hope is what has given people the strength to press on, to keep going, to shake off the awful stuff and get on their feet.

Hope is tenacious. I looked up “tenacious” in Webster’s dictionary. The first definition given was “not easily pulled apart: COHESIVE, TOUGH”. A synonym given was “STRONG”.  Hope is not easily broken. Hope is like super glue that way: A tiny drop of it can adhere to your heart and mind and soul so strongly that almost nothing can tear you apart.

Hope, really, is a testament to the human spirit. What is the source of Hope? We place it in many things – God, other people, our circumstances, our money – but when you think of it, Hope finds its source in us. If Hope was just external, it wouldn’t have the strength or cohesion we need to endure hardship. The truth is, we are the main authors of the Hope that sustains us. This is the true miracle – We have within us the tenacity we need to keep our heads above water even in the worst of storms.

The artwork posted here is my first finished piece for 2018. It came from an idea given to me by someone who saw my artwork on line. She envisioned a woman drowning, yet drowning in her own tears, and those “waters” were things like shame, abuse, depression, etc.; above her was a hand coming down, “Hope”, just out of reach. I took that idea and put my own spin on some things. Overall, the image is more melodramatic than I prefer, but that in and of itself is not a bad thing – Sometimes we need images to point directly to our internal battles. Artists can get a little too cute with making things obscure and I have certainly been guilty of that.

Hope soars down in the form of an eagle, a symbol of the Divine. To me, that can be God and/or the Image of God in all of us.

Ultimately, I have the hope that an image like this helps you see that there is always Hope. It is tenacious – strong, resilient – and so are you.

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously Day 357: At Home

 

Self portrait on color diffusing paper, pen and ink and markers

Ronald Kok, Self portrait on color diffusing paper, pen and markers, 2017

There is very little of the “Christmas Spirit” in this but a whole lot of real.  The season can amplify the battle each of us fights inside. I wrote a psalm about that battle, and the one who won’t leave me in spite of it all, a couple of days ago. Here it is:

At Home

 

Homeless at home in my heart

 

Stubbornly throwing buckets of Hope

On my hopelessness

 

I can’t seem to shake you

 

No matter how far I drift

In the current

 

Dragged along with the weight

Of failures

Regrets

Anger

 

This dark country closes in,

Suffocates me

 

My days are sometimes filled with

Night

 

Nights filled with pain,

Restlessly resting

 

I wonder if I’m fading,

Maybe disappearing

 

A shallow shell that once seemed full

 

Dreams no longer exist even

In dreams

 

My heart punctured, lacerated,

Beat up

 

I want to let go

 

I want you to let go

 

But you won’t

 

Dammit, you won’t

 

A dark heart doesn’t put you off

 

Embracer of failures,

Wrecks

And fools

You put flesh on bleached bones

 

Warmth washing over the icy gaze

 

Hope

 

How is it possible?

 

How can you be Hope

Always

Undefeated

 

You are ignored but

Never offended

 

You are treated like shit

But never despair

 

Despair looks like a tin shack

 

Next to your skyscraper of

Hope

 

You could dwell there,

It’s a perfect fit for you

 

But instead you bed down in squalor

 

At home in my heart

 

-Ronald Kok

December 20, 2017

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 1: Marley & Me

bob-marley

“The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?” 

Bob Marley is an iconic figure in history. His music and image are well known all over the world. What is not as well known is that on December 3, 1976, someone tried to rip him open with bullets and take his life.

It was just a couple of  days before the “Smile Jamaica” concert, organized by the Jamaican Prime Minister, Michael Manley, in an attempt to bring peace between warring political factions. Some saw Marley’s decision to play in this concert as support for Manley. In the midst of these tensions, a gunman entered Marley’s home and shot him, his wife Rita, and manager Don Taylor. All survived but sustained injuries, Marley to the chest and arm. Nevertheless, just two days later, as scheduled, he appeared on stage with the Wailers to sing and play. When asked why he would choose to perform just two days after an attempt on his life, Marley responded, “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?”

As I reflect back on 2016 on this first day of 2017, the lasting impression is of a year that cast a dark, dark shadow. It was a tumultuous 365 that contained tragedies like Aleppo and tragi-comedies like the US Presidential election. Racists were emboldened to go public, hatred in speech and action was rampant, innocents suffered for others’ political ends, and images of destroyed cities, thousands of refugees and dead children threatened to make us all despair. There was good in 2016, of course, but the bad seemed to outweigh it so much as to crush the life out of it and us.

How to move forward after all of that? It is easy to retreat into our fantasy lands, our distractions and our devices; easy to bury our heads in screens and a virtual reality of our own making. This is especially true for us in the privileged parts of the world, where bombings, death squads, starvation and disease are part of the plot to our favorite Netflix show, not part of our daily lives.

But retreat is cowardice. Retreat is giving in to those who are trying their hardest to make this world worse.

I am an artist, a creative person. I don’t say this in a boastful way. It is simply who I am. I draw, I paint, I sing, I write – creating for me is essential to keeping me from going dead inside. I associate with other creative people, from the local painter toiling in obscurity to the iconic Reggae singer known worldwide. I understand the drive and I understand the risk. Artists can only be truly creative if they are vulnerable. Artists are meant to put themselves out there, on display, warts and all: Open to criticism and disdain, praise and adoration or , worst of all, being ignored.

Creating art and putting it out there is like exposing a wound: It’s painful, it stings but it could possibly bring healing. Artists go against human nature, against the evolutionary grain of self-protection, self-preservation. They play the role of standing in the breach, naked to enemy fire and friendly fire alike, with the possibilities of complete failure or eternal glory hanging in the balance.

Bob Marley knew this. He knew that artists are always in conflict, either with themselves or with the world around them. He put himself out there, exposed. It was where he needed to be and had to be. As someone who created music that gave life and hope, he felt a responsibility to keep on creating no matter how fear and self-preservation may have gripped him.

Pondering this event and considering an artist’s response to the darkness, the void that threatens to suck all the light from the world, I was deeply challenged and greatly inspired. I could not give in to the brutality and banality that was dragging me down. I am an artist and I have a responsibility to respond creatively, hopefully, compassionately. .

To that end I have decided, first of all, to post to this blog each day for the entirety of 2017 – 365 days of Creating Dangerously. What I hope to do is post things about or from artists that inspire me and challenge me to truly live my life. And I hope to also share with you my creativity, my artwork, my words, to give you inspiration and challenge you in your lives. Second of all, I plan on creating a series of paintings this year, with the goal of one per month (or more!). These paintings will be of the artists who have shaped who I am and who I admire, not because they were perfect, but because they were courageous and took risks; because they fought to beat back the darkness and bring light.

On December 30, 2016 I completed the first painting in my series which I share below:

punk-rock-warlord-joe-strummer-vs-the-void

Punk Rock Warlord (Joe Strummer Vs The Void) Ron Kok December 2016 Acrylic on canvas

Joe Strummer was the front man and main songwriter of the legendary British punk band the Clash. But he was so much more than a “rock star”. Joe was as flawed as the next human being but was also deeply passionate about people, about truth and justice, and about being a champion for good in a often nasty world. His desire to connect with people, to demolish the barrier between performer and audience, to empower other artists to find their voice, to keep kicking at the darkness until it bled daylight (to borrow a Bruce Cockburn lyric) has been a continual source of inspiration for me in my life. He was an artist who understood that to make a significant impact, you had to put yourself out there to be spit on (which happened to him quite literally) or loved or both. I guess it’s the vulnerability of someone who half-jokingly referred to himself as a Punk Rock Warlord that I have always admired most.

Joe seemed like a great place for me to start in my Year of Creating Dangerously. I hope you can come along with me for the ride. I want to do my part to be proactive and creative in 2017. I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and bitch and cry. I want to take on the world in the way that I am wired: As an artist. And I want to inspire you and give you hope. I really do. If just one person can be moved to do what is right and good despite all the ugliness around them, I will know that it was all worth it.

I don’t want to take a day off. This fight is too important. Let’s rise above, friends, and give love, embrace hope, spread peace, and speak truth.

Jesus: The Yes Man

crucifixion

As a Christian on Good Friday, I can’t help but consider this day and its events, its impact on history, its resonance despite the distance of almost 2,000 years. The fact is that the day wouldn’t hold such prominence if not centered on one man; a man whose life and death transcends easy categories.

Jesus is so many things to so many people but to me on this day I remember the man who battled the religious and died with terrorists.

His most heated debates, his harshest words, his greatest rebukes were directed at those who loved God and sought to worship Him with all their heart, mind and strength. They were believers living under the rule of an unbelieving Empire and they fought desperately to maintain their sense of right and wrong, their faithfulness to the Bible, their calling to represent their God in an increasingly wicked world. It is easy to cast these characters of the Gospels as villains; but that would be forgetting that they were very sincere in their desire for the wholeness of their faith. They believed that it was crucially important to guide their fellow Jews along a true path. They saw Jesus as a threat, one who would undermine this goal. Increasingly they saw the man of Nazareth as a religious rebel, a “blasphemer” who was sullying the name of God and tearing down all the distinctiveness of Judaism and therefore dragging the faith into the mud. For people who saw themselves as defenders of their beliefs, Jesus became an adversary that had to be dealt with before he dragged more people down to his irreligious level.

An honest reading of the Gospels makes it much easier to understand their perspective, especially if you are a believer and put yourself in their shoes as you read. Jesus seems to go out of his way to pick fights with the upright of his day. He recasts the Law time and again, putting his own spin on things, telling people “this is what you’ve been taught for hundreds of years but I say this“. The seeming arrogance of his statements, the casualness of his apostasy, would have rankled so many of his fellow Jews; particularly those who felt the pressure to live true to their faith in the midst of a world that was dominated by the non-believing, the godless and the secular.

Jesus invited the presence and the influence of the non-believing, the godless and the secular. He didn’t live as if there was an ever-increasing gap between those who believed and those who did not. In fact, he lived as if that gap didn’t exist, as if the warfare that waged between the faithful and the wicked did not influence his goals or his mission. In other words, he doesn’t seem at all motivated by the factors that motivated his Jewish peers. His agenda was not their agenda. Their fears did not play a role in his mind, words or actions. Unlike the religious, he boldly stepped into the breach. He brought hope instead of fear; love instead of law; he said “Yes” virtually everywhere they said “No”.

And, yes, he did die with terrorists. The Gospels record the fact that he was crucified between two criminals, often called “thieves” in a traditional recounting of Good Friday. However, it is highly unlikely the Roman authorities would resort to their harshest form of execution over a couple of common thieves. It is much more likely that these two men were insurrectionists, Zealots: Jewish men who felt so strongly about their people, their nation, their faith that they were willing to kill and to die for the cause. To them the evil Empire that dominated their land and lives needed to be directly opposed and attacked. Their crime was probably killing Romans or others they saw in league with the Empire. Therefore, the two men crucified with Jesus were, in the eyes of the Romans, terrorists; those who would use fear, violence, intimidation as a means to their end.

The Gospel of Luke tells the simple but profound account involving these two terrorists on either side of Jesus. In Luke’s account, one of the men joins in with those who came to the cross to mock Jesus, to rub salt into his wounds. It is really not a surprise that this man would do so, especially if he was a hyper-committed Zealot. Jesus had spoken and acted like he was the Messiah but had failed miserably to live up to that promise. To this criminal on the cross he was just a pathetic poser with delusions of grandeur. Even as his own death was imminent, this terrorist would feel anger and resentment towards Jesus, someone who was undeserving of a martyr’s death.

But the second criminal, instead of sinking deeper into the void of bitterness, seems to gain insight as he sees the specter of death approaching. He rebukes his fellow terrorist for his harsh words directed at Jesus saying, “We are getting what we deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” And then, in one of the most heart-wrenching and direct statements recorded in scripture, he turns to the young rabbi hanging next to him and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Did he understand at that moment the deeper implications of the death of Jesus? Or was he professing a faith that no matter what transpired that day, this man crucified next to him must be the Messiah; he had to be, he could be no one else? Whatever was the motivation, a man who likely killed out of his fierce ideology was now proclaiming faith out of the glimmer of hope his soul still clung to.

Jesus rewards this gasped confession of faith with the powerful words, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

These words of Jesus, as his own life was ebbing away, is just another example of the fact that, time and time again, when he was faced with an opportunity to respond to those around him, he says “Yes”. Jesus never turned someone away and he always saw a movement towards him as a movement towards truth, towards good, towards what God had in mind in that moment. And he approached each of these moments without fear, without a judgment based on the moral character or background of the people before him. He showed us over and over that when given the chance to do so, he was a Yes Man.

I am pondering this on Good Friday at a time when there is firestorm of debate on social media surrounding the recent events in Indiana. From one side of the story it is a triumphant expression of religious freedom; on the other side it is a cloaked and dangerous form of discrimination. I am in no position to take any one of these sides as I am simply not informed enough. However, as a Christian, I am saddened that non-believers automatically associate the discrimination, the negativity, the exclusion, with followers of the same Jesus I have been writing about here. To those outside the faith so often we are people who, when confronted with the opportunity to engage with the world the way Jesus did, give a loud and undeniable “NO”. As people who believe and follow a man who did not act out of fear, we continually and repeatedly rely on fear as our “fall back” position.

This disturbs me on this Good Friday. As I see it, Jesus died to free us from sin, to give us forgiveness and eternal life. His resurrection on Easter seals the deal. It is God’s great act of restoration and healing for us and all Creation. We can make the theological proclamations and re-affirm this belief. But in day-to-day living what does it mean? Ultimately I believe it means that we are meant to live and engage in our world the way Jesus did, without fear, without our actions being tainted by our mistaken notion that we are “defenders of the faith”. We get so caught up in the wickedness of the world, in our concern that religious freedoms will be stripped away, that a godlessness will descend on our lives that we miss the moments, over and over and over again, to display to our world the powerful example of Gospel grace and truth, love and mercy, openness and engagement without fear.

We are meant to embody hope to people who so desperately need it. Our world is full of sadness. We are not meant to make life more of a struggle to a people stumbling around in darkness. We are meant, like Jesus, to shine; to take those moments offered to us, when our world needs a word of love amid its gasps of pain, to speak and act as our Lord did. Perhaps this was one reason Jesus was so critical of the religiously upright of his time. He saw their attempts at preserving a pure faith as laying heavier and heavier burdens on people who were already feeling crushed. He reacted to their expressions of fear of their world by throwing it back in their faces, confronting them with the actual God they thought they knew and understood.

I’m not sure what it means to you to follow Jesus. But to me it means that every time I am presented with an opportunity to be Jesus in someone’s life, I want to say “Yes”; recognizing that these opportunities will often come with a heavy dose of challenge to my values, my belief system, my understanding of what is right and wrong. Because it is not my job to make sure everyone lives in accordance to the will of God. It is my job to do the will of God, period. And the will of God has never been more powerfully on display than in the life of the one I follow: Jesus.

On this Good Friday, I ask God to grant me the strength to be a Yes Man to my world. To be present and real and a source of hope; to not live my faith out of fear but out of joy; to act and speak from a place of trust in my God and love for all. In other words, I ask God for the strength to be more and more like Jesus.

A happy and hopeful Easter to you all.