stray marks

I’ve just finished watching the inaugural, with its delusions and dog whistles, plus blatant calls for a right-wing-jesus kind of country. We are wading into something deep, the gravity of which we may not yet fully realize. The ramp up to this moment has been challenging for many, many of us.

In my office, there is a print of a painting done by Stephanie Bell Burke, an artist from North Carolina. Stephanie and I grew up in the same church in South Carolina, and have known each other about all our lives.

The painting is Einstein, the creative genius. I like it for a number of reasons. One, because I like creative geniuses. Also because in the painting, Einstein’s skin looks a little less white than usual, so this particular Einstein becomes a reminder that genius isn’t the bailiwick of just one bunch of folks. Third, because it is a little abstract, it engages me just a little differently each time I look at it; sure, in part it depends on my mood, but it also is about light and color and season and who knows what else.

einstein-by-burke-smToday, as we feel the sense of heaviness, a pall blanketing so much of our nation, here’s what I notice about the painting today: it is in many ways just a bunch of stray marks.

The field is the paper itself, which, in Stephanie’s artistry, becomes part of the image. It means all the other stuff gives shape and meaning to what’s really going on underneath. Art is as much about the “space between” as it is about the colors and images we add; then, the images we add do something to the field. I can draw squiggles; I’ve done that since I was a small child. But putting the squiggles together in a way that communicates something, in a way that changes what is true, that is the work of artists and poets.

It is also the work of activists, world-changers. Stray marks add up to something. Something Genius.

The word on a lot of minds this week is “resistance.” As our nation moves into a new chapter, with perhaps less confidence and stability than in previous transitions, we fear the promises this president has made, we fear the precedents he is setting, we fear the no-holds-barred approach the 117th Congress is adopting. Resistance is the order of the day for people of faith – resistance to those people and policies that would denigrate women, immigrants and refugees, gay and transgender men and women, people of color, people who are not Christian, people of lesser economic means. Resistance to the escalation of capitalism and corporatocracy, which are already eating us alive, and which are so inconsistent with biblical commands. Resistance is the word.

But if resistance is the call, then “how?” is the question. We are people of varied skills and gifts and ideas and interests; getting us all on the same page is tricky. Plus, we might say, we are a small church, or we just live in Flint, not at all near the seats of power, or we have little time. How are we to work together, or feel like our contributions matter?

And I look at Stephanie’s Einstein. A bunch of stray marks that come together to form powerful art. And even the background itself that becomes part of the image, not merely a canvas but part of the portrait.

This week, I’m taking my highest hope from the idea that we are the stray marks. What we do adds up to something, even if it seems small or remote. We have power to become the promising vision that the prophets told. We, together, are the artistry of the Creator. Genius.

(This essay is adapted mildly from my church newsletter this week. Stephanie Bell Burke’s work is hers alone, and I am thankful for permission to republish her image here. You can find more of her work available for purchase at

About Deb Conrad
I’m Deb Conrad, pastor, teacher, photographer, writer, antique-lover, cat-mom, wine-drinker and old-house-seeker. I have a bike by Burley and knees by Stryker. I play guitar marginally, bowl when I can. I live in Flint, Michigan, with previous lives in SC, NJ, PA, MD, Washington DC, TX, CA and KY. I founded and still help run UrbanSpirit, a poverty education center in Louisville (link below), where I meet interesting people and try to do what I can to change the world. I'm pastor of Woodside Church in Flint, a groovy place if ever there was one.

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