Why We Eat Dessert First. Thailand ’16 #1.

Why We Eat Dessert First: Hope breeding Intent at the crossroads of The Arts and Mission

Megan and I are invited to attend a conference for a week as members of the arts team, providing music and visual art for a group of missionaries in February. We now have tickets for Thailand, and my assignment (as I understand it today) is to write about my observations as missionaries encounter artists and their arts, and as the artists encounter missionaries and interact with their lives.

The first question that naturally comes to my mind is “what do artists and missionaries have in common?”

The writer of the first letter to the church at Corinth famously noted that, of the three great spiritual gifts (I call them this because the writer of this letter does not differentiate them from gifts in the previous chapter), or what theologians have termed “graces” or “fruits” from God – faith, hope and love – love remains as the greatest (1 Cor. 13:13).

I find the silver medalist, Hope (anticipation of good outcomes), to be more accessible than its companions. Each of the three strike a sort of musical chord. We have strong emotional connections at a heart level, yet we recognize both an intellectual harmonic or overtone and a mystical bass note which throbs through our soul and transcends even our emotion. The word ‘throb’ implies a rhythm as well. In other words, at the top of the chord we can think about these things, and in the center we feel them, but at the bottom they explore things in nature beyond expression, a bass note and a driving rhythm.

Like a chord, they all have potential to move us when they’re well-tuned. A dance is created, and this means we’ve been spurred to action.

As I mentioned, I find the chord struck by Hope to be the most accessible in terms of how easy they are to discuss or understand. I don’t say that this means the mystical bass note of Hope is any less complex, because it isn’t. That brings me to a different metaphor. If faith, hope and love were wines, we might say that Hope is the dessert wine, adding a sweetness, faith the more complex wine which pairs with the main course (the works), and love, well, even “outside the Work” (hors d’oeuvre) love is essential. We must have love from the very beginning, love is the hors d’oeuvre; and love is the alpha and omega. We must have faith, without which our works are dead, but Hope satisfies our sweet tooth. I may want chili one day and salmon the next, (my works change as life is lived) but I always like to have a bit of chocolate around to finish with.

And yet we have a rather popular saying: “eat dessert first, life is uncertain.”

In the face of uncertainty, indeed, we do need some hope to bring us to the main course of faith. In this sense, I believe that hope is the breeding ground for intent. “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief” is not a statement of faith, it’s a statement of hope: I hope (anticipate) that I can have faith, that you can help me. Where hope gives intent, faith gives action, and love produces fruit. I will say this several times so that we don’t forget the gold medalist in all of this.

For both the artist and the missionary, the uncertainty of life brings us to a decision to eat dessert first. One might say that the concept of retirement is a bit like eating dessert last: you have an assumption that you’ll be around to do the things you enjoy after completing the stuff that’s expected. You clean your plate, then you get a treat.

The artists and missionaries who I know never seem to live that way. They follow the passion of their hearts first. They pass through some financial difficulties that others don’t experience because of this passion (sometimes necessarily and other times unnecessarily) because they’ve chosen to pursue something delicious first.

They break a bottle of embalming perfume before death has taken their Lord. “Responsible” people criticize them, but their hope brings them to intent, their intent drives them to action (work), and they make something of the moment they have.

The reason hope is so easy to understand (in comparison to the other two) is that it’s perhaps easiest to connect with hope’s opposite: Despair.

Few things are as powerfully carnal (even to our souls) as Despair is. The problems generated by lack of faith, fear, and apathy can be turned aside by hope. The problems missionaries encounter, and artists as well, is that in their work environments, isolation and the very difficult and real challenge of communicating complex ideas across cultural barriers leads one very easily to lack of faith and even apathy. “If people don’t even want to hear what I’m trying to tell them, well, who cares, anyway? So what?” This leads to burnout, which is a function of despair. If hope breeds intent and faith and work, despair breeds burnout.

Artists and missionaries both, therefore, need regular injections of hope. They’ve chosen a lifestyle that goes after the sweetest thing they can imagine first, eschewing stability in the process, and hope drives everything. For a missionary or an artist, hope is the gasoline, faith is the pistons and the drive shaft, love is the wheels.

Ask a missionary who’s kept a beater running for ten years. Last year I drove around Chiang Mai with a guy whose car was so old it was like … it was old. It defied metaphor; it defined clichés about oldness. He’d bought it for $600 or so from another missionary who was leaving town. It’s amazing how many missionaries can keep their cars moving forward, a spare part here, duct tape there, as long as they have gasoline.

I think a missionary’s life is like that. Give them hope, and they’ll patch together the faith to work and love to bear fruit as they go. It may not be pretty, but without hope, they’re standing on the side of the road like the blind man in the song, singing “show me the way to go home” and that statement in itself is a final statement of hope.

Artists have similar dreams for society. They hope that people will see the world differently. They wonder at times (or often) whether their work will make a difference. They grapple with faith in what God has given them. Consider the prophetic art of Elijah, who had a great big installation project entered into an important competition (The First Book of Kings, Chapter 18) and his results stunned everyone. Afterwards, he had faith enough for rain, but when a small portion of his audience (Jezebel) was displeased with his art, (not even fair to say she’s part of the audience because she didn’t attend, like a critic who talks about an installation they didn’t bother to see) he spun into a tailspin of despair (chapter 19) and was ready to end his own life. Biggest success to date, followed by suicidal thoughts, a sense of complete isolation. What’s going on here? Despair. Finally God reminds him there are plenty of connections left and sends him back to work (at least long enough to anoint his replacement, because, God knows, he’s burned out for good; Elijah has fought the good fight, and given everything he has). Had Elijah used up all his hope? Or did he operate primarily on faith and miss large chunks of both hope and love? Possibly. After all, he was human.

When we function with hope, it breeds intent. The question of “what is art” is a deeply involved philosophical question which I don’t intend to address in full here (or perhaps ever) but one critical aspect of artwork is that it is a product of some sort of intentional working out of a problem or puzzle that often times the artist has created for themselves.

It means finding a way to say something, to address an issue in society, in a fresh way, and that takes intent.

Much of writer’s block can be said to stem, then, from a lack of hope. Intent-crushing despair. Such despairing statements as “nobody will publish this book anyway” or “nobody reads this blog anyway” or “nobody understands me” will kill hope. These will frustrate the working out of the puzzle; while the statement “I will make myself understood” is a statement of not only of faith, but primarily of hope, for we feel that if we are understood, someone may also come to a life-changing conclusion. Once we’ve made that statement, we have voiced an intent to do it. What we speak with intent is what we do. And this is the crux of the work of a missionary as well, the attempt to communicate something to people who’ve never seen life a certain way before, with intent born of hope to faithfully work towards world-change.

Hope breeds intent. Intent breeds work, which breeds faith. Or, faith breeds work, these two are symbiotic. Love, a fruit of the Spirit, transcends the others, and produces the fruit from the others.