by Cathy Abbott, Arlington District Superintendent, Virginia Conference, United Methodist Church
Several years into my first appointment, one of my lay leaders said to me: “This church is just so discouraged. All we can think about is all the things we are NOT: not growing, not vital, not large, not this, not that.” Wow, I thought, this is a church filled with anxiety and fear.
Right after Annual Conference, I took a week-long class on icon-making at Wesley Theological Seminary. I had dreamed for weeks about how wonderful it would be—imagining the peace and joy of making an image of Jesus. The class was taught by Philip Davydov, a really talented Russian who makes icons for a living. What could be better?
On the first day, a Monday, Philip moved us very quickly from making sketches of the human face (see below for my rather pathetic first attempt) to “drawing” with a large paint brush. Philip would come around the room, looking at each of our efforts. He’d stop by my place regularly and ask, “Do you need some help?” And he’d make improvements on my work—until I hit the next step and stumbled (once again). I felt like everyone else in the class was “getting it” and I was failing. I was aware of all of the things I was not: not good at drawing, not good with paints, not good with fine motor skills. I seriously thought about quitting the class.
I began Tuesday with prayer, “Lord, may I not be afraid of failure or jealous of other people’s gifts. May I simply offer up all that I have, all that I am for your use.” Philip encouraged us to avoid thinking about our skill (was he reading my mind?) or about demonstrating our artistic gifts, but rather to focus solely on bringing a message about Jesus. What were we trying to say about God? He urged us to approach the work reverently, humbly, with discipline and focus! We worked in silence. I continued to pray. “Lord, let me forget about myself, and my need to demonstrate competence. Let this image be all about you. May it show my devotion to you, Lord!”
The week was not the peaceful retreat I had dreamed about; it was not what I hoped for. But it was exactly what I needed. Like Jacob at the River Jabbok, I wrestled with God (all week long). And indeed, this is exactly what contemplating icons is supposed to do: bring us to a transforming encounter with the living God! I alternated between elation as the image slowly emerged, and frustration at my sense of inadequacy. While I appreciated the teacher’s (frequent) help, I also wanted (fiercely) to “do it myself!”
And I thought, what if the churches in the District were less anxious—less fearful of all the things they are not? What if we (together) were to focus all of our efforts and attention on pouring ourselves out in praise and thanksgiving to Jesus? What if we were to open the hearts of our churches and people to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit? Because the truth is, we never revitalize churches under our own power or through our own gifts. But what we CAN do is make all of our gifts, all of our skills, all of our energies available to the living God, who will transform us into the very image of the “body of Christ.”