“So even the creative work of one person depends on others to make it what it is. But each of us is commissioned by God to create in multiple domains of life.” Curt Thompson, M.D.

What does it look like for an artist to follow Jesus? To date, I am a homeschooling mother of three young boys: ages 3, 6, and 9. I became involved in United Adoration after we held a retreat at my church and during COVID-19 was invited into a pilot experiment as the movement transitioned to online ministry. The relationships I developed with UA gave me opportunities, training, and encouragement to engage in long-lost gifts I had left behind and friends who listened to my story with empathy and compassion, kindly cutting through to my beliefs that were holding me in stasis. As I grew in confidence and shed the lies I was believing, I began to sense a need for training. At some point in my journey as a church musician, I had become disillusioned with the Bible and prayer. But I met women who knew the Word, and I began to believe that I could know it, too. I researched two programs and applied to a Masters in Worship Studies program that fit with my lifestyle. Amidst great odds, I will officially graduate in a month.

So many good things have happened in my life in the past two years. I’ve spent more quality time with my children, sought deeper healing, and grown closer to my husband and friends. Through IWS, I met people all over the world. I serve at a local church as a singer-songwriter for Family Bible School, healing services, Bible studies, and random diocesan events. But as I sit here waiting for graduation to arrive, I have no idea what’s next. What happens after graduation? Will I finally get to travel? Record an album? Write professionally? Or will life simply go back to the way it was? And when I pray, all I hear is “Wait.”

I sat outside at a patio table expressing these emotions and questions to a fellow homeschooling mom. She asked me, “What do you do while you’re waiting?” I thought about the disciples as they waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit. During the forty days after Jesus’ resurrection that he spent with his followers, he told them clearly to wait. “Do not leave Jerusalem but wait for the gift my Father promised” (Acts 1:4). The Bible gives little detail about what the disciples did between Ascension and Pentecost. All we know for sure is that they did, in fact, wait and that while they waited, they prayed (Acts 1:14). But as I sat with this other mother, pondering the waiting season, we imagined they might have been doing the mundane tasks of ordinary life: laundry, dishes, Scripture study, running the family business. They couldn’t control when the Holy Spirit would come, and I very much doubt they could have fully conceived of the promise when it was told to them. But they trusted Jesus. They stayed in Jerusalem. And waited.

The Israelites’ journey from Egypt to Canaan is a similar waiting season. If you look at a map of their journey, it is not a straight line: it is a winding path from Egypt to Canaan as they follow the pillar of cloud. And sometimes, the cloud stops.

If we examine the path with left-brain logic, it doesn’t seem to make sense. Why would Yahweh lead the nation through such a twisting, indirect route? Why not take the shorter path? But the wilderness is not simply a path between two points for the Israelites, but a liminal space. Liminal comes from the Latin word limen meaning “threshold” — a space between spaces — and so, the wilderness is a journey of the nation of Israel leaving the pain and trauma of Egypt behind them and integrating their story with God’s story. It is in the wilderness that they meet Yahweh’s holy presence in the beauty of tabernacle worship and depend on the Lord to provide for their physical needs of food and water. In the process, they find the healing and restoration from the living water they have needed all along. As they join Yahweh in his work of constructing the tabernacle, they learn what it means to worship God (Exodus 35:30-35). They transform, as a nation, from people who look to their leaders for answers to people who look to God.

I sang a song at the last healing service that was an honest cry from my heart two years ago as God led me into a wilderness season of learning to trust and obey him.

If you heal the broken pieces of my soul
Who would I become? Where might I go?
If you lead me to the water, will I run?
Will I hide my face? Or will I follow?

I remember the morning I penned those words. The melody flowed from my heart as I wrestled with my emotions. Like the Israelites, I struggle to trust God. I want to follow Jesus with the boldness of Paul, but I forget about the three-year period of transformation that came before he began his ministry (Galatians 1:18). The song continues with a chorus:

Lead me to the water,
may I thirst no more;
heal my heart, Lord:
bring healing to my soul.

As the woman at the well learned (John 4), it is only the living water that Christ offers that will satisfy our longing to be noticed, to be loved, to be known.

I often think of the Israelites in Exodus as people with trauma who are in recovery. The wilderness is their journey of healing from being enslaved by the Egyptians. Framed this way, I can see the emotions of trauma victims found in the desert narrative. If I imagine their slave drivers as unpredictable parents, perhaps the insecurity, anxiety, and trouble with trust the Israelites have with God is because their past trauma lives on in their bodies. With each challenge (an army coming, no food, no water, bitter water), they appear to be chronically anxious, forgetting the miracles of the past and jumping to the worst conclusion: “We’re going to die!”

Reading these stories, I wonder if the Israelites knew how to grieve well. Trauma theorist Peter A. Levine says, “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.” Their bodies respond to each hurdle with anxiety, fear, and misdirected complaints. Have they taken time to feel the loss of Egypt? The sting of betrayal? The sweat of the journey? Writing about beauty, trauma, and community in The Soul of Desire, neuroscientist Curt Thompson says, “When we bury our grief instead of offering it to one another, the result is like a bacterial infection.” Bitterness can spread like an infection, poisoning a community. So where does our pain go? Healing prayer? Therapist?

The Jewish answer is to stand together in worship. We lament with the refugees, grieving the loss of life and displacement of families. We sing a childhood favorite hymn for the parishioner ailing from dementia. We write songs, poetry, stories, and make art at spiritual retreats. As Curt Thompson says, “No one heals in isolation.”

The goal of evil is to kill our imagination, steal our hope, and destroy our trust in each other so that we doubt that community can ever be safe again or that God really does love us. But the truth is that God created our imaginations to be fed by the Word; that he is the author of hope; and he created us with an innate desire for beauty and community. So how can the church, and specifically artists, come alongside those in need of healing? Thompson offers the ancient art of storytelling:

For victims of emotional trauma, their traumatic experience doesn’t just shatter their memory of the past; it atrophies their ability to imagine a future that is anything but harrowing. And so they don’t. At least not without the embodied assistance of a cloud of witnesses whose words and presence support them in that process. (p. 115)

Artists are storytellers. We come alongside the work of justice in our world, helping to make the unseen seen in essays, songs, poetry, images, film, and fashion. And when we stand in worship, we can offer testimonies of healing, declaring that the Holy Spirit is indeed living and active, and that he still heals today. My healing began in creative communities with encouragement, Bible study, and spiritual retreats with other artists who told me, “Your gifts matter: the church needs your art.” To follow Jesus is always a communal endeavor. We can’t do it on our own. Underneath the song lyrics in my iPhone note, I wrote:

The shame of trauma can cut us off from community. The shame of our perceived failure   and fear of being hurt again forces us into hiding. We become afraid to risk, to disagree, to reveal our true selves. The fear of rejection can hold us in stasis. Do we dare leave our protected corner of the world? But the voice of God calls us forth out of our protective cocoons. His living water washes over our wounds, cleansing our hearts and making them new. I think of the art of kintsugi, where gold flows into our cracks and           makes us stronger.

I remember singing the song to a friend in Thomasville. Sometimes when she prays, poetry will pour out of her mouth with words from the Lord. I sang her the first verse and chorus. She sang in reply with words that I knew must have come from the Lord because she was singing about my inner doubts and fears and encouraging me to trust in the Lord’s path for me. I took the words she gave me to my husband Henry, who helped me craft them into the Lord’s reply in verses two and three:

When I said to follow, you were so afraid
Doubt was in your heart, kept you from trusting
But I call you to a path my feet have made,
I’ve walked this road, and I will guide you.

Trust not in your understanding or your strength
I’m refining you, I write your story
For these broken pieces, I will join with gold,
I will make you new, filled with my glory.

Like the Israelites, I am a broken, wounded traveler. I can experience fear, anxiety, depression, PTSD triggers, and grief on my wilderness journey. Like Israel at Marah, I can find myself at a breaking point (Exodus 15:22-27). But I wonder if this story, and that of the tabernacle’s construction later in Exodus, can help us imagine God’s vision for creativity and healing in community. At Marah, the Israelites have been traveling for three days without water, only to discover the water at Marah is bitter and unfit to drink. Moses intercedes to God on their behalf, and the Lord shows him a piece of wood, which he throws into the water. Here, we see God as a creative healer. Later, as the tabernacle is being constructed, the nation is building beauty in the desert, bringing their gifts as their hearts are moved by the Lord (Exodus 35:21-22). The tabernacle, which is a metaphor for the church and comes after the law was delivered at Mt. Sinai, is a vision of a community’s healing as they embody the Word, building the dwelling place of God according to his designs.

Moses is a servant of the Lord, coming alongside Yahweh’s plans for Israel. Or as Chuck DeGroat imagines him in Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places, he is a midwife to the nation’s transformation and rebirth in the wilderness. When I read this story recently, I was struck by the symbolism of wood and thought of the cross of Christ. Jesus came to save us from sin; this we know from childhood. But sometimes, we forget that he also came to heal us. He came to heal the broken in heart and set the prisoners free (Luke 4:18-19), for he is the Lord who forgives all of our sins and heals all of our diseases, offering us redemption, love, and compassion. Like the living water offered to the woman at the well, in our union with the Holy Spirit, our inner wounds are transformed into a thirst for the Lord (Psalm 103:2-5). The path to healing is hinted at in the story of Marah, as Yahweh declares that if they will listen carefully and be obedient to his command, he will protect them from the diseases and afflictions that the Egyptians suffered, for it is in his character to heal. But learning to follow Jesus and break away from our own addictions and thought patterns is a messy process of healing as the Holy Spirit fills our cracks and crevices with his glory. And we can’t do it alone. We need midwives like Moses to help us bring our grief and pain to the Great Physician himself, the one who heals us (Exodus 15:26).

I have dreamed of being a traveling artist/missionary since I was 18. I want to travel the world as a worship leader, artist/missionary, record original music, write books and Bible studies, lead worship healing services, and plant artist communities around the world. I want to celebrate other artists and encourage them to create for the Lord’s glory.

But for now, I wait.

I paint the dining room, streamline the book collection, attend my monthly songwriters’ meetings, make plans with friends, write essays, plant a garden, and pray. I ask the Holy Spirit to fill the holes in my heart and refine those places of pain that still live in my body and soul from childhood trauma and relational wounds. With his love and peace, I trust the Lord will bring my healing to completion in his time so that like St. Paul, I might be a living testimony of the Lord’s transformation in my life, Daily, I must lay down my ideas of success and seek to obey the Lord, rest, and let the Spirit do his work.

Catherine Miller, writer
Alex Perez, photographer, Unsplash

3 Responses

  1. You mention that it’s a mystery why God led the Israelites to wander in the wilderness so long. I think Deuteronomy 1: 26-36 gives us a pretty clear picture of a big chunk of God’s thinking on this matter.

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