Thursday, November 16, 2006

Michelangelo, the David, and God's Chipping Away


The story goes like this. An admirer asked Michelangelo how he sculpted the famous statue of David that now sits in the Accademia Gallery in Florence. How did he craft this masterpiece of form and beauty? Michelangelo’s offered this strikingly simple description: He first fixed his attention on the slab of raw marble. He studied it and then “chipped away all that wasn’t David.”

A precision of vision. He worked undistracted by all the extra material, peering through the unformed shape into what the figure it could become. Michelangelo knew David—his age, how he was positioned, the shape of his torso, and that beautiful curved left arm just below his chin. Through the amorphous mass of rock, a clear form sparkled in his imagination. The marble would only need chipping away. And so, gradually, tap by tap, David—or the Pi├Ęta, or Moses—emerged. The glory of Michelangelo’s sculpting was that he could see through the raw material, through all the chipping away, to its ultimate destiny. He created these beautiful forms through what he removed, through what he negated. Put simply, he created through what I've called the Power of No.

We, on the other hand, are often not good at chipping away. We don’t tap away and reduce to craft what’s essence and crucial, but we add. Why? We live surrounded by a culture of almost countless possibilities. Paralyzed by choice, we can’t decide what to cut out. To commit means to say No to the overwhelming majority of these alluring possibilities. The options mock the hint of limits, and setting boundaries comes across as mere suggestions. Think of the World Wide Web with its four billion sites. Or the dozen or so types of Crest toothpaste. Remember when there were just the three channels of network TV. Now cable tenders hundreds of alternatives. Consider that it used to be coffee, black or with some combo of milk and sugar. Now you can order a two-percent decaf grande mocha, with or without “whipped.”

Our inability to choose has made us a nation of schedule obesity. Our bodies are overfull. And so too our schedules. They’re bursting with more than enough good things. We suffer from schedule obesity and goal obesity. Too many goals, too little time. It’s time for a steady diet of No.

It’s a struggle, and I know it. To maintain a healthy diet of No challenges me daily. I can be dazzled by all the glittering models for success that our culture parades before me. I intend to live for what really matters for me, but I fail. And so I want to move beyond good intentions to realizing all I can be. I want to succeed at what’s really important because, when I’m doing things with excellence, I find happiness. And I figure my Creator knows what that can look like, that God, the supreme Artist, sees our lives as works of art. And this is true artistry since we’re not simply blocks of marble for God to sculpt. Vincent Van Gogh once wrote his brother, Theo, about God’s amazing skill. “Christ… is more of an artist than the artists; he works in the living spirit and the living flesh; he makes human beings instead of statues.” You might even say that God’s chipping away becomes part of the healing of lives.

The Michelangelo story leads to some questions about sculpting our lives. Are our lives simply blocks of unchiseled marble? Is the “you”—and all you’re created to be—hidden in a formless life? Are you letting God, the Creator and Re-creator, transform your life, craft and mold you?

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