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August 26, 2016 by

“I took the pieces you threw away, put them together by night and day, washed by rain and dried by sun, a million pieces all in one.” —Howard Finster

Bicycle repairman, Baptist preacher, and man of many titles including “God’s Last Red Light” and “Stranger From Another World,” the self-taught American artist and man of vision Howard Finster was a pretty intriguing guy.

“God himself” commissioned him to do 5,000 paintings, each one carefully numbered: “…one day I was workin’ on a patch job on a bicycle, and I was rubbin’ some white paint on that patch with this finger here, and I looked at the round tip o’ my finger, and there was a human face on it… Then a warm feelin’ come over my body, and a voice spoke to me and said, ‘Paint sacred art.’ ”

So Finster went forth and, in time, transformed his swampy property in rural Georgia into a magnum opus he titled “Paradise Garden.” A kaleidoscopic menagerie of praise, its many structures and formations include “Bottle House,” “Hubcap Tower,” “Bicycle Tower,” “The Machine Gun Nest,” and a five-story “Folk Art Chapel.”

A photograph of art exhibiting some of Finster’s techniques
Art exhibiting some of Finster’s techniques in Woodstock, NY. Photograph by the author.

Finster’s medium was junk: materials no one wanted. He also painted prolifically, and alongside Biblical figures and Scripture verses he placed pop icons, presidents, UFO’s, and aliens. This mixture of the sacred and profane – central to his work – was motivated by the miracles of Jesus. In salvaging and resuscitating the contaminated and discarded of the world Jesus filled those he rescued with new life and purpose. Even Finster’s trash barrel speaks, reminding us that “Jesus saves.”

“It’s very simple,” he once said. “When Christ called his disciples, he called fishermen, he didn’t call nobody from a qualified university. He used common people to reveal parables. That’s what I do; I use Elvis because I’m a fan of Elvis. Elvis was a great guy. By using him I get people’s attention and they read my messages.”

This joining of the broken and unorthodox is inspirational. And it’s not only Finster’s idea; the Japanese have a comparable practice for repairing broken ceramics called kintsugi. The gaps between the shattered fragments are filled with a mixture of lacquer and gold. The philosophy is that instead of hiding the breakage, you acknowledge the history by highlighting it. By showing the repair, the gold-filled flaws create something more pleasing than the original perfect piece.

With these gaps and breakage, I’ve been pondering Ezekiel: “And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none” (Ezek. 22:30). Isaiah also speaks of a “repairer of the breach” (Isa. 58:12).

I wonder what God thinks of the earth right now and how he must be looking for someone who will step up and “stand in the breach.” Anyone who’s dropped a sugar bowl will know how that shattered mess is a suitable equivalence for today’s humanity: messy, sticky, and sharp. Pick any current topic and even Christians will vehemently disagree.

So how do we repair that breach? Is there even room anymore in the church for a vision like Finster’s, where there is potential even in a trash barrel? I don’t know the answers, but one thing’s clear: the Holy Spirit brings people together, rather than drive them further apart. Pentecost is the blueprint – for the first time in forever the Babel curse was lifted and people of all backgrounds understood and were miraculously drawn into a common experience of repentance.

I’m encouraged by author NT Wright’s arguments that however doomed things look, Jesus is running the world in the present. But he points out that this isn’t time to relax; Jesus needs applicants willing to finish the job with him. Those fit for hiring are the people of the Beatitudes:

When God wants to change the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks. He sends in the meek, the mourners, those who are hungry and thirsty for God’s justice, the peacemakers…

He wants found objects, scavenged from the scrap piles: an unlikely piece of oxidized steel, the washed-up and corroded chassis. Kintsugi indeed.

Jesus has all kinds of projects up his sleeve and is simply waiting for faithful people to say their prayers, to read the signs of the times, and to get busy.
The poor in spirit will be making the kingdom of heaven happen. The meek will be taking over the earth, so gently that the powerful won’t notice till it’s too late. The peacemakers will be putting the arms manufacturers out of business. Those who are hungry and thirsty for God’s justice will be analyzing government policy and legal rulings and speaking of behalf of those at the bottom of the pile. The merciful will be surprising everybody by showing that there is a different way to do human relations other that being judgmental, eager to put everyone else down. “You are the light of the world,” said Jesus. “You are the salt of the earth.”
N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus

I don’t know how merciful and meek I am, but if there’s a mission for someone on a rusty bike frame missing the gear shift and shocks, I’ll take it; I can trustingly pedal on in low gear knowing that with Jesus’ new management, I can help “Paradise Garden” on Earth become reality.


About the author

man drawing on a screen

Jason Landsel

Jason lives in upstate New York at the Woodcrest Bruderhof.

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