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Life in design


Home is your history. It’s where you came from and where you are going.

--Designer Nancy Travis in Better Homes & Gardens Decorating Magazine, Spring 2008


We need to be in the presences of images, both visual and auditory (good sayings, poetry, and songs). These can constantly direct and redirect our minds towards God, Jesus Christ, the Spirit, and the church (people of God). “Icons” have a millennia-long track record with the people of God and can be a powerful way of keeping entire stories and teachings effortlessly before the mind. We might arrange to have them tastefully present in each of our living and work spaces, so that they are always present in our visual field. We can thoughtfully use them to dispel destructive imagery and thoughts and to see ourselves as before God in all levels of our being.

--Dallas Willard in Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ
Scrawled next to the above paragraph in Willard’s book is a simple word in capital letters: “DO.” When I first read Willard’s book about five years ago, that was one of the things I started to be intentional about. And recently, this portion has been in my thoughts. I’ve been spending some time this past week or so revamping some of the space in which we live and this concept has been playing an important influence in my efforts—perhaps more than I realized.

I do this ‘revamping’ every once in while. Heh, sometimes my husband will go away on a business trip and come home to find a room completely rearranged or a portion of our wall space looking differently. Design and arranging of elements was part of most of my professional life (there was a component of graphic design with most of my writing and editing positions), and it leaked its way into my personal space as well. Over the last few years, I’ve become a fan of home and garden television shows as well as some of the do-it-yourself-and-on-a-budget design mags (like the BHG publication quoted above). Sometimes, I’ll spend days musing over and rearranging a particular space in my mind as I push and nudge elements of our living areas around until I get it right. But recently, I’ve begun to think that these efforts have more of a sacred facet to them than I realized, that they include not only what I put into my home but also guide what I do not.

Recently one of those creative efforts centered on a large empty wall space in our semi-open stairwell between first and second floor. I started with an arrangement of about two dozen album covers from LPs we’d accumulated during the ‘80s (everything from the soundtracks to Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful to albums by U2 and Sting). The arrangement was fine, but something just didn’t “feel” right. That evening as I sat on the couch and looked up at the arrangement, I realized that while we still listened to and deeply appreciated some of that music, those albums and that era just didn’t represent or call me to be who we are here-and-now. And I began to realize how much of the rest of our home did.

Over the years, much of both the minor and major elements in our home became weighted and meaningful aspects that keep our story and life before me. Each reminds me of important and intentional aspects or disciplines that ultimately call me back to God. For example, the warm wood of our dining room table (and living room end and coffee tables) handcrafted by my father remind me not only of his incredible artistry as well as his love for me but of the relationship he shares with God and the gifts and love he consistently demonstrates to God’s people—which encourages me to live such a life. The eclectic wooden and metal-crafted crosses hanging in many rooms (most of which caught my eye on sale in retail and second-hand shops) call me back to Jesus in the midst of my stay-at-home-mom days that all too often get lost in to-do lists and never ending tasks. The iron-and-wood leafy head-and-food-boards of our bed that we bought second-hand (as well as the quilt of large patches of warm colors made by my mother) remind me of the importance of rest and slowing down—and remind me how God invites me to sleep without anxiety because my life, the lives of those I love and the world itself are in his hands. The black and white family photo gallery just inside the front door reminds me of the gifts I’ve been given and why I’ve chosen the life I have (and the sheer incredibleness of it all inspite of its periods of hair-pulling mundaneness). And those silk-plant sunflowers I scatter throughout the house, those brilliant splashes of color through which I've grown to love bright color—their real cousins follow the sun throughout the day, turning their enormous petals and orange-seeded centers towards the star as it crosses overhead. How’s that for an organic reminder of who we are made and called to be? There are also framed quotes of scripture, prayers and poems scattered throughout our house alongside my collection of posters of films that resonate with God-talk.

This doesn’t mean every time I walk by these things or they come into my line of sight that I consciously remember all this. Far too often, I’m too distracted to notice. But at some point in the past these objects came to take on these meanings and every so often in the present they call me back. Ultimately, they call me to God.

So, what ended up in the stairwell? I took down the album covers (some of which may get their own spots in other parts of the house), got on a creative binge and ended up blowing up black and white family photos on our printer and making an oversized arrangement of them in that space using plastic poster hangers. It was a project not only easy on the pocketbook, but the photos also can be changed and rearranged inexpensively anytime. Like the black and white photo gallery in the entryway below (done, by the way, with cheap frames and free offers of photos from online companies), they remind me to whisper prayers of thanks as well as call me to remember that paying attention to the people I encounter—be they my family or those whom I only briefly encounter—is what is important in this life.

In my experience, this kind of designing-spiritual-discipline isn’t limited to the images and icons I surround myself with but also how I arrange the elements in our space. For example, clutter is always an issue for me, and periodically I need to purge it from our living spaces. As I do, I try to take that opportunity to think about the clutter in my soul that I need to work with God to straighten, organize and even toss. Also, the way I arrange the furniture in a room can either invite people together in conversation, games or rest or towards distractions that isolate us (like television). I try to keep doors and windows free and unblocked, letting in natural light and whatever nature beacons beyond, which often reminds us of its Creator. And I try to think about how the music on my stereo or CD player affects my children and those we invite into our home.

Of course, many of these things can be pleasing to the eye and ear without any thought of how they call us to remember who we are and whose we are. But when we are intentional, these things become disciplines and elements that call us back to God. It infuses with meaning the things we already enjoy and surround ourselves with simply by musing with God on what is about them that calls us to him. It affects what we bring into our home and urges us to periodically examine the elements in our space and change them up—not necessarily because an element is negative or meaningless but because we have moved in time and space and relationship with others and God. Changing things around also moves those things that we’ve become accustomed to and no longer notice back into our vision and thoughts.

Professional designers, like the one I quoted above, get that our homes express something about us. And I think Willard gets at the heart of it all: if we are intentional, what we surround ourselves with can help call us back to God “at all levels of our being.” It’s yet one more way we discover God in open spaces.

(Images: of my home)

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