by Heather Caliri
I am a big fan of a good to-do list. Give me some action items, goals, or priorities, and I will get things done with glee. Baseboards cleaned? CHECK. Phone call made? CHECK. Space-hogging NordicTrak finally dropped off at the thrift store? BLESSED FREAKING CHECK.
But there was one part of my life that did not submit to the magic of checklists: faith.
I’ve been a Christian for three decades, and every single one of those years, I would have told you that growing in faith was a top priority. Accordingly, I’d set modest goals for Jesus-time: read my Bible daily. Study its meaning. Pray regularly. Enjoy all of the above.
Except when it came time to actually do those things, I found myself balking, like a toddler told to eat spinach.
Reading the Bible (all those genocides, commands, and problematic verses) made me question faith. Lifting up prayer requests left me anxious about all the worldwide crises I didn’t pray for; silent prayer made me panicky.
I assumed I simply wasn’t trying hard enough; so I soldiered on, telling myself that eventually I’d get the hang of prayer, would eventually make peace with the Bible, would eventually like doing what ‘Good Christians’ do.
Ten years went by. Nothing says “despair” like a decade spent banging your head against a “good Christian” wall. In frustration, I finally asked myself what to me was a terrifying question: Can you be a Christian if you hate doing Christian things?
I asked God this one night, my head pressed to the floor in desperation—and felt a strange peace descending. I might not be able to check any “good Christian” boxes, but I wanted to be with Jesus. I realized I had to stop trying so hard, because trying hard wasn’t working.
And part of the solution, it turned out, was connecting to God through art instead of lists.
I began hand-lettering prayers to tack on my walls. Creating the art work was a prayer, looking at it was prayer, and praying it regularly became easier when it was beautiful.
I found myself strangely attracted to a CD of songs for Scripture memorization my kids had rejected. I’d always hated intentionally memorizing verses, but I found the music calmed my anxiety—and kept God’s Word on my lips without me trying.
But the deepest healing came when I decided to turn an old Bible into an art project.
I got the idea from Keri Smith’s Wreck this Journal. It’s a sketchbook that sparks creativity through mess—you duct tape it, shred it, scribble in it, test office supplies in it, and free yourself in the process.
I wish Bible study could be like that, I thought. Then I paused. Why couldn’t it?
I had a Bible filled with both wonderful and terrible memories—OCD notetaking and pressed flowers, serrated sermon points and encouraging notes. I couldn’t read it anymore because of the bad memories; I couldn’t trash it because of the good ones.
I began reimagining it instead. I created an Elmer’s glue labyrinth on one page, and a cut-paper marionette on another. I made found poetry and flowers out of newspaper, and a tiny hidey hole filled with mustard seeds. I felt as though I were re-claiming my place in scripture, making it home again, arguing with the verses that I hated. In the projects, I put my feet up on scripture’s couch and left crumbs on its counter. God settled in next to me, delighted at the disorder.
Through art, I realized how badly spiritual abuse in high school had affected me. Through art, I was able to own my deep anger at the church. Art gave me a reason to resurrect trash and reminded me of my belovedness. In its grasp, I could be completely honest with Jesus.
The longer I let creativity guide my spiritual practices, the more I noticed God’s presence in my life. The more I allow art to aim me towards Jesus, the more readily I love myself.
I still love to-do lists, every check mark and tally. But I’ve realized focusing on productivity hamstrings my faith. God calls me to bring my whole self to the altar—my creativity and my anxiety, my desire to please and my deepest dread. Jesus holds everything I am with care, urging me to do the same. It is in making the biggest, happiest mess that I find my tether to the Creator of all.
Heather Caliri is a writer and artist from San Diego, whose work has appeared in Relevant.com, ChristianityToday.com, SheLoves Magazine, The Mudroom, and iBelieve. Her devotional, Word Made Art: Lent, is an eight-week creative encounter with Scripture, and is available on Amazon. A Facebook group to experience the devotional in community is available at her website.