The holidays can be so full and frantic. We run from one event to another and, before we know it, Advent has passed without us ever having actually made space for Jesus to arrive in our lives.
Prophetic artist, writer and speaker Bette Dickinson invites us into a different rhythm this year with her new book “Making Room in Advent: 25 Devotions for a Season of Wonder.”
“Making Room in Advent” is a roadmap away from the chaos and into the space where God is at work.
Dickinson takes readers on a journey through the book of Luke, engaging the story of Jesus’ birth and the stories of those who experienced his coming first-hand.
The twenty-five devotionals offer spiritual practices, breath prayers and reflection questions that allow you to truly make room for God’s work in your life, your community and the world.
Dickinson made room in her schedule to talk with Intersections KC about her new book, her creative process and more.
Where did you first get the idea for “Making Room in Advent”?
In 2017, when I began this series, I was part of a cohort of women leaders InterVarsity was intentionally developing called the Women’s Daniel Project. Together, we studied the passages of the Annunciation and Mary greeting Elizabeth as signposts for the journey as women in ministry. So, the text had already been marinating in me for some time as it connected to the stories of these women I had come to deeply love and respect. We were all like Mary – inviting God to germinate something new within us and seeking to sing our own Magnificats through our unique voice and call. And, we were like Elizabeths to one another – calling forth what we saw in one another.
Each woman in the cohort was to take on a project that would allow her to offer her own unique contribution to our movement to make us better. I was invited to create a four-part devotional that included my writings and paintings as an offering for ministry partners.
About a year later though, I felt like there was just more that the story was inviting me to tell. So I just kept creating and, in 2020, I added five additional paintings and devotionals as a free online devotional on my blog called “Making Room.” And a few months later, in 2021, I was contracted by InterVarsity Press to create the full 25-day devotional complete with 18 original paintings.
Why “making room”?
I believe we are in a time that God is doing a new thing. We can all feel it, can’t we? Life will never go back to the way it was before Covid-19. But the question I have been pondering is – how are we making room for the new thing God wants to do now? Are our lives shifting and changing to accommodate this new thing? Do we even perceive it?
Advent is a time of anticipation as we await the arrival of Christ into our lives that disrupts our status quo and changes everything. Luke’s Gospel invites us to participate in Advent like Mary – leaning into the mystery and surrendering to receive the new thing God is doing in our midst in ways that leave us forever changed.
There is something so compelling about the fact that God chooses to make his entrance into the world through the human womb – and Mary, the willing host, must shift and change to make room for him. Her body will shift, but also her soul as she accommodates the divine life within her. As do all the characters in Luke’s birth narrative. Zechariah, Elizabeth, the Shepherds, Simeon, Anna…are all models to us for how to make room for the new thing God is doing in our midst. I wanted to help readers to see themselves in the longings, desires, and transformation that occurred in them so they could have models for yielding to God’s work in their own lives.
The holiday season, with all its chaos and shopping and frenetic activity, tempts us to take a “hustle and bustle” posture during Advent. But when we do, our souls have no room for the moments of presence and beholding that the season can offer. I wanted to create a work that would help us slow down and make room for the way Christ wants to come and dwell with us now. Today.
What did your creative process look like?
I begin the process for each work by digging deep into Luke’s birth narrative and studying it inductively. As I do, I prayerfully consider how I imagine the scene would unfold visually. What kind of posture would a character have in a moment? What might the Holy Spirit be doing in a scene and how could it be visualized? What themes were emerging in the text that needed to be captured? What was the tone of the text and how would this impact color choice? Over time, I started mapping out the 25 days based on what popped out at me from the text.
The paintings were created with liquid acrylic and water on claybord (clay powder mixed with water and glue and painted on masonite panels). I begin with a lot of layering of white and phthalo blue acrylic for the underpainting – shaping the backdrop of what I sensed the Holy Spirit was doing in the story. I use a squirrel tail brush with the acrylic in a lot of water and move the water around with the brush or by shifting the board and letting the paint move and drip with gravity.
Often, because there is a lot of dry time between layers, the painting process sparks new ideas that I want to write about. So I’ll take some ideas down after I’ve been painting for a while. It is a very prayerful process. In the painting and writing process, I am surrendering to the piece and what it wants to say, what the Holy Spirit is doing in me, as well as surrendering to what the Scripture is saying and how they intersect.
For the book, I did sketches of the figures over the top of the underpainting of the new work – gesturing how I imagined them to be as they were surrounded by the general movement of the acrylic underpainting in each piece. What was really meaningful about this series is that the models I used for source images were often people in my life whose stories often mirrored the characters in the narrative.
For example, the image of Mary and Elizabeth kneeling and holding each other’s arms up (from “Making Room for Favor”) was taken from a source image of my artist mentor, Julie Quinn and myself. Julie has been like an Elizabeth to me and so it was really special to have her painted as Elizabeth and I, Mary. Or my friend Dannie, for example, modeled Elizabeth in the paintings for “Making Room for Hunger” after having struggles with infertility and miscarriage. In the course of working on the book, she became pregnant with her son Beau (age 2), and so she was able to hold both the grief of barrenness and the surprising joy of pregnancy in the same posture.
I sketched the figures onto tracing paper so the editors could see how they would be painted in and sent them in with my initial draft. When the chapters, structure and general sketches were approved, I fleshed out the paintings for the remaining 9 pieces while I awaited revisions for my initial draft. At that point, I added the oil paint on like a stain which pulled out a lot of the texture hidden in the acrylic to the naked eye, giving it depth. Then I painted the figures in based on the initial sketches and source images.
By the time I got the first draft back, I had the paintings completed and then returned to the writing. So really all-in-all, it was back and forth between the writing and paintings – one influencing the other.
You do something beautiful in the book, bringing together art, scripture and your own words of inspiration. Can you speak to how the relationship between art and scripture has played out in your own life?
When I was in seminary in 2009, I was commissioned to do a piece for our building of the creation-fall-redemption story of Scripture. Basically, they wanted me to put the whole Bible into a painting! This was one of the greatest artistic, physical and theological undertakings I have ever experienced to date. But what it taught me though, is that the word of God is always longing to be made flesh. It is always longing to be imaged in some creative and expressive way that we might know Him more than just words on a page, but in beauty as well.
I discovered that the arts have the capacity to help uncover layers of meaning and emotion in the text that simply cannot be communicated any other way. And as I discovered this, I also was led by the Spirit to be mind-blown in the creative process. Because the creative process is full of surprises. Even though I often start with an idea of where it’s going, I have to yield to the Spirit’s work and to the materials in order for the word to become embodied into the work in the way that he wants it to. And this always keeps me on my toes. I find myself like a child re-discovering the text again as I’m visualizing it with paint.
I have found also that helping the viewer ponder the text first through a visual lens helps them to see it afresh. Neuroscientists have also made some fascinating discoveries over the last 15 years that we actually process information from the right side of the brain to the left. The right side of the brain processes creativity, emotions, relational connections, experiences, our 5 senses, etc. and then our left side of the brain kicks in to put words to it and make sense of it.
It made me wonder, “Wow, if I could help create a piece that would lead people in a right brain encounter with God, then it would help them to embody the story afresh in their own lives in a wordless, relational way.” From there, Scripture helps them to go deeper into the story and put words to their experience for a full-brained encounter with God that hopefully, leads to greater transformation in His presence.
How has the practice of Visio Divina impacted you as an artist and believer?
Visio Divina is latin for “divine seeing.” It is a way of reflecting on a piece of art as a way of prayer. In Visio Divina, we simply create space to encounter Jesus and the art becomes a tool to help us do this. This practice helps the viewer to slow down their breathing and be present to the present moment in front of them.
One of my favorite books about the practice of Visio Divina is by Juliet Benner called, “The Contemplative Vision.” In it she writes, “Physical seeing is a doorway to spiritual seeing.” And I tend to agree. I find that when we can pay attention to what we see, it gives us a window into how God is at work in every moment. When we can learn how to slow down to see physically, our eyes and heart are open and ready to see the spiritual realities at play around us and within us.
Visio Divina acts like a container, holding space for us to encounter God in ways that help us surrender control of our own agenda, in order to be open to receive what God wants to give us in that moment.
I love leading people through this practice because they often will see things they didn’t expect, or get an insight they had not thought of before while meditating on the painting. This is always a sign to me that the Holy Spirit is at work. When the heart posture of the viewer is positioned to receive it, the Holy Spirit can speak in surprising and unexpected ways!
What do you hope readers will walk away with after reading your book and participating in the sacred practices?
I desire the readers to encounter the beauty and mystery of the incarnation afresh. The Christmas story has been told so many times and it has often become rote. But I hope that this telling of the story – with the art, the breath prayers, the revelation of God’s movement of justice to the lowly and oppressed – will awaken people to the story in new ways.
I also hope readers will experience the story afresh through the women who play a central role in the narrative. Prior to working on this book, I had hardly ever heard the stories of Mary and Elizabeth. Luke takes risks in centering these women in the story in a patriarchal culture, and I wanted their stories to be told. I wanted other women like myself to be encouraged and inspired like I was by their embodied faith, their prophetic courage, their faithfulness and their communal sharing and encouragement in God’s call for one another.
I also hope that this resource will help readers to slow down, to open themselves to God’s work visually, and that they will be able to see themselves in the stories of the characters. I hope the reflective questions will help them to go deeper to consider how the story translates to their personal lives and I hope the breath prayers will help them carry the main truth into ordinary moments throughout their day.
Anything to add?
If you’d like to experience Visio Divina yourself, I’d love to lead you in this practice through an audio guide with one of the paintings from the book, “Making Room in Advent.” Click here for the audio guide.