Manna, Simplicity and Art

Manna, Simplicity and Art

By Stacey Tuttle

“Much of the beauty that arises in art comes from the struggle an artist wages with his limited medium.”
–Henri Matisse

I’ve been thinking about simplicity a little lately. For the last few years, actually. I have noticed that I prefer restaurants with small menus. I don’t like a ton of choices. It’s enough to choose a burrito or a burrito bowl or tacos. That’s enough. I don’t want to have to make ten thousand choices before I get to that one. Choices like do I want Mexican or Chinese or American or Italian? So, I prefer Chipotle to Cheesecake Factory. I know exactly what I want. I don’t have to think about it:

“I’ll take a chicken burrito with brown rice and black beans. Hot sauce, corn salsa and pico. Sour cream and lettuce. No Cheese, but please add lime juice. Thank you!”

Done and done.

I wonder if this is why some of those extreme diets appeal so much to people. They don’t have to think about anything. They just follow directions. No thinking, no choosing. It’s simple.

It’s not that I don’t like choices. I do. Really. But sometimes I find that even though you might think that having more choices means more freedom, sometimes it’s just overwhelming. Sometimes you have too many choices and you are forced to spend so much time and energy on making decisions about lesser things, you never get to the greater things.

I just recently did a study on the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. You know that thing about how they had to eat manna every day, for every meal? Manna. It sounds kind of icky, huh? I don’t know about you but I had always assumed that manna was this dry, bland, tasteless stuff. Kind of less than interesting than a Saltine cracker – which I like OK, and especially when I’m not feeling so great and don’t want something super-spicy or saucy, but not for every meal of every day. And, it’s not like all that white flour is all that great for you anyway.

But, I learned that it was actually this pure white stuff which had a sweet taste to it. “The house of Israel named it manna, and it was like coriander seed, white, and its taste was like wafers with honey” (Exodus 16:31). It was also something the Israelites were able to cook with – so they were able to make a variety of foods from this sweet stuff. “The people would go about and gather it and grind it between two millstones or beat it in the mortar; and boil it in the pot and make cakes with it; and its taste was as the taste of cakes baked with oil” (Numbers 11:8). Hmmm… I admit it, I’m a sucker for sweets – so a simple diet of something that is subtly sweet and nourishing and healthy all at once? It actually doesn’t sound so bad. And seriously – they got to have cake every day, every meal! I like cake. I really like cake.

But, the Israelites had just left a pretty exotic diet back in Egypt. I think of going from something like Thai food, so rich with spices and flavors, to eating something like oh, say, almonds and water. It would be pretty disappointing. Or, even if it was a transition more to something like angel food cake, it still would be pretty disappointing.

It was kind of like when I stopped drinking Coke years ago and started drinking water. At first, I hated it. I hated water. How could anyone like to just drink water? But then, once the soda was out of my system, I began to adjust. Eventually, I found that my tastes had reversed. I couldn’t understand how I had ever been able to drink a Coke? It was too sweet! Water was what I wanted and what I needed. I felt better. I lost some weight. I didn’t have Coke headaches anymore. And, I actually craved water. I began to realize how sweet, how refreshing water truly is. My senses had been so super-saturated before, I hadn’t been able to recognize it for the goodness it really is. It’s clean, it’s simple.

So, I get it. I get the disappointment the Israelites faced when they had to quit drinking their Egyptian Cokes and stop eating their favorite Egyptian cuisine. Water and manna. Even if the manna was the most awesome tasting superfood on the planet (pretty sure that’s a true statement!), it still would have been a really big adjustment.

I have had to change my lifestyle a lot in the past few years. In fact, I know a lot of people who have had to change their lifestyle in the past few years. Our changing economy has put a lot of restrictions on a lot of people. And, just like switching from Coke to water, it has taken me, personally, a bit of adjustment. I really chaffed at the start. I missed my freedom. I missed my choices. I missed the more exotic spices in my life – freedom to eat out, to play on soccer leagues every night of the week, to take various lessons and learn new things (without actually having to, you know, teach myself), to buy new clothes and shoes on occasion, to travel a little. I didn’t live crazy or extravagantly by any means, but I wasn’t sweating it if friends wanted to eat out and it was going to cost me $10-$15 to join them.

I admit it. There has been a lot of chaffing at the new restrictions in my life. However, I keep thinking of the Israelites – and mostly, how their complaining angered God and kept them in the wilderness for 38 more years than necessary. So, I’ve been asking God to help me see the good in this and to give me a grateful heart. I don’t want to wander in the wilderness 38 years…I’m already 36 – I don’t have another 38 years to waste on the wilderness!

And now, I am beginning to appreciate the simplicity of my restrictions. I am beginning to see how taking away some choices has made life a little cleaner, a little simpler, a little more refreshing, honestly. I am learning to appreciate smaller things. My palate is not so super-saturated anymore. A little flavoring, a little seasoning, a little sweetness … it goes SO much farther than it did before! I am hopefully becoming a little less spoiled, a little less entitled, and a little less easily disappointed. I am finding that I am more easily satisfied, more grateful, more content.

Perhaps surprisingly, I had never heard the comparison drawn before, but in our One in a Million study, Priscilla Shirer drew our attention to the parallel between the manna and Yahweh. The singular sustaining power of the pure white manna which was sweet to the taste was to point the Israelites to the purity and sweetness of the one true God – the God who said he was the bread of life. This was an important lesson for the Israelites who just left a land that worshipped numerous gods. They needed to learn that the God of Abraham, the Great I Am was enough for them—he was all the needed.

So, after thinking over all these things about simplicity and how freeing and liberating it actually really is, so much so that God took the Israelites out of Egypt and immediately started simplifying all manner of things about their lives—starting with their diet… After thinking about it all this morning, I ran across this blog where The Nester talks about Anthropologie window designs. Apparently Anthropologie hires window designers/artists and then, when it’s time for a new window display, they give them their limitations. One time, they were told to use post it notes. Post. It. Notes. Really?! I would never have thought to myself, “Hmmm…maybe I should design some cool thing for my house using post it notes!” –and I tell you, I have used a lot of surprising things to decorate my house. You can ask my friends!

You can check out her post, it’s short, it’s really cool, and it has a number of pictures to show you what artists have done with post its, circles, construction paper flowers, etc. But, the thing that got me thinking about this whole long article I’ve just penned is this quote she cited from Henri Matisse: “Much of the beauty that arises in art comes from the struggle an artist wages with his limited medium.”

And immediately, I thought about the Israelites, manna, simplicity, restrictions. If I was told to create a window display with nothing but post it notes, I would certainly feel that some cruel joke had been played on me. However, look what a cool, cool, cool display this artist created! If that artist had had no restrictions, I wonder if the choices would have been overwhelming? The brilliance of the design is in its very limitations. That is where the freedom to create something truly unique and creative and impressive came from—from limitations.

Have you ever seen those emails that come around – you know, like someone with no legs and no arms is able to play the piano…beautifully? I think to myself, such restrictions would devastate me! But you realize that it’s their very restrictions which give them direction and freedom in some strange way.

Take Bethany Hamilton (did anyone see Soul Surfer?!). She lost her arm in a shark attack. That immediately imposed a lot of restrictions. Just think about the new challenges she had just to get dressed in the morning! But, she went on to be a pro-surfer. And, when asked if she would do it differently and avoid surfing the day she lost her arm, she said “No.” What? You like not having your arm??? But, Bethany discovered that the limitations it placed on her life also opened up new freedoms and opportunities. She was more free to impact the lives of others than she had ever been before. I think the line in the movie was, “I have found I can embrace the world better with one arm than I ever could with two.” (Or something that effect!) Truly, the beauty that arose in her life came from the struggle she had to wage with her newfound limited medium…and the freedom her limitations actually gave her.

We are all artists. We are the artists of our own lives. We have the freedom to make something beautiful with our life—something truly artistic…something which points others to the master Creator, who is our teacher. Like the Anthropologie directors, He gives us unique orders about how we are to create our life’s window display…orders which involve limitations (truly –while some may be more limited than others, we are all given limitations). However, he is the Master Artist, and he knows that the best art comes through the struggles that we will wage with limited medium/resources. We have a choice, however. When we are only given post it notes to work with, we can walk away and complain that there’s nothing that can be done with post it notes, or we can yield to the limitations and begin to joyfully create, asking the Master Creator for tips and pointers as we go, making something truly inspiring and unique.