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In His Light | charcoal on gesso board • 11×11 in

Before turning in this graduate school art assignment, a dear friend saw it and said, “Wow! You are good; you made yourself look good!” Remembering her jest still draws a chuckle, along with the honest reminder of how important “looking good” is to me. Imagery is what artists create; isn’t it important that one carefully portray his own?

MJ’s Shooting Form | graphite • 11″x14” | This drawing is among the first works that helped me discover my artistic ability.

Life is filled with the cultural message of portraying an image. Remember the 90s slogan, “BE LIKE MIKE”? Throughout my high school years, I certainly drank up plenty of that campaign. Now, more than twice that age, some things aren’t much different. I still enjoy the game of basketball, and the pressure to fit in (among certain peer groups) still exists. “Apeerance” might be an appropriate misspelling of the word.

Even within the Christian subculture I was raised, the importance of appearance was felt. Spiritual leaders had a dynamic way of praising the right appearances and a sensational way of condemning the wrong ones. And with appearances joined so closely to the matter of spiritual ruin or death, I learned to keep far away from the “slippery slope” of those “ungodly appearances.” Along the way, it all formed into a genuine fear of “losing my own soul.” And coping with said fear led to claiming my “identity in Christ.” What a spiritual-sounding, yet subtly damaging idea this turned out to be.

Believing myself to be “utterly lost” and a “wormy” recipient of God’s grace and favor, I “rested” in the concept of Jesus’ blood and righteousness covering the wretchedness of my heart. In other words, when looking at me, God saw not my awful “sinful nature” (the essence of what I was reduced to), but His Son, Jesus—Savior of my soul. More of Jesus meant less of me. And I sincerely believed living out this view is what brought glory to Him and purpose to my life.

If you’re feeling the weight of this tricky language, please read on. If any aspect of this view resonates with your belief system, hear me out. If you’re just curious, I get it.

Convinced, both consciously and subconsciously, to elevate spirituality as the most important aspect of life, I lived in constant awareness of pop culture’s deceptive allure (the world) to gratify self. Following what was preached and modeled in the church, I disciplined myself to “lay aside” or even “sacrifice” my desires (the flesh) to “God’s will.” With what was left of me, and “in the strength of Lord,” I obeyed, served, and worked toward overcoming the enemy’s (the Devil) scheme to ruin my life. My whole being doing focused on guarding my heart against the world, the flesh, and the Devil. And as much as I long to be known well, particularly self-known, it’s sad how deeply I perceived myself permanently stuck between such evil.

childhood self-portrait (college project) | graphite

It’s important to note that a significant part of what I’m describing, came directly from the Christian education I received. Surrounding me, from the sixth grade through high school graduation, was a network of like-minded churches, youth camps, publishers, and colleges all proclaiming an alluring path to follow, “Do this, avoid that, and be holy.” Believing it was God’s “perfect will,” I decided to attend one of the “approved” networked Christian colleges.

During those years of earning a bachelor’s degree in commercial art, I also recall earnestly moving into the concept of good presentation. Presenting my artwork worthy of the excellence I sought, however, lacking a clear understanding of intrinsic worth (hence the unhealthy view of myself), I began merging the concept of merited favor with the campus-wide belief of behavior and appearance being the way to achieve the “abundant life” spoken of in the Bible, “life’s complete and final authority.” 

This period in life is when unhealthy motivations and the addiction of co-dependency ignited—drawing fuel from the pursuit of the ideal name, attitude, friendships, preferences, thoughts, and appearances before God and man. According to the belief system I was fully immersed in, personal behavior (internal & external) is the way to clinging to my “identity in Christ” and standing blameless before a holy and righteous God. In practical terms, the goal was to lay my guilt-free heart, conscience-clear mind, and virgin-kept body to “rest in peace” each night by 11PM—“lights-out” curfew. Yes, it all mounted up into a very subtle killing of personal human dignity.

SIDE NOTE: On campus, the virginity/purity matter was so slippery a slope, that physical touch between unmarried or unrelated males and females was absolutely prohibited. A high-five was grounds for being “socialed,” a two-week punishment period where violators of the “six-inch rule” could not socialize in any form to any non-family member of the opposite gender. The long-lasting effects of tangling human sexuality by this sort of repression are deeply damaging. (More will be said on this topic in my future work.)

In open honesty, the practice of this “extraordinary” belief system fit so well with my wiring for uniqueness. It was, for me, a badge of honor in knowing how “separate from the world” I “lived.” With every sermon, classroom lesson, group devotional, and conversation across campus, my mind and heart were convinced by the system’s most powerful force—God’s Word. Here are some of the many proof-texts for the “pure and righteous motive” for fashioning this image full of integrity and outstanding reputation:

Wandering somewhere in the ’90s
  • Proverbs 22:1—“A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favour rather than silver and gold.”
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:22­—“Abstain from all appearances of evil.”
  • I Corinthians 10:31—“Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”
  • Proverbs 23:31–32—“Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright. At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder.”
  • John 3:30—“He [God] must increase, but I must decrease.”
  • I Corinthians 7:1—“Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.”

Amidst all that loaded background, I draw your attention to something good. It was 1995, and my final semester of college was underway. While preparing for my senior art exhibit, something began dawning on me. De Luna is Spanish for all things lunar: moonstruck, moonwalk, moonshine, and the moon itself, a glorious nightlight for all humanity.

Senior Art Exhibit, March 1995

Immediately after graduation, I began employment with A Beka Book®, the publishing arm and financial lifeline of my alma mater Pensacola Christian College. (A Beka Book® is well-known among Christian schools and homeschoolers for their educational curriculum “in Christian perspective.”) During this time-abundant three-year period of life, I discovered long-distance running and became friends with a young lady. 

Completion of the 1997 Blue Angel Marathon in Pensacola, Florida. 📷 photo credit: Ben Finley

Running turned to marathons and friendship turned to romance, which turned to marriage. After our wedding and honeymoon (there’s that lunacy again), we moved to my Texas hometown where I returned to work in the family business. Also, I began discovering a bit of a singing voice, and our family started growing. We have four children.

While on a return visit (2004) to the in-laws (still living in Pensacola, Florida), I went for a run through the ol’ stompin’ grounds. Hurricane Ivan had just whipped through, leaving plenty of structural and environmental damage to view in stride. It was during this run when the life-theme, Reflections of the Son™, formed in my heart. I was at a point in life where my developing passion for singing was igniting a deep desire to “reflect” the light of God’s Son through artistic expression. Interestingly, in all my young life, I had never experienced such deep motivation for creativity and expression. It made me feel alive, and something in me wanted more. 

A De Luna Trio—my sons with the memorial statue (by Bob Rasmussen) of Spanish conquistador don Tristan De Luna located at Plaza De Luna in Pensacola, FL

In 2006, we arrived back in Pensacola to fulfill the plan my wife and I had been forming all along—to educate our children in the A Beka system we so dearly loved, enroll myself in graduate school, continue living near family, and anchor ourselves back into the ministry (our alma mater) and city where our home originally took sail. An interesting tidbit about Pensacola, is its history with Spanish explorer and settler don Tristan De Luna. On various levels, I felt we had returned home.

Unveiling Refiner’s Fire (oil on linen • 20 x 24 in.) with Christian recording artist Steve Green in 2010

What unfolded in those five years at Pensacola is its own story. And after all this time of untangling it, healing, and growing up, I look forward to sharing fully what continues coming out of that experience. Keep watch for the telling of Refiner’s Fire—An Unveiling of God’s Glory. The experienced gained is based on the painting commission I fulfilled for Christian recording artist Steve Green amid the confusing disapproval and eventual excommunication from my alma mater. The personal significance of this commission opportunity was due to the lifeline music had become… or rather, had always been. 

Somewhere in the 70s is where my interest in lyrical formation took root—in songs like Rhinestone Cowboy and our National Anthem. At a very young age, I happily sang along in the connection I was making with those “star-spangled” lyrics and “bombs bursting in air.” How fun it was imagining those were the lights “shinin’ on me.” 

Presenting the US National Anthem at a hometown high school basketball game.

Later in life, I began hearing the messages artists were communicating, and found the art of song to be clever and powerful. When I eventually started singing, I began paying attention to artists’ interpretation and nuance within expression. While living in Pensacola (the second time), I was fortunate enough to learn with an experienced teacher of bel canto (beautiful singing). How joyous it was to begin discovering healthy form as well as my own voice. 

The singing and painting experience I have gained through the years has contributed to a process by which I observe, interpret, and live out my life. “My truth” is a fitting phrase here. I mean, everywhere I choose to interact, there’s a message being spoken. And a big part of my delight is observing the ways by which those messages are painted. The story is told of an art student who said to his teacher, “I simply paint what I see.” American painter/instructor Henry Whistler responded, “Wait till you see what you paint.”

And that is what has happened. The “artistic eye” I’ve developed is now imbedded into life itself. Knowing how and what to see makes living so colorfully full of value. As it goes in painting, my perspective is beyond merely copying what’s in front of me. As a mentor says, “It’s seeing things the way they are.”

In artistic terms, it’s experiencing what’s actually there: a living composition, various temperatures of light and color, complimentary colors “dancing” with one another, form, linear and atmospheric perspective, edges, value, texture, and so much more. In singing terminology, it’s proper phrasing, gluing notes together (portamento), the play of light and shadow (chiaroscuro), texture of voice, and singing on the breath while connecting with an audience (be it one or one thousand). It really is an all-around gratifying pathway and state of sensitivity toward God’s and others’ love in all that surrounds me, knowing my uniqueness is enough, being secure, and belonging there.

It’s so ironic that the very light I sought to reflect actually broke through to reveal it’s true nature… and mine! Living In His Light now reveals more of me… more of God… more of others than I was once led to believe, permitted to imagine, or even relate to. Being vulnerable with myself, amidst the hard work of unpacking the deeply-concealed shame of my humanity, has changed my formerly twisted view of God’s love. Yes, projecting a co-dependent relationship with God happens. Interestingly, this deconstruction of my faith and personal healing has also delivered a deeper love for nature and more meaningful understanding of the nature of love.

Forever removed is the belief in my own behavior or any action as the way to gaining or maintaining His or anyone’s approval. Like an artist proclaiming, “It is finished!”, He, the Master Artist, has fashioned me and deemed me worthy of reflective splendor… from the get go. The torment in fearing His supposed “ever-present displeasure” (for any misstep) is now replaced with the pure motive of being whole in His love. That’s what redemption—deemed again—is all about! In this sense, His love is light for life’s path. And in this framework, I’m now growing into knowing what I am, who I am, and the image I truly bear. Simply restructured, proper behavior (e.g. obedience, service, faithfulness) is a natural result of maturely loving the life I’ve been given.

Reflections of the Son™ | a digital color study illustrating the humanity of Jesus and symbolizing the Divine Light empowering my own.

From the foundational principle that God infinitely loves me, a deep and full exploration of identity, security, empathy, relationship, community, true belonging, worth, expression, beauty, responsibility, goodness, and truth has burst forth… and how it all leads me to reality! 

Speaking of reality, freedom truly exists! And those splendid tools of freedom—they are found throughout our millennia of humanity and masterfully exhibited in the fully human life of the Son of God. (To read His words and view His life through this lens is truly empowering.) We need not be afraid of His humanity, or ours, but live in true humility—thinking not more highly of who we are while equally knowing no less of what we are—royal stewards of creation. What God originally fashioned is glorious and worthy of redemption. That’s us!

God’s infinite love is deeply transformative. It offers me a perspective of seeing myself as a unique gift of His love (like that of justice, mercy, grace, beauty, the Ten Commandments, His Word, etc.), intrinsically made worthy of deep and meaningful love, thereby enabling me to see others in the same light. In other words, the more fully I genuinely love and accept myself, the more fully I can genuinely love others.

One cannot give of self, till one has a self to give. Therefore, knowing who and what you are is so important. I now find this concept profoundly embedded in Jesus’ words, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Also, among the numerous good works of art, it’s this cycle of love I now hear in John Lennon’s words and music, “Imagine all the people…,” observe in Van Gogh’s artwork, and read in Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables. And the list of beauty-filled works goes on.

The Love of God
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
—Frederick Martin Lehman (1868–1953)

In conclusion, I believe this newfound freedom is just the beginning. Though I’m conscious of making a living with my art, I am equally interested in the “art[s] as a means of living my life.” (—Robert Henri) Maximizing my potential, while respecting my limitations, is the soul formation occurring each day with the humans I interact with and the projects I choose to work on. To fully live out who God fashioned me to be and willfully express what is good and appropriately human is what my artwork is about… nothing more and nothing less. It is truly refreshing interacting with open-minded/hearted/spirited people in search of the same life and love, and helping each other along. Thank you for taking time to read this reflection of mine. If any of my work challenges, encourages, or inspires you, be free—be known.

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