By Christiana Renner
sojourner (noun)—a person who resides temporarily in a place
I find Mark Renner’s work, which I enjoy the privilege of viewing daily, provocative. It is a seductive invitation to thought and reflection, two disciplines often eschewed in our modern Twitter and social media world. His work portraying humans who are variants of a modern-day Everyman exposes a deeper truth about the broader human character and tradition. His common theme is that of the sojourner, struggling, downcast, burdened, searching
To Mark, a sojourn implies a transition, something temporal. As a figurative artist, he observes, “Passage or aimless peregrination, [the sojourn] is a frequent method in film and literature of conveying or portraying an allegory of life’s wanderings, odysseys, quests, and, for some, pilgrimages.” While this can be a noble, beauty-filled quest, such as that of a traveler on a journey to an historic site, Mark is drawn to the voyages of the marginalized, the meek, the struggling—those who are exiled, lonely, and solitary. His portrayal of those who are at times driven to wander by a desire to forget something or leave it behind prompts a deeper examination.
From a young age, Mark displayed an innate ability to recognize suffering and loneliness in others. Given a Christian perspective, he realized that this was not pointless; God gives a purpose and meaning to suffering. Painting has given Mark a way to express that profound theme—the search for meaning in the midst of human suffering, loneliness, and isolation—even if it may only capture one instance, a small slice of the subjects’ lives. These struggles may derive from each subject’s own nature or maybe are those inflicted on them by societal ills and injustices. Nevertheless, Mark seeks to recognize and illuminate the beauty among those who are often considered ignoble by the masses.
Much of Mark’s visual and recorded work articulates the dichotomy between the joys and happiness found in the wandering on one hand, and the frustration and fruitlessness that can occur on the other. He recognizes that fulfillment can come from what are often perceived as lost wanderings. Some wayfarers arrive at the realization that this “infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object—in other words, by God himself” (Blaise Pascal). What seems to be searching and vain struggle can actually be preparation for a better future, as Bunyan reminds us in Pilgrim’s Progress: “It is always hard to see the purpose in wilderness wanderings until after they are over.” This better future may not be in the here and now, but may present as an eternal glory for those who are driven to seek God amid or beyond the hopelessness of their present circumstance.
As I write this, I am studying Mark’s The Diaspora, a painting of a group of exhausted figures, male and female, struggling through a bleak landscape. The trees are leaf-less. The ground is barren and rocky. Several of the travelers are weary; one is on her hands and knees. Has she fallen? Is she struggling forward in the only way she can? Has she given up? One moves along with the aid of a rudimentary crutch. How was he injured? One is pointing behind them. Are they being pursued? Many are carrying sacks on their backs—I imagine this is all they have left of their earthly possessions. I can taste their despair: the absolute exhaustion. I wonder what they’re fleeing and where they’re bound. Despite all this, there is a breath of joy—a dog races at the front of the pack. Mark’s painting also hints at hope. In the background, on a hill outlined in a faint green light on the horizon, is a church. If only they would turn and look . . .
This painting resonates with me—we sense and see increased suffering and despair in our world, both from those who are literally cast aside from their homes by natural disaster or persecution or extreme poverty and from those who are wasting away in a spiritual desert despite living in relative affluence. What are those around us fleeing? What have I not seen beneath the surface in those with whom I interact on a daily basis? Who are the hungry? Who are the thirsty? What strangers have I encountered?
As I pass into the living room, I find one of my favorite small paintings, Blanket. In this painting are two travelers—we cannot see where they are or where they are headed because the background is dark and black. However, they are together. The taller one, with the cap and the blanket roll, has his arm around the shorter man, wearing a bright red coat, in the foreground. They’re in conversation together, and their strides are matched and purposeful. My interpretation is one of determination, a common goal, a hope, a destiny.
As a follower of Christ, I am drawn to this—I am not called to journey alone. I am called to live by faith and to make my way home as a sojourner in search of a promised land of respite. In the Scriptures, I have an eternal cloud of witnesses, ones who did not receive what was promised in this life but saw it only as through a mirror dimly. I am buoyed by the encouragement of the fellow saints as well as an eternal hope. Therefore, I am called to forge ahead, to not grow weary or lose heart, instead with joy to fix my eyes on hope, on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of faith.
I am challenged by Mark’s paintings—the pathos, the humanity, the suffering—but also by the subtle glimpses of Jesus and the reminder that this world is not my home. I am challenged to be more mindful of others in their suffering. I am challenged to look to Jesus as I run the race God has set before me.
Christiana Sahl Renner, M.D., M.S., is an Assistant Professor in Internal Medicine, working in the Division of Hospital Medicine at Parkland Hospital. Her focus since her undergraduate years at Texas A&M University has been working with underserved communities, both in understanding and overcoming the effects of bias, both implicit and explicit, and in using education to advance the lives and careers of others.