A wise mentor said, "The church survived to the Middle Ages because it outlived, it out-thought, and it outdied the pagan world--in both intellectual and artistic achievement."
My home church once had an Art in Worship group. They produced a few banners for all to see, but that effort has long ceased, overtaken by powerpoint announcements and rolling song lyrics. Worship visuals some days look more like an Internet homepage than the sacred.
The Art in Worship bunch gave me a nudge, though. They asked me to make a processional cross, staff and base using a motif based on the congregation's name that includes the noun "resurrection". Not exactly a peripheral deal to Christians.
That one project led to a whole series of processional crosses of different woods: red mahogany in the shape of square nails with nail holes in it for Lent; a star shaped cross with reflective rays for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany; oak in the shape of stylized lilies for Easter; cherry in the shape of tongues of fire, gusts of breath and drops of water for Pentecost. I plan to do another in walnut with inlaid strands of wheat, a harvest cross for All Saints and Thanksgiving. There's a baptismal font on the chapel with legs in the shape of a Middle Eastern water jar, actually two-one inside the other. The Samaritan woman in John 4 left her jar at the well because she had been given Living Water...
A Native American friend asked me to make a processional cross for her ordination some years ago. It incorporates a whalebone carving of a descending dove by a nearly blind carver in Shishmaref, AK. The rest of the cross works with it: arms of the cross in the shape of kayak paddles, nails in the shape of the handles of the paddles, a staff in the shape of a harpoon. The only fastener in the piece is a length of fishing line. The irony of the human condition is that we would indeed cut up the very tools of survival to crucify the Son of God among us--and we did. And into this the Spirit of God descends with life giving grace.
When I visit a church and the "artwork" on bulletin covers is either stock photgraphs suitable for greeting cards or line drawings not even suitable for comic books, it says something to me about how we see God. What is on the walls in the fellowship hall, the places where we open the Word together? Do we really expect God to show up at church? Out there in the world? I took a look at the junk I was using in my own worship folders for folks at Operation Nightwatch. The stock photos and photocopies went away, and out came the camera.
The worship folders for our homeless guests now have photos of the beauty and the irony and the prophetic messages left all around us in the city we all share. Things from the news, artwork that they have made.
Idea. Wanna get kids and teens, even adults, excited about making the connection between faith and real life? Start having 'em contribute photos to illustrate the themes or messages of worship. Don't even have to give 'em cameras. They've all got smart phones. Where did they see the kingdom of God out there this week? Do they have a story they'd like to tell about it?
Tomorrow the text is from Mark 6:1-13--the prophet without honor being sent to those who resist, the 12 being sent out unprepared for what God would do. A photo of a protest sign at Occupy Portland captures the moment: If Not You, Who?
If we will not tell God's story, who will? The art we do out of our own lives is the way we tell it. And the way God tells it to us. So often the function of art is not to provide answers but to help us ask questions, to help us see so that we even know what questions to ask.