Art for Heaven’s Sake
Genesis 1:26-27 October 19, 2014
Rev. David J. Clark
Do any of you like haiku poetry? Here’s a simple one; pay attention it goes by fast.
An old watery pond
Into the pond, a frog jumps
Splash! Silence again.
Fredrick Buechner says that haiku can take a humdrum ordinary moment that you would have never otherwise noticed and puts a frame around it, and draws your attention to it. If you were walking by the old pond, you wouldn’t have paid much attention to it. But the frame makes you take a second, deeper look.
Framing the Moment
Lots of art puts frames around ordinary things and invites us to look deeper. One of our artists put to canvas the face of an older woman that if you saw her sitting outside Albertsons you wouldn’t have given her a second thought. But by putting a frame around the face you are drawn in to see the complex lines of worry, laughter and hope. You consider her life, what the artist may be trying to communicate and wonder why you are so drawn to this woman. What is it that pulls you to look at it, to connect with it on a level that is deeper than your words can describe?
The visual arts that we celebrate this weekend put frames around much of what we might pass by, faces, places, landscapes, bugs, pieces of wood and rock and metal and gourds. They make us slow down, stop, look and consider. When Jesus talked about spiritual disciplines he taught us to slow down and look in wonder, “Consider the lily. . .consider the birds of the air.” Our artists have given us so much to consider, lilies, birds, bees, textures, colors, light, negative space, what a great gift. Getting lost in art is truly one of the spiritual disciplines that broadens and enhances our experience of the divine. When we learn to stop, look and consider we can be more spiritually grounded, broaden our perspective, see good and beauty and maybe we can even learn to be more considerate of each other—slower to judge, more patient, tempted more to make connections rather than division. Learn to frame the moments of your life, for it is such a precious and fragile gift. Never take one moment of your life, or your love for granted.
Alexander Solyzenietzen who survived some of the ugliest things that have ever happened to human beings in the Russian Gulag said that “Beauty will save the earth.” Art can move us toward more honest and pure expressions of the human soul including simple acts of self-giving in a fearful world.
God is an Artist
Scripture uses several images of God as an artist. God is described as the creator, as a builder, as a weaver or knitter putting us together. Isaiah and Jeremiah picture God as a potter who is intimately connected with us, shaping us, stretching us (pottery needs to be pulled) forming us into something of beauty. The image is that God is not distant and removed from us, but hands on, trying to pull us up, make us beautiful and useful. And the prophets say that things would go much better for us if we quit resisting how God’s hand would shape us and allow grace and love to heal us.
If God is an artist, does that mean God has an artist’s temperament? Maybe. God comes across as One who is free to and going to do whatever feels right no matter what anyone else says, no matter how it may appear to others. God has that sensitive side; that wonderful eye for detail and even like some artists I’ve met, insists she is the center of the universe. Instead of bending iron for sculpture, God bends galaxies, and the fabric of space/time. God as an artist must know that feeling when it comes together, when connections are made and it all comes together. God keeps standing back after each day’s work in Genesis declaring, “This is good.”
We are made in the image of a creator, therefore we create, and it’s in our basic identity. As kids we draw, build, form, make. Even the most ancient cave paintings reveal not just an attempt at drawing stick figures, but approaches of real artistic expression. It’s just who we are. All of us are artists by design. Some of you may express your art in doodles others in creating lesson plans or solutions to problems, or meals or interior design, or maybe you build things, or arrange things to your liking. The creative process is ingrained in us—when you connect with that part of yourself and give it expression, you are connecting with something bigger than yourself.
Art as Prayer
One year at camp, one of the counselors led a session on prayer. She had all the students (about 4th through 6th grade) start freestyle drawing with colored pencils on a piece of paper, she set some soft music and just let the kids go for a while. It was amazing how the room quieted and she told us that drawing was a form of prayer that not all prayers have to follow some formula like I was taught as a kid. Dear God, then you give thanks for stuff, then you confess your sins, then you ask for the needs of others and then if you are still awake you can pray for yourself before signing off with an Amen. I always worried that my prayers didn’t count if I fell asleep before the Amen. I like the way Barbie told me that falling asleep during prayer is a sign of your comfort and relaxing into the Spirit. I like that, less guilt.
But art as a form of prayer makes so much sense to me. It’s when you just let what is in you flow out, it may be the most honest form of prayer that we have, just to let it bubble up, instead of trying so darn hard to say the right thing or to let language become an obstacle—it’s really so limited. Art is prayer in its purest form, that’s why you can just lose yourself in it and time itself becomes different. You lose track. What? Three hours have past? I didn’t even notice. Many artists talk about moments where things start coming together, when inspiration hits and surprises them like a gift, and they feel connected to their spiritual selves and maybe even that creative energy that is God that courses through all creation.
Learning to Lower Your Standards
Neuroscientists tell us that practicing or learning to an art form at any age helps our brains to stay alive and active. Spiritual guides tell us that it’s a great form of prayer, so what are you waiting for? I know all about the fear. No one has to see it. You don’t have to worry about doing it right. Orville Barnes who was a retired English professor who told me on his 100th birthday that his secret for staying sharp was that he wrote a poem every day for nearly 80 years. Every day; that’s a lot of poems. He said that for a while it was tough because he kept putting it off because he couldn’t get it right or perfect so he said he began a life-saving practice. “I learned how to lower my standards to where it didn’t matter what I wrote as long as I put something on the paper.”
I love that. Maybe for some of you who have been procrastinating on your goals because you want it to be really quality stuff, you need to learn from Orville—lower your standards. I came to church to hear someone tell me to lower my standards; what kind of church is this? It’s the kind that wants to help you move. Orville said he wrote a lot of duds and some gems along the way but he wouldn’t have gotten those gems without getting in action. Get to the gems by putting away your pride and practicing your art, whatever it is so you can help create a more beautiful world. When Anne Lamott talks about writing as an art she says it’s important to write a cruddy first draft. It isn’t supposed to be edited and in a publishable form, that’s the work that comes later, but you never get to that if you aren’t willing to start and put yourself out there and get something down on paper.
Today we celebrate those who are courageous enough to put themselves out there who hone their skills through many hours and even some failed projects. They have put in the blood, sweat and tears and produce labors of love that thrills and disturbs and makes us think and feel the whole range of emotions.
Vulnerability is an aspect of all art who put their stuff out there. They are putting something of themselves out there that you may skoff at, “Is this art? Elephants can do that!” They get us talking and interacting. Artists teach us to let go, to be vulnerable, to risk people not getting it but there are those times when there is a connection and we discover that the art we want to own already owns us, has connected with us.
The Image of God Inside of Us
We connect to a God who has created us in the image of the divine creator, an image that cannot be erased or even damaged, although it can be forgotten about and even ignored. South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, who helped lead the country to abolish apartheid and provided the moral framework that prevented revenge by advocating for truth and reconciliation instead. I remember hearing him speak right in the midst of the truth and reconciliation process. He simply said that if you are made in the image of God and I am made in the image of God, then when we meet we shouldn’t simply say hello, but we should genuflect or bow saying, “The image of God within me recognizes and greets the image of God that is within you.”
But sometimes it’s hard to believe we have it let alone someone else. Martha was from a small Dutch community in rural Iowa, a town so small you don’t have to use turn signals because everyone already knows where you are going. She grew up in a quilting family where you wore clothes until they were too small or they wore out and you didn’t take them to Goodwill or throw them away, you saved little pieces of cloth and even distributed them to neighbors. After her mother died, Martha went through all of her boxes and boxes of fabric scraps and wanted to make a quilt in memory of her mother. There were lots of scraps of material from her mother’s old dresses and blouses—some she could even remember her wearing on special occasions. There were pieces from everyone in the family, and even neighbors and pieces she didn’t recognize. But to her horror, there was a scrap from a blue dress with red tulips printed into it.
It was the dress Martha wore on the day of her greatest shame and failure that she couldn’t even speak about. That dress represented all that she was during that time in her life, all that she hated about herself and all the shame that she still carried around with her decades after the event. After much soul searching and turmoil she decided to include a little triangle of fabric from that dress in the mix of over 2,000 other pieces of cloth that made comprised the quilt.
By including it she could see that it was only one piece of her story, not the overarching theme or even defining element of the whole thing. It blended in to form something beautiful, it didn’t dominate like it did in her mind. She worried that it would be the only thing she could see, but it wasn’t.
Our mistakes and failures don’t have to define our lives if we don’t let them. We are made in the image of God who loves us and says create. Take the good and the bad, all of it, learn from it and make connections to something whole. Create a beautiful life, a life of love, of integrity, of grace, the kind of life you get by practicing the spiritual discipline of partaking in art, the kind that frames the moment and pays attention to all of the beauty and wonder and how packed the world is with grace.
Special thanks to my dear friend from Indianola, Iowa pastor Ted Lyddon-Hatten for all that he has taught me about connections between art and spirituality.