Wednesday, May 4, 2016

when church is art

Every Sunday morning, I listen to my husband preach the same message twice.

You may suppose this would be boring. But it isn't. I need a double dose, because being his wife means I will be asked for my opinion later.

"What'd you think of the message today?" is a Sunday afternoon ritual in our home.

"I loved it," seems like a great response, right?

WRONG! You are so completely wrong!!

The man wants details. What interested me, did the introduction seem too long, were the points clearly supported, how was that Flannery O'Connor illustration, and didn't I love the quote from one of my favorite books? He was thinking of me when he put that part in.

No one told me when I married him I would be required to listen this carefully in church and then give a full review of the message.

Of course, to be fair, no one told him he would someday have to watch Gilmore Girls while I fold endless baskets of laundry on Friday nights, or that he would be enlisted to read the chapters of my future book and ONLY SAY ENCOURAGING THINGS UNTIL TOMORROW WHEN I WILL BE READY FOR CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM AND RUTHLESS EDITING. Marriage is all about sucking it up to keep another human being sane.

Most Sundays, when I hear my husband speak I am awed by the art of it. He is a craftsman, stacking thoughts upon assumptions, lighting them with stories, and then precisely carving a masterpiece from it all. Other preachers sound more like mystics, swirling the colors of truth with the hues of grace, the splendor of it all splashes across our souls like a Jackson Pollack painting. When they are finished, we can't believe this new thing God has done to us with their words. Still others share God's truth like jazz musicians, the words trail out and seem disordered at first, but then you realize they have woven themselves into you as you tapped your foot to the beat and let them baptize you with their spontaneous clarity.

At its very core, Church is art. The music, the story, the desire to affect change in our culture. We are making art inside these communities of faith.

I love art.

In my early twenties I worked as a Production Assistant for an Art Director in Hollywood. His whole team was made up of guys he had known since UCLA art school in the 1960s, plus me. We spent our days designing furniture and then taking metal tubes to muffler shops to be bent into the proper shape, or recreating American fast food restaurants for Japanese commercials. As we worked, they would tell me fascinating stories about the LA art scene through the years. They were all these fascinating, albeit slightly gnarled poets and painters; creatives who had chosen not to abandon their art for the sake of a paycheck, but who were willing to let Hollywood pay the bills so they could still be full-time artists between productions.

I wanted to be just like them someday.

The only snag in that idea was I wasn’t really “like” them at all. They found my youthful ignorance about “the establishment” shocking. They were appalled by my over-exposure to common and shallow cultural ideas. My commitment to my faith confused them, and my lack of desire to hook-up with a new guy every week perplexed them greatly. But faith and modesty are also a bit anti-establishment and counter-cultural themselves, and so these defining characteristics became my ticket into their small circle. I was in!

One day a discussion about a particular art installation in an art magazine began. The pieces were underwater kites, designed by a famous artist’s daughter. The general accusation floating around the office was that her work was shallow, and was only promoted because of who her father was.

I stared at the photos and (naively) said, “They’re really pretty, though.”

Deadpan stares. Crickets. No one moved and the time-space continuum lost its stability for 2.5 seconds.

Then John, the grey-haired former hippie who endured me with the least amount of patience said, “Which is great. If you think art is supposed to be pretty.”

Well, I don’t think that anymore, John. Not since you made that idea sound so imbecile. Now I think art is supposed to be...ugly?

Slowly, slowly I began to understand art as a many-layered way of communicating deeper emotions and truths. Over time I understood why these men held the definition of art so loosely. For them to say art must be one thing would close the door on what some artist, somewhere in the world, could possibly say through their work about life and love and the world. Art couldn’t only be about color, or form, or pleasing some group of people, because it was supposed to be a physical manifestation of something deeper and higher.

Twenty years later, this definition of art is also the definition I find most useful for church: A physical manifestation of deeper emotions and higher thoughts in a place we gather to gaze at truths about the intangible: faith and life and love and hope. Church is where we experience the presence of a God so beautiful and so shockingly brilliant, we are left in awe of Him and totally devoted to exposing as many people to Him as possible.

Church is where we are supposed to gather to be God's most impressive art installation of all time.

We may never agree on everything. We will be messy and at times judgmental. There will be a majority whose voice is loudest, and a minority who may (or may not) become a new wave of leadership. One person's pretty kites will be a horror in someone else's eyes, but God will use them to reach someone, somewhere, because He is brilliant like that. We may not recognize the Van Gogh's around us until it is too late. But as we stumble and paint and pray and carve and preach and sing, we are creating life and light in the world, and we are doing the closest thing to God's own heart:

We are building His Kingdom. It is more than pretty. It is glorious.

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