September 12, 2021 ~ Rev. Beckie Sweet
Rev. Dr. Tom Bolsinger wrote: “A few years ago, I was invited by one of the contractors in my town to go to a job site. This contractor had recently lost his young daughter in a freakish and sudden passing, and the company that he worked for wanted to dedicate the building to her memory. They asked me if I would lead a brief service at the site. So, I drove to the place on a dreary day and parked my car in the dirt lot adjacent to the building site. I got out of the car carrying my Bible and wearing my serious Sunday suit. The mud immediately caked over my wingtip shoes, and I plodded my way to the center of the foundation where the walls were just going up. The project director called over the whole crew, asking them to stop their work for a few minutes.
It didn’t take me long to realize that these workers had no idea who I was and probably didn’t know the young girl either. They were respectful, but annoyed. They were both bored and were falling behind; they had work to do. So, I briefly explained our purpose in gathering, looking (to no avail) for some sign that they appreciated this little ceremony. Seeing little encouragement, I plunged into my remarks, trying not to take them away from their work too long.
Bolsinger continues, I began by telling them of my visit to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France (this would have been prior to the recent fire there). I took the tour up the bell tower and walked up a stairway that had been recently constructed to handle the weight and pounding that the tourists would deliver. As I walked up the stairs, I paused at an opening in the bell tower. I looked down and realized that I was gazing at the back of an intricate sculpture of a gargoyle on a ledge high above the street. Then, as I sat staring at the beauty of this piece of handiwork, it dawned on me that the artist who had carved it so many centuries ago, never expected that the back of this sculpture would be seen. You see, the vantage point from which I looked at it didn’t exist in the original design of the cathedral. The stairway hadn’t been there; no one was supposed to be able to gaze out this opening. The only one who would have seen the backside of this sculpture was God. And those church crafters, so many years ago, had created art that only God could see—reflecting in the very excellent attention to detail—the character of God.
As I finished the story Bolsinger concludes, I noticed a change had come over these workers. They were no longer shuffling their feet or fidgeting with their hands. They stood there in rapt attention for I was talking to them about their work. They were rough carpenters and ironworkers; they were electrical conduit and pipe layers. No one ever saw their work. But I had challenged them in the memory of our young friend, and for the glory of God, to make their work art. And to do it for the one audience who was sure to see. As I finished, one by one, a number of the workers thanked me. For though none of them would have considered themselves artists or crafts-persons, they had caught a glimpse of just some of what it means to see and reflect the God who is.
It might seem odd to think of God as an artist or crafter. We tend to think of God’s creative activity as being one of immediate and effortless commanding (Let there be light!), and not patient and laborious shaping. Yet, that is the very image that flows throughout the Scriptures. “When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you set in place—what is humanity that you should be mindful of us?” Psalm 8 reminds us. “The One who created the heavens is God, the One who fashioned and made the earth,” Isaiah tells us.
God’s people drew upon the crafts of the day—of silver and blacksmiths with their fiery furnaces, of potters shaping and forming—to talk about the way they experienced God at work in the world and in their lives.
We are called to help each of us see and reflect God the crafts-person and artist ~ our Creator. Art is the expression of a seeing heart through attentive hands. It starts with seeing, is expressed in shaping, and produces something beautiful and useful.
Starts with seeing… According to some artists, the reason why so many of us feel so uncreative, is that we refuse to take the time to see things as they are rather than the way we think they should be. When we try to draw or paint, or sculpt something, we fail. Since we really don’t see it, we can’t make it. We look past things and people and all of creation and see what we want to see, or what we think should be there.
Again, Bolsinger writes, I remember walking through the Louvre in Paris the day before I went to Notre Dame. There were hundreds of people packed into the hallways, racing through this “must see” tourist stop. Most of them with heads down, looking in a guidebook searching only for the Mona Lisa that “everyone” has to see. Others searched for a gift shop or a bathroom. But, all around them were the most beautiful works of art in the world, and most of them just sat silently, simply ignored.
Like Michelangelo who saw David in a huge slab of flawed marble, if we are going to see and reflect a creative God, we need to begin by asking God to open our eyes to really see the people and the world around us in all their depths. To gaze into the eyes of another and not just at them. To see the pain of the world past the headlines, the need of people past our small circle of friends, to really see the joyful and creative work of God’s Spirit. It starts with seeing.
Is expressed in shaping… The most common work of art in the Bible is the work of the potter. Pottery in the oldest verses of Scripture was not the dynamic process of the wheel and water, but the slow molding and shaping of strong, attentive hands, forming the lifeless lump of clay into a vessel to hold the stuff of life. Throughout the Bible, God is described as the one who shapes the pot and adorns it with that which lets it stand apart, be unique, and be pleasing to the eye.
Shaping is a long, dynamic, and fluid process with many fits and starts. At times, the potter finds the clay unmalleable and must break it and work it and wet it until it can be shaped according to the potter’s design. And at times, a vessel that is useful for one task must be reshaped for other tasks. In the Scriptures, there is a sense that God uses the events of life, the trials and circumstances, to shape each creation—that the world is shaped by history, that people forge a national identity, that some are formed by circumstances. Yesterday, while watching the 9/11 Remembrances, I heard survivors and family and friends of those who perished mention over and over how the tragedy of the terrorist attacks had forever shaped them. And that it has forever shaped us in many different ways.
This is a timely reminder to us that creativity is as much patience and effort as inspiration. It happens over time. That creativity is sometimes chosen with intentionality, but often times is thrust upon us by the circumstances of life. That’s the creative expression of God in our families, in our children’s lives, or in our work will come from a long, constant and persevering shaping.
Seeing and reflecting God the Creator and artist, starts with seeing, is expressed in shaping, and finally
Produces something beautiful and useful…. Creativity, if it is to be truly creative, produces something. It is taking good intentions and making something of them. And I believe for everything created to reflect God, “that something” must be both beautiful and useful.
I know—immediately some of you will object saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that what is beautiful art to one person is a black velvet poster of Elvis to another. But the classic sense of beauty is based on the notion that aesthetics are tied to ethics and that the beautiful is the good. Creative acts, if they are to reflect God, must be good to be beautiful: they must inspire goodness or make us yearn for goodness, even amidst trouble.
Even art that reflects the tragedy and folly of the world must do more than show it to us. If it is going to be truly prophetic, then in the words of Walter Brueggemann, it must criticize and energize. To be truly a thing of beauty, art must reflect the God who is truly good. So, art that reflects God must be both beautiful and useful.
Immediately some of the more practical among us perk our ears. Did she say useful? Now she’s talking. That’s the problem with art, they say, what good is it? I mean if you want be creative, build a better mousetrap, design a computer that won’t crash right in the middle of doing payroll, develop something that does my filing while I am working on the sermon. Now that is beautiful! And biblically speaking, most works of art were household items: pots, vessels, tableware, and urns.
But art’s primary use is to give us a glimpse of the divine in the ordinary : It is to show us God. This doesn’t mean that all of our photographs need to have Bible verses or that all of our themes must be consciously religious, but that all that we do must be done to and for the glory or revealing of God. And any creative act, if it is a reflection of God, reveals something of God, calls people back to God, inspires worship of God, or simply causes us to sigh, “My God!” is useful to glorifying God.
In 1 Chronicles chapters 22 and 29, we see that the crafters who worked on the temple of God were dedicated to God and were blessed by God to do their creative work. Of course, some of them worked on ornamentation that was seen in worship, but the crafters who carved the doorjamb or installed the subflooring were equally blessed.
I believe that part of our vocation as people called to reflect God in the world is to reflect the God who is so constantly creative. Whether it is finding creative solutions to problems, bringing imagination and wonder to one’s parenting style, or lovingly shaping the environment of your neighborhood, workplace, or home, I believe that we are to do everything like those cathedral crafters carving the backs of gargoyles for Notre Dame: doing it for God’s approval and delight.
And when we do so, then we have seen, shaped, and produced something beautiful and useful. We have been FORMED by the Divine Creator, and then partner with God in FORMATION of ourselves, our relationships, the neighborhood, and the world. Thanks be to God!