Thursday, November 21, 2013

Finding Works of Living Art

This is part two on my series on art and theology.  For part one, click here.
I want to revisit the piece of art done by Banksy that I talked about in my last post.

This image is from Better Out Than In

This piece tells a story.  It is shouting at us to see this man waiting for his lover by the club door.  We don't know why he's waiting.  We don't know who he is.  And yet, in this waiting man we are able to see more than just the man.  We see his love.  We see his grief over the absence of his lover.  We see parts of ourselves in this work that we can relate to.  

This picture tells a story of the human condition.  In this man we see our neighbors, our friends, our family.

In this man we see ourselves.

We are drawn to portraits like this one because in the subject of the portrait we can see a glimpse of ourselves.  In their portraits we see their humanity.

And in their humanity, we see art.

There is precedent for looking at humanity as an art.
"So God created humankind in God's image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them." (Genesis 1:27)
The image of God.

Images.  Icons.  Photographs.  Portraits.  People.

All of humanity is created in the image of God.

Do we stop to take the time to seek this image of God in our neighbor?  Do we only see the image of God in icons, or photographs, or portraits?  Do we listen to what God says outside of scripture?

We look people who surround us, at the theater, at the coffee shop, at the bar, at work, on the side of the road, but do we see them?

Do we stop to talk to them? Do we see their faces?  Do we listen to stories?

Do we find the image of God in them?

Or do we need someone to take their picture like Brandon from Humans of New York? Someone who is willing to stop, look at these women and men who get passed by day after day, listen to their stories, and then take their picture?  Someone who shouts that we might stop, look, and listen ourselves?

"I'm homeless, and I'm an alcoholic.  But I have a dream."
"What's that?"
"I wanna go fishing."

"It's kinda weird having a child of my own, because I'm seeing all the things that my father missed."

Stop.  Look.  Listen.

It doesn't seem that hard, but we miss these opportunities all the time.

We make excuses. We tell ourselves we don't have time to stop.  We tell ourselves that we have already seen our neighbor.  We tell ourselves that we can't talk to the stranger.  We say we're doing it to protect ourselves or our families.

We tell ourselves anything to avoid someone who is different from us.

How many different encounters of God are we missing when we do this though?

I've already talked about the "cacophony of voices" that Scripture uses to help us understand bits and pieces of God.  But what about the beautiful collage of images that God has created in each and every people that we encounter each and every day?

In this guy?

Or these children?
Or this woman?

All of these people, and many more reflect God in their appearance, in their actions, and in their lives.  They all have families, friends, hopes, dreams, fears, joys, griefs, trials, tribulations, and celebrations - stories that are important and powerful.  They live complex and complicated lives that mirror our very own.  They walk the same journey that you and I will walk every day.  

But we get so caught up in our journeys that we simply walk past them, even though we're all walking through life together.  We miss out on hearing and being a part of their stories, that are just as delightful, terrifying, or heartbreaking as our own. 

"If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing."
When we don't stop, we walk past God.
When we don't look, we miss seeing God's face.
When we don't listen, we deafen ourselves to God's story.

Let's stop making excuses.
Let's stop looking at people as objects that are either in our way or are a means to an end.

Let's start looking at people as subjects worthy of the same care, attention, and devotion that any artist puts into their work.
Let's start looking at people with the same awe and reverence we give to works of art such as the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel.
Let's start appreciating the living art that God creates and places in our lives every day.
This image, and the ones above taken from Humans of New York

Let's start looking at people the way God sees them - through lenses of compassion, mercy, grace, forgiveness, and most importantly love. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Learning to Pay Attention

This is part one of a two part series on art and theology.  

Last Thursday, I joined Instagram.

I'm not really sure why I did it because I use Facebook to share my pictures and Twitter to participate in instantaneous communication.  Being on Instagram seemed a little excessive to me.  

Yet, even though I've only Instagramed one picture (as of writing this), having Instagram on my phone helps me start paying attention to things.  I'm able to start noticing things that I see every day and frame them in such a way that they say something.

This picture, for example.  Every night I walk my dog and I usually notice the moon, stars, clouds, etc.. But when I took the picture, I was paying attention to just how the clouds interacted with the light of the moon.  I was paying attention to how the moonlight created shadows with the branches of the trees.  I was paying attention to something that I see every day.

I've noticed this happens with many photographs that appear on Instagram.  There are tons of pictures of food, pets, family, friends, trash, and so on.  Sometimes it seem foolish or ridiculous.  When I would see these photos on Facebook, my first thought was, "Nobody cares what you had for lunch today!"

Not anymore.

Instagram's greatest strength is that everyone can become a photographer.  Everyone can take an ordinary object and frame it in such a way that people to notice it.  That people pay attention to it.  That people truly see it.

Frederick Buechner, in his book Whistling in the Dark, says that this about art.
Literature, painting, music - the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot.  In a world that for the most part steers clear of the idea of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things.

Stop.  Look.  Listen.

Three simple commands.  Why do we have such a hard time with them?

We pause, but rarely stop.  We look, but seldom see.  We hear, but hardly listen.

We need artists from all walks of life to shout, "Look over here!  See what great mystery is present! Listen to the holy rhythms of life!"

About a month ago, I stumbled on to the blog done by the NY Graffiti artist Banksy.  While not strictly legal (as evidenced by some of the posts related to being pursued by the NYPD) I admire what this mysterious artist is trying to do.  An anonymous figure quitely encouraging people to stop, look, and listen to the life of the city; to see something in a new and exciting way that might have scared them before.
Check out more of Bansky's work here.

This piece tells a story.  It is shouting at us to see this man waiting for his lover by the club door.  We don't know why he's waiting.  We don't know who he is.  And yet, in this waiting man we are able to see more than just the man.  We see his love.  We see his grief over the absence of his lover.  We see parts of ourselves in this work that we can relate to.

And yet, people walk by this beautiful story without a second glance day after day.

I'm not sure I would have noticed it if I hadn't come across it online. I'm not sure I would pay it any attention.  I would have passed it by without a second glance. I needed a "frame" to encourage me to stop, look, and listen.

Instagram and Banksy's Graffiti give us opportunities to stop, look, and listen to the extraordinary aspects of our lives that are extraordinary only because of their ordinariness.

Too often we let these extraordinary moments go by without noting them.

Holy moments of creation slip by without a second glance.

We expect God to swoop down with a smartphone and Instagram these moments for us.  We want God to put a frame around what God has done.  And we do get these experiences occasionally.  We have moments where we see God's presence in nature - in our "mountaintop experiences."

And yet.

I have a sneaking suspicion that God works more like our Graffiti artist, Banksy.  God is subtly working within creation to quietly encourage us to stop, look, and listen.

It's never anything fancy or "loud" but it's quiet, subtle, and simple.

And yet.
Its quietness draws us in, closer and closer.
Its subtlety allows it to speak to us time and time again.
Its simplicity allows us to see this message of creation again and again and again, everywhere we go.

So it's up to us to frame some of these quiet moments for one another.  It's up to us to shout on their behalf.  It's up to us to ask people to stop, look, and listen to these holy moments where God has created beautiful works of art that have been passed without a second glance time and time again.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Blurred Lines

This sermon was delivered to the people of The Lutheran Church of the Nativity on Sunday, November 10, 2013.  The text that the sermon is based on is Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24.

What is justice?

Merriam-Webster defines justice as: the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.

That seems a little lackluster for our text from Amos.  I mean, Amos’ words are full of what we might call “poetic justice.”  It’s language that is rich in imagery and meaning.  It’s full of passion and energy.  Merriam-Webster doesn’t seem to be doing the text much justice.

So then, where can we turn?  What about the justice that we see in movies and television shows?  Is justice something akin to what Robin Hood and Batman do?  Where people get their “just deserts” for lying, cheating, or stealing their way to wealth and prosperity.  Is God’s justice like that of a vigilante, who makes sure people get what’s coming to them, especially when the law fails?

A Batman-esque God seems to work.  Thinking of Batman Gotham City with it’s great disparity between the 1 percenters and the rest of the population is very similar to the Israel that Amos is speaking to in this mighty proclamation.  For both Batman and Amos, we see how the rich and wealthy are crying out because of the “filth and poverty” that surround them.  The wealthy in both cases seem to miss the fact that their misuse of power and money has caused the great disparity in both landscapes.  And both Batman and Amos work to bring about a justice that is comforting for those who have been oppressed, but is anything but comforting to those who have been oppressing the lower classes.

And this view of justice really speaks to us in our society today.  Remember the “Occupy Wall Street” and “I am the 99%” from a few years back?  We see in our very own country a wealth disparity that happens, typically at the expense of the middle and lower classes.  People in these lower classes that have been neglected by society turn to violence, drugs, and crime as a way of making ends meet because it looks like all other doors have been shut by them.  Voices cry out for justice all over the country - those who have money are discouraged by the violence and crimes of those who don’t have money.  And those who don’t have money cry out for a little more equality in the status quo.

This is exactly why heroes like Batman, Robin Hood, and others who “rob from the rich and give to the poor” are so popular.  We all want justice and we see it in Batman and Robin Hood.  

And yet, even this heroic view of justice seems to fall a little flat when we try to understand God’s justice.  God’s justice is filled with mercy and grace.  I’m not sure the last time I saw Batman be merciful to a bad guy.  

So, then what is God’s justice?

This “feels” like an important question.  We see the prophets in particular focus in on living justice.  Amos and Micah in particular focus on the fact that God doesn’t desire people to gather together and worship in a particular setting or by saying a few “right words.”  God doesn’t desire sacrifices.  God isn’t even looking for good singers or beautiful music.  God desires justice.

And if God desires justice, shouldn’t we know what that means?  Shouldn’t we have an idea what it is God is asking of us?  We don’t want to let God down?  

As I’ve been wrestling with this over the past week, trying to pin down an answer to what it means to live God’s justice I realize that it’s not as simple as coming up with a step-by-step guide to living a godly life.  I can’t live out a justice rooted in mercy and grace if I write it down into some sort of moral code or law, because as soon as I think I’ve got it phrased just right, I will immediately run in to some situation that breaks every idea of justice that I’ve just codified.

Try as I might, I will never be able to pin down exactly how to make justice roll down like waters.  I cannot describe how righteousness will flow like an ever-flowing stream.  I can only dream and imagine.

I can dream like Amos dreamed, of a day when the lines between the wealthy and the impoverished will be blurred.  Of a day when there will be no way to distinguish between those who had money and those who have never had money.  There will be no way to distinguish between the 1% and the 99%.  Amos dreamed of a day when no person would go without.  Of a day when God’s justice will come rushing down over the world, wiping away all of the walls that the wealthy have built to keep the poor out.

I can dream like Susan B. Anthony dreamed, of a day when the lines between male and female will be blurred.  Dreams of a day when we no longer look at a person’s gender to make decisions about their strengths and abilities.  Anthony dreamed of a day when no person would be turned away because of their gender.  Of a day when God’s justice will come rushing down over the world, wiping away the walls that men build to keep women out.

I can dream like Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, of a day when the lines between black and white will be blurred.  Dreams of a day when there will be no way to distinguish between the two races.  Dreams of a day when there is no distinguishing where someone came from.  King dreamed of a day when no person would be excluded based on the color of their skin.  Of a day when God’s justice will come rushing down over the world, wiping away all of the walls that whites built to keep those who are of a different race out.

I dream the dream that women and men have been dreaming for thousands of years.  I dream of a day when we no longer say, “me vs. you” I dream of a day when we no longer exclude someone based on how much money they have, how they look, or who they love.  I dream of a day when no one is turned away because they are “different” or “weird.”  I dream of a day when God’s justice will come rushing down over the world, wiping away all of the walls that we build to keep the “others” out.

I dream the dream Jesus dreamed when he said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”  Or, to say it better.  “I dream of a day when those who carry my name do their part to tear down the walls that we have built around me and you, so that no matter who they are looking at, they see a brother or sister in the family of God. That those who truly worship me, come to the holy table, are swept up by the waters of justice, grace, and mercy, and flow into the world, creating new rivers and streams and waterfalls wherever they go, that all the world might experience the gift of new life found in the removal of these walls.”

Maybe we can define justice after all.  Maybe justice is being able to welcome our sisters and brothers in Christ all over the world back into the family.  Isn’t that what God wants?  God wants us to all be able to look at one another and no longer see rich or poor, male or female, white or black, straight or gay, Christian or Muslim, but rather to welcome the person we see standing there as a child of God.  To embrace their differences so that our differences might be embraced. To embrace their flaws so that our flaws might be embraced by them. To embrace and be embraced so that we might all find God’s healing and righteousness.

I love Amos’ dream, Susan B. Anthony’s dream, Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, the dream of all of us who are dreaming God’s dream.  This dream of justice that overflows with compassion.  This dream that tears down walls in the name of God’s love for all people.  This dream of righteousness and relationships that allow all men and women, you and me, to become an “us” that lives in to the grace-filled life we experience in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Why? Why? Why?

Why is the sky blue?
Why is the grass green?
Why do we go to church?


Why is the most basic of human questions.  From an early age, we want to know why.  Why do things work the way that they work?  Why do we do the things we do?

And it's also one of the most frustrating questions that humans ask.  Too often when asked why, we respond with "Because I said so."  Or maybe if we're feeling frustrated we reply,  "Because."

So I repeat, why do we go to church?

Is it just "because?"

I hope not.

But, I feel, for many people in churches across the country and maybe even around the world, the answer really is, "because we've always done it."

We go because mom and dad took us.
We go because we want our kids to be raised in the church environment, even though it's not really important for us.
We go because it's what society expects of us.
We go because our friends are there.

We go just because.

Unfortunately our reasons for going to church don't cut it anymore.  People don't buy into this idea that church is something that we just do.

Our society is saying, "You keep giving us explanations that fall short.  We don't buy it anymore."

Church isn't something that mom and dad do with their children anymore.
Church isn't the only place for moral formation any more.
Church isn't expected of us from society.
Church isn't the only place we find friends and family.

Church isn't somewhere we go just because.

I'm not saying the church is dying.  That's not true.  We see it flourishing in many emerging communities.

I'm not saying anyone is "killing the church" by using outdated language and music - that's not true.  People will find meaningfulness in any language and music as long as they have a reason to search.

I am saying that we need to think about the reasons why we gather as the body of Christ.

Why do we gather on Sunday mornings?
Why do we want to talk to people about our faith?
Why do we help others?


Is it because we encounter God?
Is it because we want to surround ourselves with the faithful when we experience doubt?
Is it because we want to lose our sense of self in the mystery of God?
Is it because we desire true community that tears down walls between "you and me"?
Is it because we yearn to erase labels of race, gender, and sexuality?
Is it because we long to call ourselves Children of God?

I hope so.