March 27, 2020
Art from Early Christianity
I am in the midst of reading an older book by John Dominic Crossan entitled, The Essential Jesus: Original Sayings and Earliest Images. I started reading it years ago, and just didn’t stick with it. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to receive its message. In any case, I am enjoying it now, seeing how he is weaving together the development of Christian art with the story and message of Jesus.
While I am not certain that I would adopt all of Crossan’s theories about Jesus, which are more fully developed in his larger work, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, published in 1991, I do still find his analysis of early Christian art, and its relationship to both Pagan culture and the Christian movement, to be quite interesting.
One of the points Crossan makes is that a majority of images from the early centuries of Christianity are ones that present Jesus as either a healer, or as one who is shown eating with others. These are of course two parts of the story of Jesus that we are familiar with through reading the Gospels.
He addresses the supposition one might have that images of the crucifixion and resurrection, even the final judgment, would predominate the art of early Christianity, and notes that instead the majority of images are of the acts of Jesus in proclaiming not a future reign of God, but of the presence of the Kingdom of God among them right then. This accords with his overall thesis of Jesus as a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant speaking to the poor and marginalized of his time.
Again, while I am not sure that I accept all of his theses, it is nonetheless striking to see this predominance of images related to healing and eating with people. And isn’t that actually what ministry in the church is about at its very basic level – perhaps not miraculous healing, but helping healing in various ways through prayer and presence – showing the same kind of acceptance as Jesus did by sharing meals with others and welcoming all to the communion table – and, though I haven’t mentioned the less emphasized images of Jesus as a teacher, ourselves also doing the work of teaching in the churches?
These ancient images, many from tombs and sarcophagus lids, provide an insight into early Christianity, and offer a sense of the historical connection between the Christianity of today and the early beginnings of carrying on the ministry of Jesus.
Crossan emphasizes that the images in the book are not illustrations of art, but rather concrete expressions of how people understood faith and their relationship with Jesus. As we too use art in the church, that art should help people to connect to their faith. It was a powerful connection in the early centuries of Christianity, and it can serve us well now too.
March 20, 2020
Have You Seen Luis Velez?
This most recent book that our church book club read and discussed seems to be particularly poignant for our current times. Have You Seen Luis Velez? by Catherine Ryan Hyde is the story of a unique friendship between an awkward, trying-to-find-himself teenager and a blind woman in her nineties, both of whom live in the same apartment complex.
In brief, the story revolves around a search for a man named Luis Velez who has been visiting and helping the woman, and who has suddenly stopped coming to her home. The search for Luis Velez turns into a challenge, as there are many men with that name in the New York area. It is a quick and engaging read, and as some of us have more time on our hands with the cancellation of sporting events, concerts and even church services, I would recommend this book to help fill the gap. I believe it will inspire you as it did me.
I won’t say any more about the content of the book, but let me share the central message that I took away from it. While we sometimes can feel lost in making a large difference in the world, and as the current crisis with the spread of the Coronavirus has many people feeling both scared and alone, the story of Raymond and Millie shows the impact that one can have in just one person’s life. If we focus our attention on that one person, and then on another after that, and so on, we will indeed touch many lives. Now I know that in this current time, personal contact is being shied away from, for obvious reasons. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t make an extra phone call or two, to family or friends, to shut-in church members, to a neighbor down the street whom we hardly ever talk with in the course of daily life. We can also send a note telling someone that we are thinking about them, and even praying for them. We can find ways to touch people’s spirits even if we are encouraged to refrain from physically touching others right now.
Whenever I question how much impact I have in the world, I recall the words of Mother Teresa who said, "Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you." She helped one person at a time, whether it was working with a child, or bringing a person to her home for the dying, and in the process she honored the dignity of each individual. And, indeed, her example continues to touch lives around the world.
Caring for one another is certainly a prime part of being a Christian. We know that. But the search for Luis Velez reminds us of the possibilities that exist if we do go and “touch” one person at a time.
March 13, 2020
Two church members recently invited my wife and myself to an exhibition at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library entitled, “Egypt’s Lost Cities.” It is the story of the discovery of two cities that were of immense importance in ancient Egypt, cities that, as the Library’s website says, “were known throughout the world as cultural centers of power, of wealth, of trade, and novel artistry. One day as the Mediterranean sun beat down on the bay of Aboukir, the cities slipped into the sea without a whisper of wind, buried for centuries.”
While the story of these two cities, Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, is fascinating in itself, what impressed me from the very outset was the artistry, the beauty, of just about everything that has been recovered from these ancient cities. Hieroglyphics themselves can certainly be seen as an artistic language, but there was so much more.
From everyday objects, to ritual artifacts, to tributes small and large to the rulers of Egypt, artistic creations filled the life of the people of these cities. While we can certainly imagine that life was a challenge for people, especially for those not connected to the royal courts, the prevalence of art throughout the culture would seem to have brought both meaning and joy into the daily lives of the people.
I believe, as you could no doubt easily guess, that having art in our churches, and in our homes, is important in our day as well. I may not stop and gaze at the artwork in our church hall every time I walk past it, but these photographs by some of our youth speak to me not only of their creativity but also of the joy of the outing that we shared as they took the photographs. In the same way, I may not stop and look at the artwork hanging in my home office every time I enter the room, but its presence affirms for me the joy of creativity and the beauty of the creations that grace my walls.
Having such art in our homes and churches can also be utilitarian, as it was for the Egyptians. From the decorations we provide for church social events, to the designs we choose for items in the bathrooms, to the artistry that can grace Sunday worship bulletins if we use them, the presence of art enriches our experiences and enjoyment of life. Some of these things we may already have in place, and may indeed barely notice them since we are used to seeing them. But then we need to imagine what else we can add to these spaces, in order to bring beauty into them, and to bring inspiration to our spirits.
March 6, 2020
Poetry and Preachers
Jesus said to the disciples, as recorded by Matthew (6:7), “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” It is sound advice for any of us as we come to God in prayer, and, I think, also a good word for preachers to pay attention to.
Coincidentally, as I was thinking about this passage, I came across a book by Frederick Buechner, a collection of his sermons across the years of his writing and his ministry. In the Foreword of this book entitled, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, Brian McLaren writes about the dual crafts of writing and preaching, and then says at one point, “If you’re a preacher yourself, did you notice that many of the best sermons are the shortest ones, and did you feel embarrassed and stupid for being so long-winded so often, as I did?” (p. x)
Within the Protestant churches, there has always been an emphasis on the spoken word. I remember, growing up, that the only things of beauty in the church sanctuary were the furnishings (pulpit, lectern, communion table and choir area) and the sole stained-glass window in the back of the space. There was nothing but a blank wall to one side, and three windows with Venetian blinds on the other side. There was little to inspire in the way of visual stimulus, which then did cause one to focus on the spoken words of the preacher and worship leaders.
But as I read poetry, I am reminded of how powerful a brevity of words can be. Well chosen words, whether in poetry or in a Sunday message, can communicate quite clearly and poignantly. Indeed, if people know that preachers are going to make their point in four different ways, how attentive does one need to be once the point has been made a single time?
When we offer poetry in worship, of share works of art, or even preach poetically, we introduce forms of communication that speak in different ways than most of us are used to seeing or hearing. As a consequence, however, the temptation is to make sure that the message, at least the message as we perceive it, has been heard. Toward that end, we are apt to want to explain poetry to people, just as we might explain a joke that seems to have fallen flat. Yet, we have to trust folks to gather what they will from poetry and art. And we have to open up space for them to do that, sharing that we do trust people to receive what is there. We, in effect, have to undo the underlying message that we will explain everything to people.
Thankfully, we have a pattern for this in the Gospels. Very few of Jesus’ parables are explained in the text. Of course, as we read the parables today, we may have to explain some things in order for people to understand the context in which Jesus spoke them. But the fact that he offered these parables to people, and trusted people to get the message from them, points us toward the value of letting things stand on their own. We have to trust that God’s Spirit will move within people to bring understanding and inspiration. Indeed, for any of us, whereas when we are told something, we can acknowledge it, move on, and perhaps even forget it, when we discover a truth on our own, the point sticks with us.
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