Art and the Vision of the Church

Every year, Reality Church Stockton sets aside an intentional time to reflect on where God has brought us and where God is leading us. As we looked forward with hope and anticipation, the vision of the prophet Isaiah framed our time:

“The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.”” Isaiah 56:8

During our time, I posed the questions “Who are those individuals that don’t necessarily fit a cultural mold, but contribute to the lives of those inside and outside the church in such unique and priceless ways? Who are those willing to cross over borders to gather those from without?” I suggested that one group of people, among many, is the Art Community.

Because time didn’t allow me to explain, I want to suggest a few reasons why I stated that art plays a significant role in the mission and vision of the church.

THE SPIRIT AND ART
An extremely inspiring question that was presented to me a few years back was Who is the first person in the Bible described as being ‘filled with the Spirit’? They had a point behind the question. So I searched. To my surprise, it was not a significant leader like Moses or a prominent patriarch like Abraham. It was an artist commissioned to contribute to the tabernacle construction project:

“The LORD said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.” (Exodus 31:1–5)

A Creative God who longs for us to experience his beauty gives a special place within the covenant community for those who creatively unfurl the beauty of God’s handiwork that has been buried in the brokenness of a sin-stained world and gifts them with his Spirit to do so. Bezalel’s today contribute to life and vibrancy of the living temple, the church as well. They contribute artistry that seems to transcend economic boundaries that exist in our world and has the ability to speak across cultural lines.

THE CONTRIBUTION OF ART
In the past, we have highlighted our love, appreciation, and support for educators in the church. I would put this idea about supporting artists in a very similar category. Artists are those whom God has given distinct gifts for contributing to the community. Just like education can contribute to breaking patterns of poverty, art can break other sin-burdened patterns that hold particular people groups down. For instance, music was integral for the black community, particularly during the 20th century, helping give rise to a pushed-down people. When MLK presented his famous speech on the monument in Washington, his famous “dream” was not what he planned on sharing. Toward the end of his speech, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted to Dr. King from the crowd, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” King departed from his prepared speech and started preaching his famous “I have a dream”. The artists have their part to play in moving justice forward.

THE COMPELLING NATURE OF ART
I recently read two books that opened my eyes to how beauty and compassion for human life are intertwined. One titled ‘Culture Care: Reconnecting Beauty for Our Common Life’ and the other titled ‘On Beauty and Being Just’. One is written by an artist and another a professor. One is from a Biblical perspective and the other from a sociological one. The common thread is that art and beauty foster inclinations toward justice and compassion.

Reading through these books, I was reminded of a study I read a few years back in the New York Times titled “Why Do We Experience Awe?”. A Professor named Dacher Keltner concluded that awe is an ultimate collective emotion, that motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good. “Through many activities — collective rituals, celebration, music and dance, religious gatherings and worship — awe might help shift our focus from our narrow self-interest to the interests of the group to which we belong.” They set up a little test at the foot of a grove of Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees at UC Berkley. Students were asked to stand in a specific location where they could look up at the trees. Some looked up at the 200 ft. trees and others were told to stare horizontally to the side a science building. A small accident was then staged where a person would drop pens or papers nearby. What they found was that those who spent as little as a minute or two staring up at the trees were far more likely to walk over help the individual that dropped their items than those who had been looking horizontally. They continued to do small studies showing the same results. The study stated: “We have sought to understand why awe arouses altruism[selfless concern for others] of different kinds. One answer is that awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger. Our research finds that even brief experiences of awe, such as being amid beautiful tall trees, lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity people share with one another. In the great balancing act of our social lives, between the gratification of self-interest and a concern for others, fleeting experiences of awe redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions toward the needs of those around us… You could make the case that our culture today is awe-deprived…To reverse this trend, we suggest that people insist on experiencing more everyday awe.” – Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, “Why Do We Experience Awe?”

Somehow, someway, God has wired our hearts and minds to feel compelled to move outside of ourselves and towards helping others as a result of beauty. We pray that we can align our worship gatherings and community rhythms with this mysterious pattern in life in a way where saints are awestruck by the creative nature of God and moved out into the world to be agents of peace, care, and justice. I’m convinced that artists and their gifts have a significant part to play in this.

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Scars That Bear Witness

“God does forgive the past, but he does not erase it… We all come into the family of Jesus with broken bones, wounds, and legs shot up in the war of life. God’s intention is to heal our brokenness and patch up our wounds. [But] He allows the scars and weakness to remain.” Peter Scazzero

One of the most common hesitations to stepping out and sharing the good news of Jesus, that I hear of at least, is “I have failed too many times to be used by God.” The concern is that the scars of the past (albeit spiritual, emotional, relational, or even physical scars) are disqualifying for meaningful impact in the future. To many, scars are incriminating bits of evidence stacked against them, sentencing them to carry out the rest of their days defined by their offenses, like scarlet letters.

But what if those same scars could be transformed from working against us to working for us? The Apostle Paul seemed to believe they could. In his personal testimony to young Timothy, he wrote,  “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15–16). The combination of his horrendous past and Christ’s wonderful mercy became an opportunity to display to the world something beautiful and compelling.

The paradigm-shifting news of the Risen Christ informs us that what used to be incriminating can become validating. How?

The gospel writer John records the following:

“Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!””

John 20:24-28

What does this tell us? It tells us that in the Kingdom of God, scars are testimonial. Because Jesus, our perfect substitute, is no longer in the tomb, our scars can stir faith in others and not compromise it, just as it did in Thomas’s case. How? They bear witness to the world that God raises people from the dead – that because Jesus Christ is risen, the repentant can be made new. They become a trustworthy testimony that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

Look Up

Woe is me! For I have become as when the summer fruit has been gathered, as when the grapes have been gleaned: there is no cluster to eat, no first-ripe fig that my soul desires. The godly has perished from the earth, and there is no one upright among mankind; they all lie in wait for blood, and each hunts the other with a net. Their hands are on what is evil, to do it well; the prince and the judge ask for a bribe, and the great man utters the evil desire of his soul; thus they weave it together. The best of them is like a brier, the most upright of them a thorn hedge. The day of your watchmen, of your punishment, has come; now their confusion is at hand. Put no trust in a neighbor; have no confidence in a friend; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your arms; for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house. But as for me, I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. Micah 7:1-7

In a time when things in Judah had broken down and turmoil was upon them, Micah spoke of where his clarity and confidence was found for the road ahead. It wasn’t horizontal: “put no trust in a neighbor; have no confidence in a friend…“(Micah 7:5); nor was it internal: “no one upright among mankind”(7:2). He said: “I look up.

When the ground gets shaky, the pressure rises, and even our best support systems breakdown and fail us, the answer is always the same: “I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation.” This gives us the stillness and posture necessary for effectiveness for the present task.

There’s a scene in Hermon Melville’s famous story Moby Dick marked by turbulence, as the conflict between the chaotic sea versus Captain Ahab and his crew was coming to a head. It was an age old battle between good and evil. When the appearance of a white mass broke the surface of the water, the crew chaotically pursued it. As the scene unfolds, it explains the actions of the sailors.“Like desperadoes, they tugged and they strained”, Melville explains. Every hand was on deck, laboring tirelessly, sparing not an ounce of energy. The scene is remarkable because as much as there is frantic movement among the sailors, there is one man that stands still. He’s not running, or rushing. He’s not shouting. He’s not swept up in the chaos. He’s still… He’s steady.

He’s the harpooner. He’s quiet and poised. It’s not his job to be frantic; it’s his job to be still. Melville adds this bit of commentary at the end of chapter 62, “To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of [stillness], and not out of toil.”

Look up. Aim steady.

Scripture and Reflection: Psalm 51

Sanctification is a daily deliverance from remaining sin and a daily shaping into the image of Jesus Christ. The key to understanding sanctification is not only seeing what we’ve been delivered from (namely sin, death and destruction) but seeing who we’re being delivered to and what we’re being delivered for.

In order to help us see what this looks like, here are four developments of that daily deliverance seen in Psalm 51:

Dependence

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. (vs 1-12)

We are to always and forever be a people postured in dependence on God. The Psalmist makes it clear – we are dependent on God for mercy, love, forgiveness and cleansing. We are dependent for the ability to recognize sin and repent of it. We are dependent on Him for joy, gladness, renewal, perseverance and even a willingness to obey. For the Christian, dependence is a vital development of deliverance.

Discipleship

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. (v.13)

It would be very easy to overlook this verse in such an extremely personal prayer like Psalm 51. But its too important to skim over. Deliverance results in discipleship. Personal growth has corporate consequences. As Jesus was was foretelling of Peter’s denial he said “And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). In other words, see your repentance as an opportunity to disciple others. Who is worthy to disciple others? The one who acknowledges their sin, turns to God for mercy, and is compelled by love to strengthen others in the process.

Declaration

Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. (vs. 14-15)

A people who have been forgiven much, praise much!

We have been delivered from sin to declared the excellencies of God. As we all exist for God’s praise, the Christian is to utilize every opportunity in life to rejoice in God, including times of guilt. When we have failed in obedience and have sinned against God and others, Satan tempts us to view these times as a reason to pull back and hide until we have “dealt with our sin.” But all the while, God through his Spirit is telling us “Come to me, rejoice in deliverance, for I have dealt with your sin for you through Jesus.”

A people who have been forgiven much, praise much!

Duty 

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar. (vs. 16-19)

Religious duty is a poor substitute for true repentance. Always has been – Always will be. We are often tempted to circumvent repentance by just doing more stuff for God. We tend to ignore the voice of the Spirit and attempt to drown Him out with the noise of business in the name of “serving God”. Well, we’re still left burdened by sin and now even more burdened by duty; meanwhile God’s not delighted by any of it.

But then we’ve got another issue presented. The Psalmist says “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it” and then goes on to say “then will you delight in right sacrifices.” We are faced with an opposite temptation to abandon what the Psalmist calls right sacrifices.

When obedience is offered to God by faith in Christ and fulfillment of scriptural responsibility is offered in response to his grace, God is pleased. God delights in right sacrifices that flow from a right heart. When we live out of the finished work of Christ, we will be compelled to fulfill our Christian duties with a reciprocal delight: Our duty will be his delight and His delight will fuel our duty.

Scripture and Reflection: Zechariah 3

The following scripture retells the story of God allowing Zechariah to peer into the great courtroom of heaven, to see a man changed forever.

Zechariah 3

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. (v.1)

What kinds of spiritual assaults have you been experiencing? Have you sensed the accuser’s roars? In what ways?

And the LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?”(v.2)

Are you continuously aware that the LORD is your and his chosen people’s refuge and defense against such attack? 

Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD was standing by. (vs. 3-5)

How does the removal of the stain of iniquity(sin) and the clothing of purity(righteousness) change the way that you interact with God and He with you?

And the angel of the LORD solemnly assured Joshua, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here. Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men who are a sign: (vs. 6-8a) 

How has your eternal right standing before God changed your everyday “walk”? How has this informed your responsibilities to God and others?

behold, I will bring my servant the Branch. For behold, on the stone that I have set before Joshua, on a single stone with seven eyes, I will engrave its inscription, declares the LORD of hosts, and I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day. (vs. 8b-9) 

Who is “the Branch” that removed the iniquity of the land in a single day? Are you beholding him today? 

In that day, declares the LORD of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree.”(v. 10)

What are some ways that you can invite your neighbors to see and experience the ways of the Kingdom of God in your everyday rhythms of life? How can you invite others to share in the eternal blessings of Christ?