“Faith as Art”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
25Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.” (NRSV)
“If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
That would be helpful, wouldn’t it? All too often, faith and faith language can feel like throwing unicorns and rainbows at a blitzkrieg of ogres and trolls. How does one trust what one cannot fully comprehend?
The men who approach Jesus in the temple are devout Jews. They love God, study scripture, and practice their faith as they have been taught. And while, as Jews, they do anticipate the Messiah, John leaves it to us to decide whether the men want Jesus to be the Messiah or whether they just want to find cause to persecute him. Whatever their case, as Christians, we trust that the One for whom the men wait stands before them. If they don’t recognize him, we must have compassion for them, because we’re not that different. Faith is hard enough, and when we demand certainty, faith doesn’t just get harder, it drifts toward impossibility, because certainty is the opposite of faith—not doubt, or even unbelief.
Back in the Middle Ages, theology was called the “Queen of Sciences.” However, faith precedes and shapes theology, and it seems to me that faith is better understood as art.
Faith seeks stillness in the throes of life’s chaos. (Psalm 46)
Faith discerns beauty in spite of the world’s brutality and decay. (Romans 8:18-27)
Faith hopes in the midst of what appears to be hopelessness. (Genesis 50:15-21)
Faith trusts that which cannot be proven. (Hebrews 11:1)
The Jewish leaders in John 10 seem to want faith to be paint-by-numbers, but faith paints outside the lines. Like artists exploring the world through colors, textures, words, sounds, and rhythms, people of faith explore the Creation as the ongoing revelation of God’s feral presence and gracious purposes. We encounter God through experiences of love, justice, mercy, and also suffering. And one way to discover the beauty and wonder of God in the world is through intentional communities that share creativity as well as worship, service, study, and suffering. In the community of faith, we are all, potentially, artists-in-residence.
One of the compelling things about art is that the more we practice a craft, whatever it might be, the more we begin to see new things in our own work and in that of others’. We recognize a greater hand at work in our own hands, a bigger heart beating in our own hearts.
Jesus models artful spirituality when he speaks of his oneness with “the Father.” Jesus creates and reveals in a manner than mirrors the way God creates and reveals. So: From water to wine; sinner to saint; refugee to neighbor; burdened to free; law to grace; and even dead to alive. And when asked to explain what his work “means,” Jesus says, Look at it for yourself. What do you see? What do you hear? How does my work inspire you and call you to faith, to your own spiritual art?
Over the last twenty-seven years, I’ve enjoyed the many layers of creativity involved in Christian ministry. My primary art has been reading and re-reading scripture to hear something new and to share that in sermons. Newsletters and other communications have offered opportunities for shorter pieces and, at times, a more creative voice. Visiting in homes and hospitals has allowed me to experience joys, wonders, and sorrows which transcend the ability of words to describe. In my teaching role, I’ve never lectured, preferring instead to engage as a fellow traveler as I prepared for and facilitated Sunday school classes and book discussions. Even working with committees has had its moments. When an idea hit the table, I’ve enjoyed helping to create space for it to evolve into something bigger as folks riffed on the idea with their own perspectives.
Participating in all of those things has deepened my faith in the ways God is present and active in the world. And while I am grateful for that, right now I have to be honest. Over the last three or four years, a deepening spiritual weariness has crept its way into my being. More and more, I have struggled to find the joy I once knew. I’ve sought counsel and support from several sources, and those efforts have been helpful. Still, when I sit down to read, write, pray, or plan, I find myself feeling emptier and more distant.
Over the last year-and-a-half in particular, that mysterious but heady blend of stillness and energy necessary for a healthy and creative spirituality has all but escaped me. Because of that, more sermons than I want to admit have been re-worked old sermons. They were significant re-works, creative in their own way, and almost always better than the original. Still, I started with old sermons because I lacked both the inspiration and the desire to begin new ones. I haven’t written songs or poetry to share with you, either. And visiting has occasionally felt more like a chore than a holy privilege.
Recently, Covid has had something to do with all that. The suspicion and meanness of our culture has something to do with it. Family concerns played into it. Maybe the fact that I’m not getting any younger has contributed to it. (I mean, I am a grandfather now. If I haven’t mentioned that, I do have pictures!)
Regardless of one’s vocation, when the passion ebbs, and assuming we still care at all, we’ll try to figure out how to rediscover that passion. We’ll try to reconnect with our truest selves—our God-imaged selves. We’ll seek to reacquaint ourselves with the Christ within us and within the Creation around us. And if we don’t do that, we will flame out—and we’ll likely do damage on the way. As Richard Rohr says, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it [to others].”1
The recent communications I’ve shared about my upcoming sabbatical have offered some nuts-and-bolts information about the what and the how of sabbaticals. And today I’m addressing the why.
Now, I have no grand plan—no book to write, no pilgrimage to take. I just need and want to rediscover my passion, my art, my joy. And I have to learn to quit crying out to God, “If you’re really there, if you’re really good and true, if there really is holy justice in this world of persistent violence, inequity, environmental exploitation, and denial of truth, then tell me plainly. Convince me!”
While that may sound stark, it’s honest and real. I’m taking a sabbatical because I need time to rest and to recover the spiritual creativity necessary to live and to help lead others in the ways Christ-following faith, hope, and love.
If I didn’t think that a renewal of faith was possible, I would just quit and go some other way. But we are Easter people; we follow a risen Christ. Because of that, we proclaim faith, not certainty. And we are called to live as creative demonstrations of trust that we and all things reside, ultimately, in the hands of a God of love, justice, peace, and faithfulness.
Even through the most trying, faith-challenging experiences, may we learn to live gratefully, generously, confidently, and artfully so that we bear a joyful and compelling witness to the redeeming and reunifying voice of God in Christ.