God as Artist
Our Choir sang beautifully today an anthem, "In Every Human Heart," by James Green and Valerie Crescenz. Here are the inspiring words of stanza one and the chorus:
In every human heart is a gift to be discovered,
a talent to be used, a light to be uncovered.
In every human heart there's a picture to create,
a song to be sung, a story to relate.
So with music and drama, canvas and clay,
we celebrate the spirit of creation today.
We'll touch the lives of others with the gifts of our hearts;
together we'll sing a song in praise of the arts.
Now to today's sermon, "God as Artist"...
I do not think of God as a puppeteer who controls every move we make in addition to the very contexts in which we make our moves. I'm much more inclined to think of God, who is not limited by my way of thinking—or anyone else’s, as a highly interested observer. And beyond being a highly interested observer in human conditions and circumstances both individually and communally, I also think of God as Living Love that attempts to embrace every human being and all parts of the created order as well as having the capacity to lure people to do what is good, what is right, and what is loving unblemished by cultural expectations or biases.
God is not judge or critic, but rather companion. None of the luring ever takes place against our will, but the fact that love exists as a force that is not impersonal influences how we live or at least may influence how we live.
The LifeSource/LifeForce that many of us call God is the creative energy behind the astounding principles, which now we would call natural laws, which brought the world into being and keep the creative processes continuing. And one more thing for now: I think of God as artist. Given the slippery slope of anthropomorphizing and the typically misleading results of those efforts, I nonetheless want to ask you to join me in thinking of God today as photographer, painter, and potter.
Photographs by serious photographers capture people and things at specific, essentially unrepeatable, moments. Quality photographs help us remember or learn. They offer us a slice of real life even if the subjects pose. They dramatize something about what is ordinary or extraordinary. They often tell a story. They help us perhaps think about someone or something differently than we did previously. Photographs can delight us or disgust us. Photographs show us how we really are at least in a given moment; they inspire us or they deter us or simply entertain us.
Technically the photographer utilizes available light to get the best possible image of what she or he wants to convey, emphasizing certain parts of the scene in order to call attention to the core meaning of the composition in a way similar to how a writer might use the topic sentence or a literary motif such as repetition.
The best photographers see things the average person does not see. Photographers go where the action is and are willing to get right in the middle of that action. They understand the meaning both of patience as well as pregnant moment.
If the loving force that is God were a photographer God would be journeying with us to help us see the important scenes of life and have them etched in our memories. This business of God as companion may sound nice unless we take an opportunity to go to one of those places we shouldn’t go. I’ve never gone to any of those places, but I have talked to many people who have!!! ;)
God as photographer would encourage us and train us to see the very wonderful as well as the very tragic aspects of life. God as photographer would press us to go where the action is and wait for pivotal moments or even to help create them. God the photographer would help us understand the place of light and darkness in the situations that we observe as well as how to frame essential life scenes before recording them for future use.
God was with us this week snapping pictures for our use and benefit, pictures of our sterling moments as well as those we’d really prefer to erase from memory. God the photographer got pictures this week of the doctor’s face when a previously elusive cure for one of her or his patients made itself known. God waited in horror to photograph Putin ordering the bombing of Syria, hoping against hope that war wouldn’t remain the status quo option, only to be distracted by the NRA-endorsed shootings, particularly of Christian students, at the college in Oregon.
The darkness nearly eclipsed the light in these sad scenes. (I think, by the way, it’s time for us to start sending thank you-notes to the NRA, as well as all the politicians whose loyalty that organization has bought for a tidy sum, every single time anyone is killed, even hurt, by a gun the shooter has no business, however “legal,” owning.)
The funniest pictures God snapped in the United States this week were plentiful. The top two might well have been the one in which God caught Pope Francis’s staff trying to explain why in the world the Pope took time out of his impossibly busy schedule to meet with Kim Davis and the proud Pharisaic senators patting themselves on the back for averting the government shutdown they themselves had been trying to bring about.
God the artist might be a painter as well as a photographer. If so, I can think of nature itself as God’s canvas. There are infinite possibilities for colors and shapes, perspectives and textures. God the Painter paints beauty and expects the beauty to remain, not be spoiled by abuse from other parts of the magnificent created order.
One of the psalmists saw God the Painter at work long ago and wrote a hymn about it that was sung in ancient Hebrew worship: “The skies are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.” The firmament for the psalmist and everyone in her or his milieu was this structure believed to keep the flood waters pulled away from what became Earth at creation and that held back those same waters thereafter. The firmament held all the luminaries—sun, moon, and stars—and the clouds as well. God placed all of those in the firmament as the psalmist and her or his contemporaries saw it. Prescientific? Obviously so, but that is not to say the creative force pulling this world into being had to be something other than the LifeForce that I call Creator God and whom I do not envision as any larger-than-life human.
A young man by the name of Joyce Kilmer—yes, a young man named Joyce—wrote a poem that reflects some of these same sentiments; although, I’m quite sure his view of God differed from mine. Kilmer, who died before he turned 32, was a Rutgers grad. At such a young age, he was already deeply engaged by the world around him:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are written by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Many of you know of my admiration for Alice Walker and my attachment to her greatest literary contribution, The Color Purple—first a novel, then a film, and finally a Broadway play. Her character, Shug Avery—a reputation for being a loose woman notwithstanding—is the character among them all who seems to understand God best. For Shug, God not only paints beauty into the world, but also communes with human beings through such beauty. The most pivotal conversation in any of the genres through which the story has been told is the one between Shug and Celie, who is the central character in the narrative. Ms. Walker has these characters refer to God as “it” rather than use a gender-defined pronoun; I say that just to help keep you focused on what’s going on in this excerpt:
Shug: Listen, God love everything you love--and a mess of stuff you don't. But more than anything else, God love admiration.
Celie: You saying God vain?
Shug: Naw. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.
Celie: What it do when it pissed off?
Shug: Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.
By the way, color is beautiful, though abstract. Same with God. Clearly, “abstract” doesn’t mean aloof or indifferent or beyond understanding. Celie’s sister Nettie returns to South Georgia after many years serving as a missionary in Africa; she “got it” theologically as well. Nettie said to her sister:
God is different to us now, after all these years in Africa. More spirit than ever before, and more internal. Most people think God has to look like something or someone--a roofleaf [the first leaf the Olinka people in Africa put in their thatched roofs during construction to honor their deity] or Christ--but we don't. And not being tied to what God looks like, frees us.
When I lived in New Orleans I met a potter who did his pottery wheel work right in his shop. I became intrigued with the work he did. What he could make the spinning clay do absolutely amazed me. I thought at that time if I ever had an opportunity to learn I would. That hasn’t happened yet, but I certainly haven’t given up.
His name was Casey, and during our acquaintance he found out I was the pastor of the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church. He offered for a very modest price to make us a rustic communion service set since he realized that nothing about Jesus’ last supper with his disciples had anything to do with finery or luxury such as brightly polished silver. What became communion grew out of the Passover celebration dinner, which celebrated the release of the ancient Hebrew people from the slavery in which the Egyptian pharaoh had held them. The utensils were not fancy and neither was the food.
Surely the ancient Hebrews and then their descendants in Jesus’ day ate and drank off of/out of simple pottery pieces. The set Casey made was so beautiful and not just to those like me who have a special appreciation for beauty in what is rustic. It made no difference to either remembrance or symbolism, but holding the rustic pieces shaped by the hands of someone I knew felt a little more in tune with what Jesus asked his followers to do in remembering him and what he taught.
One day I was there looking for a gift when Casey told me, as he worked at the wheel, that while he made a few pieces by a kind of repetition to be able to sell his most sought-after items, his bread and butter as he called them, for the most part, quoting him verbatim now: “The clay sort of lets me know how it wants to be shaped. With my most creative pieces I have tried to follow the gentle hints of the whirling clay.” Michelangelo, when he was speaking about how he went about sculpting, said he saw the angel in the marble and sculpted until he had set the angel free. This is the same genius who said, “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.”
So Michelangelo sculpted to free the figure trapped in the slab of marble, and Casey did his most exquisite work when he let the clay take the lead, as it were. That is surely the same principle by which God the Potter works with us.
Further, with reference to pottery specifically, hand movements of a potter working at a wheel, if you’ve ever noticed, are very, very gentle and subtle. The wrong touch, including touch that is too rough, will send the clay flying off in all directions—completely unrecoverable, a lost cause. The last of the three Isaiahs in Hebrew scripture spoke these words in prayer: “O Lord…we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
God the Potter is working so very carefully with our lives on the wheel, not with preconceived patterns in mind for finished products but with an aim to help shape us into our best selves, and we have input into what the finished product becomes. The Master Potter’s hands are providing only the supportive shaping we need to become our most functional and fulfilled, yeah exquisite, selves.