Sunday, June 28, 2020

Psalm 119.105-112: Lamp and Light

God's word is both lamp and light according to the Psalmist (Psalm 119.105). Lamp and light. One the thing, the other the conveyance of the thing. In scriptural times, a lamp enabled someone to carry fire with them. The lamp could be fed by fuels like olive oil or animal fats. The flame was kept by wicks made of fibers or moss soaked in the fuel. A lamp enables humans to be guided as they move into the unknown. Just like the word of God.

As technology developed, lamps developed in design and materials. The Italian Futurists were interested in progress, in advances, in leaving behind the past. Giacomo Balla's painting "Street Light" is a statement about progress...and the past.
Giacomo Balla. Street Light. 1909. Oil on canvas. NY: Museum of Modern Art.

Balla and the Futurists were interested in making art that reflected the future. In the Futurist Manifesto of 1909, the artists proclaimed that past artistic traditions should be abandoned and the reverence with which Italians viewed the past was misplaced. Modernity was the only thing to be embraced, even if that meant violent revolution. "Set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!" wrote poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

In this painting, the street light is a symbol of the industrialization and technological progress in early 20th-century Italy. Rome had just installed these new electric lights, artificially lighting the Eternal City. The crescent moon in the painting symbolizes the past. Humans used to need the moon in order to see at night, but no more. Marinetti even advocated, "Let's kill the moonlight!" because of the moon's association with romance and sentimentality. The street light clearly shines brighter than the moon. 

Balla's painting has both lamp and light, both creation and technology. While for Balla it is either street light OR moon, the language of scripture is lamp AND light. The word of God is both the thing and the way we convey the thing. It is both tradition and modern. It is, as the writer of Hebrews said, "living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword." (Hebrews 4:12)

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Romans 7.15-25a: Two People

We should have no problems understanding polarities: the extremes of...well...almost anything. The north and south poles are as far apart as anything can be on the earth. We can be sleeping, or at the other extremity, awake. Optimism and pessimism. A full inhale and a complete exhale. The things I want to do and the things I don't want to do. Or, as Paul says it: the good things I want to do and the evil things I do instead (Romans 7:15-25a).

Paul's cry is probably universal. We've all probably found ourselves doing things that we knew were wrong (and not really what we wanted to do), but somehow we just couldn't stop ourselves. An angry word. An unkind response. A decidedly un-Christlike judgment. It's as if there were two people in us: one who lives to be faithful to Jesus, and the other who looks out only for Number One. One part of us that is spirit. One part of us that is flesh. Polarities.
Frida Kahlo. The Two Fridas. 1939. Mexico City: Museo de Arte Moderno.
Frida Kahlo's painting called "The Two Fridas" puts two self-portraits side by side. One portrait shows the artist in European clothes; the other shows the artist in Tehuana garments. Both figures have visible hearts: one is broken and damaged, the other whole and beating. The figure on the right holds a childhood portrait of Diego Rivera, the artist from whom Kahlo had been recently divorced. An external vein connects the portrait to the object in the other Frida's hand - a hemostat that clamps the flow of blood that has soaked spots on the white dress. Two Fridas sitting in front of a stormy sky.

Anyone trying to reconcile different versions of themselves or diverse elements within themselves can feel the tension in the painting and understand the significance of the stormy sky. The differences between the two portraits are many, but each figure's inside hand clasps the other's, securely connecting them despite the differences.

Kahlo's struggles were not the same as Paul's, but both artist and apostle knew the effort required to manage opposing expressions/forces/wills/inclinations within themselves. Many of us also know the effort required. Paul's conclusion is this: I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different. (Romans 7:24-25, The Message).

In this time of polarities, may we remember that the answer, thank God, is Jesus Christ.

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, another way to see two views of a person in one portrait. 

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Psalm 13: Singing the Psalms

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O LORD my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, "I have prevailed"; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Psalm 13)

Psalm 13 is a painful song. It is the cry of one who feels abandoned by God, whose enemies are gloating, who demands action from God. The psalm is attributed to David. Do an internet image search using terms like "David playing harp" or "David psalmist." Often we see a figure (sometimes David the shepherd, sometimes David the king) sitting with a harp on his lap,his fingers on or near the strings. Sometimes David is shown with eyes cast upward. As you consider the images in your search results, do the images look like David was playing Psalm 13? Do any of the images convey the emotion you imagine psalm 13 might evoke? Certainly a performer need not be externally emotional in order to convey the meaning of the song, and perhaps David's gaze upward in indicative of a song addressed to God. Do the general images of David the psalmist convey the range of emotions found in the psalms?

Oswaldo Guayasamin was born in Quito, Ecuador, in 1919. His work titled "The Cry" seems to better capture the emotion of Psalm 13. This is not a calm, still, muted emotion. This is a cry that involves mouth and face and eyes and hands and head. How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? We can almost imagine the triptych as three stills from a movie clip following the facial expressions of the one crying out.
Oswaldo Guayasamin. El Grito (The Cry). 1983. Oil on canvas. Quito, Ecuador: Fundacion Guayasamin.
How often do we deny the emotion of texts like Psalm 13? Do we read them in a calm, neutral voice? Do we read this psalm with the same tone as we might read the creation story? Or the 23rd psalm? Psalm 13 gives us the opportunity to cry out to God honestly, to question God honestly, to beg (or demand?) that God show up. In the psalms we find a wide range of human emotions.

Sometimes those emotions are whispered in the middle of the night: How long, O Lord? Sometimes the words must be shouted so everyone can hear: How long, O Lord?!  The singer determines the tone and tempo of the song.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Matthew 10.24-39: Jesus...and a Sword

It may seem disconcerting to see the Prince of Peace with a sword, but in Matthew's gospel, it is Jesus himself who makes the connection: Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34) The greatest concentration of images showing Christ with a sword are images of the Last Judgment.

In the typical arrangement, shown here in Hans Memling's triptych, Jesus sits on a throne. A stem of lilies extends from one side of his mouth; a sword extends from the other. The lilies symbolize mercy; the sword justice. Jesus' right hand (under the lilies) forms a symbol of blessing; his left hand (under the sword) is palm down, indicating a curse. As the ultimate and final judge, Jesus brings both mercy and justice. Is that what the sword in Matthew's gospel means? Does that sword represent judgment?
Hans Memling. Last Judgment Triptych. 1467-1473. Gdansk, Poland: Muzeum Naradowe w Gdansku.

A second apocalyptic image type pairing Jesus with a sword is based on the opening chapters of Revelation. John hears the command to write down the vision and, turning to see the source of the voice, John sees the Son of Man: In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force. That two-edged sword is also mentioned in Hebrews (4:12): Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Is the sword Jesus brings the embodiment of God's word, dividing soul from spirit?
Bamberg Apocalypse (MSC. Bibl. 140, Fol. 3r). c. 1010. Bamberg, Germany, Bamberg State Library.
Jesus...with a sword? He chastised Peter (who is only identified as "one of those with Jesus" in Matthew's gospel) for pulling a sword and cutting off the ear of the servant of the priest in the Garden of Gethsemane: Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword...55At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. 

We may be more comfortable thinking of Jesus who healed the injury created by Peter's sword, but we need to account for the Jesus who came not to bring peace but a sword.

Take a look at a slightly different version of the Last Judgment on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook. How would you characterize the difference?

Monday, June 1, 2020

Matthew 9.35-10.23: Of Feet and Tires

The disciples are sent out in Matthew's gospel (9:35 - 10:23). And despite the fact that Jesus' friends are professional fishers of fish, I'm not sure Jesus knows how to bait a hook. The prospects for the mission on which Jesus is sending the disciples sounded pretty good at first: cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. If Jesus had stopped there, it would be a pretty appealing prospect.

But Jesus didn't know when to leave well enough alone. He had to go on and tell them that they would be significantly unwelcome in some places, they weren't taking any money with them when they left his presence, and that they could compare themselves to sheep whose guard dog turns out to be a wolf. Jesus should have quit while he was ahead.

Jesus tells them the whole story, though, and that's who Jesus is. He'll give you all the news, even if it isn't all good news.

So when you get to a town where you aren't welcome, Jesus advises the disciples, just leave. Shake the dust off your sandals and move on to a place that welcomes Jesus and these gifts of healing and wellness.

It's never been on my bucket list to re-enact Bible scenes in my own life, but I'll admit I have given this text a spin. One of my educational experiences was far less satisfactory than the others have been. After the last of my obligations was done on campus, after my apartment was packed up, after all fees were paid and graduation was secured (though I did not walk), I drove away. And, purposefully, after I had passed the city limits, I pulled into a car wash and washed my car. I cleaned it all over: the body, the hood, the roof, doors, sideview mirrors, and trunk. I even used the hand-held wand to get the dust off the tires. It was a good feeling.

I've been back to that town only once in the decades since that day. A friend was getting married, and I went to the wedding. But on my way out of town after the wedding, I was pleased to see that the car wash was still there. And I had plenty of quarters.

Photographs by Lynn Miller in Fort Morgan, AL.