Sunday, May 9, 2021

Acts 2.1-21: Waiting for the Wind

Just last week several tornadoes went through the city where I live. There were more than a dozen throughout the state. No matter how close we are to Pentecost, no one was interested in having that wind blow through. We always get caught up with Pentecost's sound of wind and tongues of fire (Acts 2:1-4), but when we get that (through powerful tornadoes and downed, sparking power lines) it's more frightening than anything else. Which might be closer to the disciples' response to Pentecost than we'd like to think. 

Though it could have been, the wind of Pentecost was not the destructive whirling wind of a tornado or hurricane (we get those, too, where I live). It was a wind that did something - that blew the disciples' minds. That blew them out of the house where they had been hiding and into the street where they told the story of Jesus Christ. It was a wind that did something. It demonstrated God's power by empowering believers to be witnesses. 

What does wind do in our world? It turns turbines that create power. It cools off a sultry summer day. There was a time when it was wind, in combination with the sun, that dried clothes hung on the line. It was hard to find clean water for washing and almost impossible to find  a breeze that would dry the clothes inside the people-packed buildings. Clotheslines were stretched between buildings, clean laundry was clipped on, and then it was the wind - even as a small breeze - that, along with the sun, helped dry the laundry by moving the fabric to aid in evaporation. The wind had a purpose - it caused a change to the thing it touched.

 San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. 

Are we positioning ourselves so that the wind of Pentecost can move us to action, can change us, can help us witness to the story of Jesus Christ? 

Sunday, May 2, 2021

John 17.6-19: Leaving This World

 In Jesus' so-called "High Priestly Prayer," he prays, "And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you..." (John 17:11) Jesus did leave this world when he ascended, leaving the disciples standing on Olivet. 

That the disciples were left on the earth as Jesus returned to God is a reminder of the difference between creator and creature. Humans are still in this world, though, and a good effort is expended in helping us see how it feels to leave this world. 

In 1946, rocket scientists in New Mexico launched a captured Nazi V-2 rocket into space. One of the things they equipped the rocket with was a 35mm motion picture camera. Filming as the rocket moved about 65 miles above the earth's surface, the camera captured the first pictures of earth from just beyond the beginnings of outer space. This wasn't the first image of the curvature of the earth, but it gave earth-bound humans a different view of the place where they live. The film and camera survived the rocket's crash landing because it had been secured in a steel container.

First photo from space. October 1946. (White Sands Missile Range/Applied Physics Laboratory)

Almost thirty years later, humans would see this world from even farther away, courtesy of the 'Blue Marble' photo taken by the crew of Apollo 17. 

Jesus' prayer continues, " I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them.... They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. ...As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world." It's clear from Jesus' prayer that to follow Jesus is to remain here in this world, active, moving, continuing the work that Jesus did when he was in this world. It's not hard to understand, though, why we continually want to see what it's like to be far above it. 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Psalm 98: Cantate Domino

The psalm (in Latin) begins Cantate Domino. In English, that's Sing to the Lord. (Psalm 98:1) That's also the title of Barbara Hepworth's 1958 sculpture shown here. Do you see "Sing to the Lord" in the piece? 

Barbara Hepworth. Cantate Domino. 1958. Middleheim Museum, Antwerp, Belgium.

Are they hands lifted in prayer? The abstracted shape of a lyre? Turned sideways, the design looks like hills in a landscape. Let the hills sing together for joy (98:8), the psalmist says. Nature and humans are singing together in praise of the Lord. How do you read this sculpture?

Made of cast bronze in an edition of six, Cantate Domino was intended to be the sculptor's headstone. She wrote to Norman Reid, Director of the Tate Gallery: 'It was intended to be reserved as a Headstone for my grave in St Ives ... I only mention this because I have always considered this a religious work' (27 Nov. 1967, Tate Gallery Acquisitions files).

John 15.1-8: You are the Branches

I am the vine, Jesus said. (John 15:5) And immediately our minds are off and running with images of vines and grapes, Communion and Jesus. But Jesus continues "...and you are the branches." The point of the conversation is the connection. 

Mosaic. Church of San Clemente, Rome. 12th or 13th century.
The apse mosaic in the Church of San Clemente in Rome is a crucifixion-turned-tree-of-life. From an acanthus plant at the foot of the cross grows a vine that curls around the crucifixion scene and throughout the entire half-dome of the apse. At the base of the plant four deer drink from the four rivers of paradise. And inscription at the bottom of the half-dome says [in part], Ecclesiam Cristi viti similabimus isti quam lex arentem, set crus facit esse virentem... (“We have compared the Church of Christ to this vine; the Law made it wither but the Cross made it bloom.”). Christ is the vine. 

And "You (we...the church) are the branches," Christ continues. The designers of the church seem to have gotten that second part, too. The circular vine pattern on the mosaic is echoed in the circular pattern of the floor mosaic running down the middle of the choir. The pattern visually connects the Christ-vine in the apse with the congregation-branches standing in the church. Connected. And if they aren't connected, then the branches, the congregation, can't do anything.

It's nice when the whole story gets told in the fabric of the building. 


Sunday, April 11, 2021

Acts 4.5-12: By What Name?

"By what power or by what name did you do this?" (Acts 4:7) That's what Peter and his fellow prisoners were asked. By what name? And Peter was not afraid to give an answer:
...if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
Good answer, Peter. Of course Peter had to tack on a few more things that might have made his reception a little more awkward. He continued, "...whom YOU (emphasis mine) crucified, whom God raised from the dead." That Peter...going all in most of the time.

The important thing, though, is that Peter announced that anything being done by them was being done in the name of Jesus Christ. That name thing is important. Remember that Moses asked for God's name when he was being recruited to lead God's people out of slavery. If you can associate a person or activity with a name you can automatically know more about them. 
It's certainly true of art. An artist's signature is one of the ways to identify which paintings were done by which artists. That task is made more difficult when artists like Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) didn't have a consistent signature. 

Shown here are three of the dozens of different signatures the artist used on his drawings, prints, and paintings. His signature changed throughout his career. Sometimes he used initials, but sometimes his whole name. One of the ways that experts authenticate a "real" Rembrandt is by the artist's signature. Did the artist put his name on his work? Can we safely say that this particular print or drawing or painting show what a "real" Rembrandt looks like? There are plenty of people in the world who would be happy to trick someone into believing that a fake Rembrandt is actually a real one. One of the ways they try to do that is to add a signature - the name of Rembrandt. Experts work hard to be able to tell a real signature/name from a fake one.

In the same way, can the world look at those of us who identify ourselves with the name of Christ and call us examples of what someone like that should do and be ? If someone asks us, "By what name do you do these things, live your life, move through the world?" And we reply, "We live and move in the name of Jesus Christ." Would they believe us? Would they say that the name of Jesus looks "right" on us? 

Psalm 4: Sleeping

Look at the bookending verses of Psalm 4: Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer... I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety. You gave me room...I will lie down and sleep in peace. What a gift it is to have security and space to rest. 

Psalm 23 may be the automatic go-to for a song about God providing rest. Those green pastures and still waters are an enticing image. But in this fast-paced, overscheduled, no-time-to-stop world, the gift of rest is priceless. Our inattention to rest is manifesting itself in children younger and younger, and that's a shame, since our day begins with rest. And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day. 

How often do we remind ourselves that, according to the rhythm of creation as we read it in Genesis, our day begins with rest? We probably more often tend to think of sleep as a time when we desperately try to recharge from the previous day's journey. We stay up late to get work done, and just don't get the sleep we should. We may think of it as extending our work day, but it's actually borrowing from the "next" day. 

Depending on which internet source you trust(!), it was the Romans or the Egyptians who settled midnight as the beginning of a new day. The pivot point was noon - the time of day when the sun was at its highest point, and there was no shadow on the sundial. That is the meridian. Opposite noon is midnight, which was the dividing point between ante-meridian (before the meridian, or a.m.) and post-meridian (after the meridian, or p.m.). The Romans may have taken their idea from the Greeks who got it from the Babylonians and so on. 

But in our story of Creation, a new day begins when the sun disappears. We are charged to begin a new day with a meal and then with rest. And, after resting, we move through our day. I confess, that's not the way it usually happens in my world, but I'm trying to change the way I think. 

David Bradley. To Sleep, Perchance to Dream. 2005. Museum of Indian Arts and Culture

Psalm 4 promises that the psalmist can lie down and sleep in peace. Is that the case in the painting above? David Bradley,  Minnesota Chippewa artist, uses bright colors. What are the colors saying about this sleep? What is the subject matter saying about this sleep? 

The opportunity to start the day with rest is a gift from God built into our vision of how the world was made.  You gave me room...I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

I John 1.1 - 2.2: God is Light

This is the message that we have heard...and proclaim to you: God is light. (I John 1:5) God is light. It's a metaphor used throughout scripture. Probably the most common application of the metaphor is in comparison to no-light or darkness. But it's important to remember what light is. 

Light is a spectrum. White light isn't white. It's the presence of the entire spectrum -- all colors of light. Darkness is the absence of all colors of light. [Paint and pigments are directly the opposite: white is the absence of all pigment; dark/black is the presence of all colored pigments.]

Peter Erskine uses sunlight as his artistic medium, asserting that all of life is solar-powered. Erskine uses this element in quite high tech ways. He uses laser-cut prisms and mirrors, connecting them to solar-tracking technologies and photo voltaic cells. The sun is the subject matter, the medium, and the power source of Erskine's art. 

Peter Erskine. Sun Painting. 2009. Lafayette Library, Lafayette, California.
Erskine's installation in the Lafayette County Library is a plexiglas skylight/shaft that is five feet square and ten feet high. Lined with laser-cut prisms and mirrors, the shaft creates an everchanging display of rainbow fragments. In just minutes, the turning of the earth and the changing clouds create completely new arrangements of colors. 

The sun. A constant presence that nevertheless presents ever-changing views. The source of light on earth. All the colors of the spectrum. God is light. 

For more images from the Lafayette Library's Sun Painting installation, click here

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Easter: Of Butterflies and Moths

 We know butterflies as a symbol of resurrection. Caterpillars enter the hardened chrysalis, and turn into "caterpillar soup" before emerging as butterflies. Life. Death. Resurrection. 

Odilon Redon created multiple paintings of multiple butterflies. The creatures are against semi-natural backgrounds. Cloud-like smears of color are located toward the top of the MOMA image (top left). Paint suggesting rocks and landscapes are toward the bottom of the image. Cool colors dominate the image. The other painting is dominated by warm colors. 

In both images winged creatures seek to soar upward, some cartwheeling through the sky. 

Are they all butterflies? Are some of them moths? Does it make a difference for our celebration of resurrection on Easter?

Butterflies aren't mentioned in the Bible. We bring the meaning of resurrection to them, but that is not an image from scripture.

Moths are mentioned in scripture, though not in the most positive light. Isaiah 50:9, Hosea 5:12, and Job 4:19 all mention moths as things that eat or consume. Think about what can happen to a sweater when moths get hold of it. Actually it's the larval stage of the moth that causes all the destruction. The insects lay eggs on (preferably) wool cloth. When the eggs hatch, the larval moths feed on the wool. It isn't really the adult moths that are harmful for our stored winter garments. 

And yet, the moth passes through the same three stages that a butterfly does: larval, cocoon, moth. Life, death, resurrection. Why don't we think of the moth in the same way that we do the butterfly? 

Are they parallel symbols? Can we embrace the moth this Easter as well? Or should we let butterflies be butterflies and moths be moths. What counts for resurrection symbols? 

(Top left) Odilon Redon. Butterflies. c. 1910. NY: Museum of Modern Art. (Bottom left) Odilon Redon. Evocation of Butterflies. c. 1910-1012. Detroit Institute of Art. 

How do you distinguish moths from butterflies? Click here.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion: Studies by Francis Bacon

Who do we usually see at the foot of Jesus' cross? The Beloved Disciple. Mary, Jesus' mother. Other women who had followed and supported Jesus. Sometimes the Roman centurion who confessed this Jesus as the son of God. These figures are sometimes stoic, sometimes emotional. Sometimes the look at Jesus, other times they weep. Sometimes their hands look like they are folded in prayer, sometimes they look like they are clenched in fists. Do they ever look like this? Or do the figures in more realistic works look like they feel like this? 
Francis Bacon. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. 1944. London: Tate Gallery. 

Irish-born painter Francis Bacon created Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in 1944. The work was first exhibited in April 1945. World War II engulfed the globe, but the world was just beginning to see the horrors of Nazi concentration camps through footage released. Experiences of horror and revulsion are readily present in the world. 

The artist said the figures were inspired not by images of Jesus' crucifixion, but rather by the Furies, goddesses of vengeance in Greek mythology who dispensed judgment to those who committed crimes. The format of the triptych (with its three panels) and the use of the word crucifixion nevertheless call to mind the tradition of paintings of Jesus' death. 

Consider other images of the crucifixion (here, here, and here are three). Who is at the foot of the cross in your image of the crucifixion? How are they responding to what they see?

On Facebook this week, see Francis Bacon's Three Studies for a Crucifixion.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Isaiah 50.4-9a: Listening to God

Morning by morning God wakens-- wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious... (Isaiah 50:4b-5a) In the Psalter reading for The Liturgy of the Passion, the psalmist announces that the "whispering of many" is heard. The emphasis on ears and hearing in these two passages are good reminders that it is important that we listen to God and stand with God. It is the Lord God who helps me, Isaiah concludes. Who will declare me guilty?

One of the ways that artists have shown that voice of God is through a dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, whispering into the ear of prophets or gospel writers or, here, David as he writes the psalms. The dove, a soft-feathered creature, is also the symbol of hope and promise in the story of Noah. It was the dove who returned to the ark with an olive twig in its beak. It is also a symbol of peace. 

That's not exactly the feel of this dove. The giant bird (compare the size of the bird to the width of David's shoulders) is balanced on one foot on David's crown. The other leg and foot are thrown out for balance. The bird's beak appears to be in David's ear, not just directing words toward the ear in hopes that David will hear. The bird is literally speaking into David's ear as he composes the psalms. 
St. Albans Psalter. 12th century. Dombibliothek Hildesheim.
This particular illumination is the frontispiece for the psalms in the St. Albans manuscript. The text is the beginning of Psalm 1: BEATUS VIR (Blessed is the man). Remember that on the day Jesus enters into Jerusalem, there were cries of "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" David and Jesus listened to God. Not for David in this illustration nor for Jesus in the gospels does listening look like the pleasant experience we might expect it to be. And yet, listening to God is what we are charged to do, remembering that it is the Lord God who helps me. That makes us blessed regardless of the size of the bird or the pain of the cross. 

Look on page 56 of the St. Albans Psalter digital facsimile here for a second version of David being inspired as a musician. 

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Hebrews 5.5-10: Melchizedek

You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 5:5-10) So here's Melchizedek:

Peter Paul Rubens. The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, c. 1626. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art. 

Do you see Jesus somewhere in that? 

The story - and "story" is a bit of a stretch - of Melchizedek is told in Genesis 14. In essentially three verses: And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave him one-tenth of everything. That's it for Melchizedek in Genesis.

Melchizedek is named in Psalm 110:4 and then again eight times in the letter to the Hebrews. It is in Hebrews that Jesus is named a priest "after the order of Melchizedek."   

In the painting above, Abraham (still Abram at that point) is on the left, still in armor from his encounter with the King of Sodom. Melchizedek, King of Salem ("king of justice" or "king of righteousness"), is handing bread to Abraham. These are two of the aspects where Christian theologians perceive Melchizedek as a precursor of Christ. Jesus, too, is the king of righteousness and brings bread to God's people. 

It's an interesting take on the Genesis story. I wonder how many of the original hearers of Hebrews would have recognized the name of Melchizedek when they heard it. Would we know the name if we didn't have the Hebrews passage? Does the relationship between Melchizedek and Jesus hold water for you?

Friday, March 5, 2021

Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22: They Cried

Psalm 107 isn't so specific that its lines can't be pulled out to illustrate the infinite number of things from which God has saved God's people. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. (Psalm 107:19) How many people have cried to the Lord? How many people has God saved from their distress? 

Pablo Picasso's masterpiece Guernica was painted in response to a very specific event: the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the Nazi air force in support of Francisco Franco. The town, of little or no strategic value, was attacked over three hours by 25 bombers who dropped 100,000 pounds of explosive and incendiary bombs. Another wave of bombers strafed any survivors trying to flee the village that was now only rubble. The town burned for three days. 

The mural-sized painting (approximately 11 feet by 25 feet) was commissioned in 1936 for the 1937 World's Fair in Paris. Picasso was supposed to create a piece for the Spanish Pavilion that followed the Fair's theme celebrating modern technology. Instead, Picasso painted this. 

Pablo Picasso. Guernica. 1937. Madrid: Museo Reina Sofia.

They cried to the Lord in their trouble. And cried. And cried. And cried.

Psalm 107 is a song that remembers the hesed, the steadfast love, of God for God's people. The psalm calls on those who have lived through a story of salvation to worship and remember and be thankful. 

Guernica is painted in black, white and gray. No color at all. Marks on the body of the horse seem to mimic newspaper print. Picasso read the newspaper accounts that emerged from Guernica shortly after the bombing. The pro-Fascist, pro-Nazi forces worked to change the narrative. They placed empty oil barrels around the town, claiming that the citizens of Guernica burned their own town. 

The first reports were written by George Steer, a South African born journalist covering the Spanish Civil War. He wrote: The whole town of 7,000 inhabitants, plus 3,000 refugees, was slowly and systematically pounded to pieces. Over a radius of five miles round, a detail of the raiders’ technique was to bomb separate caserios, or farmhouses. In the night these burned like little candles in the hills. All the villages around were bombed with the same intensity as the town itself, and at Mugica, a little group of houses at the head of the Guernica inlet, the population was machine-gunned for 15 minutes.

They cried to the Lord in their trouble. And cried. And cried. And cried.

I Corinthians 1.18-25: Stumbling Block

We preach Christ crucified, Paul wrote, a stumbling block...and foolishness. (I Corinthians 1:18) It does seem foolish to worship one who was put to death. It's not the marketing strategy that makes the most sense. Jesus - even his crucifixion and resurrection - may be too "normal" after a couple thousand years for us to really hear the scandalous nature of who it is that we worship. 

The radicality was not lost on the earliest non-Christians, though. They fully understood just how unseemly it was to claim as God (or even Son of God) one who had been crucified. 

A piece of early-century graffiti helps us see that. We think of graffiti as something spray painted, but the word graffiti comes from the Italian graffio, "a scratch."

Scratched into a plaster wall in a building on the Palatine Hill in Rome is a crucifixion scene. The figure on the cross has a human(ish) body but the head of a donkey. Also scratched into the wall are the words ΑΛΕ ξΑΜΕΝΟϹ ϹΕΒΕΤΕ ϑΕΟΝ" loosely "Alexamenos worships his god." The Y in the upper right corner has been interpreted as both a cry of pain and a pitchfork.

The image and tone seem to be ridiculing Alexamenos for worshipping one who has been (or is being) crucified. Stumbling block. Foolishness.

Though there are some who believe the graffito shows worship of other deities. There is no definitive identification of the artist or the context. We don't know who Alexamenos is or who the "artist" is. 

A stumbling block. Foolishness. That should have been the story. But Paul knew. Paul and Alexamenos may have had the last laugh.

The Alexamenos graffiti is dated to the late 2nd or early 3rd century, making it among the earliest depictions of a crucifixion. The plaster panel is in the collection of the Palatine Museum in Rome, Italy. 

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Genesis 17.1-16: Multitude

 "This is my covenant with you," God says to Abraham. "You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations." (Genesis 17:4) We are familiar with the concept and with the promise stated several chapters earlier that Abraham's descendants would be as many as the stars in the sky and grains of sand on earth. That's a lot - though the question of whether there are more stars or more grains of sand has yet to be authoritatively answered. If you are team star, read here. If you are team sand, read this. There are many other articles, calculations, and rationalizations. 

What makes a multitude? The Century Dictionary splits some hairs about what is and isn't a multitude. According to their definition a multitude gives ample room to each person, however great the number may be. A throng or crowd is smaller than a multitude but gathered together. A throng presses together or forward. A crowd is close enough together to be uncomfortably in contact with one another. 

By a strict definition Abraham will be the ancestor of lots of people who all have ample room. Think about what that means for life on earth. Everyone has ample room. 

In 2012, based on 2010 data, mapmaker Derek Watkins developed a picture of the density of the world's population. Where do people live? Where are people most crowded? The image above is a still image, but at Watkins' website, the image has a slider that changes the areas on the map. The slider moves from areas where there is a population density of at least 5 people per square kilometer to areas where there are more than 500 people per square kilometer. The website is here.

Is there ample room for each one of Abraham and Sarah's descendants?

Sunday, February 7, 2021

I Peter 3.18-22: A Baptism Story

 A baptism story. Noah as a baptism story. The author of I Peter uses it as such to highlight the eight members of Noah's family who "were saved through water." (I Peter 3:20) This text is read on the first Sunday of Lent in Year B. In the early church, catechuments would have been preparing for their Easter baptism. So, a baptism story. Eight people were saved. 

We are used to seeing images of Noah's ark in baby nurseries, children's Sunday School classes, children's book illustrations. Cute giraffes stick their heads out of open windows. Elephants' trunks are visible. Birds of many kinds roost on the roofline of the ark. We've turned this story into a children's story because of animals and rainbows. 

Michelangelo had a different vision of the story. In the story as seen on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Ark is in the background. The focus of the story is the people in the foreground. 

Michelangelo Buonarotti. The Flood. 1509. Vatican: Sistine Chapel. 

People at the lower left are moving to higher ground, trying to escape the rising waters. They are carrying all manner of things. Some are carrying the things of this world: pots and pans, casks, bundles of clothing. In the middle ground at right another group of people are huddled on an outcropping of rock under a fabric shelter being blown by the rising wind. In the center of the composition a small boat begins to capsize.

The ark moves off into the distance, even as additional people stand on the raft base of the ark, imploring Noah to let them in. Noah, dressed in red, reaches a hand out of the right side of the ark, pointing to heaven. 

Where are the animals? Where is the rainbow? They aren't here. 

Michelangelo has made this story about human suffering. How does that fit with the idea of I Peter 3 as a baptism text? How do we acknowledge the saving nature of baptism and the continuing reality of human suffering? Do we baptize out of fear of divine judgement? The story is easier when we focus on the pandas and moose and zebras. 

Sunday, January 31, 2021

2 Kings 2.1-12: Chariots of Fire

The story of Elijah being carried up into heaven is familiar as story and challenging as visual. The story marks the transition from Elijah's service as the prophet of God to Elisha's service in that position. The horses and chariot of fire swoop down (or, as the spiritual sings it "swings low") to gather Elijah and carry him up to heaven. (2 Kings 2:1-12). 

English poet William Blake used the phrase "chariot of fire" in his poem "Jerusalem," and from there it was included in William Parry's choral setting of the poem. You may have heard that hymn in the opening scene of the 1981 movie titled Chariots of Fire, which had to do with runners in the 1924 Olympics. The hymn is also often sung in England for its national connotations. 

The hymn does not encompass the entire poem but does include the lines:

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

Consider the two Blake images here that include elements of the chariots of fire. We tend to associate the phrase so much with Elijah. Are either of these Elijah?

There is another chariot of fire (which Blake knew) in the pseudopigraphical Book of Enoch: When the Holy One, blessed be He, desired to lift me up on high, He first sent 'Anaphiel H (H = Tetragrammaton) the Prince, and he took me from their midst in their sight and carried me in great glory upon a a fiery chariot with fiery horses, servants of glory. And he lifted me up to the high heavens together with the Shekina. (3 Enoch 6:1) It is reminiscent of Elijah's story: a faithful one lifted up and carried in glory in a fiery chariot.

Is either of these images depicting Elijah? Is either depicting Enoch? What does a chariot of fire mean if it doesn't mean Elijah or Olympic runners? In each of these images, Blake transforms that moment of completion and reward and returning to God for an entirely different purpose. In the upper image (which is from "Jerusalem"), the two defeated figures ride in a "chariot" whose wheels are serpents, with serpents at the front, pulled by creatures with ox-like bodies, faces of men, manes like lions, and single horns growing out of their heads like a unicorn horn but twisted in a spiral. This is not 2 Kings. 

The bottom image was long-believed to be an image of Elijah's chariot, but is this how you pictured the scene? The horse is not fire, the chariot is on the ground. Which figure is Elijah? The etching has more recently been associated with God's judgment of Adam for eating the forbidden fruit. 

When we see chariots and fire, we automatically think of Elijah and of God's gathering up this faithful prophet. Those elements - chariots and fire - aren't always "comin' for to carry us home." If a fiery chariot shows up in your driveway, take a second look before you hop on.  

Top image: William Blake. Jerusalem, Plate 46 ("Bath, mild physician..."). 1804-1820. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art. Bottom image: William Blake. God Judging Adam. c. 1795. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

I Corinthians 9.16-23: Marketing Jesus

Every marketing website, consultant, handbook, and tip sheet will tell you: Know your own message. Know your own audience. You can't be all things to all people. Apparently no one told Paul. Or Jesus. Because Paul, talking about his calling to preach the gospel, says (or writes) out loud, "I have become all things to all people." (I Corinthians 9:22). 

Wow. No pressure. And to be honest, I don't know that Paul really was all things to all people, though he could certainly reach out to particular audiences because of his own experiences. He could talk about being a Jew. He could talk about being outside the law (now). He could talk about being inside the law, actually. But all things to all people? I think Paul might have been optimistic. 

Jesus is another story. The history of art has shown us that Jesus can, pretty much, be all things to all people. Books like Jaroslav Pelikan's Jesus Through the Centuries show us that Jesus has been rabbi, king, monk, sufferer, prince, poet, liberator, and more. Jesus has been triumphant and tragic, universal and particular. All things. Jesus has been perceived (and depicted) as "like us" by all the "us-es" with a pictorial tradition. 

And it hasn't stopped. We continue to find the Jesus we need: Jesus who stands up for the oppressed, Jesus who can love the unloveable. Jesus who bridges gaps, even gaps we didn't know we had. That's the miracle of the gospel. Humans may be (are) wiser not to try to be all things to all people, but Jesus isn't as limited as we are. That's good news.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

I Corinthians 8.1-13: Puffed Up vs. Built Up

 The Corinthians are saying that "all of us possess knowledge." Maybe, Paul replies, but knowledge may not be what you, as followers of Christ, should be striving for. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. It isn't that knowledge is bad, but if it doesn't build up the community (like the love modeled by Jesus Christ), then it isn't in line with the gospel. Love builds up, Paul says. Do you? Are your actions in line with the love modeled for you by Jesus? 

My classmates and I were once told by our theology professor that we "should never let our metaphor take us farther than we want to go." I'm walking on the edge here. 

Take a look at the two structures below. What is similar about them? Both are gray. Both are Gothic in detail (pointed arches, pointed gables, towers with spires). Both have a single entrance with archivolts (the bands of molding within the door arch that echo its shape). 

What makes them different? One is, well...inflated, while the other is built up. 

Now there's nothing to say that an inflatable church can't be useful and/or amusing. It's a meme waiting to happen, though. Something about all the hot air in the church. Or blowhards. Or something like that. But the tabernacle was a moveable worship space, wasn't it? There might be some value in being able to pack up an inflatable church (some have inflatable pews, an inflatable pulpit, even inflatable candles on an inflatable Communion table) and move to another location. 

We know the church is not the building - the children's song reminds us that the church is the people. But which of the "buildings" feels more stable? Which would you feel safer standing in? One pin, and the inflatable church is in danger. There are more things in the world that can bring the puffed up church to the point of collapse. A Swiss Army Knife can make a number of those things available in any pocket. The built church can still fall, of course, but probably not at the hand of a six-year-old with a pair of scissors. And it's clear that the inflatable church wants to look like the stone church. It isn't exploring the possibilities of contemporary inflatable technology. Rather it is mimicking an earlier style.

What kind of church are you creating by the words that you say? What sort of church are we creating by the deeds that we do? Are we puffed up? Or are we building up?

Top: This inflatable church is available from various vendors for $2400 - $10,000. It is also available in pink. Search the internet for additional information. Bottom: Neo-Gothic church. Kylemore Abbey, Connemara, Co. Galway, Ireland. 

Sunday, January 10, 2021

I Corinthians 7:29-31: God Only Knows

 The appointed time has grown short, Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth (I Corinthians 7:29). One of the ways you can imagine this announcement was made (and passed down to us) in a letter rather than in person to the Corinthians (and via transcript to us) is that no one interrupted at this point to ask, "What do you mean by short? Are we talking 5 years? That's certainly shorter than 50 years. Or is it 5 hours? Or possibly 5 minutes? What does short mean, Paul?"

The concept of the appointed time is found throughout scripture. It's phrased in several ways, this idea that God has a time for things that no one knows. That day and hour in Matthew 24:36. The day of the Lord in Jeremiah 46:10 and I Thessalonians 5:2. Even the appointed time is used elsewhere in scripture: Habbakuk 2:3 and elsewhere.

But we don't know specifically what time it means. It's like Surrealist art - recognizable and yet still not understood. Surrealism, which flourished in the second quarter of the 20th century, used the juxtaposition of images to express the subconscious. Which means that the artist may have been trying to communicate meaning through a piece of art, but the artist didn't really care if anyone else understood the meaning of the piece. One of the most famous pieces of Surrealist art is Salvador Dali's Persistence of Memory. We recognize clocks and trees/branches and sky and landscape in the image. But what it all means is largely mystery. The title may or may not be helpful. 

So perhaps a Surrealist painting is the perfect vehicle to convey the appointed time. Kay Sage's painting here is titled just that: At the Appointed Time. I have no information that it is a religious or Biblically-based painting. Still, the title invites us to take a moment and look at the painting with scripture in mind. What do you see in the painting (literally what can you describe...there is a darkening gray sky, there is a horizon line in the middle of the picture, etc.)? What do you think about what you see? What do you wonder about this painting?

Kay Sarge. At the Appointed Time. 1942. Newark Museum.

Is that fabric-draped element the appointed time? Or is that us shrouded in ignorance? Does all of time stretch out inexorably toward the horizon line? Or is the action at left the peeling back of guardrails that indicate some kind of breakdown? Are those vines growing up out of the break? Vines that may leaf out with new growth? Or are they mechanical cables? Is that an eerily waveless ocean? Or do the darkening clouds threaten the future? Or does the sky clear near the horizon line? Can we even see the appointed time? Or is it too far away? Or is that it right in front of us? Surreal.

We know there is an appointed time. We know that God knows when that is. And no matter how many people announce they have figured out exactly when that time is, only God knows. All we can do until then is be intentional about how we live as children of God and followers of Christ. Because the present form of this world is passing away. 

This week's Art&Faith Matters on Facebook looks at a still life titled "Time and Eternity." Click here

Sunday, January 3, 2021

I Samuel 3.1-10: While You Are Sleeping

I Samuel 3 is an exercise in sleeping and waking. Samuel and Eli are asleep. Samuel is awakened, and he wakes Eli. Eli tells Samuel to go back and lie down. Maybe he goes back to sleep? If so, then Samuel and Eli are back asleep. Samuel is awakened, and he wakes Eli. Eli tells Samuel to go back to sleep. Samuel is awakened, and he wakes Eli. This time Eli gets it, and tells the boy Samuel to go back and lie down and wait. So Samuel does, and he hears something he doesn't want to pass along to Eli. The night passes. Whether or not Samuel is able to sleep after that, we don't know, but eventually he relates the vision to Eli after Eli insists. Insists strongly, as a matter of fact. 

One more time, God has spoken to a messenger at night...when the one who would be God's messenger would have expected to be asleep. Jacob with his vision and his wrestling match. Elijah is awakened from sleep by an angel. Even Jesus is awakened from sleep in the boat when the storm arises. It seems that getting a good night's sleep becomes less possible when God needs you to deliver a message. 

I'm sure no one was more surprised than Eli was to be woken up by Samuel. But this seems to be a pattern with God. God shows up and disrupts what looks like it's going to be a regular night's sleep...or a regular life. And the person whose life is disrupted is often not who you'd expect: a not-particularly-skilled public speaker, the youngest of seven brothers, a bunch of fishermen from the sticks, a young unmarried girl. The person called is unexpected. The call is unexpected. It comes at an unexpected moment. 
Bernard Safran. Sleeping (aka Sleeping It Off). 1986. 
For additional information, and a close-up of the brushwork on this painting, click here. Scroll to the bottom and click on the full painting to see the detail. This is a blog post by the artist's daughter.
I do wonder if Samuel was as eager to answer the third time. When he thought it was Eli calling him for assistance, he was eager to help. What did Eli need? Water? Help standing up? A message delivered? But when you know it's God who will be speaking to you...are you a little more nervous about saying "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening." Who knows what God will ask you to do? 

There is an interesting detail that often doesn't show up in depictions of I Samuel 3:1-10. Go to this week's Art&Faith Matters on Facebook to see what it is.