Giving Thanks for Art

by | Oct 30, 2023

Awake, my soul!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn.

I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.

For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens;
your faithfulness extends to the clouds.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens.
Let your glory be over all the earth.                        

Psalm 57:8-11

This week is All Saints Day. This holy day has led to the creation of wildly diverse cultural variations, from child trick or treaters, to the West Hollywood Carnaval, to Dia de Muertos, to the Communion of the Saints . . . . Today, I should be giving thanks for the saints who came before us. And if you want to take this reflection as an excuse to spend some time giving thanks for the saints in your life, go for it.

Though All Saints Day is a very important time for me—as I have often said, we Japanese love our dead people—for some reason, these days I have been more aware of the importance of art in our faith and our lives.

This last Saturday was the memorial for Dee Kelley at Claremont Presbyterian. Since Pentecost, Claremont’s sanctuary has been graced with an art installation of doves flying out from the cross, a gift of Claremont’s engineer/artist, John Watts. John, by the way, was the person who put many hours helping us to hold our September Presbytery meeting as a hybrid meeting on short notice. Thanks, John! Anyway, the first installation was in 2019, and then COVID. But the doves returned in 2023, with more color around the cross, and the doves now take a slight turn around the sanctuary.

I’ve always loved this, but as I walked into the sanctuary on Saturday, my heart was lightened at the thought of Dee flying like these doves, free of the limitations of the mortal plane. I saw Deidra Goulding gazing up at the doves, as this was the first time she had seen the Claremont sanctuary.

Deidra has created some beautiful and meaningful art installations herself, so I imagine she has a special appreciation for this artwork and what it brings to the experience of worship.

The service included the hymn “Here I Am, Lord” by Dan Schutte. This is a favorite at every seminary, and I still have a hard time singing the hymn, as I am overwhelmed by the music and images of God loving this world, and calling us to join in God’s holy mission. Dee had made a special request that the postlude be Charles-Marie Widor’s Toccata from his 5th Symphony for Organ, that most glorious piece of organ virtuosity. Listening to the organ, looking up at the doves and the stained glass, I thought how all this beauty, visual and aural, helps people like Dee and myself feel more deeply the glory of God.

Art can transcend words, or logic, or rules, so art can reflect the divine mysteries of God in ways that words cannot. Art can transcend despair, and has offered a death-shattering ray of hope in places of tragedy. And art can transcend the limits of social standing; I have known people without advanced degrees or even secure housing who are able to express themselves, their hope, their faith, through art.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the need to express ourselves through art. I think it’s healing to be able to process what’s been going on in our lives and in the world these last few years—or any time. We need to be able to receive the power of art, but we also can create, and in doing so, we taste the power that God offers to us, the power of creativity.

Of course, art takes many forms, and it communicates differently for different people. Some of the controversies in the church come when we try to control people’s creativity as they attempt to share their experience of God, especially through music. But some breakthroughs can come through art as well, as people can experience the unique grace of God through a story well told, a poem piercing the fog of the mundane, a painting that hints at the glory of God’s realm.

I’ve heard that when school district budgets face constraints, the art curriculum suffers. I was comparing notes with a younger person who went to the same high school I did, and I was saddened to hear how many art and music classes I took are no longer offered. Too often, our scarcity mindset labels art a luxury, and so we put artistic expression aside when times are tough. During COVID, we called on our creative powers to figure out how to do church together, remotely. But perhaps it’s time to see if we can nurture our creative urges with a little more freedom.

As I write this, I feel like I’m not being very creative or artistic in the way I am arguing for the importance of art. I think this is my concern—feeling a hunger for creativity, but not yet finding the channel for that creativity. I hope that you are feeling the desire to create, and that we can offer opportunities for our folks to create as a way of exercising the power that God gives us, and to offer hope to a world in danger of losing our imagination of what is possible.

May we find art—and opportunities to create—so that we may open our eyes to God’s beauty, open our hearts to God’s love, and open our souls to God’s life-giving power of creation. May it be so.