Pentecost: A Time for Telling Stories

I haven’t written here for far too long. Life has been crowded, anxious, a hamster-wheel slalom. But today is Pentecost, a day when the wind should howl and the fire burn bright. Two thousand years ago and the Spirit moved and all who were present heard God speak in their own language. Nowadays? Now speaking is easy. What we don’t do is listen.

We don’t listen because we don’t want to hear. To listen is to be receptive to the humanity in another, the humanity in those we’ve been taught to despise. Far easier to rob the Other of their humanity, and that’s why so often the language used is animalistic, demonic, militaristic. There aren’t groups of immigrants approaching our borders, there are ‘hordes’, there are ‘swarms’. We weaponise language so we don’t have to listen.

Violence comes later. It starts with the words we use, and the words we refuse to hear.

So maybe Pentecost is a time for telling stories. Technology can help us translate and disseminate, but we still need to make space to hear the stories and the voices of those who are on our margins. In hearing we see humanity, similarities, and behind them all catch a glimpse of the divine. When the Spirit moved, unity and diversity began to dance and pilgrims from around the world began to understand each other anew.

And because the Spirit is an artist, we need to celebrate the way in which words and image and music and sculpture can help us hear other languages, other perspectives, other stories, all told through the unique language and grammar of each medium; art is a better vehicle for Pentecost than Google Translate. It can grow empathy, issue challenge, demand justice; embody truth and raise up a platform. And when the Spirit’s fire falls we can gather round it, tell our stories and see ourselves and the Image of God reflected back in each other’s eyes.

Art and Healing: Medicine

For 28 years, Tilda Shalof worked as a nurse in Toronto General Hospital’s ICU. During that time she collected tiny ‘souvenirs’ of the patients she treated, the stories of which she was a part: caps from medicine bottles, plastice syringe covers, equipment connectors… Shalof collected these for years, not knowing what to do with them but knowing they were important somehow, transitory reminders of something greater, disposable bits of trash that together served as a testimony to a career and memories of life and death.
Eventually all this waste was upcycled into a 9ft mural that now hangs in Toronto General Hospital. Created with artist Vanessa Herman-Landau, the mural is a vibrant, colourful piece that uses the detritus of a hospital to express something of the hope and healing that takes place there. Shalof can point to any of the 10,000 bits of plastic embedded in resin and explain what it was used for, how it helped her patents. Through that, she also remembers those she helped, those who recovered, those she lost.

I’ve written before about how healing and art are more closely linked than we imagine. This mural reminds us of the science that makes the work of hospitals and their staff possible: the medicine, the equipment, the fluids, the drips, the needles. Bezalel’s legacy stretches across disciplines, it informs science and engineering and with them creates something beautiful.

We may be thinking of the miraculous when we pray for healing, but we’re also praying for nurses and researchers, doctors and paramedics, cleaners and receptionists. Our prayers for healing are also a blessing of medicine and MRI scanners, blood pressure machines and prosthetics. These are creativity in action; the Spirit works through science as well. And we can be reminded of that by 10,000 bottle tops and all those that use them.

Creativity as a Courier of Shalom

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Any project takes a while to coalesce; ideas weave together, webs of facts and stories and ideas. As they converse and embrace and debate, a voice emerges, sounding different to how you originally imagined. Still, this voice will be louder, and stronger, and more confident.

This blog was born out of one idea: that creativity, in all its forms, is a gift and a blessing from God. Because of that, we can see how art, and design, and crafts bless the world in turn, through beauty and challenge, imagination and justice, prophecy and protest, vision and healing and lament. Writing the last few formative posts, that’s becoming clearer to me: creativity can lead to an act of creation, and that can echo the Creator. In some small way we can recreate and remix and reimagine and re-enchant the world around us. The Spirit gifts us to do that.

“It is yours to create, it is God’s to sustain. Don’t stop creating, and building and making. Keep going. You’ve come too far.”

That’s a tweet from Pastor Jonathan Martin. It’s applicable to all sorts of callings and vocations, but our churches sometimes look askance at the arts – new songs are suspect, challenge is uncommercial and everyone knows that God speaks Latin or King James English. There are those in the pews who have art burning within them that can be used to beautify the Kingdom, and yet that art never gets created – the space isn’t made, permission isn’t given.

But it is yours to create.

If God’s put that gift within you, pray for his Spirit to release it into the world.

It is God’s to sustain.

God is a creator and a sustainer. And when art and songs and dance and sculpture, software and technology and architecture and food are out there, their impact expands and mutates and collides with other creations to make something new in their wake.

Don’t stop creating and building and making.

Don’t stop, because your gift is a blessing, and you’re blessed to be a blessing. And that blessing can help grow a different Kingdom, roses blooming through cracks in parking lots. Envision and embody and engineer and incarnate the better world whispered to you by the Spirit. Create out of your best dreams, create out of your most vivid scars. Create out of Bethlehem, create out of Calvary.

Because creativity isn’t just an act of imagination, it can be an act of worship, a source of healing, a courier of shalom. You can draw a link between creativity and justice, be that through a protest song or an origami microscope. Creativity can imagine a better world and tell its story and communicate its vision, but it can also help that vision to break through, be pulled through into reality in the wake of a Kingdom come.

Keep going. You’ve come too far.

Keep pushing forward, through the rejection, through the misunderstandings, through the writer’s block and the negative reviews and the troll’s lurking under Twitter’s bridges. Keep going. What you create can mean something, can change something, can make something more beautiful, can help the Spirit shine through.

Keep going.

Keep going.

Keep going.

The Battle For Our Stories Will Be Won Through Our Art

Back in 2012, before I was married and before the world didn’t end, a group of us got together to watch the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. It was an expansive, unexpected event, weaving together a patchwork of Britain’s paradoxes. Two parts stick in my imagination even today: the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter with James Bond (because, well, it’s the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter with James Bond), and the moment in which Mary Poppins does battle with Lord Voldemort for the soul of the NHS. It was a strange mosaic of pop culture and social justice and political reality, and because of the imagery and the resonance it took things we take for granted and turned them into something mythological, perhaps even apocalyptic – not in the everyone’s-going-to-die sense, but in the sense of an unveiling of deeper realities.

And all of this is important, because as a society our stories are failing. We’ve seen, even in the course of the last few weeks, darker narratives take hold and dominate – stories tanked up on racism and prejudice and violence and exclusion. They take hold and people get shot and shops get firebombed.

The Church can’t stay silent in the face of this toxic storytelling, especially as we’ve told a few horror stories around the campfire ourselves. We can’t rely on people stumbling into our sermons, can’t rely on the fact that we get a bishop to say a quick prayer before an important occasion. We have to get out there and tell better stories, and while we’re doing that, ask forgiveness for all the times we’ve weaponised our own stories.

That’s where the gift of creativity comes in. We need to empower and encourage and unleash the artists and the poets and the song writers and the film makers among us; we’ve got good at doctrine and theology and apologetics,  and yhey’re important, but never forget that, when Jesus wanted to talk about the love of God he told the story of a boy who ran away from home, and when he wanted to talk about our love for each other, he told the story of a guy who got mugged.

So we have to pray that the Holy Spirit will bless and anoint those doing this work, because the world and the church need them out there on the frontlines. The Holy Spirit is our inspiration; let’s reclaim and remix and reimagine the Psalms and the parables and the lamentations and the testimonies. Maybe the time has come to be prophetic and apocalyptic, because that doesn’t mean that everything has to burn but it does mean that everything had to change.

There’s someone in the pews near to you that has a paintbrush. Someone has a digital camera and an eye for composition. Someone has a maker workshop in their garage, someone has a pen and a notebook full of ideas. And they also have the Holy Spirit.

Our job, as the church, is to help them present and reveal and embody a greater vision; our job, as the church, is to help them heal our broken narratives and to tell better stories.

Art and Healing: PTSD

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A few months ago, TED uploaded a talk by art therapist Melissa Walker. She describes her work with war veterans, helping them to recover from PTSD through the use of visual arts.

Through Walker’s work, veterans use art to embody their trauma, turning it into something they can relate to, something that exists outside of them that can be safely left behind at the end of each day. And it’s a long, hard process, but art – particularly the creation of masks – seems to enable and empower those suffering with PTSD to find healing.

This blog was inspired by Exodus 35 and the story of Bezalel, God’s craftsman, an artist responsible for decorating the Tabernacle and building the Ark of the Covenant. Bezalel has a clear spiritual gift, and we often see that gift in terms of worship – he’s making God’s throne and God’s dwelling place as a way of honouring and worshiping his Lord, and obviously that’s vital, but Walker’s talk offers a glimpse into how art is a spiritual gift with wider applications

For one, it seems to be a gift that can heal. PTSD is, I guess, an invisible wound, but a real one nevertheless, and art seems to serve as a vehicle by which healing can enter into a situation. It may be a long and difficult process, not the flashy, miraculous story we’d like, but there are people who have endured terrible trauma who, by painting and drawing and creating something with their bare hands, have been able to move on with their lives. That’s healing too, and in a world where mental health needs to be taken a lot more seriously, maybe Bezalel’s legacy incorporates art that can heal. The Holy Spirit is a healer after all.

Then there’s the idea of peace. Walker works with veterans, servicemen and women who’ve been to war and are still carrying the trauma of their experience. Now that trauma needs to be reckoned with, and if there’s opportunity to do that through art, if taking a situation, an emotion, an image and coming to peace with it through creativity and art, then that’s another facet of the gift, one that has echoes of shalom.

We have many artists in our churches. We need to be creative in how their gifts are used, but more than that, maybe it’s time for a wider vision of art as a spiritual gift. Maybe Bezalel’s legacy is more expansive than we think.

Bezalel’s Legacy

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Bezalel isn’t one of the great biblical heroes. He isn’t a David, a Moses, a Peter. He’s a worker, an artisan, a craftsman covered in sawdust and sand, sweating as he makes something beautiful in the depths of a desert. And yet he’s blessed by the Spirit, blessed with gifts with which to build, to craft to create.

The context: God has liberated the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt; now, led by Moses, they’re out in the wilderness, grumbling and homeless and prone to building themselves idols – which, I guess, is an act of creativity in itself. It’s decided that a portable dwelling place, the Tabernacle, should be built for God. This is major: the presence of God – the Shekinah – living among his people is a crucial theme throughout the Bible. That’s why, in the opening of John’s Gospel, the coming of Jesus is directly linked with God’s presence in the Tabernacle. God is with us.

But if you’re going to build a dwelling place for God, you want to put your best people on it:

“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, or the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship.”

That passage from Exodus 31 sums up who Bezalel is – Israel’s genius craftsman, the one with the ability and talent to build a home for God himself. He, his assistant Oholiab and an army of apprentices, build both the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant, the holiest items in Israel’s inventory. Bezalel had a crucial role in the development of Israel’s religious life and he’s a craftsman – not a priest, not a warrior, a craftsman.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”

Bezalel is filled with the Spirit of God, giving him all those artistic talents (and Israel needs help with this, given that their time as slaves was mostly spent making bricks, not tabernacles). The Spirit is intimately linked with the act of creation, and so, when we talk about Bezalel being given the Spirit we’re really looking at the artistry of God.

The act of Creation, right at the start of the Bible, isn’t described as the interplay of atoms and fundamental laws of physics, it’s described in terms of art, architecture, creativity – look at Job 38, for instance, or Psalm 139. And, when Ephesians 2:10 talks about us being God’s “handiwork”, it has connotations of us being God’s works of art.

The language used is telling us that God is a creator, and artist, and while the creation has been spoiled and broken, a major theme of the Bible is that it will be restored. (There’s a Jewish tradition that Bezalel’s grandfather, Hur, was murdered during the incident with the Golden Calf, and therefore Bezalel’s gifts were to both honour Hur and his family and redeem creativity’s role in the act of worship.)

Too often in modern churches, the arts are represented near exclusively by music, which is a real shame – many people sitting in the pews have gifts in arts and craft that aren’t allowed a forum in which they can be used to worship God – even through healing. This is in contrast with the biblical story, where the people can’t support Bezalel and his crew enough.

And so, maybe Bezalel’s legacy is that we can find ways to raise up these artists, give them the tools and the teaching and the spaces they need to worship God with talents that are knit into their very bones. That’s the point of this blog – to explore the intersection of creativity and faith, to see how art can heal and inspire, to find the hidden spirituality embedded in sculpting and cooking, the graffiti on walls and the lettering in comic books.

And I hope you’ll start your own explorations along with me.