Made in God's Image: common art
Scripture: Ephesians 3:14-21
Every Wednesday in the parish hall of Emmanuel Church on Boston’s Newbury Street, our community gathers for common art, common cathedral’s weekly open art studio. High-end, ritzy Newbury Street may seem like an odd location for an art program that was created by and for unhoused and low-income people. But this historic Episcopal church is a huge supporter of arts and music, and of social justice initiatives, and so it is fitting that they welcomed us to make their space our common art home.
After we make coffee but before we set up the art supplies, our common art day begins with a leadership meeting. Every week, we place a piano bench in the middle of our circle of chairs and light a candle. The bench becomes our altar, and all are invited to make an offering, a response to the question: “Where have you seen God this week? Or where do you hope to see God?”
Many items have been placed on this altar: a cup of coffee, a poncho, a dollar bill, a pen, a drawing, a watch, a cross. And many stories have been shared: of seeing God in an act of kindness between strangers on the street; in feeding the ducks and in glimpsing the albino squirrel in the Public Garden; in the gift of life and waking up another day. Starting our day in this way reminds us to keep our eyes open for God wherever She might show up.
We talk often about the image of God at common art. We remind each other that everyone is created in God’s image. When I say this, as a pastor, I mean: You are beloved. Your life matters. You have goodness, love, and the light of God within you.
Especially at common art, being made in the image of God means that just as God created, so too are we creators. Everyone who walks through our doors – even if they have never set brush to canvas or haven’t drawn since childhood – is invited to express themselves artistically. You don’t have to call yourself an artist to be one. Or, alternatively, you are an artist even before you see yourself as one.
And this is my invitation to all of us today, as we look around this room, a worship space and art gallery-in-one. I want to invite you to be open to where you see God in these paintings and drawings, and in these fabric and knit and beaded creations.
But even more importantly, I want to invite you to ask these artists about where they see God in their creative process. And then, to give an honest look at your understanding of your own creativity. How might you be judging yourself, getting in the way of the image of God flourishing within you?
As part of my preparation for today, I asked several common art artists: Where do you see the image of God in your art? Each response was profound and unique, and yet they expressed similar themes: the mystery of grace in creativity, and the awe of seeing creation unfold and become something beyond what one could have imagined.
Our Scripture reading from today touches upon these themes. We don’t actually know who wrote the Letter to the Ephesians – some say it was the Apostle Paul but scholars believe it was someone influenced by Paul writing in his name. For me, the prayer that concludes Ephesians is a work of art. It is a prayer of thanksgiving for the glory of God’s work, through the love of Christ dwelling in us, and the power of the Spirit moving through us.
When I asked artists Harry and Chris where they see God in their art, they both used the word “Wow!” For Harry, there is the feeling of gratitude for something beyond him, bigger than him, guiding and inspiring his painting. For Chris, there is the joy and pride of seeing his gifts in action and sharing them with others.
Or in the words of the author of Ephesians, God strengthens our inner being – that place of deep creativity – through the riches of His glory.
When I asked Russell where God shows up in his creativity, his face lit up and he whipped out his wallet to show me a quotation on a card that he keeps with him all the time. The artist Georges Braque said: Only one thing counts in art: that which can’t be explained.
Something clicked for me. I had been so focused on thinking about the image of God in art as the viewer engages with it: the colors, in the light, in the texture and the stories that images tell.
And yet, where is God more fully if not in the mysterious grace of the act of creating itself? Where is God if not in that which cannot be explained?
Or in the words of the artist of Ephesians, the creative love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, and the utter vastness of God – the breadth, and length, and height and depth of all that is.
I too am an artist of words. I especially enjoy writing poetry. And even when I start out with an image – something I have witnessed in my day, or an especially elegant phrase – I never know how the poem will end. I can begin from one point, and see a destination in my mind and end up somewhere else. Or, I may begin somewhere and conclude in a place that never before surfaced in the canvas of my imagination.
Russell went on to share with me that “when an artist is done with their work, it should surprise them!” That one of the things he does not have complete control of is his creativity, because it is God’s gift.
I am so grateful to Russell for putting into words something that I have been learning, but didn’t quite know how to express. This for me is the sweetest thing about poetry: the unfurling of petals where before there was only a bud. That I cannot control when the bud is ready to blossom, what exactly it will look like, or how long it will thrive in the hot summer sun. I used to find this lack of control frustrating, and I still do sometimes.
I wonder, in fact, if this is why so many of us struggle to be creative.
Because we cling to control, even if we yearn to practice surrender. We live in a culture that prizes predictability, and we are taught to manipulate and manicure the image we present to the world. In school, and in many of our jobs, we are encouraged to focus on the desired end result and how to achieve it, rather than being open to what we might learn and how we might shift direction along the way. And when the end result is different from the image we had imagined, we are tempted to call it ‘failure.’ Even when it isn’t.
Maybe what we have created is simply different than we had imagined it to be. Maybe, as our Ephesians poet suggests, the divine power within us is accomplishing something beyond what we even could have imagined!
My college religion professor and mentor Sister Anne Patrick first taught me to appreciate the writing process rather than the final polished product. She encouraged me to write without worrying about what I was writing. To just get the words down on paper. And then, out of this practice, I just might fall into flow -- that effortless space in creative work in which the creativity comes, as Harry and Russell suggested, from an energy beyond oneself flowing through oneself. A creative, mysterious energy we call God.
When Anne retired and gave the Spring Convocation Address, her speech was titled “On Being Unfinished.” She distributed small printed copies of a watercolor painting by the Navajo artist Harrison Begay. Anne told us how she had bought a copy of the painting many years before and had one framed for her office and one she carried in a folder in her briefcase.
The reason this painting resonated for her so deeply – and so too does it resonate with me – is that the artist has captured creativity in progress, not yet complete. In the watercolor, two Navajo weavers, a woman and a girl, sit before a loom working on a rug that is not quite halfway finished. Only parts of the diamonds they are weaving are visible, and the rest of the loom is empty. The rug is not finished, and yet it is still beautiful. And, even more so, the weaving process is beautiful.
It is beautiful because it is here that the image of God is most alive. Not in the finished painting, or in the fully woven tapestry. But in the unfolding possibility of the creative process, that space in which we surrender as much control as possible in order to let God do God’s work.
This is a healing space.
Here we find the courage to create, even if we are afraid our creativity won’t be good enough.
Here we find the trust to relinquish our attachment to perfection, letting go and being open to what mysterious creative grace might move in and through us.
Here we remember that even before we discover our full creative potential, we are each beloved creatures made in the image of God.
Another of our common art artists, Patti, told me that “God is the remarkable artist who gave me this gift, and I do it for God’s glory.” Really, she said, there is no word for God’s glory – it can only be expressed in creation, and in art.
It is here, in creativity of all shapes and forms, in which we come to know the fullness of this truth: In and through us, God is able to do far more than we can ever imagine. AMEN.