Emerging from under the Bed

A highlight of my summer has been an addition of a cat into my home. If you have ever experienced a cat in a new environment then you can well imagine the look of uncertainty in their eyes as they emerge from their cat carrier. Their movements are slow, unsure as if they are uncertain if even the carpet is safe. They take a couple of steps out of the carrier and often they race towards the closest hiding spot they can find – for my cat it was under the bed. The newness of their environment is too overwhelming to handle.. the uncertainty of what is happening is frightening, so they hide to protect themselves from whatever unknown danger there may be.

When it comes to art, I imagine many (granted not all) churches reacting in a similar manner to a cat in a new environment. They aren’t sure. Art in a church is a new world that they may know nothing about. It might be unsafe… it might lead to worshipping idols or isolating God in an image… it could be damaging. And there are so many possibilities that it is overwhelming and feels impossible to sort through. So they hide.. they decide it’s safer to ignore the possibilities of freedom.

Individuals do it too.. a paint brush and some paint can seem like one of the most intimidating things I could ever put in front of them. I know because I’ve been there. I’ve been scared to paint –afraid I couldn’t do it… I’ve been afraid to sculpt –afraid that someone would think my work was pointless or ridiculous… I’ve been afraid to talk about why art inspires me –afraid that someone will disagree or tell me I’m simply wrong. I get it, I get why both individuals and churches as a whole are intimidated by (or simply don’t know what to do with) art. When you make visual art it stays for everyone to judge and there is no denying it. To be involved with art is often vulnerable… to step out from under the bed is to be vulnerable. So why do it?

I imagine you have already figured out that my analogy of the cat under the bed is going to lead to the statement that of course the cat should come out from under the bed because there is nothing to be afraid of and it is incredibly freeing to not let fear keep you under a bed. Stepping out from under the bed is a step toward freedom… but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to be afraid of. To be vulnerable is frightening.

Many churches are in trouble.. they are dying for any number of reasons… and to be extraordinarily blunt I don’t always care (which means sometimes I do care :) ). But sometimes I don’t care because I know what it is like to be hurt in the name of God by a church. I know the damage that can be done by handing people an image of God that is harsh and demanding. I have experienced it first hand… and with a hurt and protective heart I sometimes wish they would all go away.

But then I wake up and put my ministerial hat back on and my eyes turn from focusing on damaging churches to focus on healthy religious experiences as well as people who have been in damaging situations – people who may be hurting deep down because they don’t know what else to do. And I think of people outside of churches who want to believe in something bigger than themselves but can’t get past the damaging images of God that were handed to them. And this is when I think art can help.

Art does at least two things that I have observed so far:

1. it allows you to communicate without words. It allows you to redefine ideas and embody feelings in more abstract and less definite ways than words. It opens the imagination to the things beyond our known reality.. to new possibilities.. something I imagine all who have been hurt (by the church or not) could benefit from. To depict something visually is different then using words. There is an inexactness to it that lets you be more free to be honest because for the viewer its up for interpretation.

2. And it allows for honest vulnerability. I reflected this week that I felt safer sharing personal struggles with the people I do art with than I would in any church. I think it’s because people doing art aren’t going to great lengths to pretend like everything is fine  – there isn’t the same shame of talking about struggles that there can be in churches. My thought is that perhaps people who do art together develop a quicker and deeper trust with each other because to do art with each other is vulnerable… and if I learn I can do art with you than I will learn I can be vulnerable in other ways with you and you can hold me there because you held my art. I think churches who want to be honest and provide a safe atmosphere for such honestly could benefit from experiencing the vulnerability of art. It connects people in different and deep ways.

I know it can be intimidating and overwhelming.. maybe even dangerous.. and I know that’s why its a struggle to build a bridge between the art and Christian communities… but I don’t think that means we should stay under the bed. There is a power and freedom that can be unleashed through art in ways that could give churches a deeper experience.

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