Tag Archives: Art

Taking a Wrecking Ball to the Edifice Complex of Christianity

Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
Luke 21:5-6 (NIV)

When I was a child, I attended a small neighborhood church that was liturgical in practice. This meant that the sanctuary was laid out in a very specific way that catered to the ancient liturgy. There was a lectern on one side that was “lower” and served common uses such as announcements and a non-clergy member reading scripture or a responsive reading. Then there was a taller lectern on the other side which was only for the reverend to preach his sermon. There was an altar where communion was served which most people in the church believed sacred space. Children were taught to stay away and be careful of offending God by going where we weren’t allowed or treating the space disrespectfully.

As a young man, I attended a giant church that had no such liturgical trappings. In this church, everything was functional. It was all about the audience’s experience. Great lighting and great sound that allowed for a great product. The pastor of this church was rabid about building bigger and better buildings for the weekly show and attracting bigger names to perform in the area.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve had to come to terms with the “edifice complex” I was taught, have witnessed, and in which I confess I have participated. There is definitely something to be said for a nice, functional space for a local gathering to meet, organize, worship, teach, learn, pray, meditate, and serve one another and the community. More about that in a moment.

There is also the spiritual reality that Jesus exemplified and taught. It was a paradigm shift massive as to be difficult for people to believe and embrace 2000 years later. It is simply this: God does not dwell in buildings.

God is omnipresent (that is, everywhere) because Jesus is the force of creation holding the universe together: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). Jesus said that after his death, resurrection and ascension, He was sending Holy Spirit to dwell in us: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17). Therefore, God’s “Temple” is no longer a place in Jerusalem or a bricks-and-mortar edifice down the street. God’s Temple is the bodies, hearts, minds, lives of those who believe and follow: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

For the first few centuries after Jesus’ ascension, local gatherings of believers met in one another’s homes where they shared meals, worshipped, prayed together and supported one another. Some scholars estimate that over a million followers of Jesus were meeting regularly in tens of thousands of homes around the known world.

In 312 A.D. the Roman Emporer Constantine became a Christian and Christianity quickly became the state religion of Rome. The Jesus Movement, almost overnight, became the Holy Roman Empire.

[cue: Star Wars: Vader’s Theme]

Empires are concerned with controlling masses. Controlling masses requires authority that people will respect, follow, serve, and obey. One way to control the masses is to control their religious beliefs and routines. Therefore:

  • Only “priests” or “ordained clergy” can preach, teach, marry, bury, and absolve you of your sins. (You are a “common” person with no access to God except through the Empirical structures)
  • Only individuals appointed by the supreme authority and his minions (Caesar, Pope, Cardinal, Bishop) are allowed to be priests or ordained clergy. (You have little hope of becoming clergy unless you jump through many difficult and expensive academic and religious hoops set up by the Empire’s institutions. Probably not unless you know someone or a have a lot of money to bribe, oops, I mean, “donate” to the Empirical authorities – which is how we will wind up with wealthy children and corrupt individuals becoming the Pope)
  • The words used for teaching and the worship of God will now only be sung, written, read and spoken in Latin, which the uneducated masses will not understand. (This makes it easier for the Empirical religious authorities to control said masses of uneducated followers as they become dependent on the Empirical authorities for everything including knowledge, forgiveness, salvation, the salvation of loved ones prayed out of purgatory, and et cetera [<– that’s Latin, btw])
  • Worship must now be centered within an opulent, massive, awe-inspiring structure that stands out in the middle of the squalid little local shacks and structures people live in and use for daily business. (The Empirical institution thus reminds people wordlessly, day and night, that both God and the Empirical institution are higher, better, and different than you are in your poor little common life. It is both something for you to ever reach for and something to which you will never reach without the Empirical institution itself making a way for you)

And, that was the beginning of the edifice complex for followers of Jesus. I find it a fascinating contrast to today’s chapter. Jesus is in Jerusalem. It is the last week of His earthly journey. Jesus has spent most of His three-year ministry speaking to crowds on hillsides, fields, and from a boat to throngs of people sitting on the shore. He also spoke in small-town synagogues. His followers of backwater fishermen and men from small towns in Galilee were awed by the massive Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus, however, shrugged it off with the foreknowledge of what would become of it:

“As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

A couple of thoughts this morning as I ponder these things along side of almost 40 years regularly journeying through God’s Message:

  • I believe a functional, central location for followers of Jesus to gather is a good thing.
  • I believe that making meeting spaces beautiful, inviting, welcoming, clean, and efficient are good things, even God-honoring things, for everyone who gathers there.
  • I believe that architecture is both a highly specialized craft and a creative art form that can powerfully embody and express many things with breathtaking beauty.
  • I believe that the churches and cathedrals built throughout history are works of art that have much to offer in both history lessons and inspiring us creatively and spiritually.
  • I also believe that a building can become an object of worship rather than a setting for it.
  • I don’t believe that a church building, it’s rooms, altars, stained-glass, podiums, and decorations are sacred in any way (though they can be special in many different ways and on many different levels).
  • I believe that it is the individual human beings of simple and sincere faith who gather within a church building and it is their corporate and collective worship, prayer, and fellowship that are sacred.
  • I believe that a church building and an institution’s emphasis can subtly convince individuals that they attend the church rather than being the church as Jesus intended.
  • I have observed very sincere individuals who believe the following, perhaps without giving it much thought: God resides in the church building. I visit God an hour every Sunday to pay respect and spiritually make the minimum premium on my eternal fire insurance policy which, I hope and trust, will get me into heaven and avoid hell. I leave God there at church to go about the other 167/168ths of my week.

This morning I imagine Jesus shrugging as he looks up at the Temple. “It’ll be a rubble heap in about 40 years,” He says to His disciples.

Then what is sacred? What lasts? What remains?” Simon the Zealot asks.

You are sacred, as is every person in whom my Spirit dwells,” Jesus replies. “What remains? The faith, hope, and love that is in you and flows out of you, Simon. And all fruit your faith, hope, and love produce in those whom you love. You are my church, Simon. You are God’s temple. And, you are more beautiful than this temple or any building a human being could construct.

What Jesus actually taught was that when individuals believe and follow, they become living, breathing, active temples of worship in which God’s Spirit dwells. What is sacred and/or profane is what we put in, what flows out and how we relate to God and others from the inside out.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

Mystery and Knowledge

Tell him this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the Lord. It is he who will build the temple of the Lord, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two.
Zechariah 6:12-13 (NIV)

One of my geeky interests in this life is art history. In college, I had an art professor who taught Art History from a Western Civilization textbook. His reasoning was that you can’t separate the art from everything that was going on in the culture around it. Politics, religion, commerce, and other popular art forms of the day were both influencing what the artist was expressing and being influenced by it at the same time. Ever since that class, my love of history and my love of art have overlapped.

One of the things I find fascinating in art history is that modern scholars can have vastly different interpretations of what an artist was trying to communicate. And, they might both be partially right, or completely wrong. That’s the way it is with no historical record from that artist explaining the piece.

When it comes to the prophetic writings of the ancient Hebrew prophets, I encounter much of the same kind of struggle. Very intelligent and educated scholars can interpret certain visions and metaphors differently. There are ancient words the prophets used for which we have no clear definition. Like a mysterious old painting, we are sometimes left trying to piece together contextual clues to figure it out.

In today’s chapter, Zechariah describes his eighth and final vision about the rebuilding of God’s temple in Jerusalem. Four Spirits in chariots with different colored horses are dispatched across the world. The exact meaning of the bronze mountains and the colors of the horses is speculative. The angel tells Zech that the Spirit that went north gave God’s Spirit “rest in the land of the north.” We do know that the north was considered the land of Babylon and the direction from which Jerusalem’s enemies came. This gist of this final vision indicates a time of peace.

Then Zech switches gears and receives a word from God to make a crown and put it on the head of Joshua the priest. What’s fascinating about this is that since the days of Moses when the religious system of the Hebrews was established (see the books of Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) the priesthood and the crown were two distinct offices. The king ruled politically, and the priest was the intercessor between God and the people. Only direct descendants of Aaron could be priests and only direct descendants of David could be king. Zechariah’s prophetic word describes a “Branch” who will unite the two.

Fast forward to Jesus. The family histories given by both Matthew and Luke establish that Jesus was a descendant of David. John the Baptist’s parents were both descendants of Aaron. In the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John there is a symbolic joining of the two. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the word pictures and descriptions of Christ and the metaphors are of both king and priest. In Revelation 5, for example, Jesus is “the lamb” (the priestly sacrifice) who sits on the throne (the king of kings). The book of Hebrews was written to establish how Jesus is both King and High Priest (see Hebrews chapters 1 and 7).

In the quiet this morning I find myself pondering on all the mysterious artwork of visions and dreams that come down to us from the ancient prophets. Some prophetic visions and word pictures, like what the two bronze mountains in Zech’s vision are supposed to mean, are as mysterious to me as they are to wisest of scholars. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the artwork of the word pictures and find meaning in them for myself. They make great fodder for speculative conversations over a pint. Others, like the joining of the priesthood and the crown weave together the Great Story that God is authoring across time. They thread together the tapestry of history and provide me a greater depth of meaning and understanding of my faith.

As I head out into my day I’m reminded that my life journey is like that. Some things are clear to me, while other things are mysteries to be endlessly understood. Another reason why this life is a faith journey and not a commuter ride.

Have a great day, my friend. Trek well.

Click on this image to go to an index of all posts in this series on the writings of the prophet Zechariah!
A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Structure and Flow

In every province and in every city to which the edict of the king came, there was joy and gladness among the Jews, with feasting and celebrating.
Esther 8:17 (NIV)

Over the past few years, I have served as a mentor to a group of teachers. I will typically review outlines and provide encouragement and advice prior to their message, and then give feedback after the delivery of their messages. It’s been rewarding to watch individuals improve their preparation and presentation skills, and it’s challenged me in a number of unexpected ways. I honestly think I’ve been a better learner than I have a  teacher in the process.

One of the biggest observations I’ve made over my tenure in this role is the importance of structure. If you have a well-ordered structure then your words and ideas have flow. The hearer, almost sub-consciously, follows the flow and ends up right where you want them at the end. Without structure, there is no flow. Transitions are clunky and the hearer gets lost not being able to follow how what you’re saying now related to what you just said before. When an audience is lost they check out. Casual observers rarely appreciate how a great story, song, play, painting, building, sculpture, movie, or presentation is almost always well-structured.

Which brings us to today’s chapter of Esther in which the villain, Haman, has been dispatched. Mordecai, his nemesis, is elevated to Haman’s position and given his possessions. It’s such a good story, but the casual reader does not realize that the story-teller has carefully structured the narrative in what’s known as a “chiastic” style. The author uses the same phrasing in both introducing Haman and then describing Mordecai’s redemption to highlight the reversal of fortune. Commentators Karen Jobes and Janet Nygren help us see the structure:

In the quiet of my office this morning I find myself thinking about structure and flow. The further I get in my life journey the more aware I’ve become that everything is connected. It’s the design of creation. Even a seemingly random sight of trees in a forest has what scientists call a fractal structure. Whether it’s my work, a message I’m giving, a story I’m telling, our weekly schedule, the vacation plan, our meal plan for the week, or how our living room is arranged there is both structure and flow. If I structure things well then things flow better and the results are generally good. If things are disjointed, disconnected, and there’s no real flow, then everything feels unstable and out of whack.

And with that, I enter the structure of my day.

Flow well, my friend.

The Depressed Prophet

Cursed be the day I was born!
    May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought my father the news,
    who made him very glad, saying,
    “A child is born to you—a son!”
May that man be like the towns
    the Lord overthrew without pity.
May he hear wailing in the morning,
    a battle cry at noon.
For he did not kill me in the womb,
    with my mother as my grave,
    her womb enlarged forever.
Why did I ever come out of the womb
    to see trouble and sorrow
    and to end my days in shame?
Jeremiah 20:13-18 (NIV)

Across the ages, the ancient prophet Jeremiah has been labeled with  the moniker “The Weeping Prophet.” In our bedroom at the lake Wendy and I have a copy of Rembrandt’s portrait of Jeremiah looking depressed and sullen as he sits amidst the ruins of Jerusalem. It reminds me that the lake is a thin place where any who are burdened can find rest for their souls. Alas, it would seem that Jeremiah had no such place.

In today’s chapter we read of a confrontation between Jeremiah and a priest named Pashur, who was “the official in charge of the Temple of the Lord.” The fact that the one “in charge” was out to get Jeremiah is a good indication of just how corrupt the system had become in Jeremiah’s day. The priest in charge of the Temple was overseeing all of the pagan rituals and cults operating out of the Temple. The Temple had become a religious corporation, a powerful money-maker for those in charge (not unlike the way Jesus’ found the Temple in His day).

While Jeremiah had been protected from the death-threats that had already been made against him, Pashur decided to at least punish the prophet for his inflammatory prophesies of doom and destruction. I’m quite sure they were bad for business. In fact, I can almost hear Pashur saying, “This isn’t personal, Jer. It’s strictly business.” Once again, this is not unlike Jesus who, after His repeated rants against their corruption and His stirring up of the people, pressured the Temple leaders to plot His death .

After his time in the stocks, Jeremiah immediately confronts Pashur with a stubborn and willful repeating of his prophetic message: Jerusalem will be destroyed and its people led into captivity at the hands of Babylon. Obviously the prophet wanted Pashur to know his punishment did not have the desired effect. In fact, it simply appears to have pissed Jeremiah off.

What comes next is fascinating. The weeping prophet goes into a depression and pens a dark poem that graphically expresses his wish that he’d never been born. Obviously, the burden of his role, his prophecies, and the steady threats and persecution were getting to him. Of course they were. It would get to me too.

This morning I’m thinking about how common it is for humans to go through periods of depression. If you were privy to my medical records you’d find that I’ve had a few bouts with the blues along my life journey, and I never faced anything like what Jeremiah was dealing with. I’m also thinking about how common it is for individuals in history (artists, musicians, writers, thinkers) who saw and expressed things no one else could see were given to depression, madness, mental illness, and even suicide. I’d certainly put Jeremiah alongside the likes of Van Gogh, Hemingway, and Parker.

I’m struck by the contrast this morning between the spit-shined image I believe we often have of a “godly” person or a “servant of God.” We demand so much, expect so much, and are so quick to scapegoat individuals for their weaknesses and shortcomings. Jeremiah reminds me this morning that God’s servants were fully human, carried human flaws and weaknesses, were susceptible to all the shortcomings known to humanity, and were even given to deep depression and suicidal thoughts. Jeremiah reminds me to cut others a break. He even reminds me to be a bit more gracious with myself.

Wendy and I were at the lake late last week opening it up for the coming summer season. Once again, I saw and pondered Jeremiah’s portrait as I lay in bed.

I’m looking forward to getting back there.

(FWIW: My latest message was added to the Messages page.)

“‘I See,’ said the Blind Man”

“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced,and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.”
Zechariah 12:10 (NIV)

Ever notice that people have favorite sayings? My Grandma Vander Well, when struck by a realization, would always say, “‘I see,’ said the blind man when he picked up his hammer and saw.” Wendy’s Grandfather used the same phrase though he had a different twist: “‘I see,’ said the blind man to the deaf dog when he picked up his hammer and saw.” We have a friendly, ongoing feud about which one is “right.”

If you regularly asked my dad how he is you’re likely to hear that he is “busier than a cranberry merchant” a phrase that originally was a variation of “busier than a cranberry merchant in autumn” (when cranberries are harvested). He also might say he is, “slower than molasses in January.

If you read the Jesus stories by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John you’ll find that Jesus also had a favorite phrase: “He who has ears, let him hear” which also occasionally included a variant of “Let he who has eyes see.”

Jesus explained to his followers on different occasions that truths He spoke of God’s kingdom were things that many (especially the most institutionally religious people, interestingly enough) didn’t understand. Though they had ears they didn’t hear it. Though they had eyes they didn’t see it. They heard the words and saw Jesus’ miracles but they were deaf and blind to what He was really saying and doing. Jesus invited all those who listened to his stories and watched what He was doing to open the eyes and ears of their spirit to see what He was really up to.

In our journey through the prophetic writings of Zechariah I’ve been noticing a pattern. There’s a theme that’s been coming across in the past few chapters. On the surface meaning of Zac’s prophecies he is addressing his people, at his time of history, in the circumstance he and they were experiencing. Buried in the words, however, there are little nuggets that don’t seem to fit neatly in Zac’s current circumstances but eerily preview key moments in Jesus’ story, a story that would take place 500 years in the future:

  • In chapter 9 Zechariah presents the King of the Jews “gentle, riding on a donkey” which aptly describes Jesus’ “triumphant” entry into Jerusalem the week before His death when the crowds shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
  • In chapter 11 Zechariah prescribes the “thirty pieces of silver” given to Judas to betray Jesus, blood money Judas threw back to the Chief priests and was used to buy a “potter’s field.”
  • In today’s chapter it happens again (see the verses pasted at the top of this post) as Zac clearly describes the crucifixion scene of Jesus (who claimed Himself to be “God’s one and only Son”) pierced by the Roman soldiers’ spear and mourned by His followers.

Interesting pattern, isn’t it? Just as God in creation buries fractal patterns in the seemingly random nature scenes we see around us all day long, so He buries patterns in the prophets poetry and the  patriarch’s stories that point to the design of a much larger story that He is telling across time. The patterns don’t appear on a cursory reading of the text any more than a cursory view of Jackson Pollack’s drip painting reveal the eerily exact fractal patterns of nature that he somehow was able to achieve in his seemingly chaotic and messy painting, yet “he who has eyes to see…”

This morning I’m thinking about layers. Layers of meaning prophecy. Layers of meaning in Jesus’ words and actions. Layers of meaning and design that have been buried in creation that eventually reveal themselves through the perceptive eyes, ears, words, and work of artists, physicists, writers, and philosophers.

I don’t want to go through this earthly  journey deaf and blind to the incredible things that God is doing all around me. I want the eyes and ears of my spirit wide open, perceptive, receptive so I can understand and experience more and more of what God is doing in this divine dance we call life. Then I can repeatedly honor Grandma Vander Well in my repeated realizations as I mutter: “I see said the blind man when he picked up his hammer and saw.

But for right now I have to finish this post and get ready for my day. Because, you know, “I’m busier than a cranberry merchant in autumn.”

Out With the Old; Embracing the New

See, I will create
    new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
    nor will they come to mind.
Isaiah 65:17 (NIV)

This past weekend Wendy and I began a large clean-up campaign in our basement storage room. It’s time go through all of our stuff, and I mean really go through it. So it was that I found a number of large boxes of financial records, taxes, mortgage documents, and receipts. Many of these were much older than the recommended seven years you’re supposed to hang on to things in case of an IRS issue. It felt so good to be rid of them.

I have found on my spiritual journey that there is a continual process of recreation. In yesterday’s chapter we unpacked the word picture of God as a master Potter, constantly molding us, shaping us, fashioning us. If you’ve ever watched a potter at work you find that when one thing doesn’t work out the Potter goes back to the lump and begins again. But what is fashioned out of the same lump may look very different the next time the Potter goes to work on it.

God is an artist, and artists are always creating. You can’t stop the flow of ideas. It is quite common for artists to take a canvas with one image and cover it with an altogether new illustration. A media piece that was meant for one creative urge will be suddenly be used on another. Those who dare tap into the flow of creation know that it is a river that never stops running and those who dip into it are constantly being swept away in new directions.

If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation. Old things pass away; Behold, new things come. 2 Corinthians 5:17

And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Revelation 21:5

In today’s chapter, Isaiah has a vision of Creator re-creating things on a grand scale. It’s the same vision that John is given at the end of his Revelation. Things are made new. The Creator is at work recreating. Old ways are gone. New ways have come.

This morning I am so grateful for the places following Jesus has led me. As I disposed of all those old receipts I felt such gratitude for the ways God has continually molded and shaped my life, constantly creating new in me. I literally felt old things passing away. As a student of history I appreciate the past and what it can teach me about my present, but appreciating the past and being mired in personal, spiritual stagnation are two completely different things.

Drop me in the deep waters of the Creator’s artistic flow. I can’t wait to see where it leads me, and what continually recreated life looks like downstream.

Lessons from Pottery Class

 

Yet you, Lord, are our Father.
    We are the clay, you are the potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.
Isaiah 64:8 (NIV)

When our daughter was young she wanted to take a pottery class, so I signed us up for some father/daughter time learning to work clay. We journeyed one night a week to a pottery studio in an old warehouse space in Des Moines and proceeded to get our hands dirty. We didn’t produce anything and anyone would confuse with fine art. I made a cigar ash tray for a friend who, I believe, promptly threw it away. Taylor made clay replicas of a Taco John’s taco and an order of potato ole’s.

During our class we got to try our hand at the spinning wheel. Anyone who has tried it know that it is much more difficult than it looks. The clay is slippery and unpredictable. I often felt as if the clay itself had a mind of its own and was working against me. It collapses on you or falls apart in your hands. The slightest unintended movement reaps disastrous, unintended consequences. Watch even the best of potters at work and you’ll see them work the same lump of clay over and over and over again until they get the desired result.

In today’s chapter God speaks through the ancient prophet Isaiah and uses the metaphor of the potter and the clay. We are clay being fashioned by a Master at work. We each are being molded, moved, and squeezed by the Potter into our intended shape, form and purpose. We just might break, only to be reduced back to a lump so the process of becoming our intended work of functional art can begin anew.

This morning I am reminded of an old hymn. We used to sing it a lot on Sunday mornings when I was growing up. Its verses riff off Isaiah’s metaphor pretty well…

Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!
      Thou art the Potter, I am the clay.
Mold me and make me after Thy will;
     While I am waiting, yielded and still.

Neither my daughter nor I actively pursued pottery after our class. Still, it was a fun experience together. The most important things I learned were less about art or craft and more about the things of the Spirit. Clay. That’s me. That’s my life. Dirty, messy, lumpy, and often quite wonky on the wheel. To be better clay — flexible, malleable, and yielding appropriately to the slightest of the Potter’s intentional touches. That’s my pursuit.

potters-wheel