This month: 189 - Freedom in Christ
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Archives for September, 2017

“Fractured Beauty” Community art project – a table top mosaic. Invite everyone to contribute to the whole by creating something beautiful out of something broken. (Photo: Betsy Stratton)

 

Over the course of September, we have discussed what it means to be a left-brained church in a right-brained world. I think we leave no doubt that we are indeed a cerebral crew! But what does it mean when we privilege our head over our heart and hands? It means we are out of balance and need stabilization. Integrating the arts into our worship gatherings can offer one means of balance to our sometimes wobbly and uneven lives of faith.

Here are a few ways to begin redeeming the arts in worship for Churches of Christ:

Start a Discussion:

  • Design a survey or inventory to discover artistic gifts among your congregation. Remember, this may include people with woodworking skills or engineering know-how to consult on space and lighting issues.
  • Gather a team of creatives to form a Worship Arts Team in your church.
  • Many artists do not belong to a congregation. How could your church reach out evangelistically to artists?
  • Which areas of your church include visual arts? What message do these works convey? Where else might you use art to enhance worship or congregational life?
  • How might you use a common interest in creating art to build community in your church?
  • How well do the arts-inclined people in your church understand the difference between thinking theologically and thinking decoratively?

40 Creative Ideas to Get Started:

  1. Bring your visual artists together to create a large-scale mural to hang as a backdrop behind your stage in your sanctuary.
  2. Create an ambience team whose job would be to create the ambience and decor for your sanctuary. This multi-disciplined approach can include graphic arts, interior design, floral design, and set, sound, and light design.
  3. Start an art gallery in the lobby or other area of your church building.
  4. Sponsor a live music cafe on your church campus. Better yet, create a live venue at a local coffee shop and have your musicians play there.
  5. Create visual testimonies of faith using portraits, collage, mixed media, etc.
  6. Start a monthly songwriter’s guild where your musically creative people can share their songs, hone their skills, and encourage one another.
  7. Create an open studio, a regular venue for gathering a community of artists of all kinds, to create together in a relaxed and affirming environment.
  8. Invite visual artists (such as painters, pastel artists, or sculptors) to create artas an expression of worship during your services.
  9. Recruit actors to build a drama team that will perform during your services, and empower the writers in your church to write scripts for the team.
  10. Establish an after-school program for the arts. This can take many forms and sizes, from art classes to dance lessons to photography to a school of rock.
  11. Encourage your songwriters to write original worship songs and incorporate them into your services as expressions of faith.
  12. Host an arts festival and invite all the artists of faith from your area to participate.
  13. Experiment and incorporate Visio Divina (praying with an image in mind) into your corporate worship experiences.
  14. Start a book study for all the artists of faith in your church or arts community.
  15. Present a theatrical play. One act or full, comedy or drama, musical theater or murder mystery; this can be a great outreach for your church, and can tap into a whole host of artistic disciplines—acting, set design, graphics, music score, lighting, visual arts, etc.
  16. Challenge the gifted writers in your church to write short stories, i.e., modern parables, which can be shared in children’s ministries or even in services.
  17. Use poetry and spoken word in your worship gatherings.
  18. Give your technical artists the tools to be creative. Purchase adequate lighting for your lighting tech, an adequate mixing console for your sound tech, and adequate computers for your multimedia tech.
  19. Ask your graphic artists and photographers to create original backgrounds for the lyric slides you use during your worship services.
  20. If you have quilters, needlepoint or tailors in your congregation, have them create tapestries to hang in your sanctuary, or tablecloths for your communion table.
  21. Get your videographers involved in your services by having them produce video announcements. You can also use these in your church websites.
  22. Create an on-line media gallery on your church website to celebrate and share the arts, and the artists, of your church.
  23. Send your photographers out to take nature photos, and then use them in your worship as a visual call to worship.
  24. Involve the young photographers in your congregation as well, seeing the world through the eyes of a child is enlightening and beautiful.
  25. Invite the teenagers in your church to share their favorite song lyrics(appropriate of course), hand-written and framed, for your art gallery. Related to the previous idea, this also is a window into the minds of our teens.
  26. Start a photography team, which will take photos of all the events of your church. Post them on your website. Every year, compile the best of them and create a video montage celebrating the life of your church.
  27. Produce a worship CD with your musicians and vocalists.
  28. Let the youth of your church graffiti the walls of your youth room or provide large stretched canvas or even canvas tarps.
  29. Start a culinary arts club.  Yummy – seriously, why aren’t we doing more of this!
  30. Assemble a worship choir. You can start small with a one-time event, and work towards seasonal or year-round participation.
  31. Start a book club in your church.
  32. Commission an artist to create a piece that conveys the mission or ministry of the church. Or commission several artists to create a piece of art for each of the Stations of the Cross, etc. Don’t be afraid to commission a piece of art, you pay for the plumber to work at the church, make it ok for artists to be paid as well.
  33. Create a piece of art together as part of a larger gathering, mission, or lesson. Glass or tile mosaics offer a perfect medium for adults to participate even if they feel hesitant about their creative abilities. You’ll be surprised by how enthusiastically “non-artistic” adults will engage when given the opportunity!
  34. Offer an “Art and Spiritual Formation” class in your Sunday morning adult education line-up. Begin class with a Scripture reading, a song, poem, a visio or lectio divina exercise and give the participants an opportunity to respond in creative ways. Here are some ideas to get you started: paper collage, clay/play-doh, painting, poetry, doodle-art, prayer beads, mosaics, string and glue, sand art, or sketching.
  35. Make a space to mentor and train young artists to follow God’s call on their lives as worship artists. This will offer low-key ways for artists to begin practicing and using their gifts to glorify God, tell the Story, and bless the church. For example, set up a space at the back of the sanctuary for budding artists to work along-side veteran worship artists during the assembly.
  36. Create a “flipped classroom” where the youth and children of your church can facilitate a learning environment utilizing the arts with adults. We can learn a great about creativity and being created in the image of God from our kids. In all my years of ministry I have never given a crayon to a 5-year old who refused it and said, “No thanks, I can’t draw.”
  37. Consider contacting an artist to offer art lessons at church, host an art show, or invite artists who don’t attend church to share ideas or attend a special event.
  38. Enlist artists with theatre and vocal training to use their gifts to read Scripture during the assembly.
  39. Establish a big idea group made up of the most creative artists in your church to come up with a hundred more ideas you can enact in your church. Good things happen when creatives come together. Hint: For maximum creativity, always feed them.
  40. Pray for your artists.

I’m anxious to hear and see all the creative ways you redeem the arts in your church and your own walk of faith. Soli Deo Gloria!

Love. For the past six months we have been drinking deeply from the Epistles of 1-2 John in the rarefied air of the Rocky Mountains. The apostle wastes not an iota on trivia. The teaching that John stresses, in the starkest terms possible, is often barely acknowledged in Christian circles. The eternality of the Incarnation of Christ. The Cross. Love as the litmus test for all things Christian.

Love. People use the language of “love” for nearly everything in our world. Yet it is my observation that the genuine article, unfiltered, unvarnished, unconditioned love is unsettling even for Christians. It is “safe” to love ice cream, movies, cars, and Harleys. It is safe because it costs nothing whatsoever to “love” them. Yet we want to quantify, regulate, and restrict the flow of love precisely because we live in fear.

Love makes things unpredictable. Love makes things uncontrollable. Love makes things vulnerable. Love makes us not in charge. Love surrenders the power of domination. But in the real, genuine, unfiltered and unvarnished love … we are unconcerned with the unpredictability of love.

Listen to John. We know the text but it is the center of our “doctrine” as the apostle John’s?

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4.16b-21)

Many stunning things are in this potent paragraph.  But perhaps most radical is that the apostle John makes obedience to the Greatest Commandment, the exercise of the Second! How often do we find brothers and sisters under the pretense of love and loyalty for God avoiding, withdrawing from, their brothers and sisters. John, not me, says it is a “lie!”

See we turn love for God into the same thing as loving our Harley or ice cream. Such love costs nothing. But John will have none of it (and the rest of the Bible says ‘Amen’). Such love is bogus, fake news, a lie. We meet the image of God in our sister and our brother, our reaction to the icon, the photograph, the holograph of God is how we react to God.

The truth is we do not “abide with our brothers and sisters” because we do not love them. First John addresses this from the first verse to the last. The heretics in 1 John are not just anti-Christs, they are heretics because they disfellowshipped and left their sisters and brothers (1 Jn 2.18-20).

Love does not fear our sisters. Love does not fear our brothers. Love does not fear aliens. Love does not fear socialists. Love does not fear capitalists. Love does not fear Mexicans. Love does not fear African Americans, Donald Trump nor Barack Obama. Love does not fear poor people. Love does not fear someone with a different opinion than me.

We love because he loves us. If you and I are “in” him then the love that is in him will be in us. This is why John points to the Cross when he speaks of loving one another, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another … We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 Jn 3.14-16). Loving those with whom we differ is, perhaps, the most Godlike action a human being can ever do. Since we know love looks like a bloodstained cross given for our sister and our brother we ought to be able to tolerate each other.

Love. It is the deepest, it is the hardest, Christian doctrine to practice. Unfiltered, unvarnished, sacrificial Love, is the imitation of God. If we loved each other enough to die for one another, John says, we would have far less division. Indeed the apostle says that rejecting part of the family of God is tantamount to rejecting the Father (1 Jn 3.11-12; 4.11-12; 5.1-2). John calls us to stop pretending we love God when we so freely walk away from the gathering of icons of God (1 Jn 2.19). To love one another means we do what our Father does, we suffer for the sake of unity. To practice love we just might get bloodied.

Stop living in fear of each other. Live in love. But we continue to live in fear … Love casts out fear.

The day before Ash Wednesday I was having lunch at a delicious burger dive with two good friends when we started talking about Lent and what we would give up during the next 40 days of religious fasting. After one friend suggested we should all stop eating hamburgers, the other friend listed some specific commitments he was making this season of Lent and said there was also something he was going to add on: “I’ll probably do a couple hundred breath prayers every day.”

I was shocked: a couple hundred breath prayers every day! I had known about breath prayers for years, I had adopted some of them in my own life, and taught them to the college students in my classes, but that level of religious devotion was disorienting, and intriguing, but ultimately, inspiring. It set me on a journey that culminated in a new book called, “Pray Like You Breathe: Exploring the Practice of Breath Prayer.”

Breath prayers are short, mostly one-sentence, prayers that believers in God have been praying for centuries. These prayers are often repeated, and they are often aligned with a person’s breathing so that the first half of a sentence is prayed while inhaling and the second half of the sentence is prayed while exhaling. This is difficult to do while speaking audibly, so breath prayers are usually prayed silently, or with the breath, rather than with the voice. They are one way disciples of Jesus have been obeying Jesus’ instructions to “always pray” (Lk. 18:1), and Paul’s command to “pray continually” (2 Thess. 5:17).

While some believe breath prayers began in the repetition of the Psalms, the most famous breath prayer emerged from a combination of several people’s prayers in the Gospels that congealed into the phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This is known as the Jesus Prayer and was practiced for centuries by the Orthodox Christians of Greece and Russia even as other branches of Christianity had mostly neglected to use it.

The book “Pray Like You Breathe,” is a 28-day experience of prayer that borrows the language of Psalms to train in making breath prayers part of our daily routine, like a habit. Each chapter ends with a specific prayer exercise to do individually as well as discussion questions to think about if you’re reading the book with your family, Bible class, or small group. My ultimate desire is for the people who read the book to pray, and to pray “with all kinds of prayers …” (Eph. 6:18). So while there is no specific biblical command to pray using breath prayers, there are commands to pray like we breathe: naturally … out of necessity … sometimes desperately … and without stopping.

 

A young woman preaches grace and truth and receives death threats from other Christians.

College students are hurt by their school and then wounded even more on social media by other Christians.

A preacher spends weeks agonizing over a sermon, praying it will bring glory to God and encourage the Kingdom only to be criticized, isolated, idealized, or treated as an office manager or building keeper by other Christians.

We wonder why we’re losing our children, why no one wants to talk to us about religion, and what we can do to make things better in this world. Maybe we need to take a long look in the mirror.

We are the holy people of God which means he should be influencing our actions, reactions, and words regardless of whether they are spoken or typed.

What does holy look like when you’re faced with someone who doesn’t interpret Scripture the way you do? It looks like laying down your stones and choosing grace instead. That may mean withdrawal but it never means cruelty.

What does holy look like when someone has been offended? Regardless of your opinion on the subject, holy looks like listening and trying to understand someone else’s viewpoint and story.

What does holy look like for a church and her minister? It looks like an adequate salary for the vital role served. It means making sure they can afford quality health insurance for them and their family. It looks like good communication from and with the leadership. It means walking alongside them in their work for the Lord and not expecting them to carry the entire congregation. It means friendship, encouragement, and love.

In every relationship holiness looks like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It’s thinking Jesus and inviting him into every situation.

Church, it’s time we step up. We are God’s people. We know holy. Let’s start living it. The world is watching.

 

 

I don’t spend as much time in my imagination as I used to. This was on my mind yesterday after one of our boys asked Missy if she knew where he likes to be best and he said, in his imagination. I wish I could say the same but the realities of life, the responsibilities of adulthood and a self-imposed busyness often keep me grounded in the more non-imaginative spaces of my mind.

I believe Jesus was an imaginative person. His teaching demonstrates this especially in his parables. Jesus’ parables were the powerpoint of his day, if that is even close to a fair comparison. Instead of images on a screen, Jesus painted vivid mental images that made his teaching easier to remember and pass along to others (which in my mind is the function of powerpoint – don’t use a slide unless it can do those two things).

Jesus also demonstrated this in his miracles. The main miracle that comes to mind is the double healing of the blind man and Jesus’ making a point to his disciples about whether or not they were seeing things clearly.

Jesus was highly imaginative. It seems to me this came naturally to him (he is the creator of the universe after all). It also seems to me that if Jesus was going to communicate imaginatively he had to spend time in his imagination when he wasn’t teaching…in his day to day life.

My sermon prep doesn’t really reflect that like it should. I pour over facts, details, and data all in an effort to engage a particular area of the brain that is essentially important but not all encompassing. What would happen if I took my class and sermon content and ran it through the imaginative process. We do this with children’s classes and education but less often in the “big room.” I do believe there isn’t a true dichotomy here – imaginative vs non-imaginative but I do believe I lean harder into one than the other and true balance will require me accessing areas of my mind that I normally leave untapped.

Over the next few weeks I intend to spend more time in my imagination, to engage a different aspect of creativity than I am used to and I encourage you to do the same. Maybe for you imagination comes more easily and there are more analytical areas you need to stretch and grow in. Spend a season there and see if it doesn’t enrich your thinking, your connection with the congregation and your relationship with God.

“Simply Jesus” 40×60 oil on canvas. Painted during the keynote message by Scot McKnight at the Preacher’s Initiative conference at the Highland Oaks Church of Christ, Dallas, TX. November 2016.

 

During lunch on Sundays my family usually discusses the sermon from earlier that morning. My teenage sons have heard their dad preach their whole lives and have come to expect the question, “What did you hear in the sermon today?”

Recently, our youngest son answered with, “I’m sorry dad, I have to admit I wasn’t listening today. Everyone was playing this game on their phones and I guess I was just too distracted.” This kid is smart and he is also a good schmoozer, he could have faked it and made something up, but he resisted – he told the brutal truth. He was unable to pay attention, much less glean anything useful from the sermon because he and forty other kids were simply distracted. Wade is a brilliant communicator, but he was not able to break through the digital distraction of the entire youth group. Something else had their undivided attention.

Our culture is changing faster than most churches can keep up. Not only are we losing the ability to pay attention, our culture has succumbed to what Richard Foster calls the new tools of the devil: the distractions of much-ness, many-ness, crowds, hurry, and noise (and I would add technology to that list.)

We live in a Postmodern, Post-Christian age that is technology driven, immediate, and impatient. As regular churchgoers it is easy to be mortified by the actions of the youth group playing games on their phones during church, but adults are just as guilty. We may exhibit more overt courtesy during worship, but adults are just as preoccupied and inattentive as our kids.

The arts are among the few powerful mediums with which we can break through the distractions, slow down, and speak into our preoccupied and frenzied culture. I believe that if we want to affect our culture as followers of Christ, then artists of faith are compelled to create culture.

The arts do not just illustrate theology but are themselves modes of theological expression and worship. Those of us raised in the Stone-Campbell movement come from a pragmatic heritage that believed efficiency and simplicity were necessary to spread the gospel. Art is neither simple nor efficient so it can feel superfluous and emotionally unpredictable.

Yet, we live in a visual world that is becoming more aware of art, aesthetics and design. Our culture is changing, however our worship experiences are not in step with those changes. I believe that our times of worship and the mission of the church can enrich and be enriched by the arts. Nearly forty-five years ago, Francis Schaeffer said, “A Christian should use the arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God. An art work can be a doxology in itself” (Art and the Bible, 19).

There is a new generation that is discovering and calling for the arts as liturgical expressions of praise to God. Madeleine L’Engle argues that since the Master Artist has created artists, our duty is to make art that points others back to God.

Churches of Christ must reclaim what we have lost and once again become alert to the power of the arts. If the church is going to be successful in its mission to reach the current generation and the generations to come, it is imperative that it engages culture more creatively. It is time for the church and artists to work together to the glory of God and the beauty of the church.

But where are the artists? Some have left to use their gifts more fully in other churches, but most of us are still here. In every church around the world there are actors, painters, poets, writers, dancers, sculptors, potters, photographers, videographers, carpenters, weavers, and creatives of all kinds whose gifts and talents are laying dormant. They are valued out in the artistic world perfecting their craft and doing amazing work, but unfortunately there has not been a regular place for them to use their gifts in Churches of Christ … but this is changing.

It is time to unleash the arts to write, paint, sing, play and dance to the glory of God. It is time for artists and Churches of Christ to finally come out and play together!

Where are the artists? We are here and we are ready!

I’m not a cultured person, at least when it comes to the arts. I’m not interested in ballet, nor opera. Most classical music leaves me cold; symphony tickets feel like an upcoming jail sentence. A visit to an art museum is typically wasted on me.

I say that more in confession than in boast. I’d love to be better able to find the beauty in such things. I recognize the transcendent nature of the arts, how works of great beauty and creativity have impact far beyond their own generation. I wish they impacted me more.

It doesn’t help that I come from a church tradition that downplays the role of artistic expression in worship. We tend to have utilitarian buildings, with little focus on aesthetic values. Historically, we have rejected the use of musical instruments and “special” music (choirs, soloists, etc.). An artist finds little room for expression in most congregations within our fellowship. (Outside of children’s Sunday school, of course)

I think we need to recapture God’s love of beauty and creativity. We need to see that God’s Word addresses the senses and not just the mind. We need to find a way for individual Christians to share their artistic gifts with the rest of body; special times and spaces could be created for any such expressions that don’t fit our corporate worship time.

This involves broadening our minds as to what constitutes a church activity. If we limit the life of the church to an hour per week on Sunday mornings, then it’s easy to see how some forms of art have a hard time finding their place. But when we recapture the idea of church life that draws us into vibrant, daily, life-changing community, then we can begin to imagine an artistic element to our body life.

What if…

…we had a time of thanksgiving where members expressed their gratitude through poetry, visual arts, and music?
…our church meals included a gallery of photos taken by our members?
…we plastered our church hallways with our children’s drawings, like refrigerator art shared with the whole community?
…there were an annual composition festival each year for new hymns and songs of praise?
…our churches committed to a cappella singing found a way to make space for instrumental expression outside the worship assembly?

Those are just a few ideas from one of the least artistic among us. We need to spend time as a church dreaming of ways to promote creativity in our midst. The biggest what if would be, what if invited the arts back to church?

Even those of us with a lack of general culture can appreciate the giftedness of others in our midst. We can encourage them to use their talents for the glory of God, rather than making them feel that such things only belong to the world. Our churches will be all the richer for it.

“Glory Window” Thanksgiving Square, Dallas, Texas

I stood in the quiet chapel at Thanksgiving Square in downtown Dallas holding my breath in awe, gazing upward. The spiral stained-glass ceiling was mesmerizing. It winds skyward in bursts of jewel tones and is one of the largest horizontally mounted stained-glass windows in the world. I have seen pictures of it in books and thought it must be housed in one of the great cathedrals of Europe. I did not realize it was right here in my city.

The lower panels begin in varying shades of blue representing the color of peace. As the spiral climbs upward, the colors become warmer and meet sixty feet above the chapel floor in a circle of beaming yellow light. This magnificent work of art, entitled Glory Window, takes its name from Psalm 19: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1 NRSV). The creator of this magnificent window, French artist Gabriel Loire, meant for the ascending window to “express all life, with its difficulties, its forces, its joys, its torments, its frightening aspects. And then, bit by bit, all of that falls away and you arrive finally at a burst, an explosion of gold; you arrive at the summit.”

For me the Glory Window simply represents the presence of God through beauty, and I stood in the chapel captivated and weeping. At that moment I felt the powerful presence of something Other, and I could only think, “Praise God, Praise God, Praise God.”

It was a transcendent and spiritually formative experience to be fully engulfed in beauty which evoked true worship. I felt exposed and raw but wrapped in pure, overpowering love. I did not want to leave that space or break the moment of communion with God. The gossamer veil between heaven and earth parted for just a moment; I caught a glimpse of the glory of God, and I will never be the same.

The arts are a powerful force that have the ability to spiritually transform us and transport us into the presence of God. Art and beauty can be an expression of praise. The arts can provide a pathway to experience and relate to God. They tell stories, communicate pain, promote healing, speak truth, and call for mercy and justice.

The arts have a profound way of inspiring our minds and nurturing our souls through experiences that are beautiful and transcendent. Gregory Wolfe states, “Art invites us to meet the Other­—whether that be our neighbor or the infinite otherness of God.” Art, like faith, helps us rise above the splintered and broken world in which we live and reach something more beautiful and more holy than ourselves.

One of the inherently theological aspects of the arts is through their search for reconciliation and redemption. Unfortunately, these deeply spiritual experiences have been rare in the lives of many Christians and almost lost in many Churches of Christ. Nearly all churches value and acknowledge the worth of music in worship, but due to a variety of reasons, other forms, such as the visual arts, have been marginalized over time and labeled suspicious or idolatrous.

Yet Scripture does not forbid making or enjoying art; it forbids the worship of it.

I believe we need a full biblical understanding and renaissance of the arts in worship and find a way forward for the integration of  the arts which will enrich worship and lead to spiritual formation for Churches of Christ.

I am exploring these topics and more in my doctoral thesis at ACU. One of the issues my research will address is how Churches of Christ have been limited by a tradition that supposedly dismissed aesthetics, art, innovation, and creativity during worship. While there are many admirable qualities about the Stone-Campbell Restoration heritage, I suggest that Churches of Christ have lost the ability to tell the story in our culture, because our worship relies too heavily on intellect and reason and has divorced any transcendent meaning from the practices of worship. Our artless, prescribed acts of worship were suitable for a time gone by, but they are no longer adequate and are in fact detrimental to our witness in the world.

I propose there is a way to acknowledge our heritage while navigating a compelling future for worship integrating the arts for Churches of Christ. I invite you on this journey with me as we explore the intricate and beautiful relationship between art and faith.

I have some great news to share with you! Heather Heflin Hodges is now on board with Wineskins as our newest Featured Author! Heather brings so many talents to the table and I cannot wait for you to benefit from all that she is going to share here at Wineskins.org and at her new site – HeatherHeflinHodges.com

Feel free to Favorite or Bookmark her site, subscribe to new posts, or do whatever you do when you find good content because that is what you are going to find on her blog.

Heather is off to a great start on her new site. Her first three posts highlight some of her art illustrating the three “Losts” of Luke 15.

Lost Valuables: Part 1

Lost Valuables: Part 2

Lost Valuables: Part 3

She has followed those posts up with A Renaissance of the Arts for Churches of Christ , Where are the Artists? and Art and Aesthetics in the Stone-Campbell Movement.

It is time Churches of Christ found a home for our artistic people and that we reclaim the gifts of those who have long gone neglected in our fellowship. Heather is going to help us understand how to do that in her articles and her art. I am very hopeful that this is just a start into something beautiful in our congregational life and ministry. So follow along with me and be blessed.

Every year as I read through the Story of God, I come to the heart of the matter in the Gospels, Jesus. Jesus amazes me more every time I look at him. Fresh from the reading of the Hebrew Bible, there is much in the Gospels quite familiar. The infancy narratives remind us immediately of Sarah, Hannah, and even Judith.  The people constantly mumbling, testing and even rejecting Moses are doing the same to Jesus. The people of God, less than receptive to Jeremiah and Ezekiel and even responded physically are doing the same to Jesus. These anointed ones by God were viewed as disturbers of the peace.  The four Gospels present Jesus of Nazareth as one who was deeply molded by these images of God’s called ones.

But we often sanitize Jesus just as the Pharisees scrubbed the Hebrew Bible. As I reflect on seeing Jesus in 4D there are some things hit me pretty hard as a person who takes the Bible seriously. Sometimes it seems like Jesus just blows up our religious point of view. We need to come to grips with the truth that Jesus was not murdered because he was nice or because he told people to love.

Jesus and the Doctors of Doctrine

Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees for doctrinal error. This is rather shocking given the stereotypes we cast of the Pharisees. But Jesus is on record as saying that for the most part the Pharisees were biblically correct (Mt 23.1-2).

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, therefore do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do what they do, for they do not do not practice what they teach.

Jesus did not disagree with the content of the Pharisee’s doctrine. Indeed, the Pharisees were the doctors of “precision obedience.” Yet Jesus condemned these outstanding doctrinal teachers as “children of hell!” (Mt 23.15). Jesus condemned the Pharisees for three primary reasons:

1) their failure to distinguish between the weightier matters of the Bible and the insignificant matters;

2) He condemned the Pharisees for their self-righteousness;

3) He condemned the Pharisees for their lack of compassion, mercy and grace.

It was not the sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors that hung Jesus on the Tree. That infamous honor goes to the proclaimers of precision obedience to commands.

Jesus, Mercy and a Divorced Woman turned Preacher

This is personally good news because I am divorced. Jesus knew the Bible as well as the doctrinally correct Pharisees. The Nazarene however drank deeply from Exodus 34.6-7, Hosea 6.6, Jonah, Micah 7.18-19, God “delights” to show mercy.

For I desire HESED [steadfast love] and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings …

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity …
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in showing mercy.
He will again have compassion upon us …
He will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea

When Jesus encountered a woman that had gone through multiple divorces and was currently cohabiting with a man (her life was obviously a train wreck!) he did not lecture her on the Ten Commandments. He did not tell her that she was “living in sin.” He did not tell her to unscramble her eggs (as I have heard and at one time even taught). Jesus did not shame her.

What Jesus did with that woman at the well is astonishing. It was, and is, scandalous. Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus told her to go to church. Go worship in “Spirit and truth!” And the Gospel of John tells us she became preacher.  The woman, the multiple divorcee, became very first preacher of the Gospel according to the Bible in fact. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he? … Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4.29, 39).

Jesus allowed Scandal

Jesus often did things because he wanted to, not because he had to. And sometimes he did things, seemingly, to make a point. He did them to rub our noses in our hypocrisy. In one of the most scandalous stories in the Bible, a woman of a well known bad reputation, came in caressing and rubbing her hair all over his feet. Jesus allowed this to take place. There is not an iota of protest from Jesus toward this woman.

If this was not a story in the Gospels but was a story about Bobby Valentine, preaching in church and some woman off the street sat at my feet and was rubbing them I can promise you, church folks would be aghast. But Jesus looked at this woman, who never says a word, and said “your sins are forgiven!” She did not even ask for it! (Lk 7.36-50). And Jesus pronounced upon her the priestly blessing of Numbers 6.22-24, “go in peace/shalom.”

It does not take much imagination to see how an episode like this would ruin the career of any preacher.

Jesus Gave to the Poor

In a little detail about the Nazarene, lost in the drama of the Last Supper and washing of dirty feet, we learn that Jesus’s little band of Israelites practiced the spiritual discipline of giving alms to the poor. John writes “Some thought that because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him … that he should give something to the poor” (13.29). The only possible way the disciples could have imagined that Judas was being directed by Jesus to share from the “common purse” with the poor is if that was something Jesus and the disciples were in the habit of doing. Jesus practiced the the commands of the Torah.

A recurring command in the Hebrew Bible, connected to all the festivals, is sharing of our means with the powerless and poor. To “give alms” was an essential Jewish practice (one of the “Three Pillars of Judaism”) and this little side detail in John gives us a brilliant window into Jesus’s personal practice of righteousness. In his own poverty, the Messiah was generous with those who were even poorer.

Jesus Attended Worship

Jesus was fully immersed in the corporate worship of his people. Not only did Jesus keep the festival of the Sabbath but the liturgical calendar of the Hebrew Bible. We know little of this from the Synoptic Gospels but the Gospel of John is a different story. The Torah required Jewish men to make a pilgrimage three times a year to the Temple (Passover, Weeks/Pentecost; Tabernacles/Booths). John tells us that Jesus was in the temple for various festivals in 5.1; 6.4; 7.37; and in 10.22. The last festival is that of Hanukkah. Hanukkah was not required but celebrated the Temple and Jesus loved his “Father’s house.” For Jesus to voluntarily make the difficult trip to Jerusalem indicates his “dedication.” If Jesus was there it was because he wanted to be there. Public worship in the Temple was, according to the Gospels, important to Jesus.

Jesus Begs Disciples

Jesus is constantly begging his disciples to have “eyes to see and ears to hear.” He says this in a myriad of ways. For instance he may say “have you understood this” (Mt 13.51). Or “have I been with you this long and you still do not get it?” Or he will say “go and learn what this means, I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” Jesus did not doubt many could quote scripture, but he doubted that quoting was equivalent to understanding it.

Jesus said and did many things that offended good, decent, religious people to the core. They could quote the same Bible Jesus did. They could go to the same worship assemblies that he did. They could be scrupulous about precision obedience to technical matters.  And never see and never hear but instead become so angry that good and decent law abiding people conspired in the most horrific crime in history.

These are just a few things that I noticed going through the story of Jesus again. Some I already knew. Some impressed me all over again.

If we look at Jesus in 4D he is going to challenge us.  He is even going to offend us.