Wednesday, March 29, 2006
"An Old Intuition"
I'm always looking for new ways to describe my job, a job that often feels on the verge of questionable.
The search is not just for greater clarity but for greater justifiability. The question, What is an arts pastor? attempts to answer the first part, greater clarity. But it's the second part, greater justifiability, that creates the tension: Why does a church need and hire and use the hard-earned tithe money of congregants to pay an arts pastor? Five years into full-time work I'm still looking. No answer I've given thus far has seemed to satisfy me.
Last night at Hope Chapel we had a thing called Hope 101. It's a four week introductory class to Hope's vision, its ministries, elders, staff and opportunities for participation and service. Last night was week three: introducing the staff. We start the evening with a shared meal and then transition to a meeting room to do our business. After an ice-breaker of sorts, Jack Dorman, our senior pastor, invites each of the staff to share an abbreviated bio and to introduce our respective ministries.
When it comes to my turn I revert to the usual stories: born in Guatemala, raised a missionary kid, studied at an Austrian school, moved to Chicago at thirteen (a vile time of life to move from a "third world" culture to a largely wealthy, largely Midwestern township culture on the northshore), high schooled in Arkansas ("back to the third world" -- "ha, ha, ha"), first year of college in Chicago, transfered down to UT Austin, lose my faith, refind it a couple of years later in the middle of pursuing a career in the foreign service which then gets a donkey hind-kick from the Almighty and I end up in Canada, studying theology at Regent College, all the while fighting against a calling to become the two things I dreaded: an artist and a pastor. Blah blah blah, a childhood pyromaniac story here, a climbing the 360 bridge there, an odd fact of personality that will engender empathy somewhere along the way.
And then I get to the So what does it mean to be an arts pastor and why the heck does Hope Chapel have a person like you on staff and is that ALL you do? To the latter I answer no, that's not all I do. I'm part of the preaching team, I teach adult ed-ish classes every once and a while, I head up the unofficial and slightly mystifying calendar of liturgical activities, including Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services and the rotating art exhibits that fly parallel to the church rhythms. I clean up messy storage spaces. I'll pinch hit for the overhead-projector-worship-song-slides person.
But last night as I came to describe my job as arts pastor something new--and I don't know how else to describe it, but to say that something new visited me. I saw my job differently. Usually I try to explain my job in circumstantial terms: Because of Hope Chapel's unique beginnings, out of the highly creative Jesus Movement of the '70s, and of a sense of God's calling on her as a creative church, we believe that what we're doing here is simply responding to that call by making a home for artists and by extending ourselves to the city with gracious subversive offerings of art. This idea is encapsulated in HopeArts' philosophy of ministry: "loving well, living well" to describe our communal life and "excellent and compelling" to describe our work.
But instead of starting here I said the following (with a bit of added midrash).
Why do we care so much about the arts? Is it just a personality quirk of Hope's--that because we're a creative bunch we do what we like most, artsy-fartsy stuff? Is it our way of reaching Austin? Is it a way to keep up with a media-saturated culture? It's a strange ministry to sustain, I confess, for such a small church. So why? Why do we do this?
Well all of us live with an old intuition about the way our world ought really to be. We have an old memory, a memory that gnaws at our subconscience. It's a memory of our first home, the Garden of Eden. Our forefather and mother were born into a home that none of us can accurately imagine. We can approximate it with metaphors and inventive analogies. But this side of eternity we cannot fully appreciate how absolutely beautiful it was. We can simply feel, deeply, achingly, frustratingly, the longing for that beauty.
So one of the things that we as a church can do is to release the artists among to serve us with artistic offerings that cultivate in us a habit of beauty. Such art keeps our souls alive to the Beauty of God. Such art, more to the point, brings us into an intimate knowledge of God. It simultaneously awakens hunger and nourishes us with the deep things of heaven. Such art requires no justification. For by inviting us to savor the presence of God artists perform a service which is an end in itself: the joy of Beauty and the desire for God.
By beauty of course I don't necessarily mean pretty or lovely or pleasant, although they can be this. By beauty I include things that can be disturbing and controversial. Is not the cross of Christ both beautiful and scandalous? Beautiful things can be strange, like the sounds of a sitar. Beautiful things can be terrible, like the leviathan or the Venus Flytrap. And they can also be enrapturing and too much for our small souls to absorb, like Beethoven's masterful 9th symphony.
But back to Hope. By producing works of art for the community artists can rouse within us this old memory of great beauty. And the arousing is not just of feelings, it is an arousing that builds and strengthens and releases the community to become more fully the people of God: more humble, more alive, more generous and just and fearless in the face of evil. By hanging art on the walls or by interpreting the Gospel through dance or architecture or film, we're not simply entertaining ourselves. We're not simply being "relevant." We're being what we're supposed to be apart from any secondary utility or benefit.
And it is when we are this way, beauty-filled, beauty-overflowing, that we will become most attractive! Because it is then that we will become most like our true selves--persons created in the image of a beautiful God who makes for us a beautiful home, "good for food and pleasant to the eyes," for which all human beings are looking for a way to return to, the return to paradise.
And then I went on to talk about the mission and activities of the arts ministry.
But somehow that phrase, "an old intuition," really stuck with me. Joined to the idea of home-making, it made me feel a lot more confident about my job. It made me feel that home-making and the establishing of the kingdom of God are not that far removed from each other. Artistic home-making, perhaps, is one way that artists contribute to the establishment of the kingdom. Social workers and teachers and engineers do their part too. But perhaps the artistic sense in all of us prompts us to infuse with beauty all the parts of our lives. For me the main part is the life of one church in the middle of a quiet neighborhood in north central Austin.
It's in this part that I'm doing old work in new ways, and perhaps not so new afterall. It's in this part that I'm fulfilling my once dreaded calling and watching others jump in on a small and very exciting revolution of beauty by which they themselves have been changed--for the better, much for the better. And for this I am profoundly grateful.
(PHOTO: Hope Chapel's Compline service, Easter 2003)