I started taking pictures. Or am I making pictures? Does one take or make pictures? Some moments are so wonderful that they must be taken captive in a 4x6 rectangle, a few hundred pixels. We want to possess time, or at least a moment, but the best we can do is createI a keepsake, maybe, or a memento that the past really existed. That tantrum existed. I have evidence. By the way, so did the colic.
But it’s also true that pictures are made. Created. Photographers pay attention to things like composition and lighting and mood and create their own representation of reality. We all impress ourselves upon the object of our perception. There is no objective way of looking at a flower, for instance. You decide to look at it a certain way, from a certain angle, and create a representation of reality.
Photographers can bend moments to create the stories they want to tell. There is no one narrative that must be told—at any moment there are numerous stories available to be expressed. Take the classic snapshot of the coffee cup, bible open, with the gingham filter. No one would ever know that there is a toddler screaming about hot chocolate one seat over. Nonetheless, you’ve decided to make the moment tranquil, and exclude the bratty toddler, because you have a brand to maintain. Imagine a President who takes a picture with a Bible in front of St. John's Church, but outside the frame is a group of protestors who have been gassed to make the picture. A counterfeit strength overshadows the courage of those gathered with irritated eyes and constricted lungs.
From self-branding to propaganda, each snap is a story.
I’ve always thought that art is a spiritual discipline because it forces one to look closer at the world. Here is the question that’s saving me right now: what is most beautiful about this moment and how can I display it? Artists ask this question best. These are our spiritual teachers who are trained to sit in front of a standard vase and show us that it’s not just a vase; it’s angles and light and shades. It can have a feeling—happy, sad, lonely. And then, these instructors of optometry bestow us with a greater reverence for life. Bless you.
Most of us would do well to sit with an artist for a day, and ask them to teach us to open our eyes. It’s normal to become habituated to the drudgeries of life. And quarantine, in particular, often puts a grey filter on the world so that reality looks like every apocalyptic movie ever made. Never thought I’d be living in a chapter of Cormac McCathy’s The Road. But here we are with days that fuse together to create an eternal Monday. I don’t quite feel like I’m working, but I’m not not working, either. Each day is like the last. My senses no longer expect to be surprised.
Is Monday over yet?
Amateur photography is my current method of watchfulness. It’s my newest way to share praise, thankfulness, or lament without even using any words. Art is the language of the soul, as many others have said, which makes it a kind of prayer. We bypass the need to use our words or rationality to capture hard day, express awe, or just find beauty and meaning in the mundane. I do not know what I ought to pray, so the Spirit intercedes with every wordless click.
Spiritualists might name the practice visio divina, or divine seeing. It’s a way of granting God access to the heart by turning down the volume in the brain and opening up our eyes a little wider. There is an imperative in the Christian life to be attentive, after all, to look twice at the things that the world ignores. If the entire world is an art gallery, most of us rush to the next painting without stopping to look at the painting in front of our eyes. But I’m not a big fan of water colors. Nor, am I a fan of this living room that has become an upper class prison. Let’s see what’s waiting around the corner. What can teach me to stop and contemplate the world?
Maybe the place to start is with a pencil. A paintbrush will work, too. While I’ve found that incessant cell-phone use is an escape from reality, I discovered that intentionally carrying a camera a couple times a week has helped me to watch the world a little more closely, tuning my senses in to the wonder and depth and feelings in normal life. The camera is a mnemonic device to stay bright eyed enough to notice the colors, shapes, and textures all around me. Nothing is posed, because life does not need to be posed. There's enough beauty without telling people how and where to stand. Moments are transfigured all the time—slouching in the same ole’ recliner at twilight is, in fact, beautiful.
Christianity is about a certain way of looking at the world. Saul, who was blinded on the road to Damascus, opened his eyes, but he could not see. I suspect most of us are walking around with scaled eyes. Jesus was constantly trying to reinvigorate the sensory life of his disciples. Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? The ordinariness of life is the very place where God meets us. The kingdom of God? It’s the seed. I promise, just the seed. It’s the humble, the grieving, the poor, and the meek that’s blessed. ‘Look again,’ Jesus says.
“Could you not remain awake with me for just one hour?” Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemane. He might as well say it to me every day. Spread mud on my eyes, O Jesus, and teach me to see again.
I suspect that this is why Jesus called conversion new birth. John Wesley puts it like this in one of his sermon: “Before a child is born into the world he has eyes, but sees not; he has ears, but does not hear…But as soon as he is born, be begins to see the light, and the various objects with which he is encompassed. His ears are then opened, and he hears the sounds which successively strike upon them…He likewise breathes, and lives in a manner wholly different from what he did before” (The New Birth).
It’s not that the world reveals to us something about God that we couldn’t see before, but it’s the opposite. God reveals to us something about the world that couldn’t be seen before.
The world is pervaded with God’s Spirit and there’s no blade of grass or mountaintop, no roadkill or bloom, that isn’t a latent experience of God waiting to happen. Darwinian aesthetics reduce beauty to evolutionary impulses for survival—the waterfall that’s the very sustenance of life or the proportionate face that instills desire for mate. Those glimpses that are not ‘conventionally pleasing’ can also be beautiful, but it might require a trained eye. It’s the messy kitchen that’s beautiful because it tells the story of feeding two insatiable, demanding children. There is beauty in life or death, but our senses have to be attuned to a certain way of looking at the world.
God waits for us in the wrinkled hands that tend to the to sick and dying. Can the morbid be beautiful? We worship a crucified God. That’s the kind of cruciform eye glasses that God puts over our eyes. Even a temper tantrum can be beautiful if it can be caught with good light and later contemplated. Maybe it’s the child reaching out for attention that’s beautiful. I don’t want to forget the tears and neither does God. The Psalmist writes, “You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” Even the tears are too beautiful to forget because they teach us empathy or instill an anger for justice. But this depends on the kind of lenses you wear, of course.
I guess it’s better to say that one makes pictures. In every moment there’s a relationship between the person and the object—the perceiver and the perceived. But it’s never as simple as apprehending something that’s waiting to be taken. Together, you make something that might have been otherwise been missed. There’s a story enfolding out of every moment. And I’m learning how to piece each moment into the larger narrative of the story I want to tell. That’s how to make something beautiful.
Get rid of white Jesus. You know the one. It’s not particularly Da Vinci that’s the problem. Nor, is it Rembrandt. It’s the one with the brown, flowing locks and the tender hands caressing sheep that’s problematic. Render him with deep blue eyes and things get stranger. How did it come to this? An ethereal, European Jesus distanced from his Palestinian roots and divorced from the coarseness of his life, the scars implanted into his hands. Can Precious Moments be crucified? It would be like strapping a Care Bear into an electric chair.
If you grew up in the evangelical South like me, then you’ll have to undergo a good deal of reconditioning. We all know that Charlton Heston is Moses, Jonah is an asparagus, and the real Jesus is painted by Warner Sallman (see above).
One summer I worked at a Methodist Museum in Saint Simon’s Island and they had a room with displays of nativities from countries all over the world. There was a Japanese Holy Family kneeling as if attending a tea ceremony, an African Jesus cradled in a hut, an Italian Holy Family that was doing whatever Italians do. “Christ for the world,” we proudly proclaimed. They’re finally making a Jesus who represents the diversity of humanity (Barbie would catch up a few years later).
Symbols matter, of course. And Jesus always confronts us in our historical and cultural locations with the particular tools and symbols we have to make sense of him. It’s a gift to see the incarnate one become fully human in every tribe, race, and culture.
Here’s the problem: the chameleon-like Holy Family has always found a way to shape-shift into Swedish models. There wasn’t a single nativity that looked Palestinian. It reminds me of what George Bernard Shaw said: “God created us in his image and we decided to return the favor.” Pick the Jesus you like best.
We don’t know what Jesus looked like, but we know that he wasn’t the ancient Brad Pitt. God transcends culture, and so encounters all cultures, yet we also know that Jesus was a part of a particular culture—one that recited the Shema and ate tilapia out of the Sea of Galilee.He was ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ from a small town in the Middle East. Rarely, do we render him as such. God forbid that “Christ for the world” be a homeless, Palestinian Jew who came not to the Gentiles, but to his own people, Israel.
We’re beginning to realize the power of images, which is not a novel concern for the people of God. Moses and the Israelites escaped from Egypt after four-hundred years of stacking bricks into propaganda for Pharaoh. ‘Be careful with images,’ God told them as they wandered in the wilderness, ‘they’ll shape your desires. Your heart is bound to worship them.’ The iconoclasts in the 8th and 9th century feared the idols we’d create if we start fashioning images of Jesus. We are a people that demands to have God on our terms. It’s too much power for a people who are too skilled at making idols. Any image of Jesus is a mediation, or policing, of the incarnation or the ways God’s presence is among us.
The Eastern Orthodox Church has said that their icons, or images of Jesus, are windows into the Divine. What happens when those images are corrupt? There are ways that these images get imprinted in our imaginations and become the subtext of the ways we understand God and our own humanity. Jesus, if Jesus is a universal Christ, must be white because whiteness signifies a kind of existence that is divorced from ethnicity, a kind of race-less existence. Therefore, any other kind of Jesus inevitably feels like an idol, a Jesus created in our own image.
There is always a theology embedded in the images we revere. When we translate Jesus into our likeness, then we begin to translate our theology with him.
Here’s one example: how do we imagine salvation, restoration into the image of Jesus, through a particular and ubiquitous white Jesus? In this case, we uphold a theology of white supremacy. The only true reconciliation with God can come through the body of a white male. The white church is first. We are the teachers, not the learners. The physicians, not the sick. The hosts, not the guests. We are the saviors, not the redeemed. You know it’s a pattern when all of the North African saints are suddenly painted white. It’s a short step to receiving divine approval of racial aggressions.
The very image of white Jesus is a hindrance to our encounter with the self-revealed God. White Jesus is a type of Christian monument that tells a false history about the character and person of Jesus. We are blocked from seeing the truth about Jesus, which is God oppressed for the oppressed. Sometimes monuments need to fall.
Christian faith is joining to the God who is the other, the one who confronts us as the other. Contextualization is important. We must be asking the question, ‘Who is Jesus for us today?’ as Bonhoeffer asked so frequently. In this historical moment, there are other images that we need. Jesus tells us where to find him, after all, and it’s not in the rich, powerful, and beautiful. We know that Jesus was a refugee at birth, lived a simple life, until he was executed by the state. What are the images that help us understand what we know of Jesus?
Maybe the best way to understand this crucified Jew is to spend some time with images of the Black lynched Jesus, unjustly sentenced to death, after being betrayed, mocked, and tortured. It’s an uncomfortable image to ponder, but it’s one that might usher us into the true heart of God.
I miss in person worship. Let’s be honest, watching a bad stream in underwear got old by the beginning of July. There’s no substitute for warm bodies, loud coughs, kids whining about being bored (usually mine), the consumption of bread and juice. To be more honest, I miss singing. It’s the saliva flung from mouths belting at the top of their lungs. The beauty, mundanity, and hope of human community laid bare. Singing is an act of communion where the voices of the gathered are unified to express what can't be expressed by spoken word alone. This is God’s love made auditory through harmonies and melodies and instrument. Now, of course, it’s singing that is one of COVID’s most deadly weapons, especially hazardous to those of us who sing that bridge for eight times in a row.
I know you miss it. I do, too.
But COVID-19 is pressing me to think more critically about our worship—what is it to accomplish, or it’s end, and what makes it truthful? Does the worship actually honor God, transform lives, and break chains? It's all a way of thinking through what it means to experience God. The church is comfortable debating trinitarian and christological heresies, our beliefs, or what we call orthodoxy. We’re even good at debating the ways our beliefs shape our actions, our social justice and works of mercy, or what the church calls orthopraxy. We’re less comfortable thinking critically about our experiences, particularly those in worship. I rarely see good, deep theological reflection about how to evaluate what makes a right worship of God. Did you get the bumpies? Yes! Good enough.
Can a right experience of God be birthed out of harmful theology or social negligence? Here's a pressing question for our historical moment: is our negligent worship in the midst of a pandemic actually an experience of God?
The church is being pressed to think about our worship as we reckon with our history. Lauren Winner has wonderfully drawn attention to the ways our worship has been shaped by damaged gifts. The practices and instruments of the church aren't guaranteed to magically create disciples. They're holy, yet fallen, just like us. We are a church that baptized African American slaves in worship, but kept them in chains. How about a people who can spend the hour of prayer asking God to keep slaves obedient? Walter White, of the NAACP, said that the acrobatic, fanatical preachers of hell-fire created orgies of emotion that laid the groundwork for the passionate, emotive ritual of lynching. How can one exit the doors of the church after worship, go into the streets, and lynch a human being as the benediction?
Now we’re beginning to face the answer: the same way people can gather, and sing, and touch in the midst of a pandemic without any regard for the material health of a brother or sister. Hey, as long as hands are lifted and hearts are warmed, then bodily harm doesn’t quite matter as much. We’ve long been pressed to come to terms with how our dualistic theologies, and gnostic tendencies, have led to a disregard for the material station of our brothers and sisters. Now we’re being pressed to think more deeply about our worship. Do we worship the worship? Has worship become the golden calf that distracts us from taking the long trek up the mountain to meet our God?
Peter Rollins has delightfully called church a crack house. It’s a civil version of getting drunk on a Saturday night. The world is full of pain and suffering and we use the church as an escape, but then we get addicted to the high. The withdrawals are so bad that we have to get back in the doors no matter what physical harm it causes oneself or another person. What a shallow version of church.
Many pastors feel powerless in the face of such an addiction. How do you convince one that God might actually be found outside the walls of the church, in small groups, or safe worship services? It might be the case that God is giving us the room to develop an ecclesiology and mission for today’s world, to dream about creative ways that we can be an authentic community when all of this clears up. It might be the case that God is calling us to enter into the pain of the world, the pain of humanity, during this season and not escape it with a catchy chorus. God is, after all, known best for calling people into the dark.
My Methodist forbearer, John Wesley, noted that a right experience of God would be transformative, social in nature, always pressing on toward the transformation of the cosmos. If bodies are harmed or if sickness is being spread, then we should question the experience. In right worship, hearts are opened for God. The problem is that when God comes, God brings all of God’s friends. It’s a package deal. There is no worship of God that excludes concern for God’s children.
Unfortunately, I’m still trying to lean into technology to make safe worship spaces. I used to be one to decry technology. After all, But the church has always used technology to spread God’s love to the masses when physical presence was unavailable or inexpedient. Paul writes to his friends, “I miss you a lot and I look forward to a joy-packed reunion.” The Spirit of God becomes absorbed into the papyrus and he presses the send button. It’s technology—the best they had—and God is on the move. Today, the Spirit comes to a family or a group of friends through a screen, at least for a season. But our hearts can still be warmed when two or three are gathered, loving God and loving neighbor.
Young Harris College Campus Community,
I’ve heard it said that you can learn a lot about someone by asking what they’re waiting for. The next vacation, graduation, the perfect job. Too early to dream about retirement? Later, it’s good news from the doctor who is on the other end of the line. An early mentor told me to pay attention to my fantasies—that they’ll reveal my deepest longings. If you're dreaming about California's coast, maybe it’s time for a vacation. It’s another way of asking about salvation. What do you think is going to give you a sense of wholeness?
I’m guessing that the answer is college for most of our students. They've been waiting to come back to campus because they've spent the last six months cooped up in their houses with too much bad news and snapchat. Even after Carole Baskin and John B came to an end, college was still on the horizon, a carrot dangling at the end of a stick, to motivate them through another week. The college campus offers salvation from the reality of pandemic. It’s the Waffle House, a few interesting lectures, a good party—escapism. And that’s the risk. If we’re not careful, coming back to campus will become a mask that’s pulled over our eyes instead of our mouths.
Fear is normal as we return back to our campus home. Some in our community have trepidation about the health of our campus and the health of the community—the moment a loved one will contract the virus. Kierkegaard, my philosopher-superhero, says, "The person who has learnt how to be afraid in the right way has learnt the most important thing of all.” What's the right kind of fear? Some types of fear keep us immobilized, debilitated by irrational thoughts. But we need the healthy sort to keep us home when we're supposed to be home or lead us to strap cloth coverings on our faces when our droplets carry a deadly disease (even when they fog up our glasses).
I’ve found myself in both camps within the same hour—excited and anxious. The whiplash from my excitement’s collision with despair has given me a crick in my spirit. Quarantine began as a social distancing competition and I was in the top third of the pack (the competition turned out to be light). Now, I have daily fantasies about eating with friends, dreaming for the kind of communion that takes place around dinner tables. The isolation is hard to bear, but our communion must remain modified, nonetheless.
In an earlier devotion I mentioned that the year 2020 is the ironic lens by which we are coming to see who we are as human beings, particularly the ways we are deeply intertwined with one another. A touch, a sneeze, a cough can travel all the way from China to Young Harris, Ga and take a life. We’re seeing the ways that our racial imaginations have travelled from the 16th century to the year 2020. We are being forced, amidst life and death, to acknowledge the ways that we can’t live apart from other people, nor can we tell our own stories apart from the story of another.
Think about this: what happens when you must make a deliberate calculus about whether to come to a college or university because it might result in the destruction of life? Or, forced to leave the house to satisfy an economy? What happens when must realize that Black and Brown people have been weighing that risk of leaving the house, weighing life and death, for hundreds of years? These are the pandemics at play in 2020.
I look around and notice people who are acknowledging our deep interlocking humanity and stories. But there are others, in a particularly modern way, who wish to insist that they have no story, but the story they chose when they had no story, to quote a former professor of mine. We are learning—in a fear filled, violent way—what Martin Luther King Jr. said so eloquently: “We are inevitably our brother's keeper because we are our brother's brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all.” That’ll preach during pandemic.
Our life together must consist of physical distancing for it to be successful. Our community’s health is only as strong as the most selfish or obstinate student. This means we must wear masks and become vigilant in paying attention to the ways our bodies are taking up space. (Could this be a good exercise as we continue to think about racial justice?) But implied in our physical distancing is the antithesis—our deep connection and dependence on each other. We are a people who are so intertwined with one another that even our physical distancing is an act of human joining and solidarity. The body is broken, but it remains one.
Fall of 2020 might encourage us to go smaller and deeper. Young Harris College Religious Life will not let physical distancing lead to spiritual or social distancing. Rather, we’ll find a way to prune our gatherings so that they foster greater spiritual depth and flourishing. The United Methodist Church began as an 18th century movement of small groups—families gathered together, pursuing piety and mercy together. The church has always grown big by getting small. The first guideline of their gatherings was, “do no harm.” Can we modify our life together accordingly? It will be a challenge, but we’ll find a way to wrestle out a blessing.
We have reason to believe that we can do this safely, but it depends on your response on campus. President Van Horn calls this our ‘shared responsibility.’ My health depends on you. And yours mine. That’s frightening, but it’s the way the world has always worked.
Jesus challenges his followers by saying, us with “there’s no greater love than one who lays down a life for a friend.” It’s a draconian charge to sacrifice your life, but we can start by laying down our comfort and wearing a mask, having smaller gatherings, put a hold on singing in chapel. We can avoid needless trips off campus or dining inside of community restaurants. The best engine for right living isn’t fear, but it’s developing empathy and love. In our selfless empathy for another we will begin to model the God who was emptied for our salvation.
What are you waiting for?
At the end of the pandemic, maybe we’ll have discovered that we’ve learned how to wait on the needs of another. And in learning how to wait for another, we’ve learned how to love.
Love to all of you,