May 22, 2012

Is It Right to Display Art in Places of Worship? A Personal Story, Part 2

Above the entrance, from the interior to the exterior of the temple, and on every interior and exterior wall, there were carved winged creatures and palm trees. The palm trees were positioned between the winged creatures, and each winged creature had two faces.

In yesterday's reflection, I began sharing a personal story related to the use of art in the sanctuary of Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I served as pastor for sixteen years. I explained how, when we built our sanctuary, we included few pieces of art. The sanctuary itself was a work of art, in our view. Moreover, we intentionally included large, clear windows in our design, so that worshipers could look out and our neighbors could look in. We chose to let the artistry of nature inspire our worship.

But, not long after the sanctuary was completed, a beloved, 90-year-old member of our church told us that she would donate a very substantial amount of money to add stained glass to all of our windows. Ida envisioned traditional glass art: dark colors, biblical scenes, etc. In the largest window of the sanctuary, she hoped for a traditional scene of Jesus and the children, with a fifteen-foot-high Jesus.

As you can imagine, this became a delicate conversation, since we wanted to affirm Ida's generosity but not her design expectations. So we began a long conversation about our diverse visions for the sanctuary and how we believe artistic glass might function in this space. Ida was extraordinarily open-minded and joined our design team. In the end, we did add lots of artistic glass to our clear windows, but maintained their clarity so that we might look out while our neighbors looked in.

The artistic glass on our windows employed imagery from the book of Revelation: "Then the angel showed me the river of life-giving water, shining like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb through the middle of the city’s main street. On each side of the river is the tree of life, which produces twelve crops of fruit, bearing its fruit each month. The tree’s leaves are for the healing of the nations" (Rev. 22:1-2; we also used Rev. 4:7). We called the result "Windows to Heaven," in an effort to show how, in worship, we experience the reality of heaven on earth.

We wrestled with Ida's hope for a realistic, traditional, prominent image of Jesus, since the rest of our glass was intentionally impressionistic. In the end, we added a somewhat traditional image of Jesus in a prayer alcove, a private location in the sanctuary that was not visible to worshipers. This pleased Ida, who continues to serve in my mind as a model of graciousness and flexibility.

I'm sharing this story, not to suggest that what we did at Irvine Presbyterian is best for all churches. On the contrary, each worshiping community needs to discover how to apply biblical principles to their worship experience. My story serves as an illustration of how one community of believers tried to express in tangible form a biblical vision of worship and art, one in which God is glorified and God's people are bound together in reverence and mutual love.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Given that artistic taste differs widely among people, how can art be used in a worship space so that it unifies rather than divides a congregation? In what ways does visual art help you to worship (or not)?

PRAYER: Gracious God, again, I thank you for creating this world as a place of beauty and for giving us the ability to perceive and enjoy beauty. Thank you as well for allowing us to imitate your creative work by making things of beauty. No matter how talented we are, may we use all of our gifts in service to you, not just in spaces set aside for worship, but everywhere.

Today, I give you thanks for Ida and people like her, who are exceedingly generous, humble, and open-minded. May I be more like her!

I also give you thanks for those endowed with special artistic gifts. May they use their gifts for your purposes in the world. Amen.
 
P.S. from Mark: If you ever find yourself in Irvine, California, I'd encourage you to visit Irvine Presbyterian Church. The people of this congregation are wonderful, as are its new pastor and other leaders. And the sanctuary continues to enrich the worship and outreach of the congregation. You can see a few photos of the Irvine sanctuary here.

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