In Stephen Sondheim’s marvelous musical, “Sunday in the Park with George,” the artist Georges Seurat sings, Art isn’t easy. He then details what he means. The struggle, suffering, and pain of producing great art take an unimaginable amount of work, commitment, and dedication. Those who appreciate art cannot realize this struggle in the way artists can. We can, however, relate it to other parts of our life, such as creating and maintaining relationships.
Relationships survive through the artistic efforts of the people involved. There are no formulas or cookbooks that guarantee a magnificent outcome. It is all art. We start with a canvas, some clay or bronze, or balls of thread, and begin mixing colors, textures, shapes, and contrasts until the art emerges. We take two or more people and go about the same process of trial, error, and starting over. The key is never giving up. We commit to the relationship and the process of nurturing and maintaining it.
I have thought of God as the great artist ever since I read a children’s book that presented God in that way. This image of God speaks to me, sparks my imagination, and informs my theology. God interacts with the creation in the way an artist does with her art. Jeremiah uses the image of a potter to declare God’s relationship with Israel. The chosen people have become a cracked pot, so God must begin again to perfect the crown of creation. The spinning clay is out of control until the skilled potter produces the desired shape. God’s people are out of control, so God will provide a new shape to their existence. They will no longer be defined as a nation state, but now as a servant people. God will not give up on them, but through forgiveness and renewal, God will create them anew.
My call to stand for Moderator of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) comes out of this exact dynamic. I refuse to give up on the PCUSA and the people and congregations who make it what it is, has been, and will be. I won’t believe God has given up on us either. This undying and eternal commitment is what makes me so sad about the efforts of congregations to leave the PCUSA. They have given up on us and are hell bent on breaking covenant with us. It seems to me to be an example of unredeemed human sin run amuck as righteousness and godliness. It tells the world that God’s commitment to God’s creation is limited and dependent on human behavior. I simply don’t read that in scripture.
I call on those of us who remain to create new relationships of ART – Appreciation, Respect, Trust. Doing this will honor God’s desire for creation, and it will demonstrate to the world the truth of the Reign of God. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul goes to great lengths to counter the Corinthian tendency to divide into competing groups. He uses the image of a body with different parts, each having a specific and unique function to the whole. Taking away any part damages the whole body. He is demonstrating God’s characteristic of appreciating the beauty of each part of creation. As an eye, I will quite likely not appreciate the contribution of the ear to my health. I don’t understand the functioning of the ear, so how can I? Paul’s answer is that we appreciate it because God created it and blessed it. Appreciation has been the missing element in the PCUSA for more than a generation.
Lack of appreciation for the other contributes greatly to our disagreements in the church and society. We treat the other who disagrees with us as an enemy, adversary, opponent, or unclean demon instead of another part of the body that has a unique function. Think of the gall bladder or thyroid gland. The gall bladder has such an unsavory filtering function that it would turn the stomach of anyone who had to deal with it. And the thyroid gland is so tiny as to seem insignificant to the functioning of the body. We can even get along without either of them with the help of modern medicine. Some are approaching the churches who wish to leave our denomination with the same disdain. They are not needed, so we won’t be disturbed when they leave. Instead, I have chosen to appreciate my brothers and sisters who come at the experience of faith so differently from me. I consider their contribution, which I do not understand, as invaluable to the healthy functioning of the body.
Gaining appreciation for others is at the heart of Christian love. After showing the Corinthians how futile it is for the eye to say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” or the head to the feet, “I have no need of you,” he tells them about agape love, the kind of love God exhibits for us. It is a love that exhibits in word and deed an appreciation for the other.
ART isn’t easy. And ART is essential. Create new works of ART with me in our PCUSA and in our world, and we will serve God faithfully.