Why Do We Need Art In Worship?
“We do not merely want to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”
– C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
One of the formative moments in my life as a Christian artist occurred quite unexpectedly, and without musical accompaniment, in the frigid, early hours of December 16th, 2007.
The late Fall moon had set, and I stood, rooted, in the backyard of our old house gazing up at the clearest night sky I’d ever seen in Austin – a sky only occasionally obscured by my steam-cloud breath and the swaying, silhouetted branches of our ash trees. It was a remarkable moment of calm and clarity – remarkable because my wife, Carolyn, and I had spent the preceding few hours perched breathlessly (she, from exertion; me, from addled excitement) around our coffee table, timing her contractions, knowing that in just a few unforgettable hours we would meet our daughter, Ruby.
As Carolyn’s contractions quickened, so did my pulse, and my anxious anticipation begot a flurry of restless, compulsive activity. I checked and re-checked our bags and loaded them (with a strange attention to placement) into the car, turned off lights, locked doors, adjusted the thermostat, examined my clothing choice (Does this shirt say, “competent birthing coach and responsible husband”?), checked for non-existent curling irons that might be plugged in; oh, and the camera battery (check); oh, right, and the bed needs making…I distractedly stacked pillows, readjusted the thermostat, checked the…wait, I remembered, we have two dogs – two dogs who have been patiently following me from room to room for the past hour. Yes, though they don’t share in our excitement, they do share in our need to pee regularly.
So, to speed up their bathroom proceedings (and keep them from cornering anything nocturnal and/or rabid), I slipped on my jacket and followed them out of the back door, stepping unprepared into the icy, pre-dawn stillness of our yard and….Whoa. There, amid my momentary distractions, nagging worries, and the furtive rustlings of dogs who may or may not be treeing a possum, something had been waiting…
The black, velvet blanket of sky embroidered with a billion sparkling diamonds. The chalk-water arc of the Milky Way, traced across the night sky as if by the hand of a child delightedly discovering watercolors in a rain puddle. The bracing, icy whisper of wind raising the thrum and throb of my heart. And, just inside my quiet house, a tiny body alive inside my wife, fearfully and wonderfully made, mysteriously being called at that moment to pass through water into life, even as her father was being called to be still and look…It was a sudden onrush of beauty, too much to take in. It was as if I was unaccountably miles and miles tall, my head in lower orbit, gliding through the heavens, and I could look down and see the turning of the Earth, moving us inexorably toward dawn – this dawn, out of every dawn in history – the one chosen for the birth of our daughter. The sun would rise on this very day, and we would be parents.This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
The Great I Am. The Creator of the Rolling Spheres. The Turner of this Earth. The One Who spoke these billions of unimaginably distant galaxies and stars into existence…this very Creator God made this day and created Ruby, as He created everything. Beautifully. Artfully. Even before we knew of her, he spoke into Carolyn and spoke Ruby into being, knitting the tiniest of creases on her palms and numbering the hairs on her head. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be… And, why? Why did He pull me up out of my distracted self and direct my gaze to His creation, both big and small?…Scenes from my life began to flicker in front of my eyes…And why had He saved me and called me to meditate on His Word all these years and get married and be a lawyer and then not be a lawyer and write songs and be a dad and lead worship and…and? Why? The answer came with force. My soul welled up. This sky, this birth, our lives, our songs – signposts of His greater glory. He’s bringing Himself glory. Hallelujah. Amen and Amen.
I wasn’t overcome by all of this so that I might worship the stars or my baby or my laboring wife or my music. These were created to be glorious and arresting in order to stop me in my tracks, reorient my eyes and heart, and point me to their Creator – that He may be glorified. It was an unforgettable reminder that we all live, breathe, work, create, and love in reflection of the glory and love of our Creator. And, in soaking in His Word and living out our Gospel lives in Christ, He enables us to do all of these things gloriously, as acts of worship. He also calls us to daily seek out His created signposts to Himself and encourage and nurture the creation of such by others to deepen our understanding, knowledge, and love of Jesus. That’s what I was so vividly convicted of right before I became a dad. That’s why I love being a musician and leading our body in worship. That’s why I love getting to know other artists.
Thankfully, our beautiful, artful Creator God provides such signposts both in His creation and by creating and gifting artists who can reflect His glory and point us to Himself. Some are obvious to us in our gathered worship – pastors, musicians, and other servant-artists offering sermons, songs, and prayers, respectively.
Others serve in more subtle ways yet nonetheless point us weekly to Jesus, if we look. Visual artists offer the “images” of gathered worship through the weaving of robes and stoles, the crafting of stained glass and crosses, the designing of architecture, and the rendering of liturgical art. From Cary Tobleman’s needle-pointing on Tim’s stole to the ubiquitous crown of thorns on our liturgy to Zack Williamson’s communion ware, the visual art in our worship, like our sermons, songs, and prayers, help us to know Jesus and glorify God.
We’re blessed this week to add to these existing visual elements of our worship by including two images in our Good Friday and Easter liturgies, respectively. Each were graciously provided by artist and All Saints member, Sonya Berg Menges, and serve as arresting, worshipful signposts, reflecting upon Christ’s Crucifixion on Good Friday and His Resurrection on Easter. Both also do so in ways that a song or sermon would struggle to do. I encourage you to use them as you would the printed words in our liturgy, as a means of preparing your hearts for worship.
Sonya’s images will be accompanied by a small display of her work in the lobby at St. Gabriel’s and followed in a few weeks by a gallery showing of more of Sonya’s work at Hill House. You can read more from Sonya about her art below.
For more on the need for art and artists in worship, I highly recommend this artful article by Tim Keller: http://www.faithandwork.org/resources/Why-We-Need-Artists-r104
– David Lutes