“Art Shaping the World”

“Art Shapes the World”
A Sermon by Rev. Megan Lynes
Given at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts
On Sunday, February 5, 2012



Opening Words

“Monet Refuses the Operation” by Lisel Mueller

Doctor, you say there are no haloes

around the streetlights in Paris

and what I see is an aberration

caused by old age, an affliction.

I tell you it has taken me all my life

to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,

to soften and blur and finally banish

the edges you regret I don’t see,

to learn that the line I called the horizon

does not exist and sky and water,

so long apart, are the same state of being.

Fifty-four years before I could see

Rouen cathedral is built

of parallel shafts of sun,

and now you want to restore

my youthful errors: fixed

notions of top and bottom,

the illusion of three-dimensional space,

wisteria separate

from the bridge it covers.

What can I say to convince you

the Houses of Parliament dissolves

night after night to become

the fluid dream of the Thames?

I will not return to a universe

of objects that don’t know each other,

as if islands were not the lost children

of one great continent. The world

is flux, and light becomes what it touches,

becomes water, lilies on water,

above and below water,

becomes lilac and mauve and yellow

and white and cerulean lamps,

small fists passing sunlight

so quickly to one another

that it would take long, streaming hair

inside my brush to catch it.

To paint the speed of light!

Our weighted shapes, these verticals,

burn to mix with air

and change our bones, skin, clothes

to gases. Doctor,

if only you could see

how heaven pulls earth into its arms

and how infinitely the heart expands

to claim this world, blue vapor without end.



Our first reading is from the book Letters to My Son by Kent Nerburn:

I can measure my life by the moments when art transformed me—standing in front of Michelangelo’s Duomo pieta, listening to Dylan Thomas read his poetry, hearing Bach’s cello suites for the first time.

But not only there.

Sitting at a table in a smoky club listening to Muddy Waters and Little Walter talk back and forth to each other through their instruments…standing n a clapboard gift shop on the edge of Hudson Bay staring at a crudely carved Inuit image of a bear turning into a man.

It can happen anywhere, anytime. You do not have to be in some setting hallowed by greatness, or in the presence of an artist honored around the world. Art can work its magic any time you are in the presence of a work created by someone who has gone inside the act of creation to become what they are creating. When this takes place time stands still and if our hearts are open to the experience, our spirits soar and then our imaginations fly unfettered.

You need these moments if you are ever to have a life that is more than the sum of the daily moments of humdrum affairs.

If you can create these moments—if you are a painter or a poet or a musician or an actor [or a dancer]—you carry within you a prize of great worth. If you cannot create them, you must learn to love one of the arts in a way that allows the power of another’s creation to come alive within you.

Once you love an art enough that you can be taken up in it, you are able to experience an echo of the great creative act that mysteriously has given life to us all.

It may be the closest any of us can get to God.

Our Second reading is an excerpt from “A Hundred White Daffodils”  by Jane Kenyon

I think of it this way: that the media–the papers, magazines, TV, radio–bring us news of the outer life. What’s the government up to, where will the next mall spring up or the next solid waste disposal site, where’s the latest outbreak of war and acute misery, what’s the latest discovery in physics or medicine?

Artists report on the inner life, and the inner life distinguishes us from centipedes, although I may be underestimating centipedes. The love of the absolute beauty of art, the longing for the well-being of the planet and all its creatures, the awe we feel in the face of life and death, the delights of the inward eye and inward ear, the understanding and nurture of the soul–these are the gifts of art. In a way every piece of art, every performance, is a state-of-the-soul address.


The stone arches stretched beyond my sight lines far into the darkness, where bats nestled in the daylight hours.  Stained glass patterns poured down in shades of vermillion and ultramarine, gold and bright white, dappling faces and the cold slab floor.  Doorways between the separate chasms of the cathedral were like passageways between chambers of a heart.  Each chamber was vast and perfect in form and function.  All around me, visitors gazed upwards in wonder, or slowly walked the curving labyrinth.  They bent to light small candles before an icon, or sat silently in pews, heads bowed.  Since childhood, my own impulse in any place of worship has been to keep silent out of respect for another’s tradition, but this time, I couldn’t have spoken if I had tried.  Chartres Cathedral took my words away completely.  There would have been no way to describe what I felt.  Even now, these words I am speaking are not enough.  Tears lodged in my throat one moment, and in the next I could have whooped like a child racing headlong toward the ocean.

I had no coins to put in the carved wooden box to pay for a votive candle, but I lit one anyway.  I prayed a very sincere prayer for someone I loved who didn’t love me back.  I pulled out a little kneeling bench in a pew and rested my forehead on a wooden railing so old it was as smooth as glass.  I remember that I even licked it, wanting to bring hundreds of years of awe inside myself.  In all my seventeen years, had I never been hungry and fed like this before?  I stayed still there for a long while, feasting upon the mystery and the beauty, feeling how small I was inside the vast and ancient work of art.

In fact, I didn’t realize how long it had been until I looked up to find someone from my school group running towards me, grinning.  Our bus had apparently pulled away without me, and they were twenty minutes away before someone asked where I was.  I hadn’t even noticed they were gone.

Art expresses what cannot be said in words.  For that reason, art enables and enhances worship.  By meditating on the beauty of creation and the wisdom of it, we enter into transformation ourselves.  The creators of Chartres Cathedral hoped and planned for this.  I entered it as an ordinary hum-drum citizen of the planet, and left as a being filled with joy.  I had not known that the cavern within myself could fill with the mystery of divine light.  Nor did I expect the marvelous feeling to last.  To this day, I can still remember how I felt that afternoon, and it is that feeling I come to church hoping to find.  At church I discover friendship and hope, motivation and compassion, insight and free will “bending the arc of the universe toward justice.”[1]  I wouldn’t trade away a single one of these elements, but what I long for most of all, is that feeling I had as a teenager, and have had on many occasions since – the feeling of being a humble witness, and an active partner in an experience of human creativity inspired by the divine heart of the universe.

Maybe you too have stood in a place vibrating with creativity, wisdom and beauty, and been changed.  Whether in the Sistine Chapel or the Taj Mahal, at Stonehenge, or in a simple Zen garden like the one at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in these places we are opened up to reverence, wonder and gratitude.  Of course you also may have experienced this sense of awe because you’re a gardener, you sing in the choir, you build bird houses, you’re a potter or a painter, or you spend time in cemeteries, kindergartens, or libraries.  When you come into contact with your own wisdom, your own longing, your own restlessness, you are already transforming.  You are becoming aware of the artist within yourself.

An article I read recently in the Christian Century described the artist Van Gogh as a man who failed as a preacher but found his own way of responding to the religious impulse he knew throughout his life.  The son of a Dutch Reformed Minister, Van Gogh told his brother Theo that he had been sent to preach the Gospel to the poor.  For three years he pursued this calling, first as a student of theology and then as a missionary to the coal miners in the Belgian Borinage. Deeply moved by the poverty surrounding him, van Gogh gave all his possessions, including most of his clothing, to the miners. But then an inspector of the Evangelization Council came to the conclusion that the missionary’s excess de zele bordered on the scandalous, and he reported van Gogh’s behavior to church authorities. Although van Gogh was successful in his ministry, the hierarchy of the Dutch Reformed Church rejected him, and he left the church, embittered and impoverished.

Van Gogh remained in the Borinage after the church withdrew its support, and he began his artistic career by making drawings of the simple life of the Belgian peasants…Art rather than preaching became van Gogh’s chief form of religious expression… Rather than choosing the traditional subject matter and iconography of the academic, or of a religious-history painting, van Gogh tried to capture what he saw of the infinite in the subjects of everyday life.  I remember standing before his painting, The Potato Eaters, in the Netherlands, and experiencing suddenly how very religious a painting it was.  A family is crowded around a small table sharing a simple meal of potatoes and coffee.  A warm but dim light shines from an overhead lamp. The mood of the painting is somber, and the sharing of their simple meal alludes to the sharing of communion or the Eucharist.

In direct contrast to my religious experience at Chartres, and to welcome home the idea that we each experience reverence differently, Van Gogh wrote “I prefer painting people’s eyes to cathedrals, for there is something in the eyes that is not in the cathedral, however solemn and imposing the latter may be — a human soul, be it that of a poor beggar or of a street walker, is more interesting to me.”  He once wrote to his brother about his “terrible need of — shall I say the word, religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars.”[2]

Despite, and perhaps as a result of, Van Gogh’s rejection of formalized religion, his art expresses so well a reverence for the world that cannot be voiced in words.  His work has inspired millions of people, and his 900 paintings hang in museums around the world.  It is hard to believe that Van Gogh only sold one painting in his entire lifetime. [3]

Humans create because we are born to do so.  We invent to solve problems and imagine new outcomes, we create to de-mystify and make meaning out of what we don’t understand, we make art to honor our living and our dead and to praise the Holy, to represent our own likeness and appreciate the world around us.

We create because we are part of creation itself.  Through art we tap into the life force which regenerates hope, wonder and interconnectedness.

Art is a life force which saves lives.  We need art during times of duress, when we are trying to make sense of suffering, war, death or when our lives seem out of balance or out of control.  Picasso painted his famous Guernica piece in black, white and gray, as a tortured outcry about the horror and cruelty of war.  Dorothea Lange’s expression of suffering gave a face to the Great Depression with her image titled “Migrant Mother.”  Both pieces contributed to a public awareness of injustice, and sparked a movement towards change.  In the case of the Migrant Mother, for example, the photo’s impact prompted the federal Resettlement Administration to send food and supplies to desperate starving families.

Artists not only document social change; they promote, inform, and shape it.  I believe in our current era it is imperative to call upon political leaders to direct public funds to artists to help solve our modern urban ills.  Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program is now the largest public arts program in the U.S. and has been thriving since 1984.  Every year 1,500 at-risk-youth and inmates gather to create murals for schools and community centers.  Their art tells stories, and the stories infuse the neighborhoods with a sense of place and importance.  Along the way they learn “transferable life and job skills such as taking personal responsibility, teamwork, and creative problem-solving.”[4]

As an undergraduate in art school, one of my classes was about using art as a vehicle for social change.  We worked with teenage children of Cambodian immigrants in Revere to create an enormous wall painting of their own design.  At first their mural featured green aliens with big black eyes, because their government issued ID’s listed them all as Resident Aliens.  Their artistic process began as a reluctant means of reclaiming the word alien to mean something positive, rather than outsider or freak.  In much the same way that gay people have reclaimed the word “queer,” so as not to let an insult hurt them, these teens bonded together as “aliens,” and in some ways felt proud of their name.  But it wasn’t until many weeks into the project, after much disharmony and trust-building that the teens began to paint new images.

Art can help us find our way back to ourselves.  This time, in vibrant colors the teens depicted the special foods of their Cambodian cuisine.  They took photos of their families and carefully marked out how to replicate the soft smiles and flowing hair, the patterns of their Cambodian clothes.  Laughing together when the paintings looked out of kilter, they functioned as a team, dreaming about a world where they were welcomed, painting a world in which it was already so.  The neighborhood responded positively to the gorgeous mural, new collaborative art projects were formed, and the teen center flourished.  What began as a outcry against disrespect and disregard, became a powerful tool for self expression and healing.  The soul longs for art to help heal the wounds of separation.  As Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Weiman put it, God is the creative interchange between human beings.[5]  The spark, the shared thought, the exchange of energy and understanding is God.  Where art is, God is.

In the places where our government fails to bring art and creativity into schools, public spaces, prisons and struggling communities, our religious institutions can help.

Recently John, Joe and I attended a workshop at Andover Newton about experiential worship services.  We raised eyebrows at one another as the presenters talked about using projected images or visual art in worship to enhance various elements of the service.  We do that!  It’s true that our younger generations have grown up with video games and text messages and MTV.  But I don’t think it’s only younger people who respond positively to what Christian theologian Leonard Sweet calls EPIC: “experiential, participatory, image-driven and connected” worship.  John and Joe and I thought fondly of our unique Order of Service covers, and how our children’s murals decorate the sanctuary each Christmas.  We pictured the CreationDancers and our own in-house dancers, our 4 choirs pouring their hearts out, and how we projected slides of our partner church in Transylvania up on the wall here.  This congregation is overflowing with artists and creative ideas about how to involve more visual arts in worship.  And of course here today we have artists up here on the chancel, painting throughout both services.

I can’t tell you how many people have told me about the best lay led service they ever attended here, one in which flower arrangements were magically created before the congregation’s eyes, while music soared, and then silence reigned.  What people describe is a sense of awe and reverence.  I wasn’t there, and words can’t tell the whole story.  But I get the sense that you were hungry.  And you were fed.  I want more of that for us.  I believe we can fill up even more on this creative nourishment, and then bring our wise good selves out into the world, more ready and able to serve.  Some churches have a Creative Arts Ministry Team, or something like this.  I can picture a team like that thriving here.

In December around 25 First Parish artists gathered for a pot luck to brainstorm activities or art outings we’d like to do together, share within a service, host as an art night or start up as a community spiritual practice.  Our list was pages long.  You can look forward to some art nights in March and April, all led by artists in our midst.   There’s even been some very serious talk of installing a gum ball machine in our Evans Entrance.  But instead of gum balls, the machine would be filled with little capsules that contain tiny pieces of art!  Maybe you’ll be someone who contributes a miniature drawing or tiny gorgeous poem.  Maybe your personal experience with your own wild and starry night will magically fit inside a one inch capsule and be exactly what someone else needs when the going gets rough.  Maybe they’ll keep that little capsule like a touchstone for days and pull it out to share when the world needs more beauty, or mystery, or mischief.  You never know how art will shape the world.

In closing, I’d like to thank the artists you’ve been watching up here on the chancel this morning.[6]  This idea of including art right here in the making came from that Artists brainstorming night too.  It’s actually pretty hard to create a piggy back painting together.  One has to let go of an attachment to the outcome, and simply revel in the process of creation itself.

As we create our art, so we are changed.  The life force that is invention and ingenuity gives hope to a society burdened by brokenness and separation from each other.  As art changes us, so we change the world.

Why come to church, we may ask?
To let go of attachment, to revel in creation, to shape the world.
To envision a new image so truthful we squint.
To find the Cathedral in our souls.
To stand beside one another beneath the Starry Night.
To look into the Peasant’s eyes, and share a simple meal together in the warm dim light.

May it be so.


Closing Words


Taking what is, and seeing it as it is,
Pretending no heroic stances or gestures,
Keeping it simple; being in love with light
And the marvelous things that light is able to do,
How beautiful! a modesty which is
Seductive extremely, the care of daily things…

–Howard Nemerov

Beauty is before me, and
Beauty behind me,
above me and below me
hovers the beautiful.
I am surrounded by it,
I am immersed in it.
In my youth, I am aware of it,
and, in old age,
I shall walk quietly the beautiful trail.
In beauty it is begun.
In beauty, it is ended.

– From the Navajo Indians of North America


[1] Theodore Parker.

[2] Christian Century, March 21-28, 1990 pp. 300-302.

[3] The painting he sold is called “Red Vineyard at Arles.”  It now resides in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

[4] http://www.thisgivesmehope.com/2011/10/13/155-in-philadelphia-art-saves-lives/ , and http://muralarts.org/

[5] The Source for Human Good, Henry Nelson Weiman.

[6] Maria Green, Maureen Oates, Doris Smith, and Alex Winkler.