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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Art and Soul

The man is young, maybe mid-20s. He’s wearing blue spandex shorts, a yellow tank top and a hot pink scarf knotted tightly around his head. He grips me in a bear hug, sobbing into my shoulder: “I feel like that painting is just for me.”

I hug him back, leaving paint-splattered handprints on the shirt of this man I’ve never met. “It’s for all of us,” I say. Over his shoulder I see other residents: a young mother of three, the white-haired man with a cane, a businessman, the athlete. All gathered for worship, all heroin addicts.

I’m in a Baltimore drug rehab house, packed into a room roughly the size of a meat locker with 18 other people for worship. The pastor preached, the musician played, we all took communion and I painted a 20-square-foot upside down portrait of Jesus.

For a couple of years now I’ve been offering live worship art to whatever group would have me. It’s a weird “talent,” but one that’s taken me from coast to coast, introduced me to convicts and cardinals, priests and prostitutes. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from flinging paint on to sacred canvas it’s this: If we invite God into our very act of creating, God will use our very creations to act.

It’s happened time and time again. From the struggling Baltimore drug addict who wept in my arms to the Alzheimer’s patient who, while unable to remember moment to moment, still knows that painting from last Easter is of Jesus. From the cancer survivor who carried her worship painting to chemo sessions to the victim of lifelong depression who realized, “Jesus is always there, even if I can’t always see him.”

God’s presence and power works beyond our imagination through our images, our creative offerings. But this is no surprise. After all, artists have experienced God’s presence for centuries. “The true work of art is but a shadow of the Divine,” Michelangelo said. His contemporary Leonardo DaVinci agreed: “Where the Spirit works with the hand, there is art.” When asked about the source of his inspiration, Johannes Brahms said, “Straightaway the ideas flow in upon me, directly from God.”

This is a pretty radical concept — the Lord of the universe working through our all-too human creations for God’s glory — and if you think about it for too long it can start to make you squirrely. Fear gets a toehold. The initial giddy excitement that comes with beginning a project can quickly turn to, “This stinks. It isn’t good enough. I’m not good enough.” Artistic collaboration, the Spirit-given gift meant for encouragement and support, can morph into comparison, jealousy and one of the devil’s favorite toys, apathy.

But it’s our instinct and birthright as children of God to create, and so we work and play on. We pick up the paintbrush, dig fingers back into the clay, lift the flute once again, experiencing as artists the mystical truth that “God is in the details.” We step with faith into our art. And in creating, we draw closer to the heart of our creator.


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