ordinary designs


(contributed by Hattie Buell)

I told my boyfriend, Mr. Johnny Raincloud, about my post, as I am eager for his constant approval and he had momentarily moved his attention off of me and onto The Dread Crossword Puzzle That The NY Times Just Put Out Today And I Need You To Understand How This Makes Me Happy!!

After I explained how I was going to write terribly clever things about artists in the church, he snorted: “Like that’s never been written on before!” Let it be known that after I made shocked noises at him he laughed and told me what a good job I’m doing and that I should write the post. But his sarcasm was correct.

This subject has been written about. A lot. But maybe that’s because it’s really important?? And also it keeps changing. Art changes, popular mediums pop up, churches develop the theology of art, artists burn out, babies are born! So, in defense of this post, and every post ever written about this topic (even if it is a very stupid article): it is O.K. for us to return to this again and again and again.

If you haven’t read Chris’s post from last week, please go back and at least skim his concluding admonitions. This post relates to and is partly inspired by his. I consider this post a sort of next-step to the basic needs of artists that Chris outlined.

For me, the relationship between art and the church has been great. Super healthy and mostly inspiring. I grew up in a home of musical worship leading that was basically like a legacy, I went to an Anglican church made up of many art majors, maybe because of that it had a right and good understanding of the liturgy of art in life and worship, and I was always encouraged to explore my art faithfully. And now I’m dating a worship leader! Clearly I have a “type” that not only applies to dating relationships, but also to all of my friends. Yes, all two of them.

My involvement with the church borders the insane: I go to a three-year-old church plant in Chicago, and some of the things I do there include baking bread, sewing & embroidering cloths for the altar, playing on the worship team, and most recently I’ve written a song for Sunday worship. Truth be told, some leaders at my church realized how much I was doing and asked me how I felt about maybe cooling my freaking jets?! (They definitely did NOT say that. That’s a total paraphrase.)

But I just feel so strongly about incorporating beautiful things into worship, so strongly that I create opportunities for me to make art in the church. Yes. I sneak about the church, looking for little things to beautify. “Oh lay deacon, having that as an altar linen looks great,” I say enthusiastically, “but what if I took it and embroidered it? ….Yeah? Thought so.” Voila.

And again, in the new song-writing coalition at church, I carefully picked a text that would be used for a sermon about a month away, so that when that Sunday rolled around, I had a new song that could be sung together during the service! Note: I am not actually being sneaky! I am being ambitiously helpful. I am making spaces for myself to be creative and useful.

Now, there are already huge, lovely spaces for the artists in the service structure and life of my church. This gives me a definite advantage. The leadership never says “oh my stars sacrilege what were you thinking m’dear”, but rather, “let’s see what you can do”. (Needless to say, we have great leadership and a well-established concept of art and beauty.) Then I do a thing, which is sometimes a horrible, disastrous failure of a thing and then I melt into a great pile of incompetency. And yes, I am referring to all of my doomed embroidery designs that I would sew over and over, only to rip it out every time. But then there’s the church again! She says “oh that’s just marvelous!” or she takes my ugly thing away and says “no matter, let’s try again!”

And so I am renewed by my attempts to create beautiful things for God and the church.

I’ve talked to a couple of my artsy friends who are in positions of church leadership, and although they all expressed a desire for seeing/doing more art in churches, one has taken it upon himself to make opportunities in church life for him to do art. I think that this is the simplest, easiest, and kindest sneaky way to begin incorporating art into a church’s life. It’s perfect! It does mean work, though. You have to hunt out needs in the church, you have to take ownership over that need, and then you have to deliver the goods. You might get to the end and discover that no one cares. Now if this irks you to the core and sends into blind rages, I’m going to hazard that you have Motivations That Need Attending To.

My own motivations were poignantly called into question over my embroidery.

I delivered a purificator one Sunday morning that I had thoughtfully embroidered. (A purificator is just a linen cloth that is used on the altar to cover the chalise of wine and to wipe the rim after each person drinks the sacrament.) For the past two months I had been trying out these larger, complex designs that were gorgeous, but were just not. working. So I scrapped it. I went back to nothing so that I could create something. I embroidered a tiny red cross, signifying Christ’s humanity, and then went back in and wove a thread of blue amongst the red: Christ’s divinity! I was so pleased with myself. Then I embroidered tiny vine segments about the cross. Wow. The symbolism was impressive, I told myself. My visions of the whole congregation noticing that embroidered white cloth rivaled the effect that Cinderella had as she entered the ball and changed everyone’s lives.

Hey, that didn’t happen. The most affirmation I received was after showing my two friends the design and they liked it a lot, so that was comforting.

At church, all I got was a tap on my shoulder after I had passed the cloth on to the altar guild.

“Hey, is this supposed to be a special cloth? Like for special occasions or something?”

I stared at the member of the altar guild and felt my artistry hanging in the air before us. Finally, I answered.

“No, it’s not special. It’s ordinary*; you can use it any time.” And I turned away contented, my artistic pride staring at me open-mouthed. Because, you see, it wasn’t just answering his question so that he’d know how to set up the altar that morning. I was in fact, answering MY question:

What is this for? Who did you embroider that cloth for? Why did you do it? I think, with the Holy Spirit’s constant help, I embroidered and will continue to embroider as a creative servant, both to my Lord and to my church family. Recognized or not, I have the satisfaction of creating beauty, with the Holy Spirit and my church, using my art in a way that I pray will always be earnest and helpful.

*Ordinary refers to the longest division of the church calendar where no major feast days occur. We’re currently in ordinary time after Pentecost. 



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