I. I have never undergone a religious conversion experience. Because there was never a time when I did not know God. My vision of God came upon me, amidst night’s darkness, like the dawn of a clear day– a very gradual brightening of the sky was announced by that red line at the horizon.
My vision came as a wordless Word, calm, certain, secure. It guided me, without my seeking guidance. It informed me of the Truth, without instruction. Gradually words came, with teachers and relationships and libraries and exposure to nature. The first words were “only connect” [E.M. Forster], and they came with the insight that Christ was the connection. His forgiveness restored, repaired, reshaped, and resurrected all life, including my own. Christ promises that we will be changed from a half to a whole [David L. Miller], that was given to me.
The Bible says it all, but so does God’s creation and all human creations. I experienced what people call “church” whenever I attended a musical concert, an art gallery, a poetry reading, sitting next to a weaver, throwing pots, even just walking across a university campus, and attending eucharist at St. Cyril's Catholic Church on the southside of Chicago. Art, to me, was the one true religion, and God had given me the supreme poem, Christ.
I was no artist, of course. I had no art and still don’t. And yet art is the medium in which I walk and talk and have my being. I found that out explicitly when I took a mid-career battery of vocational tests once. I couldn’t understand some dissatisfactions with ministry that nagged me. I took all the tests, had the debriefing, and learned an amazing thing. I tested off the meter in aesthetic quotient, whereas typical clergy score higher than me in the ethical and didactic quotient. As artists will do, I tend to look at things from many different angles, I like to see things in their context, and postpone judgement. I seem to pose questions that I can not answer myself, which doesn’t make for great sermons. I’m not crowing here, apologizing.
II. The vision I was given had its seeds when I was a teenager coming and going in the parsonage of my hometown minister. In the foyer of Don and Edna Bartholomew’s home was this remarkable sculpture, white stone or alabaster, about chest high, of a seated woman in a hieratic pose, praying, from an Asian religious tradition. There it was every time I came and went through the hall, it was beautiful, although I never once asked him what it was. It was Guan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of peace and mercy, I eventually learned. But it told me then that everything I heard from Don on Sunday mornings issued from a worldwide landscape. My vision told me that beauty was part of truth, and all that was human was beautiful. My vision told me that religion communicates through art, that religion was in itself art–in fact, that religion is the collective art of a people. Everything you see and hear at church, at temple or mosque, is an echo of the wordless Word [Daniel C. Noel].
III. The spiritual challenge for me when I became a minister was how to help worshipers make room for the wordless Word, give it room to “speak” and be heard in our hearts, when so many other words were circulating in the Sanctuary. Was true worship silence? Did Protestants need more silence? Were we lifting up the wrong models for the spiritual life, the saints? Perhaps the church needed to turn to the artists for models or examples–the great ones who produce the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the ordinary ones who compose hymn tunes and write hymn lyrics, for instance. My vision told me, we should be paying more attention to the lives of the artists–they create objects which they lift up into the silence. In fact, what are they doing but bringing their compositions in from the silence, the silence of the wordless Word. They don’t deal in formulas and shibboleths as is common among believers.
The spiritual challenge laid upon me by my vision was to clear out the static in the worship life church. Churches need to make room for more voices, more and different kinds of bodies, and fortunately that has been happening. More truth has broken forth from the gospel of Christ than we imagined. Jesus was given to us to envision, to imagine. Christ is Alpha and Omega, and everything in between. We assume only professional artists venture into such territory, like the artist who created the mural reproduced on the bulletin cover. But church members can, and should be given the platform and the permission, and the budget when necessary, to do so.
Paul wrote that each of you has different gifts, not in the sense of different talents, but perceptions and reactions–and visions–of Christ as Alpha and Omega. Teachers, prophets, healers etc.–these are active projections of the vision within. In these ways, we console others, help them understand, love them, giving back, and pardoning, by which we experience the Eternal Now.
IV. Every vision comes tailored to the needs of the recipient–Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe, Mujigore. My vision emerged to meet the particular hunger of one particular youngster, myself, who became the father of the idiosyncratic Christian minister you see before you today, myself. If I could only instill in you, not my vision, but the importance of articulating your personal vision–! The importance to yourself, of course, and to your spiritual life. But more so, the importance of your adding to the voices of this congregation which must resound like a trumpet on this corner of this community.
That’s why you hear me say so often, that churches don’t need to evangelize–if you just ARTICULATE. Make echoes of the wordless Word that are felt inside the Sanctuary and outside the church walls. Eliot Church, you have a platform here–use it–take your foot off the brake–release your inhibitions. There are many gifts, but one Spirit, it says in this morning’s scripture. You don’t need to be thinking of Eliot’s future–look at what you are doing today, or not. Rather than be consumers of religion, you could use your imaginations and exercise your will to offer others your vision of Christ.
You're not an artist, you might say–well, neither am I. But we can be what artists are–they are like tuning forks, who vibrate to the universe and to the wordless Word. All that’s called for is for you to amplify those vibrations into a vision for others to enjoy. My vision tells me of a great payoff–peace among the religions, more beauty everywhere, consolation for our deepest losses during this pandemic, a resurgence experience joy. –Rev. Richard Chrisman 1.23.22