Sunday, August 7, 2016
Being an Authentic Witness


“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hold onto that thought while I take us on a side trip.

On a recent trip to Boston, a friend and I paid a visit to the city’s Museum of Fine Art – a huge building with an equally huge collection that was impossible to peruse in one brief afternoon; and so we spent most of our time in the wing that housed the Impressionist painters – Matisse, Degas, Renoir, and Monet among others. Impressionist art appeals to me, primarily, I think, both for its creative use of colour, and also for a brush technique that sacrifices detail in favour of broader strokes. Stand close to an Impressionist painting, and you see it quite differently than if you stand far away, because the strokes that don’t seem to make much sense up close can blend and move together in a way that creates a comprehensive scene with a mood all its own from a few feet back. For me personally, Impressionist art evokes a lot of feeling, a lot of emotion. I’m not an expert and don’t pretend to know much about the technicalities of Impressionist art – I just know that I naturally gravitate toward it. Maybe it’s because the Impressionists make me work a bit in order to see what’s really there and leave a little scope for imagination.

By contrast, I had quite a different experience in the gallery that housed the work of Rembrandt and his contemporaries. Of course, Rembrandt was painting about 2 centuries earlier than the Impressionists, but I couldn’t help being struck by the contrast in subject and technique. One painting in particular, titled Portrait of a Woman Wearing a Gold Chain, was absolutely mesmerizing, but for quite different reasons. Rembrandt was able to capture personality in facial expression, and this woman’s eyes and the curve of her mouth evoked a playfulness that just jumped off the canvas. But more than that, the detail in all three layers of lace that comprised her collar was absolutely breath-taking. Every single painting in that room of 17th Century European Masters was painted in a similar way…. dark background, with a central subject painted in exquisite detail, right down to the finest bit of lace or a glint off a gold chain: nothing left to the imagination.

Well, this isn’t an art appreciation lesson but a homily, and yes, I do have a point to make. One of the things that is playing loudly in the consciousness of most Church-goers these days is the question of how we as Christians both exist within and respond to a culture that seems to be increasingly disgruntled with the organized expression of the Christian faith that we call the Church. And it’s not as if the unchurched or de-churched people aren’t exploring issues of faith in some way: many are. A quick survey of any big bookstore’s spirituality section will tell you that we live in a great melting pot of approaches to the sacred, the likes of which we’ve never seen before (or, at least, haven’t for a while). In our own time what was once a brief menu of predictable spiritual options has become a buffet table piled high with various alternative systems of belief to taste and explore.

So part of the challenge for us as practicing Christians is figuring out our place on this new and expanded menu, and promoting what we have to offer in a way that encourages tasting. From our Residential Schools legacy we’ve learned the hard way that force-feeding Jesus to people really doesn’t work all that well, and in fact can have devastating consequences. That horrific practice of imposing or legislating faith has thankfully taken a back seat to a more thoughtful, respectful, and invitational approach to sharing it. So how we model our own faith as individuals and as a community is critical: how willing we are to listen and explore; how willing we are to take a stand against injustice; how forgiving we’re prepared to be; how we respond to the Spirit’s leading; how we work toward inclusion and celebrate diversity; how we keep our own faith vibrant and alive. All these are good life-giving questions as we figure out how to bear witness to that wonderful assertion from Hebrews: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this, and it’s back to the paintings in the Museum of Fine Art. I don’t know about you, but much as I admire and respect the creative genius of a Rembrandt, personally I’d rather not think about faith in similarly specific and detailed terms. Thrilling though it is to have a canvas in front of me that captures every little detail, by the same token it doesn’t demand anything of me except to admire its beauty and the skill it took to create it. It doesn’t make me work at all to understand it, and it allows me to just sit back and be a passive admirer. So to draw a parallel, I don’t want to understand or represent faith as something that hands me – or anyone else – all the answers. I don’t want the Christian path to be perceived as rules or laws or specifics right down to detailed little brush strokes executed with mathematical precision. That kind of approach leaves no room to breathe and to my mind discourages inquiry…. and I guess I just instinctively shy away from anything that attempts to provide me with pat black-and-white answers. They’re just too confining, and the rebel in me automatically wants to question them anyway.

I would far, far rather both experience and personally symbolize my faith more like an Impressionist painting…. full of colour, and movement, and interpretive possibility….. as something that can be examined up close and appreciated on one level, but also understood from a distance for its thematic richness and evocative strength. I want to understand the Christian faith in terms of patterns and possibilities, in terms of questions and not answers….to appreciate how the broad strokes all blend together into a greater and sometimes unfathomable truth, complete with mist and shades of grey. Somehow it just feels more honest to approach faith this way. I don’t have all the answers and won’t pretend that I do; and I like to think that I keep my mind open to fresh possibility and interpretation. In fact, I know that’s what keeps my faith alive.

An old Sunday school song describes each of us as “a priceless work of art, formed by the hand of God” …. and so in this uniquely creative time in the life of the Church, I would suggest that the hand of the Artist who created us must, at the very least, be apparent in all that we say and do. Let us pray, then, for the grace to be authentic representatives of our faith, living breathing invitations into relationship, into community, into inquiry, and into mystery.

The Venerable Nancy Adams

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16