Sunday, September 4, 2016

Art is life

Psalm 139, Jeremiah 18
Pablo Picasso once said “Art is a lie by which we see the truth.” While I appreciate the idea, that art is representational, that it allows us to look at things with new eyes, different perspectives, I’m not sure that it is true.
Oscar Wilde said “Life imitates art far more often than art imitates life.” This quote seems eerily truthful. But that word imitates bothers me, as if life and art were not real, but rather images of one another.
In digging through quotes and statements about art I have found only two that really seem to speak truth to me.
One is, “Art is my life and my life is art.” Who said this? Yoko Ono. While the source may be unexpected the truth I find in these words is just as strangely comforting.
And if our lives are art and art our lives it only makes sense to listen to St. Thomas Aquinas, “God is an artist and the universe is his work of art.”
God as artist. That is the image and truth that comes to me through our texts this morning. The rich images of God as potter, of God as knitter or weaver speak to me. There is something about them that fills my heart with joy and a bit of anxiety.
Joy at the beauty of creation, of the imagination that spoke the world into being. Of the God whose hands fashioned humanity out of the clay and dust of the earth.
Anxiety because sometimes art is not only beautiful, but painful. Sometimes the truth of an artist will wrench your soul wide open. Sometimes it will make you so uncomfortable you cannot look away, no matter how much you want to.
That to me is the tension of God as artist, the beauty and the pain. And these scriptures bear those out to us.
In today’s Psalm we have the image of God as a knitter, a weaver, putting us together a loving stitch at a time. As a knitter this image really appeals to me. I know the work it takes to cast on the write amount of stitches. To knit one then purl another, to yarn over or knit two together. There is a rhythm to this and other fiber arts, a back and forth which lead to completion.
You start with a skein of yarn, unless of course you are a true fiber artist and then you start with a sheep, or lama, or rabbit, or goat, or plant fibers. You brush or shear these animals or you pick and decontaminate these plants and then you card the raw materials. Carding involves pulling back and forth on the fibers using paddles with small or large teeth. You pull you rake you maneuver until they are ready to be placed in a pile for spinning.
Spinning the yarn involves stretching and twisting the fibers into a cord. It’s a long process, adding materials at just the right time. Too late and they don’t attach to one another strongly. Too early and you can get a lump in the yarn that can be difficult to overcome.
If you choose to add colors to your yarn there is a dying process, which I won’t get into here. And then a winding process to make it ready to be used.
Once you begin knitting you cast on the stitches and work back and forth in a set pattern until the work is complete.
I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have pulled a project apart, called frogging by the way, and begun again. In fact, I have a baby blanket here that I have started no less than 10 times kitting and crochet trying to make it for the child it is destined for. I hope to have it ready for her 1st birthday this October.
So the psalmist says God knits us together and I like that picture. But what goes along with that is God having a knitter’s eye on us. When I look at a project I can see the imperfections. I see where I’ve dropped a stitch or where a join between two skeins appears. But I also see the prayers I prayed as it was being formed. The moment I realized that this finished project might bring joy to another’s face. I have an intimate knowledge of whatever I have created. And while I can see the flaws, I can also look at it and say it is good.
In Jeremiah we have God telling the prophet to go down to the potter’s house. In our day and time, we call potters artists, their amazing working with raw clay and turning it into a masterpiece is held in great regard and awe. In Jeremiah’s day potter’s were tradesmen. Their work was a necessity of life, not a luxury. You needed the jar to carry water. You needed the bowls to bake your bread. You needed to cups to hold your wine. The potter’s house would have been well known in the community and would have been frequented by most.
Jeremiah sits and watches the potter work the clay. I will admit to never having actually used a potter’s wheel before. I have no personal knowledge of how this act comes into being. I did however read up on the process.
Before using the wheel, a potter must knead his clay to rid it of impurities and air. He “wedges” it—slicing it in half and slamming the halves back together to force out air bubbles. When he feels the clay is ready, the potter places a container of water at his workbench (to keep his fingers wet) and turns to his wheel.
The potter next throws the ball of clay down on the upper wheel. Then he sets the wheel in motion and surrounds the clay with his hands, forcing it true to the center of the wheel head. Now the potter must “master” the clay, making it responsive to his touch. He applies pressure at the base of the clay ball, causing it to rise up in [a] sort of rounded cone. Then he pressed on top of the clay with his thumbs or the palms of his hands. Repeating this three or four times increases the flexibility of the clay and increases its strength.
At this point the potter “opens up” the clay ball by pressing his thumbs into the center, gradually hollowing it out. Applying pressure with his fingers, he evens out the thickness of the cylinder walls. Finally, he shapes the clay into a vase, a pitcher, or whatever he chooses.
As the terms force, master, and throw imply, clay is not always easy to work with. Often a partially formed object will disintegrate into a shapeless heap of clay—perhaps because a tiny stone was overlooked when the clay was worked. The potter must begin to knead the clay again. Or he may dislike the way a pot is forming and sweep it off the wheel in disgust.
This is the act Jeremiah witnessed. God seems to say to him “Am I not like this potter? Shaping the people of Israel? Look how they pull and fight against my hand. Should I shape grace or should I shape evil against them?”
That’s where the uncomfortable part comes in for me. The thought that God might shape good is, well, good. But the thought of God shaping evil against me is well, not good.
But there again it is all in the perspective. If you are the clay, all of this slamming to get out excess air is painful. This tugging and pulling, the water and spinning can leave you confused and overwhelmed. If you pull too much your walls fall down and you feel a completely useless heap.
But if you are the potter? The clay needs to be rid of impurities and so you do what you can to make sure that it is as strong as possible. You pull and guide, you hold and press. And if it falls apart? You start again. The still pliable clay is reformed. It is pressed back into service time and time again until it is ready to become the functional masterpiece you desire it to be.
Friends, God the artist knows us intimately, stitch by stitch. God’s the potter is constantly turning us on the wheel making and remaking until we become what we are designed to be.
And not just us as individuals, but us as the community of faith. God continues to pull us along towards God’s goal. If we would be what we are called to be, then we must yield to God’s hands, trust in God’s craftsmanship, bow to God’s will.
When we are truly pliable in God’s hands, when we trust that God has a direction, then we will begin to truly appreciate the artistry of our creator and our Lord. Amen.

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