Art, Healing and Bezalel

TED have recently uploaded a talk by art therapist Melissa Walker. She describes her work with war veterans, helping them to recover from PTSD through the use of visual arts.

See, art allows veterans to embody their trauma, turning it into something they can relate to, something that exists outside of them that can be safely left behind at the end of each day. And it’s a long, hard process, but art – particularly the creation of masks – seems to enable and empower those suffering with PTSD to find healing.

In Exodus 35 we read of Bezalel. He’s God’s craftsman, an artist responsible for decorating the Tabernacle and building the Ark of the Covenant. Bezalel has a clear spiritual gift, and we often see that in terms of worship – he’s making God’s throne and God’s dwelling place as a way of honouring and worshiping his Lord, and obviously that’s vital, but Walker’s talk got me thinking about how art is a spiritual gift with wider applications

For one, it seems to be a gift that can heal. PTSD is, I guess, an invisible wound, but a real one nevertheless, and art can serve as a vehicle by which healing can enter into a situation. It may be a long and difficult process, not the flashy, miraculous story we’d like, but there are people who have endured terrible trauma who, by painting and drawing and creating something with their bare hands, have been able to move on with their lives. That’s healing too, and in a world where mental health needs to be taken a lot more seriously, maybe Bezalel’s legacy incorporates art that can heal. The Holy Spirit is a healer after all.

Then there’s the idea of peace. Walker works with veterans, servicemen and women who’ve been to war and are still carrying the trauma of their experience. Now that trauma needs to be reckoned with, and if there’s opportunity to do that through art, if taking a situation, an emotion, an image and coming to peace with it through creativity and art, then that’s another facet of the gift, one that has echoes of shalom.

We have many artists in our churches. We need to be creative in how their gifts are used, but more than that, maybe it’s time for a wider vision of art as a spiritual gift. Maybe Bezalel’s legacy is more expansive than we think.

(More on Bezalel here.)

Noticing Injustice and an Unburning Bush (Exodus 3:1-4)

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The story of the Burning Bush is iconic. Every Sunday School student has drawn it, and it’s almost too famous – when we know something so well we can take it for granted. That’s dangerous: always be on the look out for the new thing God’s trying to tell you.

For instance, it took me years to notice how God waits for Moses to spot the bush before He speaks. This isn’t a sudden Road to Damascus experience, it’s a pause, a pregnant moment in history. We don’t know how long the bush was burning, only that the conversation was initiated when Moses went to investigate. God seems to be waiting for him.

But then Moses noticing things is what brought him to this point in the first place: he may have been raised in a palace, but despite this privilege he still noticed the suffering of the Hebrew slaves; later he sees Zipporah and her sisters attacked by shepherds and intervenes to save them, an act that draws him into another adopted family and gets him the job that takes him to the Burning Bush and an encounter with God.

You know, the God who has also recognised the suffering of his people.

Maybe, despite his later protests, Moses is exactly the right person to lead the Hebrews out of slavery because he and God both share an attentiveness to injustice (and notice that what really catches Moses’ attention is that the bush is on fire but not destroyed – it’s wrong and out of step with how the world should work, so how does that reflect on his earlier attention to injustice?).

God appears to Moses, but waits for Moses to take the first step toward him, to plant his feet on holy ground. It’s a dynamic that echoes throughout the Exodus, God doing the heavy lifting but with Moses serving as herald. It’s a lopsided partnership, but a partnership nonetheless. And maybe that partnership is important, as it’s not just about defeating Pharaoh, it’s about making the Hebrews into the people of God.

So God wants us to partner with him to tackle injustice, to break the chains of slavery, to serve as liberators. That means we need to be attentive to what’s going on around us, to see where darkness reigns and to spot where the Kingdom needs to come. And as we step towards those places, we’ll see that God is already there, waiting to transform situations but also his people. Bushes still burn; we just need to look out for them.

Keeping Watch In Gethsemane (Exodus 12, Mark 14:32-42)

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It’s the night after the Passover meal and the household take their positions as they prepare to keep watch. They’re looking out for salvation, maybe, or the power of God’s right hand, and they sit in the traditions of their ancestors, remembering how the Israelites stood vigil on the night they fled Egypt, getting ready to run as soon as a broken Pharaoh gave the word. This is Leyl Shimurim, the Night of Watching.

Leyl Shimurim commemorates the Exodus, and keeping this in mind, maybe there’s an oblique reference to it in the story of the first Easter. The Last Supper has ended, Jesus and the disciples retreating to the Garden of Gethsemane to face the horrors of the coming day. Jesus asks his friends to keep watch with him; knowing what’s to come, he pours out his anguish on his Father; the disciples, either exhausted or oblivious, fall asleep. Mark repeats the phrase “Keep watch” twice in a handful of verses; whether or not he’s referring to a specific ritual, something important seems tied up with those words. And so, not for the last time that weekend, the disciples fail their master.

But had they been able to fight off fatigue, what would they have seen? Their ancestors, had they chanced a quick, awestruck glance out of their window in Egypt, would have seen something powerful, cosmic, raw, primal, an empire brought to its knees overnight. The disciples would have seen a quite different aspect of God – scared, shaking, sweating blood and weeping. Was this something they’d have wanted to see? Maybe, for the sake of their categories, their falling asleep was for the best.

But on the other side of Gethsemene, we see God with 20:20 hindsight. This was a different kind of exodus, one in which God’s majesty would be revealed not through power but through sacrifice, compassion and love. But while I may be good at knowing the words, I’m not as good at seeing how God is at work right now, at living that out in my own life.

So maybe there’s a benefit to practicing a form of Leyl Shimurim, in pulling an all-nighter to become a witness to what God is doing, in engaging with prayer and the Bible in seeking to find God, not just in 1st century Palestine, but also in 21st century England. In the dim stillness while half the world’s in bed, maybe there’s an opportunity to meet with the God who never sleeps.

Still, nowadays we live 24/7, and so there’s something to be said for looking out our windows and seeing how God is actively at work. Watch the church soup kitchen giving people a bed and a dinner for the night. Watch the street angels safely getting party-goers into 3am taxis.

I used the word ‘watch’ there, and that’s when my own words convict me because maybe I should have said ‘help’ instead. Because what’s the point of keeping watch if you don’t do anything about the things you see? Talking the talk is easy, so is blogging the the blog, but staying awake to stand vigil, to discern what God is doing even when he seems far away, can be a whole lot harder…

Because that’s the thing; God is always at work. Sometimes we’re not looking though, and other times we miss it because his actions don’t fit within the confines in which we place him. He reaches out to the outsider and offends the religious and makes empires tremble, and if we don’t keep watch for all that, we miss something important. Because we miss seeing his power and his compassion; we see the world, but we fail to see Jesus.

 

The Golden Calf and the Importance of Plurals (Exodus 32)

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This post was inspired by an almost-throwaway comment made last Sunday in the sermon at Mars Hill Bible Church. Heck, this blog wouldn’t exist if I wasn’t obsessed with the obscure references and readings used by preachers; on the other hand, I should probably try not to get so distracted half way through a sermon…

Anyway, the Golden Calf. Moses has climbed Mount Sinai to receive the Law of God, and he’s been gone so long that the people back on the ground start getting twitchy. They go to Aaron, the brother of Moses and designated high priest, to get something sorted; they don’t want a God stuck up a mountain who may well have just fried Moses, they want a god who they can see and touch and understand. They want a god to carry before them.

And Aaron, who is either an idiot or terrified he’s about to fall victim to a lynch mob, goes along with it. He collects all the gold he can – much of which was plundered from Egypt, so there’s perhaps something here about their relationship with their former oppressor – and forges it into a golden calf. “Here are your gods!” he proclaims; notice he uses the plural even though there’s only one calf. This may be important.

Anyway, Moses returns, sees what’s happened, grinds down the calf, makes the Israelites drink the resulting gold dust (a metaphor for the lack of sustainable provided by the memory of Egypt?), people get executed, it all ends badly. The story is the archetypal warning against idolatry and if that’s all there is to it then that’s enough. But there may be something else going on…

See, this story is referred to in Nehemiah 9, only there the writer corrects the weird plural thing – one calf, one god. And reading it like that leads to another possible interpretation – what if the calf is meant to be the God? We tend to think the calf was intended as a replacement for God, but what it was a mockery, a grotesque charicature that reduced the majestic God of the universe, God the Uncreated, to a tacky bit of bling made only to shut up some whiners? They’ve turned the God who liberated them from slavey into a craft project, a cynical craft project at that.

But why not? After all, a craft project is controllable. You can worship it as a god if you want, but you’ll always have the upper hand because you know where it came from and you could always throw it away and get a better one, maybe in a nicer colour and with full social media integration. God isn’t that safe – he’s in charge. Maybe that’s why the calf is still an attractive prospect – given how some Christians treat others, I’m convinced they want God less than they want a golden calf who justifies hatred of whatever group they’re angry at this time.

And maybe that’s one of the greatest sins that makes up idolatry, turning God into our mouthpiece rather than us acting as his. And it’s a blasphemy because it results in a brutalised representation of God when God has already made himself visible and present in the world, through the person of Jesus. I mean, look at how Jesus is misrepresented and co-opted. Goodness knows what we could do if we were still making our own gods.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? If, as Christians, our God doesn’t look like Jesus, it’s just another golden calf. And it’s time for it to go.

The Hebrew Midwives: The Power of the Powerless (Exodus1)

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Sometimes you read a passage in the Bible and you’re struck with how unexpectedly relevant it seems. Take, for instance, the story of the two Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1.

The context: the Israelites have been living in Israel for about 200 years now, after Joseph helped saved the country from starvation at the end of Genesis. However, that was a long time ago, and the Israelites have gone from being honoured guests to, well, unappreciated immigrants. Even though they’ve been there for decades, the surrounding population, including the Pharaoh, has started to distrust them – they’re having too many kids, sooner or later they’ll be taking over, and you know we can’t trust them, because they’re not really like us and we can’t trust them to be on our side in a war and…

It all sounds depressingly familiar, doesn’t it? Replace ‘Israelites’ with ‘Muslims’ or ‘Mexicans’ or, well, ‘Jews’ and we’re not a million miles away from the sort of thing that can easily be found in the press or on the internet today. About the only thing the Israelites aren’t accused of is stealing the jobs of Egyptians, but that’s because they’re pressed into slavery.

Looks like this sort of thing has been going on for thousands of years. Sometimes it’s so engrained we don’t even notice how insidious it is. That’s why, when we encounter the immigration debate (whatever form it takes in whatever country you happen to live in) we need to take a step back and see if we’re really reflecting the love of Christ when we’re reflecting – or complaining – about it.

But it’s not just an example of anti-immigration rhetoric; there’s something else going on. Look at Exodus 1:7: “The Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land as filled with them.” This echoes Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 9:1 (the creation of humanity and the aftermath of the Flood respectively) and does so using the language of childbirth, which makes it interesting when we’re introduced to the heroes of this particular passage.

There’s a bit of controversy about this story – did God reward the midwives for lying? Some have said that lying was the lesser of two evils and necessary to prevent genocide; others have claimed that they were actually telling the truth and the babies were born before the midwives arrived. I’m not even going to pretend to have an answer for this (although to me, the passage implies that the midwives were present for the births, which means they’re giving Pharaoh a false alibi rather than a straight-forward explanation) but it’s worth looking at the wider context.

Effectively Shiphrah and Puah save children from ethnic cleansing. Whether or not they lied, and the ethics of that, is a secondary discussion – they’re the undoubted heroines of this chapter, and I suspect they’re able to get away with it precisely because they’re women. After all, they’re midwives – they’re the ones with access to the newborn children – and they know about childbirth. It’s this knowledge that allows them to muddy the waters with Pharaoh; I suspect he had little experience or even interest in the ins and outs of childbirth, or went to many antenatal classes. No, this is a rescue that could only be carried out by women, and results in more babies being born. Pharaoh’s ignorance of the Hebrews allows the most powerful man in the kingdom to be outwitted by two people significantly further down the social ladder. That’s what happens when you dehumanise people.

But not only are Shiphrah and Puah two of the earliest biblical women who actually prove more faithful and heroic than many of the men around them (note that the Bible never tells us the name of this particular Pharaoh, but we know the names of two midwives – God’s priorities aren’t the same as ours), but they’re also emblematic of those who make the right decision in the face of genocide; they join the ranks of all those ordinary people who spoke out against injustice and who saved innocent lives when history clouded over. They deserve to be remembered alongside iconic names like Oskar Schindler and my local hero Frank Foley. After all, while they may not have been the most powerful people in the kingdom, they were able to take what they had – their knowledge, their jobs, their faith – and use it to show love for others and love for God. In doing so they become a pattern for you and me – let’s pray that, next time we’re faced with a decision for good or evil, we’re able to follow their example and use the power of the powerless to make a difference in the world.