Adapted from a presentation given at the 2014 Ancient Future Faith Network Gathering in Orange Park, Florida.
Have you ever had a longing? That “yearning desire” for something that just doesn’t seem to be satisfied? A thirst that you are always seeking to assuage, even while going about your normal life?
The word for this longing in German is Sehnsucht— a soul search. I have known such a search. Perhaps you have as well.
The term for “longing” is used at least forty times in the Scriptures. King David, in the midst of deep pain over his sin and his need for God’s mercy, writes in Psalm 38:9— with great emotion— “O Lord, all my longing is before you, my sighing is not hidden from you.” In the ancient system of physiology, the kidneys were believed to be the seat of desire and longing— the deepest part of our being. David felt this longing in is deepest recesses of his being.
The Apostle Paul wrote of such a “longing” in Romans 8:19 as he writes that “creation itself waits with eager longing . . . to be set free from bondage”. In 1 Corinthians 5:2, he writes, “For in this tent we groan, yearning to put on our heavenly dwelling.” This is Sehnsucht.
Longing. . . . .
I’ve known such a longing. I want to share a couple of deep longings of my life.
Learning of the AFFN and attending the 2014 Gathering in Orange Park, Florida, was a partial fulfillment of a deep longing of my heart. I’ve been a Christian since I was a child and have always attended Protestant, non-liturgical churches— some really good, some not so good. Today my husband and I serve in a small, inner-city church that offers many opportunities for ministry in the lives of hurting people. And yet, as I have grown older, the longing in my heart for something more has grown— sometimes overwhelming me. That longing was for a deeper relationship with God and an experience & expression of worship that was authentic, powerful, and life-changing. In this search, I investigated Eastern Orthodoxy with Frederica Matthews-Green. I was introduced to the writings of Robert Webber and his concept of Ancient-Future Faith. My heart was stirred that it might be possible to drink deep in the Word of God and have worship enhanced by the writings of the early Church Fathers. I learned of an expression of worship that is more than perfunctory or emotional. I wanted with all my heart a CONNECTION TO AUTHENTICITY. But, member of AFFN, you already know what I mean, as you’ve been immersed in this search for many years.
In September of 2013, we re-connected with some long-time friends in California and learned, to our surprise, that they were deeply involved in AFFN and were serving in an excellent church that is, in its DNA , committed to the Ancient-Future Faith principles. Subsequently we spent time worshiping with this community and I have spoken there. I felt as if my parched “kidneys”— the seat of my longing— experienced a refreshing rain. We were so excited about this, we sent our pastor from North Carolina to California to spend a week with the leaders of this church. There we soaked in the “hows and whys” of such worship. Now, we are in the process our worship in our house church to one that begins to meet the “longing” of my soul.
The Longing for Healing: A Personal Testimony
In my life, I’ve known an even deeper longing, one of healing and wholeness following the murder of our eldest son in 1992. It was in this time of deep grief that God met the most severe longing of my life.
I had no background in art— either as an artist or a patron. Yet, it was through the powerful vehicle of visual art that I encountered God and He began a miracle of healing. In desperation, I ran from my flat in Vienna, Austria, and began walking the little lanes of the First District. As it was snowing and I needed warmth, I took rescue in the Kunsthistorische, the art history museum.
“It takes years to look at a picture,” writes Thomas Hess. I spent hours gazing at the various paintings. At first it was depictions of war and destruction which mirrored the despair of my heart. In the following days, paintings reflecting the Passion of Christ arrested my attention and I wept. I distinctly remember one large painting that pictured the act of taking Christ down from the cross and placing him in the arms of his mother. I wept as I entered into Mary’s grief. In that particular painting, a little angel, called a putti, was situated in the bottom right corner. This little angelic being was crying at the unimaginable death of the Son of God. My grief poured out in tears as well. From that time until now, all renditions of the Pieta, which reflected a mother’s grief, mirrored my own expression of pain.
Everywhere I saw my pain and despair reflected. But, my longing for deep healing from grief and despair wasn’t assuaged. Then— after exhausting the Kunsthistoriche Museum and other traditional galleries, I found myself— for the first time— in a Museum of Modern Art, the Albertina. Here I encountered the art form most foreign to me— abstract or non-representational art. To my shock, without any preparation or understanding of this art form, God spoke to me in “sensations too subtle for words” (Robert Henri).
I gazed on various paintings done in abstraction, God spoke a truth into my heart that I’d never considered before. This is what I understood God to reveal, “I am the ORIGINAL abstract artist, Dianne. Before Genesis 1:1 when I created the heavens and the earth—all you can know and experience—I exercised my imagination, because nothing seen had existed before. Nothing in my original creation was representational. It was all abstract. And, before I spoke the world into existence, I formed the building blocks of all you see in nature and in art: line, color, design, texture, space, order.” And I worshiped the Almighty, Creator God.
Artists have sensed this reality of the “building blocks” of creation. American artist, Georgia O’Keeffe wrote, “I found I could say things with color and shape that I couldn’t say any other way– things I had no words for.” Another artist, French Impressionist Edgar Degas expressed, “In a single brushstroke we can say more than a writer in a whole volume.”
God “spoke” these words into my heart and soul– into the area of deepest need and longing, “These basic elements of line, color, design, order, space and texture are the underlying elements of all that is seen in creation.” I met– experienced– the Creator in a powerful and transforming way. I explained it in this way, God began healing me deep within my soul as the Creator who transformed chaos into the beauty of creation; turns mourning into dancing; and can enable a grieving, broken mother to thrive, not merely survive, after the murder of her son. The medium God used was abstract and non-representational art. The power was God’s alone.” The result? Profound worship…that filled that longing in my soul and in that worship, the healing began. God assured me, that just as all of creation is formed from these disparate pieces that formed creation, He could take broken pieces of my heart and make something beautiful.
In the intervening years of contemplation and research, I’ve come to believe that I experienced the “power of the abstract”. It is in the abstract that the mystery and transcendency of God can be displayed. It speaks of Creator, while representational art shows the Creation. Both point back to God, but it was in the abstract that my healing began.
As with many non-liturgical, “free” church members, I’ve known a “visual anorexia” in my life and my experience with church. I didn’t know how to live with this new reality of the power of art and the nexus of art and worship. I was afraid to share this experience for many years because it was so “outside” my conservative Christian box and I feared it would be criticized. But God not only started my healing and the met my deep longing for wholeness through this experience, He also gave me a new calling and purpose for my life. He gave me a passion for finding and encouraging artists of faith. This was so unusual— I could never have thought of it by myself!
We were missionaries in Europe, so I began looking for artists-of-faith in every European country where we worked. I would ask them about their journey of faith and their art expression. Repeatedly I heard the pain of alienation by artists-of-faith from the organized, evangelical church. Seldom did I hear positive stories, but rather, testimonies of rejection. My heart was heavy for these lovely, creative children of God.
At the same time, I began doing cultural investigation. I learned that in postmodern Europe, the arts were the language of spirituality but most of the “free” churches had rejected all use of the visual arts. I was perplexed and saddened.
In 2001, I attended the Hope 21 Congress which brought together Christian leaders from every corner of Europe. I timidly asked to observe in the track for artists. Again, I heard the pain and despair of these artists in relationship to the work and purposes of the church. At the end of the week, I asked to share my testimony of how God had used visual art in my healing process. I ended by imploring them to not give up the use of the creative gift in the work of the Lord as it was needed by the world, the church, and by non-artists such as myself. I sat down, feeling rather foolish, and left with a personal commitment to find out why the church treated artists, especially visual artists, the way that it had. This ultimately led to my doctoral research which was completed in 2004. I observed, researched and interviews pastors of (free) evangelical churches and artists-of-faith in Germany/Switzerland (birthplace of Protestant Reformation) and Spain (birthplace of Counter-Reformation) regarding the use (or non-use) of visual art. The essential findings of why visual art (and artists) were alienated were these:
1. Two-thirds of German artists of faith were not in a organized, evangelical church;
2. 100% of the Spanish artists of faith were still attending a local church but had NEVER considered that their creative gift had any connection or purpose within the plan of God. It was a total bifurcation of faith and art!
3. The reasons given by the pastors for this rejection of visual were:
A. Theological: application of Post-Reformational theology concerning the arts and interpretation of Exodus 20:4 resulted in a rejection of art, and the alienation of artists from the church;
B. Traditional: (“we’ve never done that before”) based on their theology of the past and never re-considered;
C. Practical: the pastors expressed they had no idea how to incorporate art or how to minister to artists;
D. Relational: the statement “artists are problematic people” was often heard. What was the result of this research in my life? It confirmed my calling and it served as foundational research for the faith and arts movement, first in Europe and, by extension, in the United States.
In 2004, due to the loss of funding for our work, we had to return to the United States. It was a death of a dream. I didn’t know what to do with my research or my passion for artists of faith. It felt that my calling, born in the art gallery in 1992 was put on the bookshelf with a copy of my dissertation. I didn’t understand. I felt hurt. My longing, born of God, left unfulfilled and hollow.
As children of God, we know that His timing is not always according to ours. In my life, God’s re-direction and resurrection of this passion came at HIS timing.
A mentor and wonderful artist, Makoto Fujimura spoke at a retreat I attended in the Hill Country of Texas. His passage was Matthew 6:33, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness AND all these things will be added to you.” He said, sometimes we experience the “long and” between seeking God and His fulfillment. Again I was reminded that God’s timing versus mine often seems “upside down” and yet it is the “truly real” because it is the reality of the eternal. Such a longing…if it is from God, may not be readily filled, but when it is, you KNOW that it was filled by God himself.
In 2007, I joined the ministry/mission agency called Artists in Christian Testimony Intl. as an Arts Advocate, but I didn’t really know what that meant. In 2008, I attended Arts Alive Festival in Nashville, TN. During the entire weekend I wrestled with doubts about why I was there. After all, I wasn’t an artist. I wouldn’t be there except for my experience in 1992 and the enemy accused me of “capitalizing on Tim’s death”. I was tortured with guilt. Then, at the last minutes of the weekend, a choreographer shared her own testimony before her dance troupe performed. She said that she had been discouraged and ready to stop serving God through her creative gift when she attended Hope 21 Congress in Budapest, Hungary in 2001. There she heard the testimony of an anonymous grieving mother. She then proceeded to give my testimony that I had so timidly shared at that time. She said she has told my story around the world and that hundreds of artists of continuing to dedicate their artistic offering to the building of God’s Kingdom because of this one women’s story— MY story! I was in shock! Here was God’s affirmation of my ministry. God’s timing was perfect so that He would receive the glory.
God proclaimed His freedom to serve Him as an Arts Advocate. I eventually became the Director of Europe Ministries for A.C.T. International where I’ve encourage artists of faith throughout the continent. I’ve been privileged to see the explosion of the arts & faith movement, as ignited by God Himself in this “new Spiritual Renaissance”.
All in God’s timing.
God has called me to a ministry or reconciliation in many areas:
• between God and those who have not known Him;
• of art and the church; and
• of artists-of-faith and the local church.
This is MY story. Now, in 2014, 22 years after my visit to the Albertina, I’m still serving God cross-culturally, working in churches, with arts & faith organizations and with individual artists-of-faith. All of this is a result of God fulfilling my longing for healing and a calling from God.
My Challenge to AFFN Members
1. As “worship professionals”, I challenge you to commit yourselves intentionally to include a full-being expression of worship with the Word of God; wisdom and application from the Church Fathers; ancient church practices; and meaningful music. But don’t stop there! Seriously consider how to encourage the engagement of the visual, bodily movement and a variety of postures in worship. Give due diligence to understanding the biblical purpose of all of the arts and how they are designed to be used to the glory of God. We aren’t minds only— we have sight; hearing; emotions; and the need to express ourselves physically. Deuteronomy 6:5 tells us, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Again, it is repeated in Matthews 22:37, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”. Our whole being comes into a relationship with God and is being transformed by God. He transforms each of our senses and expressions of who we are made to be as created, human beings. We must express ourselves in worship with all our being. We cannot neglect any of it in our desire to worship Him.
In “The Call to An Ancient-Evangelical Future” on the AFFN website, it states in Section Four: “We call for public worship that sings, preaches and enacts God’s story.” My challenge is for you to consider, in practice, how the “The Call” for public worship is one that sings, preaches, dances, acts, paints, draws and uses every creative expression to enact God’s Story.
2. Be careful never to lose the sense of longing in your worship planning. Learning the AFFN principles; using the Lectionary; quoting Scripture and the writings of Ancient Church Fathers; or following the church calendar can all become perfunctory and merely ritual. Every expression of our church and all our services must be rooted in the longing to know and love God; to allow Him to change us into the image of His Son. Without an awareness of such a longing, we may merely be a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” as mentioned by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:1.
3. Challenge the artists of faith in your community to express their worship of God through their creative gifts and ask them to do it as a means of blessing the community in worship. Embrace them in your fellowship. Encourage them to use the abstract. One artist, Sandra Bowden, gives this explanation, Christians recite the Nicene Creed affirming, I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. The artist lives out this creed making visible the invisible. The mission of the artist is to help all of us see more fully. Artists do not merely put on canvas what can be seen with our own eyes, but uncover for us something we have not observed, or have only imperfectly realized.
Russian Author Ouspensky writes, “There is no aspect of life that does not reveal to us an infinity of the new and the unexpected if we approach it with the knowledge that it is not exhausted by its visible aspect, that behind the visible there lies a whole world of the invisible, a world of comprehensible forces and relations beyond our present comprehension. The knowledge of the existence of the invisible world is the first key to it.”
It is in abstract art that we attempt to represent the mystery and transcendency of our God. I believe representational art speaks of the Creation and then leads us back to the Creator. Abstract art has the power to speak first and foremost of the Creator himself.
I’ve shared some of my deepest longings and the longings of artists-of-faith. What is YOUR longing? What is your role, as teachers, pastors and worship leaders in touching the longings of others? Ultimately, our intention can only be to be effectively used by God in the Kingdom work of leading God’s children into His presence. For, only He can truly fill the longing of the soul. “For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things” Psalm 107:9. We have a task as leaders to lead people into a deeper relationship in their worship of God so that their longing. . . their Sehnsucht. . . may be filled by Him.
We begin and end this article with God— just as we should. My prayer is that I’ve stirred an awareness in your heart of the longings that God has placed within you— and that we’ll be cognizant of the longings of others in our sphere of ministries. This hasn’t been an article to give answers, but, rather to create a thirst. . . a longing. . . for more. May God use it in your life and ministry, to His GLORY.