Dewitt Jones

Belief Enables Perception

 

In the Temple’s portico of Solomon, Jesus is challenged concerning his identity, whether he is the Messiah. In response, Jesus points to the works that he does in his Father’s name. Clearly, those who question him neither really hear him, nor see who he is.

John, in the book of Revelation, records a series of visions. “I looked,” he says, “and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the Lamb.” John’s vision of the multitude is not as dramatic as some other images in Revelation. But even this relatively tame scene, recorded in chapter 7, can strike us as fantasy. Most of us never see things like John describes. And, as we say, if I don’t see it, I therefore don’t believe it!

But what if? What if invisible and spiritual things are just as real as what we see and touch? One attribute I appreciate about the photographer, Dewitt Jones, is how he turns conventional wisdom on its head. Instead of limiting belief to what we perceive, he challenges us to believe so that we might see. In his view, perception does not enable belief. Instead, belief enables perception. As a photographer, Dewitt Jones articulates a significant spiritual principle.

We might imagine that, in John’s captivity on the prison island of Patmos, the seer of Revelation had ‘private visions’. Denied the freedom to gather for worship with other believers, God may have given him compensatory visions to sustain him in his solitude. Yet, it seems clear that John was a person of deep faith prior to receiving his visions. And his vision of the multitude should sound familiar to us, especially during Eastertide.

Here are some words many of us pray to our Father in this Easter season: “Fountain of life and source of all goodness, you made all things and fill them with your blessing… Countless throngs of angels stand before you… Joining with them, we sing “Holy, holy, holy…” In this prayer, we are part of the same multitude that John reports having seen in his vision, gathered before the throne of the Lamb. As we join the community he sees, we share their praise and thanksgiving.

Even more to the point, notice what we sing about: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven… and earth… are full of your glory.” I have always loved what those words suggest ~ heaven, and earth, are full of God’s glory! The world is filled with wonder, grace and blessing!

In our Eucharist, we say what we believe. And our believing is then key to our seeing. In the same prayer, we also say, “we acclaim you, holy Lord… Your mighty works reveal your wisdom and love.” In other words, whether we perceive it or not, God’s creative handiwork all around us reveals God’s wisdom and love. Grace inhabits Creation. Because God’s handiwork is revelatory, it’s possible for us to see more than we do now. Not only did the Creator make all things and fill them with divine blessing, God created all things, including us, to rejoice in the splendor of God’s own radiance. When we perceive this blessing within ourselves, in each other, and in all that surrounds us, we then give voice to every creature under heaven, as we offer our gifts of bread and wine.

 

The image above is James Tissot’s painting, Jesus Walks in the Portico of Solomon. This post is based on my homily for Easter 4, May 12, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Tides

 

 

I have recently been re-reading the Napoleonic era seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian. Though there are 21 of them, for some of us, they are read all too quickly. You may remember the Russell Crowe movie, Master and Commander, which was based on the series. A frequent theme in these books concerns the flow of the tide, and how the tide waits for no one. Because we don’t control the tide, it behooves us to live in accord with it. Where waters are tidal, sea levels rise and fall every day. An incoming tide is a rising tide, and an outgoing tide is falling one. Back in the days of sailing ships, a vessel heading for the high seas would float out on a falling tide, carrying the ship with it. On the other hand, a returning ship, when entering a harbor, would be carried in on a rising tide.

This example of tides provides a metaphor for phases in the life of a church. At my own parish, we have been experiencing a time of significant change. For churches, change can be measured in different ways ~ in the number of members, the average attendance, or by donor giving levels. Other things are harder to measure, like spiritual growth. Consistent with the patterns of nature, many churches experience the equivalent of both rising and falling tides. And like the patterns of nature, they involve factors beyond our control.

Advent provides a helpful reference point for considering these variables. Advent means that something is arriving, appearing or emerging. For with Advent, a new church year arrives. We hear Gospel-beginning narratives about the appearing of John the Baptizer. And we hear about the Son of Man coming at the end of time, and his revealing of the fullness of God’s Kingdom. In every Gospel, John the Baptizer plays a key role in the arrival of God’s long-awaited glory. Given these positive Advent themes, we can associate this season of promise with a rising, or incoming tide. We are, as it were, flowing in to a harbor of hope.

The photographer Dewitt Jones teaches that the times of greatest change are also the times of greatest potential. And so, we have a choice about how we see things. For change can mean a gain, just as much as it can mean a loss. So, do we focus on the change that is from something in the past? Or do we focus on the change that is to something ahead? In other words —and relevant to my own parish as well as many others— do we see our churches riding a receding tide, measured by factors like a decrease in membership and attendance? Or, do we see ourselves being lifted by an incoming tide, measured by rising giving and spiritual growth? These are among our most important questions.

 

This post is based on my homily for Advent 2, December 9, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The photos above are used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, the source for which can be found by clicking here. Dewitt Jones’ work can be accessed by clicking here.

Unexpected Beauty

He Qi The-Road-to-Emmaus

In the mid 1970’s, I had a short stint as an art student in Wisconsin. Through those studies I met the remarkable professor, Reinhold Marxhausen, who was skillful at teaching others to see. Like the more recent work of Dewitt Jones, Marxhausen embodied a calling to help others discern unexpected beauty in everyday places and people.

The vocation of the artist is to see and help make apparent the beauty that surrounds us. Theologians have the same vocation. For artists and theologians share an interest in beauty, goodness and truth, and their common divine source. A saying from the early Egyptian Christian monk, Evagrius, may help us here. He said that a theologian is someone who prays. Someone who prays acquires logos about theos. He or she gains wisdom from God and, in the process, receives a fuller vision of beauty, goodness and truth.

On Sunday, we will hear one of my favorite Gospel stories ~ the road to Emmaus. This story prompts an Eastertide question, of interest to both the artist and the theologian: Where do we find the resurrection? In what unexpected places or people do we find the risen Jesus? The inverse question is more perceptive: Where does the resurrection find us? In what quite unexpected place or part of our lives are we found by the risen Jesus?

The Gospels help us see the answer, in darkened tombs and in our darkened hearts. Resurrection finds us on our life journeys as we are joined by our often unrecognized Companion on the Way, and at table when we break bread together. He helps us see the big picture, and how “every story whispers his name.” *

Encountering and then seeing true beauty, we find our hearts burning within us.

 
The painting, The Road to Emmaus (1997), by He Qi (He Qi,© 2013), is used by licensed permission. The Emmaus story can be found in Luke 24:13-35.  * This is the evocative subtitle of the commendable book, The Jesus Storybook Bible (Zondervan).