When I was young, my home was walking distance from the Indian River, in the Vero Beach area of Florida, which was filled with crabs, fish, oysters and clams. My backyard was a seafood market within arm’s reach. My family often swam to the island nearby and played keep-away with the dolphins that tried to steal our picnic lunch.
My first tug-of-war game was with a sea bass that refused to let the weak arms of my five-year-old body reel it in. My first kickball was a dead man-of-war that washed up on shore, resulting in swollen feet for days. There was also a grove of orange and grapefruit trees, where we could eat fresh citrus any time we wanted.
When I look back, I see clearly that God’s liturgical art of creation was how I came to know God, but more importantly how I came to know myself as a child of God. These waters where I was born are where I felt fully loved by my parents and God’s creation. I had no awareness of being different, not good enough or unwelcomed. Much as Jesus was claimed as a dearly beloved child, I felt dearly beloved by those around me.
Liturgical art in community
The Bible tells of two beginnings. The first account, in Genesis 1, reveals a vast sanctuary of chaotic void, where God creates a liturgical art piece that encompasses light and dark, textures and levels, colors that span a spectrum beyond imagination. And with each stroke, God called it good (Genesis 1.) The other account, in John 1, speaks of poetry spoken by, embodied by and inspired by God. From the Word, life came to be, and light and darkness merged in such a way that neither outshone or extinguished the other.
Liturgical art … creates a space where images and words coexist, in ways that open our hearts and minds to hear, see and experience God’s Word.
That is what liturgical art does. It creates a space where images and words coexist, in ways that open our hearts and minds to hear, see and experience God’s Word. If God created us to be as diverse as we are, liturgical art in worship honors all the different ways we learn, understand and embody God’s Word — visually, lyrically, audibly and experientially. Liturgical art affirms that we are good enough to be tellers of God’s story and are free to tell that story in creative expression, just as God did in the beginning.
Liturgical art also must be experienced and expressed in community. It invites us to participate by adding to it, changing it and repurposing it in whole new ways. It inspires us to articulate the meaning behind it and how it resonates within us. Just as God calls us caretakers of God’s creation, we become caretakers of a holy conversation sparked by a visual expression of God’s word.
Liturgical art as an Ebenezer
At St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, where I have served as pastor for 20 years, we routinely used liturgical art not only in the sanctuary but in worship as well, through prayer stations and interactive art projects. Liturgical art was an intentional way for people of all ages to engage in worship beyond just listening and speaking.
Creates a space where images and words coexist, in ways that open our hearts and minds to hear, see and experience God’s Word.
In 2020, when the whole globe went on lockdown, we discovered how liturgical art can be a burning bush during a time when all of who we are, what we do and how we live is lost. It can be holy ground where we find space to breathe, center ourselves and recalibrate our centers when shaken. During the lockdown, liturgical art moved beyond just a symbol of expression to become an Ebenezer, a memorial of help and hope (Joshua 4; 1 Samuel 4, 7), in a hopeless place and time.
In Joshua 4, when the 12 tribes of Israel cross the Jordan to trek toward the Promised Land, we are reminded of Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea. The Israelites in this passage experience a sense of déjà vu. In Exodus, crossing the Red Sea meant crossing over from slavery to freedom; in Joshua, crossing the Jordan River meant crossing over from wandering, belonging to no country, to entering into the land God promised them back in the days of Abraham. When they finished crossing the Jordan, at that moment Joshua instructs a person from each tribe to take up a stone from the river to construct a memorial — an Ebenezer. This way, when later generations ask “What do these stones mean?” the Israelites can speak of God’s faithfulness in times of doubt and struggle. At this place, in this time, they found, discovered and were reminded of God’s love in a hopeless place.
Liturgical art during lockdown
During the lockdown, in San Francisco we were on a journey of our own — except our journey was limited to city sidewalks and an occasional park. In a city that spans seven miles by seven miles, 800,000 people did not have much space to coexist. To alleviate the pressure of living in a cramped city, “slow streets” started popping up everywhere in the city, one being Lake Street, where St. John’s Church sits. Slow streets were roads that were blocked off to automotive traffic so that people could freely walk and bike off the sidewalk. These slow streets not only allowed social distancing but offered a safe space for people to take breaks between Zoom meetings, Zoom school and probably Netflix binges.
As the lockdown days turned into months, I often stared outside my church office window as people walked by, wandering much like the Israelites wandered in the desert, with no destination in sight. As a church, we were not allowed to open our doors because any gathering of people was prohibited. And people had no other places to gather because all restaurants, coffee shops and libraries closed as well. People had no place to find sanctuary or respite. You could either sit in your small living space or just keep walking.
But what is a church if it’s not the people? It’s just an empty building. That period really tested our identity as a faith community. Our mission statement reads as follows: “Led by the compassion of Jesus and the creativity and mystery of the Spirit, we are an open and welcoming community that shares the love of God with one another and the world.” If that’s the case, how do we live that mission when no people are able to do that work or receive it?
Lockdown was a real time of discernment, when we sought to rediscover who God was calling us to be during that time. And as we pondered how to respond, we looked to the walkers. I really wondered: What if St. John’s Church could open the doors for walkers to come in, lay down whatever concerns they carry and leave with whatever peace and comfort they needed to go on their way?
Lockdown was a real time of discernment, when we sought to rediscover who God was calling us to be during that time.
So I called city hall to see whether we could keep our doors open just to provide respite for weary walkers — and they said yes. We had already cleared the sanctuary of all the pews, to turn it into a food distribution site for our food pantry. Therefore, the sanctuary was an empty and open canvas for people to enter and encounter the Divine.
I wanted to create something that people could interact with, to express whatever they were carrying into that space. Using butcher paper, a pallet left over from the food pantry, and a pipe I found in the basement, I built a 15-foot tree. Visitors were invited to write prayers and thoughts on paper leaves and clip them to the branches. The next week they were invited to create and attach paper flowers — then butterflies. Over time, this tree bloomed and came to life with all the worries, celebrations, hopes and losses.
As I walked the slow streets myself, I overheard people saying, “Hey, have you gone into that church yet? They put up something new in there.” This tree became an Ebenezer. When people asked, “What does this mean?” the neighbors were able to see something hopeful in a hopeless place. As time continued, the Ebenezer took on different forms. We offered a huge sand pit where people could consider what they were carrying during their own wilderness time, and there were potted succulents that walkers could take to bring life back home. We offered chalkboards for people to share stories of what they gained and what they lost during lockdown so they could see that they were not alone in these experiences.
Liturgical art as beacon and baptismal
Just as the encounter with the burning bush changed Moses, and the journey through the wilderness changed the Israelites, our foray into liturgical art changed us. It changed St. John’s Church. It changed the way we lived out our baptismal vocation. The neighborhood taught us that we do not need the building in order to be an impactful presence. At the same time, they showed us how this building can offer more than just worship on Sundays. It can offer a safe place for people to experience God’s love, compassion and grace. It showed us that liturgical art can be a beacon when all is lost.
That’s how our recent liturgical art piece came about: the Lake Street Labyrinth. What once was a tired old garden at the end of the slow street – a garden that received no sun and was difficult to maintain in a drought – got a new identity and purpose.
As the lockdown came to an end, and the church once again held gatherings, we found that we didn’t want our connection to the neighborhood to end. How could St. John’s Church continue to provide space for people to find respite and hope?
Unlike our sanctuary, the garden space was very limiting and limited. It was just a sliver of a quadrilateral garden grave, connected to a broken sidewalk. Again, I looked at the walkers and wondered: What if we could build a labyrinth, one where people can enter and exit from either side, slow their walk and take a moment to soak in gratitude as they continue on life’s journey? The labyrinth became half garden and half sidewalk, so depending on where you walk in the labyrinth, you walk on either flat stone or misshapen pebbles — much like life.
As the labyrinth was coming together, walkers often stopped to ask me what we were building. And ss I explained the labyrinth and how I planned to line the path with succulents, neighbors would offer cuttings of succulents from their own yards. Sometimes I found boxes of clippings waiting to be planted. Nearby congregations also asked if I needed more cuttings. Neighbors alerted me if they saw someone trimming their succulent bushes, so that I could get more cuttings if needed. In the end, every succulent in the labyrinth came from the neighborhood. St. John’s Church didn’t pay for a single plant.
This labyrinth was not just our labyrinth. It was the neighborhood’s labyrinth. As the church had opened space for our neighbors during a hopeless time, the neighbors showed gratitude by helping us build a liturgical art piece for the whole neighborhood to use. This labyrinth became another Ebenezer, one that emerged from a chaotic void of dead grass and transformed into something good.
Creating as God’s children
When I was a child, I was in awe of God’s ability to create such beautiful art in nature, but I was just merely an admirer. As a pastor, I am in awe of what God’s children can create, especially during a time of wandering. Liturgical art has a way of anchoring us and reminding us of God’s faithfulness. And in the words of Genesis 1, “God saw that it was good.”