by Randy Heffner
The Word became flesh – and then through theologians, it became words again.
– Karl Barth
Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist [upon growing] up.
– attributed to Pablo Picasso
The chit-chat was lively as the women gathered. Shawna, the group leader, smiled at the mix of new faces and old, eager to see how the new voices would enrich the group's character and culture. She was about to start the study time, but just then another new face, Latonya, came in, so she let the small talk run a little longer. She watched Latonya, intrigued by her manner of quiet confidence and wisdom.
Shawna introduced herself and then, on a whim, asked Latonya to say an opening prayer. She didn't know that Latonya had only recently identified as Christian. Startled, Latonya eyes widened. “I don't know what to say.”
“That's okay.” Shawna replied quickly and lightly. “Neither do I.”
Latonya tilted her head, squinting. The room was a bit warm, and her forehead glistened.
Shawna continued. “I know. It's surprising, huh? Since I said I'm 30 years following Jesus.” Latonya widened her eyes again and nodded her head. “I used to think I knew, but I took a step back when I saw Paul says we don't know how – at least not how to pray as we should.”
“Then why did you want me to pray? Why does anyone pray?”
“Why do you talk to your friends? Or your therapist? Or your doctor?”
Latonya leaned in. “Keep talking...”
“You don't always say everything right in your relationships, do you?” Latonya shook her head slowly. “But you try. You keep at it. You learn and your relationships get better. And usually you don't take what they say and run it through some grid of how to speak correctly. Prayer is relationship more than anything, and relationships are based mostly on relating, not perfection and not what you get out of them. So yeah it's better to pray better, but first we can just pray as we do know, and learn by following good examples – like the prayer Jesus taught.” She paused, then continued with a lilt in her voice, “Beyond that, to me it's sort of 'don't worry, be prayin'.'”
“Okay,” Latonya said, smiling, then looking down.
Shawna let it sink in a moment, then took a serious tone. “Now. Here's where it gets real. Are you ready?”
“Uh...you tell me,” Latonya said. The women who knew Shawna smiled...there was always something good coming when she talked about “real.”
Shawna continued, “Have you ever been so overwhelmed that you were speechless? Or so confused you couldn't form a coherent thought? Or so angry you probably shouldn't say anything? Or so broken and sad that words just seemed inadequate and useless?”
“Yeah. I just mumble and moan.” The air conditioning kicked on, blowing Latonya's hair lightly.
“Right, and Paul said the Holy Spirit takes over sort of where we leave off. The Spirit prays for us at this level beyond words. As if every cry and shout and angry outburst and punch of the pillow were not groans, but words...sentences. More than words. Images, or something, that speak thousands of words. Communication that you feel, rather than speak.”
“The Spirit does that?”
“Yeah, but hang on...I'm on a roll and this stuff's all connected. See because this Spirit-and-prayer bit comes at the tail end of a big switch from words to spirit. Paul says that when he centers on words – the letter of the law – he's like, 'Woe is me!' Instead, he says that because of Jesus, the place to find life and peace is by centering on the heart of things – a spiritual focus – led by the Holy Spirit. And to get to the deepest, most real things about us, how does the Spirit speak? Beyond words.”
Latonya's eyebrows squeezed together as she sought keep up with Shawna. She heard a small knock-knock sound as two women set their mugs on the table at nearly the same time.
Shawna grinned slyly. “And you know, we can speak deeper than words, too.”
“Well we can scream bloody murder.”
“Yeah...or dance under the stars. Or paint. Or sing. Make a movie. Write a story.”
“But a story is words.”
“And a good story goes beyond its words in its meaning and impact. Poetry even more so. The richest poems evoke deep emotions because they not only mean more than their words actually say, they say more than their words actually say. But you have to seek to get to the heart inside a work of art. We need eyes that see spiritually and ears that hear spiritually – that see artfully, beyond words. With an artful heart, we don't merely take in a poem or story or painting intellectually, but the nonverbal and emotional insights in the work become something of an experience that can more directly reach and change and actually remake us. This is not about 'being an artist' but rather only having eyes to see past the surface to the heart of things.”
“Hold on. That's just the way art works. All you're saying is that we can do art. I'm a painter and a filmmaker, and I don't need the Bible or Jesus to do art.”
Shawna widened her eyes and held up one finger, “Actually, I'm saying it the other way around. To get the deepest meaning and life from the Bible, we need artfulness. God is Creator: the Great Artist, the Grand Novelist. Jesus told stories – or else he just did stuff that was the story. He said very little in the way of theological propositions or explanations. His earthly life was a work of art. His way of being points us toward seeking the spiritual heart of things – beyond words – because that's much more powerful for life than dry theological exposition.”
Lights were coming on for Latonya. “Ahhh. It's the difference between someone seeing in my art only the technique and craft – the surface elements in one of my paintings or films – and them actually connecting with the heart of the matter for which I made it.”
“And all the better if someone has eyes to see and internalize your work at both levels. This is not about leaving the Bible's words behind, it's about starting from the foundation of the words and launching from there toward the heart of God. The words are a tutor, sort of – guardrails for our spirits – but they're not a master. You won't find God in the words, but rather through the words. You don't follow God by the words, but rather through the spirit inside the words. What we want is for the deepest heart of the Scriptures to be inscribed on our hearts. To God, writing on – changing – our hearts is the really joyous thing. And maybe we can partly put it into words, but there's no way to tie it all up with a bow.”
Latonya's face lit up. “That's why I'm an artist. I can't tie it all up with a bow. I don't have the words. But people are always asking me what message I'm sending in a painting or a film. It's like they don't want my art, they just wanna to boil it down to a one-liner, leaving behind all the richness of metaphor and allusion that I've crafted into the art. They seem frustrated when I say I painted it because I couldn't put it all into words.”
“Well...that's okay. They're okay. Everyone is on a journey toward the humility of faith; we can offer grace along the way. Artfulness is hard. People want to have the answers straight out. We like certainty rather than faith: simple explanations...black-and-white rules...things that seem complete on the surface. These feed our sense of control and our desire for comfort. Holding the knowledge tightly, we feel just a bit more like God. The surface is good, but there's more. Behind black-and-white, the deepest things of God are...” Shawna paused, raising her eyebrows with a dip of her chin.
“Beyond words,” Latonya said, picking up right where Shawna left off.
“When we are moored to a Scriptural foundation and leaning on the Holy Spirit for guidance, it's an artful, spiritual, approach to the Bible and God's heart that will access the deepest life and peace. It's about being focused on spiritual things – the heart of the matter – rather than on fleshly, letter-of-the-law obedience.
Latonya slowly nodded and smiled, looking around at the other women. An elderly woman with long, straight, silver hair looked Latonya in the eyes and said, “Welcome to our 'Spirit and Truth' gathering. It's like this all the time.”
Latonya looked back to Shawna. “So...shall I pray?”
For readers who would like to investigate the biblical underpinnings for this story, the following list of references provides a walkthrough of key touchpoints in roughly the order they first enter the story.