Every week, I ask our church community what’s helping them get through the pandemic. As a minister, the answers I receive sometimes smack of that old joke from Sunday school where every answer is “Jesus!” no matter what the kids might first think. And, honestly, that answer is correct. For every Christian (I hope), Jesus is getting us through this.
But what exactly does that look like?
It’s not a newsflash that our scriptures, and particularly the Psalms, speak to us in times of distress. The deep and often raw expression of human emotion draws us in. The poetry of God’s official songbook impacts us, just as it has for every generation before.
What is often surprising though is that God might speak to us not only through God’s inspired word but also through creation and the work of his image in us. Painting expresses emotion words cannot. Poetry does what prose can never accomplish. A picture can speak a thousand words; an action can preach a sermon. The books we read, the music we listen to, films we watch and memes we flip through on social media all play essential roles in our faith formation in times of trial.
As you step outside to soak up some much-needed vitamin D, do you take time to notice the architecture, sculptures, advertisements? The painting that is our sky, the clouds, the trees? Is it only faith-based films that speak God’s truth, or the canon of scripture that has something to say?
From the moment COVID-19 gripped our lives, followers of Jesus have found creative ways to be a church of disciples when Sunday attendance was suddenly no longer possible. The church doors were thrown open, and the Church – the people – was thrown into the mission field.
In some ways, that mission field was viewed in the traditional sense. People sewed masks, donated food, and brought groceries to infected and isolated neighbours. But I believe God has been present in other ways.
Art Imitates Life
The pandemic’s early days began with many delving into the culinary arts. Table fellowship became a focus. People became experimental and creative. They baked bread, tried their hand at sourdough and made their own communion elements. Perhaps not surprisingly, people also began revealing a lot of new hairstyles. Often individuals try to control the things they can when other things seem out of their control. We dye our hair or style it differently. We seek out connection and communication with dress and other visual forms of expression. Pyjama pants with suit jackets have been a hit during zoom meetings. We are all artists, whether we realize it or not and when we are not making art, we are interacting with it. It is part of how we commune with God and God’s creation. Art is diverse; the expression of thought and the analysis of human meaning through creative imagination.
So we try our hands at picking new paths, gardening, and designing new views for ourselves. Try finding a contractor this past year! It seems everyone is busy renovating the place where they live, work and play. People have been list-making and goal-setting despite lost jobs and a slower pace; gone golfing to find peace; added writing and reading to their daily schedule. We have been maintaining the simple things like getting up at the same time each day and shopping online for new “loungewear.”
We immerse ourselves in the things we look at, value, watch, listen to and create. God speaks to us in a variety of ways if we listen and engage.
Friends and colleagues have attempted all manner of artistic endeavour, often not realizing they’re doing so. They make memes for Facebook as a way of commenting on the world around them. People find strength in presenting a public voice and joining online communities. Others use retail therapy – and it’s important to note that many have been buying creative supplies for things that can be considered artistic: acrylic paints, watercolours, puzzles, pet clothes, exercise bands, books, and video games to play with friends worldwide. We hold online birthday parties, zoom reunions and visit relatives from behind protective glass. We find ourselves singing songs to each other, learning to play those old dust-covered instruments we bought back when we were overly busy and well-intentioned. Feeling that she had become “snippy” with loved ones, one acquaintance resurrected her lost art of writing poetry. Morning devotions and daily prayer have been the key for many, often trying out new kinds of study and ways of praying. Wisdom literature and the multitude of complex emotions unveiled in the Psalms give our inarticulate and aphonic souls a voice.
Music Soothes the Savage Soul
Songs, both old and new, break the monotony. For some, it might be Bob Dylan’s “When You Gonna Wake Up”, or Johnny Cash’s “Ain’t No Grave.” Then again, maybe it’s Linkin Park’s “What I’ve Done” or Justin Beiber’s “Jesus’s Love.” For those dealing with a bit of extra anxiety, perhaps Christian metal is part of your answer. RED’s “Release the Panic” could feel like a God-send to some and is in many ways a modern recapturing of Psalm 127. Some find peace when singing along to old sea shanties. Old, familiar hymns are finding new life as well.
Just like the viral video of Italians singing to one another across their balconies at the start of the pandemic, we all yearn for the liturgy of shared words and everyday shared experience. The world is the church as people honestly seek out meaning in new ways. Online sites like GodTube, filled solely with “family-friendly” content, can do us good. Recognizing the negative impact of that old publishing adage, “if it bleeds, it leads,” these people found a way to share the trustworthy but often maligned good news that too often gets missed. The Good News Network has put out nearly 20,000 positive and uplifting videos for people to view, share and discuss. As a result, Christians now have even more “good news” to share.
The visual arts, including films, memes, political cartoons and paintings, capture the imagination and stir up our blood. Drama and prose, poetry and dance are everywhere. I have built my own mini distillery and tried my hand at making whiskey. I plan to make my own communion wine this year. Woodworking and knitting are other great examples of being productive and creative. We have ordered Uber Eats and tried new things and been pleasantly surprised. We have been challenged by the book White Fragility, and its many implications. When COVID-19 first began, I found myself ordering Stephen King’s highly theologically reformed mini-series, The Stand. I also made it through most of the classic novel 1984 before becoming a little too disenfranchised with news and politics. I started out listening to Barry McGuire’s 1965 masterpiece “Eve of Destruction”, though I feel that McGuire’s song requires Lecrae’s “Just Like You” to reveal its full meaning.
The Art of Learning
Podcasts have filled our ears while walking our streets with nothing much else to do. I have gone through nearly 100 hours of the Bible Project, which, though far from perfect, is wonderfully brilliant. Opportunities for old-school learning (in a new-world way) is also growing in popularity, with universities like Harvard offering free online education for those seeking personal growth. (Be sure to check their online catalogue!)
If watching Tiger King wasn’t your thing, the Guggenheim and the Louvre are offering free online tours. And if you’ve never listened to Ira Glass, it’s probably time. This American Life will spawn spiritual discussions galore. As always, God has some surprises for us. The creativity of the Creator has given talent to so many. Randy Newman wrote that silly “Stay Away” song (check it out on YouTube) about hand-washing and mask-wearing. Netflix has An Interview with God, and it’s well worth your time and reflection.
If you love otherwise ridiculous and dark adult cartoons, you’ve likely been enjoying that even they have waded into more serious content. The series BoJack Horseman, for example, is a dire warning about loneliness and all the misguided ways people will attempt to control their universe. The Good Place offers viewers a stunning picture of faith and ethics. Messiah shines with numerous opportunities for Christian reflection, and so does Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt with her child-like optimism.
From Facebook posts to TikTok dances, to the brilliantly comedic Kim’s Convenience, to old Veggie Tales episodes, Roblox, Facetime or watching Bob Ross before bed, the arts repeatedly highlight stories of life and faith, and invite a response. My youngest son falls asleep each night while listening to Hillsong United’s “Oceans,” singing along, “Where feet may fail, and fear surrounds me, You have never failed, and you won’t start now!” Like David in the books of Samuel, music soothes the savage soul. The arts, when combined with faith, bring a calm embrace or a jab to our sensibilities. The truth is, we are surrounded by God’s handiwork. And the handiwork of God’s handiwork is even more present. The thing is, it’s all helpful to us as we navigate the confusion, frustration and loneliness of this pandemic. Exactly how much or how often or what God is actually saying to us through the arts is another question. I guess it depends upon how much time the sheep spend getting to know the Shepherd’s voice in order to hear it clearly. And now I’m back to that old Sunday school answer. How are we getting through this? Well, a lot of ways. But the main one, the one that makes all the others possible, that answer is still, “Jesus.”