Last Sunday, we opened our pool.
Now make no mistake this is not a fancy in-ground pool.
This is a 4ft deep, above ground blow-up pool that I bought at Big Lots two summers ago for $150 – so that my daughter who is a swimmer could stay sane and still swim (with a tether tied around her waist and anchored to a tree… I think she did that twice).
Anyway – it’s become over the past two summers a spot for my teenage son – and his many, many teenage boy friends to congregate, to cool off. Which mostly looks like them trying to drown each other, and do dangerous running flips into the pool.
But there’s this one kid in the bunch, Sadon – who, when given the chance, will just float, quietly in the pool…for long, long periods of time! This week my son Reed, was out of school with a high fever (for four of the five days) – but at some point in one of those afternoons I looked out the window and there was Sadon – alone in the pool, quiet, floating on his back, eyes closed. “JEEZ, Sadon!!”
And I went to run out back and say, “how long have you been here, child?!” “Do you want to say hi to Reed?”
But the Spirit of God nudged me to take a minute. And I watched him – wondering if he was breathing – because he was so still. But I watched his chest rise and fall – long steady, deep breaths, so at peace… his face still so animated, so full of life, so child-like, so alive. Tears filled my eyes.
Realizing how much I had been holding my breath, how shallow my breath had been since the news of Uvalde, TX … how much I had been holding my breath since the weekend before with Buffalo, California, and Dallas’ shootings…realizing how much I’ve been holding my breath over the past two years. And just how long it’s been since I felt simultaneously that alive-full of breath, and that at peace – like Sadon.
So today – I’m going to invite us to wonder together,
“What would it be like to have Jesus breathe life into us?”
Into the spots of us that are so heartbroken, fractured, splintered – weary. And to press in with the Spirit of God to ask how this breath of God – could not only be a balm to the aching – but be the stirring of a resurrection of sorts. Where “new” life could be made. Where we could be animated enough to participate in the new creation, imagining new dreams, new ways of healing this world – when often it feels like this world relentlessly threatens to kick the wind out of us at every turn.
We technically ended our spring series of “Healing the World” last week – but I wanted to add some additional thoughts this week, a little Coda.. a little p.s. to that series. In a way that I hope can be some oxygen to our souls.
I want to talk about how God inspires all of us to be makers of this new creation, this beloved community. How we’ve been given by our great Maker – artistic and creative ways to heal this world – that are central, necessary and essential. I’m going to highlight two artists to minister and inspire us – a local artist by the name of Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs and also an international Japanese artist, Makoto Fujimara. Along with accompanying scripture – one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament.
Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the assurance of what we don’t see. And our vision is to continue to create the kin-dom of God, which is not yet in full view. It will take all of us as makers to grasp that imagination and creativity is essential, central and necessary in this journey of faith… and essential to return to the breath of God so that we in turn can breathe this life and healing, into the world around us.
Prayer: Spirit of God, could you breathe new life into us? Please, God – breathe new life into us.
I’d love to start with Scripture, because the Bible itself is really a work of art.
“The Bible is a collection of texts, not one text, written over fifteen hundred years, in three languages, and from very different political and cultural contexts and it records the dialogue between God and God’s people. It also records the dialogues among
God’s people. It is not meant to be a source by which people arrive at one right answer – for all people across all time.” (Thanks, Steve Watson and David Gushee)
The Bible invites us to enter into the art of our faith – of story, and expression, story-telling and the creative – breath-filled-Spirit-filled application to our present day lives, with poetry and song, and imagination!
All throughout scripture we are offered story after story of the makers and ancestors of our faith.
- Bezalel and Oholiab were two men who constructed the Ark of the Covenant- tabernacle, the dwelling place of God.
- Miriam, who helped rescue Moses at the Nile River, led the Hebrew women in singing, dancing, and playing drums after crossing the Red Sea.
- Shiphrah and Puah were two Nubian midwives who creatively and subversively disobeyed Pharaoh’s command to kill the Israelite male newborns.
- The eunuch as I mentioned last week, is one who makes a way for the follower of Jesus to be enlivened and stretched by the very message he himself hopes to give.
- The fishermen, the textile workers, the ones who make salves for lepers sores.
And on and on I could go – right? This is just a meager sampling of the abundance of makers that Scripture beholds. And all of them:
- Make way for more of God’s spirit to be encountered.
- Make way for breathing more life into people, neighborhoods and beyond.
And you might think – well I can’t build a Tabernacle, or an ark – or sing or dance – or really have the energy for much of anything creative these days. Do you see these days? It’s chaos. Void of anything that looks like it could be shaped into something helpfully new.
And I hear that – and I think we might be helped by starting at the beginning in Genesis:
1When God began to create the heavens and the earth—
2 the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters—
3 God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared.
4 God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness.
5 God named the light Day and the darkness Night. (Genesis 1: 1-5)
The Scriptures open with a depiction of God breathing over cosmic chaos. We read it was formless, barren, and darkness was over the surface of the deep (noting that darkness isn’t a description of something evil, but rather of something absent), and yet God’s wind/ in other translations…
God’s “Spirit” sweeps and blankets the sea. The Hebrew word for Spirit is Ruach, which can also mean “Breath.” So God’s breath, even before words are uttered, is the substance by which creation is brought into existence.
It primes the canvas of our own lives.
And by faith the universe was created – by God so that the visible came into existence from the invisible. (Hebrews 11: 3)
And as we continue in Genesis:
…the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life. (Genesis 2:7 )
God places God’s breath within us.
God’s breath is the source and the sustenance of human life.
And here we have the unassuming template of how to create, of how to embrace our “maker-hood.”
- A backdrop of chaos.
- A lot of unworkable components.
- And the breath of God.
This is big.. God is saying
“anything and everything around you”
is possible for this New creation as you and the breath of the God move together.
Well, I’d love to introduce you to a favorite local artist of mine, Rob Gibbs – his artist name is ProBlak – who inspires and ministers to me, and who has worked this template of creation to the T.
If you’ve been around for a little bit you know that historically we have annually taken a church-wide retreat – often to a seaside location that allows you to immediately sink into beauty and retreat.
Because of the pandemic we obviously couldn’t do that. So we created a “Retreat Into Your City” in 2020- an invitation to explore the beloved community that we inhabit. And so we created an 80-page booklet of street art/public free accessible murals that are all over greater Boston/Cambridge/Somerville, complete with Visio Divina like spiritual practices that invited you to engage the Spirit of God, the breath of God as you toured the history, the stories, the life that is in the bones of our cities and neighborhoods – and also the legacy and vision that many of these artists have brought to life and have been doing so for a very very long time.
“ProBlak” is featured in this booklet – he’s a Roxbury native and lives in Dorchester – he’s a street artist, walls are his canvas – as much as the communities and the people that make them up. He’s been making, creating for the past 30 years.
The thing about public street art is that it was always meant to be transgressive, healing and accessible for all. The canvas of our day-to-day dwelling places becomes the stage by which artists speak against injustices; gentrification, poverty, racism, and failures of the modern world structure.
It reminds me of the verse in Acts that says,
“God who made the world and everything in it – doesn’t live in temples…”
With the spirit of God, our streets, our buildings, our landscapes – speak to us. And street art is a vessel by which many have found their voice, in a society that silences theirs. ProBlak says,
“we were empowered as street artists to make a mark on a world that was determined to forget us. We didn’t see ourselves in museums or galleries. But we saw ourselves represented on the walls of our city.”
ProBlak’s work is a part of restoration and mending and healing – but it also is creating something new as we engage with it.
ProBlak was commissioned about five years ago to create three works of art throughout Boston that became a series called, “Breathe Life”…
I want to share all three of these pieces of work, and tell you a little bit about them. As well as a new one that is a work in progress (that you should go see!).
The first one, “Breathe Life, 1” (2017) is located in Dorchester
More than just a title, Breathe Life is a philosophy, meant to share energy, and positivity, and lift-up images that reflect the community back to itself. ProBlak paints little Black boys and girls larger than life with love and power. In a world where Black children are brutalized by authorities in school, overly punished, and adultified, it’s important they see themselves cherished by their communities. (www.nowandthere.org/breathelife)
It’s important they be heard.
And so this is the backdrop of this mural.
Breathe Life, 1
ProBlak said that, “The need to place positive messaging in the community is just more than standing on a soapbox...when I did “Breathe Life”, it was a calling. It came from me wanting to talk to people and suggesting, instead of downplaying something (an idea, a change in the community, a dream), suggesting
“how about you breathe life into it?”
So here’s a young boy breathing into a tiny house… Maybe it’s a picture of what if his dreams, wild ideas, his talents, what he touches could breathe life into his home… into his community – what kind of fantastical world could it create? And the conversation this produces with us, the viewers, is not a passive one. It’s asking us how we can empower, make space, and lift up ideas – this boy – his creativity.
Breathe Life, 2
Madison Park Technical Vocational School – ProBlak’s alma mater… (2020) – Roxbury
The subject of the mural, a little Black girl with sneakers blowing bubbles.
This mural holistically became a backdrop for the May protests in 2020, in Roxbury that erupted in response to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
“It wasn’t what I did,”
“but it’s what [the Spirit of God breathed life into], it represented how everybody felt connected to it in those moments.”
This mural is visible for miles, most notably the nearby police headquarters station.
“At a time when my people cannot breathe, I’m asking us to always ‘Breathe Life.’ Writers and artists [and makers] – are more necessary than ever because we are able to get the message of anger, pain, and healing out with art,”
Gibbs said. (https://gregcookland.com/wonderland/2020/07/05/rob-gibbs-problak/)
Breathe Life, 3 – Roxbury 2019
To Gibbs, graffiti is a contemporary form of hieroglyphics, a timeless way to connect to the world, a way in which knowledge is shared, by telling – the art of – communal stories.
“Breathe Life 3” highlights a girl, sporting two cosmic Afro puffs, sitting jubilantly on the shoulders of an older boy. Both have wide and infectious smiles. Together, their hands read “Breathe Life” in American Sign Language. The children don’t represent any particular children – but they represent the vast possibilities of youth and innocence.
In street art,
“you’re told that black is a color you should stay away from,”
“I’m using it in a different context. It’s not the absence of space. It’s to open up into a different universe.” (www.wbur.org/news/2019/06/05/rob-problak-gibbs-boston-now-and-there)
And we return full circle to the beginning where God utilized darkness to create. As Lisa Sharon Harper says it’s important to note that God does not obliterate the darkness; rather, God names it”- and creates light, light that gives it shape. This allows a whole universe to open up – and be filled.
All throughout the Old Testament we see the breath/the spirit of God be regarded as life – particularly in Job and the Psalms – but I want to mention the story in Ezekiel that I think is relevant to Rob Gibb’s work.
In the story of Ezekiel we see how the breath of God calls to life, enlivens and animates where only death looks certain. Ezekiel is brought to a valley of dry bones… and it says he
“looked and tendons and flesh appeared on them, and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them” (37:8).
The full animation of the lifeless bones occurs only when the breath of God flows within.
“So, he prophesied as God commanded, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet, in extraordinarily large company.”
The Spirit of God animates and enlivens us.
Rob ProBlak Gibbs has been prophesying for 30 years. I refer to him as a spiritual art-ivist. He’s been calling to life neighborhoods that have been regarded as destitute – and forgotten, people that have been unseen, unheard. He’s been trying to gather bones of communities and people – putting them back together .. mural by mural . . . encouragement by encouragement.
His work is always for the greater call. The flourishing of a people and community. He says that
“if you define community as the thing that you have in your heart, the thing that walks around with you, then the idea – the dreams you have expand and become more real.”
This seems apparent in his most recent work called “Breathe Life Together” – it’s a prophetic title. One not realized, yet.
Breathe Life Together | Rose Kennedy Greenway
In the center of Boston – just outside of South Station, in the center of the financial district, the seaport, chinatown and Ink Block there is a square, called Dewey Square – it’s part of the Rose Kennedy Greenway…and there’s this large 76-foot tall Department of Transportation building right in the middle, that has over the last many years had a rotation, every 18 months of a new mural.
All of them have been international based artists. World-renowned, big artists.
Rob Gibbs is the first Black Boston-native artist to be commissioned and his new work is presently being made.
I went down to the Greenway this past week for lunch, with a friend and neighbor. Hoping to catch him in the midst of painting – watching people create is so spiritual! Luckily ProBlak also wanted to break for lunch and he came down off the crane/bucket and we ended up talking for 30 minutes or so – about this work, his vision for Boston and his dreams for his daughter (of whom this mural is a rendering of).
The mural centers a girl rising out of the grass, naturally and with true belonging. She faces the neighborhoods which root her community, surrounded by the inspiration and culture of generations that came before her.. This girl asks us to join the conversation about the past, present and future of our communities in Boston – reminding us what we can do together. (rosekennedygreenway.org)
As I was talking to ProBlak he said, you know if you break open the word, “Together” – by syllable – you’ll notice it’s a calling…. “to-get-her”…. He said, Boston needs to-get-her, needs to know her, value her, uplift her …. To be able to breathe life together,
“As you can see she’s crouching in this mural… Can you imagine if she were to stand up? How extraordinarily large she would be? As tall as these skyscrapers.”
“So, he prophesied as God commanded, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet, in extraordinarily large company.” (Ezekiel 37:10)
How can we breathe life? How can we breathe life to empower our communities, enliven ourselves, this girl? Unto her full standing stature?
ProBlak makes murals for sure… but he also makes conversations on a deep and on a wide scale. He makes the unseen, seen… he makes an invisible force – like breath become visible. Powerful. Animating. And healing.
Ok – let’s go back to my friend, Sadon in our pool.
When I finally went out to see Sadon the other day at the pool, I said “hey there – whatcha doing, how’s the water?” And he slowly opened his eyes – not startled at all – and he took a deep breath and said, “I’m making peace with my day.”
He wasn’t just floating – he was making.
Making peace with all that had occurred, acknowledging the parts that weren’t amazing. His overall disdain for school, his own sense of being unseen… the yucky school lunch…. And he just needed a moment to attend to the parts of him that were cracked, before he moved on with whatever was ahead.
How wise! I mean really – think of all the things that are leaving you with cracks these days…
You know about six Sundays ago – we started off this series – with a participatory liturgy that bridged our Lenten season with this new one.
And we offer these multi-sensory, participatory services twice a year to allow the artistry of who we are as makers to be the mode by which we experience any learning or healing .
In these services there is a noticeable value on the economy of words and an emphasis on a multitude of inroads to encounter and experience the Spirit of God. We had gutters, loads of water, hundreds of pieces of tissue paper, gold strips, and Ruby Sales’ voice asking us “where does it hurt?” and “what is the balm you need and can offer?” And we put out these components to see what could be created. So much of a participatory liturgy is ART – is a risk, a guess, an experiment.
What we created were these six canvases on the walls of our Sanctuary.
The blue shades of tissue paper named our cracks/ our pain/ our hurts…
And the gold strips were inscribed with “words of balm”, that we had intuited by the Spirit of God.
It hadn’t been in the intentional design of the framework of the liturgy but it was clear that these canvases represented the art tradition of Kintsugi.
I want to end by talking about the artist Makoto Fujimura and this Japanese Kintsugi method. (author of Theology of Making, Art & Faith).
“In Japan one of the many honored cultural traditions is the tea ceremony. For centuries, there have been tea masters who perform them to visualize the invisible, as a spiritual and artistic practice. When precious tea bowls break, the families of tea masters will often keep the broken bowls for generations and later have them mended by artisans who use this lavish technique known as Kintsugi. Kintsugi masters mend tea bowls with Japanese lacquer and gold. A bowl mended with gold is more valuable than the original tea bowl was before it broke. The Kintsugi tradition ancient it goes back to the 16th-century — but Kintsugi also offers us a vision for our times in America.
By asking – what does it look like in a culture that’s actually just really broken?
The Japanese word Kin means “gold,” and Tsugi means “mend,” but Tsugi also means “to link the generations together.” (So much of ProBlak’s work does this as well.)
I watched at the participatory liturgy as people scooped piles of wet tissue paper from the streams of water in the center of the room… Tissue paper that named all of the hurt, the broken pieces in us – and carried them to these canvases… and tenderly placed the gold strips directly over the hurts. I hadn’t imagined it – enacted like that – I thought people would lay the gold stripes side by side or a little haphazard – but it was as if “you,” as makers – knew that attention to these sufferings, might somehow create something new – that was more tender, and more healing by going right to those hurts…
Following his resurrection, Jesus came and stood among the fearful disciples. He said,
“Peace be with you.”
After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side -And Jesus said to them again,
“Peace be with you.”
And then he breathed on them and said,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.”
The Spirit of God breathes and creates new life.
This feels unimaginable (in times of where we are so wounded)… the disciples earnest thoughts at that time could have been…
“BUT OUR GOD IS DEAD.”
And today, we look around and see so much fracturing – division, threat, death…
As makers we know that there will also be many who tell us that something is impossible, or something is impractical, or that we ought to do something pragmatic. But Makoto says,
“artists are border-stalkers — they imagine the world beyond, and invoke abundance in their midst, even when their resources look barren,”
even when our greatest resource – God – feels far, far away. (www.makotofujimura.com/writings/kintsugi-generation)
Makoto offered a 17th-century Kintsugi bowl to the students of Columbine — at the 20th anniversary of the tragedy… remembering also Nickel Mines, Virginia Tech and Newtown, and now I would imagine the 27 school shootings of this year, including Uvalde, TX.
He calls this generation at Columbine – a Kintsugi generation that had come together in their trauma and pain…where a new era formed – a river of gold flowing out of the fissures. (www.abc.net.au/religion/kintsugi-and-columbines-makoto-fujimura/13286394)
Where these young survivors became leading voices of love and action and voice. Not “fixed”, not removed of grief – but the wounds being a part of the new creation…
Jesus’s post-resurrection body has the nail marks which means that the fractures and and the trauma is carried into the new creation, where we are offered breath and light – and a way forward for healing.
Let us not forget that we are pinched of clay, that God’s breath enlivens us, animates us, and shines like gold through us to create new. So as we go about our days, may we remember that our lives are a work of art – a work in progress – but oh so powerful.
May you greet those who mourn, those who are persecuted and those who are poor in spirit – and let the light shine through your cracks unto something new. Let your lives, your making – say,
“let there be….something more than what is seen,”
“let there be light…”
“let there be peace…”
An offering of something new in a divided time — a gesture of hope for those in despair.
God does not hold God’s breath.
God constantly breathes, constantly moves… guiding the spray can up the wall, your voice in conversation, the slight wiggle of the fingers just enough to stay afloat and find peace in a pool.
Scripture begins with Creation and ends with a New Creation. Everywhere in between God has given us – the ones who have broken hearts, fissures of grief and fractures – our broken vessels – God’s given us the breath to create and make. May we do the Kintsugi work, the art of resurrection each and every day. .. as we move about the walls and streets of our neighborhoods.