“You need to pray the Psalms”
Those six words said around a lunch table at a chicken restaurant in Cincinnati, Ohio began a life changing transformation. In the midst of one of the most difficult periods of my congregational ministry, one of my prayer partners shared these six words that changed my life.
That night, I went home and read the familiar words of Psalm 1.
Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper (Psalm 1:1-3, NRSV)
As I read verse three specifically, I remembered a picture that I took at my favorite nature center here in Cincinnati. In this picture, I love the way that the trees all grow to the edges of the bank and the one tree shoots up from the lake. So, as I wrote about this Psalm in my journal, I printed a copy of that picture to include with my writing.
The next day, I read Psalm 2 and the final verse stood out to me:“Happy are all who take refuge in him.” I remembered a picture I took of an archway of 100+ year-old Live Oaks in South Carolina and was struck by how the branches just covered the entire drive – a refuge, like the hands of God reaching down and over us.
Photographing the Psalms
This journaling and photography process continued in the days to follow and I began one of the most spiritually rich periods of my life. From January 16 through July 5, 2014, I worked my way through all 150 Psalms (including breaking down Psalm 119 into the different sections rather than treating it just as one).
Each day, I read the Psalm in the morning and then spent the day being mindful of receiving an image that represented what I heard in the Psalm. I had only one rule: it had to be one of my pictures. I couldn’t just use Google images. I had to take it that day or have taken it in the past. Some days, an image came immediately to mind, other days required me to search for the image, sometimes going the whole day before I felt like I had captured the “right one.” Some days I started out with an idea in my heart and mind and then had it changed when something happened later in the day.
This was a transformative experience because it caused me to see the Psalms throughout my day. It wasn’t just a short period in the morning where I read and then moved on to other things; the Psalm stayed with me throughout the day. A similar thing occurred as I finished the Psalms and moved on to Mark and then to Romans. The practice also helped me to engage my emotions as well as my intellect. I had to continually ask the question, what does this passage really mean for me today?
For many, images evoke emotions far more than intellectual pursuits. This process pushed me to explore what God was leading me to feel in the Scriptures and not just think about what it might be saying. I began to experience God not only in the “traditional” images – crosses, light, stained glass, and so on, but also in a bookrack at Walgreens, in objects I found on the sidewalk, in my children’s Legos and other toys, in nature, in times of blessing and beauty and also in times of sorrow and tragedy.
This process impacted me in a way that I am still working to understand, but it also had an impact on others. I started posting more general reflections on the passage and the image on my blog – imagoscriptura.com – as well as starting to integrate them into the worship and community life of the congregation. I began to hear from people I knew and from strangers around the world who found my blog and were touched by the images and reflections. Along the way, I reconnected with a colleague from South Dakota who was beginning to do a similar project, not just on her own, but with a community of other believers – exploring Scripture and life “Through the Lens” as they sought to practice Visio Divina – using photography to deepen their individual and communal faith.
History of Scripture Art
These practices are not new. In fact, the use of images for devotional and educational practices go back a long ways. In Scripture, one needs only read through sections of the Torah to see how imagery was used to help reinforce who God was for the people. In the architecture, design, and craft of the tabernacle, the temple, the vestments, the Ark of the Covenant, and many other items, visual art was at the forefront. While the commandment to not make graven images was still very much en force, creating visual art to help direct people to the power and majesty of God was clearly acceptable.
Moving into the history of the church, Margaret Miles quotes John of Genoa’s Catholicon in her book regarding the use of images in the church:
Know that there were three reasons for the institution of images in churches. First, for the instruction of simple people, because they are instructed by them as if by books. Second, so that the mystery of the incarnation and the examples of the saints may be more active in our memory through being presented daily to our eyes. Third, to excite feelings of devotion, these being aroused more effectively by things seen than by things heard.[i]
Through stained glass, sculpture, and painting, the church sought to educate a largely- illiterate populace. These art forms, both in the past and in the present, inspire others with the story of the Scriptures. While some branches of the Reformation sought to rid the church of all forms of imagery, the acceptance of imagery in the church received a revival in the 20th century and into the 21st.
Eileen Crowley, in her book Liturgical Art for a Media Culture, details the engagement that the church had in the early 1900s with emerging forms of media and technology – cinema, photography, and projection. She speaks of revivalists, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches using “moving pictures of a religious nature” as a part of their worship experiences.[ii] While the remainder of the 20th Century brought about a great deal of back and forth in the church in its acceptance of visual imagery, a wider acceptance came as more congregations began using multimedia in worship and “emergent” churches began creating worship spaces filled with various kinds of artwork. Solomon’s Porch in St Paul, Minnesota, for example, decorates the walls with artwork created by participants in the congregation. The story of the Gospel and the experience of God shine out from these pieces of art. The community is interpreting the Word even before words are spoken.
God and Photography
A contemporary practice of this is being enacted in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. A new faith community funded by the Presbyterian Church (USA) 1001 New Worshipping Communities initiative has sought to put this into regular practice. In her book, Eyes of the Heart, Christine Valters Paintner shares the inspiration for this new Through the Lens community of how they experience God through photography.
Rather than “taking” photos or “shooting” them or even “making” photos, we will practice “receiving” images as gift. The traditional words for photography are possessive and aggressive. Yet the actual mechanism of photography is that light is reflected off of a subject and received by the camera through the lens opening. We can create conditions for a “good” photo, but ultimately we must stand in a posture of receiving and see what actually shows up in the image.[iii]
The emphasis in this group process is on the “reception” of the image. Cathy Newcomb, the founder of the TTL Community describes it in this way:
We gather and share introductions if there are new members. We then move to a brief lesson/talk about the spiritual aspect of our monthly theme (Themes have included The Apostles Creed, Images of God, Gratitude, and Worthy/Unworthy). We close with prayer and then dismiss to go on a 30-40 minute photo walk – usually as individuals. I challenge people to keep the theme in mind as they walk. I encourage people to listen to the Holy Spirit lead them to “receive” a photograph. Our “camera lens coffee cup” is left on the table to receive offering as people leave/return from their walk. We return again and take turns sharing a particular photo that had meaning to us. We pass the camera/ipad/phone around as the individual explains the story behind the image. This is where we hear about how God is revealing Himself to people. A lot of insight and connections between God and everyone around the table happens during this time. We close again with prayer as we leave to contemplate the sharings of the day.
There is very little required for such a group to get started – just people bringing their own devices (camera, phone, tablet) and a heart to see what God is going to speak into their lives.
But even if one doesn’t have a community like TTL, this is a practice that can be entered into as an individual or with family members. My own personal practice follows.
I read the passage or section when I wake in the morning. After spending time praying over what the Spirit is saying to me through the reading, I sometimes will have a direction in mind, while at other times it is far from clear. I try to return to the passage several times throughout the day, either just reflecting back on the theme or actually re-reading it (electronic Bibles and books help greatly with this). Throughout the day, I look for how that passage is reflected in what I see around me. I look for what image I am going to “receive” as Paintner wrote. As shared previously, there are times that I have an idea in mind as the day begins only to have that change as the day proceeds. What I receive is often different from what I expected.
One example of this came with the following image. My reading was Mark 10:1-12 – Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce, including verse 9, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” My initial plan was to take a picture of my wife and my hands and write about our 14 years of marriage. That day, however, I was called to visit a couple from our congregation – Betty and John. Betty had just been admitted to hospice care. As I walked in, I saw they were sitting on the couch holding hands. As we talked, I was reminded that they had just celebrated their 63rd anniversary. I immediately knew that my initial leading was correct – hands of a married couple linked together – but it was a different set of hands. I asked their permission to get a picture of their hands for part of my project as it captured the text so perfectly. This picture became a core part of their experience of their final months of Betty’s life. I was simply the recipient of this image.
The ubiquitousness of cameras today (virtually everyone has one in their pocket on their phones) and the ease of sharing photos makes this a practice that can help us experience God in radically new ways. It helps move us beyond merely intellectualizing a reading to feeling what a passage says to us. It allows us to receive something from the Spirit in ways that we never have before. This has been a transformative process for me and I believe it will continue to be as I seek to practice each day.