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Art of Lent

Finding our words with images.
Art of Lent
Image: Mandy Smith

I love words, but they’re not my first language.

Before we know one word, we know the world through instincts and emotions, memories and urges. We wince at sour, we giggle in the bath. Our first language is human experience.

As preachers, we always begin with the Word of Scripture. Thankfully it’s been translated into our spoken languages. But before it was Hebrew, Greek, or Contemporary English, it was the Word, a Word who knows how to exist before and beyond language, who is the first and last letter of the alphabet and everything beyond it. This Word became flesh, a Word beyond words. A Word who lived in our first language of human experience.

So how do we, as preachers with our limited medium of spoken words, communicate to beings whose experience is beyond words?

It’s a good thing that the Spirit who lived in that body of Christ and who inspired our written scriptures also lives in our bodies. It’s a good thing that that same Spirit understands the grunts and instincts, images and emotions that we knew before we could ever speak.

Romans 10:14 reminds us of the urgency and importance of our call to proclaim: “And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” Perhaps we could add: “How can we preach to them without finding the words to communicate such a transcendent truth!?” Since we have this pressing calling to tell this gospel, we’d better hone skills which enable us to communicate in words these deepest of human experiences.

Slow-Track and Fast-Track Thinking

Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder, in their book Rare Leadership describe two kinds of thinking. Slow-track thinking, which uses conscious thought and whose “primary job is to monitor results and provide explanations and solutions. . . .” And, secondly, the kind of thinking which is faster than conscious thought, whose

… primary job is relational reality. . . . It controls functions related to identity, motivation, emotional control, ability to focus, relational skills, care for others, conscience and values. . . Words are work for the slow track. The fast track observes what people are doing. . . . Awareness comes first because awareness is a fast-track activity.” (Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder, Rare Leadership: Uncommon Habits for Increasing Trust, Joy and Engagement in the People You Lead (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2016), pp. 26-27)

We’ve seen this already on the road to Emmaus. Somehow, two friends could walk and talk all day with their beloved Jesus, oblivious to his identity. But as they did, they had an awareness deeper than conscious thought, one that took time to find words. Finally, after eating with him, they recognized him and said, “Weren’t our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32) Their fast-track thinking was already recognizing his face and engaging in relationship well before their slow-track thinking finally put a name to the face.

As preachers, how can we embrace these realities of human awareness, both in our preparation of sermons and our presentation of them?

Creating Art to Find Words

My experience of Scripture and the daily life of following God sets up a resonance in me long before I understand or can put into words what I’m feeling or learning. A phrase from a Bible passage, a swell of a hymn, a sudden loss, an answer to prayer set up ripples in my heart that first become a facial expression, a feeling in my stomach, a desire to lean in or to flee. Something important is happening and I know I need to pay attention. But I can hardly explain it to myself, much less to anyone else.

This often draws me to my art supplies where the experiences know how to become colours, the feelings know how to hold a brush, how to move my hand across the paper. When I step back something has happened and with time I can explain what it was. The art becomes a part of a three-step process of meaning-making—the experience became an artwork which I can then describe in words. Most of the time I don’t share the art—it’s just what I need to do to figure out a sermon. But when it seems helpful, I share the art alongside the words the art has helped me find or I invite others into the art-making with me.

As we approached Ash Wednesday this year my heart was heavy with something I couldn’t name so I took an afternoon to create gel plate prints. (A very accessible print-making technique. Learn more here.)

As I made dozens of prints, I watched themes emerge—a seedpod shape, leaves and seeds, and the face of Jesus among them. It was only after the table was covered in drying pages that I saw the thread and understood how it tugged on something God was doing in me: I’d been remembering how some Australian plants need fire for their seedpods to open—life grows from devastation.

Now I knew why I’d been fascinated with seedpod shapes, why the colour palette was auburns and ochres. I knew at last this was all drawn together by Jesus’ words “unless a seed falls to the ground and dies . . . .” I knew now why there were little slashes of green on every page—a prayer in paint for life from death.

And then I knew what to preach.

Art Invites Exploration and Conversation

Finally, a possibility came to me: Why not share the art too? Not because it’s gallery-quality art but because it might be possible that the colours and images that helped me find the words might help others receive the words.

Inspired by the downloadable art shows that artist Scott Erickson makes available for churches to print and display, I wondered how to do something outside of our building.

Art doesn’t have to be stuffy or confusing or even indoors. Art invites exploration. For the same reason that art helps us process experiences, art also helps us share experiences. Where words can be divisive or exclusive, art can invite curiosity and conversation.

So I’ve created “Unless a Seed: A Pop-Up Mini Outdoor Art Event for Holy Week”—six posters to display on the outside wall of our church building for our neighbors to explore as they pass. Under each print will be a line or two of description and some invitations to engage: “Do you ever notice this in your life?” or “Look for seedpods throughout the art works.” Whatever the beliefs of those who stop to look, I pray that the story of Jesus might be engaging, provocative, winsome, surprising.

As preachers, every Sunday we feel the gravity of this message we proclaim and of our call to communicate it faithfully. The weight can feel even heavier as we share the story of Easter. How can our small words ever be enough to communicate the story of the ages. When the topic at hand is an unspeakable mystery, what a gift it is that in addition to human language, God has given us color and emotion, instinct and memory to make the story live!

May the story living in your preparations come alive in those who hear (and feel and experience) that Christ is risen indeed.


How do you process the deep things that don’t first reveal themselves in words?

When God’s doing something inexpressible in your life or through Scripture, how can movement, nature, conversation, sensory experiences, or creativity provide a way to find the words?

Is there a way you can share with your people not only the end product but the things you discover along the way?

Is there a way you can also invite them into your process and encourage them to experience the things of God that don’t first reveal themselves in words?

Editor’s Note: Be sure to check out Mandy’s video on her website, The Way Is the Way, to see all of the images in this series. She created a video for quiet reflection that includes her artwork from this series!

Mandy Smith is the pastor of St Lucia Uniting Church in Brisbane, Australia, and author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry and Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith Beyond the Baggage of Western Culture. Her latest book, Confessions of an Amateur Saint: The Christian Leader's Journey from Self-Sufficiency to Reliance on God, releases in October 2024. Mandy teaches for The Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination and Fuller Seminary. Learn more at www.TheWayIsTheWay.org.

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