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Friday, March 14, 2008

Naked Mary

Many years ago when I was pastoring in California we celebrated Christmas Eve at the church by inviting some artists to paint live during a Christmas Eve service. Since then, art in church and live art have become commonplace for me but back then it was groundbreaking.

On this particular evening, a young woman who had recently joined the ranks of artists at the church, and had recently joined the church for that matter, told me about her plan for painting that evening—she was going to paint the Virgin Mary pregnant with the Christ child.

She was so excited to paint. She was glowing. She had recently begun following Jesus and this was a way for her to get involved in the ministry of the church in the only way she knew how. Her gentle spirit was contagious. She made everyone feel so special. She had recently found a family at our church and was ready to take this big step.

The string of Christmas Eve services began with a packed house—as always. Our Christmas Eve services were very family oriented—all the children with the parents—lots of singing—enough tradition to make everyone happy and enough rock to stay real.

The music was flowing. Voices were singing out. The season was ripe. Laughter. Tears. The painters were painting away and eyes were fixed on the awakening canvases.

I looked over at my friend and saw her painting away—pouring herself into her work. I was so proud of her. Pregnant Mary was taking shape.

Lots of shapes.

Shapes I hadn’t anticipated. Like the bare breast.

I didn’t get the naked part in the description.

Not that I had a problem with a naked Mary. But, I knew someone would.

The evening went on and I didn’t think too much about it. My friend was so proud. I was so proud.

I had a talk with our senior pastor right after the service and he asked me to remove the painting. His rationale was that it was a family service and that some families may not appreciate naked Mary. I talked it over with the artist and she understood. We put the painting in the back room.

At least ten people came up after the service and asked to purchase it. They loved it.

Fast-forward : : :

A couple of days later there was a letter to the editor in the paper from a disturbed woman who visited the church the night of the painting.

She rambled and ranted for an entire page on how it was appalling that our church was promoting pornography. She complained about her children having to see nipples. She also complained about the coffee.

My poor friend was crushed. She had mustered up courage, ignored her fears, stood up in front of 2000 people, made her offering, and was crucified. Here she was, a young believer with a new found passion getting an all too real taste of what it is like to be in the ministry limelight at times. It didn’t seem fair.

When we talked about the letter together, my friend made me laugh. “It’s not like these 13 year old boys have never seen a boob before” she said. “I mean, it’s not like I painted her hootchie.”

I was angry because this same woman who wrote the letter would probably have high-tailed it to see the David if I paid her way to Florence.

The next Sunday in church was one of the most powerful leadership moments I have ever witnessed. My senior pastor (who was and is by no means an art lover, aficionado, or even supporter) stood in front of the congregation and read the letter from the paper. He read it and then addressed the crowd : : :

On Christmas Eve, a young woman who is part of our family painted a beautiful painting. She hasn’t done this kind of thing in church before. She is a fairly new follower of Jesus. She was very passionate about her painting of Mary—pregnant with the Savior—womb glowing.

Yes, this was a family service. Yes, we usually don’t paint naked paintings. Yes, it may have been inappropriate for the time and the audience.

But if it was a mistake, it was a mistake of passion. And, I will defend and go down with the ship for a mistake of passion.

This lesson has marked me for life.

I am not afraid to make mistakes if they are mistakes of passion. I am not afraid to fail if I do so passionately. I will defend our church and our staff for any mistakes of passion. I will silence those who dare accuse the passionate in their pursuit of God. I pray for passion to lead against all odds. God please raise up passionate people—people who love you and love this world and lost souls and pour themselves headlong passionately into their kingdom offering.


Noel Heikkinen said...

Awesome post, dude.

Anonymous said...

GREAT story. Thanks, JVo...

Anonymous said...

John. I remember this very well, and I love that you posted the painting!

Anonymous said...

JVo, this moves me... "pisses" (reference to other post)
me off and shows the amazing blindness of traditional evangelicalism. Thanks for posting this and if you ever get a chance, apologize to the artist for me on behalf of all the short sighted, bigoted, eyes-on-the-wrong-thing Christians who don't understand what it really means to be Christ-like!

Anonymous said...

why not show Jesus naked on the cross for a Good Friday service?

Anonymous said...

What's the purpose of this story?

The woman got mad because she saw boobs at church? Frankly, I would be rather agitated myself. I wouldn't write the paper, i would hope I could have the maturity to discuss my concerns with the leadership privately and respectfully, but it's not exactly a news flash that most christians aren't that mature.

I guess my real question is this.
Would you advocate a service where this painting was displayed again? Here it is on your blog, you like it very much obviously, I think it's nice too for the record.

You seem to acknowledge it was a mistake to display it in a Christmas service, but only because it offended one (in the words of mereimage)"short sighted, bigoted, eyes-on-the-wrong-thing Christian", who is probably going to get to heaven and hear Jesus say "depart from me, I knew you not!" right?

Also you liken her complaint about her children seeing bare breasts to her complaint about the coffee, as if they are both ridiculious, silly, and superficial complaints.

And then you relate how ten other people wanted to buy it, presumably because it moved them in such a spiritual way, and THEY thought it was appropriate, even "awesome".

And it seems to me you mock the tragedy of a child seeing this painting, but are very sensative to the "tragedy" of the artist(an adult) getting her work critiqued.

Maybe im reading this wrong. Or maybe im a short sighted, bigoted, eyes-on-the-wrong-thing Christian, it wouldn't be the first time.

John said...

Dear anonymous #1 (comment about naked Jesus). Is that a real suggestion? Sign your name next time.

John said...

Dear anonymous #2 (what's the purpose of this story)
1. The purpose of the post is in the last paragraph.
2. Yes, I think you are reading it wrong.
3. The woman can have an opinion it was just dumb and insensitive the way she handled it.
4. I would advocate the painting under different circumstances, yes.
5. Her complaint about the coffee was dumb. Period.
6. I am not mocking her painting getting critiqued. I am mocking the way the critique came to light.
7. I don't think it was a "tragedy" the kids saw breasts. Those are your words. However, had we known the artist's intent we would not have had her paint that painting at a service where young children were present.
8. I AM sensitive to the "tragedy" (your word but I will use it this time) of how this was handled.
9. I do like the painting but more than anything I like the back-story of a woman who fell in love with Jesus.
10. I don't know that you are short sighted or bigoted but I do think you should sign your name next time if you really want to converse.

Anonymous said...

both anonymous posts were Tim Maynard. Hi Jvo! Sorry for the confusion, I thought my name would appear with the comments.

For some reason, reading this post of yours really struck a cord in me. I've been thinking about it since yesterday.

First of all, after re-reading my responses and praying about it a bit I want to apologize for the sarcasm and general lack of respect. I love ya man, and that is just not clear at all in my response, so that really sucks, please forgive me.

The naked Jesus question is sincere. I've heard that he did hang naked, and for obvious reasons(or maybe not so obvious), he is usually depicted with that little towel thingy. Is that weird that we cover him up, or is it a wise, appropriate thing to do? I guess it depends on the culture to some extent. Truthfully I am curious what your thoughts are, im not sure what I think.

The painter is passionate for Jesus. That's awesome, and it's a testament to your heart for people that you shared in her passion and encouraged her in it, and shared in her angst in being attacked for her worship experience.

BUT to me, it just seems WRONG, to have boobies in church. And you advocating it, frightens me, frankly. In the conversation between pioneering church badasses like yourself, and stoic unmoving church "regulars"(like my parents, frankly), it seems that both sides have a tendency to bring up the worst examples of each other and then say "see how damaging that way of ministering/believing can be?" And i just really HATE the war of it all. (not that you or my parents have EVER attacked or said rude things about each other)

But obviously that is all baggage I bring to the conversation, and you aren't responsible for my personal struggle to understand and reconcile my beliefs with my parents and pastors beliefs. Here you are, simply relating a personal story about Christ followers seeking Jesus and struggling along the way, on your personal blog, and I see something else.

I tend to not talk about this stuff well. When I speak to my dad about how I think going on a crusade to condemn using the term "Xmas" instead of christmas, is kind of a silly pursuit and may be missing the point of how we as Christ followers want to be present in the culture, I get disrespectful and dont listen well. I just want to tell him how it's WRONG. I bottle my judgments about his way of thinking/living, push them aside as they come up, because I want to get along with him and have peace(and ya know, judging is wrong, so I would NEVER do that), but then when we do talk about it bam im a jerk.

I guess the same thing happened here.

But I really do want to converse about this stuff, because it's clear there is growth to be had for me around this.

and I think it's crazy you aren't concerned about kids seeing boobies. Prz expound on that one, im curious. Not curious like I wanna judge ya, curious like I wanna understand your point of view.

Is this too personal for a blog comment section?

Tim M

Noel Heikkinen said...

Tim & JVO-

I think it would be tempting for the two of you to take this conversation offline.

Please don't.

I think this is a great thread for us all to follow.

John said...

Tim Maynard. You are now officially one of my favorite people. Thanks for having the huevos to fess up.

I forgive you for all the things you came clean on. You are a good man.

I don't think this is too personal. This is the kind of interaction that sharpens us. Congrats for the longest comment I have ever had, however. Ha.

Noel, it stays online. This is good.

Tim, I am not advocating nudity or, specifically the kids seeing the nudity, this post was all about the very thing you are saying makes you angry--the fighting and bickering over stuff in inappropriate ways and treating people harshly in our judgment of them.

In hindsight, we wouldn't have painted boobies because yes, little kids were there and it stirred the pot unnecessarily.

My blog post is all about defending a young woman who made a passionate miscalculation. And, a woman who made a really bad decision to lash out in anger.

One of those ladies should have known better.

It is also about a pastor who recognized how this young woman's spirituality and love for Jesus were paramount in the situation. I want to lead like that.

The nude art thing has always been an interesting thing to me. Today's scandal is tomorrow's masterpiece you know? It is also a cultural (and sometimes regional) thing.

I just read a report on modern art and the stir it is causing in Italy because pop-art doesn't meet the standard of classic high art--you know, the naked statues and stuff.

I don't have a hard and fast rule on naked paintings and sculptures. A lot has to do with motive, purpose, audience, etc.

Peace, man. Thanks for caring enough about what I think to read my blog and interact. Thanks for loving our church as well.

ScottyH said...

Jvo - it was cool to see the painting here since hearing the story from you some time ago. Writing this blog after so many years also reveals how much the story imprinted on your soul for all the personal & corporate reasons you've shared. A most defining moment for sure. I had read "Naked Mary" when you first posted it, but just had to re-visit it with the tempting link back on today's "anonymous" blog.

John, Tim - yes thanks for keeping this conversation on-line. knowing it's between two men I hold in high regard yanks it right out from the oft impersonal observation. right on both of you.

Tim, I wanted to chime in on the "x-mas" controversy with you. I woulda thought your dad with all his knowledge would've known that the "X" itself is a representation of Christ. check this link (no worries, John - not trying to sell anything!!):

so Χ,is as an abbreviation of Christ (Χριστός).

sorry J, if this was co-opting your space, if so you can edit, right?

Looking forward to seeing both of you at church soon! if it is this weekend, please please - I will steer from any conversations that are peppered with, "Indeed!" ewwww. but then if you did you'd probably be wearing some gaudy icthus tie or wear funky socks with crosses on them - what kind of dork would do that? ;)

John said...

Thanks for the input, Scott.

Tim M said...

hey thanks for the forgiveness John, it really feels good to be forgiven! Thanks also for your kind words, I don't know why, but hearing you say i'm a "good man", almost brought tears to my eyes, so weird, must be a spirit thing, i really dont understand it, and am slightly embarresed by it, but hey this whole thing is embarresing, why stop now!

I think your pal Jan really hit it when she said in the comment section of your Anon post, we often assume the worst of others, or at least we fear the worst. It's funny how I could appreciate you, and be afraid of you at the same time. Being a pastor must be hard that way.

Thanks so much for taking the time to post the stuff you do. I just got done reading your series on women in the church, and I really learned alot about the subject, Becky and I have wondered about what is up wit dat for awhile, I think she will really appreciate your insight also.

Scott H i presume! You rock. ya if I remember correctly he is aware of the origins of the X, but would argue that in today's culture it isn't used for that reason but rather to not offend non-christians, like saying "happy holidays". My thought is, who cares if the anchor on the evening news says "merry chrsitmas" or "happy holidays", how does that impact peoples for Jesus? Arguing for CHRIST to not be taken out of Christmas in the public square is a conversation about entitlement to me. Nobody is gonna take Christ away from me or from the Church, and if the world wants to celebrate Dec 25th as Earth Day, I don't care, that's the world, they do their own thing, sometimes they like JC, sometimes they don't.

jimmy said...

"I am not afraid to make mistakes if they are mistakes of passion. I am not afraid to fail if I do so passionately."

THAT is great! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Thanks for sharing the painting too. It's beautiful. The naked Jesus painting has been done. There is an artist in Southern California that is also a leader at his church. He did an "oilgraph" (photograph/oil mixed media) of the crucifixion. The model was nude and appeared to be of middle eastern descent. It was pretty amazing. Kevissimo is the artist's name. He has a deep appreciation of the beauty of God's creation in the human form so don't google him if you're easily offended by that type of thing.

grace and peace, jimmy