A couple of years ago, my wife and I went on the trip of a lifetime to Paris. While neither of us are particularly knowledgeable regarding art history, we both appreciate art quite a bit so we made it a point to visit a couple of museums in particular.
The first was the Orsay Museum, which is home to some of the most important works of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist eras. Their collection includes some of the most well-known pieces by legendary artists such as Renoir, Monet, and Cezanne. But what really stood out during my time there was Vincent van Gogh’s self portrait from September 1889. The painting is one I’d seen and heard about numerous times but to see it in person, with all of its aged character and still vibrant colors was something special. It’s not an exaggeration to say that seeing it up close was an unexpectedly emotional experience. It’s also important for me to tell you that this painting was hanging in a nondescript room with a number of other extraordinary paintings. I stood right in front it, enjoying its brilliance just inches from my nose. There was a line on the floor less than a foot from the wall with instructions to stay behind it but beyond that, there wasn’t much keeping me from getting up close and personal with the painting.
The second museum we visited was the world famous Louvre. Home to many of the most well known pieces of art in the world, the Louvre is more a frenzied marketplace than a museum. The sheer size of the place is only surpassed by the chaos inside. People stand shoulder to shoulder, vying for just a glimpse of the really “important stuff”, while rushing past all of the incredible works they never saw in their art history 101 textbooks in college. Sadly I must admit that I was one of these people. But I paused when I arrived at the room showcasing the Mona Lisa. My ridiculous rush was halted by something even more ridiculous. All the anticipation of seeing the world’s most famous painting had built to this. A noisy room full of hundreds of people, cameras armed and ready, taking pictures, fighting the crowd to capture the moment on film, as if proof that one was in the same room as the Mona Lisa would somehow validate a certain sophistication. I caved. I took my camera and fought to get the perfect shot. And afterwards, I felt embarrassed. But the worst part of it was that I did not really enjoy the Mona Lisa. I did not enjoy her the way I did van Gogh’s self portrait. I did not see or connect emotionally with her the way I did with the van Gogh. And it wasn’t just the crowd, the noise, or the urge to snap a photo. It was the fact that the Mona Lisa is hung inside of a climate-controlled encasing behind bulletproof glass, with two guards standing nearby on both sides.
As a pastor and teacher, my calling is to invite people to get up close and personal with the truth of a loving God who desires an ongoing, personal relationship with every single one of us. My job is to create the space for this truth to firmly grip those who come in contact with it. And if I am doing this job well, people will experience God the way I experienced van Gogh’s portrait – intimately, personally, emotionally. But with miserable frequency, I find myself expressing this truth like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. I rush people in, try to give them a distant glimpse of something marvelous, all the while making certain that they don’t get too close for fear of them tainting it somehow. Often, I am more concerned with the number of people in the room than the depth of their experience. This must change. Just as art is designed to be experienced up close and personal, God is a mystery we’ve been invited to sink into deeply and intimately. If I am presenting him as an untouchable relic behind bulletproof glass, to be seen at a distance but never touched, than I am grossly misunderstanding and abusing my role.
So here’s to trusting the art and the Artist. Come in close and see God for yourself, up close, personal, right in front of you. And stay as long as you’d like. There’s no rush.