What Do You See?
A Good Friday Reflection
by Eric Elkin
In the late 1970s, the Lowertown district of St. Paul, MN was an empty shell of a once thriving business district. Parking lots, once a critical need for workers in the area, sat empty. Warehouses, which used to pulse with the life of commerce, stood abandoned and neglected. No successful corporation wanted to assume the cost of repairing this area, so it stood as a lifeless memorial to a bygone age.
The district found new life in the most unlikely of people. Artists, desperate to find affordable space to work and nostalgic enough to appreciate the architecture of the buildings, moved in. They banded together to form the St Paul Art Collective. Their mission was to protect spaces for artists to create and to lift up the artists' role in enhancing cultural life.
Artists help us see. They look at the world and recognize patterns, emotions, and beauty. They see pain, joy, and sadness. The ordinary world drove through Lowertown in the 1970s and saw hopelessness. The artists, though, saw the possibility of restoration, community, and life. Their efforts eventually led to others seeing it as well. Today, the district is so full of life, they are starting to push the artists out.
One of their signature events was the St Paul Art Crawl, which will begin next Friday night in the Lowertown district. As I was searching the St Paul Art Crawl online, I stumbled across this painting by Dolan Cyr. When you look at this image, what do you see?
I would not say the painting communicates joy, but you can see intimacy. There is pain, suffering and a sense of hopelessness in the figures huddled together. But it is not isolation and loneliness. Rachel Wacker, who paints by the name Dolan Cyr, appropriately titled the work, “In This Together.”
Some might look at this painting and get depressed. Some only see futility in the face of hopelessness. If I were at a point of suffering, though, this image might bring some comfort. It would be comforting to be reminded I am not the only one who has traveled the path of pain. It begs the question when you look at art, what are you looking for?
On Good Friday, we are forced to look at the cross in a way we do not like see it in our ordinary life. Most of the year, the cross is a decorative item adorning our worship space or an accessory to our wardrobe. We see in our designer crosses hope, life, and a promise. But on this night, we are forced to see the pain and suffering attached to that promise.
The image is not life, but death. Most people prefer not to focus on this image. They would prefer to leave it behind and choose another option. But we cannot escape the reality, this is the core image of our faith. What do you see when you look at the cross?
As much as we do not want to consider the dark side of the cross, it does speak to our reality. How many people ever get to avoid the pain of death? How many people do you think have felt isolated, rejected, and abused? How many suffer from a foreboding sense of hopelessness? Can you see these emotions revealed in the event of the cross?
It would be so much more comfortable if Jesus would only appear in clouds and beautiful sunsets. Many of us prefer to see God in the majesty of the mountains or a flowing stream in a green forest. While that might be nice, it would be hard for me. It would be hard for me to worship a God who only dwells in beauty. This kind of God would seem to be indifferent to human suffering.
I remember conducting a passion walk one summer at Koinonia. Many of the children in that session of summer camp were not familiar with the story. They were seeing it for the first time. As our Jesus character was carrying the cross, soldiers pushed and mocked him. A young boy from a Foster Care Agency became overwhelmed by the event.
With tears in eyes, he pushed through the crowd to be at Jesus’ side. He even tried to carry the cross for him and did until the weight became too heavy. Yet, he never left his side and his compassion for our actor Jesus remains in my heart and mind.
That boy saw in Jesus, a person who was walking the same path as him. The young boy had been picked on and pushed around. He had been beaten up by bigger boys. His foster care family sent him to camp so the biological family could go to Disney World. They needed a break from him. He saw in Jesus, a friend who understood his condition.
Sometimes, in ordinary life, we can be looking directly at something and not see it.
Jesus asks the soldiers, “Who are you looking for?” It is a question I ask of myself every Good Friday. I am looking for one who understands the depth of human suffering. And, is willing to respond to it with commitment and love.
I am looking for the one who, when I am suffering, is willing to move into the abandoned district of my soul and restore it. Who calls me out of isolation into a community of friends, even when I want to be left alone. I am looking for the one who appreciates the architecture of my life with all its complexities.
Who am I looking for? The one with the power to bring new life.
Click to read John 18: 1-10
What do you see in the artwork titled, “In This Together?
How does this relate to your image of the cross?
Where would you prefer to see God?
Whom are you looking for when you go looking for God?