The Art of Hope: Crafting Beauty

Matthew 13:1-9, 33
March 4, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

The other day, I was indulging my love of silly sci-fi by watching a show about time travel and in this particular episode, the characters had traveled back to the 1940s where they met the film actress Hedy Lamarr.  Hedy Lamarr was a classic MGM star, known for her stunning good looks and seductive demeanor but in this episode, the time travelers had arrived right before her big break and, as always happens in these stories, the fumbling mistakes of the time travelers made Lamarr miss the encounter that was supposed to lead to her acting career.  At first, the travelers were not too worried, thinking that the lost film career of just another beautiful woman would not really make a difference in the time continuum, but even as they debated the point, they noticed that their time traveling equipment was beginning to fail and disappear.

“Of course,” one of the time travelers said in shock.  “Hedy Lamarr was not only a famous actress; later in life she went on to invent Spread Spectrum technology which is the basis for our bluetooth, GPS, wifi, and just about every technology we use today!  Without the money and contacts from her acting career, she won’t be able to fund her inventions and we’ll be stuck here!” 1

Of course, the time travelers managed to put things right before the episode’s end but as soon as it was over, I hopped on my laptop and googled Hedy Lamarr.  Sure enough, tired of being cast more for her looks than her acting talent, Lamarr got bored with acting and turned to her other passion: inventing.  She became friends with Howard Hughes and worked on improving the aerodynamics of his private fleet of planes.  She invented an improved traffic light, developed a carbonated drink, and finally asked a composer friend of hers to help her invent a frequency-hopping signal for the Navy to prevent the Nazi’s from jamming radio-controlled Allied torpedos.  The Navy rejected her proposal saying they didn’t accept civilian work but much later, her invention of Spread Spectrum technology became the foundation for much of the technology we use today, and in 2014, Hedy Lamarr was inducted posthumously into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

It turned out that Hedy Lamarr was more than just a pleasing aesthetic form; she was also a useful kind of person.  As I prepared today’s sermon, I thought of society’s belated discovery of her value beyond her looks and how she became a victim of human insistence at dividing beauty and usefulness into two separate categories.  Historically, we, of course, did this most often to women assuming that beautiful women were there only to look at — to parade around on their husbands’ arms as trophy wives — while useful, smart, competent women were likely to be plain, their hair pulled tight into a bun, glasses perched on their noses.  How many Hollywood romances involved the scene when the competent but dowdy assistant finally lets down her hair, takes off her glasses, and surprises everyone, including herself, with her ravishing good looks?  We don’t expect to find usefulness and beauty in the same package.  Though it’s easiest to see this at work in our attitudes toward women, our prejudice pops up all over the place.  The sleekest most beautiful looking cars are unlikely to be useful for families hauling kids to soccer matches, nor do we expect our minivans to win the Grand Prix.  We choose between usefulness and beauty.  We marvel at a cathedral with its stunning stained glass windows, soaring arches, and marble inlay but any Church Trustee will tell you that they would rather oversee a simple sanctuary that’s easy to heat and maintain week after week.  And the tux that you wore to your wedding may have made you look like a stud but it wouldn’t be the kind of thing you’d want to wear to clean out the garage.  Even if you didn’t care about getting it dirty, it just wouldn’t be a very practical outfit.  We separate beauty and practicality into two distinct categories and rarely expect them to overlap.

An ad once appeared in the personal sections of a newspaper reading, “Farmer seeks wife.  Must be of child bearing age, hard working, and own a tractor.  Please send photo of tractor.”

Our assumption that beautiful things are not useful things and that useful things will not be much to look at has for a long time affected the way we think about the division between arts and crafts.  In our Lenten program, “The Art of Hope,” today we are celebrating the spirituality of craftwork,  an area of artistic expression which has often been separated from “the higher arts” because craftwork has a utilitarian function.  This prejudice against “useful art” can be seen most clearly on a website I read that differentiated the high arts from crafts:  the site defined the high arts as artwork that has aesthetic appeal, creative merit, emanates from the heart and soul, is difficult to do, and requires talent.  Craftwork on the other hand, the site asserted, is functional, emanates from the hands, is easy, and requires only experience.  I’m guessing that the author of the website has never tried to sew a quilt.

In fact, craftwork is art, but it is art that also has a practical purpose and so is most often the art of ordinary people engaged in the task of living,  It is the most common kind of art we read about in the Bible.  Paul was a tent maker, Gideon made wine; women sewed and wove and in today’s parable, made bread.  Men planted their fields, carved wood, and shaped pottery.   These are all forms of craftwork.  On our altar today, we have a number of representations of the artistry of craftwork and I know that we have many people in our congregation who, though they may never have sat at an easel or carved a statue from stone, consider their craft to be a spiritual form of art.  We have among us woodworkers, knitters, scrapbookers, potters, quilters, and so many many gardeners.  Sure, some people engage in these activities out of a purely utilitarian need — a man grows peas because he wants to eat peas and there is nothing spiritual about that activity for him at all — but most of you I am guessing, see your craft as a kind of spiritual art.  It connects you to the earth and to others, it calms your spirit, and most of all, it fills you with an appreciation for the beauty of what you are able to create from your own hands.  My mother was a quilter and she spent hours poring over swatches of fabric, feeling the cloth, matching colors, and laying out designs before she ever threaded a needle.  If all she had wanted to do was give her kids blankets for our beds, she could have whipped them out quickly with little thought of the beauty of what she was producing, but like so many involved in craftwork, creating beauty was a major part of the motivation of quilting.  When we do our craftwork, we may be making useful things but we are also trying to create beauty and the desire to create beauty is a spiritual pursuit.  We don’t have to chose between living a useful life and a beautiful life — to combine the two is to reproduce the act of creation itself and connect us to the God who created sunlight and rain, and an earth teeming with creatures, and succulent plants to eat, an earth of practical bounty and abundant beauty and called it all good.  In our ordinary lives, in the most ordinary of crafts, we sow our seed, kneed our bread, throw our pots, and knit our scarves and so we replicate the act of creation, a most beautiful usefulness, a most useful beauty.

In an article titled, “Beyond Art Versus Craft,” Margo Jefferson wrote, “Happily, institutions and individuals are deciding to throw out the old debates about the relative values of art designated fine, folk, high or utilitarian….. The point is to open one’s eyes to any artist who, as Joseph Conrad said, can make us hear, feel and above all see.”

For me, then, craftwork more than any other type of art, is the best analogy for the art of discipleship and the art of hope that is the theme of our Lenten program.  Some Christians spend all of their time envisioning the rapture of heaven and delighting in the beauty of Christ’s grace that they neglect the practical dimension of discipleship.  Aesthetically, their faith may be a gorgeous thing to behold but it’s not very useful to those who hunger, those who live in war ravaged countries, those who need support in their quest for peace, for justice, and freedom from oppression.  On the other hand, those of us who take seriously our call to love our neighbor as ourselves and strive to make the world a better place, sometimes become grim with the weight of the world upon us.  We are trying so hard to be useful that we forget to feed the spiritual part of us that also craves the creation of beauty.  And so, the rapturous Christian who sits in constant contemplation of the beauty of heaven isn’t very useful to the rest of us while the hard working grim Christian with their nose to the grindstone isn’t very pretty to look at, and frankly is sometimes a real downer to be around!  And neither really creates hope for others because as human beings, we need both dedication and beauty, both commitment to the practical needs of the work and a spiritual appreciation for the depth of creation’s possibilities.  We need a person who is both willing to get dirty in the garden and also to laugh at delight at the marvel of what the garden brings forth.

As we come to the table of Christ to receive the cup and the bread, think about all of the tables around which you have gathered and the farmers, the bread makers, the woodworkers, and the potters who have made those tables both functional and beautiful.  Think of the sower and the woman of Christ’s parables, who represent the ordinary men and women of our lives, the people gathered here who every day are willing to put their hands to the plow, or sink them deep into the dough in the belief that their work will yield amazing results, and who rejoice in the soul-gratifying beauty of the work we have God has given us to do.  As Christ’s disciples, may we all be artists of hope — crafting useful and beautiful lives on behalf of others.

Footnotes:

1. “Legends of Tomorrow,” Season 3, episode 6. I was writing this from memory so it’s not a verbatim transcript of the episode.