The Artist As Healer

I was relating to a friend once that I was preparing for some prison ministry.  Specifically, I was taking my band to a northern California correctional facility, to speak and lead worship in their prison chapel for two Sunday services.  Everyone has preconceived notions about prison. Mine are colored by movies like “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Walk the Line,” or even “The Birdman of Alcatraz.”  Misconceptions aside, my Dad was a correctional officer at Soledad Prison, and I have childhood memories of my Mom informing us that Dad wouldn’t be home today because there was another lock-down. I remember the pained look on her face, the volumes she spoke in her silence.

My friend, Bob, replied that he had a lot of experience doing prison ministry.  And he had one piece of advice.  “Sing Amazing Grace,” he offered without explanation.  “Just do it,” he added, “and tell me how it goes.”

Fast forward to two Sundays later.  We had already gone through the security checks, walked our instruments through the inner courtyard and below the watching eyes of the guard tower, a silent, steady reminder that this was no ordinary gig.  We had set up our drums, guitars, and keyboard, and now awaited the service to start.

Filing in quietly, about 150 inmates began to fill the chapel, all wearing powder blue shirts and jeans, and solemn looks on their faces.  Shoulder-to-shoulder, from pew to pew, it was a full crowd.  At the nod of the prison chaplain, we took our places, hit the downbeat, and we were off.  These men worshiped! They sang loud and clapped often and raised their hands with heartfelt spontaneity. They overtly encouraged us to lead them. They responded with conviction and certainty and abandon.  It was like they really believed the God of the universe was in this chapel with them. Because He was.

The second service that afternoon was filled mostly with new inmates who had heard about the morning session. And it was even more full and lively. “Off the hook!,” our leader Greg described it. “The best response I’ve ever seen.” The 90 minute service ran an extra hour, and I finally had to admit to the crowd of 200 that we had run out of music.

“Sing Amazing Grace!,” one of the men shouted.  So I did.  And it was.

The response was nothing short of supernatural.  Grown men falling to their knees and on their faces, crying and singing and coming forward for prayer.  Thirty inmates came forward at the altar call, with others coming forward to meet them. It was extraordinary to see these men, tattooed and otherwise hardened by stories unspoken, completely unashamed of their need for God’s mercy and forgiveness.

One truth became tangibly real to me that afternoon. These men knew about God’s grace in ways that I did not. Each experience of grace was both unique and intense for each individual.  And they didn’t take that grace for granted. In a sense, it was all they had.  They had no privilege born to them, no busyness to distract them, no technology to hide behind.  In that moment, they had only a song to sing.  And that song unwrapped them, exposed them, spoke into them, healed them.

What was it about that particular song, sung at that particular time, to these particular people?  So much of that answer is shrouded in God’s mystery.  But I do believe it has to do with some combination of the Beauty of the song and lyric, the Truth that the song expressed, and God’s transcendent movement in the expression of it.

King Saul knew the healing potential of the arts.  The first King of Israel after the rule of the Judges, he was caught between the politics of governing a nation and a series of border wars, primarily with the Ammonites and the Philistines.  But there was a new wrinkle to his story.  Troubled by an evil spirit, he was unable to sleep, and his troubled mind greatly worried his advisers and servants.  In response, they encouraged him to find relief in music.  Saul took their advice, and sent for a harpist to play for him.  Providentially, the man summoned was a young shepherd named David, skilled in the lyre and described to the King as “a brave man and a warrior.”  (1 Samuel 16:18)  The Bible says that David’s music provided a continual soothing relief for Saul, and the evil spirit that plagued his peace eventually left him.

We’ve discussed in previous blogs how the arts are a powerful means of speaking deeply to the brokenness that is a part of our humanity.  The arts uproot our doubts and our disappointments, our pain and our scars, our secret sins and our unspoken fears.  Everyone needs saving, and in some subterranean chasm of our souls, we all know it.  But the arts go beyond exposing our brokenness.  The arts also have the capacity to be a balm, to be an ointment for healing.  Beyond mere proclamations of Truth, the arts can speak to us in ways that are therapeutic, restorative, life-giving.

It seems the world believes this much more than Christians.  A recent Google search of the words “art” and “healing” yields over 141 million results.  And practically none of these are Christian sites.  The arts are regularly used for physical and psychological therapy, with the general understanding that the practice of the arts in its various forms allows the body to relax and de-stress, affecting the body neurologically, hormonally, and psychologically.  Some of these websites cite “scientific studies” that show measurable benefits to the practice of the arts.

And while there may be truth to this view, the Christian arts may provide a different dynamic altogether, one less physiological or psychological and more primarily spiritual.  In a very real sense, the artist functions as a healer when their art is a catalyst for healing.

One of my good friends, Steve, initiated a music program targeted for children.  Specifically, he adopted The Rhythm Arts Project (TRAP), a program that uses percussion instruments in a drum circle format to facilitate learning for people, especially children or those who have mental or physical disabilities (e.g., Downs syndrome, autism, etc.).  More than just music, TRAP facilitates socialization, develops gross and fine motor skills, and teaches basic knowledge (like numbers, colors, etc.).  Seeing a class in action, you get a sense that there is something beautiful, even sacred, happening.  Children are engaging, laughing, learning, playing.  Music becomes for the TRAP children a language, an expression, a soul-filling activity.

As we had argued earlier, the arts are transcendent by nature, a language of the soul.  The arts bypass the typical human defenses and rationale that ward off mere words, so that the Truth can hit deep broken places that are otherwise untouched.  We sing Amazing Grace, and the song rekindles the deep Hope that fills the void of our mortality.   It is more than the mere proclamation of Truth.  It is like Truth applied to the sin, like a salve upon the wound.  Artist becomes healer.

And it goes beyond words.  Dance, painting, film, and other art forms have this same capability.  It is because, as we had stated earlier, Beauty is also a form of Truth, the revelation of God’s glory.

It is said that the poet T. S. Eliot, on a visit to Rome, fell to his knees in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta, the famous sculpture of Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus, and converted to Anglicanism soon after.

Henri Nouwen narrates in his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, his own spiritual journey through a chance encounter with a Rembrandt painting which so captured the elements of the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) that it brought to him spiritual healing and a renewed vision for his life.

Not surprisingly, it is the self-expression of the artists’ brokenness that allows the arts to speak with such intensity and empathy.  As artists, we feel deeply, and tapping into the depths of ourselves in our artmaking makes our art relatable and accessible to our audience.  Many artists I know turn to their paintbrushes, cameras, and musical instruments when they are discouraged, depressed, grieving.  Personally, the piano was the way I was able to work out the storm of emotions and doubts I felt, especially as a teenager.  And when I came to faith in Christ, the piano became my altar, the primary way in which I worshiped and communed with God.

I believe the reason why artmaking is in itself a healing activity is as stated previously—the combination of Beauty of form in the art we create, the Truth revealed through the art, and God’s transcendent movement in the act of artmaking.  With every act of artmaking, we realize something that God intended of us and designed into us—the creation of beauty and truth is a soul-filling activity.

A mother of two passed away last year from cancer.  She had been battling this for years, bravely and honestly and in full view of eternity.  But through the years of chemo and radiation treatments, her body had tired and wore out.  She was dearly beloved by our entire church, and was just a magnificently lovely person.  So you can imagine how difficult the memorial service was for everyone.

With decades of full-time ministry, I’ve participated in way-too-many memorial services.  It is in light of our mortality that we are confronted by the big questions and magnified emotions:  Sadness, fear, denial, introspection, a search for significance.  But for the Christ follower, there are other dynamics as well:  Grace, heaven, release, hope.

As a congregation, we had already been rocked by a series of unexpected and unrelated deaths among us, all dearly loved people.  It was as if we were going through a season of grieving.  So it was in the valley of the shadow of death that many hundreds of people gathered for her memorial service.  We sang, reminisced, told stories, honored the family, and loved one another.  And at the end of the service, we decided to sing one last song, Here Comes the Sun, by the Beatles.

Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun, do do do do
Here comes the sun, and I say, It’s all right

Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been clear
Here comes the sun, do do do do
Here comes the sun, and I say, It’s all right

Here comes the sun, do do do do
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right, It’s all right

Far beyond the mere lyrics, the song bathed us like a sweet balm, reaching into the cracks of our broken hearts with the reminder that we have a faithful and eternal God.  Obviously, John Lennon and Paul McCartney didn’t write this song for this reason.  But in context, the song dug deeply into our individual and corporate pain, and washed the dirt and grime from it, and worked like a soothing medicine to our souls.

I am convinced that in moments like that, artmaking is a sacred thing.  We are not just performers.  We are priests.  Not that our talents or skills make us worthy, but only through God’s mercy are we accorded the God-given privilege of ushering in His manifold grace to others through our art.

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