I’m sitting at my desk in my office right now. When I look up, I see across the room from me a framed print on the wall. It is the only piece of artwork I have hanging in here, apart from the occasional gift from one of my elementary school students. In fact, it is the first and only piece of art I have ever bought in my entire life.

Now, I’m not a Philistine. I’m very pro-art. I have been an appreciator of fine art for most of my life. I’m just not much of a decorator. My aesthetic leans toward what I think of as a sort of Japanese/Spartan/utilitarian clean canvass approach. I love whitespace. And clear surfaces. Particularly horizontal ones. For my home office I bought an Aeron chair (an addiction I picked up during my dot com days) and a slim-lined wooden desk–more a table, really–with a black leather (or something like it) surface, and just a single thin drawer for keeping a few extra pens in. When clean (which happens now and then) the only things on top of it should be a printer, a laptop, a pen, and a bible. I luxuriate in the wide open working surface, uncluttered by doodads, knicknacks, files, books, or anything else. It has potential. And I like that.

Now, at this point, my coworkers and my wife are howling. I have a problem with generating stacks of papers and books. I seem to produce such stacks the way park statues produce bird poop. But my platonic ideal of a desk is a big blank empty clear horizontal surface that is temporarily occupied by a computer and a book or two, and then cleared off when the work is done. I guess I need to get better at filing things. I don’t have real drawers in the desk I bought, becuase I know that if I had drawers, they would become one-way dumping grounds. So for now, what I do is I use file boxes to roughly categorize all these papers. When I organize. Which is less than weekly, right now.

Anyway, the walls of my office at work have the following: one whiteboard containing my four tiered master plan for improving this church, a sticky with the word “pray” on it, one year long calendar that keeps falling down because the stupid putty that holds it up is worthless, a large printout of my faith and purpose, and the one and only piece of art I have ever purchased. The rest (which is the majority) of my wallspace is glorious white blankness. My coworkers have given up telling me I need to put stuff on the walls, but only recently.

So if I love art, and yet have only purchased one piece in all my 38 years, you can imagine that I put a lot of thought into that purchase. But if you’ve read the title of this post and are familiar with American paintings, you may be scratching your head. “All the paintings you could have purchased in the world and you chose that?” You see, in case you didn’t know, Edward Hopper’s The Nighthawks is one of the most over-displayed iconic works in all of American artistry.

Edward Hopper. The Nighthawks. Oil on canvas, 1942.

Edward Hopper. The Nighthawks. Oil on canvas, 1942.

But if you get past all of the spoofs, derivative works, pop references, dorm room walls and tired cliches, and really enter into this painting, I think you will find something remarkable. After all, that’s how an image becomes a pop icon.

Before I give you my take, let me share with you what Sister Wendy (that funny wonderful nun on PBS that makes art so living and meaningful) said about this piece (as quoted in the Artchive from Sister Wendy’s American Masterpieces):

Apparently, there was a period when every college dormitory in the country had on its walls a poster of Hopper’s Nighthawks; it had become an icon. It is easy to understand its appeal. This is not just an image of big-city loneliness, but of existential loneliness: the sense that we have (perhaps overwhelmingly in late adolescence) of being on our own in the human condition. When we look at that dark New York street, we would expect the fluorescent-lit cafe to be welcoming, but it is not. There is no way to enter it, no door. The extreme brightness means that the people inside are held, exposed and vulnerable. They hunch their shoulders defensively. Hopper did not actually observe them, because he used himself as a model for both the seated men, as if he perceived men in this situation as clones. He modeled the woman, as he did all of his female characters, on his wife Jo. He was a difficult man, and Jo was far more emotionally involved with him than he with her; one of her methods of keeping him with her was to insist that only she would be his model.

From Jo’s diaries we learn that Hopper described this work as a painting of “three characters.” The man behind the counter, though imprisoned in the triangle, is in fact free. He has a job, a home, he can come and go; he can look at the customers with a half-smile. It is the customers who are the nighthawks. Nighthawks are predators – but are the men there to prey on the woman, or has she come in to prey on the men? To my mind, the man and woman are a couple, as the position of their hands suggests, but they are a couple so lost in misery that they cannot communicate; they have nothing to give each other. I see the nighthawks of the picture not so much as birds of prey, but simply as birds: great winged creatures that should be free in the sky, but instead are shut in, dazed and miserable, with their heads constantly banging against the glass of the world’s callousness. In his Last Poems, A. E. Housman (1859-1936) speaks of being “a stranger and afraid/In a world I never made.” That was what Hopper felt – and what he conveys so bitterly.

So why do I love this painting? How did it beat out several Japanese paintings I was also considering for my very first art purchase? And how did it beat out other, more suburban/rural paintings also by Hopper that I considered? In short, I see my work in this painting. This is the church. This is the world. This is evangelism.

The evangelist works, semi-trapped within the triangle, serving lonely broken people, in a brightly lit glass box, in a world of darkness. There are three kinds of loneliness here. The man sitting at the counter alone, his face unseen, is just plain alone. The couple are not just alone together, but clearly are apart from each other. And the man behind the counter is not just alone, but separated from the other lonely figures he is serving by a big wooden counter without exit. But they are all better off than if they were out in the inky city.

Now, I don’t see the world, the church and my work as a New Christian evenagelist to be so totally bleak. But this certainly captures one facet of the whole picture, as I see it. It feeds my darker side, at least. There’s a part of me that yearns for connection, but doesn’t believe in it. There’s a level at which it sometimes seems to me no human beings are able to connect. It’s that Buried Life Matthew Arnold wrote about. (My hands-down favorite poem, by the way.) But I’m also a pretty upbeat person most of the time. My dark side is the minority opinion in my head these days.

But I put the painting where I am constantly confronted by it while writing sermons, counselling people, and developing strategies, because I want the reminder. I look up and I think, “That is who I am here to serve. That is the spiritual darkness people so desparately need escape from. That is the outpost I serve in, so yeah, of course it is sometimes hard.”

We all yearn for connection at times, and most all people struggle with loneliness at one point or another. And I am convinced that the church is the best imperfect solution for this struggle. But I am also convinced that the church as it currently stands has too many barriers, too much wood and glass, and too few doors. Because there is one more lonely character in this painting. You. The observer. The person in the dark, drawn to this beacon of light, and not seeing a way in for yourself.

So what do you see in this painting? And if you had just one piece of art on display in your life, what would it be?

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