Posts Tagged evangelism


Q: By what process(es) do books get onto library shelves?

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The Purpose of the Church

In Matthew 5:16, Jesus said:

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

In Revelation 12:7-17, it says:

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”

And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.

In Secrets of Heaven 9276:7, it says:

The Church…resembles an actual human being in this respect, that a person has two fountains of life, namely The Heart and The Lungs. It is well known that when human life begins the first part to develop is the heart and that the second is the lungs, and that from these two as fountains of life every other part of the body receives life. The heart of the Grand Man, that is, of heaven and the Church, is composed of those who are governed by love to the Lord and love towards the neighbour, and so, considered without reference to persons, consists in love of the Lord and love of the neighbour. But the lungs in the Grand Man, or heaven and the Church, are composed of those who are governed by charity towards the neighbour, which comes from the Lord, and from this by faith, and so, considered without reference to persons, consists in charity and faith coming from the Lord. The remaining organs and members in the Grand Man however are composed of those who are governed by external forms of good and external truths, and so, considered without reference to persons, consist in external forms of good and external truths, by means of which internal truths and forms of good can be brought in. Just as the heart, then, flows first into the lungs, and subsequently from itself through these into the organs and members of the body, so too the Lord flows through the good of love into internal truths, and through these into external truths and forms of good.

And finally, in Matthew 28:16-20, it says:

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.

May the Lord bless the hearing and the doing of His Word.

This is June 13th. New Church Day approaches. The 19th of June. Celebrating the anniversary of the beginning of the establishment of the Lord’s New Church in heaven and on earth with the publication of the book, True Christian Religion. What are you planning on doing about it?

There will be a pageant here. There will be a picnic. The Cathedral will be lit. In some homes, people will decorate. In some homes, there will be special foods prepared. These are all great external ways of acknowledging one of the most significant dates in the history of creation.

The New Jerusalem is descending down out of heaven from God. What are you doing about that?

The Lord established the New Church, first in heaven, and then on earth, by means of the opening up of the internal sense of His Word, and going back and explaining what His life on Earth was all about, and giving us the tools that we need to go back to His Word and to see the deeper truths that have been lying hidden there all along. The Lord did this, and He did it through the means of people.

First, he called Emmanuel Swedenborg. He opened his eyes. He sent him back to read the Word. He taught him.

But beyond that, He has called many more people to help with the establishment of the Church on earth.

In heaven, on June 19th, the Lord sent out His disciples into the spiritual world to help establish the New Heaven. On earth, it is up to us to establish the externals that can act as vessels for His church on earth.

What is the church?

It’s not this building. It’s not a corporation in Pennsylvania. It’s not the priesthood; the priesthood serves the church. The word “minster” means “servant”.

We’re told very clearly that the job of the priesthood is: to administer the things of worship, to teach truths, and to use those truths to lead people to a life of good. That’s the use of the ministry, of the priesthood.

What’s the purpose of the church?

It’s not really that mysterious. The purpose of the church can be seen in the reflection of the purpose of the priesthood.

The purpose of the church is to worship the Lord, to go to His Word to learn His truths, and then to live those truths: to do good. That’s why there’s a church.

We all personally benefit from our participation in this process of worshiping the Lord, learning truths, and doing good. Which includes shunning evil. It includes being useful in our daily lives. It includes finding extra ways of helping those in need. It includes enjoying time together, and recreations.

We’re also told that the church is the heart and lungs to the larger kingdom of the Lord on earth. What does that mean?

The New Church is meant to be the heart and lungs to what we sometimes refer to as “the Universal Church”.

Out there are people who are not part of this movement we call “the New Church”, who nevertheless in their hearts intend to do good, intend to follow the Lord. They are living their lives as best they can. The main difference between them and the people in this building now is they have less data, less information. Other than that, the intent is the same. These are people who want to follow the Lord. They just have a less clear idea given to them of who that is, and what that means. And yet, they manage. They do a very good job. They go to heaven. They do good on earth.

But they could do better, if they had better information. We could do better. Otherwise, you could come to church once, open up the Word, read a little bit, and be done. No more learning truth!

But, that’s not how it works. We can all do better in how we understand the Lord and his purposes for us.

So, the church is the heart and lungs to this larger church. What do the heart and lungs do?

The heart moves blood in sort of a figure eight. The heart moves blood first out to the lungs. And then draws it back to the heart. From there, it sends it out to the rest of the body. And then, the blood returns back to the heart again to complete that loop.

And in fact, here’s something interesting, once you think about the internals sense of it: the force needed to move the blood through the body is so great that the heart by itself can’t do it; it’s only through the action of the rest of the body that the blood can finally be moved back towards the heart.

So, there’s a reciprocation there, but it’s principally the heart that moves the blood through the body. That’s what a heart does. It moves the blood to the rest of the organs and members of the body.

What do the lungs do?

The lungs breathe in air, and then breathe out air. This is a process of taking in oxygen and releasing various toxins. Every part of your body, every last cell of it, needs oxygen. The lungs by themselves cannot do the job, though, because oxygen is in a gaseous form that can’t transfer from the world around us into the cells of our body.

The lungs can do a great job of bringing this air with the oxygen in it in to the body, but then they’re done. That’s all they can do. The lungs need a heart to send blood out there, so there can be a marriage, so that the oxygen can be wed to the blood cells. So, there can be a marriage of good and truth. And this oxygenated blood then gets drawn back by the heart and sent out to the rest of the body.

And that is a clear spiritual picture of the Church.

When the Lord looks at us, that’s what He’s seeing. We are the heart and lungs to this larger body. When the Lord looks at humanity, He sees us in the form of a person. When He looks at the Church, and He sees us in the form of that person’s heart and lungs.

Now, if you think about it, a heart and lungs by themselves are pretty pointless. If we had a real heart and lungs as a visual aid here, we probably wouldn’t even want to look at it. That’s not the human form. That’s just a little piece of it.

A heart and lungs apart from the body have no value. Likewise, the Church does not exist for itself. The Lord established a Specific Church for the sake of the entire human race.

We’re taught that the world connects to the Lord by means of the Church. Even people who are not aware of the Church have a connection to the Lord through the Church. But, we’re told that their connection is a dimmer one, and a more distant one.

So, we are to be that heart and lungs. How do we do that as a church?

Well, we could decide to just be the lungs of the world. we could say, “Our job is to go to the Word and read it. And be done.”

That doesn’t do the world any good. That fills our minds with truths, but that’s not enough.

We could say, “Well, what if we send blood out to the lungs and back—what if we do that?”

Well, then we’re marrying good and truth; that’s a good thing. And the heart itself can be fed; and the heart can be kept alive that way through this oxygenated blood. But the rest of the body’s going to die.

We need to take that marriage of good and truth out to the world! Not just the truth by itself. Not just good by itself.

We could decide, “Well, as the church, our job is to feed the poor and the hungry and the needy, and to visit the people in prison, and to do all these natural goods of charity and that’s it, that’s what we’re going to do. And then, on Sunday morning, we’ll get together privately and talk about the Lord.”

That wouldn’t be a church. There’d be blood without oxygen.

We could decide, “Well, let’s just take the Word, and buy Super Bowl ads, and billboards and just plaster the Word everywhere, where everyone can see it. And then we’d be a church.” That’s trying to put air into the cells without first taking the oxygen out, wedding it to good, and putting it into use.

People receive truths that are connected to good. People learn best when their affections are engaged. The most useful way of being the church, from an evangelical standpoint, is to find ways of doing good, in the Lord’s name.

The Lord said:

“Let your light [your truth] so shine before men that they may see your good works and so glorify your Father who is in Heaven.”

That right there, in a sentence, is the doctrine of evangelism.

Wed good to truth and take that out into the world. Do good things, certainly—support natural charity, as a benefaction—but do it in a way that also offers the truth.

Consider when you do something kind for someone just on an individual level. When you pull over on the side of the road to help somebody change a tire, because the Lord has commanded you to love your neighbor as yourself. And you look at this person by the side of the road and you think, “If I were in that position, I would really want somebody to help me right now. And this is what the Lord wants. And as inconvenient as this is for me, I’m going to help that person.” You’re wedding good with truth.

And then when the person tries to praise you for it, to say, “Wow! You must be an incredible person. Bless you. You are an angel…” then—just as the angel did with John in the book of Revelation—you have to stop them from bowing down to you, and say, “This? This isn’t from me. I’m trying to follow my Lord as I understand Him. I’m trying to live the life that I learn about in my church.”

And that will plant a seed. It may even start a conversation. “You go to church? What church?” That’s outreach, that’s evangelism. And that is marrying good to truth.

Now, the Lord has established a particular Church, time and time again, because the human race needs a particular Church, a specific Church. And an interesting thing happens every time, in the Word, where we read about the establishment of a Church: the Lord gives a particular commandment over and over and over again—though in the New Testament, it sounds different than in the Old Testament.

The first church is symbolized by Adam. The first human being. And the Lord’s first command to Adam was to “Be fruitful, and multiply.”

Eventually the Church that Adam represents fell away from the Lord—turned away from the Lord—turned to all sorts of evil, to the point where the Lord needed to establish a new Church for the sake of the revival of the human race. That Church is represented by the man, Noah.

And in the story of Noah, as he comes out of the ark, the Lord commands Noah, “Be fruitful and multiply.” And so starts the Ancient Church.

Jacob has his name changed to “Israel”. And he is to be the father of the Israelite people., and he is the symbol of the start of another Church.

And the Lord commands Jacob: “Be fruitful and multiply.”

Now, on an external level, this is just a command to have children and grandchildren, and to spread biologically. But, on a deeper level, being fruitful means bearing fruit: doing good. And multiplying is the result of taking truth, wedding it to good, and bringing it into life.

There’s story after story about the use of truth that results in more truth. The parable of the talents: each of those people who took their small amount of money out into the world and invested it, came back with double. And that’s what happens when we live truth. When we wed truth to good, our understanding of the truth increases.

So that’s one level of being fruitful and multiplying. There are a couple more ways of looking at it.

But first, what about the Christian church? When the Lord established the Christian church, He did not give a command to reproduce. He said nothing about being fruitful and multiplying—in so many words.

In the New Testament, He spoke in terms less remote from the spiritual meaning. He said:

Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the [one!] name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit [meaning, in His name, “Jesus Christ”], and teach them to obey everything that I have commanded.”

Which, on a spiritual level, is being fruitful and multiplying. On a personal level, again, the Great Commission is telling us the keys to being the church: becoming disciples, learning the commandments, obeying them. That’s the life of religion.

But the Lord spoke to us as individuals, and He spoke to us as the Church. And the Church itself is meant to turn to the Word, then to live it and to do good. And to be fruitful. And to multiply. And to make disciples of all the nations.

There is nowhere in the Writings that describes an internal sense for the Great Commission. We could speculate as to why that is. Some may say it’s because the internal meaning is very close to the plain, external meaning. There are parts of the Word where the internal sense is identical to the literal sense. For instance, in the Old Testament, when the Lord said, “I, the Lord your God, am one,” the internal sense of that is…”I, the Lord your God, am one.” There are parts of the Word that shine forth plainly. Perhaps the great commission is one of those. We’re not told otherwise.

But even if you start to look at what it means on a deeper level, it still draws you back to the idea of the church as a body being fruitful and multiplying. This is not because we need numbers in the church, but because there are numbers of people out there who need the church. They don’t have enough opportunities to hear what we get to hear every Sunday.

Remember, the church is not here for our comfort. Because we’re the church. We’re not here for ourselves, any more than you, as an individual, are put on this earth just to have a good time. The Lord would like you to have a good time; it’s one of the wonderful things about our theology. Because we have a theology that at its heart is about eternal happiness, and the Lord loving you and wanting you to be happy. But, what He wants you to actually do is to make other people happy. And then trust that He’ll have other people make you happy.

Likewise, the Church’s purpose on earth is to serve the human race.

Now, we’re told that the greatest pleasures in heaven are all wrapped up in the joys related to marriage, to “conjugial love”. It says in the book, Conjugial Love, in number 68:2, in explanation of this:

The reason why all pleasures, from first to last, are conferred on that love, is that its purpose so far excels that of the others. Its purpose [the purpose of the love within marriage] is the propagation of the human race, and so of the heaven of angels. …This purpose was the ultimate aim of creation….

So, once again, the Word leads us back to this idea, on a very natural level, of reproducing. And it makes sense when you think about all the joys associated with marriage, and all the power involved in that relationship, and how the Lord constantly talks of the Church as a marriage—it makes sense then to connect that idea with the purpose of the Church.

A healthy marriage—under typical circumstances—has some sort of offspring. (Note that, because of the imperfections of living in the natural world, this can mean different things in different circumstances to different couples.) Now, every healthy spiritual marriage has spiritual offspring.

If we’re going to be the heart and lungs to the Church—if we as a church are going to be the heart and lungs to the greater Church and humanity—then there has to be a means of connecting what we have with what people need. There have to be blood vessels.

We have to be in the world, and we have to be not of the world. That is a very hard place to stand.

We are called to stand firmly for a set of truths and beliefs that are at odds with what most of the world usually says. But to do it in a way that allows people to approach it, to connect with it. In a way that’s not merely condemning (the way truth is by itself), but that is uplifting—as truth is when it’s wed to good.

So, what can we do about this?

Well, first of all, the biggest threat to our success—the biggest threat to this greatest mission ever given to people in the history of humankind—is the separation of faith from charity.

We have this story of the dragon out to kill, first the woman’s offspring (her son, which represents the doctrine of the New Church), then out to kill the woman herself (the New Church), and then, out to kill her other offspring. We’re not even told about that right away. We have this great victory. The dragon is first thrown out of heaven, then is stopped from killing a woman. Then it says, “In fury, he went off to kill her other offspring.”

Those “other offspring” are people who desire to follow the Lord and His commandments, who are not of this church. And the dragon’s out to kill them. There is spiritual warfare being waged right now on the whole human race.

And that dragon is a symbol of the separation of faith from charity, and the division of the Lord—who is one person, the Creator of the Universe and the Savior of Mankind—into this sort of odd three-person-one-God-idea that just destroys any real understanding of who He is. That’s what the dragon is a symbol of.

And that the dragon attacks the child, attacks the woman, and attacks her offspring is not just a warning to us along the lines of, “Well, there are those other churches that teach those bad doctrines; you’ve got to be careful of them…” This is a warning to us about what happens inside our own hearts, and inside our own church. The separation of faith from charity happens every day.

Every time I decide to be right instead of good, I’m separating faith from charity. Every time you see somebody else’s error and point it out while ignoring the good in them that you’re meant to look towards, you’re separating faith from charity. When we fight—in our families, in our marriages, well… There’s a good kind of conflict. Remember, we have to stand firmly for what is true. But if we can’t do it in a loving way, then, once again, we’re separating faith from charity. And we are killing the church.

Happily, the Lord raises His Church up in many different ways, and He’s not depending just on us. But, wouldn’t it be better if we continued to participate in what He’s trying to do in the world?

So, here’s what we can do. It’s very simple. It’s not easy, but it’s very simple.

On an individual level: continue to turn to the Word, continue to marry good with truth, and continue to shun evils.

Look in your heart and examine your life, find things that do not belong, and take them to the Lord and ask Him to help remove them. If you don’t have an evil to look for, focus this week, or this month, on ways that you might be separating faith from charity, and see how you can put those two back together while still standing, in integrity, with the truth, but in a loving way.

What about Bryn Athyn as a congregation and as a community? The Lord sees each congregation as a person. What can that person do?

Bryn Athyn can continue to stand, in integrity, for the truth that has always been preached here in your churches, and that has always been taught in your schools, and can do it in a way that is welcoming and inviting to the world around you. In time, Bryn Athyn, as a person, can reproduce! Can be fruitful, and multiply. In the proper order of things, denominations don’t need to start new congregations; it’s not the shepherds who make new sheep. Congregations themselves should reproduce! Be fruitful, and multiply.

Someday, there should be a church in Doylestown. One in Germantown. One in Cherry Hill. Why not one in West Philadelphia? And you people here can do that. You don’t have to wait for permission; it’s not hard to do.

Open up new doors.

Create more events: marriage symposiums, family symposiums, conferences. Invite people to hear about the life after death. Find ways of taking the truth that we’re taught, marrying it to good, and taking it out into the world, so that the people that are desperate for it can find it, can connect with it, and can draw closer to the Lord. So that they can worship Him, in His Divine Human.

You have the power to change lives. You have immense power. And with the proper and humble exercise of that power, the Lord will give you great joy.

Just as the joys of marriage are wonderful, so are joys that come from any kind of marrying good to truth. And anyone who has been a witness to somebody “coming in from the cold”—somebody finding a church community where, finally, the Lord made sense, where doing good really was the point—if you’ve been a witness to somebody having that “coming home” experience, you know the joy that I’m talking about. It is overwhelming, and it is beautiful. And you have the opportunity to participate in it.

The New Jerusalem is descending—down from heaven, from God—and you are invited to be a part of its establishment on earth. What a privilege!

Be fruitful, and multiply.


[This sermon was first preached at the Bryn Athyn Cathedral on June 13th, 2010, at 11:00 a.m. Audio of that is available at]

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Service Evangelism

A major component of the outreach approach at New Way will be “Service Evangelism”. This is different from (but may technically include) “sevant evangelism”. Servant evangelism is the doing of natural charity for strangers as an act of outreach. Service evangelism (my own term) describes not just doing good works of charity for strangers, but actually inviting strangers to help do those good deeds with the church community. (The recent World Vision Caregiver Kit program is a partial example of this sort of outreach.) Evangelism—when looked at as handing out invitations to the Lord’s wedding feast—is not only declaring the truths of the New Church, but also inviting people into the life of the church, which is a life of doing good. By thus marrying truth with good in our outreach efforts, we are acting as not just the lungs, but also the heart for the surrounding community.

[This is from the Launch Plan for New Way Church in Austin, TX. Yesterday I shared the Marketing Philosophy. Tomorrow I’ll post something on Ratios.]

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Tell Everyone, “Taste and See!”

Fig Tree

Please help me. This Sunday (11/15/2009), at the Society Building (600 Tomlinson Rd, Bryn Athyn, PA 19009) between 12 and 3 p.m., you have the opportunity to participate in an important experiment.

I believe that doing good deeds—“benefactions”—while not the highest form of charity, is nevertheless necessary for the introduction of new people to the Lord’s church. The Lord’s disciples wanted to know when He would come again, and in response He said, “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. When they are already budding, you see and know for yourselves that summer is now near. So you also, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near.” (Luke 21:29-31) This is explained in the doctrines: “When a new Church is being created by the Lord, the good of the natural shows itself first of all, that is, good in external form together with the affection belonging to it and with truths.” (AC 4231) “Good of the natural” is not just the natural good we are born into, but rather is that good we do because of spiritual principles. So as the church is created (as a community, or within an individual) a vital step is doing of good on the natural plane, from a spiritual principle—doing good, not just to “be nice”, but as an act of worship of the Lord and love to the neighbor.

I believe that we cannot evangelize merely by sharing truths. Truth must be wed to good, like oxygen to blood, and so to be heart and lungs to the larger world around us, we must offer not just doctrine, but opportunities to bring doctrine to life. More than once the Lord described the growth of His kingdom using parables about inviting people to a feast, and eating represents making good a part of your life. So it is my theory that the world will be much more receptive of the Lord’s new revelation if it is presented hand-in-hand with opportunities to serve the neighbor. We must not only share the truths of the church with people, but invite them into the life of the church right from the start. Is it a coincidence that the emerging generations of young people in our increasingly “vastating” world say they believe in God but reject churches because they don’t seem to do any good?

Our doctrines say loving the neighbor is serving the good in others. When asked “who is the neighbor”, the Lord didn’t say the person left in the ditch was the neighbor, but the good Samaratan who stopped to help. This Sunday, we have a chance to support a group of Good Samaratans in a natural, powerful way. In developing nations in Africa and elsewhere, people are dying of AIDS. In many of their villages and towns, there are local caregivers who help relieve their pain, help prevent infection, assist with household needs including childcare, etc. Many of them are children themselves. World Vision supports these good Samaratans by providing them with kits of basic supplies that are cheap in this country but dear in theirs.

This Sunday, as an experiment in outreach, as a good deed of charity, as an act of worship, the Bryn Athyn Church and Charity in Action are inviting you to invite everyone you know to help us assemble 1,000 of these kits for World Vision. It takes only a few minutes to assemble a kit, plus maybe one more minute at the end for you to add a personal note of encouragement to your caregiver’s kit. I did this myself a year ago, and can report that the Lord does indeed reward good behavior with delight.

So tell everyone. I hope to see you there.

[This is also appearing as this week’s “Pastor’s Box” in the Bryn Athyn Post. For additional information, see my previous post about this event.]

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The Nighthawks

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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