Back in 2007, I was involved in the management of an art gallery called William Street Studios. This was a rather unlikely development for me, since I have never studied art, nor aspired to be an artist. But together with a band of friends, some of whom were artists, we set it up in a beautiful old Baptist Church building in Manly (pictured above) and hosted regular art shows and classes.
As a result we made great connections not only with local artists, but also with local art dealers. While in some respects we represented competition to these dealers, they realised we weren’t serious art dealers, but a community of Christians committed to supporting the flourishing of local neighborhood.
One of those local dealers was a woman named Teresa. She and her partner Shane had a little art gallery called artsConnect on Manly Corso right above a Royal Copenhagen ice cream franchise, opposite the Steyne Hotel. We saw Teresa and Shane regularly at Artichoke Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant frequented by artists, and they came along to the openings of a few shows at William Street Studios, as we did at artsConnect.
I had the impression Teresa liked our informal faith community and our commitment to fostering creativity, social justice and spirituality.
Then, one day, Teresa made an odd suggestion.
“How would you feel about holding a meeting, say, once a week, in my gallery, where we could read the Bible, pray, and sing spiritual songs?”, she asked.
We were taken aback. Did she want us to start a church service at her place?
“No,” she laughed, “not a church service. Just a gathering of people who could read the Bible, pray and sing spiritual songs.”
That sounded like a church service to me, but I wasn’t going to quibble.
And so we did it.
Together with a small group from our faith community, Small Boat Big Sea, we’d turn up every Wednesday, where we’d lead the ‘congregation’ of Teresa’s friends in a strange liturgy of lighting candles, responsive prayers and readings, short teaching segments (I taught from John’s gospel), discussion, singing, and, most strangely, the breaking of bread and wine. We weren’t sure where Teresa stood when it came to Christian faith, and her friends seemed to be either unchurched or post-church people with varying degrees of interest in Christianity.
But we broke bread and drank wine in Jesus’ name with them every week.
Eventually, the energy to keep meeting ran out of steam and we stopped gathering at artsConnect and launched a trinitarian meditation group back at William Street Studios. Teresa and Shane moved out of town and we lost contact with them. And that was that.
But I’ve occasionally reflected on that time in our lives.
I miss the spontaneous creative energy that propelled us into strange and unlikely places like hosting a not-yet-Christian Eucharist above an ice cream store. I once asked a theologian what do you call it when you eat bread and drink wine in Jesus’ name with unbelievers, and his reply was, “I don’t know. It sounds wonderful, but just don’t tell anyone you’re doing it.”
I’m not dismissing the concerns people would have about the conduct of the sacraments or ordinances (depending which tradition you come from), and I’m not wanting to suggest it’s cool to play fast and loose with much loved and cherished traditions. But when a group of artists ask you to conduct a meeting like this as they journey toward faith, what are you to do? Say no? I couldn’t, and I’ve often wondered what came of that daring, experimental service at artsConnect all those years ago.
Well, last week, out of the blue, I found out. Teresa sent me a message request on Messenger. I began to tear up as I read her beautiful words:
“Short story, God gracefully opened the hearts of me, my partner and my stepson. We celebrated our new birth and baptism in the waters of Port Stephens last year. Would you pass our love to all those at Small Boat Big Sea who took the time to love and serve and tell us about Jesus? It’s been a bumpy journey for each of us in our little family. Looking back I am so amazed at how God thru his Spirit brought us into his Kingdom, through the love and grace that he poured out, thru his Son, and through this beautiful little church up on the hill. Thanks Mike, I hope this message reaches Small Boat, and they remember us, and I hope they are encouraged to know the absolute truth that God’s word does not return empty. Isaiah 55:11.”
The verse she quoted, Isaiah 55:11, reads:
“…so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
God’s word does not return empty. Like Teresa said, it is an absolute truth. All those God-words we used — verses of Scripture, prayers, responsive readings — they took root. Like seeds scattered to the winds, they found purchase in the soil of Teresa’s and Shane’s hearts.
Stay the course, my friends. Keep speaking truth with love and gentleness, full of grace, seasoned with salt — delicious, nourishing, life-giving words, even in the most unlikely places to the most unlikely people.
You may never know their effect.
But I pray that you will.