From the Pastor’s Desk: Rev. Jason Cheung

Dear brothers and sisters of RCAC,

Growing up I don’t remember saying much at all at the dinner table.  One night, soon after the end of my first year of university, my father showed his curiosity about my meanderings.  “What’s your plan?  What are you going to study?”

I knew this question was coming, and I had prepared for some time to give an answer.  It felt right, because I grew to love the direction no matter how unpredictable the future would be. “I want to study film.  I want to be a film director.”

The movie theatre was where I grew up, most impacted.  I recall fondly the double-bills of Hong Kong films in Chinatown – I learned to read English through subtitles (and also Cantonese slang).  It was the only regular time our whole family went out, and we did so to receive art.

As a 19 year old I had grown drawn to stories through film that expressed things my heart could not articulate or understand.  And I loved the medium of sight and sound, angles and music, script and acting – and the beautiful medley of it all.  Love and laughter, sin and suffering, truths and the human struggle to grapple truth, carefully crafted on screen for me to receive and consider.

My dad responded (I recall this vividly):  “It’s going to be hard to find a job.”

His response was no surprise to me, but my dream deflated at that very moment.

God is good and his plans are greater than mine.  My love for film has not diminished (though the number of hours I spend watching has plummeted!).  As a pastor, like a filmmaker, I get to tell a story – but in a different way.  My imagination is grounded in the revelation of God, in the Word, and my vocation is to ignite the vision of Jesus to people.  A painter or a poet does the same, generally, cultivating an imagination prompted to stir wonder on truth, goodness and beauty within the beholder.

A question I have grappled with in recent years:  Is art helpful to faith?  Might it even be essential?

We often, I think, unhelpfully divide people into one of two camps:  those who are “artsy” and those who are not.  But here’s what I’ve learned.  As we are created in the image of God, and as God himself is a designer and all-world Creator, we share a little of this with Him, in this call to create.  Just as we are made to love and be loved (like our loving God), so we are also made to create (like our creator God).

To be clear, we’re not all called to be artists (vocationally).  But I do think art in our world exists more than just as a hobby.  Art can point us–whether we make it or receive it– to the Great Designer and Maker of this world.

I enjoy films.  I also love exploring new music, even while I have my playlists of old favourites.  Within the last two years, in this pandemic, I have discovered the silent strength of poetry for my soul.

You may have unique interests: short or long fiction, graphic design or architecture, landscaping or the complex design of cities. Or paintings.

Whatever art you enjoy, or however you engage with it, your faith can be strengthened with art.  What I have found helpful is to listen to artists and the reasons they do what they do.   I also read and learn how others view and experience art – their reflections and critiques, but mostly to see what they see.  Art helps me understand points of view I would not be able to consider by myself.

The Purpose of Art?

When I was 19, my dad had a specific concern for me: How would I earn a living?  He determined a vocation in the arts would not be promising.  Though I disagreed, I am grateful for his guidance.

I do think, still, one of the reasons we engage so little with art is because it seems impractical.  This begs the question: If the net result of engaging with art is mostly an interior benefit, is that enough?  I emphatically say, yes!  As followers of Jesus, we serve a Lord who rescues us and transforms us spiritually; we are a people being changed from the inside-out.  Put another way: Can the Spirit use art to help us see, know and respond to the Triune God?  Absolutely.

One of the ways the Spirit has helped me through art is to learn to grieve.  When my grandfather died when I was young, I knew nothing about death.  For years, I was a mess inside and I didn’t even know it.   Eventually, as I took in movies and read stories that touched the topic of grief – I found myself unusually moved.  Why was I weeping in the theatre?  These stories told with care helped me see a person struggling with loss.  That was my experience too.  And I learned art can serve us well by providing emotional grips to journey through the inevitable valleys of life.  When I observe a face, a tone, a lyric or a rhyme – I sense the Spirit moving me to see what he sees.

Heaven and Earth:  “A Hidden Life” Screenshot

Those hands, with the heavens as backdrop, belong to a wife and husband.  The husband is Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who would not fight with the Nazis during WWII.  This is a true story: he was beheaded for his “conscientious objection.”

This film by Terence Malick is more a meditation on Jägerstätter’s struggle – including a difficult emotional struggle with his wife.  She loves him dearly, supports him even in his objection, but the cost is clear before them.  Their dilemma: Fight in a cause their faith does not align with, or risk losing their way of life, their family, one another?

Malick is an atypical director, choosing long shots with few words and selective music.  And this scene, with husband and wife lying free in the alps in embrace and belonging, also reflects the aching strain of Jägerstätter’s decision.  Lives together, embracing both beauty and brokenness, grasping for heaven to be on earth.

Art and Your Faith?

How many of you are artists?  I want to know who you are, and encourage you.  Too long, I believe, artists among us are used more than celebrated.  Artists need to be encouraged, even nurtured.  There is so much that artists in our community can add to our spiritual life together.  ReflectionChallenge.  Questions.  And, similar to preachers, pointing to Christ all in all.

Who wants to explore how art helps us to be more human, and one with God?

I have rummaged through these questions for some time, and I’m curious if any of you have as well.  Let me know.

For now, I encourage you to be curious, pause and to take note of how art – any art – might be leading you to hear the Spirit’s voice, reverberating Scripture and highlighting Christ.

Your servant in Christ,
Pastor Jason Cheung