The witnesses

Many years ago, I went to an exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art. The featured artist was Paula Rego, and the show centered on a large, disturbing painting of people jumbled together in a room without apparent connection. They seemed to be taken from many imagesseparate images and placed there, some sleeping, some sitting side-to-side and ignoring one another, one pair playing a game, another falling from the sky like Icarus. I didn’t like it, but I was taken by another set of images, images of women in mortal pain.

It Unknownturned out they were from a series that focused on abortion, but what caught my gaze was the way they called the viewer to account. I found myself wondering what it would take to obtain one, not because I would enjoy having it, but because, if I placed it by my front door, it would serve as a kind of mezuzah, reminding me of the people Christ calls us to help, prodding me to open my eyes and see their faces, and not to turn away. It turned out that buying one would take far more money than a seminarian could muster, and so I let the idea slip away, and also the focus such an image might have given me.

I was reminded of those images this week, because I have been sharing my office with a large-scale painting of Christ being condemned to death. It is part of the preparation for a series we will be offering at church, in which my colleague Jim and I will be exploring the Passion of Christ through a set of eight paintings that Jim has made.

The painting is an uneasy office-mate. It sits opposite my chair and calls me to look at things I would prefer not to see, to remember things I would far rather forget. Over the course of the day, people call me, weeping over a problem, begging for help, carrying their joys and sorrows to me in hope of…what? blessing? forgiveness? healing? just a person willing to listen and not to condemn? At times, I find myself turning my back on the image, trying to listen to what the caller is telling me. At others, the image merges with the voice of the caller, reminding me to Whom I am speaking. It works more or less the way I imagined long ago, as a silent call to accountability.

This evening, when I came home, I linked up Facetime to my godson’s family. Only a few years ago, this would have been unthinkable: to speak face-to-face with a toddler in Milwaukee, to see him eat his dinner and practice his words and make his favorite animal sounds: moo! quack! and a flickering in and out of his tongue which was apparently the sound made by a newt. It was an immersion in joy, in new life, in silliness and hope and love. To these, too, we are accountable.

What are the witnesses in your life? To whom and to what do you render your account?

What do they ask of you?

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