Worship through visual art

Voices and Stories

June 29, 2023 | Opinion | Volume 27 Issue 13
Anneli Loepp Thiessen | Columnist
“Tree of Life,” by Saejin Lee. (Reprinted by permission of the artist)

If you have flipped through Voices Together, you have likely found that visually it looks like many other worship and song collections, with one noticeable difference: the inclusion of visual art. Unlike previous collections, the new hymnal contains 12 works of art which are interspersed throughout the collection, depicting acts of worship and aspects of the Christian story.

The first piece of visual art found in Voices Together is called “Tree of Life” (#12). It was created by Saejin Lee, who studied visual art at Goshen College alongside courses in Bible, religion and philosophy. Lee, who is now pursuing a master’s at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is a gifted song leader and worship leader who served on the Voices Together committee, participating in the Intercultural Worship and Worship Resources sub-committees.

Together with Sarah Kathleen Johnson, Lee also provided leadership to the collection and curation of visual art in Voices Together. After an open call for submissions from Anabaptist artists, “Tree of Life” was among several works of art commissioned for the collection to better align the visual art with the diversity of visual expressions found in Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA.

“Tree of Life” was created with watercolour paint and coloured pencils. It depicts a range of creatures and people gathering at the tree of life: a panda playing the trumpet, a farmer napping against the tree trunk, a duo of dinosaurs, a child with a balloon. It is full of details that spur imagination and creativity. Each look can reveal something new.

Lee collaborated on an essay in the Worship Leader Edition (WLE) of Voices Together (#44) on visual art. It suggests several ways of engaging visual art in worship. It can be displayed during a specific act of worship like the reading of scripture, printed as a visual in an order of worship, or reflected upon as part of the process of planning or preparing for worship. It can also become the basis for Visio Divina (WLE 46), a practice of slow reflection on visual art. Visio Divina, which shares roots with the ancient practice of Lectio Divina, invites participants to gaze upon a work of visual art while following a series of prompts, noticing the emotions, words or phrases that different aspects of the image evoke. An image like Lee’s may also be particularly meaningful for reflection with children, as it shows creatures that children may know, in a scene that is inviting and expressive.

In Voices Together, works of visual art are always on the flip side of a page that includes scripture verses. The art, scripture and songs on facing pages were selected to be in dialogue with each other. “Tree of Life” is on a facing page with the song “Mountain of God” by Phil Campbell-Enns, which similarly describes the gathering of God’s people, who come as they are. It can also be paired with scriptures such as Psalm 1:1-3 which describes those who delight in God’s law as being like a flourishing tree, or Isaiah 11:6-9, which depicts the peaceful reign of God.

In the artist statement that accompanies “Tree of Life,” Lee writes: “We gather at the Tree of Life, which was in the garden and will be with us in the restored creation. Around the tree we rest and play; under its branches we belong. It is our source of wisdom, and its leaves are for the healing of the nations. By the tree we need not fear, for the lamb rests in the bosom of the lion, and the child and the adder play together. By the tree we meet our friends—old and new, forgotten and familiar. And when we have gathered, we realize the tree has been with us all along. So come, friends: rest, play and belong.” 

For a range of resources related to Voices Together, see voicestogetherhymnal.org.

Anneli Loepp Thiessen is a PhD candidate, co-director of the Anabaptist Worship Network and was a committee member for Voices Together.

Read more Voices and Stories columns:
Darkness and light in worship
Song inspired by peace chief
Practising for tragedy
Untidied worship
Chin song adds breadth to newest hymnal

“Tree of Life,” by Saejin Lee. (Reprinted by permission of the artist)

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