Watercolors add inspiration to worship at St. Paul’s Moravian

watercolor painting, hands holding water with bird

The Rev. Dr. Bill Andrews, pastor of St. Paul’s Moravian Church in Upper Marlboro, Maryland found inspiration in the art of Tessa Sydnor, a watercolor artist from Germany. That art—which they discuss in the following article—formed the foundation of a collaboration that blessed the congregation during the COVID pandemic and beyond.

Pastor Bill Andrews: When Covid hit, St. Paul’s scrambled to migrate our worship experience online. Zoom worship was at once both “better” and “worse.” “Worse” because it lacked physical presence and only afforded an approximation of personal connection. “Better” because it allowed us to enrich our experience visually through art. We began including images from the treasury of two millennia of Christian art in our service.

But it was new art that arrested my attention and my heart instantaneously! My daughter’s friend from seminary is a gifted watercolorist. Her painting of a bird sitting on the edge of a hand into which water was pouring spoke of provision and security at a time when I was struggling to cope with uncertainty and fear as I had never known. It told me that if God cared for a fragile chickadee, He cared for me, too! With Tessa’s kind permission, the image was displayed in our service the very next Sunday. The response of the congregation to the picture inspired me to pursue a collaboration that would deeply bless St. Paul’s.

Tessa Sydnor: Growing up in Catholic Austria, in the shadow of cathedrals and stained glass windows, I knew that art played a role in some people’s worship, but I noticed that it did not play a role in mine. Attending various Protestant churches while my parents ministered to refugees in Europe, I put art and worship into two separate boxes that did not mix. We weren’t Catholic, so we must not use art in our services, right?

Years later, while attending Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and learning about God’s identity as Creator and our identity as creations, I realized that these separate spheres of my life might not be so separate —I loved to worship the Lord in church, and loved to create paintings in my free time.

I learned that in the same way that we love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19), we create because God first created us. Thus, “making” becomes something that is entwined with my knowledge and love for God, not separate from it. With that realization, I began to notice a shift in my art. It changed from a means to preoccupy my time to an intentional communication with the Lord. When I see a flower whose beauty touches my soul, I paint it and am reminded of Matthew 6:28. When I read Psalm 58:6 and an image of God treasuring my tears in a bottle comes to mind, I draw it and know that it is true. Pastor Andrews reached out to me in December 2020 to propose an Advent series of paintings that communicates biblical truth through visual artwork; I knew it was something I had to be a part of.

Pastor Bill: Tessa and I managed the time difference between Germany and Maryland and decided that a series of four paintings that illustrated the Lectionary texts for Advent would be a worthy goal. Tessa was able to take our theological conversations and create beautiful images that made the texts “come alive!” She joined our virtual services, interpreted her paintings, and remained after the benediction to talk with those who wanted “more.”

On September 12, 2021, St. Paul’s welcomed worshipers back to its sanctuary for “Reopening Sunday.” Tessa painted a special piece on the theme, “Jesus, still lead on,” which was included in the service. Again she interpreted the painting and offered personal conversation after worship. The painting was rich in spiritual meaning, lamenting what was lost and celebrating what is to come.

Monique Abbitt, member of St. Paul’s board of trustees: Tessa’s paintings proved to be more than just a unilateral conversation with her explaining her levels of intent with each painting to the congregation. It afforded the opportunity for us to share our personal interpretations of her art and to exchange our thoughts with each other. We explored the deeper meanings of her art through her described intentions on a more personal level.

It is an amazing experience to see how differently we see and interpret the same body of work. The intricate details in Tessa’s art were transformed into a personal connection and understanding of the biblical references associated with each painting, as she walked us through her explanation and origin of creating each one. Personal connection with Tessa’s art—whether fully understood or unintentional—is inevitable as one takes the time to recognize the details within her paintings. Despite the distancing of the congregation due to COVID, the spiritual expression through Tessa’s art was not at all lost. Art added yet another spiritually awakening dimension to St. Paul’s worship experience that enabled us to acknowledge and honor our Savior on a deeper, more intimate level.

Tessa: Working with St. Paul’s and Pastor Andrews has been an enriching experience, because it allowed me to see that God can use all things to work in our hearts. Although Covid has clearly been one of the hardest events of recent years, I was struck by how joyful and caring the congregation at St. Paul’s was. Despite being a continent removed, when I joined my first Zoom call with the church, everyone at St. Paul’s welcomed me so warmly, and I saw how caringly they greeted each other, asked after prayer needs and laughed together on zoom. I saw in St. Paul’s a church that God had sustained and strengthened through Covid.

I’m thankful that my art was able to be a part of that, and that in some small way God also used it to encourage and strengthen the congregation. I paint things that help me connect to God more, and it has been a blessing to see God use these images for other people as well.

Pastor Bill: I could never have imagined how our hearts would be touched and our faith deepened through some watercolor paintings. Such is the power of the Gospel, the goodness of the Creator, and the beauty of the Savior that it can transform the ordinary and transport us to the Holy. 

The Rev. Dr. William Andrews is pastor of St. Paul’s Moravian Church in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Paintings by Tessa Syndor.