I'm guessing you haven't heard of Unsplashiality. I'm not surprised really - it's a word I made up. But it does have a meaning. It combines two words - "Unsplash" and "Spirituality". Spirituality you already know about. It is, in Eugene Peterson's words "how we live with God"- the daily business of living a life of faith, seeking God and walking with Him.

Unsplash, on the other hand, is a free stock photography website that is becoming popular, and its images pop up all over the internet. In fact in the last few years, free stock photography websites have begun springing up like wild mushrooms in autumn, and new ones are appearing all the time. Many of these have a vintage feel to them, but some are more general in their coverage.

Unsplashility is simply about using these free photographs to meet with God through creative prayer. All you need is an internet connection and an open heart. Some skill in editing photos, especially to put text on top of them, is very useful but is not essential.

Here's how it works:

  1. I open myself up to God, and ask him to meet with me and speak to me.
  2. I visit www.unsplash.com (or a similar website) and browse through the photos, and I stop when one of them grabs me.
  3. I stop browsing, and begin to reflect on what God might be saying to me through it.
  4. I download that photo and either use it as is, tweak it visually or put some words on top. This is an optional step.

That's it really.

It's a kind of visual lectio divina which is an ancient monastic technique for reading Scripture. In lectio divina, you read until something jumps off the page, and then you stop and follow that prompting into deeper prayer and fellowship with God. The only difference here is that we are using photos rather than the Bible text as a starting point.

This is one of my favourite ways to spend time with God, especially during the season of Advent, which is my favourite season of the year for creativity. Advent themes of light and dark, hope and longing, expectation and promise, waiting and seeking seem to be the mark of my spiritual journey in recent years. I find that my creative and spiritual journeys are often woven closely together, so that spiritual can spark creativity and vice versa.

Some Examples

Let me illustrate the above process using a couple of examples from the set of Advent Images I have just created for engageworship.org. This year, for Advent, I was drawn to the theme of Light. So I began to browse through Unsplash, looking for light-related photos which jumped out. Here's one I picked out:

The picture places you and I, the viewer, inside what might be a cell of some kind. The small, barred window suggests that. So I begin thinking about imprisonment and freedom. This sets me thinking about the areas of my own life where I long for greater freedom, and I spend some time praying into this. I pray also for the people and situations I know where people are imprisoned, or living in despair and darkness, that the light of Christ may shine on them. As I continue reflecting, Isaiah 9:2 pops into my mind, so I add this to the photo, with a few tweaks, colour adjustments, and so on. And this the result:

Let's take another example.

I find this kind of image speaks powerfully about walking from darkness into light. In films and stories, forests are often scary places to be, and the characters are often running away from some threat towards safety and light. I thought of the other half of Isaiah 9:2 for this image. I tried different ways of adding the text, but what eventually came out was the following image. Somehow, in a way I hadn't quite envisaged, the word "LIGHT" merged with the light in the photo in a powerful way.

These are just two examples of my own. I'd encourage you to try your own. Visit Unsplash and have a browse (the photos are free to use as you wish). Allow God to speak to you as you browse. Download images that grab you, play with them, add your own text, and share them with others.

Technical Bobbins

A couple of practical things. Use whatever tools you are familiar with, but there are also excellent free options such as Pixlr which can be used online or as a desktop app and will allow you to do everything I have described here including adding text on top of photos. [Editor's note - there are also lots of free mobile apps for photo editing which work well on phones and tablets. Browse your Apple/Andriod/Windows app stores]. Also, Unsplash photos are very high resolution, which is great, but they are larger than is needed for most purposes. It's best to crop the images down to 1920x1080 or something similar, which is ideal for projection.

Finally, if you would like to know more about how I've created the various effects in the related Advent Images packplease contact me and I'll be happy to help.

May God meet with you and shine his light into your life, and the lives of those you love this Advent as you create in His presence.

Richard Lyall
Advent 2015