July 23, 2021
The Power of Words
As I have written in the last two weeks, I believe that a balance between words and artistic expressions of various kinds is most helpful for experiences of worship. Within that balance are the words that we use, words which have the power to inspire, transform, encourage and uplift. The words that we use are important, and I in no way want to diminish their role in sharing the messages of God’s love and care, the urgings to love one another, the encouragement to care for others.
But Jesus himself reminds us that the words we choose, and the amount of words we speak, are important choices. Matthew records him as saying, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matthew 6:7 NRSV)
Similarly, when Jesus is at the home of Martha and Mary, he again talks about priorities. He isn’t telling them that no food is necessary. After all, hospitality was one of the paramount priorities of the time. Rather, Jesus says that a simple meal would have sufficed, and then Martha too could have shared in listening to him speak.
In 2012, a movie was released that wove a tale about such simplicity. “A Thousand Words” stars Eddie Murphy as a literary agent named Jack McCall, “who uses his ‘gift of gab’ to get various book deals, and he is not afraid to stretch the truth to get them. While he is trying to get a book deal from a New Age self-help guru named Dr. Sinja, the guru sees through his deceit and agrees to the deal, only to later deliver a five-page book. That night, a Bodhi tree magically appears in his backyard. Dr. Sinja goes to Jack’s house and they both discover that for every word that Jack says, a leaf will fall off of the tree. When the tree runs out of leaves, the tree will perish, as will Jack. In time, he finds that even written words count towards his limit; plus anything that happens to the tree will also affect Jack. When Jack tries to cut it down with an axe, an axe wound appears on him. When squirrels climb the tree, it tickles him. When a gardener tries to poison it with DDT, Jack gets high on the fumes and when the gardener tries to water the tree, Jack starts to sweat profusely…With Jack forced to pick and choose his words, communicating with others becomes difficult and full of misunderstandings.” (Excerpt from IMDb plot synopsis, A Thousand Words (2012) - Plot Summary - IMDb)
The movie provides an important reflection on the value of words, and often our overuse of them. It could well be used in a variety of settings, perhaps including with one’s worship planning team. It is rated PG-13, and if you show it to others you would do well to preview it just so that there are no unwanted surprises.
Choosing our words – in the crafting of sermons, in the other portions of the worship experience – is important. The amount of words we use, the variety of words that we speak, help those words to have the powerful impact that we desire for the people who are hearing them.
July 16, 2021
Words at the Beginning
After I posted the blog last week, I began to think about the first blog that I posted on this site, back in July of 2015. It was entitled, “The Church of Words,” and was a reflection on a worship service that I had attended as part of a writer’s conference. The experience of that service helped to shape some of my thinking about worship and in particular about the value of the arts in worship. While I have never re-posted a blog before, I imagine that most people who are reading this likely never saw that blog six years ago. So, I want to share parts of it here as a continuing reflection on the balance of words and the arts in worship.
In that worship service six years ago, the time was virtually filled with words. There were songs, and more songs. Then there were the scripture readings. Announcements were made. And there was of course a sermon. Now I am not saying that it was a poor worship service. There were good parts to it.
“But what struck me was the abundance of words. Now, to be fair, this was a conference for writers, who use words, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, but who use words. One would expect words at a conference for writers.
“The time of worship, though, could have been more than words. The setting didn’t really encourage that something more – no stained glass to invite color into the space and to welcome the imagination to float in that color – nothing of the visual to open up other senses, with the exception of the magnificent organ front and center behind the central, raised pulpit. That pulpit says it – words are central in that space. I love words, but the worship would have been enriched by something more.
“A splash of color, even absent stained-glass windows, could have had a profound impact. Even something as simple as images projected on a screen would have added to the time, although there was no screen in evidence. Art, dance, even the use of words in poetry would have made a difference.
“It takes time, effort and creativity to draw the arts into worship gatherings. I don’t do that every time we gather in my home church, although the stained-glass windows do always bring in color. But I look for ways and times to bring in more than words. We are more than just our minds and our thoughts. We are affected by a wide variety of experiences. The arts open up our senses, and our minds too, in ways that words alone cannot do.
“I am grateful for that time of worship, precisely because it reminds me that I want to strive for greater creativity in our gatherings. I will always use words, but want to enhance the hearing of words through the appeal to our other senses. We are given many gifts to use in worship. Our words are but one of those gifts.”
I am reminded again of how much I want to make this the reality in our worship times.
July 9, 2021
Images and Words
It has been an interesting experience to begin in-person worship again while still continuing to welcome folks who join us on Zoom. It has certainly been a positive to continue to welcome folks who live at a distance, as well as some local people who either are not yet comfortable with the in-person gathering or who have individual reasons of why they would otherwise miss a Sunday worship experience but have been able to still join in through Zoom.
The dynamics of this combined way of celebrating worship continue to evolve. We spent a good deal of time before the first combined experience working on camera angles and microphone placement, seeking to fully include those on Zoom while not making the sanctuary to appear to be a sound studio for those who are in-person. While we did a fairly good job with the initial set-up, we have continued to discover additional things that have needed to be done, and have more to do yet this week.
Beyond the practical, technical issues, there is for me the dynamics of combining words, silence and images. I have regularly attempted to bring together a healthy mix of those three in our worship experiences. Part of the power of art and images is that they can free us from an over-dependence on words. Yet, both when we were doing Zoom exclusively, and now with the combination of the two settings, it is a greater challenge to find a balance, since as we know from television, gaps in time without words can lead people to tune out.
The one dynamic that we maintained throughout the time of exclusively worshipping via Zoom was one of a time of silent prayer, something which we continue to engage in each time we worship now. That is a time without words that is specifically set aside for the purposes of prayer.
But when there are other gaps in words between portions of the worship experience, or when words drop out because our wireless signal weakens, then we are faced with totally different issues. When we are in-person, I can help the transition if need be. But trying to help everything to go flawlessly in this combined experience can be more of a challenge to manage. For while people on Zoom are happy to see the images of worship on their screen, if they lose the words then they feel left out of the experience.
Fortunately, people have been patient, both throughout the Zoom-only time, and now with the combined experience. Nevertheless, these are important issues to work out, both technically and in regard to the theological understanding of worship. It is a journey to discover ways in which to attend to both priorities.
July 2, 2021
Sharing History through the Arts
It was during my first trip to Washington, D.C., where my brother-in-law lived at the time, that I was thrilled to visit as many of the National Museums as we could fit into our vacation. Each museum, in its own way, was fascinating. The Smithsonian does a wonderful job of sharing treasures and providing an education for those who take the time to immerse themselves in what is there.
When I was working on my doctoral program in Washington, D.C., we were privileged to see a part of the museums that most people likely don’t think about even being there. We were studying Ethiopian Icons at the time and were given a tour of the archives below ground where those icons are stored. The curator brought out a large sampling of them for us and guided us through the history and detailed meanings of the various icons. It was an amazing experience.
But the rest of my experience of the Smithsonian museums has been like that of other tourists. As we moved from one museum to another, over multiple days of course, I so enjoyed the National Gallery of Art, as you might guess. I also found the National Portrait Gallery to be a surprising discovery. One thinks of portraits of Presidents perhaps, and the National Portrait Gallery has the only complete collection of portraits of our Presidents outside of the White House. But the Portrait Gallery is also so much more than just presidential portrayals, with a wide and diverse collection that includes both paintings and photographs, and seeks to represent the diversity and beauty of our country. If you are curious you can visit their website at https://npg.si.edu/visit .
One of the great advantages of painted portraits, prior to the emergence of photography, was that it allowed us to see a vision of historical figures, to put people together with the legacy that they had left. Of course, in any creative work, the viewpoint of the artist gets interwoven with the subject being portrayed. In addition, I am certain that most portraits showed somewhat idealized versions of the persons, just as photographs today can be touched up or even altered in a variety of ways. Yet, portraits of individuals, and depictions of events, still give us important insights and visions.
When we look back to the time of Jesus, we are faced with even more challenges, trying to discern what people and events may have looked like back then. There were of course some early representations of Jesus, particularly in funerary settings. These often depicted Jesus as the Good Shepherd, or showed him in scenes of eating with people or performing miracles. But none of these, at least as best we know, was anything akin to a portrait of Jesus, or some kind of other attempt to depict his likeness. Personally, I think part of the beauty of Jesus coming when he did, instead of anytime in the last three to four hundred years, is that the focus was upon his message, and his life, rather than upon what he looked like. Jesus came for all of us, and since we tend to focus on outward looks in relating to people, with Jesus we are left to only know him through his message, his actions and his resurrected presence in our lives.
Welcome to my website. I hope you will discover a connection to the life of small churches, and the richness that the arts can bring to these churches.