April 27, 2018
Sharing with Honest Openness
One of the books that I found to be compelling in my seminary years was Henri Nouwen’s small work, The Wounded Healer. Nouwen’s basic premise was that people generally, and I understood it as clergy specifically, can help to bring healing to others by sharing their own wounds, their own struggles, their own journey toward healing. And, I am acutely aware that people who have themselves struggled with addiction, or have become a cancer survivor, or have dealt with difficult family dynamics, can indeed meet others in ways that a person who has not been through such experiences cannot. We can all, of course, listen and empathize. We can all offer our support to each other. But to more fully understand a situation, it makes a huge difference to have lived through something that is at least similar.
That being said, it is also true that we do each have our wounds, our struggles, our own difficulties in life. And as we are willing to speak honestly about such things, as we are willing to be open about our own lives, I believe that we can open doors for others to at least feel comfortable sharing their struggles, and at best to glimpse the healing the can happen.
The challenge I find, though, is that many people still want to feel that their clergy, in particular, have their act together, that their clergy are basically whole, healthy people who can be present to others out of their wholeness rather than out of their woundedness. And yes, clergy should not be looking for healing for themselves as they share their story, but out of honest sharing comes a kind of credibility that I think is quite important.
In a conversation a while back, I shared that there are times when I need to trust God more fully with my life. That was not to say that I don’t trust God, but only that sometimes I try to be the one totally in control rather than opening myself up to trust God more deeply. Well, somehow my admission, my self-reflection, had sounded as though I was saying that I was somehow less put together than the person perceived me to be. And while I appreciated that person’s affirmation of me and my good qualities, it was striking that my admission of a growing point in my life had been seen as a negative thing. And we talked about it until things were more clearly understood, but it still pointed out how clergy sharing from their wounds, from their growing places, can be a challenging thing for people to hear.
This is another place in the life of the church where the arts can open windows for people. Whether it is the memoirs of Frederick Buechner, with his amazing openness and honesty, or a painting depicting Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, or a play such as Our Town that deals with the elements of life and death in such a way that we might see ourselves in the work, the arts can open conversations in ways that people might not otherwise be willing to engage in the discussion of such topics. And then, from that starting point, who knows what conversations might be made possible.
April 20, 2018
Using Theological Words
I have often heard people say that the language of the church is outdated, that we in the church need to learn better and more contemporary ways to communicate. Some of that may indeed be true. For example, while I enjoy the rich poetry of the King James version of the Bible, “thee, thou and thy” are just not the way that we talk anymore. And those are only some of the words that have been updated in the New King James translation.
On the other end of the spectrum, paraphrases such as The Message have employed great effort to make the language more contemporary, sometimes in beneficial ways, and sometimes, in my opinion, in ways that either dilute the meaning of the text or that attempt to make 1st century conversations sound like they happened in the 21st century. Such attempts may provide some clarity, but also risk losing the context in which Jesus and others actually spoke.
On the other hand, when the church seeks to express theology in the 21st century, it is usually helpful to use more contemporary language. The risk, though, is that we will lose a connection to the history of the church, to the centuries that have helped to form the church of today.
When I deliver a morning message in worship, or when I am leading a Bible study or other class, I actually like to use the words of the church that have long served an important function, but only if I am at the same time providing insight into what those terms mean, and of how they are of importance still today. For example, if I were to speak about eschatology, I would in the same breath talk about how that refers to the end times. I actually think it is a good thing to educate and illuminate people, but one should never send them home confused or needing to consult the dictionary on their phone. In the same way, when we talk about a more common term such as grace, or make reference to the eucharist, we should be using parallel terms that make things very clear for people. I actually don’t think people so much reject the classical theological terms, as they object to the use of them as some sort of insiders’ language. And yes, if such language is used to somehow exclude people, then it shouldn’t be used at all.
The language of theology, worship and biblical studies can certainly be confusing. But when it is explained, when it is used to help people connect to the traditions of Christianity, rather than as just fancy terms that mean nothing to people, such words and phrases can indeed enrich the life of the church and its people.
April 13, 2018
The Beauty of Words
As our church book club prepares to gather to discuss our next selection, a novel, I am struck once again by the crafting of words, by the ways in which the author shapes the experience of the reader through the choice of words. In fact, in the course of the story, one of the characters speaks of attending a poetry reading, something which she would normally shy away from, and says, “they wove a web of words around her, its dreamlike quality” touching her. (Northanger Abbey, by Val McDermid, page 70)
I think of preachers such as Frederick Buechner, whose words have an effect upon me similar to the words of the poets in the novel. I am drawn into the richness of the experience that he provides, and the words take on a deeper meaning than they might otherwise do. There are certainly other writers and preachers who do the same.
And then there are the multitudes of preachers and church leaders whose words approach nothing like this kind of experience. I confess that there are times when I am one of those in this latter category. It isn’t that we aren’t capable of crafting words as well, but rather that we haven’t taken the time to notice that our words are not rich with feeling and meaning, and haven’t taken the time to choose our words more carefully.
Yes, life is busy, and sometimes there is pressure to just get things done. But if we spend just a little extra time, we are apt to do them just that much better. And if our words then deliver God’s message in fuller form, isn’t that what we are called to do?
It may be as simple as noticing how often we use certain words, and taking the time to find new words that both give variety to our expressions, and also, perhaps, state things in more creative and even profound ways. I once attended a writing workshop for a number of months. The best thing that I carried away from that experience was an awareness of how much better my writing sounded when I increased the variety of my words. I found greater joy for myself in taking the time to choose words more carefully, and I have brought that awareness into the crafting of the messages that I deliver in worship, as well as in letters that I write for any number of reasons. And if I can enjoy the product of careful composition, then my efforts likely have a positive effect on those who hear or read my words as well.
As we use words in the life of the church, we may not have the skill or the time to craft things the way that a novelist would. Nonetheless, if we use just a little extra care, and develop our own crafting of words, it can have a wonderful effect on people.
April 6, 2018
The Details of Theatre Productions
I recently spent some time talking with our choir director, who is also a professor of Theatre Arts. It has been a pleasure for my wife and I to accompany her to a number of theatre experiences through the years, and to hear her perspective on both the plays themselves and the productions that we have been to. She has spent so much of her life in the theater, that being together provides me with a wealth of understanding that I wouldn’t otherwise be attuned to.
She has been on-stage, having toured for many years with various productions. She has directed numerous plays at the college where she teaches. Her talent for scene-painting, for costuming and for accumulating interesting props is amazing. Her knowledge of the theatre is wide-ranging.
It helps me to understand that directing a play can entail weeks of late-night rehearsals. It gives me an appreciation for the art of directing that it may find its foundation in hours and hours of research about the topics addressed in the play. Even gaining an understanding of the playwright, in order to capture that person’s passion in writing the play, can require hours of reading.
Searching for props, borrowing props, even creating props can take a great deal of time. There too, research into the period depicted in the play, is essential to getting the props correct.
I have also been amazed at how plywood, paint, creativity and long hours can transform a bare stage into a setting that transports the audience to another time and place. I have seen that happen in college plays and in big-name theaters alike, and creating that stage is truly an art.
I could continue on, but my point is that so often we are unaware of the hard work and long hours involved in bringing a creative work to life, whether that be a play, an oil painting or an art installation. We may appreciate the final creation, but understanding all that stands behind that creation makes it all the more incredible.
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.