April 26, 2019
Bible and Contemporary Life Side by Side
I mentioned in my blog last week about visiting the Getty Center. In addition to the artworks that I reflected on in that blog, I was also particularly struck by one entitled, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes. It is a work by Joachim Beuckelaer from 1563. It is based on the story from the 21st chapter of the Gospel of John, wherein a number of the disciples fish all night and catch nothing, yet at the suggestion of the man on the shore (whom we are told is the risen Jesus) they cast their net again, and they haul in an amazing catch of fish, one hundred and fifty-three of them we are told later. This artwork depicts three scenes from that biblical account, and then combines those with a scene of fishing from the artist’s own time.
The notes from the Getty website indicate that “Joachim Beuckelaer specialized in combining genre subjects with religious scenes.” Here, he shows a large haul of fish being unloaded in the foreground, with what appears to be some marketplace bartering, as well as fish that have been sold being loaded for transport, and some casual onlookers observing the whole scene. This contemporary activity is depicted in brilliant colors. By contrast, the three scenes in the background – the disciples hauling in their large catch, Peter jumping into the water to go and meet the risen Jesus, and Jesus sharing breakfast with the disciples as fish are yet cooking on the fire – are all depicted in muted colors, almost as though that part of the painting had faded while the foreground retained its brilliance. It was indeed this contrast that first attracted me to the painting.
The artist’s depiction of parallel scenes, one from just after the Resurrection and another from more than 1500 years later, creates a striking way of suggesting how we might approach any work of art in bringing it into focus in either the worship experiences or educational activities of the church. Whether we are dealing strictly with the biblical text, or with an artistic portrayal of some scene or event, we are hoping to emerge with more than just a history or theology lesson, desiring to also bring the stories into the lives of our people today.
Whereas Joachim Beuckelaer has placed these two contexts in interaction with each other in his work, it is usually our task to set them side by side. Whether we are bringing the text alone into the lives of people, or are using an artist’s vision to help us accomplish that, we need to enable people to see that both the ancient stories of scripture, and artworks that may be twenty years old or five hundred years old, are ways for us to view and understand our own place in the stories of Jesus and of the Bible as a whole.
Joachim Beuckelaer made this story from John a story for the people of his time. It is always our task and joy to help people to enter into these stories, and to allow these stories to live within them. Joachim Beuckelaer has given us a beautiful example of not just a work of art, but of the process of communicating these portions of our faith.
April 19, 2019
Inviting People to Experience
When artists create, and share those works, in whatever medium, they invite us to see something through their eyes, their hands, their spirits. I recently spent some time at the Getty Center. As I once again stood in front of Vincent van Gogh’s Irises I was acutely aware of the attentive brush strokes throughout the painting, but especially in the richly colored blooms. Turning to Claude Monet’s Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning, it was amazing to recognize the marvelous image he conveyed with brush strokes and dabs of paint. In both of these famous works, the invitation is extended to see, in a new way, with fresh eyes. But even more than that, each artist invites the viewer to experience the emotional effect of what is portrayed, to see beauty in simple things, to be moved by that simplicity.
Preaching is an artform too, using words, sometimes accompanied by images or music. But I would guess that one seldom hears a preacher talk about sitting down to craft their sermons. More often we might hear a pastor say that they have to go and write their sermon. It can seem more like a task than engaging in a creation.
But sermons involve more than just giving information about the Bible, or faith, or God. Sermons, messages (as I usually refer to them), are an opportunity to engage with people in ways that invite them to experience God, or faith, or the Bible in fresh ways. In crafting a sermon, one is using one’s own faith and experiences and allowing them to show through, just as brush strokes and dabs of paint emerge from the deep places in an artist.
Now I am not just talking about sharing lots of autobiographical stories, though sometimes brief ones can be appropriate if they are used to provide an opening for others to hear themselves through the stories. Rather, I am suggesting that preachers should share enough of their vision and experience, from the depths of their beings, to offer something tangible to others. If one remembers that the sermon is not about the preacher, but about the message being offered, and allows the experiences of the preacher to point to the message, and provide a window for others to see through, then one will have crafted a sermon.
Easter is one special opportunity for which crafting a sermon can have a significant impact. I hope that your celebration of the Resurrection is indeed wonderful.
April 12, 2019
We recently celebrated a Fifth Sunday with a worship celebration that had some different experiences. I was looking forward to that day as it was the first Fifth Sunday since the publication of my book.
One of the ways in which we made the experience different was in how we celebrated communion. As with many churches, we normally have the Elders and Deacons gather at the communion table for the prayers and the words spoken over the bread and the cup. Then we distribute the bread and juice through the passing of trays. On occasion we do it differently and have people come forward to receive the gifts of communion, as some traditions do each week. But for this Fifth Sunday I envisioned us doing something more.
Our theme for the day had to do with breaking down walls that can divide us. The scripture story was the encounter between Jesus and the woman of Samaria at Jacob’s well. So, rather than just the Deacons going out and serving the people, I told them that we were going to come forward to share communion, but then, after receiving the bread and cup, each person would take the bread and the chalice and offer them to the person behind them in line. I explained that though we have no barriers as to who can receive communion in our church, it was still important to recognize that serving communion is not a right of those elected to positions, but is something that we are all called to do.
So, after the Elders and I said the words at the table, the Elders went out to begin the serving. Now, I imagined that each person would take the bread and cup, then, holding both, would turn and face the next person. And, I also let people know that the Elders would be there to assist anyone who might need it, since some people would either have trouble standing there for very long, or because some have shaky hands and it is difficult to hold both the plate and the chalice.
In any case, almost immediately my well-conceived plan began to crumble. A couple of people didn’t seem to understand that they were supposed to serve the next one in line. The Elders tried to guide people, but confusion seemed quite evident. Then, one person held the chalice for the next person, while the previous person continued to hold the bread. The person being served then took the bread but left the other person to hold the chalice. And so, the pattern was reset. A person would receive the bread and dip it in the chalice and then would take one or the other, eventually serving two people, and then handing the plate or chalice to someone else. It sounds more confusing than serving the next person in line, and actually sounds incredibly confusing as I try to describe it, yet, they all made it work.
It ended up that each person served not just one person, but two. And, they had the joy of serving not just by themselves but with two other people. They reinvented my plan and thereby emphasized the point of the day more clearly than anything I could have said would have done.
After everyone was served, I took a moment to reflect with them on what had transpired. I shared with them that while it may have seemed confusing in some ways, I couldn’t remember a more beautiful time of serving communion in our church.
It is amazing what can happen when leaders start something, but then get out of the way and allow God and the people to share fully in what is happening. It was a profound morning, and because of all that took place, it is now one of my favorite Fifth Sunday experiences.
April 5, 2019
Journeying with Jesus – Four
As our congregation has moved through Lent, we have provided people with a journal to use on each of the forty days of the season, emphasizing that we want to see them in worship on the six Sundays of Lent. We created this journal by utilizing artistic depictions of Jesus, each of them accompanied by comments that lift up his life journey or mention particular events and encounters from his years of meeting people while traveling with the disciples. What we did though, instead of having forty separate pages, was to have twenty pages that we invited people to visit twice each during Lent. So, if people followed the pattern, they would reflect on each of the pictures and events during the first through twentieth days of Lent, and then return to the same pages for the twenty-first through fortieth days. The intent was to have them observe their own response from the first time through the journal, and to note any new insights or self-growth that may have happened. As with any journaling that one does, it is a very individual process for people.
Because journaling is such an individual experience, we have not asked people to share their thoughts. And I do know, as with everything that we offer to people, that some will use the resource and others will not. But, even if someone does nothing more than look through the journal and pause to spend time with one or more pictures of Jesus, who knows how that might impact that person.
That being said, I have received feedback from two individuals. The first person, who is a prolific writer in other activities that we have at the church, went through and filled the entire journal within the first week of Lent. Another person shared that she is diligently working her way through one day at a time, as was originally intended. I am actually happy to hear both responses, and to know that for at least two people it has been a worthwhile addition to our Lenten season.
There are times when we do want to hear how people have responded to things that we do in the church. Feedback helps us to shape future experiences. But it is also true that often we have to simply trust that God will work through and in those people, both using what we provide and in other things that we haven’t even thought of at all. Somehow, as we work with God, and trust in God, people’s lives are touched. That is one of the graces of being a church.
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.