April 30, 2021
Learning to be Helpful
When I first began to explore ways to introduce the arts more purposely into the life of my congregation, I purchased a small, coil-bound book entitled, Helps in Planning and Developing Church Related Galleries, published by CIVA and edited by Sandra Bowden and Dianne B. Collard. It is specifically related to the display of visual arts, but there is enough general guidance to be discerned from the book so as to be helpful in introducing a variety of art forms into the church.
Along the way, I have discovered that learning about such things is approached from at least three perspectives. The first is that of the congregation. There certainly needs to be a willingness to explore the arts, if not an outright excitement at including the arts in the life of the church. Sometimes this excitement initially comes from just one or two persons, but their enthusiasm can spread quickly. However, interest and excitement are not enough on their own. There is learning that needs to happen, the discovery not only of the possibilities, but also of how to do things, how to do them well.
The second perspective is that of the artist. Just as the church needs to come to understand the wonderful and unique gifts of each artist, so those artists need to understand the life of a congregation, where their comfort levels are, where the edges are that can be pushed and expanded through interaction with the arts. It is not just a matter of displaying art as one would in a commercial gallery, but of also developing a relationship with the people, encouraging conversations that promote growth.
The third perspective is that of the administrator, which may be the pastor or the head of an arts committee. It is this person who, in a sense, becomes the one to help translate the two worlds to each other, encouraging both the congregation and the artists in the process of discovery. It is of course also this person who oversees the details of gatherings, displays, contracts, and more.
As I searched CIVA’s current website, I didn’t find this book, nor one like it, but I am certain there are other resources out there that give similar guidance. CIVA is however presenting a series of webinars beginning on May 1 entitled, “Nuts and Bolts.” These webinars will deal with many of the practical aspects of the business of being a visual artist. I am interested not as an artist, but as one who fills that administrative role at my church in regard to the arts. The one restriction here is that the webinars are only open to CIVA members. Now memberships are not real expensive, and this may not be for you, but I find it to be a very worthwhile connection, and their ‘Seen Journal,” which is one of the benefits of membership, has been re-formatted in the past couple of years and provides some wonderful articles and prints of artworks.
In any case, the more that we can learn, from whichever perspective we begin, the richer the encounter can be between artists and the church. Pursuing this learning in order to be encouraging and supportive of one another, will help to make for successful relationships.
April 23, 2021
Being on the Inside of What We Do
While I last week ventured to mention a book that I haven’t read, this week I am writing in response to a documentary that I did watch. I received an email a few days ago from CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts), which began with a letter from the CIVA Board Chair, Joe Cory. In that email he shared about an Academy Award-nominated Netflix documentary entitled, “My Octopus Teacher.” When I sat down to watch it, and told my wife the title, she looked at me rather quizzically. And, okay, it is an odd title, but it catches one’s attention and it does also aptly describe the theme of the film.
The filmmaker, Craig Foster, documents a year-long encounter with an octopus. Now that can sound sort of mundane on the surface, but I found it to be an engaging film, which raises issues that anyone might connect with, even though the story is specific to Mr. Foster’s own life journey. And, as I watched it, I thought about what I wrote last week, and specifically about patience. Documentaries in general require patience in viewing them. Yes, there are documentaries that are produced in a more-flashy fashion, in order to catch the attention of a viewing public that is used to fast-paced, high-action films. But documentaries that are produced as art, as this one is, usually require more patience, as one allows the filmmaker to unfold the story.
Rather than telling the story of Mr. Foster’s return to the ocean off South Africa where he grew up, and of his fascinating development of a relationship with an octopus, allow me to reflect on the process of what he went through, as much as an outside observer can anyway. As a filmmaker, he reaches a point where he loses his passion for his work, and his passion for life really too. He comes to understand that he wants to immerse himself in nature, rather than just looking at it from the outside. This introspection leads him to rediscover a world he knew growing up, and to explore it in greater depth than most of us do.
It is shortly after he first encounters the octopus, that he realizes that in order to have it become more than a chance encounter, he must establish himself as a part of the environment within which the octopus dwells. So, he makes a commitment to free dive in the waters of that area every day. He becomes a part of the environment through his regular presence, and that leads to the octopus seemingly experiencing him as just another sea creature rather than as an unknown threat. Mr. Foster does not of course show every day of his diving, but he shows enough in order to give viewers the scope of what happens within a year’s time. I do recommend the film. Take time to patiently watch it.
When Joe Cory wrote the email that led me to the film, he shared some of his own responses to the film, the ways in which it caused him to be introspective about his life and his work. I too would say that part of the impact of the film is to engender such responses. In addition to giving pause to consider my own thoughts about passion for work and life, I was also taken by the immersive discipline of Mr. Foster going into the ocean every day. Part of the impact for him was that he began to see new areas of the ocean environment each time that he immersed himself in the water. Toward the end of the film he talks about how this discipline helped him to become a part of the place, a part of that small portion of the ocean, rather than just being a visitor to it. That, he said, made a huge difference for him.
While it is tempting to turn now to considering a daily discipline of connection with God, through prayer and scripture and more, which I do believe is truly beneficial for us, I want to instead consider how this idea of immersing ourselves can apply to all parts of our lives. It is a matter of being present, attentive, observant and involved in whatever we are doing. This can range from spending time with our children, to noticing the variety of life around us when we are doing gardening, to being immersed in our work such that we draw out the beauty and wonder that is there even if sometimes we wish we were doing something else.
Craig Foster’s understanding of the importance of being a part of a place or an activity, rather than a visitor there, can indeed bring new life to all that we do.
April 16, 2021
The Value of Patience
I seldom make reference to a book that I have not read, but I am going to chance it in this blog. I subscribe to a magazine, “Fast Company,” and in a recent issue there was an interview with Nyle DiMarco, who, when asked about a book that he would recommend to everyone, suggested Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike. He recommended it as a book that shows that “great things require time, effort and patience.” (March/April 2021 issue, p. 20)
It sounds like helpful insights for any endeavor, and I would certainly say that those are lessons I have learned to be true for churches, both in general and in relation to including the arts in the life of the church.
One of the most accessible forms of art for people in a church seems to be photography. Perhaps this is because almost everyone has taken photos at some time or other. It is an art form that people can understand, where in the process of creating it makes sense. This is one of the reasons that the use of PowerPoint presentations is a successful way of integrating the arts into worship experiences.
That being said, photography is also an art form that can teach lessons such as are suggested by the book mentioned above. Yes, anyone can point their phone camera at something and snap a photo. Most of us do this frequently. Often, we are not looking for great composition or artistic quality, but we are trying to capture a moment.
But professional photographers know that often the best photograph possible comes through much patience. Yes, skill at composition, and understanding lighting and the workings of the camera are all important, but patience is what often changes a photograph that is very good into one that is great.
If you have ever photographed a sunset, you know that in a sense all the stages of the setting sun are beautiful. But there is usually one photograph out of many that stands out, one that captures the stunning beauty of the setting sun and the surroundings of the place in which you are standing or sitting. I have done this a number of times, looking out over the Pacific Ocean. I find many striking moments during the sunset, but almost always there is that one moment that makes all the waiting worthwhile. It is the reward for patience. Of course, amidst the patience there is also the gift of the entire experience.
The patience of photography can also teach us about patience in life. Indeed, photography can be a spiritual discipline of sorts, one that helps us to see and learn these deeper lessons. Photography in an art form in which creativity and life come together. The patience it can teach, the value of waiting for something, is also related to what the Bible offers for developing our relationship with God. The Psalmist often encourages waiting, and in Psalm 37:7 writes: “Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently.” Photography helps us learn to do that.
April 9, 2021
The Amount of Writing that We Do
I have been reading Stephen King’s book, On Writing, for quite some time now. I find it engaging and helpful, but I have been reading it in small portions – for quite some time. There isn’t any particular reason that I haven’t finished it, just that a lot of other things call for my attention too. Having said that, I imagine Stephen King being dismayed that I am still reading his book, and hear him telling me that I am not serious about being a writer if I can’t even finish a book about writing.
I know it is presumptuous to imagine his response, but I do so from taking his admonitions about writing to heart. And, in some ways, he would be right of course. I haven’t left what I am doing and given myself totally to writing. I don’t even spend every evening from 7:00 to 11:00 writing. At this point, writing is not all-consuming for me, because ministry requires a lot of time. And that is what I am giving myself to right now.
But I envision some future time when I may spend my days writing, and his words are both encouraging and full of warning about what it takes to be a good writer. For one thing, he says that if one wants to be a writer, there are two things one must do – “read a lot and write a lot.” (page 145) This sounds wonderfully simplistic, and yet I hear the wisdom and truth in it.
It reminds me of something I was told about six months before going to seminary. I happened to hear one of the professors, from the school I was going to attend, speaking at a conference. After his talk I asked him, “Is there anything in particular that I should do before coming to seminary.” His response sounds as though he and Stephen King knew each other. He said, “Learn to read and write.” He was totally serious. Going to seminary wasn’t about learning to pray, and having inspiring thoughts, although those both came into play as well. But seminary involved serious study, serious preparation for ministry, and if one couldn’t handle the reading and writing then there would be challenges that might change the course of one’s intended journey.
Now Stephen King, who claims to be a slow reader, says that he usually reads seventy or eighty books in a year. That alone sounds overwhelming to me, even if, as he says, some of those are audiobooks. But it shows that he takes his own advice seriously.
And that is what I like about his advice, no matter what choice of work or profession we engage in day after day. I think of such commitment from bi-vocational pastors, who work at a trade all day and then go home and spend their evenings and weekends engaged in ministry. That is commitment.
Writing is not my profession right now, but someday I may be fortunate enough to spend my days in such an endeavor. But, when I look at things, I do realize that writing does form an integral part of what I do every day, and likely what you do every day as well. I send out a daily email reflection to the members and friends of our church. They aren’t lengthy, but I take time to carefully craft them nonetheless. There are of course the numerous emails that we all write, most of which are intended to convey information more than they are meant to be literary works, but I still take enough time to write those as clearly as possible, that they might have the impact I would hope for if I were conversing with someone in person. Beyond these though, I write sermons, and craft other elements of our worship experiences. I write a monthly article for our church newsletter, send out letters to people for various reasons, and I enjoy writing as a part of our Scripture as Theatre workshop experiences.
So, what I am saying is that though I am not a writer by profession, I do a lot of writing. As such, I work at how I go about that writing. I take it seriously. I look at how often I use words, and seek to find ways to expand the vocabulary I use in what I write. I am aware of structure, and though I am no expert, I care about how my thoughts come across to people, hoping that they communicate well. So, I do take my writing seriously, and if, someday, writing becomes my profession, then I am certain that everything I am doing now will prove to be fruitful in the future.
April 2, 2021
The Power of Story
While the focus of most churches at this time of year is on Holy Week and Easter, the Jewish Festival of Passover plays an integral part in Jesus’ story and the events of the week, especially as we remember that observance through Maundy Thursday services.
It happened this year that the first night of Passover was the Saturday evening before Palm Sunday. Our Artist-in-Residence noted that date at the beginning of the year, and set a course for our Scripture as Theatre workshop group to produce a drama via Zoom that told the story of the origins of Passover. In some ways of course it is the story of Moses, since the two threads of the story are intertwined. But the presentation last Saturday definitely told the story in a unique way, relating the origins and significance of Passover, just as the story is related in some form each year at Passover Seders.
Now I could have said at the beginning of our work back in January that I knew the story fairly well, and that was true. This certainly wasn’t the case for everyone in the group, though I am certain that the Jewish Christian in the group knows the story better than I do because it has been a part of her family life since her birth. However, even though I was well-versed in the story as told in Exodus, I found the week-by-week study of scripture, and the accompanying writing that would cumulatively become the finalized script, an adventure that was well worth the time.
Our Artist-in-Residence guides us through a thorough reading and discussion of the texts, no matter what project we are working on. In this case, that involved breaking the story into small sections, taking time to really hear the language of the telling of the story, and then translating this fresh experience of the story into vignettes that responded to the text. This sometimes involved giving greater depth to the characters as we were experiencing them, and at times meant that we imagined other characters who may well have been present but who were not considered significant enough for them to weave their way into the texts.
This process can sound somewhat tedious, but after working with the texts, discussing them thoroughly, we are only given five minutes to write in response to the text and conversation. This forces us to respond with an immediacy of thoughts, rather than pondering the blank page for ten minutes and then launching into a slow and deliberate writing process. We can of course go back later and edit some on our own time if we wish, but I find that this method brings forth some amazing creativity, while then allowing us to repeat the process with the next section of text. In some ways, it resembles the process of sketches and drafts that I was looking at last week. And, I think everyone feels a sense of accomplishment in having written five to seven vignettes each week.
Our Artist-in-Residence then eventually weaves together our writings, editing for length and coherence of the script, and produces a first draft for a read through and beginning rehearsal. As we rehearse, and reflect upon the script, and discuss what works and what doesn’t seem to fit well, he then edits the script further. More rehearsals, some costuming, and we are ready to share this presentation via Zoom. While the Zoom format has its limitations, it actually works quite well for this. Encouraging people to use the “speaker view,” utilizing virtual backgrounds as much as possible, and doing the rather minimal costuming, produces something that people can enjoy in their homes and from which they can experience the story in a powerful way.
This was a unique way to lift up the importance of Passover generally, as well as for Jesus and the disciples specifically, and at the same time to begin Holy Week with a creative use of the arts. I imagine that we may at some point return to in-person presentations of such dramatic works, but the Zoom format will continue to give us the option of bringing stories to people in accessible and creative ways.
Finally, I want to say that even though we are blessed with an Artist-in-Residence, and I am able to just be a participant in the group, that with preparation and imagination you would be able to do something similar if you choose. While I don’t want to diminish the skill that comes into play in creating the script from a wealth of individual writings, it could be done with creativity and cooperation by having two or three people work to create the script from the writings of a group. And with the Zoom format, you can produce a presentation without needing to create staging in your physical site. This has been a wonderful workshop group in our church. I encourage you to explore such options in your own setting.
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.