August 31, 2018
When I was in seminary I was exposed to a storyteller and his craft by my preaching professor. This was not storytelling as sermon illustration, but rather classic storytelling where the point was made by the story itself rather than by the preacher. This was story that was akin to the parables Jesus told, where the message was in the brief story itself rather than in the explanations such as the Gospels provide for some of the parables. This was storytelling that could stand in place of a sermon, as long as the preacher didn’t feel compelled to add a moral to the story.
I was taken by the whole idea of such storytelling, as well as being captivated by the storyteller himself. So, I signed up for a workshop with him a couple of years after finishing seminary. It was a fun and fascinating week, and resulted in my learning some stories, and my even using them in worship in place of sermons. That, though, was difficult for the listeners, since we are used to the preacher offering up the moral or somehow making clear the message that the story itself was delivering. I realized that, as with any other artform or craft, it is as important to explain the dynamics of everything ahead of time as it is to engage in the craft itself.
These memories came to me as I was recently finishing the Frederick Buechner book, The Remarkable Ordinary. I have written about my responses to this book a couple of times before, but it seemed worthwhile to reflect on it one final time. In particular, Buechner writes about stories, and of how the stories of our lives, despite the differences in particulars, are much the same; our human stories, and the stories of God mingling with our human stories.
I began then to reflect upon how we tell stories, and of what stories we tell. Sometimes we relate stories of incredible joy and beauty, and sometimes our stories are just a way of complaining about someone or something, of venting our feelings and emotions. There are times when we just need to get things out, and we use those venting and complaining stories to do so. But while such stories serve a function, I realized that I want to do that less and less.
Instead, as I was reading in the book about Buechner’s own story, many parts of which I was familiar with from his prior writings, I was thinking about the power of the memoir genre. Memoirs are stories, as best I understand them anyway, which allow readers to glimpse the spirit and soul of a person through the relation of portions of their life story. But more than that, memoirs are a way of seeing purpose and meaning in the story of the writer, and then to find clues for reflection upon one’s own life story.
Buechner honestly and insightfully shares his story, but while his reflections seek to share the lessons and meanings that he has gleaned, there is no moralizing, no grand attempt to place those same meanings onto the reader. In addition, there is no sense of complaining or venting, but rather just the genuine sharing of his life so that perhaps we will glimpse something of our own journey.
Stories have a tremendous power to touch us deep within. Jesus obviously knew that well. So did the storyteller from whom I learned something about the craft. Frederick Buechner has reminded me again of that power. I look to tap into that power through the stories that I tell, whether it be about a trip to the grocery story or a profound experience with God. To do so, I need to remember to just tell the story, and to let that suffice.
August 24, 2018
The Arts of Nearby Churches
Art walks are a common occurrence. Some of them are done as fundraisers for non-profit organizations. Others are used as a way to introduce people to the galleries in an arts district. They always seem intriguing to me, but I tend to miss out on those adventures because many of them are held on Sundays, often beginning in the mid-morning hours when I am occupied in worship celebrations.
I was recently in Oceanside, California, where there is an informal mural walk. The city is a recognized Cultural District and there are more than twenty murals in and around the city. It is an amazing art form that fills people with images of beauty, history and humor.
As we each reflect upon the churches and other houses of worship in our communities, I imagine we can discover a rich tapestry of works of art in a variety of settings. With just a few moments of thought, I can hear the great organ of one church, marvel at the stained glasses windows of another, and imagine a tour of the church built in a Gothic Architecture style. The possibilities for exploration are almost unbounded.
It would be interesting and educational to arrange a tour of several congregations, perhaps with brief presentations by those familiar with the congregational history and arts history of each one. It would also be fascinating to hear from the artists who are either in residence at a particular house of worship, or perhaps were the ones to create the stained glass windows or altar areas. Again, it is a joy to consider the possibilities.
It sounds like a great project for the Autumn months.
August 17, 2018
In my first year as a minister, I was serving as a part-time associate in a large United Methodist church. As Advent drew near, the senior pastor asked if I would be willing to do a dialogue sermon with him during one of the Sunday morning worship times. I thought it was an intriguing idea, and readily agreed. So, about three weeks before we were to engage in the dialogue, he presented me with the script. It was a conversation between two shepherds, relating some of the details of their experience surrounding the birth of Jesus, and delivering the message for the day at the same time. Though I was only reading the words provided to me, it was a wonderful experience of preaching in a whole different way.
When our church’s Scripture as Theatre workshop presented its first dramatic experience to the church on Pentecost Sunday, it was a piece that was composed of individual readings that had been drawn into a cohesive piece by our Artist-in-Residence in his role as editor and director. Now we are expanding that creative process to include dialogue in our next presentation.
In this case though, it won’t just be a role that I am reading, written by someone else, but I am sharing in the creation of the dialogue. As we explore several of the stories in the book of Acts, I will be playing the role of Peter, and another workshop participant will be speaking as Paul. It will be quite interesting, because we will each bring our own gifts to the process. While I have no acting experience, I will bring my years of study and interpretation of biblical texts to the table. He, on the other hand, is an actor and director, but with little prior exposure to the New Testament.
The poignant dynamic that is just starting to develop in this experience, is that we will each be writing dialogue between Peter and Paul, and we will then bring our separate dialogues together. Our Artist-in-Residence will be the final editor, but we will both see our contributions to the final dialogues. It will be a fascinating journey as we not only present the roles to the congregation at some later date, but create the roles themselves in dialogue with each other.
As I think back to that Advent experience years ago, a format that I have used a few times through the years, I want to now create some similar Sunday messages, but doing so by also creating the dialogues in concert with the person who will be presenting them with me. It will not be as large a project as we do with the Theatre group, but I imagine it will be an equally transforming process.
August 10, 2018
The Presence of Art in Hotels and Churches
I was recently out of town, and was pleasantly surprised to find a framed poster of one of Claude Monet’s works, “Impression, Sunrise,” hanging on one of the walls of the hotel room. Although I usually take a little time to look at whatever artwork a hotel has chosen to make their rooms seem more like home, I was struck by this one because it was a Monet painting that I wasn’t really familiar with, or, more correctly, hadn’t spent time looking at beyond a cursory glance.
I enjoy Impressionist paintings in general, and have taken extra time in museums to really look at Monet’s works, to appreciate the textures and the subtleties of each one. There is nothing like the original paintings, where one can see the actual brushwork, the various hues that mingle with each other, the strength that comes through imagining the vision of the artist.
While the framed poster in the hotel room was far from an original, and the fact that it was a poster certainly flattened out the brush strokes that Monet had carefully put on the canvas, I nonetheless appreciated the presence of that poster, for it invited me to either glance at it in passing, or to actually look at as much detail as a poster can provide. I don’t know that I would include this particular work among my favorite Monet paintings, and yet as I spent time with it I was transported to his vantage point, guided into viewing the fishing boats moving through the early morning mist and fog, even as the sun began to send its rays through that mist and onto the water of the harbor.
When we display art in our churches, we also invite people to notice and to be transported in some way into the world that the artist is showing us. Of course, if we are able to gradually purchase original works, those are the most inviting. But even posters propose to open a door into something that we might otherwise not see and experience.
But in addition to the artist’s invitation, we also need to be intentional about welcoming people to enter those worlds. Just as artwork in hotels breaks up the monotony of blank walls, but is sometimes not really seen, so too the art of the church can become so familiar that people don’t really see it. It is important to occasionally mention one or two of the church’s artworks, to invite people to pause and see afresh, to even encourage them to talk with one another about what they see. After all, we revisit familiar biblical passages from time to time, and we can always discover and share fresh insights that we glean from the encounter. So too with the works of art that grace our churches.
August 3, 2018
The Presence of Art in the Church
A number of years ago I officiated at a wedding in New York state, and as I was driving to the afternoon rehearsal a day before the wedding, I caught sight of a rather small church. It was constructed of stone, appeared to be of a good age, and was intriguing enough that I decided to visit it the next morning before the wedding. What I discovered was quite amazing.
This was the Union Church of Pocantico Hills, a historic church that served, among other families, the extended Rockefeller family. That notable connection contributed to the presence of the stained glass windows that make this a truly memorable church. As I entered the church, I was almost overwhelmed with the colors that flooded the sanctuary. It was a challenge to decide which window to examine more closely first. At the front of the worship space is a rose window created by Henri Matisse. Along the sides of the building, and in the rear, are windows created by Marc Chagall. It is a magnificent collection of colors and shapes that celebrate life and faith.
As moved as I was by seeing all of that creativity and beauty, I have never felt any compulsion to compare those works of art to the ones in our church’s worship space. The windows at Pocantico Hills fit that space, and the stained glass and other art in our church also equally fit that space.
I actually very much enjoy the art in our church, whether it is in the sanctuary, our church library, or even in the hallway to my office. It is all art that has a connection with the people and history of our church, and that assumes a meaning in our space that it might not have elsewhere.
More important than the specific art that resides in a church, is that fact that there is art present. Art connects with an inner part of us that is not always otherwise accessed in our worship and educational times. Art touches our senses, our emotions, and our intellect, and the combination is a powerful one. I hope that as you collect art for your church, that you too feel that connection to your people, as well as welcoming the gifts that art offers to us.
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.