August 30, 2019
The Impact of Architecture
As I was immersed in a trip to London years ago, which was an integral part of the Doctor of Ministry program that I was privileged to be a part of, we visited sites as diverse as Cambridge, London theaters, and Canterbury Cathedral. Among my favorite remembrances from that trip is of standing in one of the covered cloister walks of Canterbury, admiring the stonework, reflecting on the ancientness of the place, and being in touch with the sacredness I felt in being there. I have a framed photo of that cloister walk in my church office, and when I stop to consider it afresh, I think not only of the joy of that trip, but also of the call to prayer that I experience still through that image.
That photograph also leads me to reflect back several years to my reading of Kathleen Norris’ book, The Cloister Walk. The book is her reflections on two extended residencies at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. It is an amazing reflection on her own life, as well as upon the pattern of monastic living that she encountered at the Abbey. Although I have a great many books to read, if I reach the point of re-reading some, this will be one of the first books I will pick up again.
As I considered the photo on my wall, and looked across my study to her book sitting on a shelf opposite me, I began to think about the architecture of my own church. We have no cloister walks, no bell tower to explore, and no hidden passageways to provide either intrigue or retreat. But what do we have that provides a call to prayer, an invitation to silent reflection, an opportunity for study?
Our worship space is small enough that one can feel the tug of prayer, even if no one else is around. We have a rose garden, that while needing some pruning at the moment, is still a place away from the busy streets where one can sit in silent reflection. And we have a wonderful library, with shelves full of books, a table for sitting at to make notes, and two couches to rest upon while reading quietly.
The architecture of each church is unique, and provides particular opportunities to engage in reflection, such as Kathleen Norris did at the Abbey, and as I did at Canterbury. Have you identified those places in your own church? Have you maintained them well enough so as to make them both physically and spiritually accessible? How does the architecture of your church proclaim welcome to people, and how does it provide for the nourishment of your spirit and that of others as well?
August 23, 2019
Words and Images
In recent years, as I have attended writer’s workshops, and read more thoughts from writers in online posts, I have come to see writing as a form of spiritual discipline. It was from Barbara Brown Taylor that I first heard that idea, and I have discovered that when I do set time aside to write, it does indeed take on the quality of being time spent in the presence of God.
Over the past three and a half years, as I have shared in the experiences of our church’s book club, I have come to see that also as a spiritual discipline. The sense of discipline has come in three particular ways - I have seldom been the one to choose the book, yet have trusted that the choices will lead me along fruitful pathways; I have had deadlines for the completion of the readings, which has given shape and focus to the experiences; and, through the wide variety of books chosen and read, I have been led into encounters that have enriched my life in unimagined ways. Although I sometimes look at my busy schedule and see the other things that I could be attending to, I am grateful for this discipline that calls me away from the busyness and into other worlds of experience.
As I have mentioned in at least a couple of blogs in the past, the book club selections have at times also provided me with both inspiration and ideas through the word-crafting of the authors. This was very much true with our most recent book, Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate. I so enjoyed her use of words, the images and atmospheres that she created with them, even as I was also drawn in by the story she wove.
I sometimes think that preachers and worship leaders should strive to craft their words better. Frederick Buechner, whom I have mentioned in the past, is certainly a writer and preacher who crafts his words very carefully, and through those words people are touched in profound ways. There are, of course, other preachers who also write and preach in similar ways.
The challenge comes though in that so often we have gotten used to speaking and listening in mundane ways that require very little engagement and energy from us. That is why it can be difficult to bring poetry into worship, because poetry asks for one to listen and to become involved in what is being offered. So, we need to nurture an atmosphere where words are spoken with intent, with creativity, and listening happens with creativity too.
In a way, such care in speaking, such listening, such attentive engagement on the part of both speakers and listeners, becomes a spiritual discipline of sorts. It requires an invitation to be engaged together that we might through all of it hear God speaking to us. It requires patience with one another. It requires a desire to expand our understandings and experiences of God. And then, in joining together in this spiritual discipline, amazing surprises await us.
August 16, 2019
Sharing in Artistic Creations
Working with a Liturgical Guild is usually a partnership between the members of that group and the pastoral leadership of a congregation. The creative possibilities are endless, and the true joy of the experience is a gift that can be shared with the entire church community.
The partnership between an artist, or an artist-in-residence, and the people of the church who want to support the arts in a hands-on way, can also be amazing. Nancy Chinn, whose book I referenced last week, speaks about those people who help with everything from cutting paper to painting to installing a work, all of it done under the direction of the artist.
Catherine Kapikian, a former professor whom I have also mentioned in the past, includes in her book, Art in Service of the Sacred, a chapter entitled, “Engaging in Participatory Aesthetics.” She describes the relationship between an artist and the members of a faith community. One option is to commission an artist to create a work, and to interact with the people, perhaps during the process, and certainly upon the completion of the artwork. “Another alternative,” she writes, “is one wherein an artist is invited to design a work that members of the community fabricate. This is an instance of participatory aesthetics. In the experience of fabricating (painting, sewing, constructing, cutting, hammering, gluing, etc.) an already designed work, the participating members of the congregation discover why the artist made specific design choices. Gradually, they recognize the aesthetic consequences of these choices, discuss them, and pass on to the wider community the knowledge and excitement gleaned from the experience.” (pp. 107, 109)
While it is vitally important for members of a congregation to honor the skills of an artist, and to respect the direction that the artist provides as a project is undertaken, it is also a special opportunity for people to share the creative ideas and talents that they possess as they work in concert with an artist.
I vividly remember the experience of working with a stained-glass artist after one of our church windows was destroyed in an earthquake. While the artist did the actual fabricating of the window, he was very open to spending time with us in order to arrive at a design that brought our ideas to life, while at the same time showing us both the possibilities and the limitations of working with glass. During the process of fabricating the window, he invited us to visit his studio, and showed us how to cut the glass, to the point where he had us actually make two or three of the cuts for glass that went into the window. It was a wonderful participatory process, and I will be forever grateful to him for sharing that with us.
August 9, 2019
The Beginnings of a Liturgical Guild
A group in our church has recently formed that is focused on engaging in a variety of craft projects. Some of these projects will be directed toward making items that will be donated to others, and some will be part of a longer-term process of holding a craft faire to sell items to the larger community and thereby raise funds for the church.
The current project that these folks, women and men, are engaged in, is the creation of small bears that will be donated to a cardiac unit at a hospital. These crafters have cut out the patterns, sewn the two pieces together, and stuffed as many bears as they could before running out of the stuffing material. They will convene again soon to finish the stuffing, sew the final few stiches, and add ribbons to the bears.
It was amazing for me to stand back and watch these people work. There were about seventeen of them busily engaged in this project so as to offer a gift to others. And, equally amazing, and gratifying, is that I have had nothing to do with the creation of this group other than to coordinate calendaring with them. It is a wonderful sight.
Now, I also know that sometimes people will pass off such craft-related ventures as just a throw-back to former times when churches, and especially the women in the churches, did this on a regular basis. Yet, this is creativity in action. This is group building. This is an intergenerational activity, at least in this case in this church.
And what excites me further is that I have before me the possibility of developing some kind of liturgical guild, a group of people who can unite in a vision to create visual elements for our worship space. These are people with the skills to create banners, or other artistic creations, that can become a part of the worship space. These are people who obviously enjoy creating something for which they have a specific vision.
As I continue to re-read Nancy Chinn’s book, Spaces for Spirit: Adorning the Church, which I have referenced before, I am reminded of the intentional process that one needs to go through in organizing such an arts-focused group. I will be attentive to that process, but I am anxious to explore the ways in which this group, or at least some of the members of this craft group, can expand the use of their talents in celebration of the church’s worship gatherings.
August 2, 2019
Photography is an artform that is at once as much a craft as any other art medium, and yet at the same time is something that is accessible to just about anyone. While we can certainly discern the difference between a professional photograph, one which the artist may have spent hours preparing for and waiting for, and the quick shots that many of us take when we see something of beauty or interest, still, there is a “canvas” here that is more approachable for people than are many other artforms.
There are many photographers of great repute. Those who are among my favorites are Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter and Annie Leibovitz. Yet, amateur photographers can also become quite accomplished. My wife’s grandfather was a photographer, among his may other interests and abilities. He was, by profession, a surgeon, but it is obvious to me that photography was a great source of creativity and enjoyment for him. He experimented with arranging subjects to get the look that he wanted, he once used salt to build a scene that looked like a winter landscape, and he printed in black and white, sepia and color. Although he was an amateur photographer, he has three or four photographs in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian. This is a medium that is approachable and through which both professionals and amateurs can find great satisfaction.
I am adding an element to this website. I am going to occasionally post a photograph and offer a reflection upon it. This will not be on a weekly basis like my blog post, but two or three times a month, unless I happen to be particularly inspired and will then perhaps post something more often. I am in no way imagining that these photographs will be considered great art. On the contrary, many of them are apt to be quite mundane, with glimpses into the everyday experiences of life. These are meant to offer a source for reflection, using the medium of photography to open the door to those thoughts.
I have posted the first of these. As always, I invite your thoughts about anything that I post. Have a great week.
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.