August 28, 2020
I recently renewed my membership in CIVA (Christian In the Visual Arts). This was something that I had been debating, because while I value the organization, I am particularly aware of costs and finances right now. Yet, when I received an email from CIVA, a letter written by their Board Chair Joe Cory, it both connected with me personally and showed me again the sound leadership in the organization. The personal connection came through the power of recollection and reflection.
While the entire letter was striking for me (in an email dated August 19), I will only share portions of it here for the sake of brevity:
“Last week my local library reopened to visitors for the first time since mid-March. I love the library. As a young child, my mother took me weekly to escape our stuffy house and feed my growing curiosity. In art school, I spent countless hours amongst the stacks of books, each filled with ideas and inspiration to take back to my studio. Thankfully, during the lockdown, I could still reserve and pick-up books, but I learned it’s just not the same. Under normal circumstances, my family keeps around thirty books checked out at any given time—almost all of which we picked off the shelves while browsing.
“Browsing is a curious term in today’s culture. It implies a casual manner, along with a willingness to be surprised. We use the internet to browse for furniture, cars, clothes, and potential mates. Still, I often wonder if our search terms and filters have suspended the randomness actual browsing offers. Flea markets, books stores (remember those!), art museums, and libraries give us space to experience the joy of discovering something unexpected. These surprises activate my curiosity and are essential to helping me learn new things.
“Two conditions need to exist for these discoveries to happen. First, we must be open to exploring new ideas…The second condition requires us to cultivate places where these encounters are possible and fill them with “voices” unlike our own…
“I’ve been regularly praying over two questions in the past few months. Do I apply the same attitude I bring to the library to my artistic practice, worship tradition, and network of friends? Have I unknowingly created an echo chamber of like-mindedness that has eliminated God's ability to teach me something new through someone different from myself? I discovered I have a lot of room to grow. However, I am thankful to be part of an ecumenical community like CIVA. We are a community of individuals from various artistic, theological, and worship traditions who are unified by our gracious desire to shape each other in God’s image.”
It is this kind of diversity and dialogue that our world needs, as well as our churches, and I am happy to support an organization that sees the importance of these things as well.
On the personal connection side of my response, his words brought back fond memories of my own visits to the children’s portion of our local library when I was young. While the adult book stacks were upstairs, the children’s section was accessed through some outside stairs which led us to what would resemble a basement, with windows high in the walls. It was almost like entering a magical realm to go down those stairs and through the door into that collection of wondrous books.
Such experiences today, which open our eyes and hearts to new ideas and the diversity of our world, are indeed valuable. May our children still discover such wonder, and may we adults reclaim the joy of browsing and the amazing ideas and people that it can expose us to.
August 21, 2020
Supporting Our Artists
When I sat down to write last week, I had intended to reflect upon the effect that the pandemic has had upon musicians, actors and other artists, but was “interrupted” by the email about “Music,” and found that to be an appropriate reflection for that moment. But now I do want to turn attention to those who bring us beauty and inspiration in a variety of ways.
Each week in our worship time we pray for musicians, actors and others who are currently unemployed. With the sidelining of live concerts and theatre, there are many creative people who are struggling financially. Being in Los Angeles, we are acutely aware of this. If such artists have teaching positions, they are generally getting through this time in better ways. Composers can of course still be writing, and playwrights can still be drawing forth their creativity onto the page. Yet, without performances being produced and enjoyed, the financial fruits of their hard work are often far in the distance. And for visual artists, they too can certainly be bringing forth from the creativity within themselves, but with many galleries and art shows being shut down right now, being able to earn a living doing what they are passionate about is a challenge.
Some artists have turned to the virtual world to both express their creativity and to continue to be engaged with folks, even if this happens without compensation. Our church pianist, Alan Chan, is also a composer and the leader of a big band, The Alan Chan Jazz Orchestra. We have hosted Alan’s orchestra during each of our church Performance Series seasons, but had to cancel that concert this year along with our other planned concerts. But Alan has responded with his wonderful creativity to this whole situation. He has hosted several virtual performances that have highlighted past concerts with his seventeen-piece orchestra, and has enhanced the virtual experiences by offering commentary between pieces played by the orchestra, as well as adding in current interviews with some of the featured musicians. He has publicized these concerts in a variety of ways and has posted them on YouTube for later viewing. Alan has also used each virtual concert as an opportunity to raise funds for organizations that are doing vital work in general, and specifically in responding to the effects of the virus on people in their communities and around the world.
We are also blessed to have a wonderful flutist, Rachel Mellis, who graces our worship with beautiful music from time to time. Rachel recently presented a virtual concert as well, doing so in our church sanctuary, accompanied by her boyfriend and her parents. While there was no live audience, one could imagine the virtual applause that joined in with the handclaps that could be heard in the church setting. Careful to respect all of the social distancing guidelines by limiting the group to just her family, she too included a virtual interview with a composer whose work she was premiering in that concert, as well as encouraging donations to an organization she has supported for years. It was a beautiful experience, and the concert is now accessible on Facebook.
Our Choir Director, Cathy Pyles, would love to be directing the choir, but of course cannot in the current circumstances. So, instead, she prepares a solo for our worship each week. It is one of the highlights of the worship time, and so greatly appreciated by the church members. In addition, she is preparing to begin a new term teaching in the Theatre Department at Los Angeles Valley College. We have often taken church groups to productions that she has directed. Hopefully that experience will be available again by next Spring or Summer.
Sidney Hopson, who helps us out on the piano from time to time, is also a wonderful percussionist. He too continues to be as active as possible in these times, bringing joy to others through his music.
There have been some grants available to help artists through this time, and hopefully there will be more grants forthcoming. Unfortunately, there are many more people needing support than there is money currently available. But support in this time is not just financial, although that is such a pressing need. You can also help by publicizing those upcoming virtual events you are aware of, and by tuning in to watch these performances as they are offered, or re-watching them at later times. In addition, your “likes” and “subscriptions” give another kind of support to these creative people, offering encouragement and upticks in their viewership. Sometimes too you can give “tips” to the artists.
I know that for many of us this is a very stressful time financially. If you are in a better position, however, you may consider buying some music, or purchasing that lithograph you have been looking at from a favorite artist. These creative people would appreciate your support now especially, and any time we bring art into our homes or offices we enhance our own lives too.
Art and artists, of all different mediums, are a critical part of our society and of the life of our churches. Anything we can do to support them is truly a gift.
August 14, 2020
The Qualities of Music
I receive a daily email from the Frederick Buechner Center with a brief excerpt from one of his works. Buechner has long been one of my favorite authors, and some of the excerpts I receive are ones that I remember well, while some are new to me and prompt me to look further into those books.
As I considered how I wanted to approach writing about music and musicians this week, I received an email with an excerpt simply entitled, “Music.” I had actually read it years ago when it was published in Wishful Thinking. It was later printed again in Beyond Words. He writes:
“Whereas painters work with space – the croquet players on the lawn, behind them the dark foliage of the hedge, above them the sky – musicians work with time, as one note follows another note the way tock follows tick.
“Music both asks us and also enables us to listen to certain qualities of time – to the grandeur of time, says Bach, to the poignance of time, says Mozart, to the swing and shimmer of time, says Debussy, or however else you choose to put into words the richness and complexity of what each of them is wordlessly ‘saying.’”
Music which engages such time, and which most often includes words, is a central part of the worship experience of almost every church. While the styles of music often vary greatly from one setting to another, music nonetheless provides a uniting experience for a worship gathering. In this pandemic time, with most worship experiences happening virtually, the inclusion of music is one of the greatest challenges for our worship times. It just doesn’t work to have everyone sing together on Zoom, with the internet delays that make it sound more like speaking in tongues than like any kind of music we know. And, even if you are worshipping in-person, either in your parking lot or socially distanced indoors, it is encouraged that singing be eliminated from worship for now because it is one way in which the virus can be spread beyond the social distance we are asked to maintain.
Yet, since music is an integral part of worship experiences, I am certain you have discovered your own ways of bringing it into the worship time. In our case, we always have a quiet prelude playing in the background while people are appearing on the Zoom screen one after another. Our pianist is both creative and selective, and he uses the prelude music to help set the tone for worship. Our congregational singing has always filled the sanctuary with music that also brings varied energy and emotions to the time. For some people, our five songs have been too much, but most have enjoyed the variety. Now, as our pianist plays, and everyone is invited to sing along at home while they are muted on Zoom, we have reduced that to two songs. The positive aspect though is that if people don’t usually sing in person, most often because they feel that they can’t sing well, they can now fully participate and no one but their cat or dog will hear them. Finally, our choir has always played an important role in our worship gatherings, and is of course silent right now. But in place of that, our wonderful choir director sings a solo each week, accompanied by music that our pianist has recorded for her. Altogether, these musical elements of our virtual worship help to fill out, and enliven, our worship in ways that make it much richer than it would be if we just moved from one speaker to the next.
Music does help to define the time we spend together in worship. Music, as Buechner says, helps us to “listen to certain qualities of time.” That in turn connects us with time as we experience it in our lives in general. Buechner further writes:
“We learn from music how to listen to the music of our own time – one moment of our lives following another moment the way the violin passage follows the flute, the way the sound of foot-steps on the gravel follows the rustle of leaves in the wind, which follows the barking of a dog almost too far away to hear.
“Music helps us to ‘keep time’ in the sense of keeping us in touch with time, not just time as an ever-flowing stream that bears all of us away at last, but time also as a stream that every once in a while slows down and becomes transparent enough for us to see down to the streambed the way, at a wedding, say, or watching the sun rise, past, present, and future are so caught up in a single moment that we catch a glimpse of the mystery that, at its deepest place, time is timeless.”
In this time of the pandemic, when we don’t yet have a clear vision of how the months ahead will unfold, using music to guide us into a sense of God’s time is something that can truly touch our spirits and feed our souls. Music in worship, however we manage to make that happen, is a crucial connection that does indeed usher the marvel and mystery of God into our presence.
August 7, 2020
Stories from other Traditions
Just after the effects of the pandemic began to be felt and understood, and the Stay-at-Home orders began to be issued, our garage door broke. In order to have a new door installed, we had to clean out enough of the garage for the installers to be able to work. This was no small task. Over the years, anything that I felt we should keep, but that I didn’t have a particular place for it to land, was put into the garage. Now, there was no choice but to sort through things. We made enough room for the installers to work, but also committed ourselves to completing the task of cleaning things out, and either organizing them or discarding them.
Along the way I have rediscovered boxes of books, some of which I knew were in there, and others that I had totally forgotten about over time. As I opened one of those forgotten boxes, I came upon a collection of books having to do with Native American culture and stories, most of which I read years ago when I took a class about such topics out of pure interest and curiosity, without any kind of formal grade attached to it. I remember the class and the experience of those books with a deep reverence for the experience.
I sat down and began to re-read one of the books of stories. Yes, I know, that meant that the rest of the cleaning was temporarily set aside. But, what struck me as I read was the power of the stories to tell truth, to lead one into an experience that offered insight, even a lesson about life. The stories had a deep sense of the spiritual, while being grounded in the everyday experiences of the storytellers.
So often, in the midst of ministry, I spend my energy trying to make concepts clear, to pass along an understanding of grace and compassion and incarnation and more. Yes, those things are, I believe, important. But they stray away from Jesus’ prime teaching style, that of simple parables and stories that were meant to engage the imagination and emotions of people. In re-reading some of these Native American stories, with their simple yet profound wisdom, I am reminded that while part of our task in the church is to educate and inform, it is also a journey of linking people to the God who loves them in ways that are often mysterious, ways that can be touched through stories sometimes more powerfully than through outright instruction.
When I took a couple of courses in storytelling years ago, one of the prime encouragements was to allow people to draw from the stories the insights or lessons that they heard. It was an understanding that one could trust people to hear the stories and draw them into their own spirits, without telling the story so as to make our own point unmistakable to people.
As I have taught the children and youth through the years, I have discovered that despite their attention and my best efforts it has often been the case that they have not absorbed all of the details of the biblical stories that I had hoped they would grasp and retain. However, as we have talked, it has also become quite clear to me that they have grasped the wisdom and insight of the stories, as they have reflected back to me the importance of compassion, and caring for one another, and listening and acting in love. They allowed the truth and gifts of the stories to become a part of them, even if they couldn’t recite back the details of particular stories. And isn’t that really what Jesus was trying to offer to people in his day? And isn’t that what he is offering to us today?
I am grateful for these reminders that have come through the re-discovery of Native American stories that were packed away in my garage. These stories, and many others from traditions that circle the globe, offer wisdom to us, if we open our ears and our hearts to the tales they tell.
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.