December 29, 2017
I have from time to time subscribed to a magazine called “Fast Company.” I enjoy reading a magazine that in one sense has nothing to do with my chosen profession, but that in another sense has a great deal to do with it if I pay attention and gather ideas and wisdom from ventures that are usually focused on the world of business and technology. I say that I have subscribed from “time to time” because when my pile of unread magazines gets to a certain height, then I just quit all of my subscriptions until I conquer that mountain of magazines that I have.
That being said, I do still receive a daily email from “Fast Company,” and often will read at least one article that catches my attention. In the email for December 27th, there was an article entitled, “Secrets of the Most Productive People: Six Secrets of People Who Keep Their New Year’s Resolutions.” It is of course a timely article, and one of many that will appear in these next few days, as people consider the New Year and changes that they may want to make in their life.
While all of the “secrets” shared were good suggestions, I was struck by the first one that the article highlighted. It was about a man named Fred Schebesta, who “has kept the same resolution for the past 10 years: make one improvement every day, such as listening to audio books or removing apps from his smartphone that don’t improve his efficiency. ‘Being small, it has been easy to stick to but pivotal in my personal development and the growth of my business,’ he says. ‘I figured that if you improve by 1% everyday, you will improve by 365% over a year. The changes you can make in a year through one small improvement are huge.’”
As I read, I thought not only of how this might improve my life, but also of how it could transform the life of my church. It is easy to get so focused on accomplishing the tasks of the day, that expanding the vision of the church can stagnate. In particular, as I look to involve the church in exploring the arts in more diverse ways, what daily steps can I take to accomplish that? It could be the reading of an article in one of the arts periodicals that I subscribe to, rather than allowing those magazines to just remain a part of the mountain with the other unread ones. It could be the reading of a chapter, or even part of a chapter, of a book about the arts in the church. It may be a brief conversation with a church member, or a staff member, that could excite both that person and myself about the possibilities. It could be the posting of a press release about an upcoming concert or event. The list of course can go on, but the point is that with these small steps, perhaps even planned the night before, change will happen.
And with these small steps, I imagine that I will find great joy in taking them, for they will lead me into newness of life, which is what everyone who makes New Year’s resolutions is looking for in their life. I may even keep a journal of the steps that I take, so that by next December I will have a record of activities and discoveries that I can celebrate.
December 22, 2017
For a number of years I have attended concerts at Santa Monica High School because youth from our church have sung in their choirs or played in their orchestras. I have been impressed with the professionalism of the concerts and the quality of the music.
As the formal concert began a week ago, their Chamber Singers performed a piece entitled, “Magnificat,” by Christine Donkin. I knew nothing about the composer, other than the fact that she was born in 1976, as indicated in the program. So, I did a little research. She wrote the piece in 2003, and there is a recording of it on her website, christinedonkin.com.
Before I tell you how much it moved me, let me say that the concert setting at the high school is amazing. The director, Jeffe Huls, arranges the programs so that the various choirs are moving about, quietly, such that as one finishes singing the next choir is ready to begin. Now this isn’t just moving on and off the stage, but while one choir will be on the stage, the next will perform from the balcony, or from the aisles of the lower floor. The concerts move seamlessly, and the audience is directly asked to save any applause until the end of the concert.
So as the concert opened with “Magnificat,” there were three soloists on the stage, and the other members of the Chamber Singers were in the aisles of the lower floor. I was immediately entranced as I listened to the opening soloist. Then, as the other soloists stepped in, the other singers began to quietly bring their notes into the mix, and the piece evolved gradually into something that surrounded us with sound, with mystery, with profound power. For me, it literally transformed a high school auditorium into a cathedral. It was a spiritual experience that left me spellbound.
Later that evening, as I continued to cherish my experience, I reflected upon our church experiences of worship. There are times when choirs are stationed in a balcony in the rear of the sanctuary, or when processions emerge from the rear, or when readers are stationed at various places in the worship space. But often, most often I imagine, everything happens up front, where the cross and the communion table and the pulpit are positioned. Now there is nothing wrong with this, but imagine the experiences we might create as we, at least occasionally, surround people with the elements of worship. How might we transform their experiences, and perhaps their lives?
I fully intend to experiment with such dynamics in the year ahead. If you do the same, I would love to hear from you about it, and about how it is received.
God bless, and Merry Christmas.
December 15, 2017
An Artist’s View of the Birth
It is always interesting to introduce works of art into an educational setting, especially in the church. Advent is a perfect time to do that, in fact, because there are a wealth of paintings and drawings that seek to bring the birth stories to life in a variety of ways.
Many paintings and drawings depict the birth in ways that people imagine the scene would have looked in the first century, in a stable with wood beams, surrounded by animals, and perhaps with a shepherd or two looking on. Though we of course have no photographic images from that time to confirm these views, they are what a long history of art and church education programs have led us to envision for the birth. Combine that with the iconic manger scenes that we place in churches, and even in our own homes, and the image of the birth is complete.
The challenge comes then when artwork is introduced that depicts the birth as happening in 15th century Europe for instance, or even in 19th century America. Add to those images the ones that contemporary artists in Asia or Africa or Latin America may offer to us, images which place the birth in a context, and with people present, who seem distinctly different from our first century images.
Such “out-of-place” images are sometimes quickly rejected as inauthentic. If, however, one can engender enough patience in people so that they can explore these different images in the hope of discovering both the experience of the artists and the ways in which their viewpoints might offer us something, then wonderful discoveries can take place.
At the very least, one hopes that people will see the ways in which Jesus’ birth was for all people, not merely for those in the Middle East of the first century, or for those who hold to those images as the true and authentic representation of his birth. But even more than that, such varied images from different times and widely diverse geographies also help us to see the experience of Christians from those times and places. For, after all, we do celebrate his birth each December around the world. What do the expressions of the artists tell us about our Christian brothers and sisters today?
Artworks that provide a contrast to the first century depictions can open a dialogue that is rich and expansive. Such works can truly enrich our Christmas celebration, no matter where we live.
December 8, 2017
Advent – A Time of Discovery
Part of the creative tension for me, during each Advent season, is brought about by the presence of all of the familiar decorations and Christmas carols. I certainly enjoy them, as do the members of my church. But even as these things gather us into their familiar and well-loved presence, we are challenged to embark on an Advent journey that is also new for us.
“Advent” can come to mean simply, “the time before Christmas.” But “advent” implies that something is coming, that something new and fresh and even exciting is coming. If we then equate the season with just the weeks before Christmas, then we are less apt to ready ourselves for the fresh advent of God into our lives.
So it is that I always look to introduce newness into the celebrations of the season, that through those portions of worship we might all experience the newness that God is bringing to us. This year we are doing such things through the preaching voices of three different leaders, through a first-time experience of taking time to hear about the background and beauty of a different carol each week, through the choir’s presentation of a cantata that is new for us, through once again having an artist creating a work of art during a worship celebration. There may even be more things, but these will hopefully introduce newness in quite a few ways.
While part of what we love about Advent and Christmas is the familiar beauty of it all, it is in the new and unexpected things that we experience more fully the depth of the story of the birth, which was itself filled with the unexpected, the anxious and the wonderful.
December 1, 2017
The Opportunities of Advent
The season of Advent, which begins on Sunday, brings with it a multitude of ways in which to welcome the arts into the church, and into the worship experience.
If your church does this regularly, then you know the poignancy and joy that comes from including the arts in the weeks leading to the celebration of the birth of Jesus. If, however, the arts have seldom been a part of the time of worship in your church, this is an ideal season in which to introduce them in a variety of ways.
In truth, people open the door themselves for this inclusion of the arts. People enjoy sending and receiving Christmas cards, and most of those have some kind of visual art enlivening the message being sent, whether it is classical images of the birth story, or contemporary expressions of the joy of Christmas. In addition, most people decorate their homes with a Christmas tree, or garland and decorations. A significant number of people also display a manger scene somewhere in their homes.
So, the stage is set for bringing these things and more into the life of the church. People have likely already welcomed decorations, perhaps a tree, and a manger scene into the church. In addition, the musical arts are usually in full form during this season, from productions of Handel’s “Messiah,” to cantatas such as my own choir prepares for one of our worship celebrations. But there is the opportunity for more.
One can introduce both classical and contemporary visual works depicting the birth, whether they be paintings on display or through the use of PowerPoint slides. Sacred dance can be powerfully introduced to tell the story of the birth. Colorful fabrics and paraments created by members of the church can enliven the entire season.
I once invited a member of the church, who was taking art as a minor in her college degree program, to create a work of art during an Advent time of worship. I told people that they were even free to wander around during the singing of carols that they might watch her work. At the end of the worship celebration we brought her to the front of the sanctuary to share her creation and talk about it. It was an amazing experience, and one that I hope to repeat in this new season.
There are endless possibilities for welcoming art and artists into the life of the church in this season of Advent. Have fun as you explore those possibilities.
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.