December 31, 2021
On the Threshold of the New Year
When I first began this website and weekly blog, I was focusing rather broadly on ministry, especially as it relates to smaller churches. I then narrowed the focus to reflect more specifically on the place of the arts in churches, again speaking out of my experiences in a smaller church. After more than six years, I have reached the point where sometimes those reflections on the arts seem fresh, and at other times they feel to me as though I have said things in the past. If you weren’t visiting the website years ago, or only visit occasionally now, you may not have noticed themes being repeated. But while there are certain things that are important to lift up more than once, I believe that church ministry, especially as it is supported by the arts, should continue to bring fresh perspectives and insights.
As such, with the turning of the New Year, I am going to change my focus some. While I will still share thoughts about the arts on a fairly regular basis, I am also going to reflect more generally on church life, and will also have weeks when I explore readings from scripture and other sources, offering thoughts for church life that I gather from such readings. I expect that this shift in focus will energize me, and I hope that it provides you too with moments of reflection and insight.
I always enjoy Epiphany Sunday, which we will celebrate on January 2. It is for me not just a time to reflect upon the new year and what we might do in the coming months, although that is a pertinent theme, but it is also a time to reflect upon how we come to the new year, and how we will travel into it. For me, the story of the Magi, as we read it in Matthew, and expand it in our imaginations, is a source of insight for our journey.
The Magi, it seems, had spent a good deal of time, perhaps years, examining sacred texts, observing the stars, discussing among themselves the coming of a Messiah. In the course of their conversations, about this and perhaps many other things, suppose that a star began to appear, faintly at first, maybe unseen with the naked eye. And each night, as they returned to peer into the darkness, there was a little more brightness to that star. Their imaginations stirred as they questioned among themselves whether the appearance of this star was a sign that the longings of people, the longings of their own hearts, were coming to fruition. Was this a celestial portent of the birth of the Messiah?
The adventure of their research, their reading and re-reading of the sacred texts, their deep discussions into the long hours of the night, were being met with the light of this star that grew in intensity every night. And then, at some point, one of them knew, or they all knew together, that this was it. This was what they had been waiting for, planning for, longing for. And so, they started packing. They got their passports out of safe-keeping. They hired people to staff their caravan – porters and a chef, and security people, for travel of long distances could be a dicey proposition. Or, maybe, it was just them, by themselves, doing their own loading of camels, their own cooking, each watching out for the others. But whatever the details, they set out, and that star seemed to lead them. It was leading them to the One who would be the gift to their hearts, even as they brought their own gifts to share with the family.
They traveled with excitement, with longing, with determination. We too would do well to travel into this new year with such qualities in our hearts.
December 24, 2021
This is a day, and particularly a night, that seems especially holy to me. It is not because the shopping concludes, or some families open presents, or children wait to see what Santa will bring, but it is holy for me because in the moments of Christmas Eve, most especially when our church family gathers for worship, all else fades away for a time, and all that is left is to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
But then, when the service is concluded, and the Christmas greetings have been exchanged, and folks have gone to their homes, then I go home and spend a little time outdoors, relishing the cool, crisp air, and standing in awe of the stars in the sky. It is not a search for the one star that guided the Magi, but an appreciation of the majesty of all of creation, of all of the universe. The Spirit of God is alive and moving and touching me in a special way in those moments outdoors, not because I am particularly special, but because each of us is special and all who desire to connect to that Spirit are blessed with its grace.
I share with you an image of the stars, of the glory of the universe, that you might ponder your own place in it, your specialness to God, your blessings if you choose to accept them.
I hope that whenever you read this, you feel the holiness of life, not just on Christmas Eve, but every day, and that you feel how special you are to God.
Have a Merry Christmas!
December 17, 2021
In this season of Advent, I have spent the last two weeks serving on a jury. Being in a courtroom is sort of like living in a sterile environment, devoid of visual stimuli save for the seal of the state and any displays that one lawyer or the other presents in the course of the trial. This is of course intentional, meant to allow justice to be as unbiased as possible, not influenced by visual images unrelated to the case.
That being said, there is a whole tableau laid out before us, of characters ranging from the judge to the lawyers to the court clerk, including the witnesses, and of course the jury itself. There is much that could inspire an artist – details of clothing and facial expressions, in addition to the setting itself – all of which would tell a story. That is what makes so many artistic creations extraordinary – the artist takes a collection of seemingly mundane elements and draws the focus to one moment of highlighted action. In this situation, it could well be the moment of the announcement of the verdict, the reactions of the participants caught, as if by a multitude of cameras.
As we reflect upon the story of the birth of Jesus, we encounter much that was really rather mundane – a long, forced journey, along with many other people; the door of the inn; a stable with animals; even the moment of birth, which while always miraculous, is still something that happens an untold number of times each year. Yet, as we view the artwork that depicts this whole story, we are often guided to the emotions on the faces – from the fear of the shepherds, to the peace of Mary, to the devotion of the Magi, to the relief and questions of Joseph. These faces, and the use of light and dark, the angle of view, all contribute to our experience of the events. The focus of each artist invites us in, in ways at times that we have never considered before.
Our opportunity to become the artist, not necessarily literally painting or drawing the scenes, but allowing our imaginations to see the scenes, to cast the highlights, helps us to see and celebrate in new ways. Such creativity is indeed only limited by our imagination.
December 10, 2021
Navigating Hybrid Worship
As I was filling out an annual required summary of my continuing education experiences during the year, I was acutely aware of how many of them were related to planning, implementing and evaluating hybrid worship experiences. Although people define that term in various ways, I understand it to be the coming together for worship using a combination of mediums. The two most obvious ones are of course in-person experiences and something such as Zoom, although streaming modes would also be included.
Hybrid worship definitely poses challenges and provides opportunities at the same time. Chief among those opportunities is that of reaching a wider worshipping audience, from people who are connected to the church from diverse geographic locations, to those folks who live locally but may be limited in physical ways or are simply not yet comfortable in venturing out due to the pandemic.
One of the challenges for many churches has of course been the need to adapt to the technological demands of reaching the wider audience. And, even when I think that we have solved those issues, we still occasionally encounter problems. Just this past Sunday we had connection issues with two of our cameras. The sound was fortunately working fine, and our other two cameras kept people in touch as much as possible. But such glitches are never ideal.
But beyond ongoing technological challenges, there is a continuing attempt to involve multiple forms of media in the worship times. Just as I have, from time to time, shared images of artwork in my blogs, and commented about them, so too I enjoy using images in worship experiences.
The challenge is to find the best ways to share images with the various hybrid portions of the congregation. Copies of images can certainly be handed out to in-person participants and attached to emails to distance or home-bound worshippers. My reluctance in doing this is the amount of paper and ink required to produce the in-person copies. Alternatively, one can combine a PowerPoint type of presentation of one or two images for the in-person worshippers with the email of those images to others.
Ideally, I would like to solicit responses to the images from people, something which I have certainly done in an entirely in-person experience. With that as a goal however, one could ask for responses in advance from those who worship via Zoom or other online mediums, and one or more worship leaders could share those responses at the appropriate time. This would allow everyone to offer their thoughts, without the awkwardness of trying to manage many Zoom comments during the open worship time.
These are challenges that will be on-going, but I think that they are worth the effort in order to continue to celebrate the role of the arts in worship.
December 3, 2021
Advent in Different Spaces
Advent is a wonderful opportunity to engage the journey toward Christmas both in the church setting and also in people’s homes. Sometimes I think that people depend upon the worship experiences to provide them, and even their families, with the significant milestones on the way to the celebration of Christmas. But while those encounters are a central part of the season, there are numerous ways to enhance the season through activities at home.
We offer both Advent books and Advent wreaths to church members, to help them enhance their journey, whether individually or as a family. In some years we have had wreath decorating parties, and experienced people’s creativity as they have added color and life to the simple ring and candles. With the impact of the pandemic in the last two Advent seasons, we have simply provided people with a metal base and the five candles and have invited them to use their own resources at home to complete the beauty of the wreaths.
To compliment the wreaths, we provide candle-lighting thoughts and instructions for each of the four weeks of Advent, as well as for Christmas morning, in the Advent books that we offer to people. In our own home, especially as our children were growing, we always began Christmas morning with a few minutes of quiet reflection, candle-lighting and prayer before moving on to the frenzied opening of presents.
Finally, while we have a crèche set up in the worship space at church, I also encourage people to assemble one in their home. It is an activity that can be especially meaningful if one has children, and allows for a focus on more than just presents, but I also find it personally significant to pause from time to time to view our own crèche, and to meditate on the depth of the story of the birth.
In whatever ways you choose to walk this Advent journey, I pray that it is a time filled with insight, peace and joy.
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.