February 23, 2018
No Dumb Readings
It was during my first class in seminary that focused on worship experiences that Doug Adams, my professor, said that in his opinion there should be no “dumb readings” of scripture in times of worship. By that he meant that readings of scripture passages shouldn’t just be the speaking of the words on the page, but should be accompanied by comments or commentary that helped listeners to better understand each passage. He felt that in most cases, just reading the words didn’t provide any helpful explanation of the context or content of the readings.
Whether you would agree with his choice of words or not, he had a valid point. Now, to be honest, there have been plenty of times when I have broken his rule, saving explanations for the message/sermon time itself. But I have still never forgotten his advice, and do often add in at least a few notes or comments during the readings.
As one way of doing that during this Lenten season, I am introducing one or more slides of works of art that help to bring the passages to life. Using these works of art gives a visualization to the readings, though of course these too are interpretations not photographic records. But those interpretations also become part of the message that I am trying to convey through the sharing of the scriptures.
After sharing six images during one reading on the first Sunday of Lent, one person, whose input I value highly, said that I had overdone it. I needed to hear that feedback. After all, I got excited about the variety of images, each of which had something to offer to the conversation, but I also had to admit that the point could indeed have been made with two or three images rather than six. Using so many images actually diluted the message, and I appreciated the evaluative comments.
Which is a final point for this writing – we do always need to be evaluating our worship experiences, including our use of the arts in worship. Without such evaluation, we stand to be less than effective. And when we don’t use the arts effectively, then people wonder about their inclusion in worship in the first place. This is not to say that we shouldn’t take risks and try things, but we also need to be willing to acknowledge when something hasn’t been as helpful as it could have been, and to then figure out how to do it differently the next time.
This coming Sunday, a couple of images will suffice I am certain. And I will no doubt enjoy both of them greatly. I hope others find them helpful too.
February 16, 2018
The Faces of Jesus
As we gather for Bible study in my church each week, I am always ready to bring out the maps that are in the back of my Bible. Every time we come across a text that tells us about the travels of Jesus and the disciples, or encounter a story from elsewhere in the Bible, I help us to all visualize those movements from one place to another by pointing out the locations on a map. It helps to make everything more concrete for us.
So it is too with envisioning Jesus. We can use our imagination to see him interacting with people, we can visualize various scenes, but sometimes it helps to draw from the riches of artistic expressions in order to make everything seem a little more concrete.
As our church moves into the Lenten season, I am using the theme, “The Face of Jesus,” as our guide in worship and in other activities. In preparation for that, I have been reading Frederick Buechner’s book, The Faces of Jesus (the full-size version that is rich with artwork illustrating the journey that Buechner describes). One of the features of the book that is compelling is that the artwork is drawn from a wide variety of times, places and cultures. Whereas we are often presented with images of Jesus that are drawn mainly from Western European art history, this book includes a substantial number of those images but also welcomes many more diverse images into the conversation.
One of the beautiful things about encountering a wide variety of artistic impressions of Jesus, is that as we look through the eyes of others we are presented with the possibility of discovering something new about Jesus. Many of us, especially if we have had a long relationship with Jesus, get set on certain views of him, particular ways of understanding him, specific ways of interpreting the Gospel stories about him. That familiarity can be a good thing, but it can also hinder us in our quest to continue to grow in that relationship. To view him through the eyes of an artist who presents Jesus in a different and perhaps unique way, is to be able to consider new ways of recognizing him in our lives.
Ultimately, my challenge to my congregation in this season will be to consider the ways in which the face of Jesus is seen by others through us, through our words and our actions. To expand our own experience and understanding of Jesus, is to open up the ways in which we can offer the gift of Jesus to others.
February 9, 2018
The Beauty of a Dragonfly
We have a small pond in our back yard, and one of the benefits of it is the presence of the dragonflies that frequent it during much of the year. I love the striking colors that sparkle forth from them, and the grace with which they fly and quickly dip into the surface of the water for a drink. When one looks closely, it is as though one is seeing an ancient creature that has somehow stretched time and continues to share its beauty today.
It was with this profound appreciation of the dragonfly’s beauty in the back of my mind, that I encountered a picture of a dragonfly in an article on prayer. This was in a journal called “Weavings,” from many years ago, 1989 to be specific. On the second page of an article entitled, “Wasting Time with God,” by Marjorie Thompson, there was what appeared to be a pen and ink drawing, that also resembled a print of a woodcut. It was of a dragonfly, sitting on a leaf, in what appears to be a moonlit night. I was immediately drawn to it, both because of the dragonfly depicted, and because it was a striking work of art. I did, though, also wonder what this artwork had to do with the article, or if it was just a random, but beautiful, illustration.
Three pages later, my question was answered. The author wrote, “There are as many ways to pray as there are ways to develop a relationship with another person. We may discover and enjoy more of our Creator by contemplating the creation. That is, we learn to see something of the Artist’s soul through the works of art. Did you ever stop to consider how dazzling and multi-colored, how poised and precise, how charged with pure energy our God must be to impart something of divine life to that tiny speck of creation called a dragonfly?”
And in one sentence, it all came together. I looked back at the picture, reread the portion of the paragraph that I have shared with you, and looked at the picture again. Everything fit. The artwork was definitely not a random piece, but carefully chosen for the article.
Of interest to me too was the way in which the author used the qualities of the dragonfly to draw our attention to God the Artist. As I first read the paragraph, I was certain that the descriptions of “dazzling and multi-colored,” “poised and precise,” and “charged with pure energy” referred to the dragonfly, which of course they do fit perfectly in describing that beautiful creature. But the author used them to describe God the Creator. As Creator, God then takes these qualities and imparts them to the creation.
Isn’t this the way that we work in the creation of art, or worship, or other things of beauty and wonder around us? We take what is within us and fashion something to bring to the world, to share with others. In so doing, we emulate the creative imagination of God. And, to paraphrase Genesis, that is a very good thing.
February 2, 2018
The Timelessness of Art
I have mentioned Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) at a couple of different times, and continue to have a few words about them on my home page. Part of being a member of that organization is being the recipient of their magazine. It is an oversize publication, meaning that it is approximately nine by twelve inches before one opens it to read it. This magazine easily stands out from others that are delivered to our home. In addition, the articles are quite interesting, and the reproduction of works of art is striking.
In preparation for the Lenten season, I have recently been re-reading an older volume, this one being from 2012. Now that is obviously not all that old, but if one were re-reading a business or finance magazine from 2012 one would likely discover that world changes had taken place since its publication. With art though, there is a timeless quality. Certainly, preferences changes, creativity continues to expand people’s perceptions, and new schools of art may emerge. But one’s discussion of art from six years ago, or six centuries ago, is still a worthwhile endeavor.
In re-reading this volume from 2012, I have been gathering ideas for our Lenten worship experiences, which will focus in varied ways on the face of Jesus, and on our own faces. The articles have focused on faces, on portraiture, on paintings by Rembrandt, on photographing faces as a means of providing hope, and more. Each article has prompted ideas, not all of which will go into one season, but which will serve as sources of inspiration as I look ahead to other liturgical seasons.
One of the amazing things about art is that it has the power to speak in a variety of settings, and in a wide range of times. It is always, of course, a matter of our taking the time to stop, see, reflect and imagine. But if we take the time, the gifts of art will reveal themselves to us, today, tomorrow, and well into the future.
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.