January 31, 2020
Church Book Club
I know that I have written before about our church book club. Hopefully each time I reference it, I am offering some different reflections than in previous blogs. I guess I return to writing about this activity because it not only continues to bring fresh interest and perspectives into my life and ministry, but because, as one might expect, each book prompts new thoughts.
Our current read is entitled, Chances Are…, by Richard Russo. The author is a previous winner of the Pulitzer prize, and it has been an engaging read. And that word, “engaging,” is what I want to reflect upon here.
There are certainly various styles, topics and approaches that engage one person, while for another person those things are totally different. That is definitely true within our book club. But setting aside those differences for now, it is the act of engagement that seems important to me. In fact, it is our own choice of whether to engage fully in a book, or to approach it half-heartedly and with few expectations.
If our purpose in reading is merely to make our way through books, as well as magazines and other materials that are important in our work or life in general, there are ways to accomplish that task without much engagement. There are books that summarize longer works, so that one can get the main points of a book in say seventy-five pages instead of four hundred pages. In our often, common outlook of prizing efficiency more than engagement, this presents a simple solution. There are also services that one can subscribe to that will provide audio summaries of books in as few as twenty minutes. There too the priority is efficiency. And, perhaps, there are times when that is most helpful and appropriate.
But reading should not be just for the purpose of gathering information. Reading should be an experience too that weaves its way into our life, that touches us in deep places. Part of the value of reading is the engagement with the story, or with the topic of the book. In our fast-paced world, to take the time to read, to engage the story, is almost a spiritual discipline. To sit and read, to be fully involved, to welcome the author and his or her story, can be akin to welcoming grace. And in welcoming grace, we will discover the gifts that a book offers to us.
January 24, 2020
It was during one of our church yard sales that I came across a book put out by Reader’s Digest entitled, Great American Short Stories. Now I suppose there is a joke somewhere in there with the combination of the publisher’s name and the topic of the book. But, this collection actually provides one with an introduction to fifty-one wonderful writers, most of them well-known and well-read. I have spent time with longer works by some of the writers, but with others I have never made the time to engage their creativity. This collection affords that opportunity.
Short stories are an interesting genre, because the author has to quickly develop both the characters and the flow of the story. Accomplished authors such as are included in this anthology are adept at doing those very things. It is interesting, though, to recognize that while some of the language of these authors is incredible for the images it creates, some of the words and allusions are dated to the author’s time and require a little more involvement in order to catch all of the meaning. I actually think that is a good thing, for the dated language causes us to delve more deeply into the story, and the author’s setting, and that enriches us as well.
Short stories are, in various forms, at the heart of much that we do within the church. Jesus of course often taught by using short stories. Some of them are parables, and others have their own way of communicating, but his brevity and poignancy comes through in equal measure in the way that he teaches.
There is a sense in which sermons can be short stories, although they are more often developed like school papers, with a proposition, evidence and a conclusion. We who preach often miss the simple lesson that Jesus showed us about the power of telling a story and allowing people who were paying attention to get the message. If sermons were approached as a form of story, how captivating might they be?
I have used short stories in education classes, especially with high school and college-age youth, and have found them to be wonderful discussion starters. Pairing short stories with biblical stories can be both fun and fascinating.
Finally, writing short stories, and sharing those with others, is a great way to develop one’s imagination and creativity. It does take some willingness to be vulnerable in sharing what comes from one’s heart, but my experience is that people are both appreciative and supportive of the creative efforts of others.
January 17, 2020
Baptism of Jesus
This beautiful stained-glass window is found in the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon in the downtown of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It is a testament to the world-wide telling of the story of Jesus, and to the ability of art to tell a story without using any words. No matter where one lives, or what language one speaks, one knows the story that is being told through the beautiful shapes and colors of the glass.
A stained-glass window by Lorin firm from Chartres inside
Saigon Our Lady Basilica: the baptism of Jesus.
By pham xuan nghi - Flickr: Nhà Thờ Đức Bà Sài Gòn 002,
CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27720455
Many of the elements of the window are familiar and readily identifiable - the Jordan river, John the Baptist, Jesus, the dove descending upon the scene. What I am especially drawn to is the hand of blessing that John lifts above Jesus, and John’s upturned eyes as though he is in prayer with the One who is sending the dove. Jesus projects a sense of humility, expressed through his facial expression, and a sense of modesty through covering himself with the red cloak.
While we obviously don’t hear the voice of God offering approval, the incredible colors that symbolize God and the realm of heaven do themselves speak volumes. The upper portion of the window is indeed one of the most intriguing parts of the work.
As one views this beautiful creation, it prompts a wondering about how else we can tell stories like this without using so many words.
January 10, 2020
Writing with Imagination
When I first met our Artist-in-Residence, Jim was pastoring another church. As our two churches, and at the time a couple of others as well, would engage in yearly Lenten gatherings, we would also discuss the activities that were going on at each other’s churches. As Jim shared about a writing workshop that he led each week, several of us from my church thought that it sounded interesting. So, one Wednesday evening, we gave it a try. Our group almost doubled the size of the writing workshop, and we continued to participate in it for a couple of years.
The basic format was that Jim would first play some music for us, and then would ask us to respond to it. When everyone was done writing, we would go around the table and share the resulting prose or poetry with one another. Then we would write three or four additional times, each of them begun with a prompt from Jim, something such as, “I was so excited when…” After several minutes of writing each time, we would then again share our creations with the group.
It was amazing for me to both enjoy the process of writing, and to become aware of how often my vocabulary was fairly limited in certain ways. I actually began to search for words to add interest and creativity to my writing, and found that the process of doing that carried over into my sermons and other writings.
After those couple of years, Jim needed to take a break from leading the workshop, and he asked if I would be willing to lead it. I agreed, and we moved the meeting to my church. I used his basic process, but focused the new workshop on helping people to write about life memories, from early childhood and school memories, to various adventures and experiences throughout their lives. While this took more of the form of memoir writing, there was still a great deal of creativity that emerged as people told their stories. For some of the people, the reminiscing was great in itself. For others, these became stories that they could share with their family, and even leave for future generations to hear in their own voice. All in all, it was a fun and creative way to engage people’s imagination, and to invite them to share their lives with one another.
These are just two ways in which writing with creativity and imagination can have an impact upon individuals and upon the group as a whole. And, for churches who have very little in the way of funds for the arts, this is as close to a free activity as it gets.
January 3, 2020
Writing with Creativity
One of the final ways in which we celebrated Advent through the arts was by sharing a variety of readings and songs that were developed in our Scripture as Theatre workshop. This is a process that began several months ago, which involved explorations of various scripture passages, preliminary development of characters and settings, initial drafts of works and then editing of those writings.
Our Artist-in-Residence then further edited the monologues and dialogues written by members of the workshop, and we spent several sessions rehearsing and refining the presentation of the works. In addition, workshop members submitted words in verse to be used for songs to enhance the experience, and our Artist-in-Residence then set those words to music.
The presentation took place on the fourth Sunday of Advent after our worship time, and people graciously and expectantly stayed to experience what folks had done. Participants in the workshop were stationed at various places in the room, and we shared the individual stories and the dialogue pieces, sometimes accompanied by musical portions and sometimes standing just on their own. It was fun for me to share in the process and the presentation, and people were very receptive of everyone’s work.
One of the great values of such an experience is the creativity that it evokes from the participants in the workshop. Some people have written before, both personally and professionally, and others have come to the Workshop with interest but feeling that they have nothing in the way of creativity to offer. Yet, what emerges from the process is a surprising wealth of imaginative work, and people both produce a product and also feel a genuine sense of accomplishment. Then, together, participants offer a gift to the church community.
I will write more next week about other ways in which churches can engage people's imagination through creative writing. If you should have further interest in the process I decribed above, please email me and we can discuss it.
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