July 28, 2017
Hindrances to Encounters with God
As I sat in a back row observing the beginnings of a funeral in a Catholic Provincial House, I was struck by the actions of the people. The sense of drama that I wrote about last week was present as the people sang, as the priests, the deacon, some of the nuns and the family processed into the chapel. It was striking to me as several people placed items on an altar area, including a Bible, some flowers and the box containing the ashes of someone I had known and cared about for many years. I was moved by the way in which the priest was present with the people, and the flow of the funeral mass including a great deal of singing, especially responsive singing between the choir and the people. And then, everything came to a grinding halt for me. It was time for the eucharist, “oh, and by the way, for those who are either non-Catholic, or for those Catholics who may be unprepared, you may come forward to receive a blessing.” What had been such an inviting service for me, suddenly became a barrier to my relationship with God, a hindrance to my full experience of the day.
Now I certainly know full well that this is the tradition and practice of the Catholic Church, and so it wasn’t necessarily all that surprising. But somehow, it was jarring to me in that setting. Where I had felt welcomed and included, I was suddenly excluded.
I don’t mean this as a polemic against the Catholic Church, although I do certainly think that they are theologically in error here. I understand that Protestants and Catholics view the celebration of the eucharist, the communion, in differing ways. I also know that there are Protestant churches wherein communion is also reserved for select people, whether that be members of that particular church, the men of a church, or some other pre-determined group. So what I want to take away from this experience, and invite you to ponder, is not a criticism of other churches, but rather an examination of things that I may do in my church, that you may do in your church, which are a hindrance to people and their encounter with God.
It can be as simple as clear signage about parking, or as theologically significant as who is welcome at the communion table. There may be songs that everyone in the congregation knows, but that without at least printed words visitors are left on the outside. If we take time for silent prayer, then it needs to be more than ten seconds in length. People need time to move into silent prayer and experience it in some depth. You can name other things from your own setting, but it is vital that we examine the things that we do, especially in our worship times, and ask whether they help in the encounter with God or in some way hinder it.
If we truly believe that God welcomes all of us, as indeed the Gospel lesson from the funeral was saying, then we need to make sure that the things that we do are actually extending God’s welcome to everyone.
July 21, 2017
The Power of Theatre
I recently went to a performance of the well-known play, “Oklahoma.” As one who had seen the movie, but not a live production of it, I found the performance to be particularly compelling. Part of that attraction is of course the music and lyrics, but even more so it was the staging and the costuming. The staging in particular created a vision of the various places where the action took place. Now I don’t just mean the obvious note of something that my eyes could perceive, but staging that set the mood, gave one the feel of the places, drew one into the experience.
This is a special gift that is offered to us through live theatre. We are certainly used to the spectacular visual effects that most filmmakers employ. But while those effects are often meant to give us more than we can absorb in a single viewing of a movie, the staging in theatre leaves open room for our imagination to fill in the empty spaces. We see the riverbank for instance, but need to fill in the flowing water that is outside our view beyond the reeds on the edges of the water. We see the façade of the building, but are invited to envision the staircase that leads to the second story window. One of the true gifts of theatre is that it invites us to participate in the whole experience through our imagination.
That is something that can add a great deal to the drama that takes place in worship. Of course, when I say “drama” in worship, we need to recognize that often there is very little of that present. We celebrate worship on most Sundays in the same order, with familiar readings, with songs that people may or may not sing. The preacher may be dynamic, the choir may be talented and provide beautiful music, but seldom is there a lot left to the imagination.
There are certainly a multitude of ways that we can open that door for people. Something as simple as silent prayer allows the Spirit to move in unfettered ways. Bringing new physical elements into the worship space, such as one might add to the altar area or the communion table, also opens doors to the imagination. Introducing art in its many forms accomplishes the same thing.
I think that we often try to make sure that everyone gets “the message.” We want to be sure that our message has come across clearly. But we need to trust people, and the movement of the Spirit, to bring together the message that God is offering to us in varying ways.
Jesus understood this. That was why he so often spoke in parables. He invited people into the message through the story, and then allowed them to glean what was there for them. Jesus seldom gave a moral lesson attached to the parables, seldom told people that “this is what it means.” Jesus opened the door to them, and they were invited to walk through it with their imagination.
We too need to trust people. We too need to be the ones who open doors, and then trust that combination of imagination and Spirit to take over.
July 14, 2017
Reading and Writing
When I was a few months away from first attending seminary, I had an opportunity to attend a Bible study session at a church gathering near where I lived, at which one of the professors from Pacific School of Religion was going to be the study leader. After the time of study, I waited to speak with him. I wanted to glean his advice on the best way to prepare for my new educational venture. I expected some recommendations of books to read, or perhaps some kind of class that I might take that would help me out on my new pathway. So, I was sort of taken aback when his sage advice to me was to learn to read and write.
As someone about to graduate from college, I figured I knew something about reading and writing, and so his suggestion was somewhat cryptic. But I came to understand that being able to read and comprehend were indeed important skills, and that being able to write with intelligence, clarity and organization was also an essential skill. By the time I took my first seminary class, a summer course in reading the Bible offered by the same professor, Wayne Rood, I was prepared to see the importance in reading that essential book that would inform all of the other courses I would encounter in the three years before me.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Stephen King’s book, On Writing. I am still making my way through it, but one of his prime rules that he offers to folks who aspire to write is, “Write a lot and read a lot.” I doubt that Wayne Rood and Stephen King knew each other, but all these years later I have no doubt about the wisdom of his suggestion.
In order to heed his advice, I do need to write more. This blog is one way in which I seek some discipline in writing, but I do need to write more in order to refine my own style and develop a greater sense of the craft of writing. As far as the reading part goes, being a part of the church book club has helped to nurture that, but I also find that I am more aware of other reading that I do, that I indeed choose to do.
I have come to know in many ways that reading and writing are important for us, not just in seminary or for professional writers. Reading always enlarges our vision, at least if we read widely and creatively. And writing is a profound way of expressing ourselves.
The next book that our church book club is taking off the shelf to read and discuss is The Aviator’s Wife, a novel by Melanie Benjamin. It is a story about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the wife of the famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh. The author weaves historical facts with wonderful imagination, such that one feels that Anne is truly writing the account herself.
At one point, as Anne has just graduated from college, is uncertain about her future, and is definitely attracted to the heroic Charles, he asks her, “What do you want to do? The one thing you can’t stop thinking about? For me, it was Paris. On all those long flights delivering the mail, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, puzzling it over until I had the answer, and when it came to me, I did it. So what do you want to do?”
Anne ponders many responses, and then finally says, “I would – I would like to write a great book. Just one. I would be satisfied with that. To paint pictures with words, to help people see what I see, through my language – oh, to be able to do that!”
To which Charles responds, “Then you will.”
It is a marvelous exchange that talks in essence about a passionate approach to life, and the confidence that through that passion one’s goal will be achieved.
It is a challenge, I think, for many of us to keep that passion at the center of our lives. We are all pulled in many different directions, unless we have somehow cloistered ourselves away from the world. And yet, without a passionate desire about something in life, we tend to go through the motions.
One’s passion may be tied up in one’s work, in which case it certainly is at the center of life. But then, in the moments when that work life is especially challenging, we need to pause and remember that we are doing it, even the small details, because it is what we want to do.
I certainly do that in serving a small church. I believe in the wonderful possibilities that exist through ministry in smaller church settings, and I am so fortunate to be where I am in ministry. Yet, there are times when the details and the mundane can work to dissipate that passion. It is then that I look to refocus, to remember the ways in which lives are touched, and to renew the vision that I have for the future of the church.
We do well to ask ourselves, “What do I want to do?” That question can serve us well not just at the beginning of a journey, but along the pathway that we are walking toward the goal that we have set for ourselves.
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.