July 31, 2020
One More Word - “Hope”
Even as I spent time last week exploring the word “vision,” I became aware that perhaps the more immediate need is for “hope.” The two ideas are certainly related. It is often “vision” that gives us a sense of “hope.” And yet, when people have trouble grasping a vision, when they have difficulty seeing beyond the immediate circumstances, hope is something that is needed, is indeed essential in so many ways.
Part of the nature of this pandemic is that the news changes almost daily. We hear about improving conditions, and better numbers, and a smaller amount of deaths due to the virus, and then, often the next day, we hear that the numbers have reversed and are again showing a more dire situation. In addition, we hear promising reports about vaccines, and then cautionary words that even though things are progressing on that front, it could well be the middle of 2021 before vaccines are widely available. In the midst of this turmoil, and uncertainty in people’s lives, it is more difficult to envision any kind of time when things will return to some semblance of normal, let alone return to how things were last year. In fact, as people say that the “new normal” may be more than temporary, it is a vision of the future that is not very encouraging to many people.
So, while we can propose a vision for ourselves, for the church, for ministry together, we seek hope for today, and for tomorrow, before we can even begin to envision that longer-term future. While there are many ways to approach “hope,” and time in prayer, and encouragement to prayer and other spiritual disciplines, is a primary path that we can walk together, I think that the arts, in a variety of ways, can help to bring a sense of encouragement and hope as well.
One of the primary arts that can be engaged here is that of storytelling. Now while anyone can just read a story, being a storyteller takes more commitment than that, because there is an art to it. It involves a certain level of personal engagement with the story, which allows you to share it as though it is one of your own stories. Part of that comes in being captured by the story yourself, recognizing its truth as a story. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be a factual story, but rather one that communicates a truth to you, a truth about life that you want to pass on to others. The other part of that personal engagement comes through your enjoyment in telling the story. When people see your involvement in the story, even your delight in sharing it, then they will listen in ways that open the door to it becoming one of their stories as well.
There are traditional folktales that speak to “hope,” as well as contemporary stories that serve to inspire. Then there are those stories that can emerge out of our own imagination. It is these last stories that often allow me to be the best storyteller I can be, because they are both creations of my own, emerging out of my experiences and ideas, and also stories that I can share in powerful ways because they speak of truth to me.
As I was working on this blog, I received an email that I subscribe to from an organization called the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, located at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. In an article in the email dated July 28, 2020, the author, Tim Snyder, gives “6 Tips for Connecting with People in the Digital Realm.” The fourth tip is to tell stories, and his comments are an apt fit for this blog. He writes, “Digital platforms can be an incredible way to tell stories. As one of my teachers used to say, stories are the ‘coins of the realm’ in the world of meaning-making. When we tell stories together, our lives and relationships become more meaningful. Chances are you know some powerful stories about how God is at work in the world. Consider using your online presence to tell and share as many good stories as you can. Creating digital media to tell these stories is a great way to engage younger generations who probably know already how to create the videos and graphics you’ll need.” (https://www.churchleadership.com/leading-ideas/6-tips-for-connecting-with-people-in-the-digital-realm/)
Telling stories of “hope” will have an especially profound impact in this time.
July 24, 2020
Focusing upon a Single Word - Part Two
As I was reflecting further on what I wrote about last week, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to go ahead and take a word and see what I could do with it. The word I have chosen is “Vision.” This is a word, an image, a theme, that could certainly be developed for any worship gathering, but I am in particular thinking of it in relation to our church’s anniversary celebration in September, a celebration that will in all likelihood be a virtual one.
Immediate thoughts and images that come to mind that help to enlarge one’s idea of the word “Vision” include of course our eyes, our sight, perhaps people with impaired sight or living with blindness, the idea of looking ahead, the thoughts of maybe not seeing too far ahead due to fog (which could be a literal fog bank or fogginess of thought), insight, spiritual enlightenment, and the list could certainly continue. Indeed, what comes to mind for you?
I have a colleague who includes an element in her church’s Epiphany celebration each year wherein, after the story is told about the wise visitors, paper stars are given out to each person in worship, with a word written on each of them. She uses a whole variety of words, but when she shared this tradition with a committee that we both serve on, it just so happened that my word, back in January, was “Vision.” I have been living with that star and that word for six months now, and have filed the tradition away for next January’s Epiphany celebration in our church. Of course, “Vision” could be the theme word for all that happens on that Sunday in the liturgical year as well.
Returning to my thoughts about this word for our church’s anniversary celebration, one possibility is to invite people to submit poems around the theme. And, as there likely are many examples on the Internet of poems that center on “Vision,” that could serve as a resource as well for filling out the experience. The focus though would be on getting people involved in the celebration.
Since we are blessed to have an artist in our church family, I may ask her to craft a painting using “Vision” for inspiration. Alternatively, one can search for images that either show a sense of vision as you would interpret it, or that artists have indicated in their titles is somehow their interpretation if it.
Assuming that our church celebration will be a virtual experience as we use Zoom, it can be pointed out that with being able to alternate between the “speaker view” and “the gallery view” we are presented with two ways of seeing, two ways of envisioning being together.
The theme of “Vision” can lead our celebration in a couple of different, yet related, directions. The first obvious one is a consideration of our vision for the future of the church. Intertwined with that can be a sense of our vision for what church worship gatherings, and other times together, will look like as the pandemic continues, and how that vision impacts our ministry even as we are able to again be together in person.
This is only a beginning. I want to speak with my musicians, my other leaders, the visual artist, to further shape the experience. But this gives me some ideas to work with, some sense of what we might do to celebrate the church anniversary, and to develop a vision for the future even as we walk through these turbulent times.
July 17, 2020
Focusing upon a Single Word
The Christian Century magazine has periodically offered the opportunity for people to write and submit brief entries about particular subjects. This has been called The Buechner Narrative Writing Project. I believe the most recent call for entries was in the January 1, 2020 issue where people were invited to submit first-person narratives on “Dawn” (the deadline for which was March 1) and “Movement” (the deadline for which was May 1). Part of the allure of course was that selected essays would be published in either their print or web magazine. In addition, the selected authors would receive $100 and a free one-year subscription to the magazine.
Although I worked on a couple of pieces in response to the themes that were offered, I didn’t submit any essays. But I did enjoy reading the published essays, and reflecting upon how those experiences and thoughts compared or contrasted with my own reflections.
One of the values that I see in this project is that of having a specific, though broad, topic on which to spend some time in reflection. Such an endeavor will, almost without question, open our eyes and minds to a wider understanding and appreciation of a topic. But the possibilities for approaching this far exceed the writing of essays.
Although the Christian Century was looking for essays, the magazine editors include poetry in every edition. Poetic reflection on a theme, on a specific word, could certainly prove to be very fruitful. In the crafting of a poem, one looks deeply at the subject, and considers especially carefully how an economy of words will communicate one’s responses to that word.
It is certainly nothing new for visual artists to spend a great deal of time in crafting a work that speaks about just one word and how that word can be seen. Across the centuries, artists have in particular created paintings that depict each of the seasons as they envision them, as well as discovering ways to depict the traditional virtues that have intrigued people.
It would be a great experiment to create a drawing or painting, or a sculpture as well, that speaks to one or both of the themes mentioned in the first paragraph – “Dawn” and “Movement.” Immediate ideas of course come to mind, but how rich the experience would be to have the creativity of artists present their own interpretations of those words.
Then, imagine what people who plan liturgies might do with such a process. In a sense we do that with the major liturgical celebrations, but what would it look like to craft a worship experience around the word “Dawn”? What readings, music, visual art, performance art, would inspire people to encounter “Dawn” in new ways?
To create liturgies in such ways would take effort, creativity and collaboration. But imagine how exciting the worship gathering would be if writers, poets, visual artists, musicians and performance artists were to bring some or all of their gifts to the gathering. It would be an amazing time of worship.
Considering our current state of dealing with the Covid-19 virus, it would be a challenge to do this in its entirety right now. But a worship experience could be planned around a theme word, and several members of the congregation could be invited to write poems that speak to that theme. Or, a single visual artist could craft a work, and present it in the worship gathering with some commentary about the process of creation. Such creativity can certainly enhance our current worship experiences.
But then imagine crafting a worship gathering for one of the first times when we can resume in-person worship experiences. With a theme word of “hope” or “community” or “faithfulness” say, what a celebration it could be with the collaboration of a variety of artists. And with this opportunity now to plan, to create, it can make the interim an especially rich time for all those who are planning the experience. The possibilities are as varied and wonderful as our creativity enables them to be.
July 10, 2020
Book Stores, Museums, Parks, Beaches
As I titled this week’s blog, I realized that these are four of the places where I discover inspiration for writing, for creating worship experiences, for life in general. I love to wander around in bookstores, especially the used book variety. They hold a fascination for me. Museums of any kind, although I tend to wander toward the art variety, expose us to ideas and visual elements that can do nothing less than expand our consciousness and knowledge if we engage with the exhibits in any way. Parks, beaches, almost anything involving spending time in nature, inspire me in more internal, spiritual ways, which is just as vital for me.
In these times when the Covid-19 virus is still so active in our midst, and in many places there is an increase in the number of people who have been affected by it, our access to places like museums and beaches, even parks, has been limited. Here in Southern California our beaches were closed for the 4th of July weekend, an incredibly unusual experience, but then these are incredibly usual times. Many of the places that I would normally visit in order to discover new ideas and inspirations are either closed or not very safe to visit right now.
Which turns the search for inspiration into a whole different journey of discovery. In some ways, it invites us to be creative with the search itself. One such resource for me is my own bookshelves. There are books I read long ago, and ones that I bought but haven’t found time to read, and those adventures, or re-discoveries await me close at hand. As I take an occasional walk through our neighborhood, I am always intrigued by the small lending libraries that people offer for those who are out getting some exercise. These are the ones where you are free to take a book, or to leave a book. It is a great idea. Then there are the museums. Both from a standpoint of offering a service, and also I imagine to keep their presence in front of people, many museums offer expanded online exhibitions and experiences in these times. I get several emails each week offering such opportunities. It is another resource that we can access while staying at home.
And finally, there is our own imagination from which we can draw deeply. I know that some of us are working very hard in these times, even if we are at home. I know that is true for me. But there are still those times when we take a moment to step aside from the computer, or leave the phone in the other room, or walk outside to get some fresh air, and in those moments we may be especially free to let our imagination go, and to draw fresh life from it. And if that doesn’t work, grab a novel and get lost in the world that the author creates. Experiencing someone else’s creativity is another way to spark our own.
July 3, 2020
Looking toward the Light of Stained Glass
I enjoyed re-visiting the Union Church of Pocantico Hills last week as I re-read portions of the book that I referenced, and then shared the Chagall stained glass window of the prophet Jeremiah. So, I thought I would share about another of the windows Chagall created, although this one is based on a parable of Jesus rather than about depicting one of the prophets.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is perhaps one of the most familiar of Jesus’ parables. Chagall’s depiction of it is placed in the rear of the sanctuary, such that worshippers perhaps see it most clearly as they leave the time of worship. It, in fact, is installed at the opposite end of the sanctuary from the Rose Window by Matisse.
The Rockefeller family, who worshipped at the church when they were in residence nearby, contributed to both the design and the financing of the stained-glass windows of the church. Steven Rockefeller wrote this about the juxtaposition of the Matisse window and the Chagall depiction of the Good Samaritan parable:
“The Matisse Rose Window involves an abstract design that awakens a sense of peace and harmony. It invites prayer and contemplation. It sits before the congregation during a worship service. As the people of the congregation leave the Church, they face and pass by the Good Samaritan window, which is a call to ethical action in the world – action guided by the spirit of love and compassion. One window invites contemplation and the other reminds us that contemplation is preparation for love in action. The religious life is nourished by contemplation and bears fruit in practical action.” (Matisse & Chagall at the Union Church of Pocantico Hills, p. 26)
I share here two views of the stained glass window depicting the parable of the Good Samaritan, the first as it is seen from outside the church, and then as it is seen from inside, its brilliant colors flooding the sanctuary.
The window itself is in some ways similar to an icon, in that the various stages of the story are depicted, rather than just a summary image. Careful examination of the window will reveal each element of the story, as well as other symbolisms that Chagall found to be significant in his life and work. While there are other photographs of the window that show the brilliant colors even better, this was the image of the window as I captured it during my visit.
Rather, though, than describe things in great detail, allow me to share a quote from Chagall himself, that speaks to the process of creation and the power of the art itself. He says:
“In every work of art, especially if it is intended for a holy place, there must be present always a large part of the mystery. If this is not so, the work would not be a work of art and would not have the power to move. I re-read several times and became imbued with the passage on the Good Samaritan…I have not put in this work any detail that is not in accord, inwardly and mystically, with the essence of this parable.” (Matisse & Chagall at the Union Church of Pocantico Hills, p. 26)
Chagall’s style, his choice of colors, his sense of mystery, all combine to leave one in awe at his depiction of this story which is at once familiar but also here seen in marvelous light.
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.