June 29, 2018
Exploring in New Ways
The next book that our church book club is taking off the shelf is The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, a novel by Jennifer Ryan. This is not a title that I imagine I would have in any way been drawn to on my own. There are a lot of other books ahead of it on my list. Yet, since I am part of the book club, and lead the discussion about the book when we meet, it automatically becomes a part of my reading list.
Of course, what I have discovered in the past with the books that the club has chosen, is that there is always something that I find interesting or even profound about each book. It may be that I am drawn into the story itself, whether it be a novel or a biography. It is frequently true that I find at least some of the writing to be quite creative and engaging. And sometimes I discover insights that help shape how I look at other things in life.
On a recent night when I couldn’t sleep, I picked up this novel about the ladies’ choir, and began my journey into the world being created by the author. One of the first creative elements to catch my attention had to do with a wife receiving a knock at the door and of her being given the news that her husband had died in battle (in World War I). The narrator says, “I heard the front door open, then the slump of my mother’s body as she hit the floor, the sunshine streaming in, unaware.” (page 5) That last phrase struck me, because when we receive such news, or perhaps a medical diagnosis that also shakes our world, it is true that the rest of the world, with the exception of family and close friends, does indeed go on without us. And, the idea that the sunshine was still doing its thing, unaware of the news, was a unique way of putting it.
If I hadn’t been reading this book, a book not on my list, I wouldn’t have discovered this wonderful, creative phrase. It made me aware once again of how much we do stand to experience when we tread into unfamiliar territory, at least unfamiliar for us. It could be that we enjoy the great painting masters like Monet or Rembrandt, but what new insight or joy might we unearth by visiting a contemporary art museum? We may have our set favorites in music too, but what might we discover in listening to something that is new for us?
That one phrase in this new book has me looking forward to other creative turns of words that are yet to come in my reading. I am certain that I will find much to enjoy and ponder.
June 22, 2018
Support for Artists
One of the initial objectives of our church’s concert and arts series was to support the work of new, emerging artists. We accomplished that through welcoming musicians, individuals and groups, who had certainly been highly trained, but who were just beginning to perform. It was an opportunity for them to showcase their talents in a setting that was intimate and accepting, while honing their skills in actual performances.
We have welcomed many talented musicians throughout the years, and although we have expanded our focus to include those with much more experience in performing, we continue to look for individuals and groups who are either new to performing or who have had few opportunities to share their wonderful talents. We always find that these musicians are extremely grateful for the opportunities our small church has provided.
The exhibitions of visual art that we have shared with the community have also been a way to welcome committed artists who have not have many other opportunities to share the riches of their creativity. It has been a joy to get to know these artists personally, to better understand their commitment to their craft, to experience the challenges of mounting an exhibition, and the wonder when everything comes together.
To support artists of varying mediums, from music to photography to painting and beyond, is to experience a gift that churches both give to artists and receive in return in beautiful ways. During those times when our fellowship hall, and another small hall in the church, have been dedicated to exhibiting visual art, the interest and exploration by members and visitors has been amazing. It has added an entirely different dynamic for those who enter the church and engage in its programs. And, personally, I have found myself drawn to spend time with those exhibitions each time I have arrived at the church for any reason. These exhibitions have been a highly accessible and inspiring art gallery right in the church building.
Churches can have these opportunities to support artists and their work, while at the same time enhancing the ministry of the church. There are resources out there to provide guidance for these endeavors. I am also happy to offer ideas and encouragement if your church is interested in expanding its ministry in this way.
June 15, 2018
Movement in Time and Space
My knowledge of ballet is almost non-existent. When I was in seminary, one of my professors saw value in movement and dance within worship, and encouraged us to take an introductory dance class. I did that, and came away with both a rudimentary understanding of dance, and an appreciation for the combination of strength and grace that dancers possess.
These memories came back to me recently as I was continuing to read the book by Frederick Buechner that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, entitled, The Remarkable Ordinary. He too admits that he has very little acquaintance with ballet. However, after attending a ballet performance, he “realized this art is working in both time and space. It’s both music and it’s spatial on the stage, and it’s saying listen to this time, right now, and look, look at what you’re looking at, look at the language the body speaks, the language the face speaks, the language the hands speak, these wonderful things the young, supple, beautiful bodies are doing up there on the stage to the music.” (p. 28)
I carried those reflections with me as I attended a ballet recital that one of the young people in our church was participating in, along with her classmates. I kept hearing Buechner’s words as I watched and listened to what was taking place on the stage. I was aware of the movements and the music, the take-notice movements and the subtle ones, and how they worked in concert with the music. While I was so happy to experience the efforts of our young church member, my experience was enriched immeasurably as well by being led to a greater awareness of all that was happening in that space.
Some churches are fortunate to experience liturgical dance on a regular basis, or even occasionally. It is an art form that can add greatly to worship, although in my experience it is also an art form that too many people in the pews do not understand fully enough to appreciate in all of its fulness. That means that discussion and education, dialogue with the dancers, can help a great deal toward enhancing everyone’s experience.
But what all churches have in worship is movement of some kind. It may be nothing more than the pastor moving about as he or she preaches, reads scripture, and so forth. Or, it may involve adding in things like walking forward to receive communion, or having communion served by elders and deacons. And, it my church, it means that we close worship with people singing and dancing to a much-loved dismissal song.
The dynamic that becomes important is for the movements that we have, whatever they may be, to be intentional. From the hand motions that I might use in delivering the morning message, to the way in which I move to the communion table from the pulpit, to how the choir moves about during the anthem, to the coordinated movements of the deacons serving communion, these actions communicate things about the use of the worship space. This is not to say that everything needs to present the sense of being scripted, and thereby perhaps unnatural. Rather, it does mean that we should be aware that our movements do communicate messages, and that these movements can become an important part of all that we do in our worship celebrations. As these varied movements are seen and experienced as part of the flow of worship, they might even open the door for other things, like liturgical dance.
June 8, 2018
Creativity and Spirituality
When I was engaged in my doctoral program, one of the books that I found most fascinating was Robert Wuthnow's work entitled, Creative Spirituality: The Way of the Artist. It was a stimulating study of many artists across the country, exploring both their commitment to their art, as well as their commitment to the spiritual in their lives, and the intersections between the two which many people felt.
One of my favorite artists in the study is a man by the name of Willi Singleton. His creations are in pottery, and he has come to understand his work as a form of spiritual practice. As he fires his work in a wood kiln, he has discovered that the “kiln basically does things to the pots that I don’t do to them.” (Page 114) Here he is. He has put hours upon hours of meticulous artistry in a vessel, and he then entrusts it to the heat of the kiln. And all he can do is wait. Now I call that faith. For him, this quality of being unable to control everything puts him, he feels, in “contact with the very essence of life.” (Page 115)
When the Bible, in Genesis, talks about the creation of all that is, it is not just a chronological telling of the way in which the ancients understood things to have come into being, but it is a recognition of the connection between creation and Spirit. In Genesis it is a connection to God’s Spirit, but elsewhere in the Bible it is clear that creativity and continuing creation are expressions of the Spirit of God flowing through us.
Creativity, the act of creating something, places us into contact with our own spirits, as well as with God’s Spirit. And here, I am not thinking in the least about what people might judge to be a masterpiece, or even a very good attempt at a creative expression. Rather, I am talking about how the very act of creation feeds our spirit. It is not the product that we need to be concerned with at all; it is the process that is important here.
Too often I hear people proclaim that they just are not creative. Perhaps that comes because someone has told them that they are not creative. That is just not true. We are all creative, if we choose to explore that gift that comes into us from God. And again, what we are after here is not the product that others will judge, but the process of using all that is within us in order to experience the power of creation.
And as we create – whether is it painting or dancing, drawing or sculpting, writing or singing, composing music or using a computer to produce incredible projects – as we create, we allow our spirits to take shape in what we create. And, through the act of creation, we allow ourselves to become more deeply immersed in the true spirituality of our lives.
June 1, 2018
Framing an Experience
Frederick Buechner has long been one of my favorite authors. I am reading a book of his that was published last year entitled, The Remarkable Ordinary. The subtitle is, “How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life.” It strikes me that even in the subtitle a statement about the theme of the book is being made. As we write, we use punctuation to help communicate the pauses that we would employ in spoken conversation. While it is acceptable to connect two thoughts with the word “and” without the use of a comma, to employ a comma slows us down. Here, rather than reading, “Look and Listen to Life,” we are enjoined to first “Stop,” then “Look,” and then to separately “Listen.” It is a subtle difference, but one that seems intentional to me as I have begun to enjoy the book.
As Buechner begins to explore the mediums which help us to slow down and pay greater attention to life, he comments on his own life work and says, “I’ve decided that writing books is a kind of ministry, a sort of weird kind, but a kind. And I also decided that art and religion, though the people whose eyes roll up in their heads don’t immediately think so, have a great deal to do with each other.” (Page 20) I both appreciate his reflection, and certainly agree with it.
He then begins to offer thoughts about the ways in which literature – novels, plays, haiku – as well as paintings, and other forms of artistic expression, help to provide a frame around an experience that helps us to slow down, to take notice, and to meet life in deeper ways.
I am looking forward to the riches of the book as I explore it further, but it also got me to thinking about worship in the church. There is a sense in which we place a frame around the experience of worship that enables people to step aside for a time from their regular, everyday activities, and to spend time with one another, and with God, in the worship space. Sometimes I think we frame things well, and sometimes I imagine we just draw a crude circle around the time and hope it all holds together.
By this, I mean, that sometimes we carefully consider how portions of the time interact with each other, and how they all work to communicate the presence and grace of God, and sometimes we may be in a hurry, or pressured with other concerns of the week, and we hurriedly put things together and hope that the Holy Spirit makes it all work in spite of us.
I think that as we include the arts in worship, in whatever form, we force ourselves to slow down in the very process of working with things. The arts ask us to stop and take notice, and in so doing we focus greater attention on the whole of the worship experience. If we are showing a movie clip, we have to plan how that will be coordinated with other elements in worship. If we are using a PowerPoint presentation, we want that to complement everything else, and not just stand out as unconnected to anything else. If we are sharing an excerpt from a novel, we may well want to draw that novel into the opening or closing of worship so as to unite the whole experience.
We do frame the worship time. It is a matter of whether we have carefully crafted that frame. And just as Buechner proposes that literature, and the arts in general, provide a frame for us to experience something, so too the careful framing of worship helps to lead to a deeper experience of God for those who are sharing in the time together.
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.