June 28, 2019
Concrete Expressions of the Spiritual
I was recently reading an older issue of “Arts: The Arts in Religious and Theological Studies.” If you are not familiar with this publication, each issue features articles that follow themes like, “In the Study,” “In the Sanctuary,” and “In the Studio.” While those are broad categories, you can imagine how the content reflects the scholarly in the first one, worship and worship spaces in the second, and the creativity of artists in the third one.
In this issue from 2017 (vol. 29, no. 1), I enjoyed reading the “In the Studio” reflections of an artist named James B. Janknegt. He entitled his article, “Learning to See: From Urban Landscapes to Jesus’ Parables.” While I found his thoughts to be quite interesting, and appreciated his sharing about his own journey as an artist, I was particularly struck by a remark toward the end of the article where he said, “my goal as an artist all along has been to make visible the reality of a spiritual world that exists but can only be experienced via the concrete, material world.” (page 80)
As I turned that over in my mind, I first agreed with his statement, then sought out exceptions to his comment, then decided that I again agreed with him. One can certainly see how painting, sculpture, mosaic, fresco and more, do certainly strive to make visible that spiritual world. I then thought about the ways that prayer and meditation, which are acts of both the mind and the body, do also serve to mediate the presence of God’s Spirit in our lives. It is through the concreteness of our lives, in these various approaches, that we do indeed give substance to the wonder of God’s spirit.
This is of course a central part of the importance of the Incarnation, of God coming to be among us in human form in the person of Jesus. His life among us, and among us still, though in different ways than in the first century, is God’s spirit being made present to us through the material world.
It is a reminder that although the Christian Church has at times dismissed the physical, and in particular the human body, as either irrelevant or downright sinful, that it is precisely through our bodies, and our physical creations, that we poignantly connect with God. I was glad to be prompted to these reflections by the sharing of an artist who helps to provide connections to the spiritual through his works.
June 21, 2019
Ballet - Season Two
It was a year ago that I wrote in this space about ballet. I admit that I know nothing more about ballet than I did at that time. Nonetheless, it wasn’t knowledge that I needed in order to attend the second, year-end recital of one of the young girls in our church, watching as she and her classmates presented beauty in the form of dance on the stage of a local high school.
In observing her performance, what was as notable as the ballet moves themselves was the smile on her face and the obvious joy she has in performing ballet. I am certain that the students are all taught to smile as they dance, but it seemed that this young girl, and certainly other students as well, were not just projecting a smile to the audience, but rather were allowing the joy within them to show forth through the smiles on their faces.
As I watched the various classes perform, from the youngest beginners to the most advanced students in the school, I kept thinking about the centrality of Grace in Christianity, and the importance of some manner of graciousness in all walks of life. These young people, girls and boys, are attempting to embody grace in their ballet and dance moves. They are working to have the movements both appear, and truly be, something that flows so well that it gives substance to the word Grace.
Of course, as one would expect, the youngest students exhibit less grace than the more advanced dancers. And yet, in that obvious observation are some important lessons. The first is that arriving at grace is a process. In the dance classes that these students attend each week, there is a process to learning the moves, to making them flow with greater ease, to perfecting them as much as possible. In the same way, moving toward an understanding of God’s Grace, and going through the steps involved so that we might become persons of grace, also happens through a process. This often involves two steps forward and the awkwardness of one step back. Grace does not just happen in our own lives in an instant. We have to nurture it. And, while God’s Grace may indeed come upon us in an instant, our comprehension and appreciation of that Grace grows over time.
A second lesson comes through watching the more-advanced students, and, if one is so inclined, through attending professional ballet performances. As the moves flow ever more smoothly, we begin to glimpse the essence of grace on the stage, perhaps even get as close to a perfect idea of grace as is possible for us. It is these glimpses which move us to return again to the dancing, or to the watching of the dancing. Once we have glimpsed such grace, we long to experience it again.
Finally, what these students are able to accomplish, indeed what professionals are able to do as well, comes through hours and hours of practice. It takes hard work to understand the moves, to feel the movements become one with the dancer, to perfect them as nearly as possible. And it also takes observation, commitment and practice to move toward mastering grace in our own lives. But, as I am certain that many of these student dancers experience weekly in their classes, practice has its own joy. Yes, practice is hard work, but it is also something that fills us with joy and a sense of accomplishment if we allow ourselves to receive those gifts. In the same way, practicing the imitation of God’s Grace in our own lives, enjoying the beauty of it and the flow that it instills in our lives, also brings joy. And for us too, the quest to get as close to perfection as possible in how we live out that grace is about the journey itself. And in the journey, we come to more fully grasp the incredible Grace of God.
June 14, 2019
The Faces of Jesus
As I was writing last week, I kept thinking of another book, this one entitled, The Faces of Jesus. The text was written by Frederick Buechner and the photographs cover artworks of many different styles, from a large variety of artists and time periods.
If you are familiar with Frederick Buechner at all, you know that his poetic prose immediately enriches the story. Buechner has in fact been one of my favorite authors for many years. But, of course, while the text could stand on its own, it is the interaction of text and images that provides the richness of experience in exploring this book.
There are chapters on the Annunciation, the Nativity, Jesus’ Ministry, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Buechner’s reflections provide one with a guide through these stages of Jesus’ life, and the images provide a visual substance to the journey.
This is a beautiful resource for personal reflection in preparation for the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, as well as being a fruitful excursion into highlights from the years when Jesus taught, healed and otherwise touched people’s lives. Buechner provides insights and suggestions that are thought-provoking, and seeing the images too, as he references them, adds to the personal walk with Jesus.
Of course, this book can also serve as a wonderful resource for small groups, or even in worship experiences, in any of the seasons mentioned above. While one doesn’t want to infringe on copyright by making copies of the artwork from the book, many of the images are available in other forms, and there are certainly numerous works of art that could be used in place of the ones in the book. In a large group setting, color copies or projected images would be helpful. And, for a smaller group, one could reasonably pass the book around the table for people to see the images.
This is a beautiful resource, however it is used. If you explore it, I am certain you will discover great riches.
June 7, 2019
The Face of Jesus
Back when I was enjoying my doctoral work, one of the people in my group suggested a DVD to all of us, entitled, “The Face: Jesus in Art.” I went out and bought it and have periodically pulled it from the shelf through the intervening years. It is quite a resource.
The DVD is arranged much like a two-hour public television program, and can certainly serve as a two to four week educational series, or can even cover a longer period of time if that is desirable. The leader of such a series could provide additional background material, and could even use photographs or posters of some of the artworks seen on the DVD in order to provide a more in-depth discussion of those works.
Alternatively, clips from the DVD can be shared in assorted ways, from using them to add to Sunday morning messages, to excerpting images for use as part of a Lenten series. The possibilities are truly numerous.
Another resource that I like for helping in discussions about works of art is a book entitled, Image and Spirit: Finding Meaning in Visual Art, by Karen Stone. While I think that the entire book is helpful, in the context of discussing images from the DVD, or any other visual art works, the author provides a resource called, “101 Questions to Ask of an Artwork.” It is a wonderful guide to use to help people to notice things, and to become comfortable in examining a work of art. It also assists people in discovering both meaning and joy in what they are sharing together.
These two resources can each stand on their own, but they also compliment each other in wonderful ways. I encourage you to give them a look.
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.