June 26, 2020
Looking to the Prophets
One of the most inspiring discoveries that I have had happened a number of years ago as I was on my way to a wedding rehearsal in New York state. I was carefully following directions to locate the out-of-the-way site, when I passed a church that looked both beautiful and intriguing. So, the next day, in the morning hours since the wedding was in the late afternoon, I again followed the same route and arrived at the Union Church of Pocantico Hills. There was a small fee to tour the church, which I initially found to be rather strange, but as I entered the sanctuary it made sense as I was met with the amazing colors of stained glass coming from all around me. Behind the altar area is a rose window designed by Henri Matisse. Along both sides of the church, and in the rear, are windows created by Marc Chagall. If you know Chagall’s work at all, you can begin to imagine the magnificent colors that anyone who ventures inside the church experiences in marvelous ways.
Six of Chagall’s windows are depictions of prophets from the pages of the Hebrew Bible. I was reflecting on those windows again recently in connection to the work that our Scripture as Theatre group has been doing in studying the life of the prophet Jeremiah. One of Chagall’s windows depicts Jeremiah, and I display here a photo that I took of that window when I visited the church in 2011.
At the time of my visit, I purchased a beautiful book entitled, Matisse & Chagall at the Union Church of Pocantico Hills. Within this work are brief descriptions of each of the windows. The authors write that Chagall chose Lamentations 3:1-9 “as his source of inspiration for this eloquently expressive and moving window.” They provide further comment, saying that “the work symbolizes a universal feeling – personal anguish and loneliness in time of deep despair. Jeremiah sits passively, his bearded face bowed, his feet resting firmly on the ground. He crosses his arms in an attitude of despair. He sits in darkness in a grove of trees penetrated by stars.” They remind readers that Jeremiah and his prophecies were not at all well-received. In fact, his life was in danger at many points along the way. Commenting on the composition of the work, the authors write that “Chagall uses color to blend the Jeremiah figure with his surroundings. The center of the composition is the brilliant gold and citron yellow of Jeremiah’s robe. Movement spirals around it, the rich shades of deep purple, green and blue melding easily one into another.” (All quotes are from page 40.)
As with any work of art, it is certainly open to interpretation. The authors provide insights into the window, which become a starting point for one’s own discoveries. I share this work because it is a vivid depiction of a key figure among the prophets, and has added to my experiences of Jeremiah that have come through studying the texts and doing the creative writing that we do in the group. Visual images always add another layer to one’s experience, especially when it involves envisioning someone whom we have no depictions of outside of the creations of artists. Art and text become interwoven, and both are enhanced through dialogue with the other.
June 19, 2020
While some churches have re-opened for worship, most of us are still being told, or at least encouraged, to not yet engage in educational classes and other such gatherings even if we do resume in-person worship celebrations. I imagine that when our church resumes worship gatherings in the worship space at our church, not only will we re-open slowly and cautiously, but our educational activities will likely continue to be offered online for at least a couple of months beyond the initial resumption of in-person worship.
That being said, there are so many ways to engage in online educational ventures, that it should not slow down that part of the church’s ministry. We already have moved our weekly discussion group, our Bible study, and our scripture as theatre workshop to online meetings, and we may well increase the offerings as we move forward.
One possibility for an additional group is one that offers people the opportunity to engage in writing, and to then have a place to share their work. The writings can be short, theme-related vignettes, or they can take the form of short stories, even ones that can be seen as works in progress.
Years ago, I participated in a writing workshop that was led by the person who is currently our Artist-in-Residence. He would start us out with what he called “push starts,” simple phrases that got the writing process going, rather than having us stare at a blank page and try ourselves to decide how to begin something. It was a fun and creative way to approach things, and resulted in short pieces that were somewhat related by the theme he established with the initial phrases he provided to us. People certainly took off in myriad directions, but it was interesting to hear that single phrase repeated as each person read their work.
A more in-depth approach can be taken by exploring short stories, both those written by published authors, and ones that can emerge from the members of the group. It may be helpful to first read several short stories and to discuss them, considering both their content and their structure. Now I should say that what I am suggesting is in no way meant as a substitute for a Creative Writing Class. That is certainly not my area of expertise, and not something that I would want people to feel they were getting into through this experience. Rather, we can all share our reactions to a variety of stories, approaching things more from personal responses to the writing, and perhaps offering how we might have come to the story in a different way. Those evaluations become a source of learning for each person, giving them insights into how they might structure their own short stories.
That can then lead into writing that will be offered to the group. If people feel that getting started is daunting, a theme can be offered to those who desire it. While often times people may say that they can’t write, it is of course true that indeed anyone can write, and that people in such a group are apt to be motivated to write and share their work. It is understood that most of us won’t end up writing the next great novel, but we can all write for fun, inspiration and growth in our personal journey.
It should be noted though, that as sharing happens, it needs to be clearly stated that since likely none of the participants is a professional writer, or a teacher of creative writing, that the exchange of writings should not be met with critique and criticism, unless a participant specifically asks for that response. Instead, it is actually helpful to offer comments such as, “I would really like to hear more about this character or that idea.” Such a response provides feedback, offers encouragement, and invites further development of the story.
Finally, a workshop format such as this will work using online discussion sites, and of course can certainly continue to happen in-person when we are able to resume educational gatherings in that way. In either format, creativity can be encouraged and celebrated.
June 12, 2020
Thoughts on Re-Opening the Church Building
One of the clearest learnings of having our church buildings closed to worship and other activities in this time of being physically distant is that the Church really is much more than the buildings, the Church is the people and the spirit that flows through all that we do as the Church. The early Christians knew and understood this well of course, but with the exceptions of current day churches that meet in living rooms, or in bars during hours when the normal activities of the bar aren’t happening, or in any of a multitude of alternative settings, most of us have come to so highly link the Church with the buildings that we may have been at a loss as to how to proceed when we were told that we couldn’t meet in those buildings for a time.
Of course, creativity and the blessings of technology have shown us many alternative ways, and we have once again discovered that the Church is something wonderful, even mysterious, that exists even when we cannot gather in our buildings. And as with my own church, and especially in our worship celebrations, most of us have discovered that our ability to connect with people at a distance, or those confined to homes before this pandemic began, has suddenly become not only possible but definitely enriching for all who are involved in gathering in these ways.
But people do still, of course, long to be able to once again gather in the church buildings, because even while maintaining a six-foot distance is necessary, there is something about seeing and hearing people in person that transcends the online experiences. Toward that end, along with thousands of others, I have been attending webinars about preparing to re-open the church buildings, about the process and procedures to consider so that all will still remain safe as we begin to once again gather for worship and more. And, as I work with folks in my church toward the end of re-opening, I will draw upon the resources of those webinars and more, as I am certain you will too if you are similarly responsible for that.
But beyond the sanitizing stations and the thermometer checks, beyond the masks and the need to find non-touch ways to offer communion and collect the offering, what can we do to make this re-opening a true celebration, even while doing these things to keep ourselves and others safe? I ask because it will feel strange, I think, to have chairs separated and places marked off, to have signs about keeping our distance from one another, to be doing minimal or no singing (as recommended by the health experts), to feel that we need to tread carefully in everything that we do.
And, as you might expect, I would offer that the arts can provide a focus and enhancement to worship that can help us to transcend the other limitations that we are working with in this time. What I would suggest though is to bring out meaningful works of art that the church already owns, rather than bringing a new work of art into the worship or gathering space. While something new would certainly be a cause for enthusiasm and celebration, it would also have the effect, through heightened interest and curiosity, of drawing people close together to view the artwork during this time when we are urged to yet remain physically distant. Instead, draw out of the church's resources those works which may speak to the current situations or which serve to inspire hope, those which speak through their profound expressions or through their beauty. Allow these to bring messages of meaning or joy, and certainly familiarity, to the space, which heightens the sense of welcome and reunion which we want to offer to all. Then, perhaps, after a time, a newly commissioned work can expand the celebration and joy of having resumed worship and other activities in person.
June 5, 2020
One of the most difficult, Christian theological concepts for many people to understand is the Trinity. How does it work to worship One God, but say that there are three parts or persons to this God? We talk about Monotheism, but when three “Gods” are involved isn’t that more like other ancient religions where multiple gods were worshipped? There is a sense for many Christians of being able to say that there is indeed One God, but Three Ways of understanding or experiencing God. But then sometimes people don’t even come that close to describing the Trinity. Often times, when asked to explain the Trinity, people just can’t find the words.
Indeed, while we can look up words, and can even present a theological definition of the Trinity, there is a definite sense in which this is something more to be experienced than to be described or defined. As we celebrated Pentecost last Sunday, we rejoiced over the gift of the Holy Spirit. What is precisely wrapped up in the Spirit is that it comes and goes, we can’t pin it down, yet it is a powerful presence in our lives and in the life of the church.
We seek metaphors to describe the Holy Spirit, comparing its action perhaps to the wind that blows through trees, such that we don’t see the Spirit but we are aware of its presence and influence. We can also use metaphors to describe the Trinity, one of which is that of a bicycle tire, where the portion that attaches to the axle is one part, the spokes are another, and the rubber tire is a third portion. They are separate, and yet they only function fully as they are put together and we experience them in whole, as the two wheels help the bicycle to coast along on the road.
But whereas metaphors can be quite powerful, there are also numerous works of art from across the ages that give us insight into the Trinity, that give the Trinity a “face” so to speak, that help us to bring vision to the experience of this Three-in-One. One of the most famous of these works of art is an icon by Andrei Rublev.
By Andrei Rublev - The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1381562
In this work, we see three figures, essentially the same as one another, gathered together around a central table. This icon is sometimes described as being an icon of the Trinity, and at other times as a depiction of the visit of the three strangers to the tent of Abraham and Sarah as told in Genesis 18. This dual representation is indeed profound, as one could argue that the visit of the three strangers was a foreshadowing of the Trinity. In a similar way, the chalice and bread on the table can be seen as part of the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah toward their visitors, as well as symbolic of the celebration of the Eucharist. Part of the mystery and beauty of the icon is that it speaks on these many levels, and in that tells us something about the mystery of God and of the Trinity.
This is but one example of works of art that can bring a sense of vision to a concept that can be difficult to explain and understand. And in viewing the artworks, it can open up a wonderful conversation.
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.