March 30, 2018
The Light of Worship
When one creates a worship experience, it is still an open question as to how people will be affected by what transpires. Of course, always, to a degree, it depends upon what the person brings to the time of worship. Do they bring an openness to what will take place, or do they have set expectations which will either be met or not? Are they only wanting what they have heard and seen before, or are they willing to consider new gifts that might come their way?
Our Maundy Thursday evening service is always one of my favorite worship experiences of the year. Perhaps that is because it happens in the evening, when light and candles and other elements are literally seen in a different light. Possibly it is also because we do different things, with a different order of worship, than on most Sunday mornings.
This service is a time to remember the last supper that Jesus shared with the disciples, but it is also much more. It is for us a culmination of the Lenten season, since we don’t have a Good Friday service. It is an experience that appeals to a variety of senses. There is of course the spoken word, and both choral and congregational singing. But we also include a dramatic reading, and we have candles placed on the communion table that are lit from before the service begins. We share communion together as we always do, but on this night we invite people to walk up for the taking of the bread and cup, having them be physically involved in the experience. We also appeal to the sense of taste in a different way on this night, using a loaf of Hawaiian sweet bread rather than the usual matzoh crackers. Much of the dramatic effect, though, comes through the use of light and darkness. The lights are dimmed and brightened at different stages of the service, and then as we approach the final experience of the evening the lights are turned off. All that remains are the lit candles. Then, through a two-person reading, the candles are extinguished one by one, until all that remains at the end is near darkness, with only the light of the Christ candle glowing in that darkness. And while the service usually ends there, we did last night also relight the extinguished candles as part of the experience.
Many people shared that they were moved by all that transpired. A couple of people had tears in their eyes. One of our college-age youth shared that she had been “entranced” during the final experience of light and darkness.
What took place is that people felt the intimacy of the evening, they felt the presence of God. And that is what one hopes for in every worship experience.
March 23, 2018
Seeing New Things in the Familiar
A number of years ago my wife and I collected some bark that had fallen off of some trees in a mall parking lot. The bark of these trees resembles what I remember of birch trees during my visits to Michigan as I was growing up, although I am certain this is another variety of tree. Nonetheless, the bark was beautiful and so we gathered up what was on the ground.
Then my wife proposed the idea of creating a cross for the church sanctuary, using this bark. So, we created a framework out of wood, and attached the bark with glue and staples. It formed a formidable cross that we suspended from a rafter, in the middle of a long, bare wall. It is striking, and people have responded to its presence and its beauty throughout the years.
We remove the cross during the Advent season and bring decorations of that time into the sanctuary instead. (There is a permanently mounted cross in the front of the sanctuary, directly in front of our baptismal. But this cross of bark comes and goes from its place.) We have at other times removed this cross as well, but the people always look forward to its being rehung in our worship space.
It was after a recent funeral, as I was talking with a person who is not a member of the church, but who has become a part of our church family through participation in our theatre workshop, that I was struck by her comments about the cross. She remarked, as many have, about the beauty of the cross. But then she added, “It reminds me of the ‘Old Rugged Cross.’” And I told her that I had never made that connection, but that I could certainly see it that way as well.
It was a vivid reminder of how artistic creations can evoke both emotion and a connection to one’s faith. It was also a reminder that it is helpful now and then to call people’s attention to the art of the church, whether it be the stained glass windows, or an altar that might be hand-carved, or a cross such as this. As with so much in life, when we get accustomed to our surroundings, we don’t always see with sharp focus. It is a wonderful addition to times of worship to draw upon the riches that are around us, to highlight the beauty and meaning in the art of the church.
March 16, 2018
Connecting the Arts and Spirit
As my congregation encounters the arts in worship and educational settings, and offers arts-related programs to the community, one of the dynamics that I am frequently reflecting upon is how the arts touch people’s spirits. This is not to say that every expression of the arts has to have a religious component, but rather asks if the art that we experience has a spiritual component, or is just entertainment in some way.
My congregation has a history of welcoming people to movie nights, as many churches do, and I have usually chosen movies that have in various ways prompted discussion about religious, spiritual or ethical issues. Some of those movies have been overtly religious, like a biography of Martin Luther, the older movie, “O God,” and the more recent, “Miracles from Heaven.” Other movies have been much more general in nature, like “The Family Man,” “42,” “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” and “Me Before You.” Yet, in each of those movies, as with the previous ones, we have discerned together deep issues of spirit, ethics and more.
While I don’t want people to think that they are going to be challenged with religious dogma if they show up to view a movie at a church, I would imagine that they wouldn’t be surprised by some kind of discussion about how that movie connects to life and spirit. And, truly, if they weren’t interested in any discussion, they could indeed leave as the credits are rolling.
But the church is a place where people should be able to discuss the intersections of spirit and culture, as well as religion and culture. The church is a setting for viewing movies that is certainly different than watching them in a movie theater, and that very difference is what makes the experience unique. The church has gifts to offer in this way, gifts that celebrate the arts while engaging meaningful discussion about important topics.
Actually, I would guess that often people do sit and discuss such topics after watching a movie together. They just need to know that churches are willing to share in those discussions as well.
March 9, 2018
Helping People Enliven Their Experience
As I have written in the last couple of weeks about using images to help tell the story of the chosen scripture passages, what is at the heart of that is helping people to bring things to fuller life in their worship experience. This is one of the great gifts of any of the arts that are welcomed into the worship space, is to expand the experience that people have of the worship time, of the church space, indeed of God as well.
The ways in which we do this are limited only by our own creativity. And it doesn’t take a whole lot to open up possibilities for people.
During Advent and Lent we hear about large productions that are put on to tell the respective stories. The Christmas story is told at times in elaborate ways, with live animals and great pageantry. The Easter story too can be shared in ways that can almost overwhelm us with their grandeur.
But for most churches, and certainly for my church, the size and cost of those extravagant events is beyond what is reasonable or even possible. But it doesn’t take such large-scale happenings to tell the stories. In fact, things can be done in simple ways which invite people to use their imagination, and to bring themselves into the stories, and they can be just as effective, or more so, than providing every visual stimulus that one can imagine.
I think of the play, “Our Town,” by Thornton Wilder. There is very little in the way of physical elements that shape the experience for viewers. In fact, the props are kept to such a minimum that a theatre company could as likely put on the play in a small church as in a large theater setting. The minimal use of props allows the audience members to form their own vision of the town, of the buildings, of the comings and goings of the townspeople.
In the same way, colors, fabrics, simple altar arrangements, candles, and more, can suggest to people the elements of biblical stories, and can allow people to enter into the stories in their own, individual, and often profound ways. Part of this involves trusting that people have the ability to bring themselves into the experience. Too often we want to make sure that everything is told in a particular way. But when we only provide a few clues, then people are invited to fully enter into the experience with their own gifts and imagination. And that, I believe, is when everything comes to life for people in wonderful ways.
March 2, 2018
When Things Don’t Work
I wrote last week about sharing six images related to a scripture reading on the first Sunday of Lent. I had planned to share those images through a PowerPoint presentation, making them easy to see on a large screen in the worship space. I had planned to do that until I discovered that my fairly new computer did not have the right connection for the wireless unit that allows the images to be projected. I always make it a practice to test everything that depends upon technology, but that usually means just making sure everything is connected correctly. This was the first time it meant that things just did not work. I actually tried a couple of other computers too, but something also did not work with either of them. So, I changed course. I condensed the images down so that they fit on a regular piece of paper, and I made copies for people so that they could still see the richness of the images. It didn’t make for a perfect experience, but I still felt it added to the reading of the scripture.
I also mentioned last week that the feedback I received was that there were too many images. So, as I prepared the reading for last Sunday, I was looking for just two images. And I couldn’t find any images that I thought would add to the reading. Sheep were mentioned in one part of the reading, and as you can imagine I found a wealth of images depicting sheep. But I don’t want to just use images to illustrate a scripture reading. I want the images to add to the reading and what people take away from it. The same was true with the other portions of that reading. So, I chose to not use any images last Sunday. It is better to do nothing than to do something that somehow lessens the experience.
When people teach Bible lessons to young people, it is common to illustrate the scriptures through pictures. That is a reasonable use of images, because it helps young people to see the scene better. But as we move into educational and worship experiences for older youth and adults, we want to engage their minds in exploring the depths of a story rather than just see it as they would in an illustrated Bible. I don’t want images I use to just say that now people can see what things looked like. After all, we don’t know what they looked like. But I want images to enhance the telling of the story. This can happen through wonderful works of art, through pencil drawings, even through movie clips, all of which can serve to expand the experience of the scripture.
And, just as a note, my tech person found an adaptor that again makes the PowerPoint presentations work through my computer. Now I just need to find images that I feel will be helpful in future weeks.
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.