March 26, 2021
The Value of Sketches and Drafts
When I first was learning about Leonardo da Vinci, one of the books that I bought was not a catalogue of his finished masterpieces, but of his sketches for many of those works that later became so emblematic of his genius. In fact, I spent time copying a few of those sketches, trying to learn to draw as he had drawn, attempting to see as he had seen. I still enjoy paging through that book, for it shows his process in developing some of his works, and it shows in a sense his thoughts about where he was headed as he pondered the final projects.
As I was reflecting upon perfectionism last week, I thought about Leonardo’s sketches. While to me they appear as wonderful works of art in their own right, I imagine that for him they were just studies, perhaps even produced fairly quickly, to supplement his thoughts about how he was going to develop the various portions of a larger project. They were not intended to be perfect in themselves, but were a part of the larger process of producing something that was as perfect as he could make it to be.
In the same way, in the article that I referenced last week (“Theology and the arts,” which can be found at faithandleadership.com/theology-and-arts) wherein Anne Lamott is interviewed, she speaks of the importance of drafts for writers, and in particular of the freedom to write a bad first draft. Asked about it she says:
“Yeah, it still works for me. I think it’s the truth of what it’s like to be a writer.
“Every writer I know goes through it. Everything I’ve read by anybody that has moved me, changed me or entranced me began as something really out of control and overwritten and overwrought and trying to be too funny and trying to be deliberately intent and profound or trying to be erudite.
“But because it’s just a first draft, you don’t have to keep going back and getting it right. You can just plow through it. Then when you end up with a draft, you push back your sleeves and you can get serious.”
Whether we are drawing, painting, writing a novel, writing a sermon, creating other content for worship, or beginning to figure out a new program for the church community, it is helpful to work with sketches and drafts, to give ourselves permission to experiment, indeed to give ourselves the ability to discover new thoughts and approaches through such experimentation. Even though the finished novel or sermon, or other creation, may not much resemble the original drafts and sketches, those first attempts are formative for our creative process and for our own continually evolving thoughts. As we allow ourselves the freedom to just draw or write, without any preconceived idea of where things are going, we do also open the door or window for the Spirit of God to move in and offer gifts, gifts that we might never see were we to be polishing our final project from the outset. Not only do sketches and drafts allow a certain freedom to enter the process, they also encourage us to enjoy the journey. And that enjoyment will bring forth marvelous things.
March 19, 2021
A website that I like to visit occasionally is Duke Divinity School’s faithandleadership.com. An article that I read through sometime in the past came up again this week in one of my searches, and so I re-read portions of it. The article is entitled, “Theology and the arts,” and can be found at faithandleadership.com/theology-and-arts. This is itself a collection of articles and interviews with a variety of people, with topics ranging from the connection between theology and the arts, to thoughts about creativity and the artistic process, to poetry and architecture, and more.
As I was going through these again, one of the things that I found to be interesting was the intersection of two seemingly competing comments. The first is in an article by Richard B. Hays entitled, “Why should we care about the arts?” He says, “If the church is one of the primary places where the arts are actually practiced, we ought to evaluate our worship in a way analogous to Thomas Merton’s probing question about the state of literary art in the church: ‘We who say we love God: why are we not as anxious to be perfect in our art as we pretend we want to be in our service to God? If we do not try to be perfect in what we write, perhaps it is because we are not writing for God after all. In any case it is depressing that those who serve God and love Him sometimes write so badly, when those who do not believe in Him take pains to write so well.”
This striving for perfection that Merton speaks of, and that Hays lays out for our evaluation of worship, stands in contrast to comments by Anne Lamott in an interview entitled, “The habit of practice.” While the full interview gives a deeper context, what struck me were her words: “It’s what we’re called to do as Christians – just to be a decent, ordinary human being, a ‘human merely being,’ as e.e. cummings put it in ‘I Thank You God.’ For me, so much of it has sprung from the willingness to stop this forward thrust of getting farther along the path of professional or societal achievement and breaking the bonds of perfectionism.”
The contrast is fascinating. On the one hand, perfection is lifted up as something that should be our focus, and on the other hand, perfectionism is seen as something that binds us and keeps us from being free. Of course, each of these offers us something on its own, and together they speak more about process than product.
I certainly do think that we need to do our very best in anything that we attempt, and how we approach worship, and the arts in worship, should be with the best of ourselves. We should never be attempting to just get things done, not worrying about the quality. At the same time, we need to be genuine in all that we do. Polished, beautiful prayers or sermons, that don’t really connect with people, aren’t worth much. But struggling attempts to speak the truth, to share of ourselves, offering these in the best ways that we possibly can, well, those will always speak to people.
We don’t need to be perfect. We are called to be faithful. And if we are truly faithful in the process of creating art, and writing sermons, and shaping whatever else we offer to God and to others, then our efforts will bring forth something that will be perfect for the setting in which it is received.
March 12, 2021
Seeing Through Icons
While the Zoom format has been a blessing for our congregation in being able to gather several times a week, and for people to both see and talk with one another, there have been drawbacks as well. If you use Zoom at all, you know that people cannot talk at the same time, since the platform moves the voice recognition from one person to another and then to another, and no one can be clearly understood. This also means that singing is almost impossible, unless the singer and accompanist are in the same general space, which hasn’t been advisable in these times. We have solved that in part by having our pianist play the songs so that people can sing at home while muted, and by having our pianist pre-record the tracks for our soloist, so that when she sings then the music is playing in the same space. It is not a perfect situation, but it has been a good solution, and people have responded very positively.
One of the other benefits of Zoom though is the screen-sharing option. When we were meeting in person, I would occasionally use PowerPoint to project images, either as part of the morning message or to enhance other portions of worship. However, even though I would always test things out ahead of time, it would sometimes happen that when it came time to project the images something would happen, and either the program would freeze or the connection wouldn’t connect. Now that we are using Zoom, I have been regularly sharing PowerPoint presentations during this Lenten season, using the screen-sharing option, and things have worked beautifully. And this has been very well received, both as something that adds to the worship experience, and as something that is more than just seeing speakers or song words on the screen.
As I was preparing the PowerPoint presentation for this week, beginning with images that relate to the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, I found among those online images, one of an Icon of the story. You may be more knowledgeable than me about Icons, or you may have little experience of them, but allow me to just summarize a couple of important points about them.
An Icon appears on the surface to be a religious painting, usually with rather ancient images, and often with writing in either Greek or some other language. They seem to be from another time, and in a sense they are. There are long traditions of creating Icons, and part of the tradition is of honoring the original Icons by painting them in the same way today as they were painted centuries ago. There are of course modern painters who create Icons with a somewhat more contemporary feel, but even then they are attempting to honor the tradition in their own way.
But an Icon is much more than a painting. It is understood to be, so to speak, a window to meeting God. The painting itself is not the object of one’s devotion so much as the One whom the painting leads worshippers to through the act of gazing upon it. In a roughly comparable way, when we pray with words, we are not glorifying the words and the beauty of the speech, but using those words to help bring ourselves into the presence of God. That is part of the reason that Jesus warned against using a lot of words in prayer, such that people might think we were wonderful in our devotion rather than being led to God through the words.
But Icons do not only depict Jesus in a variety of forms. They tell stories as well. Again, the praying before Icons is not even so much to hear the story, as it is to allow the story to lead us into a deeper relationship with God. But, that being said, part of my fascination with Icons is that they almost always tell a complete story, rather than depicting a snapshot of a portion of a story. For example, in the Feeding of the Five Thousand, we might paint a scene where the young boy is bringing his offering of food. Or, we might show Jesus blessing the loaves and fish. Or, we might show the disciples sharing the food with the crowds. But, in an Icon, all of this would be depicted, and it becomes a moving telling of the whole of the story. There is a sense for me that in viewing the Icon, the whole story unfolds before me.
Many people balk at viewing Icons because they seem so different. Yet, it is those very differences that make them a special gift if we allow them to speak to us. So, next time you tell a biblical story, with or without screen-sharing, consider weaving an Icon into the presentation. It just might open some fascinating windows.
March 5, 2021
Public Domain Images
When the National Museum of the American Indian first opened in Washington, D.C., I made a donation and became a charter member. This is a part of the Smithsonian Museums, and it is a wonderful resource, as are all of the varied museums. Since I am a member again, I regularly receive emails and mailings from the Smithsonian, both offering opportunities to engage with the museums, and, of course, inviting more memberships and donations.
As I was searching the general website for the Smithsonian the other day, I became aware of a great resource for use in a wonderful variety of ways. This is called Smithsonian Open Access (www.si.edu/openaccess), and as they describe, it is “where you can download, share, and reuse millions of the Smithsonian’s images—right now, without asking…This includes images and data from across the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives, and the National Zoo.”
While I haven’t yet had the opportunity to explore the site extensively, I did a few searches in order to see how well it all worked. As I searched for some artists, I received zero results. When I entered “Churches” in the search window, it brought up more than 4000 images. Cleary, some searches will be more successful than others. But this is still a wonderful resource for use in a variety of settings and contexts. I would always still encourage proper crediting of artists and content creators, and identification of the source of the sharing, but this Public Domain resource is a wonderful gift that will hopefully help all of us as we engage in creating programs, websites and more.
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.