May 31, 2019
Music and Drama
One of my church members invited me to a performance that a friend of hers was participating in at another church. It was entitled, “Fiddler on the Roof In Concert.” It was put on by the Performing Arts Ministry at the church, and was done as a fundraiser for one of their outreach projects.
I was excited to learn about yet another church that finds the arts to be a significant part of the church’s ministry. In this case, there were nine singers, who wore costumes which set the tone well, but who shared the concert with minimal staging. There were two musicians and the director. And that was it.
It was a wonderful example of what a church can do with somewhat limited resources. This is not to say that the production was simple by any means. It was obvious that everyone had practiced thoroughly. Every line was memorized. The choreography was well planned and executed. It was a polished performance. It just didn’t require a large budget to put on the production.
This is an important reminder to other congregations who may feel that engaging the arts in a church requires a large outlay of financial resources. Indeed, there is so much that can be done with small budgets and committed, enthusiastic people.
It was certainly encouraging to see the professionalism and joy with which the people shared this concert with the community. And, it was very well received. I was so glad that my church member invited me. It was a fun evening.
May 24, 2019
When we host a student music recital, as we will this coming Saturday, we move furniture around in the worship space to transform it into a comfortable and appropriate place for a recital. When we host a concert, as we will do in another week, we move even more of the furniture in order to provide a concert stage for the musicians. Through the last few years, we have gotten used to moving furniture, and to then returning everything to its place in order to be prepared for worship. These are tasks that church members undertake with anticipation and energy. They understand well the impact that all of these activities have on the church family and the surrounding community.
In her book, Art in Service of the Sacred, Catherine Kapikian, writes: “The transformation of ecclesial space is a complicated task because it necessitates the involvement of many. When a creative process (an act necessary for any transforming activity) submits to a democratic process, general opinion suggests that mediocrity will result…Nobody gains if all are walking a tightrope because artist and community are in tension with one another. Since the transformation of ecclesial space is of a collaborative character, education of all parties concerned is the essential ingredient for pursuing successful solutions. Much educational companioning of each venture is essential. Every aspect of a project undertaken to enhance communal space, ecclesial or not, must be vigorously explicated.” (page 51)
Catherine, whom I had the privilege of studying with a number of years ago, is right on here. Education, discussion, debate, are all essential elements of any significant undertaking in the church, and even more so when it comes to the arts, which are often understood in quite different ways. Whether it involves the placement of wire in a church hall for the purpose of hanging works of art on display, or the moving of furniture, or the installation of a work of art anywhere in the church building, such education and discussion is essential. With this dialogue, everyone has an opportunity to be heard, and things can proceed with an open understanding. Without such conversation, conflict and hurt feelings are inevitable.
Transforming space requires the intermediate step of transforming ourselves so that we can see both the possibilities and the challenges of having art, music, drama and more entering the worship space or the church in general. Gathering a vision, sharing that vision, bringing that vision to fruition, are incredibly satisfying when such communication happens. Transformation thus happens in beautiful and even profound ways.
May 17, 2019
Artistic Proclamations of Faith
I am currently re-reading John Dominic Crossan’s book, The Essential Jesus. When I first read the book, I was mainly focused on his suggestions about which sayings of Jesus were most authentic, least affected by later transmission and tradition. This time through I am much more attuned to his central thesis that there is a correlation between the “essential” sayings of Jesus and the earliest images of Christian artistic expression. He does note that these images date primarily from the later decades of the third century on, but that nonetheless there is a sense of how the majority of those images reflect what he sees as the central themes of Jesus’ teachings and actions.
In particular, Crossan lifts up that a large majority of the images depict scenes of either healing or eating, both themes showing ways in which Jesus welcomed and accepted people who were ill or broken or rejected in some way by many in the society of his time. Table fellowship, and wholeness of body and spirit, are indeed themes that I too find to be of large importance to Jesus, and so Crossan’s exposition of the confluence of these themes in Jesus’ life and in the images of the church’s life has been interesting for me to re-discover.
So, how does this relate to art within the church today? What it suggests to me is that as we both create art for and within the church, and as we perhaps purchase artistic creations or even just use images of them in our worship and educational times, it is important for us to examine the views of God and Jesus that these creations communicate. For example, is God seen as vengeful and judgmental, or as the origin of grace in our lives? Is Jesus depicted as a gentle friend, or as an itinerant preacher who spoke against the religious establishment and broke down barriers that separated and harmed people?
This is not to say that we should just surround ourselves with images that accord with our own viewpoints. Indeed, that kind of focus often provides narrow understandings and prevents us from considering an expanded appreciation of both God and Jesus. When we have diverse views and opinions expressed through artistic creations, it affords us the opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation and dialogue, with the focus on the art rather than on critiquing or criticizing one another.
I appreciate Crossan’s historic look at such expressions of faith. It spurs me on to bring such conversations into my church today.
May 10, 2019
Times When the Theater is Dark
Our Scripture as Theatre group has taken a short hiatus during the weeks following its Palm Sunday presentation in worship. This is a pause that allows the participants to breathe and reflect, and allows our Artist-in-Residence to reflect and plan for what is to come next.
Opportunities to reflect on what we have done, and to plan for future times, are critical for the health of a church, and that of its leaders. The pause that our theater group has been going through actually sets a good example for the rest of the church’s life.
It is a challenge in the church, any church, to creatively engage in planning for worship and other activities. With worship, of course, we need to be ready for each Sunday as it rolls around, and perhaps for mid-week services too depending upon your situation. It becomes easy to default to a set pattern of worship, leaving any creativity to things that the preacher will say and music that the choir or musicians will offer to all. And while there is nothing wrong with that, we also need to imagine ways in which God will be experienced and life will be celebrated that don’t always follow that default pattern.
Nevertheless, if we use that ready-set pattern to help us find time to engage in creative reflection, and to imagine future worship and activities, then it is a very useful and practical part of the flow of church life.
I have read that museums often spend three to five years in planning and creating an exhibition. Of course, museums usually have their permanent galleries that are always available to visitors, and they rotate their changing exhibitions so that there are engaging displays for people to see even while the museum curators are planning for a new one. It works in museums because they balance the existing exhibitions with what is being planned for the future.
It can work that way in the church too, balancing the creative planning with times of fruitfully using the set pattern of things. The only caution we need to take is to not become so comfortable with the usual ways of doing things that we neglect to do the reflection and creative planning. The two parts of the picture are meant to compliment each other, and to support each other. When they do, there is much to celebrate.
May 3, 2019
Jazz Speaking to the Church
Our annual Performance Series began this last Saturday night with a great concert featuring a Jazz quartet, with flute, piano, bass and drums. The music was wonderful, and the musicians were amazing.
One of the characteristics of Jazz is that it is enriched through the improvisational expertise of its musicians. As I have learned through even minimal exposure to members of ensembles, it is the ability to improvise that gives Jazz its unique flavor. At times, members of an ensemble may not have even met before the night of a gig, and yet their rich knowledge of a repertoire of music allows them to play off of one another, to improvise, to create, to celebrate the places that others in the ensemble go with the music, and to each bring their own unique contribution to the piece of music that they are playing. This was indeed true last Saturday, when some met for the first time, and they needed only a rehearsal of about an hour-and-a-half to produce incredible music.
Of course, when Jazz musicians improvise, they are bringing forth new from out of the old. They are drawing upon the rich tradition of those who have gone before them, the rich repertoire that has been shaped in their daily practice, and they are discovering ways to bring fresh imagination and expression to the music.
In the life of the church, we are never separated from what has come before. In fact, we trace our roots not only back two thousand years to the time when Jesus walked this earth, but we harken back to the Psalmists and beyond in order to ground ourselves in the history and traditions of our faith. But then, out of that tradition, with its impact always before us, we too sing a new song. And in so doing, the church remains a vibrant and vital force in a world of great need.
In singing that new song, the church opens itself up to welcome new folk into the singing. We receive new members, we invite fresh ideas, we approach the ministry of the church with an openness to the diversity that characterizes our society of today. For we are an ever-evolving community of faith, striving to be that community that Jesus envisioned for us. And here too Jazz, I believe, offers us gifts to ponder. For it is a wonderful quality of Jazz that each musician has his or her own distinctive voice, playing solos that accentuate their instrument and their own particular talent, and yet all the members of a quartet or band work together to achieve a full and complete sound.
And that’s what we are to do. We are given the opportunity to create the music of ministry through the creativity of each participant, through the sharing of gifts, through teamwork and support of one another. And, in the church, what is ultimately important is not the showcasing of our individual talents, but the singing of a new song to God, sharing God’s marvelous works with everyone.
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