May 27, 2022
Invitation to Prayer
When I was engaged in my doctoral work in the area of arts and theology, one of the most fascinating classes we shared together was about icons. We read books about them, we discussed them, we learned history about them, and then we were privileged to visit a Russian Orthodox Church and were allowed to be enveloped by them.
To many people, icons are just art. And for those who know little about them, icons are a stylized art form that often is not very appealing. But, as we learned in our class and in the visit to the church, there is much more to icons that just being works of art.
Icons are certainly artistic creations, most often crafted in forms that follow centuries of tradition in how they depict Christ, the Apostles, saints and more. Icons, unlike much of religious art, often tell a whole story rather than just one segment of a story. For example, a depiction of the Transfiguration of Jesus would not just show Jesus glowing, or the journey up the hill, or the fear of the disciples at what they saw, but rather an icon would show all of these elements, presenting the whole of the story in one piece.
But icons do not just teach stories, they invite prayer. This is not prayer directed at the image in the icon, but rather prayer to the one whose presence comes to us through the medium of the icon. While this can sound odd to many who are not familiar with icons, people who cherish them in their religious tradition will understand what this means.
As I was reading in the “Seen Journal,” the periodical of CIVA that I referenced last week, I came across these words from Marcia Allison in an article entitled, “Transforming Vision” - “Traditional and modern icons are sometimes described as ‘windows to heaven’ or a ‘showing forth of God.’ The icon’s purpose is to represent the divine in a way that beckons the viewer. As a form of inspiration, the icon is to the eye the same as music is to the ear; as incense is to the smell; as veneration to the touch; and as Holy Communion to the taste. Although, these may seem superficial, the intent is to charge all our senses and guide us toward a higher and spiritual understanding.” (Issue XX:1, p. 65)
Icons are one medium which helps to invite us into prayer. Spend some time with icons, and see what you experience.
May 20, 2022
As I was catching up on reading some of the periodicals that I accumulate, I spent some time in a 2020 edition of the “Seen Journal,” which is published by CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts). There were many thoughts that captured my attention, and among them was one from a dialogue between two artists. The entire dialogue was actually interesting, but I stopped and reflected when I read the following:
“In grad school, I was told of an instance where an instructor decided to stop asking his students what they wanted to say with their art. Instead, he started to ask them what they want to know. I’ve thought about this a lot over the years, and have tried to internalize the message. I believe that if we are only ever using our work as a vehicle for self-expression, we run the risk of repeating ourselves. I like using the work to ask questions, rather than making statements.” (Issue XX:1, p. 46)
I was struck by this statement, both as it relates to the creation of art, and as it functions in so many things that we do within the life of a church. When we preach, when we proclaim the Word, we most often do it in ways that tell people something that we want them to understand and to incorporate into their lives. That is certainly one way to go about things. But if we pay attention to the ways in which Jesus interacted with people, particularly the ways in which he taught the people, we know for sure that he most often used stories, and quite frequently parables. And with only a couple of exceptions, Jesus didn’t explain the parables. He invited people to explore the parables for themselves and to draw their own meaning from them.
In the same way, when I studied storytelling years ago, one of the premises of the classes was that stories are meant to stand on their own. Stories have a power to communicate that goes beyond the act of preaching. Yet, most often in sermons we find that preachers tell a story, and then explain it to their listeners so as to make sure that their point got across, rather than allowing the story itself to communicate the message. To do the latter, we have to trust the people and their own engagement with the story.
In Bible study as well, we can always lecture about the biblical content, and tell people what it means. And there are times of course when we are dealing with historical or textual contexts and the sharing of information is helpful to people. But in the main, I would rather have us read a text and then first ask people what they get out of it, what meaning it has for them, before I offer any thoughts. I prefer Bible studies that are discussions, conversations, rather than lectures.
Our activities in churches should be ones that invite people into discovery rather than ones that attempt to tell them what to believe and how to act. After all, what we leaders do is meant to be a conduit for people to enter more deeply into their relationship with God and Christ, and not to become just followers of the preacher or a particular church. Let us strive to open doors and windows, rather than just showing them the pathway that has worked for us.
May 13, 2022
The Value in Novels
When I was in seminary, I remember one of the professors talking about the value in reading novels. He said that while our theological works were important, that novels gave a different perspective to things, that they provided a good contrast to the formal work of theology. And he, or another person, I cannot quite remember, suggested that from novels one could also draw good illustrations for sermons.
In the early years of my ministry, I actually read very few novels. It seemed that there were just too many other things to read. And, in truth, time that I might have used to read novels was probably devoted to watching television instead. That required less effort and less involvement in the stories being told.
In more recent years, in large part due to our church book club, I have read many novels and have enjoyed most of them quite thoroughly. When we first started to engage these works, I was reminded of the thought that there might be some good sermon illustrations coming my way. As I read however, what I discovered was that unless one were quoting some kind of truism that emerged from the novel, to try to provide a capsule summary of a novel so as to have an excerpt make sense was almost impossible given the time constraints of a sermon.
What I have discovered though, is that novels provide a glimpse into the power of storytelling, and they provide us with inspiration for telling our own stories. The parts of the Hebrew Bible that most people appreciate are the stories, whether from Genesis and Exodus, or from the books that tell the history of the people. Very few people are entranced with the genealogies and lists of laws. In the same way, while Paul’s writings are often profound, what people are really drawn to in the New Testament are the stories that the Gospel writers bring to us.
As we re-tell these biblical stories in worship and education settings, as we perhaps create our own stories for sermon illustrations, we are given clues in novels as to the power of language. If we pay attention, we discover what forms of dialogue and narration connect with us, and thus might be forms to use in our ministry, and which ways of expression we would do well to not imitate.
The language of storytelling is indeed powerful. It can have a profound impact upon those with whom we share our stories.
May 6, 2022
Creativity Is Around Us
We were recently viewing some DVDs of past theatrical productions at our church. They are not professional in nature of course, but they were really quite good. Our two professionals, who served as creative designers, as director and accompanist, and who brought years of experience to the productions, were marvelous. We could not have done these wonderful “follies” presentations without them. But what was especially striking, both when the performances took place, and when we watched the DVDs recently, was the great creativity, stage presence, and wonderful flavor with which the performers brought things to life.
Many of the members of the productions were also choir members, but not all of them. Yet, people found their voices, learned from the director and artistic creator, and brought great joy to the stage while experiencing that same joy themselves. These experiences were unique opportunities for the performers, they relished the opportunity to participate, and they gave all of themselves to the productions.
I believe that such opportunities to express creativity do indeed bring out the best in people. We all have creativity within us, but unless we are given an outlet for it, and encouraged and celebrated for the expressions of that creativity, those gifts can get lost. And the church is a perfect setting for such experimentation, for learning and growing together, and for being celebrated rather than critiqued.
After our three productions, the two professionals moved out of the area, and so we haven’t done another large production like those. But the church has supported concerts, art exhibitions, dramatic productions by the youth of the church, musical expressions by various persons, and a host of other creative endeavors. All of these experiences have enriched the life of the church, and they have brought fulfillment and joy to the people who have shared their creativity.
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.