November 30, 2018
A Celebration of the Arts during Advent
The season of Advent is always a joyful time for me. The colors and scents and unique elements of the season touch my spirit in so many diverse and wonderful ways.
This year I am even more anxious for the season to begin. Each Sunday will bring with it unique celebrations of the season through the arts. On the first Sunday of Advent, people will arrive to find some of the decorations and colors that will accompany us throughout the season. But then, within our time of worship, they will complete the picture as we together decorate even more of our beautiful worship space.
On the second Sunday of Advent, our choir will present a cantata to tell the story through music. For the third worship celebration of the season, our Artist-in-Residence and the Scripture as Theatre ensemble will present the story through dramatic readings and original music.
Finally, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we will welcome back one of our younger members to share her talents as a visual artist in creating another marvelous drawing or painting, even as the sights and sounds of worship encircle her. This is an experience where people are welcome to wander around during the carols in order to see the work in progress. We then receive her completed gift as we conclude our worship time. This will be the third time that we have done this, and we will be displaying the first two works during Advent as well.
Although there is not a highlighted art medium on Christmas Eve, that gathering will culminate the beauty of the season through music, spoken word, lighted garland, silent prayer and candlelight. It is a season that invites people to use all of their senses in order to absorb the joy that surrounds us.
November 23, 2018
The Power of Film in Strengthening Community
Our church’s artist-in-residence has shown two films this month in his Cinema Showcase. The first was the original version of “The In-Laws,” from 1979. It is a fun comedy that provided a wonderful evening of entertainment. In addition, because one of the actresses in the movie is a friend of my colleague, we were able to welcome her, and to enjoy her sharing of stories and insights about the film and the process of filming it. For this movie, we had eighteen people gathered in our fellowship hall. Now, if you are a part of a larger church, that may not seem like a significant number. But for my smaller church, where we average between 35 and 40 people in worship on Sunday mornings, this was roughly a fifty percent turnout. That figure in itself tells us that these shared movie experiences are important to people.
This was not a movie with a lot of deep insights, such that it might have prompted some group theological reflections. In this case, it was basically a fun experience together. But that is a great benefit to the church as a whole. Here were eighteen people, sharing an experience, sharing the joy of being together. That only serves to strengthen the bonds of friendship and community within the church.
When our artist-in-residence suggested showing a second film, this one on the night before Thanksgiving, I said that he was welcome to offer that film to the church, but that I would not be able to be there due to commitments in preparing for a Thanksgiving celebration the next day. He said that since “Plymouth Adventure” is his favorite Thanksgiving-time film, and one that he watches every year, he would go ahead and offer it, and would be happy even if only one or two people came.
It was then a great joy when nine people came to share in that experience. I was both amazed and pleased that so many could participate in the evening. It is a testimony to the power of film to draw us together, to help us to engage in great conversations, to assist us in celebrating significant days in our lives.
November 16, 2018
Retelling Bible Stories
Our church book club has been reading The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant. It is a retelling of the Jacob cycle of stories, from the viewpoint of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, whose story is told in Genesis 34, where she is raped by Shechem. If the story of her rape, and the subsequent revenge taken by two of her brothers on her attacker and all the males of his city, had not been included by the biblical editors, we likely would not have even heard of Dinah. Thus, Anita Diamant set about to fill out her story, to give her a larger voice than the Bible does.
I generally enjoy such imaginative telling of stories that the Bible does not offer us, as a way to fill in the gaps and enrich the story in regard to how things might have happened. I use such imaginative retelling at times in my Sunday messages, trying to enter the mind and heart of biblical characters so as to bring them to larger life.
So, I have found interesting expansions of stories in The Red Tent. For example, I have always been intrigued by the story of Jacob’s struggle with the stranger in the night beside the river Jabbok. Having sent everyone else on across the river, Jacob spends the night alone, and the appearance of the stranger leads to both injury and a blessing. But in The Red Tent, with its emphasis on the telling through the experiences of Dinah, we hear the story of Jacob’s struggle through her eyes and the eyes of others who were not there, but who experience Jacob in the aftermath of the struggle. I found it a compelling addition to the story.
On the other hand, in the telling of the story, the author changes some of the details of the Bible story, and has them happen in quite different ways. For example, although the Bible says that Jacob worked for Laban for seven years in order to be able to marry Rachel, and then worked seven more years for Rachel again after Laban gave Leah to Jacob in marriage first, the author mentions the seven years and then reduces each time to seven months, because that was more reasonable in Jacob’s eyes. Then, when Laban later searches for his idols among the belongings of Jacob’s family, the details of the encounter between Laban and Rachel are changed as well. And, importantly, the rape that the Bible describes is deeply different than the willing union that Dinah and Shalem (the name is changed in the novel) enter into with one another.
While I have certainly been aware that I am reading a novel, and have enough Bible knowledge to see these differences, for those who have not read the Bible accounts these retellings become the facts of the story. And my quandary then is, at what junctures is literary license a good and helpful part of the author’s craft, and at what points does it create a new story rather than opening windows to experience the original story in fresh ways?
While I know that the Bible was long handed down by oral tradition, and that the stories may well have changed over many years, and even from one telling to another, my preference is to maintain the facts of the story as it has come to us, and to then explore the unspoken parts of the story within that context. For example, from a time that will soon be upon us with Advent and Christmas, there is no mention of an innkeeper or his wife in Luke’s Gospel. There is just the passing mention of an inn. So, for me, this opens up an imaginative exploration of who the innkeeper and his wife may have been, how they interacted with Mary and Joseph, and so forth. But I wouldn’t change the story to have it be a castle, for instance, instead of an inn. For me, that leads us away from the story rather than enhancing it.
I would be curious to hear your thoughts if you would be willing to share them.
November 9, 2018
Austerity and Beauty
I was recently an observer in a courtroom proceeding. If you have ever been on a jury, or in a courtroom for any reason, you likely know that the décor is rather austere. The only vestige of anything that I might describe as art was in the presence of the engraved state seal on the wall and the displayed flags of the United States and California. The only other item that could be said to add any beauty to the courtroom was a plant sitting on the desk of the court clerk. As to whether it was alive or artificial, I couldn’t get close enough to discern.
Now, considering that this was a courtroom, and not a coffee shop, or a hotel, or even a hospital, this lack of decoration may have been quite appropriate. This is serious, focused, often life-changing work that goes on in this space, and I can understand the desire to avoid any distractions. After all, one would not want jurors drifting off in their attention to the proceedings in order to consider the artwork on the walls. Yet, it occurred to me, that for at least some of the defendants there may not be a lot of beauty evident in their lives. And art, I believe, can be a part of transforming a person’s life.
Still, I understand the choices the courts make in the context in which they operate. For churches, however, the context is dramatically different, and the content can be as well. From my early years in the church, I do not remember much art at all in the church itself. There was one stained-glass window, some well-crafted altar furnishings, and the solid color paraments that most churches used in those days. That was it, as my memory serves. As I later learned in seminary, that was considered an appropriate level of artistic expression in the time when I grew up, and for many years before that, because the emphasis was to be on the spoken word, on the preaching of the Word, and the theology was that nothing should be present to distract from the speaking and hearing of that message. It was a very Protestant way of going about worship. Sadly, if there hadn’t been still so much division between Protestants and Catholics in those days, we Protestants might have noticed the powerful ways in which the Catholic churches included artworks in their worship settings.
Today, though, we are much more aware of the multitude of ways in which people receive messages of grace. We understand that verbal messages are powerful, and that the great traditions of music in churches still speak through well-seasoned music and contemporary compositions. But visual input is so important as well. In a culture where so many have grown up with television, and for whom movies are a wonderful way of telling stories, the church has an opportunity to speak in profound ways through the use of these mediums. Visual art, including photography, as well as literature, can all open doors to discussion that might otherwise remain closed.
Churches today have a palette full of artistic expressions to draw upon to share the message of God’s love and grace. It is a journey of discovery to explore them together.
November 2, 2018
Innovation in Worship
A magazine that I have subscribed to on and off through the years is “Fast Company.” Many of the articles are written for people involved in business and industry that happens on a scale much larger than my church. Yet, ideas, principles and inspirations that emerge from the articles often give me insights that I find are helpful in any enterprise, even the refreshing of our own lives.
In the editor’s column in a recent issue (November 2018), entitled, “Hitting Refresh,” she wrote about how the magazine has chronicled innovation, risk-taking and change for more than two decades, and is following the example of those individuals and companies “by unveiling a reinvigorated look, lively new content, and some unexpected stories” in the pages of their publications. She adds later, “What hasn’t changed? Our passion for and commitment to telling insightful and richly reported business stories that you won’t read anywhere else.”
Therein is the promise and the challenge for our churches - to remain passionate about telling the story of God, Jesus and the church, while finding ways to reinvigorate our worship life and the sharing of the message that we have found to be incredibly meaningful in our own lives.
As you can guess, I find the use of the arts to be one way of bringing “lively new content” into the life of any church community. But there are other ways to be creative too. Innovation can be as simple as changing the worship handouts that you use, so that the change is noticeable. In our church, for instance, we use a cream color paper and print our own bulletins. But from time to time we change the cover art, both for liturgical season changes and just because change is good at other times too. We also change the color of paper at times, again to give a fresh look to things. Of course, if you subscribe to a church bulletin service, then you automatically have a different cover each week. So, maybe you want to change how you print things inside the bulletin. Or, perhaps you don’t even use bulletins, so then find other ways to alter the look of the worship space, or even envision ways to change the order of worship for particular Sundays. The possibilities are of course endless.
We certainly have been given a basic Gospel message that has endured for more than two thousand years, and will continue to speak God’s grace to generations beyond ourselves. But the sharing of that message, the communication of that grace, is something that requires our constant attention. To use our creativity, to think innovatively, will help to keep the sharing of the message every fresh.
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.