November 29, 2019
Artistic Visions of Advent
I have shared in previous years about the joy of having one of our young adults creating a work of art during worship at some point in the Advent season. Last year she chose the annunciation as her topic, and painted this wonderful view of the angel Gabriel.
While it is always a special privilege to have an artist interpret their own works, it is also a characteristic of art, poetry and other written works that the meaning which a reader or viewer discovers in a work is to be valued as well. So, as we move through the Advent season, I am going to reflect upon the works that our artist has created in recent years. I am hopeful that my reflections will lead you to consider some of your favorite works of art related to this season, and to discover for yourself new insights in this time before Christmas.
One of the first things that I notice in this work is the raised right hand that in itself makes the proclamation about the coming birth. Interestingly, the left hand is not a hand, but a third, smaller wing. Perhaps this is an indication of a crossing of the distance between human and divine, and maybe even a foreshadowing of the dual nature of Christ.
The use of various hues of the color blue in the work not only produces a dappled sky, but also calls forth the traditional way in which Mary is distinguished in paintings, that being that her garb is blue in some fashion. This color emphasis would also seem to make clear that this is Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, and not his earlier one to Zechariah.
It has always been a curiosity to me that, as Luke tells the story, Gabriel makes similarly shocking, even preposterous announcements to both Zechariah and Mary, to which both of them are astonished and question the angel about his words, yet Zechariah is upbraided for his lack of faith, and Mary is rewarded with additional care. Perhaps the difference is that Zechariah has lived long enough that one might assume he would recognize the signs, whereas Mary was a young girl who might not have been expected to have such deep insight. Of course, in the Magnificat, Luke shows her to be a person of great depth and insight.
In any case, the Gabriel depicted here is definitely speaking to Mary. How does it compare with other works about this topic with which you are familiar? What might you discover in revisiting some of those creations? Give it a try, and have fun with the exploration.
November 22, 2019
Looking Ahead to Advent
With the Advent season just a week-and-a-half away, most churches have likely planned many of their activities for these weeks leading to Christmas. Our church has set a number of things in place, but there is flexibility in how we create portions of our worship gatherings, and there are still opportunities to add a few activities to the calendar.
As with most churches, we will be decorating for the season, bringing color and texture into the worship space, as well as hanging banners and other artistic creations that will enhance the Advent season. Our choir will present a Christmas Cantata, which is always a highlight of the season for the congregation. We will again be blessed with the sharing of creativity from our Scripture as Theatre workshop group. And the beauty of candlelight will highlight the holiness and wonder of our Christmas Eve gathering for worship.
We have a Cinema Showcase each month, and December will be no exception as we enjoy together a wonderful movie, “The Bishop’s Wife.” People will certainly attend outside concerts that church members or friends are involved in, and some may search out theatre productions with seasonal offerings. We may again invite a visual artist to create a work during worship, as we have done three times in previous years.
There are still many other ways through which one can incorporate the arts into the season – visual arts, drama, music and more. The number of paintings of the events in this holy season is virtually unlimited, and two or three of those can serve as a discussion point in educational settings or other informal gatherings. A local museum, or perhaps an art gallery or two, may well have a holiday display or exhibition of some kind, and a planned trip with a time for discussion afterwards is a great idea.
If you have difficulty introducing the arts into the life of the church, this is an ideal season to give it a try. People are already comfortable with Christmas-theme movies, as well as with Christmas cards (many of which are both religious and artistic in nature), and so are apt to be more welcoming of other artistic creations than they perhaps might be at other times of the year. And if your congregation already welcomes the arts, this is an ideal opportunity to expand their experiences and their vision, to perhaps set the stage for further growth in the new year.
November 15, 2019
Storytelling as an Art Form
When I was in seminary, I encountered a storyteller who captured my imagination with his folktales and the intriguing way in which he told them. I subsequently attended a week-long seminar with this same storyteller, and gained an even greater appreciation for the art and craft of creating and sharing stories.
It was in seminary as well that I was introduced to the rich resources for acquiring illustrations to use in one’s sermons. One person preferred to call it “peopling his messages.” Whatever the terminology, it was a way to engage people’s imagination, to connect the biblical stories with the stories of people whom listeners might relate to. And, I learned, although people may or may not clearly remember the points of the sermon, they would recall the stories shared during the sermon time.
While the preacher might hope that the stories wouldn’t overwhelm the rest of the message, it is still a joy when people take things away from that portion of a worship experience. And, if someone recalls a story, and perhaps shares it with a friend, that encounter may encourage the initial listener to draw up the larger context of the message, and who knows what sharing might take place.
At some point, after years of using illustrations from books, and even as time went by from accessing online sources, I was working on a sermon for which I could not find any good story with which to “people the message.” So, I created my own story. Not only did it illuminate the message I was offering to people, it was great fun to create that story. It was not the last time that I enjoyed writing my own illustration.
Of interest though, with any story, is the question that often comes to people’s minds, “Is that a true story?” And there are two ways to answer that question. When people ask it, they usually mean, “Is that story factually true? Did it really happen?” Now, if one has written the story, as I described, one may have to, if pressed, admit that it is a fictional account of something that could have happened. On the other hand, “Is it a true story?” can also be responded to with an honest appraisal that it is true because it points to truth, it tells a truth through the medium of the story.
Any good novelist speaks truth, even if every character is a creation out of the author’s imagination. A novelist, in fact, often helps us to see one or more truths about ourselves if we have fully engaged the story. And that is the value in a story, that it helps us to see, to learn, to grow. So, while we may often concern ourselves with factual details, the challenge is to see and hear the truth in whatever form it comes to us.
Storytelling is a medium for revealing truth to us. And it is truly an artform in its own right.
November 8, 2019
Thanksgiving is drawing close. On its heels is the first Sunday of Advent, and then Christmas will arrive with a flourish. One news station already listed out the days remaining to each milestone in these closing months of 2019. And people begin to feel the urgency. Many stores have been displaying Christmas items for a while now, and by mid-December we will likely begin to see enticements to remember Valentine’s Day. Slowing down is difficult to do amidst such activity, and yet, slowing down is precisely what most of us would do well to do.
I have in my library a book entitled, A New England Autumn, which is mainly a collection of beautiful photographs, with a brief but engaging introduction. It is an invitation to slow down and admire the beauty of Autumn, to be touched and inspired and moved to reflection. Autumn is indeed a season that lends itself to awe and introspection.
Art in general, and poetry in particular, also offers such an invitation. We can certainly view various art mediums by rapidly walking past them, just as we can read poetry as quickly as we would read a newspaper or an online article. But we forsake their gifts to us by giving them such brief moments of attention. It is only as we slow down, as we spend time with a painting or a sculpture, that we can discern the artist’s true offerings to us. In the same way, we open ourselves to the subtle and often profound words of the poet, as we read with care, intention and an unhurried appreciation.
As we do take time to truly view works of art, as we read poetry and hear the words sing to us, we set a model for ourselves and our interactions beyond these artistic expressions. These encounters help us to learn how to better see and hear one another. And they show us how to better hear and see the presence of God in our lives.
Slowing down is a good thing. Indeed, the psalmist, as recorded in Psalm 46, verse 10, lets us know that God desires to meet us, for we hear, “Be still, and know that I am God!” (NRSV) Slowing down sets the stage for us to be still, and to then encounter God in marvelous ways.
November 1, 2019
Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, says to his followers, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” (5:7 NRSV) Preachers often feel that Jesus’ counsel may apply to prayer, but when it comes to sermons, well, many words are required to deliver the message. Poetry, conversely, shows us how an economy of words can speak volumes, and evoke intense emotions at the same time.
Our church book club just finished reading, Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. It is the story of a young girl, abandoned in a swamp in North Carolina, who as she survives and grows, has a friend who helps her learn how to read and write. Because of his joy in reading poems, she too develops and affinity for poetry. She reads the works of various poets, and writes her own poems that convey her emotions and give her a voice even in the isolation of the swamp. The poems, and their messages, are a recurring theme throughout the novel, both advancing the story line and speaking on their own.
When I was in school, probably at about the age of twelve or thirteen, I did not find poetry to be engaging. It was difficult for me to make sense of it. But when a teacher introduced us to haiku, and required that we write our own haiku, I found a home in poetry. Most of that was because the structure of a haiku was simple, five syllables-seven syllables-five syllables, in three lines. I could understand that, especially with my more mathematically inclined mind. But most of all, perhaps, it was short. That was the mindset when I was that age.
But the joy and intrigue of haiku never left me. I have occasionally written haiku in more recent years. I bought a book of haiku a while back. I have even challenged young people in education classes at church to write using this form of poetry. And through all of these experiences, I have gained a great appreciation for the ways in which writers of haiku so carefully choose their words, and for how they convey beauty and meaning in seventeen syllables.
The editor of Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku, explains that there is a difference between haiku as I learned it, and more modern, non-Japanese poets who often follow a somewhat different structure. He writes that, “Traditional Japanese poetry is based on combinations of lines of five and seven onji, a syllable-like unit of a vowel or a consonant and vowel. Haiku uses a pattern of five-seven-five onji originally arranged in vertical columns. A haiku in Japanese is extremely short so that it is recited in one breath. Since an average syllable in English is much longer than an onji, modern haiku in English generally range from twelve to fourteen syllables, although many haiku poets try to maintain a five-seven-five syllable count.” (p. xiii)
Whether written in Japanese or English, the beauty of haiku is dependent upon making the most of each and every word. I find this precise use of words to be a characteristic of most poetry. The word-crafting of poets is indeed amazing.
Such a technique, such care in choosing words, is important in how the church worships as well. In Protestant traditions, where the preaching of the message has long held a central position in worship gatherings, the use of many words has been expected and accepted. But if, taking a cue from poets, we can communicate the same message with both brevity and poignancy, then doesn’t that lend itself to being a richer experience for all?
Worship is not just about speaking many words. Worship is something that is meant to touch our spirits, and through that to bring us into a deeper experience of God’s presence. It seems to me that poets offer us a gift to consider, as we ponder and plan the best ways to bring words into worship.
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