November 27, 2020
Seeing through the Lens of Candles
Candles arranged in a wreath is nothing new for Advent. The custom has actually been a part of the season for centuries. Nonetheless, the Advent wreath remains a focal point in the worship spaces of many churches during this time, with each wreath showing forth the creativity of those who have lovingly put it into its place.
With each candle in the wreath having a significance, the themes most often chosen for the four candles are Hope, Love, Peace and Joy. There have been years when I have used those four themes, but rather than making them the norm, I usually seek to establish another whole set of meanings for the candles, so that when I use the traditional four then they stand out as well.
In some Advent seasons, I make the four themes flow from one to another, as in Expectation, Waiting, Patience and Arrival, for instance. This year they are a little more random and not necessarily connected - Mystery, Generosity, Creativity and Joy - but I intend for the four to be connected as ways of seeing the wonder and promise of the season.
I am especially anxious to explore the theme of Mystery in our first Sunday of Advent, particularly as it relates to the idea of “seeing,” which I suggested last week is an integral part of this season. As the Gospels tell the stories, Zechariah and Mary are approached through visions, and Joseph and the Magi are contacted through dreams. These are both mediums that are filled with mystery. While not all of us see visions, we do all dream, and most of us remember portions of those dreams, but usually are left with more wonder and confusion about them than with specific discernable guidance that has been given to us.
But that is part of the nature of mystery, that we have to spend time with whatever is mysterious, for example dreams, and we need to engage with the mystery enough in order to draw out meaning for ourselves. When I took a class on dreams many years ago, the one clear teaching was that only we can interpret our own dreams. There are certainly books that suggest meanings, and we can include that information in the mix, and other people may suggest a certain significance to a dream as well, but ultimately only we can know the truth and import of our own dreams; for those dreams, I believe, are gifts from God. The challenge is to discern the meaning, and to recognize the gift that has been offered to us.
Mystery encourages us, prompts us, to search for answers. That is why so many people love mystery stories, because the pathway to the end of the story usually provides twists and turns, but leads to a satisfying resolution. In the same way, the mystery of Advent is that there is always something new to discover about the Christ child, and about ourselves. Because the stories are so recognizable, the music is so beloved, the decorations are familiar, we are tempted to think that we know everything about the birth of Jesus. Yet, we are different than we were a year ago when we went through this season. The Pandemic has definitely accentuated those differences, but in any year we are, in at least small ways, a different person than we were twelve months in the past. And so, Advent provides us with an opportunity to explore the Mystery in fresh ways. It is, however, a journey that we need to choose to make. It is a journey that can, and I believe will, make a difference for us.
November 20, 2020
The Coming of Advent
The season of Advent is in many ways about seeing. From the visions of Zechariah and Mary, to the dreams of Joseph and the Magi, to the shared experience of the shepherds seeing and hearing angels, to the beholding of the child wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger, this time of preparation, and the celebration of Christmas itself, are all about seeing.
A recent issue of the “Seen Journal,” published by CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts), highlighted this theme of seeing in more general terms, but the offerings of the writers and artists that fill that issue have helped to provide me with reflections that are focused more specifically on Advent.
There are scholars of course who raise questions about the validity of the birth stories in Matthew and Luke. They ask if these stories are perhaps creations of those writers. One can certainly argue on either side of the question. But the reality is that these stories have come down to us through two thousand years of tradition, and they shape how we see and experience the birth of Jesus. Indeed, what matters is how these stories lead us into the experience of that birth, how they lead us to an encounter with God that is both personal and intimate.
We are invited to see here with our imagination, as writers and poets and visual artists have done for centuries, for the Gospel writers provide us with some details, but there is much that is unstated in the descriptions of the events surrounding the birth. In fact, the stories and poetry, the paintings and woodcuts, all of which depict portions of these stories, do themselves invite us to engage our imagination in creative and energizing ways.
In this time when Zoom and Facebook Live and other online means of engagement are at the forefront of worship experiences in many churches, it can seem quite challenging to engage the visual aspects of this season. Everything from banners hung in sanctuaries, to candlelight services, to the experience of art installations, to children’s Christmas pageants, are on-hold as far as in-person experiences go. Yet, we can still work with the online formats to bring images to people. They can see beloved banners, and can light candles in their homes such that the light of Christ is truly spread throughout the community. And as we share other visual presentations of the story, either through online sharing or through advance emails, we can see together in ways that make the seeing even more profound.
Perhaps the most profound experience here is that we are talking about seeing the invisible God. The power of the incarnation is the idea that in Jesus we got to see God presented to us in human form. And today we rely upon seeing the actual Jesus in much the same way that we speak of seeing God, through our imagination, through stories which lead us into an encounter with the divine, through visual images that capture what artists see in these stories, and which help us to shape our own images of that time when the Christ child was born. Here we are invited to see both with our eyes and with the depth of our own spirits. And this seeing will lead us to a manger and a child that resides within our own hearts.
November 13, 2020
If we were meeting for worship in the church building, I would be doing something interactive throughout this month, such as having people put sticky notes on one wall giving thanks for certain things each week. In lieu of that, I am sending out a daily email to encourage people to reflect upon things as diverse as the first thought that comes to mind when talking about giving thanks, to the remembrance of a long-time friend, to something in nature that touched them the day before, to a favorite book for which they are grateful. You get the idea. And my hope was that people would spend some daily moments reflecting upon the different ideas.
But I have been pleasantly surprised to find that anywhere from five to eight people per day have written back to me with their thanksgivings. I hadn’t requested that, or envisioned it, but it has shown that people are not only thankful for many things, they also want to share their joy and thanks with others. It has been fun to receive their emails and to respond briefly to each one.
We also sent out, in our monthly newsletter, a single sheet on which people could note a daily thanksgiving. I know that some people are utilizing that as well. And even if they only think to stop and note something on a few days out of the month, it has had the effect of focusing their attention on the gifts and blessings that they have received.
Although worshipping via Zoom does not allow us to do what we might otherwise have done, we are still weaving themes of thanksgiving into each week’s gathering, and enhancing the experience with songs that might normally have been reserved for Thanksgiving Sunday being spread throughout the month.
In this time when there is so much stress in people’s lives, from the Pandemic and the economic and social consequences of that, to the election, to the fact that the gatherings for dinner on Thanksgiving will no doubt be different if they happen at all, I have wanted to offer to people a perspective and opportunity to celebrate what they do have to be thankful for, and thereby to increase their sense of both hope and joy.
Finally, let me say that I am grateful for everyone who takes the time to visit this site, to read my reflections and ideas. I know that some blogs may speak to you, and others may seem irrelevant to your situation. I hope that in the course of your visits to the site that you do find some helpful ideas and encouragement toward your own creativity. May this be for you too a month of giving thanks in many ways.
November 6, 2020
The Focus in Photography
My wife’s favorite art medium is photography. Her pure joy is capturing images of clouds and sunsets, although she is happy to focus in on flowers, cats and flowing water as well. And the other day as we were discussing her creativity, she mentioned that for her, part of the wonder of photography is that it allows her to focus on the beauty that she sees.
I was struck by that image of focusing on the beauty, which of course could be a play on words since one either focuses a camera or allows the camera to focus itself, but the idea of focusing on the beauty is more a matter of choice and intent in this case, a matter of narrowing one’s field of vision in order to see something specific.
As I reflected on this further, I thought about two things. The first is of my own photographic endeavors, which are not professional by any means, but which do bring me joy as I capture any variety of subjects. I learned at a certain point that how one frames a photograph in the viewfinder is important. Again, to choose to include certain elements, like say the branches of a tree on a periphery of a sunset, or to zoom in so as to eliminate those portions of the scene that call attention away from the focus of the photograph, is to frame the image so as to tell the story that one wants to express.
The second thought that came to mind was of something Frederick Buechner once wrote, about a famous kaiku by Matsuo Basho, in which he speaks of how the poet frames a moment for us through his words. The haiku reads:
An old silent pond.
Into the pond a frog jumps.
Splash. Silence again.
Its simplicity is that everything else falls away. One is left with just the frog, the leap, and the return to stillness. There is no description of rocks around the pond, or reeds growing in the pond, or sunlight reflecting off the water, or anything else but the frog, the water and stillness. Just as a photograph captures a moment in time and space, so the poet does the same, and all else passes beyond view.
There is certainly a metaphor here for us, where often times there is so much going on in our lives that we fail to see the blessing or opportunity or possibility that is before us, but which needs our more careful attention. Just as photography allows us to focus in by looking through the viewfinder and perhaps zooming in on the subject we see, so too when we zoom in on something in our life we are enabled to set aside the distractions around that and to truly draw out the gift that is there for us.
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.