November 26, 2021
The First Sunday of Advent
This season of preparation begins on Sunday. Whether a congregation focuses on again celebrating the birth on December 25th, or emphasizes themes of Advent related to the Second Coming of Christ as reflected in some of the lectionary readings, or engages in lifting up a combination of the two themes, this is an important time of inner preparation while most people are going through an immense undertaking of outward preparation.
I see this time as a journey. It is a somewhat brief journey, although this year, with Christmas falling on a Saturday, the season of Advent is almost as long as it can be. It stands in some contrast with the longer Lenten journey that the church walks each year, in that Advent is accompanied by decorations and joyful music throughout the season. With both of them, the end of the season brings us to a joy-filled event, but during Advent that joy gets celebrated every time people attend a concert or other event that celebrates the birth.
So, the worship experiences of this season provide an opportunity to balance the joy with the sense of pilgrimage, knowing the end of the journey but still walking the steps such that the deeper engagement with the spirit of the season takes hold within us. Some of this tone is set through the Sunday messages and prayers, and some is set with music. I especially enjoy the Advent hymns that we have in our hymnal, and fully utilize those, especially in the first couple of weeks of the season.
As we begin our Advent worship times, we bring together the space, decorated in whatever manner each church has chosen, with the spoken words of scripture, sermons and prayers, and the music of the season, be it the more haunting tones of the Advent songs or the joyful music of the Christmas carols, and we invite people to enter into this experience and to become a part of it.
The image that I have of this interaction, between the people and all that has been prepared, is that of an art installation, where the experience is not the static one of viewing art such as in a museum, but an active one where the meaning flows back and forth between the participant and the experience that has been created. It is the entrance of the people that begins the unfolding of life of all that surrounds us in the worship space.
As this season begins, as all of this activity takes place, as perhaps quiet reflection also happens, the whole of the worship experience becomes an artistic creation. The worshippers bring their own creativity and spirit to the experience, such that whatever it is that has been prepared is transformed into the living of the season through this interaction. And that is the beauty and wonder and significance of the journey.
November 19, 2021
The Approach of Advent
With the beginning of Advent only a little more than a week away, thoughts about this season of preparation are swirling around. Whether or not they call it “The Hanging of the Greens,” most churches engage in some kind of decorating party. This may be just a few individuals, or it might be a church-wide event. In either case, this is an activity that sets much of the tone of the season.
For those who love to decorate, who may have already prepared their own homes for the coming of Christmas, this may be seen as one more opportunity to engage in the joy of hanging lights, adorning a tree and using as many decorations as possible to make it a festive time. While we may decorate in one or more of those ways in the church, I think it is important to consider how our decorating decisions are shaping the worship life of the congregation in the weeks to come.
The decorations may beautify the worship space, and may inspire some sense of awe on their own, but how do they prepare the space and the worshippers for the experience of the story of the birth of the Messiah? People often complain that Christmas has become too commercialized. How do we make sure that we enhance the space for worship, rather than making it feel like an extension of the decorations which we enjoy in the shopping mall?
There is no one way to do this. Each space is unique and requires thought about how all of the decorations interact with the space and enhance it for this brief season. In our church, we do include lights and a tree in our worship space. The lights reflect the theme of “The Light of the World,” and the tree becomes a “Giving Tree,” with gift suggestions for the organizations we offer gifts to at this time of year. There are angels in place that remind everyone of the role of those messengers in the story of the birth. We hang banners that depict the journey of the Magi, perhaps providing an opening for considering our own journey in this season. We always have an Advent wreath, which both marks the progress of the weeks leading to Christmas, and also provides a way to lift up the chosen themes of the season. And, of course, there are candles, which proclaim the theme of light throughout the season, but which also provide the background for the Christmas Eve candlelight service.
So, people have fun with the decorating, and they enjoy doing it together. But the end result of their efforts is a space that will provide an artistic enhancement to the telling of this wonderful story of the birth of Jesus.
November 12, 2021
On Giving Thanks
As we move through this month that leads us to Thanksgiving, one of the prime Gospel stories that moves us to understand the giving of thanks is the story of the ten lepers that we find in Luke 17:11-19.
I receive a daily email from www.Christian.Art, and each email includes a work of art, a related scripture passage, and commentary by Patrick van der Vorst. It is a wonderful way to begin the day. A recent email featured an engraving by Léonard Gaultier from around 1576. It tells the story of this encounter between Jesus and the ten who were wanting to be healed. I share it with you here, and then will make just a couple of comments about it.
Ten Lepers Healed,
Engraving by Léonard Gaultier (1561-1641),
Executed circa 1576, from ‘Scenes from the New Testament’,
Engraving on wove paper
© Alamy / National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
There are a number of interesting features about this work. There are two elements that identify the story: the first is the inscription at the top of the work that identifies the passage, and the other is the ox that we see in the field, a traditional symbol for the evangelist Luke. Then, we have the story presented much as Orthodox Icons would depict a story, with multiple moments in the story shown in one view. In the foreground we see the lepers making their request of Jesus. Then, in the center of the engraving, we see the one man who returned to give thanks to Jesus, and in the far distance on the left the other nine have already reached the city.
I have encountered this story in two very different settings in this last week. One of those incidents of course being the email referenced above. The other was in a book our church book club is reading entitled, This Tender Land. At one point in that story a faith healer, who is felt to be a fraud by the other character in the dialogue, says to this person that she never has claimed to heal anyone. Instead, she tells the boy that her gift is to help people to be in touch with their faith, and then quotes this story and points out that Jesus’ final comment is that the leper’s faith has made him well.
The engraving, and the excerpt from the book, along with a reading of the Gospel story, can open a dialogue about the views that people have about healing. We usually think of Jesus as a healer. But in the novel the intimation is that the healing happened because of the leper’s faith rather than being due to Jesus’ healing act. Such a discussion could be fruitful, considering that many prayers spoken in worship, and in other settings, are prayers for healing, and many prayers of thanksgiving are also prayers in response to healing.
November 5, 2021
A Month of Kindness
This month holds many possibilities for celebration. The Thanksgiving holiday is of course coming soon. Three days after that celebration we begin the season of Advent. And, November 13th is World Kindness Day, a theme which I like to lift up throughout the month in worship and in other ways.
I send out a daily email to members of my congregation and other interested individuals, in which I reflect upon various themes throughout the course of the year, and invite the recipients to also reflect upon thoughts or quotes that I share with them. In the latter part of October I began sending emails that focus on the theme of kindness. Most of them contain a quote, some from people whom everyone recognizes, and others from less well-known people who have nevertheless offered a significant reflection on the power of kindness.
With the theme fully in people’s thoughts, I will offer a Sunday message about kindness, and also seek ways to involve people in sharing their own thoughts about kindness. But of course, it is not just a matter of reflecting upon kindness, but of also offering kindness to one another.
One of the ways I have used to help people share their thoughts about kindness with one another, as well as to lift up acts of kindness that they have either experienced from someone or have shared with others, is through creating a collage on the wall of the sanctuary that grows with each week of worship. This can be something as simple as placing varied colors of sticky notes on the wall with the messages of each week. Or, it can take on a more artistic direction, by providing a trunk and branches of a tree on the wall, or other surface within the church, and then inviting people to add leaves to the tree through a similar sharing of messages and acts of kindness. Whatever form the visual celebration takes, it becomes something concrete that people can see, can stop to read, and can watch it grow.
One of the great joys of celebrating kindness is that we can be astounded by how much kindness goes around, and we can be motivated to share additional kindnesses as we experience the visual creation growing from week to week.
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.