September 27, 2019
The Language of Novels
As I write, I am close to finishing the next book for our church book club. It is another novel, which seems to have become the preferred genre for the group. I have actually enjoyed the commitment to be a part of the book club, because I have encountered books and authors that I would otherwise likely never have picked up.
It was quite some years ago that a professor suggested to those of us in his class that reading novels was a good addition to engrossing ourselves in theological books. He felt that the content of novels could be useful in preaching, as a way to bring story and even down-to-earth theology into sermons.
I never did pursue his suggestion in any great depth, although I would occasionally read a sermon somewhere else and would indeed see references to novels. However, as the reading of novels has now become much more commonplace for me, I have thought again about his idea. And I am not too sure about how generally useful it is.
I know that there was a time when many people had read the great novels like Moby Dick and A Tale of Two Cities, to mention only a couple. With people having that more common experience, it would have been fairly reasonable to make reference to events or characters in such novels, because of the familiarity with the works. But not only are there immeasurably more novels in circulation now than even a few years ago, many of those older works are no longer the standards in choice of reading material. Thus, to share about the characters in a novel, and their actions, now often requires a lengthy explanation of the nature of those characters and perhaps a description of the plot of the book as well. To do so would of course change the worship message into more of a book review. I am not saying it cannot still work to include references to novels in a worship message, but the process has gotten to be much more awkward.
As an aside, one often quickly discovers, depending upon the church, that this is also true with biblical references, since people are frequently no longer as well versed in the content of the Bible as they once were. We would not of course leave biblical references out of our worship messages, but it can be a challenge to speak of the longer biblical narratives without providing a fair amount of background and explanation. Of course, to speak about an incident in Jesus’ life, or to preach about one of his parables, usually doesn’t require as much background material.
As I continue to reflect on my recent reading however, I am acutely aware that one of the gifts that novelists do certainly offer to church people, to preachers as well as lay people, is the gift of language. I have written before about the richness of words that I have discovered and cherished in certain books. I will say that the most recent book club selection did not affect me in that way at all. I found the writing to be awkward and not at all poetic in nature. The story itself was interesting enough, but it is not a book I would recommend for its literary quality.
But both the poetic works, and the ones with more mundane language, offer insights to us. For language can enrich our worship experiences, or it can leave them feeling rather lifeless. To write and speak with creativity, is something that can open the imagination. To use only familiar, and/or tired old words, does not inspire creativity. But to search for poetic ways to express the grace and joy and peace of God, the wisdom and power of Jesus, the beauty of the faith community, is to enliven both the speaker and the listeners in profound ways.
If the reading of novels prompts us toward such creativity, they have indeed provided us with a wonderful gift.
September 20, 2019
Creativity Out of Silence
I subscribe to a variety of magazines. While I am often captivated by an article or two in a magazine, the issue of “Arts: The Arts in Religious and Theological Studies,” from 2017 (volume 28, number 2), which I have drawn upon in the last two weeks, has offered a wealth of insights. So, for one final time, I want to reflect upon Silence and the gifts that come to us out of spending time there.
Brian Kirby, the author of an article entitled, “Beauty from Silence: The Community of Taizé,” received his Doctor of Ministry degree in Arts and Theology from the same school where I studied, and that caught my attention. But his article about the Taizé community, the importance of silence in all that they do, and the creativity that emerges as a result of that silence, was what really engaged me.
While I have for many years been familiar with the music of Taizé, and out of a general interest have read some about the life of the community, it was interesting to hear how the music, and the other artistic creations of Taizé, emerge out of the silence of the community, a silence that is both individual and communal.
Kirby writes that “silence is prepared and intentional.” (Page 42) Especially in the communal sense, that means that the singing opens a space for people to then enter into the silence. And that silence is very intentional in that it provides an opportunity for the people who come to Taizé, as well as those who live there, to receive the gifts of God that are presented to them.
Out of the silence, the members of the Taizé community not only create their music, but many also write poetry, beautiful pottery is created, and the gift of creativity is shared in amazing ways.
As I think about the music of Taizé, and most other music as well, part of what defines the music is the notes and words of course, but the other part that is so important is the rests, those moments of silence between phrases in a song, between verses, at any juncture where the composer wants to emphasize something in a particular way. We have only to think of the very end of the “Hallelujah Chorus” to know that this is true.
In the same way, our lives, our work, our creativity, are defined both by the activity we engage in, and by the rests that we build into our schedule. Those rests, those times of inactivity and of silence even, always stand to enrich everything else we do. The ebb and flow of life at Taizé reminds us of that.
September 13, 2019
Silence, Presence and Discernment
I wrote last week about silence, and a couple of the ways in which it was explored in a 2017 edition (volume 28, number 2) of “Arts: The Arts in Religious and Theological Studies.”
In that same issue there was an article entitled, “Art as Discernment.” The author, Michael Hebbeler, explores this in several ways, but the essence of it for me is the idea that discernment comes through taking time – time to look, time to pay attention, time to really see what is around us. In our fast-paced lives, it means that in slowing down we are better enabled to be present to the moment in which we find ourselves. In that presence, we open ourselves to seeing things that we might never have seen before.
The author shares some of his experiences in taking an art class, something that he hadn’t done for almost twenty years. This in turn leads him to discuss with his own students the benefits of art classes. But for most of his students, an art class is something that distracts from their pursuit of other classes that will contribute to their future abilities to earn a living. An art class doesn’t fit in well with their ever-moving lives.
The author acknowledges that an “art class does take time. Not only are studio classes nearly three hours twice a week, but the process of working and reworking a charcoal figure drawing, or mixing paints to get the tone just right, requires a commitment and a patience that one can hardly afford on a campus where overscheduled calendars and instant communication rule the day.” (page 21)
He goes on to say, “regarding lack of time, I know that the times I am busiest are often the times when I most need to be still. And that is what art class has become for me during the frantic pace of the school week. Drawing slows me down, inviting me into an attentive state, an entrance into the present.” (page 22)
I have found such to be the case during the couple of arts workshops that we have held at our church. People have set aside the other concerns of the day in order to be present to the activity at hand. It has been wonderful to watch.
In the same manner, spending time with art, with poetry, with drama, are ways to help people in the church, people anywhere of course, to slow down, to truly engage with what is before them, and thereby to notice things that have likely eluded them in the past. But just as taking a class requires a commitment, so spending time with these various art forms requires a slowing down, perhaps time spent in silent reflection. After all, if we rush past a painting, or read poetry as though it is the newspaper, we will never receive the rich gifts that we might if we take the time to really engage with what is before us.
Silence, a slower pace, a deliberate looking, all contribute to a richer journey for us. It is our choice to open this opportunity for ourselves.
September 6, 2019
The Beauty in Silence
We have a monthly time of meditation practice in our church. Although we only gather together once a month, it is meant to model for people a more regular time of practice that they can do at home.
When I learned to meditate, it was time spent in silence. However, when we started this group at church, some folks requested that we sit quietly with soft music playing in the background. So, we have done that, but always with the knowledge that individuals can sit in quiet meditation in another room of the church.
I was recently re-reading a 2017 edition (volume 28, number 2) of “Arts: The Arts in Religious and Theological Studies.” The theme for that issue was Silence. It was a fascinating examination of the power and promise that resides in quiet, as it was spoken of through poetry, essay, written reflection and visual art.
Speaking of silence, one poet, David Rensberger, wrote in part,
Outside the house,
I come across the experts at this practice, vigilant,
persistent, constant in their skill:
the trees, the ever-present soil, the fog. (page 13)
The visual images in the article immediately preceding this poem were striking in a couple of different ways. After all, how does one depict silence? The artist, Y.Z. Kami, did so using several means. In some of his works, a person is shown in a pose that one might call meditative, with the eyes closed. Overlaying those images, and others as well, is a blurriness that communicates a time and sense of being that is separated from the stark clarity of much of life. The combination of these two approaches communicated to me a clear sense of silence.
We bring times of silence into our worship experiences on a regular basis. I am going to explore ways in which I can use the resources from this particular magazine to enhance those times together, as well as in our monthly time of meditation.
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.