September 25, 2020
World Communion Sunday
October 4th marks World Communion Sunday this year. This is an occasion for Christian communities around the world to feel our connection with one another, our bond in the church universal, as we choose to celebrate communion on a common day. While in my tradition, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), we come to the table each and every week in worship, there are some traditions that only observe this sacrament once a month, or four times a year, or even once a year. This special Sunday, that began back in 1933, provides an opportunity for us to celebrate our common heritage and faith no matter what our usual practices may be.
I know that the celebration of communion, of the thanksgiving that is experienced in the Eucharist, has been a challenge for some of our Christian communities during this pandemic. Ecclesiastical structure and norms of celebration have faced scrutiny and challenge, as leaders have tried to discern how best to be faithful to their traditions, and yet to meet the needs of the people who desire to celebrate this special meal. I hope that leaders have been able to imagine how best to celebrate communion, so that we can indeed feel our connection on this unique Sunday.
One of the ways in which we attempt to feel that worldwide connection in our worship time is by drawing upon the wonderful diversity of our church members, inviting people to share the Lord’s Prayer in languages that represent the history and culture of these amazing people. It never fails to move me to hear the music of these many languages. If you are not blessed with such diversity, you can still ask a high school student or two to share the prayer in whatever languages they may be studying, or ask someone who studied a language years ago to practice a little and to share the prayer, or you can even download the prayer in various languages and bring it to life in that way. In whatever way you choose to do it, this adds a wonderful element to worship, especially on this day.
This year I am also trying something new, attempting to include art items that represent different cultures in our celebration time. Of course, it would be ideal to bring these items in person, and I hope to encourage exactly that next October, but for now I am inviting people to take photographs of art pieces that represent their culture, and to send those to me so that I can weave them into the worship time. I am also requesting that they send a brief description with the photograph, in case it is an item that I am unfamiliar with at this point. Indeed, I hope that I will learn more about the cultures of my members through this sharing.
It is easy to become comfortable with worshipping in the same ways from one week to the next. That desire for familiarity and simplicity can be especially appealing in this time when worship is so different for most of us. Yet, it is creativity that keeps worship fresh, that engages our minds and our spirits more fully, that opens doors of experience for those who share in the moments of celebration that we have together. Special Sundays provide unique opportunities for creativity. And, if your members are resistant to changes in worship, then, by adding in elements that are unique to a special Sunday such as this, people can see the beauty and joy of these additions and perhaps become more inclined to accept other things that you attempt to introduce into worship. Either way, such creativity can make for a wonderful day of celebration with churches around the world.
September 18, 2020
The Mystery and Wonder That Lie Within
When I wrote two weeks ago, I mentioned how much I was enjoying reading novels. At the risk of sounding repetitious, I am going to share a quote from the current novel that I am reading. It is entitled, The Lost and Found Bookshop, by Susan Wiggs. Without going into detail about the plot, this quote comes as the main character is reflecting upon her mother’s life, and the profound way in which books influenced both of them. The narrator tells us that Natalie remembers…
“When she was very small, her mother used to tell her that books were alive in a special way. Between the covers, characters were living their lives, enacting their dramas, falling in and out of love, finding trouble, working out their problems. Even sitting closed on a shelf, a book had a life of its own. When someone opened the book, that was when the magic happened.” (page 42)
I found this description to be wonderfully profound, in several ways. There is of course the mystery that the author speaks of in describing the life that goes on between the covers of books. It is indeed a life that we enter when we open the pages of a book. And the author, if she or he does their writing well, invites us deeper and deeper into the lives of the characters that come to life in those pages. Of course, if we choose to read another book instead, we will enter that world, but not this one that stands before us.
As I read the words I quoted above, I immediately thought of the Bible, and of the rich variety of stories that inhabit those pages. On a literal level we can of course say that all of those people are long dead and buried. But as we engage our imagination, we see and hear them come to life again. And for those of us who tell these stories in one way or another – through sermons and education classes, through storytelling hours and art mediums of myriad kinds – it is our great pleasure to invite people into the lives of these biblical characters, to experience their joys and challenges, their faith and their unique journeys, journeys which of course can become our unique journeys if we enter into the stories fully.
The Bible is so often seen as either a collection of moral codes, or as simply irrelevant in our day. I believe it is neither of those. The characters who live between the covers of the Bible are not unlike you and me, separated by centuries of time and cultural customs to be sure, but people still who struggled with life and death, faithfulness and anxiety, and the wide variety of emotions that all people embody. As we truly enter into their lives, by opening the covers of the Bible, and engaging with the stories that fill its pages, we can be enabled to see a vision of ourselves as well.
Finally, what the quote from the novel led me to reflect upon is the ways in which we can choose to open the covers of the book that is each person we meet. Sometimes we just pass by a book, and never engage with that person. Sometimes we read just the covers, and judge the person by appearances and no more. When we are ambitious we may open the book that is before us, and peruse enough of the pages of that person’s life that we get some insight into their own joys and challenges. And, on occasion, we are courageous enough to fully open the book that is another person, to take the time to hear their story, to see their deep pain and their deep joy, to discover ways in which our story can intersect and mingle with their story. It is in those times that our own lives are enriched through our interactions with another person, just as the author of a good novel enriches us too through our encountering the characters and stories between the covers of their writing.
In whichever literal or metaphorical ways you choose, be aware of the life that will spring forth as you open the covers of a book.
September 11, 2020
I am writing this week with an acute awareness that the publication date on this week’s blog is September 11th. Little more needs to be said in order for memories to come flooding back, or for school lessons to take on an added poignancy this week. But it has indeed been nineteen years since the horrible events of that day in 2001. There are thousands of people alive today who had not yet been born then, and who did not see images unfold on television that day, or who lived those experiences in horrifying and heroic ways.
In years past, when I helped plan and lead interfaith Holocaust Memorial Service, one of the stated purposes of such gatherings was so that people might never forget the horror of the Holocaust, nor allow it to be repeated, ever. At that time, we were able to hear the stories of Holocaust survivors, to see their faces and hear their voices. Today, there are fewer and fewer survivors yet with us. Fortunately, some of their stories have been recorded and preserved in museums and other locations so that we can hear those first-hand accounts of the terribleness that filled our world in that time. We do need to remember. We should never forget.
In a similar way, the 9/11 Memorial was established that people might be remembered, and those events too might never be repeated. The remembrance this year, as with almost everything else this year, will be unique, as guidelines for social distancing and public gatherings will be followed. While family members will be able to gather, and will hear the names of their loved ones from recordings by family members, the observance will indeed be different for all who gather at that sacred place. For while there is nothing sectarian about it, it is truly a sacred space, and I imagine that there will be many prayers offered in quiet and reverent ways.
From the stone that Jacob first set up and poured oil upon after his dream, to the early churches with their beautiful mosaic floors, to cathedrals and retreat centers and other structures that have been erected for worship and prayer, the spaces that we set aside as sacred often recall events that happened there, and the people who have, in one way or another, been a part of those events.
As my congregation prepares to celebrate seventy years of life and ministry, we are acutely aware of both the sacredness of the space that we call our church building, and of the fact that we cannot gather there right now for worship, nor for the celebration of this milestone event. In some ways, this helps us to see and realize that the sacredness of the space is as much a function of its being a gathering of God’s people as it is a common space that we call our own.
For, in truth, the church is not ours. It belongs to God. We are the stewards of that wonderful space. And its presence in the community speaks of the long story that this church is a part of - a story that traces back through the people who have been a part of the congregation over the seventy years, to the people who made a commitment to found the church, to the denominational tradition that supported its founding, to the centuries of tradition that one way or another take us back to Jesus and the disciples. We are one part of that story, and we are one part of what will yet unfold in the living of that faith.
And this space, like other sacred spaces, is considered such because people have experienced life with one another, and experienced the presence of God, in powerful and often life-changing ways. While one can indeed consider all of creation to be sacred, and should consider it so, our identification of certain places as sacred, gives us a focus for our attention, our commitment, and our expressions of faithfulness. I am always glad to enter into the sacred space of my church, just as I treasure the experience of entering other sacred places. These spaces are significant markers along our journey of life.
September 4, 2020
Creating Our Own Visions
I have read more novels in the last five years than I probably did in the previous thirty years. That trend started because of our church book club, with the choices the members made most often being novels, but I have since, especially during this pandemic time when the book club has not met, been enjoying novels of various genres.
What is fascinating to me is the ways in which novelists paint pictures with words, so that we can, each in our own way, envision the characters and the places they inhabit. In a recent novel, The Bookshop of Yesterdays, I thoroughly enjoyed envisioning the characters, and the bookshop, in the midst of Los Angeles environs that I am familiar with in several different ways. Reading the novel was a combination of seeing what I knew and allowing the writer to help me see other things.
When we come to biblical stories, it is the words of the storytellers that help us to envision the people and the events that we read about in the pages of the Bible. It is of course true that some Bibles provide illustrations or paintings which are intended to help people in seeing the stories come to life. We also have a wide variety of artworks, across many centuries, which also seek to provide a view of the stories, often with people garbed in the clothing of the artist’s time, so that people can be helped to feel that it is indeed their story too.
While I both enjoy and admire the rich diversity of artistic portrayals of the biblical stories and individuals, I am also careful, when sharing such artwork with church members and others, to point out clearly that these are artist’s conceptions, and they should not be understood to be providing us with a final vision of how things were. These works of art can be seen as helping us to form our own visions of the people and events, perhaps providing clues for us, but are certainly not definitive visions on their own.
For such envisioning, on our part, takes effort. There are times when we may be tempted to accept the answers and visions of others. But I think that part of the reason that Jesus so often spoke in parables was that he wanted to provide an opening for us, an invitation to discover meaning on our own, rather than being told how things are.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that visions from artists are a negative thing. Quite the opposite in fact. Art opens doors. Works of art provide us with new ways of seeing. But they are not meant to do all of the work for us. Rather, they give us an assist in doing the work that we are each privileged to do. And in doing that, we bring the stories to life within ourselves.
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.