Sunday, September 21, 2008

Transforming Culture Symposium #4: THE ARTIST

Transforming Culture: The Artist
Plenary #4: Barbara Nicolosi

The Question:
What is an artist and how do we shepherd these strange creatures?
What is the anatomy of an artist? What is their peculiar nature? What do artists need to be healthy, mature persons? What do artists need but don't immediately realize they need? How can we provide spiritual formation as well as community and opportunities for expression for the artists in our care?

The Goal:
Our desire here is to help pastors understand the way God has created artists. Artists don't need to be idolized or marginalized -- often the two primary ways our culture treats them -- they need to be loved with understanding, appreciated for the often non-useful, non-marketable but gory-bearing work they create, and invited into the gracious lordship of Christ and the protective, generous care of His Body, the Church

The Speaker:
Barbara Nicolosi (screenwriter, columnist, executive director, Act One, Inc., Hollywood); blogs at Church of the Masses

The Talk: (in summary)
I am not a theologian. I am not an Evangelical. I could consider myself as a Catholic Evangelical, I suppose, but I don't usually swim in these circles.

What I am is an artist. I am a writer, a screenwriter, and someone who has produced theatre. I work with artists. I've spent the last ten years working with a program called Act One in Hollywood to train Christians who want to work in the mainstream culture. And just as anyone else who works with artists, I've learned that at any given time I am Mentor, Friend, Psychologist, Mother, Policeman, sometime CSI Investigator, Pastor, Teacher. But hopefully always alter christus in the sense of being an other Christ who intercedes for them to the Father.

I love artists. I love creative people. They make me crazy, but they are never boring. And I get bored very easily. I have the sense when I am with artists that I am with people who are living life to the fullest. Even in their despair, it's gritty and real and passionate.
There are two kinds of people in the world: people who are artists and people who are supposed to support them. So, figure out which you are and do it with vigor.
In a study I've done on artists geniuses, I've learned that when God sends a gift of genius He usually sends at least one person who gets that genius. It's like Theo with Van Gogh and Susan Gilbert with Emily Dickenson. You can see this over and over. Somebody was given this gift to save this artist for the rest of us. That might be you. I encourage you then to take that vocation seriously.

I think the subtext for this symposium has been that right now in the Church it’s real hip to support the arts. Everybody is pretty much on board with that. The problem is that we aren’t really sure, though, who is an artist in the sense of those we want to support for the general edification of the Body of Christ in the world.

There are some we want to support in that they are artists for their own catharsis. The art that they are doing is for them to be healed. In that sense we are all supposed to be artists. There's a book called Only the Lover Sings by a philosopher named Josef Pieper. The book makes the case that the modern world is so intrusive that we are losing the ability to see. There's so much coming at us that we're losing the ability to see the presence of God in the details. So we have to become artists because art makes us focus on the details. So whether that's gardening or cooking or whatever it is that we do, everyone has to bring forth beauty somehow. Everyone needs to exercise that creative facility to keep their life vibrant.

But tonight I'm talking about the other sense of artist. I'm talking about the person who's been called to be prophet and priest for the masses of us. Those who have been given powerful talent from God to edify the Church.

It seems to me that we need help to figure out who's who, because every pastor is now freaked out that anyone could come up to them and announce, I'm an Artist. Give me money. Fill in the blank -- money, time, microphone, whatever it is. How do we know how we're supposed to respond to that? Before doing that, though, I'm going to lay out a few ideas about the beautiful. This is the terrain of artists -- the beautiful. And one way to recognize them is that they dwell in this terrain.
The Polish philosopher, artist, poet and actor who had another name, Pope John Paul II, spoke about the call of some of us to pursue on behalf of the rest what he called new epiphanies of beauty. Epiphany means revelations of the beautiful. Aristotle’s definition of the elements of the beautiful are wholeness, harmony, and radiance.

Wholeness means nothing’s missing; that all of the parts are present and there is a sense of completeness. No one looks at The Pieta and says, Yeah, you know, she needs just a little more fringe around her veil. Oh, well. They don't listen to Mozart's Ave verum and say, Hmmmm, it needs another G. There's something about these works that suggest completeness. [This reflects the truth that] we are made for the One. We are made to cleave to the One. When we experience completeness we have the sense of being at home. The sense that we can rest.

Aristotle's second element of beauty is harmony. Harmony means that all of the parts relate to each other in complementary, not domination. So every part brings out the best of the other parts. They perfectly complement each other. Harmony brings us a sense of joy because we are called to be in community. We are made by a triune God who lives in community and we were called to community. This is our destiny to be in perfect community. We get a sense of joy when we are reminded that we can dwell together as one without being crushed.
So the beautiful makes you feel rest and it makes you feel joy.

And, finally, the third element of beauty is radiance. Radiance means that something profound and, often, beyond language is communicated. Think about a sunset. When you see a sunset you experience it calling to you personally. When you experience some pieces of artwork, it's like you're standing in front of it and suddenly it's personal -- like you, yourself, are being called personally. And you think about the artist and you want to meet the artist because he or she said something to you personally. Radiance says I know something and I’m sharing it with you. It fulfills in us the desire to learn. We are made to learn, and so radiance gives us a sense of fulfillment in our nature.

Joy, rest and fulfillment -- this is what we get from the beautiful.

Another theologian, a German theologian, Ratsinger also having another name, Pope Benedict IVX, wrote in an essay
The beautiful makes you feel small, humble and, yet, happy.
Think of yourself viewing a beautiful vista and you say, Oh, how big and majestic is the cosmos. How small am I. Look at the beauty of it! So you feel small, but you know what -- okay with it.
Pope Benedict also says,
This actually resolves the problem of the Garden where Satan’s temptation was that we would be like gods, not creatures.
And that is the perennial temptaion for us, I want to be like God. I want no limits. Then you experience the beautiful and its like, I'm small and it's okay! He makes a further point,
As society becomes less agrarian the only place people are going to experience the beautiful is art.
There are so few places left that humans can enjoy beauty in God's unmediated creation the way our ancestors were once able. This puts a burden on us as a Church to produce works that will give people the ability to be OK with their creatureness.

So, now, I've told you what the beautiful is -- wholeness, harmony and radiance. I want to state unequivocally what the beautiful is not -- just in case you're not clear.

It’s not cute.
It’s not easy.
It’s not banal.
It’s not silly.
It’s not facile.
It’s not sweet.
It’s not non-threatening.

As an example, Precious Moments might be soothing some kind of deep-seated, psychic loss of childhood for some people whose parents weren't there for them or for whom there's a need to oversentimentalize and extend into adulthood the innocence of childhood but that just means that Precious Moments belongs in a therapist's lobby -- not in the Church. Could there be anything as horrifically unharmonious as the Precious Moments crucifix?

The Church has gotten in trouble in the twentieth century by reaching to other ends for art than the simple goal of seeking new epiphanies of beauty. When art is made as a pursuit of new epiphanies than we create as a response to the cosmos. We’re creatures who get our hearts swelling and we respond by making stuff to say, We don't know how to say Thank You. Stuff! Every generation is called forth to do this and the stuff they make is a witness to the world that God is real and good.
For example, the generation of Christians who created cathedrals in Europe. {She tells the story of taking her friend from Hollywood who had just become a Christian to tour St. Peter's.} It was 4pm and the sun's rays were shining down on the cathedral and it was stunning. I had been there several times so I was hurrying along before realizing that my friend was no longer standing next to me. When I looked back I saw my friend standing in the doorway, crying. My friend, a Hollywood screenwriter, said, I'm never going to argue with anyone else again about Christianity till they've been here. The beauty of the place was a proof for her.

In the twentieth century we have made the arts have to do something else. We've lost the value. Instead of being enough to just be beautiful, we tell artists they have to be other things. One use we demand is political. We've made the purpose of art political. I don't mean left or right, I mean statement-making. The goal in the political is not to share radiance but to manipulate, to coerce, to propegandize and to change behavior. Politics only tells one side of the story so the art loses wholeness, beauty and rest.

[The second use we demand is] egalitarianism. We consider the arts as something about making people in the Church feel good about themselves. [This use] has an interesting ratio in proportion that it makes the people who perform feel good about themselves it slays the sensibilities of the people who have to listen. What we've done is say, You know what? Doris and Stan have good hearts and they love the Lord and they wrote a song. So we let Doris and Stan sing, but they have terrible voices. But we're not doing it for the beauty of the music, it's to make Doris and Stan feel good. There are other ways to make Doris and Stan feel good without sacrificing the arts to that agenda. When we do this we lose harmony because the relationship of the parts in the piece is now not about perfection but about suppressing some parts perfection so that we can have a safe sameness.

[The third use we demand is for art to be] a soothing distraction (aka, sacred muzak). We use arts a lot in the Church to lull the people. We can’t let them have silence during the collection, they might get restless! So we've got to fill it up. Put something on that wall. We've really been about, Let’s just fill up the space. When we do this we suppress the prophetic voice in the arts. The prophetic voice in the arts is the thing that gets people riled up -- in a good way. When you really encounter the beautiful, the call of it riles you up. But if we're using the arts to lull people then we don't want them riled up, do we? We want them to be easy to manage.

Those are the three ways we kill the beautiful in the church.

[Note: the remaining points from Barbara Nicolosi's talk as well as her concluding exhortation to artists in the church will be available in the book being edited by David Taylor and published by Baker Books.]

My Thoughts:
Plenary #4 was an absolute delight. I had only barely heard of Barbara Nicolosi before April and only that much to know that she was a opinionated writer in Hollywood. I did not know her background as a former-nun-turned-Hollywood-screenwriter. I had no idea the depth she would bring to the subject. And I had no idea she would be dang hilarious!

There have been many moments since the symposium in April that I have thought back to Nicolosi's stories and statements as I work out my calling as an artist and/or one who supports artists. And as I try to identify those in my family and church as artists. I do not believe that everyone is solely defined as one or the other. Clearly Nicolosi sees herself as both. I suspect that is God's call for many of us.

What do you think about Nicolosi's talk? Do you agree or disagree with her description of art as defined by Aristotle's elements of beauty? What about her list of what beauty, and therefore art, is not? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

stirring up some Dust with Rob Bell

My sister, Alicia, is a leader for Union Center's Young Adults group. Today was their first day to meet for the '08/'09 season. The plan for this season is for them to hang out a couple of Sundays a month, watch a Nooma video and talk together about the content. Somehow, she decided to ask me to be the first guest they invite to share a personal response to the Nooma video as part of their overall conversation.

So they start their first week together with Dust. If you're not familiar with it, here's how the production company tags the piece:
Believing in God is important, but what about God believing in us? Believing that we can actually be the kind of people we were meant to be. People of love, compassion, peace, forgiveness, and hope. People who try to do the right thing all of the time. Who act on the endless opportunities around us every day for good, beauty, and truth. It’s easy for us to sometimes get down on ourselves. To feel “not good enough” or feel like we don’t have what it takes. But maybe if we had more insight into the culture that Jesus grew up in and some of the radical things he did, we’d understand the faith that God has in all of us.

I struggle with knowing how to frame my response. I mean I had some very strong reactions -- both positive and negative -- to the video, but I also felt this urge to kind of wave my arms and holler at this group of adults who are anywhere from 2-19 years younger than me. (gulp) "Be thankful that you are in a church that supports your desire to question and probe and wrestle with truth! Do not take that for granted. Do not waste this opportunity with cynicism, hypocrisy or timidity. Do not grow apathetic toward the richness around you."

So, I didn't say that, but the following is what I did say...or pretty close to it. (I'm not going to give the whole content of the video. Alot of the same historical teaching that Bell unpacks can be found here. I also can't recommend strongly enough that anyone wanting to engage in this conversation also read Colossians 1:13-26 and Romans 7:14 - 8:25)

My Response to Nooma Dust

I grew up in the church and in a home of people who followed Christ. To some extent, in my home and in the small, local church I grew up in I was given space to question what I heard and was taught. But the same can not be said for the larger church culture surrounding me at that time. In that larger church culture of my youth I feel like we had two options: everyone swallow it whole as good or everyone spit it out as bad.
I believe that, as a result, I have been delayed in developing mature critical thinking skills. In the past several years, I have attempted to discipline myself to not just consume information but to chew on it and process it and discern it. That is what I've attempted to do with this video. Having no idea if anyone else would do it this way, I chose three categories to critique:

1. Quality
2. Accuracy
3. Application to audience


What was the overall quality of Nooma Dust as a piece of art? As a form of rhetoric?

I found the video to be excellently crafted. The editing, the musical score, the writing, the sub-story of the neighbor shovelling snow -- all of it was engaging and beautifully crafted. As a form of rhetoric (most assuredly, Bell was crafting his words to persuade his audience), I also found the video extremely compelling. It even had a thought-provoking and subtle visual storyline tugging the viewer toward a desire for resolution and then -- SURPRISE --without a word spoken the plot takes a twist as the camera pans out on the closing voice-over. (I think I'll call it an O. Henry ending because he always concludes his stories with delicious surprises!)


Although I know very little about Rob Bell, one of the things I like about him is his superb teaching methods. I have only ever heard him teach a couple of times (all on video, but in a variety of settings) but the man can teach.

In Dust he explains the educational system in Galilee during Jesus' day. It is absolutely fascinating. And, on more than one level. It is fascinating to me that a group of people valued their history with their God so highly that their children memorized Torah before they reached their teen years. Knowing this system added depth to my understanding of so many key moments in Jesus' three years of ministry:
  • waiting until the age of 30 to be known as a teacher (rabbi)
  • the poignance of him hand-picking his disciples (talmidim)
  • the significance of the average-joeness of those disciples (clearly not the best of the best)
  • the verse take my yoke upon you...for my yoke is easy and my burden is light (yoke being understood by the people at that time as a Rabbi's individual interpretation of the law and the prophets)
  • the beautiful meaning of the blessing May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi.
Bell tells this history in a simple and meaningful way. Every phrase, gesture, closeup, note of music only adds to the narrative. The video itself is quality craftsmanship. But here is where the accuracy of content gets a little shifty.
He spends a good deal of time on the Matthew narrative of Peter walking on the water toward Jesus. In my opinion, this is an excellent choice to illustrate a true disciple. Peter sees a man walking on the water and instead of cowering in fear thinking the image is a ghost, he believes the reassuring voice to be his Master, his Rabbi. And, since he is a true disciple he knows his task is to not just know what his Rabbi knows, but to do what his Rabbi does. If his Rabbi is a water-walking man, then Peter has no choice, he too will be a water-walking man.


Then, Peter finds himself in conflict. The writer says But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, 'Lord, save me!' Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. 'You of little faith,' he said, 'why did you doubt?'
Bell draws the conclusion from this story that instead of Peter losing faith in Jesus, as he once believed, Peter has lost faith in himself. And, while it is true that later in his talk, Bell adds another sentence, He [Peter] loses faith in himself that he can actually be like his rabbi, it is clear that his deliberate intention is for me to hear this statement more loudly than the rest.

Peace. I get the big picture Bell is painting. But big pictures are made up of individual strokes and Bell clearly determines a large, bright gash across his listener's imagination.
Peace. We are a bunch of over-religioused people. We know our Bible stories, goshdarnit, and we don't like to change our minds with any new facts. Sometimes it takes a bold statement to get our collective attention.

Peter didn't doubt Jesus, he doubted himself. Why not, instead, Peter didn't doubt Jesus, he just decided to trust himself more than Jesus?

Peter didn't doubt Jesus, he doubted himself. Am I to conclude that it was Peter's faith in himself that held him on the water in the first place?

In my opinion, this statement is a major flaw in Bell's rhetoric. If his goal is to persuade me to embrace a deeper understanding of discipleship, he just distracted me big time. If his goal is to provide a new generation of Christians with relevant and provoking teaching, why choose the tired methods of so many previous generations of take-all-the-mystery-out-of-the-truth-and-boil-it-down-to-a-slogan preachers.

Peter didn't doubt Jesus, he doubted himself. For me to consider myself a discerning listener, I have to ask myself why Bell (an obviously gifted teacher) would choose this sentence. Words matter.

The second place I found Bell guilty of this persuasive, nee manipulative, rhetoric is toward the closing of his talk. He briefly points out another key moment in Jesus' ministry. The moment he leaves His disciples for the final time.

Bell describes that moment this way, Faith in Jesus is important, but what about Jesus' faith in us? I mean he must have faith in us because he leaves it all in the hands of these disciples.

Hold up. Something's missing here. Something like ...oh I don't know ... the Holy Spirit! (by now, in my viewing and listening experience I'm getting a little cranky)

Then he said, 'Everything I told you while I was with you comes to this: All the things written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms have to be fulfilled.'
He went on to open their understanding of the Word of God, showing them how to read their Bibles this way. He said, 'You can see now how it is written that the Messiah suffers, rises from the dead on the third day, and then a total life-change through the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed in his name to all nations -- starting from here, from Jerusalem! You're the first to hear and see it. You're the witnesses. What comes next is very important: I am sending what my Father promised to you, so stay here in the city until he arrives, until you're equipped with power from on high.'
He then led them out of the city over to Bethany. Raising his hands he blessed them, and while blessing them, took his leave, being carried up to heaven.
And they were on their knees, worshiping him. They returned to Jerusalem bursting with joy. They spend all their time in the Temple praising God. Yes. (Luke 24: 44- 53)
...he must have faith in us because he leaves it all in the hands of these disciples. Another stroke gashed across the big picture. Words matter.
(Does it distract from my attempt at eloquent argument to say grrrrr......?!?)
Application to audience:
  • What do you think Rob Bell's goal was for his audience?
  • How did the artistic choices help this goal?
  • How did Bell's choice of story, metaphor, historical context, scriptural reference, words help this goal?
I know that I will never forget much of what Bell taught. (of course, some of that is because I had the privilege of sharing my response with a group of people) I will most likely always link the phrase dust of the Rabbi with the word discipleship from here on until forever. That is an effect of excellent teaching.
At the same time, I believe that Bell is guilty of manipulating some type of agenda into the context of his teaching. I do not want to try to guess his motives, but from a man who promotes his teaching as geared toward a new generation of Christians, he seems too content to use old-school tactics that, to me, brand his work with a large slash of inauthenticity. I don't know about the rest of you, but this woman is plum-tuckered on soundbite spirituality. (and politics, for that matter, but that's definately for another post)

It is the task of any good teacher to know his audience, to know their frame of reference. Jesus was the Master at this and we've already established that Rob Bell, himself, is not too shabby. The audience in this generation is tempted, manipulated, and wangled at every turn to just believe in themselves, that the answer is in them, and that their heart will know what's right. And the frame of reference for our Christian subculture is no better. Our best selling books, our best loved songs and our most watched televison shows shout at us to put our best foot forward, to live our best life now, to seek our God as a dream giver who exists to make us feel better about ourselves and to provide our wishes. If Bell doesn't know that is the culture of his audience, then he needs to trade in his trendy specs for bifocals.

So while I am impressed with the artistic quality and engaging historical teaching Bell provides in this video, and while his excellent teaching ability influence me to deepen my understanding of myself as Jesus' chosen disciple, I am not comfortable with much of the spiritual conclusions Bell draws. I believe that in comparison to God's age-old insistence to be named above all other gods and to be actively drawing all glory and attention to Himself, partially-true statements such as Bell employs in Dust skirt way too close to a humanistic sort of heresy. And to boil the truth of a beautiful, generous mystery of this same God incarnating himself into human skin to fulfill the law and the truth that He chose us to be His vehicle to accomplish righteousness is too breath-taking to synthesize into controversial soundbites. And that any inner resistance I may feel to the knowledge that without Him I can do nothing and any indication that I am guilty of an Eden-like grasping at a subtle lie of self-reliance can be brought under the loving correction and guidance of the Holy Spirit who is with me always.

Having said that, I would want the young adults at Union Center to know that I have great hope for their time together during this season. I am impressed by their willingness to walk into these discussions with love and courage and light-heartedness. After all, even if I am not comfortable saying that Jesus has faith in me, I am full of faith that His love for us causes Him to hope all things. And that the greatest of these, faith, hope and love, is love.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Transforming Culture Symposium #3: THE WORSHIP

Transforming Culture: The Worship
Plenary #3: John Witvliet

(Communal Songs - Taize', France)

The Question:
How can our actions and spaces be artfully shaped?
How can our corporate actions (the liturgy) and physical spaces (the architecture) be informed by an artistic perspective? How, in fact, can the arts reinforce and enliven our theological convictions about worship?

The Goal:
Our desire here is to help pastors and church leaders understand the peculiar nature of the arts as epistemological aids to our knowledge and experience of God as well as media to support our theological commitments as a community; but also to challenge and expand them when necessary. The arts are not neutral. They can aid or hinder our corporate experience. They can conserve, confront, grow and revive our traditions. And each artistic media will do so in unique ways.
For us as pastors to become wise stewards of the arts we need to have a basic understanding of the "liturgical" function of the arts and a basic sense of how the different arts perform this function in unique ways. The purpose of this talk, in short, is to offer a basic landscape of understanding about artfully shaped actions and spaces.

The Speaker:
John Witvliet (associate professor of music and worship, Calvin College; director, Calvin Institute for Christian Worship)

The Talk: (in summary)
1. Definition of Worship We have one term in English language that has to do a tremendous amount of work. We have one term to mean three different things.

  • Worship of God in all we do in life (24/7)

  • Worship as an assembly

  • Worship in private moments of adoration
All three meanings are very important. A big part of this conference is transforming culture through acts of worship meant in the 24/7 context. But for this talk the focus is narrowed primarily to artworks for public worship assemblies.
2. What about the liturgical arts? (all traditions – formal liturgy or not)
Here he showed 30 slides that represent many of the grant recipients at Calvin and many forms of artworks in public worship assemblies.

  • Significance of communal song: Taize and Iona community; new outbreaks of indigenous music on African continent and in South America; rethink what communal song should be as “Revival is coming to many of the cities in the U. S.; it’s just that so little of that revival is coming in the form of the English language”.

  • New hymn tunes – musical excellence is not just about great soloists and choirs, but also in congregational singing

  • The Choristers Guild – forming children to pray deeply using well-crafted music; one of the most strategic forums in Witvliet's opinion "teaching children to pray deeply through song"

  • Temporary and Permanent Installations
(Nancy Chinn, Washington National Cathedral, Washington D.C.)

(Sculpture - M.J. Anderson, Witness: Women of the Resurrection)

  • Garments

  • Stained glass contributions (not just an artwork of the past)

  • Furniture designers

  • Sculptors (communion vessels)
(Communion vessels - Carl Huisman)

  • Architects in other cultures (ex., Papua, New Guinea works with local craftspeople to design a space that is intentionally designed to be sound permeable in order to let the sound of the worshipping congregation will spill out to the community)

  • Painters
  • (Portrayals of individuals in community - Laura James, Psalm 100)

  • Children – artwork can often teach a great deal; example of children's artwork used as bulletin covers)

  • Woodcut artist

  • Calligraphers

  • Graphic Artists

  • Film/Projected Art (including how screens are used in worship; not just to display words, but to use artistic opportunities to display God's Word)

  • Dancers

  • Textile Artists (dress the Lord’s Table; worked in collaboration with dance)

  • Dramatic performers (rethinking liturgical drama; not just vignettes dropped into the middle of a sermon)

  • Art of sign language (move into a more visually prominent place in worship in order to engage the larger congregation)

  • Writers (more hymns written in the last 30 years than in any other period in Protestant history)(70 published hymn writers – Hymn Society; Sylvia Dunstan, Carl Daw)

  • Preaching arts

  • Translators (i.e., The Message)

(David Hetland, Let Heaven and Earth Sing, Concordia College)

What all these artists do is to think about the particular kind of excellence that is found in forming God’s people for prayer and proclamation in the context of public worship assemblies. There are remarkable constraints on this process. To lead music in worship imposes more constraints than in the context of a concert, and the same is true for every other form of artistic expression.

If we’re not careful we can promote the idea that the art we use in worship is kind of a watered-down version of the art we really want to do. Set aside that way of thinking.
There are profound relationships between the art we make for spaces and events outside the worship assembly and that for the worship assembly. There are some differences. There are some wonderful excellencies in the constraints that need to be celebrated. (“a particular kind of excellence”) Taking art to the ordinary is a constraint and it imposes a great constraint on the artist. This can be something not to be resisted or lamented but celebrated.

[Note: the remaining points from John Witvliet's talk as well as his worshipful conclusion will be available in the book being edited by David Taylor and published by Baker Books.]

My thoughts:
You know, right now I'm too tired to add anything more to this summary. Out of all the amazing teaching we heard at the symposium, this talk hit the rawest and achingest places in me. It is quite possible I have felt this ache ever since I was a young child and listened to my uncle play the 12-string guitar in our worship service in the unfinished backroom of a Christian bookstore. It was beautiful. It was scripture plucked and strummed and sung to chords and a melody line that he had composed. I don't think I've been the same since. Our surroundings were dank and dingy, but that worship was beautiful.

I am disappointed at the stark and, often, kitschy surroundings of my Protestant background. Stingy might be a better word. Or, maybe, uninspired. Whatever it is, I don't think I'll ever give up hoping for something more beautiful and grand in our public worship assemblies. I do not understand the sterile white walls and drop ceilings and mega-store plastic that we surround ourselves with. I do not understand how we remodel and redecorate our homes within and inch of its life and can go decades without changing the curtains and late-80's stencilling on our church walls. I can not fathom how we got to the place that the Lord's Supper has become an event that we can barely remember to fit into the church calendar.

I have a feeling it has a whole lot to do with a need for rousing of the individual me's into a corporate we.

In my church family I am excited about some signs of life coming from the we. We have some beautiful landscaping: tall sea grasses and a variety of seasonal flowers bloom for as long as we have thawed ground (which is not very long, it seems!). A new atrium has been built with windows that bring in natural light and views of the glorious trees from our upstate hills. We've begun to incorporate a slight recognition of the church liturgical calendar.

I will hope now and hope always. But greater than these will be love.

(Union Center Christian Church, Easter service 2008)

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Click to play Murphy Family Summer
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