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The Import of Story

I recently told you about a great a superlative book I read recently called The Monster in the Hollows by Andrew Peterson (pick up a copy here) (It’s the third in the Wingfeather Saga).  I thought I would let you know about how it helped me in a sermon and in a hospital visit.  As I was preaching on Sunday it came to me – a quote from the book.  I held up my finger (indicating that everyone should wait a moment) walked over to the piano and picked up a pen and wrote a note to myself in my notes…where I could use this quote.  I was preaching on the story of Joseph.  Actually, I’m trying to preach a spring/summer series on the larger story we’re a part of.  We started with Adam and Eve, hit Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and this week was Joseph.  Kind of hard to do.

You have to tell a long story and then land on one particular scripture passage in the middle or at the end and draw out of it what God has to say.  Anyway, it was Joseph this week.  I told his long up and down story: Up – Dad’s favorite, Down – Brothers sell him into slavery, Up – become slave-owner’s favorite, Down – thrown in jail for not sleeping with someone, Up – become head prisoner/warden, Down – have to tell someone that their dream means they’re going to die soon, Up – Become lord of all Egypt.

After telling the story we read the part where he was reunited with his brothers and says, “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Gen. 45:8).  And in the middle of the story I remember this line from The Monster in the Hollows, “Evil digs a pit, and the Maker makes a well. That is His way.” ~Artham Wingfeather.  Dang! I wish I could write like that.  It fit well into the sermon, but then, on a hospital call it worked well, too.

The 6th floor of the hospital has a wing for mental health.  I was on the 6th floor of the hospital on the last day of May visiting a friend.  She asked me why all this was happening to her, and why God would put all this hardship in her life.  What possible good could come out of it all?  As is the case in many situations like that, I don’t have a good answer.  Not sure there is a good answer – at least not a good one that can come from people.  God’s got a lot of explaining to do in my opinion. 

With Joseph and Artham fresh on my mind we talked about the Bible story – one she had never heard.  Sometimes story is the only thing to tell in the middle of hardship.  Sometimes explaining things away only makes everything worse.  Take Job’s friends for instance: they did everything right until they opened their mouth.  So it was story for us on the 6th floor, and I let Joseph’s tale just hang there.

Thank God for story.  And thank God for storytellers.  And thank God for the larger story we get to participate in.

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The Big Glue

May 5, 2011 2 comments

Dana will remember and point it out to me after she reads this.  I can’t remember where it happened, but I do know when it happened.  It was Good Friday and we bumped into random stranger lady who made a comment about it being strange that the calendar landed on both Good Friday and Earth Day.

Earth Day.  You might know it.  It’s when the hippy community and the Christian community have an extra thing in common – caring for creation.  My first interaction with Earth Day was from my science teacher in 8th grade, Robin Ringland.  I grew up in Stanwood, Washington, and there was absolutely no way Robin could have professed Christ in the midst of her teaching overtly – she’d be out faster than you can say molecular biology.  But she did point us in the trajectory of Christ – especially on Earth Day.

Back to random stranger lady – the kind of person I like to interact with.  She mentioned the shared date of Good Friday and Earth Day with a big question mark on the end.  We were walking away when I saw the glue that brings the two together.  Reconciliation.  Good Friday and Earth Day are all about reconciliation.  God is reconciling to Godself the creation: both humankind and the Earth.  Why shouldn’t they happen on the same day?

If you are one who calls yourself after the name of Christ, I’m guessing you’re called to be a part of that reconciliation.  We usher in this coming Kingdom of God which has within it a shalom, a wholeness, a complete-as-it-was-in-the-beginning kind of reconciling between God and God’s creation: man, woman, mineral, vegetable, science, truth, beauty, art, hard work, work without toil, sabbath, relationships, clean air, birds, and horses.  World without end.  Amen.  Amen.

Double

April 24, 2011 4 comments

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!

That’s how it started this morning.  We had two services today (Easter Sunday), and they were both pretty packed.  If I were pushed to give you numbers I would say there were 80 people in each service.  Here are the types of people we had:

Most all of our normal regular Embody types.  Then we had grandparents, siblings, and visiting cousins – these are the ones we won’t see again until they come to visit again in 3-6 months.  Which is cool.  But we also had the people who got our mailer and decided this was the week.  We had a single mom and her daughter who entered the front door and made it pretty clear that she was out of her comfort zone (she and her daughter had a great time).  We had a mom and grandma who lost a husband two days ago and didn’t want to be around her normal church friends because it was all so tender, and a little anonymity is helpful right now for her.  We had a good number of Chicago folks who make their summer weekend homes in a little community just down the street (think Dirty Dancing without the “dirty”).

God knows why they all came, and if they’ll come back.  Some of them left their info, and know I’ll contact them.  A few checked the box that reads “I want to be left alone”, and I will. 

We also had a choir.  Funny – for rehearsal we had about 7, but somehow when we stood up there this morning there were about 15 of us.  I don’t know.  Worked out.  There were also donuts the size of watermelons, an easter egg hunt that did two things: gave great photo ops and gave adults an easy way to talk and enjoy relaxing company together.  There was me, looking at the clock when everything was over and realizing I’d miscalculated how long things would go (better short than too long).  There was also a large-sh offering, a new “front” with a new platform so a short guy can be seen while preaching.  Oh, and there was Kathy who drew some really great artwork during each service (both were snatched up for some undisclosed donation after the service.)

Mostly, we heard the story – the love story with creation, broken relationships, God’s plan to fix it, a hero who arises, His death and resurrection, and our part in being the hands and feet of Christ to continue reconciling the world to God – oh, and the most important part…hope.

It was a win.  I feel good right now.  Tired, but really good.  Thanks to those of you who may have prayed for us.  Winner of a day.  Now, if you’re the type who likes to pray, you can pray that some of those people return to become part of our family of faith – and faith seekers.

Hutchmoot Frustration

April 7, 2011 4 comments

Last year I really wanted to go to Hutchmoot.  It’s a gathering of artists (musicians, writers, visual artists, etc.) who are also thoughtful Christians.  They are the type of artists I dig on and who encourage me in my little corner of the world.  But, Hutchmoot sold out before I could get in.  I was determined to get in this year (they only take 100 people).  I found out that it sold out in under 6 HOURS!!!

So…I’m a bit frustrated because I was really looking forward to using Hutchmoot 2011 as my professional development.  I’ve been saving my prof. dev’t money in preparation, but now I’m at a loss.

See, there are tons of opportunities for pastors to gather and grow and learn and professionally develop, but…  Well…  I’m kind of picky and want to use my time not necessarily to take a class or listen to 20 steps to making your church become a megachurch or how to start a small group this or how to successfully do this or that.  I’d rather do something that fills my soul, empowers me and propells me in a similar-yet-nuanced trajectory.

So…if you’re interested in helping me out.  I’m up for suggestions.  Please don’t send me any ideas that start with “3,000 people will gather” or “Vendors will be present between sessions at…” or “Famous person so-and-so will share their helpful tips”.  If you do I will send you this reply: “Thanks so much for your suggestion of how I can spend my professional development time.  I will most likely attend said opportunity directly after I finish sticking bamboo shoots under my fingernails.”

Sorry for that…it’s a mixture of frustration about Hutchmoot and a cynicism around those types of big gatherings.  If you’re offended by me slamming your kind of gig, I’m sorry.  I can see the validity and importance of those things.  They’re just not for me right now.  Are we good?  Thanks.

But, if you have a good idea or you’ve done something that filled you up in a healthy way, let me know and I’d love to check it out to see if it’s for me, too.  Really…don’t be afraid to send me ideas.  I won’t be mean.

Momentum

March 10, 2011 Leave a comment

One of the fun challenges in church planting is generating momentum.  In particular, it is challenging to generate momentum in attendance.  We have 100 or so people in our directory, but an average attendance of 65-70.  I know, I know…this is a pretty normal percentage for a church, but we need, Need, NEED to gain momentum to take a next step.

I don’t want just numbers, but I do want to help those who have never made weekly worship attendance a priority or a practice/discipline feel the benefits of having an established rythm of worship.  So, I’m trying something fresh this week.

We are going to be walking through the book of Esther for the next 5-6 weeks.  The story is one of the funniest, most ironic, soap operas in the Bible and I think it lends itself to a series in the fashion we enjoy at Embody – conversational engagement of the text.

Here are some of the things we’ll be doing over the next 5-6 weeks:

1. One of our resident artists will be producing a weekly piece of art in various mediums during the worship service (we’ll see if this is helpful, distracting, or both).

2. We’ll read the story outloud.  Since this would take over an hour to do all at once, we’ll read our weekly portion outloud and use cartoon pictures (made by a resident artist) to recap the previous parts of the story before we read each new section.  By the end of the series we’ll have a cartoon handout of the whole story!

3. I’m inviting people to read each week’s passage before hand and turning in (via email) a 10-word or less summary, like a headline for the passage.  For instance, if we were doing the story of David and Goliath headlines might read: “Underage Recruits Used In Battle”, “King Refuses Lead Army In Battle”, “Ancient Weaponry Utilized”, or even “Shepherd Boy Defeats Giant, Leads Israeli Army to Victory”

4. If appropriate and if we’re able, I hope to use some people in reenacting parts of the story.  Physical representation of certain aspects might be helpful.

My hope is that this will give people a reason to continue to return to hear more of the story and to engage scripture as well as participate in the sermon.  I don’t have a number goal, but I do have the aim of having the same people return week after week.  We’ll let God do what God does best – work in the heart of God’s people!

Here’s how you can help with my sermon…well, with the intro to the sermon: I could use your summaries or “headlines” for this Sunday over Esther 1:1-2:18.  Send them to my email account jim@embodychrist.com .  Thanks!

Big Chalk is Back!!!

One of the offices I use throughout the week is Lemonjello’s, a hipster kind of coffeeshop.  They’ve recently gotten new chairs which almost killed their cool vibe, but they maintained their coolness factor somehow.  Anyway, one of the things they have is a coffee table that doubles as a chalkboard.  I don’t know why but sometimes it’s there and other times it’s not.  Go figure.  It would be very unhip of me to ask why, so I just act like I’m in on the reasoning and that makes me apathetically cool.

I have gone on Tuesday or Wednesday mornings to meet with our worship leader, Adam, a Hope college student (he has a lip ring – totally fits in at Lemonjello’s).  He’s my ticket in.  So, I’m sitting at a table for two beneath some avante gard piece of art which is totally inappropriate in most churches, and in comes a dad and his little girl.  I’ve seen them there multiple times.  He reads the paper while she draws on the chalkboard and mangles a blueberry muffin. 

“Big chalk is back! Big chalk is back, daddy!  Big chalk, yay!”  She’s obviously elated and due to her age she is allowed this indiscrete emotive expression which would not be allowed in such a cool place by an adult (or what passes as an adult at times).  As she dances with huge pieces of chalk in hand, I look at her dad who gets a bye on coolness by bringing a cute little girl to a coffee shop.  He explains to me that they’ve had the table, but no chalk the last couple visits they’ve made.

The chalkboard is the only thing age appropriate for a 3 year old girl to do at Lemonjello’s (the place is not as family friendly as The Way Cup on 17th).  So, the dad was happy to have chalk available again.  I got to thinking, as I always try to, about how I am like the little girl.  What am I excited about?  What do I miss when it’s gone?  What brings me to dancing?  What do I mourn?  What about me or about God’s family goes beyond cool and enters the authenticity of pure humanity?

It’s Ash Wednesday and I’m reminded of my humanity – both by the little girl who found elation in the simple joy of chalk and a blackboard…and by the ashes on my forehead.  One reminds me of the fresh life and adrenaline-laced possibilities of the coming days and months and years.  The other reminds me that from dust I came and to dust I shall return.  Humanity: born, broken, and bequeathed a gift of these days, this place, this air to share and use.

Handles

January 12, 2011 Leave a comment

I had a great cup of coffee this morning with Adam Nelson.  He’s one of our worship leaders.  Senior at hope, great musician, and wonderful person.  One of the things we talked about was frustration he has felt in the past over certain songs that he’s needed to lead at various worship gatherings.  Not necessarily at Embody.  I understand his frustration.  Some Christian songs can be trite or shallow or not overly creative and lacking in musicality.  Then there are the songs that don’t really click with me…some old and some new.  Personal preference, right?

Two stories for you: one mine and one second-hand.  Second-hand first.  Seminary professor recalled his experience as a seminary student in a class with a cynical professor (Not WTS, by the way).  The professor was talking about the church’s regular obsession with “Just Jesus And Me” type of theology.  You know the type – where there’s no thought to a full community of believers.  It’s easy to fall into, and can be quite comforting at times.  Anyway, the professor was making fun of the song “I Come To The Garden Alone” and singing it in a mocking nasal voice.  Kind of mean, I think, but…anyway.

After the class a young female student approached him with the power of righteous anger in her voice and eyes.  “Don’t you ever make fun of that song again, professor.  When I was a girl I would go into my back yard and sing that song every night after my father molested me.  It was all I had to hang on to, and don’t you ever make fun of it again.”

Another story: mine from last Sunday.  I was pretty excited because we were going to sing a song that Alex just loves.  He listens to the CD every night as he goes to sleep and sings the song over and over.  I hear him humming it or singing it at the oddest, most random times.  I told him we would be playing it on Sunday and he was excited.  As we ran through it in rehearsal I looked to him at his new drum expecting to see a big smile.  He was shaking his head and frowning.  After we made eye contact he left in the middle of the song to talk with me.

“The song isn’t right, dad.  It’s all different.”  He’s on the verge of crying.  I can see this is VERY serious for him, and so…it is for me, too right now.  I say, “What’s wrong with it?”  “Everything!” he says emphatically.  “Give me something specific, Alex, and maybe we can fix it.”  “Everything, dad.”  “Can you pinpoint something for me?”  I’m trying not to smile because this is the most important thing in his world right now and I don’t want to minimize it or trivialize it.  “Think of the whole song…and that’s what’s wrong with it, dad.”

Eventually we pointed out three things that were different between what he listened to every night and what we were offering up that particular morning. 1. The instruments sounded different. (I gently explain that the CD was produced in a studio with more and different instruments)  2. The melody changed in one spot. (our worship leader explains she had to change that because his CD is with a boy singing and she can’t hit those notes, so had to change it a little)  3. The song starts differently…more quietly.  I’m so relieved, because here is thing we can change.  “Can we change that, Christina?” I ask.  “Of course, that’s a great suggestion.”

Alex isn’t into Sunday School, and doesn’t jive with sermons so much yet, but the music…the music is his connection to Christ right now.  It’s his handle on the faith.  And he takes it very seriously.

The young seminary student had a horrific upbringing with heinous crimes against her, but one song (no matter the theology) was her connection to God.  It was her one handle on the faith.  And she took it very seriously.

I think it’s only Christian to allow everybody to have their handles and not force our handles upon them.  To give space for someone who needs a certain style or song or organ or guitar.  Who do we think we are if we are going to force someone to hold on to faith with handles other than their own?  Jesus reaches out to each of us as individuals…all together.  Sometimes we come to the garden alone, and other times we enter that holy space holding hands with each other.  Each at our own place and with our own needs.