Monthly Archives: September 2007

The Shoes of a Poet’s Wife

 “In the main, Christians do not have an abstract, philosophical concept of God; rather, they understand God primarily through the stories in
the Bible….”
                                                                           Thomas Long
                                                                           
Testimony

On a beautiful fall morning in my town, I went over to a local church that was hosting a worship workshop. I was only able to stay for awhile, because I wanted also to attend the Festival of New Music at our college.

At the worship workshop, Howard Vanderwell from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship was talking about the relationship of theme and worship. He said, “Worship has a beginning, a central portion, and an end.” Ah ha-story structure-I said to myself. Norma de Waal Malefyt, his colleague, added, “If you want an image for the thematic shape of worship, think of worship more like a novel than a magazine.” There it is again, simple and sweet. Then I slipped out the door to the college.

At the college, the concert was already in progress. I picked up a program, concentrated on the music, and took the program home with me. Standing in my kitchen, I read that one piece of vocal music had been based entirely on brief stories. The composer wrote that he prefers working from prose rather than poetry. He uses stories gleaned from many sources. Reading through the stories, it seemed immediately clear to me that someone had pared the stories down to their bare essential actions. They have “a beginning, a central portion, and an end”-little else. Here’s one of the stories, taken directly from the program that I picked up at the concert:

Osip Mandelshtam, Russia’s great poet, wrote a poem, privately circulated, critical of Stalin. He was sentenced to forced labor. He died as a result, and his widow was forced to travel from one province to another, till her shoes got so worn they barely hung to her feet. She found a cobbler in one small city where she was hiding. She told him the story of her love, her fear and her sorrow. He looked at her and said, “You’ll never go without shoes again.”

Standing there in my kitchen, I started singing, “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.” Then the worship leader in me imagined that sequence in a worship service: someone tells that story of Osip’s wife, and then we sing that song, “Lord I want to be….” There is no more comment than that. The sequence makes us ask, “Who is the Christian in that story? Is it Osip? His wife? The cobbler?” We don’t have to be told the answer. In fact, the story’s evocation of the question helps us apply the song to our own experience and our own longing toward Christ-likeness. Something inside us makes us say, “Yes, Lord, count me in!” in a way that is deeper and more long-lasting than singing the song by itself. This linking takes us one step toward the structure that Howard and Norma were talking about.

If the above sequence of a story followed by a worship song is simply dropped into a worship service, we still have “magazine worship.” But if it is dropped into a service in which the scripture text is Jesus sending his disciples from town to town, taking nothing with them, then we are getting closer to Norma’s image of “novel worship.” It all gets connected together, but in an evocative rather than explicit manner.

A story by itself is still good. A song by itself is still good. A scripture by itself is still good. But if a worship planner can choose to include a little story in support of a larger story that connects to the larger story, might that not be a beautiful thing?  

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No Water in the Lake

 “When, a few years later, I stumbled across that Benedictine monastery, I found worship that was far more accessible and refreshing. The monks, it
seemed, were in less of a hurry, less frantic to fill
the air with a quantity of words.”
                                                                      Kathleen Norris
                                                                      Amazing Grace

 “How does one keep on being creative?” That was the first question. Three senior seminary students were sitting in the backyard of our rented cottage on Lake Michigan. They had given up their Saturday night to be with Karen and me. They had invited themselves. We were honored that they cared to nose around in the cluttered storeroom of our experience. And the first question of the night was, “How does one keep on being creative?”

I suddenly felt childish. What contribution could I make in the face of such a mystery? How often hadn’t I wondered this very thing myself? Although I may have grown creative in the past, the latest ripe apple picked from that tree was the last one there. And if I could manage to find another apple, that one would surely be the last. I never had a promise that the tree would bear more fruit. I expected that Karen felt the same. I expected that all of us sat there feeling the same unspoken fear.

I glanced toward the west. I stared. Something had happened while I wasn’t looking. A gray wash of clouds had blown in from the Chicago side of the lake. The sun had settled just below the horizon, leaving only reflected light behind. The clouds, the light and the water were a seamless image. The horizon was gone. It was gone. The clouds washed up on our shore. The lake swept up and away over our heads. I knew this water had so many personalities, but this was new. For awhile, I was gone.  How long?  A heartbeat?  A couple of years?  I forgot the company and the conversation. I saw the sky. It was eternity.

What is the correct answer to the seminary students’ first question? What would you have said? I wish you had been there.

Three days later, I was back in Chicago. I went to the Garfield Conservatory to see the Chihuly blown glass exhibit. It was amazing. But the plants and trees were more amazing still. Hundreds, huge and tiny. One plant had little leaves that folded together into the shape of a small shrimp, and when fully mature, a little, colorful shrimp’s tail appears. Dale Chihuly had been inspired by a visit to this world class conservatory. His strange glass shapes now nestled among God’s own weird and wonderful creations.

Out a side door, I turned the corner and there was a gravel path that circled around and around seven times. A small sign told me it was a labyrinth. A labyrinth is different than a maze. There is no puzzle in the path itself. The path simply folds around on itself, leading to a center point. The traveler is invited to walk in, pause, and walk out. It is, historically, a spiritual activity. The investment is time, and the product is unknown. I took the bait. I walked slowly. A couple joined me on the path. They chattered the whole time, laughing and enjoying one another. When they got to the center, they giggled, cut across the grass and disappeared. I made it to the center, paused and headed back out the way I had come in. I walked past a River Birch that stood by the outer ring. There were birch trees in my yard when I was growing up. I used to mow around them. They are eccentric trees that re-ignite my childhood memories, so I’m always on the lookout for them. I had not seen this River Birch on the way in, but now it was there. Where had it come from? I continued to loop around and around. I decided to pause on the path and look around while standing still. Perhaps there would be another River Birch I had not noticed. I looked up. Suddenly there was a hummingbird feeding among the tall orange flowers not ten feet away. I had never before seen a humming bird so close and for so long. I stood there for several minutes. His back was green and shining. I continued down the path. On the last loop around, I saw a dainty fountain hidden among the flowers across from the labyrinth. It was obvious. How had I missed it?

I don’t know the answer to the seminary students’ question. I suppose there are answers, but I don’t know them. There are people who teach creativity theory, but I don’t. All I know is how it seems to work out for me. I pause on the path. I look around. I wait.  

So many times, creative activity (“creativity”) is simply picking beauties from God’s garden. 

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