Art and community

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What creating art and building a faith community have in common

By Jean Janzen

I received a small wooden bowl as a birthday gift last year. It is carved from the trunk of a manzanita bush, the hard wood polished into silkiness and marked by a hole in its side, probably where a branch had broken off. I think of art in worship and in the life of the congregation as something like this bowl.

A few years after our church, College Community Church Mennonite Brethren in Clovis, Calif., was established 51 years ago we constructed our current building. As a young congregation, we had decided that our house of worship should reflect our vision of who we were and who we hoped to become, by the grace of God. A central theme was the importance of fellowship and of member participation in all aspects of church life.

The essence of art

We persuaded the architect to plan a small round building that held us close but has also taught us that, like my wooden bowl, who we are as a church cannot be contained. Our worship, education and service must continually be poured out. This is the foundation of art in worship and the essence of art. It finds a shape and then gives itself to those who are open to receive it.

I was raised in a Mennonite church that was plain and unadorned. After all, our heritage emphasized simplicity. The Protestant Reformation stripped Europe’s cathedrals of images and elaborate decoration. What mattered was the pulpit and the word spoken from an elevated place.

Yet as a child I sensed the power of beauty in nature, music and visual art. A persistent memory for me is the ritual of the Lord’s Supper. As a young child, I watched a woman from the congregation remove the starched, white tablecloth that covered the elements and carefully fold it in one of those rare moments of silence. That movement felt sacred and much bigger than itself.

As a 12 year old, I remember distinctly the thrill of sitting in the chapel at Tabor College where my father was a student, the beautiful stained glass windows surrounding me and singing Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee under the direction of Herb Richert. I felt that what was deep within me was something large that connected to the beauty. That what is intimate can also be immense.

Art can find shape, beauty and be shared when our worship is guided by the church year. Led by our first full-time pastor, Werner Kroeker, we at College Community began observing the church year—the rich pattern of Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and Advent before Christmas. This observance was expressed in art and in our worship planning and continues today.

We honored the artists among us by inviting them to offer their work as part of worship. The artists—some of them students at local colleges and other members with skills in arts and crafts—were asked to create paintings, sculpture and banners that illuminated the sanctuary. We have been blessed with such offerings now for five decades, and we continue to invite all members, children and youth to participate.

Our congregation has also viewed our worship planning as an art. The gifts of music by voices and instruments, dramatic readings, the stripping of the altar after Maundy Thursday meals, the flowering of the cross at Easter and the Scripture readings and sermons are an invitation to experience worship not only with our minds but with our senses.

Art and community

The making of art resembles the formation of Christian community in two ways. First, the process usually begins with the necessity of unknowing. If the artist thinks that she already knows what the poem or music or painting will look like, it probably won’t be art. To get to the essence of the piece, one must be willing to be open to chaos.

Maybe this is akin to the Spirit brooding over the waters at creation. Out of darkness and uncertainty may come the glimmer of a pathway—a shape emerging, a color insisting on itself, a word, a phrase, the movement of the melody.

The congregation in times of chaos and uncertainty is also asked to be open to the moving of the Spirit. Sometimes within the borders of order and sometimes moving the borders. I think of the Beatitudes—being poor in spirit, mourning and of hungering and thirsting for God.

The second requirement is to be patient in crafting. The novel, painting or song usually develops step-by-step and sometimes in a rush of inspiration. But then the revision follows, which can be a long process, honoring time to bring freshness back, to get closer to what is true. The sermon put aside, waiting for the prophetic, poetic word.

The choir director choosing the music, the choir rehearsing, adjusting, listening to each other. The pieces of a quilt rearranged again. It is the revision required in our lives and as a congregation. It is the process and blessedness of becoming merciful, pure in heart and making peace.

Does the piece ever get finished? Do we? Not really. It will never be perfect, and it will never be the final word.

The project is always in process. Artists often say that revisions could go on forever, and so they “abandon the work,” sometimes reluctantly, to begin the next piece. Our imperfect worship and congregational life is offered up in the same way; we are always in process.

Our congregation is now in the process of building a new sanctuary. Our round chapel will be used for baptisms, fellowship and small meetings. The new space, something like an oval, will give us more space, height and windows for light. We pray that we will grow in the Spirit and in numbers as we offer the mystery and wonder of God’s love in worship, community and witness.

I will end by offering one of my poems. This poem has a hole in its side, like the wooden bowl. It holds the recognition that each of us and the whole world has a hole in its side. There is the wound at the heart of everything, the longing for the other. And there is God’s love at the heart of everything, inviting us. This is the glory of worship. This the light of our hope.

Poet Jean Janzen, Fresno, Calif., has authored six collections of poetry, the most recent is Paper House published by Good Books in 2008 and has seen her poems appear in a variety of magazines including The Christian Century. She has published a book of essays, Elements of Faithful Writing, based on the Menno Simons lectures given at Bethel College, Newton, Kan., in 2003. Her memoir, Entering the Wild, was published in 2012 by Good Books.

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