The Need to Scream

Probably not what the author’s gigs look like.

Rock star hair must be more fun to style than preacher hair, because I usually walk out cracking myself up with the image of trying to do a wedding with the exaggerated spikes and dramatic bangs falling across my eyes. Fortunately, my hair is easily calmed into a style more acceptable for my “real job,” and I haven’t had pink or blue hair for a couple of years, after I learned how hard it is to get out quickly when you need to do a funeral.

My hair is still a little weird for a pastor, particularly in how often it changes, but it’s part of the personna I’ve cultivated in the creative realm of my life. All of us have to find ways to balance our ministry with the other aspects of our lives, and I’ve found that it’s easier and more authentic for me to tone down the rock diva a bit, so that she is a little less jarring in a pulpit, than to sling on my guitar and step into the spotlight with pastor hair.

I don’t know any other young clergy women who are in rock bands, although I hope there are some. It’s not an easy gig, though (pun intended). Rock music tends to be critical of the establishment, including the religious establishment. My band plays some music that I know some ministers would find uncomfortable (although if you ever want a great song for a discussion about theodicy, try “God is a Bullet” by Concrete Blonde). People from church come to hear us play occasionally, and I always wonder how they’ll react, not only to the lyrics, but to one of their ministers wailing, screaming, growling, and occasionally cursing through three sets of songs considerably edgier than one might hear in a worship service. Read more

Pastor/Poet

Deep purple, nearly black splotches
Mottle her arms and hands:
She laughs and tells me it took the nurses
Nine tries before getting the needle
Right in her small, wobbly veins.
She remembers when her doctor
took two samples from her husband
instead of trying to get one from her.

She’s amused by her veins.
The stories make me weak.

She’s proud that she’s eaten half
her bowl of now-cold creamed cereal,
though I can barely see a dent.
She tells me suddenly
she wants me to take something
from her china cabinet
the next time I visit her at her place,
anything except the plate
her son has claimed.

My ministry, a collection
of tea cups filled
with stories of dying women.

Then we pray, her hand resting in mine.
She doesn’t echo my, “Amen.”
Is she praying? Has she fallen asleep…?
I hold my breath, then she begins
“Our Father, who art in heaven…”
and my own voice, suddenly caught,
joins hers to another, final “Amen.”

Read more

Pastor and Preacher as Artist

“Becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive”

-Art & Fear: Observations on The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles & Ted Orland

To be an artist one must be true to the voice that God has given you. I came to learn this in my last year of seminary when I left the world of West Michigan where I grew up and journeyed to New York City for an internship at a church. The creativity of the city invaded my soul. The city was like one giant orchestra and each one of the 8.4 million citizens was trying to figure out which instrument was ours to play. It is in New York where I first understood my calling as a pastor was to a calling to first and foremost be an artist. The medium with which I make art is through being a pastor and preacher.

A painter walks up to her canvas full of ideas that she has collected that she desperately needs to convey to the world through the medium of paint. I am the painter and my sermon is the painting. My canvas is my approach to the text. How I choose to paint that text is the grueling creative process. The sermon is begging to come out of me but I have to do the hard work of trying on different inspirations that come to me the week before.

To be an artist one must be true to the voice that God has given you.

For inspiration I sit with the poets, the musicians, and the writers. Everyday I get a poem sent to me in my email from poets.org and I take the time to read each word and look at its construction. Music is one of the languages my soul speaks. I also peruse music blogs and websites voraciously to hear the current cultural trends coming out in instruments and voices. These people finesse words and have the courage to write Truth. Some are more honest than others but all trying to capture the currents of life and mystery. People like Mary Oliver, Adrienne Rich, The Civil Wars, Dinah Washington and so many others have become my friends.

Inspiration is not just in writing but it is everywhere for an artist. Whether I am listening to a new song, marveling at the eccentric fashion style on Broadway, or walking in the park I always wonder what these encounters have to teach me. What truth are these everyday artists telling me? One thing about art – really good art – is that it is honest. No matter how terrifying, angry, colorful, confusing, inspiring it is, good art tells the truth. Good art helps us become better truth-tellers. Read more

In the Absence of Creativity

Alright, so it probably wasn’t as terrifying as that whole having your lips burned with a hot coal thing, or as overwhelming as actually seeing God, but I had gone out of my way to evoke a sense of wonder, mystery, and yes, a little nervousness. Instead of a sermon, we walked through Isaiah’s call story. I had carefully woven music and prayers into the narrative, incorporating movement, smell, and sight where we are so often bound to sound alone. If I had been able to give people a taste of burnt charcoal, I would have, but that seemed extreme even for me.

This is not how I have generally experienced worship services, with scent and darkness and the shouting of angel voices. But this is how I planned worship when it was my turn to lead our chapel worship in seminary. I can’t say it was normal even there, but I had the freedom in that environment to experiment with crafting a service around a text, using every tool at my disposal to help people not just hear but encounter the Word. I graduated with great confidence in my ability to plan provocative, engaging, multi-sensory worship. I was assured that I would always do it that way.

Fast forward eight years; let’s just say that those skills are not quite as active these days as they once were. Instead of open rooms with mobile seating, my current church has the standard fixed pews. The congregation has 331 years of history to tell them that their order of worship stands the test of time. I don’t get to be a maverick now; I have to consult with people. Read more

Vaginas Everywhere

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Series 1, No. 8, 1919.

And so, I painted. I drew. I sketched. I took every art class my high school offered until I reached the very last class in Advanced Placement Studio Art. In this year-long class, I was challenged for the very first time to make a statement. After all, artists are supposed to have something to say. Artists are the ones that muse about the world. They express those musings in bold color and shape. They say something for which the non-artists struggle to find words.

I didn’t know how to do this. I had the skill to make a still life look almost life-like. I had the ability to blend colors to evoke the feeling of that apple. I had enough talent to be in that room with the other would-be artists. And yet, when it came time to create that portfolio that would ultimately determine my grade, I didn’t know what was unique about my artistic voice. And it had to be. That was one of the requirements. We had to have something to say.

I vividly remember sitting on that stool in the back of my art school art room staring at a set of pastels. I wasn’t making art. I was eating a clementine until I noticed how interesting it was. I noticed other colors in the obvious shades of orange. I picked up the pastels and started to draw. Thus, my portfolio was born. It didn’t say a darn thing. I was just looking really closely at the natural world. I was trying to understand it as much as I was trying to understand myself. I didn’t know that then. Then, it was just fruit and vegetables. Lots of them.

On the day of my high school graduation, my parents encouraged me to display this art around the living room. I had already received my grade and felt a little crushed. My beret-adorned dreams were dampened. The truth had been told. I didn’t have a unique voice. Still, in a family of artists, it’s important to show your work even if it’s terrible. So there it was for all to see.

I managed to ignore the ogling at my art until my aunt called me over. She pointed directly at the clementine. She told me it was a vagina. I was mortified. Was that what the AP Boards had seen? Had they concluded that I was some sex-starved adolescent with nothing but her own anatomy on her mind? Of course, my aunt went on to point out the vaginas in each piece. There were vaginas everywhere. With each exclamation she made, I sank deeper and deeper into shame. Read more

Bullies, Wood Chips, and God

Nancy is a woman in her 40s. She is one of the more high functioning individuals at Clover Bottom with a mentality of around a 6-year-old. She is verbal (very verbal actually!), she can walk, and she understands most of what you say to her. Nancy is, probably due to her medication, a very wary person. She always seems to want assurance of what is going to happen and she frequently talks about how someone has wronged her in some way.

When Nancy entered Studio 1 that morning, I could tell that she was having a worse day than usual. Her worn orange turtleneck gave it away. The usual Nancy who greeted me in Studio 1 loved pastels, was often dressed in pink, and had at least three long pink and purple necklaces hanging from her neck. Nancy began her usual feelings of discontent over a bully and how she didn’t like the clothes she was wearing.

Nancy began to speak in third person asking me, “Why is she so upset?” and I said, “You mean, why is Nancy so upset?” and she said, “Yeah.” Knowing that today Nancy would color nothing with her favorite colored pencils, I said, “Well, Nancy, I know that somebody pushed you down and that you’re upset you’re wearing the same clothes you wore yesterday, but what if I told you a story?” Read more

The Art of Worship Planning

Church of the Pilgrims Advent wreath 2010

Several years ago my colleague, Jeff Krehbiel, went on a three-month sabbatical. While Jeff was gone, Pilgrims wanted to have their own enriching three-month experience. We created a sabbatical planning team to plan not just congregational endeavors but worship. Together, we explored the lectionary texts, the meaning of sabbatical, and came up with the theme of “connections and clarity” for the sabbatical season. All of these elements came alive in worship during the sabbatical. While still maintaining our loyalty to the Reformed Order of Worship, our planning process opened up our imagination, courage, and curiosity to what is possible. We sang new songs, congregants told stories on connections and clarity, we created more spontaneous moments of sharing, and we explored new ways of engaging with each other during worship.

Our planning process paid off and we were hooked. Read more

NaNoWriMo Ate My Soul

This is how it happened: On the first day of this month, I saw a Facebook post about NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. I had not intended to do this. I had not premeditated my plan of attack. I hadn’t even heard of it. But something about this challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in one month struck me. Before I had really thought it through, I was signing up.

I have a friend who takes a month every year to write one song a day. “Most of them are complete crap,” he says, “but at the end, I have one or two songs that are good, or at least decent starts at being good. And that’s better than having no songs at all.” I’ve always admired his discipline in this. I’ve always wanted to commit myself to that kind of intensive creative process. One of the things you should understand about me is that I am not the kind of person who often commits to a regimen like this and sticks to it. I have begun and given up on songs, poetry, paintings, exercise plans, knitting projects, diets, language courses, book proposals… You name it, I’ve probably tried and not finished it.

Thousands of people committing to the insanity of writing a novel in a month meant I would have lots of support from other crazy people. And if I didn’t finish, well, nobody knew I was doing it anyway.

Except that I immediately told someone. And then another person. And then another. I started making references to needing to “go home to work on my novel.” My senior minister bet me $100 that I can’t finish (he knows how to motivate me). Other people who witnessed this took offense on my behalf; if I finish, they have promised to donate $100 each to the church. Next year I may make this an official fundraiser.

Strange things have happened to me this month. I have become a peculiar person, unknown to me, who prefers to stay home and write rather than going out. I wander around with story lines and characters in my head, and am suddenly prone to shouting, “Oh!” and running for my computer – which now comes with me everywhere, to work, on the train, to the coffee shop, to bed, just in case I should have an idea. I am completely obsessed with my word count, although not so much so that I’ve resorted to the tricks other writers post on the NaNoWriMo forums, which tell me to pad my word count with extra clauses and never use contractions. I haven’t had a decent night of sleep since I began. I forget other deadlines. I’m sure some of my friends think I’ve vanished, and the rest are annoyed and waiting for December 1 to arrive. This process is making me a bit of a lunatic. Read more

Veni, Vidi, Venti?

A few years ago I was particularly grateful for my sister’s various talents. She sang for our church service, she glued animal addresses together, she helped lead the kids in our children’s Christmas Eve service, and of course she came with me to the hospital to sing.

When we go visit at a nursing home or a smaller facility, Beth will come with me to the room of whomever we are visiting and offer a few carols there. We’ve tried that at the hospital but for some reason her overpowering soprano is not as welcome in the halls as it is in an assisted living center. We’ve had nurses shut the door on her beautiful notes of “O Holy Night” more than once. Read more

The Language of My Prayers

I don’t like words in my prayers.

It’s the writer in me. I’m too busy editing. Once the words fall off my lips, I’m correcting it. I’m explaining to God that’s not really what I mean. I’m tripping over the correct words instead of exploring the feelings and emotions behind those words.

So, about a year ago, I stopped using words. Not entirely. They still pop up in the words that I cherish from the Bible or the words that I mutter between silences – but most of my prayers and now found in black lines upon a page.

I started like I was in art school. That is, I started like an art student that went to seminary. I gathered all my materials. I sat down with some paper and I started to think about the end product before the seminary student interrupted. She knew better. She knew it wasn’t about the end product but about the process. And so, I practiced my own form of lectio divina using the cycle of readings provided in Between Sundays: Daily Bible Readings Based on the Revised Common Lectionary, but instead of writing or sitting in silence, I drew. I drew images from my living room and my neighborhood that spoke to the words I heard in the sacred text. This introduced a different critic. Instead of editing my words, I was thrown back into the studios of my college years. I hated the images I created. They were ugly. They were poorly drawn. They were unskilled. Read more