Sanctuary Art

The sanctuary of our historic church was intentionally redesigned in the late 1960’s to recapture the “blank slate” of a traditional, Reformed worship space. When you walk into the sanctuary, it feels like a special place of worship.

The challenge we face, however, is in capturing the imaginations of generations that are increasingly visual. We can set up LCD projectors for special occasions, but the architecture and sightlines make permanent installation of current technologies untenable. Not to mention, there are lots of folks (myself included!) who are not so convinced we want to invite this piece of culture into worship on a weekly basis.

So, what to do with the blank slate?

Several years ago, I envisioned a huge drape to dramatically mark the front of the sanctuary for Advent/Lent (purple) and Christmas/Easter (white). Fortunately, my co-pastor and husband is very handy and rigged a pulley system to raise the drape more than 30 feet to the apex of the arch over the nave and secure it. Unfortunately, that is about the extent of my personal creativity.

We have been focusing in recent years on emphasizing the seasons of the liturgical year. The drapes were a good start, but how to mark the progression of Advent in a dramatic way? Since my creative impulses often far outstrip my actual creative abilities, we approached our artists in residence with a scrap of an idea: displaying the scenes of the season as we progressively made our way to Bethlehem.


What you see in the photo is what they came up with. Figures cut from poster board, displayed on a purple backdrop. They were beautifully done and created a very dramatic effect on our blank slate. The scenes built upon one another each week. They were similar in theme to the bulletin covers and were easily incorporated into the children’s message and sermon.

The photos are the scene for Christmas Eve, with the white drape and star of Bethlehem also hung.

Through experiences like this one, we have discovered the incredible gift it is to the congregation to plan ahead and make space for creativity – both our creativity and that of others in the Body. Creative folks need opportunities to offer their particular gifts to God and the church, and the rest of the congregation is blessed with their creative perspectives and interpretations.

Confessions of a Former “Most Talented”

After six years of lessons, all I can conjure up are bits of Beethoven’s Fur Elise and Bryan Adams’ Everything I Do (I Do It For You) when I sit down at the piano. I associate my sketch of marbles reflected in a pocket mirror more with punching the boy next to me for laughing that I had “chicken legs” than with the middle school art show second place ribbon it garnered. I can sing in a surprisingly loud, mostly on key alto, but good projection is only that. My poetry, well, it sucks so hard that I’ve destroyed everything I’ve tried to write for the past decade.

And then there’s dance. Well, to be more accurate, there was dance.

When I was a toddler, I begged my mom to let me take dance lessons. Convinced that my older sister had begun too soon, she wouldn’t let me start until I was in first grade. I still question my mom’s logic, but the fact is that m y dancing years still outweigh my non-dancing years about two to one.

Over the years, I took tap, jazz, ballet, and modern. During high school, I focused on ballet. I spent hours and hours at the studio. I lived and breathed The Nutcracker, Les Sylphides, Coppelia, Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty (pictured here, with me downstage). Significant portions of my summers were spent at various dance “camps,” for lack of a better word. Though I stopped performing after high school, I continued to take modern and ballet classes while I was in undergrad and in graduate school. Read more

The Feast of Pentecost


Wind’s swift burst,
fire flames lapping heat
lifted us from dejection.
Powerful spirit penetration
brought resurrection, renewal.
God’s breath poured, filled,
gifting second life
from our birthing cries.

Hope-crazed, we spoke
to street strangers
clacking sounds from other lands,
meeting stares and glares
from doubters of our celebration.

Together in place as one
transformed body of believers.
Had we not gathered there,
we would grow old
without our dreams,
be young with no grand visions,
living as before –
captives of dread and fear
each one



Part of the interview process for my new congregation involved leading a worship service for the search committee. I was spinning my wheels about what to do until three ideas arrived to save the day.

The first was from a friend who encouraged me to use the daily lectionary instead of picking a scripture on my own. That was insanely good advice, as the daily lectionary text ended up being perfect – though one I would have never selected of my own volition.

The second idea was to write an original hymn, which I did, to the tune of Come, Thou Fount.

Hymn of Discernment

Congregations are the vessels where Christ’s presence can be known.
Here the gift of incarnation perseveres in flesh and bone.
We together are his body, head and shoulders, knees and toes.
Laughing, loving, always serving, praising God, forgiving foes.

In the church, you call forth servants to be preachers of the Word.
Ordinary souls responding to the still small voice they heard,
Saying, Go, and serve my people. Tend their wounds and help them see
that the love of God is endless as the vast and salty sea.

Holy Spirit, we have gathered in this place to find our way.
Telling stories, casting visions, seeking guidance as we pray.
Calm our nerves, dispel our worries, send us forth in clarity.
Let our practice of discernment be imbued with charity. Read more

The Other Side of the Vows

So many times I have been the one asking the questions – “Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?” or “Do you promise, through prayer and example, to support and encourage this child to be a faithful Christian?” and yet this time, I was the one answering them. Suddenly, I felt a little unsure – would I make a mistake and answer a “Will you?” question with an “I do” answer? I didn’t know where to stand, and I felt underdressed without my robe.

I found myself wanting to say the words along with the minister, but it wasn’t my place. This was the first baptism I have attended where I was a sponsor, not a congregation member or the minister. Sponsor seems like such a generic term – used loosely to describe everything from a restaurant owner who provides t-shirts for a softball team to someone who promises to teach a child about the faith. I like to think of myself as Jackie’s fairy godmother and honorary auntie instead. I see my role as sponsor as someone who will love and encourage her, pray for her, teach her about God, and help her pick the perfect pair of shoes for any occasion.

I have to admit that from the time this baptism was scheduled, I was secretly hoping that my best friend Jill and her husband Jeff would ask me to be Jackie’s sponsor. And to my great joy, they did. So last November, I stood at the front of their church with them and watched as Jackie was baptized as a child of the covenant.

A few weeks ago, after reflecting on this experience, I began to write a hymn. I’ve noticed over the years that there is a shortage of baptism hymns, at least in the hymnal that my church uses. I wanted to capture the beauty of that moment, the holiness of it. And so I wrote. Most times, when I write a hymn, the words come quickly. Fully formed phrases find their way onto the page. But not this time. For several days, I wrestled with the words – often waking in the middle of the night to scrawl the lyrics on a piece of paper next to my bed. Read more

A Potpourri of Holiday Cheer

When it comes to December, what I call Clergy Superbowl, our very lives are acts of creativity: how will we balance activity and reflection? home stuff with church stuff? the “shoulds” with the “want-tos?” tradition with innovation? It is a constant balancing act:

Some of us cook.

Some of us craft.

Some of us order takeout.

And it’s all good.

One YCW writes:
I remembered that Ian, my Presbyterian pastor husband, and I are thinking about having a holiday party for our clergy friends. It will be simple–because in this season clergy especially need simplicity!  The gimmick: it will be a religiously-themed wine party. Bring a bottle with a name you can theologize on, and then do.

–Jennifer M. Creswell ministers, cooks, and drinks in Portland, OR.
(Let us know how the party went, Jennifer!)


As expected, many of our traditions and practices revolve around food. Rebecca Lesley, pastor of Suffolk Presbyterian Church in Suffolk, VA, wrote, My Swiss-German grandmother always makes a stollen and we must, must, must have honeycakes! Oh, and hot buttered rum on Christmas morning.

And Grace Burson, Curate at Grace Episcopal Church in Manchester, NH, shared her Christmas menu: Schnecken (German cinnamon rolls, homemade with enormous effort) for breakfast, along with fruit salad and scrambled eggs. And my family of origin does a big Christmas evening buffet, with homemade bread and cold cuts and cocktail sausages and crudites and millions of cookies.
Oh, and Turkish phyllo rolls called boereks, stuffed with cheese and dill, which were made as a fundraiser by the nursery school we all attended and have become a tradition.

Grace also continues her family’s tradition of real candles on the Christmas tree… as well as the traditional placement of the fire extinguisher in a handy place nearby. Read more

blue knit scarf

Joined and Knit Together

blue yarn ball being knittedIt was the second time I learned to knit that stuck. The first time, my grandmother taught me during a summer vacation; I remember struggling with the yarn and needles, wondering if this would even turn into something usable. The second time was when I was in seminary. My sister had started knitting, and over one Christmas break I re-learned. This time the stitches were more even, the results more gratifying. Like many knitters I began with scarves–lots of scarves.

I learned that knitting is a way for me to make sense of the world. The more clergy knitters I meet, the more I realize how many of us knit to see tangible results. How often do we come home knowing we have had a long full day, but unlike accountants who have a completed spreadsheet, we cannot see the results? The counseling session may have been fruitful, the capital campaign may have been planned, the prayers prayed, but often the results are not immediate and tangible. As pastors, much of what we do is holy, but hard to see. However, coming home and picking up the needles and yarn, even for a few
minutes, provides concrete evidence that today we have done something. Knitting was what got me through CPE. The hours spent in repetitive seminars had a purpose–the knitting of a big purple blanket that is still on my couch today.

blue knit scarfThrough knitting I remember milestones–the fabric is a scrapbook of sorts. The blue scarf I wore to my Grandfather’s funeral is still in my winter wardrobe. In my closet in a bag is the sweater I started when I was seeking my first call. The scarf I wore all last winter was a splash of color during the short grey days, and long nights. A prayer shawl begun for a friend is now a wrap I keep in my office for chilly days. There was a sweater I wore when I needed to remember my gifts and skills. Some people collect spoons or charms or postcards when they travel–I buy souvenir yarn and dream about the possibilities contained within.

handmade knit socksFor me, knitting is sometimes an act of faith. I may have a plan, I may know what I want a project to become, but there are always surprises along the way. The stripes on one sock are different than the other (who needs matching socks anyway?). The sweater is too short, the blanket not quite square. Like much of life, and much of ministry, I find that if I take a deep breath and say a prayer, God presents the solution I never could have imagined.

Reflections on the Sacred Center

God brings many things to birth in and through us, no matter what our circumstance of life, family or vocation might be.


motherhood. ministry. life. creativity. partnering. loving. being a neighbor.

each part of life merges together through the many hats i wear. as i reflect on life’s successes and near misses, i come to view my life focusing on the sacred center, the space in which God resides and flows into me, from me, and into all other parts of my life. each of the concentric circles i create are becoming more a focus of the sacred circles, or the sacred center. in my work of art + spirituality and in living the creative life, i so often return to these simple structures: circle on circle. i think of my life more as a mandala: a movement from the outside in, or from the inside out, with God as the sacred center. my many roles are the circles moving from God to the outside, and some days from me to the God-side. each breath is a sacred moment. each stitch is a prayer. each color speaks to me and comes from the Creative Spirit within. Read more

Handmade Clergy Stoles by “Piecemaker Rev”


These stoles are pieces of art. Like most art, these pieces have absorbed many emotions through their creation: hopes and frustrations, dreams and disappointments. These artistic endeavors retain impressions of me in each stitch. But these are not simply pieces of art, not merely pieces of cloth put together in a creative way. They are stoles, and a prayer shawl: holy garments. These stoles will be worn in ministry to God’s people. They will acquire more imprints of the wearer, of the people she encounters, and of the situations in which they are worn. Before this, however, I make another contribution to the memories woven into the fabric of these garments by blessing them.

The Call to Create: An Interview with Mary Allison Cates

Communion, copyright 2009

There is one room in my house that tells much of the story. An easel, acrylic paints, a sewing machine, stacks and stacks of fabric, and print-making tools abound. My six-month-old son primes himself for crawling on a nearby blanket while sounds of my three-year-old’s post naptime jabber drift in from the adjoining room. I am a parish associate at a Presbyterian church, where my responsibilities include preaching and leading a Bible study once a month. At another church, I co-lead a study group once a week. My office space is not located in these churches. Instead, it consists of a laptop on my bed and this one room of my house where so many creative outlets vie for my attention.

Faithful questioning and grappling with mystery have always been part of my personality, as have the enterprises of getting my hands dirty and making things. Because I was raised in a church that nurtured me intellectually and emotionally, and where the folks most like me were the ministers, I grew to see ministry as a natural medium for me to be who I am.

Similarly, my desire to create took shape in my basic high school and college art classes, where I began to see drawing, acrylic painting, and print-making as potential means for expression. My lifelong exposure to my mother’s love and skill for sewing has recently opened me up to quilting and crafting my children’s clothes. In each case, I have used the mechanisms that are convenient to me to give voice to my God-given leanings. I think we all do this. If I had grown up in a different time and place, perhaps I would now be a philosopher with a passion for basket weaving!

Tell us about your rhythms and routines for creating–do you have a particular time each day or week? How do you “get ready”? Which tools (whether physical or spiritual) do you find indispensable for your creative work? Read more