Saturday, October 31, 2009

Laity Lodge

Last weekend I attended a very special retreat at Laity Lodge for the third year. Stephen Purcell, formerly of a retreat center in Austria called Schloss Mittersill, is now the director. Each year he has brought together Christian artists from around the world for four days of discussion and artistry in the most hospitable setting I know. This year singer-songwriter David Wilcox and cellist Jozef Luptak were guest musicians, David Dark the speaker, and Melissa Hawkins performed a one-person play. And that was just the beginnning. Many attendees read, sang, and contributed to the impromptu art exhibit.

As entertaining and thought-provoking as all this is, it is only a backdrop for the community that springs up, two or three people at a time.

The first person I met there was Doug -- he sat next to me at dinner the first evening. Doug had lovely long silver hair, and asked me almost immediately, "What's the best thing your church ever did for artists?" He was very intent, and I desperately wanted to say the right thing. "Hiring David Taylor" was all I could think of. Not the answer he was looking for, I'm sure. Over the course of the retreat, I kept thinking about his question and sitting next to him now and then, to see if we could talk more. He was pretty quiet.

One afternoon I wandered into the main lodge and happened upon a group of 5 or 6 guys passing around a guitar, taking turns playing their own songs. The retreat’s guest musician David Wilcox was among them. In fact, I recognized most of them as professional musicians. And there sat Doug. I hung around for bit watching this spontaneous community of artists enjoying each other. When the guitar came to Doug, he took it, and we all cracked up at his great little ditty about sighting Elvis.

On the last day of the retreat, at a time set aside for sharing, this quiet, humble guy choked up while telling us how healing these few days had been. He revealed that although he was an integral part of his church's worship and taught in a church-sponsored performing arts center, no fellow Christian had ever invited him to play a single song of his own. He vowed to move his guitar from the closet to a stand in the living room and start playing, not just working, again.

I remembered that the best thing our church did for artists was to invite us to play our own songs.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Why art in church?

I was recently asked why I care so much about bringing arts into the church. The question took me by surprise.

Raised an Episcopalian, as a child I attended a beautiful tall stone church set in a plain of one-story brick and cinder-block buildings. I was entranced by the brilliant reds and blues of the stained glass windows. I walked and knelt on a plush red carpet to take communion out of a polished silver plate and gold-lined chalice. I learned to read music from my own white leather-bound hymnbook, and reveled in the huge sound of the pipe organ that could vibrate my very bones with a joyful noise. I knew by heart the Shakespearean language of God! How on earth could anyone not care about bringing arts into the earnest asceticism of the Bible church where I found myself as a newly reborn adult believer?

One of the first things I did when I decided to follow Christ was to take a Bible study class. The intense young pastor of my small congregation of former hippies taught us well, and the final assignment was to write a paper. I dove in, wrote passionately, and then did something that to me seemed so right – I drew a picture for the cover of my paper. It was not a terribly skillful or original drawing, but also not at all morally challenging. During the last lesson everyone read their papers. My drawing garnered puzzlement from my pastor. He obviously did not understand why I would do such a thing and also seemed to be trying to figure out if he needed to admonish me. I don’t remember him saying anything negative, but was he worrying for my soul over a drawing?

As a new believer, I also looked for books about contemporary Christians and art. Back in 1979, there weren’t many. The only ones I found were Franky Shaeffer’s Addiction to Mediocrity, which was pretty discouraging, and a little gem by Elizabeth O’Connor, Eighth Day of Creation. O’Connor’s book is more about creativity in the context of community than about art or artists, but it kept a hope alive in me that the stained glass and hymns of my childhood had birthed.

I understand the historical forces in Luther’s and Calvin’s time that rejected a beauty corrupted. I too rejected the beautiful church that did not help my family grieve a divorce and later our mother’s death. I too found God again only through a stripped-bare gospel. But I was never meant to remain naked. God takes away so as to restore.

So I believe it is time for the Church to put on the garments of praise in a new way. No doubt whatever we do will get corrupted again, historically speaking. But now is a time for creativity and imagination and beauty to be restored.

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Looking for the Lizard by Kate Van Dyke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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