Keeping Time/Life Passages
ISM and YDS students attended the sessions of the Congregations Project Summer Seminar in June. Some were designated student reporters, and have contributed their reflections on their experience with particular congregations, and aspects of the theme.
Part I: The Liturgical Year
Locating a Center: The Liturgical Calendar and Sustainable Living at First Congregational Church, Memphis
by Kathryn Pocalyko
First Congregational Church of Memphis, Tennessee, lives in the midst of many cycles. Throughout the week, various groups cycle in and out of the United Church of Christ congregation’s sanctuary. What served as Sunday’s worship space becomes a classroom, a dance studio, a food pantry, a fencing court, an art gallery, or a movie theater. While introducing her church to the ISM Summer Seminar participants, Pastor Cheryl Cornish described how at best, all the activities make First Congregational a vibrant community center. At worst, it becomes chaotic.
First Congregational came to the seminar hoping to locate a single, unified center. They came seeking to build a sense of cooperation between community partners and the church’s worship, and to link justice initiatives to spirituality and theology.
Cheryl Cornish, Pastor at FCC Memphis. Photo credit: Amanda Weber
Their intended project revolves around climate change, which deeply concerns congregants at First Congregational. Younger worshippers especially wonder what kind of natural world they will inhabit in the future, if any at all. “We need to respond to the despair felt among young people about the environmental crisis,” Pastor Cheryl explained, and they need a theological ground in which to plant that response. How might their church use worship to cultivate sustainable living practices? What can make these practices part of the church’s spirituality and not just another activity on a long list? “Our folks get mission,” Pastor Cheryl said, “Our issue is finding a unifying context.”
First Congregational suggested that their project’s starting components—sustainable living practices and a unifying, theological context—may meet in the liturgical year. Could the liturgical calendar provide this center, the way to link their environmental projects to a Christian identity?
The morning prayer service that First Congregational led during their week at Yale hinted at an answer to that question. Their worship showed creative ways to embody concern for the environment in liturgy. During a visual lament over the rivers of the world, images of the Mississippi, Shenandoah, and Ganges rivers flashed across a screen while Pastor Cheryl read statistics on water pollution, wildlife degradation, and health hazards. Then she led a prayer of confession: “We, your human creatures, have sinned against the soil that gave us birth; we have filled your rivers with rubbish and your waters with waste.” The lament concluded by praying for God to “free us from our bondage to lifestyles that poison your planet” and to “awaken us from the sleep of indifference and open our eyes to the anguish of our toxic world.” First Congregational seamlessly and beautifully wove together creation care and Christian worship.
The redesigned baptismal at FCC font echoes the waters at creation, bringing forth life, greenery and trees.
Photo credit: FCC Memphis
Their project’s plenary session asked how they might employ the liturgical calendar as an overarching, unifying element. Two conference faculty members facilitated the project’s brainstorming session. Rita Ferrone’s introduction imagined the liturgical calendar as a royal garment shut up in a closet. “What if we took it out and wore it?” she asked. Teresa Berger noted how the liturgical calendar embodies the Christ event, mapping Christ’s life on to human lives in daily, weekly, and annual rhythms. Her explanation on how the Christian liturgical calendar was configured with the solar calendar piqued the First Congregational team’s interest. Easter’s date, she reminded everyone, is governed by a natural rhythm: it falls on the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the northern hemisphere’s vernal equinox.
The natural basis of the liturgical year captivated the team and illuminated their project’s vision. “The liturgical seasons make more sense to us in light of sustainable living and the natural world, not the other way around,” Pastor Cheryl explained.
Professor Berger also passed out a circular version of the liturgical calendar with personal dates—birthdays, vacations, anniversaries—marked on it. She asked, “How might First Congregational map their church’s calendar on to the liturgical calendar?”
FCC has a vibrant arts ministry, using its worship space to creatively represent the liturgical year.
Photo credit: FCC Memphis
During the final planning session, Mary Lin Hudson, First Congregational’s lay representative and Professor of Homiletics and Liturgics at Memphis Theological Seminary, pulled out a piece of paper. She drew two concentric circles like Professor Berger’s handout. The outer loop marked the liturgical year, and the inner loop designated events in their congregational life. Four quadrants behind the circles indicated the seasons. Immediately, ideas flew. A focus on creation could take place for four weeks in autumn, leading up to Saint Francis’ feast day, an established celebration in the congregation. Advent and Christmas could highlight solar energy and light, with water issues featured during Epiphany. Lent, beginning with the Ash Wednesday liturgy, should spotlight earth and soil, complete with a composting project. Easter would obviously center on renewal and themes of reuse and recycling. Ordinary Time might focus on the planting and harvest process, on food gleaned for distribution, culminating in a Thanksgiving celebration.
“We are intentionally linking what we do liturgically with what we do missionally,” Mary Lin said. The team will develop a liturgical resource that every Sunday connects worship with the sustainability project: a prayer, a litany, a spoken affirmation used continually to reinforce the project’s engagement and theology.
Mary Button, First Congregational’s Minister of Visual Arts, brainstormed many artistic ideas for the project and worship. She envisioned large blue and white sun prints for the season of creation. She imagined how she might use soil creatively in the liturgical arts during Lent. Could they bring wheelbarrows full of soil into the sanctuary? Display worm composing bins? The team prioritized their project’s artistic angle: it would inspire congregants to get involved in making the sanctuary’s art.
At First Congregational, finding their way is their way. They provide the place and space for diverse partnerships and inspiring initiatives. Their question is how to pull it all together and how to frame it in a theological context; in other words, how to find a centering point. The liturgical calendar has been part of the Christian church’s way for centuries. It provides the centering point of Christ throughout the year. The ISM Congregations Project seminar showed the confluence of these cycles of life—new sustainable living practices and the age-old liturgical calendar—will come to share a center at First Congregational.
Kairos, Kronos, and the Liturgical Arts at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Charlotte
by Amanda Weber
This year's Congregations Project pulled together an all-star faculty team – some of the best and most sophisticated theologians, musicians, and artists. Nevertheless, it took no more than five minutes for Jane Arant, minister of music at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, to captivate the inner child of every one of them. Jane, along with Julia Van Huss and Margaret Rowe, have been leading a liturgical arts day camp at Trinity for the past seventeen years, and were invited by the ISM to explore ways this program could grow and be shared. “I planned to talk about our project for only five minutes,” Jane explained after their opening session, “but the looks on everyone´s faces were so seductive that I had to keep going!” Jane had seduced the crowd, all right; the first person to speak up after her presentation said, “I want to go to your camp!” and one of the clergy present had quietly started folding origami birds.
Margaret Rowe (congregant), Music Director Jane Arant, and Julia Van Huss (congregant)
Photo credit: Amanda Weber
During the first half of our week together, Jane, Julia, and Margaret shared details about their camp. We learned and were touched by the small size and intentionality of the camp; Jane prefers to work with no more than twelve students in one group in order to give the attention each child deserves. The week is run with four practical goals: involving the children in hands-on activities relating to worship and the arts; placing this into a larger context of church history and Western culture; introducing children to artists who engage in sacred art; and fostering fellowship, recreation, and team-building. Trinity´s project proposal sums this up most beautifully: “A nurturing ministry, the camp is intended to draw children into a life-long embrace of the arts as an expression of their own faith, so that their Christian identities are more firmly grounded for living in a hurried and secular world.” These goals are carried out in the most creative ways, teaching the children through visual art, music, food, architecture, biblical archaeology, sacred geometry, theater, and countless other activities. Poet and theologian (and ISM faculty) Tom Troeger exclaimed to the Trinity team, “You´re doing theological education using multiple intelligences!” By the later part of the week, all Congregations Project participants were encouraging Jane to step out of her humility and introversion and share this incredible gift. Excitement arose as we thought of ways to start liturgical arts camps in other places.
As Jane gave witness to the many stories of children discovering the treasure chest of the liturgical arts, it was no surprise the grown-ups in the room were equally taken. Together, we discussed this year´s theme, “Keeping Time,” as it relates to the liturgical year. Writer and theologian Rita Ferrone reminded the group that liturgy is often either a closed book to people, or something people take for granted. So much of the preparation for worship happens behind the scenes, and yet, the structure of liturgical changes over the course of a year is what draws us together as a community living in God´s time. This eschatological sense of time, kairos, is made separate from familiar clock time, kronos. Theologian Don Saliers helped the group to see that the arts play a large role in helping to take us out of kronos time and into holy time.
Music Director Jane Arant discusses Trinity Presbyterian's Liturgical Arts day camp
Photo credit: Amanda Weber
As the week progressed, we reflected on every kind of time imaginable. Theologian and musician Maggi Dawn guided us in thinking about generations going by – a larger sense of time – and I couldn´t help thinking of the younger generations of the church. My generation, twenty-somethings, are almost entirely absent from most churches, and there is a cross-denominational fear that the generations that follow will not show up to church either. It was in this context that I suddenly began to feel a sense of urgency about the work Jane, Julia, and Margaret are doing at Trinity. Their work is not simply a summer day camp filled with activities to keep kids occupied while their parents are at work. Instead, these wonderful women are helping to provide the youth of the Church with a theological education. They are carrying through on the promise they made as a congregation at each child´s baptism to nurture them in Christian faith and practice. And as a result, the children return home from camp each day excited to educate their parents in the meanings behind the liturgical arts.
One of the activities at Trinity Presbyterian's Liturgical Arts day camp involves crafting origami birds.
Photo credit: Amanda Weber
There is wealth in this project that remains to be tapped. Perhaps the greatest gift of this camp is to bridge generations of leadership in the Church. Jane hopes that one day, one of the children will ask to be on the worship and arts committee. Why not? The youth not only understand the meaning behind the many aspects of the liturgy and have learned to do practical things like change the paraments, but they also find joy in helping with worship. God´s presence becomes more real for them when they are involved, and we who are older are called to experience God through the eyes of a child. What potential for an intergenerational community that seeks to be a part of God´s time!
“We want people to recognize this camp as something more than three older ladies doing something nice for the children,” Jane said in her closing remarks. All gathered nodded in understanding, and I smiled, remembering the very first welcome to the week, when Dorothy Bass introduced the theme of Time. “This theme is going to explode on us,” Dorothy warned. “We must remain open to seeing our expectations overturned by God.” And so it is my prayer that Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlotte might be stirred up by the children of the congregation, that the Spirit of God might move through the arts in worship, and that we might all stay connected to the child in us that engages the world with delight and awe.