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Responding to the Word: Finding Inspiration in the Lectionary

By David Gambrell

Photograph of two hands holding a woodcut block.David Gambrell holds a linoleum block carving illustrating John 3:16, "For God so loved the world."

Since I graduated from seminary in 1998, one of my regular spiritual disciplines has been to engage in some kind of creative response to the Revised Common Lectionary. Through the years, this practice has taken a number of different forms: composing hymns and songs, designing liturgical resources, leading a lectionary-based arts seminar, making linoleum block carvings, taking photographs, and writing collects based on the gospel lessons. Regular opportunities to preach have provided another avenue for the creative interpretation of the lectionary scriptures.

Sometimes this spiritual exercise has resulted in work that I have shared with congregations in worship. Sometimes the work is of a more personal nature, better suited to private meditation. Inevitably, however, I find that my understanding of Scripture, my liturgical participation and my theological imagination are profoundly enriched by this discipline. When I immerse myself in the Word with guitar or camera or carving knife or pen in hand, I discover that, by the gift of the Spirit, the Bible speaks to me in new and challenging ways, and I am moved to creative action and reflection. This experience is magnified in beautiful and transforming ways when I am able to talk and worship with others who are engaging the same texts through their own spiritual gifts.

There are no universal rules about how to explore such a discipline. Like most creative endeavors, it involves a lot of trial and error, improvisation and a large measure of divine grace. However, here are some suggestions for exploring the discipline of creative response to the lectionary, things I have found helpful in my own experience. May you be blessed and challenged by God’s Word and Spirit as I have been!

Find a small group of people who will explore this practice with you. You might agree to work on the same lectionary text (the psalm, e.g., or the gospel) each week, or you might respond to different passages. Meet regularly to talk about your experiences and share your work. It’s not necessary that you all be painters, or dancers or writers. In fact, it’s probably more fun when you work in different artistic media. Nor is it important that everyone have the same level of comfort or experience with your chosen art form(s). Receive each person’s contribution as a gift of the Spirit. Talk about the things that moved, challenged, inspired, or delighted you. And be thankful for God’s creative power at work within and among you all. (There is a place for constructive criticism, but only after a group has developed a certain degree of rapport and trust.)

Read the scriptures contemplatively. If you are working with a group, you might read the passages for the following week together at the end of each meeting. Hearing the words of scripture in different voices will help to accent different images and themes in the readings. When you are reading alone, allow your mind to stop on a word, phrase or image that seems to shine or dance across the page. (I have a songwriter friend who said that certain words would sing to her as she read the text.) Keep reading the passages and turning them over in your mind throughout the week, especially in times between your creative efforts. Inhabit the words of scripture and let them live in you. Let them change the way you see (and hear, taste, smell and feel) the world around you. Let the Spirit illuminate new connections between the Word and world.

When you begin to hear a melody, see a brushstroke or feel a movement, let it carry you along and see where it goes. When you feel stuck, return to the scripture and see where it leads you next. Repeat as necessary! For me, the creative process feels a lot like walking: I shift my weight back and forth between some text (or other source of inspiration) and my own emerging response to that text. Step by step, sometimes slowly, sometimes in leaps and bounds, I move forward in my understanding and response to the scripture. When you feel really stuck, set your work aside for a while and come back to it. Often a new vision or direction will come in a surprising way, or at an unexpected time.

Start small. Try on this discipline for a season (Advent, Lent or Easter, e.g.); you may decide to make it a regular part of your spiritual life, or you may return to it in certain seasons each year. Keep the scale of the project manageable as well — if you’re a hymn writer, compose a verse; if you’re a dramatist, plan a simple scene; if you’re a painter, make a sketch or two. You can always return to an idea and continue to develop it later.

Try something that stretches your gifts and allows you to understand the scriptures in new ways. Be guided by the images and structure of the text: a particular passage might suggest a different approach. For example, if you tend to paint landscapes, a Pauline reading about the church as the body of Christ might inspire you to explore the human figure. From time to time, make intentional efforts to step outside your preferred medium. This both expands your imagination and helps you to appreciate the work of others.

When you feel ready to share your work, do so with confidence and joy. Talk about the things you found exciting in the process, where you felt stuck, what you learned, what questions you still have. Be open to what you will learn from the ideas and insights of others. Should you decide to offer your work in public worship, it is particularly important to seek the feedback of others (whose counsel and candor you trust) in preparation for the service. Art in public worship must be able to represent the prayer and praise of the whole people of God. Personal creative work, even when it comes through a profound experience of divine inspiration, must be carefully and prayerfully evaluated as to whether it can appropriately serve as the people’s worship.

Remember that we are all works in progress. Enjoy the creative process and don’t worry about finished products, gallery shows, record deals and book contracts. They say “practice makes perfect,” but I have come to believe that “perfectionism is the enemy of practice.” Too many people abandon their spiritual disciplines (and new year’s resolutions, for that matter) after a few weeks or days just because things don’t go precisely as you planned or hoped. It’s normal to miss a week (or more) now and then, to go through droughts of inspiration and to feel frustrated with your work from time to time. Don’t let those gusts of busy-ness, preoccupation and self-doubt extinguish your creative spark. In Christ, who was raised to new life on the first day of the week, every week (and every day!) is a new beginning, a new creation.

You can read the Revised Common Lectionary (as well as the daily lectionary) on the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website. You can also subscribe to a daily lectionary email service or listen to the readings through our lectionary podcast, Hear the Word.

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