A fresh spirit of imagination emerges
By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today
The Rev. Sarah Juist was overwhelmed — and with good reason. Pastoring in a pandemic was a scenario she could never have imagined. “No one prepared us for this. There was no pandemic class in seminary,” she said. Juist echoed a sentiment of ministers everywhere who found themselves in unknown territory this past spring when the COVID-19 virus challenged long-held definitions of what church is and how it is done.
With closing the church building to corporate worship and preaching the Word of God through digital platforms, Juist, pastor of Hanover Presbyterian Church in Newark, Ohio, needed something to ground her. Having no pandemic playbook in hand, she turned to the constitutional questions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Asked at the ordinations of ministers, elders and deacons, the questions cover everything from trusting Jesus to accepting the tenets of the Reformed faith and adhering to the denomination’s polity. “I wanted to go back to our core values: What does it mean to be Presbyterian?” Juist said.
One question in particular gave the pastor the clarity and comfort she needed in a time of confusion and chaos: Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love? She realized that no matter how “weird and stressful” things were, serving with energy, intelligence, imagination and love was “well within the scope of our ordination vows” — especially serving with imagination. “And, I’ve seen my pastor friends doing come creative things,” Juist said. She herself is included in that category.
A visual reminder
A self-described visual person, Juist wanted a reminder of the question that clarified her ministry in a trying time. Not an artist by any means — “I cannot draw to save my life,” Juist laughs — she turned to her love for words and began playing on paper with the question’s key points during one of the many Zoom calls that filled the early days of the pandemic.
As the call ended, Juist was staring at four words: energy, intelligence, imagination and love. The four words are a short, simple and tangible testimony of what the church was — and is — still all about. “This is perfect for a T-shirt,” she thought. Using a web-based T-shirt company that a friend had recommended, Juist went online and worked out a design. In addition to the words energy, intelligence, imagination and love, she added to the shirt’s design #WeAreTheChurch.
Her imagination kicked in more when she decided to turn the T-shirt into a fundraiser, with 50% of the proceeds benefiting Hanover Presbyterian’s missions and 50% going to denominational assistance programs. Within hours of posting the availability of the T-shirts, 216 were sold and $2,593 was raised.
Juist was “amazed” with how the words to the ordination question “struck a chord” with Presbyterians and even non-Presbyterians alike. Juist credits the T-shirt’s success to it providing a “visible sign of unity and connectedness” that was being lost during the pandemic.
“I designed the T-shirt at a time when we in the church were losing all the activities that defined us,” said Juist. “This was a way of bringing us back together.”
Space to create
Psychologists have found that creativity often becomes a powerful force in people’s lives in times of crisis. The reason is because the psychological barriers that stop people from being creative — daily routines, ingrained habits, the expected norms of society (and church) — fade into the background during a crisis, thus, creating space to imagine and revisit dreams.
The Rev. Luke Hyder of Cascade View Presbyterian Church in Everett, Washington, has been a musician all his life: learning piano as a child, picking up guitar and percussion as a teen, and writing songs as a young adult. His first church position was that of a contemporary worship director. But the daily demands of leading a congregation often left little time to immerse himself in music.
When the pandemic turned life upside down, even dimming the lights on Broadway and concert halls, Hyder, a published songwriter, was inspired by artists stepping onto a digital stage. The pastor “felt a tug” to share his music online as well. “I wanted to do my part to bring some beauty to whoever happened to tune in,” Hyder said.
The pastor got the idea for “Tuesday Tunes at 2” where, for a half hour, he played original songs on his guitar and some on piano. His studio was simple, with a microphone connected to an iPhone or iPad sitting on a music stand in the living room.
While his 2-year-old napped, Hyder would practice quietly. When 2 p.m. came, he was ready to go live on his Facebook page. Hyder’s 9-year-old daughter served as his trusted stage manager, helping her dad out where needed. She even designed a “Tuesday Tunes at 2” logo.
Hyder says playing music has been a blessing, giving him “a great joy” outside of his work as a pastor and worship leader “to express my heart creatively through song.”
Would “Tuesday Tunes at 2” have happened without the advent of a pandemic? Maybe not, the pastor says. “The season of working from home has given me some flexibility, allowing me to give myself permission to set aside the time to do this creative work,” Hyder said.
“Tuesday Tunes at 2” has garnered up to 250 views weekly. Hyder hopes to continue to “grow and stretch” his music ministry even after the time of crisis passes.
A survival mechanism
In the pre-COVID-19 world, finding time for imagination to take hold seemed almost nonexistent for Presbyterians. “We have been good at serving with ‘intellect,’” Juist said, recalling the ordination question. But imagination has been another story.
In “Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet,” Matthew Fox writes that “creativity and imagination are not frosting on a cake.” Rather, Fox continues to say they are “integral to our sustainability. They are the essence of who we are. They are survival mechanisms.”
The Rev. Jeniffer Rodríguez, a pastor and a painter, agrees. “Sometimes we as human beings feel empty, isolated and overwhelmed with situations that happen in our daily lives. While creating a piece of art, there is often healing that comes with it,” she said.
The pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Ossining, New York, posted some of her artwork on Facebook, sharing beauty online in what was fast becoming a very ugly world for too many people. One such picture was an oil on canvas, “With Our Hands.” The subject of the painting is the tension of the world God created with “our own hands being created in order for human beings to create.” The hands are not fully drawn, but are shown in the process of being finalized, thus, inviting the question, “When are our hands going to be ready to work on behalf of God’s creation?”
“Making a piece of art and connecting it to a spiritual discipline can help you to center your mind, your soul, your whole being in the Lord. Making it a discipline can help you to find balance with your inner self and the world. It also provides something special to the world when there is a need of feeling how special we are as creatures of God,” Rodríguez said.
Rodríguez says it has been a blessing how conversations can take place because of art — conversations that were especially important in a time of social isolation.
Andrew Weatherly, a member of South Presbyterian Church in Bergenfield, New Jersey, continued getting people talking with his art as well, picking up his paintbrush to create new art during the COVID-19 crisis. The young man with Down syndrome, whose artwork appeared in Presbyterians Today’s 2018 Advent devotional, also wrote “Light the Way,” a poem encouraging hope in a pandemic world. The opening stanza reads: “Close your eyes, envision a world of light in need of peace; guiding the world, lifting our spirits in loving harmony.” Weatherly shared his creations on Facebook, adding a video message with advice for getting through a pandemic. He began with, “Keep smiling.”
While the pandemic made more room for preexisting creative juices to flow, it also provided an opportunity for new talents to emerge in what can be seen as “post-traumatic growth.” The term was coined in the 1990s by University of North Carolina psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, while studying individuals who experienced profound transformation as they coped with challenging life circumstances. Since then, researchers have continued studying post-traumatic growth, specifically the growth in creativity that comes from trauma.
In Presbyterian circles, creativity born out of the trauma of loss has been nowhere more evident than with the development of online worship. With online worship came the dilemma of how to handle communion if physically gathering around a common table was no longer possible. While initially the PC(USA) said “no” to celebrating the sacrament virtually, the Office of Theology, Formation & Evangelism and the Office of the General Assembly changed its stance, giving leeway in unprecedented times for the virtual breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup.
Still, how could the intimacy of the table be captured over a computer screen? The first thing that became clear to the Rev. Chris Griggs, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, was that when it came to worship let alone communion, it was not about trying to bring the congregation into the sanctuary on Sunday mornings through webcasts.
Rather, the staff sought ways to use technology to join the people where they were — in their living rooms, dens and even their kitchens, he says. It was while thinking about where First Presbyterian members might be watching worship, that Cathy Colten, the church’s administrative and communications assistant, let her imagination have free reign and came up with the idea of creating a bread-making tutorial. After all, bread making was the No. 1 cooking adventure for many in the time of pandemic, leaving many grocery shelves nationwide devoid of flour and yeast.
The idea excited the First Presbyterian team and Colten quickly tapped co-worker Tricia Cavan, and her family, to be the stars of the video.
Cavan, First Presbyterian’s administrative assistant, is known for being a good baker, and so she wasn’t surprised that she was asked to make the video. She was surprised, however, that it had to be done in one day and only be three minutes long.
“The idea gave me heart palpitations, but I ran with it,” Cavan said, soon learning that creativity also produces a healthy rush of adrenaline. Featured in the tutorial were her sons, who accomplished exactly what Cavan wanted: keeping the video interesting and funny, and showing members how making bread for communion was a “good family activity.”
The response to the First Presbyterian bread video “has been fun,” said Cavan, with many of the members reaching out to her, letting her know that they, too, have made bread, some for the very first time as a family. As for the creative growth that can come from a time of stress and crisis, Cavan is discovering she might have a new future in store for her. “I was asked by someone in our congregation if I’ll be doing any more videos, and I have a feeling we will be,” Cavan said. “And when I say ‘we’ — I mean ‘we.’ My boys will be involved, too.”
If crisis is the catalyst for creativity, freeing the mind from routines and set-in-stone rules that hinder growth, then a virus named COVID-19 has unleashed a new wave of Presbyterians seeking to truly live up to that ordination question that inspired Juist’s T-shirt.
“I think we are now leaning hard into the imagination thing,” Juist said.
Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today. She admits to making a loaf or two of bread at the height of the pandemic and, yes, she has purchased one of Sarah Juist’s T-shirts.
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Categories: Presbyterians Today
Tags: art, coronavirus, covid-19, creativity, crisis, music, ordination, painting, pandemic
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