New Life for Dry Bones

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating reflections from our 2016 National Gathering. Watch this space for thoughts from a wide variety of folks, especially around the question, What “stuck”? What ideas, speakers, workshops or worship services are continuing to work on your heart as you envision “the church that is becoming?” We’ll be hearing from ruling elders, teaching elders, seminarians, and more. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

This post was originally shared on Carolyn’s blog, “Deep Thoughts of a Common Household Mom.”

by Carolyn Gibbs

I sat down at the table. The man next to me muttered, “Might as well hang me now.” The woman to the right of me picked up the block of clay in front of her and started kneading it enthusiastically. I looked at my block of clay and waited for instructions, like a proper Presbyterian. Yep, that’s the gamut of likely responses in an “Arts in Worship” workshop at the Next Church National Gathering.

fear creativity crossroadsI was eager to attend this workshop, thinking it would give us ideas on how to incorporate various kinds of art into our worship service. It turns out we were going to make art ourselves! How fun! Or how threatening! Or both!

Despite the fear, I immensely enjoyed responding to scripture through painting, even though I have zero artistic skill. I feel a great longing to be creative in connection with worship. I think that I am the only one who feels this way. To paraphrase the prophet Ezekiel, “my bones are dried up, my hope is lost, I am cut off completely.” God’s creative breath of life is in our worship, mostly through music, but perhaps we are missing out in not exploring other forms of creativity.

A longer description of the workshop is below, for those who are interested.

How do you like to express your creativity? If you are part of a worshiping community, would you be willing to participate in an art project as part of worship? Or would you make sure you had to be out of town that day?

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As the workshop started, we were encouraged to fiddle around with the block of clay in front of us. We had no instructions regarding the clay. We continued to work with it if we wished, as we started the discussion. There were two tables, with about 8 people at each table.

First we discussed how non-artistic adults generally feel about doing art. Art (and any creativity, really) is viewed as fine for kids, but adults just don’t go there. This workshop was about why adults should go there.

The workshop leader must have had a time machine on my life. She described exactly what happened to me in second grade art class, when we painted a scene on a tile. I was quite pleased with my scene of ducks and grass. The art teacher denigrated it; the words are long forgotten, but the feeling is not. Almost all of us encounter something similar on the way to adulthood. Our human capacity for judgment and comparison takes over, and those of us who don’t have artistic talent stop making art at all. It’s just too scary and painful to endure the judgment from others and ourselves.

Then we talked about confronting that fear and leaping into creativity. Making art unleashes freedom, joy, and wholeness, and that’s just for starters. If you believe that you are created in the image of God (the original creativity maven) then exercising your creativity is an excellent way of showing it. Why should only kids be able to do this?! Why should only those with innate artistic talent be able to do this?!

In our workshop it turned out that the clay was just a warm-up to our main activity – painting a large banner. Like most art, our painting was to be based on other art, and was to follow rules. We were instructed to base our painting on our response to the Bible passage about Ezekiel’s vision of God breathing life into dry bones (Ezekiel 37).

We had a few minutes to discuss what images the passage evoked in us. I think this discussion helped a lot, when it came time to start painting. But before starting to paint, the rules:

  • First, paint on the space in front of you. Paint your own response to the passage.
  • After a few minutes, everyone is to move two spaces to the left and continue painting. You may not erase, obliterate, or cover up what the person before painted in their spot. You may embellish and extend their painting, or start painting in a new spot. After a few minutes, go two more spaces to the left and extend that person’s painting. Finally, return to your original spot and fill in spaces as you see fit.
  • No talking! This meant we could not collaborate. We could not form a committee to plan what to paint, or where. (That is extremely un-Presbyterian.) It also meant we could not offer any evaluation of each others’ art. We could not issue comments on our own efforts. This was crucial – no compliments, no criticisms. A compliment of one person’s art could be construed by someone else as an implicit criticism of their own art. (“You liked her art, but didn’t say anything about mine.”)
  • The workshop leader told us where the top of the banner would be. She also said that there were pieces of tape running across the canvas, and she had prepared our canvas by painting blue over the whole canvas. After our art expressions had dried she would be pulling off the tape, creating bold lines across our art work.

fruitful_worship artWe started painting. At first I felt that familiar sense of self-criticism. I started by drawing a kindergartenish slab of grass, thinking of “the fruitful land” from the passage. Being more of a “words” person than a “drawing” person, I wondered if I could dare to write a word instead of just painting shapes and colors. I dared. But which word? I chose “fruitful”. I felt I should paint it upside down (my area was at the top of the canvas) so that the word would be displayed right side up. This was challenging.

After a bit it was time to switch spots. I was perplexed after switching. It felt wrong to mess with what someone else had painted. It almost felt as if that spot was now sacred. Instead of painting within that person’s area, I tried to extend from that area, reaching more into the middle of the canvas.

By the time we switched again, I was feeling more bold, and reached into the middle to start a new shape. I painted the words “new life” in the middle of the canvas. Then I decided to paint a cell to represent a form of life and honor my sweet Younger Daughter and her interest in cells.

When we were finished we had a great sense of ownership and accomplishment at having created a work of art together. I do not know or care if it is beautiful in the eyes of the world, but it is ours, our expression of the scripture. When our canvas was displayed in the worship space the next day, I again felt like a kindergartner, proud to have my work up on the refrigerator.

new life worship bannerI just have to add that I believe that it is good and right to have beautiful art, created by truly talented professional artists, in our worship spaces. It can be appropriate to evaluate sacred art and display what is inspiring. In fact, if we non-artists are to do art, we need the professional artists, who figure out things like how big the canvas should be, what kind of paint is best, how long to let it dry, how to display it.

Our workshop group did not create our banner in order for it to be evaluated or compared to professional art. It is valuable in that we ourselves made it as an expression of our connection to holiness. For me personally, it felt like new life for my dry bones which are longing, aching, yearning to be creative in worship.

To see more photos, visit Carolyn’s blog.

Carolyn 2016-02-29Carolyn Gibbs serves as a ruling elder at Hiland Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA. She blogs at and enjoys expressing her creativity through writing, raising children, and trying to figure out what to make for dinner.

Getting Out of the Rut, then Moving Toward Abundant Joy

By Sophie Maness

Joy smallTwenty-five years of working in the church is a mere “drop in the bucket” to the length of time that many of the education models of the church have been in existence. Studies and personal experiences regarding current trends verify that a large percentage of individuals and families come for only one hour on Sunday mornings, and inconsistently at that. Many who are paid to work in the church, as well as volunteers, know the old models have lost much of their effectiveness due to changing rhythms in our culture.

I have worked with amazing volunteers, who have done – and continue to do – great work on Sunday mornings. Still, if a child comes to Sunday / Church school every Sunday, never missing, even on vacation, from pre-school age through senior year in high school, that child in the number of hours of Christian Education from Church School, will have received the equivalent of a first grade education. We are falling short and we know it.

I, for one, have been frustrated along with many of my colleagues. We have likened it to the dry bones of Ezekiel. It is time to let the Spirit move and put a new flesh on our education practices in the life of the church.

I hope we can dream about what will bring families together for learning and fellowship, rather than to separate them due to scheduling that limits participation.  Hearing the stories of our faith with and from our families and neighbors is an involvement that promotes greater understanding. This environment tends to open up better conversation, more opportunities for service, more creative expressions of joy and added room for the spirit to move.

Where can we find that common ground of learning the stories of our faith and living out those stories in partnership with all our neighbors? I think the ground is fertile, and with a little exploring we can and will come up with new models.

Noted writer, G.K. Chesterton gave us, “The gigantic advantage of the Christian is joy.” For me, part of that joy plays out by living in a fellowship of believers willing to dream about possibilities and new ways of living into our rich Presbyterian identity. So how we do we begin to move from the comfortable and familiar to the bold dream?

For me that joy came when we were planning the children’s piece of a day of service for our church. We put several children on our committee. They ranged in age from 5 to 12. We had several adults as well. Having children on the committee meant we needed to be organized and clear. My hope is we are that way anyway, but this was a new and healthy push. The children asked honest questions, had great ideas and loved being included! The joy was experienced by all!! The children felt like valued members of the planning. The adults had a ball getting to know the kids. Our planning was richer and our hospitality was wider. We kept our meetings short and to the point. We had a little snack and lots of laughter. ALL the adults said, “I wish all church committees, could be like this.”

Yes, it was not a hard task, but the inclusion of all ages, and the cross generational connections were giving voice to a deeper hunger of being a part of the faith community.

This small experience has helped me feel a little more bold in tackling bigger pieces, so one thing at a time. First up for us is VBS.

Although there are some churches who have moved away from it, the basic model for Vacation Bible School for us has been the nine to noon, Monday through Friday model. It is comfortable and familiar. We know how to do it, and it has gone really well in the past.

What I see now is that it is getting harder and harder to pull off every year. The children have a ball, but the adult volunteers are worn to a frazzle. When we are frazzled, even the most dedicated find it challenging to love children into the faith. The reality is that getting enough volunteers, when more and more women are going back to work, makes pulling off the traditional daytime VBS almost impossible.  Surviving VBS is not nearly as appealing as thriving in VBS.

My hope is to soon pull together a group from our church who will dream with me about our priorities: (1) nurturing children in their faith development, (2) connecting with our community, (3) planning creatively to move toward rhythms that make room for the spirit to have its way with us, not the frazzle of moving from one thing to another of our culture.

What I hope for our church and others is permission to play with possibilities. When we play well there is common ground and lots of grace. It does not have to be perfect to glorify God.

It is time to be bold in our exploration of new models. We are in the midst of change and our tradition is about reforming, so let’s reform what is no longer working very well.

I am grateful to be in a place willing to dream. One model at a time, we will watch for God’s leading how to put new flesh on dry bones.

Sophie Maness is a life-long Presbyterian and a certified Christian Educator in the Presbyterian Church USA and serves as Director of Children’s Ministry at Westminster Presbyterian in Nashville, TN. Her calling is to educational ministry because she loves the ah-ha moment when people of any age connect their faith and their life, especially children.

Image: Grzegorz Mordecki/