Sept 18 | Postcards from Sabbatical




The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.

Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859. Copyrights for songs given after the sermon text.


Postcards from Sabbatical

Postcard #1 (St. Petersburg, FL)

To the church of God (and of Menno) that is in Columbus: Grace to you and peace from God the Creator, Jesus our Mentor and Model, and the Holy Spirit our Artist-in-Residence. 

First, I thank God for all of you and your generosity in allowing me this sabbatical time away to rest, to renew my spirit, and to reflect on the ways God is breathing new inspiration into my life and the life of our congregation. As I have written to you before, my hope was to spend this time focusing on the intersections of spirituality and creativity and their role as meaning-making endeavors in all of our lives. 

As I set out in this work, I am reminded of Paul’s words in his letter to the Church in Ephesus.  The beginning of Chapter 2, verse 10 is translated in many different ways: “for we are what God has made us…”; “for we are God’s workmanship”; “we are God’s masterpiece”, “God’s handiwork”, “God’s design”, “God’s mastercraft.”  The Greek word that is used there is poiema, which is where we also get the word poem. 

We are God’s poem. 

Now I know many of you have instant negative reactions to the idea of poetry, perhaps because you’ve been taught that the point of reading a poem is to tie it down and interrogate it until you’ve managed to beat some sort of meaning out of it.  But my favorite way to think about poetry comes from an artist named Levi the Poet, who writes, “The fog was like poetry: difficult to define but I am completely indifferent to what it means so long as we are able to get lost in it.”

Maybe the fog is like poetry which is also a lot like God the Great Poet: difficult to define but I am completely indifferent to what [they mean] so long as we are able to get lost in [them].

In the end, my hope for this sabbatical time of focusing on creativity and spirituality is not just about being inspired to come up with new ways for us as a community to make art about God.  In addition my hope is to reimagine the very foundations of how we think and talk about our experiences of the Divine, to explore what theological doors are opened if we let creativity and imagination be our guides and teachers.  

I write this postcard to you from Saint Petersburg, Florida where my husband and I got the opportunity to visit the Salvador Dali Museum. This trip was not necessarily meant to help me in my theopoetic pursuits, yet I can’t imagine a better way to start this journey of learning to let art teach me to see the world differently than by perusing the works of Dali. I probably could have spent hours in front of each canvas, trying to suss out the meaning behind the symbols and techniques he used–maybe even getting a bit lost in them–but even just a couple hours at the museum left me feeling like one of Dali’s melting clocks. 

As I pondered Dali’s work I found myself thinking about the question of what makes something beautiful. What makes a work of art able to move an audience?  And the best answer I could come up with was that the most enduring art is that which both tells a story and invites us, the audience, into that story. 

Beauty is what both takes our breath away by inviting us into a story that is bigger than us and gives us the breath of inspiration to express our own stories anew. 

In the introduction to the book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron writes about how she understands the spiritual experience of creativity. She says, “The heart of creativity is an experience of the mystical union; the heart of the mystical union is an experience of creativity. Those who speak in spiritual terms routinely refer to God as the creator but seldom see creator as the literal term for artist. I am suggesting you take the term creator quite literally.  You are seeking to forge a creative alliance, artist-to-artist with the Great Creator.”

A lot of theological ink has been spilled throughout the years arguing about how to best understand this idea we call God. One of the longest running debates involves trying to figure out how to hold together the idea of a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good in the face of a world where evil exists. Those can be interesting mind-games to play, but I find they leave me exhausted.

I don’t know if this solves any of the issues raised by those arguments, but I think I will spend the rest of my sabbatical considering what it might mean to, instead, worship a God who is all-beautiful. It’s said that the name YHWH is meant to be the sound of breathing.  Perhaps an all-beautiful God is one who both takes our breath away by inviting us into a story that is bigger than us and gives us the breath of inspiration to express our own stories anew. 

Until next time, may we all keep breathing.

VT 529 | God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens (verse 1)


Postcard #2 (New York City)

Grace and peace to the Church in Columbus.

I write to you from New York City.  This is another trip that was not necessarily intended to inform my theopoetic pursuits, yet as I explore creativity and beauty and the spirituality of interconnecting stories, how could I not find connections in a city that is so alive with stories upon stories.  I think of the verse in Matthew’s gospel where the writer says Jesus “told them everything in parables.”  The word parable breaks down into roots that mean “to place beside,” and New York City is certainly a place where stories are placed and smashed beside one another.

Since I last wrote, I have begun the real “work” of this sabbatical, which is focused on making my way through Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, and doing the exercises and tasks it recommends. The weekly readings, the daily journaling, and the creative “dates” with myself are beginning to help me renew my own creativity.

This work often finds me reading in coffee shops, and I recently overheard a conversation at another table that I cannot seem to shake.  Two women were chatting about life when one of them brought up how she was worried for her granddaughter, who is always anxious about getting everything just right and being perfect in school. The woman went on to say how she had tried to encourage her granddaughter by reassuring her “only Jesus is perfect.” 

Maybe you are like me and you can’t help but have your interest piqued whenever the word “Jesus” is said in public. The conversation between the two women quickly moved on, but I could not stop thinking about what it means to be perfect. Theologically, the woman is probably right on track. There are a number of verses throughout the Bible that would say something similar, though the one that came to my mind was Jesus’ own words in Matthew’s gospel, “Therefore, be perfect as God in heaven is perfect.”

What does it mean for Jesus or God to be perfect?

Perhaps questions about the idea of perfection have become a thorn in my side because both The Artist’s Way and Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart (which I wrote to you about previously) have sections that talk about how dangerous perfectionism can be. Cameron writes, “Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. It has nothing to do with fixing things…Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead.” And later she adds, “Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough.” 

Similarly, Brown describes perfectionism as, “a self-destructive and addictive belief system that we use to try to protect ourselves from feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.” She explains that it is “self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfection. Perfection is an unattainable goal.” And later she adds, “Perfectionism is addictive, because when we inevitably do experience shame, judgment, and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough,” which leads us to become “even more entrenched in our quest to live, look, and do everything just right.”  (146)

I realize that perfectionism and the idea of perfection aren’t necessarily the same thing, but when we ascribe that trait to God and are told we are meant to be like God, it feels like we might as well add the “-ism” to it. 

In my last postcard I invited us to ponder what it might mean to worship an all-beautiful God, a God who both takes our breath away and gives as breath.  As an extension of this pondering, I invite us into the question: Does something need to be perfect in order to be beautiful? 

While we have been in New York City, we have had the privilege of being able to see a handful of broadway shows, but none has affected me more than A Strange Loop. It is hard to describe this musical, though I do feel like I should say up front that it is not at all what most would consider a “family-friendly” musical. The story follows a self-described “big, black, queer” main character named Usher, as he attempts to write a musical about writing a musical.

It’s a very meta premise, but at the heart of the show is Usher’s struggle to tell his own story in a way that is authentic, that doesn’t pander to the white gaze [g-a-z-e] or soften his experience to fit in with the white gays [g-a-y-s]. He longs to tell his story truthfully, without needing to put any tidy bows on it or provide an ending that even feels complete.

Toward the end of the show, there is a song that I believe is meant to intentionally make the audience uncomfortable. The cast breaks the fourth wall as they invite the audience to sing along with them a repeated phrase that was, at least for me, hard to stomach let alone join in with. It was almost as if the writer of the show was saying, “Don’t look away just because this makes you uncomfortable.” 

Usher’s story did have moments of laughter and joy, but these were placed right alongside the moments of deep pain, struggle, and doubt, often going back and forth in the span of a microsecond.  It was a story of a life that was far from perfect, yet the show as a whole took my breath away and caused both me and my husband to spend the next few hours (and more) discussing what meanings we made from it. 

Does something need to be perfect in order to be beautiful?

Until next time, let us have the courage to not look away from these messy, complex, imperfect stories that surround us everyday, but trust that beauty can be found in every story authentically told. 

VT 529 | God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens (verse 2)

Postcard #3 (Sedona, AZ)

Grace and peace to you, the Church in Columbus. It will not be long before I return to you, and I look forward to hearing what God has accomplished through you in my absence.  I write to you from Arizona where I have been visiting a friend who lives in Phoenix.

During a recent session with my spiritual director, I found myself telling her that a certain song had become a “spiritual touchstone for me during this sabbatical.” I was surprised by this not because I don’t love the song but because, as I continued to talk about it, I realized just how true it was. The song is called “Creature,” and it is by a band named half.alive.  The chorus goes:

I know I’m made of clay that’s worn
Blighted by imperfect form
But I will trust the artist molding me
I am creation, both haunted and holy
Made in glory
Even the depths of the night cannot blind me
When You guide me
Creature only

The phrase, “I am creation, both haunted and holy” always inspires me with the way it captures something about what it means to be human. The song as a whole speaks to the beauty of inhabiting in-between spaces and living in those sacred tensions. Later they sing, “Standing in the balance of complete and incomplete/ I identify the echo of what is and what will be.” Haunted and holy. Complete and incomplete. What is and what will be. As I think about the beauty of living in these messy, imperfect transitions of life that this song speaks to, I realize that this trip to Arizona has solidified what a spiritual touchstone this song really is for me.

One of the days of my visit, my friend and I took a road trip north to do some exploring. It was a day full of contrasts and transitions. The drive from Phoenix took us from the deep desert to the high mountains. In Flagstaff we ventured underground into the Lava River Cave, where we hiked ¾ mile to the end of the lava tube and got to experience the true darkness that a cave can offer.  Standing in that darkness, I could almost hear the opening verse of the song:

Look inside of me and see that I am not afraid
To walk inside the void like a kid inside a cave
Discovering the patterns of my soul and where it’s placed
I’ve been mapping many caverns but it still feels like a maze

Eyes wide open yet seeing nothing, that darkness could have been terrifying, but even in that void there was a kind of illuminating beauty that took my breath away.

After the cave, we drove to Sedona where we hiked up the Sedona Airport Mesa and felt the sun on our backs as we watched it illuminate the red cliffs off in the distance. This spot was one of a few areas known as the Sedona vortexes, locations thought to contain heightened spiritual energy. They can be a bit tourist-y, but my friend and I just happened to get there during a brief window when no one else was around. We sat on the warm rock for a while looking out to the horizon, and I did my best to sense the supposed spiritual energy. 

The view was enough to take anyone’s breath away, but, in the end, I think if I felt any heightened spiritual energy in that place it was just as much about sitting there with one of my closest friends talking quietly about life.

Highs and lows. Darkness and light. Desert and mountain. Wilderness and city. Haunted and holy and all the spaces in between. There is beauty in all of it. There is God in all of it if we are willing to not look away, to keep our eyes open even in the dark, and to listen deeply for the echo of the story we are being breathed into.

The song closes with a line that I think sums up my hope for me for this sabbatical, and in turn, my hope for us all: “Slowly I’m recovering the beauty of discovering…”

And so, my wish for us, my friends is:

  • That we would remember that we are God’s poetry, created in glory to breathe glory back into the world.
  • That we would learn to not look away but, rather, to trust that our stories are beautiful in all their haunted and holy imperfections.
  • And finally, that each of us would do whatever it takes to see the world anew and begin recovering the beauty of discovering. If we do, we might just find God along the way.



Call to Worship, Voices Together #881. © 2016 Joelle Friesen. Used by permission.

I Sing the Mighty Power of God – Voices Together #182.  Text: Isaac Watts (England), Divine and Moral Songs for Children, 1715, alt.  Music: Gesangbuch der Herzogl, Württemberg (present-day Germany), 1784; harm. William H. Monk (England), Appendix to Hymns Ancient and Modern, 1868. Public domain. 

Creation Is a Song / Ho’ė enemeohe – Voices Together #181. Text: English and Cheyenne; based on Psalm 19; Doug Krehbiel (USA) and Jude Krehbiel (USA); inspired by the writings of Lawrence Hart (Cheyenne, USA), Cheyenne trans. Lenora Hart Holliman (Cheyenne, USA) and Wayne Leman (USA). Music: Doug Krehbiel and Jude Krehbiel in consultation with Lenora Hart Holliman; inspired by Cheyenne Christian Songs given to Maude Fighting Bear (Cheyenne, USA) and Tsese-Ma’heone-Nemeotôtse (Cheyenne Spiritual Songs). © 2003 Doug Krehbiel and Jude Krehbiel, MennoMedia Inc. All rights reserved.  Podcast/Streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859.  All rights reserved.

Adagio ma non tanto from Sonata in E minor, BWV 1034. Johann Sebastian Bach, 1724.  Public domain.

God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens – Voices Together #529.  Text: Catherine Cameron (USA), 1967, Contemporary Worship I, 1969, alt., © 1967 Hope Publishing Co. All rights reserved.  Podcast/Streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859.  All rights reserved.  Music: The Columbian Harmony (USA), 1825. Public domain.  

Planets Humming as They WanderVoices Together #175. Text: Heather Josselyn-Cranson (USA), alt., Heather Josselyn-Cranson © 2010 MennoMedia Inc.  All rights reserved. Music: Sally Ann Morris (USA), 2009, © 2016 GIA Publications, Inc.  All rights reserved. Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859.  All rights reserved.