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A story by Lance Dickie / Seattle Times editorial columnist

A sanctuary for the blues

One of Puget Sound’s best blues venues is a haven—a sanctuary, actually—for the region’s finest blues talent.

Sacred and secular combine in rare form at the monthly Blues Vespers at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Tacoma. The Rev. David Brown crafted an inspired variation of the traditional worship and music of evening prayer.

Services took root in 1999 when Brown was a part-time pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, and they have flourished across town at Immanuel, where he moved in June 2005 to lead the congregation.

Brown is a long-time blues fan. Maybe the seeds for Blues Vespers were planted years ago on bus rides from his home in New Jersey to New York City’s Greenwich Village to visit blues clubs as a high school senior.

The service lasts an hour or so, starting at 5:00 p.m. the third Sunday of the month. Each gathering has a theme and rhythm of its own. Typically, the evening opens with a welcome and poetry, the musical guests play, Brown offers a brief reflection—a less imposing word than sermon or homily—the band fires up again, a prayer is offered, the music continues, and the evening closes with a blessing. And likely an encore.

Call it a concert with a take-home message.

Try to imagine the biggest impediment to launching Blues Vespers. Theological propriety? A stodgy church board? Anxious parishioners? No: the musicians.

Brown said they had the same view of organized religion that keeps others away from church: It’s not a positive, hospitable place. Kinda scary, in other words. He initially built their trust with the easy rapport of a blues-wise fan.

First-rate blues keeps vespers humming, but also credit the attitude Brown and church leaders brought to the effort. They envisioned vespers as a way of extending church hospitality into the community. They would open the doors to a free and friendly space to hear good music. They were pointedly not interested in the blues as a gimmick of evangelism.

Funny how that works, though. Blues Vespers has grown from Sunday nights of 100 blues lovers to 300. Brown saw many faces from those concerts at the standing-room-only Christmas Eve service.

He is getting married next month, and the pastor estimates blues musicians are a quarter of the guest list. He has performed weddings, offered spiritual counseling, and spoken at memorial services for them.

Blues Vespers has more top blues players eager to perform than Immanuel has monthly slots. The evening is no amateur hour, either. Two weeks ago, the artists were a quartet with guitarist John Curley Cooke, vocalist and harmonica player Annette Taborn, drummer Marty Vadalabene, bass player Rob Moitoza, and guest guitarist Rod Cook.

Those five names combine epic experience with legendary bands, global touring, countless recordings, and a wall full of best-of-the-blues hardware from the Washington Blues Society. Taborn, a veteran of the Midwest blues scene, is new to Seattle. Oh my, what a talent.

Next month, February 19, it is yet another group of venerated, all-star performers: The Mark Riley Trio, with special guest Alice Stuart, a member of the blues society’s Hall of Fame.

Immanuel Presbyterian Church is at 901 North J St. in Tacoma. A goodwill collection is taken up for the band. Let your conscience be your guide.

So how does one go about preparing to play in the sanctuary of a California mission-style church that is more than 100 years old and on the National Registry of Historic Places?

“Dave’s sermons set the tone for a really good feeling in the room,” said Curley Cooke. He has played Blues Vespers several times and he looks for positive but not necessarily spiritually oriented tunes. For certain, though, no “funky lyrics.”

In separate conversations, Brown and Cooke made the same point: Fans and musicians alike enjoy the combination of music with added value to think about later.

Musicians love to play the church. Blues Vespers is a vital offering on many levels. In 2004, Brown was celebrated by the Washington Blues Society for Keeping the Blues Alive—for blues fans, a hallowed honor.

Dave Brown (M.Div., 1980)
Tacoma, Washington

Two works of art form brackets of context and community around my professional journey of faith. First, the architecture of Pasadena Presbyterian Church. In the pulpit I picture Eugene Carson Blake, my role model, and in the bell tower was KPPC, the radio station my father started in 1923—emotional anchors that grounded me and propelled me into pastoral ministry. Second, the four-part Wagner opera The Ring at the Met, which I lavished in the week immediately following retirement from ministry. The wealth of emotion, beauty, human dynamics—free from all of the ecclesiastical context—welcomed me back to the world after thirty-three years of professional ministry.

Dianna Pohlman Bell (M.Div., 1973)
Sonoma, California

“Like Father, like Son”

One day I happened upon a wooden sculpture of a father teaching his son how to fashion something out of wood. Obviously, the artist was depicting Joseph the carpenter and his son Jesus. It was only a simple carving, but I was emotionally caught up in its symbolism and meaning. The artist was able to give one the feeling of a love and a caring that existed between father and son. It also reminded me that this is the way our heavenly Father wishes to relate to us. That is comforting to me.

So often art has tended to concentrate on the passion of Christ, recreating the moments of suffering and pain. But for me the image of a forgiving father running out to greet his son who was lost, or a carving of a carpenter patiently teaching his son something that will carry him through the rest of his life is inspiring in a very different and meaningful way.

Robert L. Sullivan (M.Div., 1964; Th.M., 1968)
Marmora, New Jersey

For the past two years I have been engaged in a comprehensive investigation into the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci and the reoccurring themes in those paintings. One such painting that has deeply affected me is the Annunciation. Leonardo was a scientist, and he did not believe in the virgin birth. So he painted Mary objecting to the Angel’s message on the basis of a biblical text, one that said a virgin would conceive a son. With her objection and Leonardo’s persistence, millions of unwed mothers and illegitimate children find hope in all that life holds in the family of God.

Richard Richmond (M.Div., 1985)
Kalamazoo, Michigan

Modeled on St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, the Basilique de Notre Dame de la Paix rises majestically from the jungle floor in Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire. As professor at a pastoral training college there in the forest country of West Africa, I often visited this marvel of architecture, and I could count on refreshment of spirit every time. My eyes would naturally follow the long curve of the wall upwards to the dome hundreds of feet above and my vision—both optical and spiritual—would naturally leave behind the squalor at ground level and gratefully rise to contemplate the heights.

Gene R. Smillie (M.Div., 1982)
Wheaton, Illinois

My late father Ted Gill (B.Th., 1943) spoke often about his twin passions, theology and the arts. He once observed that “no other kind of creating in the world is more analogous to God’s creation of the world than the artist’s shaping something new from the chaos of possibility, marking day from night in what is called chiaroscuro, delighting in swarming variety. The artist’s studio is Genesis 1 in parvo.” He encouraged disciplined yet delighted explorations of this relationship, “not just religion deigning to ‘use’ the arts when convenient and when a bargain, but real engagement between the two titans.”

Theodore A. Gill Jr. (M.Div., 1975)
Geneva, Switzerland

Over the past year, throwing pottery has become a spiritual discipline, especially important as I struggle with the aches of early middle age. At the wheel, I’ve come to recognize the value of investing in the process rather than the product. My fingers resting upon the centered clay are completely still even as it spins—in the stillness, I’ve learned to rest in the assurance of the God I hope for. As the clay, my hands, and the wheel explore together what this particular piece of pottery might become, I’ve learned (again) that God is more than I can imagine. Throwing is my soul work, my entree into the heart of God.

A Taste of the Spirit

by Faith Kirkham Hawkins

I began to throw in Minnesota,

when value was determined by product:

3 decent classes, 8 graded papers, 2 revised pages

1 coherent conversation with my spouse

added up to a good day.

The wheel loosened this tightly-held notion of success and failure.

Learning to center, arms braced against my belly,

hands interlocked on the clay;

pulling a cylinder, equal pressure from fingers inside and out,

just enough water so as not to drag the clay,

nor so much as to lead to soppy collapse—

procedures my head couldn’t grasp,

and so had to fall trusting,

into knowledge gained through my hands and gut.

I loved it.

Even so, when I moved from Minnesota I also left the wheel,

eventually forgot that the clay knew I was uncentered when I did not,

and taught me lessons I’d needed to learn.

These years of early middle-age are lined by “used tos”

as irrevocable as wrinkles and scars, some quite painful:

I used to be a jock, I used to sing in public, I used to have a mother, I used to throw pots

(and smoke pot too, but that’s another story altogether).

Increasingly uncentered, I dragged through losses real and imagined,

fell over from the watery weight of tears shed and unshed.

In the midst of the diluvian collapse, a casual mention

of a nearby studio murmured toward me,

a rope thrown from someone safely above the waves,

drawing me in from the floodplain to the wheel.

Pottery is very Zen, my teacher says with a giggle,

where process is the point,

where attending to a different dialogue is full participation,

where a smushed bowl teaches as much as a saved one,

and the alchemy of imagination turns disaster into art.

Several weeks ago a tall vase wobbled to various heights.

Rather than smush, I sliced haphazardly,

inserted a false crack down the side,

glazed with oxides to suggest age and use

a self-portrait, this cracked vessel.

Time in the studio is kairos,

which neither clocks nor watches track;

throwing—like living faithfully—is

conversational, relational.

At the wheel I’ve recognized my own exile from God

and my hope that God is not in exile from me,

even when, in this Babylonian middle age,

I do not remember Zion.

Throwing is my soul-work, it seems clear,

done from love and hope and gut instinct.

As my fingers sit still upon the centered, spinning clay,

I rest in the hope that God…is

As I join the conversation of hands, clay, and wheel

I rummage for the God I can’t yet…imagine.

Each bowl, wobbly or graceful,

brings a taste of the Spirit to my lips.

Faith Kirkham Hawkins (M.Div., 1993)
Decatur, Georgia

While at PTS, my wife and I visited the 1965 World’s Fair, most specifically to see Michelangelo’s sculpture The Pieta. In a darkened hall, we were ushered onto a crowded, slowly moving escalator. As we drew closer, the general hubbub quieted. Then suddenly it was before us under spotlights, unexpectedly small, indescribably delicate, and in translucent white marble against a blue velvet background. I was awestruck. Then it happened. Some people behind us burst into laughter. Much later, I concluded that the laughers did not judge The Pieta, they were judged—and maybe the gospel does that too. More recently, while wrestling with the interplay between subjective and objective faith, I sometimes wonder whether we are not being asked whether we desire and want the gospel to be true.

George T. Skaris (M.Div., 1968)
Johannesburg, South Africa

We had a lively worship experience last year of art inspiring and broadening our understanding of scripture at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Wichita, Kansas. The text for our contemporary worship service on Sunday evening was Jeremiah 18:1–11 and the theme was “How God molds and shapes us.” I had written a song titled “Potter’s House,” and we had a potter in the congregation, Debbie Cox, who set up her potter’s wheel in the sanctuary. As I started to preach on God as potter, Debbie started to mold and shape the vessel. The congregation actually came forward to see what she was doing as I spoke. The image of her hands at one with the pot and the fact that she got her hands dirty while she worked on the wheel gave us a very different image of the creator God. We actually saw the pot spoil in her hand as she reworked and reshaped it while I spoke. We closed with the song “Potter’s House.” Later in the week Debbie brought the finished pot back to find a home in the sanctuary. We used the pot for the foot washing service on Maundy Thursday that year. It was a great experience of using art to help us understand a Scripture verse that before had been merely symbolic. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a picture of Debbie shaping the pot, but we do have the song.

Potter’s House by Rob Erickson

The word came to Jeremiah from the Lord,

“Go down to the Potter’s House, I’ll let you hear my word”

So I went down to the Potter’s House, he was working at the wheel;

The vessel, it was made of clay, it wasn’t a big deal,

Until the vessel spoiled, right in the Potter’s hand.

The potter just reworked the pot, as God reworks a man.

Each one of us is like a vessel, molded by our God,

Short and tall, dark and light, each one of us quite odd.

But there is a real beauty in each one of us they say;

For we are all being shaped by God out of earthen bits of clay.

Jeremiah heard the word of God to Israel.

You and I can hear God’s word speaking to us still.

God’s church is not a factory, with people all the same,

Nor is it like a china shop, pretty plates upon display.

God’s church is like a Potter’s House, and we’re the pots God makes.

It’s by the strong and loving hand of God, we take our shape.

Each one of us is like a vessel, molded by our God,

Short and tall, dark and light, each one of us quite odd.

But there is a real beauty in each one of us they say;

For we are all being shaped by God out of earthen bits of clay.

Robert Erickson (M.Div., 1986; D.Min., 1996)
Wichita, Kansas

A few years ago, I heard Emmanuel performed by the Mississippi Mass Choir, which I often listen to on Sunday mornings before leading worship. The song expresses what I describe as raw joy, a shrill and exultant noise that shatters dead piety and spiritual malaise. It sounds like new wine bursting old wine skins and I can’t help but imagine that this is the kind of praise we will render before the heavenly throne. For a middle-class, white, Reformed pastor such as myself, this music keeps me connected to the overwhelming joy, awe, and gratitude the gospel calls me to proclaim.

Mindy Huffstetler (M.Div., 2002)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

My three-year-old Anna loves to trace her hand. It’s really the only thing she knows how to draw. We have her “art” all over the house—a turkey from Thanksgiving, a reindeer at Christmas, and her Valentine card to me was a hand with a heart in the middle…. Anna also has a heart for mission to the children of the world, so this year our family began sponsoring Josue, a five-year-old boy in Guatemala. Anna wanted his picture framed and placed on the shelf next to the pictures of our three little ones, so it’s there. And she asks me to read the blurb they sent about him to her over and over—how he carries water with his mother, that he goes to Vacation Bible School, that he loves playing with marbles…. She knows it by heart and calls him her brother. She prays for him at night. We recently received our first mail from him. Together, we opened the envelope as fast as we could. In it was a sweet note from Josue’s father…and a small hand traced in crayon on a white piece of paper! As Anna placed her hand perfectly between the lines, I knew that the hand of God was there as well!

Melinda Hoyt (M.Div., 2000)
Rancho Palos Verdes, California

“Looking Around”

How could they do it? I have said.

That spectacular spider’s weave,

Did that come from such a tiny head?

It’s a gossamer gift, so I believe!


How many stars can fill the sky?

Equally divided left from right,

Ordered, symmetrical, I know why.

 It’s breathtaking on a prairie night.


What is time or do we know?

A Paris clock, Greenwich Mean?

Its still a nano fast or slow.

Who times that perfect scene?


How could a human take the pain

Or willingly risk a total loss?

Self sacrifice is just insane,

Until we look beyond the Cross.


So many things left unexplained,

And not just hidden from view.

Some understandings never gained,

It takes faith to claim what’s true.

Chip Steele (M.Div., 1971)
Brockway, Pennsylvania

It was dark in the church basement and I was afraid. I couldn’t get that noise out of my head. Our second-grade Sunday school had gathered to watch a filmstrip of the crucifixion. It was one of those reel-to-reel things from the dark ages. The story was told through a series of paintings depicting the Last Supper, the trial and scourging, the journey to the cross, and finally the crucifixion. The artwork was vivid in its depiction of the details—the colors—the faces—but it was the sounds that overwhelmed me. The sound of the hammer reverberating as it hit the nail—echoing in the expanse of the basement. I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I went to my teacher and asked to be excused. On the way out the door I fainted. All of that suffering for me—

Sheryl Kinder Pyle (M.Div., 1988)
Limerick, Pennsylvania

Easter morning worship: A choir member named Joyce sang Mozart’s Alleluia, and transported me, almost physically, to heaven. I have never been so moved in my entire life. I wept tears of pure unbounded joy—and it was time to preach! The ingredients were, I think, a) Joyce’s deep and joyful faith (she grew up in Thailand, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries); b) her voice—flawless, pure, and clear; and c) something I can’t describe very well: total absence of “performer’s ego.” Joyce was singing her heart out to God—not to us, not even for us! The memory of that music will be with me for the rest of my life, and has already sustained me in some very dark times. Thank you, God!

David Preisendanz (M.Div., 1986)
Willow Grove, Pennsylvania

According to the script, the five of us (“the crowd”) were supposed to cry, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” I thought, “I can’t say this, I just can’t: but I guess I have to, and I have to cry out as though I mean it.” And I did. My chest tightened, my hands began to shake. I wept and felt the Holy Spirit working in me to fill me with Christ’s pain at that moment, so that I might truly see.

Susan Alloway (M.Div., 1996)
Cazenovia, New York

I’m a late bloomer, very late, indeed. I had never attended an opera, ballet, or major symphonic concert, nor visited an art museum, until age twenty-five.

The breakthrough came in Edinburgh, Scotland, when my friend Jock Wilson, a subscriber to the Scottish National Orchestra, offered me two tickets to an all-Beethoven concert at Usher Hall. I sat up in the peanut gallery. Piano Concerto #5 (Emperor) was to be performed after the intermission. Clara Haskil was listed as the soloist. Both the Emperor and Haskil were unknown to me. I hardly knew Beethoven.

Clara Haskil walked on stage in an ungainly manner and sat at the keyboard, poised, ready to play. She was not physically attractive. Her hair stuck out like Brillo pads.

The orchestra struck the first note and, together, they made music. Wait a minute, I thought. I’ve heard this stuff before, as a kid, watching cartoons!

The heavens parted! There stood Beethoven, in all his glory, removing scales from my eyes and plugs from my ears; and there sat Clara Haskil, his disciple, transmitting the nobility, eloquence, romance, tenderness, and power of the inspired work.

Profoundly moved (shaken is more accurate) I underwent a powerful spiritual transformation that changed the course of my life. Haskil emerged as the most beautiful woman on earth and I desperately wanted to run down several flights of stairs, up the aisle, grab her, hug her, and kiss her. Chicken that I am, I remained in the balcony, content to praise the name of my newfound idol Ludvig Van Beethoven.

I’ve not been the same since. There are at least six different recordings of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto in my collection, all great renditions, but, alas, none by Clara Haskil.

Eli Takesian (B.D., 1960)
Reston, Virginia

I am a reviewer and a theater buff, so I see a lot of theater. It is often possible to find spirituality in the experience of fine drama. I quickly remember a play at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2003 about a young student finding his own (gay) identity and sharing with classmates their experience with the death of loved ones while his own mother was battling serious cancer. It was a powerful drama, and a family experience: his parents were producing the play and his mother appeared as herself in the performance.

More recently I sat in a production of Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel in New Haven and was transfixed. It tells the improbable story of a Dutch librarian who chases down the background of a little travel guide returned to the library 113 years (!) late. It had been checked out by a person identified only as “A.” The librarian transforms his own aimless and insignificant life into one with meaning as he takes a worldwide journey following notes in the margins of the man he identifies as Ahasuerus—the shoemaker known as the “wandering jew” who seventeenth-century legend says taunted Jesus carrying the cross and was told “go on forever till I return.” How the librarian searched for clues to the presence of “A” and found his own redemption not only fascinated but claimed the audience. The high point of his ‘testimony’ focused on the phrase “I WAS HERE” scrawled on a wall. You had, of course, to be there to find that remarkable, but the evening was so spiritual, so powerful, and so immediate that I (and many others) had a rich worship experience. I am grateful that ‘I was there.’

Here’s my original review:

In a desperately shabby theatre, which he could only afford to rent for one rainy night, a “retired” Dutch librarian presents a little travelogue Chatauqua-style. He is somewhat disappointed that the crowd is small—his posters, he says, were better, but they were nevertheless over-pasted by others. “But, we will proceed…” And so begins an amazing theater piece—perhaps the best existential theater piece I have ever experienced—when Mark Nelson appears in Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel at Long Wharf (through June 11).

Nelson has appeared at Long Wharf before (he was the hero in Arms and the Man, for instance) and is a favorite. But nothing you have seen him in before will have prepared you for this one-man band. He is completely convincing and magically prepared to deal with the rain and his souvenirs of an around-the-world journey to seek out the reason and the story of a man identified only as “A.” It was “A” who checked out a book—a travel book—from the Hoofddorp Public Library in 1873, and then returned it, or had it returned, or “…whatever” 113 years later. A librarian’s nightmare! Which he chooses generously to share, in brilliant detail, with his audience.

So much for the story. The set is outrageous. The lighting and soundwork fabulous. The staging by director Eric Ting is superb. And those of you who follow my tips on theatre are advised to do anything NOT TO MISS this production. It’s a truly authentic exploration of who we are and what we’ve done and how we make choices right up to the end! Details at

Tom Nissley, for the Ridgelea Reports

Tom Nissley (M.Div., 1958)
New Canaan, Connecticut

In college, I was moved by Henri Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son, which described his encounter with Rembrandt’s painting of the same name. Rembrandt’s painting became a metaphor for Nouwen’s relationship with God, and this metaphor continued to be a vehicle to express emotions ranging from joy to grief and anger, as he relates to each character in the parable: the younger son, the elder son, and the father. Nouwen’s book modeled vulnerability, as it encouraged me to relate to each person in the parable. Since this experience, I have learned to be more aware of my own feeling response to each scriptural text and to trust my inner resources.

Jonas Mark Hayes (M.Div., 2003)
Palo Alto, California

As a young child I loved visiting the home of my best friend Mary, who was from a very devout Greek Orthodox family. What captivated me most was not her mother’s amazing cooking, or her grown-up sister’s makeup and high-heeled shoes, but the strange and mysterious pictures of Jesus that filled her home. Icons were not a part of my Presbyterian heritage, and certainly never adorned my home or the bare white walls of our traditional sanctuary. And although they fascinated me as a child, it was not until recently that I truly developed a deep appreciation of their power as a window to prayer. I was reintroduced to icons through my spiritual direction training at Oasis Ministries, and was delighted to discover that iconic images have the power to draw me into a deeply prayerful place. My favorite icon is Adreai Rublev’s The Trinity or Abraham’s visit. While recently preaching on this passage in Genesis, I used our Powerpoint screen to display this beautiful icon of the three heavenly visitors that Abraham so eagerly welcomed into his home. It was a communion Sunday, and I invited the congregation to notice the empty place at the table, closest to where we stand, and the invitation it offers for us to join this holy gathering. Just as Abraham had prepared a place at his table for God, so God prepares a place at the table for us. Each time I gaze at this piece of art, I am reminded of Abraham’s hospitality toward God, and God’s hospitality toward us. I am reminded of God’s place for me at the table, and I am challenged to ask myself whether I am making room at my table for God and those strangers who come my way, in whom I may find the very presence of Jesus Christ himself.

Jenna Goggins (M.Div, 1998)
Allentown, New Jersey

I distinctly remember a time I was singing the Sanctus in Sunday liturgy. We believe we join with the heavenly hosts in singing this hymn of unending praise to God, and somehow that became very real to me in that moment. Tears came to my eyes and all I felt was humility. Who am I to be worthy to praise a God who loves me, a sinner, so much? The music and the prayer melded together so profoundly and struck me like lightning. I had never felt so lifted out of earthly time and space in liturgy before. It was one of the most intimate experiences of God I’ve ever had.

Julie Hoplamazian (M.Div., 2006)
New York, New York

I would have to say that my most inspiring experience of faith and art was when I was on vacation in southern California a few years ago. I had the chance to go to worship at the Glendale Presbyterian Church in Glendale, California. My daughter and I sat up in the balcony during the Sunday morning contemporary worship service. I was inspired by the front of the sanctuary, which displayed a huge white rock wall, with a pool of water at its base with trees and plants around it. At the top the ceiling was open to the sky and sunlight poured down upon the wooden cross at the top of the rock formation. It was thought-provoking, and, because I had been to the Holy Land, similar to rock in the Holy Land.

After the worship service, we had time to turn around in the balcony and see a huge, modern, stained glass portrayal of Christ. The size was immense; the face, kind; the figure strong; and the whole confluence of colors with the sunshine pouring through just breathtaking! We stood for a while drinking in its beauty and power, having never seen such a large, modern, powerful, and colorful portrayal of Christ. Then, inspired by that gigantic portrait we decided to go downstairs to the floor level and look at the windows on either end of the transept. They were also quite moving. I highly recommend a visit to this church for its modern, large, and outstanding stained glass portrayals, besides its excellent services!

Nancy Guthrie Ditmars (M.Div., 1982)
New Milford, New Jersey

In Dalecarlia, in the centre of Sweden, in the middle of the ninteenth century, local painters developed a special artform. The painters were not famous, and they did not always sign their works. They often painted directly on the walls or the furniture.

The artform: the “kurbits” paintings included stylistic flower patterns, reflecting the overwhelming early summer days in the region. The motifs were almost always biblical. But when the painting of Jesus entering Jerusalem was presented, Jesus were entering the city of Falun i Dalecarlia, encountering people dressed up in the nineteenth-century fashion. When Gabriel was sent to Maria, the painting showed a young girl and an archangel depicted almost as if they were encountering each other in the midst of Sweden.

The paintings have very few landscape details, except from the very developed flowers, the kurbits. The people are not realistic or romantic, but rural. But the environment, the details, and the contextualization of the gospel are very obvious. This has contributed to the popularity of the paintings.

In my office, I have a copy of the “age staircase,” a painting taking the theme from Job 14:1–2. It is painted by Winter Carl Hansson (1777–1805). For each ten years from birth to the grave, a man/boy and a woman/girl are painted together. The whole staircase goes upward until the age of fifty and then downward again. In the early years the kurbits is fresh and new, in the old years, the kurbits is also about to die.

For me, this contextualized picture of life, as it seemed to people of an orthodox Lutheran piety 200 years ago, still preaches vital insights about our human conditions for life. Memento mori. In this situation, in the reflection about “how few our days are,” we are able to take every day as a gift from God, enabling us to act as the wise stewards, working for the Kingdom of God, by grace alone.

Hans Andreasson (Th.M., 1993)
Mora, Sweden

This is an easy one for me—my piece is a pewter pelican that a member of my consistory gave to me in an effort to forestall a tattoo (but that is another story).

The pelican is important to me because it allows me to reach out to people who might not comment on a cross. The pelican is an ancient Celtic symbol for Christ, and was used by the Celts when they were evangelizing northern Europe, in the late fifth and sixth centuries. Pelicans, if they cannot find fish to feed their babies, will tear at their own breasts and feed their babies with their flesh. And sometimes the pelicans will bleed to death…. The indigenous peoples immediately understood Jesus’ sacrificial love, using that symbol.

Cathy Gumpert (M.Div., 2000; Th.M., 2001)
Whitehouse Station, New Jersey

I was always curious why a conservative Presbyterian session room would have a Roman Catholic cross—with a caricature of suffering Jesus on it—adorning the main wall. It was an artistic piece but it didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the room. As usual we weren’t getting anywhere. Everyone had something to say about everything. Then I saw it. It was the cross with Jesus on it. No doubt Jesus was suffering the same thing I was suffering, and God wanted to let me know. What an epiphany it was! And how appropriate was the cross!

Peter B. Min (M.Div., 1990; Th. M., 1991)
Torrance, California

One of my fondest memories from seminary is the gospel choir during academic year 1992–1993. We were a mix of cultures as well as races. Some of us had to learn to sway in time and clap as we sang. We were mediocre at the beginning of the year, but by the end we were awesome (in my humble and biased estimation). Someone commented that the Kingdom of God will look as varied as the singers in our choir. I still sing some of those pieces: “I Love the Lord, Who Heard My Prayer” and “Ride On, King Jesus.” Some things etch themselves on your soul.

Robin Miller Currás (M. Div., 1993; Th.M., 1998)
Sparta, New Jersey

I do not want to be negative in my response but I would be honest.

In 1943 I took the Kuder Preference Test and ranked lowest (a #1 as compared to #9 for computation) for artistic and literary. Even though my father was a musician and my son is a musician—and my granddaughter is an artist (a senior at Arcadia), I do not relate the arts to my faith. At times, I have been thrilled by good music.

I may be in the minority, of course.

Paul White (M.Div., 1950)
Alexandria, Minnesota

I am a 1984 Th.M. graduate of PTS and a theology professor at Concordia University in Wisconsin. My New Testament survey class students have the option of making a cross that shows the contradictions within the crucifixion. Their crosses combine love and hate, horror and beauty. One student made a weathered cross, fallen on its side into a bed of weeds and thorns. Yet one green, vibrant vine grew from the weeds and filled the center and arms of the cross. It was a beautiful picture of the curse of Genesis 3 overcome by the living Vine on the cross.

Daniel Paavola (Th.M., 1984)
Cedar Grove, Wisconsin

The Harry Potter books can give a reader a greater sense of wonder at what worlds may lie beyond ordinary senses. Elements from the series may help someone look at faith in fresh ways. For example, when reading Scripture now, I imagine dipping my face into a pensieve, a pool of collective memories, and coming up dripping and changed.

Christopher R. Brundage (M.Div., 1993)
Adrian, Michigan

Margin Call

By sixth grade, read through all the children’s rooms,

downstairs at the County Library, an old brick home

on East Main. Miss Pearson: adult books and classics

upstairs okay now, here’s Howells’ The Rise of Silas

Lapham, thinking to foster in me ambition and hard

work no doubt. Too much works righteousness,

but wished everyone could freely ascend somehow.

Six years later, after singing “In Christ no East or West”

in the camp lodge one earthwide community of love,

another, “real” call, to serve in that very church, that

consummately open mansion.


Yesterday, a thousand calls since then, the film

House of Sand, at the extreme desert margin

of coastal Brazil. Three generations of women

barely hanging on, terrible loss, instants of blessedness,

though, call me in the driftwood hut of anguish there.

At 75 the calls still arise in this way

and, always, at my own margins.

Terrence N. Tice (M.Div., 1956; Th.D. 1961)
Denver, Colorado

I’ve had many experiences in the intersection of faith and art. I have a particular interest in film and have written a book on the British fantasy director Terence Fisher. An unforgettable moment for me is at the climax of Fisher’s 1960 film Brides of Dracula, when Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) jumps up and grasps the spoke of a windmill, suddenly turning the windmill into a giant Celtic cross catching the vampire in its shadow.

Seconds later the windmill bursts into flame, creating a brief fiery backdrop to the cross.

It is one of the finest of the British Hammer films of the 1950s–’60s, which has influenced a whole generation of filmmakers.

Paul Leggett (M.Div., 1971; Th.M., 1973)
Montclair, New Jersey

It was twenty-five years ago that my wife and I entered an Orthodox church in the Russian city then known as Zagorsk. We were greeted with the nasal intonation of a choir of women endlessly repeating “hospodipomiwi” (Lord, have mercy). The walls were laden with brilliantly colored icons and the incense was so thick we had to catch our breath. The presiding priest chanted the liturgy as we mingled with the crowd and caught the bodily odors of the gathered faithful. It was around noon and we noticed several people move to the rear of the church and open brown lunch bags. As we watched, one of the women took a big bite out of an onion, as if it were an apple. Our whole sensorium was vibrating with the flood of artistic impressions. All of this, of course, the congregants were offering to the glory of God! We have mused ever since about how the forms of art enable us to worship in ways more movingly than verbal expressions may allow.

Eugene C. (Gene) Jaberg (1953b)
Fridley, Minnesota

I have found The Urantia Book to be the most inspiring source of reality that has the potential to bring a renaissance to Christianity.

Meredith J. Sprunger (M.Th., 1941)
Fort Wayne, Indiana

Six years ago, Lake Shore (Presbyterian) Church initiated committed modern

worship while maintaining its traditional worship style. The transformation of the church’s culture to include more radical worship experiences has enlarged the vision of the church and what it is capable of becoming. Through the thick and thin of the transformation, radical changes came in the form of liturgy in the modern worship service. The lack of normal traditional liturgy in modern worship was of great concern to the traditional worshiper. Today, Lake Shore Church stands as the model of worship ministry for the ninety churches in the Presbytery of Detroit, according to the executive presbyter, Al Timm.

As a result, the mixture of modern music, drama, audio-visual arts in worship has advanced the gospel message in a community that has seen the loss of more than 33,000 people in population over the last thirty-five years. Considering a radius of twelve to fifteen miles, that population loss reaches far above 60,000 people over the same time period. Yet, Lake Shore Church has grown to 350–400 people in worship attendance during the fall to spring season as compared to the years before the institution of our modern worship service (225 in worship). This transformation in worship has ignited my faith as a pastor and given hope for the mainline that struggles in today’s changing society.

The impact that the arts have had on the local church has been staggering. Modern worship has drawn a large number of people within the congregation into ministry by simply offering opportunities for people to be engaged in worship in a variety of ways. The arts have had a major part in the growth of the church in a community that struggles with population loss and a community that is aging. Modern worship has also created interest and excitement within traditional worship as the liturgy team has become more creative while maintaining historical and traditional roots.

Tom Duncan (M.Div., 1972)
St. Clair Shores, Michigan

I was sitting in the sanctuary of the Catholic Community of Denton, Texas, for the convocation service of the University of North Texas. The crucifix is a slightly larger-than-life-sized image of Christ, carved from Honduran mahogany (and the Christ is decidedly Hispanic). There is no actual cross; the figure is cruciform, suspended in front of a pure white wall, almost soaring. In the wrists, feet, and side are the marks of Jesus’ wounds. As I listened to the preacher, I was captivated by the image. I couldn’t tell if it was a crucifix, per se, or an image of the risen Jesus. Then it struck me: every artistic expression of the risen Jesus includes the images of the wounds. How incredible that those wounds are not healed over or airbrushed, post-crucifixion and burial. Presumably, when we see the risen Jesus we will be brothers and sisters of Thomas: we will see the wounds. It was overwhelming to realize that the wounds actually magnify the power of the risen Lord: what a vision of true redemption. The wounds are not eliminated; they are real, and are very much a part of the story. But not the whole story, nor the end of it. As with Jesus, so with us. In a strange way the redemptive love of Jesus makes our wounds, our holes, precious parts of our whole story, and certainly not the end of it. Within the context of Jesus’ love, we don’t need to airbrush out the holes, or fill them in, or pretend they aren’t there. They are redeemed, as we are redeemed. At least, that’s how I see it, thanks to the witness of one of the most powerful artworks to touch my faith.

Val Fowler (M.Div., 1975)
Honeoye Falls, New York

Chalmers Browne and I were missionaries in Mozambique from 1975 to 1979. Here is my offering. Nature has her art. We traveled through elephant grass to a small grouping of round houses shaded among trees. Fires were glowing in the outdoor kitchens as supper was cooking. After a delicious meal we went to the chapel. Five wide-spreading tamarind trees created the dome and backdrop of the chapel. A simple stand and chair provided the pulpit. Rows of backless benches, their legs firmly rooted in the sand carpeted with tamarind leaves, offered seating for the congregation. We were an awed and reverent group as we sang, recited, and listened, and prayed. The Spirit was very present in the full sweep under the participating tamarind trees.

Pauline Browne (1952b)
St. Petersburg, Florida

I write and illustrate children’s stories. In Saving Terros, a young man Chris is sent by his father Elohim from the kingdom of Ouranos to the province of Terros to rescue it from the false ruler Poneros who has seized control. At the climax Poneros deceives Chris and hangs him on a tree.

While I was drawing the illustration for this scene, the pathos and powerlessness of Chris dying and the evil of Poneros gloating overwhelmed me with sorrow. Yet the promise of saving grace that was imminent in this event strengthened my heart with hope and faith.

G. Richard Doerbaum (B.D., 1956)
Naples, Florida