We are delighted that more than 120 alums responded to the inSpire Interactive question about the interplay between faith and the arts. As many responses as possible were printed in inSpire, and more are here online. If you are a PTS alum and want to contact these writers for further conversation and exchange, you can find their email addresses on the protected alumni/ae web pages at www.ptsem.edu. We look forward to nurturing online alumni/ae conversation and community through this online inSpire forum.
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When I was a young man, shortly after World War II I started to study theology and at the same time tried to find something that might give me hope. I came across a wood engraving by the German sculptor Gerhard Marks. It shows Noah in the Ark, surrounded by an endless and fearsome sea, at the moment when Noah reaches out to receive the dove with an olive branch as a sign for something that could not be seen at all, but at the same time is the only thing that gives strength, which is of course hope itself, hope which only the Bible can give. This little wood engraving has accompanied me ever since, wherever I am.
Hans Pfeifer (1955–56b)
I felt deeply touched when I attended an executive committee meeting of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in Bangalore, India. The meeting was hosted by the Church of South India. There was a team of teenagers who were dressed in rainbow colors and made an excellent presentation. “I am the blue color…the most beautiful color in the world as I am similar to the sky,” one said. Another said, “I am red, the most beautiful color, as I am similar to blood…” At the end all the different colors said unanimously, “I am the most beautiful color.” It led me to understand and feel how our diversity becomes a blessing from God!
Coutinho M. Moma (Th.M., 2005)
I came across an issue of the journal Parabola that was devoted to the theme of “prison.” On the cover was Vincent van Gogh’s Prisoner’s Walk, which depicts a gloomy scene of several dozen prisoners surrounded by drab high walls, walking in a circle. Everyone is bored and depressed, even the guards. Somehow the image stuck with me such that I then began looking for a print of the painting. When I found the image on the internet I realized that the Parabola editors had clipped the scene and had only shown the bottom, with the prisoners and walls. In the original painting, very high up above the prisoners walking in their circle, was a butterfly. To verbalize all that butterfly means and symbolizes would take pages. For me that is the power of art.
Arthur Suggs (M.Div., 1983)
Binghamton, New York
The sine qua non of God’s presence, and the experience of music as “the language of the soul,” happened for me in January 2000 at Carnegie Hall, when my sister Marian Rian Hays was one of four harpists with the National Symphony Orchestra, playing Hector Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique (1830). This piece of program music tells the story of an artist with a lively imagination who has poisoned himself with opium in the depths of despair over his hopeless love for an actress (obviously autobiographical of Berlioz’s infatuation with Harriet Smithson). Despite this seemingly areligious theme, the power and soaring quality of this music, combined with the technical virtuosity of the musicians, displayed for me music as a spiritual discipline where God speaks to us through music, as Karl Barth so well affirmed with his love of Mozart.
Abigail Rian Evans (M.Div., 1968)
Princeton, New Jersey
“Sinner, do you love my Jesus?” The simple haunting words of this spiritual filled the cold bare room with a warm feeling of faith and hope. Lulu then sang the next line and all thirty African American women repeated her words. For the next hour the prisoners in this segregated prison in Virginia prayed in song. It was their Sunday night worship meeting. As I sat among them and listened to their voices and looked at their beautiful faces lifted up to God, I prayed for a faith as deep and strong as theirs. They had revealed the encompassing love of God and had enlivened my life calling to service, “I was in prison and you came to me.”
Genevieve “Genie” Kozinski Jacobs (M.R.E., 1951)
My experience defies description: I found myself alone in the Sistine Chapel in July 1992, so I simply lay down in the middle of the floor and stared at the ceiling.
Richard L. Cosnotti (M.Div., 1976)
The apostle Paul describes a God in whom we “live and move and have our being.” For me, he is describing a God who dances and who revels in our “offering our bodies as living sacrifices” in what can be called sacred, liturgical, or praise dance. My call to Liberty Corner Presbyterian Church gave me an opportunity to connect my lifelong love of dance with worship. Through a partnership with member Nancy Quinn Goellner, we have been blessed with the “GraceMoves” Dance Choir, a group of women and teens who love to praise God through dance. Currently the group of twelve dances to contemporary Christian music as well as hymns, and also has danced at local churches.
Anne K. Havrilla (M.Div., 1982)
Basking Ridge, New Jersey
Photo: Jim Flood
When I served Hamline United Methodist Church in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we had a large entrance through which children passed for the co-op Nursery School. A gift helped us purchase a large piece of catalpa wood, carved with mother and child held by a very large hand. It was carved by a navy veteran who had little art experience; he called it an “implosion.” One could even see a tear in the mother’s eye, created by the wood grain. One noon a child from the nursery school jumped up the two steps on which the carving stood, kissed the mother, and darted out the door to be with family going home. The Spirit continues to communicate through art with children.
Bruce Buller (D.Min., 1986)
I live in California but worship regularly at a church in Vernon, forty-three miles above Paris on the Seine. I began “attending” in the 1980s. “Attending” is the precise word, too. My “transport” has been Claude Monet’s L’Eglise de Vernon. After hundreds of visits I am less interested in Monet’s Vernon than in sitting inside the church. I walk in, “loaf and invite my soul,” sit, doze, and watch the shadows, the cool stones, the high nave, and dark wood. Under the tutelage of Monet and some still, small voice among the pews, I have sat for years “under the shadow of the Almighty.”
Marv Hiles (Th.M., 1965)
The piece of art is the Pieta by Michelangelo.
I first saw it on my honeymoon and wasn’t particularly moved. There were several nuns weeping while my wife and I were there and I just didn’t get it. It was something we were supposed to see as part of the tour of the Vatican.
Lately, I have been journeying with the desire to connect more with the feminine side of God. My mother died a while ago and one day I was triggered into my grief about that. The image of the Pieta came to me and I understood what the nuns were weeping about. It wasn’t about the dead Christ, it was about the love of the mother. While I am not Catholic and would have theological issues with the veneration of the blessed virgin, I do see how it is a way Catholics access the sacred feminine.
All of this has shaped the way I view God now, both masculine and feminine. My desire for the love of a mother can be quenched by God as I see God in this way. It is still a spiritual work in process, but it feels that I’m on the right track. My female colleagues at PTS back in the early 1970s knew this way before I did.
Mark R. Laaser (Ph.D.,1974)
Eden Prairie, Minnesota
As a teenager, I visited the rotunda of Knox (Theological College in Toronto) and saw for the first time a marble life-sized statue of Margaret of Wigtownshire, Scotland, a Covenanter martyr. Here was a young girl, my age, tied to a stake because she refused to renounce the faith. Her face, beautifully sculpted in white stone, spoke to me of inner resolution and moved me deeply. The artist captured a wonderful strength that had enabled her to stand against evil and to trust in the promises of her Savior. To think that a girl of my own age was ready to die for her faith touched me deeply. I thought then and there of my own easy life and asked myself how I could be a more faithful witness to Christ’s way.
John A Johnston (Th.M., 1956)
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
My most significant encounter with the mystic presence of God through the arts came in Paris about ten years ago. One morning while sightseeing my family and I wandered into a residential district and chanced upon an imposing church, and, for some reason, walked in. As we crossed the portal, I realized it was St. Clotilde—the parish where the famous French composer Cesar Franck was the organist for many years, in the latter part of the nineteenth century. When I was at Princeton, I studied organ with Carl Weinrich, University Chapel organist for decades. Among the works we studied was the Second Chorale Prelude by Franck. I felt grateful simply to have stumbled upon the great church where Franck had played and composed such masterpieces as the three Chorale Preludes for organ. But as we sat down for a few moments in a sanctuary seat, I whispered a thought—really a prayer—to my wife’s ears. “I only wish that someone were here this afternoon to play some Franck, from the organ up in that balcony.” Not two minutes thereafter, an unseen hand up in the gallery did begin to play softly the opening strains of the Second Chorale Prelude. My young children were startled to see the tears at the corners of my eyes. “What is going on with Dad?” They could not understand that I had just experienced “the communion of the saints.”
Edward F. Duffy (M.Div., 1980)
In the original publication of Family of Man, a 1955 photo exhibit by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art, there is a photo of a young girl at a candle-lit altar. Even at a time when I had lost my awareness of God, the glow on her face struck me as the glow of faith. Seeing that glow was the beginning of striving and seeking to find and notice and accept the good that God intends for us.
Kenneth I. Rothman (M.Div., 1989; Ph.D., 1999)
Trenton, New Jersey
At the Art Institute of Chicago is a ten-foot, pincher-type clothespin standing upright, the flared edges (where one pinches) forming the “legs” of the sculpture (Clothespin, by Claes Oldenburg, from the school of “sculpture made with found objects”). On many occasions I passed this sculpture, scratching my head at it. Then one, day, my reaction of “that’s art!?!” was utterly transformed. I happened to walk by the work one March day just as the late afternoon sunlight was moving across its top. I was transfixed. Suddenly, it was no longer a giant clothespin, but two human beings—standing, embracing, breasts touching, kissing, their midsections bound tightly together by the spring, and their faces illuminated by joy at the discovery of their new-found love. At that instant, the work had ceased to be a clothespin and had become a statement about human emotions, sexuality, and the imago Dei.
Cited in his book Participating in Worship (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1989), p. 18.
Craig Douglas Erickson (M.Div., 1973; Th.M., 1974)
While I was at seminary my grandmother died. I felt helpless, sad and alone. Being a “closet Anglican” even then, I did what came naturally. I locked my door, lit a candle, and listened to Requiem by Maurice Duruflé. We had sung the piece in the Seminary choir and I knew it musically. But this time, I really began to pray the words. “Requiem aeternum dona eis, Domine” (Grant them eternal rest, O Lord). Those words, prayed through music, gave shape and sense to my grief. Liturgical music has continued to shape my life and move me nearer to God.
John Beddingfield (M.Div., 1991)
New York, New York
You can keep most of those 100 words you are allowing. All I need are these: Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo. There’s a sermon on every page.
Kirk Morledge (M.Div., 1984)
The most powerful intersection of faith and arts I experienced was watching the great Marcel Marceau perform live The Maskmaker, where he became a maskmaker sitting down enjoying his trade. He would carve a mask, and then try it on. Marceau’s face would instantly be transformed into different dramatic masks: ferocious, depressed, surprised, and so on. The last one he tried on was a laughing mask, and when he put it on, he laughed—silently, of course. The problem became that he couldn’t get the mask off. The other difficulty was that because it was a laughing mask, all he could do was laugh about it. Finally, he gave up, which he enacted by sitting and slumping.
But then after a long dramatic pause, he stood up, pulled the mask off, and stretched out his arms as if on a cross. His face, in a gradual transformation, slowly changed from laughter to one of pure agony. Then as an intense light from above shone on his face, his face again changed from one of agony to one of tortured but glorious rapture.
I was deeply moved by Marceau’s profound interpretation. The path of the cross unmasks us all, revealing our truest nature. It affected my view of the atonement in a way no systematic theology ever had.
Monica McDowell Elvig (M.Div., 1994)
I think immediately of a very early painting by Vincent van Gogh. I saw it on exhibit in the Philadelphia Museum of Art while I was still a student at Princeton Seminary, now more than fifty years ago. I purchased a print and carried it around for many years, and it may still be buried somewhere among my papers.
The painting is titled simply Still Life with Bible, which features two books. One is a large Bible, lying open. The second is a cheap paperback volume, closed and lying atop the open Bible. The lines on the pages of the Bible are not legible. Visible at the top of the page, however, is the name of the book, in French, Isaie; and partway down one column is the Roman numeral “LIII.” The paperback book is also identified. In letters that look hand-printed, the title is clearly legible: Le Joie d’ Vivre.
It is a beautiful still-life painting for the book-lover, actually rather conventional until its written message is noticed. It reveals a fundamental tension in the artist’s life, and certainly in mine. The joy of life is juxtaposed with, and in unresolved tension with, the image of the Suffering Servant.
Charles House (M.Div., 1955)
Park Rapids, Minnesota
I continue to find encouragement and wisdom in the often raw lyrics of Bono and U2. In high school, songs like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Bad” told me the story of hope, of God who remained incarnate amid the pain and frustration in our world. I took a significant step toward reconciling my “church life” with my “real life” when my youth pastor (also a PTS alum) told me he also resonated with that music. Even now, Bono’s pleas for justice continue to inspire my own efforts to speak truth.
Jake Marvel (M.Div., 2001)
Clifton Park, New York
I’ve seen the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and the Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt in the Hermitage. I saw the original production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night on Broadway. I’ve wandered through the The Cycle of Life statues of Vigeland Park in Oslo and seen The Magic Flute in the old Metropolitan Opera House. All left indelible marks on my soul. But the piece of art that moved me most was a small wooden carving of Jesus praying in Gethsemane, done by an unknown artist in the hill country of Haiti. The seminary choirmate who purchased it and I contemplated it for hours, speechless, and its image has stayed with me my whole ministry. Nothing ever brought me closer to the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ than that did. I doubt anything ever could.
George L. Miller (M.Div., 1960)
One of the most powerful contemporary Christian sculptures I’ve seen is in the public audience room of the Vatican. At first glance it appears to be tongues of flame dancing upward, but closer inspection reveals that the contorted flames are not fire at all, but skeleton bodies rising up to join in the resurrection dance. Like the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision, these bones rise up to be embraced by new life. When I encounter the darkness of human pain and suffering, the image of this sculpture reminds me of God’s power to restore broken lives to wholeness.
Ann Lewis (M.Div., 1984; Th.M., 1987)
As an undergraduate beginning to hear the call at a university with no religion department, when I found an evening college course exploring faith through literature, I signed up. The professor, Ralph Harper, had a Harvard Ph.D. in philosophy, but chose to serve as pastor and head of a small school. Best book on the syllabus: Georges Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest. I read it straight through. Bernanos moved me toward the pastorate and PTS instead of a university divinity school. Later, in the parish, I understood more the power of humility and the blessing of colleagues.
Christian Iosso (M.Div., 1979)
My wife and I grew up in a setting where dance was beyond the fringes of Christian activity. Then, our youngest daughter became involved in ballet. She toured with Ballet Magnificat of Jackson, Mississippi, for two years and then got a degree in theology and dance choreography, graduating from Hope College in Holland, Michigan. She has founded a school of dance with a Christian focus in that city, Turning Pointe School of Dance. My wife and I have found that ballet has an ability to express profound religious concepts and helps the feeling of the heart understand and express the thoughts of the mind. Christian faith is something that can be communicated by various senses; at an earlier time the Christian community often assumed that the spoken word was the only way to express our faith. Music, drama, dance, and visual arts can play an important role.
Paul Bremer (Ph.D., 1974)
Grand Rapids, Michigan
It’s my own shortsightedness to see a recent member of the congregation as an autistic child of seventeen years of age. Though that is what I saw with my own set of spectacles, God the Optometrist quickly revealed to me that my vision was blurred. Because it is sometimes challenging to communicate with Leland verbally, I failed to see God’s amazing creativity living in him, an artist made by the Artist. Leland has reminded me that every so often, I need to make an appointment with the Optometrist so that I can align my vision to God’s. Leland has been such a bright and wonderful member of our congregation, praise God! Visit http://lelandlee.com/ to see Leland’s artwork.
Peter Chen (M.Div., 2006)
At the last church I served, in Wheaton, Illinois, a sacred arts festival was started (well before my arrival) and rapidly grew into the largest juried exhibit of sacred art in the country. The exhibit became so large, in fact, that my former church at one point had to take on a partner—which turned out to be the Billy Graham Center on the campus of Wheaton College. Their exhibit space was wonderful, and in a few years the Sacred Arts Festival grew into the BGC’s largest annual exhibit. The actual distance between First Presbyterian Church and Wheaton College is only a few city blocks, but the theological and cultural distance was another matter altogether. For years the church and college acted as though the other institution did not exist. I think it’s fair to say that art—in this case, sacred art—did more than any conversation or ecumenical dialogue ever could have done to bring our two institutions together. In art, we found a common ground, from which friendship and cooperation could grow.
Douglas J. Brouwer (M.Div., 1979; D.Min., 1986)
Ann Arbor, Michigan
I serve a tiny church in rural upstate New York, where “arts” in the course of worship has, in my tenure of three years, usually consisted of nothing much more than a 1964 Gibson arch-top electric played with exquisite mediocrity by the pastor, but which has led us all into some exciting places. Our most recent foray was into African American spirituals, this time with “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” in the New Century hymnal (#2 in fact). Our average age is seventy years old. There isn’t an African American within several miles. And our rendition is anything but authentic. But we have had a wonderful time blowing out of the staid confines of Congregational tradition, catching a spirit that seems to vibrate somewhere between the notes, and—most tellingly—ending the song still hungry for more. More of what? Hmmm…I guess I’d call it Spirit. Something alive, pulsating, fresh, and delicious. The drawback is that everything else in worship pales by contrast…which can make for a whale of a homiletic challenge for one of only modest gifts in that area! If it were up to me…and perhaps many others…we’d sing all morning long! Imagine that!!
Tim (Thomas) Hamlin (M.Div., 1985)
Canandaigua, New York
In the late 1970s at the PTS Summer Institute, I heard Dr. Ted Gill give a lecture titled “Faith Is Like Painting a Picture.” He pointed out that when you look at paintings you don’t say, “That painter is right and the other painter is wrong.” So it is with people’s faith: you can’t judge another’s faith as wrong, just because it does not agree with your own. Dr. Gill had four paintings of Christ projected on to a screen to illustrate his point. He said, “No one can say that one is right and the other three are wrong.” Recently I received from Theo Gill and his sister (the son and daughter of Dr. Gill) permission to use the title and idea in a manuscript of sermons titled “Pulpit Pot-Pourrie.”
James R.Carroll (Th.M., 1942)
When I first heard about the church’s tradition, I was mortified. A live model on a cross in the sanctuary on Good Friday? It sounded…well…the only applicable word is gross.
But on a dreary evening in 1986, I watched as area artists (and my two small children) painted their impressions of the Crucifixion as sacred music played. Ink bled across canvas…and the wounded, sacred head appeared. Dark water ran from the pierced side…tears stained my cheeks. I have never been so moved. And that painting still convicts me every day from the wall of my study.
Arthur F. Fogartie (M.Div., 1978)
This is about a work titled Communion, by contemporary realist painter Robert C. Jackson. White bread and grape soda were staples around the kitchen table of my pre-adolescent years. It was quite common on a Saturday afternoon to find these two side-by-side ready to be consumed. And here they are set before me again. But it’s a little bit different this time around. They are set before me as “communion.” That which is common has now been declared sacred. The line is blurred and yet comes into focus. After being presented this meal I can no longer look at them in the same way. They are different, set apart. They remain common and yet extraordinary. And so it is and so am I. That is what Communion reminds me of. To view the art, go to www.robertcjackson.com.
Tony Sundermeier (M.Div., 2003)
West Chester, Pennsylvania
I recently learned that Ted Neely will perform in a farewell tour in our area. He’s the 1970s rock singer who played the movie role of “Jesus” in the Chris Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. By far, this has been the most influential piece of “religious” art in my faith development. Although it is not a Christian production and is considered by some to be blasphemy, I have found the lyrics and scenes of this musical drama of the Passion of our Lord to be thought-provoking, risk-taking, largely faithful to the biblical text, and moving to the human soul wherever one might be spiritually. I was once privileged to sing a role in a community theater production, and still find the music rising to the surface when trying to understand or convey the sense of a biblical text. I will definitely be in the audience when the show rolls into our area, and highly recommend it to others!
Steve Fritz, (M.Div., 1989)
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
When my wife and I visited The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, we went in early to stand before Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son. We had read Henri Nouwen’s experiences of going early (before the crowds moved in) to gaze at this depiction of an amazing human encounter. He reminded us to look carefully at the father’s hands. The right hand is distinctly that of a woman, the left hand of a man. I can never again think only of a masculine God.
John H. Sinclair (B.D., 1947; Th.M., 1953)
After serving in the navy in the South Pacific during WWII, I returned to Princeton to do graduate work in music. A few years later I became chairman of the Music Department at Vassar College. On one occasion I was directing a performance of Handel’s Messiah. As the chorus was singing, “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way,” followed by, “And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all,” the message of those words suddenly made a profound impact on me. I believe that moment was the beginning of the road that led me to Princeton Seminary.
Henry Morgan (B.D., 1956)
Early in my first pastorate in an early 1960s edition of Presbyterian Life there appeared on the cover a copy of a Sadao Watanabe painting of Jesus washing the disciple Peter’s feet. It captured my imagination and touched my heart. Less that a decade later on a missionary journey to Japan I met and spoke with the artist. I learned that Watanabe was introduced to the biblical art that missionaries brought to Japan in the early years of the twentieth century. It was very Western, according to him. “The art which the missionaries brought was very pretty and sentimental but was not strong enough to carry the vitality of the messages that it sought to portray; it was an art for Westerners and did not speak with sensitivity to my own people,” he said.
Watanabe began to proclaim through the pictures he did for the Sunday school of his church the significant acts of God for the care and salvation of his human family. Using the appropriate ancient craft technique, he created stencil painting of biblical texts. The innumerable prints that Sadao Watanabe created are the expressions of a very sensitive man, who, immersed in deep religious feeling and the artistic modes of his native Japan, became a famous national and international artist and a profoundly passionate evangelist, proclaiming through his works the good news that is ours in Christ Jesus.
Donald R. Purkey (B.D., 1961)
On Good Friday in 1969, my wife and I were privileged to attend a performance of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in the Royal Festival Hall in London. That “performance” actually became a service of worship. It was obvious from the beginning that nearly all in that vast hall were devout believers and many were trained musicians. Sensing that this was no ordinary audience, the conductor invited everyone to join in those marvelous chorales, and the emotional participation was glorious! Not a few shed tears as that intensely moving music took Jesus from Garden of Gethsemane to Calvary. Afterward, thousands left in almost total silence, not wanting to break the spiritual spell. It was indeed a blessed time when faith and arts enhanced each other. Soli Deo Gloria!
James Aydelotte (B.D., 1960)
Black Mountain, North Carolina
As a drummer, the goal for every performance is to find that place of near-perfect rhythmic synchronicity with the rest of the band called “the pocket.” I was the drummer for the gospel choir during college where one evening we were the hosts for a gospel extravaganza with about ten other choirs. Through numerous obstacles before and during the event, when we finally sat down to play, the Spirit of God met us and gave us the gift of “the pocket” in a truly sublime fusion of spirit, music, and togetherness. It was simply the best we ever sounded and felt as musicians together. This became the formative moment that changed me as a musician, and what I still long for when I play today.
Andrew Tatusko (M.Div., 1999; Th.M., 2000)
I have experienced the intersection of art and faith physiologically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually through playing harp. I was literally run over by the city bus while riding my bicycle in Key West on November 18, 2003, and then lost my husband and soul-mate of twenty-six years, Maurice Gerard Blaise (M.Div., 1978) on May 10, 2004. The “vibrational medicine” of the harp literally saved me on all levels. Music in my opinion is a direct spiritual pipeline to the other side. I have experienced it! Presently, I am beginning a Palliative Care/ Hospice Chaplaincy Fellowship at the VA Hospital in Portland, Oregon. I am integrating playing therapeutic harp with chaplaincy and am a harp student with the International Harp Therapy Program.
Ellen Gooding Blaise (M. Div., 1978)
New Castle, New Hampshire
Part of the celebrations of Easter in many churches around the world is listening to choirs as they sing Handel’s Messiah. The “Halleluiah Chorus” is to most people the climax. People often stand up as it is being sung. But what touches my heart most is what comes after the “Hallelujah Chorus.” I feel the awe, deep reverence, the unfathomable love and grace of God when I listen to the words “Worthy is the lamb…!!” This leads me to “worship in reverence and praise!” I feel like being taken up with all of those singing his praises.
Abd-el-Masih Istafanous (Ph.D., 1963)
I will never forget the power of seeing Les Miserables on stage. I thought I was simply going to a wonderful new musical production and walked out having been met by God. With the staging, the costuming, the lighting, the power of the story itself, I was beyond entertained. But I think it was the music that reached beyond my mind and shook my soul with the lessons of grace. Grace had been an intellectual, even theological concept, and I had experienced it in small, personal ways, but the transforming power of grace was exquisitely illustrated through these characters, this historical sweep, this contest with “the Law.” I left the theater profoundly affected. I’d become so unimaginatively patterned to assume the expected sanctuary and liturgy that it took me some time to identify that I had worshiped. Grace upon grace.
Rosalind Ziccardi (M.Div., 1987)
Goldsboro, North Carolina
Sister Mary Corita Kent printed a serigraph in 1964 titled That They Might Have Life. The bold red, white, and blue polka-dotted print that reads “ENRICHED BREAD” looks like an enlarged Wonder bread wrapper. Smaller text includes a quote from Gandhi, which says, “There are so many hungry people that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” The powerful connection has stuck in my theological imagination ever since I first saw the print two decades ago.
Margot Starbuck Hausmann (M.Div., 1995)
Durham, North Carolina
I have attached an excerpt from a longer piece I have written for the Presbyterian Church’s Journal for Worship.
During a particularly difficult season in Seminary I found that I could not achieve a sense of centeredness and peace that I had known previously in my morning devotions. Going toward God, as Barth puts it, or even responding to God, in Peterson’s paradigm, was getting more and more difficult. Sitting still was just not possible with the level of discontent and pain I was feeling at the time. Following the daily office was becoming dry. I was with Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones. A wise friend asked how else I might pray and take the fullness of these feelings to God, and the answer that came to me was really more an organic flash of sight and sound. I found that what that I really needed was to break glass. I was feeling shattered and angry and somehow I wanted to come before God with all of the intensity of those feelings. Thankfully, this neither shocked nor deterred my friend who understood that sometimes prayer is so powerful that it cannot be contained in words, much less held in a posture of quiet contemplation. We conspired together to create a wall of both lament and thanksgiving. Even thought I had the urge to break glass, I still wanted it to be relatively safe. I had no intention of harming anyone or doing true damage. I just couldn’t sit quietly any longer, and I trusted God to be big enough to receive and bless all of that reality. So my friend and I found an abandoned bridge abutment and began projectile painting. We filled small jars with paint and tossed them as hard as we could against the wall as we shouted our prayers. We were taking all of our energy and disappointment forward to God in physical, visual, larger than life prayer. The image we created was thrilling. In between the explosions of color we painted words of thanksgiving: Faith, Hope, Peace, Grace. It was holy. I was hooked. Art making was to become my language for reaching out to God and of listening for the wisdom of the Spirit beneath the clambering of all the other voices. I knew that prayer for me had to be three-dimensional. Prayer must be visual and kinesthetic in addition to verbal.
Liz Barrington Forney (M.Div., 1987)
Photo: Liz Barrington Forney
As an eleven-year-old boy from a small town in central Massachusetts, I visited the 1965 World’s Fair in Queens, New York. At my mom’s insistence, I bounced into the pavilion exhibiting Michelangelo’s Pieta with my older and younger brothers. Perhaps it was an off day, but I do not remember a huge crowd. I quickly lost track of my brothers. I remember standing transfixed for a very long time, staring dumbfounded at the exquisite detail of this white marble depiction of the limp crucified body of Jesus in the arms of his grieving mom. I simply could not believe that a human being could create such a perfect thing from rock. My dad finally had to tear me away from my ecstasy.
Tom Hastings (Ph.D., 2004)
During my first pastorate, I participated in a Presbyterian Youth Event at Montreat. The music was provided by the Howard Hanger Trio. At one service, they began with a traditional rendition of God of Grace and God of Glory, then moved into a wonderfully spirited jazz rendition to which the congregation sang with increasing fervor. There is not a time now when I sing that hymn that I do not hear that powerful music ringing through and celebrate those who offer old wine in new wineskins.
Jim Laurie (M.Div., 1966)
I found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterworks, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, a sense of how to reconcile the conflict between God’s absolute sovereignty and human freedom. At the end of the long journey to Mount Doom, Frodo finds himself unable to do what he had come all that way to do: he lacks the spiritual strength of will to cast the ring of power into the fires below. At the same moment, Gollum, realizing Frodo’s intent, leaps upon him, biting off Frodo’s finger, claiming the ring, and in his joy, losing his footing, falling into the fires below. Reading Tolkien’s description of this climatic moment, knowing all that had preceded it, enabled me to see how God is at work in our choices. We fail in our purpose. But God is still at work, accomplishing his will, using surprising means and remarkable providences. God is nowhere mentioned, but everywhere present, in the Lord of the Rings, and in life.
Mark “Gala” Atkinson (M.Div., 1983)
As a young assistant pastor in a large church with magnificent stained glass windows, my seat in the chancel on Sundays faced a side corner window of Jesus walking on the sea. The storm was raging, and the disciples’ boat could be seen in the background, but the center of focus was on Jesus, powerfully straining and reaching to Peter who was floundering and sinking in the waves. That window first ministered to me the Sunday after two dear friends, Larry and Elinor Lange, were killed when their plane crashed into the Atlantic shortly after takeoff. I saw Christ reaching into the sea and lifting them up. That was forty-six years ago, and throughout my life, that image has spoken to me of the Christ who reaches out to me and lifts me up whenever I am overwhelmed and cry to God for help, “Lord, save me!”
Rev. Margaret E. (“Peggy”) Howland (M.Div., 1958)
Yonkers, New York
In the Washington National Cathedral there are many inspirational pieces of art. However, the one piece that strikes me as the most powerful reminder of our Christian faith is a small carving of the Good Shepherd in an out-of-the-way chapel alongside the nave. I have come across many carvings of the Good Shepherd since, but this one is especially inviting because it invokes in me a calmness that is lost in our everyday world. One is reminded that this great cathedral stands in the midst of one of the most powerful cities in the world. Great decisions are made here, important people pass in and out of it and yet, nestled in a small chapel that is available to people at any time is our Lord, ready to hear us and in His gentle way to guide us, if we would only take the time to seek him out and to listen to what he has to say to us.
Susan T. Legnani (M.A., 1978)
Beverly, New Jersey