First United Presbyterian Church of San Francisco San Francisco, CA Kevin Manuel We approached the visual arts portion of our worship renewal project with some trepidation since it initially seemed there wasn’t an artistic soul among us. Our goal was to create some art—most likely a felt banner, or some such wall hanging—that captured our unity with Christ and with one another. We were old and young, Anglo and Asian, 1st generation and 2nd generation, theologically conservative and theologically liberal…so the differences felt pronounced, all the more so since the community was newly formed, a merger between the English and Chinese Sections of the church. It was our hope that the visual portion of our grant project would give artistic expression to our learning about the Lord’s Supper and our common identity at that Table. What we discovered was that, much more than the art visually capturing our real communion in Christ (which it certainly did), the artistic process itself was a surprising catalyst of that communion; the process itself provided an experience of connectedness and communion with our Lord and with one another that inspired and renewed corporate worship in remarkable ways, on many levels. Initially we knew we needed some help and guidance, so we entered into conversation with a variety of folks. One local friend and worship renewal veteran, Russell Yee, put us in touch with liturgical artist Alice Helen Masek who leads “prayerful papercutting” workshops in congregations across the country. A large group of leaders met with her to discuss the possibility of collaborating, and there was an immediate connection with her and with the art samples that she brought. We collaborated on a simple Lord’s Supper design that would be used in our Maundy Thursday worship service, along with some additional cuttings for Easter. The energy and excitement for this part of our project that many of us had been secretly dreading was a refreshing surprise. The first workshop went from 10am to 10pm on a Saturday and was punctuated by times of prayer, meals together, conversation, and pure joy in the physical work of cutting, backing the art, designing a system to hang it up, and eventually seeing the work take shape. A new sense of community, of peace, and enjoyment of one another were some of the blessings received and offered up in worship that day, the next day (Palm Sunday), and throughout Holy Week and the Easter season. And papercutting itself proved to be a providential fit for the cultural particularity and artistic ability of the community as a whole. That was one of the things that was so powerful, that the community as a whole—the very old, and the very young—could participate in the work. It felt a whole lot like being in worship together. Indeed, it seemed like the boundary between the papercutting process and our corporate worship was blurred, that the artistic process “primed the pump” or catalyzed our corporate worship in a way that was entirely unexpected and life-giving. Our experience resonated powerfully with what Masek herself has said about the prayerful papercutting process: Liturgical Art, both in process and in the viewing, creates an opening to the Holy Spirit
with the potential of drawing people into a living faith connection with their Creator. Papercutting is one form that offers this possibility to an individual and congregations, regardless of their artistic ability…the most important thing is not the art or the form it takes, but the empowerment of Holy Spirit growth, guidance, and motivation through the process and the offering of the Spirit’s fruits in worship. The art is not for only “decoration,” but for new openings to God’s glory and will in individuals and congregations. The cutting process can be a vehicle for contemplative prayer and allows those who do not feel they can draw, to participate in the creative process as cutter and experience the joy as they free the design from the paper.
The first workshop was such a powerful “new opening” to God’s glory and will in the community, that leadership decided to plan another workshop for Pentecost Sunday, with this second workshop aiming to “pass the peace” to the Taiwanese-speaking members of the congregation (who worshipped in a separate service) as well as to our world through participation in Bread for the World’s offering of letters campaign while the workshop was underway. Taiwanese-speaking members were invited to collaborate on the design, and showed up in droves to participate in the workshop itself. There was great excitement about the fruits of renewal evidenced by the first workshop and about the art form itself. God’s Spirit worked in this time as well to illuminate the reality so often obscured by our many differences: our real unity in Christ. By the end of our worship renewal project many surprising transformations had taken place. Creative gifts previously unrecognized were discovered, affirmed, and actively employed in the worship life of the community. The entire chapel was totally transformed through the collaboration of old and young, as evidenced by new liturgical furnishings and fabrics, better use of natural light, a new seating orientation, and of course the use of art—our own, and other’s. The spatial-material aspects of our life together were undergoing transformation in keeping with the spiritual, liturgical, relational renewal. In hindsight, perhaps the most surprising—even shocking—discovery was that through the creation of this simple, ephemeral art (some might even call it a craft) God chose to make his presence known to us and changed us. It might be a stretch to say that the artistic process was sacramental, but it certainly felt that way at times. In the same way our Lord has chosen to make himself known in the ordinariness and earthiness of simple bread and wine, so in the cutting of paper, and prayers, and the simple gathering of the community, we became aware of the One with whom we are gloriously and savingly bound together, in whom we are also bound to one another in love. God met us most powerfully in this part of our worship renewal project that we felt least able to wrap our minds and imaginations around (I can’t help but think of Ephesians 3:20-21 here). In the final analysis, the product itself was not all that impressive to the eye, but the way that God showed up in the process was truly beautiful and transformative.
Slides 6: First United Presbyterian Church members get started on a large-scale papercutting to be used in their Maundy Thursday worship service. 7: The "prayerful papercutting" workshops involved an art form that allowed the whole congregation--old and young, Anglo and Asian--to participate in the creative process, much as we seek to do in worship itself. 9: The wheat in the Lord's Supper papercutting begins to take shape, as did a common sense of purpose and peace in the community. 14: Liturgical artist Alice Helen Masek (left) shows church members how to apply the cellophane backing. 17: The completed Lord's Supper papercutting was used at the Maundy Thursday service, and then installed over a window in the chapel where it continued to help inspire and focus the community's worship. Later a Baptism papercutting was created to install on the other side of the cross, thereby lifting up both sacraments. 26: The second prayerful papercutting workshop encompassed the entire congregation, including Taiwanese-speaking members who helped design the artistic image for this extension of our Pentecost Sunday worship. 32: The completed "Passing the Peace" cutting backed with colors appropriate to both Pentecost Sunday and Chinese/Taiwanese culture. Less obvious than the cross and bridges is the passing of bread around the edges, both to one another in the community and around the world. Also featured is our participation in Bread for the World's Offering of Letters campaign during the workshop, as a tangible act of worship and effort to pass the peace abroad.