Rev. John Bell leads February workshops

Rev. John Bell

In February 2015, Rev. John Bell opened the first session of his Music in Worship series at San Francisco Theological Seminary with a message: this time in the Christian calendar can teach us that laughter and joy sometimes come through great pain.

Sponsored by the Center for Innovation in Ministry, the “Levity & Lament” workshop took place on Mardis Gras, the day before the official start of the Lenten season and “God, Land & Love” took place on Ash Wednesday. Both workshops are also courses in the Seminary’s Certificate in Worship Leadership program.

During “Levity and Lament,” Bell spoke to a crowd of about 70 people, alternating stories with songs that touch the intersection of joy and sorrow. Bell is a member of the Iona Community of Scotland, as well as a pastor, composer and internationally-known teacher of congregational music.

Bell and his colleagues in Scotland and the United States explore the music of Africa and Latin America to “discover a joy in singing which has not always been present” in European and North American congregations.

“The praise that God accepts is praise that comes from people who have traveled from danger to safety,” Bell said, citing passages in Amos and from the gospels.

Telling a story of a colleague’s efforts to put together an art exhibit titled “Jesus Laughed,” Bell said, “Few artists could supply, or were willing to even think of, [images of] Jesus laughing.”

In fact, there are few paintings of anyone laughing, Bell said. “You cannot hold a laugh. It’s a fleeting thing. It builds up, crests, and then it goes away.” For this very reason it is important to offer congregations chances to express their laughter through song.

According to workshop participant Ruth Maier, an attorney from San Rafael and member of Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, one of Bell’s powerful messages was “the power of singing and expressing of laments to move the expressing of joy.”

Maier’s husband, Peter Maier, SFTS D.Min. ’93, was particularly moved by Bell’s comparison of songs of lament to protests during human rights and anti-war movements. “I’m a child of the ’60s and ’70s, so that resonated with me,” he said.

Having been confronted in the past with his “presumptions,” especially as a white privileged member of an often-oppressive culture, Bell said “putting ourselves in a position of receiving makes us better Christians.”

At “God, Land & Love,” the second session of the series, the emphasis was on God’s affection for all of creation, specifically the environment. As human beings entrusted with the care of the Earth, Bell presented a variety of statistics to demonstrate how we have fallen far short of this charge.

Through the reading of several passages of scripture and selected works of poetry, Bell expressed that “ecology equals doxology,” a common refrain throughout the workshop meaning that because God created the Earth, caring for it is a way of worshipping God.

Bell shared some sobering information with the crowd, which included that between 25% and 40% of CO2 emissions from China and India come from producing Western consumables, and that if the whole world were to consume non-renewables at this same pace, six worlds would be required to deal with that demand. In light of this, Bell asked participants why it is that so few seem to care about ecology. A number of thoughts were shared: maybe it’s because people of faith consider heaven to be their real home; perhaps it’s too difficult to change the lifestyles to which we are accustomed; or maybe something else entirely.

Bell concluded with a story of a Presbyterian minister from Scotland, Rev. Donald Macleod, and a chief of the Mi’Kmaq Nation of North America, Chief Stone Eagle, coming together to protest the mining of a mountain on the Isle of Harris and Lewis in Scotland.

Despite coming from very different backgrounds, both leaders shared the fundamental belief that because the land is a revelation of God, and because human beings have an intimate link to the land, it is the Creator’s will that we as humans care for it.

Bell will return to the SFTS campus in summer of 2015 to teach the two-week course “Joining Up the Body” from July 6 – July 17.