Rosella Wiens Regier lives in Newton, Kansas, where she is a free-lance writer, public speaker, and Christian education consultant. She was a mission and service worker in Gulfport, Mississippi; a public school teacher in Kansas, Indiana, and Mississippi; and served the former General Conference Mennonite Church as the Director of Children's Ministries through the Commission on Education. She retired after a nine-year stint as executive director of Jubilee: God's Good News, a children's nurture curriculum for six Anabaptist denominations.
Windows. Portrayals. Images. Aids to worship. Pictures. Instruments of transmission of salvation history. Symbols. Memorials. These are some of the words Don Lemons used to describe icons.
Don Lemons' own family experience and journey into the Syrian Orthodox Church, together with vivid descriptions of icons, their art forms, and their history were all helpful. However, it was not the purist sense of icons to which I felt drawn, but to Lemons' broader call to see "realities beyond our limited views," and to see ourselves with a "dramatic history and future." I liked the idea that icons are "mysteries… that call us to remember… pray… become more Mennonite… more ourselves… in ways we cannot comprehend." Lemons suggests that icons are respected but not worshiped in the Orthodox Church. I appreciated that viewpoint, enjoyed learning more about their place in worship, and have several responses to Lemons article.
1. I'm an auditory/visual learner. When I first read Lemons' descriptions of three icons in his house of worship, I began to see them in my mind's eye. At a later point and in preparation for this response, I saw photos. They enhanced those visual images that had already been forming in my mind. Part of the appeal was in the word pictures Lemons created. I resonated since that is true in other areas of my life--when I read the book, I seldom want to see the movie made from it.
As a child, I lived in rural Kansas, cocooned in the warmth of a large family out in the country near Inman. The family became its own community, with the telephone party line, public school, and weekly church our main forms of socialization. On cold winter nights, we gathered around the dining room table to read and talk, munch popcorn, and hear Mother Anna's stories. On starry summer nights, we were out on the front porch, hearing her historical or Biblical stories. I can still hear and "see" the stories Mom told. They were my windows to the larger world out there. Could it be that those word pictures served me as icons?
In Sunday school, session after session, we children watched the same ritual with fascination. The teacher rolled back last Sunday's picture, to reveal yet another depiction of Jesus or other Biblical character. These scroll-like collections were visual portrayals on a picture roll, three feet tall--as tall as we were then. We got to take home small replicas of those pictures each Sunday. Perhaps they can be thought of as icons. Certainly they were portrayals--together with story--that called me to be Christ-like, and remain in my mind's eye still today.
When Lemons described icons as "windows through which we pray," I understood. About ten ago, we developed "Serenity Circle" in our backyard. It is a place to meditate and reflect. Shaded by trees, it is made up of a circular edging of rocks, a center pile of stones, and a sitting bench. On the stones in the center, is an icon--an angel--that calls me to pause, to pray, to reflect.
2. I appreciate the use of all the senses in experiences of worship and nurture. Lemons vividly described the various ways his senses were impacted--almost overwhelmed--on first entering the nave of the Syrian Orthodox Church. There, amid everything happening at once, were the icons, calling him to worship. My own sense of worship is enhanced with more liturgy, a sense of order and structure, and the surprise of sensory experiences.
I am called to prayer when I see a Christ candle or an open Bible as part of the worship experience. Imagine being greeted with the aroma of freshly baking bread when approaching the communion table. When children touch and feel and watch and move story figures during Anabaptist Jubilee curriculum nurture sessions, they are called to follow Jesus. Think about the impact and scent of incense burning during an Epiphany service. Or the sound of a Shofar blowing during Lent. The challenge of serious discipleship is never clearer than in a well-done dramatic presentation.
3. I long for child-friendly worship experiences. I don't know the ages of Lemons' children or what their responses were during those first days in the Orthodox Church. I suspect the icons and other sensory experiences helped them grasp a sense and feel for this body of believers, this call to "become more ourselves in ways we cannot comprehend," as Lemons describes it. Certainly one can sense Lemons' own eventual and positive adult responses to all the imagery.
Similarly, most adults in Mennonite churches listen to and enjoy children's moments during worship, and complain if they can't hear them well! This experience with children is usually interactive, visual, or experiential in some form.
As an educator, I wonder what Mennonites might learn from the Orthodox Church (and others) about additional ways to engage children and adults during worship. How could we use more learning styles? Through the years, Mennonites have been known for great music and good preaching. In recent years, we are experiencing more forms of drama and music and movement. How might we include silence, the sense of mystery, wonder, awe, and reflection also--as I sense is part of Lemons' experience? Perhaps icons--or visual images--are another way to help us know God.
4. I appreciate Lemon's emphasis on all of us being pilgrims with both a history and a future, one foot in each direction. Someone recently called it the windshield view and the rearview mirror view of life. That perspective gives me--and all of us--the possibility to appreciate worship experiences of our past and also challenges us to add new elements to our faith and life.
When my closest-in-age sister died in a tragic accident at the peak of her nursing career, the hospital chaplain encouraged me to create a place to remember her. He called it a shrine. Would Lemons call it an icon? I simply called it a place where we "could remember Aunt Gracie." We set out her picture. Our children added little treasures she'd given them. Sometimes we lit a candle. For a time, it was a place to remember… and give thanks. And in the remembering, we gained hope for the future.
Today in our home, there are two depictions of people in the past; people we admire and from whom we have learned. There is a bust of Martin Luther King. It was created with toilet paper, newspaper, glue, and black paint in a lonely cell by an inmate in a prison. He had no other tools for artistic expression. It was a gift to my spouse in appreciation of a relationship. To us, it is an icon of beauty, of creativity, and a reminder of an inmate and a prominent national leader--both with hopes and dreams we share. Again, with one foot in the past they--and we--also long for a future of equality and justice.
The other art piece--or icon--in our home is Saint Francis of Assisi. Created by artist Hector Resceon near Abiquiu, New Mexico, it is made entirely of rough and beautiful branches and the trunk of a tree. Francis is barefoot, of course. His arms are outstretched and birds sit on his shoulders. When we saw it in various settings and sizes in Northern New Mexico recently, it was an immediate reminder of our affinity with the peace Francis of Assisi lived and taught. Now during the Lenten season, it is surrounded by votive candles, with Assisi's "Serenity Prayer" beside it. It reminds us to pray, and to live the life of love and peace Francis did.
5. Remaining questions. Some may say that this is rhetoric, merely a matter of semantics. That in its broadest sense, the word icon can be another for concepts we have embraced and experiences we have always had: calls to worship, symbols, aids to reflection, images, pictures, windows. Maybe. But this discussion has called me to become more Mennonite in ways I may not yet understand.
I was startled with Lemons' suggestion that human beings were the first icons, and that Christ is an icon of God. That stretched me and was helpful when I noted the accompanying scripture verses that gave credence to the concept.
I am indebted to Don Lemons for a new perspective on icons and symbols of meaning in my life.
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