Christmas and Easter come every year. They’re tenacious like that. (At least Christmas has the good manners to arrive at precisely the same time each December. Easter, on the other hand, sneakily slides around from week to week, making it difficult to pin down.)
As the leader of the creative team of our church, these annual holidays are times of both anxiety and excitement. They provide annual opportunities for us to tell the greatest stories of our faith and to push into new creative territory as we challenge the boundaries of our storytelling. But the holidays also carry with them the challenge of continuously needing to find new and captivating ways to tell a story that almost everyone in our western culture has already heard…and many have already dismissed.
In truth, the story is not really mine to tell. The Spirit tells these stories. I have to trust that.
As much work as I may do, as innovative as my methods may be, this story is made real, and it’s made transformational by the quiet whisper of the Spirit in the soul of each person.
Still, God gives me both the opportunity and capacity to partner with his Spirit in telling his story.
I take that very seriously.
Creativity is, for me, very serious business. Fun business, but serious business.
And so, year after year, holiday season after holiday season, I must innovate. But I’ve learned more and more to hear and to trust the voice of God in my creativity.
Lately I’ve been wondering how that comes about, and I’ve found that the process is not easily traced. It’s hard for me to perceive—much less describe—the way the Spirit whispers ideas to my mind and swells them in my heart. But I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m always looking for threads.
Threads are those things that, well, they thread life together.
Life is a series of fragments, scraps of fabric. Every interaction, every conversation, every experience a different pattern, color, and texture. But through all of it, God is working and speaking. He’s highlighting words and moments.
We hear the same words repeated in a conversation with two friends weeks apart. We learn the same lessons three and four times over in different ways—through a situation, through a sermon, through our devotions. We feel a subtle shift in our hearts.
These are threads. It’s as if someone is taking a needle and thread and drawing them through the fraying edges of all of these scraps of life and suddenly making sense out of them, making them work in harmony, closing the gaps and seaming them together.
So each time another holiday comes rolling/looming on the calendar, I start looking for threads.
Creativity is like music. It moves like melodies through peaks and valleys. There are times when the meter is precise and times that are simply felt, like jazz.
And we sing along. There are times when we sing softly and times when we belt at the top of our lungs.
Wherever the music takes us, we sing along. Sometimes it may feel as though we are repeating the same verse over and over again, and sometimes…sometimes there will be something new, a new song.
Sometimes the new song comes from us, comes from a new variation on our abilities…
Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts. Psalm 33:3
Sometimes our creativity will birth something new, something unheard, something yet unseen.
And sometimes the song comes from God, a mouthful of grace…
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD. Psalm 40:3
Sometimes God’s work will cause us to respond with new songs that tell of the new things He is doing, of His grace being poured out.
When God gave the disciples the great commission he was giving them the permission and the mandate to live a story and to sing a song. And in some ways the song they had to sing was a new one, and in some ways it wasn’t. It was the same song that God had been writing, the same song that God’s people had been singing all along, but there were new verses to sing.
There were some who had been faithful in singing the old song, and as God wrote new verses they sang these as well.
But there were some who had ceased to sing the old song—at least in the way God had written—and when it came time to sing the new one they found they couldn’t.
We must keep singing. And sometimes we must keep singing the same song and the same verses again and again, even as we wait to hear a new song.
I am not waging war on ingenuity. Really, I’m not.
I’m not in the sad, fatalistic place that Solomon must have been when he wrote:
What has been will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9
I don’t hold to that philosophy. Everything about my creative explorations bely the fact that I believe there’s always something new.
A new story. A new perspective. A new medium.
Yes, of course, everything that is new is related to what came before, but I don’t believe that the creative nature God placed in us has exhausted its voice. Let’s not allow our heads to swell with thinking we’ve discovered the depths and breadth of our source material…or even scratched the surface.
Everything about me believes that there are new ideas and new ways of expressing them.
But I’m also beginning to believe that the best way to begin expressing those things is certainly not to sit idly by, but to tell the stories I’ve heard, express the ideas I know, create in the ways I can while trusting that “the new” will come as I am faithful with “the now.”
Praise the LORD! Praise, O servants of the LORD, praise the name of the LORD!
Blessed be the name of the LORD from this time forth and forevermore! From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the LORD is to be praised! Psalm 113:1-3
The imperative is clear. We are to be a people who praise and who praise continually.
What is less clear, perhaps, is how we go about that.
As followers of Christ each of us is to take the emphasis off of ourselves and to place it on God. I also believe that each of us have some primary ways in which we go about this that go beyond the generalities of worship and drill into the essence of God himself. I believe that each of us have ways in which we uniquely and profoundly express the nature of God and when we regularly worship through these gifts we are at our best…the Church is at its best.
As a person engaged in the arts I am uniquely gifted and positioned to express the creative nature of God, and I believe I also have a sobering responsibility to practice those gifts, to intentionally, regularly and proactively worship through creativity.
But I often fail to worship this way. I often fail to do the work of developing ideas and making ideas happen.
There a number of reasons why I fail to respond in worship by exercising my creativity. So many reasons. Too many to name here, and (more than likely) too many to know. But I do know that one thing holding me back is the “pressure of the new.”
I never want my creative output to be staid or rote or expected. I want it to be fresh.
But some (read: many) of my ideas are decidedly less than fresh.
Sometimes, in the pursuit of something new, I fall silent for long stretches of time during which I fail to remember…
It’s not about being clever. It’s not about a new angle. It’s not about a new idea. It’s not about me.
I’m learning that the imperative of continual obedience in worship now must outweigh my personal imperative for something new.
I work in the midst of an Apple fan club, no question. Each of us spend our days in the office (and much of our lives away from it) tapping and clicking away, staring at our reflections in the shiny glass and aluminum. New product announcements—keynotes, for the uninitiated—are major events around the office; productivity comes to a halt as we huddle around our shiny goods to find out what new shiny goods they’ve dreamed up for us.
And Apple has “new” down to a science. I don’t care to analyze how they do it, only to acknowledge that they do it. They make the new intoxicating to the degree that the old—though it may only be a mere year or so into it’s life—seem passé.
But we can’t just point the finger at Apple when nearly every aspect of our culture seems to indicate the same value. New and improved is often the mark of what is good.
Even in the rise of the vintage class—those suspender-wearing, ironic-hat toting, antique-collecting young people who pine for the simplicity of the old—is seen a value for the new in the very form. They are a part of a new trend.
And I don’t even think our need for new is anything new. Throughout history people have always wanted something new. New kings. New territories. New ideas. New technologies.
And there’s nothing wrong with new. I don’t wish to suggest that new is bad, but neither is it good. New is new, and it can be either good or bad.
What’s really been on my mind of late is how the clambering for what is new affects our creativity.
Does it lead us to authenticity or pandering? Does it challenge us or cripple us? Does it inspire us or stifle us?
The other night my wife went to bed early. My head hit the pillow long after hers. I’d sat in the kitchen fiddling with my blog site, frustrated that I didn’t know html or css. Angry that i didn’t know everything. Feeling like I didn’t know anything. Sensing all the while that something else was really at the core of my frustration.
As I laid down I tried to quiet a growing discomfort.
It wouldn’t quiet. The day had been a long one. I was hopelessly exhausted, but my heart wouldn’t sleep. I finally drifted off a couple hours later but slept fitfully. I woke up the next morning and couldn’t drag myself out from under the covers. There was a heaviness that was deeper than exhaustion. Throughout the morning I would be playing on the floor with Finnden, and my thoughts would wander off into…nothing.
Karen asked me what was wrong, and I couldn’t give it words.
I’m not a stranger to the seasons of life. There are long stretches—months at times—when I am gregarious and funny. There are also long stretches where I am quiet, withdrawn even. This was neither of these.
Hoping that I was just tired, I tried to take a nap. I could scarcely close my eyes before they’d fly back open. I began to pray, and after awhile the word “loathing” was playing over and over in my head. I sat up on the edge of the bed with the realization that I was profoundly disgusted with myself.
My thoughts returned to the night before, when I’d first started feeling this way. What had I been doing?
I’d been trying, rather unsuccessfully, to edit the html of my blog. My blog. A blog I hadn’t touched in months. A blog that I wanted to be a creative outlet for my soul. A blog that I hoped could spurn others to live out their creative calling.
But I hadn’t been creative in so long. As I looked back on the past few months it was like a wide desert. No life. And there I was, trying to breathe life into it through distraction.
I am called to be creative. It’s at the very centre of who I am. Like eating, drinking, breathing, it is a necessary part of what keeps me alive, what makes me who I am. I am entrusted with the nature of a creative God; I am called to act out of that nature. I need to be creative. It is my worship. It is the most clear way I’ve been given to put on display who my God is.
When I am not creative I begin to loathe myself because I am not myself; I am not the self I was made to be.
When I am not creative I cease to be what I am meant to be.
And so this week I’ve been creative. I’ve been making space and buckling down and getting to work. And it feels good. It feels freeing. It feels…right.
A couple weeks ago I was listening to NPR and heard an interview with VS Ramachandran, a neuroscientist who studies brain abnormalities in order to make new discoveries about the way our minds work. He studies localized damage or genetic changes in the brain. These anomalies don’t cause an overall decrease in mental ability, but only the loss of a single function of brain activity. This method allows him to map particular parts of the brain to particular functions and the theory is that this enables him to pinpoint the role of certain circuitry in brain function.
Through the course of the interview he was postulating that there are some abnormalities of the brain that may account for certain “abilities.”
Shakespeare has always been admired for his unique gift of tying unrelated items and concepts together to create metaphors that are both revolutionary and universal. In the famous balcony scene Romeo declares that Juliet is the sun. We know, of course, that Juliet is not a burning sphere of gas, but we understand instinctively that she brings light, comfort and warmth to Romeo. This ability to create metaphors that imbue characters, situations and objects with universal meanings using seemingly unrelated ideas is at the core of the work of artists, poets, writers and other creatives.
VS Ramachandran theorizes that, rather than a creative gift, this ability may be due to irregularities of the brain. See, when we are born all of the regions of our brains are interconnected, all sharing information and making links. At some point in our development a gene comes along and trims these connections and the result we have is the modular brain. But if there is a defect or mutation in the gene that performs the trimming, the result will be some cross-wiring between the different areas of cognition. The more cross-wiring that exists the greater the propensity of someone to link seemingly unrelated ideas.
Ramachandran has discovered that this particular abnormality—called synaethesia—is eight times more likely to be found in artists, novelists, poets, and other creative people.
So, in theory, creativity is really the result of an abnormal brain.
While interesting, I’m not certain how much faith I put in this particular theory due to its emphasis on physiology to the detriment of the soul and divine gifting. I believe that our creativity is a mark of the Creator on his creation, but I also trust that one way in which God’s creative spirit can be pressed upon us is through a physical manifestation. Regardless, if physiological abnormalities play some role in producing a creative mind—albeit a deranged one—then bring on the abnormalities!
I’m writing from the confines of my bed today. Sick.
I should have seen this coming.
On Christmas day Karen, and Finnden and I flew to the frozen tundra of Ohio, where we grew up. It was all snow and wind and biting cold, but we enjoyed the warmth and rest that comes from spending time with close family and good friends. It was far too short of a stay. On the second flight of our trip home neither Karen nor I were feeling our best, but we attributed it to the exhaustion of traveling with a toddler and the recycled air of the plane. The next day we were both holed up in our house with the curtains drawn nursing headaches, nausea, achiness and all the rest. It figures that the very day we were no longer under our parents’ roofs and care we came down with the flu.
And getting the flu with a one and a half year-old in the home is not even remotely the same as before that wonderful little man burst onto the scene. No staying in bed. No three-hour naps. No Project Runway marathons. No ice cream for dinner.
At the first sign of feeling better I was back at work, back into the daily routine, spreading the news that I was on the mend. And I was convinced of it too. I’m considerably less convinced now. See, I still had this nagging cough. And sometimes for an hour or two my whole body would ache, and it seemed to come from within my bones somehow. And then every once in awhile I’d find myself exhausted by the slightest exertion or I’d be hot and then suddenly chilled, clenching my jaw against the cold.
On Friday, after a particularly energy-sapping thirty-minute fit of coughing, I finally went to the doctor. His prognosis: “You’ve got some junk in your left lung.”
Antibiotics. An inhaler. And some other prescription, the purpose of which is a mystery to me.
Now, three days later, and there’s little to no improvement. Begrudgingly, I took a sick day today. Tomorrow I may be forced to do the same. I’m now convinced that what I most need is rest. I need to slow down, stop even. I need to allow my body to do it’s job without sabotaging the efforts halfway through.
And as I sit here I’m realizing that all of this is a grand metaphor for the state of my spiritual life.
This last year has been one of many changes. Upheavals. Goodbyes. New routines and responsibilities. Unfamiliar places. And in the midst of these adjustments my habit of sitting, reflecting on and processing all of it with the Spirit has all but disappeared. And yet I keep hearing God say to me, “Stop and reflect. Stop and reflect. Stop and reflect.” Over and over again. Because it’s only when I slow down and examine life—rather than just scurrying through it—that I’m able to hear from the Spirit and make connections and course-corrections and see His hand moving through all of it.
I know this week in Circles we’ve moved on to the task of speaking, but to be honest I’m still stuck on the last one. Listening. For me the real task at hand is finding the moments to slow down, stop even, and listen to the Holy Spirit rather than getting up and moving at the first sign of health—a convicting message, an amazing discussion, a good moment in the word. What I’ve realized is that being “quick to listen” means being hasty in slowing down, being abrupt in blocking out the world, being in a hurry to say “sshh” to all the noise the moment I hear the whisper of God.
Today in staff meeting we had the honor of inviting a guest, Chris Wienand, to share some thoughts with us. Chris has been a church planter and leader for a long time, most recently as the lead pastor of Southlands Church in Brea. A few months ago he and his wife turned over the leadership of Southlands to Alan Frow, a man they had mentored and trained, and now they are finding new ways to partner with current and future leaders to further God’s kingdom.
He commented that the American church has come to rely on savvy hiring to achieve its vision—filling specific positions that are fashioned to achieve specific purposes—but that the model laid out in scripture for achieving the vision of God is really one comprised of fathers and sons.
At first I wasn’t sure what he meant. He went on to explain.
Clearly, at the very center of the biblical storyline is the primary relationship of God the Father and God the Son. The Father gives the Son, and the Son acts in accordance with his Father’s will to achieve specific purposes. That much we take for granted. But the point Chris was making is that perhaps we have overlooked the inherent model that’s displayed in this central relationship, more specifically it’s possible that we have ignored the fact that it was a relationship at all.
The Father loved the Son. The Son loved the Father.
The Father guided the Son. The Son tended to his Father’s business.
This wasn’t a contractual agreement; it was a relationship.
At its best, the Church can look the same. When men and women—leaders in the faith—care for the ones with whom God has entrusted them, when they love them like their own despite the subtle and the glaring faults, when this love compels these leaders to take responsibility for the mentoring and training of these sons and daughters, then they have become fathers and mothers.
This isn’t a contractual agreement by which a person has been given a position, a title and a job to do. This is leadership rooted in relationship. This is mentorship founded in mutual love and affection.
While I may be thinking too far into the future, placing my hopes upon a seed that has hardly been given a chance to break ground, what a beautiful vision that we might—through this journey together—become fathers and sons, mothers and daughters to one another and to those whom God has placed in our paths.
Update: Chris posted some further thoughts on the topic on his own blog. A good read.