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.
Writing this was one of the things that helped me lay claim to Joy this season.
Through many ups and downs and questions and answers I came a little closer to understanding Joy as something that is permanent, inexhaustible, and steadfast, a new status that is Truth. Truth that is independent of the circumstances, stations and skepticisms from which I may view it.
O little town of Bethlehem How still we see thee lie; Within thy heart, Thy humblest parts, A tale began. A plan began— Began again— To counteract the fall of man That had began At man’s own hand
At the beginning When we were still brimming With joy from His presence, Before we had a sense That the world only made sense Because of His presence.
Like spoiled adolescents, We spoiled the essence of Him in us.
In a bite of rebellion We invented the hellion, And the curse, oh it fell in, On us.
As His presence departed, And the joy He brought was thwarted, A sick cycle started.
Cuz our world took to spinning, And we kept on sinning. Then the ark went a skimming As our sin sent us swimming, And put us back at the beginning Again.
Then God made a promise: That He would not destroy us. The He would not forget us.
And he embarked on a plan To bridge the great span, And later called on a man Named Abraham So that he Would be The father of a nation. That through some Would come Demonstrations And declarations For all populations Of who God was, So that all would be abuzz
To raise expectations, To make preparations, For one whose vibrations Would shake the foundations Of everything, Of every being.
God was coming for them, For the condemned, To the little town of Bethlehem.
For God had made that promise That he would not forget us Or leave us To our own devices Or to make poor sacrifices. For only grace suffices.
And so one silent night Some shepherds had a fright, And angels declared— With those shepherds they shared— The good news of great joy For there had been born a little boy. And this joy Was for the whole world For God’s great plan had been unfurled.
So into the bleakness, To creation so grievous Came Jesus.
And riding on his coattails, Gliding in his full sails Was joy.
The Lord, The one adored, Restored His presence among us That his promises to us Might at last Reach their purpose.
And they cannot be taken For we’ll not be forsaken Whilst he is making Us new.
And so I have joy. In His promise, In His presence, I’ve been given entrance.
He’s told me I’ll be new; His presence makes it true, And I have joy.
Though mountains may crumble And my dreams, they may tumble Into the bottoms of the sea, I’ll be Marked by the joy He’s given me. Because He Is within me I have joy.
I have it. I HAVE it. Despair, it is absent. In Him I am content. Not because the trials won’t come, But because the curse is undone. And I’ve become His precious one, And his work in me’s not done! I have joy.
As with any true collaboration, I can’t draw clear lines around who came up with what and when. I can’t pinpoint exactly how this idea came about, but the goal of our creative team was to tell the very traditional Christmas story in a distinctive way. What we stumbled upon—through the use of shadow puppetry, traditional puppetry and video—was a fusion of both old and new that made for an incredibly profound and fascinating experience.
From beginning to end, this was a labor of love for all of us involved. There were many points at which the project seemed impossible, but God proved to us again and again that He makes the impossible possible.
There are far too many people to thank for a collaboration like this one, but in brief: Thank you to TJ Hill for the beautiful music, Liz Hetzel for her talented direction, Frankie Franco III for his stunning artwork, Dannah Christensen for her tireless assistance, Dave Terrell for his leadership and construction prowess, David Higgins and Kayla Sanders for their artistry, Brandon Setter for his video animation, and the fantastic cast who made magic time and time again.
I’m sick in bed today. I’m not surprised. Not surprised in the least. Every year about this time I find myself sick in bed; it’s inevitable. There’s no question in my mind that I’ve done this to myself.
As the creative director for a church, my life has been carried away for the last two months due to the all-consuming lead-up to Christmas. There have been scripts written, presentations prepared, approvals gained, casts assembled, rehearsals scheduled, sets constructed and on and on and on. All of this has been packed into a very small frame of time, and that’s meant long hours at all hours. On top of this, I’ve eaten poorly, slept little, and generally pushed myself to my limits. As a result, my exhausted body has begun to give up, little by little. Rather than just letting in the good, nourishing things, its weakened defenses have allowed passage to unwanted things. These things, these intruders, have found their way into my body and made a home. They make me cough, and ache, and run a fever and the like. They are toxic. They are unwelcome. Yes, they’ve been invited, in a way, but now I’d like them to leave. Yet, my only defense is rest and routine, nourishment and nurturing.
But what I’m thinking about today is that this kind of pace and this kind of project is also difficult on the mind, and the soul, the creative soul.
Creative people often give far too much weight to the work of conceiving an idea. We talk about needing inspiration and creative space, we talk about the burden of “being blocked” and the ever-present fear that we’ll never have a good idea again. But I’m convinced that the truly difficult work for an artist—the thing that should garner both admiration and fear—is the work of seeing that idea through to completion.
To finish an idea, to make the vision reality inherently means driving our creativity very hard. See, in order to see an idea come to life in the way you’ve envisioned it there are many hurdles to overcome. There are constraints in talent, in people, in budget, in processes, and certainly in time. To overcome each of these obstacles, you are constantly maneuvering right and left, making cuts here or rewriting a scene there. This is hard work, and it is hard on our creative souls.
Because the creative soul is much like the body. It has defenses that allow it to hold certain things at bay while allowing in the nourishment it needs. But in the midst of a project, as the deadline looms and the pressures grow, it begins to let in some things that shouldn’t belong. Stress—that atrophying force—finds a home. External expectations—a poisonous dread of what others will think—also creeps in. Fear—the nemesis of creativity—finds a place to roost.
And then I find myself at a tipping point. The things I want to come into my creativity—inspiration, hope, helpful ideas, divine maneuvers—are coming less and less, crowded out by the dangerous things that my creativity tries to hold at bay.
That’s when I shut off.
My creative soul goes into panic mode and seals its doors completely. Everything goes quiet.
At that point, my eyes focus hard on the finish line and cannot be swayed. I cannot hear any new ideas, I cannot expand my creative vision, and I cannot leap over any new hurdles. The creative vision is locked. And this isn’t a bad thing. It means I can get things done. It means that I’m not adding to the idea or changing it anymore, and it means I can actually get the thing over and done with. This kind of lockdown is an imperative part of my workflow.
But it’s also dangerous.
It’s dangerous because I have closed myself off to new inspiration, and I’ve locked within me the seeds of stress and expectations. There is nothing good coming in anymore, and there is some stuff that’s not-so-good harbored within. If I can’t quickly find my way out of this panic room once the project is finished I will become very sick. Just like my body succumbs to the viruses and bacteria that have snuck past its weakened defenses, my creative self will begin to be seriously diseased by the crush of stress and insecurity.
I think that’s what happened last year, and I didn’t even see it coming. I felt so overjoyed after Christmas, buoyed by a grand sense of accomplishment and the way it had all been received, but I did not recognize the intruders I had allowed to creep into my heart. Winters are always a bit tough for me as I tend to sway toward melancholy anyway, but I also found myself unable to dream, or be inspired, or act or do much of anything for a long while.
I was sick. My creative self was sick. And I couldn’t put my finger on it. I didn’t know what medicine to take.
This year, I’m hoping I can prescribe myself some things that will get me back up and running more quickly. Perhaps some time in bed will help.
Oh, and writing. Writing is always good. I need to start that habit up again.