In a vintage song Carly Simon thanks her new lover for showing her how to “turn down the noise” in her mind. I don’t know what her lover did that encouraged her to change her life, but she was grateful.
No new lover here. The powerful and moving witness of the 21 Martyrs, the Coptic Christians murdered in Libya, and their families, has compelled me to turn down the noise in my mind. A brother of two of the martyrs was quoted by Kathryn Jean Lopez in “Heaven In the Face of Hell” (National Review Online): “We are proud to have this number of people from our village who have become martyrs,” he explained. Lopez asks: “Who would have an ounce of gratitude at such a moment? The answer: one who has hope — hope of something real and eternal.”
Is my hope that real?
Lopez again: “It sounds crazy to a modern secular society, one that tends to view religious faith as sentiment, comfort, and milestone ritual.” I hate to say it, but many Christians, myself included, view faith as a source of comfort. It’s a cozy way to think about life.
I hunger for a robust faith that speaks as the brother of two martyrs. That’s why I’m so passionate about the arts, imagination and creativity in the Christian faith. The arts give us a way to wrestle with these profound questions of hope and a faith even unto death. A robust art will help me turn down the noise and focus on what’s eternal. It will help me develop a robust faith that can speak with confidence in a God of hope.
As a Christian artist/writer, I often don’t give myself time to pursue what feeds and restores my spirit. It’s tough to justify the total focus my latest project demands when other, seemingly more pressing issues, demand my attention.
But when I’m creative, I feel God’s pleasure. Why do I have to justify (even to myself) the time I spend in His presence?
During my last prayer retreat at the Benedictine Monastery, God spoke to me to begin a retreat for Christians who practice creative expression. You can be an artist or crafter, jewelry maker or woodworker, composer or a dancer, in other words, anyone who feels the need to make time to create.
He gave me the name: BlueWind Retreats. “Blue” to represent creative work, and “Wind” for the Holy Spirit who glorifies Jesus and breathes life into our expression.
I will offer workshops on imagination and creativity, including a Scriptural basis for our creative gifts. My friend Ben Beck, a fellow artist passionate about Christians in the arts and director of SansMOCO Art Gallery in Greenville, PA, will help host and teach a workshop. There will be time to work on your art or craft and share if you like.
Our focus will always be, not on the artist within, but on The Artist Within: Jesus, in Whom and through Whom all things are created.
If you are interested, I talk about this more on my website. Here’s a link for more information and a downloadable brochure. My first retreat is in April 2015.
I covet your prayer for this new venture. I believe God is in it. It’s time for God’s people to have confidence in their creative gifts and in His power to use them.
Here are more photos of my recent visit of downtown Erie (PA) churches which opened their doors for the public during the Erie County Historical Society’s Fall “Sacred Spaces” Tour.
First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant on West 7th Street, Erie, PA is built in the image of a Gothic Revival Cathedral. It reminded me immediately of the National Cathedral in Washington, D. C. Its Vicary Organ, with 103 ranks and 6,000 + pipes, was designed and built specifically for the sanctuary’s acoustics. A tour guide had me balance on a cement wall outside where I could see a gargoyle through an archway. You don’t need to balance while standing in the magnificent sanctuary enveloped in organ music worship.
The sanctuary of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church on East Ninth Street is lined with statues, including St. Anthony of Padua and St. Benedict. Only a heart of stone would refuse to be moved by The Pieta. There is nothing else to say….
“When we say that someone is a deep person, we mean they have achieved a quiet, dependable mind by being rooted in something spiritual and permanent.” (David Brooks, “The Deepest Self,” The New York Times, March 14, 2014.)
Practicing creativity through doing your art or other kinds of creative acts is one way of rooting yourself in that spiritual, permanent place Brooks describes. But sometimes, we catch ourselves not quite achieving that “quiet, dependable mind.” We still feel unsettled, not “rooted.”
An accomplished artist once recognized a missing element as she went about doing her creative work. “I’m missing something valuable that would guide me deeper into creativity.” Though she doesn’t profess a specific faith, she prays and believes God answers. But she wants to know what that “something” is and how to get it.
I think Christians are similar to this artist, in that we want more from creativity but we don’t know what “it” is or how to get “it.” We engage in creative pursuits and intuitively sense there’s something “missing.” We want to know God more deeply, but don’t know how creativity will move us toward that goal. We keep our creative lives separate from our spiritual lives.
Once an editor of a Christian publishing house asked me, “Why is it that nonChristian artists describe creating art as a spiritual experience and Christians don’t?”
What if our longing to be creative and doing it is seeking the kingdom of God? That desire may just be God inside of us wanting expression, from His “spiritual and permanent” place in our hearts. I need to honor Him by allowing Him to work.
An artist friend told me recently that he is quitting his job and devoting himself to his art—painting–full time. “I’m all in,” he said, “I don’t want to come to the end of my life having never done it. The time is now.”
This artist has worked hard for years and has the talent to achieve his dream. Will he? He doesn’t know. But he has to try.
His words witnessed with my spirit. I shared how I have recently come to understand my call and how I’m pursuing it. I love teaching, but have devoted myself to discovering the intersection of faith and creativity through writing. I’m not quitting my day job, as this artist is, at least for now. But I am “all in.”
For me, “all in” means distinguishing between choices and making decisions, what I do and not do, where I go and not go, who I spend time with and who I don’t, based on their relationship to my call. I measure my life each day by that standard. It really is that simple, though following through often isn’t.
“God has given me a great gift,” I told the artist. “I have to find out if I’m worthy of it.”
Like my artist friend, I don’t know if I will “succeed” or not. I don’t know what else this gift will demand of me. But I don’t want to reach the end of my life, however long or short it is, not having pursued God’s highest purposes.
You’re probably noticing about now the lengthening daylight hours. I know I am. But we have several more weeks of winter in northwest Pennsylvania. I love winter, but after the particularly brutal one of 2013-14 I admit I look forward to driving to work on I-79 without my hands gripping the steering wheel, flashers on at 45 mph, finding my way through blowing snow.
But along with the increased daylight, I also notice its different quality. The light from its lower position in the sky builds in quality from low intensity to a higher position and higher intensity. The process quickens my blood more than the momentary glimpse of a robin, as welcome as that is.
Emily Dickinson’s line There’s a certain slant of light comes to mind often because she was writing about the winter afternoon sun. But the rest of that poem does not look forward but inward. The sun doesn’t signal a new season in nature, but rather unexpectedly (a common occurrence in Dickinson) brings “heavenly hurt” that drives us to reexamine our priorities and attitudes
We can find no scar,/But internal difference/ Where the meanings are.
Has the sun become something to be feared? Only if we don’t want to look within. Some “heavenly hurt” can cause us to look for and find, changes in our internal meanings. Hopefully we can welcome “that certain slant of light” for what God purposes through it, both externally and internally.
When the tornado warnings appeared during the writing conference, I was sitting with a poet reviewing her manuscript.
Conference attendees who had gathered in a lounge area hesitated, unsure of what to do. The sky was an ugly green-gray, too similar to the sky years ago when an F-5 ripped through a town near my home. My church had helped with the relief effort and those memories moved me to the basement.
Amid friendly jostling and banter about 20 of us found sitting positions along a narrow hallway. I still had the poems and the poet sat next to me.
We waited. A child started to cry. People began praying or singing hymns.
I prayed, then trusted my gut and continued the critique, keeping my voice low. I wondered if I distracted those praying aloud or singing softly. Maybe as a faculty member I was a bad example because I was working and not asking God openly for safety and peace.
The singers and prayers showed their faith; I trusted God by carrying on with life in the middle of trouble. Using my imagination and focusing on art in that moment was a spiritual practice for me. The poet trusted God by giving her attention to our conversation. Her art gave us something to engage with and opened us to His presence. The prayers and worship surrounding us helped us attend to our work, and perhaps our calm attention to something besides the threat helped settle nerves, including our own.
Recently I was faced with a decision: I could adopt the attitude, “I have to trust the Lord,” or choose instead “I will trust the Lord.” “Have to” strikes me as begrudging and willful, a reluctant acceptance of an undesirable situation. Too often I plant myself firmly in that mindset. “I will trust” seems confident and assured, a moving forward in relationship.
I checked in the dictionary for the denotative meanings of “have” and “will,” and lo and behold, found some insight into this dilemma. (Often I look up familiar words to discover the “third” and “fourth” meanings because they often provide the nuance I want in my writing.)
The meaning of “have” includes owning, possessing, consuming, to hold mentally, to engage in. “Will” indicates habit, determination, expectation, or possibility. “Have” seems to anchor us in the present. “Will” points to the future.
I wonder if we can apply this outlook to our work in the arts. If I approach a chance to be creative with the “I have to trust” attitude, I anchor myself in the present, which may prevent me from moving forward imaginatively. (Admittedly, many of us could stand to be more attuned to the present moment, so this sure isn’t a rule!) If I adopt a “will”ingness to trust, I am more open to what is possible in creativity, more willing to experiment with new ideas to see where they lead.
Perhaps with this trusting confidence I can glide more smoothly into my writing, art, and life. I am more open to an imaginative relationship with God.
I haven’t read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will To Lead (Knopf) yet, but it seems a nice segue from last week’s thought on “leaning in” to a conversation. In her online discussion guide based on the book (www.leanin.org), Sandberg asks a lot of questions for women to consider about leadership, gender roles, success, and raising children, among many others.
Sandberg’s goal in questioning was to begin a conversation. Today in his sermon my pastor challenged the congregation to ask questions about women in ministry and participate in the ensuing conversation, even if we didn’t agree.
Jesus asked a lot of questions. “Who do you say that I am?” “What is the greatest commandment?” “And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me?” We think that if we can give the “right answer” we’re safe. “Whew! I’m a good spiritual test taker!” I wonder if Jesus was less interested in the “correct” answers than he was in having a conversation that would challenge and change our thinking to align with His goals and purposes.
Art has a part to play in that conversation. Art begins with asking a question. What does hope look like? How can I connect faith with an eagle, not soaring above me, but sitting in a swamp? How do I write about auditory sensations, like Yeats’ “lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore” and use the sounds of language to draw an audience into the line? When we ask the questions, we had better be ready to participate in the conversation, beginning with God first, then ourselves, then our audience. Sounds like we’ll have some great dialogue.
This spring I attended an Apollo’s Fire concert with friends near my home. “Apollo’s Fire” (Cleveland Baroque Orchestra) plays music from that era on period instruments. Baroque string instruments use gut strings and produce a mellower sound. The harpsichord is a major contributor, as is the wooden flute, the traverse. Six musicians, a softer sound, and a smaller venue gave the concert an intimate feel. The full house wasn’t overpowered by the sound, and the performers’ brisk movements invited us to “lean in” and actively listen and internalize the sounds like we would in conversation with a friend.
I think art is a conversation. We artists get ourselves into trouble when we forget that. When “self” expression is the chief end of art, our work is “self” centered and we wonder at the small audiences at poetry readings and gallery openings. Some artists end up talking to themselves. Some writers write and have no audience. I tell my writing students that nobody cares about their self-expression. Readers want to react to a work that is crafted in ways they can relate to and understand.
When the musicians moved into the familiar opening measures of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, it was like seeing the face of an old friend across a room after a long absence. Ahhhh….You anticipate deep conversation and soon are totally engaged.
How do we invite our audience to a conversation through our art like Apollo’s Fire did through Baroque music and superior musicianship?