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.
I met a publisher at a conference and pitched her my book idea about how engaging in imagination and creativity strengthens our relationship with Jesus. She asked for a proposal. Her evaluation: “You’ve hit a felt need about the divine origins of creativity. But I don’t know how to sell it.”
I pitched an agent at another conference. He said, “I absolutely love your idea. But nobody will buy it.” I found out this agent was so impressed he used it as an example during his class—of a great idea that wouldn’t sell.
Another agent has expressed an interest, but no commitments. That’s how the “biz” works. You can spend years of your life writing, end up with a hard drive full of work, and that’s where it stays.
I’ve been working on this for a year and a half. I have good friends who write fiction and talk of writing thousands of words in a week. I have spent an afternoon on one page. I’m not only cranking out a philosophy and theology of the nature of artistic creation, I’m also on a personal journey to figure out how it works for me. If I can’t articulate that for myself, then I won’t be able to reach an audience.
I won’t say I haven’t gotten discouraged, because I have. But that nagging Voice says, “Write it. Write it.” If I go a while without facing that blank page, or the pages waiting for revision, I get restless. I have to write. Then I pace around the house, make another pot of coffee, check my e mail for the umpteenth time, all to avoid facing my fear. Maybe I am delusional. Who am I to think this is God? The professionals, whose judgment I trust, say (so far) it’s a non starter.
I spend time looking for what has been “lost,” for what is left from milk, beer, and pop bottles that were tossed into a lake. Over the years that glass has been broken and churned in the sand to wash up on shores as beloved beach glass.
I’ve blogged about beach glass and forgiveness. Since then I’ve found hundreds more pieces. I get home from kayaking and empty my pockets. It’s scattered all over the house: in boxes, plastic cups, jelly jars and shallow bowls, or just lying loosely on tables, shelves and my bay window. I had to empty it from my car’s cup holders because I needed the space for coffee.
All this “lost” glass is now found and ready for other purposes. I’ve made earrings and wrapped pieces for necklaces to wear or give away as gifts. I could add glass stain to the clear pieces for some nifty color. Stained glass or wrapping them for a “wind chime” effect would be lovely.
The old hymn, “Amazing Grace” says, “I once was lost, but now am found.” These “lost” but now “found objects” have given me the chance to think imaginatively (How can I use these? What would that look like?) and hopefully create some beautiful work. All that time, sometimes decades, all that churning in the sand, tossing by the wind and waves, to finally come to frothy rest on the shore. Now dropped into my pockets to be reimagined and recreated into something new.
Sounds like a spiritual lesson here, doesn’t it, describing God’s work in our lives? I keep learning it over and over.
For its size, Conneaut Lake can be quite deep, up to about 80 feet in some areas. The depth supports lots of activity. It stays frozen longer than other lakes and attracts many ice fishermen. Summertime boaters enjoy the unlimited horsepower, and many areas on the lakeshore must be marked by buoys: “Slow, No Wake.” (As a kayaker, I make sure I stay tucked inside those areas for protection.)
I’d like to think that depth Brooks is talking about supports lots of activity in life, too. Too often we equate “depth” with slow pace and quietness. But “depth” could also demand much activity, because a “deep person” has commitments to transcendent projects, work that is “bigger” than they are. Those tasks probably also require down time for thought, but we can’t measure the depth of a person by how introspective they are. The task is worthy of their devotion and attention, and may keep them very active. Their connection to transcendence keeps them focused, no matter what the work demands.
Being creative connects me with transcendence. But let’s call it–Him, what it–He, is. Creativity connects me with God. Not only creativity through artistic expression, but a creative approach to life. I need to broaden my imagination to encompass the breadth–and depth–of that kind of life.
“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.
“I’m going back in the time machine;/ I’ll be right back,” my daughter hollers/from the backyard when it’s time/ to set the table. I let her go…in the oblivion/ of imagination I once knew… (“H.G. Who?”)
We can identify with poet Marjorie Maddox’s lines from her new book Local News From Someplace Else. We wish we could get lost in the “oblivion” of our imaginations again. It feels like an indulgence, doesn’t it, something we really don’t have time for.
We “boomers” do get lost in our imaginations. The name of our time machine is “Nostalgia.” But the daughter in the poem isn’t reliving old memories, she’s moving forward to new adventures. As Maddox recounts, she is “off to visit the moon/or that strange new solar system/ calling to be discovered.”
When my kids were small their rocket to the moon was a large cardboard box with holes for air and entry. I don’t know what solar systems they discovered, but they spent enough time in the box to find quite a few. I would listen to them banging around in it while I cooked dinner. Maddox watches her daughter and also returns to “pot roast and green beans.”
Maybe it’s time for me to point my imagination forward instead of backward. I’ll put dinner in a crockpot and join my (future) grandkids in their box. Or better yet, I’ll create my own space and go off to find new planets. (I’ll be sure to tell you about them.) Why should kids have all the fun?*
My central Pennsylvania hometown of Bigler in Clearfield County was built on the spines of abandoned underground clay mines. Behind my childhood home the woods were dotted with sinkholes where the ground had collapsed over those mines. My mother always warned us to stay out of them, citing the dangers, and I think my four siblings and I did—pretty much.
Ancient coal strip mines squatted on the hills around Bigler. In the middle of town sat the coal tipple and a small mountain range of fine, processed coal. The workers swung lunch pails and waved hello under black sooted faces. The dust from the plant and the coal piles settled over the town, blackening our bare feet and laundry hanging on clotheslines. Housewives carefully washed their homegrown vegetables. During the winter dust peppered the snow and we had to dig deep to find enough pure white to eat.
The coal plant and the brickyard that was just down the road handed paychecks to many local men, like Chester, Floyd, John, and Dwight. But folks in town only knew them as Cheese, Cobby, June, and Shorty. Truck drivers and heavy equipment operators shoved their Mom-given first names of Steward, Leo, Marvin, and Doyle under the seat and drove by the new handles of Ditty, Pookie, Snooks, and Spike. Welders named Harold, Arnold, and Clifford sparked Hootie, Shakey, and Bonehead.
Sometimes the names made sense, fitting the individual’s personality. Windy worked on the railroad, and yes, talked a lot. He’d argue with his Sunday School teacher on the proper road to heaven and he’s probably still arguing with God about how he got there. Who remembered his name was Raymond? Other times names seemed randomly assigned. Who knew how Turz ever grew from Irvin? Or cared?
The labor market has shifted from manual occupations providing fertile ground for face-to-face banter and verbal jousting to the more impersonal computer driven information sharing. We’ve moved away from some information that matters, contained in the sounds of the names of people we treasure. A popular TV sitcom from years back –“Cheers”– celebrated a bar where “everybody knows your name.” Nicknames carry rich connotations of a community consciousness, of a private story publicly shared that draws us closer together.
Now names are chosen to create an on-line identity for websites and blogs. Or they’re used to hide behind while posting on online articles. You can even search online for nickname ideas. Fewer are the names arising naturally or spontaneously from the creative minds and lips of close acquaintances and loved ones. Rich as the clay and coal veins the men labored in to support their families, those names were exchanged like currency and backed by the good will of neighbors and friends. If you needed to earn the trust of a stranger, you handed them a name. “Hunk Jones sent me.” Forget Harold!
Perhaps we need a few more nicknames, thoughtfully or spontaneously assigned, gratefully received and enjoyed by the community. Mom will always have her Lloyd, David, and Francis. Friends will enjoy the sound of Skinny, Knox, and Mutt.
When I left Clearfield County I eagerly shed my “given” name, a combo of first and middle, thinking it provincial and small-town sounding. But when old friends or family call me “Lora Jean” I sit back and feel the warmth that rises from its sound, the intimacy of memories it evokes. Recently a hometown buddy I hadn’t seen for years posted on my social networking newsfeed using that old name. I had to smile…my “secret” was out! Then I asked about her old nickname because she was using her “real” name online. “What do I call you now? Can I still call you ‘Punky?’” Her answer: “To the few I can and always will be, Punky!”
A Biblical perspective is, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches” (Proverbs 22:1). When I walk in my hometown’s cemetery I recognize the tombstones of old friends by their formal monikers. God and members of their earthly community remember and love them by their names.
This was first published by The Meadville Tribune July 31, 2013 on the editorial page and reprinted with permission.