I cannot say “Je Suis Charlie.” This is not meant to be mean spirited or disrespectful. By not saying it, I am paying utmost respect to my fellow writers and artists who paid for their calling with their lives.
All I can do is stand humbled by the thought, “What would I do?” What would I do in the face of a threat on my life because of what I believed? Would I have the courage of those writers, editors, publishers and cartoonists?
“Je Suis Charlie” is a great sentiment, sincerely held and believed. Right now it’s comforting many people and helping them feel strong in the face of this horrific crime. I know how important that is in the face of such personal, professional, and national tragedy. Serious memes like this or others like “Boston Strong” capture our imagination and unite us.
But for me, this is a time of reflection. Do I have that kind of courage? Would I stand strong in the face of such an existential threat?
Honestly, I don’t know. So far, I have not had to make that choice: my art or my life. I’ve not had to make an even more important choice of Jesus or my life.
I will respect my God given gifts–and the memory of my fellow artists–by challenging myself to aspire to the highest reaches of my art.
“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 have a chestnut in my jeans pocket. I will transfer it to whatever I wear tomorrow. When I put my hand in my pocket (a habit) the chestnut reminds me to pray.
I know. You’re thinking, a chestnut?
My friend Marge and I gathered chestnuts under her trees one morning and a poem came to mind, Luci Shaw’s “To A Winter Chestnut: Five Haiku.” Shaw shows her friendship with Madeleine L’Engle by using the image of a chestnut: ….you/ride my pocket–Christ’s coal for/my five cold fingers.”
Friends are “Christ’s coal” to me. When I’m lost, wandering, and casting about for a landing place, they give warmth and safety. They accept me and give me the space to find my way.
This past summer was not a kind one. I had lost, or given up, major places in my identity. I was edgy, anxious, and needy. I didn’t like myself much. Two friends asked, “What can we do for you?” I said, “Laugh at me and laugh with me.” They did, over a long weekend carved out of busy professional lives. They gave me a gift. They reminded me of who I am.
So I carry this chestnut in their honor, and for others with good hearts, who show up in times of trouble.
Remember “Christ’s coal.” I do. You’re in a spiritual place, this chestnut riding my pocket, warming my cold fingers.
An important gift we writers can give another person is renewed confidence in their ability to tell their stories. Once I collaborated with a South African painter friend to teach the arts in a mental health program. Clari van Niekerk was showing adult students how to paint scenes and objects from their lives and I was to help them write poetry about their work.
I tried to chat them up while admiring their paintings, but soon realized my task would be difficult. The students could visualize with a paint brush, but “seeing” in language and getting it on paper was a whole “nother” thing.
I sat down with one lady, and to buy time, made small talk. Then I had a flash. “Lucy, (not her name), talk to me about your painting, I’ll write down what you say, and we’ll get a poem.” Each painter told me the story of their work and I shaped their words into a poem, keeping the freshness of our conversation while adding line breaks to emphasize certain ideas. The poems were mounted beside the paintings in a gallery and read to an appreciative audience.
Jesus calls us to a life of giving. Maybe sometimes our call as artists and writers is to give someone the gift of trust in their own artistic abilities and make a way for their expression. Clari helped each student visualize their life story through painting. Then a writer helped them articulate their internal musings for a new audience in a new way. I got jazzed creating life stories with these artists and finding internal resources (both theirs and mine) that had been buried or forgotten. What have you discovered about giving through writing and the arts?