The “Creative Life” Is More Mundane Than We’d Like To Believe: Additional Thoughts On An Unfinished Coloring Book.

12042909_10153691586456450_8249815417010762711_nAs you, my friend, know. (Since you are my friend, right?) I have been working on a coloring book project. I am very excited about it but it has taken much longer than I expected. I have had to understand why it has taken so long because God is good and I have had people interested in purchasing the project even before it is complete, which is quite humbling. This process prompted me to publicly think through why the project is not yet complete. That post has since prompted some more random thoughts about creativity that I wanted to write down before I forgot. Since I was writing them down anyway, I thought I would share. Because, you know; that’s what we do, right?

Anyway, as I’ve struggled to understand my own creative process, here are some dditional thoughts. Make of them what you will. Correct what you must:

It’s OK to feel like you don’t have anything to pour out right now.Creative types love story so we tend to mythologize those we admire. For example, I love Wes Anderson’s movies. Taken as a whole, it seems like he’s been on an unbelievable creative streak. Just consider the progression of his work (and this isn’t even a complete list!):

Creatives often look at a list like this and think to themselves well crap, I’ll never live up to that, so why even try. But look again at the list: there’s typically a 2-3 year gap between the finished products that we are given. That’s a long time. I’ve never met Wes Anderson so I don’t know, but I’m willing to guess that there were plenty of days during those 2-3 year gaps during which he didn’t feel particularly creative. There were lots of tasks to be done, but even when those tasks are in the pursuit of creativity, they may not, in and of themselves feel particularly creative.

But I know many creatives who go to deeper with these gaps. There are honestly times when many of us simply feel like we don’t have anything to give. As I stated earlier, this is the time to fill up. Know yourself well enough to know what to put in to your system. Maybe you need to read some Scripture. Meditate. Watch a movie, listen to music, read a book, take a walk, sit in silence, drink a good cup of coffee or a craft beer. Get some sleep?

Creativity demands not only that you know yourself well enough to know when to fill up or pour out, it demands that you know what fills you up but it also demands that you know that this drought is but for a season because:

Creativity takes a long time and takes the long-term vision as seriously as the short-term creative bursts.

Creativity is always interested in finding its true voice, that’s why the big picture is so important. A letter is not a word and a word is not a sentence and a sentence is not a paragraph and a paragraph is not a novel and a novel is not a body of work. All of them are capturing, displaying and refining the authors’s voice but it is not until there are several novels that an author even truly knows their own voice.

Creative expression is not just pouring out, it is a visualization and projection of the self. It is sharing with others how we see and understand the world. We create things no one else could because no one else is you. I have had people who write songs I could never in a million years compose tell me that they look at some of my drawings and feel like they could never do that. And that’s a beautiful thing because:

Creativity forces us to humility, to learning and growing.

Though there are always some arrogant jagweeds in every circle of life, generally speaking, creative people are humble because they have come to the self-awareness that they are always learning and growing. And they have creative output to visualize their progression. The creative process is never static and thus it always requires the creator to understand that they are trying to get better at their craft. They are trying to write better songs, paint better paintings, write better stories, explain things more clearly. And each creative piece is a step along that journey because:

Many creative people are not satisfied with their current creative status and sometimes creative souls are quite hard on themselves.

Even though many creatives understand the beauty of telling a grand story, we get critical of the step we just took. It is quite common to notice the flaws no one else does. And not just notice them but dwell on them. In fact, they become all we can see in a piece. So much so that we are rarely satisfied with our current status. It’s almost like when Jonathan Safran Foer says in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,  laments:

“Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.”

The beauty of possibly and the fallibility of our last step keep us humbled by the potential. The potential is so grand that our last step forward never gets us where we want to be. And so many creative people are their own worst critic. We measure by what could be rather than what just was because we often forget that:

Creativity sweeps itself up in itself. Like an avalanche.

You might be able to start an avalanche (take care of your soul, fill up with creativity-inspiring things, etc.) but you cannot control it. Though most are killed by avalanches, many dream of surfing one.

Creatives often love the thrill of the creative process as much as anything they actually produce. In this surge, we must remember that we will not remember everything. Some things will escape and much will be lost. And that’s OK because:

Creativity requires you listen to the whispers before you can hear the chorus.

Avalanches start small. A snowball here, a homeless boulder there. But there is no avalanche without the spark and there is no creativity without the whispers. Though creative outbursts sometimes come like the fully formed “Hallelujah Chorus” and all we have to do is record it as best we can, more often, it starts as a whisper. It becomes a conversation with the muse, hearing the whisper until it becomes louder and is coaxed along the way. For most creative people, most of the time, this requires patience and work which leads me to conclude:

The “creative life” might seem more mundane than you’d like to believe. I have friends who used to build weapons but now build robots, works with museums  and has hung out with David Byrne. We don’t all get to live that life. In fact, most of us don’t and won’t. And that’s OK.

Since the creativity is concerned with the artist’s voice as much as any particular statement, we must remember that creativity ultimately encompasses all of life. We find our creative voice as we follow the Creator God who brought order from chaos. Doing the dishes is a much less glamorous or even attractive way of doing this, but it, nonetheless, brings order from chaos. It is an expression of the self over the created order, reorganizing the universe’s molecules as only we could.

I often think of the Christian life as a continual process of undoing the effects of the Fall. When Adam and Eve chose to mistrust God, they thrust themselves, everyone and everything following them into slavery to sin, disruption, distrust, disorder and entropy. Picking up trash along the way is a way of making a difference, of reversing the Fall. Fighting for social justice, caring for the environment, loving the least of these, painting, writing, composing. All of these are ways of bringing the progress of Good News to bear on where and when we live. But we should not be so naive as to only classify some of them as creative and others as mundane.

Though creativity tends towards the extravagant, it born in the everyday.

I’d love to hear more about how you understand the creative process. I’d also love to hear which is your favorite Wes Anderson movie and why.

What If Preaching Isn’t The Primary Role Of A Pastor?

Preaching_TheoMatters3Yesterday I wondered about why it seems that so much of “American Christianity” resembles the self-help driven “pursuit of happiness” more than it does following Jesus through the Valleys as well as they plateaus.

Long-time reader, first-time commenter Jennifer noted:

It seems what you’re asking for is a Christianity in which people inside the body of Christ are authentic with one another.

“That’s exactly what I’m asking for”, I responded, continuing:

I’ve come to believe that most (well-intentioned) church programs exist because real relationships don’t. The main thing we’ve been called to is discipleship which happens best in relationships, not church classrooms. Since programs/classes are not real life, they’re not designed or equipped to deal with people’s real lives so we default by pretending everything is fine.

Many of our churches foster fake environments in which people pretend everything is fine “because JESUS” because they’re simply not designed to deal with real life. You come, sit in a sit, get told how to win at life, sing some rousing songs, maybe go to a class to learn some information and then go about your week until it’s time to charge your emotional batteries once again.

Many churches seek to fill our calendars “equipping us” with classes and programs because that’s what churches do. But what we’ve missed is that if we fostered intentional, “authentic” (the quotes indicate that I realize just how much baggage the word carries but I use it anyways) relationships. It seems to me that the trend has been to make Christians dependent on their churches for their spiritual growth. The default question has become “how will you feed me?” rather than “how can I serve?”

But we’ve been called to discipleship, not what fills the seats. Paul tells us that the role of church leaders is to equip everyday believers “for the work of the ministry” (Ephesians 4:11-13), not make them dependent on their leaders.

This has led me to think deeply about one of Evangelicalism’s (especially in “Reformed” circles in which I have traveled) sacred cows. Lately, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been filled with posts arguing that preaching is the primary things a pastor should be concerned with. For example, Jason Allen writes in a piece about “5 words to avoid in every sermon” at For The Church:

Preaching is God’s ordained method to convey his Word and build his church. As such, preaching is every pastor’s principle responsibility and every church’s primary need. Therefore, every pastor must preach, and preach well, every Lord’s day.

Banner of Truth recently posted this memed Calvin quote:

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Let me go ahead and calm the frothing masses: I deeply value preaching. I think it should be an integral part of the regular rhythms of any local church. It is where a unified vision can be presented, it is where a church family can learn together as a whole, it is where the elders can help publicly protect from error and instruct in following Jesus. It is an essential part of what God has laid out for the local church. But what troubles me is the notion that it is the most important thing a pastor does.

I once heard John MacArthur say to a room full of seasoned, young and aspiring pastors that if they weren’t spending at least 40 hours a week in their study, then they had no business getting up in the pulpit on a Sunday morning. Their primary job, MacArthur urged, was preaching on Sunday.

There is a local church with one of those electronic billboards that flashes cheesy Christian sayings. A while back, the sign said: “Worth the drive.” What’s worth the drive? Well, knowing that particular church, the Sunday gathering is “worth the drive” and in particular, it’s “worth the drive” to hear that particular pastor talk for 40 minutes.

It seems to me that the assumption that the pastor’s primary responsibility is preaching must also carry with it the assumptions that Sunday is the primary point of a local church’s existence and that since discipleship is the primary point of a church’s existence, then preaching is the primary way we pursue discipleship. But I cannot follow such straight lines of thinking through the twists and turns of Scripture.

Pastors are compared to shepherds in the bible. As I try to make sense of all of this, I can’t help but picture a shepherd gathering his sheep once a week and lecturing them on how to live the rest of the week and then just sending them out to face the dangers of the world. Of course this is foolish, but when we over-emphasize the importance of the Sunday sermon, the analogy seems to fit. Shepherds were worthless if they didn’t spend time with their sheep, guiding, protecting, disciplining if necessary (it may shock you to know that the heartwarming picture of a shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders was because he had broken the sheep’s leg because it wandered off so many times).

I am unashamedly going off of the notion that the church should be most concerned with discipleship; that is, helping one another become more like Jesus. This conviction leads me to the conclusion that preaching is incredibly important but it is potentially harmful to tell pastors that it is the “most important” part of their job.

I would rather be shepherded by someone who spends more time with people than books. I want to be the type of pastor who values people more than doctrine. If I ever pastor again, I want to know what my people need to hear because I know my people. And, as shocking as it may seem, you can’t know people without spending time with them. With all due respect to MacArthur, his advice is terrific for professional teachers but horrible for actual pastors.

Placing so much emphasis on the sermon creates passive Christians who tend towards a knowledge-based (rather than an experiential) faith. Placing so much emphasis on the sermon is a large part of why so many pastors feel so discouraged. Once, after a sermon, I had someone come up to me afterward and, very nicely, tell me that they really struggled to follow that week’s sermon. The very next person in line to talk with me told me that it was the single most moving sermon they had ever heard and they would remember it for a long time. Placing so much emphasis on the sermon creates unrealistic expectations that the pastor always “be on” and owes more to our desire to be entertained than our desire to be more like Jesus. Placing so much emphasis on the sermon has helped fuel the “celebrity pastor” movement rather than reminding us all that pastors are strugglers through this life just like they people they’ve been called to shepherd.

If we have primarily been called to discipleship then it seems to me that relationships are the single most important thing a pastor does. Sermons rarely serve to deepen relationships. In fact, sermons are sharpened the more a pastor knows the people to whom he is speaking. Shepherds must spend time with the sheep or they’re a lousy shepherd.

Again, I’m not discounting preaching (though I do question the monologue approach in its effectiveness to really equip the saints but maybe that’s another post for another day). I value preaching and it’s something I personally love. I’m simply asking if we have over-emphasized its role in discipleship. Are we actually hindering pastors from their true role when we tell them that the 45 minutes a week when they lecture people is the most important thing they do?

I look forward to your thoughts.