Body and Blood

All of my creativity is tied to who I am, it’s tied to my daily rhythms, it’s tied to my daily decisions. I create out of what is in me, or, most of the time, the void of what is not within me. My creation reflects me, its creator.

I think it’s more than that, though. The Gospels tell us of a woman in Jesus’ day who had been bleeding for twelve years and had been an outcast in her society. She saw Jesus and touched the hem of his clothing with faith that she would be healed, and what Jesus said was, “I felt power go out from me.”

Certainly, the entirety of Jesus on the cross is power going out from Jesus for the healing and the restoration of all things to God.

And certainly you know what it feels like power goes out from you. Every single act of creation is just like this, where you feel this sacrifice of yourself to move the earth. Everything comes at a cost. Your creative action is a sacrifice of your own body and blood. It is very, very expensive.

Many people know what I’m talking about when I say that creative endeavors can be expensive.

Certainly, for things like music and photography and sculpture and all other kinds of art, the gear and the supplies required to create are expensive. But even more, it is expensive in the very toll that it takes on you. It feels like if you’re going to create another thing it will absolutely destroy you. Nothing will be left to create anything if you do just one more thing.

This is how I have felt for the past few months. I have been breaking my body and pouring my blood for a huge creative project for six months now, and it’s very expensive for my soul, for my creativity, for my rhythms of life.

I’ve been running around exhausted, never bothering to ask why, which is a shame. Because remembering why I am creating and loving others is precisely what can pull me from the exhaustion.

In Christianity we have a way of remembering why we are breaking our bodies and pouring our blood: the Eucharist. The Holy Communion. Bread and wine. The sacrament of the body and blood. We come together and celebrate the memorial of our redemption. The Eucharist is a physical way of remembering Jesus, remembering the breaking of his body and spilling of his blood, to heal and redeem all things to him. We are part of this movement, and by eating of his body and drinking of his blood, we are becoming a part of him (you are what you eat).

As we pour out, we are being refilled. That is the nature of this sacrament: it reminds us of the healing of the world that we are participating in as we step into our boring and difficult and exhausting lives. Remind yourself of why you are breaking your body and pouring out your blood. Perhaps as we gather and we remember why we are doing this work, as we share together in the bread and wine, we can get a sense of each other. We can begin to see that everyone feels like they are pouring themselves out and that we all feel drained, we all feel exhausted, and we all need to eat together of the body and blood. We will become a reminder to each other of this sacrifice for the healing of the world that we are called to emulate in the dailiness of our lives.

Maybe we will begin to be the Church.

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Frames

I wear glasses. I am used to having them on by now, and I’m used to the particular pair I have on since I’ve worn them for a couple of years now. As most people with glasses will tell you, I don’t really see the frames anymore in my periphery; they’ve disappeared into the background of my vision.

But occasionally, I have a box of try-on glasses sent to me to see what other styles I might like. And the experience of trying on these glasses is totally jarring. Aside from the fact that they don’t have my prescription, they feel so different on my ears and nose, squeeze my head in unfamiliar ways, and the frames block my vision in different places than the pair I have currently. I become immediately aware of the fact that I am looking through a pair of frames.

Our art is a frame through which to view the world, an idea, whatever we’re portraying. It’s a perspective. It chooses to leave some parts out, like a photograph. And no frame encompasses the full reality. It goes the same way with our faith: we see through our frame, our mind, our experience and understanding, no matter what. As much as we try to understand the full nature of God, of “all that is, seen and unseen,” we only get to know what can come through this finite frame of humanity.

I spend a lot of time wringing my hands over whether this is a good thing or not. I spend most of that time thinking, “It’s definitely a bad thing that we can only think in our own mindframe.” This leads to great despair. I can’t do anything to improve or fix that reality. I can only think my own thoughts.

A Native American theologian who died a couple years ago, Richard Twiss, used to say something in his sermons that profoundly impacted me: “We are all ethnocentric, narrow-minded, and have limited vision.” Particularly he was talking about how the frames we see through affect how we discuss race. But this is something of a freeing idea. I’m not the only ethnocentric, narrow-minded, and limited person there is. We all come that way.

And rather than trying to escape that by becoming somehow superhuman, it’s a much better idea to accept our own limitations, openly acknowledge them, see them for how they are.

If we think that we live with no frame, that we see the whole of reality, we are deceived. And beyond that, we think of ourselves as somehow higher than others in a fundamental way. It isolates us from everyone else when we think, “The way I understand this is the only way it can be understood. The truth is not greater than what I know.”

A much healthier way to escape our own frames is to be in community with other people. When we see another person’s art, hear their words, share in their lives, we get to experience through a frame other than our own. That is why God calls us to gather together, to be a church: because our frames hold so little. We have to learn to create and understand that we don’t hold all of reality in our own perspective.

Within this context of community, we can start to see the beauty of having a frame. After all, art, by necessity, is limited. It is not everything at once. It is a selection of things. Not everything is in every photograph, and it shouldn’t be that way. But we understand everything not just through one image, one frame, but many.

Recognize that you have limitations. You have a frame. You don’t see everything. That’s okay. Also learn to recognize the value of seeing other frames. This is the closest to seeing outside yourself that we can get.

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Struggle

There’s a phrase I learned as a kid, “art from adversity,” that I’ve never been able to get out of my mind. It’ll just pop into my head at random times, often in moments when I’m not making art or going through adversity.

Every time I think of that phrase, that idea of true and beautiful art arising from the struggle rather than the success, I feel this sort of pang in myself saying, “Yeah! That’s how it is. The best art comes from struggle.” And I’ll feel all good about my art-philosophizing.

But as soon as I’m in the moment of struggle, all the philosophizing disappears.

Michael Gungor, in his excellent book The Crowd, The Critic, and the Muse, relays the idea of the moment of artistic struggle as being down at the floor of the Grand Canyon, on your hands and knees, seeing individual pebbles, watching a bug crawl by, so zoomed in on the tiny and frustrating details of the canyon that it’s easy to forget where you really are, what it looks like from afar. Hearing the quote “art from adversity” isn’t helpful when you’re deep in a process that feels more like a constipated bowel movement than crafting a masterpiece.

Truth is, the adversity that creates art is not the kind you imagine when you hear “art from adversity.” In the phrase, in such cold distance from actually making or living out anything, the adversity seems like a little speed-bump. Really more of a symbolic kind of adversity than anything truly difficult, packaged with a funny story to mention at the awards ceremony acceptance speech. The art, of course, was bound to succeed whatever adversity was in its way. In fact,  just that much better for the adversity plus those witty anecdotes about how your equipment broke down during whatever you were doing, and you had to fix something incredibly expensive with aluminum foil and duct tape.

Art from adversity really hits home only after you’ve come through a process you fully and completely expected never to produce anything.

The adversity true and beautiful and meaningful art comes from is no speed-bump, it’s struggle. It’s you, the creator, actively wriggling, fighting, pushing with your full energy against every current. And above all, there is no guarantee of success. In fact, much more likely there are guarantees of failure lining the road to great art.

Aside from the difficulty of producing art, there’s also the difficulty in life that inspires the art in the first place. Another one of those tropes about artists is that really they’re just a bunch of miserable people. But who on this earth is truly, consistently, and fully satisfied all the time? Who is permanently happy? Why are artists seen as the only unhappy ones?

It’s because we as creators look at these struggles and, like everyone else, have to cope somehow. Many people choose excessive drinking, watching a lot of TV, sleeping, or some other form of distraction. Or therapy.

The difference is that a creator, while she may participate in all of these to cope with the struggle, also learns how to make something good and true and beautiful.

What is amazing about the fact that any art exists at all is the fact that every time I sit down to create something, the odds are so stacked against me. My own exhaustion and laziness are the first lines of adversity, followed by the fact that I am completely lacking inspiration or inherent talent, the two things you are told over and over again that you need. Also, loneliness, and the pain of not knowing whether your art will be successful, whether it will communicate what you want it to, whether someone will like what you make, whether someone will like you in general. Every time a creator sets out to create, these are simply the most basic challenges right out the gate. And just beyond is a road full of flaky friendships, failing tools and equipment, and days so dry you could swear you have no human soul left.

But the ingredients for creativity are not, as it is so often posited, talent and inspiration. It sounds like so much fun to be talented and inspired. That’s how you know that people who do not really create things for a living came up with those two criteria.

The true ingredients to creativity are struggle and persistence. You know you’re really creating when you’re not sure if it’ll work. The more certain you are that it’ll work because you think you’re talented and inspired enough, the more certain it is that it will be too contrived, too easy, and ultimately not anything you can connect to. I suppose it’s nice to hear a little bit about how someone is so talented and inspired and whatnot, but I know that that’s not me. I am usually in a struggle. I am looking for a voice that says, “I’m not sure if I’m gonna make it, but I have to keep being faithful to the next step.”

That is why I crave art from adversity.

You Can’t

If you are anything like me, you need to give yourself more credit than you do.

Aside from the stereotype about artists being scatterbrained, messy, disorganized, and impractical, perhaps the second damaging idea many people hold about artists is that we have unlimited amounts of anxiety about he world, that we’re self-conscious, shy, anti-social, and constantly stress-eating mint chocolate chip ice cream due to the unhealthy levels of negative self-talk they engage in.

Maybe it’s just me as far as the mint chocolate chip ice cream goes, but the most painful thing about this conception is that it bears a lot of truth. And unlike the conception of artists as disorganized which might just be a little offensive, this idea of the artist as anxious, pained, and overbearingly self-deprecating strikes at something you hope other people don’t notice. Something I often lie to myself about. The fact that I am constantly telling myself I am inadequate, that what I’m doing is not enough, that I could be more effective, more artistic, more holy, more simple, sustainable, or any of the ten thousand other things I want to be.

The problem is that all these fears of inadequacy in every area are constantly on my mind. I can’t shut them off, it seems. I am not experiencing community in the way I want to. I should be shooting more photos and learning to develop my own film. If I really want client work, I have to stop watching Netflix and draw letters. I should make more music, I should get moving on the next step for the album, I should cook more meals at home, I should watch what I’m spending because if you spend more than you make then you will eventually have to prostitute yourself, I should change my guitar strings more often, but that costs money, I should practice standing up, sitting down, do it the right way, watch what you’re eating, you spent how much on groceries?!, don’t you need to do morning prayer?

Stop.

Too often I tell myself that I really ought to be doing all these things. Sitting in couch or lying in bed, looking around at the room I’m in, noticing all the things that need to be cleaned and organized, thinking of all the things I ought to make before I go to work.

More often than not, I leave the house with the bedroom just as messy and art just as uncreated.

And my guilt and fear still grows.

But today I am telling you and telling myself that you don’t have to do everything your anxiety tells you to do.

Why? Because you can’t. I’m here to tell you that what you have feared all along is true. You can’t do it. You are unable to do everything that you feel like you should be doing. Especially if right now, you are not doing any of it.

I had a conversation with someone yesterday who’s lived through many of the things I have and has a few more years on me on top of that. As a youngster entering the world of Christian community and social justice and art, it’s so easy for me to be idealistic, it’s so easy to say that I’m going to do all the things, that I’m just going to do it like I write about on this blog. But the most freeing thing he said to me was that you can’t do it all.

His advice will be my advice to you: Pick two things. Do those two things right now. And just don’t think about the rest. Furthermore, don’t try to do both of them at the same exact moment. Focus on one thing at a time. Dedicate a good block of time to one thing. Then, switch your focus to the other until they are just a part of your life, until they don’t take as much time as they used to.

I fear my own limitations, and I was raised believing culturally that I can do anything and everything. But you can’t do everything and everything indefinitely. You will burn yourself out. In my case, it comes in the form of anxiety and a messy room. Nothing you want to do will be done as long as you feel like you must do everything.

You can’t do it. So slow down, go one at a time, and God will provide you the strength to learn, because you have more time to practice these things than you think, and you have done more and have more ability than you’re willing to admit. That is, of course, only once you realize that you can’t do everything.

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Let There Be

Does it ever amaze you, the power that you have to create? The power to make life real through story, the power you have to create hope in other people, to bring something that was not there into being?

We are reflections of a Creator who said “Let there be.” Out of the darkness was brought light. Out of lifelessness was drawn breath and all life that is, from bacteria to reptiles to worms to humans. Infinite and beautiful things were drawn from the void by, “Let there be.”

And our creativity and faith aren’t that different, in reality. I am aware, as many will point out, that human creativity is not making something out of nothing. It’s shifting protons and electrons and neutrons which already were into a specific configuration. However, the fact that art is nothing more than a specific configuration of atoms doesn’t fail to make it less amazing.

Why is it amazing? It was built from intention. An artist, tired from life and yearning for truth, fought the battles of herself and her environment to create something beautiful.

This was done on purpose by a human. Life was spoken into this creation.

More than that, this art came from something of a void. This is the void that we all know. When I look inside myself, I don’t see a wealth of amazing songs or beautiful art just about to happen. I see mainly exhaustion, some sleep deprivation, and a yearning for someone to understand me so that maybe I can feel less alone in this world.

This is the void into which we speak, “Let there be.”

Like I have said before many times, no one is coming into this already fully formed. We must be transformed as the art is over time, being wrought into existence by the continual, “Let there be. Let there be. Let there be.” And the only reason we are able to do that in the first place is because we are reflecting a master Creator who spoke those words into us. We were told the secret by the one who made it up.

It was the other day that I came home from my job. To tell the truth, my job is being a barista at Starbucks. It is not exactly riveting, inspiring creative work; rather, it’s work that requires me to stand on my feet all day and have my arms so covered in syrup you could practically wax the hair off. Usually after eight hours of this I am tired and want to lay on the couch and watch dozens of YouTube videos or maybe listen to some album I’ve been meaning to or catch up on sleep or procrastinate on doing laundry.

What I don’t usually do is sit down with my little songwriting notebook and, you know, write songs.

In fact, I’ve become very bad at sitting down and writing songs to the point where I didn’t write a single verse for months. I felt the void so strongly. The void pulled me away from trying, from letting there be. This is the nature of being human, and it sucks.

Thankfully God’s intervention in our lives is not entirely dependent on our laziness or activity. This time, the intervention took its form in a whisper deep inside myself, an urge to write, an urge to speak into the void of a notebook I’ve had since September and haven’t written a word in.

Let there be.

And the next day, I was mopping the floor, and all of a sudden, I knew I had something to speak into existence. A melody. A verse.

Let there be.

I’m learning to trust and create from the void, because that is all we get to create from. We have been taught by our Creator to speak into the formlessness, to bring something beautiful into being where there was once nothing, and that is a privilege I will be exploring the joys of for all my soul’s existence.

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Nature and Grace

“Tree of Life” is a new favorite film of mine. It captured so deeply and naturally the deepest and most basic struggles with, you know, life, suffering, God, being human. If you haven’t seen the film, I recommend it in the highest regard. Many people struggle with it because it’s not a conventional movie with lots of dialogue or a straightforward plot. Two ideas help give you a frame of context for the film: the book of Job, and an idea presented in the beginning: the way of nature and the way of grace.

That’s the idea I want to unpack today.

IT begins with the main character’s mother saying,

…there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace . . . Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it . . . Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.

The truth cuts through: there really are two ways to live. Scripture reflects this in Deut. 30:19, where God says he sets before us life and death, and implores us to choose life. The way of grace is Christ crucified. That itself is an invitation to live in the way of grace rather than nature.

The way of nature is obvious to everyone. It’s not that some are born in the way of nature, others in the way of grace: we all know when we hear these words that the easier one is the way of nature.

This, essentially, is the Gospel. Humans live by the way of nature, clawing for attention, crying out for themselves, having their own way, being made miserable by each other. God would rather die than punish us for our selfishness. Instead he calls us to live differently, to live in the way of grace.

Unfortunately, Christianity, in the hands of many, has become just another avenue to live the way of nature. Using Christianity to wield power and superiority, using it to judge other people in order to puff yourself up…that is not the way of grace. Anything outside of this way of grace is not of God, but it is instead us as humans who are famously bad at judging what is good (you know, like that ol’ story about a couple and a fruit tree). Using Christianity as a weapon to get ahead is the opposite of the Calvary way of life. Instead, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and all the early Church saw this way of grace as the center of the gospel.

That is…until Constantine.

For some reason, Constantine got the idea in his head that Jesus helped the Romans win an important battle due to a vision he claimed to have had. He then decreed Christianity, which was previously oppressed by the Roman empire, was legal.

Slowly you can trace the way of nature creeping into the church, cutting at its identity. We see the Church executing people for not being Christians, forcing conversions, oppressing people for looking different and thinking differently, living out of fear, out of a desire for control. This in its essence is the way of nature, and it has been a plague upon the church ever since its existence because it’s the curse of humanity. The way of nature is sin.

Whatever mask it wears–humanism, Buddhism, Christendom–the way of nature is far from the way of Jesus. Grace is the ultimate call on our lives. It’s time we submit ourselves to it.

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Showing Up

If you didn’t noticed, I missed two weeks in a row of posting on this blog.

When I started writing Art and Faith in April, I made a commitment to myself: I was going to write and publish a post every Tuesday, no matter what adverse circumstances stood in my path. And for the most part, I’ve done pretty well. I’ve only missed a couple of Tuesdays total, and every time I got frustrated with myself so much that I made my commitment even stronger the next week.

So what is the beautiful, compelling reason that I was unable to write these last two posts? Why have I failed to meet my goal of writing my thoughts on art and faith every week?

I didn’t show up.

That’s right. There was no tragedy. I didn’t have a sudden change in career or religion. I have all my typing fingers still attached. It was nothing more than a failure to show up.

Why haven’t I created most of the art I have ever wanted to? Why haven’t I been the Christian I long to be? Why haven’t I formed relationships with so many people at the margins of society that my heart is full to the brim with the love Jesus had? Why haven’t I edited one of my novels in years?

Of course I’ve come up with excuses for all of these things. I’m not friends with that many poor folks or people of color or people who come from a different country from me or people with “questionable moral histories” because I haven’t shown up. I haven’t come to the Kingdom banquet.

I haven’t finished a book or made enough hand lettering pieces or written a song in a long time. It’s because I haven’t been showing up. I haven’t put my butt in my chair to do it.

The thing is, showing up just once isn’t enough either. You have to keep showing up. And it’s hard every time.

I want, for once, to be a prolific artist and a loving servant of Jesus without having to show up. So what I do is I talk about living out faith. I talk about making good art. And I fail to show up. Why?

Because of fear.

Yes, fear is what keeps me from showing up.

I’m afraid because I don’t know how to talk to people whose life and experiences are drastically disparate from mine.

I’m afraid because I don’t know if a beautiful, healing conversation I had was just a one-off thing, and there won’t be the same magic again the next time.

I’m afraid because maybe I’m an impostor, and I’m not good at writing after all.

I’m afraid that I’ve run out of ideas.

I’m afraid that everyone’s tired of me talking about art and faith.

And that’s what keeps me from showing up.

But what I fail to remember is that when you show up consistently, those fears become irrational. This is not to say it is easy to make good art or to live as Jesus calls us to. All I am saying is, you are afraid of the wrong things. What you are afraid of should not keep you from showing up.

What should you fear instead? Fear failing to show up. That is where the real tragedy happens: no art is created, no relationships are reconciled. The dead cannot be brought back to life when you refuse to show up.

When you do show up, when you create, when you are bold and practice your faith, any failure you experience is better than not showing up at all.

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The peace of Christ be with you this Christmas and into this new year. Dona Nobis Pacem.