Keeping the Creative Soul Pure

My friend and colleague Dr. Pete Sanchez invited me this past weekend to give a handful of talks to our New Life Worship department at their fall retreat in lovely Buena Vista. (Props to the Frontier Ranch folks. Love that place.)

The theme of the talks was “Beauty, Worship, and the Arts.” I have a great personal interest in that theme, having served for eight years as lead pastor at one of the most beautiful, worshipful, and artistic communities I’ve ever had the privilege of being part of: Bloom Church in Denver, Colorado. The community of artists and musicians there, with their high aesthetic sensibility, forced me to reflect on the connections between those topics in a way I had not (nor likely would have) until I became their pastor. Having served among them helped me see just how strong those connections are.

In short, I think that God is not only the ground and source of all beauty, but that he is Beauty itself. In the perfect proportion and harmony of Father-Spirit-Son, the Triune God’s nature as the Beautiful One shines forth within Godself in all its glory and light… and subsequently spills out beyond Godself into the created order. The gathered worship of the saints, so the Scriptures seem to say to us, is the place in created time where that glory, that beauty–manifest most fully and clearly in the Crucified and Resurrected Son of God–is most profoundly celebrated and lived into; where human beings can taste and see the eschatological Beauty that we will one day be finally welcomed into. Time is transfigured in worship. And the arts are (functioning as they ought, and especially so in worship) in their way, “sacramental” in nature–icons of the Everlasting Beauty that is God. In and through them, we see glory, and have our hearts stoked for greater glory, greater beauty.

Frankly, I’m not sure how profoundly I would have grasped any of this had I not served in a community of artists. Living life with them helped me see how my own work as a preacher and pastor was an art form. The artist “sees.” The “seeing” leads to the effort to mold some aspect of reality to the “form” that is seen. When this is done successfully, it is not just lovely; it is powerful. Good art, well executed–whether that be a song or a sermon, a poem or a picture–has the capacity to stir the soul and provoke the emotions like few things can do. Dorothy Sayers calls this the “pentecost of power” that takes place when art is working as it should (Mind of the Maker). The art transcends itself and touches the human heart.

We’ve all experienced it. The song, the story, the sermon, the painting, that manifests something of eternity and awakens mighty longing in us. Art like that is a gift from God. And when we personally have a hand in seeing it come into being… well, I hardly need to say, it is satisfying like few things are.

But that is just where things get challenging. Good art, I have found, depends on a certain purity of heart in the soul of the artist. I am aware, of course, that there are what seem to be exceptions–the pastor who preaches a great sermon, for instance, even while his life is a disaster; the worship leader who writes brilliant songs but whose character off the platform is wanting; even the theologian who writes of the most breathtaking realities but who is basically loveless in their relationships with others. But even then the exceptions seem to me to prove the rule. You can fake it for awhile, but ultimately the work will reflect the soil out of which it grows. If the soil is good, the art will by and large be good… but if the soil is bad, the art, with the life, will finally crumble.

Personally, I want my art to be good. And by “good” I don’t mean “successful” by any modern definition of the term. I mean simply that whatever it is–sermon, lecture, blog, book, etc.–it reflects that piece of the Uncreated Beauty it was designed to reflect, having the impact the Maker means it to have. No more. No less.

In order to do that, I have found, I have to keep the soil of my soul good. There are three primary things that I have discovered pollute my soul and thus my art like none other. They, I think, are the traps of anyone engaged in serious creative enterprise:

1 – Ambition

By “ambition” I mean that horrid, unwieldy desire to be recognized in some mass way for my work. To become “famous” by it or to have people make a “big deal” out of me through it. The desire to write the hit song or the bestselling book or to preach the sermon that goes viral. The ancients called it (in Latin) “superbia,” and it is a snare.

It is a snare precisely because it introduces into the art an element that ought not be there: self-regard. Well-executed art is a labor of love in which the artist loses themselves in the creative enterprise, seeking to give expression to the form they dimly grasp. The moment I begin to use the art to try to “do something” with it that is not native to the process of unearthing the form–especially when that “something” is an exaltation of the very self that under the proper circumstances would be lost in the effort–I become double-minded and pollute the art and myself with it.

Trying to “become famous” and producing good art are contradictions in the starkest moral and spiritual terms.

2 – Comparison

If you give way to ambition in the creative enterprise, you will invariably fall prey to the second pollutant: comparison. Rather than enjoying the creative effort, laboring with love to bring the thing to faithful expression, whatever it may be, however that expression uniquely comes to bear through your personality and gifts, you will find yourself constantly eyeing those in front, behind, or on either side of you.

This is to court artistic disaster.

God has not made your gifts to function like the gifts of others. The way the music, the melody, the images, the poetry, the sentences, paragraphs, and pages come through you is, I am convinced, a key designed to open a door in the universe that only it can open. The moment I begin eyeballing what others are doing, I lose the key, and so the door remains shut.

That is not to say that we cannot learn and grow from others. I have the great privilege of serving on a preaching team with some of the best preachers I know. I constantly learn from them. But at the end of the day, the Word of God has to come to bear on the congregation through the very “me” that God has been responsible for designing from the very first moments of my life–with great intentionality, I might add.

Sometimes, I find, I unwittingly try to “be more like” the members of my team because I have been measuring myself by them. Those moments are regrettable and mostly accidental, I think.

But if I am ambitious with my art… if I am trying to “become great” by it, comparison will not be regrettable and accidental but rather necessary, since it by its very nature locks me into a competitive relationship with others…

And that leads me to the third and final pollutant:

3 – Anger and Fear

These seem to go hand in hand. I am afraid of losing the place I thought I had (or should have had), a place that now seems to be occupied by others, and so I become angry. I am angry at those who have what I don’t. I am angry at the public for giving it to them. I am angry at myself for not being more_________… compelling, appealing, talented, productive, intelligent, winsome, etc., etc…

And finally I am angry at God for making me the way he did and setting up the “system” so that I could not succeed the way that I thought I should.

And with that, the light has gone out within me. Anger has snuffed it out… and the likely next thing to happen is that I will either sulk or fritter my time away in meaningless activity. Either way, the creative fire has died.

The ancients called that last state of affairs, in which the light dies out (or grows dim) in us, sloth. For them, it was more than mere “laziness” as we tend to think of it. The laziness was a symptom of the deeper disease, which was the soul-death that comes when God’s love is not working in us the way it should, when we–by virtue of the fact that we gave ourselves over to ambition, comparison, and fear (which, as you may have guessed, is but a way of talking about the three “deadliest” sins: pride, envy, and wrath), lost track of our divine purpose in life, which is love, creatively expressed through our unique and God-given personalities.

If our art is going to be any good, I have found, I need to be healed. Daily. I need to be personally whole. And that can only happen when the Love that made me touches my soul again, freeing me of the self-regard that inaugurated my disgusting plunge into soul-death. The great C. S. Lewis wrote:

Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about him. For it doesn’t stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower–become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations. (The Great Divorce, p. 85)

The scene, of course, is from a conversation between one of the spirits in heaven and an “artistic ghost” who had come up from hell to tour the countryside of heaven. He wanted to paint it. But the spirit insisted: you have to learn to see again… light was your first love… you loved paint only as a means of telling about the light… you have to fall in love with the light again (p. 84).

It is helpful to remember, sometimes, why we got into this (whatever your “this” is) in the first place. It likely wasn’t to make money or have a big house or become famous or any of that foolish nonsense. It was because you SAW something and just HAD to tell about it. And the whole joy was that somehow, some way, by some miracle you could neither contain nor explain, the fresh wind of eternity blew through the form and touched those who beheld it, bringing both you and they indescribable joy.

THAT. Right there. That’s purity. When we have it, the art flows. When we lose it, the art suffers. Always.

Accordingly (in this blog post that has already waxed entirely too long), here are three things I’ve learned that help me keep my soul (and my art, such as it is) pure:

1 – I must daily fall in love

I need to cultivate the disciple of awe and wonder for awe and wonder’s sake. I need to listen to music that moves my soul and read books that excite my imagination… I need to head out, as often as possible, into Creation, work whenever I can under God’s blue sky, draw deep draughts of Colorado air… I need to look with fresh surprise upon the faces of my wife and kids and friends… enjoying them for who and what they are… that they are… miracles of the Almighty…

I need to remember that my entire existence is a miracle… That I am because God is and from that place allow my spirit to be touched by his Spirit in a co-mingling of light and love and laughter that brings me back to life… I need to fall in love… again… and again… and again…

I need to do all of this, I must add, not for the purpose of “making” something… this is a trap that too many creatives fall into… we start experiencing deficits of inspiration, and so we head out into nature or listen to music or read or whatever with a view towards “doing” something with it

Dangerous territory. It is crucial–CRUCIAL–to let the prodigality and utter gratuity of beauty be what it is. I need to be willing to be inspired… and then do nothing with it. I need to shed tears… and never tell of them. I need to have my breath taken away… and let go of every idea of working it into a sermon–letting it all be a precious, intimate secret between my soul and the Lord who loves me.

I need to see the Face, and not “use” it for anything beyond the grace of the moment.

Which leads me to the next thing…

2 – I need to be grateful

Nothing, I have found, murders the creative impulse in me quite like a lack of gratitude. Conversely, when I am thankful… when I have cultivated gratitude… something in me comes alive.

A sense of entitlement will blind you to the glory all around you all the time. You need to find ways… I need to find ways… to say “thank you” as often as I can. Karl Barth once said that if the only prayer we ever prayed was “thank you”, it would be more than adequate.

God has given us life and breath and a capacity to see and know his glory and love and has surrounded us with friends and family and the sheer wonder of existence…

…and we mock him with our ingratitude. St. Paul said in Romans 1 that such a lack of gratitude, of acknowledgement of gifts undeservedly and yet joyfully given, is what has thrown the human project completely off-kilter, blinding minds and deadening hearts and plunging us into chaos.

If I want to see, if I want the creative impulse to flow through me like a cataract of sheer joy… I have to say “thank you” as often as I possibly can for as much as I possibly can… when I do so, I find that the art goes into seemingly inexorable motion…

And finally…

3 – I need to get to work

Interestingly, one of the things that the ancients taught was that a reliable cure for the soul-death of sloth was “industria”–getting to work. You didn’t drive off what they called “the noonday demon” (so-called for that block of time in the middle of the day when it’s so easy to see everything in your life as futile and all you want to do is take a nap) by praying harder. You did it by putting your hand to the plough–which was and is an act of–you guessed it–love. Industria was the effort that allowed the Love that heals back into the deadened heart.

I think one of the reasons for this is that industria, rightly understood, places us back in community in the kind of humility (the very antithesis of self-regard) that makes genuine creativity possible. On a practical level, I have found that sometimes the very best things I can do for my creative gifts are really mundane: pay the bills, clean the garage, straighten my office, answer my emails, etc etc…

Those things are communal acts of love (insofar as they are responsibilities that I hold for the sake of my family, my neighborhood, my job, etc.), and practicing them helps me approach my art in the same way. I don’t need to and shouldn’t wait for some moment of “inspiration” to write, just like I don’t (or shouldn’t) wait for some moment of inspiration to pay my bills. It is, simply, the work I need to do, and I do it diligently.

Every so often, of course, the “muse” visits us… inspiration and creative energy and clarity descend like a flash and we feel ourselves caught up in a torrent of beauty that seems to come “from somewhere else.” Those moments are wonderful. And.

AND.

…if you lead a wastrel, undisciplined existence, waiting for the muse before you put pen to paper, you will likely never do it. Or never do it consistently. And certainly you will never finish anything that glorifies God and blesses people.

Which leads me to make one final comment on “industria.” Often, I have found, the most creative things I have ever done were done not because I set out to “be creative,” but rather because I set out to serve. I had a job to do, and I wanted to do it well… and this creative enterprise was the result.

The sermons I’ve preached… the blogs and articles I’ve written… the creative initiatives I’ve undertaken… by and large these came into being because there were people to be served by them, and I was positioned to so serve.

And all the joy was in the serving. Beauty broke forth in self-emptying regard for the other… in love.

Which is basically what the Bible teaches. Everywhere.

Now… get to work 🙂

Peace,

Andrew

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