My first thought as I collect these images below is that over the period of my life, it’s a practice that I just resolve to face down rather than run from. Probably I am motivated by the fear that I might die if I don’t let the beauty inside come to life. I don’t mean death in the literal sense, but a sort of death of soul, of spirit, of truthfulness. Calling into any kind of spiritual or contemplative life is a call to cultivate creativity in the world against the odds, to choose to live or die.
It’s hard, that’s for sure. Mostly it’s hard to give myself permission to cultivate spirit when so many other things need to be done on a daily basis. So much needs saving around here; souls, lives, bellies, children, youth, homeless, did I say hungry children? The building needs attention, reports must be filed, plans must be made for our survival, we must advertise more, organize more, have stunning worship services that cut to the core of who we are, we must invite more, we must push everyone to attend everything because how else will we convince the world that we are a thriving church? These are the pressures that weigh on the habitat of the pastor, these are just one facet, however, there is also study, preaching, care, community presence and sometimes mopping the floor and cleaning up. Being creative in the church is paying attention to the fact that above all of this administration and often through this very administration, people need inspiration, people need to believe in something more than success. Cultivating creativity is an invitation for the holy to live and breathe anywhere.
Being creative in the religious institution is sort of like being an animal who senses somehow that the boundaries of her habitat are closing in. We become aware of the delicate balance of the creative ecosystem, begin to emerge out of it to bring awareness to others and find ourselves crushed by either meeting with confusion or apathy or plain out contempt. Just beyond the familiar wild lives the harsh god of money who demands loyalty at any cost and we all march to that drumbeat, the cold and magnificent concrete jungles run by free enterprise where those gifted at greed and manipulation rule. Simply, the creative spirit is not free to live by the rules of creativity alone. It must travel back and forth between habitats and convince the world that there is something about it that is worth saving. It gestates and lays its eggs in the barrier between wild and prison, where wildflowers and pollution kiss, there in the weeds, in the thriving thrush, at the edge of the city where children play and dream. Creativity lives in those who will risk it.
While I was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity, I got to interview Will Campbell, civil rights activist alongside Dr. Martin Luther King and author of many books, most notably, “Brother to a Dragonfly.” I was sitting in his cabin and I asked him a question along the lines of the existence of God in the religious institution. He plainly said he didn’t think God exists much in the institution, too much of the holy is sacrificed for empire. Those were not his exact words, his exact words were much more indelicate.
Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox tells us that creativity is in fact, the Holy Spirit in us. Do you believe this? I think it is true, it’s also true that creativity lives in our very soul, the very part of us that remains connected to the Divine, whatever you call it, the good, the beautiful, the pure, the knowing, the peace that passes understanding. In that way, it is a sort of shield, the armor of God against all the ways that the giants of consumerism, of capitalism, of greed, of mass destruction will convince you that you need to sell it to them, your soul. If you are connected to your soul you will see that it is priceless.
So, this is what it means to practice creativity in the institutional church or any institution or any world, it means the practice of compassion itself. The very words spoken on the cross were words of creative spirit, “forgive them, for they know not what they do.” They were words of invitation, words a criminal could believe, words that turn your life around. Creativity intervenes on behalf of compassion and says, “pay attention, slow down, breathe, live mindfully, love, do not kill, do not bear false witness.” To practice your art for the benefit of the soul’s presence, to restore soul to the body, to restore the presence of God to the church, to resonate with the being of God in the world, this is a work of love, this is a vocation, not a career, this is chaplaincy in a prison.
The new church will be full of creativity and hope and acts of compassion, a habitat of wilderness expanding, reclaiming all those who belong to God.
My friends, let us give birth at the edge. Try and stay connected to your soul though the situation of living here on this planet will surely endeavor to rip it from you. There is also ample opportunity to rediscover it, even in your very work.