Here are the slides and an audio recording of my Jubilee 2016 workshop on the Spiritual Life of an Artist.
I used to think that being a campus minister meant that I would be like the picturesque old man with a big white beard sitting on top of a mountain imparting wisdom to those who could ascend the heights. I thought that once I got to campus all I needed to do was to provide answers to desperate questions that students had. Well, it is nothing like that. In fact, it is more like telling someone they have broccoli stuck in their teeth.
Students do have questions, but they do not know what they are. They have problems, but they do not have the tools to address them. To be an effective campus minister, or any kind of minister, I must help people understand that they do, in fact, have troubles that need to be fixed. Finding answers is easy, asking the right questions is the hard part.
Moleskining is the method that I have adapted over the past few years in order to help students acquire the space and discipline to ask the right questions. I use this method so often now, that I like to call the work I do a “Moleskine Ministry”. It is similar to writing in a journal, but with a few key differences. To Moleskine:
1) Buy a Moleskine journal
Moleskines are expensive, but they are nice. By using a real Moleskine journal, you communicate that taking time to slow down and process is an important thing to do. There is nothing like a blank page, a good pencil and the smell of leather to inspire you to write. (and no, I’m not being payed by Moleskine to say that)
2) Set a timer to 10 minutes
Nothing is worse than starting a project that you know you cannot finish. Opened ended commitments are intimidating. By limiting yourself to 10 minutes, you eliminate unrealistic expectations and fears. It is only 10 minutes, it goes by faster than you think.
3) Set confidentiality
If you are doing this with someone else, remind them that what they write or draw is for their eyes only, unless they choose to share.
3) Represent your thoughts in words AND pictures
One of my friends spent some time as a scribe for a major design firm. To write clear notes and keep up with the fast pace dialogue of a corporate meeting is not easy. I asked her how she did it and if she had any note-taking tips. She said to use as many simple pictures, arrows and symbols as possible. Many of us have been taught to write strait lines and create information in bullet points. Our brains do not think that way and you can go a lot faster if you use a combination of words and pictures. Get creative!
4) Do not pause
There is no need to finish a thought or drawing. Your brain does not usually finish a thought in normal life, so let it go where it wants. The goal is to never stop your pencil from moving. By doing this, you will actually find it easier to let your mind wander to what it finds important.
5) Do not filter
Avoid evaluating what you are writing or drawing. Thoughts like “that’s stupid”, “that’s ugly”, or “I can’t draw” all keep you from consistent writing. Remember, what you write is for you only.
6) Do not get bogged down in details
Super detailed pictures and complicated sentences take too long and will fog your mind. Simplicity is the best. Stick figures and two syllable words get the job done just as good as anything else.
7) Find connections
At first, it might seem like everything you write is random hogwash. Often though, a theme starts to emerge that you may not have seen before. When this happens, draw arrows and lines that connect these thoughts. “Randomness" is key to a good Moleskining session.
8) Optional sharing
If you like, share your page with another person. I often Moleskine at the beginning of my meetings with students... from 1 to 12 people! It often primes the pump for good conversation. If people do not want to share, it still helps everyone collect their thoughts and become more present in the moment.
Moleskining is an exercise in both discernment and acceptance. I constantly talk with students about how to “discern”. Whether it is about who to date, what God’s word says, what their calling is, how to study or what to wear, the theme is always discernment. The problem though, is that once they discern wisdom, it is even harder to accept the answer. Molskining helps with both of these disciplines.
To take notes in a classroom setting, you need to discern which information the teacher gives you is important to remember. While Moleskining, you need to discern which thoughts in your brain need to be acknowledged. To be a good discerner, you beed to have margin in your life. Taking 10 minutes to stop and decompress helps students find that margin. It encourages self-awareness and honesty about their situations.
Ultimately, Moleskining is about acceptance. By writing concerns, dreams and sorrows on paper you realize that you do not have control over your life. Moleskining lets you do something with your questions without trying to control them. Stressers that seem larger than life inside your brain start to shrink when they are on paper.
In the end, Moleskining is a form of prayer. Creating margin to become self-aware, discern truth and accept reality is exactly what we do in prayer. The last step in Moleskining is to let go of the paper and let God take it.
Certainly there are many answers to “what is an artist”, but I have been considering my own definition over the past year. Perhaps I should re-frame the question, “what SHOULD an artist be?” There are many things an artist can become, but what can we Christ-followers expect from an artist?
I suggest that artists should be, what I like to call, “enablers”. Table-setters, facilitators, representatives… In other words, artists should enable others to live life in a fuller manner. We should enable deeper emotions, enable wider understanding of the metaphysical, and enable a desire for justice. Artists should be the bridge between existence and experience. Artists should not be the experience themselves, but rather be the tool by which others engage life. Artists are not the meal, but they set the table for a feast to happen. Practically, what does this look like? Matthew 25 gives us a glimpse into that.
Matthew 25 is certainly about much more than the arts, but if we apply it to the life of an artist specifically, I think we gain some valuable insight. Specifically, I see six things in Matthew 25 that show us how to set the table.
1 - Art Is About Patience
For most of my artistic career I have been frustrated. You cannot count the hours I have put into perfecting my craft only to be discouraged with the final outcome at the end of the day. The cry of, “how long oh Lord” is heard from many artists as they battle dismay at working towards, but never reaching, their vision. When Jesus says, “watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour”, it reminds us to be patient in our craft. Good art takes time. It does not happen over night. It took me 10 years to finally feel like I had made something worth making. Just like the bridal party, we need to be patient and keep our lamps full of oil, because often our best work comes as a surprise.
2 - The Equal Talent Myth
Walt Disney wants everyone to think that we can do anything we set our mind on. Culture says we all have infinite potential if we can just tap into it. There are two problems with this. One, reality just does not corroborate this myth. I will never be able to sing like Freddie Mercury. No matter how hard I try, it’ll never happen. Jesus said, “To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.” Reality is that some people have more talent than me, and that is okay.
Two, this way of thinking robs us of the ability to celebrate mediocrity. When Jesus says, “well done, good and faithful servant.” he wants us to celebrate even the small things, regardless if someone else has more talent. If I believe that I -could- be as good as Freddie Mercury, every time I do not sing like him (which is always), I will feel like I have failed. If I can recognize that I have been given less talent than Freddie, then I can celebrate the small things that I do. The myth of equal talents robs you of joy.
3 - Art Is An Investment
Jesus said, “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.” he reminds us that art, like anything else, is an investment. You need to work at it, and more importantly, having less talent is no excuse to not invest it. Artists often have the attitude that, “If I’m not the best, what’s the point?” We eliminate our possibilities before we even try. Even though I will never be the best, it does not give me the excuse to not develop and refine the talents I do have.
Rather than particulars, art then becomes about faithfulness. Jesus said, “For everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness.” Christ wants us to faithfully invest in the talent he has given us. He does not care if we make as much as our neighbor so long as we respect the gift he has blessed us with. There is no excuse for hiding.
4 - Art Is For Others
It is tempting to do art for yourself only. When we fear what others think, we often end up doing “art for art’s sake”. I do not think this is a legitimate philosophy for a Christ-follower. Jesus said, “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” God blesses us with talents for the sake of others. To invest only for yourself, or only for investment sake is contradictory to the heart of God.
If artists saw themselves as “enablers”, it would be easier to serve the “least of these”. We are surrounded by the poor in spirit, the emotionally handicap, the ignorant, the selfish, the insecure, the fearful, the depressed, the questioning, the arrogant… these people need art. When artists invest in these kinds of people, they will see great returns.
5 - Art Is A Sacrifice
It is no easy thing to serve the needy in this world, and art is no different. Artists often like to live in porcelain towers, but the best art comes from those who enter into the mess. Jesus talks about the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned. It is hard work to serve these people. Being an enabler means letting people walk on you and suffering with the sufferers. How can we serve and represent those who hurt unless we also hurt?
6 - Art Is For A Reward
So if art is difficult, monotonous, awkward, costly and unfair, why would anyone do it? We often do it for the love of others, or if we are lucky, money. But both these things are futile, or in the words of Solomon, “meaningless”. Jesus says, “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” We do art in order to inherit the kingdom. Let me say that again, the reason we do art is because Christ promises us to reward our hard work with his perfect kingdom. We do art because we know we will eventually inherit perfect joy and countless blessings.
Here on earth, we do art to enable the suffering people around us to also see and inherit the kingdom. When we enable the emotionally needy, fearful, and hopeless people around us to hope in the kingdom, we make Christ look glorious. This is the ultimate art, to live in such way as to make the person of God incarnate appear magnificent to those around us.
Mr. Rodgers, Desire and Art
“What do you do with the mad that you feel
Fans and Favoritism
As I prepare to release an album and film documentary in the next few weeks, two ideas have been walking across my thoughts. The first is, "Will anyone like the final product?" The second is, "How many people will these projects reach?" These are not new thoughts to my performance driven life, but as I near the promotion stage of my recent work, they have more tangible repercussions.
Artists desire to please people. An artist without a spectator or a performer without a stage is a terrible feeling. You cannot pursue being an artist without also simultaneously working to build audience. So it is no wonder then, that most people in the arts are obsessed with what people think about them.
It is incredibly easy for an artist to view their own value through the lens of their fans. If you have no fans, then you either start to view art as selfish expressionism or you give up and do something else. However, not only do we feel better the more fans we have, but we artists want to have the right fans. If my fans are old, fat, ignorant and "un-cool", then that reflects badly on my art. I want to have the hip and beautiful people like my work because it makes me look even better. In other words, the quality of fan reflects on my own personal identity. We are picky.
Essentially, we want to be favored above all else. Our assumption is that we deserve to be loved by other people, our fans. This is not reality though. The world is full of seemingly undeserved artists with huge adoring fan clubs. This often feels unfair and we become bitter.
See, we view favoritism as a bad thing. Even the word, "favoritism" is full of negative connotations. However, I suggest that favoritism is a good thing. Why? Because God is also picky.
"And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:10-11
It was Christ, not me, with whom God said he was well pleased. God favors his son Jesus. God has chosen his favorite and it is not us. God's reasons for choosing to love Jesus are perfect and he is completely just in doing so.
Unfortunately, the teachers, professionals, critics, and fans that we try to impress are not also completely fair, like God is. The people we want to be our fans are flawed. We often work hard with no repayment, we create thoughtful work with no response, and we create original ideas with no recognition. And so we become jealous of those who never lift a finger but become rich, or those who produce philistine art with great response, or of those who plagiarize their way to stardom. When we seek the favor of flawed people, our satisfaction in those fans is only partial and leads to bitterness.
"For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us." - 2 Corinthians 4:6-7
It is Jesus, not me that God favors. But God has chosen to put Jesus into our disposable jars of clay that we might benefit from Jesus' stardom. When God looks at our broken attempts to gain fans, he sees Jesus and becomes one. It is Jesus in me, that holds the glory of God. It is Jesus in me that wins the favor of God.
Instead of seeking to add value to ourselves through our fans, or the favor of critics, or the good graces of our professors, we perform and create in such a way as to illuminate the glory of God given to us, then we will avoid the bitterness and aggravation of building the perfect fan base. If God can store his glory in broken jars like us, then we can also serve our small, un-cool, fickle, broken fans too. See, God is not picky.
09/16/2013 11:13 AM
Holiness, Worship, and "Stuff"
Recently, the idea of "holiness" has been on my mind. As soon as I started thinking about it though, the quicker I realized I have a lot of misconceptions. I often think of holiness as "not doing bad things". Pursuit of holiness to me is often reduced to, "don't sin".
A closer look at how the Bible uses the word holiness reveals that it means something much more like "set-apart-ness". We are called to be set apart, or a "royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession" (1 Peter 2:9 a). In other words, God is wholly set apart and desires us to be his own set-apart adorers. Or put another way, we are called to distinguish ourselves from the self gratifying world and worship God alone.
But how does this "setting-apart" work? Certainly we are still human and look like other people. We eat, breath, sleep, talk, make babies, wear clothes, sing, dance, study…. In short, we are a part of and create culture just like everyone else. Culture carries much of our identity as humans beings, but culture is also made up of a bunch of stuff. We do not exist in a vacuum, and we do not worship God in one either.
I like to think of worship as a turning or obsessing of the heart towards something or someone. Jesus says in John 4 that God is Spirit and must be worshiped in spirit and truth. However, it is impossible for us to separate our spirits from our bodies, so the Bible is full from end to end on ways in which to discipline the body in order to enable our spirits to worship. This is worship, the disciplining of our bodies in order to turn our hearts towards God.
However, as soon as we involve our bodies, we also involve the eating, breathing, sleeping, singing… we cannot worship God without using our bodies and including other people in some way. Culture is the means by which we express our obsession, devotion and worship of the Holy God. The holiness, or "set-apart-ness", is the way in which we use culture, not the avoidance of it.
If this is true, we should be incredibly concerned with how our culture functions as a context and means of our worship. We exist in a world full of other people, their "stuff" and their priorities. God has made us holy, set apart, so that we "may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." (1 Peter 2:9 b) God sets us apart for his own glory and then sends us right back into culture to redeem it so that our worshipful expressions might reflect his glory even more than before. The measure of our worship of the Holy God will be echoed in the passion we carry to redeem the culture we use to worship him with. In other words, the fulfillment and satisfaction we find in our relationship with God is the source of our energy to include other people and their cultures in it.
The holiness God calls us to is an identity in himself and the expression he desires of this is a redeemed culture's worship in spirit and truth. Sin hinders us in this pursuit, so there is an aspect of holiness that requires a struggle against sin, but the struggle is not the holiness.
There are many things I could say about how I see the Arts being an important part of both Christian worship and the broader culture, but this will have to be for another day. I'll end with this though; what areas of life do you find to have a great influence in both the popular secular world and Christian worship at the same time?
10/14/2013 01:21 PM
"I Surrender All" Theology
I Surrender All is a famous hymn, but it is also in infamous hymn. Famous because of its accessible melody and passionate words, and infamous because of its bold acclimation of complete and utter surrender. Many people have come to me after singing it in church expressing frustration because, "I don't surrender all". Can we actually sing this hymn and not be lying to God?
My answer is YES! In much the same way that the father of a sick child cried out to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!”, so we can sing I Surrender All. Because of the substitution of our sin with Christ's righteousness, God honors our half-hearted cry of surrender.
The exclamation of “I believe" is echoed in the lines:
All to Jesus, I surrender;
All to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust Him,
In His presence daily live.
All to Jesus I surrender;
Humbly at His feet I bow,
Worldly pleasures all forsaken;
Take me, Jesus, take me now.
And the plea of "help my unbelief" are sung in the last two stanzas:
All to Jesus, I surrender;
Make me, Savior, wholly Thine;
Let me feel the Holy Spirit,
Truly know that Thou art mine.
All to Jesus, I surrender;
Lord, I give myself to Thee;
Fill me with Thy love and power;
Let Thy blessing fall on me.
The general context of this passage from Mark 9 is that Christ is King, he is setting up his kingdom and is going back to the Father to plead on our behalf. It is when we come to God with Jesus as our authority that we are humble enough to say, "help my unbeleif". It is when we plead with God to fill us with -His- love and power, that we can join in singing:
I surrender all, I surrender all,
All to Thee, my blessèd Savior,
I surrender all.
09/18/2013 02:30 PM
When I first started full-time campus ministry, I thought that I would get to campus and my days would be filled with answering questions that students have about life. If only that was the case. Instead, my hours are filled with trying to find ways to get students to even desire to ask questions. Unlike my own natural inclination to question everything and work myself into philosophical crisis, I have realized that most people zoom through life without ever challenging the status quo.
I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to make my Bible studies, discussion groups, and sermons a balance between "attractive" and challenging. If I let students know that we will be discussing ideas and asking questions, no one comes. If I make everything out to be a party, I mourn that no one was challenged.
However, there is anomaly in our culture in that we worship entertainment. Christians, including myself, often talk about the destructive "entertainment culture" we live in, but I have begun to see this less as an obstacle to the gospel and more of a chink in the armor of post-modernism. Entertainment is admittedly often formulaic and cheap, but it is also comprised of very good art.
This is something I celebrate, and the more I do ministry, the more I value art. Unlike discussion groups and sermons, art lets people interact with ideas and reality in a different way. It challenges the status quo, it doesn't let you get comfortable. In a sense, it tricks people into thinking deeply and asking questions without letting them know. And they love it! You don't have to pull arms and legs to get people to talk about and engage art… okay sometimes you do, but it is a whole lot easier than trying to start a conversation about existentialism and modern cultural assumptions. Through art, people can experience the hopelessness of postmodernism, the angst of romanticism and the hope of Christianity. It's one thing to talk about ideas, but experiencing them through art gives people the chance to know it in a deeper level.
This is not the same thing as being "seeker sensitive". Most churches use entertainment to try and create a comfortable enviroment for people to live in. This is the exact opposite of what art is supposed to do. Good art either challenges or redirects you to and idea or reality. Within a Christian world-view, it should not encourage you to remain selfish and comfortable. With good art, we are challenged in our faith and inspired to hope in Christ, not become apathetic and reactionary. This is why my value for art and creativity only increases with ministry experience and why I think the church so desperately needs it.
07/17/2013 10:53 AM
Why I Sing
For some reason, when I think only of Christ's death, I don't have a strong emotional reaction... maybe it's my hard heart, but when I read the accounts of the smaller side stories, I'm wrecked. What I mean is, the accounts of Lazarus' sister Mary anointing Jesus for burial, Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross, the small group of friends and family waiting beneath the cross, and finally the thief who repented on the cross next to Christ all leave me week in the knees. What gets me is how these seemingly small things are what encouraged Christ during his passion. Just like Christ's description of Mary's offering as "beautiful", I'm overwhelmed at the love of God for His son when I read these accounts. The man, Jesus Christ, knew what he was in for; the weight of humanity's sin and intense bodily suffering. God, his father, didn't leave Christ alone, but rather gave him human companions and friends almost every step of the way. These small side stories make Christ's passion real to me. I am human. I can't relate to bearing the weight of other's sin or being tortured to death, but I can relate to pain and being encouraged by friends and the beautiful gift that it is. God the Father, in His deep, deep love, gave Christ physical, relatable reasons to enduring his death.
This meditation on the love of the Father for His Son, and the relatable feelings of encouragement are what soften my heart. We really do have a loving God, and Christ knew this when he instituted communion. Christ, in his understanding of the Father, left us with a relatable, physical way to remember his death and be encouraged. Everyone knows the bread and wine of communion. In many ways, these are meant for us to be reminded of the death, suffering and sacrifice of Christ. But what gets me is the way in which Christ also left us with a way to understand and relate to him after his resurrection. We are all familiar with the words, "This is my blood... poured out for many". But his words that come right after are, "I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.” - wait, you mean to tell me that Christ won't drink wine until we are with him in Heaven? Perhaps I'm reading it wrong, feel free to correct me. The last thing that Christ tasted was sour vinegar. I don't know about you, but all I want after tasting bad wine is good wine.
Not only has God showed His love to us by encouraging Christ in his death by relatable human means, but Christ has also given us a way to relate to Him in his wait for creation's consummation. I can't wait to be there when Christ renews his drink of the vine. It'll be one big party. However, in the meantime, we drink to remember his death. My response is much like the disciples' in the account of Mark, "...when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives." Upon reflection of the physical, relatable passion of Christ, I don't know what else I can do except also engage in the physical, relateble act of singing praise to my Redeemer - Glory Hallelujah.
04/10/2012 11:42 AM
The Derivative Artist
Artists are often attracted to the arts because it is perhaps the one area in life that best convinces us of the illusion of originality, or better said, autonomy. Everything in life is derivative… the natural sciences study physical creation and derive theorems from them, social sciences study how people interact and then make assumptions about how to best organize society, medicine tries to replicate created matter, and theology explores spiritual realities. Art, as we experience it today, constantly tries to take us somewhere new. It tries to propel us farther than before into ecstasy. It is defined as "creating" something original. In short, it often tries to be above created order and set ourselves up as little gods. Perhaps this is why I often find myself simultaneously repulsed by and drawn to other "creatives"… including myself. This idea of being unique and above all the other areas of life is pathetic when you really think about it. Practically, all the best art is %99.9 a rip-off of someone who came before you and maybe %0.1 new. In fact, ownership of art is a relatively new thing in the grand scheme of history, and the glorification of originality is even newer.
What if we started to think about art as representing, not "creating" something. What if artists were instead "communicators" of nuanced truth. We can not out-create God, or think outside the boxes that he has already set. If contemporary artists, especially Christian ones, started to let themselves be created, or re-created, more and stopped trying to always do something new, our art would be far more effective and relatable. Artists would stop being elitist snobs (myself included) and start acting like the humble "enablers" of both human emotions and the natural world that we were created to be. In this sense, I think we can draw a distinction between the Christian and non-Christian artist. The non-Christian artist essentially functions as his own god and constantly tries to break out of created order. The Christian artist, in a sense, should be a worship leader. By this I mean that the Christian artist should enable the people around him to fully express emotion and experience creation in its complete and fulfilled design. This means that "creatives" need to see themselves once more as derivative beings, but once we do, I think a whole new world will be open to explore. Once artists start to see themselves as being contained, or dare we say limmited to, God's creation (including what some call the "metaphysical"), then we can more fully express art and lead others in worship the way David does in Psalm 19:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can discern his errors?
Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.