Monday, June 26, 2006

The Art of Encouragement (3)

Question 3: Whose work is the work of encouragement? (Our logic here: because God, so also we.)

1. It’s God’s work: the work of the Trinity.

a. The Father’s work: Ps. 10:7, “You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry.” (Cf. Rom. 15:5; 2 Thess. 2:16)

b. The Son’s work: Matt. 14:27, Jesus walking on water, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” (cf. Phil. 2:1)

c. The Spirit’s work: Acts 9:31, “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.”

2. It is all of our work.

a. Heb. 3:13, “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”

b. 1 Thess 4:18, “Therefore encourage each other with these words.”

c. 1 Thess 5:11, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

3. It is the unique work of a few.

a. Barnabas, the “son of Encouragement”: Acts 4:36, “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement).” Again in Acts 11:23, “When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” He takes Mark after Paul had rejected him (Acts 15:36-41).

b. Some have the “gift” of encouragement: Rom. 12:8, “if a man’s gift is encouraging, then let him encourage.” And thank God for them. EX: Kim Alexander.

Question 4: Why do we need encouragement?

Answer: Because the default setting of the world, the flesh, and the devil is to beat us down. Entropy requires no effort. Discouragements proliferate like weeds. (EX: I shared a story here about a hurtful exchange with one of my grad school professors.)

And there's the litany of anti-artmaking forces:

- cowardice
- disappointments
- failures
- worn out, burned out
- the inner voices
- loneliness
- depression
- confusion or ignorance
- we succumb to distractions
- hurtful words
- we feel it to be hopeless or futile
- the harshness of a competitive art culture.

So Wolterstorff in Art in Action:

“The institution’s emphatic insistence on stylistic innovation and whole-hearted devotion leaves behind it long trails of broken and maimed lives—lives consumed by jealousy, lives in which humanity has withered away into neurotic or obsessive concern with art, lives judged failures because radical stylistic innovation or critical success was not theirs to achieve.”

The natural result of fears, left unchecked, is to make a thing smaller or to destroy it. The power to resist giving in to our fears is courage; and it is the refreshing words of encouragement that remind us who we are, remind us in fact of the high calling that God has placed on each of our lives.

Question 5: Who are the people whose encouragement matters the most?

Answer: those who are closest to us.

1. Family and friends: EX: MEM.

2. Our hero-mentors: EX: Coach Norman Dale/Gene Hackman in Hoosiers.

Conversely, it hurts the most when we don’t receive such words from them.

Question 6: Why does it matter that we speak words of encouragement.

Let me say first that words alone do not constitute the highest kind of encouragement. It is only words and actions together that produce such a kind. Words without deeds often turn hollow; the speaker is seen as a fake and the words become an irritant to the ear, and at that point it's best to shut up until you put up.

It’s a wonderful thing, though, to see artists whose work is not only praised but bought—and God be praised, and for crying out loud, patronized. EX: Laura Jennings.

However, my point here is to draw attention to the importance of speaking and hearing words. Partly, my concern is with a habit I observe in folks that makes them reticent to speak. The reasons are various. Some of us are shy; our nature is reserved and not given to many words. Some of us are worried we won’t say the right thing, so better say nothing we figure. Some, like your parents, don’t want you to get a big head, so they practice the fine art of withholding affirmation. Some figure that you know already that you’re good, so why tell you; it’s assumed, what’s there to say. And some, like myself sometimes, struggle with being self-absorbed or insecure. We just don’t see you because we can’t see you, because we only see ourselves.

For all of us, there is plenty of room to grow in this area.

But when we speak words out loud to each other, we are speaking out loud each other's worth. We are speaking your, specific, special goodness: “It is good that you are you! It is good that God is making you more you. It is good what you do, your art doings, your art longings, your art imaginings. The world truly needs a healthy you."

This kind of speaking is God’s primary work on earth. He not only makes things, he loudly calls them good, for all the universe, for angels and beasts and the sons of men, to hear, “It is very good.” Our God is the God who speaks and so we strive to reflect his manner by speaking our own beneficient words to each other.

Now there is another reason why we want to speak out loud encouragement, and it is this sense which Frederich Buechner picks up on in his essay, “The Speaking & Writing of Words,” that the reality of our love for one another does not “fully exist for you until you have given a word to it.” As he puts it:

“It is not that you feel love and then say, ‘I love you’, but that until you say ‘I love you’, you have not fully loved because it is the essence of love as it is also the essence of fear, anger, grief, joy and so on to speak itself—to make itself heard and to make itself hearers.”

When we speak words of encouragement to each other, we are stepping out of the lonely world that we are in ourselves, by ourselves, and entering in to the larger, richer world of community, where we find ourselves to be more truly ourselves. When we speak encouragement, we are giving away love and receiving love. And is this not what the world desperately needs? Is this not what Jesus said would become the mark of recognition of his followers? Is this not what our hearts burn for, this kind of love?

Question 7: To what end do we encourage each other?

I’m the kind of person who sees the world not simply in terms of the good versus the bad, but in the good versus the better versus the best. I ask myself constantly, Why not seek the best? Why not live the richest, most wacky and wonderful life possible?

Why not live a maximalist life? Anyone can live a minimalist life; it requires no effort. But I love this phrase that I find in the writings of the 12th century Abbot Suger of St. Denis (1122 AD), “with all inner purity and with all outward splendour.” It speaks of the marriage of the ascetic and the aesthetic, and suggests the possibility that the copious beauty that we see in the physical nature surrounding us can become a guidepost for the kind of work that we as humans ought to be on about: the making of beauty liberally, the endless making of imaginative artifacts.

If then our goal, according to the first chapter of Genesis, is to flourish in all our potential, to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth with all the goodness of the labor of our hands, then it seems to me that we should give each other the best, in this case, the best, most carefully chosen, loving words of encouragement. If the natural condition of humans is to be afraid, as in fact we find at the very beginning in Genesis 3, then what we need is courage to overcome this constant threat of fear. If for an artist to grow and to become everything that she is meant to be she must pass through many experiences of pain, each experience ushering her to a new level of maturity, then she will need all the encouragement she can get to fend off the temptations to give up or to settle for an easy, safe, self-protective life that in no way resembles the kind of life that Jesus invites us to, an abundant, magnificent life (John 10:10), or as St. Paul puts it in his second letter to Timothy, “the life that is truly life,” a blessed life.

With the right words of encouragement, animating our fragile hearts with courage to face each day with all the intelligent wisdom and humble confidence that we see in the life of Jesus, there is no telling what we as artists could accomplish in this world. There is no telling what blessing of joy and justice would cover our cities. There is no telling what beauty would ravage the hearts of men.

A Church that is filled with artists who are more daring, more playful, more fully alive is a Church against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail. It is a Church that transforms neighborhoods and renews the culture and fills the earth with the glory of God.

It is for such a vision that I labor and pray. Amen.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The "Weaker Conscience": to push or not to push

In response to my notes under the TAC entry, my friend Timothy High, who teaches art at UT and heads up the Visual Arts Ministry at First Evangelical Free Church, responded with a few observations. The first is to say that they've had to remove works that were "too dark in terms of ideological bearing." They were, as such, inappropriate for the worship space. The second note was about children. He writes, "at VAM Gallery, we say that no works are to be hung in the gallery which would be offensive or oppressive to the conscience of a ten year old child."

I love having Tim around. It's a great gift to share this city with him and to work as partners in the revival and renewal of the arts within the churches of Austin. I wrote him a response, thinking it'd just be a line or two. It ended up being bushels of paragraphs. I've copied it here for further discussion. It's one of those pandora's boxes that could go every which way. But the occasion gave me a chance to practice clear thinking skills. We'll see if it's clear beyond my skull.

Tim, thanks for your additional thoughts. The thing we’ve bumped up against at Hope is not so much whether we would withhold a piece from being hung—we will—but on what occasions, what grounds, and to what degrees. Do we remove a work because it’s offensive to one person only, or to a percentage of people, to a majority? What if there will always be a person who is offended, do we still not hang work? What is their role and ours in helping each other grow in the understanding of work a “difficult” piece of art—in our ability to appreciate a work without having to like it?

What is our role as leaders to help expand a congregation’s knowledge and “taste” in art, whether in terms of form (e.g., not many like conceptual or abstract art) or content (e.g., difficult thematic elements which nonetheless constitute a legitimate arena of exploration for the Christian, such as sin and evil)? Recognizing that the context of our exhibits, the church, is not that of a general gallery, how do we discern what the range of purposes is for this space—a sacred space, a congregational space, a space which people don’t choose to visit per se, like a modern museum, but occupy because it’s our common worship space?

I look back at the history of the church and I see that art didn’t simply drop from heaven in one lump sum. Things developed. Experiments took place. Artists and pastors asked questions they’d never had to ask before. Decisions were made, patterns were formed, cultures were cultivated and, over time, solidified into living environments. For us as Protestants in North America, it’s as if we’re experiencing what the Church—our common Body of Christ—experienced in the first several centuries of its life. We’re asking old questions but we’re also asking new ones.

What is essential aesthetically for the Church? What is secondary? What is culturally universal? What is culturally relative and therefore a matter for each congregation to decide? For example: how we depict Christ. Do we depict him as a white, European male? Or as Chinese or black African? Do we represent him as an emperor or a blue-collar peasant-shepherd of Mediterranean extract? Does it matter? Why? Is this question absolute or is it subjective and altogether the domain of Christian liberty? What biblical, theological and historical reference points could help us make good decisions?

The conscience of a man and of a child is a powerful thing. It cannot be treated carelessly. To one man, drinking wine is offensive, perhaps for religious reasons, as was my case up until the age of 24 when I was confronted with a biblical reading that challenged the assumptions of my fundamentalist childhood. Perhaps he has suffered the terrible effects of alcoholism, and we, as shepherds who will be held accountable for our care of the sheep, dismiss to our own peril his feelings as “a private matter only.” To another, wine is a gift from God and the object of one of Jesus’ greatest miracles. Wine in the Protestant church is much like art: a complicated, vexing deal.

I think what I’m not willing to do is to let the “weaker conscience,” the “quickly offended conscience,” dictate all our decisions as pastor-leaders. The good of a community is not to be confused with what is comfortable to the lowest common denominator. The offended conscience might often be the pastor or priest. What I’ll want to do is to sit down with him, ask him why he feels and thinks the way he does, consider ways in which I can learn from what he believes. I’ll want to be humble. I’ll want to be teachable of heart. But I will also want to encourage him to listen to other points of view. I’ll want him to hear why artists—godly, God-fearing artists—feel that the depictions, for instance, of the nude is a beautiful, God-honoring act. The nude is an extreme example, admittedly, even for the other great traditions. But there are plenty of matters that push, pull and stretch our notions of what art is and what its place is in the context of the church gathered.

So my position is this.

Yes, I must always ask whether a work of art will be offensive. Yes, I must always consider the complex of reasons why this would be so. Yes, I must always seek to love the people of my congregation—by laying my life down for them. Yes, I must always love the “weaker” brother or sister with the best love I have to offer, which may often be a slow-going, exasperating love. Yes, I must love the children as Jesus loved them, not one iota less. Yes, my best decisions will be made in community.

And then also, yes, I must be willing to give my neighbor better art: art that is richer, more metaphorically complex, more mentally and emotionally and spiritually challenging. (I would say the same thing about myself as a preacher: a preacher must always be willing to give the people food that is more mentally, emotionally and spiritually challenging.) I must be willing to take time to teach a child how to read art discerningly. I must protect that child from things she’s not ready to experience. I must assume the best about my brother who is quickly offended by a work of art, that he is not naturally born stiff-necked or philistine but, with the right instruction and exposure to larger categories of art, that he is capable of growing. I must be willing to go slowly. I must be willing to be wrong. I must be willing to not do what I would love to do, or even what I think would actually be good to do, because there is a greater love, a greater wisdom at work.

As I remind myself often: Just because I can doesn’t mean I should. And conversely, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean I shouldn’t.

Anyhoo, I realize this is probably a more gigantic answer than you thought you would get. It’s certainly bigger than I thought when I began typing. Oh well. I guess the faucets opened unannounced and words started flowing. Weird the way of the muses.

I’d love to keep dialoguing about this. Hey, we could even turn the salient features of this discussion into a citywide/churchwide arts symposium. More learning, more growing—it’s a long and winding and exciting road ahead—why not.

Bless you,


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Art of Encouragement (2)

Let me illustrate. Kay Ramsey is 61 years old. She's a member of our congregation. When I sent a note to our arts community asking for any insights or stories, she wrote me the following:

“Your question number two brought up INSTANT childhood and young adult memories. What kind of encouragement did I receive as a child? How about NO WORDS? By the 6th grade everyone EXCEPT my parents thought I was a child protégée in piano - but never a word to me about my accomplishments from them. When, from the 7th grade until high school graduation, I wanted more than anything to be either an opera singer or singer in the theatre—and at that time I had the voice to do it—again, NO words or even acknowledgment of my accomplishments. Oh, yea, they provided for me to take the lessons, but never the hugs or praise that let me know they were proud of me. BOTTOM LINE - NO WORDS WERE FOR ME THE DEATH OF MY DREAM.”

I read this note and ask myself, What blessing, what glory has the world missed out on because of Kay’s loss? Is not her loss also our loss? Much like C.S. Lewis’ comment about Charles Williams’ death, that Lewis lost not only Williams but also something only Williams could bring out in Tolkien, have we not all lost something of ourselves because Kay lost a part of her identity in the absence of encouragement? I wonder. I wonder that about the rest of our broken, half-fulfilled lives.

But as we stand here today, God our Father encourages us from heaven, through His Son, in His Spirit, and He commands us to encourage one another other.

The question that’s put before us is: Will we be the kind of community that practices the generous art of encouragement? Will we as the Church settle for a kind of community that manages simply okay, looks no different than any other social group, plays the same old tired games of jealousy and super-coolness, or will we choose to be a Church that is irrepressibly generous, filled with artists who are more alive, more daring, more humble today than yesterday, where every member seeks gladly the best in the other, and whose consequence is a culture of abundant life?

The latter is my earnest prayer. And so my objectives this evening are twofold: (1) to provide us with a kind of landscape for the art of encouragement, and (2) to encourage us with a vision of the Church which through the particular work of its artists, is radically refreshing and powerfully transformative.

I will certainly not be saying here everything that could be said on the subject, but it will at least give us a good start.

I will proceed by way of a series of questions. Seven questions:

1. What is encouragement not?
2. How many kinds of encouragement are there?
3. Whose work is the work of encouragement?
4. Why do we need encouragement?
5. Who are the people whose encouragement matters the most?
6. Why does it matter that we speak words of encouragement?
7. To what end do we encourage each other?

But first, a story.

Once upon a time there was a young man named Joshua . . . and his best friend Caleb . . . exploring the land of the giants (Nu. 13) . . . they said yes, but everybody else said no . . . so they spent many years in the wilderness . . . then Moses says, Joshua, you’re the man . . . Dt. 1:38 . . . Moses and the Lord speak to Joshua, Dt. 31:6, 7, 23 . . . then Joshua speaks to the people five times . . . 5 times! . . . and they’re all saying the same thing: “Be strong and courageous; do not be terrified, do not be discouraged.” . . . Then they cross the Jordan miraculously . . . and what happens to the Canaanite kings? Joshua 5:1 tells us that their HEARTS MELTED.

This is the Key Image: a Melting Heart vs. a Strong Heart.

To en-courage: from the Lat. “cor” = heart – to animate the heart; to inspire a person with courage.

So then there are two basic elements to encouragement:

1. Encouragement has everything to do with the heart: it animates the deepest place of your person.

2. Encouragement addresses your identity. I have to know something about you for encouragement to work properly; and it deals both with who you are now and who you could become.

- EX: “Remember, Jeffrey, who you are: you’re a gifted artist” (actual).
- EX: “Jeffrey, you have what it takes to be a great filmmaker” (potential)

Question 1: What is encouragement not?

1. It’s not the same as a compliment. Whereas encouragement operates on your identity, a compliment deals more with an action or visible, surface thing. EX: a compliment of my sermon. EX: a compliment of your skirt. They are, as Kate Van Dyke puts it, a “lovely social WD-40."

2. It’s not fanfare or flattery, which are fickle. EX: Jeffrey Travis’ conversation with Martin Sheen: “Don’t trust the movie culture, Jeffrey. One moment you exist because you’re on the cover of a magazine, the next month, when you’re off the cover, you don’t. People come up to me and gasp, ‘You’re still alive!?’ Of course I’m alive. Just because you don’t see me doesn’t mean I don’t exist.” Flattery, as the saying goes, can be as “useless as tits on a boar.”

Question 2: How many kinds of encouragement are there? I offer you two.

1. The rah-rah: the image of the cheerleader (The Choristers’ Clement Mathieu). The “energy bar” kind. The moral support. A lot of what I do day-to-day, like a soccer coach: “Rah Rah Rah, you can doooo it!”

2. The exhortation: the image of the sensei (Karate Kid’s Mister Miyagi). This is the kind of encouragement that comes from an authority figure who speaks the hard or discerning word into your life. Such a person, your mentor-teacher, guides, counsels, urges, comforts, strengthens, inspires you. The sensei exhorts to keep your art and your life in perspective. “It’s not all about you.” “You’re not going to die.” “This is really good work.”

EX: Jacob Kahn for Asher Lev. EX: Jeremy Begbie for me. EX: what I didn’t have with the play “Virtues & Lies” in the summer of 1997.

One more story here to illustrate the power of a knowledgeable and kind-hearted rah-rah encouragement.

Elwood Fisher is a one-time, small-town engineer currently looking for a high school teaching job. He's in his late thirties, married and with a small child. Like many of us at Hope Chapel, he's a late-bloomer artist. He related to me the following story over an email.

“I won't get the age right. I was probably between 8 and 10 years old. A friend of my parents was an artist and the wife of a teacher/coach in the town next to ours. They were 'weird': he did Karate in a small Arizona town in the early 70s; they had oriental items in their home; one of our few non-church friends.

There was an art show of some kind, and this woman encouraged my siblings and me to enter a piece. Funny, I have no idea how she knew we had interest or ability. For my entry, I did a drawing. I think it was of a haunted house (a favorite theme of mine at that age): gravestones, cobwebs, dead trees, ghosts, dracula, frankenstein.

We were excited, waiting for the results of the judging. This woman reported them back to us personally. (I'm wondering now why we didn't go ourselves, guess it wasn't important to my parents—maybe it happened on a Sunday). And the results were also published in the local paper. We didn't win the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd, but somehow we, the Fischer children collectively, were awarded "special recognition" by the judges. I still don't know what that means, but as I write this I'm suddenly suspicious that this woman had something to do with that (she had connections, may have advocated for us). She also told my parents that I, especially, was talented and should have art lessons, and even went so far as to give me a set of oil paints—real paints, not the kiddy kind (I was still using crayons).

Doesn't sound like much. Somehow my folks lost track of this family soon after this. But that was the first time someone other than parents and teachers—who, after all, are supposed to say good things about you—had recognized an artistic gifting in me. I treasured the paints. Didn't use them, didn't have a canvas or a clue what to do with them, until about 5 years after college. Then, as part of my "breaking out" of being a small-town engineer, I did a painting which hangs above my desk as I type this. Wild clouds in a swirling grey sky, heavily textured bark on leafless trees, flame-colored grasses waving in a frozen wind: an image of life powerfully immanent in apparent deadness.

I'll always be grateful to this woman (I don't even know her name) for her intervention, for recognizing me as an artist, for recognizing that I needed that affirmed, even at my young age. Because of her, I had it in print: I was an artist worthy of special recognition by people who know about things like that.

The world of Art was so far from my parent's experience, I'm not sure that small flame would have survived without her intervention.”

My one thought here is: We can never really underestimate the power of the words we speak to each other. We have no idea what effect our words may have on a small kid or passing stranger or even on our closest friend. Elwood's story reminds me how precarious our lives are. One little word can crush our spirit.

One well-spoken word, in particular during our childhoods or at critical stages of our development even long into adulthood, can ignite our hearts with the longing and the resilience to become the person which God created us to be, which we ourselves, in the moment, see only darkly.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Art of Encouragement (1)

Here is part one of my Trinity Arts Conference talk. Much of it was read verbatim; several places were expounded in anecdotes that did not make the script. There is an audio version available. I am deeply grateful to have been given the occasion, the excuse if you will, to put these thoughts into written form. I've felt strongly about it for a long time and now understand more clearly why it matters to me so much. I pray it serves its intended purpose.

“All Things: Especially the Little Things
(in particular, little words):
A Meditation on the Art of Encouragement”

“Men Wanted for Hazardous Journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success. –Sir Ernest Shackleton.”

(This from the British Antarctic explorer who placed the advertisement in the London newspapers in 1900 in preparation for the National Antarctic Expedition.)

This, it seems to me, should be posted on the front cover of every art book. Warning: hazardous material inside, might cost you your sanity. Children aspiring to be artists, like children of a communist state, should all be made to memorize the slogan. For herein is described perfectly the life of the artist: small wages, bitter rejections, long months of enduring drafts of work that are complete crap, constant danger from people around you, especially the church-going and blood-related, telling you you’re crazy and weird and wasting your time, safe return to the end of your life doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success, but likely not financial, so hold on to the honor part because that’s probably all you’ll get anyway.

It’s hard being an artist. No matter how you look at it, it’s a miserable vocation we desperately love. Over the last ten years as a working arts pastor, seeing hundreds and hundreds of artists come and go through the doors of Hope Chapel, I have seen many artists succeed and fail, most fighting for every inch of progress, many losing the battle against harsh disappointments, all looking the Minotaur in the face: do I quit or do I keep going?

But if you asked me to tell you the Top Three Most Important Things I’ve Observed throughout all my years as a pastor to artists, one would certainly have to be this: artists need to be in the business of giving and receiving constant encouragement. Honest to God, I spend a third of my job in the simple but constant, and deeply satisfying, task of encouraging artists. It surprised me to realize it just recently, but it’s true.

So if there is a gist to my talk tonight, it goes something like the following. Please bear with me, as it forms the armature for the rest of the content.

The gist of my argument begins with two assumptions.

One: the natural condition of human beings is the condition of being afraid.

Two: for an artist to grow and to become everything that he is meant to be, he must pass through many experiences of pain, each experience ushering him to a new level of maturity.

Two assumptions, two realities.

The two realities we have to deal with as artists are: the beginning of being an artist and the continuing of being an artist. There is the first day we step up to the starting blocks to run the mile and there is the umpteenth day when we ask the question whether we will run a faster mile than last time, or to be more precise, whether we will want to run a faster mile. There is on the one hand the basic fear we all deal with as fallen, sinful humans, and there are on the other hand the one-of-a-kind fears that meet us at every point along the way that we decide to keep growing as artists, to keep pushing ourselves to try new things or to attain excellence in our given medium.

There is the pain of the beginner and there is the pain of the journeyman who wants always to keep advancing, keep climbing.

And then, quite simply, there is the problem of pain. Or rather, pain and fear, the Scylla and Charybdis: the pain of fear and the fear of pain. Pain hurts, and the prospect of being hurt arouses fear. We flee the one and are crushed by the other. Together, pain and fear keep hundreds of thousands of artists on this planet ever from starting out and those they’ve not been able to deter, they constantly derail with failures, the sting of loneliness, and the possibility that you’re simply a fraud, a wannabe.

Thankfully, God has provided us with an antidote: courage. Courage, regarded in classical times as one of the four cardinal virtues, is the virtue by which one faces and overcomes the difficulties and dangers of this world, not rashly, but wisely, not for selfish gain, but for the sake of what is right and a greater good. Courage is what we as artists need to be artists. But as my friend and painter Jim Janknegt reminds me, “You can’t make me courageous, David, but you can en-courage me to be courageous.” Just so, courageousness is not something that can be imposed upon a person. You have to want to be courageous, and the only way for you to become brave, as Aristotle insists in his Nicomachean Ethics, is “by doing brave acts.”

We have to start acting bravely, even when we don’t feel brave, to become the kind of person who is able to press through all the pains and fears that threaten to undo us. And it is with such courage that my friend Mike Akel, who this weekend is on his way to the LA Film Festival, is able to spend three years of his life—and counting—three years of disillusionments and penny-pinching and tedium, making a film that may or may not get national distribution. It is, more to the point, on the strength of a constant flow of encouragement from his friends and family that he is able to resist the powerful temptation to quit.

My point, in short, is this.

Artists are made or broken by the words of encouragement they receive, or barely receive, or never receive. Without encouragement artists will be bullied by the fears inside their hearts and outside, and, left unchecked, they will eventually give up or “settle”—settle for a distasteful mediocrity. With the right encouragement, however, artists will be given the strength to face and press through fear and thus discover, on the other side of their fears, new abilities, new perceptions, new capacities to envision and to generate better work. With such encouragement, artists will be put in the position of being able to achieve their fullest potential. It’s the difference between a minimalist life and a maximalist life.

Let me illustrate. Kay Ramsey is 61 years old. . . .

Monday, June 19, 2006

A mini-report from the Trinity Arts Conference

I've not blogged in nearly four weeks. I'm not sure whether I should be impressed or miffed or happily indifferent about the fact. Stick it to the god of identity-by-way-of-productivity? But my Turkey travels and the preparations for the Trinity Arts Conference have left me mentally poohed out. I've been the Bear of a Very Little Brain lately.

Thankfully, my soul's been thoroughly nourished over the past weeks. I'll need to organize my Turkey reflections before I commit them to writing, so I'll wait till later in the week to post. For now, I'll drop a few observations on the TAC and copy part one of my talk.

There were six of us guest artist-speakers on the bill: Dr. James Patrick, philosopher extraordinaire and jolly old fellow at the College of St. Thomas More in Fort Worth; Bob Cording, poet and professor of creative writing at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts (also Vizzini soundalike); Mary Kenagy, the managing editor for Image Journal, and could-be-would-be radiant Jane Austen heroine; Pamela Nelson, who has a four year appointment to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts to review public art and architecture projects, and was the kind of arts grandma everybody needs in their life; Claire Holley, a native Mississippian singer-songwriter, living now in LA, is friends with an old high school friend of mine, Sarah Hendren. Claire's music is gorgeous. She struck me as a kind of hybrid between Holly Hunter and Patty Griffin. I honestly don't know why more people don't know who she is. But here's my two pieces of rah-rah to say: Buy her music! Rah rah rah, Claire!

We Ate and Drank our fill
We ate and drank art for three good days at the University of Dallas' Haggerty Arts Complex. We sat on panels and could have talked about the theme "All Things" all day long. It was rich. It jump-started our minds and souls. I hung out with Anita Horton, our guest artist at the HopeArts fest back in 2002. We drank wine and funny cheese late nights in the dormitory lounge. We argued about rock n roll ("all sentimentality, passion and disorganization"), the church as "temple" space, and the strange ability of atheists to both see and deny the existence of God in their lives (cf. 100 Artists See God). Phaedra got loads of compliments on her art work, and the two of us had a great time together. Kim Alexander and Mike Capps, the two organizers, modeled the perfect hospitality for "conferencing reality." I led discussions on the movies "Ulee's Gold" and "Maria Full of Grace." I talked arts ministry with Methodist and Bible Church guys. I met Arthur Morton, the former arts pastor at Irving Bible Church. We asked the question: What is our responsibility to the youth?

All in all it was a blessed thing to have been a part of this gathering of artists, my crack-loopy, weary brain notwithstanding. It does remind me, though, that the "thoughty" Christian art culture is pretty small. You have CIVA, Image/Glen, IAM, the FFW, the B&C, the ICW, a handful of colleges/seminaries, the TAC, and that's about it. It's a small village and there aren't many young people hanging about. What to do . . . what to do. . . .

Here are A Few Quotables
"If what the artists in our museums and halls disturbs you, don't blame the artists. They are simply seeing the truth around them." Dr. Patrick. "They're telling the secrets of our own hearts."

"When everyone's rich, fat and sassy, it's hard to say technology is bad." Dr. Patrick

It's only when you enter a culture of comfort that a revolution such as happened in the 1960s could take place. (paraphrase of Dr. Patrick)

"The object of architecture is the ethical domain." (I can't remember who was being quoted here.)

The tension? "The generosity of all things and the greed of all things." Pamela Nelson

I wish I had more from the other speakers, but I just couldn't keep up with it all. Audio recordings are available for each.

Permissible but not Profitable?
One of the interesting questions which was asked to the panel, which I sat on, was: When are all things permissible but not beneficial? That is, how do we go about making good decisions about what to make or what to do with our art? Phaedra wrote down a summary of each person's answer and I may get her to jot it down electronically.

My first thought was to recall an epiphany I'd had two years ago. It was a lit-up billboard in my head that said: "Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should." Dr. Patrick picked up on this and mentioned that this was a peculiarly contemporary problem. With so many choices, so many possibilities for Americans, we no longer want to be human, we want to be super-human; we want to transcend human limitations (so genetic engineering, so the never-ending capacity to generate artificial light and thereby create artificial bio-rhythms). And the only result of such a venture is to do damage to ourselves.

I shared about my experience from the Spring of 2002 when I had allowed the first three scenes of "Sarah's Children" to be performed on Sunday morning. In lieu of the sermon, I had suggested we let the congregation view the lives of the patriarchs in dramatic form, not oratorical (i.e. the sermon). The problem was, not only did it leave folks hanging (with an abruptly stopped story), it left them disturbed (with themes of sexual dysfunctionality). Long story there, but the lesson learned was that context is everything. Not all art is good for all settings, nor for all people. The intent of the work and the desired audience matter as much as the actual piece itself. In my case, I had not served the purposes for which the people had gathered: to encounter the living God. I'd made a mistake and I had to live through it twice, once in the first service and again, in dreadful, miserable anticipation, in the second.

How should I have made a better decision? I now understand that I needed to have listened better. But how? And to whom? I suggested a fourfold listening exercise:

1. We listen to the voice of the Spirit.
2. We listen to the voice of God through the written Word.
3. We listen to our consciences/our intuition.
4. We listen, carefully and slowly, to the voice of our community.

To practice the discipline of listening means that you end up going slower. You can't rush a good decision. But the result will inevitably be a better, wiser decision--one that is beneficial to your audience. Lots of things we can do as artists are permissible; very little of our work is ever an act of outright evil. But the question--the difficult, complicated question--is whether our work, our song or film, our poem or painting, is beneficial. Of course we recognize that beneficial is not to be confused with easy or non-disruptive. Jesus spoke beneficial words, but they weren't pretty. They were beautiful--but not always comfortable. So what is good for your soul, artistically speaking, might not taste good; but like your vitamins and vegetables, you should eat it anyway.

Our prayer, then, is that God would give us all a humble heart and a good community to walk out our major decisions as artists. Sometimes our community will speak as one: "Go for it!" or "Don't do it!" Sometimes it will speak as many, and we will have an equal number of wise, godly men and women telling us opposite things. At that moment we must simply ask God to help us love him and our neighbor with all our heart, do what is truthful, and then trust that whatever we do, will turn out ok.

Those Young People!?
On the question of what we should be doing about the young people, many of whom could care less about authority or tradition, my encouragement was for us to figure out how to harness their passions, how to re-direct these wild, God-given passions toward something life-giving. I also feel strongly that one of the most important uses of our time and energies as adults is to mentor. How does any kid turn out alright? It's because he's had an older person, mother or father or surrogate of both, invest in his life, 24/7. Kids these days, like kids at any other time in history, need hero-mentors, men and women they can look up to and emulate. None of us is perfect, but everyone of us has something invaluable to offer kids who are hungry for any kind of mentoring, any kind of spirited direction.

No doubt, it's a lot of energy and stress to do it right, but the good that could come out of it, for the church and the world, is incalculable.

The conference is now over and with it the official passing of Spring. My Spring has been inordinately long and full. I'm exhausted. I traveled probably too much for my health. I'm desperately ready for a quiet season. All I want to do this summer is putter around. I'll preach and write and keep up my basic pastoral duties. But what would make me really happy is to work in my yard, or to cook, or to read the Illiad, or to take my nephews and nieces to a Wet n Wild water park. I need fun and loads of silence in order to be ready for the Fall.

Right now I'm going to the grocery store. My cupboards are empty. And then it's World Cup time.

(PHOTO: Notice for a public toilet at the exit to the ruins at Ephesus. I've no idea what they had in mind, but I know I was tempted to visit the bathroom just to experience whatever magic awaited me in there.)