Tuesday, July 31, 2007

(GB) A Sermon to Artists

Adam Langley has been interning with me this summer. He's getting his seminary degree from Truett up the road at Baylor and part of his degree requirements is a mentorship. In the words of his application:
"I desire to attain, as much as possible, a holistic and comprehensive understanding of what it means to shepherd and disciple artists of all kinds in the church, as well as to gain a vision for implementation of the arts in church activity from worship to engagement with culture. Such an understanding should encompass: theology, spiritual growth, relationship skills, educational/pedagogical, administrative issues, etc."

Adam's a great guy. I've really loved working with him, and he's been invaluable to me during this arts festival season. On his end I've put him through the holy grinder: made him take a silent retreat sans all technology including cell phone; answer questions about his heart, his marriage, his ambitions and weaknesses; read Francois Mauriac, Francis Schaeffer, John Irving, Larry Crabb, Madeleine L'Engle, Hans Rookmaaker, Dallas Willard, Flannery O'Connor, Frank Burch Brown and Henri Nouwen; create programs for festival events; research Nike's advertising budget, the number of people who visit annually the Louvre and Disneyland parks, the impact of U2's Bono on international politics; and write a heck of a lot of reflection papers.
We've definitely had a full summer. But it's been good. It's been good to grow our friendship; he is a kindred spirit. And he can play a mean tin whistle.
This is the text of the sermon he preached on the first Sunday of the arts festival, July 15. It's his first sermon ever to be preached in front of a congregation. Not bad, I say, not bad, or in the words of the inimitable Borat, wow, wow.

“The Courage to Create”
A Homily for the 8th HopeArts Festival
Sunday July 15, 2007
Adam Langley

As David mentioned, I’m doing this mentorship with him as a part of my seminary degree, but I’ve actually been connected to Hope Chapel since before my wife Kara and I moved to Austin in 2003. I originally found Hope Chapel on the internet before we moved, and was blown away by the fact that you had such an amazing arts ministry. I e-mailed back and forth a bit with David and with Jeffrey Travis (since I was moving to Austin to work as an actor in the film industry). In fact, my first ever film acting gig was a Jeffrey Travis short film in which I got to work alongside him and David and several other people here at Hope. The people here have truly meant the world to me as they helped me very much to find the strength I needed to brave the perils of being an actor.

And there really are perils. Acting is hard. It’s draining. Every week I would invest time and money into classes and headshots and gas—going to work on films for free, going from one audition to another, to another… But even more draining was the fact that on these auditions, I’d put myself out there for either acceptance or rejection—and 99 times out of 10, it seemed, it was rejection I received. Me. I am getting rejected: not a product I am selling, no, ME.
It was just like I was back in middle school trying to ask girls out... You work, and you work, and you work, and then you don’t even get called in to audition for the guy in the big studio film whose only line is, “I’m sorry, we’re closed.” You can’t help but ask yourself: What’s the point? Really? Even when you do book a decent job here and there, the tangible rewards of being an actor are often few and very far between. The result of this is often a gripping fear that keeps you from wanting to go out there and put yourself on the line again with the next audition.

This fear is really common to all artists. In the act of creating, an artist shares a piece of himself or herself with the world—a piece that is either accepted or rejected or flat out ignored. And when that work they have created is rejected or ignored over and over again, they wonder if it is really worth it to continue. And it’s not just a question of it being “worth it” to them; it’s a question of whether or not it matters that they keep on doing their work, making their art. As the author of a book called Art & Fear puts it, making art is, “…doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward.”

That statement—neither audience nor reward—reminds me a lot of something Jesus said about rewards in His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 6:

“5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

These verses touch on a theme tied throughout the Sermon on the Mount, and that theme is a shift of importance from the seen things of the world to the unseen things of the Kingdom of God. You see, the hypocrites—in Jesus’ story—enjoy the seen rewards of the people’s respect rather than the unseen rewards of the Father. Of course, it’s much easier to pursue the seen than the unseen. We still struggle—much like the children of Israel building a golden calf—in that the seen things seem so much more real. But they are not.
The truth is, according to the scriptures, even though you might not be able to see it right now, the reward that comes from the Father in Heaven is far superior to anything this world has to offer; thus seeking after that reward—that “righteousness” (v.33)—should be the driving principle of our lives.

So…what does this mean to artists? Well, it means, quite simply, this: do the work you were created to do not primarily for an earthly audience or reward, but for the audience of God and the reward of his favor. You see, your work is a holy thing, a thing of great importance to God. When God created humanity, he put us in the Garden—why?: to work it and take care of it. This work is part of the will of God for our lives, and because it is God’s will for our lives, it matters to Him. Well… the “work” of the Artist is to create art, and because God wills you to create art, it matters to Him.

So yes, the work of an artist is often hard: it’s hard for the artist to consider the reality that most likely no one will care about this poem he will read, this song she will sing, this painting she will hang, this piece he will perform. But in light of this reality, we the church want to give you our blessing—which is the blessing of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
We want to remind you that whether or not your work is hung in a gallery or played on the radio, you can be assured that it has at least a three-person audience in the Holy Trinity, and this divine audience cares immensely about the unseen work you are doing; it matters intensely to Him. Artists, we hold this arts festival in part so that perhaps we the church, the Body of Christ, can be a visual reminder, an incarnation, of the fact that your work is enjoyed by God as it is enjoyed by us, and that it matters to Him as it matters to us—even more so.

And yet we want you to look past what you see in us and this circumstance. We want you to know that the Christian reality empowers the artist in a way that nothing else in the world does. It is an empowerment that transcends any given circumstance, so that even in the face of uncertainty and rejection, in the face of neither audience nor reward, you can find the courage to be artists by looking to what is deep and unseen and lasting: by letting the favor of the Father above circle you and shield you and penetrate you with the warm acceptance you need in order to go out into the bitter cold and boldly do what you were created to do. Know that the work of your hand matters to Him—who matters more than anyone.

But I don’t want to limit this encouragement to artists alone. Artists may deal somewhat uniquely with the fear of rejection as they do their work, but the truth is we all struggle at times, I think, with whether or not our work matters, or whether or not it's making any difference in the world: “Does it really matter that I wash these dishes? Do these taxes? Sell this air conditioner? Finish this homework?” Or even if we do think our work matters, we’re often concerned with whether or not other people know it. You don’t have to be an artist to feel unappreciated and ignored. I think all of us at some point are faced with a kind of fear that comes from having neither audience nor reward.

Again, I say “Look to the unseen.” Let this arts festival be to you a kind of analogy or metaphor that as we care about the work of an Artist, God cares about the work of your hand. Let this reminder of the unseen reality of the Father’s rewards give you the courage to be who you were created to be, by working with the gifts God has given you, in the garden in which He has placed you, so that you can be the salt, and be the light.
Know and take refuge in the fact that the Father sees the hard work that you do, and His face shines upon you, His smile enfolds you, and we the Body of Christ bless you computer programmer, and you homemaker, and you student, and you civil servant… and you… and you…and you…in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
(PHOTO: the band "Monahans" at the Acoustic Showcase, The Parish, July 12, 8th HopeArts Festival. PHOTO 2: Adam preaching, some guy with a weird mustachio in the background smirking.)

Friday, July 13, 2007

Director's Note for the 8th HopeArts Festival

This is the note I've included in the program for the festival.

July 10, 2007
The Director’s Note

The Historical: “A Weird Church in a Weird City”
This past week I pulled out an old file which I found on a not-so floppy diskette. It was dated “May 31, 1998.” I was 26 years old. In it I discovered notes that I’d jotted down about a possible arts festival that might take place at the church. The first thing that caught my attention were the objectives.

II. The Objectives:
1. Bless artists
2. Bless Hope Chapel
3. Bless community at large

I like that—even though I don’t think I really knew what I was doing. At the time all I knew was that Regent College, my seminary in Canada, had put on an arts festival the previous summer and I thought “Why not? Why couldn’t we do the same?” So I scribbled down questions. How do we select the artists? Do we make them give us a sample of their work in advance? Will we use a snow-cone machine? How should we arrange the performing arts: worship-oriented? Alternative-oriented? Christian-themed? Do we buy a tent? How much is this going to cost?

Roman numeral four on my list makes me laugh. It says:

IV. Key Motto:
1. “Keep it Simple”
2. “Open doors policy”

Keeping it simple was the one thing, I’m afraid, I never let it be. By the summer of 2003, in its sixth iteration, the festival had expanded to three weeks and fourteen events, from a Battle of the Bands at Momo’s on 6th to a Ragamuffin Film Festival flying full fare at the Alamo Drafthouse Village. What I meant by “Open Doors Policy” I’m not exactly sure. But it sounds cool.

But I don’t think honestly that first festival in the summer of ’98 was very “cool.” A two-day affair, it was a bit corny, cheesy in parts. We were na├»ve. We had lots of enthusiasm, but our knowledge hadn’t gotten up to speed. So we kept going—and trying—and failing—and learning—and tweaking and pushing ourselves to hone the craft of festival-making.

Nine years later much has changed. Our venues have ranged all across the city:

- The Millenium Youth Entertainment Complex in East Austin
- Threadgill's
- Momo's
- Cafe Mundi
- The Parish
- Galaxy Highland Theaters
- 1st Baptist downtown
- The Hideout Theater
- Austin High PAC
- Ruta Maya
- the Alamo Drafthouse downtown and the Village
- the Red Eyed Fly

We've run seminars with topics like "Darkness in Art: the Danger and Necessity" and "Art & Nudity: A Positive Christian Response."

We ran the Ragamuffin till it got too big and we had to lay it to hibernating rest.

All the while we've sought to maintain three basic goals: to provide excellent art, to provide excellent organization, and to live out a life of hospitality in everything and with everyone, friend or foe, with individuals and with entire organizations.

The Communal: “A Love-Hate Relationship with the Church”
Along the way we’ve endured a lot of difficult growth. As a community we’ve had to grow up and, in some cases, grow out of immature views about art that we Protestant Christians have collected over the years.

In the last nine years we've been pushed in our notion of what it means to be a church—to be a thing called a “Christian artist”—to be an organic part of the city's artistic life, neither rejecting it nor blandly losing our identity. We’ve watched some of us succeed famously and others fail miserably.

We've seen some artists abandon their faith, some reject the church, some pitch into depression, some give up making art altogether and one lady at the tender age of 61 discover that she really can paint after all.

Among our members, we’ve seen one become a film critic at the Chronicle, one make a short film that launched him to the finals of an international festival sponsored by the colorful Kevin Spacey, ones make a movie that debuted in theaters nationwide. We've seen a worship team become a touring rocknroll band; our singer-songwriters grind out the coffeeshop/bar circuit; our visual artists go from hanging their work on the sanctuary walls to the local galleries.

Just a week ago I got a call from Eric Gorski the religion correspondent with the Associated Press asking what we Hope Chapelites thought about all this rigmarole with evangelicals and the arts. It was, I believe, an indirect compliment to the perseverance of this fellowship.

Yet it's been a rough ride learning how to become a community of artists, an honest-to-God community not of a collection of individuals bound by convenience or opportunistic association. It's been hard to really love each other when our identities are constantly threatened by public opinion and the endless warfare that our minds play upon our self-worth.

But it has been worth the struggle. It has been worth it to see the community mature and become what God had purposed for it long before May 31, 1998.

The Personal: “This Strange Job”
One time in the summer of 1997 I was sitting in a staff meeting of the pastors. It was our time to go around giving our weekly reports. To my left sat the youth pastor. On his turn he told us of the retreat his high schoolers had just taken. It was nothing short of amazing: kids coming to Jesus, pouring out their hearts to God, returning with fervor for evangelism. The perfect report, I thought. I was next. "So David, what's happening with you?" A kind of embarrassment and despair began to creep in.

What had I done? I'd met with a few artists to listen to a long litany of woes which nobody really understood, held a rehearsal for a skit, day-dreamed about a hanging system. That was it. No conversions, no one slain in the Spirit, no whiz, no bang. Around the table: benignly puzzled looks. Hm, well, that’s interesting . . . ok . . . moving on.

It took seven years on the job for me no longer to feel that I had to justify my work as valuable. I still struggle at times, that it's a waste, that my time and energy could be put to better, more “useful” use.

Yet here I am. By hook or by crook I still love the church, love artists, love the artistic weirdness of Austin. I ask myself, Is it possible that the city’s well-being could be directly related to the Church’s participation in the arts community? Could the city be a more wonderful city if the Church threw itself into the mix? Yes, I say, very much yes, and amen.

How do I feel about this being my last festival? I feel melancholy. It’ll be hard to leave it. Mostly, however, I feel grateful. I feel profoundly grateful for the extraordinary human beings who have journeyed with me and who’ve made this festival ten thousand times better than I could ever have imagined. We’ve accomplished by God’s grace those long-ago imagined objectives, objectives that were really only a wish.
May it be so again. May the artists come alive like they’ve never been alive. May the Church be a haven and a home for them and a sign of Christ’s redemption for the broken. May the city be blessed because of our presence and through our lives taste and see that the Lord is indeed good.

Thank you for coming. May you be blessed today much as we were back at the beginning.