Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Marks of a Mature Believer Artist (II): Discipline

I'm having a hard time finding space to keep up the blog. The last three weeks were spent writing and re-writing ad nauseum a proposal for a book that would come out of the symposium plenary talks. Oh well. You can only do so much in this world. I will definitely not be winning any awards for blogdom any time soon. So be it. Or as I'm saying these days: soviet.

Here's part two of four parts.

"We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."~ Aristotle


Discipline is what helps people flourish over a lifetime of effort.

Discipline is the ballerina educating her body to do the freakishly impossible: toes to stand miraculously on end while she spins in pirouette, pliĆ© squats to bolster the hamstrings, scissor beats to muscle up the quadriceps, port de bras carefully sculpting the carriage of the arms, arabesques for balance—all so that when she appears on stage she appears effortless. “How graceful!” “Tre bella!” Did her toes bleed?

Discipline is practicing your chromatic scales on the piano, shooting a 1000 free-throws, rehearsing speeches before a mirror, memorizing German vocabulary while driving to work so that you can be free to become that which you intend: a pianist, a basketball player, an actor, fluent in German. Free and full and alive.

Without discipline there is no freedom. The undisciplined ballerina can never be free to be a ballerina. Without discipline we cannot flourish. I cannot write poetry in German or spin a good Bavarian joke if I have not applied time and energy to the basics of the language. As the feisty Henry Emerson Fosdick once said:

"No horse gets anywhere until he is harnessed. No stream or gas drives anything until it is confined. No Niagara is ever turned into light and power until it is tunneled. No life ever grows great until it is focused, dedicated, disciplined."

With discipline we are free. With discipline we flourish. Discipline is what a disciple does: a disciple of jazz, a disciple of cinematography. Discipline is a defining feature of a mature human being, indeed of a follower of Christ, the truly human one.

But learning to be disciplined is hard. All together now: “But it’s harrrrrrrrd!”

Yes, it’s hard, but the good kind.

I have a problem getting enough sleep every night. I am not self-controlled with my z’s. And I’ve been complaining about it for seven to eight years . . . complaining, whining, a 6 foot-tall broken record crooning, “I’m tirrrred.” I have not yet learned the discipline of getting good rest for my body and soul and they suffer for it—and others around me who have to deal with me because of my lack of discipline. Yes, I’m not the only one affected by my choices, others get screwed too. Fun stuff that. So I need help. I can’t do it alone.

But let me pause for clarification. Discipline is not drivenness. It isn’t to be confused with ambition.

It isn’t about working harder and harder, all of which can tend to reinforce the idea that to be a happy human being is to be a productive human being: I work therefore I am. Our work is one of many arenas that needs to be disciplined along with money, friendships, food, our speech, emotional habits and so on. Discipline, in the case of work, helps us keep at bay both slothfulness and workaholism. It is all about a rhythm and a healthy, dynamic balance: good rest and good work over indulgent rest and indulgent work.

And again I say, we cannot do it alone.

We need the grace of God. We need friends willing to walk with us as we climb out of the valley of slavery to self and bad ingrained habits and into the fields of joy and freedom and renewed vigor.

Discipline is a mechanism that helps us rightly order our lives under God’s sovereign grace in the company of kindred souls so that we can become all that we are meant to become.

The problem is, our churches don’t talk much about discipline. We talk about being “Christians.” We talk about conversions. We talk about liking or not liking the service, the preaching, the music, the community, as if Christianity were another commodity like ice cream or a line of clothing. Yet when we don’t talk about discipline we don’t help our people know not what they’re supposed to do, but who they are supposed to become: disciples, of Jesus, truly and fully alive human beings.

The New Testament mentions “disciple” 269 times. “Christian” appears only 3. That’s uno, dos, tres. 3! Surely that catches our attention. Jesus said, Go make disciplined disciples of the God in whose image we are made and in whose image lies our truest life. Writes Dallas Willard:

“The disciple of Jesus is not the deluxe or heavy-duty model of the Christian—especially padded, textured, streamlined, and empowered for the fast lane on the straight and narrow way. He stands on the pages of the New Testament as the first level of basic transportation in the Kingdom of God.”

Discipline in this light is not just a necessity, it’s the “fulfillment of the highest human possibilities” and “life on the highest plane.”

Discipline is what helps us, in Richard Foster’s words, to be “deep people”—capable of offering the hope of a deeper, fuller life to a superficial, hollow world, a world that is worn out and worn down.

So there you go. Discipline is one of those things you can’t do without, like good shoes and good brakes as my grandpa might report to you.

What else? What else does discipline have to do with being an artist? Well here’s the start of a list:

* With discipline I learn how to develop personal and artistic habits that keep me fit and focused: fit because the moment I stop doing my art is the moment I start feeling fat and the more “fat” I feel, the more I want to avoid making my art; focused because I am so easily distracted—“Let’s watch a movie!” “Let’s reorganize my room one more time!” “Let’s go eat—take a nap—go shopping!” Let’s do something easier than make art.

* With discipline I learn to be centered, not distracted; diligent, not lazy; healthy, not unhealthy. With it I learn to develop a good rhythm for my life and work instead of allowing myself to be yanked around by every demanding appetite that crawls into my belly.

* With discipline I can live with a calm sense of purpose and holy urgency. I can resist the temptation of a fearful heart about my life that eventually makes me panicky and driven, losing my soul while gaining “the world.” With this calm, clear-headed sense I can thoroughly fast and thoroughly feast . . . thoroughly work and thoroughly rest . . . thoroughly be with people and thoroughly be away from people.

* With discipline I can learn how to be faithful to the vision God has given me for my life. I can remember that it will take my entire life to fulfill that vision—not this weekend, not this year. I can even be excited that my life’s calling extends into eternity where things more fabulous than anything I can yet imagine await my attention and the work of my hands.

I will be a great chef in eternity.

* Finally, with discipline I can be self-controlled. Self-control is an annoying virtue. It gets in the way of so many things I want to do. But it’s also probably the most practical. In the moment of overexcited, impetuous feelings all I want to do is Eat, See, Do, Fight, Yell, Run, Stomp, Shame, Whine, Burst or Hit something or somebody. Just like in Batman: kapow! clunk! bam! boff! But the Bible reminds us that self-control is one of the best juicy-fruit of a Spirited life.

It’s what keeps us sane and content. If we look at a few sample children we observe that an un-self-controlled life is a pretty miserable life. It’s what Richard Foster calls the everlasting burden of wanting to get your way when you want it.

But as with all the disciplines, the discipline of self-control is able teach us how to be sweet and strong when we don’t get our way—which on this fallen earth will probably be often and thank God for the grace we’ll receive in the moment of obedience.

"Something in human nature causes us to start slacking off at our moment of greatest accomplishment. As you become successful, you will need a great deal of self-discipline not to lose your sense of balance, humility and commitment." ~ H. Ross Perot

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Marks of a Mature Believer Artist (I): Humility

If you could only work on one virtue your whole life, I would highly recommend humility. It is the chief of virtues. If our chief sin, dramatically acted out by our primeval parentals, Adam & Eve, is pride, then the chief antidote is the exact opposite: humility.

Now the problem with humility is that you don’t get much credit for doing it right. As John Ortberg wryly notes, “We’d like to be humble . . . but what if no one notices?”
So there you go, it’s a stinker. But it’s also the only way out of a miserable selfishness and into true happiness. The more humility, St. Francis the frolicking monk proclaims, the merrier.
It’s good to remember, additionally, that while we receive humility as a gift from God, we increase it as a habit we develop.

With the virtue of humility so many wonderful things happen to us I don't know where to start, so I'll start here . . . .

· First off, with humility influencing the way my brain works I begin to understand that all I have is grace. All I possess—actually and potentially—whether artistically, intellectually, relationally, practically, financially, and so on, is a gift. I don’t have to be an artist, I get to be an artist. My artistic work is a gift I get to give away, whether to millions of adoring fans or to the birds of the air or to a God whom I cannot see but who takes great pleasure in watching me make art and come alive.

· In humility I see that I am not the boss of me. While I can boast of a job well done, I cannot boast that I did it on my own without God’s help or, for that matter, the help of all the folks who build the roads and computers and clothes and farms and subterranean mysterious water pipes that enable me to live on planet earth circa 2007.

· In humility I shoo away thoughts that make me believe that I can, and should be, a self-made genius for all to bow down to—and for them to say, “How amazing you are,” and I say, “Oh, really, it was nothing,” and they say, “But you’re awesome,” and I say, “Oh stop it” and they say, “No, really,” and I say “Well, if you insist”—and they pay homage to my brilliance which my audience barely deserves but which I impart anyway because, well, they need me and I need their money and affirmation.
In humility, however, I see that this is simply a silly game of fishing for compliments, because at bottom I don’t really feel secure and haven’t yet allowed God to secure me in His love and in His purposes for my life. But in humility I say, “Go for it, Lord of Hosts, show me how to find my security in you. I'm ready, I'm willing. I don't know how it's really supposed to work, but you do and I trust you.”

· In humility I can be free to have a teachable heart. With a teachable heart all is possible. Let me say that again: with a teachable heart all is possible. Why? Because the teachable heart is persistently wide open for God to accomplish his good, perfect and all-together pleasant will in me, which turns out to be a win-win for all. With a teachable heart there is nothing for me to fear as I face the pain of growing out of my self-pity, self-indulgence, self-aggrandizement and all the hyphenated self's that keep me, not powerful but powerless.

· In humility I am not embarrassed or slow to acknowledge my weaknesses, even in front of others. I simply accept that that’s what it means to be a human being on this earth: to have weaknesses and to know, God bless us, that they’re not the whole story. They rather make me a very interesting, colorful person, capable of accomplishing perhaps a lot of things, but not everything.
“I can’t sing in tune, I can’t write well, I have a funny nose, I’m too short, too slow, too impatient with people who are (dis)organized, too shy, too loud, too mopey, too chatty, too distracted, too emotional, chubby, clumsy, bossy, nosy, wussy, and allergic to people who love competitive sports.” I am a colorful person.

· Even more than acknowledging my weaknesses, I will give thanks for them. “Ha ha!” I say to my pride. As Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) writes, “Give God thanks for every weakness, fault, and imperfection you have. Accept it as a favor of God, an instrument to resist pride and nurse humility. Remember, if God has chosen to shrink your swelling pride, he has made it that much easier for you to enter in through the narrow way.”

· In humility I concede that I have failed and will probably fail in the future. So be it. Cheers! But thank God again, my failures don’t rule me. They are not the end of the world (though they're sneaky and make me believe that life as we know it has officially come to an end).

· In humility I recognize that I need others to succeed. My flesh wants to refute this—“I don’t need him and certainly not her, I can do it on my own”—but I will simply ignore my flesh, or better yet, mortify it. With confidence I can start inviting others into my life and receive their wisdom, input, correction and practical help, even when I feel that I should already know how to do it. Besides, the "I feel like I should already know how to do it" feeling usually puts me into a grumpy mood. . . .

· In humility I recognize that some of my wounds—caused by rejection, loneliness, failure, embarrassment—should not be bandaged over as fast as possible. The wounds are there, often “to be a listening post, a chance to exit the small confines of a self-defined world and enter the spaciousness of a God-defined world.” So says Eugene Peterson in his wonderful middle-sized book, Subversive Spirituality, right on page 160.

· Finally, in humility I remind myself always that Jesus Christ is my Good Shepherd. He is God and I, thank God, am not. And because He is the God who made me He knows how to take care of me. Really. As my Creator and Redeemer, King and Lover of my soul, he finally secures my identity and calling. He alone can make my soul well. To him first I go for comfort and healing. He only can truly, deeply save me--not my spouse, not my parents, not my friends or mentor, not anybody with a lot of money or smart brains or problem-solving super powers.
By day and by night my Good Shepherd Jesus never falls asleep on me, and remembering this helps me sleep sweetly at night.

The Marks of a Mature Believer Artist

This is the beginning of a series of four essays I want to be writing for our community. This will be part of the way I seek to take care of us, by providing, in this instance, a few marks of a mature believer artist. The ultimate goal here is building a vision of such an artist. The question isn't really "What things should we be doing as artists?" The question is "What kind of person are we supposed to become? What is the vision of a mature artist that we should be aiming at?"
The following, then, is my attempt to help us get moving towards that vision.
"I have been musing on the words of Martin Thornton: "A walloping great congregation," he wrote, "is fine and fun, but what most communities really need is a couple of saints. The tragedy is that they may well be there in embryo, waiting to be discovered, waiting for sound training, waiting to be emancipated from the cult of the mediocre."
"Saints," he says. Mature Christians: people who are "grown-up" in their faith, to whom one assigns descriptors such as holy, Christ-like, Godly, or men or women of God." ~ Gordon MacDonald, "So Many Christian Infants"

Let me start by saying that the following marks are foundational but not exhaustive. They are beginnings.
They are my subjective starting point; not completely subjective, mind you, but because you don’t become a jedi master by trying to tackle every lesson, with equal attention and vigor, on Day One—which would make you a very frustrated, exhausted jedi and likely cause you to give up and say it’s all “stupid” and “jedis are dumb”—you can think of this as my own jedi school for becoming a mature believer artist.
There is the Francis Schaeffer jedi school. There is the Jesus People USA jedi school. There is THE NEW YORK TIMES Arts Section jedi school. This is mine.

After eleven years of observing the way artists live and strangely move I conclude that these four virtues are essential: humility, discipline, generosity, and courage.

If we begin with these, many other graces will flow out of them—like justice, temperance, joy, kindness, and so on. If we can make progress in these we will have indeed accomplished a great, and even rare, thing.

In the interest of full disclosure I confess I believe two things about jedi masters (aka mature believer artists): 1) that the world desperately needs such people, and 2), that they don’t become jedi masters randomly or over-night. They become so in a very purposeful way and by giving themselves to a long obedience in the same direction, choosing to walk not alone but with kindred souls in a shared pilgrimage of suffering and celebration.

One final note. What I’ve written hangs on two assumptions. The first is that we have our life because we are beloved of God. This is why we exist: because God loves us. Period. Nothing more fancy than that. This truth will also shape how we relate to other people, as persons worthy of great love whether they “deserve” it or not—which, honestly, feels like a pretty crummy thing when you’re actually doing it but which in the end is good for all, even you.

The second assumption is that undergirding and infusing these four virtues are the three classical Christian virtues: faith, hope and love. Everything we do requires faith. Everything we do requires hope. Everything we do requires love. Without these we basically fall apart, slowly if not also surely. With them we flourish liberally and beautifully.

So then, here are the Four Marks of a Mature Believer Artist. . . .

"Don't imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call "humble" nowadays: he won't be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who's always telling you that, of course, he's nobody. Probably all you'll think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him, it will be because you feel a bit envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily.
He won't be thinking about himself at all. There I must stop. If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you're not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed." --C.S. Lewis