Friday, September 26, 2008

The Discipline of Living a Confessional Life


I'm sitting here in the McDonalds in the small town of Republic, Missouri, population 8,438. It's the only place that has free wi-fi. And I can drink all the Diet Dr. Pepper I want. But Phaedra and I are having a great time hanging out with her maternal grandparents. Many stories to tell from our travels through Arkansas. But for now I'm simply depositing here the second part of my talk at the arts conference in Nashville (part one is here). If you'd like to hear it live, anecdotes and vocal inflections included, you can go here.
The photo above is of Brother Andrew of the Little Portion Hermitage in northwest Arkansas. I'd swear he was the re-embodiment of the gnarly fourth century desert monk Saint Anthony. John Michael Talbot is be the "abbot" of the Hermitage order, and we got ourselves a fanstastic albeit all-too-brief taste of life amonst the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, but again that story will have to wait for another entry.

“In the spiritual life, the word discipline means ‘the effort to create some space in which God can act.’ Discipline means to prevent everything in your life from being filled up. Discipline means that somewhere you're not occupied, and certainly not preoccupied. In the spiritual life, discipline means to create that space in which something can happen that you hadn't planned or counted on.” --Henri Nouwen

The discipline of living a confessional life.

In tonight’s talk I would like to explore two disciplines in greater depth: a spiritual and an artistic. We remember that strength in one part of life directly benefits the rest of our life. There are other disciplines, to be sure: spiritual (fasting), emotional (taking responsibility for our choices), physical (good sleep), artistic (drills & scales). But these two, I submit, are among the fundamentals:

1) The discipline of living a confessional life

2) The discipline of reading the classics outside your tradition.

Let's begin with the first.

I’ve been an arts pastor for 12 years. In all these years I have seen the manifold ways we artists choose to hide. So many of us go down for the count because we’ve got un-dealt with stuff buried deep down, festering away, slowly but surely enfeebling our moral muscle. And anything we keep hidden is a breeding ground for Satan-manipulating, flesh-arousing dysfunction: self-pity, self-aggrandizement, self-protectiveness, self-indulging, self-destructiveness, the very stuff that fights against all our best artistic efforts. Susan Howatch’s novel Glittering Images brightly gives flesh to this idea through the troubled life of her 1930s English clergyman protagonist, Charles Ashworth.

What we need, then, is a mechanism to get us un-hidden. We need to get ourselves out of darkness as quickly as possible and back into the light. That is a Christian definition of sanity. That is also often the most difficult thing for us to do. Yet it is in the light that God does his best work of freeing us from the sin that entangles and distorts.

My assertion tonight is: An artist who lives a confessional life is healed and unafraid.

The discipline explained
What does it mean to live a confessional life? It means that we live in a way that trusted others are always being invited to know our deepest weaknesses and failures. Dallas Willard puts it this way: in the discipline of confession “we lay down the burden of hiding and pretending, which normally takes up such a dreadful amount of human energy” (Spirit of the Disciplines, 188).

Two Scriptures are particularly helpful to us.

1st John 1:5-9, “This is the message which we have heard from him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. . . if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. . . . If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

James 5:6, “Confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

What these texts remind us is that a confessional life is a profoundly relational one, and it is a habit that can be cultivated regularly before God and before trusted others.

What kinds of things are good to confess before God and others?

The discipline illustrated
1. Confess before God. Such as what? A: All the things you don’t like about yourself. B: All the ways you think God is screwing up the world.

STORY: One artist friend’s anger re. her body, health, money, grad school, struggle to trust God. “David, I want to confess my sins in your presence,” she said to me once.

It’s important for us not to push this stuff down. We need to give ourselves permission to feel it and to invite God into it. Confess it out loud. Make our peace with Him.

When you feel as an artist feelings of inadequacy, failure, jealousy, pride, fear, insecurity, a need to be perfect, wrongly judged, distracted, depressed, what kind of prayers can we be praying?

Pray the Lord’s Prayer—every day.

Pray the Kyrie: Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.

Or you can pray one of my friend Laura Jennings’ favorite prayers: “I can’t, but you can.”

The important thing is to pray these every day and out loud. In doing so we will begin to see real change take place in our heart and mind and we will begin to live with a sense of expansive spaciousness inside.

2. Confess before others.
J. I. Packer once said: “The quality of our relationship with others is an index of the quality of our relationship with God.” We have a pretty good idea of our relationship with God, he means, by looking at the clarity and depth of relationship we keep with our friends. All we need really is three honest-to-God friends.

STORY: Dad’s story via Chuck Swindoll: “Have you lied to us?”

STORY: My friend Mike Akel: “David, how’s your heart?”

STORY: My friend Jefe: “I feel like a fraud.”

IN SUMMARY
No good comes to me when I hide myself from God and others. But the discipline of a confessional life ensures that my heart is getting a regular cleaning out under the gracious light of God. It keeps sin from taking root. The discipline is like an emergency cord. When I feel myself sinking down, I pull it. I pull it before God, before trusted friends and elders. And when I do so I begin to know in my bones, even if sometimes only faintly, that God truly is the Good Shepherd of my heart who ever and always has my best interests in mind, the well-being of my soul.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Day 20: North to Arkansas


"John Climacus compares the person led astray by acedia to a dumb beast: 'Tedium reminds those at prayer of some job to be done, and . . . searches out any plausible excuse to drag us from prayer, as though with some kind of halter.' Most anyone who has endeavored to maintain the habit of prayer, or making art, or regular exercise or athletic training, knows this syndrome well.

"When I sit down to pray or to write, a host of thoughts arise. I should call to find out how so-and-so is doing. I should dust and organize my desk, because I will get more work done in a neater space. While I'm at it, I might as well load and start the washing machine.

"I may truly desire to write, but as I am pulled to one task after another I lose the ability to concentrate on the work at hand. Any activity, even scrubbing the toilet, seems more compelling than sitting down to face the blank page.

"My favorite story about this state of mind concerns a university professor who went on sabbatical to write a book, and resolved to keep to a strict work schedule. A colleague who drove by his house one day was surprised to see him in the yard, wearing coveralls and hauling a hose. 'I started to work this morning', the man explained, 'and it suddenly occurred to me that I've lived here for over five years and have never washed the house'."


Kathleen Norris in her latest book, A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer's Life

"You stupid man!" the woman said to our golf teacher. She stood there under the thick noon day heat with her hands fidgeting. Lumpy clouds plodded across the sky. Around us, amateur golfers clocked away on the driving range. Her dark chocolate brown polyester dress hugged her hips in the wrong way, wrong because the polyester announced too loudly her sagging fat, wrong because she was trying too hard to be a sexy 70-something-year old. Dad and I stood near Mike Marak, the local golf pro at Morris Williams, dumbfounded. Was she joking? Her two septuagenarian gal pals sat in their bulbous early 90s Chrysler sedan staring at us with the engine running.

"Excuse me. Excuse me. I'm looking for the Memorial Cemetery and I was told it was on Manor Road but we can't find it. Do you know where it is?" she had asked a couple minutes earlier.

All three of us, in unison, scrunched our face with eyes squinting, and rotated our heads back and forth scanning for a cemetery in our minds' eye--at the old airport across the street, up the road, down the road, beyond the golf course? Aren't all cemeteries "memorial"?

"I've got the ashes in the car and we're late!" she quipped. Her frustration turned her words into a sharp staccato.

"Well, mam," Mike, a mid-forties affable good old boy, offered politely, "I've lived in this part of Austin my whole life and I ... well I can't think of a cemetary by that name anywhere nearby."

She cocked her head and spat: "You stupid man."

Ding! We're in a movie! This isn't a Saturday morning golf lesson, this is a Charlie Kaufman movie with crazy characters and great writing and where the real and the surreal see-saw back and forth and of course an old, churlish lady says: You stupid man. But Kaufman keeps you guessing. You don't know whether you're supposed to laugh or get angry or walk away. He's the auteur filmmaker. Is the golf pro stupid ignorant? Well sure. He doesn't know the answer to "Where is the memorial cemetery on Manor Road?" Is he stupid imbecil? Well . . . maybe? But no. Not at all. So the unembarrassed ingrate geriatric lady with the ashes in the car running AC ten yards away says the first thing that comes into her mind and it's com-ple-te-ly normal. What else would keep the audience asking "What happens next?"

"Well call your wife or something to see if you can find out," she snaps, trying to help the stupid man.

It turns out, however, that the stupid man is now an angry man with an overwhelming desire to become un-helpful. "I don't have a wife," he bites back. "And it's one of the best decisions I ever made, to get rid of her." A stalemate between Bitter and Angry ensues.

Dad and I are still stuck in our game of redlight-greenlight. We're in redlight-means-frozen-in-place mode, with 9-irons hanging from our hands. I do have a couple of thoughts running through my head. "You stupid man? Are you serious? No, you're stupid, lady! Now get back in your car and you come back here with your question when you have a better attitude."

Dad pulls out his cell phone, Mike pulls out his cell phone, I stay staring, Mike calls the clubhouse to see if he can get an answer for this--what did he call her--"that old bitch"--when suddenly the old lady turns around and says "I'm leaving" and drives out of the parking lot with her two gal pals in the front seats headed only God knows where with those ashes that belong in a cemetery far away from Manor Road because Manor Road has never had a cemetery in its path.

Mike now starts cussing. I think he knows dad and I are the non-cusserly types so he usually tries to stay away from cussing. But the sad-mad-bad has understandably gotten the best of him and dad and I give him the silent pastorly go-ahead to be mad. "I'm sorry she said that to you, Mike," I eventually say. "Oh well, you know, people are mean, there are a lot of mean people in the world. I meet them all the time." Webster's dictionary defines "mean" as: un-charitable, malicious; miserly; bad-tempered; base. Meanness, I think, also makes you small. Mike restrains himself admirably from saying the f-word to the mean lady.

As dad and I leave forty minutes later I say it again. "Mike, I'm sorry again what the woman said to you." "Yeah well, she didn't want to be helped . . . ." I can't undo her statement, and I know that kind of stuff hurts, and having just heard his commentary about his wife I feel the best thing I can do is acknowledge the painfulness of it. At the moment I have all these good people pop into my head--Geno Hildebrandt, Cliff Warner, Travis Hines, Mike Akel, Nathan Sanford, some new friends, some going all the way back to childhood. I can hear them all the saying the same thing, very simply: "I'm sorry it happened to you." I realize all these guys have become, in my head as well as in my soul, a "What Would He Do If He Were in My Situation?"

It was a good golf lesson today. I progressed amazingly with my golf swing, and Mike was very, very happy for me. Dad did a great job of clipping the tee. It's been fun doing the lessons with the padre.

Tomorrow Phaedra and I drive up to southern Missouri to visit her grandparents. On the way we'll stop by John Michael Talbot's Little Portion Hermitage Monastery near Eureka Springs in northwest Arkansas. Before that we'll drop in on Russellville, just an hour and change south of Talbot's place. Russellville's where I lived for four years with my family and did all my high school. Russellville is famous for NBA player Corliss Williamson, a Tyson's chicken factory and a nuclear plant which I rode by every day when I was training for a triathlon the summer before my senior year. I haven't gone back in sixteen years. I feel a little queazy about it. What if I bump in to somebody I know? I don't know if I want to. I kind of want to slip in and out unnoticed, at least this time.

Almost twenty years have gone since I graduated. That person I was in high school, pictured above next to my best friend Nathan, is in some way like a stranger to me, and I'm not exactly sure how I feel about it. I'm a classic latebloomer, and to bloom late means that you often feel weird about the person you were before you figured out who you are today. I loved my high school years--the soccer games, the pep rallies for the Friday football games, the school dances, cruising up and down Main Street looking for something to do, the cheese dip at Stoby's, staying the weekend at the ten-children strong Sanford home, mowing lawns, midnight swims at the neighbor's pool--but high school is a funny time of life. So is that whole thing called teenagehood.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Day 10: 8 Culture-Makers

This writing challenge is becoming a drag and a boon. Out of the last ten days, seven I've found myself at the wee end of the night, a total sloshy noodle, with desires only for my pillow, then: bing! The bell goes off in my head. The bell. I have to write an entry. "Phaedra, I have to write an entry. Aichihuahua." Aichihuahua, she says back to me, because she too has left her daily drawing to the end of the day. We both feel the inconvenience of our commitment.

But it's also been a boon. I've found myself journaling about things that might have been left un-recorded were it not for this forced regiment: sex, golf, money, a fractured relationship, the last line that Jack Black's character speaks in the movie King Kong--the usual male interests.

For today I want to make note, in honor of Andy Crouch's fine book Culture Makers, of ten artists who are making artistic culture worth knowing about. Let's start with Andy himself.

1. Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, Swarthmore, PA

I've really enjoyed reading Andy's latest. It has a nice gentle, narrative tone about it that keeps me leaning forward, curious, and encouraged while also challenged. A constant refrain that drives his thesis forward is this: What does it mean for us humans to make sense of the world by making something of the world? If culture is what we make of the world, he argues, then we are making two kinds of things: meaning and stuff. I like the way Andy puts it on page 35:

"Without the task of gardening--cultivating, tending, ruling and creating using the bountiful raw material of nature--the woman and man would have had nothing to do, nothing to be."

Put that way, there's a sudden but also humbling "Of course!" to the obviousness of the point. There's also a feeling that Christians who think of our human vocation exclusively in terms of evangelism and getting folks to heaven and then, un-encumbered by material flesh, singing God's praises throughout eternity--and by singing, we mean singing literally, not figuratively, because that's mostly what gets center stage in the book of Revelation--they've simply hurried past Genesis 2:15, without really paying attention to the concrete reality of God's act, and dismissed it as un-important. Andy, with a persistent grace, forces us to pay attention to it again and again.

He also has a great commentary about omelets. But I'll let you experience the yumminess of that thought for your own by letting you read the book.

If you're an artist wanting to make sense of your calling as an artist, go by yourself a copy. Because prior to your calling as a maker of art is your calling as a maker of culture. And if you understand rightly God's call on your life to make culture, then, no worries, amigo, your business with art will fall nicely into place. His book is a must read for artists. But, I dare say, it's much more a must read for pastors and leaders of the church.

And I was not paid a dime to make that statement.

2. Brian Moss, Prayer Book Project, Seattle, WA
I first met Brian at the Transforming Culture symposium here in Austin. I met him a second time at Steven Purcell's wedding this past August. Brian is a hard guy not to like. He's got a lush beard and a Saint Nicolas-like smile. His day job involves leading worship, music and the arts at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Seattle. His night job has him moonlighting with all kinds of imagination-deepening, church-strengthening, artist-loving projects. See here for his website (you can see the kindly face for yourself). For all you Michael Card lovers, Brian has joined forces with the Card himself and made some pretty sweet music. Hear here for a sample.

3. Gregory Truett Smith, Visual Artist, Austin, TX
Gregory is a Jesus-loving, off-the-radar nut who looks like the most beautiful North American Indian man you've ever met, except he isn't Indian. But his wife is, and she's gorgeous. They're both nuts, and that in the best sense. They hung out with us at Hope Chapel for a few years, which is how I got to know them. But then, like a wild wind, they were off. I'm grateful we've remained friends.

Gregory has his art hanging up in one of the hip coffeeshops here in town, Thunderbird's. But I'm telling you, it's crazy. There isn't any CIA-You'll-Never-In-A-Million-Years-Guess-I've-Got-A-Thing-For-Jesus anything about his work. (And trust me, I'm all in favor of believer artists making all kinds of non-religious art. About a frijole or Sputnik, it doesn't matter. It all comes under the Kingdom. But some folks try just a little too hard to mask their Christian identity and I wonder if it's not wasted energy.) Most of Gregory's art is religious in subject matter and psychadelic. You walk in and there's all this Jesus looking out at you. I cracked up the first time I walked in on it. I thought, "Gregory, you're a brilliant son of a gun." The work is so good, you can't dismiss the content.

Some of the regular customers were so thrown off by it that they asked the owners if this was a Christian coffeeshop. Ha! A far cry. But the owners were bold enough (and smart enough) to recognize a great craftsman. See here for Gregory's portfolio. And no, none of his work is aided by photoshop. He paints everything by hand. The man is a rare species, whose clients have included the NBA, The Wall Street Journal, and the Santa Fe Opera. For starters.

4. Stefan Eicher, Visual Artist, New Delhi, India
I've not met him personally, but my father just returned from a visit to India and came back with rave reviews of Stefan, who heads up a gallery in New Delhi called "Reflection Art Gallery & Studios." It's a space, he writes, "dedicated to showing and creating art that affirms life and dignity. In a world where art is increasingly commercialized we recognize the place for 'art with a conscience' and the role of the artist in 'holding a mirror' to society." Stefan recently participated in a show (see here) dedicated to the "missing women" of South Asia, a phenomenon, he explains, of mass "female foeticide." I hope one day to meet Stefan. He's an artist making work in a difficult context. I have the greatest respect for folks like him.

5. Brian Schrag, Wycliffe Arts Consultants, Dallas, TX
Speaking of arts in a cross-cultural setting, Phaedra and I dined with the inimitably witty Brian Schrag over grits and cheese in Nashville. He told us about SIL's (Summer Institute of Linguistic) new efforts in bridging cross-cultural research and the arts. They write:

"Wycliffe is expanding its work in ethnomusicology to include other performing arts along with music. Arts consultants work alongside local musicians, dancers, actors and storytellers to spark the creation of new songs, dances, dramas and stories that communicate God's message in powerful ways."

Very impressive work. Very sharp people giving leadership. Read more here.

6. How Disney's Buzz Lightyear Saved a Life
If you ever doubted the power of art to literally save a human life, doubt no longer. Read here how Buzz Lightyear's motto, "To infinity and beyond," helped a father keep his 12-year-old autistic son's spirits up as they treaded water in the shark- and jellyfish-infested waters off of the Florida coast--through the darkness of the night. Quite an inspiring story all around. And thank God for the counter-culture, life-affirming, culture-making art of Pixar Animation Studios.

7. Ten out of Tenn -- Music -- Nashville, TN
Charlie Peacock gave us a copy of this multi-songwriter album and it has become our favorite car music for the past two weeks. See here. The music is fresh with a combination of quiet, melodic songs and big, gregarious, elaborate orchestrations. We highly recommend. Purchase at a music store near you. Read here for a review in Paste Magazine.

8. Sonseed, "Jesus is my friend," early Christian rock music, circa 1974?
Last but not least I bring you, courtesy of my friend Travis Hines, a musical tour de force (here). You have not lived until you have witnessed the early years. Laugh all you wish, but it could have been you--or your dad. I'm including a sample stanza here. My only question is: Are they Canadians?

Once I tried to run
I tried to run and hide
But Jesus came and found me
And he touched me down inside
He is like a mounty
He always gets his man
And he’ll zap you any way can
Zap!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Day 4: When Writing Only SEEMS Dumb & Dull But That's Only Because You Have a Bad Attitude and Want to Cheat by Using Your "Work" Writing as Your Entr



(NOTE: That's the longest title I've ever tried to write on my blogger and they cut me off at "Entr," which is supposed to read "Entry," and then I was going to put, "And Your Wife Says It's Not Fair, She Has To Draw Something, So You Should Have to Write Something New Too." That's a totally marketable title.)

(NOTE #2: I confess I feel a little indulgent and un-civic for not writing about politics these days. There's plenty of it and it's all quite important, but all I can think of is, "Sarah Palin completely looks like Tina Fey, and I bet I'm not the first person to notice that," and "Barak Obama really is good looking and a sharp orator." I studied international relations in college, so I've plenty of opinions about US foreign affairs. Puh-lenty. But I'm going to trust that a lack of opining on this blog does not indicate a lack of seriousness about current political activity, simply a sign of one of the limitations on my energy.)

(Prefatory notes hereby come to an end.)

September 4, 2008
9:37 PM

DAY 4.

What do you write about when your head is full of warm porridge? The only sound you hear in that cavernous, mushy skull of yours sounds like this: dooooooooooooooooooh. And again: doooooooooooooooh. But lower: duh-ooooooooooooooooo. And less interesting than it looks when you write it out.

Boring. Tired. Ugggggggh.

I feel tired, tired of being tired, and I feel reluctant to write anything worthless. Not in the sense of self-esteem worthless, I mean pointless worthless.

You’re writing because you gave yourself the challenge to write something every day for 30 days. That’s why you’re writing. It’s not pointless.

Ok, fine, not pointless, but un-interesting.

Oh really? What you’re working with here is starting to sound interesting.

Yes, and increasingly self-conscious. “I’m writing about not wanting to write and now people reading this will say, ‘Oh, I feel exactly the same! Gosh, thanks for making me feel like I was not the only one. Your vulnerability is helping me be vulnerable. You're the best, David!”

Ok, fine, from paragraph one to paragraph two this entry has now become interesting for me, in particular because I don’t know where it is headed. But it’s this close from turning into something worse than pointless: cliché. (Is that how you punctuate that sentence? Hm.) Blah, blah, blah, you’ve got writer’s block, blah, blah, you’re feeling bad about yourself, blah--boring.

Two words: grow up.

Ok, fine, I will. But one thing you can’t take from me—you being Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Philip Yancey, Alice McDermott—is that this is my experience. Granted. But does it not seem well-trod? Is it not the path of the young apprentice and therefore only interesting to other apprentices? Sure. Does that make me feel small and insignificant?

Do I have to answer that question?

Ok, sure. It does. Why? Because I want to join that company of writers represented between the m-dash in the paragraph above.

Do you? Do you really? Are you willing to sacrifice the same amount of time, energy and money to become that? Hm. Maybe not. Maybe so. Ok, then, now is the time to quote something you’ve said before about talent, because that will also help you determine, at one level, whether you’ll ever join The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and Women).

WHAT IS YOUR ARTISTIC NATURE?
By nature I am both free and unfree to pursue my art. For example, if I love singing but do not have strong vocal chords or a good musical ear, I am free to sing as loud as I want in church (for surely God loves a joyful noise) but I am not free to pursue a career as a music composer (surely again God gave us common sense). If I'm color blind, there's no point in my looking for a job as a color correctionist at the Warner Brother Studios. Green is good for martians, not for natural human skin.


For me personally I love to write plays. I’ve written everything from a satire on the advertising industry to a historical fiction on Adam and Eve post fall. But at the tender age of 36 I am not under any illusion that I have the natural ability to create storylines and poetic word-games at the level of William Shakespeare. I can't. Nor, even though I'm a "writer," do I have the aptitude to write a novel like John Grisham or Harper Lee--or like any novelist. I simply can't write novels; or if I did they’d be very, very bad ones. So it’s best that I humbly recognize my writerly limitations, even while I push myself to keep experimenting and growing as a writer.

The matter here is one of good self-knowledge and the humility to recognize my strengths and weaknesses. In humility, then, I will allow myself to keep exploring my particular niche within the artistic/writerly community until I find it, or at very least get as close as I can to it.

Humility. Ah, yes. Humility. Hummus. I had some good hummus at my sister Christine’s last night. Phaedra and I took care of the four kids--ages 10, 8, 5 and 3--while she taught an "English and Composition" class at St. Edward’s University and Cliff (rector gallant at Christ Church Anglican) performed minor works of pastoral salvific-hood. The hummus was tangy just so. But then you add all the vegetables the kids ate for snacks and the multi-green, live-enzymed, feta-cheesed salad they ate for dinner in combination with HEARTY black bean soup and whole grain rice plus watermelon and grapes for dessert—well, as you can imagine, there was a lot of tooting happening in that house (but not by the adults, or at least we’re not willing to admit it in this public context).

Humility is that ability to accept that I’m this close to being a heroic and outstanding and utterly brilliant human being—vibrant and impressive and all things dazzling —good-looking and funny and smart--and so much more!--the kind of person that people would stop on the street and say, “Can I touch you? Just one touch? You’re beautiful.”—except for the small fact that the Almighty has given me limitations that reduce me to being a mere mortal. Limitations. A mere mortal. Ah, yes, I saw it coming. Enter stage right: C. S. Lewis.

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations--these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit--immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of the kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously--no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinners--no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat, the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.

So what is it that I really want? To be as talented a writer as Hemingway or Buechner? Sure, at one level. But if God has not gifted me with the kind of imagination and intellect that would produce comparable prose, then it is not mine to grasp; or I do so only to my own harm.

Should I try with all my soul to become the best writer possible? Absolutely. You can always try. That will give God great pleasure.

So what is it that you want alternatively? I want to be welcomed into their company, even if only occasionally, for a good cup of black tea and a lively conversation about pretty much anything. I want to be welcomed not because I’m somebody in particular, but because I’m their fellow pilgrim and a beloved of God.

I want to be in the company of people who, without self-conscious effort, are gifted artists and humble. Truly humble. The kind of humble that comes out of suffering. The kind of humble that you can't fake. The kind of humble that smells sweet and warm and down-to-earth, like freshly baked shortbread. Like a cross between Tom Bombadil and Brother Lawrence—graciously cheeky and un-seriously serene. That kind of humble.

Well, I thank God that I've met quite a number of good souls like that. They're mostly over 60. And sometimes they hang out during the month of March in the hill country of Texas. They're writers, in the "gifted and talented" department. But they're the kindliest, jolliest bunch. And one time I happened to be there at the same time, myself and a few of my artist friends from Austin, and on the last breakfast we shared together we lobbed limericks back and forth at each other as if we were a bunch of kids. Fellow pilgrims. Immortals.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Day 1: 30-day Writing & Art-making Challenge


"Art is a high calling—fears are coincidental. Coincidental, sneaky and disruptive, we might add, disguising themselves variously as laziness, resistance to deadlines, irritation with materials or surroundings, distraction over the achievements of others—indeed as anything that keeps you from giving your work your best shot." ~David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art & Fear


On December 13, 2002, I wrote a letter to one of our artists in residence at Hope Chapel. Matt Moorehead was a poet and very gifted. He was one of those people who absorbed new languages seemingly effortlessly--Spanish, French, German, Arabic. One week in Mexico, and he was fluent enough to run for mayor of Monterey. He could recite reams of poetry off the top of his head. Matt was the occasion for confession of sin for many of us: “Lord, forgive me for being jealous of Matt.” He was also a gentle, kind soul with a clever sense of humor. “Lord, forgive me for being jealous of Matt’s perfect memory and his gentleness, kindness and clever sense of humor.”

But at the time of my letter he was experiencing a crippling writer's block. In his original application to the residency program he'd stated:

"I want to develop endurance and discipline to write when not ‘inspired’, and discernment and humility to know when to leave the words alone . . . . I want to learn a deeper patience in my art."

I had promised to push him beyond his “feelings.” He needed to get into the habit of writing when he least felt like writing—when it wasn't "easy"—not the right time or mood—and to trust that, as I would often say, "something begets something." So I prescribed an antidote to his writer's lethargy: a 30-day writing challenge. Here is my letter:

----------------------------------------------------------------
Dear Matthew,

This is your thirty-day writing challenge. You may respond to each topic however you wish. The topics are your titles. Some are restrictive, some as open-ended as the Texas sky. The most important thing, however, is to have fun. Do not stress out. Write what comes, for however long as it comes. You’re free to revise as much as you want on the day of the writing, but once you’ve crossed over into the next day you have to move on. Your starting date is today, December 13, 2002. You conclude on January 12, 2003.

We’ll find a fun way to celebrate the conclusion of the thirty days. Enjoy.

Blessings,

Your friendly neighborhood arts pastor,

DT

THIRTY TOPICS: THIRTY DAYS OF WRITING
1. Why I’ve Written Hardly Anything This Fall: a Socio-Psychological Analysis
2. My lunch at Romeo’s
3. Red apples
4. “Now that is foul and nasty!”
5. 10
6. “Clark plays the guitar”
7. Depression
8. G. W. Bush
9. Dryer machines
10. “Go away”
11. Of belly buttons
12. Coming and going
13. All about my father
14. “Now this is funny”
15. The opposite of Haiku
16. Tony Hyden
17. The SAT
18. Flying
19. “If I were perfectly honest”
20. Styrofoam
21. My hair
22. Southerners vs. Yankees
23. Coffee
24. The virtues of cloth napkins
25. This is what I write about when I write with my left hand
26. A review of the movie . . .
27. A 30-word poem
28. An ode to self-obsessed poets
29. “So you see, I was a trapeze artist once.”
30. What I see, hear, taste, smell, and touch from my thirty-day writing challenge
-----------------------------------------------

Needless to say we had a great deal of fun. It was far from easy, but the experiment yielded juicy bits of writing. I would undertake a similar month-long writing challenge myself in the Spring.

And now, on September 1, 2008, I undertake a new one.

I told Phaedra last night: "Phaedra, the only way I'm going to overcome this B-Monster inertia to write my book is if I stop waiting for the perfect time to write and just start writing. Tomorrow morning I’m jumping off the writer’s cliff--for 30 days. I'm ready. If I don't jump now I'll find new ways to distract myself. This book is like a fire in my bones. But the more I delay writing, the harder it will get to begin. So I'm done strategizing. I'm writing—even if it’s dumb."

Then, not wanting to be the only dumb one around, I said, "Why don't you jump with me? Make art for 30 days. Don't worry about finishing anything. Don't try to get it perfect. The goal will simply be to make something. Si?"

“Si,” she said, being the suave bilinguist that she is.

So here we are: Day 1. The only two rules I've given myself are:

Rule 1: I have to write at least 250 words per day. That'll be easy most days. But on the day when I have wall-to-wall appointments, a toilet to fix, bills to pay, phone calls to return, naps to take and a grumpy attitude to ward off, that's when I'll be grateful for only 250 words.

Rule 2: Don't worry. Just write. Have fun. Trust that something begets something.

So this is it. I don't yet know if I'll be posting every entry on the blog. We've banned internet use on our sabbaths, so that rules out at least one day. I may be embarrassed by what I write and be less than inclined to post it. But that might also be good for my character. We'll see.

And to all you artists of every kind--writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, actors, filmmakers, dancers, designers, etc--if you find yourself stuck or itching to create but paralyzed by all kinds of excuses, then we invite you to join us if you can.
The point is very simply: to make something. It's not to make something great. It's not to accomplish a whole lot. It's not to finish an actual piece of work or to wait for the muse to descend. It's to trust that you have plenty of fodder stored up in your mind and imagination and heart, and that with a diligent commitment to make something, more somethings will come and those in turn more will arouse and beckon other somethings. In the words of the authors of Art & Fear:

“You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn’t very good, and gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good, the parts that aren’t yours. It’s called feedback, and it’s the most direct route to learning about your own vision.”

And, dear friend, know that out of the ferment of activity, much of it likely rubbish, something really good may come that may never have come if you didn't take the leap of faith.

So punt your “inner critic” to oblivion. Give yourself permission to make ridiculous gobbledegoop. Ask a few friends to join you. Play around with new forms—if you’re a folksy singer-songwriter, try writing a rap song; if you’re a meticulous printmaker, grab a whole bunch of random stuff out of your garage and give yourself one hour to make a lighthearted sculpture on your lawn. Pray. Take yourself un-seriously. Consider this a spiritual exercise along with all the good it'll do your artistic muscles.
And make sure you plan a small celebration on day 30 when you look back over everything you’ve made and know that you’ve participated in the playful, creative life of God and of his Kingdom.

PS: Here is an example of a 100-day drawing challenge that my friend Samantha Wedelich undertook. I quite love her work.
“Tolstoy, in the Age Before Typewriters, re-wrote War & Peace eight times and was still revising galley proofs as it finally rolled onto the press.”