Category Archives: art!

Wild Geese and other strange communities

I spent much of my first week as a Real Pastor muddy and wet and surrounded by awesome people. I was a volunteer at the Wild Goose Festival, a pretty fab festival/community about spirituality, justice, and creative expression.

The Atlantic called it “Woodstock for evangelicals,” which is not too far off base but also doesn’t capture the uniqueness of the community. For one thing, I felt totally comfortable and accepted there, which is not usually true of anything “for evangelicals.” (Are you picking up the dripping sarcasm?)

And man, if I had denominational prejudice coming into this weekend, these folks just killed it. I had some fantastic conversations with people who came from all kinds of church backgrounds. (It felt like I met more Baptists than anything else, and even one guy from a PCA church.) But plenty of fabulous PCUSA friends, too.

But more than the content of our conversations, I think, what really struck me was the incredible openness and honesty and genuineness and trust. We brought our whole selves there, and they were okay. I heard (and shared) so many personal stories, those kind of awkward pieces that we don’t normally share except with really close friends, and to have those stories received gently and graciously by people I’d met mere hours (or less) before was unique and strange and beautiful.

My weird artsy self could pull out my sketch journal during a talk or a performance and not get funny looks. People actually seemed to respect that creative response.

Wild Goose collage/journal

My existence as a young pastor with one foot in traditional denominationalism, theology nerd and artsy kid and socially-awkward extrovert, that self was totally present in all its quirks, and was not just accepted but affirmed. People seemed to want to hear my opinions and perspectives – even the people I had just met who came from some “other” tradition, those kinds of situations where I’ve learned to tone myself down a little to avoid confrontation.

I didn’t really expect that, but it felt immediately like home. In a lot of ways that’s what I wish for the church more broadly – that we can really get down to the business of loving one another for who we are, not for who we think we ought to be.

If you asked me that question about why millennials are leaving the church (and didn’t you??) I would say this issue hits at the core of it. I can’t help but think people are leaving or disenchanted because of all the unrealistic expectations and non-acceptance and general disconnection of the church from the realities of the world. So often church is seen as this place where you’re expected to be this holy, perfect person, which is never true for any of us.

I want to keep building places where people can be themselves together. Where weird mixes of people can come together and really care about each other. Where we can really be church together in a way that we seem to have forgotten.

Where not fitting in is a good thing.

Where a van full of random strangers is the norm.

Part of me wished at first I had tried to be more involved – to be a volunteer chaplain, or applied to speak, or just had some kind of more formal way to offer something – but I’m really glad I didn’t, this year. I didn’t realize how much I needed this space of just being. I went to some talks and some performances, but sometimes the best thing about them was the people I sat down next to, and the conversations we had before/during/after. I spent a lot of time sitting by the river.

I needed that. But I also feel like maybe next year I will try to present something. More than anything else, this weekend made me feel like I have something valuable to say. And I will try to nurture this community, because God knows we need more places like that.

Training the Monkey Mind

The theme today is “Return.”

And the first thing I thought of was meditation practice – there are lots of variations on this teaching, but it boils down to “butt on cushion.”  Just practice.  And your mind wanders, like a monkey or a puppy or a lost child, and you bring it back and just breathe.

So I cleaned my table and opened my notebook, and just put colors on paper.

“you make beautiful things out of dust”

Ash WednesdayI’m a big fan of Lent.  One of the reasons that Christianity is still compelling for me – despite all the baggage and the politics and everything else – is the cross.  If we can take seriously the reality of suffering and violence and sin and death, and not turn away, and still manage to believe in resurrection after all of that, then maybe our theology has something to say.  So conceptually, this season of turning toward the cross is something I can really get behind.

But I’ve had a really hard time deciding how to observe the season this year.  I feel like I need to do something significant.  I was really drawn to Landon Whitsitt’s suggestions, and I thought about fasting, but I don’t think at this point that would actually serve the purpose of bringing me closer to God.

I was also really touched by my friend Kellyann’s post “On not celebrating Ash Wednesday. ”  She mentioned this song “Beautiful Things,” and those lyrics are just what I need this year:

You make beautiful things/You make beautiful things out of dust.  
You make beautiful things/You make beautiful things out of us. 

 

 

I haven’t been doing much art lately.  I’ve also been feeling pretty disconnected spiritually.  Those things are probably related, knowing myself for 30ish years.

So this year, I’m doing the #rethinkchurch Photo-a-Day Challenge.  For now I created an Instagram account, but I also want to use this as a motivation to pull out my fancy camera (and maybe my not-fancy camera), and sort out my software issues so I can actually get to all my old photos and process new ones.

I’m also going to clean off my art table (which still has half-finished Christmas cards all over, and now it’s accumulating a second layer of paperwork I haven’t dealt with yet…), and I’m going to pull out my sketchbook.  I will make time for contemplative art-prayer.

This feels good and hopeful and holy.

Are some other folks doing the photo challenge?  I’d love to hear about creative or unique Lenten practices!

Aside

I’ve always loved flipping through old records in secondhand stores, so now that I have a turntable, watch out!  I am going to have the most ridiculous record collection.  My first purchase (after Theatre Is Evil) was the original Godspell … Continue reading

“God is too small!”

The campus ministry went on our fall retreat this past weekend.  Our goal was to work on solidifying this community for a new semester, and because I helped plan, there were arts & crafts.

For me, artistic expression in whatever medium has always been fundamental to my sense of self.  Smearing paint on paper (or the nearest available surface) is a sort of meditative, prayerful state for me that’s not quite like anything else.  And it’s not even necessarily about the finished product, most of the time — it’s the sense of peace and wholeness and me-ness of the process, and of making something beautiful.

So as we’re thinking about creating community on this retreat, one of the key ideas is that real community means not just that each of us are welcome, but that all the parts of ourselves are welcome.  Not just the cool interesting parts, but the parts we’ve learned to hide, learned to protect, because they’ve kept us out before.  The weird parts, the embarrassing and nerdy and colorful parts, those have to be welcome too.

Our first craft project was a memory of those times we’ve been kept out.  We remembered those times, and some of us shared the stories, and we all offered up those memories into the bonfire.

Mine was a memory of churches who try to tone down the radicalness of Jesus.  Who pretend this was a blue-eyed white guy who just wanted us to pay our taxes and bow to the emperor and be a little bit nicer to each other.  Because when we as the church try to keep out the itinerant radical Jesus, the one who broke laws and invited the “unclean” people to dinner, the one who gave us hope for a new kind of reality where the whole social order is turned on its head — when we keep out that Jesus we keep out people who are on the edges today.  We keep some people out altogether, and we force those who do come in to hide their broken parts, their needy parts, their beautifully weird parts.

When we make church too small for the beautiful variety of people God created, we attempt to make God small.  And we certainly can’t have a real community if people can’t bring their whole selves into it.

The Jesus who caught my imagination, and who is the reason I still call myself Christian in the face of all the awful things that have been done in the name of Christianity, that Jesus actually went looking for people on the margins.  Not to fix them, but to bring their whole selves around the table.   But of course, that kind of behavior gets you crucified, then and now.

so play your favorite cover song, especially if the words are wrong
‘cos even if your grades are bad, it doesn’t mean you’re failing
do your homework with a fork
and eat your fruit loops in the dark
and bring your etch-a-sketch to work
and play your ukulele

(Download that here!)

only art will save us now*

A few months ago, I found Brooklyn musician Heather Christian on kickstarter, where she was fundraising to buy a new piano to record a new album.  I fell in love — here was someone who sold her piano to finish releasing her first album, and now she’s trying to crowdsource a new one, all so she can keep on making amazing music.

(One of my favorite things about the artistic process is the incredible way it brings people together, especially these days when people like Amanda Palmer manage to touch a cultural chord and revolutionize the music industry…)

Long story short, Heather (aka Panda) got her piano… and 6 days later a 7-alarm fire in her building.  And then Hurricane Isaac.  And out of all that, a record.

As she said,

We are all extremely proud of the monster we unleashed at the mics, and want to just tell you,

we made it for you.

We made it with love from the geekiest and feelingest parts of ourselves, and we can’t wait for you to hear it.

(soon.)

(more on that later.)

What I think is hitting me hardest about this story is just an overwhelming sense that art is what gets us through.  Sure, art comes out of challenge and pain (I think that’s pretty obvious) but I think that’s looking at the question backwards.

We’re all going to have pain, we’re all going to have shitty things happen.  No getting around it.  But if we just lay down and cry and stay there, nothing is healed.  Nothing changes.

If you can look at the world exploding around you, and make something beautiful out of it, that’s God.  Out of chaos, god shapes the mud into something new, and breathes god’s self into it.  And that’s the beginning of so many beautiful things.

Creation is life-giving.  It is healing, it is re-building.  Making art brings people together, and it brings us closer to our creator God.

Plus, it makes our world a little bit more beautiful.

Image

* theological caveat: feel free to read this as “only creation will save us now” or “only a new creation will save us now” if that makes you more comfortable.  It’s all one and the same.