the artist in church

made|new|churchartist

I once asked a friend what single thing the church needed to hear from artists, and the response was that the church on the whole doesn’t create room to hear them.

He went on to explain that artists question things, and explore areas that a lot of church folks are really uncomfortable about – for instance: doubt, fear, repulsion, sin, the felt absence of God in a life and what that means.  These run counter to an individualized, American Christianity.

The church wants beauty, and love, and righteous happy endings.  It’s about triumphant transformation and freedom from sin and courageous evangelism.  The church is about movement, a gradual increase of holy, happy living. These ideas are often the topics of priority in American churches, and for good reason. Every single thing I’ve listed above is (with deeper context) a hallmark of Christ-centered faith.

Where the disconnect occurs for artists could be that they won’t accept pat answers or lack of context.

Classifying artistic temperaments is difficult – like any classification of the complex, living, thinking beings called humans.  However, I believe that there are baseline “compulsions” of artists.  Primarily – creation, communication, exploration, and passion.

Artists live to create. This is not just artists, of course.  For instance, craftsmen – such as carpenters, engineers, plumbers – all incorporate creative expertise in their professions.  The drive to create is simply a fundamental element of created beings.

Artists create to communicate.  When sound is intentionally designed to communicate concepts and aesthetics, that is art, and its creator is an artist.  This translates to craftsmen too; when an architect designs a building to say something specific about symmetry or to model nature: that is art.  When a chef show utmost respect for ingredients and sense of place, or makes modern art on a plate: they are an artist.

Artists communicate to explore. They look at life as they find it and ask: Why? It’s this deep curiosity that is simply not satisfied with easy answers. This need to live in the question is vital to a church founded on Someone who is way beyond our finite minds.  Without the perpetuation of mystery and wonder that artists can provide, truth can seem like shallow, easy answers.  When we provide the space for artists to explore theological truths deeply, in different sensory ways, those truths take on the profound qualities they always had.  Increased artistry equals increased understanding.

So yes, the church needs to hear and value the contributions of the artistic people in their congregations.

But artists also need to listen.

Artists explore passionately.  This can be a double-edged sword. Artists, necessarily, get excited about what they are creating, communicating, and exploring.  This passion is what drives them to do it in the first place.  Passion, though, can be misdirected.

The church as a whole is full of people from a variety of backgrounds and ideologies.  When I come into a church community, there’s something at stake larger than my gifts and personality.

Yes, I am valuable. Just like everyone else.

Yes, the church should make room for my gifts. Just like they should for everyone else.

I have frequent conversations with young artists of all disciplines who are concerned about the lack of beauty and art in churches.  They are passionate about the church being a proponent for the arts in every community and serving artists in its congregation.  This is coming at it from the wrong direction.

The church is not here to serve artists.  It’s here to be served by artists. Church isn’t about me, it’s about giving glory to God with His people.

Being a part of the church is about being nourished by His Word, His sacraments, prayer, fellowship, discipline, etc.  It’s about loving those around me more than my own creative voice.  And it’s about using my creative voice to participate in all of those things.

Churches:

Don’t be afraid of where artists will go with the truth of God’s Word.  Press into relationship with them that will guide and form conclusions.  Make space for them to find mentors in the arts and in your congregation.  Reference and respect art in your sermons and liturgy.  Use their art for mutual edification in your services, and to stretch your church.  Encourage your congregation to support their work outside of the church.  Create opportunities to reach out to your community through your artists. This will be a key outreach for communicating Christ in the coming days, because it can be both loving and honest, declamatory and conversational.

Artists:

Take a chill pill.  Turn from trumpeting your temperament to submitting it to the service of the body. Get over your ambition to be heard and ask your leaders what you can do to augment worship.  Adjust your expectations by serving in small ways – even and especially ways that are outside of your comfort zone.  Encourage and applaud other people’s contributions to the life of the body – especially when they are different then your own.  Exercise patience, charity, and respect toward leadership and congregation alike.  Learn to live in love, and to let yourself be loved.

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in memoriam

made|new|inmemoriam

(post by Dr. Desiree Hassler)

I was going to write a blog post about Elie Wiesel. I was planning to call it something like, “Elie Wiesel and the Art of Remembrance.”  You know, write about Jewishness and remembering.  Talk about my own family’s personal intersections with the Holocaust.  Maybe throw in some discussion about how American composers have handled this idea of loss and remembrance in the Jewish contexts of Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony, Steve Reich’s Different Trains.  Maybe I’d throw in a sound clip of Lori Laitman’s sobering I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a song cycle for soprano and saxophone, composed entirely of poetry written by Jewish children in the concentration camps. Maybe Penderecki’s iconic Threnody. That was the plan.

I was all ready to write it when news of the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling blew up my Facebook feed.  And there I was, at home with my four kids and the sinking feeling of, “please, God, not again.”  What do I tell them? How do I….My mind goes to the faces of my beautiful black friends.  Their children.  My Austin neighbors who stroll past my porch–I want to say, “I’m so, so sorry.”  But the words just don’t come.  

Somehow after Sterling’s death and the appropriate tidal wave of public opinion,  it seemed that writing an article about Elie Wiesel was suddenly irrelevant, untimely.  It didn’t feel right anymore – didn’t fit neatly into the current #blacklivesmatter narrative.  And that didn’t feel right to me either, but I decided to chew on it for another day.  The next day brought the shattering news of another fatal shooting; this time, Philando Castile.  And just when we’d all prayed the quota of tragedy had been met for the week, news of the Dallas sniper attack broke – another 5 souls spent at the hands of anger and confusion.

These, on the heels of the Baghdad car bomb that claimed over 200 lives, the Dhaka, Bangladesh café attack that took 23 more. Just last night in France, people of Nice were throwing their children to the side of the road as a truck mowed down and killed 80+ as they celebrated their independence day.  

And this list isn’t even an exhaustive one.

The last week and a half has been a mess. The earth is positively groaning.

Can you feel it?  Will you feel it?

Creation is crying out to be set right and it is fitting for us to join our voices to that cry.  

Can you hear it?  Will you hear it?

Jesus, have mercy.  

It was becoming clear that this wouldn’t be the neat and tidy post on “Elie Wiesel and the Art of Remembrance” that I set out to write.  Instead, this last week and a half writes itself through tears that confess a reverberant grief.  I have nowhere else to go but to bow the knee to Jehovah-Rapha:  the Lord who heals.  In the midst of the noise and brokenness, our God is on the throne, He is the Author and Perfecter of remembrance.  

He remembers Elie Wiesel better than I set out to in that first article because He made him from dust (Gen. 2:7).  

God numbered the precious hairs of Alton Sterling’s head (Luke 12:7).  

He catches all of the tears shed for Philando Castile in His bottle (Psalm 56:8).  Not one rolls down the cheek of His children without being lovingly accounted for.    

And though the press lumps them together as the “Dallas Sniper Victims,” God calls them each by name (Is. 43:1) as only a Father can:

Lorne Ahrens. 

Michael Krol. 

Patrick Zamarripa. 

Brent Thompson. 

Michael Smith.

God, You remember.

Today, I include Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.  I choose it, because unlike Barber’s iconic Adagio for Strings that washes over you in beautiful melancholy, Threnody is noisier.  Less polite.  Like this post, it draws fewer conclusions, sits and meditates for a while in a difficult place.  

Lord, have mercy.

out of stillness, life

made|new|peacelake

If you walk along the eastern edge of North Pond in Lincoln Park, Chicago, right up close to the water, you may chance to find a very special tree. Many years ago, it would seem, the tree was split in half somehow, and now both halves of the tree curl over to the ground. The tree abuts the water, and so if you duck under one half of the now-horizontal trunk, you’ll walk down a little slope to the water’s edge and bulrushes. I stepped in, and found that some kindly park rangers had left a nice chunk of wood as a seat there. There in the middle of Chicago, in the semi-shelter of the park, I found an even smaller refuge where not even my fellow park-walkers could see me, and at last my mind uncoiled from everyday life long enough and free enough to dream.

As I sat beneath that ancient tree, I thought how I cannot create from a place of rush and hurry, from a place of noise. I’ve often noticed that my mind and dreams are most alive late at night when at last the world is quiet. When I get to a practice room at the end of the workday, I usually need at least 15 minutes of staring into space before I can begin warming up. As I converse with other artists, I hear similar stories: minds awakening and ideas flowing only when the rest of the world has gone to bed. It’s an old story.

It makes sense. The production of good art exacts a high price from its creators, demanding all our intellect, judgment, talent, emotion, and vulnerability. How can anyone have the presence of mind to create when so much brain space is already devoted to a steady stream of media and information? Perhaps part of the reason that arts are suffocated is the constant chatter.

This is not the paradigm of Scripture. Our LORD never created from a place of so much chaos. He is himself Peace and so all that he brought into being was made in peace. How can I think that I would be able to do better? No, we must commit to stillness before creation. We cannot create from chaos – our finite minds will not allow it.

Even more profoundly, if we are seeking to tell God’s story, we cannot hear his words through the cacophony. Our art becomes a deeply worshipful endeavor when we submit its production and content in their entirety to His control. We cannot hear how and what we should produce when so many other voices compete for our attention. No, we must commit to stillness if we are ever to find the fountainhead of our art. We are fools if we think that we can create anything apart from the Creator.

I wish I could say that I discovered today, there beneath that Hobbit-hole of a twisted tree trunk, the magic formula to stillness. I didn’t. I know enough of the ancient mystics of the Christian faith to know that stillness takes time and patience. In a world where Google reports that it took 0.53 seconds to access the entire combined knowledge of the world on the subject of MacBooks (my test subject since that’s what I’m typing on), time and patience are unheard of or simply ridiculed. To add extra time to our artistic process seems impossible, since we barely have time to devote to art in the first place.

But what if our lack of stillness has deprived our art of its oxygen? What if we have been limiting ourselves all these years because we could not take the time to sit in His presence and ask the Most Beautiful One what we should make and how? I think our deepest writer’s block and dullest paintings and most inane music could be fed and elevated not by a futile search for inspiration, but by time spent whispering into the stillness, ‘Creator…teach me!’