Today we visited a church to hear a family we love play music. Man, the music was so good. Filling the small, high ceiling sanctuary were the organs of gospel music and the cadence of Americana. The fat and tender guitar riffs drifted into my soul. God was pressing on me, as he had many times before in worship. It nearly always took the form of tears, and this time was no exception.
Though the music was modern, some of the hymns were not: we sang “Standing on the Promises”, familiar from my childhood days at small Bible Chapels on the east coast. Back in those days, I’d memorized God’s promises from scripture through clubs like Awana: “I will never leave you nor forsake you”. The promises were God’s, given to a different people at a different time, but we were taught to take them on as our own.
But today I heard the promises in a new way. I thought about my parents, and their parents, great uncles and aunts and more, who sang similar hymns. While cleaning the garage just a day earlier, I’d come across an envelope of cards sent to me on my first few birthdays from these very people. “We’re praying for you every day… we think of you often… we love you”. Besides their signatures, the cards didn’t say much more, but seeing them some forty years later had caused me to weep. I could not have seen at age 3, as I could now, that they really meant it. They took joy in me, loved me, and through the years would constantly remind me how they prayed for me every day.
This is one of the most creative years on record for me. My last post described being bad at something long enough to improve. Working through that fear of failure was the first part:
In the drive to create, embracing failure keeps my perfectionist foot away from the brake pedal.
But creating still requires the other foot to step on the gas. So what’s been driving that?
Shocked into disorientation, I’ve been driving to make sense of a shifting world and a shifting worldview. Was it one specific thing? It was so many things that it felt like one thing, as if the sound waves of countless quiet complaints finally converged into a sonic boom, all catching up at the same time to cause one large disruption.
Though years of routine input had formed a solid ground, it didn’t allow for a new openness to the world. I’ve had to let some of that sure footing that drift out to sea.
That prompted me to create.
Looking for fresh voices I found a tidal wave of input from conversations, podcasts, blogs, and books.
That prompted me to create.
In both directions of this exchange – displacement and replacement – the human spirit spins like a turbine.
It is the human version of tidal power generation, where creative energy gets captured in both directions, as anger drives the old water out and excitement sees new ideas rushing in.
Both drive me to create.
I’ve had to find an outlet for all these new and swirling thoughts. I wanted a new way to communicate into existing relationships that were thriving on implicit agreement.
Writing, painting, music – melding ideas into pictures – allow an introvert to work out the conversation in the solitude of the studio. Then it can be shared, having finally united the bifurcated brain into something organized enough for the outside world.
The result has been a flurry of creative output. The willingness to work at it is driven more by a need to express than having a clear audience. In the end, my creations may help others understand me, or know that they are understood. But in the beginning, I create to understand.
I’ve been through enough phases, creative and otherwise, to know it won’t last.
But when the tides change, that’s the moment to go for it. Not waiting for the water to settle. I look back on letters from a couple years ago and I would not write them the same now. Nor could I write as descriptively now about what it was like then.
Time itself doesn’t always move us forward: it’s largely because I took the time to write then that I have been able to move forward to now.
So for now, in this tidal moment, I’m staying away from that perfectionist brake pedal and keeping my foot on the gas.
I painted the above to express in simpler terms the many words I was chewing through. Of course Bob Dylan would completely disown me for explaining a work of art, but sometimes growing up means going against our mentors : ) .
Consider the right panel: the work starts with strict boundaries on the left – everything is clearly defined and of a solid color. As we move across – like a timeline – we see what was once neat becoming blurred, less defined, messy. Life still goes along, rich(er) with color, but no longer categorized as it once was.
If it’s no surprise to us in the present day that this piece is titled, “Deconstruction”, neither would it have surprised our ancestors. It’s nothing new to discover the world is not as it seemed. I’ve been finding friends through history, each of them deserving a more in depth look, but as a start:
Picasso had the skill of a realist painter but questioned whether realism was all that real. Maybe the paintings that accurately described the world around us, didn’t. Stripping away all but a few grotesquely exaggerated elements, cubism was born.
He wasn’t alone – Monet in his impressionism, Cezanne in his post-impressionism, Stein in her purposely broken grammar, all became disillusioned with contemporary art’s expression of the world, and used their creativity to shine a light on it.¹ Critics saying these artists had a skewed view of the world missed their point: even the mainstream view of the world has a skew.
Moving back in history, think of the deconstruction Galileo caused when his evidence pointed, against all odds, that the universe did not revolve around humans and their planet. It’s probably hard for us to understand how much identity and theology had been built around this mis-information. This simple scientific observation triggered de-construction for many and potential de-capitation for one.
Among authors through history, how many have taken to the pen to describe their movement out of or into faith (To name a motley few: Augustine, Christian Wiman, Bob Dylan)? Without too much analysis, this includes many biblical writers as well, though some like St. Paul were writing during a time of surety, reflecting back on ‘where they once were’, almost as if their painting would read from right to left. But then we are gifted with Job and David too, left to right, from answers to questions, from delineated to deconstructed.
Like the artwork above, faith and life look different as time moves by. But still we see the same colors on both sides, mixed or pure, calling from the canvas. Asking us to consider if some of the lines we thought un-crossable, might serve our faith better with a little leeway. And when some of the blurry lines are tightened up, we then hold it in the humility of understanding they will be questioned again.
Newport Folk Festival
With Dylan on my mind, I’m thinking about the legend of the Newport Folk Festival in
1965. Breaking with folk music tradition by playing an electric guitar, he was booed by the purists, left the stage and didn’t come back to Newport for 37 years.² “No acoustic, no folk; know acoustic, know folk!”, the crowd might have chanted, as Galileo’s critics might have shouted onto his stage, “no geocentric, no faith; know geocentric, know faith!”.
Dylan saw there was a deeper truth to folk music that wasn’t defined by the instrument being played. I can’t resist wondering if, standing on stage with his electric guitar splashing light into his fans’ horrified eyes, the ever-prophetic Dylan was smiling, “Someday this will all make sense.”³
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.
Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
♦ weekendswell ♦
If you like music, you might also enjoy reading Cover Songs. Get notified of next post by clicking “Follow”
¹Jonah Lehrer’s ties some of these pieces together in his well-researched book, Proust was a Neuroscientist.
²There are of course different viewpoints on the booing that day, enough to have its own wiki page
³ Hard not to think of Marty McFly’s Back to the Future moment after breaking from Chuck Berry style electric into a more 80’s style solo, “Guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet… but your kids are going to love it.”
In my songwriting group, we sometimes assign ourselves to “cover” a song – creating a new expression of another artist’s song – and in the process I find myself understanding both the work and the artist in a deeper way. Listening to the song can be moving enough, but to write out, play, and sing it, is to enter in to another person’s experience, to take it on and take it in. What were they seeing when they wrote this song? Were they writing what they were feeling or what they wanted to feel?
When trying to create original music, covering a song might feel like a step backward, a waste of time. But in doing so, our creative process is pushed forward: first we duplicate (cover songs), then we imitate (write something that sounds like…), and then we create. As we get behind the artist’s eyes, we begin to see not only their canvas but also their decision-making process.
First we duplicate, then we imitate, and then we create.
A writer I would like to imitate is Henri J.M. Nouwen, but he immediately points me to “cover” someone else. Show me the Way, a book of Nouwen readings for the 40 days of Lent, has been in our family for over two decades, inspiring me year after year. During holy week, Nouwen recounts Jesus washing the feet of his disciples with the words, “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done for you.”
When we hear Jesus tell us to love and serve, not just each other but the hurting and oppressed, we may resist – that would be an interruption to my life, my studies, my learning about God, for heaven’s sake. Perhaps we could instead spend our religious efforts in doctrinal classes trying to understand more of God’s qualities.
But this would be like only listening to the song.
Listening to the song might have some effect on us, but we haven’t truly known the songwriter until we have sung their song. To more deeply know Jesus, Nouwen says, we must follow in his steps by living a compassionate life. Going beyond listening, we begin to serve others by looking into their eyes and allowing God’s whisper – “I accept and love you” – to speak itself into action. Entering into the life of Jesus means entering into the life of his creation.
In other words, as we draw closer to the downtrodden, we discover Jesus there; as we draw closer to Jesus, we are drawn to the hurting around us.
In other words, the deeper we know the song, the deeper we know the songwriter; the more we know the songwriter, the more he encourages us to sing his song.
Nouwen himself lived this out – giving up his prestigious academic life to live and serve at the L’Arche Daybreak community for the intellectually and physically disabled. Since I am currently writing from the comfort of my life, I will now (at last) hand the pen to Nouwen:
“Prayer and action, therefore, can never be seen as contradictory or mutually exclusive. Prayer without action grows into powerless pietism, and action without prayer degenerates into questionable manipulation.
If prayer leads us into a deeper unity with the compassionate Christ, it will always give rise to concrete acts of service. And if concrete acts of service do indeed lead us to a deeper solidarity with the poor, the hungry, the sick, the dying, and the oppressed, they will always give rise to prayer. In prayer we meet Christ, and in him all human suffering. In service we meet people, and in them the suffering Christ.” ¹
♦ weekendswell ♦
For another view of understanding each other, see Alone-ness.
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¹Nouwen, Henri J.M. (1994). Show me the way: readings for each day of Lent. New York, NY: The Crossroads Publishing Company