I couldn’t tell you when it went absent without leave but one day I noticed it was gone. The last shred of possibility slipped out the door. You adjust. The sadness becomes mortar for a wall just high enough to keep the dream from getting in finding its old place where it fit in so well until it didn’t. We resigned ourselves to a good enough life. But then—years later, mind you— he came home from Jerusalem out of breath and out of words to explain himself. He kept making the same frantic motions desperate for me to understand. When he finally settled down we played a guessing game: he acted out a story that began with routine but ended with surprise. I laugh when I think of his exaggerated gestures his repeated look of goofy astonishment his tears of frustration before I blurted the unthinkable and the joy knocked us onto the floor in a tangle. It’s been quiet around here for months except when we smile at one another and a gust of hope stirs, rearranges our secret. One day it blew down the last remnant of resignation. I can tell you the exact moment because it was the day I felt a tiny breeze fluttering in my womb.
(The “Prompting Creativity” posts have been moved to a page by that name. Find it in the menu.)
This year I will focus on the stories of several players in the big story of the incarnation.
In Advent we realize that the birth of Jesus is part of a bigger story, thousands of years long and eternal in scope. It includes the prophecies of people like Isaiah, who lived 2800 years ago, centuries before Jesus appeared on the scene. He was an ordinary man whom God tapped to be a prophet in Judah. Judah was a small nation with mighty nations surrounding it. The only way the kings thought they could stay safe was to make the best alliances with those other powers, and to fight against the enemies of their so-called friends. Their security was shaky, based on the whims of other kings and conquerors. Isaiah kept telling them that they should trust God, but they wouldn’t listen. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, they say. Better the chariots and horses you can see than the God you cannot see. Better the idols of those other strong nations, even though idols were made of wood or stone and could easily be broken apart, worthless and powerless to do anyone any good. Isaiah said that God would make a light shine in their darkness if only they would trust God. (Is 9.2) The thing is, the upper classes in Judah did not see the problem. They were prospering, albeit at the expense of the poor. They simply chose not to think about how vulnerable they were, how their security was built on a shifting foundation. Their situation sounds too familiar. We feel secure if we don’t think too hard about our situation. But when we do, the news about riots and lootings, disease and rising prices closes in on us, making life feel darker and darker. Blocking it all out is its own kind of darkness. My own sense of helplessness to do anything about these events sometimes makes me feel panicky, given to despair when I lie down at night. The darkness is real. John said that Jesus was the light who came into the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it. No matter how depraved the criminals, nor how bad the diagnosis, nor how frustrating our economy and politics and conflicts, nothing and nobody is beyond the scope of Jesus’ light and the power of his love. His light shows what is true and his love heals all brokenness. Isaiah In those days the people thought him crazed for saying things were gloomy when they weren’t. Their bellies full, their fortunes had been made and regularly sacrifices burnt to make a show of opening to God while turning a deaf ear to those whose cries were heard in heaven, many lacking food and suffering the cost of rich men’s lives. The prophet saw the thin veneer of pride that covered fear and deeply harbored sin, how rulers schemed to have themselves allied with power that would vanish in the wind. In him the dream persisted, clear and strong of God who made them all and loved them long.
The Advent of Jesus He came to help us see that there is more than this that joy is not small confined to new toys or proper thinking He comes standing ready to lift me out of the angst that masquerades as normal to distract me from the urgent to see the trail of frost on the pane the bluejay’s haste the curve of the cheek on the neighbor’s child He will come again this fresh afternoon when I sit down to listen to her earnest ramblings and notice the way she keeps her hands in her threadbare pockets
What is the heft of a quiet life that her grandchildren carry today? More than the weight of a mother and wife as they solemnly march to her grave. They bear the imprint of soft, storied arms from her lifelong earnest art honed by the tasks of family and farm and a gentle, loving heart. Heavy their hearts as the memories gel and the tears of loss consume, but lighter their steps at the thought of her smile that accompanies them to her tomb. The worker performs his lowering job. Her children toss earth on the chest containing her form but never her love that survives to inspire and to bless.
As we settle our collective breath and feel the veil gently gliding open for a holy glimpse a bird calls from the sidelines the sky weeps silent tears the air faithfully allows itself to be filtered into eulogy and prayer the tear-soaked soil receives collects along with all who will enter its moist embrace alive with dead things. Sing! Accept the way of things. Sing the Love that holds it all the bird and the words the soil and the souls. Weep the Love that knows. Breathe the Love that gives the bird her song. Live the Love that sees beyond the humus of this moment.
The sins of the fathers are tenacious unless there has been a reckoning, a washing in the river to a new awareness, a new name reminding him of that long night of struggle, grasping desperately to the past and finally letting go, with a blessing, no less. Ten sons had learned their lessons well, living into a new iteration of deception and manipulation, greed, competition. Striving. Joseph and Benjamin were younger, brought close in the evenings, as Papa recounted his foibles, feats and failures from the other side of the Jabbok. With new sight he connected the star-dots, that ladder of angels appearing in the night sky of his memory, recalling the tale of Father Abraham under that same sky of promise. Understanding finally bloomed within himself as he planted the star-seed of trust in a boy who would need it to grow in the well, in the prison cell, and bloom once again in a palace far beyond Jacob’s wildest dreams.
I Arrive Late I arrive late. The avian chorus is halfway through the morning program. Tiny wrens trilling, crows demanding attention, a catbird offering its scratchy exaltation. The cardinal’s whistle, occasional and sweet. Their song and the stillness they celebrate accomplish my intention, the daily challenge of heart-opening that requires study, prayer, writing, the diligent quest for communion with the divine. The birds don’t know about theology. They simply offer their voices to the music of presence, unstitching the veil to reveal the cathedral of this fragile, fulgent moment.
“Do not underestimate the thrill of trying.” –Julia Cameron
Mixed media art has always captivated me. I marvel at the imagination and creativity of those who bring together a variety of elements to interact and cohere to stimulate the viewer with the outcome. A bird rests on a torn edge of newsprint, and its song breaks into my thoughts. A disembodied hand offers a gift. Colors are layered, inviting me to pause and look more deeply into myself.
Would I like working with these materials? I’ve gotten hooked on it, but it took me some time to gather the courage to try it.
My first attempts at visual art were assignments in a college class. My initial drawings were so light that they could hardly be detected a few feet away. What was the point if nobody could see it? I had to be bolder. Charcoal drawings were assigned, so there was no choice to display my work for others to see. Gradually I gained a bit of confidence.
My best work was in calligraphy. It was the one skill I took with me and used in the years to come, crafting signs and small gifts. It makes sense that this appealed to me, because if I love anything in this world besides people and pie, it is the written word. It is almost as if words are old friends, so I am comfortable with the creative process in their company.
It’s no wonder, then, that my first attempts at visual art in recent years have involved words. In my desire to influence my grandchildren’s faith, I select a special Bible verse for each Baptism Day anniversary and render it playfully in calligraphy. They are not works of art, but they convey the value of Scripture’s wisdom for them. I hope they also indicate my love for them.
Calligraphy always caught my eye in gift shops and galleries, beckoning me to keep going back to this medium. It was daunting to attempt something that takes time to develop, but I had to try.
My next attempts used not only the Scripture verses, but paraphrase and color. Putting the verses into my own words drew me into their meaning. Imagining how to present them artistically was a new and exciting process.
My mind and imagination were opening up in other ways, and it seems that a new kind of creativity was beginning to flower within. I have always enjoyed the creative process in ministry and parenting, finding ways to teach and nurture within the bounds of traditional norms. As my perceptions about God, the world, and myself evolved, my desire to create expanded. I began to write poetry. This was fearsome at first too, probably because of my admiration for good writing. How did I dare offer my own words to the world when fine writing already exists, in abundance?
The inner voice refused to be deterred. Although countless other writers are blessing us with their wisdom and humor, they do not use my voice. I have something to say too.
It takes a long time to trust one’s inner voice. Mine is easily silenced by the fear that is perfectionism’s most effective tool. But these days I recognize the problem, so I can keep it at bay. “The perfectionist is a bully,” says Julia Cameron in It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again. “It wants us to doubt ourselves. But saying no to bullies does often make them go away…Creativity is an awkward process, two steps forward, one step back…We must be gentle with ourselves and have reasonable expectations, lest the perfectionist try to take us out of the game. With humble forward motion we are strong—stronger than the perfectionist.”[i]
My skill at poetry has grown only slightly since I began, because I do not practice it often. I ponder whether it is important enough to me to give it more time. That will show itself as time goes on. As a mentor from years past put it, “Either you will, or you won’t, and that’s OK.” I don’t have to live up to expectations for writing that are not grounded in curiosity and joy.
It was in following Cameron’s process, using her tool of Morning Pages that compelled me to try mixed media. Writing every day helped me consider what I really want to do with my time. As it happens, an art class appeared in my social media feed. “Tiny Tattered Houses” was advertised by Jennifer Chamberlin, who teaches the craft on her website “The Maker Beehive.”
I toyed with it for only a few moments before I signed up. The fee was a mere $15. What did I have to lose?
I loved it.
Finally I found a medium that promises me satisfaction and joy without being squelched by perfectionism. There were no exact lines or colors, only what emerged from my fingers and imagination.
Playing with paper, paint and glue released a whimsical spirit in me that I hadn’t realized was buried under responsibility and worry, mostly stemming from pastoring three churches during the pandemic. I was also dealing with intense pain from a total knee replacement. The creative process distracted me from the grinding experience of recovery, and I was lifted into a place of adventure and beauty.
The same website offered a yearly membership, which I immediately dismissed as too time-consuming and expensive. But my newly-awakened creative spirit would not let it rest. The cost was not more than I spend in books in a year, I reasoned. Writing my Morning Pages gave me the moxy to register and put down the money. I wrote, “I’m going to do it. I’m going to accept the invitation to explore a fun medium with a little guidance and accountability. It will free me from trying to develop my creativity too carefully and open me up to my carefree, fun self. (I know she’s in there!)”
Julia Cameron claims “it is enthusiasm even more than discipline that brings creativity forward. With just the slightest encouragement, our creativity responds to our taps, as if it has been lying in wait. I would argue that it has—everyone has a wellspring of creativity flowing beneath the surface, just waiting to be released.”[ii]
Cameron has helped me stoke the fire of my creativity. Over the years other family and friends have encouraged me to find my voice—in whatever form it takes on a given day—and use it. (Thanks, Karen C, Barbara H, Wendy V, Ginger A-L, Vicky M, Steve J, Carol A-J, Pam V, Mindy M, Jennifer C and all the Maker Bees!) It feels like a wondrous gift after a season of difficulty and fear.
I am grateful to have found new energy that fuels other pursuits, including ministry and my work as a spiritual director. I have long experienced the flow of creativity directed by the Holy Spirit when I write sermons and funeral/wedding meditations. I suppose I have regarded those as safe vehicles for my voice. But now I find that any activity can be flipped from drudgery to joy when viewed as a creative endeavor. In my current role as a chaplain, I approach each nursing home resident and staff member with curiosity, ready to listen and respond creatively as the situation warrants.
I wrote about the new energy for ministry in my morning pages: “These understandings are reflected in my new interest in mixed media collage and the pleasure of writing free verse poetry. The outcome is not so much planned as discovered. The Spirit is party to creating, and sometimes surprises me. I can lose myself in the process and be open to what flows.”
That’s it. Losing myself in the process, being open to what flows. Not a bad way to approach life in general. I wonder how I can be creative today as I clean windows and iron the clothes? I might even get back to my little corner studio and do more mixed media first! Time to play some more.
[i] Cameron, Julia. It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again, 2016. (New York: TarcherPerigree/Random House), p. 120.
[ii] Ibid., p. 97.
What did they expect when they followed him to Bethany, a whole day’s journey from the scene of Jerusalem’s crime and its surprising aftermath? He had been talking about what they would do next, but he kept leaving out his part whenever they tried to tie him down on that point. He repeated his big dream for them one more time before he grinned and a gust of wind picked him up. A brief tug of war with gravity (they groped for him, futile attempts to keep him grounded, to call him back: please, please, don’t let him get away!) but Houdini Jesus shrugged and sighed at their tattered faith trying to hold him in its tether. When he looked up again, a mysterious, animated mist appeared, beckoning and embracing him. He relaxed into the welcome. Only in his absence would their understanding bloom and go to seed, a dandelion puff the Spirit could not resist scattering everywhere out of control, finding purchase in the most unexpected places.
A re-telling of Luke 5:17-26 Even though the house was already crowded, when the elders arrived, they were given front row seats, where the teacher was telling curious stories about seeds and banquets and quarreling brothers. A Pharisee was posing a convoluted question when falling debris gave them just enough warning to avoid the chunk of ceiling that barely missed Jesus himself. The dust cleared to reveal a makeshift pallet lowering by ropes, tipping and wobbling, its passenger trembling and wide-eyed, wincing when he landed with a thump. The teacher laid a calming hand on his shoulder and then smiled up at his friends, whose chutzpah left a ragged gap in the ceiling. Simon was heard murmuring his prediction: another healing! But Jesus looked deeply and thoughtfully at the man and said, “My friend, be assured, your sins no longer have the power to cripple your spirit.” The elders immediately exercised their veto power, with force. Jesus’ thoughtful gaze turned on them. A pause. “Please trust me. I know the deepest truth and it is this: paralysis of the limbs is nothing compared to the paralyzing effects of a rebellious heart. So that you will know this too, watch this man walk home with healthy legs and an unburdened heart.” Sure enough, the man stood, tentative, took a few shaky steps and left differently than he came, light on his feet, his pallet of shame left behind in a pile of dusty, broken-down dogma.
And a poem had to be written too! Look Out Below The heavens were opened when the Dove-Spirit surprised Jesus with her wings of light. He looked up every so often after that, just in case. But what opened one day to his surprise was the ceiling, breaking apart, raining debris on everyone. No dove, only a trembling man on a wobbly pallet. Despite the elders’ protests, Spirit tuned him in to the fractured heart of a broken man. Not many of the crowds who came to him were so easy to read, but the shame had etched its lines on this man’s face long ago. Such sadness needed its cure and so he did, touching the heart with a refreshing wash of absolution, and stroking life back into the shriveled limbs for good measure. The teacher couldn’t resist checking the reactions of the men gazing down. He did a double take when their glad faces seemed to flicker and gleam, and he felt a familiar flutter stirring the air just above his head.
The longer I watch him the more I wonder whether the Cross of Jesus was not the only moment our saving happened, as if such cruelty could solve an inevitable, deadly equation. Perhaps it was only the penultimate moment to resurrections’ triumph— though unheralded, un-choired— the sealing of love’s new first word. But even then it would be hollow without all those other interruptions: the divine impulse making food blossom in their hands on a hillside, a girl’s lifeless eyes fluttering open, Lazarus leaning into the muffled announcement that even time must step aside for love’s insistent force. The shape of all the saving— all the loving— required the alignment of his arms. He extended them in one terrible timeless moment into which he gathered all the other moments and offers all of it time after time resisting confinement, elusive as spirit, expectant. Constant. Be still and see there he goes again.