Lately, I’ve noticed a number of people starting creative arts groups. For example, there’s a group of creative writers who want to get together to critique and encourage one another. There is a group of visual artists who meet monthly to network and talk deeply about their art and their faith. There’s a group of songwriters who come together regularly to share their songs and sometimes co-write together. There’s a local church that has started a monthly art space where artists of all kinds can come and share their art, and another church that is intending to have a regular artist fellowship. And I’ve been invited to a few new FaceBook groups who want to share thoughts and blogs on the arts and on worship. I think this trend is quite encouraging, as the dialogue of faith and the arts becomes a more natural part of the evangelical church.
There are a lot of advantages to joining one of these groups. In the context of Christian community, artists can find encouragement, constructive criticism, discipleship, affirmation, and acceptance. However, there are a variety of pitfalls that happen when you attempt this. After all, we are humans, and we all carry the baggage and ego and myopia of humanity within us.
Art is so many things: On one edge of the spectrum, it is a deeply personal expression of the self and a way in which we interpret and recreate the world God made. As artists, we intend to express the human condition and seek to make sense out of it. On the other edge, art can be a self-promoting, self-gratifying, self-anesthetizing thing that feeds one’s ego and false-self. Of course, that’s not who we aspire to be.
So when we get together with other artists within the format of a cooperative group like a writer’s collective, songwriter group, or arts guild, there is this dance that ends up happening, where everyone tries to find their place, minimize criticism, manage appearance, and promote oneself (without appearing to self-promote). This is natural and human. And quite imperfect.
I’d like to suggest a few rules of engagement for helping creative arts groups function. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it does come from experience.
• Remember Who You Are In Christ. It goes without saying that our art is an expression of our truest self, and in that way, our fingerprints are all over what we create. At the same time, our identity, (i.e,, who we really are), shouldn’t be tied to our work. Although my art is my personal expression, I’ve learned that my ability to write is not tied to my true identity, which is in Christ. To truly understand this first one is to free oneself from those feelings of jealosy, inadequacy, envy, self-loathing, etc. Of course, this is an incredibly difficult thing to do. However, knowing this allows one to receive both criticism and accolades in a Christ-like manner, as well as keep a Kingdom perspective in all you do. In other words, take God seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.
• All Criticism Must be Christ-Centered. If you’re in a group that encourages mutual criticism (and you should be), make sure that your constructive criticisms are truthful, grace-filled, and Christ-centered. Your goal—when constructive criticism is solicited from others—should always be to encourage someone toward Christ-likeness and really great art (in that order). So be truthful, but be gracious.
There is a flip side. Often times, an artist’s request for constructive criticism is actually a plea for affirmation. Many people really don’t want to know what others think of them; they simply want people to affirm what they already think of themselves. As Christians living in community with other artists, your request for criticism really must be honest in that you are willing to accept the truthful feedback of your peers. And it is worth it—iron sharpens iron.
There is also the category of unsolicited criticism. I find this often in the comment section of blogs, where people who really have little understanding of the subject or knowledge of the author, will feel free to share their often negative opinions about any given subject. The anonymity of these blogs seems to give people permission to be rude, spiteful, and verbose. In a word: Don’t.
• Don’t Use the Group Primarily to Promote Yourself. Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to promote yourself appropriately as an artist. But don’t use your arts group primarily for this purpose. We have a tendency to hide behind our “Christianity” in our self-promotion. I am so very tired of people who post FaceBook requests for prayer when all they are really doing is advertising or thinly-veiled bragging. (For example, “Please pray for me as my band plays the main stage in front of 5000 people at Super-Duper Christian Conference tonight.”) If you really want to be truthful with your art, you need to put away the image management and the veiled self-promotion.
Here’s a good way to avoid this. Promote others.
• Remember That our Art is a Byproduct of our Spiritual Growth. As an artist, one’s primary goal should not be the affirmation of one’s work. While we all crave the affirmation and respect of our peers, our primary goal should really be spiritual growth. We need to pay close attention to how we are growing our souls through our art. Our artistry should then be the byproduct of our spiritual formation in Christ. This is an extremely important and foundational principle that all Christ-following artists should understand. I should know, it’s taken me 20 years to get it!
• Let People Into Your Life. Some artists have a tendency to be loners. They paint alone in their lofts, compose alone in their bedroom studios, write alone at their computers. But being alone is not God’s intention for us. He created us for community, to be with Him and to be with others. If you are a part of an artist group, make it a point to engage personally and fully. Collaborate on arts projects. Share coffee and ideas. Co-write songs together. Know and be known, artistically, personally, and spiritually. Be the church to one another.
A series of flashbacks tell the story. Nine at night. Washing the extra dishes that wouldn’t fit in the dishwasher. A glass exploding in my hand. Blood spurting furiously on the counter, in the sink, down the drain. Driving to Urgent Care, a dish towel wrapped around my arm. Eleven stitches and a tetanus shot. And then the medical prognosis: No piano playing for two weeks.
Sitting in the examination room, feeling the dull tug of sutures around my thumb, I tried to corral the thoughts bouncing around my brain. I recalled the eight different gigs and rehearsals I had lined up over the next two weeks that would have to be cancelled or reworked. I recalled the different projects at home and at work that I could no longer work on. I recalled a conversation I had over twenty years ago with my father, who confessed to me that he had made me right-handed, though I had left-handed tendencies as a child.
Then there are the hundreds of questions I would inevitably face over the next few days. “What happened to your hand, Manuel?” Which of course obligates me to be creative with my responses: “Shark bite. A big shark. Actually, a gang of big sharks. Wearing leather jackets.” Thankfully, I am married to an amazing woman who knows the proper amount of self-aware wife doting necessary to keep me happy.
It was early the next morning—faced with actually getting ready for work with one hand—that I began to see this as an opportunity to practice what I preach regarding the arts. Art is defined, in part, by the limitations imposed upon it. A painting is defined, in part, by the size of the canvas. A film is defined, in part, by the camera, the story, the location. And a solo piano composition is defined, in part, by the number of fingers one has on one’s hands.
I remember someone explaining once that the hardest thing to write when authoring a story is the first word. Because once you commit to that first word, you’ve narrowed the possibilities of that story. The first word, first phrase, first sentence, first paragraph, first chapter—every word further limits what is possible, until there can only be an ending.
So all art is defined by the limitations of the particular art form of that art. Those who are great at their art have simply learned to embrace the limitations.
So, bandage in hand, I am embracing the limitations. I am rediscovering my left-handedness: Putting on contact lens, eating with a fork, doodling with a pencil, taking out the garbage. I am surrendering to my self-reliance: relying on others to play instruments, letting others move things for me, leading worship far away from the comfort of my piano, with only a microphone and my voice. And I am deliberately slowing myself down: giving myself more time to get ready in the morning, to eat meals, to type on my computer, to brush my teeth, to live life. In short, the eleven stitches in my hand have become a spiritual discipline that is bringing me before God.
The truth is, we all have limitations. Even our humanity is, by definition, a limitation. But it is also a wondrous and mysterious gift. And embracing our limitations—and understanding them as the gifts that they are—is simply one more step toward spiritual maturity.
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When I was a little kid, my Mom used to cut our hair. Once a month, one by one, we would sit at the kitchen table as Mom took the buzzer to me and my three brothers. The humming, bee-like sound of a hair trimmer around my ears still makes me flinch to this day. Overtly, it was one of her many ways of saving money. Covertly, I believe it was her way of making us sit still while she dished out a half hour of roll-your-eyes motherly advice.
Of course, no two haircuts were exactly alike. In fact, every haircut was a proof theorem in non-symmetrical geometry. I’m not exaggerating. Just look at my yearly school pictures.
I still remember one particularly bad haircut Mom gave to my younger brother, Marcel. Not only was it lopsided, it was way too short. In a fit of exasperation, he stormed off the kitchen chair crying, and locked himself in the bathroom. Of course, me being the peacekeeper, I knocked and knocked on the door until he reluctantly let me in. I still remember standing beside him, as he gazed blankly in the mirror, tears welling in his eyes. I kept trying to think of a compliment to tell him to make him feel better, but there just wasn’t a single compliment on his head. So I walked out. I figured, that haircut was really, really worth crying about.
By the time we were teenagers, my Dad had bridled my Mom’s enthusiasm for these monthly haircuts. In his opinion, if we wanted to keep our hair long, that was our choice. Which was quite an empowering thing to hear from your Dad. Of course, my Dad was bald, so I suppose he figured that, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. And so through the end of high school, I had kind of a semi-feathered David Cassidy look. My hair was so long I could reach under my arm and behind my back and touch my hair. I was like Samson—don’t mess with the hair.
These days, my hair is not such a big deal to me as it was when I was a teenager. It doesn’t matter so much now that my hair doesn’t look perfect, or it hangs a little weird. And I think the reason why is because I don’t see my hair as a reflection of me anymore. I’ve grown up beyond the teenage angst of appearance and image management.
I think this is the way with artists as well. So many artists (musicians, painters, writers, etc.) not only struggle with the making of their art (because making good art is hard), but they also struggle with attaching their identity to their art. In other words, they believe that the art they create is a reflection of who they are. And on one level, that is entirely true. But for the Christ-following artist, who we truly are is defined more by God than by us. Our identity is in Christ. And thus, our art is more a function of our ability to reflect who we are.
This is a subtle but profound paradigm. When you believe that your art is who you are, then you receive the accolades, indifference, and criticisms of your art as a very personal thing. They like my art, and therefore they like me. Or they hate my art, and therefore they hate me. And if you believe this, your motivations for your art can become—in convoluted and somewhat tormented ways—simply a way to please people.
But if you instead believe that your art is a process toward learning to express who you are, then you receive the accolades, indifference, and criticisms in a completely different way. To use the metaphor, we aren’t crushed by bad hair days. Because the condition of our hair is not indicative of the condition of our heart. We are free to take the compliments and complaints and learn from them or ignore them, free to take chances with our art, free to stretch the boundaries of our expression without feeling the sting of rejection.
It’s been my lifelong experience that it is only when I surrender a thing that I can truly receive it (Matthew 16:25, Psalm 27:4) . It has been true of my career, my marriage and family, my aspirations and dreams, and even my art. As artists, we must continually apply ourselves to the process of surrendering our art—or more specifically, disconnecting our identity from what it is we create. It is only then that you can experience the true freedom and joy that comes from creating art.
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It was the kind of snowfall that wisped and flitted, not as much a fall as a frolic, white flecks dancing sideways and disappearing as they hit the pavement. She grasped the fur of her collar stiffly and tugged it to her ears, then turned to check the lock, before heading out the door.
It wasn’t cold, not really, and this dusting of snow actually brought a welcome relief from the doleful rain that was November. But she did not have time now to enjoy the change of scenery. She turned the engine, put it in drive, and quickly sped off. Visiting hours began at nine, and she had promised to be there. And truth be told, it was the promise that drove her there on this morning, and not the desire of her heart.
Convalescent homes are not happy places. There are smells there, fetid and clinical, smells that made her want to hold her nose and wash her hands. And the sounds too were unnerving, a cacophony of random yells and murmurs and daytime television. The sounds bounced around on the tile floor, the hardwood walls, the long, white, antiseptic hallways. She braced herself as she reached for the entrance door, her briefcase of music clutched under her arm.
Sue was already there. Smiling, laughing, chatting with all the residents. She floated from wheelchair to wheelchair—touching each person on the shoulder, hugging some, encouraging others with a joke or a personal pleasantry. Her straight red hair fell lazily upon the white-haired residents, a red punctuation mark on a white page. Her presence was like a breath of spring thawing the long hard winter.
Sue caught a glimpse of her, and smiling warmly, she motioned her to the front. “Katie!” she exclaimed. “Over here. You’re right on time.” Returning the smile, Katie maneuvered her way to the front of the room, trying to not make eye contact with any of the residents. Attendants were gathering these seniors now, parking them in semi-circles around the makeshift stage, like a wagon train under attack. And subconsciously, Katie felt as if under attack from all of these people. Though she could not understand the feeling, she felt the need to be guarded and impersonal. “This is just a gig,” she thought to herself. “Just another way to make a buck this Christmas.”
“Hi Sue,” Katie said, not quite sure what to think of the situation. “So this is what you do with your Sunday mornings?”
“A couple of times a month,” Sue replied. And sensing her hesitancy, she added, “Don’t worry. They don’t bite. Some of them don’t even have teeth.”
Her comment was disarming, but Katie thought it better to focus on the business at hand. “Look,” she said setting her briefcase on the piano. “I brought some Christmas music, mostly just standards, but I also can do some Christmas carols. You know, ‘Jingle Bells,’ ‘White Christmas.’ Will they sing along?”
Sue laughed out loud. “Oh, they’ll sing all right. The question is, will they be singing the same song.”
After the residents were gathered, Sue cheerily welcomed everyone and shared a humorous story about her week’s Christmas shopping. A sea of heads drifted left to right and up to the ceiling, some glaze-eyed, some distracted, some drifting off. Others seemed to be having quiet conversations with themselves. It was obvious that most of the residents were in various states of lucidity. One resident in particular, a blind woman with white, thinning hair and an equally thinning housecoat, caught her eye. Cora licked her lips occasionally, but otherwise sat straight away, apparently oblivious to Sue’s story, oblivious to the world.
Katie sat at the piano, silently becoming more and more querulous and irritated at the idea of having to play at this event. After all, she had a degree in music performance. She had played some major concerts. She had been somebody. And to think that she had actually practiced for this event. And now she sat behind this out-of-tune spinet, about to play a selection of music that probably wouldn’t even be heard.
‘Just like Grams,’ she thought to herself. Her mind spiraled back to a distant recollection—a young teenage girl playing Chopin in a convalescent home over a decade ago. Her mother had brought her there to play for her Grandma. There were the same smells and the same sounds then too. And the same glaze in her Grandma’s eyes. But when she had played for her, Grams smiled broadly.
Sue’s introduction was warm and generous, but was met with only a smattering of forced applause. With a deep breath, Katie began her concert, first with a selection from the Nutcracker Suite, then a classical rendition of “Carol of the Bells.” Both pieces received only modest response, mostly from the convalescent staff. Katie’s annoyed attitude quickly turned into panicked performance anxiety. She reached quickly for her stack of popular songs, and pulled “White Christmas,” hoping for any response, but expecting none.
And suddenly, half way into the second chorus, Cora began to sing.
It was off-key to be sure, but her voice was certain and sure. “Amazing Grace,” she began, “How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…”
“Shut up Cora,” yelled a voice from the back. “For crying out loud…!”
But Cora continued softly, surely. “…I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind but now I see.”
Katie tried to regain her composure, but remained transfixed, dumbfounded. The voice of the mute, the voice of an angel. She only now noticed that her hands still lay on the keyboard. She took her hands off the keys, lifted her foot off the damper pedal. And still Cora continued.
“Twas grace that brought my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved…”
There was something in her voice that captured Katie. Something deep within. A conviction, a certitude. She was not just singing, she was declaring.
“…How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.”
Other voices joined her now, two or three at first, but eventually the entire room. It was as if the song resided deep within each person’s psyche, and Cora had awakened it from its corporate slumber.
“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.”
Through the main windows, Katie could see the snow fall gently, slowly outside. It hushed the room in peaceful stillness. Like her heart, which beat now in quiet accord. Katie no longer smelled the smells nor heard the sounds that burdened her this morning. Instead, as she stared into the eyes of this sightless woman, she felt the smile of her Grandma upon her. She lifted her hands now, wiped the tears from her eyes, taking in the stillness of the moment.
Sue moved slowly toward Cora who still sat in her wheelchair, eyes still dead ahead. She put her arms around her, swept the white bangs from her forehead, and kissed her there. You know Cora,” she offered. “That’s my favorite Christmas song too.”
Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book a few years ago called, Outliers: The Story of Success, which is, in his words, about “men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August.” In the book, he looks at a wide variety of people and occupations, from airline pilots to entrepreneurs to hockey players to software engineers, and identifies and examines the attributes of success. Beyond talent and intelligence and ability, many of the characteristics of success include things largely outside of our control, things like “culture and community and family and generation.”
I was fascinated by one startling point he makes. The uncommonly successful person has spent at least 10,000 hours honing one’s skills. He argues that the 10,000 Hour Rule applies universally—tennis prodigies, chess champions, scientists, classical musicians, and successful business entrepreneurs all share the trait.
Of course, it wasn’t long until I started doing the math of my own life. I started playing the piano when I was almost 5, and worked my way through a half dozen piano teachers until I was 13: ~1400 modest hours. Played clarinet in school bands and was introduced to student conducting, in addition to some amateur songwriting and playing piano and keyboards, so to age 16: ~3,500 hours. Played coffee houses and other gigs, began performing with bands, and learned the craft of studio recording, so to age 21: ~4,900 hours. Given I had a day job as an aerospace engineer, I still played steadily in bands (fusion, rock, church, originals), taught myself to play jazz piano bar, began recording independent projects in a demo studio, took classes and conferences and read books, and I did a whole mess of songwriting, so by age 29: ~9,600 hours. And if I were honest with myself, I still wasn’t all that good of a musician.
So I probably hit the 10,000 Hour Rule around age 30, the same time I entered into full-time vocational ministry. And in retrospect, that was the period of my life when I actually started to get pretty good at what I did. I was recording some of the best music of my life, was leading worship bands at church as well as my own band, was arranging and songwriting and gigging some big gigs. And also—probably not coincidentally—I think that was about the time in my life when I began to understand that I didn’t have to prove anything anymore.
Gladwell cites the Beatles who as a group honed their skill and sound by playing over 1,200 gigs in Hamburg nightclubs between 1960 and 1964. By the time they had been “discovered,” they had amassed over 10,000 hours focusing their talents, honing their skills, characterizing their unique sound, and forging their group identity—and the musical world was never the same.
I think about the many artists I know—musicians, painters, filmmakers, dancers, actors, writers—and the price they must pay in order to be good at what they are passionate about. I think about the aspiring 22 year old songwriter who just released his first CD, the young 24 year old aspiring filmmaker who is wondering whether he should quit his day job, the 30-something worship leader who just wrote his first book, the 18 year old vocalist who is trying to figure out whether to major in music, the 50 year old mom who fell in love with the cello and is seriously taking lessons. And while I believe Gladwell is right in asserting that much of success is beyond our control, one of the things that is in our control is dedication to our craft.
In a celebrity-driven world where auto-tune and Justin Beibers exist, work ethic seems a quaint notion at times. But we do have an obligation to steward that which God gives us. And that includes the talents given to us as artists. In other words: Do The Math.
“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Luke 12:48 NIV
Traditionally, I take the week off after Christmas. For a worship pastor like myself, this is a bit of a sacred time—to spend with family, physically and spiritually refuel from the long fall and Christmas schedule, and do a little reflecting on life. This last week, I also fired up my project recording studio, collected all the odd and unformed lyrics I have jotted down over the past six months, and gave my right brain an opportunity to play a little bit. (I also snuck onto my daughters’ new Wii a few times, but that may be irrelevant.)
Every songwriter works in their own way. Some like to start with a melody; others begin with a lick or a lyrical phrase or some chord changes. There are no rules, no procedures, no single formula for writing a song. There is only this inexplicable thing called inspiration—that seems like luck and works like magic and feels like madness.
The most gifted and hard working artists seem to be inspired all the time, but that is not true. When there is no inspiration, it is then that skill and gifting can carry you. A gifted songwriter can write a song whether or not they are inspired, simply because they understand the craft of songwriting. A gifted painter can create an amazing work of art simply because they have a canvas in front of them. And a gifted writer can write a great article simply because they are under a deadline. All of this begs the question: Is inspiration a requirement for creativity?
As artists, we are obligated to steward the gifts God gives us, through diligent discipline. Artists must be attentive to their craft. In other words, having talent is not an excuse for not working hard. Quite the opposite—the greater the giftedness, the greater the obligation to steward those gifts, to work and hone our craft. It is a matter of the parable of the talents, applied to our talents. And so, because I understand and practice the craft of songwriting, I can write songs that are creative. But I don’t always write songs that are good. In fact, I am really quite good at writing mediocre songs. So where does the inspiration come in?
Jeremy Begbie states that “art is…inherently dialogical.” And I believe that includes a vertical dialogue, a transcendent and spiritual component to our art. When we are inspired, it feels like we are tapping into this wholly other thing.
This last week, I was feeling inspired. And for me, this inspiration—that seems like luck and works like magic and feels like madness—took me somewhere I don’t think I could have gone by myself.
As a Christ-follower, I believe that all true inspiration ultimately comes from the Spirit of God. I also know that the Spirit of God is a much better songwriter than I am, so I am often reticent to give him credit for the stuff I write. But this week, I walked into my studio with a some unhurried time, a few scratched-out ideas, and an attentiveness to the Inspirer of things—and I walked out of my studio with three new songs. And so far, they still sound pretty good.
Time to challenge my daughter to a round of Wii bowling.