Creativity and Elizabeth Gilbert

“Send in the artists, mystics, and clowns. Their fertile imagination pours the new wine of the gospel into fresh wineskins. With fresh language, poetic vision, and striking symbols, they express God’s inexpressible Word in artistic forms that are charged with the power of God, engaging our minds and stirring our hearts as they flame and flare.” Brennan Manning – from Ruthless Trust

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I spent an entire Spring day sitting in the basement of my college house making my masterpiece. It was the end of the year and the final day of submissions for the school’s art competition and normally, I could care less about it, but for whatever reason, that morning I was eating cereal and looking out the window at my stretching emerald lawn and decided that this was what I would do today. I would paint.

 

Truth is, I had been painting for several months. I had been throwing myself to the canvas daily because I desperately wanted to be Great and also, I tend toward OCD with new hobbies and also… my therapist thought it a good idea.

 

I confined myself to my room all day and only left for slews of cigarettes and vitamin D and finally, to watch the dazzling setting of the sun.

 

We had until midnight to submit.

 

At some point in that long day of surge and then swell, of frenzy and then form, of plastering white over wrong colors and then intensifying the exquisite ones, I fell into a tempo, a rhythm, a sudden honing in on what beauty was and who I was and what I wanted to create.  I felt what many artists describe as flow. That river of creativity and craftsmanship that you can’t really find, until, at some point, you’re just there.

 

It was intoxicating.

 

The grooves of the tiled floor were streaming with crimson and cobalt and evergreen, meeting at the room’s lowest levels and turning murky brown. Dirt-dry paint coated my fingers and face and all over my clothes. If one were to walk in and see this tie-dye uproar they’d be vexed by it. Even more so, if they looked over at me leaning back in my chair, raising a glass of red to my toothy grin, zappy eyes, lunatic sprayed in raving colors, they’d be downright concerned.

 

But maybe, after a moment, they would’ve known. They would’ve watched the light fall down in the middle of the madness. They would’ve tumbled into a chair beside me and stared in nodding agreement at the best thing I had ever done.

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[Its based on this photo by Peter Przybille (thanks Jessica!]

I didn’t win the competition, but I didn’t really care. I was transfixed by this beauty because I had endured many many uglies. And I started to wonder if maybe I picked the wrong major. If maybe I should be an artist. If maybe I was born to paint.

 

And then I tried to do it again. I tried painting bears and owls, I tried landscape and macro, I tried everything, but I fell far, far short.

 

And it bummed me out.

 

This is when I started thinking things like beginner’s luck. And wondered, will I never be able to do anything like THAT again?

 

And then I got really bummed out.

 

This same gloomy awareness has fogged in around me whenever I write a really good, well-received post, and then, fail to form a single non-clunky sentence on the next one. I was talking with Steph Spencer several weeks ago and she said, “the hardest post to write is the one following your best.” And it’s true.

 

And that’s how we often approach this work. Too often, we strap ourselves to it and fly with our balloons and drown with our anchors. We get big-headed and we get bummed out.

 

I went on a TED Talk binge the other night and I came across something really good. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, was talking about how her book had become this freakish success, how it had become a movie and a-months-on-end NYT Bestseller, and how now, everywhere she goes, people worry about her.

 

“People treat me like I’m doomed.” She said, and she’s talking about the hard truth that no matter what she writes for the rest of her life, she won’t ever top Eat Pray Love.

 

She went on to suggest that these pedestrian merchants of death are on to something. That with art comes suffering and a constant feeling of not measuring up. Of not being good enough. And that all we need to do is look down the history of 20th Century art and see all the casualties of it.

 

And this bothered her, like I’m sure it has bothered every other artist. Why is this? Why this constant coupling of the two? Why must we feel psychologically tormented? Better yet, why have we accepted such a reality?

 

So she went on a search:

 

I’ve been sort of looking across time, and I’ve been trying to find other societies to see if they might have had better and saner ideas than we have about how to help creative people, sort of manage the inherent emotional risks of creativity.

And that search has led me to ancient Greece and ancient Rome. So stay with me, because it does circle around and back. But, ancient Greece and ancient Rome — people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then, O.K.? People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons. The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity “daemons.” Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar. The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius. Which is great, because the Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.

So brilliant — there it is, right there, that distance that I’m talking about — that psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work. And everyone knew that this is how it functioned, right? So the ancient artist was protected from certain things, like, for example, too much narcissism, right? If your work was brilliant you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame. And this is how people thought about creativity in the West for a really long time.

And then the Renaissance came and everything changed, and we had this big idea, and the big idea was let’s put the individual human being at the center of the universe above all gods and mysteries, and there’s no more room for mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine. And it’s the beginning of rational humanism, and people started to believe that creativity came completely from the self of the individual. And for the first time in history, you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius rather than having a genius.

And I got to tell you, I think that was a huge error. You know, I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel, you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.

 

And the talk goes on and it’s absolutely brilliant, you should go check it out. But I wanted to stop here and think about what this means for how we, in career or in hobby, approach creativity. Are we the source? Are we particularly built to produce some smidgeon of beauty into this world? Or is this there something greater? Something more? Some sort of interaction? Something whispering behind us?

 

When I think about painting the perfect picture, writing the perfect post, seeing things clearly for the first time, I also think about the accolades received. About the admiration. About the STATS. About thankful eyes gazing at what I’ve done. And I don’t necessarily think that’s wrong.

 

But the mistake happens when we hook compliments around our sense of self. It feels like being buttered up, and when you believe it’s because you’re great, it really feels good. But what we fail to see is our versatile selves tangling our feelers in the achievement of it. We fail to see how we lean in and, in a way, lose ourselves.

 

And what happens is our sense of worth becomes knotted so tightly to our creativity that, when we inevitably flop, we go sinking down with the tossed out work into the pile of perishables, and in a weird way we believe we deserve the drop, because we shouldn’t ever started writing in the first place and we’re just wasting away what little time we have here and I am surprised I have friends at all….

 

Stop.

 

I’m putting an end to that. No longer will I overanalyze why something I worked so hard on resonated so little with readers. No longer will I pat myself on the back 1,000 times for the well-received work because really if I am to believe that I was created, I am also to believe that this is a cooperative effort now. That it is not just me thinking, diving deep, tapping away at the keys, but there is something bigger, One who sometimes shows and sometimes does not.

 

And the point is to always show up. You never know when something beautiful will tip toe in through the window and chances are, if you commit yourself to just showing up, sitting at the desk, typing out imperfect amateur words, brushing in awful colors, you will catch it. And it will be Great. But it won’t just be you.

 

RR

Vulgar Grace

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Reposting this today. I love you Brennan. Rest well.

I swallowed hard this afternoon when I realized how much doubt I have in the God of the self-help books. That’s where I wanted to turn, to figure out how to re-engage with this large mystery. How to want to reconnect. It was frustrating.

And then Brennan rescued me, again. This passage means more to me than most other works I have come across. Be blessed with this.


 

Some have labeled my message one of “cheap grace.” In my younger days, their accusations were a gauntlet thrown down, a challenge. But I’m an old man now and I don’t care. My friend Michael Yaconelli used the phrase unfair grace, and I like that, but I have come across another I would like to leave you with. I believe Mike would like it; I know I do. I found it in the writings of an Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon He calls it vulgar grace.

“In Jesus, God has put up a “Gone Fishing” sign on the religion shop. He has done the whole job in Jesus once and for all and simply invited us to believe it- to trust the bizarre, unprovable proposition that in him, every last person on earth is already home free without a single exertion.: no fasting till your knees fold, no prayers you have to get right or else, no standing on your head with your right thumb in your left ear and reciting the correct creed- no nothing… The entire show has been set to rights in the Mystery of Christ- even though nobody can see a single improvement. Yes, it’s crazy. And, yes, it’s wild and outrageous and vulgar. And any God who would do such a thing is a God who has no taste. And worst of all, it doesn’t sell worth beans. But it is Good News- the only permanently good news there is- and therefore I find it absolutely captivating.”

My life is a witness to vulgar grace- a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten til five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck towards the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifs, ands or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request- “Please, remember me”- and assures him, “You bet!” A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mine. This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.

 

John the disciple Jesus loved, ended his first letter with this line: “Children, be on your guard against false idols.” In other words, steer clear of any god you can comprehend. Abba’s love cannot be comprehended. I’ll say it again: Abba’s love cannot be comprehended.

-Brennan Manning, All is Grace

 

RR

Has Brennan had a major impact in your life? Post in the comments your most favorite passages. The ones that have meant the most to you.

Brennan and God in Love

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I’ve been trying to rediscover, refresh, redo? my time with God. I say time because that seems to be the most telling indicator for where God and I are. Surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly, I don’t go straight to scripture in these seasons. I visit with the spiritually wise. Those that have had the biggest impact on my own journey.

 

I’ve talked about Brennan Manning a lot on this blog and it’s because there is no one else that has had as big of an impact on my faith as he has. This is one of my favorite passages from his book, Souvenirs of Solitude. It hits me so so hard right now as I am trying to reconnect with who God really is. As I am trying to shake off the old stoic fart that sits on a throne with someone fanning him and lightening bolt in his right hand ready to strike.

 

This passage helps.

(Bold/Size emphasis me)

 

And the Lord summons me a second time. In the chastening solitude of the Pennsylvania hills, he extends a second invitation: “I want you to accept My Father’s love.” I answered, “But I know that. It’s old hat. I’ve come up to this deserted place seeking new insight. I’m in a fit of fervor, red-hot, wide open. I’ll listen to anything You have to say. Go ahead, Lord, dazzle me. Lay a new word on me. I know the old one.”

And He answers, “That’s just what you don’t know-the old one. You have no idea how much I love you. The moment you think you understand is the moment that you do not understand. I am God, not man. You travel the world telling others about Me-that I am a loving God. Your words are glib. How readily they roll off your tongue. My words are written in the blood of My only Son. The next time you preach of My life with such obnoxious familiarity, I may come and blow your whole prayer meeting apart. When you come at Me with your pedantic professionalism, I will expose you as a rank amateur. When you try to persuade others that you understand what you are talking about , I will reduce you to silence and hurl you flat on your face! You claim that you know I love you. Then gird your loins like a man. Now I will question you, and you tell me the answers.

“Do you know that every time you tell Me you love me, I say thank you?

“When a fear-filled child comes to you in the darkness of a thunderstorm and asks with tear-streaked face, ‘Are you still here? Will you stay with me until it’s light? Are you disgusted with me because I’m little and afraid? Are you going to give me away?’ and you are grieved and saddened over the child’s lack of trust, do you realize that you do the same to me? Or don’t you believe that I am at least as sensitive a father as you?

“Do you understand the word of My Son: ‘I do nothing by myself. I do only what I see my Father doing’ (John 8:28)? Who do you think first wept over Jerusalem when they refused to receive My own Son?

“Do you claim to know what We shared when Jesus withdrew to a mountaintop and spent the night with Me alone? Do you know whence came the inspiration to wash the feet of the Twelve? Or is that below My dignity, distant  Oriental magistrate that I am? Do you understand that motivated by love alone your God became your slave in the Upper Room? Remember, ‘I do only what I see my Father doing.’

“Have you grappled with the core question of your faith which is not ‘Is Jesus God-like?’ but ‘Is God Jesus-like?’ Do you comprehend that all attitudes, values, qualities and characteristics of My Son are Mine; that he who sees Jesus sees Me, His Father?

“Were you grieved by the divine command to Abraham that he slay his only begotten son Isaac on Mount Moriah? Were you relieved when the angel intervened, Abraham’s hand was stayed, and the sacrifice was not carried out? Have you forgotten that on Good Friday no angel intervened, that sacrifice was carried out, and it was not the heart of Abraham that was broken?

“When you’re friend loses a child temporarily in death, do you go to the funeral home and grieve with him and try to comfort him? When was the last time you grieved with Me and tried to comfort Me on Good Friday? Do you know that My heart was broken on that dark day? That I am your Father, that I feel as much as you?

“Are you aware that I had to raise Jesus from the dead on Easter morning because My love is everlasting? That I could not bear the thought of eternity without the presence of My only begotten? Are you serenely confident that I will raise you too, My adopted son?

“But of course, you are aware of all these things. Was it not you who just told Me that it is all old hat, that you know that I love you?”

 

RR

The Head and the Heart

 

There are times when the relationship with my redeemer feels like a long-distance one. While on occasion, this can be nothing more than a feeling of being stale in the faith, for most phases it comes during a season of busyness. Or at least, perceived busyness. I try to work hard, fill in time to write a short blog, catch up on emails, meet my social quota with friends and then go to bed at a reasonable hour. But rarely do I allow the schedule to dissolve and reveal the eternal reality before me. And when I get here- where I am today, I notice a couple things that have changed within me.

 

First- the Bible bores me terribly. It appears unattractive and complicated, and at the end of a chapter I will feel unmoved, even though I know I should be.

 

Second- I make the Bible into textbook. Feeling like a victim runs the risk of allowing yourself to dwarf the holiness of the words and convince you that it is only in academic study you satisfy your soul.

 

Over the course of the past several days I have tried to reconnect the dots of my faith. Burying my nose in the gospel didn’t give me a turn, so I listened to Christian music, for five minutes, then played T-Swifts new song. In the middle of the madness, I returned to the writer who has done more for my faith then any pastor ever has or could. That author is Brennan Manning.

 

Brennan has touched the lives of millions through his gorgeous works on God’s love and grace. I like to think of him, and many others like him, as a liaison between the spiritual wanderers and the father that loves them. I trust this man because of his honesty and his story of a life lived under grace. He has awoken my conscience on several occasions and consistently reminds me why I love this God so dearly.

 

One of his favorite passages of scripture-, which has become MY favorite passage of scripture- gives a glimpse into why oh why we love Him.

 

“My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away,


11 for behold, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.


12 The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing[a] has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
is heard in our land.


13 The fig tree ripens its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.


Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away.”

                        -Song of Songs 2:10-13, ESVUK (emphasis mine)

 

See, what I so often forget, when I reduce the Bible to a book report, is the intensity of our father’s affection towards us. This passage is so beautiful because of its imagery and its assurance of our belonging to him. The creator of the heavens and earth fell so deeply in love with us that he seeks to woo us, to court us, to make sure we know that he is mad with love for us.

 

There is a risk that I have found in dropping our brains at the door of the Church. But I have also found that there is a risk of our intellect overshadowing our hearts. We need both to work in conjunction.

 

Whenever I separate myself from that understanding of God as love, letting it slip into the recesses of my mind, I lose the sacredness of my search. Like the jackass student who I found out was homeless, I cannot understand God’s words without seeing the context of our relationship. I can’t look at the Bible in an attempt to reconnect with God without first understanding that this Guy is head over heels, weak at the knees, nails in the hands, in love with me. It’s a give and take. And obviously it’s a different type of relationship than ones of conversations over coffee.

 

But at the same time it is so much more reliable.

 

I look at this passage and I am reminded of why He means the world to me. It washes me in warmth over that inexpressible feeling of affection. Of being loved. Of perfect, uncensored, nails in the hand, kind of love that has the ability to bring a man back to life.

 

As Brennan wonderfully says:

“Christianity is not primarily a moral code but a grace-laden mystery; it is not essentially a philosophy of love but a love affair;” –Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (emphasis mine)

 

 

I hope this Sunday you’ll sit with this scripture, and allow that affection to overwhelm.

RR