Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Creativity and the image of God within us...

NOTE: This is the fith and final collection in my series of sermon/conversation notes about the role of beauty in the work of our congregation's commitment to compassion and justice.

I was getting into bed a few nights ago – returning thanks for a full and satisfying day – when a song popped into my head: “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” by Cat Stevens. Do you know it? It comes from that totally strange and beautiful movie, “Harold and Maude,” which I loved when it came out and still enjoy it today. It’s a song about how we become our best selves – our truest selves – not a phony or a fake, but the soul God aches for us to become when we live creatively. It goes like this:

Pretty simple – very 70s – and refreshingly honest and beautiful, too, in a gentle, hippie kind of way – and that is what I want to consider with you this morning: living creativity and gently into the image of God so that you – and you and you and me and all of us – bring healing and hope into the world. The artist, Makoto Fujimura, whom I hope we will bring up here from NYC, put it like this in an essay called “Redemptive Culture.”

Creative acts reveal to the world what is missing – or broken – or wounded… so our art needs to reflect generative creativity, creativity that envisions realities beyond our exilic wastelands… Redemptive culture, therefore, is more than reparative: redemptive culture is generative. We need to not only engage in the culture at large, repairing the damage caused by our fall, but also to create out of Jesus’ redemptive entrance onto the stage of human history a vision of a world that ought to be… reparative work uses the existing language and methods to do “patch work” and is imitative; generative creativity is unique to each human being. Reparative work tends to be limited to utilitarian needs; generative creativity seeks deeper roots of beauty.

Hmmmmmm… beauty can heal and save the world? Let’s think about that: “creative acts reveal to the world what is missing – or wounded – or broken.” That is why, you see, the Bible begins with a story about God’s creativity and what it brings to birth within and among us. It was an editorial decision to kick scripture off with a story about God’s first act of creativity and beauty and how that creativity and beauty has also been placed within us who were created in the Creator’s image and likeness. Peterson restates Genesis One like this:

First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don't see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God's Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss. God spoke: "Light! – and light appeared. God saw that light was good and separated light from dark. God named the light Day, and named the dark Night. It was evening, it was morning— Day One…

And then God: "Let us make human beings in our image, make the reflecting our nature so they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, and, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth." So God created human beings; created them godlike, reflecting God's nature; created them male and female. Then God blessed them: "Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth." God looked over everything he had made; it was so good, so very good! So it was evening and it was morning—Day Six… so God rested.

This is, of course, not literal history: our best scholars have noted that this portion of scripture comes from the 6th century BCE when Israel was held in captivity by King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. As the priests began to rethink and reform their ancient traditions – literally learning how to sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land by the waters of Babylon – they began to tell their people how God brought order out of chaos in the beginning: the world was formed from the start in a clear and creative way by a loving and creative God. And, the priests were clear to say, what was shall also be true again. It was a message of hope and reassurance in chaotic times that God’s spirit would eventually bring order and creativity to God’s people as it was in the beginning.

Are you with me here? Is that clear? This first story of creativity, beauty, life and order being wrought from the chaos is a grand and theologically reassuring poem that sets two deeper ideas in motion:

First, that it is the nature of God’s Holy Spirit – ruach – to be both creative and orderly at the same time. What does the text tell us: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth and the earth was without form and void...some versions say that the earth was unsightly and unfurnished suggesting complete chaos. So God said: let there be light – and an ordering process began upon the deep – another ancient symbol of chaos – and there was night and there was day and creation began to take shape. The first insight is that it is the very mission and work of the Holy Spirit to creatively bring beauty and order into being according to God’s will.

And second, that we, too, have been created, formed and filled with this same drive for creative order and beauty within us by the Lord because God said: let us make humanity according to our very likeness. In fact, both creation stories in Genesis are clear that not only is our nature created in the image and likeness of God the Creator but that after fashioning us… “The Lord God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the human being became a living being.” God put the Holy Spirit – who brought order and beauty out of the chaos – into our beings so that we became nephesh chayah – a living soul filled with God’s spirit or breath of life.

So, based upon this foundational poem, would it be safe to say that our tradition understands human beings to be created by the Creator – and filled with a creative spirit – in order to bring beauty, creativity and order to the world? What do you think about that? As an old, old Nancy Sinatra song put it: how does that grab you darling?

Let’s take each part separately: 1) we have been created by a creator; 2) filled with a creative spirit and 3) inspired (which is what breathed into means) to bring beauty to a broken world.

Created by a Creator: to me this speaks about God as revealing our purpose in life, yes? Before there is any discussion of the fall or sin – before there is any mention of the brokenness we create in the world – we are told about beauty and order and creativity from the very source of life itself. Why do you think this is important? What does it tell us about meeting God through discovering our purpose in life?

Filled with a creative spirit: Have you noticed that a lot of people don’t think they are artistic or creative? “I can’t play the guitar like you do” – “I can’t make music on the organ like Lou” – or “paint like Avery and Frances” – or “cook like Emeril” – or sculpt like Rodin… or doing anything really artistic like… who are some of your favorite singers? Composers? Artists?Movies?

Well, we are bound to feel inferior or uncreative or just klutzy if we are comparing our gifts to stars and professionals – but that isn’t what our tradition teaches. The scripture doesn’t say: in the beginning we were all filled with the Holy Spirit to be like Beethoven or Bach or Picasso or my favorite Impressionist Claude Monet – or Gorbachev – or Bono – or Mother Theresa or Franz Kafka, Martin Buber, Georgia O’Keefe… right? Rather the scripture simply says: God created human beings; created them godlike, reflecting God's nature; created them male and female.

St. Paul builds on this essential insight in two places: I Corinthians 12 and Galatians 5. In his letter to the church in Corinth he gives us the image of the Body of Christ: just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members are a part of the body, so it is in Christ. We are one in the Spirit – though different – and one in the Lord. At the same time there are different parts of the body all with unique work to perform: a foot, a tongue, a head and all the rest. And in Galatians he says: look we are all one but we have different jobs and different gifts – some are filled with love and others are filled with joy, or peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And guess what? We need all of these gifts… so let the gifts of the Spirit guide you and help you realize your purpose.

First there is our purpose – God given and real – second there is our gift – our unique and Christ-like blessing that we have been called to share freely within the body – and then there is the work of beauty – the very inspiration of the Holy Spirit in time, history and culture. I think this is where the second text – and the words of Mako – takes form and substance for us. Here Jesus is looking at what passes for religion in his day – he calls it a religious fashion show – and he takes on those in power who like to control other people and make them jump through hoops of guilt and control. In chapter 13 of Matthew he tells us:

Don't let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don't set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of 'Father'; you have only one Father, and he's in heaven. And don't let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ. "Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you'll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you're content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty. Now listen carefully: "I've had it with you! You're hopeless, you religion scholars… Frauds! Your lives are roadblocks to God's kingdom. You refuse to enter, and won't let anyone else in either.

Now let’s be clear: Jesus is not bowdlerizing the faith of our sisters and brothers, he’s ranting against hypocrisy and every religious tradition has its own share of phonies and fakes. What’s more we all have some of that within ourselves, too. And this comes into focus when he turns his eyes on the holy city of Jerusalem and literally weeps:

Jerusalem! Jerusalem! Murderer of prophets! Killer of the ones who brought you God's news! How often I've ached to embrace your children, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you wouldn't let me. And now you're so desolate, nothing but a ghost town. What is there left to say? Only this: I'm out of here soon. The next time you see me you'll say, 'Oh, God has blessed him! He's come, bringing God's rule!'"

He’s heartbroken – the place that should be filled with beauty, hope, shalom and order is in chaos – it is broken, wounded and degraded like so much of life: think Iraq, think Washington, DC, think Russia and Georgia, Israel and Palestine, Zimbabwe or China. So he speaks a word of creativity – how often have I ached to embrace you the way a hen gathers her chicks – it is a poem – a creative image that makes it oh, so clear what is missing, yes?

That is what beauty, art and creativity can do in a broken world – for as Mako said so clearly – art “needs to reflect generative creativity, a creativity that envisions realities beyond our exilic wastelands… and then go beyond “patchwork” so that we can repair the damage of sin, fear, hatred and chaos. Let that sink in for a moment as my friends speak to it through music:

For the past month I have been outlining the broad ideas of why a spirituality of beauty is essential to our era: it heals, it comforts, it challenges and inspires us. But it also puts us in touch with our truest selves – an identity born through a Creative God for creativity, beauty and order in the world– so that our lives have purpose, form and shape – and bring healing and hope to the world.
I want you to take this into your heads and hearts deeply – I want you to wrestle with it and embrace it – I want you to get creative with these ideas. I’m going to go on vacation later in the week – it has been a year since I came to join you in this journey into faith – and I’m going to take a little break to seek out some beauty. I’m going to sit in my garden, I’m going to hear a few concerts, see a little Shakespeare, play a little guitar and take in a jazz show in Montreal.

And when I get back, we’re really going to get down to it because God is at work among us, dear friends; at work bringing order out of the chaos, pushing us towards order and beauty and helping us show an alternative to the brokenness that continues to wound the world.

+ Already we've been asked to bring our little band back to PCTV for an hour show - and we're going to do it.

+ On the first Sunday I am back - September 7th - we're going to bring to you a whole new way of imagining worship as my friend and jazz pianist, Jessica Roemischer, joins us to mix jazz, traditional and contemporary music with visual images in a retelling of the Christian story and Holy Communion that will blow you away... (check her out at:

+ I've begun conversations with theatre people and other local musicians who are asking us to put on a production and revival of the musical, "Godspell" for this generation (it is already being revived on Broadway starting this fall!)

+ And my friend and colleague, Luther, has suggested we think about hosting a Festival of International Music of the Spirit later in the spring as a way of bringing the regions artists and performers and composers together.

Dr. King once said that every generation is given a moment to make a difference - a moment that can bring healing and hope - but that moment doesn't last forever… It could well be that this is OUR moment, so let’s take a moment to reflect as we move into our morning prayers:

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me – Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me: melt me, mold me, fill me, use me: Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me

PS: for a real treat check out my friend's poem and reflections at: The Velveteen Rabbi


Greg Garrett said...

This is a beautiful look at why we need beauty and why we need to make beauty, since we worship the fount of beauty. Thanks so much for pushing hard on this front.

RJ said...

It is my privilege, greg. Thanks for your encouragement.

Black Pete said...

Lots here, RJ. I am reminded of Tikkan Olam, the essential responsibility given humanity by G*d: repair the world.

Wish we were in your neck of the woods to witness and participate in some of your plans.

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