An on-going quest for balance...

Self-disclosure:  I truly don't know the right balance for living as an artist, a pastor and a citizen interested in social change.  And I've been on this quest for balance most of my life.  The words of Mary Oliver resonate with my soul today when she writes:

The singular and cheerful life
of any flower
in anyone's garden
or any still unowned field -

if there are any -
catches me
by the heart,
by its color,

by its obedience
to the holiest of laws:
be alive
until you are not.

Ragewee, pale violet bull thistle,
morning glories curling
through the field corn;

and those princes of everything green -
the grasses
of which there are truly
an uncountable company,

on its singular stem
to rise and ripen.

What, in the earth world,
is there not to be amazed by
and to be steadied by
and to cherish?

Oh, my dear heart,
my own dear heart,
full of hesitations,
questions, choice of directions,

look at the world.
Behold the morning glory,
the meanest flower, the ragweed, the thistle.
Look at the grass.

She almost sounds like Jesus saying to those whose hearts ache for the right path: Has anyone by fussing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can't even do that, why fuss at all? Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don't fuss with their appearance—but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don't you think he'll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you?
And still these challenges haunt me:

+ I am ideology-phopic:  I can not tolerate anyone trying to squeeze me or anyone else into their mold of what is PC or authentically progressive or blah, blah, blah. This creates a variety of problems, of course, because I have been scarred for life coming of age under the influence of both St. Paul and Frank Zappa.  The apostle put it like this in Romans 12:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.

J.B. Phillips (the Eugene Peterson of his generation) reset the text as:  Do not be squeezed into the mold of this broken era... and that speaks to me personally, socially, ethically, theologically and artistically.  Zappa was equally clear about this albeit in a more blunt way:

Think of the ways Picasso wrestled with this challenge - or the brilliant exploration of this dilemma in the work of Chaim Potok - or Carrie Newcomer - or Mako Fujimura.  Whether the Left or Right, I know too many so-called social activists who are certain they know what is best for you and me and everyone else:  you should do this, you ought to do that, what's keeping you from being a part of the program?  What's more, so often they seem incapable of exploring common ground unless you sign-off on their complete agenda.

Ok, confession, ideologues strike me as bullies who are shame and fear based in their activities.  They may authentically care for the common good, but shut me out and off with their demands leaving me wondering:  how to make common cause for the greater good?

+ I am inspired by paradox not politics:  Niebuhr cuts to the chase here noting that the blessing and curse of humanity is our ability to clearly know what is good, true and just but be unable to live into these realities consistently.  In other words, we were created to be paradoxical not ideologically pure.  We're going to fuck up - that's built into the equation - so what do we do with this reality?  Ignore it?  Remain frozen in denial or fear? Or sin boldly... and let God sort it out?

I favor the later option that suggests I act as compassionately and honestly as I can with the knowledge that sometimes I'll get it right and sometimes I'll get it wrong.  And, as a retired Marine colonel said on the news last night in response to the question, "What do you teach people about dealing with complications, problems or failures?" said without batting an eye:  three words - GET OVER IT!  Brilliant.  Mistakes happen.  Shit happens.  Sin happens.  Get over it and deal with it and move on because always:  LOVE WINS!

That's what artists do, yeah?  Say you play a "wrong" note in your solo on the bandstand: so you either figure out whether that mistake might be leading you towards someplace more interesting or you correct it on the spot and keep going.  Otherwise you freeze, give up the ghost and ruin the song.  And if the groove isn't right - fix it - and keep listening.  On Thursday, for example, during my bass solo for "Cissy's Strut" I wound up doing a descending riff that hit the band leader as the intro to Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4."  I didn't hear it but before you can say, "Holy Shit, Batman" we were off and running for another 4 minutes on that groove.  And when it seemed right, he called out, "Back to the head, boys" and we went jumped back into the funk.

Now I suppose that political activists can get into the groove - forgive mistakes - and be open to what the failure might suggest about creative solutions:  but I don't experience that very often. That's why I find it very hard to find common cause with people who start with judgment and history frozen in time rather than celebrating our paradoxical reality.  Small wonder I choose to hang with artists when I have the choice...  Our trip to Istanbul last year, was a way to combine art, cultural exchange and the broad inspiration of the Spirit.  We had a variety of deep and complicated conversations with some of our progressive Muslim friends. We learned a lot, too - good and bad - about the current experiment in Turkey.  And we got a chance to find common ground from time to time, too when we just played from our hearts.

Every now and again, when I stumble across somebody like Robert Bly, who has consistently challenged the status quo from the time of Vietnam forward, I rejoice that he knows how to both do poetry and events that change hearts, minds and culture while simultaneously exploring deeper wisdom and beauty, too.  Wynton Marsalis has found a way on to this paradoxical tightrope as well along with Springsteen, U2, Sarah McLachlan, Lady Gaga and some of the artists affiliated with the International Art Movement in NYC.  And let's not forget the incredible blessing brought about by those behind the "Born into Brothels" movement or those cats over at Playing for a Change, ok?

+ Then there is the whole business of being a pastor while dancing towards both art and social change:  I have come to see that my key role as a pastor involves three things:  1) listening for the Spirit in the lives of individuals and the body; 2) encouraging grace and healing in the hearts of the community (by worship, teaching and the Sacraments); and 3) honoring the presence of the Holy in people so that they grow deeper in grace and compassion.  This is more a ministry of presence than organizing - although helping the body turn words into deeds demands a lot of organization - than anything else.  I don't believe that the Body of Christ is supposed to be political in the traditional and narrow sense of that word.

Rather, the Body of Christ becomes a parable of God's open table.  We practice and explore radical hospitality, we invite the Spirit into our lives to round off our rough edges and strengthen us for acts of courage and sacrifice, we forgive one an other's sins as the Lord has forgiven ours and we share love with our neighbors. Always that means standing in solidarity with others who are hurting - but here's the rub - it doesn't mean that everyone has to be out in the streets.  No, some are called to pray, others are called to serve and still others are called to be involved in serving Christ's body in the world in public acts of justice and compassion.

God's various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God's Spirit. God's various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God's Spirit. God's various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful: wise counsel clear understanding simple trust healing the sick miraculous acts proclamation distinguishing between spirits tongues interpretation of tongues. All these gifts have a common origin, but are handed out one by one by the one Spirit of God. He decides who gets what, and when.

As a pastor, I ache to honor all of the gifts - not just some - the deeply spiritual and the profoundly public.  The healing as well as the prophetic, the nourishing in concert with the challenging.  So for me, it is never either this or that but almost always both/and:  it is the Word become Flesh not either the Word or the Flesh.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I don't know many role models who try to combine all three callings at the same time:  artist, pastor and social activist. Who do you know that is doing all three?  I would value their insights... and yours.


Steve Finnell said…
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