Story

As an artistic person I have often felt like I was going through life getting to sit at the grownup table at Thanksgiving, but not really belonging there.

Last week I had the privilege of being a part of a conference in Chicago called, STORY 2012. It is a group that celebrates people who are expressing their faith through a variety of creative pursuits. Film, music, authors, entertainment, design, and media were all represented in some form.

Anne Lamott passed along tidbits as basic as, “If you want to be a writer, you have to carry a pen. Get a pen. Steal a pen. But have a pen.” Erwin McManus shared his crisis of faith that led him out of vocational ministry and into filmmaking, fashion, and art. Phil Vischer, one of the main creators and voices of Veggie Tales recounted how his company tanking resulted in him seeking new ventures from a completely new vantage point spiritually. Others spoke about being a recovering person and how surrender changed the way they experience creativity.

Nearly every speaker shared how adversity, being thrust from their comfort zones, and simply feeling ill equipped to face the challenges that were put in front of them resulted in their greatest growth opportunities creatively, personally, and spiritually.

I could go on about how they completely repurposed the space or the art being produced in every nook and cranny of the building. They even had a breakout session entitled The Theology of Space (using space to communicate what you want people to experience together). Beyond all that was a prevailing message of hope, why we as artists need hope, what it means to create from a place of hope, and communicating what life looks like from where we sit as artists.

I came away with some clear applications.

1. Don’t wait for everyone to throw you a parade and give you permission to be who God uniquely created you to be. Embrace it. Celebrate it – and then live it!
2. If you are investing yourself in things that are killing you, stop it! Life is too unpredictably short to engage in things that are not bringing you life and allowing you to breathe life into those around you.
3. Ask! When you have an idea that needs to move to the next phase, ask! It never hurts to reach out to those with whom you might like to partner that you might otherwise assume to be unreachable. Someone somewhere knows how to accomplish the next thing. Find them.
4. Don’t try to make “Christian” art. Make art that reflects what God has done in your reality. Reflect the times you’ve experienced hope and the times you experienced complete doubt and despair, even if it is in the present tense.
5. Don’t try to write as if you are the Holy Spirit. He already has a book. Write from your reality!

Sometimes we creative types just need a good dose of one another to grease the wheels of our crafts. This was such a week.

When A Song Happens To You

This week my church, Christ Community Church in Franklin, TN is celebrating twenty-five years as a congregation.  As part of that celebration many people will be sharing stories in our two services tomorrow.  One of my stories of twenty-five years is how a song was born.

French writer, Andre’ Gide said, “Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.”

One afternoon while working in my office I received a call from Scotty Smith, our founding pastor.  He was planning his message for the upcoming Sunday and had been to a conference where they sang a hymn for which he loved the text, but wasn’t a big fan of the original music.  He wondered if I would be open to giving a shot at putting new music to the old text for that week’s services.

I wasn’t extremely familiar with the hymn but told him I’d check out the lyric and see what hit me.

I sat down later that evening and read the lyrics to Jesus, I Am Resting, Resting.  The beauty of that lyric began to settle into me.  I remember asking myself what music set to those words would sound like if I really believed them.

As I began to play the piano in what I call the musical equivalent of scribbling a melody began to emerge from the swirls and circles.  I began singing the lyric over the emerging melody.  Eventually, a chorus built its way out of the verse that sounded like a musical exclamation point.  I immediately clicked on the tiny tape recorder that I kept on my piano and captured what I had.  It was as though the song had happened to me.

The next morning I got up and went into my office and played back the work tape to see whether I still liked the new music as much as I thought I did the night before. 

The lyric began to settle into me again as I sang it.  The song itself began to meet me where I was and I remember asking God if it was an accident that I had just put music to a message that I was having a terribly difficult time embracing for myself.  Sometimes I think God should hang a sign on his door that says, Serious Inquiries Only.

I called my soloist for that weekend, Tammy Jensen.  I told her that I had a song for her to learn but I didn’t have a recording of it so we would need to meet.

When we got around the piano of the old downtown church I gave her all the appropriate disclaimers that writers do and then played the song for her as she held the lyric and followed along.  When I was finished I looked up and tears had filled her eyes.  She looked at me and slapped her hand down on the top of the piano and said, “UHGH!  I can’t sing this!”  I thought it was a sign that maybe I should have left this tune on the island of unwanted songs with some others I had sent out to sea.

“Bad?”, I asked.  “NO!  I mean I CAN’T get through this.  I’m not going to be able to sing this song.  I’m going to break open in front of the whole church.”

I said, “Listen, if God can give me the music to this at this ironic stage of the game in my life, then you can darn well get up here and sing it with me!”

That Sunday Tammy poured herself into the song.  Something happened that I’ve only experienced a few times with a song.  It was as if the song hovered over us.  There were tears, there were people trying to sing along, and there were stories afterward of how that song touched hearts in unique ways.

Since that day Tammy and I have performed that song together literally dozens of times.  Weddings, funerals, and worship events are always met with stories afterward. 

The song that happened to me is the song that has challenged me more than anything I’ve ever written.

Indeed, Andre’ Gide was right.  The less the artist did in this case the better because this time the artist was the student.  This song happened to me a few years later in a completely personal and life changing way when I began to relinquish my expectations and truly learn to “rest”.