Saturday, December 5, 2015

Words & Wisdom for This Thing Called Life

Below is the transcript of a talk I gave on creativity and spiritual understanding at a women's retreat today. It was a very wonderful and opening experience for me to connect with these ladies, and I hope these words are helpful for anyone who reads them. (Yes, there is an overtone of my focus on the Lord in the words, as it was a faith-based retreat, but I hope it will offer something helpful to anyone who reads it, regardless of your spiritual leaning). 

My major takeaway from the day- after telling my story and hearing the stories of many others- was that beneath happy facades and appearances, we are all very lost here on earth, and even when we do know the Lord and we learn to rely on something bigger than our circumstances for our sense of peace and joy, being human is still hard! All of our lives contain broken things- our pasts, relationships, pieces of our very selves- and yet before we come from any of these things, we come from the hands of a loving Creator who sometimes uses these broken pieces to point us to the meaning of wholeness and healing in a love- His Love- bigger than we can imagine.

So here it is: just a small snippet of my messy, long, sometimes difficult, adventurous, and heart-opening story as an artist. Enjoy.

When I was asked me to speak about how creativity is related to spirituality in my life, I had to do something which I hadn't really done before, and that is sit down and think about how art came into my life in the first place: I had to think about the source of all this, how it all started; the beginning.

How did I get from being the creator of nothing, really- not an artist- to being the creator of something.

And as I thought about my journey to this specific part of it- the present, right now - I have noticed just how many times it has been in my life that I have been humbled to see that I am not the artist.  In the big, grand scheme of things, there has been a creative hand on and in my story long before I even knew what that story was, or how it would turn out, or who I would become.

I think outside of knowing who we are in God, we are always waiting for 'that moment' when we will know and love and accept wholly all of ourselves- and then life will become okay. To be honest I think this can be something we want to believe more than something we really do, actually. And I think, in hindsight, this is the most dangerous and also the most prideful way I've ever thought: hoping to self-enlighten, hoping to love myself more than I even noticed God.

I have to be honest: for most of my life, I have not been an artist- or a believer. I am 28 now, and I would say that I came to know the Lord when I was 25. That was when I made contact, when I realized something: it took some time before I moved from 'maybe there's something like 'a God' that I can detect in my thinking' to 'there is, Biblically and spiritually, a knowable, unchanging, loving Creator.' It's been an evolutionary process since my first encounters and I know it will continue to be for the rest of my life on this earth. My life, my character, my sense of self, was totally different before.

I've learned that God sometimes takes you through the fire and only afterward do you realize it's because He's burning away your dependence on things other than Him.

In my 25th year, I went to Peru for three months to volunteer as an art teacher. I left behind a lot of things I felt I needed 'getting away from' at that time: family issues, a broken relationship, an uninspiring job; mostly a daily existence of tasks, responsibilities, and to-do lists that weren't very creativity-inducing at all. Art was something, at that point, that I never really committed to, but used sort of occasionally, from time-to-time: it was a hobby, it was something I did but never wanted to take too much ownership over or investment in- probably, in hindsight, because I was afraid to fail.

And also because I was more wrapped up in things like boys, impressing other people, making more money, winning the rat race, etc. etc. It never dawned on me to set my heart on God when so many other things were available, and many of them seemed, however temporarily, satisfying.

But something changed in my heart while I was in South America in ways I did not see coming at all. I expected the experience to be one thing, and it was totally another. I realized, deeply, that life was indeed very short, and that I was lucky, and that unless Love itself (not outcome, not personal gain, not money, not the appearance of authenticity with nothing behind it) was at the center of everything I did, then yes- my life would actually mean nothing.

This could seem like a grim realization- until you find the loophole. Love itself- not just my idea of love- had to be the loophole. This is where God started coming in.

I came home and I felt that, as long as I was brave enough, I could accomplish whatever I wanted, and I could probably explore what it meant to make a creative life: to be an artist, to paint, to make things, and to share them. The question at that point was not about God, really; it was still about me: could I be brave enough?

I learned that when God is calling you toward the things of His heart, the things that really matter in life, you get brave enough.

I think I realized that no matter how bad a hand I felt like I may have been dealt in the past, my self-defeating thinking was useless in the face of the new realization I had acquired of what I actually did have- and could have. It was kind of my first brush with grace: as though God said, 'I gave you your freedom from the beginning. You've always had it.  What you are just now realizing is that the freedom you need is from yourself.'

That was the loophole. Love is freedom from yourself.

Buried in grace is the treasure of this promise: God gives you what you need when He knows you need it- not when you think you do. The things that really change you, they aren't your experiences at the top of the mountain- they are the way you choose to respond to your life when you're stuck in the valley. They aren't your bliss or your achievement of your happiness- they are the character you reveal when you don't have those things, when life has to mean more than them. They aren't karmic- they aren't things you call into your life because of your good acts or something you did.

The things that actually change your life are gifts. They are acts of unforeseeable grace. They are things that the Loving Creator of the entire universe drops on you in the form of something free. You know when this happens. It feels like love: kind, and safe.

I didn't get that before. But I wake up every day of my life now with the awareness that my first prayer, my first thought, must be thank you. Creativity, love, and happiness thrive with this perspective- and depression, anxiety, and sadness are powerless over it. Not until I saw my life the way God saw my life was I actually free. Not until I gave it back to Him did everything in it align exactly as I was trying to get it to, as it was designed to. Full submission to the Lord's prompting and not my own desires has seemed like the hardest path- but also the worthiest fight. It has been the most creative and fruitful.

I love the verse from Peter: "And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all Grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you." This is what happened to me- in a nutshell, this is how I became an artist because this is how I came alive- really alive, not just barely living, not just getting by. In a life full of pain and suffering, I found Christ, I found the love God gave the world. I found the loophole.

Or rather, it found me. It was that gift that was freely given out- not because I was so good, but out of pure grace.

I'm actually very logically minded, and as an artist can at times horribly independent, and self-reliant. I was always looking for the answer: but I was never still enough to let the answer simply find me, to let it come into my life and speak truth and love into it in a way nothing else has. I found that, and continue to find that, in God alone. This is the way I work today- this is what creativity is. It is the process of receiving answers in stillness, versus always trying to grab at them in the chaos of my own mind. Even when I get that mind as quiet as possible, it still pales in comparison to what God can do.

I've heard it said that art is the collaboration between God and the artist- and the less the artist does, the better. That is true. My art got better as I got better- as I let the Lord work in me- versus thinking that I always had to be working and solving and fixing up myself.

Today I see it never fails that whatever I do for Him, He does exponentially more for me. That's real, pure love: it's not a give-and-take tally marking, it's two parties realizing that once they are joined, each one gives 100%. This awareness- and our ability to extend this brand of love to the people in our lives- starts and ends in how we align with God.

Creativity is a mostly spiritual act for me: it's a kind of worship, of doing something with my life and my time in a way that quietly reflects the way I am uniquely made by God: not by society, or my clothes, or trends, or my thinking, or or my education, or accomplishments, or my culture, or the nearest outside influence. My creativity honors Him more than anything not just because I'm using my gift, but because I am appreciating where it comes from. Life without deep gratitude, deep reverence for something- Someone- would seem empty to me now. Being an artist and a believer means I simply do- in art, and in and life- what I was made to.

I hope my art leads others closer not to me or my self, but to their own freedom in pure love, in the Lord. And I ask myself: does your life do the very same thing? Does your life reflect that there is someone other than you at the center? Are you willing always to rely on God for your originality, personal uniqueness, and inner peace more than any image you could self-construct on your own? I've learned that that is a truly creative life: one which you realize was created. And which you treat with reverence, like it is a beautiful work of art from the hands of the most amazing artist in the universe.

We can tell when art is motivated by heart and soul, when it comes from a special, authentic place and can belong only to the specific set of hands that made it. As an artist people sometimes see things and tell me, 'that looks like something you would make.' Sometimes it's a painting or an actual piece of art they see somewhere, but sometimes it's clouds in the sky, or the colors in a sunset, or flowers. And it's not because I did make it, it's because it has qualities and characteristics that reflect what I have made- and therefore some of who I am.

An artist isn't actually their work, but their qualities are most certainly in it. It is the perfect metaphor for the God we serve: you are never more authentically yourself, who you are supposed to be in mind, body, and soul, than when you know who your artist is. We have to learn to look at our lives like He would look at our lives to see them authentically and clearly and for what they really are. This, now, is my definition of self-acceptance.

I never realized until I understood Christ that unless we put Him, put God, at the center of our being, we will never be okay. Something will always be off. That was a profound realization. Like many people I've tried to put a lot of things in the center of my heart, to make a lot of things my most ultimate desire.

Some definitely not so wise (money, external success, validation from relationships and peers), and some definitely very well-intentioned (my happiness, my spiritual practices, my art). But those things are actually not enough. Looking out for my own self-interest in any way certainly can't help me be in relationship with God or with other people- and so much of life will be defined by the quality of relationship that we have with other people.

And all of our life will be defined by the quality of relationship we have with God. It's the difference between constantly being home and constantly being lost. What comes to mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us. To be a piece of art in the eyes of the Lord means to carry the fruit of the spirit He has given you- boldness, fearlessness, love, creativity, authenticity, peace, self-control, respect, humility- to all places, not just when 'things are going our way' or 'life is good.'

I never thought that living for these concepts would be more important to me than having things, or money, or success- but they are. I never thought I could trust His promise from Matthew, that if we seek first the kingdom of God, all other things will be given to us as well. For each day there is just enough, and we are continuously given just what we need in the moment. To worry about tomorrow is- spiritually and literally- totally useless.

I invite you, especially in this season, to stay in that space of awareness. The future was never designed to be something we can know- if you're anything like me, you have a past to prove that. He will, like any good artist, see what He starts through to completion- and you might have to be halfway through the story to realize where it all really began.


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