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Powerpoint

Last time I said that we’re creative because we’re made in the image of the Creator. I said that we’re each here to bring order out of chaos. This time I want to add two more layers. The first is this: As we fulfill our calling to bring order to the disorder of the world, doing that work actually brings order to our internal world as well. Something about hearing and heeding the call on our lives begins to set us right. So to be engaged in the good, the beautiful and the true is healthy. So that’s the first layer: The good work does us good. The second layer is this: Because the work is healthy for us, when setbacks and troubles hit us, we need to get back up and get back to work doing the thing we’ve been created to do. So here we go.

Do what you’re here to do when you don’t feel like it.

Sometimes when I’m blue and can’t seem to break out of it, Carrie says, “You know what you need to do?! You sound like you need to go pastor some people. Whenever you do that you leave feeling sad but you come home encouraged.” Of course, the hard part is that even though I know she’s right, when I’m sad I don’t want to go out. I just want to go into hibernation.

Sadness has a way of making us reclusive, introspective, and introverted, which is self-defeating. What I’m saying is when I’m in that condition my calling is the thing I feel least like doing, and those are the times I feel the least qualified to do it. But that’s exactly the time I need to be about the work of my calling the most. Because as I sit and listen to someone else’s troubles, and as I enter into their story and feel alongside them, and as I share whatever the Holy Spirit might bring to my mind, and as I love them without trying to fix them, something about that holy process seems to help put me back together. As I’m working on what I’m called and anointed to do, I’m being worked on as well. It’s as though by putting myself in the center of my path and moving forward, I’m also, without my knowing it, putting myself in the center of the Potter’s wheel.

For whatever reason it seems easier to believe on behalf of others than it is to believe for myself. But I can’t very easily bring encouragement to others without getting some on myself.

Those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed (Proverbs 11:25).

When I’m doing what I’m made to do, it’s inherently restorative. It’s also totally engaging. And that’s very important.

Full engagement and flow.

I read a book about the flow state a few years ago. The flow state is what athletes call “being in the zone.” It’s what writers experience as the opposite of writer’s block, and what musicians like Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist, Flea, describes as being a conduit for the music to come through. Here’s the definition wikipedia gives for the flow state:

Flow, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.”

The author of the book I read, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, described our human mental capacity in computer terms, and said that our brains can process 120 bits of data at a time. Apparently, listening to one person speak with full attention only takes about 40 bits of data. Which leaves ⅔ of our mental capacity available and unoccupied, which helps me understand why they called me a dreamer in school growing up.  But here’s my point: A passive (or even a partially active but unchallenged!) mind leaves too much mental ram unused. This is a state, which is the opposite of flow, that we often call “boredom.” And many of us, when we’re bored, have learned to gravitate to something easy that gives us just a little hit of dopamine. You know. The content consuming activities we talked about last week. But you already know that we’re not made to be just passive consumers, but active creators.

We’re made to seek enjoyment, not just pleasure.

Pleasure is just what “feels immediately good.” Ice cream. Instagram. Tv. Enjoyment is deeper. Enjoyment is that work or play which, while satisfying, also comes with a sense of purpose, and usually comes with a bit of challenge. In fact, the enjoyable activities are probably not very engaging unless they are a challenge of some kind or another. Simple quick pleasure only hits us with a brief shot of dopamine, but then leaves us feeling as though we’ve wasted our lives. Enjoyable work, on the other hand, actually helps us write a good story with our one life. If our lives when written are not a story worth reading, then we need to do some editing. And if we keep on going when we believe we’re wasting our life, that’s the point at which many of us start to burn out. Burnout usually has less to do with overwork, and more to do with internal chaos or disorientation. Pastors, when polled, said that relational conflict, not overwork, was the main source of their burnout.

Enjoyable work requires a sweet spot between success and challenge. If it’s too easy, we get bored, if it’s too hard, we get discouraged. We have to be good enough to feel the satisfaction of progress, yet the bar of challenge has to keep rising incrementally so that as we add new skills new challenges keep us focused and fully engaged.

Enjoyable work also needs clear rules of engagement. We have to know how to win, we have to be able to know how to score “points.” Limitation actually creates the climate for ingenuity.

I want to give two examples of total focus: Super Mario Bros Speed Runs, and rock climber Alex Honnold.

Mario Speed Runs

I was recently watching some original super mario speedruns and the best Super Mario speedrunners work every single detail of each level to shave off frames, improving hundredths of a second less than the previous world champion. They keep finding, within the tight parameters or rules of this classic 8 bit game, the tiniest details to perform an even more perfect run. You might think that’s a strange sport to watch, but if I made you watch the videos it’s truly impressive to see a human utterly focused on a perfect performance for 4 minutes, 55 seconds, and 796 milliseconds. Yup. 496 milliseconds. Second place has 4 minutes, 55 seconds, and 913 milliseconds.

Without rules, we quit. If someone hacked into the game, it wouldn’t count. It’s the limits that make it count. You remember playing as kids and some joker decided to make up new rules half way through the game? Yeah. I quit. What’s the point? It’s too much chaos. There has to be a playing field with clear lines so we know whether we’re meeting the challenge or not, otherwise it’s not enjoyable.

Alex Honnold

My absolute hero in terms of this level of focus, engagement, flow, and performance is free solo climber, Alex Honnold. Free solo means climbing without ropes of any kind. If you make a mistake, if you fall, you die. Alex was the first person to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. He did it in 3 hours and 56 minutes. And that’s not all. Each move for that entire nearly four hour climb was perfectly choreographed, memorized, and some of the moves were targeted for physically training. He did daily stretches and strength training for one specific movement in particular where he was thousands up on the wall, and had a hold the width of a finger, facing down, so he had to push up against it with his thumb and up with one foot, then swing his other foot across to the next hold above him. It’s stupid. I love it.

The average person watches what Alex does and thinks, “He knows what he’s doing. He’s a professional.” But his peers, friends, and fellow climbers, think he’s right out there on the hairy edge because they understand what a rare and high level on which he’s operating. There’s a reason no one ever free solo’d El Cap before in the history of the planet. Meanwhile, Alex whistles happily and climbs. He loves being out there on the edge of what’s possible, confident and fearless because he’s trained and prepared, and now everything but the rock and the wind and the movements falls away and he’s completely present and alive, doing the one thing he loves most…total flow.

Our souls recharge kind of like car batteries.

Cell phone batteries recharge best if your phone is off or on airplane mode, and the whole time you use your phone it is depleting. A car needs to be driven in order to keep running. It actually charges through driving. The battery powers the starter and the spark plug but once the engine is turning, the alternator feeds power back to the battery to charge it. You CAN hook up a battery charger to your car, but that’s a hassle, and it’s not how it’s designed to work. I think humans are similar. We recharge less through passivity, and more through vigorous activity in the work for which we are designed.

How to bounce back: Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built the computer company, Apple, literally from their garage, and from day one, innovation was the driving energy behind everything. Hardware innovation, software innovation, and an awful lot of creative thought about how people would use Apple’s products to make their daily lives better. At the time, the concept of a personal computer was a novelty. So Apple was actually creating products for which there was very little demand. To illustrate this, a few years ago we thought people who had cell phones were pretentious snobs. Now we all think we need them. Half the job of an innovator is to cast vision to the public so that we can see what they see. Steve was a masterful communicator in that way. He actually convinced a key leader from Pepsi to come work for Apple by asking him if he wanted to keep selling sugar water for the rest of his life and be filthy rich or if he wanted to take a pay cut and come change the world.

That leader did come and work for Apple, and as he applied his business sense to their data he decided that the financial strength of the company was built on their Apple IIe. Steve was still driven by innovation, and was pushing the technology further and further in ways that the board saw as cost prohibitive. They told him to stop pushing so hard for the innovations and instead focus on selling what’s already working. In the end, they forced him out because he was incapable of compromise.

So what now? Fired from the company you built. Sometimes that’s life isn’t it? Uncreation happens. Chaos happens. But then what? We’re made in God’s image, what should we do when chaos happens? He could have gone away a broken man, given up, become defined by something outside of his control, or he could go back to his compass. Get back to the work of creation.

Steve Jobs went back to work. He started a computer company called, “NeXT,” which picked up where he left off at Apple. NeXT was truly innovative, but didn’t really see huge market success as their computers were so advanced that hardware prices were high. But Steve didn’t stop pushing. He believed that computers were tools for artists, not just math nerds who want to run spreadsheets and academics who need word processors to replace typewriters. So he built music and art capabilities into his software ecosystem early. And in 1986 he bought the computer animation division of Lucasfilm to make computerized cartoons and renamed it “Pixar.” Maybe you’ve heard of it. They made some movies. Toy Story. Wall-E. The Incredibles. Cars. Ratatouilles. Finding Nemo. Just to name a few.

Meanwhile Apple fell on hard times without their innovative pioneer at the helm, but in a stroke of genius, they bought NeXT, and eventually named Steve interim CEO. Then, with Steve back at the helm, in 1998 Apple released the all-in-one iMac to huge cult success, and in 2000 Apple dropped the “interim” from Job’s status..

Fast forward to the iphone, which ushered in a seismic cultural shift. Maybe you don’t know this, but Google’s Android is a copycat of iOs on the phone, and Windows simply copied the graphical interface operating system from Apple. If you’ve never listened to Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement address, please do, it is brilliant. It ends with the words, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” In other words, don’t compromise. Do that thing you’re here to do, no matter what they say. Don’t’ be passive.

Now I want to make an odd connection, but one I have found very useful.

Sweeping the house for demons…

43 “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. 45 Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.” (Matthew 12:43-45)

Jesus applied this principle to his generation. And I think it applies in many other ways as well. A passive mind is like a vacant house, perfectly ready demons to come and act as squatters. Conversely, a house filled with the engaging activities of inspiration, the breath of God, is too full to get into. The lights are on. There is laughter there. And songs. And the smell of food. Someone’s always home.

Sometimes when I’m tempted to brood over a circumstance I have no power over, I intentionally choose instead to throw myself into meaningful work that calls on my creative energies and requires all of my focus. I’ve noticed that when I do that, not only do I not have enough RAM left over to worry, but actually, I experience God and inspiration instead. But if I simply sit alone in passivity with my thoughts during a season of travail, then no amount of “trying not to worry,” will be effective. Being so far from the divine creative flow at a time like that is like having my mental house swept clean by the passivity, and it can easily become a canvas for the demons of worry, worst-case speculation, and their useless friends, self-pity, discouragement, and resentment. If we go very long like that we end up having let that thing fashion, shape, mold and form me into an image for which we were never created. But there’s a way to be fashioned by our Father instead.

Jesus knows what to do when we face setbacks.

When we are wronged or face major setbacks there’s nothing more dangerous than sitting around stewing on it indefinitely. Jesus understood this perfectly.

“I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in heaven.”

When Jesus taught us to bless those who curse us and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44), he was giving us an activity to engage in, knowing that the negative energy coming at us has to go somewhere. The gravity of nature will lead to sin against us to create sin in us. But if we direct our energies toward the good, the beautiful, and the true, we can defeat the monster without becoming a monster. A passive mind in a negative circumstance is going to let sin against it create sin inside of it. We have to keep making beauty on purpose. We have to. We have to become like late night comedian, Conan O’brien.

Conan O’brien (the 2010 debacle)

Conan had been promised to move into the prestigious “Tonight Show” host role after Jay Leno retired, and in 2010, he did. However, his ratings weren’t what NBC execs expected, and he was asked to move back to the late slot and they opted to bring back Jay Leno. This became a big deal.

Part of the problem was how NBC was tabulating their data. Nielsen ratings for the show were interpreted to mean that the younger demographic they were targeting were not watching at the rates they had hoped. What I believe they were missing is that in 2010 a shift was occuring in how people watch shows that we now take for granted, but old school Television networks were slow to accept. Younger viewers actually were watching Conan, just not on tv. They watched clips of it the next day on Youtube instead. So NBC Let Conan go with a settlement and a signed contract in which he agreed not to work on tv for anybody else for six months. So that was his dream. And then, poof, it was gone.

So did he sit at home and brood? What did he do when the thing he was working to achieve for so long was taken away and the rules were changed in the middle of the game? I’ll tell you what he did. On the last day of the show he hatched a plan to go on a comedy tour across america. Then he wrote songs about what happened to him, and he mined the pain like a diamond mine, wrote songs, sketches, and jokes about his plight. “On the road again,” became, “My own show again. I can’t wait to have my own show again.” In one sketch he’s lying on the ground passed out, unshaven, with a huge beer belly next to a half eaten pizza and the phone startles him out of his stupor and he shouts, “A job? I need a job!”

As soon as they announced the tour on Conan’s website the tickets sold so fast the site couldn’t handle the traffic. Then he got really nervous. He got friends and a band and even backup singers and dancers together and rehearsed and went on tour of the United States. They called the whole thing the “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny On Television Tour.” Brilliant. And so darn healthy. Bring it out. Talk about it. Defang it. Kill it. Keep moving forward. Keep doing the thing you are on the planet to do. Bring joy to others even as you are in the thick of your anger and sadness and loss.

An interviewer asked Conan why he can’t stop.

“What do you mean, stop? What does that even mean?…I really have fun when I’m with writers or when I’m with musicians and we’re working things out, then I’m content.”

After the tour, TBS tried to hire Conan to do a late night show at the 10/11 slot, but he refused to join TBS because their plan was to push George Lopez’ show back an hour to make space for him. Lopez called Conan and convinced him to come to TBS and he’s been there ever since.

If God made you to be funny, then what do you do when you are betrayed and let go from the job you love? You keep on making people laugh and you don’t compromise. And the work itself is integrally involved in re-ordering your inner world.

Shake the dust off your feet

Jesus told his disciples to go through the cities of Israel telling people the good news of God’s kingdom, and demonstrating it with power. If a town rejected them or refused to welcome their message, He told his followers, “shake the dust off your feet, and move on to the next town.” I think that’s fascinating! In the face of rejection, Jesus didn’t say, “You guys are probably going to get your feelings really hurt, and I get it. I’m hurt too. You may want to take a sabbatical and get some inner healing and rest. You’ve been through a lot.” He could have said that. But he didn’t. He did say not to take it personally. And he did say to wipe the dust off your feet and keep right on going.

Now, I’m NOT saying don’t take a sabbatical. The sabbath principal is super healthy. And I’m not saying inner healing isn’t important. It is! What I am saying is that Jesus told us to get back up and do what we are are created and called to do. And if you face setbacks, it is through perseverance that they are turned into setups for comebacks. If you find that you’ve gotten knocked out of your lane, get back in it and drive. If you are misunderstood and rejected, know your calling and walk in it anyway. If your message is rejected, don’t change it, find someone with ears to hear what you’ve been made to say.

Get back to the why behind your what.

Let’s say you’re me, a preacher. And you got into this because of the beauty of God’s love and grace. Thinking about and talking about this gospel just makes me so happy and it’s so satisfying to share him with people. So then let’s say that as I do that I experience setbacks and struggles and betrayals. What then? Maybe somebody will say, “Well, don’t just keep preaching or you’ll just be preaching out of your pain!” And I say, keep right on preaching, but don’t deny your pain. Purposefully bring your pain to God and encounter him afresh. Right in this kind of moment is where Jesus works best. Let the pain become an accidental ally to drive you deeper in God. Go deep with God, and return to the original spark that got you into this at first. As Jonathan David Helser sings, “All the way back, all the way back, all the way back to my first love.” And if you can’t. If you just can’t seem to find that spark, even then, don’t stop. Keep right on proclaiming this gospel to others, in the confidence that as you bring this light to others it comes to you as well. Whatever you do, don’t let anything ugly that happens to you stop you from making something beautiful with your one life. Don’t you quit. You get back up and keep right on your way.

Now I want to finish this talk by telling you about Derek Rose’s 50 point basketball Game.

Derrick Rose’s 50 point game.

The other night Derrick Rose had a 50 point game. You might not be in awe of that, but he was. Maybe you don’t remember that back in the 2010/11 season he was the MVP playing for the chicago bulls, but because of the explosive way he played, he ruined his knees. He was never the same player after the injuries. He’s had probably 5 reconstructive surgeries? And he’s an aging player. Each time the rehab is brutal. I bet every time he tore something or broke something, he thought, “Maybe I’m done.” It takes a certain mindset to push through that pain and doubt. But Rose just keeps going.

He’s played for three other teams since the Bulls. The Timberwolves have him now, and he views himself as a seasoned veteran who can help guide the younger players. But the other night against the Utah Jazz he was in the zone. In the pocket. Feeling it. He put up a career high 50 points. At the end of the game he put in two free throws to give his team the edge and then, in the final seconds, he deflected Dante Exum’s 3-point attempt to seal the win. The crowd began to chant “MVP, MVP!” After the game a reporter wanted to interview him but she had to wait, because he was on his knees, face covered in his towel, weeping.

Why did that performance mean so much to Derrick Rose, and why does it mean so much to me? It meant so much because it didn’t come in 2010. It didn’t come with his best physical health. It didn’t come when the brands were vying for endorsements and teams were positioning to get him. It came after the injuries. After the trades from teams who no longer saw him as a franchise player. After the setbacks. After the voices of analysts without and ghosts within were whispering, “He’s done.” So Derrick Roses’ 50 point game was something special. And it’s my favorite kind of story. The kind where the hero doesn’t quit. The kind where the odds are stacked against the little guy but the little guy’s spirit doesn’t get snuffed out. The defiant joy of someone in love. Someone who, when everything goes wrong, gets back out there and gets to work. And that sets the story right.

A Crisis of Purpose

Sometimes people think faith is about answering the question, “Is there life after death?” I came to faith because I was wrestling with a different question, the one that drives the biblical book of Ecclesiastes: “Is there life before death?”

There has got to be more to life than the futility of wake, work, eat, sleep, repeat, die.

The current opioid epidemic seems to me to be an expression of a spiritual crisis, a crisis of meaning and purpose. When it feels like our life is going nowhere, we look for an escape. Especially young men very often feel their lives are devoid of purpose if they do not have the dignity of doing meaningful work. I’m not trying to pin the whole drug addiction problem on this one thing (each person has their own story), but there is an existential crisis of purpose in our society. And I’m saying that I believe part of the cause is our souls are undernourished. So let’s start here: We all crave the sense of significance that we were meant to find through meaningful work.

We’re made for more than to be passively entertained. We’re made to be actively productive. We’re made to be more than content consumers, we’re made to be content creators. Unless we’re making something meaningful, or engaging with something that brings more value to our lives, we’re wasting our lives.

This is where thinking about death can actually help us not waste our lives. I don’t want my epitaph to be, “Here lies Tim. He watched a lot of tv.” We only live once. We want to do something worthwhile in the short time we have. That longing is universal. It comes from the soul of the artist within each of us. And that’s the title of this series: “The Soul of the Artist.”

Who is this series for?

Some of us have a natural bent to jump in and make things. If you’re this way then at an early age, you likely saw someone do something beautiful and that’s all the permission you needed to run and dive headfirst into creative expression. Just one witness and you were off to the races. Others of us need a bit more encouragement. And I would love if this series could be that encouragement for those who need it.

If you’re a musician, or a painter, a poet, or a writer, you likely already consider yourself an artist, and (if that’s you) I am writing this series in the hopes that it would be helpful for you. But I also believe that there are elements of this series that will connect with literally everyone because literally everyone has gifts and calling and creative work to do in the world. Even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, you have the soul of an artist within you.

But the most truthful answer to the question “who is this series for?” is that I wrote it for me. My own soul had questions and yearnings that I didn’t understand and that I felt were at odds with the structures and expectations and conventions of modern life. Or maybe they were at odds with voices in my head.

So I wrote. I wrote because I want to thrive. I want to learn how to better do what I am here to do. I want to live while I’m alive. So I listened to my soul and went on a journey of discovery. I hope it will be half as helpful to you as it’s been to me.

Meaningful work is its own reward.

Meaningful work is more than just paycheck work. Meaningful work is, like all good art, “autotelic.” To call something “autotelic” is to say that it has an end or purpose in itself. Meaningful work is its own reward. The goals and values for the work come from inside you, they are intrinsically motivated, and the work is intrinsically valuable to you. In other words, you would do it without the promise of money or recognition. If it gains recognition or compensation, that’s all bonus!

Success is measured in whether you’re happy with the work. You alone are the steward of your heart. No one else can tell you what you like or what you believe in. How other people respond to what you create and what you love can be deeply validating, or it can be deeply demoralizing. But the first rule of art (or life) is that it must be meaningful to the artist first.

This means that if we try to live out the dreams of our parents, our friends, or our heroes, it won’t work. We have to learn how to listen to our own soul.

I’m not trying to suggest that our jobs have to be the place where our meaning comes from. That’s actually a rare occurrence, but I do think that since we live in a free society, we should take advantage of that freedom to try to get as close to the bullseye as we can with what we do for a living!

I recently read that millenials are less interested in how much money a job pays than in whether the work itself is meaningful. And they defined meaningful work as work that makes the world a better place.

There is intrinsic value in the good, the beautiful, and the true. Yes, we need money to eat. But we need more than food in order to truly live, which is why Jesus said,

“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4)

We need meaning, we need hope, and we need purpose. We’re actually designed with purpose in mind. We’re created to be creative. And if you listen to your soul, I think you can hear it saying, “I have to make, create, do, dream, paint, write, build, serve, lead, fix, organize, heal, help, teach, parent, cook, design, contribute…(whatever it is). I have to!”

I don’t know if you’ll be able to make a living as an artist, but— if you’re an artist— you won’t live unless you make.

Ephesians chapter two, verse ten says that we are God’s handiwork, God’s “poema,” God’s poem. We’re God’s artwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works that he prepared in advance for us to do. There is a fit between the form and the function. It’s like cinderella’s slipper, it only fits her. You need to find your function, the thing you were uniquely designed and created to do. God didn’t make us in a factory, which means that the call on our lives wasn’t made in a factory either. Each of us has God’s fingerprints all over us because we’re each made by hand. And we’re called to live homemade lives from scratch, not store bought lives from a box. The little boxes of society will imprison you, if you let them. So we need to swim against the current. If we order our lives to please someone else, but it isn’t authentic to who we’re created to be, it can end very badly. It can warp us out of shape.

The Bible tells the story of David fighting Goliath as this unlikely, small, young man. It is the quintessential underdog story. When all the other soldiers were  cowering in fear of the threatening taunting bully, Goliath, David stepped forward and said, “I can’t go along with this.”

King Saul offered David his fancy armor, since a shepherd wouldn’t have expensive armor of his own. But when David tried it on, it didn’t fit. I imagine it looked like one of those goofy inflatable sumo wrestling costumes people wear to fight each other. David said, “This isn’t me! I can’t do this! Let me do it my way.”

So there he goes, down to the creek to expertly pick out five smooth stones of the right size and shape. Only five. And he only ended up using one. It turns out that David was deadly with that sling. He’d been perfecting his craft in secret, with no one watching but the Lord, for years. And you know how that story ended, even if you’ve never heard it before. The underdog defeated the giant with his sling and stones and his faith in God.

Some of us will never find the place we fit it in until we learn how we’re meant to stand out.

To have integrity we have to stand back after all the other voices have spoken, and return to our compass. If too many creative visions with different values try to steer a project, or a life, it usually doesn’t work that well. The proverb is true that he who hunts two rabbits goes hungry. In art and life, we want to develop a strong enough sense of self that we know who we are, where we’re going, and what we’re here to do. Otherwise, people who are going somewhere else will steer us where we’re not called. And the worst thing is that we might end up there.

If the work pleases people, wonderful. To share something you find meaningful and have others draw life from it is hugely gratifying! But pleasing people isn’t always possible. Poet John Lydgate famously said,

“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all of the time.”

But even if what you make provokes people and they hate it, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, you may have done perfectly. People rejected and killed Jesus, remember? He said that the false prophets were popular and the true prophets were hated. I’m not saying we should view rejection as evidence we’re on the right track. But I did once hear about a comedian who said his intention was to please no more than half of the audience and to disorient and challenge the other half. If everyone loved his work, he felt that he had failed, because his goal was not to entertain, but to change how people think and live. So follow your calling, not the one that you think will gain the approval of others.

Many things that are possible are not probable. The american thing to say seems to be, “If you work hard, anything is possible,” but the truth is that it is extremely unlikely that your art will be your primary source of income. If you made it into the top 3% of Youtube channels and had 1.6 million views per month, you’d still only barely scrape past the United States poverty line and pull in $16,800 a year from ads. In terms of music, I’ve always said that some of the most incredible musicians in the whole world are completely unknown “weekend warriors” who work regular jobs all week long. So should we “regular people” quit making videos and music just because our work won’t provide us with fame and fortune! Well that depends. Do you love what you make?

Though our creative work may not bring enough external benefits to justify the personal cost at the surface level of feeding our ego and filling our bank account, it will serve a far more important function of bringing us more fully into a life worth living if we love the work for its own sake.

Jesus insisted that desire for human approval and love of money will always work against integrity, and anything that erodes integrity thereby erodes quality of life. This is why loving the work and staying faithful to our own inner vision must come first. In life, and in art, we need, more than anything, integrity. And integrity is costly. There is a high price to living a meaningful life. No many will be willing to pay it unless they’ve fallen in love.

I love the work. The Lord sometimes broods over me as I work. He seems to enjoy my enjoyment of it. Many of us need to have our concept of work redeemed. So let’s go back to the very beginning. This is a two point sermon, and point number one was that artists love their work for its own sake. The second point is this:

Artists make cosmos out of chaos.

1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (Genesis 1:1-5 ESV)

The American composer Leonard Bernstein drew this insight from chapter one and two of Genesis: God’s creation was done by ordering the disordered. And because of God’s image in us, our innate mandate as creatives is fundamentally the same. Artists are grasping for the meaning of things that seem disordered. That’s our vocation! Isn’t that what you do so often? Aren’t you trying to understand? Aren’t you putting the story together, aren’t you looking for pieces that help you make sense of the pieces you’re already holding? Aren’t you asking, “Where does this go? How does this fit with that?” And whether we’re talking about building a home, organizing a room, planting and harvesting crops, folding clothes, writing a poem, or helping a  friend through a painful loss, we are here to make cosmos from chaos. That is our vocation. That is what we do. It’s what we must do.

See, creative work is deeply embedded in the very meaning of our lives. We’re here to bring order out of disorder, creation out of chaos. Read Genesis 1, verse 2 very carefully. I was taught that God created ex nihilo, which is latin for “out of nothing,” but that’s not what it says. The biblical creation story doesn’t start with nothing, it starts with the breath of God hovering over the surface of the lifeless dark oceans. All that potential just waiting to happen, latent in the raw materials.

Picture Genesis 1, verse 2 like this: A child gets out all the playdough and sets it on the kitchen table. “Now what are we going to build today?” Or maybe picture verse 2 like this: A painter assembling all the colors on the pallet but they haven’t put brush to canvas yet, and they stand back, looking at an image with the eyes of their heart that is the template for what’s about to take shape in the material world. Or maybe one final image of what’s happening in Genesis chapter one, verse two. Picture a rough marble slab sitting there in front of the sculptor on her studio floor, and in the slab, she sees something there that you and I cannot see unless she creates cosmos out of chaos. So she thinks and stares at the huge cold rock for a long time. And then she steps forward, raises the hammer and chisel, and goes to work.

“Work.” Strange, isn’t it, how similar the artist at work is to the child at play.

And then in verse 3 God says the coolest thing into the darkness: He says the first four words of creation: “Let there be light!” and it explodes into brilliant colors that cause the observes to shield their eyes pull back in awe. It’s the greatest fireworks display of all time. And the child, and the painter, and the sculptors hands and clothes are now splattered with playdough and paint and dust, and each of our four artists survey their work with a detailed eye. And as the dust settles, he stands back — God stands back — and takes a long look at what he’s made, and then he nods. The scripture expresses the divine Artist’s assessment nicely: “And God saw that it was good…And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” And so the playdough goes back into the containers until tomorrow’s work begins anew.

Later, at the apex of the story, God forms us out of the dust, breaths his breath into us, and places us in a small corner of the garden and said, essentially, “Do here in this small space what I’ve just done in this outer space. Bring order from the disorder. Shape, mold, cultivate, create, be fruitful and multiply, cover the earth and make art everywhere until the reality inside you finds its full expression around you. Heaven is inside you. Make the outside match the inside. Make the visible kingdom express the invisible kingdom.”

This is what we do. This is who we are…because each of us carry within us the soul of the artist.

I Corinthians 1:18-31

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;

   the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called,both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called.Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

Martin Luther talked about the theology of glory and contrasted it with the true gospel, which he called the theology of the cross. A theology of glory is a vision of the christian faith that maximizes success and minimizes sin, pain, setbacks, and struggles. The theology of the cross instead views the cross of Jesus as being deeply revelatory. That often the victory is found in losing. That life comes on the other side of death. That sacrifice is at the heart of love. That weakness and foolishness in obedience to the Father is more powerful and wise than anything we humans could invent. The theology of the cross keeps us honest and realistic in our expectations and proclamations. It refuses to oversell the gospel. It refuses to hide doubts in a back room.

Beatitudes...This is what I was trying to describe the other week when I said that those with worldly success, wealth, health, physically attractive, well-spoken,popular people tend to get more traction on the Christian music and speaking circuit, but that the very kind of people whose lives (in many ways) we don’t want are the ones Jesus identifies as “blessed” in the beatitudes. We want their virtues, just not their circumstances.

Too photoshopped…Versions of the gospel that present the life of faith as too photoshopped, too positive, too edited for public viewing, end up lying, and end up being less satisfying and less meaningful. We end up with a bifurcated life. We put on a wardrobe to talk about God and spiritual things within a “spiritual context,” but use totally different sets of values and vocabulary to talk about everything else. But many folks end up so disappointed and fragmented that eventually they give up. “If that’s what it’s about, it sure isn’t happening for me. I’m out. Isn’t there anything more than this?”

In The Matrix Reloaded Neo has a conversation with the Architect, who tells him that the early versions of the Matrix were designed to be paradise, but that huge numbers of humans rejected the simulations, finding them unbelievable. The machines then included more suffering and futility and evil into the simulation and that seemed more believable. He said they did it to “match the varying grotesqueries of [human] nature.”

The line between good and evil. And that’s the other thing. Versions of the faith that draw the line between good and evil as a line between good people and bad people ends up being ignorant of the essence of what faith entails for they themselves. That line between good and evil is drawn not around others, but through each of us as we make significant choices to reject the evil and embrace the good over and over in daily life. Each one of us is capable of incredible evil precisely because of our innate penchant for rationalization and feigned ignorance. The world is a raw and rough place. And so is the human heart.

Jesus was tempted! Do we dare believe that satan’s invitations were appealing to the Son of God? Do we dare admit that they still hold allure to us? We’d better, lest we fall asleep in the hour of our temptation. Jesus instructed us to pray daily for forgiveness of our sins, daily for the grace to forgive others, and daily for deliverance from temptation. He knows what it’s like to be a human on planet earth.

Look at this cross. When I asked for this cross at the front of our sanctuary to be made, I had very specific requests. I wanted it life-sized. I wanted it made with rough-cut lumber. I wanted it to have some bark still on it. I did NOT want it sanded and straight. And I wanted it bloody. I wanted it ugly and brutal. And I wanted it central.

We should probably also put some symbol of Jesus’ resurrection central in here, because that’s the other side of that coin.

Harold Eberle wrote a brilliant little book where he talked about how many christians live as though they’re still in their sins and in some way under divine displeasure and needing to earn favor with God through repentance. He talked about that sort of set of attitudes as “cross-centered Christianity.” Well that’s not at all what I’m talking about. I’m not viewing the cross as something we are doing for God – I’m viewing the cross as God fully entering into the totality of what human life in a broken world IS in order to bring us to redemption. And faith not being a rescue away from that cross and resurrection shaped life, but rather joining Jesus in fully entering into love and life in a fallen world as redeemed creatures.

God, the atheist? Think about some of the contrasts and tensions of the cross — that moment when Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!?” That moment when, I don’t know how to say it correctly, but what if we said it wrong to point in the right direction — that moment when God became an atheist. And through that kind of fully giving himself to us, we were won to faith. I am. I’m not a believer because God flexed the muscles of his power, but because he flexed the muscles of his humility, love, mercy, and vulnerability.

Authorized doubt and sacred despair. In seasons of darkness many of us have been surprised to find that Scripture itself has prayers and songs of intense doubt and pain that give voice to the rough cut lumber and blood and ugliness of our experience. Oddly, the Psalms pray lament thousands of years before the studies of psychology revealed that people who learn how to narrate their pain end up far more healed long term than people who simply move on and try to ignore it. More on that later… but resurrection comes on the other side of the cross. Not without it.

The contrast is sometimes too stark between church and real life. I have a friend who recently told me about seeing an accident while she was driving and pulled over. She was there hugging this gal, a total stranger, with the bashed up car and the girl crying, saying that the car was her mom’s, christian fish on the back, while the boyfriend hurried to hide the drugs from the cops coming. That’s love on the front lines. But this same friend said it didn’t feel real or right to then come to church where we all smile and sing about how beautiful God is, but you just never know when some little thing will tick somebody off and then the smile is revealed to be a lie, and they’re gone from your life. There’s something there.

Covenant. That cross, that bloody, ugly thing, is actually God cutting a covenant. A covenant! Not a contract in which two parties set forth some sort of mutually beneficial arrangement in which if either side breaches, they go their separate ways. Not an informal arrangement of consumer clients and provider business in which we provide goods and services and you compensate us financially. No. A covenant. Both parties stand there and say, “I’m not leaving; EVER.” That means if you sin against me, I’ll bleed, but I’ll stay. And if I sin against you, you’ll bleed, but you’ll stay.” This isn’t flowery. It’s the cross, man. It’s real!!!

Avoidance. And it’s what is required for love to flourish and for people to become fully alive. Do you think we can even begin to address the issue that need to be addressed in a setting where I can just quit any time it gets hard or scary or boring? Our deep tendency to avoidance and abdication will just take over unless I realize that this is going to be my next forty years if we don’t learn some way to make this better.

Grace: what brings change. You know what I call that covenant? I call it grace. Grace isn’t God pretending we’re behaving perfectly. Grace is God’s refusal to leave though he sees perfectly clearly that we’re far from perfect in our current state. God refuses to let that dictate to him who we are, and it’s that covenant commitment in Christ that enables us to actually change.

Eggshells. Without that kind of covenant, we walk around on eggshells, managing other people’s potential reactions. Both their reactions to our sins, but also their reactions to our actual best self. And how will I gather the courage and love to deal with what’s bothering me well if in the back of my mind is the option to simply find greener pastures? Lack of covenant is weakening on all sides.

One of the crucial questions of any relationship, family system, or community is, “What does it feel like to fail in this environment?”

No perfect people allowed. I have found the gritty real world of Jesus to be about a million miles from the Pharisees and Scribes, and much closer to the sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes. I’m not saying willful sin. I’m saying no masks and no pretense. I’m saying admit what’s really going on. I’m saying fall forward. I’m saying no perfect people allowed. And I’m saying I know that we change the most, and the best, in an environment of acceptance.

Lift a finger. We hear Jesus harshly rebuke the religious leaders for loading people down with more theological hoops and religious rules to keep to be considered upstanding in their circle, none of which grow them in faith, hope, and love, and none of which detangle their hearts from the insidious sins that actually are sucking the life out of them. He says you load down people with heavy burdens, but don’t lift a finger to help. People come out worse than before they ever got religion.

God’s commands a moral straightjacket to control? Nope. You know, God’s commands aren’t there to tell us how God demands we live. They are there to reveal to us the nature of how life actually works. You can do whatever you want, you can grind the gears and crash the car of your life in the name of freedom. But that’s not freedom. God has no desire whatsoever to control you. His commands are an explanation of how you and I are made to thrive.

And we don’t really get away with much. We tend to reap what we sow. I’m not saying God comes after us. He actually comes after us to get us out of trouble! He’s the most joyful Being in the universe, and in fact, the Holy Spirit has an interesting name in John’s Gospel: The Helper!!! Religion loads you down with burdens but doesn’t lift a finger to help, Jesus gives us an easy yoke and a light burden and does literally all the heavy lifting. He wants to get to the root of the problem, and he knows that will never happen if we are terrified of punishment.

“I didn’t ask to be created and now if I sin I burn.” The other day I sat with a young man who has been in and out of addiction for years. He said he wishes he wouldn’t have been born. He said “Nobody asked me before they made me, now if I do what makes me happy, what I want to do, sin, then God will send me to hell. How is that fair? And I’m too weak to fight the sin! How is that fair?”

The story we tell ourselves about our life. All of us live in the story we tell ourselves about the meaning of our life. We don’t live by facts. We live by arranged facts. Facts attended to, ignore, selected, organized, and interpreted. A story. And this story is a subtext of our consciousness. We are telling ourselves but usually not in a direct and examined, conscious way. And we each have various parts. The parts of the self actually communicate to each other, fight against each other, or work together. The parts of the self are made to be aligned. Sin brings them into enmity. Disorder.

When we say our big yes to Jesus, the rest of our life then entails many opportunities, forks in the road where we have opportunity to say another yes, and another yes. Each time is a kind of conversion. If we keep saying yes, our parts align.

There is an inward journey we must go on, which is the primary journey we are on. In the inward journey we stop reacting to our unhappiness with the blame game and the complaining heart that externalizes and defends. The inward journey refuses to accept the lie that the thing that provokes me is to blame for the brokeness in me that is provoked…And the question to ask to your own soul in the presence of God is actually very simple.

“What do I need to attend to that I’m avoiding?”

Fight the fight you’re actually in. We’d rather talk about something else. We’d rather fix something else. We’d rather attend to something else. We’d rather be somewhere else. We’d rather blame someone else. But there’s a thing that’s happening here and now between us and God, and usually affecting us and somebody else, and the authentic journey of cross and resurrection is that way. We’d rather avoid that death and get back to winning.

The kernel of true faith…But if we do, we get what faith is actually all about. It isn’t about following arbitrary rules in order to avoid hell and get to heaven later when we die. It’s about knowing Christ and being formed into his likeness. It’s about voluntarily becoming like him in his death and then God does something we cannot do: resurrection.

God creates, science discovers. I love when science or psychology discovers a biblical truth and then gives it a big name. A few years ago a study was done on the therapeutic benefits of writing. So a sample group was given a basic assignment, write each day for a fixed number of minutes about anything you want. Go. They did and the benefits were there. They experienced a boost of well-being and increased function throughout the duration of the period of their lives in which they wrote daily. But another sample set was given a more precise assignment. Enter into your painful memories and write about them. Their results were different. They experienced a temporary dip in function and emotional reserves. They re-experienced the painful things. But then something happened that Jesus knew would happen…They experienced a long term rise in their emotional and functional health.

The cross is so filled with meaning that I will never do God justice with my one life and my little words, but surely God has fully entered into the depths of what this beautiful and tragic human life is…and by entering, by being fully there, fully open to it, overcome. And he calls to us to join him there.

“Join me in this place of being real. This place of authentic love. This place of covenant. This life in a state of grace. This defenseless place of truth without judgment. This place where what’s really wrong can be addressed at the root…Open up your heart, and let me in! You’ve followed me into the light. Follow me into the dark.”

The Underdog Gospel

Posted: October 21, 2018 in Media, Theology, Tim's Sermons


We walk by faith

Posted: October 14, 2018 in Theology, Tim's Sermons