It’s a simple idea really that life gives us many opportunities to change and we have the choice to continuously grow or remain stuck. It stuns me when I realize how often and how easily we do choose just that — to be stuck. We get stuck in bitterness toward another person. We get stuck in the pain of a transgression or mistake we have made. I came to the realization recently that I have been stuck creatively for a long time. And this is connected to lack of forgiveness on my part. It is also connected to putting my achievements artistically and what others think of me ahead of my relationship with Christ. I took my eyes off Christ and put them on my status and what other people think of me.
I have long imagined working for an NGO — long before I found my passion for photography. It started with being a missionary kid and doing that work as my first and only career path. Years ago, I began to see there might be a way to fuse a lifelong passion for service to others with my burgeoning photography skills. Granted, photographers are a dime a dozen and many are do-gooders that want to serve globally.
I knew my chances were slim to make a living at it, but I was full of passion and enthusiasm in 2008 when I applied and was accepted in a Master’s Photography Class to be held in Cambodia. When I wrote an email to friends to raise money for the trip I felt honored to be going to Siem Reap to learn. A close friend that I respected as a photographer wrote back opposed the idea and discouraged me from “wasting my money.” The details of why he was so sure don’t matter now, but the important thing is that I allowed his comments to become overly significant. I perceived them to be an assessment of my talent or potential as a photographer and an artist. Too easily I let it crush me and I didn’t end up going to Cambodia. I talked myself out of it for a variety of reasons and over time that choice and his advice became large and loud in my life.
When I look back I see that this is when I began close down creatively by allowing the idea that I wasn’t “good enough” to wind its way into my marrow and psyche. I lost confidence in myself and eventually I quit my professional photography pursuits. More importantly my friend’s untended message eventually became louder in my head than what Jesus thought of me. I was isolated and alone creatively and did not have other voices speaking into my world.
(Although my husband disagrees interjecting here that in his opinion I did have a type of community online. And lots of other people affirming my work which is true. I even had someone track me down on Flickr, because of my work. And that began a creative relationship with Our Lives Magazine which continues today.) But I didn’t know other artists in the community and I felt alone creatively and spiritually.
Let’s be clear. I know that my friend is not responsible for any of the events that transpired after our disagreement. In retrospect what he said should not have had the power that it did but I lacked creative confidence. I am only now realizing these things because I am in a healthier place. I became bitter toward the person and situation. I was unable to enjoy the God-given gift of creativity. I could not longer enjoy participation with any sort of creative process. And I doubted my artistic talent. Eventually I quit. And I was so wrong to do that.
I am working my way through a creative “recovery” of sorts in a book The Artist’s Way. In it, Julia Cameron says:
“Art is a spiritual transaction. Artists are visionaries. We routinely practice a form of faith, seeing clearly and moving toward a creative goal that shimmers in the distance — often visible to us, but invisible to others.
… Art is an act of faith, and we practice practicing it. Sometimes we are called on pilgrimages on its behalf and, like many pilgrims, we doubt the call even as we answer it.”
How true for me. And I wonder if I had been a part of any kind of artistic community, Christian or otherwise, at the time that I went through this “creative identity crisis” would I have given it up so easily? Why are artists are so isolated and have trouble supporting one another? How do we find community?
I am not the first to wonder these things. David Taylor is has thought and written extensively on the subject of supporting artists of faith. As a pastor at Hope Chapel in Austin, Texas, he oversaw the arts ministry and adult education program. He also edited the book For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts. He has degrees in theology (MCS) and biblical studies (ThM) and is doing doctoral studies at Duke University. He wrote the best thing I have read on the topic A Meditation on the Art of Encouragement.
As I have gone through this experience God has put on my heart the question of how Christian artists help one another in the work of integration growing our faith and our creative pursuits? If I had a mentor as I was starting out with my photography how would things have gone differently? To continue with Julia Cameron,
“We must remain ready to ask, open-minded enough to be led, and willing to believe despite our bouts of disbelief. Creativity is an act of faith and we must be faithful to that faith, willing to share it to help others, and to be helped in return.”
Artists need one another in order to be encouraged and mature in their craft. We need to gather and share what we are working on, talk about how we create and discuss any challenges we may be facing as practitioners regardless of our discipline, skill level, or experience. An artist’s ongoing creativity and belief in themselves are acts of faith that must be set at the foot of the Cross regularly. Reaching out to other artists for encouragement and to encourage others are acts act of faith and although scary sometimes it is important enough to take the risk, just as forgiving and letting go of bitterness are also important acts of faith. These beautiful actions as believers require faith in the living God, the power of the Holy Spirit and in the death of Jesus on the Cross for us all.
If I can only take my eyes off myself and off the views and opinions of others, and put them where they should be at Jesus feet. And so recently I began to reach out based on the conviction that we artists need one another! We need to be encouraged in the “faith” of creativity. And I could do it because I know now that this isn’t about me and whether I’m good or bad at my art. It is simply, I believe, right!
I thank God that we can grow and change and experience redemption in the form of healing and that through the resurrection we can become unstuck. That in the very act of forgiving we can lose our bitterness. I thank God for the promises of Romans 6.
I am grateful that time offers us a panoramic view of our life so that we learn and grow by looking backward.
David Taylor seems to understand what it is like.
“If you asked me to tell you the Top Three Most Important Things I Have Observed throughout all my years as a pastor, one would be this: artists need continuous encouragement. This isn’t because they are a particularly weak. All humans need encouragement. But artists need it principally because of the nature of their work. Their work requires them to travel frequently into the realm of their own emotions, and then deeper still into their soul, and this can be demanding, wearying work.
“The two assumptions that inform my work of encouraging artists are that the natural condition of human beings, from Adam and Eve to the present day, is the condition of being afraid. For artists to become all that God intends for them to be, they must pass through many experiences of pain, each experience ushering them to a new level of growth and maturity.”
Amen and amen. We must be willing to look back and address the things in our past that have made us stuck spiritually, creatively, or emotionally and forgive ourselves. I’m grateful that this is what I have been able to do. And I am praying and looking for ways that I can play a role in encouraging and supporting other artists in the Madison community.
This is a part of a series titled BE REAL. Still, many days, as I search, as I long for, need, wander, hope and fear — the process becomes an idol. The process becomes this thing that distracts me from who God is, what it means to be his beloved child, and the few things that he calls me to each day.
- I wrote a poem in response to a sermon about the greatest of idols self-identity. This sermon kicked off a series titled American Idols. The premise is that anything in your life, even a good thing, that becomes more important than God is an idol. In an age of psychology and self-healing, through medicines and talk therapy, self-worth can all too quickly become an idol. For me, the journey of finding my way back to faith and belief was so huge in my development of a healthy identity.
- Here is what I wrote the week before in response to the sermon Stop.
These are a series I am writing called: Be Real. One of the ways I’m going to do that– be real — is by writing a response to the sermons I hear at my church, Blackhawk. These responses are not from the church they are my personal reflections. I am always challenged by teachers at Blackhawk, sometimes profoundly, but I don’t — to be honest — always take the time needed to apply them to my life. But, if life is too busy to apply what you’re learning about your faith and if you don’t change and grow, what’s the point? So here goes. Many people are busier than I, including my husband, and I just hope that this helps reinforce in some small way what God was already saying to you.
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