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Epic Theology

Finding God through the lens of an artist

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spirituality

Arts Chaplaincy

Hello readers,

I have so much wonderful news. I have been away for a while, but important things have been happening and I want to share just some of it with you.

Our church and our District have partnered with my wife and I to start a brand new initiative in Calgary. I am now, in addition to heading up our Art and Story ministry, a Chaplain for Calgary’s arts community! 

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I don’t actually wear one of these, though.

For those unfamiliar, chaplains are spiritual guides and counsellors who are usually attached to secular institutions. Chaplains often administer sacraments such as baptism and Eucharist, perform weddings and funerals, and counsel those who have spiritual questions or seek to further their spiritual journey. There are chaplains for the military, hospitals, universities, and prisons. There are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu chaplains (as well as other religious/spiritual flavours, I’m sure).

What we are doing, however, is slightly outside the norm. Instead of being attached to an institution, I am coming alongside our arts community. I will be available to anyone who calls themselves an artist, no matter your discipline or medium. I can talk, advise, or just listen.

And this, this listening, is why I’m excited about this project. We all have stories to tell. Stories of triumph and stories of pain. Of the mundane everyday and the moments that give meaning to our lives. And a big part of my job is to listen to your stories and help you sort through it.

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Now, I am not a certified counsellor. I want to be clear about that. I can give recommendations for those in need of psychiatric help, but my speciality is the soul, not the mind. I am a licensed worker in the Christian Missionary Alliance (as of today, actually!), and my worldview is unashamedly Christian, but my focus is on spirituality as a whole, not proselytization. I just like to discuss the bigger questions in life that we all struggle through, like purpose and meaning and pain.

This is a call to all of my friends and readers. I am here and am excited to walk alongside those artists who want to dig deeper into the idea of something beyond what we can see. I want to help actors and painters and filmmakers along their journey, no matter where they have come from or where they are going.

So, if you have questions or just need to talk about some important things, please let me know. I am here to listen, and if needed, and only if needed, to advise or counsel. And know that, as a member of Calgary’s arts community, I am praying for you. For your joy and peace, providence and artistic excellence.

Ultimately, I am here to serve our artists.

Blessings

The Commuter Challenge 2015

Hey all,

Some may wonder what this post is doing on a blog dedicated to exploring God and the arts. Stay with me, and I promise I’ll have a spiritual tie-in.

The Commuter Challenge is an annual event where individuals and companies across Canada aim to lower the environmental impact of their daily commutes to and from work. For one week, we are challenged to avoid driving by ourselves at least once, whether by walking, biking, taking transit, carpooling, or telecommuting (working from home). This year, the Commuter Challenge is taking place from May 31 – June 6. By logging into the Commuter Challenge website, participants can log their commutes and see their saved CO2 emissions, calories burned, and total kilometers traveled. At the end of the week, companies, cities, and provinces are ranked according to total kilometers traveled and employee participation. It can be a lot of fun, and ultimately a very rewarding experience.

What does this have to to with God, and why should you care? Good questions. Let’s dive into them.

At the beginning of all things, God created the world and gave it to humanity to look after. We were made in His image, ordained as His viceroys, and charged with stewarding His creation. As I look around today, I am ashamed of the poor job we are doing overall.

View from Stoney Trail pedestrian bridge.
View from Stoney Trail pedestrian bridge.

I took this photo yesterday on my run to work. The mountains always capture my attention as I pass this section of the path and I am reminded of God’s goodness and majesty by them. However, I also notice the swathes of asphalt, the plethora of vehicles, and the dead earth beside the highway. And these are nothing compared to some of the major destruction we have been wreaking on the planet. Between strip mining, oil spills, urban sprawl, and ozone depletion, it doesn’t seem like we are taking our responsibilities towards the Earth seriously at all. Maybe a little change would do us good.

On that note, I’ve found running or taking transit to work to be beneficial for my spiritual well-being. It gives me time to talk with God without the distractions of traffic signs, pedestrians, and that guy who just cut me off. I get a wonderful view of the city that reminds me to be praying for Calgary and its inhabitants. It’s also a wonderful excuse to just slow down and breathe and not worry about getting to where I’m going as quickly as possible. When taking the train or bus, I spend time praying for everyone sharing transit with me.

My challenge to all of you today is to ask your boss if your workplace is participating in the Commuter Challenge this year. If not, why don’t you head to the website and register as an individual. Then grab your shoes, a bus pass, or a buddy with a car, and get to work. Or, stay at home in your pajamas and work from your couch. As for me, I plan on taking a different route to work each day that week, running a little longer each day, totaling 46-50 kilometers over the week. Try it out, even for one day. You might find it helps a little with your physical, emotional, and spiritual health. And really, what have you got to lose?

Check it out at www.commuterchallenge.ca

Happy commuting!

Blessings,

Am I Seeing This Right?

I spent a good deal of time last night talking to my wife about spirituality. We were discussing our plans for 2014 and how we can bring more glory to God in our rapidly changing lives. This led to a conversation about why we have always been spiritual people. If you consider yourself spiritual, maybe these thoughts will help articulate how you feel. If you don’t feel like you are spiritual, I would love to hear your opinion on the matter.

Consider a parable for a moment:

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A man and his blind friend are sitting in a cafe across from an art gallery, enjoying conversation over a couple of lattes. The sighted man, upon noticing a particularly beautiful piece of art in the window across the way, attempts to explain the beauty to his friend. He explains the shapes, to which his friend nods approval. However, when he begins to describe the colours, the blind friend stops him.

“Colour does not exist.”

The man is dumbfounded. He knows there are colours, he can see them. He tries to explain the concept to the blind man.

“Oh, I’ve heard of colour before, I just don’t buy it. There isn’t really any reason to believe in colour.

The man tries to explain how beautiful colour is.

“It doesn’t sound that beautiful to me. If it really exists, why haven’t I experienced it?”

Try as the man might, he cannot convince his friend of the existence of colour.

“I get that you believe in colour. I also know other blind people who believe in colour. But without proof, why should I believe?

That question haunts my thoughts all the time.

What if some of us are born with a greater sense of the divine? What if some people can see God’s brushstrokes across the canvas of Creation? For these people, it seems almost silly to think that this world is all there is because they can “see” another world that exists just beyond our grasp.

I’m not the only person to think this way. My theological predecessors referred to this “spiritual sight” as the sensus divinitatis. They believed that humankind was created with the ability to be aware of God, but many lost this ability due to our fallen nature. Some see the divine unclearly, creating belief systems that get some things right and others wrong. Some lose the ability to see God at all.

I wonder why. Why can I see God everywhere? Why is it so clear to me that there is a grand, divine Creator, yet others cannot see this Creator at all? Is my sensus divinitatis more attuned than some of my friends?

If this is true, perhaps it is one of the reasons I love fantasy so dearly. I look around at this world and know that this is not all there is. I easily believed in magic as a child, because a world without magic made no sense at all. Of course there is something that is unseeable, untouchable, yet affects our world in powerful ways. The world makes more sense with courageous heroes, terrible dragons, and mystical wizards. Even if God has commanded us not to make use of sorcery and divination ourselves, I still don’t think that everything is explainable by empirical methodology.

If the sensus divinitatis theory is correct, then I am saddened that there are people who are blind to the beauty of God. This world, even with all its beauty and wonder, pales in comparison to the world beyond.

If the theory is wrong, then why have humans been such spiritually minded beings for so long?

I realize this post leaves more questions than answers, but it’s the place I find myself in now, contemplating the spiritual. Please chime in with your thoughts.

Blessings

Creative Rituals

We all have rituals. Some are religious, like praying the Rosary. Some are habitual, like flossing your teeth before bed. We use them to simplify our schedules, organize our lives, and affect our futures. Yet how many of us are deliberate about our rituals? If we look at the intended purposes of some of the historical rituals of the Church, perhaps we can find a wealth of tools to use in our creative lives.

As an ex-Catholic turned Evangelical Bible college student, I’ve heard time and again that the Catholic Church is full of empty rituals. I argue that this simply isn’t true. The rituals of the Catholic Church are no more intrinsically empty than anyone else’s. The real source of fulness or emptiness is not the activity itself, but the heart of those participating in it. Yoga can be empty if one’s heart isn’t in it. Belting worship tunes can be empty if a guy lets his mind wander to last night’s game. Kissing your children goodnight can be empty if you are really carrying anger over the latest tantrum. The issue is the heart.

Rituals are important for several reasons. First, they force us to make room for something. Twice a week, I slow down from my schedule to sit and write this blog. It has become a ritual for Monday and Thursday afternoons. When I read the Bible, I am making room in my day to sit and be with God. When I go for a run, I am making room for my health. Many rituals cause us to leave our normal, daily lives to seek out something higher, or at the very least, something different. They draw us out of ourselves to make room for something else.

Secondly, rituals can connect us with a long line of people who have participated in the ritual. Knowing that others have come before your God (or gods) in the same way that you are is an awe-inspiring and often humbling experience. To join thousands of pilgrims in Mecca for the Hajj is to also join with millions of Muslims over the centuries. In a world that values individualism over community, this connectedness is a breath of fresh air and a huge boon for humanity.

Thirdly, rituals can be an opportunity for learning and growth. Many rituals are handed down through the generations. As we struggle to find a deeper connection to our spirituality, the chance to join someone else in their ritual can be of great value. Perhaps fasting can help bring you closer to God. Or reading through your Scriptures daily. Or reciting the prayers of those who have come before. Not all rituals will succeed in helping everyone, but the search can be very rewarding.

Finally, rituals can be a comfort and a guide when things are not going well. When I have hit low points in my spiritual journey, some of my daily rituals have been incredibly comforting. Many find reading the Bible to be boring or dry, but it has been a source of peace and joy for me, and a place I can connect with my God when other avenues fail. We tend to rely so heavily on our feelings and refuse to act unless our hearts are totally behind us. Yet there are times when our feelings are just tired or worn out, and the adherence to a ritual can keep us headed in the right direction until we are able to sort out the heart issue.

While most of the conversation so far has revolved around religious and spiritual rituals, I believe each of these concepts applies to our artistic lives as well. Let’s have a look.

As artists, we have skills that need practicing. Whether it is stretching, sketching, or singing scales, we need to keep our craft sharp thought repetitive practice. If we see our practices as rituals, then our first point above makes perfect sense. Writers don’t always feel inspired to write, but taking time out of each day for the ritual of consistent writing will keep them better at their craft. Devotion to taking photos will create a better photographer because it forces him or her to leave what is comfortable and make room for practice. We won’t become better artists without work, so we need to make room!

Every time I pick up a quill and ink pot to write a letter by hand, I think of the many writers throughout history who have done that very act before penning their words. I lay out my paper, thinking of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writing by gaslight. I laugh at ink spots on my hands, wondering if Shakespeare was always covered in ink. I know that literate humanity has done just these very things for hundreds of years, and it’s exciting to be part of that company. We have a long list of people in our world’s history and it’s really cool to know that we have something in common with many of them.

I spent two years at a Theatre School learning acting. Looking back now, I realize that most of that time was spent learning and practicing the rituals of my professors and other actors. This is how the Royal Shakespeare Company tackles text, so it is how I will try to tackle text. At the end, I was able to walk away with many ritualistic tools that allowed me to be a better artist. I still practice them whenever I get to perform, so their usefulness has not diminished with time, a testament to the power of rituals.

Finally, artists sometimes need encouragement. Like everyone else, they can be caught up in the difficulties of trying to live out one’s calling. Especially during dry times of no work or little creative muse, consistent practice can be the assurance that we haven’t lost our purpose. The class we attend can be a reason to get up or leave the house. The weekly meeting with a mentor can be uplifting and encouraging. It is in the harder times that we must allow the ritual to do it’s work, even when we don’t feel like it.

So, what are your rituals? A more important question, I believe, is do they work? Do your spiritual rituals draw you closer to God? If not, spend some time thinking about the issue and see if the problem is with the ritual or in your heart. Do you have artistic rituals? When is it hardest to keep them? These are the moments we must hold onto our practice or risk falling into a slump and dulling our tools.

Until next week!

Blessings

Spirituality of a Mutant

On Monday, I started a conversation about the theological and faith-centered issues we can draw out of our modern day super heroes. Today, I want to talk about everyone’s favourite band of genetic misfits: The X-Men.

We’ve all been there. Feeling like we are completely different from those around us. Puberty, with its radical physical and emotional changes, can make even the strongest high school kid feel like a freak. The reality we had known throughout our entire childhood comes to a dramatic shift as we are forced to deal with the awkward growth spurts, voice changes, and hormonal imbalances. Everyone else, on the other hand, seems to have everything together.

The X-Men address these issues with a subtlety rarely matched in literature. It is impossible to fit in if you are blue and furry. Or if you suck the life out of someone by holding hands. Or if you shoot concussive force out of your eyes. The average high school student today might not have the physical abnormalities of the mutants, but it can certainly feel like it. No one else seems to be going through the changes we are, so we must be freaks. The 2000 X-Men movie makes the obvious comparison by claiming that many mutants see the onset of their powers at puberty.

The physical changes are not the only issue that many young people feel. The emergence of our personalities can become very strong in our mid to late teens. Unfortunately, this is a time where divergence from the “norm” is akin to a deadly sin. Liking classical music, or a love of facial piercings can make a youth stand out from his or her peers, often at the cost of ridicule and humiliation. Like the mutants, our youth often try to hide who they are in order to fit in. It’s a shame, for it’s in our diversity that the true beauty of humankind shines forth.

Yet youth are not the only people who feel like they don’t fit in. Those of us on a spiritual journey are often the butt of many jokes in our secular society. What kind of person prays several times a day? Who spends their Sunday morning at church when they could be sleeping in? Who has the time to meditate? Trying to live a spiritual life in a material world can make many spiritual seekers and the religiously faithful feel like outcasts among their own people.

The X-men, however, do not accept their lot in life with passive submission. They learn to fully realize who they were made to be, and turn their “freakishness” into tools to help the rest of humanity. To help with this lesson, I want to look at some of the stories of the X-men and how the characters deal with being different.

Wolverine is perhaps the best-known and most-loved of the X-men. He is the ultimate bad-boy with a disposition towards good. His ability to heal nearly any wound is usually easy to hide from those around him, but his incredibly slow aging and deep seated desire for revenge make it difficult for Logan (his real name) to keep friends. The fact that he is always carrying weapons in his forearms makes his temper even more dangerous. Wolverine is a wanderer, never at rest for very long…until he meets Professor Xavier and the X-men. As part of this group of super heroes, Logan is able to realize that the abilities he has been gifted with can be used for something greater than himself. If he can turn his drive from the dwelling on the past to looking forward to the future, he can be a valuable member of the team and a hero for humanity.

Cyclops, on the other hand, has been with Professor Xavier from the beginning. As soon as his powers manifest, he is taken in by Professor X and taught how to control them. He becomes the by-the-book leader of the X-men, using his powers to stop those who would cause harm to others. While Scott Summers may not be the most fascinating character study, he does give hope that with help, we can all get through difficult transitions in our lives and come out better than before.

I find Nightcrawler to be the most fascinating of the X-men. Born with a very visible mutation, Kurt Wagner is unable to live like a normal human being. His dark fur, glowing eyes, three-fingered hands, two-toed feet, fangs, and tail make him look like the very image of a medieval demon. Ironically, however, he is a devout Catholic with an overt spirituality rarely seen in comic books. He finds solace from his freakishness by devoting himself to a higher power. His love for adventure and excitement often causes conflict with his faith, but who hasn’t undergone a similar experience? Nightcrawler is an excellent example of a spiritual person just trying to fit in on earth while seeking the approval of God.

For each of the mutants, Professor Xavier and his school are the opportunity for something we all yearn for: true community. The school is a beautiful picture of inclusive community, as very few of the mutants share much in common beyond the fact that they are “different.” Their differences mean little to them, because it is this difference from the world that brings them together. So too should we, as people yearning for community, overlook our differences to find the commonality among us. If we can find that one thing to grasp on to and say “We have this together,” then perhaps community will grow around us.

In the end, we, like the mutants, have a choice. Do we dwell in our freakishness, whatever that may be, and hide from everyone? Do we become angry, join Magneto’s Brotherhood, and lash out at those who spurn us? Or do we accept our differences, join together, and aim to leave this world a better place than when we found it?

To close, I have to wonder: who is your Charles Xavier? Who is the one who will accept you, no matter what baggage you bring, but refuses to let you dwell on your garbage? For me, Jesus Christ took me in, is teaching me that my love of art and the church are reconcilable, and pushes me on towards a better tomorrow.

What makes you a freak? And what are you going to do about it?

Blessings

Why Artists Need the Church

My post on Monday made an argument for why the church needs art and the benefits of supporting the artists in our midst.  Today, I want to look at the issue from the other side and discuss why artists need to be involved in a community of faith. I know this will ruffle the feathers of those artists who disdain the restrictions and limitations that can come with associating with one particular church. Yet, as beings made in the image of our Creator God, we need to be part of His people for three reasons: to be functioning members of the body of Christ as spoken of in the New Testament, to be nurtured and guided on our spiritual journey, and to find a place where our art can be practiced, challenged, and grown.

One of Paul’s most-used metaphors for the Church is the body of Christ (See Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 3; Col. 1), and as Christian artists, we must accept that we are part of this body.  Just because we do not like how the body is being run, does not give us the right to leave altogether. Christian unity is vital for the Church, and we must join with our brothers and sisters if we want to show the world what it means to be Christian.  If we are living in community, showing love to those inside and outside the church, then anyone who comes looking to the church for answers to spiritual questions will be met by a richer example of the full life that Christ offers.

This is not going to be easy. Churches have their drama, just like any other group of people; we are still living in a fallen world, after all.  But if we can work at our relationships, talk through our differences, and let our needs be of less importance than the needs of others, then the body can function with amazing love and purpose.

This talk of community may sound exciting to some, but to many, the world of an artist is an often-solitary realm.  Painters can spend hours alone, unwilling to show a piece to anyone until it is finished. Songwriters need the space to explore the music they create before it is first performed.  Writers are rarely great conversationalists while they are enthralled in their work.  As I write this blog, I sit alone in my house, drinking decaf coffee with my back to the world outside.  We need time by ourselves to sift through our imaginations before we can bring the gold to the outside world.

But this aloneness can become loneliness very quickly.  The church, however, is a community that meets regularly, giving a reclusive artist an excellent excuse to meet with others on a regular basis.  Weekend services, Bible studies, women’s retreats, and men’s ministries allow us to connect with other human beings and realize that we are part of a greater whole. Joining with others as they celebrate, mourn, question, doubt, live, and worship, is a great part of what it is to be human.  By seeing the world through the eyes of others, we can gain a better view of the bigger picture, for our own sight is limited by the experience of only one life.

It is this shared experience that gives us the final reason to join with others in worshipping God: we are given a place to grow as artists. Gaining perspective on the lives of others will enrich the work of an artist before he or she even begins their next project, for it is in communicating the universal truths of our existence that art becomes memorable. A church can support an artist while the physical and emotional roller coaster of artistic creation takes its toll. It will be there to celebrate the victories, and to help clean up the failures. The church is also a ready-made audience for an artist, and better yet, an audience that wants its artist to succeed. This kind of crowd is far more rare in the secular world.

It is also in this congregational setting that our art can undergo the hard work of growth.  Criticism is the constant companion of an artist, and this truth will not go away in the church. Yet listening to the opinions of our critics can push us to greater and greater works of art. We may also find mentors who can help us train well, and ensure that we stay within the light as we explore the truth of a fallen world. If we push ourselves to create better art, to both glorify God and to uplift our brothers and sisters, then we will find that the results will gradually become more and more stunning. The church can give us this opportunity to push.

Too many artists have left the church because the church has not recognized the value of the artist, or because the artist has not recognized the value of the church. In reality, both artist and the church need to realize that they need each other. The life, beauty, and power that an artist can bring to the body cannot be found anywhere else.  The opportunities for spiritual and artistic growth that a church can provide to an artist should not be discarded or forgotten. For when these two groups, often at odds, come together to worship and glorify the God of all Creation, real beauty is found.

 

Blessings

 

 

 

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