Keeping the Creative Soul Pure

Creative Soul

My friend and colleague Dr. Pete Sanchez invited me this past weekend to give a handful of talks to our New Life Worship department at their fall retreat in lovely Buena Vista. (Props to the Frontier Ranch folks. Love that place.)

The theme of the talks was “Beauty, Worship and the Arts.” I have a great personal interest in that theme, having served for eight years as lead pastor at one of the most beautiful, worshipful and artistic communities I’ve ever had the privilege of being part of: Bloom Church in Denver, Colorado. The community of artists and musicians there, with their high aesthetic sensibility, forced me to reflect on the connections between those topics in a way I had not (nor likely would have) until I became their pastor. Having served among them helped me see just how strong those connections are.

In short, I think that God is not only the ground and source of all beauty, but that he is Beauty itself. In the perfect proportion and harmony of Father-Spirit-Son, the Triune God’s nature as the Beautiful One shines forth within Godself in all its glory and light…and subsequently spills out beyond Godself into the created order. The gathered worship of the saints, so the Scriptures seem to say to us, is the place in created time where that glory, that beauty—manifest most fully and clearly in the Crucified and Resurrected Son of God—is most profoundly celebrated and lived into; where human beings can taste and see the eschatological Beauty that we will one day be finally welcomed into. Time is transfigured in worship. And the arts are (functioning as they ought, and especially so in worship) in their way, “sacramental” in nature—icons of the Everlasting Beauty that is God. In and through them, we see glory, and have our hearts stoked for greater glory, greater beauty.

Frankly, I’m not sure how profoundly I would have grasped any of this had I not served in a community of artists. Living life with them helped me see how my own work as a preacher and pastor is an art form. The artist “sees.” The “seeing” leads to the effort to mold some aspect of reality to the “form” that is seen. When this is done successfully, it is not just lovely; it is powerful. Good art, well executed—whether that be a song or a sermon, a poem or a picture—has the capacity to stir the soul and provoke the emotions like few things can do. Dorothy Sayers calls this the “pentecost of power” that takes place when art is working as it should (Mind of the Maker). The art transcends itself and touches the human heart.

We’ve all experienced it. The song, the story, the sermon, the painting, that manifests something of eternity and awakens mighty longing in us. Art like that is a gift from God. And when we personally have a hand in seeing it come into being…well, I hardly need to say, it is satisfying like few things are.

But that is just where things get challenging. Good art, I have found, depends on a certain purity of heart in the soul of the artist. I am aware, of course, that there are what seem to be exceptions—the pastor who preaches a great sermon, for instance, even while his life is a disaster; the worship leader who writes brilliant songs but whose character off the platform is wanting; even the theologian who writes of the most breathtaking realities but who is basically loveless in their relationships with others. But even then the exceptions seem to me to prove the rule. You can fake it for awhile, but ultimately the work will reflect the soil out of which it grows. If the soil is good, the art will by and large be good…but if the soil is bad, the art, with the life, will finally crumble.

Personally, I want my art to be good. And by “good” I don’t mean “successful” by any modern definition of the term. I mean simply that whatever it is—sermon, lecture, blog, book, etc.—it reflects that piece of the Uncreated Beauty it was designed to reflect, having the impact the Maker means it to have. No more. No less.

In order to do that, I have found, I have to keep the soil of my soul good. There are three primary things that I have discovered pollute my soul and thus my art like none other. They, I think, are the traps of anyone engaged in serious creative enterprise:

1 – Ambition

By “ambition” I mean that horrid, unwieldy desire to be recognized in some mass way for my work. To become “famous” by it or to have people make a “big deal” out of me through it. The desire to write the hit song or the bestselling book or to preach the sermon that goes viral. The ancients called it (in Latin) “superbia,” and it is a snare.

It is a snare precisely because it introduces into the art an element that ought not be there: self-regard. Well-executed art is a labor of love in which the artist loses themselves in the creative enterprise, seeking to give expression to the form they dimly grasp. The moment I begin to use the art to try to “do something” with it that is not native to the process of unearthing the form—especially when that “something” is an exaltation of the very self that under the proper circumstances would be lost in the effort—I become double-minded and pollute the art and myself with it.

Trying to “become famous” and producing good art are contradictions in the starkest moral and spiritual terms.

2 – Comparison

If you give way to ambition in the creative enterprise, you will invariably fall prey to the second pollutant: comparison. Rather than enjoying the creative effort, laboring with love to bring the thing to faithful expression, whatever it may be, however that expression uniquely comes to bear through your personality and gifts, you will find yourself constantly eyeing those in front, behind or on either side of you.

This is to court artistic disaster.

God has not made your gifts to function like the gifts of others. The way the music, the melody, the images, the poetry, the sentences, paragraphs, and pages come through you is, I am convinced, a key designed to open a door in the universe that only it can open. The moment I begin eyeballing what others are doing, I lose the key, and so the door remains shut.

That is not to say that we cannot learn and grow from others. I have the great privilege of serving on a preaching team with some of the best preachers I know. I constantly learn from them. But at the end of the day, the Word of God has to come to bear on the congregation through the very “me” that God has been responsible for designing from the very first moments of my life—with great intentionality, I might add.

Sometimes, I find, I unwittingly try to “be more like” the members of my team because I have been measuring myself by them. Those moments are regrettable and mostly accidental, I think.

But if I am ambitious with my art…if I am trying to “become great” by it, comparison will not be regrettable and accidental but rather necessary, since it by its very nature locks me into a competitive relationship with others…

And that leads me to the third and final pollutant: