This sermon was preached on 5/20/18 and reflects on learning to be creative, when your verve feels gone.
All of this month we’ve been reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of creativity. From the creativity of our choir and our Music Director-led service at the start of the month, to last Sunday’s celebration of our almost one hundred year old Flower Communion service, which sought to imagine new ways to include and honor the diversity of humanity. This week we’ll look at the inverse of creativity, when we’ve lost our verve, and need to find our spark again.
There are some ways where this is a pretty constant challenge for many of us. In our current exacerbated political climate, which fosters serious risks to historically marginalized communities, many of us feel fatigued by the barrage. It’s always been there, but it seems right out in the open now, plain as day, and the wounds are very sore. I found myself numb on Friday when I learned of yet one more school shooting. Of course many of us are emotionally and spiritual worn to our core. We should be in the face of all that is broken in the world….
How do we keep our spirits up, how do we imagine new ways, how as good religious citizens, do we do our part as our hearts break again and again – sometimes to the point of numbness? And for some of us, home- and work-life is enough to keep us feeling like we’re just threading water. Keeping a family fed, or keeping a family together, or maybe leaving an unhealthy relationship, is all that we have the heart and will to manage right now. That might be enough to feel like our sparks have been blown out. And when they have been blown out, we feel the void in the center of our chest. How do we keep our spirits up?
There’s the practical side – not any one of us by ourselves can fix all the crises around us, or have control over all that happens in our family and work life. But we all, from our places of strength, need to do our part to help where we can. And still, the barrage leaves many of us feeling helpless and uninspired. And losing our verve, impacts all aspects of our life. We sleep more poorly, we’re less creative, we forget to feel joy, we become less effective.
I’m going to talk about how we can find our spark when we feel we lost it today in two main ways: 1) following our intentions and 2) following our distractions. Both are important in their own way – we all need a balance of intention and distraction. We’ll start with intentions, and I’ll close the sermon with talking about distractions.
[Tell story of the stonecutter]
I remember an old folk tale about a traveler who comes to a new town and sees several people hard at work. They’re all alternating between mining stone, or moving the mined stone, or chiseling the stone. Curious, the traveler comes up to the first worker and asks, “What are you doing?” The first worker, exhausted says, “I’m stuck mining stone all day to make ends meet. I hate it, but I need to put food on the table.” Thrown off, the traveler goes up to the second worker asking the same question “What are you doing?” That second worker responded, “Oh, sometimes I’m moving stones from one spot to another, other times I help mine. It’s ok work, and my family is grateful for the house we have because of it.” Feeling a little better with this response, the traveler goes up to a third person asking them, “What are you doing?” This third worker, with a smile on their face, and a little bit of awe in their eyes, answers, “I’m building a cathedral!”
Finding our spark, is sometimes a bit about perspective. How we engage with what’s before us certainly impacts our attitude, and our sense of satisfaction. But it also can set the scope for what we imagine is possible. Cathedrals are not dreamt up, or dreamt of, through drudgery, though they do take a lot of work to build. Vision casting – imagining what we might achieve together; it’s making room for newness, giving it shape, and using that as the road map for a better future. Will it always work out the way we hope – highly unlikely. Do we want to keep an eye out for the worst – yes; but we don’t want to be ruled by the worst that might be.
As New Yorkers, we’re good at that last part, right? We can be our own worst critics. Finding what’s not ideal, and poking at it until it becomes all we can see. I’m sure most of us have that challenge in the office, or our teachers dealing with a rather difficult culture in our educational system these days, or the last time we had a family dinner… We do it here too. Especially in times of challenge, this gets rougher, and anxiety rises. Money is tight, the broader norms in our country seem upended these days, we’ve lost friends or family to illness. None of that is easy to emotionally handle, and we can turn toward focusing on all that’s hardand forgetting to focus on our core intentions. The bad, or the not perfect, becomes our focus, and we exhaust ourselves to the point we stop seeing the good.
On Friday, as part of our Services Auction, I hosted a gathering for about 25 of us here, where we watched an episode of Doctor Who (a popular British kids show that’s been around for over 70 years.) I followed the showing with a reflection on the spirituality found in the episode. There’s a closing line in this one episode we watched where a character tells another, “There’s good in the world, and bad in the world. The good doesn’t always erase the bad, but the bad doesn’t override the good.” When our gaze forever and only falls on the bad, we let it erase the good for ourselves. And that’s exhausting, and usually heartbreaking. (Not that we should ever ignore the bad.)
I believe life has meaning. I believe our purpose is to see the world as it is; to notice the spark of life, of divinity, in each breathing being around us. As the presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal church preaced at the Royal Wedding on Saturday morning, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” That’s at the core of what I’m talking about. Recognizing the worth around us, coming from a place of love. When we notice that, our purpose is met, and the rest can grow from there. Ethics and values are rooted in the mindful recognition of life around us. It begins with seeing – or recognizing. It begins with coming to a place of reverence for that which surrounds us. And to be moved to actwith reverence for the people and life around us.
And what we bring to our everyday connections, is sometimes what we get in return. (Tell story of the dog that got lost in the funhouse mirror room.) And like the dogs in the funhouse, it’s much easier – or maybe I should say it’s much more pleasant – seeing the world with our tails wagging than our mouths growling.
The world around us has meaning, and it also has form. Finding the substance or distinction between this can be easy, yet is often nonetheless difficult. Dr. Martin Buber, a prominent Jewish philosopher from the 20th century, influenced generations of wonderers on this very topic.
Here is a short excerpt from his book, “I and Thou.”
“The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude. He perceives the being that surrounds him, plain things and beings as things; he perceives what happens around him, plain processes and actions as processes, things that consist of qualities and processes that consist of moments, things recorded in terms of spatial coordinates and processes recorded in terms of temporal coordinates, things and processes that are bounded by other things and processes and capable of being measured against and compared with those others – an ordered world, a detached world. This world is somewhat reliable; it has density and duration; its articulation can be surveyed; one can get it out again and again; one recounts it with one’s eyes closed and then checks with one’s eyes open. There is stands – right next to your skin if you think of it that way, or nested in your soul if you prefer that: it is your object and remains that, according to your pleasure – and remains primarily alien both outside and inside you. You perceive it and take it for your “truth”; it permits itself to be taken by you, but it does not give itself to you. It is only about it that you can come to an understanding with others; although it takes a somewhat different form for everybody, it is prepared to be a common object for you; but you cannot encounter others in it. Without it you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.
Or man encounters being and becoming as what confronts him – always only one being and everything only as a being. What is there reveals itself to him in the occurrence, and what occurs there happens to him as a being. Nothing else is present but this one, but this one cosmically. Measure and comparison have fled. It is up to you how much of the immeasurable becomes reality for you.”
Buber is referring to the perception of two worlds. One world is of things. We can measure, count, taste, sense that world. But we also keep that world as “a common object,” a thing. The other world is the world of relationship. Not just a conversation with another, or the act of gardening in all its logistical complexity, not just petting a dog – but the place of encounter. It’s the world when we are recognizing another living being as a being, and not as the sum of its parts. It’s going into the mirror room at the funhouse and recognizing that how we related to the world around us, will be the scope of what we encounter in return.
We each live in both. The world of it, allows us to work, and eat, and learn and teach. It makes sure the pets are fed, the bills are paid, and our roofs stay above our heads, and our basements stay dry. As Buber writes, “Without it you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.” There is nothing bad about the world of it, except for when we live only in and by its rules. A life whose purpose is simply the details, is a life without meaning, a life of nothingness. Or it might be more accurate to say a life whose awareness is only on the details, is a life without meaning. Awareness of only the details, and not the relationships, is to die into the world of it.
Fortunately, there’s nothing needed to do, nothing to accomplish, to live from time to time in the other world – the world of being. It’s not a check-box on our to-do lists. It’s simply being aware of our interdependence. We can’t easily do this in every moment, though any moment would do.
Take the night sky. Sometimes it’s hard to see many stars since we’re so close to NYC, but other nights it’s not so hard, and as Summer comes, I look forward to our youth camp out on the east end of Long Island where it’s very easy to see many stars. But assuming a clear night, the sky and stars are there every night, but not every night do we see it in all its glory. Often we just pass it by, with casual indifference, as if it were not some tremendous, amazing wonder, we are lucky enough to live beneath. It’s a modern retake on one of our oldest stories, of Moses and the Burning Bush. We can treat that story literally, or we can think it’s silly because bushes don’t burn and speak, or we can look a little more closely to what the story is teaching us. God speaks in a moment of vividness when the bush before God is alight. In a rare moment of grace and awareness, Moses sees a bush alive with fire and life – shining before all else, commanding his full attention. It’s a reworking of the story from the Torah, that later Rabbi and theologian Martin Buber would use to explain his theology of I-Thou. Buber would use the phrase “I-Thou” to talk about reverence, and he meant it in a relational sense. When we come to respect the worth and presence of another – whether it’s your neighbor, or God, or the tree on the corner that comes alive to your sight, vibrant in its springtime pinks, or it’s autumnal reds – when that bush is burning with vibrancy – and we are present to see it as it truly is – that is reverence.
To take it down a notch, when a kid is seeing some awesome thing by the seaside that is so entrancing, or a cool rock that commands their attention, and their parent casually dismisses it, maybe the kid is onto something, and the adult may be missing out on a little bit of wonder. For most of our days, we pass by a thousand burning bushes, leaving thoughts of them to madmen and artists.
Where we place our intention, and maybe our attention, leads to cycles of joy and despair, we all have our spiritual swings as human beings. Whether it’s prayer, or meditation, a belief in God, Gods, or the oneness of all nature and being – we can go from deeply reverential moments knowing briefly the sanctity and splendor of creation, and in the next moment we can think we are alone and empty because a friendship ended, or a loved one broke up with us. The night is still starry with the wonder of creation, there continue to be burning bushes all around us, and yet we’ll still find ourselves distraught in our beds.
And we close with the opposite message. Creativity, and finding our verve again, is not always about what we do, what we intend, or what we attend to. Sometimes it’s about distraction. Looking at my own writing practice, folks will sometimes ask how long it takes to write a sermon. Most clergy who have been doing this for ten or more years, will say, it takes about 8 hours plus whatever reading you had to do to prepare for it. Some may say, it’s about half the job for a full time minister. Both are right and both are wrong. The weeks where I hammer out a 20 minute sermon in 4 hours of writing, happen because I spent most of the week with the idea in my head, and constantly stepped away from it, and back again. All the creative work was done up front, and the productive work came when the hard part was done.
When I get writer’s block – no amount of staring at my screen will add one more single word to the text. My best recourse is to get distracted. I’ll walk the dog for an hour and when I get back to my desk, I’m writing again. An important caveat – any distraction will not work – email is notoriously horrible at inspiring any creativity.
There’s a part of our human psyche that wants to believe everything we accomplish is fully due to our efforts, our intentions, our attentions and our strivings. They do matter, but when we’ve lost our verve, working harder won’t relight our spirit’s spark. But turning our gaze toward burning bushes aflame with the light of life, may turn us back on our right course.