An Artist’s Calling Part One: Overcoming Shame

hiding

Hello there, Sarah the Frase here, coming to you as a self-identifying writer and artist.

I’ve been calling myself a writer since I was a kid, but it’s taken the whole first year of being a Media Arts and Worship student at graduate school before I finally felt okay calling myself an artist. Even then, it was that I was going to be part of the leadership in our on-campus artists’ group, Eikon that forced my hand. Basically, I knew that if I was going to express confidence in other artists then I’d have to model that self-acceptance myself. But that doesn’t mean that it was easy for me. This Venn diagram appeared on Writers & Artists Twitter Feed, perhaps you can relate?

Writers & Artists Venn Diagram

This past spring I took a Theology and Literature class and read My Name is Asher Lev. Written by Chiam Potok from the perspective of a Hasidic Jew who is gifted from childhood to be a visual artist, this novel may well be the most painful read of my life thus far. Why? I am an artist who is shaped by and devoted to a community of faith. And like Potok and his protagonist, I refuse to buy into the false choice between my art and that community. I won’t check out of the Church even when what I do as an artist receives push-back that is acutely painful.

So this blog post and my next five blog posts will be my exploration of what artists are called to do in and for the Church and the world. While I will be speaking about artists: visual, musical, performers, writers, and filmmakers, we are not the only ones called to take up our cross and follow Him. Much of what I name here every church member is called to in the context of their own lives.

An Artist is called to Endure and Overcome Shame

I do NOT mean that an artist is called to be a doormat and just sit and take the shaming of others in a masochistic act of martyrdom for God or craft. Letting people beat you down indiscriminately does not produce godliness. But if you make art it is inevitable for you to experience some shaming. Unfortunately, much of the church only considers art a valid calling for a believer if the art that they produce:

1) directly contains Christian subject matter that glorifies God
2) teaches a Biblical or theological truth
3) is evangelistic

The desire to create art for God’s sake (or “merely” in an act of communion with God) without one of these three qualifiers is called foolish, self-centered, even evil. Because these messages about art’s correct context are so frequent, shame over desiring to create art and actually devoting your time to that end is sadly a common part of the artist’s experience.

But experiencing shame and shaming continually does not automatically produce an immunity to that shame. Shaming of the artist within a family, within the Church, typically results in one of three moves: censoring, hiding or leaving. The artist may train himself to turn off those gifts and desires, side table them, diminish them, and eventually through this self-censoring never take art up again. Or she may become the closet artist, the trunk writer, who keeps all art as a form of prayer or communion with God and never dares to share the beauty God has gifted her with.

Finally, there’s a mass exodus of artists from the Church. Exhausted and hurt one too many times, they buy the lie that there must be a division between their art and the community of faith, sometimes even between art and God. “I love Jesus, I’m not such a big fan of the Church,” they tell Rolling Stone in an interview about their latest album, and the Body of Christ is weakened where it could have been enriched.

Those who can help us Endure and Overcome Shame are the Redeemer and the Redeemed.

Jesus said, “It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master” (Matt. 10:24a). We know that abiding in the perfect will of the Father and for love of us, Christ endured the cross, a highly shameful death, hating that shame (Hebrews 12:2) but subjecting Himself to it in obedience. So Christ in us gives us a lasting hope to endure the smaller yet still painful shaming of our calling to be artists. As the Apostle Paul (a fantastic writer) once urged his believing audience, we get to: “consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls” (Heb. 12:3). If He endured and overcame shame, and He is in us, then we know and the Spirit of God testifies that we are never alone in our shame and we will overcome it.

The world tells us that the answer to shame for the artist is success. If your name becomes renown all your artistic choices are justified and you can spit in the eye of those who shamed you. But in his 2015 article, The Good News About Shame, Christianity Today editor Andy Crouch offers a different answer:

The remedy for shame is not becoming famous. It is not even being affirmed. It is being incorporated into a community with new, different, and better standards for honor. It’s a community where weakness is not excluded but valued; where honor-seeking and “boasting” of all kinds are repudiated; where servants are raised up to sit at the table with those they once served; where even the ultimate dishonor of the cross is transformed into glory, the ultimate participation in honor.1

Built of sinners holding hands and screwing up even as we are being transformed into the image of the Son, the Church is meant to be this community Crouch speaks of. I know as well as the next person that we have often failed to be this, but past failures do not prevent us from present and future victories because the author and finisher of our faith is Christ. And the more I look around me in the corporate gathering of believers, the more I find that I am not alone. There are artists who are staying in the church, fighting through past shaming and finding healing with the people of God. I have added links to their works and words below so you can see what Christ is doing in the artists whom He loves and who love Him.

So let’s continue to make art.

And when we are struck by shame, let us run to Christ and to the people of God, that we may yet endure as He has endured for the love of each of us.

1 Andy Crouch, “The Good News About Shame,” Christianity Today. Mar. (2015): 40.

I handpicked these links to show you what I consider these artists and writers’ recent “hit singles.” Enjoy.

AN ARTIST MIXTAPE

God.Art.Coffee
Faith and the Other Five Senses
Grace & Glory
Written Shutter
Disparate Truths
Sword and Scroll
Average Marks
The Broken Frames
Box and Turtle
Elizabeth Woodson
SRQ Tom
Herman’s Neutics
Aspire2
Hardcore Christian Men
To the Uttermost
Getting Carrie’d Away
Wordshaper

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Art for Christ’s Sake (and yours)

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Invitation by S.E. Frase

Hello There, Sarah the Frase here, asking you to consider creating art, not for communication or self-expression or to have an end product. Instead, here’s my invitation to create art as an act of communion with the Almighty: Art as Spiritual Formation.

Spiritual Formation is the reorienting of yourself towards God. It is inviting the Holy Spirit through this communion and His work to form the person of Christ in you.

There’s a Japanese screen that I draw every time when I go to visit the Dallas Museum of Art.  Each time I draw a different part of the screen. I’m not drawing to have a product or possession a complete drawing at the end. I’m not drawing to reproduce it accurately or even improve my drawing skills. I am not drawing it to analyze it or deconstruct it. I am drawing it to see it. Right now in the moment-I draw to see what is there.

That re-orientation of myself towards beauty is stepping into the presence of God.

It’s practicing noticing–seeing what is there–stepping into Wonder.

I don’t just do this in museums either. Whenever I can, I stop underneath trees. I stand there and look up at the light coming through the leaves and the shape of the branches. I once outlined all the shadows of light that were on my notebook page. Or I will reflect on the reflections of light and sky on a glass skyscraper. I deliberately take time to stop and answer God’s invitation to notice beauty and in doing so to notice Him.

Theologically this is a powerful moment, because when I’m practicing this noticing this space is too open for me to compartmentalize God.  

I can’t manage Him or banish Him to one area of my life. I become acutely aware in my physical body and my intangible soul that He is present in the material world with me.

As a result of this habit of noticing, one my parents cultivated in me from childhood, a lot of my writing is sacramental. I describe what I see, what I touch, taste, smell, and hear and do so in a way that I am inviting the reader to partake in the sacrament I’m experiencing in the material world. I wrote a poem at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing called Michigan Eucharist (say when) which came from me just standing on some dirt, drinking a warm cup of coffee as the Sun rose. I felt God’s presence filling the world and filling me. When I was writing the poem I felt it again. I was formed not only in the daylight on the dirt, but later writing in my notebook, and finally typing it into my computer.

I do a lot of “trunk writing.” Trunk writing being an actual writers’ term for writing that will never be published. You just write it and then toss it in a trunk in your attic somewhere. I’ve never kept a diary of life experiences, but I have filled journals ad nauseam of this kind of writing where I am just communing with God.

Sometimes its stories, sometimes its poems, but even when I’m not writing dialogue I experience an ongoing dialogue between my spirit and the Holy Spirit. He’s engaging my heart and my mind, and I can feel Him with me in the words, in the images.

Sometimes this will be after praying or reading scripture or copying down one verse and meditating on it and then I just have to write. Like a kid who’s an athlete just has to run. Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner, told his sister that when he ran he felt God’s pleasure. That’s how I feel when I write.

To be honest, I don’t really know what’s going on, and if you asked me even to explain what God was forming in me through writing that week, well the majority of the time I would have a hard time articulating it. Because God is Mystery. And when I write, I enter into that Mystery.

I think this model of stepping into Arts creation–into the creative process as stepping into Mystery where God invites us and we invite Him– isn’t just deeply formative for artists and Christians, it’s essential.

I didn’t always write this way. I did as a kid, but when I got older so much emphasis was put on producing, and skill building, and evangelizing or at least glorifying God and conveying truth that I lost that sense of Mystery and even that communion with the Spirit that made me love writing in the first place. I had to re-learn it. I had to give myself permission to write without a purpose other than being with Him. And it’s made me more honest, with Him, with myself, and with others. When I write this way I can be confessional with God, I can admit the ugliness of my own sin, bear my shit before Him, and let Him make me new. If everything I ever wrote was for publication, I know this honesty would never happen. Growing honest in the private arena with God is a part of how you learn to grow honest in the public arena as an artist and a Christian.

When you write this way, paint this way, sing this way, monologue this way, or  dance this way, it is an act of faith. You are trusting that He is Spiritually forming you into His likeness even if you don’t understand how. You choose to believe that by turning towards Him that the Spirit is going to be faithful to use your re-orientation to set your heart and mind on Him in the eternal places of being.

Draw Near to God and He will draw near to you. Writing, drawing, singing, acting, dancing, painting- each of these can be a way to draw near to God and be formed by Him.

An Artist’s Calling Part Three: Being Critiqued

critique

Hello there, Sarah the Frase here, steeling myself to talk to you about the subject that I find the most cringe-worthy: critique.

Artists often think being critiqued is the same thing as being shamed or misunderstood because of our past experiences. To be fair, some shaming can take place under the banner of critique.  Even within a valid critique when one of the critiques is a failure to understand what the artist is doing, she can feel misunderstood. But critique and shaming and misunderstanding are NOT synonyms, regardless of how we perceive them.

Artists…So Many Feels

Perhaps you’ve noticed that artists don’t place a high value on normalcy. Many artists have described their need to create art almost as a compulsion. Others describe feeling like a deranged person when they’re doing that volcanic two-step often referred to as “the creative process.” Speaking of writers Anne Lamott writes:

“They want to know why they feel so crazy when they sit down to work…write one sentence and see with horror that it is a bad one, and then every major form of mental illness from which they suffer surfaces, leaping out of the water like trout—the delusions, hypochondria, the grandiosity, the self-loathing… the paranoia.”[i]

In spite of this experience, we still want to reach an audience with our work. As consummate actor Marlon Brando put it, “I just want to be normally insane.”[ii]

Melodramatic? Maybe. Some artists play into that reputation as part of their branding. Yet many artists describe themselves matter-of-factly using neurotic or dramatic language because it speaks the most accurately about their experience. By writing in first person about myself I discovered that I related more to an autistic child in need of a weighted blanket than I did to the pop-song listening peer in the room with me.

Yes, I just spent a couple paragraphs telling you that Artists are sensitive people who feel things deeply. This is not breaking news. Where this reality intersects with critique is that Artists can let that sensitivity and their real emotional wounds cloud their ability to receive critique and weigh it rightly. An artist who has not prepared himself may become reactive to critique so that he falls somewhere on the spectrum between two destructive extremes: the impenetrable fortress or the blank check. Yet neither of these can be an option for a good artist.

The artist’s maturity and willingness to grant others the benefit of the doubt come into play when facing a critique.

Artists are called to critique. We don’t get to opt out because it is difficult or because God has chosen us to create art. To desire excellence, and servanthood, and to fight for beauty, truth, and goodness to bleed through our art, this is to desire Him. And Jesus has not left us orphans, nor taken us out of the world, He places us in communities and asks us to hear them.

To hear the voice of the other in regard to our art is to love the other as ourselves.

The Impenetrable Fortress Artist

In this case, the artist says in response to being critiqued: “Since I am only responsible to myself and to God for what I do in my art, ergo, nothing you say is valid.” You are perfectly justified in saying this if your name is Jesus and you are a member of the Trinity. If not, this stance towards critique is starkly similar to the Pharisees, the group that Jesus critiqued in scathing terms in His day. Even those seeking God and living righteous lives, those who, unlike the Pharisees, are filled with the Holy Spirit are capable of creating a poor mixed media painting or failing to fully develop a character in a short story. I’ve done both.

No artist is a fortress in himself. Not even Emily Dickinson.

One of the reasons impenetrable fortress artists exist is that post-modern world argues that because truth is subjective, aesthetic beauty must be subjective too. In other words, we can’t really determine what a good or well-written novel is, but only acknowledge that some people like it and some don’t: the “different strokes for different folks” mentality. But nobody really believes this argument as Rotten Tomatoes and online comment streams easily prove.

As artists and Christians, our belief in an absolute Triune God should shape our view of beauty.

One of my favorite seminary professors, Dr. Douglas K. Blount often observed that if as Christians we believe in the existence of absolute truth and absolute goodness then we must also believe that there is an absolute beauty. Which also means as artists we need to humble ourselves by recognizing that we do not always know what is beautiful or what will work best in our art.

To put it another way, “A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; he rages against all wise judgment” (Proverbs 18:1) and “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together… exhorting one another” (Hebrews 10:24–25).

The Blank Check Artist

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the impenetrable fortress, the blank check artist says in response to being critiqued, “To receive correction is a way to imitate Christ, therefore everything you say I should change about my art I must change in order to glorify God.” While the other artist spiritualized being accountable to no one, this artist spiritualizes being accountable to everyone. Without realizing it, she has stepped into an unhealthy fear of man. An artist who gives a blank check to all criticism she receives allows people who lack expertise or don’t have the big picture of what God has called her to do with her art to permanently change it.

If I share a rough draft short story with Stephen King and with a high school student, and one of them tells me that I should cut out a character that is just taking up space, the other disagrees that the character is critical to the wholeness of the story, who do I listen to? Even this is not an easy answer, for while King has the expertise, what if my short story audience is specifically teenagers? And what if instead of a short story I realize that this is actually the first chapter of a novel where that character is going to be developed later on? I know what I’m doing with this character and my readers don’t.

No Longer Reactionary: Free Yourself Up

I used to be so reactive to critiques that I either made all the changes immediately or I outright rejected them, because I fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. And I fluctuate. Sometimes I am nearer to being an impenetrable fortress, other times I give my critics a blank check to change my work. This depends on the power I’ve given to the voice that is critiquing me. Do you privilege authority figures, artists who excel in excellence, peers in the trenches with you, the average joe or jane, or the stranger when it comes to reactions to your art? Knowing who you heed and who you don’t is the first step to understanding how you already interact with critique.

Once you know who you need to critique your art, it’s time to gird up your loins and set specific boundaries for yourself.

Stay Silent

During the critique, remain silent, resisting the temptation to respond to what is being said. This is a critical practice for two reasons:

  • If your art can’t speak for itself without you explaining it, then it’s not doing its job to communicate or invoke the reaction you want from your audience.
  • Anything you say will shape how your audience perceives your art irrevocably, and you are robbed of honest or accurate reactions to your art.

Don’t Qualify Yourself or Your Work

If you’ve ever been to an open mic night, or a slam poetry session and cringed because the person gave a two minute introduction to their work such as they wrote it three days after the passing of their cat Princess Azalea, while inside the car at a carwash listening to the new Calvin Harris single on their way to a free-form dance class, realize this is exactly how you sound when you try to explain your work before it is critiqued. Resistance is NOT futile. Artists who desire critique can have the confidence and the self-control of reading only their work. Don’t qualify yourself, before or after.

Ask Clarifying Questions

It is okay to ask questions to clarify the feedback you’ve received in a critique. But again, there is a good way and a poor way of asking for clarity. Don’t ask a question that includes a defense of yourself or an explanation of your work.

Don’t ask: “When you say I need more sensory details, do I have to add them here when really I’m trying to show that my narrator is an android and doesn’t have conventional senses?”

Do ask: “What do you want more sensory details about?”

Do ask: “What part of the piece/performance is confusing?

Do ask: “Why did you like this part? What about it did you like?”

And really listen to the answers. Critiques may feel like standing before American Idol judges, but really they are closer to having your own captive test audience. Get all you can from them.

Be Aware of Your Triggers

Keep in mind that the terms people use in response to your work may hold different meanings for them than they do for you, and be aware of your own triggers. I had a fellow writer and close friend who wrote “Boo” several times on the margin of one the stories I shared in a graduate school creative writing class. That word destroyed me because as someone who had taught high school theatre for seven years, the word Boo communicated one thing to me: “Get the hell off the stage—you don’t belong.”

For two weeks I walked around in the grief that this repeated comment gave me before I finally talked to my friend about it. Growing up he and his brothers used “boo” as a term of playful dogging affection, meaning something along the lines of, “come on bro, you’re better than this.” He had used this term because of the closeness of our acquaintance, and here I was giving myself grief that he considered me the most terrible writer on the planet.

If you have a strong reaction to a critique, ask yourself, is this really about what’s being said or is something in what I heard triggering a reaction?

Have a Waiting Period

To keep from being reactive in your changes establish a waiting period. Mine is to read all the critiques the day I see them, but I am not allowed to make any changes for two days. If I have a stronger reaction to the critique, sometimes I make myself wait for a week. That two day waiting period also gives me time to cool off if I find I am summarily rejecting a critique in anger. Time passing puts distance between your emotional reactions to critique, allowing yourself to revisit the feedback with fresh eyes.

Build a Data Set

Not only do I weigh the power I should give to each critic in the conversation based on what I want to accomplish as an artist, I also look for patterns in all the critiques. If they are written, I literally lay them all out on the floor and visually scan for common markings or responses. If everybody found that sentence awkward, it’s awkward regardless of how much I am in love with the words it contains. If everybody lost interest at the four-minute mark of my performance, then I likely need to cut it down to three minutes.

All of this is hard work, it is even painful, but it is also good. By critique, I grow in excellence as an artist and in maturity as a person. No matter how successful my art has been, no matter how powerfully God has worked through my art in the past, I never get to just side-step the process.

So feel free to share your critiques in the comments below. I hear you. I’m listening.

Sources

[i] Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. 1st Anchor Books Ed. (New York: Anchor Books, 1995) 10-11.

[ii] Mardy Grothe. Oxymoronica:Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History’s Greatest Wordsmiths. 1st ed. (New York: Harper Resource, 2004) 126.

An Artist’s Calling Part Two: Being Misunderstood

black-man

Hello there, Sarah the Frase here, guilty as charged for saying the following about art:

“I don’t get it.”

This little four-word sentence can mildly irk or deeply wound an artist. It depends on who is saying it, and how much has gone into the work being shown. The power of these words also lives or dies in the strength of the artist’s need to be understood.

For many of us, the early reception of our art was one of our first experiences of being understood by others. How our art is received now is no mere question of will power but connects to deeply rooted needs within us. Artists create to communicate and to be known. These are not their only motivators, but they are big ones, otherwise work would never be hung in galleries and names would not appear on book covers. Yet regardless of your work ethic, sincerity, or belabored choices, it’s impossible to create art that is accessible to everyone all the time. Nor should we try to.

Good art challenges the audience’s perceptions of the world so that they cannot leave the encounter unchanged. As theologian Robert L. Short explains:

All real art though it at first may seem to be a most welcome escape from reality will inevitably lead one into a face to face encounter with reality… “Conversation” then arises between the work of art itself and the observer of the work.[i]

Conversations rarely, if ever, go as planned. This has not stopped the human race from talking. But when an artist has had conversation after conversation where the subject matter they value most is not comprehended, it can send that artist into one of two extremes: elitist or sellout.

Elitist or Sellout?

Some artists make it perfectly clear with their interviews and work itself that they don’t give a damn if their work is understood or not. And many in the arts community, Harold Bloom being one example, don’t use elitist as a dirty word.[ii] Some going so far as to declare any art that’s relatable to the masses has ceased to be art and become entertainment. Content to be elite, appreciated by the few or the none, these artists profess to be indifferent to their work being misunderstood. However, the extremity of their stance actually tells another story. Nothing broadcasts insecurity, pain, or fear like a person who is constantly declaring to the world that she is brave. It’s the cop-out of “cool” that so many of us buy into in adolescence and adulthood.

On the other end of the spectrum, an artist may adjust or alter their work so much that the art loses all its uniqueness in order to reach every consumer. For them, the need for their work to be understood is the most important factor in creation. This is why as much as we might enjoy them, we don’t place boy bands in the same category as Adele unless those boy bands go on to reinvent themselves and create the art they want to make like the Beatles did.

And we are not alone in the temptation to be understood. Christian mystic Henri Nouwen called Christ’s first temptation in the wilderness, which He faced and resisted, a temptation to be relevant.[iii]

Relevance does matter, and seeking it shows respect for your audience, but if being relevant is your dominant desire that overrides your love to serve God that indeed may be a temptation to sin. Even those who don’t buy into sin as a concept agree that being relevant shouldn’t be our ruling desire when it comes to creating. Case in point: the many rants millennials make online against “selling out.” An artist can sell out for out for money, or the approval of the masses, or of a select group of other artists they respect.

Neither should we swing the pendulum so far the other way that we make art that is incomprehensible. G.K. Chesterton gives an anecdote in his biography of poet Robert Browning where the poet was asked what one of his poems meant. His reply, “When that poem was written, two people knew what it meant—God and Robert Browning. And now God only knows what it means.”[iv]

Growing comfortable with being misunderstood will protect you from both of these dangers.

Why so Misunderstood?

Art is communication, but of a different kind. If it is good it will provoke and invite the beholder to enter its world. This is because Art, due to its “subtlety or indirectness, has a way of sneaking around ‘mental blocks’ and getting to the heart of the matter where it is capable of deeply and literally ‘moving’—even the most immovable—men and women.”[v]

Where there is subtly, or ambiguity, there will be misunderstanding. At times an artist may not be able to divorce himself from the art he creates, so he also will be misunderstood. This doesn’t mean the artist needs to label himself a misanthrope and take that misunderstanding deeply personally. But it does mean she must bear the pain of her art and herself being misunderstood, and often by the loudest voice in the arena.

Hide or Get Comfortable

There is only one alternative to being misunderstood: hiding.

In the film, I’m Not There, a film that I did not entirely understand but greatly enjoyed, six different actors (seven if you count the narrator) portray folk singer Bob Dylan in different stages of his life. One incarnation of Dylan gives his “seven simple rules for life in hiding.” Rule six is “Never do anything the person standing in front of you cannot understand.” Rule seven is “never create anything, it will be misinterpreted, it will chain you and follow you for the rest of your life.” Yet Dylan’s point is just the opposite of his words—he refused to follow his own exhortation and hide and this is what make him an iconic artist in more ways than one.

To bear the grief or infuriation of being misunderstood is to come out of hiding. And we, brothers and sisters, are not called to hide. Jesus said “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mathew 5:14-15 NKJV). And Jesus didn’t say this to the disciples in a private room either, He preached this to the masses.

Who are some artists in Christ who refuse to hide? How about U2, a band who didn’t let being written off by the majority of the evangelical world stop them from writing “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” They bore the brunt of accusations that they’d written off Jesus, the love of their lives, to write a song that expresses the longing and incompleteness we all grapple with this side of the eschaton. From whom did they learn this maturity?

Jesus. He spoke in parables so that the masses would not understand, but those who were ready to receive God’s message would. As He explains to the disciples in Mark 4:11-12:

To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables so that,

‘Seeing they may see and not perceive,

And hearing they may hear and not understand;

Lest they should turn,

And their sins be forgiven them.’

This scripture makes many of us uncomfortable because it sounds pretty elitist. Except that Jesus does not withdraw from public ministry here and open a private upper room for His disciples who “get it.” Rather, the entire gospel of Mark is filled with examples of the disciples, the ones to whom the mystery of the kingdom is being given, failing to understand Jesus (Mark 8:32–33, 9:33–34, 10:35–41 NKJV). In His use of parables, Jesus recognized that He would lose some of His audience, but that didn’t stop Him from speaking in parables.

In a contentious conversation with the Pharisees recorded in John 8: 28-29, He gives the reason for His confidence in speaking as He does:

“When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He and that I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father taught Me, I speak these things.

And He who sent Me is with Me. The Father has not left Me alone, for I always do those things that please Him.”

Jesus later asks His disciples, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works” (John 14:10 NKJV). In the same conversation He goes on to invite His followers, “Abide in Me and I in you” (John 15:4).

Jesus models for us the only way we can grow comfortable in being misunderstood and invites us into that relationship with God. We abide in Him and let Him work in us and through us. We seek to please Him and believe that He has not left us alone as artists. This process includes thoughtfully considering our audience, as Jesus did (He knows what they will and will not understand John 16:12), and abiding in God so what He wills is performed in our art.

When we are made comfortable in Christ, it is then that our art becomes relevant to others. After Jesus defends His authority to speak on the basis of His unity with the Father it says:

As He spoke these words, many believed in Him.

Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31–32 NKJV).

The irony is that those same Jews who believe Him go on to misunderstand this statement and the remainder of the conversation Jesus has with them. Somehow their belief and misunderstanding co-exist. His audience doesn’t get it, but that doesn’t mean His message is irrelevant. We’re still reading His words today. And their misunderstanding didn’t stop Him from speaking to His audience either because He knows that what He speaks is the truth. Jesus is free and it is He who makes us free.

There is freedom in abiding in Christ, freedom to be misunderstood and to create art.

Resources

[i] Short, Robert L. The Gospel According to Peanuts. 16th ed. 1967, 17.

[ii]  D’Addario, Daniel. “10 Questions with Harold Bloom” Time Magazine. April 30th, 2015. http://time.com/3841452/10-questions-with-harold-bloom/

[iii] Miller, Kevin A.“3 Temptations of Christ the Leader: They’re not what you think they are” Christianity Today. http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2001/may-online-only/cln10502.html

[iv]1908, Browning and Tennyson, (Combined reprint edition of two biographies; Browning biography was first published in 1903), Robert Browning by G.K. Chesterton, Series: English Men of Letters. http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/09/24/god-knows/

[v] Short, Robert L. The Gospel According to Peanuts. 16th ed. 1967, 13.

Pure Coincidence? Why Many of Us are Still Hurting from Our Churches’ Purity Movements

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Hello there, Sarah the Frase here, coming to you from the corner of painful recall.

Earlier this week my workplace got rid of some old study materials, and among them were promotional wristbands given to youth as part of a purity conference. I left these wristbands in a public space, and upon inviting an enquiring peer to help himself was asked if I minded if he took them and burned them. He was joking, not joking. And I immediately knew what he meant. This little cultural artifact didn’t specifically offend him, it was what it represented: the purity movement that bowled so many of us over in our youth groups.

While the culture surrounding sexual purity does vary from church to church even within a denomination, within evangelical culture I keep running across young people in their twenties and thirties who have a lynch pin reaction to the word “purity.” These same people heartily ascribe to the belief that sex should be saved for marriage and seek to live lives that answer Peter’s admonition: “He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy.’ ” (1 Peter 1:15–16 NKJV). So what happened within the purity movement that caused so many of us to kiss common sense goodbye and dwell in the realm of mixed messages? Here’s three things:

You Made Us Afraid

Purity was taught within my youth group with such scriptures as 1 Corinthians 7:1 “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” taken to mean any touch that could have sexual connotation or tone whatsoever. The context of the passage as addressed to the Corinthian church was jettisoned in favor of partnering this verse with several others from proverbs about self-control, and how the lack of it lead to disaster and death.

What was our take-away? Any touch had the power of destruction within it, and even if you didn’t intend that shoulder squeeze sexually, you might stumble your weaker brother. Because any match could start a fire, rather than learn how fire worked and the proper context for it, we had better be paranoid that we never unintentionally handled matches. Sexual sin is powerful, and it is serious, but in the vacuum of teaching about the power of the Holy Spirit working in us and the victory over sexual sin that can be had in Christ working in us, we received from this teaching, repeated over time, a spirit of fear. Many of us have carried that fear consciously or unconsciously into adulthood to the extent that it has prevented us from dating, or pursuing, or being open to romantic relationships in any context despite our very strong desire to be married. Why? It is that pervasive of a fear.

Our answer to this fear is to be grounded in faith in Christ’s transformative work in us and the Holy Spirit’s power to be present in any relationship we engage in, including those with a romantic or sexual component. This does not mean we go alone, but in all things partner with others in the church, confessing our sins, asking for help in facing temptations, and we hold each other accountable before the Lord. But we do this in a spirit of confidence in God’s sovereignty, not in a spirit of fear. Paul serves with a pure conscience; he expresses confidence in God’s work in Timothy urging him to remember the gift of God and reminding him that in our faith that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love and of a sound mind” (1 Timothy 1:3–7 NKJV).

You Gave Us False Shame

From this same spirit of fear came a lot of policies, both written and unwritten about how we should dress that for young women in the church has created a lot of body shame. As my church grew up in their pursuit of purity, we had conversations that shifted away from skirt lengths and bra straps showing to cultivating a heart of modesty that honors God. But before we got there we had women in church leadership who only wore Mumu dresses, and didn’t hesitate to tell us why.

I respect every individual woman’s discernment as prayerfully applies scripture and listens to leading of the Spirit to know how modesty should be worked out in practical application in her life. It’s not standardization I am calling for here, because where I may have freedom my sister may not and it is good to consider my weaker sister or brother in what I am free to do (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8). But we also ought to look at what implicit messages are sent by mumu dresses only and never a fitted dress, are they messages of body shaming?

Again, do we see the body as only an instrument of danger, or something beautiful and good that exists in the service of Christ?

In addition to unnecessary body shaming, many of us, male and female, were taught to feel shame for any biological sexual occurrence we experienced. The spirit of fear encouraged us to a false shame where a sexual thought or bodily reaction (which anyone with the slightest acquaintance with hormones can testify cannot be regulated) was construed as sin.

Our answer to false shame is to remember the truth of scripture: that a bodily reaction or occurrence is not sin, even experiencing temptation is not sin, but it is when we give our consent to temptation that sin occurs. James writes of temptation: “But each one is tempted when he is draw away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (James 1:14–15). James’ reproduction analogy makes it clear, our desire has to meet our will, our choice, and our consent to give birth to sin. If we do not give that consent, we are clean.

You Undercut the Sovereignty of God to Redeem

I was horrified recently, to hear from a friend about a visual illustration used in her youth group in regards to purity: the Rose Analogy. Others have confirmed experiencing the same or a similar illustration in their church. The church leader held up a perfect rose, and told the youth that this rose represented them, and their purity: beautiful and enact. The leader then proceeded to pull a petals off the rose slowly, each one representing a sexual act or a boundary crossed, until the rose was finally a barren nub and a stem. The audience was then asked, is this what they wished to present to their future spouses on their wedding nights?

This illustration is both visually effective and entirely counter-gospel. Young people have enough hang ups about their self-worth and with this kind of exercise you are taking Paul’s powerful declaration that we are new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) and cutting it at the knees with a Samurai sword. Consider the impact this analogy may have on a young person who has already engaged in sexual acts or even had sex. It’s over, done, they are the nub. What about those young men and women who have experienced sexual acts that were not consensual? There is no hope for them and they now have a stark understanding of what has been done to them that cannot be repaired.

This is not the gospel that Christ died to bring us.

We’re either new creations or we’re not. Sin stains us, we confess, Christ is faithful to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness or He isn’t. (1 John 1:9 NKJV emphasis added). Both confession and forgiveness are spoken of here in present tense. By treating our purity and ourselves like that rose, you are making God’s grace exhaustible, limited, and the blood of Christ ineffective. John tells us, “If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). My brothers and sisters, this is the truth that sets us free, let us confess and believe and rest in the sovereignty of God who redeems and cleanses us.

The Good News: Christ has Redeemed the Body

The more we learn about Jesus, bodily incarnate and good, the less we are able to hate our bodies and into a trap of shame or a spirit of fear. The more intimately we know Him, the more we are able to believe the gospel we confess. For example, we affirm the doctrine of the Hypostatic union, that Christ is fully God and fully man, and still is today, and will be for all eternity. God did condescend to take on humanity’s form, but neither did He put it off once resurrected. What He created and declared good at the start of creation, and He has made good through His incarnation.

That doesn’t mean that accepting our bodies as good and even as beautiful isn’t difficult. I recently sat in a church service (link to the sermon below) about the redemption of the body that we have in Christ that opened with the worship band playing Bruno Mars’ song, Just the Way You Are. This song was so hard for me to sit through. I disqualified myself from every verse in my head, doing a snarky internal battle with a pop ballad that was too idealistic to be believed.

Yet I am amazing as God created me. He has made and is making me beautiful as He makes me more and more into His likeness. This is the theology we need to lead with when teaching about sexual purity in the Church. We should also earnestly search the scriptures for what they say about sexuality, and develop sexual ethics for both married and single church members. And in all this if we keep our pursuit of purity Christocentric, we will not only remain in the truth, we shall also be purified in a spirit of hope.

Dear Christians, this is what we know about our bodies and ourselves:
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And all who have this hope in Him purify themselves, just as he is pure ” (1 John 3:15–16 NRSV capitalization added).

An Excellent Sermon on the Beauty & Redemption of the Body I Attended Recently:

Good Things Don’t Come to Those Who Wait

grapes by Maja Petric

Hello there, Sarah the Frase here, reporting to you from the land of epiphanies.

I used to believe that “good things come to those who wait.”

I am a waiter. I am Viola, in that I have sat like patience on a monument smiling at grief again and again in my life (that’s Shakespeare folks). Why? I could say spiritual maturity or some kind of innate hard wiring is at work, but those aren’t the only reasons. I have waited much of my life because I placed faith in that colloquial saying above;  a saying that is so ridiculous if I were read on the inside of a greeting card would throw the card away as the kind of inflammatory sentimental bunk I just can’t afford to keep around the house.

It’s not that I am an abject pessimist for the future. Here’s where this saying falls down for me: I believe in God.

And the God I believe in, while He is the poster boy for patience and long-suffering, does not give good things to those who wait. “Ah, but what about Joseph?” You Bible readers ask. “What about Ruth, or even Israel, and the prophets? I’m pretty sure they waited for the Messiah and He came, so you’ve got this one all wrong Frase.” Yes, those examples are all true. There is no better personification of good than Jesus. But He didn’t come because they waited for Him. He came to glorify His name and to save, not because there were people waiting for reconciliation from God.

God is not transactional. He is not even a capitalist. (sorry America)

What I have repeated to myself as a proverb, and used as a promise, trying to earn me some future good by long hours of waiting has zero effect on reality and fails to see God.

Good things don’t come to those who wait. He gives good.

God’s love is active, gratuitous, and constant. I wait for “good” but I am really bargaining for what I have called good, holding out for it with my hands and eyes clenched shut so tight I can’t receive any of the good He has for me now.

I am guilty of rushing into the future in my head as a way of coping with the present. When I do this I ignore Him and I rob myself of the hearty good of now. I want eyes like Caleb and Joshua, to see the plunderous extravagant good in the land today. This is time for hearing the word of the Lord, not for waiting with a telescopic heart.

God gives pain to those who wait. He gives joy, frustration, grief, discomfort, peace, vulnerability, and brokenness. These too are good.

When I receive the good He has for me now I am still looking forward, anticipating a future healing and wholeness, and I am also participating in it now. I dream of Revelation 20-22 and rejoice that it is closer to me even this second than it was before. This desire is not wrong, where I err is when I allow that longing to cost me the present.

If I desire to wait, if I am called to wait, it is better to ask myself: What is here where I am waiting? What does God have for me in this season and today and in the next twenty minutes?

Let me receive it. Let me learn better what it means to attend Him. Let me begin to truly wait upon the Lord.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. James 1:17

Why the Girl Can’t Take a Compliment

woman by Chelsea FrancisHello there, Sarah the Frase here, reporting to you from the state of shy chagrin.

When a person of the opposite gender praises me, my eyes dart away like a junior higher in a dodge ball tournament. I literally have to work at it to keep looking him in the face.

And I’m not the only one.

Living in the blossoming era of selfies, many of my male friends have voiced confusion over women’s inability to receive compliments. It’s confusing to us too. But as anyone who experiences emotions on a daily basis will tell you, our reactions in real-time are rarely the servants of logic. Just because I know a thing is counter-intuitive doesn’t make me any less likely to do it. I know the correct response to a compliment is to receive and say thank you.

But compliments always have associations with them, a melody that starts playing in the background and obscures our ability to take them in. I’m not saying it’s either logical or fair that these songs start playing, and believe me if I could switch them off every time I would. My best bet that by naming the song then at least I can put up a good fight.  Today I’m only going to name one song and then offer a few ways to kill the radio star.

Song 1: Taking Part for the Whole: the Fear of Being Objectified

My good friend Angie was asked what her reaction would be if a total stranger came up to her in the grocery store and told her she was startlingly beautiful. Her answer was that she would feel horrible, and objectified. My friend is indeed a very striking woman, and her answer confounded the men in our group, many of whom felt this was an overreaction. From their perspective the stranger was stating an observable fact in a positive way, something that should be flattering to her or at the very least affirming.

But Angie went on to explain it was not that she couldn’t believe the accuracy of the man’s assessment, or even that she was suspicious of his motives for complimenting her. As a stranger he might be able to see that she is physically beautiful, but that’s it. He was observing one facet of Angie and equating it with the whole. Beauty is formed not only by outward appearance, but by intelligence, personality, compassion, and any number of other components. Angie’s instinct was to reject the compliment because accepting it would be to endorse his value of her as one thing: physically beautiful. She wished to be seen not in part, but as a whole person.

Our culture preaches constantly that physical attractiveness must be the initial buy-in at the start of any relationship. If we didn’t believe this we would only wear yoga pants and there would be no such thing as hair product. Marketing tells women that we should look the best that we possibly can look, and tells us that constantly. Even if we don’t buy in to the products that will accomplish this, even if we reject these messages militantly, a latent fear lingers that we will fail to be beautiful and thereby lose at least some of our value. Even if we refuse the idea that we are solely objects of beauty or sexuality we may believe partially that we are.

But even a women with a positive self-image and healthy love of her own body can have a fear of being objectified that is completely unrelated to her personal appearance.

We all desire to be known, not necessarily intimately by everyone, but holistically.

Many women are used to being praised for one part of themselves: their looks, their intelligence, kindness or hard work. We become so used to being “the pretty one” or “the clever one” or “the reliable one” that we begin to think of ourselves only in that context. When you classify yourself or another person largely one way, that is objectifying. You don’t have to make someone a sex object or beauty object to objectify them, you just have to see them as less than what they really are: a whole person.

Singing a New Song

So what can we do to stop this process? Most men conclude they should just stop giving compliments; it’s safer for them and if everything is so loaded for women it seems the more compassionate choice as well. That is certainly a logical choice, but it doesn’t look like Christ.

Jesus pursues people with His love and He is choice with His words. When He speaks to the woman at the well (John 4) He treats her like a whole person. If you are meeting a person for the first time consider, is a compliment really necessary, or are their other ways you can express value in that person such as listening to them?

When Jesus spends time with Mary and Martha He sees past their behaviors to their hearts (Luke 10, John 11). If you give a compliment and it is poorly received, if it is reacted against, look through the words or the behavior and see the pain behind them. If you don’t know this woman’s history, how she’s been objectified in her household, by men, even by herself, then the most loving way to respond to her is to continue to engage her in conversation. “He’s Taking Part for the Whole” might be the song that’s playing in her head, but she could also be another tune of past hurt altogether.

If you know her well and she’s consistently rejected compliments, weigh the right moment to ask her why and listen. If you don’t know her well enough or the timing isn’t right then just listen to how she describes herself and others. We are all self-disclosers whether we realize it or not. Each person will tell you how they want to be valued or loved, and the Holy Spirit will earmark conversations like you wouldn’t believe if you ask Him to.

As for us who receive compliments poorly, we must learn to sing a new song. Part of believing the gospel is learning to receive the value given to you gratuitously through grace. I can easily accomplish a kind of hypocrisy in my head where I fully assent to my value to God when looking at the cross but I cannot receive the good things He gives me in my life now.

I live in a singles apartments building at a seminary. This year for Valentine’s Day the single men of the building invited the single women in the building to a formal dinner that they prepared for us. We were each given a rose, personally escorted to an exquisitely decorated room with hand calligraphy name tags bearing our names with a personal message inside. Mine said: “You are loved.” Here our brothers served us appetizers, dinner, and desert and sang a song to us affirming our value by God and exhorting us to not let anybody tell us otherwise. While I have described this event simply it actually was more amazing in real-time than it even sounds.

And it was incredibly hard for me.

I wasn’t allowed to do anything. I could not contribute. I could not earn. I had to receive. I didn’t realize until that night how much I sucked at receiving grace. But to try to do anything else would have been wrong. Any other action would have been a blatant disregard for the tender care and prayerful work that these men of God had put into that night. These men are my fellow students, they have sat next to me in classes and prayed with me in chapels. I did not stop to wonder if they saw me as an object, or a future pastor’s wife, or as a whole woman.  Instead I let myself feel loved unconditionally. If they had chosen to value me that way, how could I not receive it?

Now when I receive a compliment, this is the song that I play in my head:

You are valued, receive it.

I choose to give the compliment and its giver the benefit of the doubt. I can’t say it goes well every time, I still skirt the eye contact sometimes. But I have to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time. Yes I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, a whole lot better, since grace is mine.

Not Trending

Hello there, Sarah the Frase here, reporting to you from the state of annoyed ambivalence.

I quit a career and moved four states away from home to write a novel. And I am able to joyously report that I have begun it. After a year and a half of running language sprints to thin out my adverbs, cutting out fatty “be verbs,” and front loading my cerebrum with as much theology and literature as human beings may handle, I write.

And when I write, like Nina in Checkhov’s The Seagull, I find I’ve been walking around and thinking and believing that my soul grows stronger every day.

But the same can’t be said for my Twitter feed.

Or my Instagram. My blog sits in a sorry state of neglect.

I look at my friends with their blossoming followings, their high resolution photos, their clean color pallets, their crisp yet friendly sans serif fonts, their clever titles and I envy. How do they do it?

Short punchy paragraphs and good humor, and all of it proofread and uploaded in 24 hours or less.

Read Platform, people tell me. It’s not that hard. And I smile and nod and recall how reading even a few pages of this honest book blocked me for days.

Envy not only turns me into my ugly self I least want to manifest, it slides into despair and doubt. I fear I shall not make it as a writer after all. How I wish I could follow my braver Luddite friends, say, “screw it” and drop off the edge of the world wide web. Instead, a few paltry posts and a growing sense of inadequacy ensues, followed by tearful prayer, more fear and guilt mongering (self-inflicted) and finally this annoyed ambivalence where I’ve come to dwell.

I do not like living in a world where my ideas are judged by the number of people who favorite them.

But neither do I wish to cast technology aside, when I see how it can bring a crucial truth to just one person and change them. I praise God that I live in that world, where a little comments box can begin conversations that skip o’er the gaps between nations, ethnicities, gender or age and just get real.

So I pray again. I ask: please make me better. Please help me trust more.

I want to write with rapture, with delight.

I go back to the words.

I will do Platform someday, but today is not that day. Today is for writing.

And a little reading:

Nina: “Now I see at last, Kostya, that in our kind of work, whether we’re writers or actors, the important thing is not fame, or glory, not what I used to dream about, but learning how to endure.

I must bear my cross, and have faith. If I have faith, it doesn’t hurt so much, and when I think of my calling I’m not afraid of life.”

~ Anton Chekhov, The Seagull