The Spirit of Creativity

A Sermon by Barbara Wells, co-minister
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

– February 10, 2002 –

Call to Worship by Michael Seider

In this house of gathering
we say yes to the call to be fully and gloriously human
as we honor the divine spark within each of us.

In this house
we say yes to the call we have heard
that binds us together into a community of care, concern and celebration;
we say yes to the call that knits us together as whole people;
we say yes to the call that reminds us of our ties
to the interconnected web of all existence.

We do not enter our houses of gathering empty-handed.
We bring our longings and our memories,
and we call on the spirit of love, freedom and compassion
to abide with us.

Hymn #298 Wake Now My Senses

Readings: from Claiming the Spirit Within, ed. By Marilyn Sewell

"God and the Artists Colony" by Rebecca Bagget

"Risk" by Lisa Colt

SERMON: The Spirit of Creativity – by Barbara Wells

While I believe it is true that no one can take your creativity away from you there are those who sure try. Take this, for example. I was in seventh grade art class. We were working with clay. I don’t exactly remember what the assignment was, I just remember that I was having fun, creating–if I recall correctly–a tiny gas station out of the red clay. Suddenly the vice-principal, who was wandering through our classroom for some reason, sat down next to me. He looked at my little bits of clay and asked me what was I doing. I explained about my gas station. "That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard," he said. "You clearly don’t have much talent, do you?" I felt as if I’d been punched. I can still feel the anger and the shame that I felt in my seventh grade heart. I knew I wasn’t much good at art. I never could draw, but I liked working with clay. Somehow the three dimensional aspect made it easier for me. But after that day I never made anything. My creative spark was effectively doused.

I was lucky in that I had other areas in which I could be creative. I sang in the school choir and was a stalwart member of the school’s drama group. Yet I wonder what creative opportunities were lost to me because an insensitive adult took it upon himself to quash my artistic pursuits. For nearly thirty years now I have resisted most attempts to create art with my hands. Whenever I try to do so I become that seventh grader again: I feel ashamed and no good. Since I "have no talent," I must not make a fool of myself with my silly amateur attempts at sculpture or drawing. No one will like them anyway.

What that man did to me (and others have perhaps done to you, I expect) was not only insensitive and cruel. I think he committed a crime against my spirit. Now I realize these are strong words. But I believe they are true ones. Because in my mind, the creative spark that leads to art of all kinds is not simply talent or skill. I believe that that spark of creativity is holy and that it is one of the most important elements of our humanness. I believe that the human spirit is blessed with extraordinary creativity and it is through this creativity that some of the best elements of humanity emerge. And I believe that when we take the risk to open ourselves to deeper and more challenging creativity, we become better and more spiritually centered people.

Let’s reflect for a moment on the connection between art and spirituality. In Rebecca Bagget’s poem, "God and the Artist’s Colony," the author compares the fundamentalist’s God to the driving force artists often feel. She imagines all the artists in their rooms at the artists’ colony, "each of us moving, aching, toward that private Alleluia, revelation, yes." While she does not call that artistic drive religious, the comparison to religion is clear. Artists have often struggled to understand their art in relation to God. Some of the best art ever created is religious art. Yet art has been, in our modern culture, to a large degree separated from religion. These days few artists speak openly of their spiritual longings, and many religious leaders today have little positive to say about art or music, unless to criticize it for mocking their values.

Yet I believe art and religion are powerfully connected. One source that helped me to understand this connection was a book written thirty years ago by the writer Chaim Potok, called My Name is Asher Lev. Like so many of Potok’s novels, this book invites us into a world unfamiliar to most of us, the world of very conservative, religious Jews called Hasids. Asher Lev is a Hasidic Jew, born in Brooklyn shortly after the Second World War and the Holocaust. His father is a traveler, who moves around the world trying to save Jews from the fate of the six million. It is serious business. When Asher Lev is born, it is assumed he will follow in his father’s footsteps. But instead, Asher discovers in himself the gift of art. Not just talent or skill, Asher Lev is blessed (or cursed) with an extraordinary gift to draw and paint–at a level not unlike the young Mozart’s gift of music. This gift was unasked for and in many ways undesired. His artistic ability made him suspect in the conservative religious community where he was born and raised, a community which did not appreciate this remarkable ability he had.

Yet Asher Lev could not deny the call to his art. He knew his father didn’t understand it. He felt his mother’s pain as she tried to encourage him without angering her husband. He bore the taunts of his classmates. He did so because he could not deny the powerful force that was his artistic creativity. When, for a short period, he gave up his art, it almost killed him. Only when he answered the call could he become whole, and grow into his humanness. But it did not come without a cost.

Asher Lev the artist, the creator, was torn asunder by the power of his artistic gift. He discovered how truly difficult it was in his world, in our world, to understand and answer the call of creativity, particularly when everyone around you insists that what you are doing is wrong, maybe even evil. For here is where his story becomes something truly heart-rending. When he has finally matured in his art, he begins to paint the story of his family and their suffering. Asher Lev, Hasidic Jew, found that he had to use the crucifixion as a metaphor in a series of paintings that featured the faces of his mother and father. For a Jew to use such a symbol was anathema. Yet Asher Lev knew he must answer the call to his truest self, and this true self insisted on the crucifixion, one of the most powerful symbols of suffering, as a metaphor. And in answering this call to his true self, he alienated those he loved the best–his mother and father. His call to creativity was fraught with pain as well as joy. Yet he found in answering it a connection to the life force that both creates and destroys. In other words, he began to truly understand God through his creativity.

At the end of the book, he finds he has to leave his religious community, at least for a while. Chaim Potok writes, in the voice of Asher Lev, "I looked at my right hand, the hand with which I painted. There was power in that hand. Power to create and destroy…there was in that hand the demonic and the divine at the same time. The demonic and divine were two aspects of the same force. Creation was demonic and divine. Creativity was demonic and divine. Art was demonic and divine… I was demonic and divine. Asher Lev paints good pictures and hurts people he loves."

He then hears the voice of God reply, "Then be a great painter, Asher Lev; that will be the only justification for all the pain you will cause…. Journey with me, my Asher. Paint the anguish of all the world. Let people see the pain."

Asher Lev does so, even though to answer the call of his art is excruciating. Asher Lev discovers that through his call to creativity he becomes fully human, and also fully connected to the divine. He learns that authentic art is not always beautiful or easy. He learned that his spirit could only be whole when he lived his creativity.

Now I know that most of us are not born with this kind of artistic gift. There are always only a handful of humans alive at any time who manifest such rare and extraordinary talent in any artistic field. But all of us are blessed with the ability to create, the ability to be creative. It is an essential part of our humanity. How our creativity manifests itself is as unique as our individual spirits. Extraordinary artists can also intimidate us, and make us think that only they can truly be creative. Yet even those of us who are not exceptionally talented in a certain area bring to our lives gifts and creative impulses. Too often, however, our creativity may be stifled, by ignorant people like my seventh grade principal.

Or perhaps we have been unwilling to try something creative because we know it won’t sound or look perfect. As someone who loves to sing, I often hear people say how much they love music but how scared they are to open their mouths for fear the wrong note will come out. And others who would love to get on a stage with make-up and costume don't because they fear ridicule. And of course, other forms of creativity abound. Our culture tells us you have to be an expert to be an engineer or a carpenter, or a teacher or a dancer. Yet how many of us would love to build or design or share our gifts or move because our spirits long to. Of course we want an expert to design and build a bridge for us. But what creativity is being lost because someone is not allowed to put on paper or in building blocks a creative idea that just might work.

Some years ago a news story on creativity spoke of how, when the Corning company was moving its facility, they did the unprecedented thing of letting the employees come up with some of the creative design for the new building. The employees knew much better than any architect what works for them. Yes, the architect ultimately designed the building. But he did so using the creative ideas of the employees who were going to work there. The result? People loved their new working environment and their morale soared.

That is creativity. Creativity is also found in the teacher who willingly changes her lesson plan when her young charges discover a spider worth watching. It is found in the graffiti artist who adorns the blank walls of a city subway station. It is found in the poet who chooses this word over that one and pronounces it just right. It is found in the gardener who trims the yew bushes in the shape of a dragon. It is found in the person who makes beauty using the intricate calligraphy of the orient. It is found in each of us, as we go about our daily lives, opening our hearts to the power of the creativity all around us.

And it is found here, in this church, as we go about the wonderful and awe-filled task of creating community–for to do so takes creativity. It takes a willingness to be open to possibility. It takes a passion for people and ideas and feelings. It makes of non-teachers teachers, and non-singers, singers, and non-dancers dancers. We are the creative process at work, my friends, and that process is holy.

It is also scary. Creativity, as Asher Lev discovered, is not always something that moves easily through us. Creativity requires a willingness to take risks.

Take a moment and look around at the paintings that adorn this room. Imagine the amount of time and energy it took [Paint Branch member] drex Andrex to create them. Then think of how he might be feeling right now as we all look closely at his paintings. Do you think he may be wondering if we like them? If they move us or challenge us or just land with a thud on our eyes? It takes enormous courage to place one’s art in front of another and let them into that private place from whence the creative spirit emerges. But most art is not made whole unless it is shared. A painting no one sees or a piece of music no one hears is mostly meaningless. Our creativity is meant to be shared, but the sharing of it can be frightening.

It is tempting to hide our creativity in a box, and never take it out for others to see or experience. But I believe that taking the risk to share ourselves with others in creative ways is a profoundly spiritual process. Our spirits cannot grow if we don’t take risks. We may fail. In fact, I can say with quite a lot of certainty and experience that we will fail, at least now and again. But such failure is how we learn and grow. It also is how we exhibit our humanness.

Need an example? Some of you may remember how on Martin Luther King Sunday, I chose to sing a solo. When I had practiced earlier that week, it had gone perfectly. But here, in front of you, I failed to find my starting note. Not once, but twice. Finally, I had to ask [pianist] Tom for the note. He obliged, I sang, and after I finished I felt that familiar sense of shame. I had failed.

I waited in trepidation to hear your comments after the service. To my surprise (and great relief!) some of you come up to me to tell me how much my perceived failure had touched you. You appreciated me for taking the risk and for not giving up. You knew what I had forgotten–that taking a creative risk is always worth it, even if at first it feels like failure.

I also believe that creativity is an essential way to understand our spirituality. I am aided in this understanding by Matthew Fox, a former Dominican father who has since left the Catholic Church to become an Episcopal priest. He wrote a book some years ago called Original Blessing, in which he writes that we are co-creators with God, and that it is in the creative process that we can touch holiness and become one with the divine. He challenges us to throw out our pre-conceived notions of art–that the artist must be talented and/or professional–and instead seek to discover the artist, the creator that lives in each of us.

Matthew Fox believes that we must return to an understanding of the artistic and creative urges as inherently spiritual. He laments the tendency in the west to make art the purview of professionals and reminds his readers that, in the not so distant past, people had little opportunity to simply "watch" or "listen" to music or paintings or dance or theatre. Before the advent of recording devices, most people made their own music, learned to draw and dance, and used their creativity in a variety of simple ways. Today much of our creative spirit has been dampened by the tendency to think we have to be talented or strive for perfection in our creative endeavors. But as poet Lisa Colt writes, "perfection is nowhere" and that’s just what Matthew Fox is trying to teach about art and creativity and its place in our spiritual lives.

It’s a powerful message and one I want to reiterate here. The act of creation–whether a painting, a poem, a dance, a sermon, a lesson plan, or even a government report!–this act of creating is one of the most spiritual things we can do. Why is this? Because our spirituality is, I believe, that part of our being which is continually evolving and growing in response to the world around us and the world within us. If we stifle our creativity, we run the risk of smothering our spirits. Spirit needs the lively interaction of creative hearts and hands and minds to keep it alive and growing. People can actually die when deprived of beauty. And I have seen the spiritual death that occurs when people lose (or have forced out of them) the ability to be creative.

So, dear ones, I challenge us all to take the risk of being creative, and let’s see what it does to our spirits. If we can recognize that each of us will express our creativity in our own unique ways, take failure with good humor, learn from our mistakes, and keep trying new things, maybe we’ll be like that old lady who learned to dive at eighty-six. No, we won’t be perfect. But as the poet has taught us, perfection is nowhere.

It is my hope that our church can be a community where our imperfect, creative spirits can find a home. It is my hope that this church can be a place where everyone can bring their whole selves, where we can touch the deep spirit of creativity that lives in each of us and in the universe and make it come alive. What we create in our individual lives matters and what we create here matters, too. May we be blessed with an abundance of creativity, and use it to make this world just a little more beautiful, a little more exciting, a little more whole.


Closing Words

May you find the deep peace of creation flowing in your spirit.
May your senses awake to the creative spark that lives in you.
May you walk in beauty and seek to create beauty wherever you go.
May you take the risk of discovering the divine within you and around you.
And may the spirit of life bless you with courage and hope as you live creatively with others by your side.

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