The Creative Spirit: Waiting

Waiting for spring. SJG photo.

It’s a cold, cold, cold morning here in America’s Midwest, and the snow and ice outside my window are begging me to stay inside today, nudging me toward my chair by the fire, toward a time of prayer and waiting.

So much of prayer, like so much of the creative process, is in fact about waiting. But it is not a passive waiting as much as it is a time of expectation that something will happen, a hidden promise that revelation or inspiration will come if we leave ourselves open to that secret and mystical movement of God in our lives.

And yet, sometimes it just doesn’t seem to work. Sometimes we sit and wait and nothing happens. No words, no ideas. Our hands won’t move across the keyboard, the pen sits idle in our grasp, the paintbrush remains dry.

So what do we do when our prayer life or our creative process come up dry? Rather than wringing our hands or — even worse — giving up, our call is to something gentler and more faithful. God asks us to sit and wait, to keep coming back with the knowledge and expectation that the divine presence remains, whether we sense it or not, whether our time of prayer or creativity seems fruitful or not. With a very loud silence, God reminds us that our time together is not about what gets accomplished; it’s about our time together, our shared and intermingled presence.

I was reminded of all this upon reading a poem this week by Rev. Tom Schoenherr, a retired Lutheran pastor, spiritual director, and inspired writer and blogger. Tom’s poem, below, speaks to this “gnawing at the soul” that we can sometimes feel in the depth of dark and cold winter. You can check out more of his writing at his website, The Deeper Journey.

Today,
Snow blankets the scenery,
White smoke pours from chimneys,
Writing gnaws at my soul,
No words to pray
Today.
Longing for peace-filled thoughts,
Hoping for new life,
Doubting your presence,
No words to pray
Today,
Where comes the Spirit?
Where come the sighings?
Where lie deep thoughts?
Where comes the crying?
Today,
My mind settles in,
My spirit centers my soul,
I rest my open hands upon
My knees. I wait,
I listen.
You are here
Today.

Welcome, Kate. SJG photo.

Speaking of waiting, yesterday Sue and I welcomed our second grandchild. She is perfect in every way and the spitting image of her big brother, Noah. Welcome to the world Kate Olivia Givens, we’ve been waiting for you…

Ask yourself in silence: How do you cope with those times when God and inspiration seem distant?

The Creative Spirit: What If?

What if I missed this moment? SJG photo.

Asking “what if” is one of the most creative and contemplative questions we can ask ourselves. How many books, poems, paintings, songs, plays or other creative works have come to life because the artist dared to ask, “what if?”

“What if” is how we find meaning. It is how we begin to make sense of the senseless and read between the lines of reality and the mundane to discover something new and rare. “What if I created an imaginary world of dragons and elves and hobbits, of secret doors and alternative worlds?” ask imaginative and deeply spiritual writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. “What might that world teach us about ourselves? About God?”

What if I created a seamless and perfect form from a rough block of marble or brought to stage the complexities of life, family, addiction, love, hate, sin, God? What if I put paint to canvas or paper (or clicked the shutter at just the right moment of time, color and light) and captured the sacred in the midst of ordinary existence? What if I could make it seem like dancers were flying through the air or sang a song that would speak to your heart and your very real human condition?

And what if I could do all these things and didn’t? This is the call of the artist, and for those of us who hold and share a belief in a Creator-God, it is a call to holiness. It is a call that must be answered and responded to. Ask most artists why they create and you are likely to hear some version of, “because I have to…because I wouldn’t know how NOT to…because it’s who I am.”

But asking “what if” is also a call to us all to think and imagine more broadly. It is “yes and” and “no but” instead of “either/or.” Whether we consider ourselves creative or not (and I believe we all are and can be), to ask this question is to step outside our own little worlds for a brief time and consider the alternative. Whether we are seeking to create a work of art or a healed relationship, asking “what if” is a place to start and a place to pray.

On the corner of Mystery and...SJG photo.

To end, I wanted to share with you a poem written by my friend and fellow spiritual director, Jeanne Baer. Jeanne asked “what if?” in dealing with the pain and confusion of her father’s death and in seeking to make some spiritual sense of loss. Read carefully. For this is more than a list of “what if” questions. In these few poignant lines, Jeanne gives us the privilege of listening in to a painful and personal internal dialogue leading to revelation and the presence of God.

What If

What if I never forgave my Dad?
What if God helped me to forgive him?
What if I never spoke to him again?
What if God helped me to find the words?
What if I carried the pain of memories to his death?
What if God healed me of those memories?
What if I couldn’t forget our differences?
What if God showed me our commonalities?
What if I always wished he done things differently?
What if God showed me he was doing the best he could?
What if I could only see him through my eyes?
What if God showed me how to see him through God’s eyes?
What if I carried all the pain and hurt to his death bed?
What if God allowed me to be the one to lovingly lead him into the arms of Jesus?
As you can see, I am human.
As you can see, “with God, all things are possible.”

- Jeanne M. Baer

Ask yourself in silence:
What if I responded today to a call I have been ignoring?

Today’s Word: Glory

Glory: Live your life like this. New Orleans musician Doreen Ketchens. SJG photo.

It’s not a word — glory —that most of us use much on a daily basis, I suppose. It’s a bit old fashioned, perhaps, and reserved for a few special things.  The wonders of nature tend to be “glorious,” and the flag of my country is sometimes referred to as “Old Glory.”  At church we’re likely to hear and sing it often. We might think about “glorifying God” by our words and actions, but how exactly do we go about doing that and does God even need us to glorify him? “Glory, glory,” as some of my elders used to say in exasperation…where to begin?

Read the rest of Today’s Word: Glory »

The Creative Spirit: Savoring the Moment

Savor your life like a first birthday cake. SJG photo

I’m up early on New Year’s Day and contemplating the new year that now faces me. These new years, it seems, come in rapid-fire succession the older I get, and every year I sit in this place with this computer on my lap and wonder: What happened in the past year and what will happen in the year ahead?

The first question (what happened last year?) is a tricky and important one. For the issue at hand is not simply remembering as much as it is appreciating, what sunk in and affected me because I was made more aware of it. How many good meals do I remember, how many stimulating conversations with family and friends, how many pieces of music did I allow to seep into my soul and change me? Which books struck, inspired and challenged me? Perhaps most importantly, how did I allow God into my life in the past year? How often did I sit quietly and savor the presence of God in the quiet of this room, in the holiness of liturgy and the sacraments, in the company of friends, relatives, colleagues and strangers?

Most of us would likely say we appreciate these things. But we are called to a higher standard. We are called to savor them for what they are — gifts of the spirit, sent to make our lives richer and more meaningful and to draw us closer to the sender.  All too often, and through no conscious decision as much as unconscious living, we miss all these things. They still happen to us (these meals, these conversations, these sacraments) but we haven’t noticed them and thanked the sender. We’re missing the moment and forgetting the gratitude.

Count Your Blessings. SJG photo.

So all this leads us to the coming year, a chance (as always) to begin again, to live more purposefully, more authentically, more aware of the gifts given and the call to respond and share. For those called to the creative life, in whatever form, this is a call to recognize those gifts and transform them into something others can see, hear, taste, experience.

Today I’m beginning a challenge and throwing it out there to see if anyone wants to join me — a year of living in higher awareness and gratitude for the gifts around me. For me, this will take the physical form of a new journal (provided as a gift from my good friend Jill Stratton) in which I will be recording the blessings and moments and opportunities that come my way this year, in hopes that I will be more thankful, more aware, more creative in turning those blessings around and giving them to others. A year of savoring each day a little more intensely, a year of appreciating every gift that comes my way. The journal is just for me, but I have no doubt it will fuel and enrich my writing, my music, my photography and art, my cooking, my service to others.

I can’t help but be reminded of the old hymn:

Count your many blessings name them one by one.
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

Ask yourself in silence: How aware of my blessings and gifts am I?

Today’s Word: Self-Image

Mile High footbridge, Grandfather Mountain, NC. SJG photo.

It’s that time of year again. We gaze into the mirror and, with the prospect of a new year and a new opportunity for beginning again facing us, we start to think of all the ways we can improve ourselves. And I’m all for it. I’ve lost some weight the past six months and gotten into better eating habits and an exercise routine I enjoy. Taking care of ourselves — physically, mentally, spiritually, professionally — is important.

But even as I think about how much more weight I want to lose and what my exercise goals for the next year should look like, I am nudged deep inside by a voice that says, “there’s more.”

Okay, I think. More. Hmm. So I start making a self-improvement list. A class perhaps. Cook more, eat out less. See family more often. Start that journal again. Walk further. Maybe get back on the bike. The list can grow long, as we all know. But then I hear a voice once again, and this time it whispers, “Maybe less would be better.”

Self-care is critical if we want to spend many healthy years with the ones we love and if we want time to do the work to which we feel called. The danger, so to speak, is not letting ourselves slide down the slippery slope toward a self-image that is based entirely on, well, ourselves. For we are more than what we look like in the mirror and how far we walk or run. We are more than our educations and professional relationships. We are more than what we appear to be.

Mile High Footbridge, Grandfather Mountain, NC. SJG photo

We are at our best when we give ourselves to others in service. We are at our best when we are able to empty ourselves of the bounty and noise of life and focus on the still, small voice of the One who calls us to be more (and less) in different ways than the mirror or the scale could ever show us. For God sees us differently than we can ever see ourselves.

Today, even as I think of ways I can improve my health in the coming year, I recall the words of St. Francis of Assisi who said, “I am who I am in the eyes of God—nothing more and nothing less.”

Ask yourself in silence
: As I make my New Year’s resolutions, where’s God?

The Creative Spirit: Creatio ex nihilo

Street musician, Maplewood, Mo. SJG photo.

One of the essential elements of creativity — one of the things that makes art “art,” — is that it begins out of nothingness. When we create, we echo and reflect God’s creation of the world out of the darkness and void. All things are creatio ex nihilo; they come into being from nothing, and that’s what makes the creative process a sacred one.

That’s not to say that we break new artistic ground each time we face an empty canvas, an empty page or screen or sit with our hands perched above the clay, the keys, the strings, the fabric. As in so many aspects of life, we stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us. We write out of everything we have ever read. Compose because of what we have heard. Paint and sculpt and sew and assemble because we have walked through museums and experienced the works of others’ hands. Still, however humble, our own work begins from a moment of nothingness.

In talking and corresponding with writers, they will often say that they don’t have anything to give the world that hasn’t already been given thousands of times and by writers far more talented than themselves. And they are right, of course. If I worried about the originality of my ideas every time I wrote a blog post or a reflection in Living Faith, I would never write at all. Indeed, in the world of literature and art, so much attention is often paid to the idea of originality that would-be artists can become disheartened. Each time a sanctimonious critic decries the work of someone as “derivative,” someone lays down their pen, their brush, their journal of ideas and mutters, “what’s the point?” (As if that critic has anything new to say!)

For in this rarified air of the world of high art, such an approach to art criticism leaves many with seemingly nothing to do. But for people of faith who create because something deep beckons them to do so, the call is not to originality above all else. Rather, it is a response to a moment of inspiration out of silence — nothingness — that might serve to direct others’ attention to the Creator.

Street artist, Melaka, Malaysia. SJG photo.

The subject of the art needn’t be religious in the typical sense of the word, of course. A simple still life watercolor of an apple — its reds and yellows and greens summoning up our senses to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord” has the ability to draw us near something sacred, if we allow it to do so, if we put ourselves in a place of openness to God and God’s creative, Holy Spirit.

The canvas or paper may begin blank and the light-bulb moment of creation is perhaps ours to savor and celebrate, but only when we realize that our moment of creation out of nothingness come out of our everything. For in that moment of silence is God, and in God is all that we need.

Ask yourself in silence: What can I create today? What image grabs me and demands incarnation?

The Creative Spirit: Mary’s ‘Yes’

Williamsburg silversmith shop. SJG photo.

Today I begin a new series of reflections about the role of the Spirit and of spirituality in the life of the creative person. Whether you are a professional artistic type, an occasional poet/artist/craftsperson or someone who just thinks that maybe there’s something deep inside them waiting to come out, I hope you’ll find in this series some inspiration that will move you toward recognizing the ideas germinating within you and putting down words and images that will enable you to share them with others.  For that’s the role of the artist, to bring ideas to life.

I am up before the sun today, waiting to greet a busy day in these waning days of December, trying to latch on to an early-morning idea that will spur my brain into its creative mode. I’m trying to conceive, looking for a spark of something.

The gospel reading for today is one we all know. We’re only a few days from Christmas here in 2014, but this story from the very beginning of Luke’s gospel finds Mary before her child has even been conceived, confronted by an idea and a voice saying:

“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.”

And she replies: “Really? I don’t think so. I’m not really prepared for that and, by the way, I’m a virgin, so…thanks anyway.”

But this voice is calm and insistent and is having none of her initial hesitance: “Ah, but this isn’t about you. This is about God in you. It may seem impossible, but nothing is impossible with God.”

And Mary answers with a simple, “yes.”

Smith's shop in Williamsburg. SJG photo.

It’s the beautiful beginning of the story of the Incarnation, and as I read and reflect on it this morning I am reminded that Mary’s “yes” to this conception serves as the perfect model for the creative process, for all of us who sense something moving and growing inside us. I will never conceive and bear a child, and yet I must be willing to accept and nurture the fruits of the Spirit that have been planted deep within me. The creative and artistic process requires a willingness to move beyond “I’m not really equipped for this and don’t yet have all the right experiences” to a simple “yes.”

The incarnation of Christ in the form of a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and born to a virgin is the ultimate metaphor for all who create. It’s unexpected and new. It’s a bit dramatic and filled with poetry and startling images. It’s unbelievable and yet contains the truth. As we sometimes say when astonishing things happen in real life: “You just can’t make this kind of stuff up.”

That the nativity is a great metaphor for the creative process doesn’t make it any less real, and the incarnation (the word becoming flesh) of Christ didn’t stop when Mary gave birth. The incarnation continues in all of us, and it’s a particularly vivid reminder of the responsibility of all who create.

As we arise each day and search for ideas and meaning and insights, as we face empty screens and journals and canvases and sketchbooks, the Word (co-present with God since before the creation of the world) moves around inside us and kicks us like an unborn child aching and yearning to see the light of day. We give birth because of his birth. We create because we have been created.

Speaking of light, it’s starting to fill the world around me. I’ve turned an hour or so of darkness into something new. That’s all God asks of us.

Ask yourself in silence: What’s inside me that’s aching to come out?

Today’s Word: Broken

Looks like an A-minor. Photo by Jon Givens.

It is perhaps a bit cliché to speak of “grasping the moment,” but like all good clichés, there’s some truth and wisdom at the bottom of this one. Especially right now, as we enter the third week of advent, we are reminded that “now” is our time. We may be “waiting” for Christmas, but God and Jesus are here and available to be experienced right now — no waiting required.

And so it goes with the moments that come and go in our lives, waiting to be truly recognized and experienced by us. This is perhaps especially true of the difficult times when we feel lost, broken, abandoned or alone. The Christmas season is a time of joy for many, but for others, it can be a tougher period. As some struggle to get by, as they see what so many others have (and buy, buy, buy…) and as they cope with the memories of those no longer with them, advent can be a time of just waiting for it all to be over. Advent can be a season of sensing our brokenness.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite Christmas stories — the tale of how that most beloved of all Christmas carols came to be written. By some accounts — we can’t be sure of the truth here, however — “Silent Night” was created out of brokenness. The story goes that a young priest, Fr. Joseph Mohr of Oberndorf, Austria, wrote the lyrics to “Stille Nacht” in 1818 and gave it to a friend and local musician, Franz Gruber, asking him to compose a simple melody to be played on guitar, as the organ in St. Nicholas Church was broken. The song was first performed on Christmas Eve and the rest, as they always say, is history. From brokenness springs beauty.

Me and Jenny. Photo by Jon Givens.

Here’s a simple guitar and voice recording that my daughter Jenny and I made a few years ago:

01 Silent Night

As we near Christmas, we recall both the woundedness of our lives and the joy of the birth of the Christ, who came to bind up our wounds, heal our brokenness and fill the empty spaces. This is the Christ who heals, who forgives, who makes whole. A child in a manger, yes, but more importantly the Word of God set in the midst of us not just 2000 years ago but even today. Especially today. This is ours to grasp, this is our moment to seize. This is heavenly peace for our lives right here.

Ask yourself in silence: Where am I broken? What beauty can spring from it? Where is my peace?

My blog turns five today: Looking backward and forward

Sundial at Bruton Parish Church, Williamsburg, VA. SJG photo.

As I awake on this cold, snowy Thanksgiving morning and begin to move about the house, I am immediately grateful for a few days away from the university to have some quiet time to read, write, pray and, of course, cook, eat and spend time with family. There will be a good balance of communal life and solitude this weekend, and I am reminded how important both are to the richness and fullness of life and faith. I thank God for both.

There’s a murder of crows somewhere outside raising a ruckus, which makes me think of my very first blog entries, two of them on Thanksgiving Day, 2009. You can read both of them here and here. (The crows make an appearance in the second post). As I re-read these words, I am grateful for all that has transpired over the past five years, including my times of disease, treatment and healing. However worrying and painful at times, these moments are all part of the one same story, a journey that led, shaped and changed me along the way. I have deep gratitude and joy for the journey and for all of those who have walked it with me.

Five years ago, a similar group of noisy crows helped me kick off the part of this journey that I chronicle here on this website. It’s just a small part of my life, if we measure life in the amount of time we spend doing any one thing, but it’s the place where I have continued to turn to help me make sense of the rest of life. Hopefully, as I write to clarify for myself what this “God stuff” all means, I’ve been able to help you think about your own journey, encouraged you to “ask yourself in silence” how God is moving and working in your life. That’s always been my goal, and I pledge to continue along that good and well-tread path.

As I re-read those first entries, I’m reminded of my original intent, which was to take a special look at the intersection of that place where spirituality and creativity meet. I think I’ve done that to a certain extent, but in the coming year I intend to spend a little more time at that intersection, reflecting on my own creativity as well as that of others, searching for and pointing out the inseparability — at least for me — of those two concepts and practices. Spirituality and creativity, as ideas and as ways of living and acting, both point to the same place, back to the Creator and Spirit that moved across the abyss and created everything out of nothing.

Detail of study desk at George Wythe House, Williamsburg, VA, where Thomas Jefferson studied as a young man. SJG photo.

I know that many of you — I would say all of you — are creative people yourselves, involved in writing and art and music and other forms of expression. And if you’re not, I’d encourage you to ask yourself if there might be some work for you to do. As I move forward into the new year, I’m going to encourage that creativity in those of you who read my blog, even as I encourage you to look deep within for the source of that good work.

For we are, in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien:

Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

I’ll continue to suggest that you “ask yourself in silence,” but I’m also going to encourage you through creative “prompts” to delve deep into that silence and come back with something to share. Share your thoughts, prayers and poems with me through the comment button so that everyone else can see them, too. From time to time I may choose some of those to share in one of my posts. If your creative expression takes you to the more visual worlds of art and you wish to share, you can send files or links to me via email to givenscreative@gmail.com for consideration to be shared with others via the site. I can’t and won’t share everything, but I look forward to seeing and hearing about what you are finding and creating from the deep and silent places where the breath of God lives within you.

Peace to you all.

Ask yourself in silence: What’s God saying to me today? What “voice” do I have to share that with the world?

Today’s Word: Other

Me and my shadow. SJG Photo.

“You are loved / and so are they.”
(From Old Turtle and the Broken Truth, by Douglas Wood)

This is what we so often forget, even if we don’t consciously realize it. This is what we need to remember and rekindle. This is the kind of life to which we are called, one in which we walk and talk and act and plan as if the other is as loved by God as we are.

But we forget. Sitting in the comfort of our homes (here I am on an early Saturday morning with a laptop on my lap, a cup of coffee in my hand and a fire in the hearth), we can feel safe, warm and content. If we are people of faith, we can feel loved by the God we think of as Creator and Lord. If we are Christians, we can feel loved by the grace and peace of Jesus. All’s good, we say. I’m loved, we think. I have everything I need right here, we feel deep inside.

And that’s a good thing, to be so secure in this love that God has for us. This is as it should be.

But we need to be careful. For sometimes, in our assurance of our own belovedness, we begin to think that we (our group, our tribe, our church, our denomination, our country, our race) has a monopoly on God’s love and we begin to create in our minds “the other.”

The other lives far away, or maybe just in another part of the city. The other looks different than we do. The other prays and worships differently, or maybe they don’t pray or worship at all. The other speaks a different language or with inflections and accents strange to our ears. The other is darker or lighter than us. The other sometimes laughs and cries at different things than we do. The other is too loud or much too quiet. And we begin to fear the other because the safety of our own sense of belovedness begins to falter and crack.

If we’re so loved by God, we say to ourselves, how can the other, who is so different, be loved too? So we build fences and walls and otherwise put distance between ourselves and the other. We build up armies to protect ourselves from the armies of the other and, indeed, these are often necessary.  For the other fears us as much as we fear them.

The thing is, we’ve got this all wrong. We don’t get to choose who God loves.

Ask yourself in silence: Who is my other?