September 2016 Books

I'll Give You the SunI’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jandy Nelson has written two great books; I’ve devoured both and eagerly anticipate whatever she’ll release next. Her writing is amazing! Both books deal with themes of family, death, love, and art. In other words, life.

JudeandNoah are twins; both serve as narrators, Noah at age 14 and Jude at age 16, with chapters jumping between voices/ages. They’ve suffered a tragedy which they deal with in their own ways, eventually discovering the courage to tell the truth and live more truthfully.

Sculptor/mentor Guillermo: “You will see with your hands, I promise you. Now I contradict myself. Picasso he do too. He say pull out your brain, yes, he also say, ‘Painting is a blind man’s profession’ and ‘To draw you must close your eyes and sing.’ And Michelangelo, he say he sculpts with his brains, not his eyes. Yes. Everything is true at once. Life is contradiction. We take in every lesson. We find what works. Okay, now, pick up the charcoal and draw” (p. 197).

Noah: “…most of the time, I feel like I’m undercover.”
Jude: “Me too. Or maybe a person is just made up of a lot of people. Maybe we’re accumulating these new selves all the time.” Hauling them in as we make choices, good and bad, as we screw up, step up, lose our minds, find our minds, fall apart, fall in love, as we grieve, grow, retreat from the world, dive into the world, as we make things, as we break things.”
Noah: He grins. “Each new self standing on the last one’s shoulders until we’re these wobbly people poles?”
Jude: I die of delight. “Yes, exactly! We’re all just wobbly people poles!” (p. 354)

First Comes LoveFirst Comes Love by Emily Giffin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Sometimes a fluff book is just what I need, although this was fluff on serious subjects: what grief does to individuals within and family as a whole. It reminded me of Jennifer Weiner’s In Her Shoes, with two very different sisters-one flying by the seat of her pants, the other a frustrated lawyer-taking turns to narrate how they each try to move forward from family crisis. The story got progressively better and didn’t have the exact ending I expected, but I don’t expect to be mulling this one over for long.

Fates and FuriesFates and Furies by Lauren Groff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow.

Golden Child weds Model Girl (alternately, Devil Girl, though he never knows). His fate/her fury a perfect match of the gods.

Groff writes these characters so larger than life they are god-like and yet so completely flawed that they are simultaneously truly human. Extraordinary, and so ordinary. We admire them, we know them, we are them. We don’t ever want to be them.

This novel could have been shorter, one-sided, and it still would have been remarkable. But in its fullness it tells the story of a marriage, nay, the stories of a marriage, the two lives become one, in such fullness that it’s breathtaking.

Truly Madly GuiltyTruly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really liked Big Little Lies. Three Wishes was okay. I hear What Alice Forgot is terrific. I didn’t like Truly Madly Guilty.

One of the least guilty characters in this book describes herself as “deplorable,” and I thought, “That’s ALL of them!” The characters read like unlikable caricatures. The writing is overblown, especially at the beginning, where the ploy of moving chapter by chapter from “The Night of the Barbecue” to current day is meant to build suspense and succeeds only in being super annoying.

Well, except, I kept reading to find out what unimaginable thing happened at the barbecue…

And it’s kind of predictable, as are the character’s responses to it. I hoped for some honest soul-searching and healthy relational confrontation but didn’t find it.

DreamologyDreamology by Lucy Keating
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This isn’t a deep, discover yourself book. It’s a light and innocent YA version of a chick flick.

Sleeping Beauty, aka Alice (aptly named because she prefers Wonderland), has dreamed nightly of her prince, Max, since she was a child. When she starts a new school, she is shocked to find Max for real, the guy of her dreams in the flesh.

How is this possible? Of course it’s not, but that’s part of the fun.

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Creative

Today’s guest post comes from a friend who for years pew-sat near where I pew-sat. We waved, smiled, hugged, and regularly engaged in worship side-by-side. I came to know her creative heart as she shared through a regular design article in our local paper and through her business posts over social media. Her eye for beauty never fails, and neither does her willingness to pray.

Create Challenge #33: Ann McDonald

Creative
Endless possibility
Firmly plant
God’s heart, the soil
Steward in the secret place
No limit
No place too deep, heights beyond
Measure scars
Healed, beauty born
Order out, safety balance
Justice scales
Creative beyond measure
Increasing
Holy, shouldered
Love, weight, fallen yet redeemed
To a
Place of honor stewarded
Secret place
The psalmist sings
Transparent truth, weight measured
Rhythmic chords
Bearing anguish, healing souls
Spirits soar
Beyond clouds
Relationship, chords become
Life, birthed
In blood, redeemed creative
Bring forth new
Today, glory
Endless soil, possible
Rooted in
God’s heart, stewarded from
Secret place
Creative, you
Are, beloved truth, birthed from
Blood, redeemed
Endless possibility
From the soil
God’s heart, now seeds
Break through, growth, fearless, timeless
Creative beamcdonald

Ann McDonald is a visionary creative strategist and tactician. She has a unique skill for constructing and deconstructing the macro without sacrificing the micro in the marketplace and in the realm of ideas. Ann foreruns curriculum creation for consultants, and coaches Leaders across the spectrum unto growth and profitability.

A 25 year veteran of the Luxury Design Industry, Ann is the Business Moderator for a trade community over 100,000 strong. She has a passion for equipping creatives. She creates processes to bring ideas from raw form to implementation, and then towards influence and increase.

Ann graduated from UC Berkeley, is married to Patrick, has two grown sons, three pugs, and currently splits time between Lake Tahoe and the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

Out of Whack

Note: This is Part 3 in a Sunday series on the life of Joseph.
Part 1: Messy Family
Part 2: Resisting Temptation

The other day a friend said, “It sounds like your life is out of whack.”

Out of whack…sounds about right.

My kids have this cool math toy, like a Rubik’s Cube but a ball, called a Ball of Whacks. It’s fun and kinesthetic and an appropriate analogy for our life—we’ve got a few pieces missing and others poking the wrong direction.ball-of-whacks-1

Two weeks ago Teen slipped on a wet pool deck and got a concussion. Last week Tween got a cold, and then began vomiting, and it can be darn near impossible to know the difference between the run-of-the-mill virus and a cold + cyclic vomiting. A week of rest for each and they’ve both recovered, thank God.

Long work hours and make-up school work means we haven’t eaten dinner together as a family in too long. The clean and folded laundry occupied prime dining table real estate until it was time to wash more laundry. Wash, rinse, repeat – bodies, dishes, clothes, days, life.

Individually and as a family, we have been out of whack. And when we get this way, it gets me down.

One of the fun things about a Ball of Whacks is that you can whack it apart, but when you hold them close, the pieces magnetically snap into place with a satisfying click. Effort pops the pieces apart but just a little effort draws them back into shape.ball-of-whacks-2

When we get out of whack, like everyone does from time to time, I hang on to gratitude. Gratitude helps me locate all the missing pieces and sort them as needed. Gratitude directs my attention to times I thought we’d lost the pieces for good and helps me remember that, since we came through that, we will get through this. Gratitude diverts my attention from feeling sorry for myself to appreciating the good things, even the very little things. Gratitude takes my focus off me and puts my sight on others.

No secret: life is hard. Injury and illness, job insecurity and financial struggles, relational conflict, long days and sleepless nights, the list goes on. Betrayed by his family and ripped from his home, Joseph dealt with understandable and significant disappointment. But he kept his sights on God and did his best in every situation.

I bet Joe felt more than a little out of whack, more like the missing piece. But his faithfulness—and God’s faithfulness to him—give me hope. God used a situation that looked like extreme injustice to bring about reconciliation and redemption. Of course, Joe couldn’t know that at the time, so he had to hold on.

So I hold on by giving thanks while I look for the pieces and hold them close so God can pop them into shape.

Connect
Think about a time when life got you down. How did you handle it?

Study
Read aloud Genesis 40.
What reasons do the chief cupbearer and chief baker have to feel dejected?
What reasons does Joseph have to feel dejected?
How do you think Joseph felt when his interpretations of the men’s dreams proved accurate? When the cupbearer forgot him to Pharaoh?
How does Joseph seem to deal with disappointment?
In Genesis 37:5-11 Joseph has dreams. In Genesis 40 Joseph interprets dreams because “interpretations belong to God.” How might the theme of dreams be evidence of God giving Joseph hope in disappointing circumstances?

Live
In your recent experience, have life’s disappointments tended to be predictable or surprising? Is one or the other easier to deal with? Explain.
When have you felt disappointed with God? What helps you to maintain trust?
How has serving others helped you feel better about your own circumstances?
How might you, individually or with family/friends, help others dealing with disappointment?
What is Jesus saying to you through this study, and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that the Spirit will help you trust God during disappointment.

To Unite Creativity to Communion with God

Today’s guest post comes from a precious friend of many years with whom I have spent far too little time face-to-face. In fact, had I not opened an email from a stranger, we might not be friends at all. Some years after Guy and I graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary, Danielle and Matt followed in our footsteps. As married seminary-educated ministry teams are all too rare, friends and mentors told them we needed to meet and passed on our contact info. We exchanged emails until we all moved from SoCal to NorCal and finally met in person. We are so grateful others thought to introduce us! Three Humphreys babies and a couple of churches later, they are in Oregon while we remain in NorCal and we remain grateful for social media that keeps us connected and praying for this sweet family.

Create Challenge #32: Danielle Humphreys

When I was a kid, I loved to doodle, cut-and-paste paper creations, and would go to school sick so I wouldn’t miss that week’s art project. In third or fourth grade, my teacher looked at a paper mask I made and told me I outdid myself. I glowed in the affirmation of what I loved doing. From FIMO creations to beaded necklaces to decorating homecoming floats in tissue paper, being creative just seems to be in my DNA.

In college and beyond, I grew as a visual artist, squeezing in a few art studio classes with whatever free electives I had as a science major. Sculpture and interactive art that invited engagement, like the swings I hung in the university plaza and the “GO” signs I made and installed along bike paths, or even the paintings dealing with my own biracial identity played on themes of whimsy and the potential for deep commentary and conversation. I would have switched my major to art studio, but let’s just say my parents were already disappointed that I got off the pre-med track.

In college and beyond, I grew in my relationship with Jesus and found that the intersection of faith and art just made sense to me. I was invited to use creativity in worship services and retreats through response stations and by designing the environment. My own participation in creative response stations and taking in the visual environment are ways that help me have a heart connection with God while reflecting on how to live out my faith in everyday life. In an increasingly visual world where so much is communicated and felt through design, image and color, I am almost equally if not more impacted by the visual “message” of a worship service (yes, even the fonts matter!) as I am by the sermon itself. I imagine I am not alone in this reality.

Sometimes, my creativity feels like it has shifted to satisfy more utilitarian needs like cooking, making Halloween costumes for my kids, throwing themed birthday parties, and designing print communications for our church. And while I can lose track of time pouring myself into these things (I once spent an hour carving a watermelon to look like the Death Star), it doesn’t satisfy the desire to go deep; to unite creativity to communion with God, truth, wonder, and wrestling. Where the process itself is like entering another dimension where time slows down, I can hear the whisper of God and sometimes see life more clearly. The most recent experience I had where the process of creating art drew me closer to God was a couple of weeks ago when I helped paint and redesign the high school room at church.dhumphries-1dhumphries-2

 

As a long-time youth pastor/leader, I strongly value involving students in the creative process and invite their ideas and input. Would it be easier to just design and execute the ideas I have in my head by myself? Absolutely. But I have found that the benefit of working on a collaborative art piece far outweighs the messiness of involving others and the balance and simmering down of many ideas. Students especially need the affirmation that their creativity and faith are valuable and beautiful. And so I may gently guide and nudge ideas I’ve been collecting for months on my Pinterest board, but I try to be an adult that says, “YES! That’s a great idea, let’s do it!” because I want to help students not only have a hospitable place that inspires their faith, but I want their creativity to feel at home in the church and see how this might be a way God wired them to connect with their Creator. Working with students on art projects is not only a way to create a mosaic or stage design or mural, but an opportunity for discipleship, encouraging reflection on one’s spiritual journey.dhumphries-3

I love our mural of the Sisters Mountains with its taped off edges and facets, the night sky and sunset. The concept for this wall went through much evolution from my initial offering of building trees out of reclaimed fence boards or using something more temporary like canvas banners. But it’s awesome. And it’s not perfect. Parts could be touched up, and the door still needs to be painted, but many hands and minds came together to create this majestic offering. And while I thoroughly enjoyed working on this mural with others, I didn’t mind when the school year started and our students weren’t able to help as much. I happily added the finishing touches from writing the verse to individually gluing tiny Swarovski crystals into constellations on the night sky, smiling at the idea of someone with eyes to see noticing the unexpected twinkling reflection of light. In my alone times, I cranked up my favorite worship songs and blended colors into a sunset while God blended love through music and paint into me. I thought about the real Sisters Mountains I’d seen earlier this summer; the expanse of the night sky with its starry host declaring the grandeur of God, the same God who created all of it, and who created me, too. I hope that those who use this space, created with a heart of worship, will encounter God’s loving Spirit and hospitality.

dhumphries

 

Danielle is a native Bay Area gal, adjusting to life in Oregon, married to Matt and mom to 3 pint-sized humans. She has a B.A. in Aquatic Biology, an M.A. in Theology (Fuller), and enjoys conversations about church, community, Jesus, and gardening. She is also a lover of good food, music, creativity, and outer space. Her neglected blog is daniellehumphreys.wordpress.com.

Jesus & Women

jesus-womenThis morning Guy and I taught one of our church’s adult classes on the topic of “Jesus & Women.” We talked about 1st century Greek, Roman and Jewish culture in which women were powerless possessions of their male head-of-households. We looked at biblical examples of Jesus’ interaction with women and saw how He respectfully engaged with them and how, in more than one case, He used them to preach and teach and effectively spread the good news. And I told my story, or at least some of it in view of the topic. This is what I shared:

When Guy first mentioned that I had been asked to speak on Jesus & Women, I hesitated. I took a deep breath. I thought, “Ah, here we go again, the woman issue…” Why are we talking about Jesus & Women? I don’t see Jesus & Men on the list… But women.

We talk about Jesus & Women because women have been culturally disrespected, in and out of the Church. We talk about women because the Bible was written in a patriarchal culture. We talk about women because the Bible has been used to endorse disrespect for women and their God-given gifts. We talk about women because Paul wrote some things that the Church has long chosen to read literally, and I believe erroneously, rather than understanding that the patriarchal culture was firmly in Paul’s view. Given that Paul himself recognized and honored gifted female leaders as partners in ministry – Lydia, Priscilla, Junia – I wonder if Paul isn’t shaking his head in heaven at how his comments continue to be misunderstood… And so, if we’re talking about women because women are still a misunderstood segment of God’s beloved, then I wonder if perhaps a man could best present that argument.

We talk about Jesus & Women because, thankfully, Jesus had a radically different, inclusive approach to women, uncommon to His culture. We talk about Jesus & Women because our Creator God made all of us, male and female, in His image; our Savior Jesus died to redeem and restore all of us, male and female; and the Spirit of God indwells and gifts all of us, male and female, equipping us to do every good work He has planned for us since the beginning of time.

And we talk about Jesus & Women because, thankfully, we, at this local church, in this Presbyterian denomination, want to learn from, be shaped by, and emulate the grace and love of Jesus in our dealings with all people. I am grateful. And that gives me the courage to get personal with you. To be vulnerable. To be myself.

I am not a politician. I am a woman, and I believe God has gifted and called me into ministry. Not ministry to children, nor music ministry, nor even women’s ministries – all good, but not my immediate calling. But being a woman who believes God has called her to ministry, and professional ministry, in a non-traditional woman’s role does not make me a politician. I don’t like feeling like I have to defend myself, my gifts, my place in ministry, even my God-given desire to pursue Him and honor Him in the way He has made me to love and serve Him. I’ve never felt excited about being a “token” or a “representative,” even though I have occasionally recognized it as an honor to model for other women that they, too, can serve God in whatever ways He has called them. I have seldom felt any enthusiasm about continuing to break through the jagged edges of glass ceiling women in ministry before me have shattered. I don’t want to be defensive, and I don’t want to be angry. And yet I recognize the injustice that I and other women have endured as we seek to be true to God and His calling on our lives. Hence my hesitation.

But let me talk about Jesus and me, Jesus and this particular woman standing in front of you. I have known that Jesus loves me as long as I have had the ability to think. My mom told me that, before she knew she was pregnant with me, she felt like God asked her if she would like a baby. She said, “Whatever you want, Lord.” He replied, “You will have a daughter.” So when two doctors told her she would have a boy based on how she carried her pregnancy (pre-ultrasound, of course), she said no, she had it on Ultimate Authority that she would have a baby girl.

That’s my birth story: God chose me first. God knew me. God planned me. That absolutely shaped my self-identity. [Honestly, I wish my story for every baby, that every baby would know from their very own beginning that God loves them, chose them, knows them inside and out, planned them and has plans for them…]

As a kid, I was at church every time the doors opened. Once I even showed up at an Elders’ meeting because it was on the church calendar (they sent me home). I did stuff that boggles my brain now – door-to-door evangelism, passing out gospel tracts on San Diego beaches – all because a church leader asked me to. I was on every leadership team through high school. I went to Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts school, where I had fabulous male and female teachers and mentors and my faith continued to stretch and grow. Throughout my life, I have loved Jesus and I have loved His Church.

It’s interesting to me that so many churches allow young women to serve in youth leadership positions but once they hit adulthood that door slams. At the first church we served our female students could be greeters and ushers, but I couldn’t. I had to promise the elders, all men, that if I taught male students, Guy would be in the room. I loved and led to Christ and discipled a group of young girls; Guy had the privilege of baptizing them, whereas I couldn’t because of my gender. Later, we finally left that church because a new senior pastor wouldn’t talk to me directly – he’d call Guy in to his office to answer my questions. At youth ministry conferences, I have crossed paths with at least two of my own youth pastors – and neither would talk to me because they couldn’t respect a woman holding a ministry position. Guy and I eventually aligned ourselves with the Presbyterian Church because here more than elsewhere I am free to exercise my gifts and be who Jesus created me to be.

As a young adult I thought my professional path would be in the arts – during and after college I worked in PR and Events at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. But Guy was working with students at a church and I fell more and more in love. I wanted to do what he was doing. Our church did a series on spiritual gifts and my top gift came up “Prophecy.” I didn’t want it. I did not want to be a man with a big stick telling people what they were doing wrong, things they knew better and didn’t want to hear…

[See, even then, my own biblical view of women was misshapen – I hadn’t been taught, hadn’t noticed, that Miriam and Deborah were Old Testament prophets; that on the day of Pentecost, Peter quotes the prophet Joel:

God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days… (Acts 2:17-18)]

I thought prophets were mean old crazy men. And people generally don’t like prophets. But others confirmed that gift in me – they saw my deep connection to God’s Spirit and willingness to speak His Word. And while some would say prophecy is a dead gift, others affirm that preaching and teaching was the prophets’ true role. And I do love to write about and teach God’s truth. It wasn’t long after that first spiritual gifts test that God miraculously moved people and hearts and landed me a position on a church staff.

I have never doubted that Jesus loves me. And I believe that Jesus has given me gifts that are only satisfied as I use them to tell His story, His truth, to share His Word. Like the woman at the well sharing the good news of the Messiah with her village, like Mary exclaiming the Best News Ever: “I have seen the Lord!”

The music director at the first church we served was a woman. She laid out the reality of a hard path before me as a woman in ministry. She warned that if I thought I could do anything else, I should run hard and fast in that direction. From time to time I recall her advice, but God still hasn’t given me any freedom to run anywhere but to Him.

On Creativity & Sabbatical

When I proposed the Create Challenge I intentionally did not offer an estimated word count, recognizing that, depending on the type of creativity, some contributors would need more or less space. And let’s be honest, some days creativity comes in a concise burst or single image while other days words pour forth like a flooded midwinter river roaring through a storm. Today’s contributor, my friend and co-worker, offered me the editorial hatchet; I picked up only tweezers to tame a few loose hairs. He has a beautiful story to share of living a creative life, through ups and downs, when creative work demands compete for time and space with personal creativity. It’s a story with subtle lessons worthy of steeping into our souls.

Create Challenge #31: Mike Loretto

I.

I stepped out of the van that had shuttled me from the Albuquerque airport to the campus of St. John’s College in Santa Fe. It was raining. Hard. In the desert. (“Monsoon season,” the shuttle driver explained). I prayed that my guitar case was waterproof enough to protect its contents. It was late – after midnight. I was late – I had already missed the opening evening of the workshop. I was tired. I was wet.

I checked in and was directed toward my dorm room – across campus. Still raining.  Harder.

I ducked out of the rain and into the lobby of Jones Hall and did my best impression of our beloved pit bull mix, Bristow, with a full body, moisture-flinging shake. Then I realized that several other conference attendees were gathered in the lobby and the stairwell of the dorm, getting to know each other, laughing, and now looking with pity on my dripping, bedraggled self.

“Once you get your stuff in your room, come back and join us if you want!” one of them offered. I mumbled a “Thanks,” flashed as much of a smile as I could muster, and found my room.

I dropped my stuff, toweled off, and considered collapsing into bed. But no, I was here – might as well get started on being open to whatever was in store for the week.

When I reappeared, someone made room on the stairs. Someone else offered me a plastic cup of good whiskey. And a poet, a food critic, a pastor, a filmmaker, and a writer of fiction immediately started getting to know me and letting me get to know them. I was soaked, in the desert, and exactly where I needed to be.

Koi pond at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, NM

Koi pond at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, NM

II.

I was in the 8th week of a 9-week sabbatical from my job as the “Minister of Music & Worship” (or “music guy”) at a Presbyterian church. And I was a little bit desperate.

Now, understand: I’m hesitant to even say this because, well, who wants to hear anyone complain about their sabbatical?!  (“Oh, your summer of being paid not to work didn’t go exactly like you hoped? I’M SO SORRY!”)

Nevertheless – I went into it with a certain set of hopes and plans and expectations. And up to that point, most of those had been dashed. The place we were going to stay for free all summer didn’t work out. Unexpected expenses arose one after another. (Car repairs! A speeding ticket! Vet bills! More car repairs!)

Rather than being able to focus on reflection, contemplation, creativity, exercise, and nurturing my marriage to Sarah, I was spending too much time and energy figuring out where we were going to stay next, how much that would cost, and…I was frustrated. There had certainly been some highlights, but both Sarah and I were feeling at least as drained as refreshed. Brief moments of renewed relational connection and intimacy were in danger of being superseded by stress and frustration.

And here in week 8, sabbatical was almost done. It felt like sand slipping through my fingers.

My Instagram photo showed what sabbatical was supposed to be like

My Instagram photo showed what sabbatical was supposed to be like

III.

Selflessly, even though she couldn’t go, Sarah had suggested I register at the very last minute for the Glen Workshop. An ecumenical gathering of those interested in the intersection of “art, faith, and mystery,” the Glen had been a transformative experience for both Sarah and me three years ago when we took the songwriting workshop led by our favorite musical duo, Over the Rhine.

That previous experience had reminded me that I have a deep-seated NEED to create. It’s a central part of how I’m wired, and if I’m not being intentional about creating, I’m not being who I’m meant to be.

My main mode of creation is songwriting. (Sarah and I both write, record, and occasionally perform and share songs under the name Truesdell.) I’ve dabbled in some poetry, some blogging, some other forms of writing. But a well-crafted song, to me, feels like the intersection of heaven and earth.

And isn’t that what creation is: heaven touching, forming, and re-forming the physical? The Divine incarnating itself?

Back to the Glen Workshop: as the songwriting workshop was full, I signed up for the “retreat option.” I had mornings free to read, write, pray. In the afternoons and evenings I heard readings from poets, essayists, and novelists. I saw a documentary film presented by the director. I heard photographers and painters and sculptors talk about their work. So much amazing creation I couldn’t possibly take it all in. I just had to assume a receptive posture, letting it wash over me, and pay attention to how the Spirit was creating new life in me through the creativity of these artists.

IV.

In my church role, a big chunk of the creating I do (along with our pastors) is the content and flow of the weekly worship service. I’m primarily responsible for the music part, but also for helping craft a movement to the whole thing.

Hopefully each week there’s an arc to a service that helps us celebrate who we understand God to be, confess honestly our need for redemption, give thanks for the healing we find, come into conversation with the ancient stories and truths of Scripture, and respond to what we’re hearing. It’s an incredibly fulfilling (and, I believe, important) creative endeavor, and I feel privileged to get to be a creator in my professional life in a way that seems valuable to me, to my community, and to the world.

One of the gifts of my sabbatical, however, was the time away from that privilege.

Let me explain. Often, only certain forms of creative expression (usually music, preaching, some forms of visual art, maybe poetry, and rarely dance, drama, or film) find their way into worship services. And generally only certain themes can be explored within those modes and still be useful or appropriate in the context of a church worship service.

I enjoy writing and arranging church music. But if everything I’m creating is for the purpose of being used in services, then I’m rarely or never creating just for the sake of being creative, just to celebrate that I’m a creator made in the image of a creative God. And if I’m always writing about the themes that are most useful in a worship service – songs meant for congregational singing, that explicitly mention God or Jesus – then I’m ignoring entire rich fields of (also inherently spiritual) subject matter.

Sometimes those non-churchy things are the depths I need to mine creatively in order to be a healthier person and, perhaps ironically, more spiritually attuned. And if my role at church has scratched just enough of my creative itch that I don’t write songs about marriage or politics or nature or sex or what-have-you – and if God is leading me to explore those areas – then I’m not living out my calling as a creator.

I believe all good art is inherently redemptive, even if it’s not explicitly talking about how – theologically – redemption comes about. Sometimes the redemption comes through writing about ugly, painful things, not tying up loose ends in a nice bow, just painting the mess as honestly as possible – then sharing it and having someone say, “Yeah… me, too.”

Sabbatical gave me a chance to focus more on finding God and redemption and beauty in the minutiae and mess of my daily life – and to write about it.

V.

On Thursday night at the Glen Workshop, a guy named Jeff issued an open invitation to gather in an apartment on campus and share our work with one another. That evening turned into the highlight of the week – of my summer, really.

I sat on the floor and sipped wine and listened to 8-10 minutes of work from probably 25 other creators. I heard the voice of God speaking through conservative evangelical memoirists, Catholic poets, agnostic novelists, and progressive Christian essayists. It was amazing to hear the breadth of ways that diverse people can communicate beauty and truth. And then I got to add my voice to the chorus.

I played two of my songs – one that I’d written at the Glen Workshop three years ago, and one that I’d started earlier in the summer and finished that week. Both dealt with the struggle of sharing your life with another person. (I’m sure your marriage/relationship is easy, but Sarah and I have found that it’s also a constant exercise in dying to yourself, which isn’t always fun!)

Neither were songs I would play in church. But it was an incredibly worshipful experience to share them with this group. These creators, who had been feeding my soul with their work, were nodding, smiling, (even crying?) – RESONATING with what I was expressing, and in that moment I knew on a deep level that I wasn’t alone, and that my life, my struggles, and the work that comes out of them are part of a larger story that connects us all.

Here’s the older of the songs I played, written after visiting Lexington, Massachusetts, site of the first battle of the American Revolutionary War. Sarah and I were in a season of, let’s say, stumbling over each other more than building each other up. It’s just a demo, not a professional recording, so excuse the quality:

VI.

Experiencing that living room floor, those people, that beauty, that Thursday evening…if that was all that I got out of my sabbatical, it would have been enough. It led to a new passion, a new sense of direction for me.

I crave the sort of collaboration and encouragement between artists that I experienced that night, and I crave the sense of God being alive and present and active that it brings for me. So (somewhat selfishly!) I’m determined to do whatever I can to help create that sort of space in my locale (the East Bay).

I’m in the beginning stages of organizing an Artists’ Collective, in which anyone who creates has a regular space to share their work, be inspired by the creativity of others, and to reflect together on how our creativity fits into the larger creativity of God. If you’re in my area and interested in an experience like that, I’d love to hear from you and be in creative community with you!

mloretto

Mike Loretto (@mikeloretto on Twitter/IG) is a songwriter, worship leader, husband to Sarah, and feeder of dogs Bristow and Jed Bartlet. He and Sarah write and perform music under the name Truesdell and are hoping to release an album this year. (Find Truesdell on Facebook or @truesdellmusic on Twitter). Mike is passionate about the intersection of art & spirituality, contemplative prayer, good food & drink, Kansas Jayhawks basketball, and Kansas City Royals baseball. He almost never blogs at mikeloretto.tumblr.com. Email: mikeloretto at gmail dot com

Resisting Temptation

appleMy pastor-husband believes he witnessed our oldest son’s first sin. Teen was less than a year old, nine or ten months, and exercising his newly-gained crawling and climbing independence. Even though we had covers on all the electric outlets, we still wanted our babies to learn not to touch these at-their-level wall plates. Guy called baby Teen’s name, and Teen promptly turned to look at his dad. Guy spoke clearly, “Teen, no. Do Not Touch.” Teen looked at the wall plate, at his dad, at the wall plate, and touched.

Of course he touched! In describing this scene, Guy says he saw a look of willful disobedience flit across Teen’s little face. We’re not child development experts, so maybe that’s not even a developmental possibility. Yet we do have first-hand experience with the human heart and its inclination to do the wrong thing. Touching the wall plate sure looked like giving in to the insatiable curiosity of temptation.

We all recognize that desire can increase in direct proportion to the word, “No.” Not in every case, perhaps, but often enough that it seems to be one of life’s generally accepted truths. I bet you don’t have to ponder long to come up with an example from your own experience:

When did you grasp the suddenly irresistibly attractive forbidden fruit?

Anything from a sweet you don’t normally crave but now that you’ve determined to eat healthier you can’t stop thinking about to an off-limits relationship, no’s inconsequential and monumental cause us to reach for that which we should not take. Just like Eve and Adam in the garden, reaching up to grasp, then bite and share, that fruit over which God had pronounced a resounding, “No.”

Joseph, however, found the strength to respond with his own “No,” to not only resist but flee temptation. Genesis 39 continues the story of Joseph, the once-hated younger brother sold into slavery (Genesis 37), now the grown-up house slave of one of Egypt’s most powerful men. The stories of his youth didn’t explicitly mention the Lord, yet now that Joseph is away from God’s people, a stranger in a foreign land, the Lord makes His presence known, blessing Joseph and everything he touches so that even his Egyptian master recognizes that the God of Israel is with Joseph.

Always one to engage the drama, I feel sorry for Potiphar’s wife. Don’t get me wrong: she’s the “bad guy” in the tale, and I don’t condone her actions, but I feel for her. Her powerful husband seems to have forgotten her. He has handed the reigns to Joe and thinks only about what he’ll have to eat, without thought for his wife.

Unlike Potiphar, Joe is always on hand. He handles all the business and anything else she might need and, well, she’s decided she’s got a need this good looking guy can meet. Understand, if the gender roles had been reversed–if Potiphar had made a request of his female house slave–she would not have been free to say no (and, honestly, we don’t know that didn’t happen…). Which probably adds to Wifey’s frustration. Joe’s “No” makes him that much more desirable, and she doesn’t have the power to demand that her husband so easily wields, solely by nature of his gender.

Joe knows to whom he belongs. God is with him. Saying yes to Potiphar’s wife means saying no to God, and he’s not willing to go there. After all, God turned his brother’s dastardly deeds into a darn good situation. For a slave, at least.

Joe stays entirely out of her way until she lays a trap for him. Thrusting herself upon him, he wriggles out of her arms and out of his cloak. I’m sure she’s thinking, “If I can just lay my hot lips on his face, he’ll give in. He’s a man, after all…” She underestimated Joe’s commitment to God. She underestimated Joe’s commitment to integrity. She has his cloak. She lies.

Joe does the right thing and gets burned for it. Thrown in prison, I bet he remembersg the last time he got thrown in a pit. God turned that around, and God can do it again. Where some would give in to discouragement, Joe remains faithful to his God.

Connect
Who strikes you as a model of integrity and why?

Study
Read aloud Genesis 39.
Genesis 37 lacked explicit mention of “the Lord.” Why do you think God shows up here?
How does God’s presence with Joseph affect his situation (vv. 2-6)?
Do you think Joseph knew the risk involved with refusing Potiphar’s wife? How did he stand his ground (vv. 6-12)?
What resulted from Joseph’s determination to resist temptation (vv. 13-20)?
How do you think Joseph felt about this new turn of events?
Compare the stories in Genesis 37 and 39 (for example, in both Joseph has done nothing wrong, is betrayed by those close to him, etc). Why do you think we get two similar stories about Joseph? What does that add to our knowledge of him? Of God?

Live
Have you ever done the right thing and paid an unfair price for your action? What motivates you to do the right thing the next time?
Discuss other biblical and real life examples of integrity (for example, Daniel). What do you gain by their examples?
Temptation comes in many forms. What helps you resist temptation?
How do you hold on to the truth of God’s goodness when holy action gets you burned?
What are the benefits of living a God-honoring life?
What is Jesus saying to you through this study, and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray for awareness of God’s presence with you and the strength to resist temptation and live a God-honoring life.