Guest Post: A.J. Brown

Our 2018 theme is “Connect” and my dear A.J. Brown wrote about “Community,” which seems just right: we live in community, we invest in community, we create community as we knit our heartstrings together. Please note: if you would like to guest post on this blog, please see the link above.

Community.

When someone asks me to write an article or blog post about a certain word, I usually try to start with my knee jerk emotional reaction to that word. For example, when the owner of this blog asked me to write a post about creativity a couple of years ago, that was simple. My beautiful, unicorn and rainbow loving little boy exemplified the word and still does now.

Community.

What does that mean to me? I think the reason this post was hard to write is that community means so many different things to me. The town I grew up in represented a community I couldn’t wait to get out of. Then, when I grew up and became a parent, I couldn’t wait to move back. I can’t imagine raising my kids anywhere else.

Community.

It doesn’t just refer to a geographical area in which we live, does it? Not for me, anyway. Yes, I live in this community. I am part of this community. But, I am also part of many communities within this community, and that’s what I love about this community.

In junior high and high school in this same community, I often felt like the odd girl out. I didn’t have just one posse of friends with whom I did everything and shared everything…I never felt like I belonged to any one group. I was more of a floater. Some months I gravitated towards the popular crowd and the other cheerleaders, other times I’d get fed up with the cattiness and take refuge with the quiet academics. Or, if there was a boy I was interested in (wasn’t there always?), I’d hang around with the athletes. I got really good at being “one of the guys.” I could occasionally be found breathing second hand smoke in a van behind the school listening to “Stairway to Heaven,” or flaunting my impressively flipped bangs and perm at college parties when I was just sixteen. Some lunchtimes, I felt too insecure to join any group at all, and you’d find me in the library, or assisting a teacher. Looking back, I realize that what was so hard about those years for me was that I felt that I didn’t HAVE a community. I was just an occasional honorary member. I didn’t have the self-confidence to just…be. I could not wait to graduate, get the heck out, and finally discover who I really was.

Fast forward several decades, and here I am, living in this same community, with a lot of the same folks who grew up here just like I did. Apparently this town breeds homing pigeons. The difference? Now this finally feels like MY community. This time around, I know exactly who I am and who I want to be. Furthermore, I truly don’t care who likes it and who doesn’t. Interestingly, while I’m a completely different person as an adult than I was as that corner hugging, cringing teenager, I’m still a floater. But this time, it’s not because I feel like I don’t fit in, it’s because I am blessed to feel like I fit in everywhere. Everything about this town makes me happy, and I adore all of the smaller communities that, together, make up this beautiful flower of a larger community. 

When I go to Starbucks in the morning, I love that I see the same faces, day after day. I don’t know many of their names, but they know my face and I know theirs and we greet each other with smiles that are genuine. I love the groups of older (than me, which is all relative) folks who commune there every single morning. They have an amazing community. I love that when I’m working out of Starbucks, as I often am because my home and office get lonely during the day, never a day goes by where I don’t see several people I know and whom I am genuinely happy to see. This silly little chain store coffee shop is a community all its own. Just as I’ve been sitting here writing this, I’ve been greeted by a teenager, several moms, a dear friend of a dad who happens to be working at “home” today, a newspaper reporter I adore for whom this is home base, a friend I went to high school with, and one of my favorite neighbors who’s treating her kindergarten son to a treat after a traumatic dentist visit. And that’s just in the space of an hour.

I love that I can’t ever go to the gym without seeing at least one friendly face I know. I’ve been taking the same Friday morning spin class for several years now, and the group of people that show up with me, week after week, through good times and bad, is a community all its own. I love these people, and I love the pixie sized, tattooed sprite who inspires us and pushes us to the point where I’m not sure if I’m going to throw up or pass out, and yet afterwards I feel amazing for two days. I love that when I’m having a really bad week I can cry my way through class and no one blinks an eye, they just hug me when we’re done. I’m literally tearing up writing this just thinking about that group of people and how much they mean to me even though I really only see them once a week for an hour. That’s community.

Our kids’ schools, of course, create their own communities. We’re so fortunate to live in a place where the parents work really hard to help make the schools great, and we are blessed with teachers and administrators who have passion about kids and education. It tends to be the same group of parents year over year who volunteer for everything, but instead of that feeling like a burden, to me it feels like a gift. It makes me part of THAT community, and that is an amazing group of selfless parents and school staff that I’m blessed to be a part of.

If you know me, you know that I could, of course, write chapters and chapters about this community and how it rallied around my family when our daughter got diagnosed with cancer (almost three years ago, WHAT?!?). I’ll save that for another post. Suffice it to say, I truly learned the meaning of the word community when the $4i% hit the fan, as people I didn’t even know in this community banded together and raised us up when we were in danger of sinking. During that time, this community felt more like a TRIBE. It still does. At unexpected moments, I will be approached by a complete stranger who will tell me that she has followed my (prolific) Facebook posts about our journey with cancer and that she was inspired by our story.

I could go on and on about all the other communities within this community that add joy to my life…from the moms who became friends when our kids were in preschool and even though the kids are now spread out across different elementary schools, seeing them still makes me feel like part of a special family. There are the “dance moms,” moms whose children share a passion for dance at the academy where I am lucky enough to work, and who make me feel blessed every time I go to work to be a part of that community, one that brings the gift of joy and grace and strength to kids through the art of dance. There are the sporty moms, the philanthropic moms, the working moms, the mindful moms, the activist moms…and now as then, I float. I love ALL these groups of moms. I AM these moms. All of them. Why should I pigeonhole myself?

I can’t close any discussion about community, though, without mentioning the one community-within-my-community that feeds my soul the most. On Thursday mornings, I skip the gym in favor of strengthening my spirit instead of my body. I go to a group called Moms’ Council, which is held at my church and is a group of about 150 mothers of all ages and generations who come together each week to…commune. Each session has a theme and there are always wonderful speakers to engage the mind, but for me, it’s the community of women that truly feeds my soul. I’ve sat at the same table with the same group of women for three years now, and I can’t describe the feeling of sitting down with them any better than I feel like I can just…breathe. Breathe in a way I can’t anywhere else. These women are my safest of safest places. We can rage, cry, fall apart and emotionally vomit all over each other without judgment and without ever worrying that what we say won’t remain just between us.

Because, as outwardly perfect as many of our lives may seem, we’re all dealing with our own burdens, fears and pain. Sometimes, you just can’t carry it alone. Sometimes you need more than your family and faith in God to help with the weight. Sometimes you need…community. And no matter how messy or difficult my life may get, that is one area in which I am incredibly blessed. I am rich in community, and for that I am very, very grateful.

 

 

A.J. Brown is a mother, wife, friend, sister, daughter, employee, volunteer, taxi driver, gym rat, health nut, lover of wine, travel, books, dessert, cooking, meditation, Buddha statues, and a compulsive throw pillow purchaser.

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Karaoke

The first time I remember watching karaoke was Cameron Diaz as Kimmie in My Best Friend’s Wedding. It was also the first time I remember seeing Cameron. Cameron, adorable. Cameron singing karaoke, atrocious!

Even though Dermot Mulroney’s character lovingly fawns over his awfully-singing bride(-to-be), I could not understand the attraction of non-singers singing publicly, for applause?

You know what? I am wrong. When Harry Met Sally, one of my favorite movies, came out earlier and had a karaoke scene: Surrey with the Fringe on Top. I hear it in my head every time we pass the cute surrey bikes in Monterey—covered, not fringed.

But Harry and Sally’s karaoke was a party scenario, whereas Cameron sang to a bar full of people. Which is why I’m thinking about this tonight.

I work weekend nights at a wine bar, and last night was our first Friday Night Karaoke. And again, I check myself: watching people sing, for better or for worse, was so fun!

I arrived to our tech guy setting up lights and computers and taping wires to the floor. Our musically-inclined regulars arrived (we might be an unusual little wine bar, with musically-inclined patrons), and ordered their own ‘regulars.’ They got the show rolling. The projector filled the wall with lyrics, visible to anyone strolling down the sidewalk, and our friends sang their hearts out.

I watched from behind the bar as folks looked in from outside, considered, kept walking. And others came in, ordered drinks, and chose the patio (the wall of windows allowed them to see and hear the fun while still enjoying their own conversations). One couple stopped, and his eyes lit up. He swooped in, glanced at the menu, and then confessed: “I wonder if I could just order up a quick karaoke?” He put in his song choice, then ordered a couple of beers, so as not to be ‘that’ guy.

That first song led to many and they made our night. In fact, his first note altered our reality: this guy could sing! Not that every song was perfect, because karaoke, but still.

First, he sang to her because, as he told us, she had had a hard day. Then he sang just because. They sang a duet, then another. He jumped in on other duets. The guy who sold them ice cream down the street stopped in for a couple songs of his own. Our new friend turned the mic stand around and sang to the full bar. He got us all to sing with him. He sang and sang and sang, and we whooped and cheered when he kissed the girl. Folks on the patio picked up their bar tab (not huge, since he was so busy singing) because of the lovely and energetic entertainment he provided.

Eventually the party has to end, right? The crowd dispersed, and our friends went home. But I think I get it. Karaoke is not so much about being good as being on. It’s performance for those who will, and otherwise might not, perform. It’s fun and silly and wonderful and creates community. Sing and the world—or the bar—sings with you.

Thankful Thursday – Friendship

Slowly, gently, she grew into my life like a beautiful, flowering vine: mom of Tween’s friend, friend of a friend, eventually, my friend.

And way too soon, she moved a world away.

Of course she would. She came from across the world. She and her sweet family were always on loan to us. I just didn’t recognize the temporariness of our time.

Isn’t that too often the way?
“But, wait, if I’d known…”
“I wish I’d said… I wish we’d done…”
“If only we’d had more time…”

Before she moved, our friend-group invested concerted effort to create memories together. In addition to our regular Friday Fun Days in the park, we added walks, coffees, weekends away, wine tasting, parties that often led to late-night dancing in the kitchen, you name it. We shared time with her, and also with each other.

After she moved, I felt like a sinkhole had opened up in our small town. Though she is a lovely skinny twig of a woman, her absence felt almost like its own ominous presence. Funny (not funny): not too long after a literal sinkhole opened up downtown…

We lost her in our daily lives and special occasions. Social media softens the blow, and we’re ever so grateful for her husband’s airline job that makes possible spontaneous return visits, like the one we enjoyed this week.

But as we gathered round, talking about the things we’ve always talked about–kids, school, friendship, cultural do’s and don’ts in our different cultures, language, work, friendship–I remembered how it felt to know the time would be short. And as I gazed around at the beautiful faces of my friends and listened to the laughter of our children playing in the other room, I wondered why we give in to life’s frenetic pace at the cost of sharing time together.

We have lost our regular rhythms. Seasons change and kids grow and the stuff of life gets in the way. It’s normal, but that doesn’t mean we can’t challenge it.

Family first, sure. But most of us have more time than we recognize, at least a little time to spare. How we spend our time signals our priorities. For my part, I want less Facebook and more face time. I want to keep making memories with the people in my community now. I don’t want to wake up one day to discover another friendship lost, even temporarily, to a sinkhole.

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ReBuild: Mexico 2017

One of the best things our church does fills one week with life-changing experience and takes the rest of the year to plan, then debrief, before planning the next trip: our spring break house building trip to Mexico with Amor Ministries. This year, as in most years, about 250 high school students and adults built hope, twelve new homes, and a classroom for a church in the community. In one week.

In addition to thirteen build teams the trip includes a tool team, a camp crew, a medical team, a camp therapist, and a media team. Layered throughout are the Catalyst student leaders, all seniors, who lead the build teams, and the adult coaches who play a supporting role to their Catalysts. It takes a lot of people putting in a lot of work to pull it all together, and that’s not stating it strongly enough.

Each trip has a theme, and this year’s theme was ReBuild. Guy chose the theme at the end of 2016 and, when he told me, I had to laugh: without consulting one another, he chose a “re” theme for this trip into which he invests so much love, energy, and leadership, while I chose a “re” theme (re:create) as my word of the year, the word that has and will motivate me to new investments of love, energy, and leadership.

The group returned last night, and today in worship we celebrated what God has done. In Mexico, through the buildings, the memories that will last a lifetime, and the hope for a new and better future as people have a safe, dry place to nurture their families. In participants, as so many spoke of new or renewed faith commitments, fresh insights into themselves and their place in the world, and deeper relationships across all the ‘usual’ social boundaries–adults and teens, kids in different grades and from different schools.

We also celebrate what God will do. In families, as this year more than ever I was struck by how many families or family groups participated together–siblings, parent-child, married couples, and whole families; and in families where some or most did not go on the trip, they, too, will be affected by the overflow of experience from those who did. In schools and workplaces, in our church and community, as participants continue to live out their experience over weeks and months and years to come, and as God’s love shines brightly, bringing glory to His name.

As story after story was shared, participants built for the listening congregation a vision of God at work through this week in Mexico. I’m no contractor, but clearly God is our foundation. He created us. He knew our names, He had good plans for us, all before we were yet born. This year, for perhaps the first time in the 27 years of this trip, all teams had solid concrete foundations poured by the end of the first build day. I hope they remember: a strong foundation is essential to a strong structure, and God is our firm foundation.

One after another spoke about the strength of relationships developed in such a short time. And as I reflected on the theme, ReBuild, it occurred to me that we have the power to build supporting walls in each other’s lives. Someone said, “As the walls of the houses went up, the walls in our hearts and lives came down.” That’s true: we build metaphorical walls to protect ourselves from judgment, from criticism, from rejection. And it’s also true that when we find safe people, we can dismantle our walls of protection even as we together build stronger walls of community and encouragement.

Life can be hard, and people can be mean. Too often we throw verbal stones or, for whatever reason (sometimes for no reason, at least no good reason), we tear each other down. No surprise we wall off our hearts! But encouragement and community, they rebuild us and make us stronger.

One young man said he had been seeking community for years. Something clicked this week and he found it, evidenced by a friend’s embrace as he returned to his seat. My Teen has been fortunate to know that community. A twice-monthly before-school boys’ Bible study started with a group of motivated 8th grade guys and has continued through their senior year. They were adult-led until they took up their own leadership, and they have carried it forward in ways that pleasantly surprised their parents and other adult leaders.

Teen got to be a Catalyst this year (achieving one more life goal!), as did many of the Bible study boys. Along with their female peers, they have forged a tight-knit group; their community had a “ripple effect” throughout camp, fostering community with each gentle wave. Teen stood up to thank his fellow Catalysts, and to thank his team. He said, “We became a family. By the end of the week our team was a family building a home for another family.”

I watched with awe as my son–surrounded by community–stood, arms raised, singing:

I’ll stand
With arms high and heart abandoned
In awe of the one who gave it all
I’ll stand
My soul Lord to you surrendered
All I am is yours

Safe to say they are returning home having been rebuilt by God and His gift of community.

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Better Together

I’ve been thinking about community…

Recently a friend posted about setting “Better Together” goals with her husband. It got me thinking (thanks, Cara!). I’m not much of a goal setter, too generally scatter-brained. But Guy’s more organized along those lines. What if we set goals together and held each other accountable?

During my Inauguration Day media fast, another friend called and said, “Our church is divided because our country is divided. We need to come together to pray for our country.” Her words rang true in my soul. As we chatted, we realized that we stand on opposite sides of the political divide. And we stand together in prayer.

Last night I scrolled through Facebook and saw pictures of friends all across the country peacefully marching in solidarity with one another. The heaviness in my chest lifted some, replaced by hope. I’m not alone.

I didn’t march. Instead we attended our friends’ son’s bar mitzvah. Despite having taken a few years of Hebrew in seminary, I quickly gave up on the transliteration and instead read and prayed along in English. It was a beautiful service, fascinating and moving and so different and like what we do at church on Sundays.bar-mitzvah-1

Two things especially struck me throughout the day. First, we all ought to speak heartfelt words of blessing, over our children and to one another. How different might our families, our communities, our world be if we noticed and spoke into the best parts, the uniqueness, of the people in our lives? And secondly, I am so grateful for my friends!

As we celebrated the rite of passage that welcomed this boy into Jewish manhood, we talked. We laughed. We danced and ate and drank. But because we also do life together, we asked hard questions. We whispered prayer and rubbed salve on the aches we know our friends carry. We rejoiced together all the more because we have also suffered together.bar-mitzvah-2

Before it started raining this afternoon, Guy and I took the dogs for a quick walk. He remarked, “I really like our neighborhood!” I agree. I like our street, our section of town, this geographic community we call home. And I like our neighbors and friends, the community that fills our hearts. I think we’re better for engaging in life in this place, at this time. I hope others would say the same about us.

So tonight, despite the dumping rain, despite my introverted self running on full-weekend extrovert overload, I will drag myself out of my cozy cocoon to gather with other friends, our church Community Group. We will talk and laugh and discuss and pray. Because I need them in my life. We’re better together.

Come & See
Week 3 – 1 Corinthians 12:12-27

Connect
Which part of your body do you think is most important? Which would be hardest to live without?

Study
Read aloud 1 Corinthians 12:12-27.
Notice who has responsibility for assembling the body parts (vv. 13, 18, 24, 27). How does that knowledge reorient our perspective?
Rephrase the statements in vv. 15-16 as someone might actually say them. How would you respond?
Sadly, how do we communicate “I don’t need you!” to certain members of the body? How can we change our attitudes and actions?
How would you explain to someone who hadn’t read this passage why we need each other?

Live
What are some of the Church’s favorite body parts? How do we demonstrate that?
How would you describe your place in the body? Have you ever wanted to be a different body part? What and why?
There should be no division in the body, but we can all point to examples. How should we address division when we see it?
How do we practically suffer and rejoice with one another?
How can we strengthen our connection to the body?
What does this passage communicate about what it means to be Jesus’ disciple?
What is Jesus saying to you through this study, and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray for stronger connections with other members of the body.

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Thankful Thursday – Embrace Truth

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glass-89051_640No matter how forcefully you jab at your phone’s red “disconnect” button, it won’t satisfy like the plastic crunch of slamming down a landline phone. The news I’d just heard warranted a strong response.

Something terrible has happened. People I love are hurting. I am hurting.

Through deep sighs, voice shaking then breaking, tears turning to sobs, I breathed out the bad news to Guy. He embraced me, but all the feelings made me restless, too much to be contained. I prayed: Lord, have mercy! I sent a text to my gals, inviting their love and prayers. I poured a shot of tequila. I distracted myself with the best (worst?) online idiocy. I wrote a little, until somewhere in the early-dark morning when my computer conked out and my eyes drooped in bleary desperation.

Sleep came heavy, but not rest. I yanked my sluggish body from the comforter just as fatigued, head pounding, face puffy. I had to go to work. And I decided to embrace truth.

Energy zapped, I had no filter; I shared the story with coworkers. I risked their pity, judgment even. Thankfully, they responded with grace, encouragement, prayer.

Unable to change the situation, I tended to my wounds. I prayed. I tried to nap. I read. I poured myself into work tasks and binge-watched TV. During a break in the rain, I found joy in a laughter-filled walk with friends and dogs.

I keep telling the truth. I am not “okay,” not “How are you? Fine.” I am angry, sad, confused, brokenhearted, aching. On some levels I am fine, and with hope I am getting better each day. Still… I know those are ugly-messy emotions, hard to hear. You might prefer to plug your ears. But this chaos is my song right now, and if you can’t handle my dischords, likely we’re not friends.

At our moms’ group this morning, I stood in front of 150 or so women to ask for prayer. I felt the weight of the pain spread as people felt newly sad with me, for me, for the situation, and my shoulders felt lighter. Some present may have been shocked, probably were. Maybe some even felt embarrassed for me: how dare I have the guts to talk openly about something so awful? That’s behind-closed-doors news, private.

Maybe it has been. But no, not any more. I’m embracing the truth because this messy truth, for now, is our truth. It’s what we have to deal with. I refuse to let you belittle me with your label of shameful when I call it illness, tragic. What we keep hidden in the dark will fester, spreading insidious infection. When we tell the truth, we set ourselves and others free. We share the pain. We create connection. We give and receive encouragement, hope.

Several women approached me after, some to offer a hug, but many to thank me for speaking up. They told their stories. I am sorry, desperately sorry, they have these stories to tell but, through the courage to tell the truth, we find out we aren’t alone.

“…the truth will set you free.” –Jesus

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