To be nobody but yourself –
in a world that is trying its best, night and day, to make you everybody else –
means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight;
and never stop fighting.
My wife bought a piece of artwork with this quote on it for me many years ago. She knows me very well. She understood then and she understands now that the “hardest battle” of my life has been the fight to be truly myself. She loves who I am and wants me to experience that and, more so, wants other people to experience who I am. Yet there are times I’ve felt crushed by the weight of other people’s expectations. And times when I’ve felt that who I am was slowly disappearing.
A friend of mine recently commented to me that it seems I’m going through a “mid-life revival”. I really liked that sentiment. He was referring to the fact that I have been delving back into artwork, posting my creations on Facebook and also writing the very blog you happen to be reading right now (thanks for that, by the way). Edging closer to 50, I am putting myself out there more than ever and expressing myself in these ways more than I have for many years.
I am an artist. And like so many artists, I’m not content to stick to one area of creative expression but tend to dabble in multiple areas when I get the chance. I have always felt most fully alive when I am making visual art or making music or acting on stage or writing prose. I made the decision to enter the blogosphere because I wanted the impetus to get back into writing for the shear creative joy of it.
For many artists, the act of creating is almost as natural as breathing. But it has not always been so for me. I have had long stretches in life where I felt I was becoming someone else and that artist side of me was fading, fading away. There are a number of factors that contributed to this but most of it had to do with a Twofold set of realities in my life: (1) I am a Christian; and (2) I am a Pastor.
The evangelical Christian world is not always the most welcoming and accommodating world for the artist. Artists, when they are remaining true to their creative impulse, like to push the boundaries, ask the tough questions, challenge themselves and others to view their world from different angles and in different tones and hues. This impulse is not generally encouraged or fostered in the evangelical Christian setting. The mysterious, the mystical, the grey areas, the fringes – these are not places where the Evangelical mind and spirit tend to go. Yet they are precisely where the Artistic mind and spirit go on a regular basis. The Artist doesn’t mind ambiguity, uncertainty. The Evangelical minds it a great deal and much prefers clarity and certainty.
I am generalizing, of course. But I stand by these generalizations because they are so often the way things play out. And so often the Artist feels very much a stranger in a strange land when he or she dares dwell among the Evangelicals. I have dwelt in that place and felt strange indeed. I have sensed the tension. When I did have the Jones to create, I’d find myself self-editing, concerned that I might offend someone. Or I’d have to defend myself for acting in a play in which the character I was playing said “Oh my God.” Or I would get the less than enthusiastic responses that spoke quiet volumes of displeasure about something I had created. And often I found myself tucking the artist in me deep down somewhere where it would not rock any feathers or ruffle and boats.
Yet, ironically, I ended up in Christian ministry, a Pastor. I won’t get into how that all happened because, frankly, after almost 20 years I am still bemused by it. Imagine, if you will, already feeling on the margins of Christian life and then ending up as someone who people look to for leadership in that Christian life. My artistic sensibilities took a beating from my own sense of responsibility to “the Call” and from the expectations of the Flock. When these things conspired together the Artist in me became almost undetectable and I no longer felt the natural impulse to create. I would continue to be creative, of course, and find avenues to do so, but it became a sidebar to my life, not a main part of the story.
I was doing good things for people and trying my best to remain faithful to what I felt God was asking me to do. But my wife could see that who I am and what made me feel most fully alive were not being given adequate expression. So when she came across the quote above, she thought of me.
I do not blame my Christianity or my role as a pastor in the Church for this fight to be myself. If anything, I have found over the years that I have no one to blame but myself. It was my choice to hide things away, to bury the Artist deep within; no one forced me to do these things. If anything, this Mid-Life Revival is showing me my own responsibility in all of that and also challenging me to no longer allow that to happen in my life. And it is my faith, and the belief in a God who created me exactly the way I am supposed to be, that gives me the motivation to be nobody but myself. In fact, I have begun to see that it was the Artist in me, the part of me that liked to push the boundaries, ask the tough questions, not be content with simplistic answers, and continually embrace challenges, that has made me most effective in my years of Christian ministry. I look at the Bible and my faith from odd angles, as an artist would, and that has given a distinctiveness to what I do as a pastor.
To any of you out there who also exist in this tension-land of Art and Faith, I would ask you to take heart. You do belong. You do have a role to play. People will not always understand you. You may offend some. You may confuse others. And there may be times others question your faith or you yourself do the questioning. But as artists we’re here to give expression to alternate realities, to be on a continual quest for compassion, to make people feel a bit uneasy in order for them to see God where they hadn’t seem him before. That is a scary but fabulous calling.
The Great Artist made you an artist for a reason. So be that artist.
To those of you who are not artists, know that we will sometimes freak you out, whether you are a Christian or not. We will sometimes offend you. We will certainly confuse you. But if you let us speak, sing, act, write, draw, paint, sculpt, dance – create – you will be opening yourself up to a much bigger world. And that expanse in your spirit and mind and heart will make it that much easier to embrace all of Creation. You, too, are unique and uniquely gifted. And you, too, help people see God.
From now on until I die, I want to be unashamedly myself. I still have a lot of work to do but I feel I’m on the right track. I have steeled myself for the fight. Bring it on!