Chapel, November 20, 2012
Good morning. Thank you for coming to chapel today. For those who may not know me yet, I teach in the music department. Specifically, I teach low brass lessons and conduct the Symphonic Band and Cobber Athletic Band. I have also taught Brass Methods for music education majors and an Inquiry Seminar on creativity. This is my tenth year at Concordia, and I am fortunate to have been granted a sabbatical for next semester. It is reflecting on these aspects of my identity and experience here, as well as my faith walk and this morning’s scripture readings, that have led to my meditation this morning.
I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, a fairly affluent suburb of Boston and, of course, one of the towns remembered for the first battles of the American Revolution. As a child and through high school, I was an active member of a vibrant Unitarian church congregation in Lexington, from which I developed a strong sense of social justice and love for life’s miracles, especially music and the arts. In college, I would say my faith walk went through a period of wandering, questioning, doubting, and dormancy. In my mid-20s, I met the woman who is now my wife, who was a member of University Lutheran Church of Hope in Minneapolis. Married in that church, Catherine and I went through another period of wandering together, characterized by moving every year or two to follow my peripatetic music career. I held teaching positions at several Christian schools, including a Seventh-Day Adventist school in Washington, D.C. and Baylor University in Texas, a Baptist university. I also taught at secular institutions, such as Harvard University. At each stop on our journey, we looked for a church community to join, with varying degrees of success…until we arrived in Moorhead. For us, it has been a tremendous blessing to put down roots in this place, joining the Concordia community and becoming members at Trinity, just up the street. We deeply value the openness of this community, its diversity of viewpoints, and its welcoming of questions, big and small. I realize that the congruence we have found with this place may not be shared by everyone here, but I hope that each of you feels accepted as your whole self, foibles and all.
A dear friend of mine with whom I attended both high school and college posted a story on Facebook the other day. She is an amazing and wonderful opera singer and voice teacher on the East Coast. Here is her story:
This has been the strangest 24-hour period of my life. Between concerts, teaching, various important meetings, and obligations at my son's school, I've been feeling really overwhelmed. I found myself entering a parking garage yesterday morning, en route to the bank and the grocery store, on five hours of sleep. The attendant at the gate was a handsome, older man of Caribbean descent, with the most startlingly beautiful, pale amber eyes. In a mellifluous voice, he asked me how my day was going. Jokingly, I replied that I was half dead. Smiling but very seriously, he looked into my eyes, and said "Don't do that to yourself. Life is a beautiful thing. Take the time to enjoy yourself, and take care of yourself." Something in his voice made tears spring into my eyes, and I stammered something along the lines of "Thanks, I will." Later that day, I was out shopping in my neighborhood with my son, when I heard someone in the store talking loudly about needing a pan to bake a cake. I turned around and saw the speaker, turned out to be the most unlikely looking guy. He had a buzz cut, was dressed in gangster style clothing, had a scarred face, and perhaps most alarmingly, a tiny cross and a tear tattooed on his face under his right eye. Somehow we wound up chatting as we walked down the street from one dollar store to the next, about cake of course. He didn't want to buy the sturdier cake pan, which cost $8.99, but he also realized that if you wanted to bake cake more than once, you should probably make the investment. We were chatting about the merits of different pans of varying dimensions, when he remarked something like "I probably look like the kind of guy who would..." I cut him off and said "You look like the kind of guy who would bake a cake." He was very sweet, kind of followed me around the store as we chit chatted for a while, and then we went on our respective ways. Then today, while driving through Springfield, Massachusetts on my way to a concert in New Hampshire, I realized too late that I had run out of gas going 65 miles an hour on the freeway. Miraculously, I glided to the next exit, which was very close by, and made it to the stop sign at the bottom. Even more miraculously, there was a gas station no more than 200 feet ahead of me. I got out of the car and started to push, when suddenly the car lurched forward and glided easily. I thought I must of gotten myself out of a rut or something, when suddenly I heard a voice behind me say hi. I jumped a mile, and turned around to see this big, big guy, built like a bouncer, shaved head, piercings, the works. He was the one who made my car jumped forward, and together we pushed my car to the gas station, right up to the pump. He started to walk away, I chased after him and threw my arms around his neck. I swear, I've never been so grateful for someone turning up at the right moment in my entire life. It's odd that this random assortment of people should turn up in my life in rapid succession at such a difficult moment in my life. I guess the takeaway from all this is that the universe reveals itself in unexpected and lovely ways, just when you least expect it will.
This story provoked an outpouring of grateful responses on Facebook. Many of them referred to the trio of “angels” that graced my friend’s life that day.
Part 1: Gratitude for creativity, dreams, and visions
What I want to talk about today is the idea of God as a creative presence or force in each of us. One of the things I love most about being a member of this community is that we have a culture here that nurtures the creative part of every one of us. To me, this is God’s presence among us – the continually renewed abilities to see things in new ways, to make connections within and among a wide array of scholarly disciplines, and to discover - for ourselves, for each other, and for the world – solutions to problems, better ways of knowing, thinking, and doing, and the joys of playing music and sports, making art and theatre, reading, writing, experimenting, organizing, communicating, striving, achieving, and wondering. One of the greatest gifts of being human is the ability to imagine – to dream, to vision, to create a picture in your mind of what you are trying to create.
Students, when you arrive on campus to begin your first year, I love to see you getting involved in things – joining clubs, auditioning for music groups, signing up for challenging classes, and volunteering for all sorts of things. As you move through your four years, I appreciate the challenges you face as you must choose among competing priorities, manage your resources to try to get everything done, and discern what your calling truly is for college and beyond. Faculty and staff colleagues, I treasure your vision and ideas for courses, facilities, activities, and research. I enjoy our communal efforts to shape curriculums and courses, recruit great students, promote growth and learning, and engage responsibly with one another and the world around us.
One of my favorite thinkers and writers on creativity is a musician named Stephen Nachmanovitch. In his incredible book, “Free Play,” he describes the joy of art-making:
Why do we do art? There may be multiple and serious motivations, such as opening people’s eyes to injustice or saving the world; but if the activity to save the world doesn’t give us joy, what’s the point of having a world, and how will we have the wholeness and energy to carry on? This whole adventure of creativity is about joy and love. We live for the pure joy of being, and out of that joy unfold the ten thousand art forms and all the branches of learning and compassionate activity.
My Dad is a retired geologist who now writes poetry. One of his poems is called
“Was It For Fame We Followed Science?”
Was it for fame we followed science?
No, not for fame, for fame eludes,
and even fame for those who find
it only lasts a little while.
Our science is a roiling antheap,
not a field for vain heroics,
always being born anew
as yesterday becomes tomorrow.
No, we followed for the joy
of exploration, just to pit
our minds against the mysteries
of matter, energy and life,
to draw ourselves and others closer
to the infinite called God.
Part 2: The Problem: deadlines, grades, burnout
But there is a problem with creativity, excitement, ambition, and the joy of curiosity and questioning. Inevitably, it seems, we come up against our mortal limits. We commit ourselves to more than we can really accomplish. In academia, we feel the pressure of getting good grades, good evaluations, earning a degree, a promotion, or tenure. We strive to balance our work life and studies with family obligations, romantic relationships, and extracurricular pursuits. This time of year especially, we are challenged by an at times overwhelming burden of tasks. Papers, tests, and assignments; practice, juries, extracurricular commitments; volunteer activities, jobs, and friendship obligations; … advising, grading, research…meetings, committees, administrative duties…
It feels like Psalm 13 is speaking to us in this state, doesn’t it? Hear it again: “How long, O Lord? How long shall I have perplexity in my mind, and grief in my heart?”
What is at stake here? What causes us to feel the stress of all of these looming responsibilities? Well, basically, it is fear, right? Fear of failure, fear of coming up short, fear of embarrassment and shame. Fear of the loss of a job, of having to retake a course or not graduating or getting into graduate school, having to change majors or schools, or worse, letting down the people we admire and love who we feel are counting on us.
I see the stress in my students, in my colleagues. I feel it myself. What are we to do? Just hang on for the holidays, right? Endure like Paul urged the Hebrews to do: “Stay the course. Persevere.”
Part 3: Letting help come, openness to growth and learning
I think we’re missing something in all of this. Partly, our blindness is due to our culture, a culture that emphasizes the individual. Work hard and you will get the reward. You need to earn your keep, get good grades, compete. When you graduate, it is your degree – your name appears on the diploma. When my paycheck comes, it is mine, deposited into my bank account.
But what we forget in these moments is that it is the divine presence in each of us that provides the spark, that allows and invites us to rise to greet each new day with hope and optimism, that shows the way through and around the obstacles. More than that, it is God in each of us that connects us with one another, gives us the insight to see that a neighbor needs help, and provides the strength and energy to stop for a moment to give a hug, offer a sympathetic ear, provide a suggestion, or have a conversation about how to solve a problem, finish an assignment, or reschedule a lesser priority.
The paradox is that when we are stretched to the limit and feel that we can’t take another step, that’s when we have to let go, let it happen, and allow grace to come in. Let God do some of the work. Pray. Ask for help. Be open to help from unexpected quarters. We are each other’s angels.
I want to close with a personal story. This happened last night, actually.
I had been working on this for several weeks, slowly developing ideas, talking with friends and colleagues. As of this weekend, I started trying to put my thoughts together, but as so often happens in a creative process, I was getting stuck. I procrastinated, struggled, and banged my head against the wall.
Last night was the worst – isn’t it always the night before when you’re not as far along as you want to be? Meanwhile, my son Ben, who is 8 and in 3rd grade, was happily enjoying his Legos and stacking cups. Taking a break from my struggles with my message, I asked if he had completed everything he needed for tomorrow.
He said cheerfully, “Well, I should probably get the materials together that I need for my diorama.”
“What do you need?” I said.
“I’m making a mountain habitat for the kea parrot that lives in New Zealand. I just need to make the mountain. Can we do paper mache?”
Argh, I thought, I’m stuck on this chapel message and he wants me to do paper mache with him. How am I ever going to get this done? But he needed my help, so I got to work gathering the paper mache supplies, mixing up the flour and water and cutting strips of newspaper.
While we were working, Ben said “This is really fun, Dad. Thanks for helping. I know you had a lot of work to do. What work is it anyway?”
“I’m speaking in chapel tomorrow and I’m trying to write my message. Do you want to hear about it?”
So I tried to briefly explain the gist of my message: gratitude for God’s creative presence in each of us, the problem of feeling overcommitted and overwhelmed, and the solution of letting God do some of the work.
“It sounds like you’ve got it all worked out, Dad.” Ben said. “What’s left to do?”
“Well, I need to choose the words to use to explain this idea,” I said.
“Oh, I know what you mean, Dad. You need to find all the big, complicated words to make it sound really professional.”
“Something like that.” I said.
After we worked for a while longer, I said, “Ben, you know what we’re doing is a good example of a creative project. One way to make a speech like the one I’m working on more interesting is to use examples from real life.”
“Yes,” he said, “and your help is like you were talking about – letting someone else do some of the work.”
“You’re right,” I said. “I’m helping you, but now that you say that, I realize you’re helping me too.”