March 29th:  Creativity Unbound

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We are rising to the creative challenge of this moment.  All over our community and our world, we are all becoming innovators and inventors.  How do we access this well of open-hearted creativity, and how do we encourage creativity in one another?

Sermon Text

Rising to the Creative Challenge of Our Time

The lectionary reading of this week is the story from Ezekial 37, one of my favorite stories of God breathing life into the dry bones of the dead who were lying in the valley.  I love this question God asks to the mortal Ezekial, “can these bones live?”  

Ezekial goes to the valley, and prophecies to the bones, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”  As the story goes, the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Can these bones live?   

I sat with that question all week.  In my grief as the circle of the dying closes in, as I scrape myself together from my dried-up stores of energy, the question troubled me.

Can we feel it, blowing across the winds of this crisis, that is breathing new life into us, somehow raising us up? 

I know you’ve heard this phrase lately, “before all of this” and “after all of this.”  Well, before all of this, back in January, an artist friend of mine created, for focus and discipline and connective purposes, an online challenge for her facebook friends.  She challenged us all to draw 50 state birds, one each day.  

Though I think of myself as a performance artist, I like to try a little bit of everything.  I play a little guitar, even less banjo, I can sometimes throw a pot or two, some of you may know me to be a medium hip hop dancer, but drawing a picture has never come easy to me.  I started to participate, but became so intimidated by my friend and her talented family’s posts of different birds each day, I eventually became a cheerleader for the project, since it was a nice distraction as the world slowly became more and more dangerous.  The first day I heard the term “social distancing,” was the last day of the fifty state bird challenge. They had completed all fifty birds.  

I think I am sixteen days into my homestay, as I’m calling it, and I realized I am about fifteen days into a daily artist practice.  

Each day at 7:20am my four-year-old son Langston wakes up and asks very sweetly if I will draw him a superhero, not just any superhero, but a specific superhero.  

The requests have become more elaborate, and I have never refused the challenge.  I have delved into the two dimensional world of Transformers and now this week, Pokemon figures.  The requests are specific, and they are insistent.  

After I have completed the marker drawing, he beams with pride and runs to show it to the other members of the family.  He stares at it, longingly. He colors in little bits here and there, throughout the day. I suppose it’s a collaboration.   

Sometimes I’m tired.  Sometimes I’m busy, and I do this begrudgingly.  He insists it must look just like the original action figure in every way, and it’s a time consuming experience.  But as I’m drawing the Pokemon, he is gently caressing me, kissing me, playing with my hair, and stroking my forehead.  

He sits on the table next to me, with one hand on me, and somehow, our dual focus bonds us.  I long for the physical closeness this moment provides, and so I always say yes. Somewhere along the way, my form has started to improve, and some skill appears to be emerging through the daily practice.  All you artists out there must be thinking I am stating the obvious, that practice improves skill, but I have never had this kind of discipline, until now.  

I admit I am not meditating every day of this pandemic.  I am not praying every single day, nor exercising every single day.  But somehow, without realizing it, I am making art every day. There is already a body of work, and it’s not bad.  It’s collaborative art.  

I don’t mean to be trite when I speak of art and creativity.  There is a lot of loss right now, a lot of heartbreak.

One of the heartbreaking features of this time is that we cannot comfort each other in the ways we are accustomed to.  We cannot hug each other, or hold a hand, or even just be together, in each other’s presence.  

There’s a term for what we need right now.  

Creative Empathy.

The way we used to care for each other will not get us through this moment now.  I know it can be exhausting, all this newness and creativity.

If you begin to look for Creative Empathy, you can see it everywhere.   When you notice it, then it doesn’t feel so difficult anymore.

It’s people cheering and singing at the shift change at Emory Midtown hospital.  It’s called the Midtown Yell. 

That image has gone, well, it has gone as they say, viral.  We will need new words, even for the new things. It has gone the distance.  That video has gone the distance, and so on Friday night in New York City, in Washington D.C., in Washington state, in Istanbul, and Buenos Aires, in Atlanta on Friday night 8:00pm people came out to their porches and terraces and windows and did a city-wide standing ovation for all of our healthcare workers.  It was part gratitude, part defiance, part celebration, we are still here, they are doing it now in Wuhan, in Lombardy, Italy, to Milan, to Madrid, now Paris, and London across the globe, this new expression of creative empathy.  

In my little neighborhood, a memo went out somewhere that the children should draw rainbows, and then go on neighborhood scavenger hunts, searching out rainbows along their way.  One eight-year-old girl down the street made a rainbow and a sign that read, “I miss you guys.” Creative Empathy.

What creativity lies dormant within you that needs life?  Many of us are overwhelmed. Many of us are parenting full time now, and working full time, or not working at all and are struggling for the resources to survive.  

Here Me Out:  Nothing, nothing is more important than your mental and physical health.  

You are beloved, your life is precious.  Every single person’s life has value and deserves our care and our concern.   Someone needs to say that to you.  

You, who are old in years, your life is precious and you are worthy of care. 

You, who are differently abled, or sick, or whose health is vulnerable, you who are HIV+, your life is precious 

You, who are without a home, you who are in prison, you who are being detained, your life is precious

You, who are trying to make a dollar out of fifty cents, 

You, who don’t have a computer or updated software or don’t know how to use it,

You who just lost your job, you who are unable to do the thing you most love to do,

your life is precious.   

I hope you feel your value, and you understand your extraordinary light in new and expansive, and yes, creative ways.  

What is this practice of creative empathy, and how will it manifest in you and in me?  How will be creatively serve our relationships, for that is our call at this time.  

My neighbor put on a string trio concert on their front lawn:  creative empathy.

For the nurses who take a walk by our house on their lunchbreak, we have started singing for them when we see them.  Creative empathy.

In some neighborhoods, people are putting their Christmas lights back up, or using them to spell “Love” on their lawns.

I heard a group of people were getting together to do a zoom-based table read of the entire movie “Clue.” 

I know some of you are gathering for online sing-a-longs and we’re talking about creating an online coffee house with living room performances for each other.

It’s a tall ask.  Everything seems like a tall ask these days.  Just surviving another day of physical distancing is enough.  Just caring for your mental health is enough.  

Even through the most appalling situations the creative spirit finds a place, and those who engage in the creative process find a voice.  There are around 30,000 surviving works of art created by victims of the Holocaust, at the time they were victims. Numerous items were hidden and not rediscovered, didn’t survive, or were destroyed as it was just too personally dangerous for the artist to have been found depicting the true horrors of their existence.  But people were brave, foolhardy even- apparently one artist stored their artworks in a hollowed out copy of Mein Kampf.

To this pandemic, there will be times for rest, and times for grieving.  Times for levity, and there will be times to express ourselves and our empathy with creativity, and let our divine spark out into the world 

Art won’t be the only thing that gets us through this, but it will help make it possible for us to thrive. 

So yes, like Ezekial, we are facing a valley, a moral wasteland in our leadership.  We are facing devastation unlike many of us have ever known. What we need is a great wind to blow across the dry desert valley of our weary souls.  

May you feel the breath of life, of spirit, of love raise you up and join in the standing ovation, the rainbows in the window, may the playful, creative spirit speak to you in your loneliness and confusion and say lovingly, “what if. . .”  

Maybe this the wind comes to you, if you listen hard enough, in the voice of a four-year-old boy who wants more than anything, to see your picture of Black Panther.  

So you pick up a marker, or pen, or the ingredients in your pantry, or an instrument, or some seeds, or a tin can, and you become not just a survivor although that is enough, but a creator.

A maker of empathy, and connection, and beauty.  This is how we will thrive.