Hir: The Chaos of Sin

The curtain rises to reveal a stage strung with chaos. My body tenses slightly, and I glance apprehensively at the friend who invited me. He glances back. Neither of us know what to expect from a slice-of-life drama featuring Issac [sic], a war-traumatized vet home from Afghanistan; Max, his gender-fluid younger sibling; Arnold, their stroke-disabled father who abused them all for years; and Paige, their manic-depressive mother.

The show is Hir (pronounced ‘here’. The play takes its name from Max. ‘Hir’ is the gender-neutral possessive pronoun), produced at the Steppenwolf Theatre. Written by Taylor Mac, the play tips its hand from the first glimpses of the stage and the performers: you are about to enter a world where things are desperately wrong. The author specifies the play’s genre as ‘absurd realism’, and the absurdity of the situation is darkly comic as the characters of the play struggle in increasingly erratic ways to come to terms with the chaos that marks their lives.

The story opens when Issac comes home from the war to find his childhood home in shambles. His mother, Paige, has stopped cleaning anything as a reaction against the abuse and strict perfectionism of her husband, Arnold, prior to his stroke. Issac soon finds out that his mother has been hiding everything significant from him in his absence: their home is a pigsty, his father’s supposedly ‘minor’ stroke has in fact left him unable to speak or care for himself, and the family is destitute.  Soon Issac’s younger sibling Max appears on the scene. When Issac left, Max was his sister Maxine. Now Max is gender-fluid. This, too, was a secret kept from Issac. On the day that Issac arrives home, Paige and Max have already made plans to see a local art exhibit. Issac declines to go, and Paige and Max leave him at home with Arnold, on the condition that Issac resist the temptation to clean. Issac agrees, but does not keep his word. Everything else that happens arises from that broken promise.

It seems wrong to say that I enjoyed the play. How can I claim to enjoy the dramatization of that much pain? I learned from the play. I was grieved by the play. It mesmerized me because it was a finely acted, brilliantly written, expertly produced play. But I did not enjoy it. I saw sin and its consequences acted with crystalline artistry. It caused me to wonder: how can this writer, who likely does not believe that there is such a thing as sin, do a better job of portraying sin than any Christian production I have seen?

Because, believe me, all the pain and death of sin, and the immense brokenness of the world, were fully present in Hir. Issac suffers from PTSD. Arnold abused his family for years and the rage still boils below the fog of his new-found disability. Paige, bitter and exhausted from the years of abuse, has turned Arnold’s abuse back on him and now refuses him basic cleanliness and dignity. Max, lonely, hurt, and confused, shoulders the awful task of diplomacy between all members of a family torn apart when the sin of the father is visited on the children.

What response is appropriate? I sat and joined in the uncomfortable laughter of the audience at times, but I wept by the end of the show. I watched one couple get up and walk out, but I could not tear my eyes away from the wreckage before me. I disagreed with practically every philosophy presented in this production, but I found my presuppositions challenged by it.

Great art should change us in some way. When you encounter a truly exceptional creation, you have interacted in some way with the deepest parts of someone’s soul, and that should affect you in some way. Hir was great art, and it did move me. It made me view gender-fluid persons with much more compassion (that it took a secular production to make me feel that, and not the church, is a discussion for another day). It made me wonder why Christians, who more than any other group of artists should understand the wages of sin, are so very bad at portraying it.

It’s hard to see the glory of the cross and beauty of redemption unless we see the heinousness of our sin. The question, for me, is no longer, ‘Should we portray darkness’, but rather, ‘How dark should we allow our art to be in our attempt to highlight the depravity of the human condition’? It takes a grace-healed eye to see glory and mercy, but almost any person can see how sin can destroy. What if Christian artists, instead of being afraid that showing sin would glamorize it, realized that accurate depictions of sin and it consequences strip themselves of their own glamour? How will we ever feel our need of a Savior unless we feel the sickness of our souls?

Because, oh how Hir longed for, but was denied, redemption. How it longed for grace, but got only unforgiveness. How it ached for wholeness and health, but found only fractures and disease. Each of these characters (and their real-life, in-our-communities counterparts) were dying slow and agonizing deaths as the bill for their sin came due.

No Christian production has ever made me feel the weight of sin the way Hir did. If we dared to strip away the masks of decency and decorum we place on sin, and expose it for the hideous death it is, how might a similar weight be used in the hands of artists who know both the cost, and the payment, of our sin?

Illusions of Adequacy: Lessons on Fasting, Part 1

I’ve been trying to fast more regularly lately. Like many Christians, I suppose, I’d often been struck by Jesus’s comment of ‘when you fast’, not ‘if you fast’. That he simply assumes that we will fast, but yet does not command it, is a discussion for another day. I just want to describe some of the lessons I’ve learned from my recent forays into fasting.

Over Easter weekend this year, I attempted the longest fast I’ve ever done. It wasn’t even that long long – three days. I have observed a fast from Good Friday until Resurrection Sunday for several years. I’ve found that the physical ‘death’ of fasting is a good way to remember the time that Jesus was in the grave. The joy of giving myself food on Sunday is a needed reminder of the life and joy that comes through the eternal life that Christ secured when he conquered the grave.

This year was different, though. I fasted on Thursday, too, because a friend’s father was very sick, and as a means of petitioning the God Who Heals, we fasted together. I felt led to continue the fast from Thursday until Sunday morning, about an additional 36 hours of fasting than I had ever attempted before. Thursday went well enough, but by Friday afternoon, I was really struggling. I went to the Garfield Park Conservatory to distract myself and be away from food. It kind of worked. I felt faint. I tried not to think about food. But I soldiered on, and even made it to a Good Friday church service that night.

By Saturday morning, I was really, REALLY struggling. I was so nauseated from the concentration of stomach bile that I vomited up my own digestive juices. I understood on a much more profound level the expression ‘green about the gills’. I did look green – a sickly, pasty, unhealthy shade of green. So I laid there on my couch and prayed ‘Dear God, this was supposed to be this profound, enriching spiritual experience. I was supposed to be praying for healing for so many people! I was supposed to be cleansed in my body and  spirit so that I can rejoice more fully than ever before in your resurrection on Sunday. And look at me. Puking, exhausted, miserable.’

I had planned a sort of spiritual retreat that Saturday. I had looked up a devotional reading for Holy Saturday, a lectio divina, and had a whole list of things to pray for. Man, I was going to be ho.ly. In my mind, it was going to be a very spiritually glamorous weekend.

Let me assure you, it was not that.

It sure was humbling, though. I was met with this incontrovertible fact: I am a very weak person. I am so bound by my need for food that Satan doesn’t even need to be particularly creative with me.

So let’s return to the part of the story where I’m on the couch, Bible in hand, attempts at prayer interspersed with dry heaves.

The truth is, I was ashamed at my own inability to accomplish this fast. Not only was I staring my own weakness – physical and spiritual – plainly in the face, but I was also brought face to face with my own attempts to make myself more attractive to God by fasting.

And that’s where the narrative shifted. As I sat there in my weakness and inability to get it right, I sensed the Spirit of God speak this glorious truth to me: I spent Holy Saturday in the grave so that you would not have to finish this fast. I spent Holy Saturday in the grave so that you would not have to win my approval and so that a prematurely broken fast would not not tarnish my approval. I spent Holy Saturday in the grave so that you would have life.

And I realized that the point of fasting is not simply fasting. The point of fasting, at least in part, is to reveal something more profound about the heart of God the Father and about our own nature. Being hungry strips away my illusions of adequacy. I found that in my weakness, I had a much more visceral understanding of the glory of the Gospel than I’d had in a long time. The Gospel never makes sense to the strong. It makes sense to the weak. In my weakness, I saw this truth in renewed clarity: I cannot save myself. I cannot even make it a few days without food. Who am I to think that I could rescue myself from the wrath of a holy God? No, my hunger proves this to me above all else: I am weak.

In every other world religion, to break a fast prematurely would invite wrath and rejection. But Jesus says ‘Come. In your weakness. In your inadequacy. In your failure. Come and eat. Break the fast because I broke the law of death.’

It was a simple thing, but I bought two smoothies that afternoon. I was nourished physically, and in so doing was nourished spiritually: He gives us food because all along it’s been a picture of the Bread of Life.

It’s true: I failed to complete my fast. It’s true: I’m not very disciplined. It’s true: I am weak. It’s true: I am far too often ruled by my appetites. But is this not the glory of the Gospel? That I am loved despite these truths that I would far rather hide from you (which I can do with some degree of ability) and from God (which is futile, but one of my favorite pastimes, nevertheless)?

So I broke my fast with a smoothie and rejoiced to know that I am loved beyond my ability to comprehend. A broken fast does not equal broken Divine Love, broken Divine Salvation, or broken Divine Faithfulness. It equals only broken humanity.

I thought that a prematurely broken fast would result only in shame. I never thought that I would meet joy in the face of my inadequacy. But this is the grace of the Gospel: we are all unable and inadequate, but we are loved despite our unrighteousness and failed attempts at good works. God doesn’t actually care about the number of hours that I fasted. I understood the Gospel just a little bit better and rejoiced a little more fully, and I believe that in the heart of God the Father, that renders my abbreviated fast a success.

It’s amazing what a smoothie can teach you.

Scottish Oat Scones

Whenever I read food blogs, I am overwhelmed with one thought: I don’t need a whole story. Just give me the recipe. So I will not tell (many) stories when I post a recipe. Just read it, and get to your kitchen.

Scottish Oat Scones: A Barb Keeport Classic

1 1/3 c. butter, melted

2/3 c. milk

2 eggs

3 c. flour

3 c. rolled or quick oats (rolled will give a more chewy texture)

1/2 c. sugar

2 T. baking powder

1 t. salt

Mix all wet ingredients together and set aside. Sift all dry ingredients together and set aside. Pour wet into dry and mix until just combined. Shape as desired and bake on greased cookie sheets at 350* until lightly browned.

Optional: This recipe lends itself very well to mix-ins and flavorings. Try adding vanilla, almond, or maple flavoring to the wet ingredients before combining them with the dry. Mix in cinnamon or citrus zest with the dry ingredients. You can also add any combination of dried fruit, nuts, or chocolate (about 1 cup).

Trinity Church

I. The Very Stones Cry Out

I searched for you in the stone and glass,

In the shifting harmonies and deep echoes

Of this once and, perhaps, still-sacred space.

I wept for beauty with its beast

Reality that their song of blessing was buoyed by belief:

Beauty blesses beyond the Trinity

~~~~~~~

What a strange and grievous paradox that her name –

For a name is character, identity –

Should so dimly reflect your terrifying, glorious Triunity.

~~~~~~~

Are you present in this house that once proclaimed you?

Will you cease meeting with those who have grown afraid of men and weary of you?

No amount of beauty in stone and sound will match your glory,

But still the beauty ached and I caught glimpses of your face in an altar that loved

Its own image in stone more than it loved

Your image in man or your life in stony hearts.

~~~~~~~

Yet all the beauty is yours,

And it is your good grace and my deep joy that the proudest heart cannot eclipse that wonder.

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory,

Perhaps these carved and ancient stones will cry your name,

Even while adulterous lips pour praise their hearts reject.

~~~~~~~

So I will thank you for the beauty that fed

For it is first, always, and only yours

I will shout amid these stones

and their silence will remind me that

Faithful hearts yet sing.

II. Wonder

I cannot wonder at disinterest

When your servants profess mere wonder –

Not at your Son, but at his world –

As their reason for this Eucharist.

He spoke our goodness, not our sin

He spoke false and blinded grace, not death,

And even I, a child of grace and church

Questioned if my wonder was sufficient.

He said we gather to glimpse greater reality.

I am no stranger to seeking things unseen,

But my sight is derivative of He who Is

My sole reality, my greatest wonder.

What hope for sight is there,

What chance for wonder,

If any but the despised and blood-soaked man presides above the table.

All realities turn black but those turned white through his crimson stains.

All wonder is a farce, save his empty grave.

trinitychurch

On Turning 30

Tomorrow, I will celebrate my 30th birthday. 30 is an odd age. I don’t think culturally we’ve acclimated to this number. It’s neither old nor young, but somehow, it’s not middle-aged either. It is neither cool nor frumpy, neither wizened nor green. I think that maybe I’m supposed to regret turning 30, supposed to regret losing my youth and irresponsibility, but I’m not sure about that because it would clearly be more regrettable to be 30 years old and living with the youthful irresponsibility of a 20 year old, say, in my parents’ basement.

Hollywood can’t decide if 30 is a good thing either. Jennifer Garner was ‘thirty, flirty, and thriving’ in 13 Going on 30, but Jennifer Aniston was a basket case in the Friends episode where she turned 30. Meanwhile, Time and Forbes magazines keep on producing articles on ’30 Under 30′ and the like, wherein they feature the unusually heroic and lucrative accomplishments of an infinitesimal segment of the population. I think we all secretly question if those articles are meant to inspire or condemn us.

Here’s my problem, though. Even though I sense that I’m supposed to resent leaving my 20s behind, I’m excited about turning 30. I look at this next decade, and instead of wondering what I should do with my life, I have the privilege of pressing into and chasing after a dream that I’ve tested and found compelling. I’ve gained enough experience in my chosen field that I know I want to invest my time and finances in becoming an expert. At 30, having big dreams and goals feels a little less foolishly optimistic and dewey-eyed and a little more like something worth fighting for. I know what I’m good at, what I’m bad at, what I’m tolerable at, and what things might be worth the struggle of converting to the ‘What I’m good at’ column.

I think my biggest joy in reaching this milestone is that, for the most part, I just don’t care so much about what people think of me. My dad is 71 years old. He says from time to time that he doesn’t care what people think. Actually, he’s claimed that for years, but in my teens and 20s, I wondered how that could possibly be true. I think I’m starting to understand. It’s not that I don’t care about people’s opinions, but rather that the number of people whose opinions matter has gotten much smaller. In a similar vein, I no longer eternally second-guess my own decisions and opinions, even if they are sometimes unpopular. It’s liberating having some convictions that you’re willing to defend because chasing the wind of public opinion is exhausting.

Another point worth celebrating here at the tail end of my 20s: I’m pretty comfortable in my own skin. I know which styles look good on me and which look bad. I make enough money to buy quality clothing that I actually like. I’ve accepted that some things will always jiggle, and I’ve decided that I like spaghetti and wine more than I like dropping a pants size or two.

There’s other perks. Earlier this evening, I was reminiscing about my senior recital in college. The current college senior I was talking to is only a few weeks away from playing her own senior recital, and she asked me what performance feels like at my stage of the game. I told her that it has less emotional weight. I remember trying to select my repertoire for my senior recital. I agonized over choosing those songs like they were the last songs I would ever sing, like that hour-long recital was my swan song. I didn’t realize then that I was really just beginning a whole host of things. It’s so much more fun to be a musician at almost-30 than it was to be a musician throughout most of the past decade. I know what I can sing and what I can’t sign, and the ‘I Can’t Sing This’ list includes most pop styles. I remember the time this one teenage girl in Hungary, after serving on worship team with me, told me that my voice had a really ‘unique’ (read: weird) tone to it. I was marginally upset then. Now I just laugh, yep, that’s what you get when an opera singer tries to sing Hillsong! On the flip side, though, I’m not fighting with my voice anymore, and it is making the sorts of sounds I’d hoped for so long that it would make. My voice teacher told me this would happen at the end of my 20s and the beginning of my 30s, and his prediction came true. And it brings the deep, profound, soul-stirring satisfaction that only years of struggle now vindicated will produce.

So I welcome 30. I’m sure this next decade will look as different in retrospect as my 20s look to me now. It is not without some sense of trepidation that I move forward into this next phase of my life, but more than trepidation, I am excited. I’m also grateful for these past ten years and the learning that happened within them. They were fun, often exciting, occasionally turbulent, and usually somewhat bewildering. But they’re done. Now I’m ready to dive deep.

Faith and Art in Real Time

I often write very theoretically and philosophically about art and faith. It’s easier than being very vulnerable. But today I’d like to take a detour from that path, if that’s alright, and tell you all what the intersection of faith and art looks like in my life right now.

I am applying for graduate school. For years, I’ve talked about this one goal. I remember saying goodbye the staff at the International Christian School of Budapest, and going to grad school was my stated reason for leaving, and one that I believe is God-ordained. But then I got to Chicago, and a whole host of other issues sort of took over for a season (you can read about that here if you feel so inclined). Now I’m back in a practice room, every day, or nearly every day, and I am learning so much.

Yes, I’m obviously learning new music and new techniques, as one generally does in a practice room. I’m also learning deep, soul-stirring lessons. I’d like to share them with you, so here they are, in no particular order.

  1. Practicing is often not fun, but faithfulness to what God has asked me to do and be demands that I practice. Every day, after I get off work at 4:30, I walk down the hall from the admissions office to the practice rooms in the music building. I’d rather go home. I’d rather eat my dinner and watch Netflix, but for this season, God is calling me to practice hard. This is not merely an issue of stewardship of my voice and my talents. This has cosmic proportions. Recently, when I look at the chaos of the world around me, I wonder what I, in my frailty and ignorance, could ever do to help such a situation. Every time I think that, though, God is faithful to remind me that healing the gaping wounds of this world is his job. It is mine to be faithful to the task he has given me, and right now, even if I don’t understand how on earth it benefits anyone, my God-appointed task is to apply for graduate school, and that necessitates rigorous practice. Viewed in this light, every practice session becomes an attack against the dark. Any act done in obedience to the call of God, no matter how small, is a beacon of light. Practicing becomes a holy act of war.
  2. There is no room for fear. I am often tempted to be afraid – of rejection, of failure, of debt, of change. I often think of the admonition against fear as applying to spiritual things, or at least to life and death matters, not to my pre-audition jitters. That’s not nearly holy or significant enough to matter to God. But he sees sparrows. He clothes lilies. My fears are significant to him, and he calls me to hand them over to him. In a marked departure from the kind of music that I normally listen to as the music nerd that I am, the Chris Tomlin song ‘Whom Shall I Fear‘ has become my rallying cry as I face the thought of audition panels. ‘I know who goes before me, I know who stands behind, the God of angel armies is always by my side. The one who reigns forever, he is a friend of mine, the God of angel armies is always by my side’, is a potent antidote to the fear of judgment by selection committees. He walks ahead of me onto every stage, and I am eternally and unequivocally a child of the Most High. Really, whom shall I fear in any audition, no matter how exalted the stage?
  3. I am learning to take my own advice that I gave here, and invite God intentionally into my practicing. I have begun to pray before I practice. I’m learning to surrender even a practice session and ask that He would be pleased to make it productive and fun. When things aren’t going well, I ask him who made my voice what approach I should take to get it to respond the way I want it to. I have begun to thank him for a good practice session. This approach, coupled with a belief that my practicing matters in some eternal, invisible, supernatural way, has fueled me to greater productivity in a practice room than I have ever experienced since I was 13 years old.
  4. Phones are the death of a helpful practice session. I’ve started leaving it in my office when I practice. There’s very little chance that something earth-shatteringly important is going to happen in the 90 minutes or so that I will be separated from my phone. When I don’t have it with me, there is no temptation to browse Facebook or Instagram. If a text comes through, I don’t know about it, so its presence doesn’t derail my concentration. If my practice session isn’t going well, the easiest thing to do is to think, ‘Well, I’ll just take a little break and come back to it in a few minutes’. I’m fairly certain every single Millennial reading this has pulled this stunt, whether in a practice room or somewhere else. Guess what? Your motivation probably isn’t going to improve in the 10 minutes you just spent on Facebook. If anything, you’ll likely be less motivated and interested in your sub-par practice/study/workout/Bible reading session. Don’t just put your phone down. Put it somewhere you have to exert a significant amount of effort to get it, and then get back to the task at hand.
  5. My abilities develop at precisely the rate that God intends they should develop. This is a lesson I’d rather ignore at times. The truth is that everything on this earth is under the control of Almighty God. Why would I ever think that my voice and musical development is exempt from that inviolable reality? There have been times that I have raged at my inability to do certain things as a singer. I am learning that this is also not mine to control. It has been given to me to be faithful in practicing what I have learned in a lesson, memorizing music, and accessing my God-given and God-reflecting creativity as best I can. The outcome is not mine to determine. What God makes of my faithfulness is not my business.

I am learning so much more than just new music these days, and you know what strange reality I’ve encountered as I’ve been enabled to loosen my grip on my music as my identity? Singing is so much more fun than it ever was. Yes, sometimes it’s tough to make it to a practice room, but on the whole, singing has become more joy-filled than it has been in a long time. I hope the same is true for you. In fact, you should come make music with me.

I’ll be in a practice room.

Toast and Feast: Why Artistry in the Kitchen is Essential

I remember the summer I fell in love with cooking.

I was 19 years old and on a three-week-long choir tour in Greece. I had been a fan of mediterranean cuisine long before the trip, but those three weeks awakened me to the joy of cooking.

It was all due to one man named Henri. Our choir was staying at a Christian camp somewhere in Greece, both at the very beginning and the end of the trip. Henri served as the camp chef. The details of his life story were never entirely clear, save that he was a highly trained chef who had devoted his formidable skills to the service of his brothers and sisters who stayed at that camp, who would feast at his table.

And what a feast it was. I remember the night he served us risotto alongside lamb meatballs with a fresh tomato and parsley sauce. I literally sang the opening bars to Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ upon tasting it, and my choir-mates laughed a little at my theatrics. I meant that outburst – delicious food causes me to worship.

When I came home from that choir tour, I decided I wanted to learn how to cook. I could already follow a recipe well enough, but I wanted to learn to create in the kitchen. I began tinkering more and more. As a child and teenager, my gastronomic efforts were marked by overcooked food. I set things on fire in the kitchen more than once. I determined to leave that reputation behind and learn to prepare food so that I could honor guests with an excellent meal the same way that Henri did.

As I have continued my quest toward being a good cook, I have discovered that food made with artistry blesses a person more deeply than just satisfying their physical hunger. The time spent in a kitchen says that they are worth the time food preparation takes. At its core, cooking is service. Whatever Gordon Ramsay may try to make us believe, being a chef is not a glamorous role. It is hard work for the good and enjoyment of other people. Good food and hospitality should be an offer of rest and safety. It should say, in a world that is intent on making us believe we are emotionally homeless, ‘You have a home here’.

Good food can also help us to reset the rhythm of our lives. In 21st century America, where if things are not instant, they are at least express, taking time to make everything from scratch speaks a needed message: we have time to celebrate the goodness of God in the food he has placed on this earth. We have time to celebrate each other by sharing a meal. That our bodies need regular fuel reminds us that we are finite and inherently weak, even while the process by which we convert food into energy is miraculous and glorious.

In learning to cook, I discovered another element of joy: creation. There are few things as satisfying to me as the pure creative power of taking raw food and transforming, shaping, blending, and flavoring it until the taste I envisioned and could nearly smell in the empty air sits realized and plentiful on my kitchen table. Like all other art, it is then best consumed in the company of friends.

As I look at the purposes of art, good food fulfills all of them. It enriches the lives of those who consume it. It causes me to worship the God who made the ingredients, who allows me the skills and means necessary to prepare it, who made my taste buds, and who decreed that the human body would enjoy and profit from a wide variety of food (and not merely, say, the slop that Mr. Anderson, et al., were forced to eat in the Matrix movies). It allows me to play with color and texture and nuance as I think of new combinations of flavors. It reminds me of my humanity and my need for rest and renewal. Given that Adam and Eve’s first sin involved eating, that Jesus called us to remember His death by sharing a meal, and that, one day, we will feast together at the marriage supper of the Lamb who was slain, it thus echoes the Gospel.

A few weeks ago, I read a quote on the Instagram account of singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson. It said, ‘Let every feast be a declaration of war against all that is not true’. I’m not sure who said it, but I’m fairly certain he was quoting someone else. Whoever said it has crystalized what I love about good food: it is a beautiful declaration of war. Good food tells me that God loves me. It wages war against the lie that he is stingy. It proclaims to every guest that they are beloved and combats the lie that all they are worthy of is the inattention of a TV dinner.

A good dinner speaks love outpoured from God to man, and then from man to neighbor. Was there ever a better reason to create?

This Beautiful Community: Inviting Others Into Our Creative Process

Author’s Note: This is a companion piece to an article I wrote a while back called This Beautiful Altar: Surrendering our Creative Process

I’ve never enjoyed exercising. Ever since I began voice lessons at age 13 in 8th grade, I’ve shunned organized sports. My lack of eye-hand coordination and dislike of sweat was as much of a motivating factor as my love of music in this decision. As I’ve progressed through adulthood, however, the need to exercise has become increasingly important. I decided that before I reached age 30, I wanted to make physical fitness a consistent and vital part of my life. I’d tried many times before, but would only make it for about 3-4 months before I got bored or lazy or too busy, and my exercise efforts would abruptly halt. A year and a half ago, that changed. I met a girl at work who also needed a workout partner, and we set a schedule. After about 10 years of trying to workout, I finally succeeded in making it a habit, but I was only successful because I was not alone.

So too with creating.

I have a dream of an artistic community wherein differing styles and disciplines and personalities mingle and clash and sharpen. It is so much more than mere accountability, although I deeply need that, too. It goes beyond critique and criticism, even though those things are necessary and invaluable. It is far more profound than simple mutual enjoyment of our art, despite the joy it brings.

A community of redeemed artists must reflect in their habits the true nature of their calling.

And what a high calling has been given to the artists and the poets:

  • To offer glimpses of eternity
  • To remind us of the glory we will see one day
  • To hold up a cracked and sympathetic mirror of our brokenness
  • To give voice to pain that many cannot express
  • To reflect in some small way the beauty of the Elohim the Most Beautiful

This calling means our questions to our fellow artists must go beyond form and technique to questions of the soul. If our art is ever to play a part in making anyone else new, we must first ourselves be made new. That means we must agree to dive deep into each other’s pain and sit among the shards of broken glass, and then ask how it can best and most truly be translated into art. That means we must speak the truth of the Gospel into each other’s brokenness and then ask how that healing can also be best and most truly translated into art. That means we must delve in to the mysteries of Almighty God, for how can we reflect a glory that we do not yearn for or see? How can we reflect his beauty unless we have first gazed upon the beauty of the Lord?

In this dream, we must move beyond mere criticism of each other’s art. Anyone can criticize. We must walk together as brothers, know each other as sisters, and when we have shone the light of truth on each other’s darkness, say to the other ‘Now this is the story you tell’. We must spur each other on to a greater knowledge of the holy and then together paint a clearer picture of He who is Awesome and Holy and Terrifying and Lovely. We must journey together as we are made new and then tell the story of that making.

Even the Godhead created in trio.

Certainly we were never meant to walk alone.

 

Out of Stillness, Life

If you walk along the eastern edge of North Pond in Lincoln Park, Chicago, right up close to the water, you may chance to find a very special tree. Many years ago, it would seem, the tree was split in half somehow, and now both halves of the tree curl over to the ground. The tree abuts the water, and so if you duck under one half of the now-horizontal trunk, you’ll walk down a little slope to the water’s edge and bullrushes. I stepped in, and found that some kindly park rangers had left a nice chunk of wood as a seat there. There in the middle of Chicago, in the semi-shelter of the park, I found an even smaller refuge where not even my fellow park-walkers could see me, and at last my mind uncoiled from everyday life long enough and free enough to dream.

As I sat beneath that ancient tree, I thought how I cannot create from a place of rush and hurry, from a place of noise. I’ve often noticed that my mind and dreams are most alive late at night when at last the world is quiet. When I get to a practice room at the end of the workday, I usually need at least 15 minutes of staring into space before I can begin warming up. As I converse with other artists, I hear similar stories: minds awakening and ideas flowing only when the rest of the world has gone to bed. It’s an old story.

It makes sense. The production of good art exacts a high price from its creators, demanding all our intellect, judgment, talent, emotion, and vulnerability. How can anyone have the presence of mind to create when so much brain space is already devoted to a steady stream of media and information? Perhaps part of the reason that arts are suffocated is the constant chatter.

This is not the paradigm of Scripture. Our LORD never created from a place of so much chaos. He is himself Peace and so all that he brought into being was made in peace. How can I think that I would be able to do better? No, we must commit to stillness before creation. We cannot create from chaos – our finite minds will not allow it.

Even more profoundly, if we are seeking to tell God’s story, we cannot hear his words through the cacophony. Our art becomes a deeply worshipful endeavor when we submit its production and content in their entirety to His control. We cannot hear how and what we should produce when so many other voices compete for our attention. No, we must commit to stillness if we are ever to find the fountainhead of our art. We are fools if we think that we can create anything apart from the Creator.

I wish I could say that I discovered today, there beneath that Hobbit-hole of a twisted tree trunk, the magic formula to stillness. I didn’t. I know enough of the ancient mystics of the Christian faith to know that stillness takes time and patience. In a world where Google reports that it took 0.53 seconds to access the entire combined knowledge of the world on the subject of MacBooks (my test subject since that’s what I’m typing on), time and patience are unheard of or simply ridiculed. To add extra time to our artistic process seems impossible, since we barely have time to devote to art in the first place.

But what if our lack of stillness has deprived our art of its oxygen? What if we have been limiting ourselves all these years because we could not take the time to sit in His presence and ask the Most Beautiful One what we should make and how? I think our deepest writer’s block and dullest paintings and most inane music could be fed and elevated not by a futile search for inspiration, but by time spent whispering into the stillness, ‘Creator…teach me!’

I Lost My Voice

I moved from Budapest in July 2014 and back to Chicago in October 2014. I took four voice lessons in November, quit for the holidays, and then passed over into a strange land where I was neither taking voice lessons, nor singing, nor barely teaching music. I was barely a musician for the first time since I was 13 years old. I see now that I was reeling from the impact of reverse culture shock, the force of which stole any desire to make music or pursue beauty. I could only consume what was easily digested: 101.1 The Mix, Netflix, and whatever Spotify said I might like on the Discover playlist.

And I wondered if something had kind of died. It’s a terrifying thing to lose such a huge part of what you think defines you. When I was a child, I used to sing in the echoing back rooms of our factory-turned-sanctuary-fixer-upper of a church. I amazed myself by what my girlish voice could produce. When I was in Hungary, everyone knew I was a musician. I was one-stop-shopping for the arts. Back in Chicago, I fell silent. I wasn’t a musician anymore, and I barely bothered to create.

I rarely stopped to wonder during that year why I didn’t care anymore. I still don’t know entirely. Partly, it was too much of a reminder of the things I had loved, both as a student  and as teacher, but didn’t have anymore, chief among them purpose and community and respect. Partly, it was the shock of coming back to a place that I thought would be home, only to find home was in Pennsylvania and Chicago and Budapest, which ultimately meant that home was…no where. Partly it was the grief of saying goodbye to a life and a community that I’d never really be a part of again. I’ll always have ties to Pennsylvania. I’ll always follow those old roads home. But Budapest, ah Budapest, how I grieved you during that year! How I grieved knowing that the city where I really grew up was now relegated to a tourism site for me. Many old wounds were healed there. Cauterized, more like – because healing followed burning, and in the beginning, Budapest seared me.

There are very few things on this earth that simultaneously involve the emotions, the spirit, the mind, and the body. Music is one of them, and particularly singing because your body is the instrument. When so much was in turmoil, I had nothing left with which to sing. And so, I fell silent and allowed myself to grieve.

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I spent Christmas 2015 in Pennsylvania with my family. A few days before Christmas, the pastor of the church I grew up in called me and asked if I would consider singing ‘O Holy Night’ at their Christmas Eve service. Since I was already planning on being there, I agreed. ‘O Holy Night’ is hardly the most difficult song in the world, but it was more difficult than anything I’d tried to produce in months, and I was afraid.

I sang well that night. In fact, I’ve never sung ‘O Holy Night’ better. And I realized, after it was all over, that I’d had fun doing it. I hadn’t really enjoyed singing in months, or even years. For so long, so much self-worth had lived and died by the success of my musicianship.

Back in Chicago after Christmas, I was planning on starting voice lessons in anticipation of grad school, but fear of so many things, mainly failure, held me back. Until the Tuesday night that I got a text saying that my father had been taken to the emergency room and they weren’t really sure what was going on.

Fear is a powerful motivator. All I could think about was how I needed to pursue a career so  I could take care of myself. My second thought was, how soon could I reasonably return to Pennsylvania, preferably the Philadelphia area, in case I needed to take care of my parents. I googled ‘masters of vocal pedagogy near philadelphia’, and soon found a program that offered the kind of education I wanted to pursue and was only 1.5 hours away from my parents. It had never popped up before because I’d always searched for masters programs in Pennsylvania, while this particular school was on the New Jersey side of Philadelphia. My fear further prompted me to pursue voice lessons even more proactively. I soon found myself back in practice rooms under the guidance of the incomparable T. Strandt, and during that first lesson, I told him the story of my silent year and the events that made me want to sing again. He said that he’s always amazed at the signposts that God gives us to get us back on track.

For that Christmas Eve service and my father’s stroke were indeed signposts, and they jolted me out of my stupor and reminded me of all the goodness and mercy that follows me. Oddly enough, even that year of silence was a good mercy. For all it’s pain and confusion, I needed the rest. I needed the chance to consider if I really wanted to dive into music, or if it was just what I had been doing for so long that I just assumed it was the right thing to do. I found that I wanted to dive. It freed me a little more from the prison of thinking I am defined by my music and my voice, and freed me to see myself more as I am: a child of God. Most of all, regaining my voice made it fun to sing again, fun to find out all that God has allowed my voice to do.

I lost my voice, but like life itself, she who would save her voice, she who would save her music, must first lose it.