Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: Creativity, Poetry, Sermon, Spirituality, Ted Kooser
When I left Moody Bible Institute I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. All I knew was that being a missionary was the last thing on my mind. I had most of the credits toward a degree in International Ministries, but I lacked some general coursework to finish this degree. I needed science electives, English and anthropology. So, I began working from 5 a.m. in the morning until 2 p.m. in the afternoon stocking toilet paper, 50 lb bags of salt, 100 gallon barrels of oil, pressure washers, televisions, water heaters and computers at the local Sam’s Club. This allowed me to take evening classes at the University of Nebraska to finish up a degree that I no longer wanted.
I took two evolution classes, two anthropology courses that left me with one English elective for my degree. So, I leafed through the Fall catalog to determine which night course looked remotely interesting. Passing up some pretty intriguing offerings I finally came upon a course with great promise. It was a poetry writing class that met 7-9 p.m. on Wednesday nights. The only drawback was that I had never heard of the professor before, and he was an insurance underwriter. What could this person know about poetry?
Having spent the last couple of years in what I considered a bohemian existence I wanted to be the next great poet. I had been writing poetry ever since I could remember. In high school I worshipped T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. I read them constantly, never letting anyone in on the fact that most of their hermetic poetry’s meaning eluded me. I wanted everyone to think that I was smart by the poetry books that I carried around with me. With many poems already written, finding out how they faired was of great interest me.
The professor was a nice man with glasses and a soothing voice. Our assignments consisted of writing various types of poems and reading them for the entire class to critique. There was one paper due on a book of poetry by the end of the semester. I remember getting very thoughtful feedback from the teacher and that the hardest comments came from my fellow students. Yet, my own self-appraisal of my work was growing tougher every week. As the semester ran on I was completely dissatisfied with anything that I wrote. I wrote a perfectly horrible poem entitled, “God Explains Fog Scientifically.” In a kind tone the professor deflected the brutal comments of my fellow students and directed me toward something that was much more constructive.
“What are you trying to say here Brian?” he said with a great amount of interest in his voice.
I explained that I my influence was the existentialist’s, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, surrealists and that I was trying to construct an apologetic argument against an empirical explanation of deity. I was going to contain all of that in 12 lines!
Instead of laughing at my bombastic hubris he quietly explained that poets like Eliot and Thomas had mastered simpler forms before jumping right into their classic poetry. Maybe I should try to explain something so that everyone could understand it, master that and then move on to these much more complicated forms.
This was a revelation to me. Being understood was important in creativity! Many other valuable lessons were to follow. Read, read, read and then read more poetry so that your writing will improve. Often we will be fortunate to write one good poem a year and that will need to be stringently edited. Very few of us are spontaneously talented, it will take much practice of a craft before we will produce higher quality work.
These were such basic tenants of the creative process, but they transformed the way that I looked at art, writing and eventually preaching. I was fortunate enough to write a thank you letter to this professor. I told him that these lessons had not only helped me as a poet, but they had made me a much better preacher. In his response he was as warm and gracious as I had remembered. Soon thereafter all those years of crafting tight and accessible poetry paid off for that professor. Ted Kooser was awarded the honor of being our National Poet Laureate and won the Pulitzer Prize for his work “Delights and Shadows.” He is still one of America’s greatest living poets.
So, why do I wax nostalgic about my training in creativity? It is because that one of the single most important practice in my connection to the divine is my participation in the creative process. It is also because I believe that we completely undervalue its importance to faith and community. We are so worried about success or failure that we have forgotten that in the first verse and the first sentence of our holy book it says, “God created…” We no longer value things crafted with the hand. We talk about lowest bidders and sigh saying that craftsmanship would be nice, but it costs a lot of money. We have excuses why our church is strewn with the things that we refused to throw out ourselves. We decorate with plastic from China instead of ornaments made from our own children’s hand. We make the excuse of frugality when we are just plain cheap.
The church can and should be a laboratory for openness toward the nurturing of the creative spark. We must encourage each other non-judgmentally to pursue creative ideas. I have for a long time believed that our creativity is a divine connection or at least the concrete possibility of participating in something beyond our own individual lives.
Creativity is embedded at the beginning of the book of Genesis. It implies that God is crafty and talented at making beauty out of nothing, a veritable potter at the wheel. The penultimate piece of art in this divine work is man created out of the soil of the earth and woman from man’s rib. It is said in this creation myth that Adam and Eve are created in the divine’s image. Just like with any artist there is a part of the artist contained in the final work of a beautiful piece of art. Created in this divine image we must have the same propensity toward beautiful creations ourselves. Let us grow in our creativity as a community of faith, because in creative acts we will be praising the one who is reflected in the universe’s most stunning piece of art, you.
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