originally published at http://nomosjournal.org/columns/cultivating-a-co-creator/creating-in-the-shadow-of-suffering/
Over the last month or so, I’ve woken up to news article after news article about tragedies: the massacre of LGBTQ latinx and others at a gay club in Orlando, the attack on a Bangladeshi café, the failure of DAPA in the Supreme Court, and so many recent instances that cry out for recognition that Black Lives Matter.
Some of these are failures of humanity to be good and just to each other – they are crimes against humanity, in the truest sense of the phrase. They remind us that tragedy comes in many forms and is often outside our control.
These tragedies happen on a public scale, and they require a public response.
Public responses to these particular tragedies, and to the problem of evil more broadly, have been expressed in books, songs, poems, rants, Facebook posts, tweets, and visual art created as a way to make sense of suffering and pain around us.
We see examples of this in Jesse Williams’ recent speech at the BET Awards. His words paint a picture of the history of suffering for African-Americans in the United States and call the audience to remember their power in a nation that allows black children to be murdered. And in the wake of the Orlando massacre, Tony Award winning director and songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a sonnet to express his commitment to love in whatever form it takes. These creations rise up in protest – life finding a way in the face of destruction.
These are tragedies and struggles that can stir religious questions within us – “where is God in the murder of black lives?” and “where is God in bombings of cafés and airports?” In theological circles, we call this questioning “theodicy,” the big conversation about why God allows evil in the world.
Many people, in the midst of personal discernment, illness, or struggle, turn to art therapy as a way to work through questions and find answers, to bring shape to intangible parts of life in this world. I’m not a therapist, but as an artist, I can say that the act of bringing something into creation has a way of making us more resilient. It reminds me of the way saplings will grow out of the carcass of a felled redwood, creating something new out of the death of an old tree.
Over the last two years, I’ve gone to worship services with broad questions in my mind and heart: why, God, is the world so broken, and why do people hurt on personal and systemic scales? These questions, for me, began soon after I left my first job in a church, when I was wondering who I wanted to be in the world. It was hard to read articles and not turn my face heavenward, echoing the words that we in the Judeo-Christian tradition attribute to Psalm 13 – “how long, O Lord,” will you forget us?
The prayers of confessions in the church services I’ve attended have just scratched the surface for me and are no longer enough. I’ve begun to carry crayons with me – because there’s something else going on, something we can’t always put into words, something that happens every time I go to church.
Somehow, putting wax to paper, I begin to understand the messiness of life – once blue runs into pink, purple happens, and it’s not always beautiful. And in adding colors, shades, and shapes, the questions remain, but they’re no longer the only thing I have to hang on to. These are prayers that bring a vividness to the questions of “why?” and “how long?” when those words are not enough.
This last month, I’ve been working on the question of where God (however we dream of her) is in the shooting of black men by police in the United States. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were struck down by a racist system that has drawn lines in our society. I’ve wondered, with others, how we color outside those lines, and claim the space that remains for something more beautiful. How do we create something new?
And at some point this past week I was moved by the story of Shadrach, Meschach, and Abendengo, a story from the Torah in which men were condemned unjustly to death by fire by an empire. The story ends, not just with their survival through the fire, but with God going into the fire with them. The story leaves me with more questions than answers, and perhaps, right now, that’s an invitation to create more.
From my front yard, I often watch hummingbirds make their nests and sometimes spy tiny, furry animals burrowing into the ground, creating homes. Their homes surround mine, our lives intertwining. There is a creativity to those connections, which nurtures in me a sense of creating in response to my experience of the Divine in creation. I’ve begun to see this creative response to the Divine around us through the making of home, the experience itself of the Divine, and the understanding that when we create (particularly art) we get at something beyond ourselves.
Moving to the coast of Northern California, I was instilled with the awe fit for the oceans and the redwoods. I wanted my home to feel part of nature, and I’ve longed to be part of creation myself. A re-thinking of what it means to be a creative part of creation has helped me see how I get at the Divine.
It is not a long leap to connect my home with the home of creation (the world). The prefixeco is from the Greek word oikos and means “household” – we use it to begin words likeeconomy and ecology. How we see home is both a matter of place and resources.
Broadly, where we call home and what we do with those spaces are issues of creativity. A colleague of mine, Veronica Kyle, who is the Outreach Coordinator for Faith in Place in Chicago, says that we have to see something as beautiful in order to care for it. If we see the place where we live as ugly, we will not be inspired to take good care of it. And so, most of the walls in my house are covered in art – pieces that I’ve made or pieces that have been given to me over the years. This has been the case of every home I’ve lived in, but it feels especially true of this place in which I dwell on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, where the beauty of nature seems to wrap its arms around me. Nature does that – as Mary Alice Armstrong writes in Dianne Glave’s Rooted in the Earth, “one practical result of…nature should be to surround our homes and schoolhouses with the most beautiful thing attainable. It should instill the spirit of creating and preserving the natural beauties of roadside and field and forest rather than that of ruthless destruction.” That is, the beauty of the natural world has made me much more attuned to the beauty with which my home is filled.
That sort of realization can push us to consider context and pay attention to the places we call home so we see the creativity of the Divine around us. In “A Native Hill,” Wendell Berry writes that our deepest questions about our context are, at their core, “religious, because they are asked at the limit of what I know; they acknowledge mystery and honor its presence in the creation.” Thus, when I stand in my yard, slackjawed at the hummingbird hovering over the flowers, I’m honoring the mystery of divine creativity (for what else, I wonder, but imagination cloaked in science leads to such a tiny, beautiful bird?).
But, if we acknowledge creativity as a response to a divine creator, we also have to understand our relationship to the Divine. One of the ways that I’ve begun to understand my creativity is as what theologian Phil Hefner calls “created co-creator.” He suggests that we think about the separateness and connectedness of humanity as making us “created co-creators,” and with this identity, humanity is called to recognize itself not just as made of the topsoil, but also as made in God’s image (Anna Case-Winters explores this more in her book Reconstructing a Theology of Nature). Hefner’s concept of the “created co-creator” asks humanity to consider not just who we are but also how we relate to the rest of creation. How are we to exist as both the created and the co-creator? For me, our created status means that we are made by God, and we are created out of the biological processes of nature. Our co-creator status points out that not only are we meant to see and love the world around us, but we are meant to add to it.
And that requires creativity. Perhaps impossibly, I want to be able to describe what it means to create art in response to experiencing the Divine in creation. From a strictly Protestant standpoint that sets me apart from God, I could feel so inadequate if I believed that only God can create what is beautiful. But, if I see my creativity in solidarity with how all parts of creation create, it is an invitation to connect. It feels like a privilege when I pull out my crayons or my paints to birth an image, but it also feels like a prayer. Colors over colors, lines into lines. Whatever comes next adds to creation.
And so I think about the birds making their nests, and the trees preparing to put their first buds out to the branches, and I feel my own creative juices churning. My spirit aches for the joy of creation in making art and home.
And I ache, too, to connect with other artists. How are you creative? How does that creativity make you feel connected to the world around you?
Originally published at nomosjournal.org/columns/cultivating-a-co-creator/creativity-alongside-creation/
There’s a story in my family about how my dad “failed” his senior art show in college because he went completely post-modern, calling the art industry to task for pricing art and—on the whole—he was disrespectful and stubborn and ornery.
It’s a true story. I know it because when I was a student at the same college I went through the school newspaper archives and found the snobby article someone wrote about my dad.
I’ve never been so proud to be his daughter.
I trained as a mixed media artist in high school. I took one art class in college and dropped the class part way through because it was Painting 101 and I was tired of still life.
I’m also just as stubborn and ornery as my dad can be, so when I got a B+ on one of my paintings, I was angry.
And I gave up making art for the rest of my college career. It wasn’t until seminary that I started painting again, and my collection of garbage-for-art-projects grew. Stubborn.
When I was in high school, I worked on a room-sized mural at the school. One semester I took art twice a day so I had more time. I could do that because I’d been nicely asked to drop my calculus class midyear because I was disrespectful, stubborn, and ornery. (On the one hand, I kept saying that my taking calculus in high school was dumb because I was going to seminary and I would *never* need calculus in life. Which has been true. On the other hand, my saying those things in class was disruptive.)
Sometimes I left my US Government class (again, nicely asked to leave in the middle of class because I was reminding our teacher that he was wrong every time he said no one goes hungry in the United States. Ornery?)—sometimes I left and ended up in my art teacher’s classroom.
Her classroom is where I ended up when I needed a pass to go to the nurse’s office when I almost broke my food at lunch. Her classroom is where I ended up when I needed a place to hang out and wait for my sisters after school. Her classroom is where I first learned about gang fights and racism and perspective (on so many levels). I also learned to apologize and to accept responsibility when I cause hurt. (I will never forget how my teacher looked at me when I told her it was me who had painted over one of the people she’d added to the mural because I thought it was ugly. Disrespectful. And mean.) And I learned to believe in the dreams that I had, and to hold them close and with great love.
It was my dad who showed up again and again at school—when my calculus teacher finally asked me not to come back the next semester, when my US History teacher told me that I couldn’t speak anymore in class (and then one day he talked about how trees aren’t necessary and I went on an illustrated rant at the white board, saying not. one. word.) and for all the other times I got into random acts of trouble and ended up in the nurse’s office or vice principal’s office. It was my mom who came the day I almost broke my foot, but it was my dad every other time.
My mom reminded me recently that all of her children (who she loves very much) are stubborn. It’s true, we are. But we learned from my dad to be stubborn and to point out the places in the world that are unfair (why is that some artists’ work is worth millions of dollars and other artists are going hungry?) We learned from my mom to be kind with are assessments and to offer love with our criticism.
Making art has instilled in me that competition is a funny thing, and that art is never a competition. Now I get to work with two other artists and each of our styles are different. This summer, a couple of youth came back to my office area while I was working on a chalk drawing for our farmers market. They started in, saying, “Jovany says he’s a better artist than you!” I didn’t look up as I said, “whoa. Have you seen Jovany’s work? He’s so good!” “yeah, he said he’s way better than you!” I paused and said, “well, he’s right. He’s a way better painter than me.” The youth poked and poked, trying to get me to push back and say that I was better. I didn’t push back, not out of a lack of confidence but because I wanted the youth to understand that comparing mixed media to painting is like comparing the ocean to the redwoods. Later, I told the story to Jovany, and he said, “Art isn’t a competition.” My heart brimmed. Art isn’t a competition.
Art can be a tremendous opportunity to see ourselves and to grow into who we are meant to be. Art is a medium for holding the world accountable, a way to show the world how silly and broken it can be, even when the world doesn’t want to hear it.
Art (and the artists around me) held my stubborn, disrespectful, ornery self—and holds me still.
A couple of weeks ago I was at my denomination's central office for an advisory committee meeting. It was three days of conversation and community building. We talked about grants and our visions for the future of the denomination.
I dug into these relationships and was fed by the connections.
And I nearly lost my mind in the meetings.
Or I would have, had I not been comfortable enough to let my hands wander as we talked. I started with corn, meant for one of the staff. Part way through it was clear that the piece was a better fit for a different staff person, which meant I "needed" to make another drawing for the original staff person.
As we talked, I worked, grateful for the confidence that our group had in me--that this drawing was a way for me to stay engaged (someday I'll write more about the congregation that asked me to put away my crayons in worship--and the shame that welled up in me in response). In grad school when my brain wandered, I ended up on Facebook and totally disconnected from the people around. Drawing has made me sink deeper into the moment and place where I find myself, has let me be more present. I made five drawings over those meetings, and left one with each staff person.
Soon after coming back from Louisville, one of the staff persons posted the drawing of the hand on my facebook page and a conversation followed that made me realize that I'd forgotten to draw an image for one of the staff people. Horrified--because, rightly or not, my ego has made me think that these crayon ramblings are gifts-- I committed to making one more to send to Eileen.
So yesterday, after a long and hard day, I curled up on the couch with a glass of wine and my crayons. I offered that time and space to myself and to the page and let go as a pumpkin emerged.
I do not know how I choose colors or subjects. I only just trust what comes because those pieces come from somewhere here and now.
I collect mentors.
in this post-Easter world, I'm thinking about Advent.
how God breaks into our world, claiming us and the world, calling us into peace, hope, joy, and love.
how this claiming causes Jesus to love the world so extravagantly that he was crucified because he threatened the world as we had imagined it.
in Advent, we wait for the world to turn. in Easter, we experience a great turning. in ordinary time, we hope to recognize God's love for us.
cosmically, the world is always turning. how will we let grace emerge in that turning?
When Jesus died, the Scriptures tell us that many people reacted and mourned… and the religious institution tore in two and the earth broke apart. It was a wilderness suddenly encompassing all things in the great web of life and creation; it was a mourning that left no one or thing on the margins. All creation groaned under the weight of suffering and pain and sin, groaned under the wait to be transformed. All creation rejoiced with the coming of God-With-Us in the man Jesus (do you remember how the heavens shone with joy on the Bethlehem night?) All creation tore their garments of atoms and matter, rending themselves in grief for the One they thought had come.
All creation wept.
“I want… that wherever you go, the least plant may bring you a clear remembrance of the Creator… one blade of grass or one speck of dust is enough to occupy your entire mind in beholding the art with which it has been made.”—St. Basil the Great
I never thought I’d be a creator.
I fell in love with God the first summer I worked at a Presbyterian camp in Northern Illinois. I felt the Spirit stirring in me as I hiked between activities with campers. There, in the woods, amidst the prairies, under the stars, I felt deeply connected to the people and the creation around me, and I felt how powerful life can be in our connections.
In those connections, I discovered my desire to create. In high school, I created mixed-media art pieces (primarily out of garbage) because I was interested in giving new life to discarded things. I spent hours toiling over license plates and empty bottles and wood scraps, thinking about what connections to make. And then, I went to college. I hung up my glue gun and put away my hammer. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t have time, but that I didn’t make space for that part of me in the middle of reading, writing, and negotiating new-adulthood. And, I thought I didn’t miss it.
Then seminary happened. It was the second week of my first year, and the worship team was looking for someone who could sew. I blindly volunteered. The act of connecting fabrics for the purpose of worship drew me back to the sense of connection I felt in the woods. I breathed over the sewing machine and prayed the beginning verses of Genesis. Creation!
Later in seminary, I discovered ecofeminism. At its heart, ecofeminism centers on two concepts. First, all of creation is connected. Second, patriarchy has created a system that devalues both women and earth. But because of our connections, what happens to a part of creation affects the rest of creation. It’s not just women who are affected by the desecration of creation; patriarchy forgets that men suffer too when we devalue any part of creation. Ecofeminism points to our collective dependency, including but also beyond our biological connections. We are dependent upon all of creation for so many things—for food, energy, breath. We’re connected to all of creation in our creativity.
One of the ways that I’ve begun to understand my creativity is through what theologian Phil Hefner calls “created co-creator.” He suggests that we think about the separateness and connectedness of humanity as making us created co-creators, and with this identity, humanity is called to recognize itself not just as made of the topsoil, but also as made in God’s image. His concept of the created co-creator asks humanity to consider not just who we are but also how we relate to the rest of creation. What does our role in the world mean for the rest of the world? How are we to exist as both the created and the co-creator (an idea which holds both stories of creation in Genesis together in our identity)? Our created status means that we are made by God, and we are created out of the biological processes of nature. Our co-creator status points out that we are specially created with the ability to have more responsibility in the world.
God is Creator and guide. I believe in God the creator who loves all things into existence. Out of chaos, God dreamed order. Out of darkness, God painted light. And then… came everything else.
To be co-creator refers to the human freedom to make decisions which change humans and the world around them. Humans have the ability to create systems of society that separate and oppress, but humans also have the ability to create in a way that lives into our connectivity. Patriarchal modes of development have traditionally emphasized definitions of “development” and “productivity” that value profits and quantities. Ecofeminists, on the other hand, define development and productivity in terms of life and sustenance. What if we saw our creativity as a sign of development? By valuing the profit that can be extracted from the earth (or from women), patriarchy has regulated both the earth and women to roles of passivity, as if objects intended to be acted upon and used. Ecofeminism, instead, picks up this idea of co-creator and asserts the radical and inviolable agency of all humanity, including women—an agency that replaces objectification of people and of the earth with mutual relationship.
C.S. Lewis describes the creation of his fictional world of Narnia in his book, The Magician’s Nephew.Lewis describes how the lion Aslan sings Narnia into existence.
The Lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song. It was softer and more lilting than the song by which he had called up the stars and the sun; a gentle rippling music. And as he walked and sang, the valley grew green with grass… the Lion opened his mouth, but no sound came from it; he was breathing out a long, warm breath; it seemed to sway all the beasts as the wind sways a line of trees. Far overheard from beyond the veil of blue sky which hid them the stars sang again; a pure difficult music… and the deepest wildest voice they had ever heard was saying: “Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak.”
I never thought I’d be a creator, until I realized that my own Creator meant me to be one. I don’t know if I was sung into being like Lewis imagines or sculpted into humanity as Genesis reads. I do know that all of us—humanity and the rest of creation—are connected in our possibility. We are not just created, but creators, and our capacity for creativity stretches over the trenches that patriarchy has dug between us. All humanity—all creation—is connected by our common source in God, and through that connection we are being transformed into who God created us to be.
originally posted at Unbound
Read more articles like this one in the Nov 2012–Jan 2013 issue, “Hope for Eco-Activists: Discovering an Environmental Faith“
 Judith Plant, “Learning to Live with Differences: The Challenge of Ecofeminist Community,” inEcofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature,ed. Karen J. Warren (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997), 127.
 Susan Griffin, “Split Culture,” in Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism, ed. Judith Plant (Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1989), 11
 Anna Case-Winters, Reconstructing a Christian Theology of Nature: Down to Earth (Burlington: Ashgate, 2007), 114.
 Ibid., 118.
 Philip Hefner, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture and Religion (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 38.
 Vandana Shiva, “Development, Ecology, and Women,” in Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism, ed. Judith Plant (Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1989), 83.
 C.S. Lewis, “The Magician’s Nephew,” in The Chronicles of Narnia ( New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002), 64,70.