Engaging the Arts

I’ve just returned from New York City – not exactly the place one might imagine as a place of deep quiet renewal. But in the first evening of the 2 and half day arts encounter I was participating in, I felt my soul sigh in the best sense of the word. I felt like a bit of a misfit in this place – yet again. None-the-less, I chose to be as fully present as possible. And I chose to drink in the depth of an attentiveness to the vocation to create. In my life, I’ve wrestled a fair bit with what expression my own creativity might take. I succumbed to the assumptions that only “those” people were artists …. and the rest of us…. well we just weren’t. As Makoto Fujimoro pointed to a Richard Rohr quote on the first night in the pulse of the city, artists are those with the prophetic calling to live on the edge of the inside …. this edge which sometimes slips past the edge to the outside.

Rohr says, “…..the unique and rare position of a Biblical prophet—he or she is always on the edge of the inside. Not an outsider throwing rocks, not a comfortable insider who defends the status quo, but one who lives precariously with two perspectives held tightly together—the faithful insider and the critical outsider at the same time. Not ensconced safely inside, but not so far outside as to lose compassion or understanding….. The prophet must hold these perspectives in a loving and necessary creative tension. It is a unique kind of seeing and living, which will largely leave the prophet with “nowhere to lay his head” while easily meriting the “hatred of all” – who have invariably taken sides in opposing groups (Luke 21:16-17)…. People inside of belonging systems are very threatened by those who are not within that group. They are threatened by anyone who has found their citizenship in places they cannot control….. [Such prophets] tend to be, each in their own way, orthodox, conservative, traditional clergy, intellectuals, or believers, but that very authentic inner experience and membership allows them to utterly critique the very systems that they are a part of. You might say that their enlightened actions clarified what our mere belief systems really mean. These prophets critiqued Christianity by the very values that they learned from Christianity. Every one of these men and women was marginalized, fought, excluded, persecuted, or even killed by the illusions that they exposed and the systems they tried to reform. It is the structural fate of a prophet. You can only truly unlock systems from within, but then you are invariably locked out. When you live on the edge of the inside, you will almost wish you were outside. Then you are merely an enemy, a pagan, a persona non grata, and can largely be ignored or written off. But if you are both inside and outside, you are the ultimate threat, the ultimate reformer, and the ultimate invitation.”

This rich presentation was followed by a poetry reading. As I listened to poet Li Young Lee speak of his vocation to be vigilant to the myriad of poems within him and discern which one the divine Spirit was compelling him to write in that moment of that time in that space …. I recognized myself. Audacious as that may sound. This business of vocation….. of being alert …. of choosing to be present to see with eyes perhaps untrained but all-the-more practiced to see between the lines, the space between the frame. To see with eyes that identify with another – not as a passing fancy – but as a long obedience in the same direction – entering in, persevering, listening for nuance, distinctiveness, and contours of experience. Adrienne Chaplin spoke beautifully of the multi-sensory need to perceive and articulate lived experience in our quest to nurture beauty and shalom. It seemed to me a wonderful invitation to consider the impact of lived experience in our reflections on the discipleship journey for those outside the heterosexual mainstream.

The first night I pondered, “Here in this place of artists, gathering with a dream to rehumanize a broken and fractured world, I feel like one peering through the window hoping to not only catch what is going on inside – but with the audacious hope that someone will glance my way and beckon me in. What does artistry have to do with presence at the intersection of faith and sexuality? What brings me to search for my own creative soul in such a place? The many who gather here who embrace an authentic faith …. will they embrace the depth of complexity I seek to navigate with the soul of an artist …. or will I encounter the compartmentalized, the predictable, the distance so typical of people of faith when I begin to describe this generous spaciousness of incarnational posture with those who so often embody the artist soul on the edge of the inside (or the outside at the edge). Or will I find a place of belonging, of shared stretching, looking past the frame, reaching for the treasure of being fully human, in solidarity, in mutuality, in love.” In actuality, many (but thankfully not all) of the conversations I initiated with other participants around sexuality elicited rather simplistic, reductionistic and nuance-lacking responses. I was disappointed by this – but not particularly surprised. Intellectual conversation around the arts morphed into a one-dimensional, theoretical expression of certainty when I indicated the arena I engaged and our plans for an arts initiative as a collaborative space for connection and celebration of our common humanity. In raising the question of how the arts might be a pathway of hospitality for sexual minority persons in the faith community in one of the general sessions, one of the keynote speakers spoke with a kind and generous spirit about our call to love unconditionally and celebrate our common humanity. This was beautiful. Yet his comments about not labeling anyone revealed the common evangelical discomfort with acknowledging the reality that some individuals experience persistent same-sex orientation and by identifying as gay they choose to live honest and authentic lives.

Makoto spoke Friday night of cultural estuaries. An estuary is a place where the mouth of a river meets the sea. A co-mingling of fresh and salt water, a paradoxical, multi-directional tension of currents flowing rife with struggle and life. It would seem, without trying to overstate or be pretentious in any way that New Direction is in this place of estuary. We seek to create a space at this point of intersection that is generous, that allows the mixing and colliding and co-mingling of the beauty and chaos of our diversity. Over this turbulence is the commonality of substance. In the river/ocean estuary that common substance is water. In the conversation at the intersection of faith and sexuality, this common element is the life of God seen in the outworking of relationship with Jesus Christ and the Image-bearing nature of our humanity of which our sexuality is an intrinsic part. Estuaries aren’t all that common. They aren’t around every bend of the river. But where they occur there is a wildness, a vibrancy, a place where both renewal and risk happen. As New Direction seeks to be such an estuary, our prayer is that in this place of daring to listen, interact, and encounter diversity of thought, intuition, belief and integration into the life of discipleship and the larger story of faith that there would be a sense of renewal. Perhaps this renewal will be a sense of revisiting and rediscovering a vibrancy within the perspectives and convictions that one has always held. Perhaps this renewal will mean an opening and widening in the ways one perceives and thinks about these questions of integrating faith and minority gender and sexual identity experiences. Perhaps this renewal will reveal itself in paradigmatic shifts in attitude or in levels of certainty or in priorities or in epistemology (the search and study of truth) or in hermeneutics (the expression of our Scriptural interpretations). Such renewal can feel dangerous. It can be profoundly unsettling. But where fear is relinquished and love is allowed to reign, such renewal can release us into a deeper sense of our own humanity and the astounding gift of freedom God extends to his Image-bearing creations.

After hearing Makoto’s talk, the next day I went down and sat by the estuary in New York – the Hudson river meeting the Atlantic ocean. It was indeed a place of turbulence. With buildings lining both sides of the water, taxi boats criss-crossing artificially adding their own currents, and despite the clear day a faint haze of smog softening the crispness, this estuary was not alone. It wasn’t left to the solitude of its own surging – it was imposed upon by these external realities silently but significantly impacting the life beneath the surface of the waves. This too reminded me of the conversation at the intersection of faith and sexuality. The conversation alone, unpolluted by fear, control, selfishness, is turbulent. But buffeted about on all sides by interfering agendas, concerns, and assumptions, the cross-currents intensify making it all the more challenging for those for whom this point of intersection is personal, real and unavoidable.

I wonder if those who situate themselves within the heterosexual mainstream who make very public and clear statements about the decisions and choices those outside the heterosexual mainstream ought to be taking pause long enough to consider the ways they add to the challenging waters our sexual minority friends need to navigate. There is of course a time for those who are learned in fields such as theology, exegesis, epistemology, hermeneutics, ethics, anthropology, psychology and sociology (to name just a few) to offer their insights and wisdom into such multi-faceted conversations as the integration of faith with the experience of minority gender or sexual identities. The question is the ethos through which such insights and wisdom is shared. Is it shared with an overtone of oppression such that the learned one deposits and the sexual minority recipient is expected to simply absorb and implement the recommendations made (likely by someone who is not a sexual minority themselves) without question or the weight of their own experience? Or are the insights offered in a spirit of gift, the offering of one who loves in such a manner that it need not be controlling or coercive?

In such an estuary of turbulence, what is the posture of Jesus towards those personally seeking to navigate the swirling currents of experience, intuition, desire, belief, motivations, maturity, commitments, or relationships? What is the narrow path Jesus speaks of? What is the cross to bear he challenges his disciples with? Who are we as his heirs and co-heirs? How are we to view ourselves? How are we to love ourselves? How are we to embrace our humanity? How are we to rest in knowing we are loved? How are we to lay down our own lives? How are we to love others?

Such paradox. Such tension. Such individual and unique journeys and stories. It seems to me in this place of estuary, as each of us wrestles with these questions both in relationship with Christ and in relationship with one another, we do well to exercise the fruits of the Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control as we recognize that each person to some degree is seeking to navigate the inevitable turbulence this conversation creates. “Be kind to one another, for we do not know the battle another is fighting.”

My prayer is that as we foray into the arena of the arts, and particularly in the spaces where art and faith meet, that we will illuminate the complexities inherent in the journey for LGBTQI people, deepen the conversations, and probe the wonderful ways that the intersection of art and sexuality can nurture safe and spacious places for all people to explore and grow in faith in Jesus Christ. In these spaces, the focus will not be the direction of someone’s sexual and romantic attractions but rather our common humanity, our call to be generative, and through our collaborative creativity work towards the world as it ought to be.