Tag Archives: Creativity

Three Heroes: Bob Dylan

This is the third and final post in a challenge I had been given by a good friend in my local gathering of Jesus followers. The assignment was to list three personal “heroes.” For the sake of this exercise, the heroes had to be persons (dead or alive) I did not know personally and Jesus could not be listed among the three. In previous posts I named Winston Churchill and Miles Davis. As chance would have it, I have pictures of all three (among others) taped to my well-worn paperback Bible (see featured image).

I’ve been waiting on this last installment about Bob Dylan. I’m not sure why. I thought it a bit of synchronicity that last week Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. I thought it apt that he should receive it for the body of his lyrical writing. It is his lyrics that have inspired me in life, in faith, and in my own creative journey. It is also classic Dylan that he has refused to acknowledge the honor. Both of these facts are part of the reason he’s one of my heroes. So the timing of this post now seems right.

I became a follower of Jesus in the spring of 1981. Within months of that life-changing decision I was in a record store and happened upon Bob Dylan’s album Slow Train Comin’. I still remember the moment. It was a record store on University Avenue in Des Moines near Drake University. I am the youngest of four siblings and my older brothers (seven years my senior) were audiophiles with an extensive collection of LPs. Following in their footsteps, I had cut my musical teeth early on rock classics and had a fairly diverse musical palette for my age. I knew Bob Dylan from Like a Rolling Stone and Rainy Day Women. When I happened upon Slow Train Comin’ I was both surprised and intrigued by the reports I’d heard regarding Dylan’s own newly discovered faith. His lyrics and music resonated with my own spiritual journey.

I devoured the tracks on Slow Train Comin’ and then moved on to the heavy gospel of his next album, Saved followed by the very different musical and lyrical takes on Shot of Love and Infidels. There was something altogether different in Dylan’s music and lyrics compared to the other “Christian” music I was exposed to in those years. No offense intended to Christian artists of that day, but the music always repeated what was commercially popular at the moment and the lyrics were simple and cookie-cutter. Dylan on the other hand, was altogether different.

I found Dylan’s lyrics to have a depth and honesty that stood in stark contrast to other music I was listening to. His music wasn’t canned. It didn’t sound like everything else. It was brutal in its forthright transparency and I identified with the raw feelings of confession, faith, doubt, struggle, and determination that were being communicated. I was challenged by references I didn’t understand and metaphors that pushed the envelope of my knowledge.

My love and appreciation for Dylan’s lyrics led me to delve deeper into his past. I went back to the beginning and followed the path of his musical journey. I fell in love with his earlier music and gained an even deeper appreciation for the artistry of his lyrics.

As time went on it was fascinating for me to watch Dylan shun the Christian and religious labels to which the press, the Christian record industry, and others tried to pigeon-hole him. It was reported the he left the faith. He was branded a heretic by the religious press to whom he refused subservience. The mainstream press and music industry welcomed him back as a backslider who got the religious stuff out of his system.

I didn’t pay much attention to what the press said. I just kept listening to his music, to the lyrics that poured out of him, in which I found the honest musings of a fellow wayfarer trying to figure things out. In his lyrics I continued to find faith, doubt, honesty, struggle, love, and pain that mirrored my own experience. All of it was communicated in words and metaphors that never ceased to challenge and inspire me.

So, why do I consider Bob Dylan a personal hero?

First, he seems always to avoid being labeled or confined by others’ expectations. The institutional church and evangelical Christians are subtly and successfully manipulative in pressuring followers into a prescribed box of what they deem acceptable. I watched as Dylan simply refused the label, and refused to be placed inside someone else’s box. Not just in his so-called “religious” years but throughout his entire life. He’s not done the same thing to the literati elite on the Nobel committee. God has given me a very individualist spirit and Dylan’s example gave me an example to follow, a freedom to be the person and the artist God created me to be, even if it doesn’t meet others expectations of what I should do or be. I’m okay being me even if it does not fit neatly in the box prescribed by my family, friends or some other constituency.

Second, Dylan’s lyrical artistry wanders all over the map. You name it and he references it. He’s an explorer in the expansive sense. He references the religious, historic, artistic, scientific, personal, and literary. He draws on life in its abundant diversity in all of his artistic expression. As someone with a sometimes embarrassing repository of trivial knowledge (Wendy to me: How can you possibly know that?! Answer: I don’t know how I know it. I just do.) I love that Dylan makes art out of the arcane. He pulls together seemingly disparate references and expresses something meaningful, powerful and creative out of them. I get that. I creatively want to be like that.

Finally, and much like Miles Davis (and Picasso and Van Gogh and Woody Allen), Bob Dylan has ceaselessly pushed into new things lyrically and artistically. He’s a creative wellspring. He doesn’t rest. He doesn’t stop exploring and expressing. It just keeps pouring out of him. I love that he is a visual artist as well as a musical artist. He’s never been afraid to explore a different medium. Some of his albums feel entirely experimental. He explores the old and the new. He plays. Dylan inspires me to never be afraid to try new things, push into new areas, embrace and experiment with what was, what is, and fearlessly forge ahead.

Project Postscript….

My family has been having a lot of conversations over the past few years about the nine Enneagram personality types and how each of our “types” affect our lives and relationships. I happen to be a Type 4: The Individualist, and when I look through the institute’s list of examples of Type 4s, would you know it, but two of my three “heroes” from this project are there.

enneagram-type-4-examples

Reason, Creativity & Metaphor

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
Isaiah 11:1-2 (NIV)

The language of God is metaphor. Throughout God’s Message He speaks through word pictures: poetic word pictures, word pictures in parables, typology, foreshadowing, metaphorical names, dreams, visions, and prophecies. God is a creative artist. God is the Creator Artist. The intricate, mathematical design of all creation is balanced by the Creator’s artistic flair in communication and story telling. We are made in God’s image. Left brain and right brain. Reason and creativity.

I have found that many people get perplexed and confused when approaching the writings of the ancient Hebrew prophets. Reading the prophets can be a head scratcher. There is no doubt. This is especially true considering that we are reading an English translation of the original Hebrew text. The original Hebrew is much like the balanced reason and creativity of Creation. It can be very left-brained in its intricate (even mathematical) poetic structure and very right-brained in its metaphorical content.

This morning’s chapter begins with a Messianic prophecy. If you delve into the word pictures, you begin to unlock the full meaning.

Jesse was the father of King David. King David was told by God that his throne would be established forever (e.g. the Messiah would come from the line of David). During the time of Isaiah’s writing, the line of David was still sitting on the throne of Judah in Jerusalem. Alive and bearing generational fruit. But, within a couple of hundred years of the writing the monarchy of Judah would be cut-off by a series of occupational empires (Babylonian, Persian, Roman). There would be no king in Jerusalem. The family tree of Jesse’s royal lineage would become a lifeless stump.

From that dead, life-less stump comes a shoot, that will develop into a branch which will bear fruit. Life will spring out of the seemingly dead line of Jesse. That’s why Matthew and Luke are both careful to record the family tree of Jesus in the telling of the Jesus story. Jesus was a descendent of Jesse, born in the town of David, the town of Bethlehem.

And what does Isaiah’s prophecy communicate about this new shoot of life?

Spirit.
Spirit.
Spirit.
Spirit.

Consider Jesus’ own words:

“No one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born of both water and spirit.”

“Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”

“God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in Spirit and truth.”

“The Spirit gives life. The flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you – they are full of Spirit and life.”

Jesus even took this same word picture of trunk, branch and fruit and passed it on to His followers (see John 15). How cool is that to see the manifestation of the word picture the Creator planted in the design of creation: Trunk give birth to branch which bears fruit that falls to Earth and “dies” and is buried, which then gives birth of Life to a new tree which develops branches and bears fruit. God’s intricate, creative design speaks God’s language: metaphor.

This morning I’m inspired thinking about the depth and layers of meaning in Isaiah’s prophetic writing. There were layers of meaning Isaiah himself could not possibly comprehend as he wrote the verses 700 years before the “Shoot of Jesse” would spring to Life. I am thinking about design and creativity. Words and word pictures. Spirit and Life. I’m praying that I perpetuate the word picture; praying that Spirit and Life is bearing fruit in and through me today.

 

Three Heroes: Miles Davis

I was recently challenged by a friend to embark on this exercise. They’d been working on it as part of an identity statement they were developing for a class. Quite simply, you pick three people who are “heroes” or individuals you greatly admire. It can be almost anyone, but should be someone famous and someone you don’t know personally. For those who happen to be followers of Jesus, it was requested that He be excluded from this particular exercise.

I figured this lends itself to a good blogging challenge. There were a handful of finalists but I finally narrowed it down to three. As it happens, I have had photos of these three gentlemen taped on the front of my old, worn, paperback Bible for many years. [see featured image of this post]

The first hero I blogged about was Winston Churchill.
Today… it’s Miles Davis

Those who have followed my blog for any length of time may not be surprised to see Miles Davis’ name on my list. I reference the famous jazz trumpeter on a fairly regular basis and I even posted a review of his biography a number of years ago. Nevertheless, it seems a bit incongruent for this Iowa white boy with little musical ability and strong spiritual priorities to find the heroic in a gifted, conflicted black musician whose demons and appetites led to tragic places. It may not seem an obvious choice.

My exposure to Miles began with a Christmas gift. In fourth grade I began taking drum lessons at Woodlawn elementary school. That year my brothers gave me a couple of record albums to inspire my budding, percussive aspirations. One album was Buddy Rich. The other was Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. For those who are not familiar with jazz, it is perhaps the best known jazz album of all time, and for good reason. It sparked a love affair with jazz.

In high school I continued to love jazz music. While my friends at Hoover High School were listening to Def Leppard, The Police, and Journey I was home listening to a wide selection of jazz from Weather Report to Grover Washington Jr. to Chuck Mangione. But, while many of my jazz favorites were flirtations and brief love affairs, I began to realize that Kind of Blue somehow became the true love that always hearkened me back. There was something about Miles that sunk deep in my soul.

Through my post-college years and into my 30s I lost my way creatively in many ways. When I lost my way creatively I unknowingly wandered from the person God created me to be. Unfulfilled, confused, and life-less, the disconnect led me to chase after passions into dark places. By grace, I found the artist’s way back. I began to reclaim my birthright as a child of the Creator.

It was during that journey that I hearkened back, once again, to my true love – Kind of Blue. It was then that he began to emerge as an artistic hero. I began to listen to more of Miles’ music. We were now on a journey together. Miles Ahead and Birth of the Cool were added to the list and I began to hear his own artistry evolving through the chronology of recordings. I loved the way he both honored the genius of a classic like Porgy and Bess while layering it with his own artistry. Sketches of Spain made all sorts of artistic connections for me to Picasso and Hemingway and I began to appreciate Miles’ own artistic journeys and explorations. He seemed to fill the well of his soul and music with input from such a broad, rich diversity of sources. I got that. I identified with that. It stoked my creativity and inspired me. Miles Davis, through his music, became a pied piper, a mentor, and a muse for my own creative journey.

As I learned more about Miles the man, I was fascinated. Like many artistic geniuses, he seems to have been a complex person. I don’t think he was particularly easy to be around. Unlike Winston Churchill, I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed his company over dinner. Yet, even in his frailties, struggles, and failures I found myself identifying with that basic struggle those of us with artistic temperament have to create something beautiful amidst the ugliness of your own humanity .

Miles was a man of intense passions that he struggled to control. He faced and fought his own personal demons. Temporary victories gave way to repeated defeat. His soul carried scars. He hurt those he loved most. I get that, too.

Perhaps the greatest reason that Miles has become a creative hero to me is the fearless way he opened himself creatively to everything. I have twice posted on his theme “there are no wrong notes.” He was fearless in attempting new things, pushing the envelope, absorbing what others were doing and then weaving it into his own work. He wasn’t afraid to re-invent himself, push into places no one expected him to go, and where few seemed to understand. He was willing to try, to dare, and to explore new horizons. And, as he got older it seems that he never stopped. I hope that I might reflect even a small fraction of that spirit of creation.

 

Three Heroes: Winston Churchill

I was recently challenged by a friend to embark on this exercise that they’d been working on as part of an identity statement they were developing for a class. Quite simply, you pick three people who are “heroes” or individuals you greatly admire. It can be almost anyone, but should be someone famous and someone you don’t know personally. For those who happen to be followers of Jesus, it was asked that He be excluded from this particular exercise.

I’ve been thinking about it for a few weeks, and it lends itself to a a good blogging challenge. There were a handful of finalists but I finally narrowed it down to three. As it happens, I have photos of these gentlemen taped on the front of my old, worn, paperback Bible (see the featured image of this post).

Today… it’s Winston Churchill.

The more I’ve learned about Churchill over the years, the more I’ve come to appreciate and admire him. Here are a few of the reasons off the top of my head:

Churchill steadfastly held to what he believed to be right. After World War I, when the nations were high on the notion that it was “the war to end all wars,” a young Churchill believed that greatest deterrent to another war was Britain’s strong defense. When the Chamberlain administration was bent on appeasing Hitler and holding that the upstart German dictator didn’t pose a threat to Britain, it was Churchill who was willing to be the loudest, loneliest voice of warning. Churchill reminds me of the strength and character required to stand firm for what you know is right.

Churchill understood, perhaps better than any 20th statesman, the power of words and oratory. He was a master at crafting a speech and delivering it for powerful and memorable effect. During the dark days of World War II when frightened Britons huddled in the dark of night as German bombers rained terror from the skies, it was Churchill’s words that shored up their resolve and inspired their courageous defiance. I am sometimes complimented for my speaking abilities, but Churchill reminds me how much I have yet to learn (and the inspiration to keep working at it).

Churchill was an artist. When he wasn’t changing the course of human history and saving the free world from tyranny, he was outside in nature, in front of a canvas, with a brush in his hand. He reminds me that one can make a living at business or politics while still making a life with art.

churchill painting bw

Churchill struggled. He didn’t have a particularly happy childhood or home life. He had financial struggles. He had major, public failures. He was the object of ridicule and scorn. And, he never let it stop him.

Churchill enjoyed life. The biographies I’ve read of the statesman make it clear that he enjoyed  good company, good cigars, good Scotch, and good discourse. I would love to have enjoyed a long meal, good drink, and an after dinner stogie with the man as we discussed a plethora of topics.

In the person of Winston Churchill I find a cocktail of character, conviction, creativity, leadership, communication, and life. It is a mix that I would love to emulate in my own journey.

The Benefits of Insomnia

source: stefanoricci via Flickr
source: stefanoricci via Flickr

In the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his mind was troubled and he could not sleep.

During the night the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision.
Daniel 2:1,19 (NIV)

I’ve never been a great sleeper. I’ve blogged about this in other posts over the years. I have an active brain that spins and mulls on all sorts of things in life at all times. So, after a couple of hours of REM sleep I will regularly wake and begin thinking about all sorts of things. At that point, getting back to sleep is out of the question. It is frustrating, and it has its ill-favored consequences.

I will admit, however, that along the journey I’ve come to recognize that my insomnia is not without it’s benefits. It will often happen in the nights before I’m scheduled to teach a class or give a Sunday morning message. In those watches of the night when every thing is quiet and my brain spins in the no man’s land between deep sleep and clear consciousness, I often find the words, themes and illustrations coming to me. Solutions to perplexing questions strike me. New creative ways of looking at things are revealed.

Throughout time great inventors, thinkers, and creatives have kept paper and pencil near their bed to capture thoughts, dreams, and revelations that come to them in the night. It is a fascinating and mysterious thing which I believe God can and does use if we learn to tap into it. In fact, my most fruitful period of spiritual growth came when I applied a disciplined approach to writing my early morning thoughts. My local gathering of Jesus followers is exploring the idea of hearing the voice of God, and this Sunday morning (1/25/2015) I’m going to be sharing the morning message about my lessons and experiences with early morning journaling.

Which likely means I’ll have a sleepless night or two later this week.

I need a nap.

Be Strong and Courageous, and DO THE WORK

Picasso's studio
Picasso’s studio

David also said to Solomon his son, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the temple of the Lord is finished.
1 Chronicles 28:20 (NIV)

Pablo Picasso created more schlocky crap than any artist in history. Picasso, however, was always at work. His life was a non-stop stream of artistic output. His home and studio were packed to the gils with his work. It was his manic output, it can be argued, that took him in directions no one imagined. Amidst the steady stream of creative work, a masterpiece would occasionally emerge that would forever change the direction of art and history.

 

Most artists I know (whether it be visual artists, writers, musicians, craftsman, artisans, or playwrights) are afraid to do the work. Afraid of criticism, afraid of producing bad art, afraid of the voices in their head, afraid of revealing their heart, afraid of what the parents will say, afraid of being successful, afraid of being a failure, etc., etc., and etc.

“Inspiration will come,” Picasso said, “but it must find you working.”

Several years ago I memorized the above verse from this morning’s chapter. One of the things that I love about God’s Message is that I will occasionally find layers of personal meaning unintended in the original context. David, the warrior, poet, and song writer, was encouraging his son Solomon, the young philosopher, poet, and song writer, to be diligent in accomplishing the work of building the temple. Solomon’s temple, built from his father’s inspiration, plans, blueprints, would become one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

In my writing, acting, and artistic output, I desire to follow Picasso’s example: fearlessly cranking out the work so that inspiration (literally meaning “Spirit breathing into”) will find me at work and will once in a while produce through me something worthwhile. Yet I am susceptible to fear, anxiety, timidity and sloth like almost every other child of the Creator I know. I need encouragement. And so, years ago, I memorized and internalized David’s message to Solomon. By repeating it in my head, my heart hears my Creator, Father God speaking directly to me:

“Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the Lord is finished.”

The Gift of Music

itunes captureThese are the men David put in charge of the music in the house of the Lord after the ark came to rest there. They ministered with music before the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, until Solomon built the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. They performed their duties according to the regulations laid down for them. 1 Chronicles 6:31-32 (NIV)

I have studied and taught on the subject of creativity for many years. I’m a huge fan of the arts across the entire of breadth of ways people choose to express themselves. God’s Message says that through Jesus all things were made, and that we were made in the image of the creator. To create and express oneself creatively is to be Christ-like.

I have explored a host of creative mediums over the years. I like trying new things when they strike my fancy. Acting, singing, song writing, play writing, fiction writing, poetry, painting, pottery, writing, guitar, bass, piano, and drums just to name a few. I may not be particularly gifted or good at most of them, but I find it interesting how each one works and how one medium of creative expression differs from other mediums.

I do find it interesting, however, that music clearly holds a special place in God’s heart. Today as we read through the family tree of the tribe of Levi, who were responsible for the temple and worship, we find that there is an entire branch of that tribe whose sole responsibility was music in temple worship.

Music has a special way of affecting our thoughts, our moods, and our emotions. When King Saul was having some sort of mental health episode, it was David and his harp that had a medicinal effect. My iTunes and Spotify playlists are largely broken down by the types of music for different situations and moods. I have quiet music for my morning conversations with God. I have hard driving, intense music for working out. I have feel good music for lifting my spirit in the drab hours of the afternoon. I have cool jazz for rainy days. I have baroque music for when I need to concentrate at work or study. I have hours of easy listening music for the background of dinner conversations.

Today, I’m simply thankful for music and appreciative of our Creator for this gift of expression that is such an integral part of both life and worship.

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