In Times of Crisis, Ask Your Artists

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We often struggle with planning worship services in times of cultural dissonance, crisis, or tragedy. How do we create space for lament while also honoring the church calendar, balancing needs for personal congregational celebrations, and acknowledging crises so large that no liturgy can contain any answers? How do we create space to acknowledge the violence of the Florida nightclub shootings, or bombings in Bangladesh and Baghdad? How do we craft worship to engage the recent tragedies in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, and Dallas?

One group in our own congregations that may be able to help us think through this creative dissonance are the creative people among us. Artists live much of their lives on the margins in one way or another, and they are naturally – even spiritually and biologically – equipped to deal with dissonance. Although the statements I explore below are generalizations, these traits exist in some form in most creative people.

Artists Operate on the Emotional Margins

Historically, society has joked about the “unstable artist” or the “crazy artist” – and these claims aren’t entirely unfounded. Van Gogh cut off his ear for goodness sakes! The truth of the matter is that artists operate psychologically and emotionally on the margins – the artist personality tends toward extremes – moving from euphoria to melancholy and back again. Artists do not often stay in the middle ground for very long.

I might argue that this specific personality type was designed this way for maximum creative potential. In many cases, creative personalities are told by loved ones to moderate their behaviors, ideas, or emotions because they are too extreme. But this place of extremity is typically the nexus of generativity for the artist, and rather than neutralize these experiences, artists must learn to “ride the waves” of their own experience. When an artist can learn to do this well, and in community, he or she can be both healthy and productive. “The mood of high energy and euphoria that precedes creative output is an important part of the creative process…Once creative people learn to understand and embrace their natural highs and lows, they can learn to navigate their waves of energy and emotion, rather than running aground, or never going into the water,” says psychiatrist Julie Crabtree in Living with a Creative Mind, co-authored by she and her husband, a prominent composer. Arguably, because our artists have learned how to ride the waves of high emotion faithfully, they can coach us to do the same as a congregation.

Artists Dwell in the Societal Margins

Another stereotype about artists is that they lead strange lives, affiliating with “weird” people. The truth is, artists often build relationships that are outside of the mainstream. Creative people tend to gravitate toward those who dwell on the margins of society because they can find commonality and community there. They can be “weird” together. For this reason, artists are often in tune with the voice of “the other” in our communities. They understand communities of minority, diversity, and marginality. We should listen to them and allow them to invite us into these communities that are outside the mainstream of our congregational life. In times of crisis, empathy with our neighbors will require having relationship with them.

Artists Are Comfortable in the Spiritual Margins

Artists are comfortable with questions and ambiguity. This is another prominent personality trait inherent in most creative people. And let’s face it: if we are honest, much of our worship seeks to provide answers, comfort, and certainty about our relationship with God and the world around us. Of course it is good to seek truth in the Word of God, comfort in God’s mercy, and certainty in our salvation; but there are many experiences that this world gives us that have none of these characteristics. What are the answers to continued death and injustice? What is our congregation called to do today? How do we respond? Your artists may not have the answers, but they may be able to help you walk through it with grace and faithfulness. Let them help you ride the waves.

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