Monday, July 13, 2015

Created in the Image of a Creator

This is the reflection I offered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia on July 12th, 2015.  You can also listen to the podcast if you wish.

So … there’s this Sunday School teacher, and she’s walking around the room looking at the kids who are all drawing.  She stops at this one kid’s desk and says, “What is that you’re drawing?”  And the kid looks up and sweetly answers, “I’m drawing a picture of God.”  “Oh sweetie,” the teacher says, “You can’t draw a picture of God because nobody knows what God looks like.”  A little less sweetly the kid responds, “well, if you’d let me finish …”

“God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness … So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

Even folks who don’t know much about the Bible most likely know this passage.  (Genesis 1:24-27)  God created us humans in God’s own image.  Those who tend to disparage traditionally religious folk – and, perhaps especially, traditionally Christian religious folk – find this passage just one of a number of absurdities.  After all, if we’re made in the image of God, then God must have hands and feet … a spleen … like we do.

There are passages in the Jewish and Christian scriptures that would seem to support that view.  Jesus is said to sit at “the right hand” of God, for instance.  And throughout there are references to the mouth, or ears, or eyes.  According to the prophet Isaiah God even declares, “The heavens are my throne and the earth is my footstool.” It’s a good think God doesn’t have stinky feet.

The mistake made here, of course, is thinking that these and other such passages were ever intended to be taken literally.  Essentially – that is, in its essence – religious language is poetic.  When God is described as a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings, no one – then or now – really thought that God is a chicken.

As the Worship Weavers shared ideas about this service, Jeanine turned us on to a really wonderful article by a Muslim scholar about Islam’s teachings on the ultimate formlessness of Allah.  The author notes that the passage which says that God made human kind in God’s own image is better read as God making humans in the likeness of God.  This reading, which you’ll remember was in the New International Version I read earlier, teaches that we humans are made to be like God.  In other words, we are created to be good, caring, loving, merciful, forgiving, creative.

And if you think about it, this is really what people are doing when they turn things around and say that “Humans made God in our own image.”  These folks aren’t saying that we created a God with body parts like ourselves, but rather that we projected onto the universe an exaggerated version of ourselves … usually a decidedly negative version – warlike, and jealous, and capricious.

But let’s go back to the more traditional bit of poetry, that the Divine Creator created us and created us like them.  Specifically, that the Divine Creator created us creative.  Created us to be creators ourselves.  That’s exactly the idea I want us to explore together this morning, and we don’t even need a notion of “God” to do so.  We are part of an evolutionary process that is nothing if not creative.  And by that I don’t simply mean generative, I mean creative.  The life force, whatever we might call it, keeps adapting itself to new situations; trying new things. Sometimes there are leaps from one adaptation to the next that are really quite startling.  There are also evolutionary adaptations that seem gratuitously glorious … beautiful for no apparent reason.  (Or, if you prefer, our brains have evolved to see some things as beautiful, seemingly with no particular survival benefit.)  If you haven’t done so in a while, I really encourage you to go home this afternoon and watch a nature special.  Any nature special.  Or do it tonight.  But soon.  Nature, life, is astonishing in its creativity.

And this – creativity – seems to be fundamental to our nature, too.  Some, cynically, say that all we’ve ever really created are ever better means of destroying one another and our planet.  In George Bernard Shaw’s magnificent play “Don Juan in Hell,” the Devil says:
In the arts of peace Man is a bungler.  I have seen his cotton factories and the like, with machinery that a greedy dog could have invented if it had wanted money instead of food.  I know his clumsy typewriters and bungling locomotives and tedious bicycles: they are toys compared to the Maxim gun, the submarine torpedo boat.  There is nothing in Man's industrial machinery but his greed and sloth:  his heart is in his weapons.

Yet we know that those are not the only things we humans create.  Like life itself, humanity has always invented creative ways to address the challenges we face.  It gets dark at night?  We the created light bulbs.  It’s hard to keep in touch with people at a distance?  We created telegraphs, telephones (with and without cords).  We’ve created airplanes, solar panels, wind turbines, probes that can fly by dwarf planets.
And we seem also to create simply for the sake of creating.  There’s no real necessity for Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Georgia O’Keefe’s Abstraction White Rose; The Upanishads and Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor, Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood, and Taki Rentarō’s Kōjō no Tsuki. 

But don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m talking simply about creating something.  Producing product.  I’m also talking about our penchant for creating for the pure sake of creating.  When I lived in an artists’ community (back in the day) there was a woman down the hall who painted some of the most rich and dynamic images I’ve ever seen.  And then, instead of getting a new canvass out  she would simply start painting a new painting over the old one.  And then she’d do that again.  Some of her finished works were painted on top of five or six other paintings.  And she didn’t stop because she like that last one best; and she didn’t paint over the earlier ones because she didn’t like them.  I asked her once why she did this and she said that there were so many images in her head that she just had to get them out into the world.  She honestly didn’t care whether anyone else ever saw them.  She just needed to paint them.  Creativity for the sake of creativity.  I’ve heard that the American composer Charles Ives would sometimes take the completed manuscript of a new piece and simply put it in a box in the barn.  He didn’t care if anyone ever heard it.  He just needed to get it out of his head.  (I’ll admit that I don’t know for sure if that’s true, but it is certainly a helpful illustration for this sermon.)

But that’s not us I’m talking about.  At least, not most of us.  I mean yes, as a species we are creative, and certain individuals are creative, but me?  Not so much.  I see some of you nodding.

Let's go back to our Opening Words by Maya Angelou (herself no slouch in the creativity department):
We are all creative, but by the time we are three or four years old, someone has knocked the creativity out of us.  Some people shut up the kids who start to tell stories.  Kids dance in their cribs, but someone will insist they sit still.  By the time the creative people are ten or twelve, the want to be like everyone else. 
We are all creative, but by the time we are three or four years old, someone has knocked the creativity out of us.

We've talked together before about all of us who were told that we can't sing and, so, don't.  And maybe it wasn’t singing you were told you couldn’t do.  Maybe it was dancing, painting, writing, playing the recorder.  But somewhere, at some time, for many of us – maybe even most of us – someone came along and knocked the creativity out of us.

A few years ago Deborah Rose preached about how there are all kinds of creativity -- cooking a good meal, for example, really spending time playing with a child, cleaning and organizing everything just so.  Even our ability to create excuses about why we’re not creative is a form of creativity, isn’t it?  There are so many ways that that innate creative impulse seeks to find its way out, yet so few of us are willing to accept for ourselves the title of "creator;" so many of us seem to want to go out of our way to deny our own creativity.

And why do you think that is?  I know one reason.  From my own life I sure know one reason.  I’m a pretty musical guy.  I’ve played a few instruments in my day and I’ve sung a bit.  But I know that I’ll never be a piano player – because I’ve heard Dr. John play.  And I’ll never play the guitar because, well, Eric Clapton.  And trumpet?  I played one a bit in high school.  I have one – one of you lovely people loaned me one a couple of years back when I announced on FaceBook that I was thinking of picking it up again.  But to date I haven’t done much with it because … well, because there’s always Miles and Dizzy hanging over my head.

Over and again I find my creative chops blocked by the fear that whatever I do is not going to be good enough.  To put it simply, bluntly, I’m afraid I’m going to fail.  I’m afraid I’m going to fail and look stupid.  I’m afraid I’m going to fail and people’s opinion of me will drop.  I’m afraid I’m going to fail and prove once and for all that I’m really not creative after all.

In the most recent UU World magazine UUA President Peter Morales wrote an article titled, “Embracing Failure.”  He’s talking about us as a movement, but we could just as easily hear his words addressed to us, as a congregation, or each one of us as an individual.  He wrote:

What I do not do often enough is to highlight the spiritual challenge we all face in these times. I am convinced that the future health of Unitarian Universalism depends on all of us learning to embrace failure. Embrace failure? Absolutely. The thought of failing at something is pretty frightening. I like to be thought of as competent. I like triumphs small and large, and I love feeling respected for the things I accomplish.

Yet in times like these if we limit ourselves to what we already know how to do we will never imagine new opportunities and seize them. Ironically, repeating past success will, over time, bring failure. But failures, the right kind of failures, will bring success.

In that same artist’s community I mentioned earlier there was a guy named Greg LeFevre.  Of the 60 of us who lived in these two converted mill buildings, he was the only one to make his entire full-time living from his art.  He stopped by my studio one afternoon and noted that I’d been working on the same mask for several weeks.  He could see I was really struggling with it, and I was.  There was part of it that just wasn’t working out right. 

That afternoon Greg told me about the way he worked.  His living space and his studio were separated – intentionally, he said.  Every morning he would get up, go down to his studio, and start to work on a new piece.  By the end of the day he’d have finished it.  Every day.  He worked in a variety of mediums, but his approach was always the same. Every day he’d create a new piece of art.  He wouldn’t worry about trying to make it perfect, he’d just do it, and at the end of the month he’d have about thirty pieces … most of which weren’t worth much.  But he’d usually have two or three that were spectacular.  He said that I, on the other hand, was so concerned with getting it right, getting it perfect, that it’d be a miracle if I ever finally finished one piece.  It’s the same principle that photographers use – take a lot of pictures, rolls of film (or now, I guess, a lot of gigabytes), and from that you might find a few really excellent shots.   

That takes a real willingness to make mistakes.  That takes a real embrace of failure.  That takes a real trust in our inherent creativity.  And that’s hard for a lot of us – again, maybe most of us – because we know, because we’ve been told, that we can’t.  The famed jazz guitarist and inventor Les Paul said that the reason he was able to play in such seemingly impossible ways was that no one had ever told him that they weren’t possible.  Edison supposedly said that the only reason he was able to figure out how to make the filament for the incandescent light bulb was that he knew nothing about metallurgy, so he didn’t know he couldn’t make the metal do that.  We need to unlearn what we’ve been taught – that we don’t have a creative bone in our body.

And we need to do this not so we can go forth and create some kind of masterpiece.  (Although that would be kind of cool, wouldn’t it?)  We need to reclaim our creativity because it’s a part of who we are and because we need it to survive.  We need it when we face a difficult time and just don’t know what to do – the car breaks down and we don’t have enough money right now to fix it.  The company downsizes and we suddenly find ourselves unneeded in the workplace.  Our spouse tells us that they want a divorce and we are unexpectedly faced with the need to make a new life for ourselves.  We need it because someone we love – or we, ourselves – receives a diagnosis that abruptly turns everything we know on its head.

It is so easy for us to live our lives from box to box to box – the boxes we put ourselves in and the boxes we put others in.  And we get locked into those expectations of what is and what isn’t possible.  And knowing with such certainty what is and what isn’t possible means that when we face something new and unexpected, we’re stuck.  Trapped.

Yet when we know ourselves to be creators, then we are not limited to the response set we have used over and over again.  When we know ourselves to be creators, we’re able to try new things, to risk failure and to know that even if we fail it’s not the end of the world.  We just try something else.  When we know ourselves to be creators we can look at our lives, look at what we have to work with, and see new ways of being.

We – you and I – are created in the image of a creator.  Call it God, call it the Spirit of Life, call it the evolutionary imperative.  Whatever you call it, creativity is our birthright.  Don’t let anyone take it away from you.  And the truth is, of course, that no one can.  As much as I hate to disagree with Ms. Angelou, I think she's wrong.  No one can knock the creativity out of us.  They can knock our faith in it out of us.  They can knock our courage and conviction to be creativity out of us.  But the creativity itself is part of our nature.

Pax tecum,


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