In October of last year, I settled into my old Impala and drove to downtown Duluth, just outside of Atlanta. Filled with excitement, I pulled into the parking lot behind the Red Clay Theatre and checked my pocket to make sure I had my ticket, because I wasn’t about to miss out on hearing Matthew Perryman Jones.
Like The Civil Wars and so many others, Matthew got his start at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, GA, but he now lives in Nashville. The odds are pretty good that you’ve never heard of him, but he’s an artist in the truest sense of the word.
Before hearing him in concert, I decided to pick up his new CD, and one of my favorite songs was a track entitled, “O Theo.” Having taken Greek in seminary, I knew what Theo meant, but I soon found out that my favorite song actually wasn’t a song about God, at least not directly.
According to Matthew, whose interpretation clearly trumps mine, “O Theo” was inspired by a collection of letters that Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his uncle—Uncle Theo.
Upon reading Van Gogh’s letters, Matthew was rapt by the awareness Van Gogh possessed and had to write a song about it. “Van Gogh was a person who really paid attention…He knew which direction the wind was blowing and what color the trees where. He was aware, and his hyper-awareness, his aliveness to the world, in some ways was both beautiful and tragic at the same time.”
As I listened to Matthew strum the strings of his guitar and belt out some of the most soulful lyrics I’ve ever heard, I became convinced that he too possessed a kind of awareness few of us access or understand. There was something behind his music. Although I couldn’t see it or touch it, I knew it was real. And it made me want to create something beautiful.
As a kid, my family had me convinced I could do anything in the world. So in 8th grade, I applied for an advanced art class at school. There were a limited number of spots, but I managed to sneak in under the radar, probably because I didn’t have to send in a sample of my work.
Over the course of the class, I learned I had knack for pencil drawings, but I was only good at looking at something and replicating it on paper. There was a boy who sat next to me, on the other hand, who seemed to create out of nothing. It was like ideas were continually jumping out of the recesses of his mind and onto paper. Just watching him had me convinced I would never be able to create anything I couldn’t see, but thanks to people like Vincent Van Gogh and Matthew Perryman Jones, I’m now realizing that looking deeper and harder at what I see is actually one of the most important ingredients when it comes to creating something.
Aware people are often creative people. They opt out of a life built on illusion, and instead, they choose to see the world as it is. While the lot of us are tempted to deny our humanity and fragility, the artist confronts it, even embraces it. They interrogate the world and demand clarity; this unyielding assault on reality (as it is commonly understood) leads them to ask deeper questions.
What is driving our daily decisions? What do we yearn for? What do we desire? Who do we desire? When are we most at peace? Where do we find joy? And, where is Love in all of this?
These are just some of the driving questions that serve as fuel for those who dare to explore the world in search of truth, goodness and beauty. Bored by excessive certainty, the artist acknowledges their humanity and the limits of their understanding, because life isn’t as much about landing somewhere as it is about journeying into the unknown. As if panning for gold, they reflect on their life and spend inordinate amounts of time peering behind their day-to-day routine in search of meaning and mystery.
And in all of this they teach us that creative expression and action is born out of contemplation. It is the fruit of slowing down and looking around.
I thought creativity was reserved for people who were born with it, but I’m slowly realizing we’re all born with it. We’re all artists. Some of us have simply lost our ability to see and have cast our imagination to the wind, which is why we need the discipline of contemplation. Contemplation is worth putting in our repertoire of spiritual disciplines because it can be a powerful practice for refreshing our sight and retrieving our imagination.
As followers of Jesus, we are involved in a massive renovation project. God is reconciling the entire world unto himself, and the Bible makes it pretty clear that God wants us to get involved.
Our involvement, however, starts with being, not doing. According to 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old is gone and the new is come.” In the beginning, God created, and God is still creating. God is the major actor, not us. Sometimes we need to stop and take a long, hard look at our lives and the world at large to determine if we’re partnering with God or not. Is what we’re doing, what we’re creating, a part of God’s work in the world? Or, are we acting alone?
One could probably dismiss my perspective as naïve, but I believe God is all around us making things new and inviting us to exercise a little bit of creativity in order that we might communicate the mystery of faith, hope, and love to a world growing tired of violence, consumerism, and greed.
This is why I think it’s so important the body of Christ prioritizes getting together with a few other people, even people of different religions, in order to contemplate, conspire and create beautiful things. A new world is breaking into this one, and it’s doing so through songs, sermons, and selfless service. I don’t know about you, but I want to be a part of it.
Sitting in this moment and holding things in a new light is not easy, but if we can manage it, we may find ourselves becoming more creative and captivating. And who knows, others may want to create something beautiful because of us.