Lessons Learned In Doing Nothing

IMG_8625Last week Rachel and I spent a good amount of time doing nothing.

Let me rephrase that.

For three days last week, Rachel and I set off from Glasgow at the crack of dawn heading west. We boarded the ferry to Dunoon in order to get to the secondary school for 8.45am and…er…do nothing. We’d been invited to be part of an Easter project run during Holy Week by a local youth worker and, after much creative brainstorming about the Stations of the Cross, we came up with the idea of setting up a living tableau that would build towards the end of term assembly.

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Over nine break times we proceeded to build a newspaper stall with headlines proclaiming the events of the Easter narrative and culminating in the question ‘So what?’. To create our piece of performance art we also added a prop for each headline and took up residence on stage as newspaper sellers. We read the papers, chatted, ate, slept and interacted with any pupils brave enough to approach us.

IMG_8602Meanwhile, the level of interest grew. “What are they doing?”, “Why are they just sitting there?” and, most often, “Do they get paid to just sit there?”. Staff encouraged pupils to come and find out for themselves. We attracted a small band of loyal followers who would come over and chat at any opportunity. During one lunch break I was offered a choc ice by an S5 pupil. She said she felt sorry for me just sitting there while everyone around me ate lunch, but later in the day confessed that really she came over because she was utterly intrigued.

But most people just walked past and averted their eyes when they realised that we had spotted them looking at us.

IMG_8609All was revealed at Thursday morning’s assembly when the two newspaper sellers shouted their way through the headlines then relaxed with a creme egg to discuss the ‘So what?’ question. There was more news, they had heard. The man who was so brutally crucified the other day had been seen alive and well – talking, laughing, eating, living. What kind of man was this? One who could break the rules of the universe, and defeat the powers that held him dead. Good news indeed!

IMG_8639And why am I blogging about this? Obviously, I’m quite pleased that the gamble of doing nothing paid off. The pupils were engaged with the topic.  Staff were generally enthusiastic. The head teacher is looking forward to whatever we choose to do next Easter. The local team had great conversations with young people about Jesus. We managed to cross the stormy Clyde six times without losing our breakfast or lunch.

But, as the sign read, so what?IMG_8616

I think there are a few lessons we can learn from our week in Dunoon Grammar.

Firstly, there’s the challenge to those of us who work in schools to value the benefit of working within the parameters of the educational context. Too often over the years I’ve encountered Christians who try to ‘get away’ with as much as they can in schools,  shoe-horning a message into anything they’ve been invited to do. I’ve done it myself. Most of the time this is fine, albeit a little rude to the host school and insensitive to the environment, but at times it can verge towards a form of spiritual bullying that tries to force a response from young people who have not chosen to be present. It can also make life very difficult for Christians who work in the school regularly. Learning to serve is even more important in a post-Christian context. Many young people I encounter have very little knowledge of the Bible or understanding of the gospel. While the temptation to pack a message that includes everything I think they ought to know is strong, it takes more imagination and prayerful sensitivity to find ways of working in a wholly appropriate manner within the context of Religious Observance, or a subject-based curriculum.

IMG_8627Secondly, there’s a challenge to those of us who are artists who follow Jesus, to allow a piece of art to speak for itself. Recently I heard a story told by the Christian visual artist, Bruce Herman, who was asked why he thought that no great artist had come out of the evangelical Christian community. Stuck for an answer, one of his colleagues interrupted him and suggested that, “The imagination doesn’t grow in this soil.”. What a searing indictment of our heritage. Herman’s response to this haunting comment has been to see the fostering of imagination amongst Christian artists as his mandate as a painter and teacher.

I am someone who loves words and action, and as a writer and performer, I have to battle the desire to control the message and people’s response to it. The artist wields the power to evoke response in the audience through manipulation, but often there is greater power in allowing the art to speak for itself. Sitting on a stage doing nothing surrounded by seemingly unconnected props afforded those who observed the chance to form their own responses,  ask questions,  and ultimately made space for God to speak.

IMG_8642Thirdly, those of us who live in this post-Christian world can take something away from this art. My observation when apparently “reading the paper” was that many people were drawn to look at what was going on simply by virtue of the fact that there was something unexpected and unusual amongst the normal setting of the school hall. By reimagining the story into the ordinary context of daily life we engendered curiosity and interest, finding a hook to the genuine astonishment and pace of the first Holy Week as it would have been experienced by the disciples who lived through the events.

It’s simple to achieve this with a piece of art, but I’m left wondering what it looks like to reimagine this incredible, life-changing, cosmic gospel story in the normal setting of my street, my workplace, my family? The most obvious conclusion to draw is that Christians need to be in the mix to start with. Being a living, breathing, eating, helping, thanking, serving, forgiving, praying ‘work of art’ in the ordinary setting of the place where we live speaks volumes before we open my mouths and speak. And being prayerfully present, and willing to be observed, will prompt the ‘so what’ question from those around us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Learning to breathe on both sides

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© Berliner_Baeder_Betriebe

I went swimming yesterday.  Sadly the pool I frequent doesn’t look as grand as the cathedral-like Mk Berlin Stadtbad, but I always leave feeling as though my soul has been restored. Recreation in the true sense has taken place as I plough up and down the slow lane. Recently I’ve been trying to reeducate myself in breathing. Since I learned to swim front crawl (about 36 years ago) I’ve always breathed to my left. It feels natural and “right” to do this and I’ve swum miles without ever feeling the need to look to the starboard side. Now, though, I want to shake things up and learn some new technique so I’ve decided to alternate my breathing between the left and right side. Easy, right? Nooooo! It’s difficult to break the habit of 36 years and I’ve had to analyse how to take a breath in order to avoid a mouthful of chlorine and a lungful of panic. It’s hard work. It doesn’t feel natural. But yesterday I began to feel I was getting it, and I had a minor sense of triumph. Noone else would notice but I’d spent some time making a radical change and I’d broken some bad habits. Hopefully my front crawl will be more elegant and efficient as a result.

Which is all good and well, but what does it have to do with creative foolery? I’ve been thinking a lot recently about missional discipleship and asking some hard questions about what it looks like to live as a creative disciple of Jesus in the 21st century. And I think relearning how to breathe has something to teach me. I want to be a more elegant and efficient performer, writer and disciple of Jesus, but it doesn’t just happen without working at it.

First of all, you have to decide that you want to change. It’s easy and comfortable to keep doing what you do the way you’ve always done it. This is true whether when it comes to making a lazy acting choice, writing a sketch with a predictable outcome or assuming that by “doing church” a certain way people will somehow find their way to Jesus. Creativity is often about not making the predictable, familiar choice, but choosing something different. So, the best actors are the ones who captivate you with their bold physical and vocal choices and the best writers are the ones who surprise and delight with the unexpected. And the most creative disciples? Perhaps they are the ones who remain open to the new things that God wants to do, and sense that there is reward in breaking old habits. Jesus talked about the new wine of God’s kingdom requiring new wineskins. It’s a bit like breathing in a different way.

Of course there are good habits too. So, when I breathe to the left, I do it well. I’ve been practising it for the last 36 years. And, in finding a new rhythm, I have discovered that I need to recognise and learn from the good. This is about the discipline of creativity. In acting, the performer’s body  is their instrument, so there is merit in maintaining good habits of physicality and vocal training, of staying open and responsive to other performers. In writing there is the discipline of structure, form and language that creates the freedom to express depth. For the missional disciple, there is the rhythm and discipline of intimacy with God. I have nothing to offer the world if I do not start from the place of prayer, Bible study and listening to the voice of the Spirit. And these practices take discipline, especially for activists who wake up with 12 ideas of how to change the world before breakfast. It’s no good just rushing in with a good idea and hoping God will bless it. It leads to failure and disappointment. So to become an effective creative missional disciple there are some habits to break and some new habits to establish. Habits we can learn from ancient rhythms and practices. It doesn’t feel natural at first, but the more we do it, the more we create from a place of security, intimacy and clarity.

And finally, there’s something about risk. I wasn’t likely to drown in my local swimming pool – there’s a lifeguard, it’s not very deep and I could always put my feet down – but if I want to push myself in my creativity and my discipleship then there are lots of risks involved. The risk of failure, of looking foolish, of being misunderstood. Why go to the places I would not previously have gone when I can play safe and stick with what I know? The older you get, the harder it is to avoid risk-proofing your life. But that’s not picking up your cross and following. That’s not leaving everything for the sake of the one who died for you. That’s not living a resurrection life. So, I want to push myself as a performer, stretch myself as writer and live an adventurous life worth imitating. It might be risky. There might be failure and foolishness. But I want to push out into deeper water…