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.

IMG_8611

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Film-making on the cheep

The other night I beheaded a chicken. All, you understand, in the interests of art. And of course no animals were harmed in the process. The chicken was already dead and having enjoyed a full life of freedom and fertility is now immortalised on film.

IMG_7875Phyllis (the chicken) and I have a part in a feature film called Dalriata’s King being made in Scotland by Fellowship Film and due for release in Autumn 2016. It’s a brilliant story set in 9th century Scotland where good and evil forces battle across the land. Amongst the Celts, Picts and Druids a shadowy force is at work and children are being abducted but a rumour is circulating of a king who will rescue them from the darkness and hope begins to rise.

My character, Biddy, has a lot going on. Her daughter is abducted by tree demons, her husband bravely sets off to rescue her and she has her work cut out to persuade the local villagers to fight for the king. I can’t tell you much more – nobody likes a spoiler – so you’ll just have to go and see the movie when it’s released to find out what happens to Biddy and her village. Suffice to say that it’s great to be playing a character of depth and I feel very privileged to have been cast in the role.

And being part of a micro-budget production is causing me to think about the film industry and those who work in it. All of which has also given me pause to reflect on what it looks like when people work together to serve a common vision. IMG_7864

Being part of a cast and crew who are dedicated to telling a great story well with limited resources is one of the most rewarding parts of the actor’s life. Sure, there are plenty of people in the industry who want to achieve personal success and celebrity, and on film projects there can be a fair amount of rivalry and competitiveness but, like the majority of people working in the creative industries, most do it because they want use their talents to serve a bigger story.

IMG_7865On Dalriata’s King, everyone is trying to make the best movie they can, whether their job is to give a great performance in front of the camera, get the lighting and sound correct, create authentic-looking battle scars, look after the child actors well or make a temporary hut in a back garden feel like an authentic 9th century dwelling. The common goal is more important than the egos of the individuals concerned and, when everyone is allowed to play to their strengths, the result is magnificent.

IMG_7866Then there’s the camaraderie. People love watching those ‘behind the scenes’ documentaries that are often included in DVD extras. Partly it’s because the bloopers and mistakes are funny to watch, but I think it’s also because it gives us a glimpse into the feeling of family that develops amongst cast and crew. Working together on a project builds a level of trust and depth of relationship that is unusual in our self-absorbed world. That’s why it can feel like a bereavement when a theatrical project is over.

And finally, there’s the satisfaction of doing something well. So much of what passes for entertainment these days is cheap quality,  and so much of life is rushed, so there’s something beautiful about taking the time to do something with skill and care. And, necessity being the mother of invention, there’s a lot of imagination being used to see the possibility beyond the reality. Everyone on the cast and crew is buying into a reality they cannot see, and is committed to helping the audience see it for themselves.

For me, it’s interesting to take these observations and apply them to different situations, either in other artistic contexts, or as missional disciples working together for a different kingdom of light. Many of the ‘given circumstances’ are the same – everyone comes to the project with a different set of skills and experience, rich community is created when everyone is focussed on a goal and the pursuit of excellence sparks the creativity and commitment of the group. All of this reminds me of what the church looks like on a good day.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that church is just another expression of activity that we do. It’s not the same as making a film, playing in a sports team or going on a trip with friends. Church on a good day is the living, growing, dwelling-place of the Spirit of God (see Ephesians 2:19-22. In fact if you’ve got some time, read the whole book!). If you like, all the good characteristics of a committed film crew are reflections of something even better. Church on a good day is not an event or an experience but an envisioned, gifted, creative, loving body of people infused with the power of the Holy Spirit and focussed on the remarkable love of the Father made real in the death and resurrection of Jesus. When we understand that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work amongst us we are free to accomplish more than we can ask or imagine.

I stumbled across a quote from film-acting legend Uta Hagen the other day:

Thoughts and feelings are suspended in a vacuum unless they instigate and feed the selected actions, and it is the characters’ actions which reveal the character in the play.

She was talking about the actor’s motivation to action on camera – expressing the view that there is no point in feeling an emotion unless it is then used to prompt the physical action of the performer. People understand what a character is thinking or feeling by what they observe them doing. And the job of the actor is to allow physical action to reveal the truth of the character’s inner life.

And again, I think the same applies to God’s people on mission. Thoughts, feelings and experience of God prompt us to action, and our character is revealed to the world by our actions towards it. So, from a place of worship, presence and intimacy with God we are prompted to care and love and build his kingdom. So, our experience of God is not suspended in a vacuum but lived out in our day to day interactions with those around us, hopefully without harm to chickens, and without quite as much mud being applied as on this particular film set!

You can follow the progress of Dalriata’s King on Facebook or by going direct to the website. I’ll also be posting some thoughts and tips on acting for camera at a later date.

 

Inside, Outside, Underneath My Skin Worship

IMG_6852I went to a gig last week.

So what, you say? Well, partly because if I have spare time and money I tend to go to the theatre, and partly because I secretly find the whole process of gig-attendance quite stressful, and mostly because I’m now middle-aged, it’s an unusual occurrence these days.

On a side note, the stress is usually about the unknown nature of the whole experience – gigs don’t have definite start times, you’re never sure what to do with your stuff, I never seem to have the right clothes, and if, like me, you’re a visual person you never really know where to look when the music starts. When you analyse it, the whole experience is actually quite weird (and this from the woman who has quite happily spent 3 hours wearing a mask running around a warehouse in the pursuit of an immersive theatrical experience). Twice. If that has piqued your interest, you can find out more about Punchdrunk here.

However, I digress. Once I had figured out what to wear and made my peace with having to cart my handbag around the space all night, I began to look forward to seeing one of my heroes on stage again. Martin Smith was the lead singer of Delirious?,  a band whose lyrics and music had always stirred something deep within me. Somehow,  when I listened to them in the car, experienced them live in a huge crowd or lay on the floor at home allowing them to speak truth over me, I connected with God in a way that wasn’t ethereal and detached, but raw and truthful.

In a sense Martin Smith and his band provided a soundtrack to my 20’s, so:

I’ve walked down a road where the devil’s been
Where the kids have seen things they should never have seen
And the ancient stone knows the deeper tale
About a bloody game, they called the holy war

Heaven is my home and there’ll be no shame to bear
Heaven is my home and there’ll be no refugees

(Mezzamorphis, Heaven)

resonated, because sometimes I needed reminded of the heavenly home that was waiting for me, and for the children I worked with who had seen things they should never have seen.

And later, when I left home, work and all that was familiar to pursue a crazy path of drama training in the big smoke, it helped to remind myself that:

You, still captivate me, fascinate me
You still captivate me, saturate me
You still captivate me, liberate me
You still captivate me

(World Service: Inside, Outside)

So, although I was looking forward to experiencing the God’s Great Club tour, I was a little apprehensive that I might be disappointed. Maybe Smith would have lost that magnetic stage presence and the middle-aged Edinburgh crowd would shuffle home feeling sad that our glory days had passed. In the event, despite the handbag-carting and the oddly bright lighting, we were not disappointed. He still had it. Our glory days were not past. We could still be history makers in this land, speakers of truth to all mankind.

IMG_6851As I belted out the classics and allowed my heart to melt to some newer songs, I reflected on why I respond to this music. It’s not just that Martin Smith has an ease and energy when he performs that make for a good night out. It’s not just that the music is written to stir a spiritual response.

It has something to do with integrity and the presence of God.

It has something to do with lyrics that connect with the heart of humble worship before God and the desire to be part of something bigger and better. These words and this music tell my story and God’s story.

The evangelists among us sometimes get frustrated with worship music. We want to be out there telling people, not hanging around with a bunch of Christians singing mushy songs. It’s fine for the prophets, pastors and teachers, but we want to get active. Now. There’s not a minute to lose. Of course, that’s a gross exaggeration and a dangerous path towards self-reliance, but those of you who have a gift of evangelism will understand what I’m talking about.

What Martin Smith has always been good at is speaking truth about God to the hearts of people who love his world. He’s a missional worship leader in the sense that his songs allow us to tarry in the place of awe and wonder, but don’t let us wander into a place of safe introspection. Look on God, then look on his world. Mission is the response to encounter. Music to the ears of those who long to see God’s kingdom break into the world of need and shame.

If not us who will shout
Your song of praise
For every soul to be saved
in Jesus’name
So we must keep the faith
not backing down
We must live the faith
This is our time

(God’s Great Dance Floor Step 2: Keep The Faith)

I’m glad I went gigging on a chilly Tuesday evening, because I left having met with God in an underground vault off the Cowgate and with a renewed sense of God’s call to his world. And a deep gratitude for guys like Martin Smith who continue to speak truth to my generation, and those who come after.

And like the Creative Fool that I am, I left wanting to us all to be able write, perform and worship like that. Who else wants to join me and make some history?

Learning to breathe on both sides

stadtbad
© 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…